Why Trans Women Are Women

There is no dispute about biology. There is only a dispute about whether we should recognize incontrovertible social facts or live in stubborn denial of them.

I’ve been writing online since I was 18 years old, and I have a lot of Controversial Opinions, so I’ve received my fair share of hate mail and Mean Tweets. I’ve ticked off Petersonites and Mayor Pete fans, gun nuts and neoliberals, as well as the last three guys willing to defend Joe Biden. But I never get more rage directed at me online than when I say something indicating that there is nothing wrong with being trans and people’s gender identities should be accepted. I don’t know what it is about the anti-trans crowd, but they are gleefully vicious in a way that leads me to conclude they may be in need of professional help. I wonder why they are so invested in an issue that affects most of them so little. I think they might want to, at the very least, introspect more about what motivates them to such heights of irritation, especially given that (as we shall see) their actual arguments are so poor. 

Recently, someone asked me online whether I thought trans women are women. I waved away the question flippantly, saying it was like asking whether blue cars are cars. (Or whether jelly donuts are donuts.) Go away, I said, your answer is in your question. You’re already calling them women, aren’t you? Of course trans women are women, you’ve told me as much yourself! Go pester someone else with your tautologies! 

In response, well over a thousand people deluged me with messages to mock my response and call me an idiot. I have no idea where they came from or why they care, but they sure were passionate! I could not possibly think, they said with one voice, that the fact that trans women are called women means they are women. That, they said, made as much sense as concluding that a hot dog is a dog. Or that a urinal cake is a cake. Would I eat a urinal cake because it is called a cake?, I was asked. The word went out: Nathan Robinson eats urinal cakes! Hah hah! They had a lot of fun with this. 

But now that we have had our fun and laughed heartily about the pro-trans magazine editor who ate a urinal cake because he thought words created reality, we can step back and realize that I am right, that trans women are women, and that my gleeful critics do not know what they are talking about. 

Of course my response to the question was too glib, because I wanted to wave the person away, not persuade them. But I was making a sensible point. What trans women are asking is not to be treated as literally indistinguishable from cisgender women. They are asking to be included in the category of “woman,” for people to call them women and treat them as women. The anti-trans crowd thinks this is a demand to reject “reality,” because trans women are not “really” women. But as Natalie Wynn told Ben Shapiro, it’s not that trans people don’t understand biology, it’s that their critics don’t understand language. 

For instance: I was not born in the United States. I am, however, an American. Now, some particularly passionate nativist might tell me: “You’re not really an American, only those born in America are Americans.” (This person also rejects the idea that “America” includes the rest of the Americas.) Is this person right? Well, there’s not actually an answer to the question of who is “really” an American, because it’s a matter of choice, a fact created by social consensus. If 99 percent of people agree that being a citizen makes you an American, then my nativist interlocutor can’t prove they’re wrong. They’re just asserting that they wish society assigned labels differently. 

In 1904, the psychologist and philosopher William James gave a lecture explaining his idea of pragmatism. James opened with an anecdote about a camping trip, where his fellow campers had gotten into a huge argument about a man chasing a squirrel. The man was on one side of a tree, the squirrel was up the tree on the other side. Whenever the man went round the tree to try to catch the squirrel, the squirrel proceeded further round the tree, so that the man never caught sight of the squirrel. Apparently some of James’s colleagues were arguing that even though the man was going around the tree, he was not going “around” the squirrel, because the squirrel’s belly was always facing the man. And others were saying, “that’s ridiculous, of course he’s going around the squirrel, if he’s going around the tree and the squirrel is on the tree, then he’s going around the squirrel.”

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I asked ChatGPT to draw a helpful diagram of William James' squirrel example. As usual, it failed completely, except insofar as it illustrates how confused James' friends were. 

James’s response to the squirrel quarrelers exemplified his pragmatic method: it depends what you mean by “going around,” he said. If by “going around” you mean passing north, east, west, and south of, then, yes, he goes around, but if you mean that the man must be behind the squirrel instead of in front of its belly at some point, then no, he didn’t go around him. James’s reply was, essentially, why are we fucking arguing about this? You’re just using the same words to mean two different things, and there’s no “right” answer, although there may be a legitimate debate about which usage of the word will better clarify our thinking. You cannot claim that your preferred definition of a term is the “real” one if other people use it differently, because vocabulary is not handed down from on high on stone tablets. 

Are trans women women? Well, if you’ve decided to define the term women to exclude trans women, then they wouldn’t be women, but if you define it to include them, then they are. It is not possible, as the anti-trans crowd wants, to say that “trans women are not women” is a matter of biological fact that can be resolved with “science.” It’s a matter of conceptual categories, which are a choice. 

But if this is true, does it mean that anything can be anything, that all of reality is just a social construct? No. Because the world is not a social construct. Language is. We are not actually having any kind of dispute about “biological reality.” Trans women are not under any illusions about their chromosomes or what their bodies look like or what sex it said on their birth certificate. The dispute is about whether the conceptual category of woman should be tied to a particular set of attributes or whether it should be like “American,” something you can become partly through an act of self-identification. I’ll repeat that those who are anti-trans cannot win the argument the way they think they can, simply by saying that “biology” or “science” answers the question. Biology answers the question of what chromosomes we have. It does not answer the question of whether chromosomes should be rigidly determinative of one’s gender. 

The trouble for anti-trans people is that once we have established that conceptual categories are choices, not fixed features of the world, we then enter into a realm of argument that they are destined to lose, because here they become the reality-deniers. What I mean is this: once we’ve established that the concept of woman is not dictated by biology, but is a choice, then we have to debate what concept we should adopt, and make arguments for different concepts. In other words, they can no longer make the argument that trans women are not women, because whether they are or are not women is a matter of how we agree to apply the labels. (It’s the squirrel situation again. You can’t simply say the man is not going around the squirrel, and win the argument, since it seems an awful lot like he is. What you have to do is make a case that your preferred definition of “around” is the one we should adopt.) Similarly, in this case, those who believe trans women should not be considered women have to give reasons, and those reasons cannot be “they’re not because they’re not.” 

On the other hand, there are a lot of reasons why trans women should be considered women. For one thing, they feel like women, they seem like women, and it actually requires mental contortions not to think of them as women. My favorite example of this is when Ben Shapiro accidentally called Laverne Cox “she.” “She” is of course the correct way to refer to Laverne Cox, but Shapiro is transphobic, so in his formulation, Cox is “really” a “he.” But this feels very unnatural, because Laverne Cox just seems to belong in the category of woman. 

Now, there are many who describe themselves as “gender critical” who see this “seeming” as highly problematic. They argue that the qualities that trans people think make you a certain gender are stereotypes, and consider trans women to be “parodies” or “caricatures” of women, i.e., they say that long hair and a soft voice does not make you a woman. Why, they say, should a boy who plays with “girls’ toys” think this makes him more of a girl? Surely it just means we should stop thinking of toys as gendered. 

The trouble is that we do live in a world with gender roles, where people’s judgment of what a woman is is not just tied to chromosomes. If you meet a woman, you do not tell she is a woman by examining her chromosomes. And whether we like it or not, there are all kinds of social aspects to being perceived as, and perceiving yourself as, one gender or the other. Being pro-trans just means acknowledging that, given that we do have genders that mean things to people, people should find their place in the category they think fits them best. (Ironically, many of the conservatives who oppose “gender ideology” are the ones who most agree with the existence of gender roles, gendered expectations, etc. They are the ones who think that there is a certain right way of being a woman, that being a woman is not just a matter of your chromosomes but of how you act and what you look like.)

When I meet and interact with trans women or trans men, I find it impossible not to treat them as the gender they identify as. It just fits them, which is why they identify with it. (Incidentally, the right doesn’t like to talk about trans men, except in the context of their “young girls are being turned trans” moral panic, I suspect in part because it complicates their entire bathroom framework by leading them to the unavoidable conclusion that trans men should have to use the women’s room.) The real choice, then, is not whether we will recognize “biological reality” or “allow everyone to define reality for themselves.” It’s whether the reality of people’s genders is going to be acknowledged, or whether we’re going to stubbornly insist on applying a set of conceptual categories that don’t map well onto how people actually think and act. It’s the anti-trans crowd who are the reality deniers, by saying that trans women have to use men’s bathrooms that they will seem and feel obviously out of place in, and that trans men have to use women’s bathrooms that they, too, feel and seem out of place in. 

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In reply to my controversial tweet, the one that sparked all the urinal cake jokes, someone said that to call trans women, women is like calling train cars, cars. But train cars are cars. You can’t say that the term “car” must be reserved for roadgoing automobiles, because there is simply no rule that says that. If you don’t want train cars to be called cars, you have to make an argument for why they can only be called carriages. But you’re going to find it very difficult to convince people that there’s any good reason to stop using the word “cars” to describe train cars. 

A dispute over whether train cars are cars can end up like James’ squirrel argument. The answer to both is “it depends what you mean.” If you’re going to insist on a definition of cars that restricts you from applying the word to train cars, then the word no longer applies, because that’s the choice you’ve made. Likewise, if you’re going to insist on a definition of woman that excludes trans women, then you can “prove” they’re not women under your definition, but that’s a choice, not a scientific fact, and the choice has to be justified. We make our conceptual categories

Does this mean that if everyone agrees that a urinal cake is a type of “cake,” then it becomes one? Well, yes, if we chose to think of it that way it would enter that conceptual category, but there’s a good argument that that conceptual category (including urinal cakes with sponge cakes) is not useful, because, as many people have delighted in pointing out to me, you cannot eat a urinal cake. (Or, more precisely, you are less likely to enjoy eating a urinal cake than many other types of cake.) Reality doesn’t change when our categories change, but the categories are still optional and some make more sense than others. 

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In the case of “woman,” choosing the Shapiro definition results in absurdities (calling people men who are obviously women and have lived their whole adult lives as women), which is why a trans-inclusive definition makes more sense. This is no different than saying that we’re going to define as an “American” anyone who chooses to live here and say they’re an American, because this definition is most compatible with social reality. The person who disagrees with that definition can’t just declare that it’s the wrong one, they have to provide arguments for why we ought to voluntarily switch to the nativist definition. 

I’ve never seen any good argument for why I shouldn’t call trans people by their preferred pronouns, or recognize them as the gender they say they are. What I tend to see is an insistence that there doesn’t need to be an argument, because “reality” or “biology” settles the question. But that’s not true. As we have seen, biology simply doesn’t tell us how we ought to think about gender categories.

 

For fuller explanations, from women who know the literature and science better than I do myself, read my conversations with biologist Julia Serano and journalist Shon Faye.  

 

 

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