More precisely: how to make sense of the wrong of attributing to someone, and treating them according to, a gender that’s different to the one they say they have?
Several issues are immediately raised by this question. One is about the kind of wronging that could be at stake. I assume, like lots of trans activists and many academics, that misgendering creates a level of distress for the misgendered person that amounts to psychological harming, and that it is wrong to impose such harming without justification. This doesn’t go without saying, but no more saying about it here.
Second, and more complicated, is the issue of “gender”. To treat someone as having a gender is, to my mind, to apply to them the norms governing a particular gender role. This means, for starters, to say or imply that they belong to such a role; it also means to assume they have certain permissions and obligations associated to the role. Gender roles are social roles, traditionally two – “man” and “woman” – and traditionally allocated according to people’s (assumed) sex. A lot to worry about so far: why allocate gender roles this way? And (why) do we need such roles, and (why) do we need to precisely two? Indeed, I believe that in societies like ours we don’t. We do want people to fulfil many of the functions associated to gender roles – to nurture, to care, to protect, to defend, to organise and lead others and so on. But there is no reason to attach these functions to people according to their (assumed) sex; instead, we should encourage them to fulfil the functions in question according to their own individual talents and inclinations. Also, the functions need not cluster together in particular social roles, let alone two of them. We don’t need women and men, where “woman” and “man” are gender roles. Therefore, we wrong people when we attribute to them such roles, and that’s compounded by allocating the roles according to their (assumed) sex. Closely related, we wrong people when we evaluate them – their characters, mostly – according to their (assumed) sex. It is enough to evaluate them as human beings: to be, say, kind or courageous is just as good whatever your sex. And, talking about sex: perhaps we should’t do this as much as we currently do. In many contexts it may be enough to talk about sexual characteristics: for example, having a cervix entitles you to some kind of medical care, whatever other sexual characteristics you have or lack. There are other contexts in which sex talk will be necessary: say, if you have the entire cluster of sexual characteristics of femaleness, and they make you more prone to certain diseases or to certain prejudicial social treatment, we want to know that.
So, back to the question: what is the wrong involved in treating someone who claim they’re a woman as if they were a man, or the other way around? Upon reflection, my view is the following: A number of people strongly dis-identify with the gender role matching their (perceived) sex. This can be because they dis-identify with how their bodies are sexed, or with the norms governing that gender role. Often, perhaps, both reasons apply. To force anybody into a gender role is to wrong them, by holding them, without justification, to role-specific norms. Some people like being treated in that way – unsurprisingly, given how much effort goes into socialising us according to gender. (So: treating people according to any gender role is a non-subjective wronging, of a different kind from the one sketched above.) But to force a gender role on someone who particularly and strongly dis-identifies with it is a separate, and hence additional, wronging. Not only do you wrong them by imposing a gender role on them, but, on top of that, you wrong them by imposing a role that they particularly dis-identify with.
If my view makes sense to you, note its somewhat sobering conclusions: nobody has a claim to be treated according to a particular gender. In this sense, we should abolish gender. States have no business asking people to declare their genders; nor do other institutions, or, indeed, individuals. The best thing you can do is to treat people not as women or men, but simply as people. (And so it goes without saying that all should be free to adopt any permissible presentation, behaviour and ambition that in societies like ours are gendered, without having to pay social penalties for doing so.) It also follows that post- gender abolition, i.e. when we’ll have stopped treating people according to gender roles, it will be just impossible to commit the wrong of misgendering. But until we get there, we owe extra care not to impose on anyone a gender role that they reject for themselves. This also means that we should be very careful with attributing “cis-” identities to anybody. Many who don’t outwardly revolt against the gender role they conventionally occupy reject gender norms and can strongly dis-identify with masculinity, or femininity, or both. It also follows that one’s aspiration to a gender role cannot impose duties on others to treat that person according to the role they desire.
Also, none of the above is to deny that those of us who have sexual characteristics can rightfully be governed by norms concerning those characteristics. And some legitimate norms will have to do with remedies owed to people in virtue of past gender-related mishandling – e.g. discrimination. How to figure out the full set of those legitimate norms, from toilet and prison design to the organisation of sports and parliaments, is, I take it, a huge task ahead of us. A task that won’t be helped by debates about how to better allocate gender roles.
I explain my view at much more length in this paper. I wanted to share it here, too, because I welcome your thoughts.