Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

What is the wrong of misgendering?

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.

I work on various issues concerning justice. I am particularly interested in the relevance of personal relationships to moral and political philosophy. I published papers about gender justice, parental rights and duties, the nature and value of childhood, the goods of work and the ideal-non-ideal theory debate.

 

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7 Comments

  1. Dear Anca,
    Thank you for this great post! I have a small question, if I may. If I understand well, you argue that imposing a gender on someone wrongs that person. You then claim, among other things, that it follows that no one has a claim to be treated according to specific gender norms. I think I agree, but I am not sure why this is so. I am asking because some people really want to be treated according to some gender norms, and they may be taken aback if someone refuses to treat them according to these demands.
    Maybe you say more about this in the paper. I hope this question will be useful to you…
    All the best,
    Louis

    • Anca Gheaus

      Thank you Louis. It would be helpful to have concrete examples of your claim that “some people really want to be treated according to some gender norms”. I suspect that often people want to be accepted in their gender presentation, for instance. This is not the same as wanting to be treated to a gender norm, in my view. But maybe this is not the kind of case you had in mind?

  2. Christopher

    Hi,

    I agree with most of your esssay.

    Nevertheless it seems to me that you are only concerned about gendering gender roles. Not misgendering.
    The only thing you add to differentiate misgendering from plain gendering is: “you wrong them by imposing a role that they particularly dis-identify with”. I can’t see how this differs from the wrongs of plain gendering. Gendering someone accordingbto a role they identify with is not wronging them. Gendering them according to a role they don’t identify with is wronging them and is misgendering. So my question is: In what way is misgendering worse than gendering?

    I believe you are too optimistic about abolishing gender. The concept is just way too usefull to disappear.

    On your list of contexts where sex (talk) is appropriate and relevant you are missing out on the most relevant ones: Procreation and sexual intercourse.

    Christopher

    • Anca Gheaus

      Hi Cristopher,

      Thanks for your comment! Re your first point, in the paper I explain my view at more length. I write that: “Trans individuals … desire to occupy a different gender role than the one assigned to them on the basis of their (perceived) sexual characteristics. This desire is itself likely to indicate that they are being rendered particularly vulnerable by the gender role that society expects them to occupy. If so, the critic may think, doesn’t this consideration speak decisively in favour of accommodating their desire to occupy particular gender roles (perhaps those that would involve the least harm to them)? I think it doesn’t, since a requirement to treat anybody according to their preferred gender role entails a demand on others to display attitudes and behaviours that they have reason to avoid – i.e. to treat people as women or as men. One’s preference carries little weight when its satisfaction entails such a demand. Rather, the above consideration explains why people whose assignment to a gender role makes them particularly vulnerable have a weightier claim than others against being assigned to that gender role. To force anybody into a gender role is to wrong them, by holding them, without justification, to role-specific norms, so treating people according to any gender role is a non-subjective wronging. But to force a gender role on someone who particularly and strongly dis-identifies with it, compounds this wronging with an additional, subjective wronging: this is the wronging of misgendering. Thus, not only are trans people wronged by having a gender role imposed on them, but, in addition, they are wronged because that role is one they particularly dis-identify with. Thus, trans people have an additional claim to the general one that we all have against being assigned a gender role. To illustrate, trans women’s desire to occupy the gender role of “woman” is not enough to generate in others a duty to treat them according to the norms of womanhood, since those norms are objectionable; but it can generate a particularly stringent duty in others not to hold them to the norms of manhood.
      These considerations also show how trans people’s contestation of the gender roles assigned to them by society can be a particularly powerful source of social transformation: other things equal, they have the strongest claims not to be held hostage to gender roles on grounds of their unique vulnerability to such roles. This account, I think, provides the most plausible interpretation of the belief that misgendering involves wronging, where the wronging consists not in the refusal “to acknowledge an intensely felt aspect” (Barnes 2020, 720) of trans people’s identity, but, rather, in the imposition of a gender role that is particularly alien to the person in case.”
      Does this sound plausible to you?

      • Christopher

        Thanks for your reply Anca,

        I am not yet able to fully grasp your point.

        In my mind, holding someone to a social role they do identify with is not wronging them. I am wondering – in your view is it wrong to treat a trans-woman as woman ?

        This is a bit of a silly example to illustrate what I don’t get about your argumentation:
        I am male. I have read about a gender role called “toxic masculinity”. I do not identify with that role. In case someone would hold me to that norm, would he wrong me? Is it subjectively or non-subjectively wrong. Since I understand the concept of “toxic masculinity” I do particularly and strongly dis-identify with such a gender role. Do I now have an additional subjective claim not to be hold to that norm? What about those claims is non-subjective or subjective? Why does it matter whether I *particularly* and *strongly* disidentify with a particular gender role?

  3. Jared

    Hi Anca,
    I largely agree with much of what you say, except for the stipulation that the terms “man” and “woman” describe social roles. It is this stipulation itself that creates the problem of (mis)gendering. Contrarily, the standard definitions of “man” and “woman,” and the corresponding pronouns “he” and “she,” do not involve the imposition of any social role whatsoever. Standard usage merely identifies the objects of the terms as: a particular species (human) with a particular sex (female or male) at a particular stage of life (childhood or adulthood). Hence, no gendering (assigning social roles) occurs at all with these terms. Now of course, some people believe that certain social roles apply in virtue of whether one is a man or a woman, but many of us do not believe this. Either way, whether social roles apply to men or women is logically distinct from whether one is a man or a woman. To see this, it makes perfect grammatical sense to say “That woman is an aggressive leader.” But if “woman” is a social role, then this sentence doesn’t make any sense. Given our society’s norms, your definition entails that an aggressive leader is a man. But this is neither standard usage, nor is it something that any progressive-minded person should want. Instead, it’s a conflation of what a woman is with a regressive account of what women should be.

    In other words, under your stipulated definition, gender non-conformity is incoherent. To defy gendered expectations, the concept of the social role (being an aggressive leader) must be distinct from the concept of the agents of whom it’s expected (men). Standard usage captures this distinction, whereas your definition lacks it. Standard usage leaves room for gender non-conformity in the sense that a woman (agent) can be an aggressive leader (social role expected of men), whereas your definition conflates the agent with the social role.

    Therefore, we should abandon the revisionary definitions of “man” and “woman” in terms of social roles and stick to standard usage, whereby no misgendering occurs simply because no gendering at all occurs.

    • Anca Gheaus

      Thanks for this, Jared. It’s probably just impossible to address this topic in a blog post. The paper on which the blog post is based does not deny that “woman” and “man” are in fact used both as gender terms and as sex. It doesn’t even deny that the *typical* use is as sex terms. Indeed, in your example – “That woman is an aggressive leader” – “woman” is used as a sex term and that’s absolutely fine. The stipulation, in my paper, that “man” and “woman” are gender terms is (as a footnote explains) only a stipulation. One reason for not using them in both ways is to avoid *even more* confusion. But, more importantly even, the reason for not using them as sex terms is that if “woman” and “man” were always sex terms, I couldn’t see a way to make sense of being transgender that does not collapse it into being transsexual. If you see such a way, please share. (The motivation for starting to think about this a few years ago was to understand what it could possibly mean to be “trans” and “cis.”)

      You write: “It is this stipulation itself that creates the problem of (mis)gendering.” I don’t think it’s the stipulation, but the gender norms themselves. Without them, there would be no gender hence no misgendering. In the paper, I say: there would still be norms – justified norms! – attached to particular sexual characteristics, but no gender roles. (This depends on circumstances, but I assume most if not all societies today are such that they can’t justify gender roles.) The norms would not be properly called “gender norms”, since the principles justifying them would make no fundamental reference to sexual characteristics. But – to get back to your comment – merely abandoning the definitions of “man” and “woman” in terms of social roles is not going to give us a gender-free world, alas. Gendering would continue to occur, we can’t define it away.

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