On Being Transgender and Transracial

Recent events involving Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal have spurred up comparisons between being transgender and being transracial. I thought I would share my opinions on the matter.

I’ll begin with transgenderism. It seems to me from the transgender literature I’ve read that what many transgender people are talking about when describing the phenomenon is some sort of mind/body dualism. Mind/body dualism asserts that the mind and the body are radically different things. An historical figure who proposed one form of this theory is Descartes, who famously said that the mind was the thinking thing and that the self was the mind. This idea is accompanied by the claim that the body is not essential to the self, which explains why a person would still remain the same person even after losing an arm.

I really do get the impression that this is what transgender people are referring to when they talk about being transgender. Transgender people often claim that their gender, which lies in the mind, is distinct from their sex, which is determined by their physical bodies. Furthermore, they claim that their true selves lie in the mind and not in the body. I also often hear transgender people say that they do not feel like their bodies belong to them, as if there is a self that is independent of the physical body that is somehow occupying the wrong physical space.

After reading how transgender people describe what it means to be trans, it is hard not to get the impression that what they are talking about is the existence of an immaterial person, or a spirit, or a soul. In fact, when I was doing some reading about the transgender community in Thailand, one transwoman said that she was born in a man’s body but with the soul of a woman.

Maybe transgenderism doesn’t necessarily posit the existence of immaterial persons, or spirits, or souls, but if it does, then I’m skeptical if it’s coherency, because I’m skeptical of the existence of immaterial persons, spirits, and souls.

Having said that, being skeptical of their empirical claims does not mean that one must disrespect them. (And unfortunately, I think that many people don’t realize this non-necessary connection.) I am perfectly fine with addressing transgender people with whatever pronoun and by whatever name they prefer. I also think that transgender people should not be fired from a job just for being transgender.

Given my liberal leanings, I find it easy to sympathize with those who have been oppressed, marginalized, and persecuted, and I cannot think of any other group that is more persecuted than transgender people (in America). I don’t know if other people have gotten this impression, but it seems to me that there is no safe haven for transgender people. Generally speaking, they’re not even accepted by their own parents.

Now regarding transracialism, I’m also skeptical. I do accept the fact that race is a social construct, but I don’t think it’s a type of social construct that allows for a person’s race to differ from their parents’ race or a combination of their parents’ races. So two White people cannot have a Black child, and one White person cannot have an Asian baby with one Black person. Much of the transgender response to the Rachel Dolezal case echoes this sentiment.

In response to the transgender people’s response to transracialism, some have pointed out an inconsistency with their positions. If gender and race are both social constructs, why can a person be transgender but not transracial? I think this is a legitimate question and none of the responses that I’ve read given by transgender people answer it successfully. But this may be because of how I understand transgenderism.

To add onto what I said earlier, it seems that transgender people not only posit the existence of an immaterial person but also a gendered, immaterial person. And if it is possible for an immaterial person to be gendered, why can’t it be racial? I suspect that a successful answer is going to have to draw from the philosophy of mind.