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Rejecting Essentialism of Gender

In this paper I argue that Koyama's position that transfeminists should reject
gender essentialism in her essay 'The Transfeminist Manifesto' is correct. I do
this by first reconsidering what one means by essentialism and how this relates
to the gender identity and biological sex of trans individuals. I then
reconstruct Koyama's reasons for urging transfeminists to reject the idea of
gender essentialism. Finally, I present reasons to think that this position is
correct, given Koyama's notion of self-identity construction, and present a
possible alternative to take essentialism's place.

The first thing that we have to understand about Koyama's position is what
exactly it is that she means by essentialism. Essentialism is the philosophical
idea that properties are essential to the objects that express them or are true
of them. There are different strains of essentialism ranging from very weak
kinds that say only particular properties are essential to an object, to the
extreme kinds like super essentialism that say that every single property of an
object is essential to it. In short, essentialism is the idea that some or all
properties of an object are necessary for that object to have in order for that
object to actually be that object. For example, some might say that it is
essential to the color red to have a particular wave length, or that it is
essential to light that it travels at 300,000,000 meters per second. While still
others might say that if your parents had never met in the way that they had,
you would not exist as you do - the you that you know would never have come into
being, and you would be a completely different person, if you would even _be_ at

The next question is to determine what it means to be an essentialist about
gender. Given the above explanation of essentialism, this seems quite clear.
Gender essentialism is the idea that the gender that an individual is is a
necessary characteristic of that person being who they are. Without that gender,
they would in some kind of way be a different individual, perhaps even radically
different. On the face of it, this seems to be an intuitive claim, or at least a
reasonable position to take. After all, our gender impacts our treatment in
society, the privileges that we garner, and the oppression that we face. If we
were a different gender, we would experience different kinds of oppression and
different kinds of privilege. In short, we would lead different kinds of lives.
One might be lead to reject this position if they took gender and sexual
identity to be more than something as simple as an assignment at birth, however.
If it were the case that these identities were constructed by the individual,
how they felt about who they are as a person and what they naturally are, then
it would appear to be the case that it isn't gender that is essential to a
person. It is not gender that defines an individual, but it is rather perhaps
the other way around: the person defines the gender; the person lays claim to
who they are. They are not limited by assignments given to them by medical
professionals, but instead by how they understand themselves. 

Koyama argues that essentialism about gender is the wrong position for a
transfeminist to take. There are several reasons why one might find being an
essentialist about gender an attractive position to accept. For example, the
popular cliché that trans women are just women trapped in a man's body (or vice
versa) seems to be useful in that it makes trans women sound like they were born
with some sort of biological error that doesn't line up with who they truly are.
It is a position that seems to be "in tune with our own sense of who we are,
which feels very deep and fundamental to us" (251). While the position of
essentialism seems tempting in the ways in which it makes it more likely for the
general population to support trans individuals, it is dangerous to be an
essentialist about gender because of its implications. Transfeminists believe
that they "construct [their] own gender identities based on what feels genuine
and comfortable, and sincere to [them] as [they] live and relate to others
within give social and cultural constraints" (251). When one accepts the notion
that gender is essential to the individual and utilizes these arguments to
support their identity, they not only undermine their own identity, but also
imply that there is somehow something wrong with themselves. For instance, to
say that one is a woman trapped in a man's body makes it seem as though the
individual is a female mind, locked away in the confines of a male figure. But
this would seem to imply that there are somehow distinguishable differences
between male and female minds, and this can be used to further oppress and
discriminate against women. It is for this reason that "claiming an essential
gender identity can be just as dangerous as resorting to biological
essentialism" (251) on Koyama's view.

It seems to be the case to Koyama that to ascribe gender as an essential feature
of a person is to get it somehow backwards. Koyama suggests that this idea is
"reverse essentialism" (249). It isn't the gender that is essential to the
person, but rather it is the person themselves and how they understand their
nature that is essential to the particular gender. With a certain understanding
of one's own nature, one's gender (and sexual) identity changes. That is to say,
a trans woman is not a woman just trapped in the wrong body. Instead, a trans
woman is a woman in virtue of being the kind of person that she is. Her gender
is an emergent feature of her self-identity. This position, for the most part,
seems to be correct. However, Koyama does not argue that this is a kind of
essentialism that she is proposing. It seems to be some kind of supervenience
relationship between our self-identity and knowledge of ourselves and how we
gender ourselves. If there were any change in what the individual viewed as
"genuine, comfortable, and sincere" (251) about who they are, then there would
be a respective change in their gender identity. While this change need not be
as 'radical' as a complete rejection of the gender assigned to an individual at
birth by medical professionals, it certainly explains the kind of dysmorphic
experience trans and intersex individuals have with regards to themselves and
the way that they interact with the world, and explains their desire to express
themselves differently. That is to say, to change their gender identity to align
with how they perceive who they more naturally are as human beings. In short, it
is the self that constructs the gender, not the gender that constructs the self.

In this paper I have argued that Koyama's urging of transfeminists to reject
gender essentialism is a correct suggestion. Given an understanding of
self-identity that Koyama accepts, saying that an individual's gender is
essential to that person is getting everything backwards. The essentialist
position contradicts how we understand our gender identity and the way that it
arises in society. While Koyama does not fill the gap left with the rejection of
essentialism with another philosophical position, I contend that gender identity
can better be understood as an emergent feature of our own self-identity and how
we perceive ourselves, and that this relationship between gender identity and
'natural self' is one of supervenience.


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