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May 25, 2018



I think the way you experience being gendered may in some ways be more distinctive than you realize.

When I was in a not-dissimilar place in my thinking, I found this blog post to be really helpful reading:


You also might want to check out this video:


It might be helpful to take these and then look at some of the (multiple, mutually incompatible) ways that the term "agender" gets used in some parts of tumblr-ish younger queer internet culture.

And I want to reply directly to this: "I do not feel like a man, but I also do not feel I have it in me to bring about, by my will and by my presentation of self in everyday life, any other social fact as to what sort of being I am." I can't tell you what to do, but you never know what you can accomplish in this area until you try, and a lot of people surprise themselves.

And speaking as a trans person, I would be oppose to any attempt to compel (rather than jut encourage) all attendees at an event to wear pronoun indicators, and I know a large number of trans activists agree with me. Our reasons for it have much less to do with the comfort of people who dislike this stuff on principle and much more to do with the comfort of closeted pre-transition trans people who may find it uncomfortable to list one pronoun as preferred and dangerous to list another. If it gets to the point of attempted enforcement or the threat of censure (which I think is unlikely), I suspect more of us will be on your side in opposing that than you think.

Coercive assignment and enforcement of gender (in virtually any the diverse senses of "gender") hurts everyone. Take care of yourself.

Ray Briggs

I disagree with you about the pronoun badges, but more importantly, I would encourage you to reach out to trans, genderqueer, and gender-nonconforming cis people around you. You sound like you feel unhappy and trapped, and seeing the many ways that others work with the internal contradictions of gender can help a person feel less trapped. (It worked for me.) I would be happy to grab a snack or a beverage together if we’re ever in the same place.

There are a lot of okay ways to be trans, and a lot of okay ways to be cis. And if you decide you want to be called “she” or “they” or use some other pronoun arrangement or dress differently or whatever, there are trans and genderqueer philosophers who have made similar choices and will support you.

Jessica Collins

Justin, thank you for posting this.

I would just like to add to the comments above, the following observation: never underestimate how much you *can* achieve in shaping the social facts through your will and your presentation of self in everyday life. 

Not, at least, until you’ve actually tried it.

Monday through Wednesday this week I attended the US Federal Court NY Southern District where I came very close to be chosen as a juror for the criminal trial United States v John (aka “Yanni”) Galanis, Devon Archer, and Bevan Cooney. 

The first morning the court clerk called out my legal name and I stood up and walked all the way down the center aisle of this enormous New York Southern District Federal courtroom from the back of the room towards the bench, turned right past the prosecuting attorneys' table and took my appointed place in the jury box, just as those preceding me had done.

But I was completely invisible!

Neither the judge nor the clerk nor anyone else seemed to have seen me.

When I made my invisible procession to the jury box as described in a post below, the defendant John (Yanni? ... Laurel, anyone?) Galanis called out quite loudly: “Where is he?”

Where indeed?

Then the judge called out my legal name again, and I raised my hand from where I was already sitting in the jury box and said: “I’m here.”

This was a very powerful demonstration of how one might simply *not see* what one is not expecting to see, even when one is paying attention and looking straight at it.

But after that moment of gender confusion, Judge Abrams had decided the next morning to address me as 'Ms Collins’ and until the moment my full legal name was called when I was finally dismissed, everyone in the court avoided using my legal first name.

Every one of the security people doing the X-rays and metal detection at both Federal Court buildings I attended those three days, invariably addressed me as “Ma’am” ... even when I had just produced my US passport as government ID.

And … during those two days as prospective juror number 13 I became quite friendly with prospective juror number 18 just down the row. She is a new mom in her twenties, and nursing. At the lunch break she needed to find a place in the Federal Courtroom where she could express breast milk. I was surprised, but also very touched, that I was the one she approached when she felt she needed moral support in asking for assistance. With the help of one of the female court officials, we got it figured out.

I was impressed.

David Keith Johnson

Mr. Smith, the mania for categorizing people is universal these days, and transcends gender, incorporating personality. The reductionist abuse of the Meyers Briggs system and its many variations in the workplace is what I have in mind. It always evokes the lines in Eliot’s Prufrock describing the effort to fix you “in a formulated phrase” and leave you “pinned and wriggling on the wall.” Recently, my refusal to comply with such a scheme proposed for a group of administrative assistants under my management, lowest on the hierarchical and social totem pole in the workplace, provoked a firestorm of disapproval. I stuck to my guns, as you did at the conference, and the storm passed. I commend (as I am heartened by) the courage you exercised in standing up to the effort to reduce you to a category. Each such attempt feels to me like a psychological little murder. This is the Good Fight that St. Paul might not have recognized as such, but seems spot on to me. Finish the course. Keep the faith.


Thanks for these comments (especially yours, Jessica-- your life is a never-ending inspiration), all of which reflect what I take to be valuable insights into the experience of gender identity, even if they are very different from mine. Let me emphasise, as I perhaps did not do clearly enough before, that I am just fine as I am, and there is nothing to change. When I speak of 'pain' and 'woundedness', I am speaking of the sort of existential condition for which I do not believe there is any corrective. It is ok to lead a wounded life, and to not believe that there is any possible --or, for that matter desirable-- path towards healing that wound. This is not to say that others should not take such a path if it is open to them, but it is also a grave mistake, I think, one too common in our therapeutic culture (and, I would add, our market-oriented culture of customer satisfaction), to suppose that if someone acknowledges a variety of woundedness or incompletion in their life, they are obligated to cure it.

You may know of the character of Philoctetes, as depicted by Sophocles and others, who has a wound that will not heal, and the cause of which is the same as the cause of both his immortality and his isolation. 'Get that man some help!' some would say. And yet Philoctetes has also been an inspiration and a sort of patron saint for those concerned to reflect on the peculiar nature of the creative life (a subspecies of the examined life, both of which contrast with the unthinking, uninteresting life).

When I say I do not feel like a man, I should add that I don't even know what it would be to feel like a man. I know men are supposed to whoop and holler about sports, to like grilling meat, etc., but I doubt these are anything more than arbitrary markers, which can often veer off into absurd excess that look a lot like the cultural equivalent of the male elks that evolve, as sexual signals, antlers too large to hold their heads up. Thus Trump claims he likes his steaks well-done, and suddenly the MAGA crowd begins insisting on a natural correlation between manliness and consuming the ashen remains of charred meat, even though the symbolic link between masculinity and bloody meat had previously been much more common.

I hate sports and BBQs, but on the other hand there are other manifestations of identity that are marked as male and that attach to me very strongly. I love the sort of obscene ribaldry that, if I got caught engaging in it in certain work environments, would surely get me fired. And if I were to be fired for telling dirty jokes at the office, I would be fired *as a man*, and thus as someone who contributes to a particular kind of hostile work environment, and my protest that I do not feel like a man when I'm telling these jokes would be totally irrelevant. This is a point parallel to one that many feminists are making right now: you don't have to feel like a woman in order to feel the weight of patriarchy. It is enough to be born with a certain sort of body.

Our bodies and their presentation can sometimes be changed to fit with what we feel inwardly to be. But --and this is the central point of my initial post-- you really *have to believe* those of us who insist that our deepest inward feeling of ourselves is one that is neither 'at home' with the way we are perceived, nor free to undertake any transformations that would make us at home (and again, that's ok!). I suspect many, many people fall into this category, and yet, in this era in which self-reporting as to who we really are has purportedly come to have full authority in determining the facts about who we are, somehow the existence of this category is being utterly neglected and denied. I experience this denial as hostility, and I experience the insistence that I am 'cis', by people who do not know me and do not know what my inner life is like, as aggression. This by no means entails that I must be trans, or agender, or non-binary, or any of the other taxa that have proliferated in the past years (I am also not denying that human cultures have always been effective at coming up with such taxa, and in fact I am sharply aware that the recent insistence on gender binarism, which really only fully takes hold with the medicalization and pathologization of a wide range of expressions of human identity over the course of the 19th century, is an historical aberration). Nor, by any means, is this to claim that, if these terms help other people make sense of who they are, they should not be perfectly free to use them and to be publicly acknowledged through them. But I opt out.

A Spinozist

Sympathetic as I generally am to your critique of identity demands and your concerns about bureaucratic coercion, I think the issue of stickers has to be considered in more practical terms. For trans- and queer folk I know, the stickers serve as a sort of indicator of how people will treat them in situations like bathrooms. Being harassed--e.g. being physically threatened or having someone (usually a woman) threaten to call the cops on you--is awful and dangerous. The threat of the cops is especially dangerous for people of color. Obviously, gender neutral or inclusive bathrooms would solve this problem, but until we solve problems about gendered space, safety, and social tolerance, using things like stickers to signal support and acceptance is a good thing. It's a not substitute for real social and political action, but it's not nothing.


Thanks, Spinozist. I certainly believe in expressing solidarity, both symbolic and in actions, with trans people who are threatened in any way. I'm still not sure I see how, practically speaking, pronoun stickers help much, or at all, in this. Already in the comments above a trans person has articulated an argument, which I've heard before, against these stickers. For some people being compelled or coerced into making their pronouns a public issue could conceivably lead to feelings of discomfort or experiences of perceived or real threat. I'm really not at all convinced that the best way to achieve real solidarity is to bring about a new norm of sticker-wearing (in certain, narrow environments, anyway: right after my conference I found myself on a Greyhound bus between cities, and I couldn't help but think how far any future reality is in which everyone in this working-class, immigrant milieu, in contrast with the academic one I had just left, would voluntarily wear a pronoun sticker). Anyhow, up with solidarity. Yes to unisex bathrooms, no to cops. And no --though compared to police brutality this is of course of secondary importance-- in the absence of any convincing arguments for their net good, to pronoun stickers.


Gender identity is not about 'feeling like a man/woman' (or neither or both). Gender identity is about preferred sexed embodiment as well as present experience of sexed embodiment, and preferred sexed social role as well as present experience of sexed social role.

In any case, whatever your analysis of gender identity, people, most importantly trans people, have been talking about these issues for some time now, but instead of listening to our voices many non-trans people decide to deride perfectly reasonable practices of minimizing misgendering because they do not understand the ins and outs of gender identity. Deliberate, obstructive ignorance is used as an excuse for transphobia all the time, and the absurd burden is placed upon trans people that they must have a philosophically impeccable account of gender in order to be entitled to a minimum of respect.

Non-trans people should not bring up their lack of 'feeling like a man/woman' (which is normal and does not by itself imply someone is anything other than cis... in fact I'm not even sure what it would mean to feel like a man or a woman, but I trust people when they sincerely describe their own subjectivity), or lack of comfort with their body or some other 'existential condition' that has nothing to do with gender and does not reflect the trans experience at all in contexts where trans people are trying to assert the right to be able to breathe and not have to go through their daily lives being psychically and otherwise attacked.

When trans people say we do not want to be misgendered, we ought to be listened to. When we talk about gender identity, we ought to be listened to. Non-trans people should not chime in about how they don't 'feel like a man/woman' therefore trans people's claims about their own gender identity make no sense therefore misgendering is okay and how silly of people to use pronoun stickers, etc. If a non-trans person is interested in some public introspective piece about their own apparent lack of a gender identity, they should write one in a context that has nothing to do with trans issues, pronoun stickers, etc.

I realize that some of what I'm saying doesn't apply to this post, but this is a general rant I've been wanting to make for a while.


"I'm still not sure I see how, practically speaking, pronoun stickers help much, or at all, in this. Already in the comments above a trans person has articulated an argument, which I've heard before, against these stickers."

With all due respect, it's not your place to see. It's the place of trans people to have the conversation on pronoun stickers (or any other relevantly similar issue). The person you referred to did not present any argument against the presence of pronoun stickers, but expressed an opposition to the compulsion to wear them. I agree with them, but in the post you were expressing disagreement with having them at all, not with them being required. Also, please do not use trans people in a tokenistic way to support your own views.


Hey, uh, just to clarify: I'm pretty confident this pronoun sticker kind of stuff started in a distinctly lower-status cultural milieu and worked its way into the academy from below. It's not, say, a product of affluent tenured gender theorists trying to impose some structure from above.


"Already in the comments above a trans person has articulated an argument, which I've heard before, against these stickers."

If you mean me, then I didn't articulate an argument against the stickers. Or at least I didn't articulate an argument against the stickers existing, against them being made available in the way that they were, or even against them being normalized. That's what "against these stickers" or "no to pronoun stickers" sounds like to me.

I am in favor of these stickers.

I made an argument against the stickers being COMPULSORY.

If all you're against is compulsory pronoun stickers, then you should be aware that if you articulate that as "no to pronoun stickers" you're likely to be misinterpreted, and as sayings something stronger, and you run some risk of coming across as arguing against a straw person or, at best, against the simplifications-for-purposes-of-presentation in some activist sound bytes and 101 materials.

If you are okay being talked about as "she" or "he" or "they" as others choose (knowing that if you look stereotypically male they'll probably mostly choose "he"), and wearing a pronoun sticker makes you uncomfortable, for whatever reason, then don't wear one, but don't complain about them being made available for others, and do try to honor the pronouns on people's stickers even if they aren't what you might guess from how the people wearing the stickers look. If you find yourself thinking that, say, being called "he" is less uncomfortable for you than being called "she" or "they", maybe you should consider, in these environments, wearing something that tells people these are your preferences (in the thin economics-y sense of "preferences"). That's not about pronouncing on where you stand with respect to categories like cis and trans - it's just about telling people how you'd like them to talk about you.

That's it. It's pretty simple. Figure out how you feel about different ways people talk about you (or could talk about you), and figure out how much you want to inform people about that, and then wear a sticker, or don't, accordingly.


The above should read: "...you're likely to be misinterpreted as saying something stronger, and you run the risk...". Apologies for the typo.

Justin E. H. Smith

To Dr_i_rohl : apologies for misrepresenting your position. I remain concerned that the boundary between 'available', 'recommended', and 'compulsory' is never so clear, and that administrators and various institutional guarantors of compliance always have a way of pushing new practices from the left to the right of that spectrum.

To S: of course it is my place to see.

Looking back at the long modern history of variously allowing, encouraging, pressuring, or compelling people to carry or display identifying documents telling other people what sort of person they are, two things strike me: that there is always an argument from benevolence for doing so; and that it always looks like a very bad idea in hindsight. I have been most interested in thinking about historical cases of ethnic ID'ing, some of which are in effect responsible for looping the ethnic group into social existence in the first place and so generating new possibilities of discrimination (e.g., the gens de voyage, who were given ID papers identifying them as such for the first time in the WW I era in order to accommodate French citizens with no fixed address within the growing administrative state). It is 'my place to see', by reading about the history and the present of the world I live in, how these practices may not be ideal for accommodating the diversity of human beings. I see the stickers in question as not totally unrelated to this history (even though there are also obvious differences, which I do not need pointed out for me).

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