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Posted on July 31, 2019 at 1:40 AM

by Kelly McBride Folkers, MA

Should academics ever set limits on what can be the subject of debate? Last week, twelve philosophers published an open letter calling for an end to sanctions and censures of academics that express “skepticism about the concept of gender identity or opposition to replacing biological sex with gender identity in institutional policy making.” They argue that contemporary discussions surrounding the concepts of gender identity and biological sex are acceptable topics for free academic inquiry. They were motivated by various scholarly works that call into question the notion that gender identities exist on a spectrum, as opposed to a male-female binary, that have sparked intense controversy on university campuses and social media platforms.

These types of public debates happen on websites like Twitter, which allow users to spout off rapid-fire, knee jerk, brief responses to the issues of the day. Philosophers and bioethicists can network on the site and learn about the work of their peers, which is why many justify spending time on Twitter. On the other hand, Twitter has spawned call-out culture, or the tendency to publicly shame individuals that express problematic viewpoints as a way of holding them accountable. In general, the reactionary nature of call-out culture online and in academic settings makes it hard to engage with those with differing beliefs. To solve some of the most pressing issues of our time, scholars need to reach compromise through mutual understanding to move public policy forward. Sometimes doing so requires civil debate based on reasoned responses to opinions many find repugnant. But to find agreement on how to best craft new social policies, scholars need to reach a consensus on the values we seek to uphold.

One of the roles of bioethics scholarship today is to humanely describe the diverse, lived experiences of human beings and the ethical issues therein. Putting gender identity up for debate further marginalizes trans and non-binary individuals at a time when all academics—especially bioethicists—should be speaking out against rhetoric that invalidates their experiences.

The twelve scholars’ main argument is that punitive measures like censuring those who defend controversial positions and preventing these positions from being disseminated threaten the “fundamental academic commitment to free inquiry.” The philosophers raise the question of whether it is ever appropriate for academics to silence debate on specific issues. They write, “Philosophers who engage in this debate should wish for it to be pursued through rational dialogue, and should refuse to accept narrow constraints on the range of views receiving serious consideration.” To them, it is not only acceptable to continuing debating the concept of gender identity—even when scientists are reaching a consensus that one’s genitalia does not necessarily determine one’s gender—but necessary to resolve “conflicting interests in contexts as varied as competitive sport, changing rooms, workplaces and prisons.”

Their position chooses not to recognize the cultural and political implications of debating the legitimacy of varied gender identities. When institutions uphold the concept of biological sex, trans and non-binary individuals lack safe access to public accommodations, and by default, these organizations permit discrimination. Though the authors of the open letter do not intend to cause harm, the dissemination of trans-skeptical perspectives (some of which perpetuate fear of trans and non-binary individuals) are used against them. For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has moved to exclude gender identity from the definition of sex-based discrimination, effectively permitting health care providers to deny care to trans and non-binary individuals, who have already reported alarming rates of outright denials of care and harassment in medical settings.

When scholarly work argues against the rights of marginalized individuals—and when political leaders harness these same arguments to institutionalize discrimination—it should cause scholars to question whether such debates should have a place in the current academic sphere. The authors of the open letter call for trans and non-binary individuals to “live free of harassment and abuse,” but their arguments are, at best, complicit in the bigotry that motivates regular occurrences of harassment and abuse that many trans and non-binary individuals face. None of this is to say that there should not be space for a multitude of viewpoints on gender; rather, those debating gender should be very careful about how others wield their claims. In the current political climate, thoughtful consideration regarding the impact of propagating controversial viewpoints ought to outweigh a staunch commitment to academic freedom.

When the very identities of trans and non-binary individuals are put up for debate, discussed as if they were intellectual exercises rather than human experiences, and deemed invalid by some, these attitudes discourage trans academics from meaningfully participating in scholarship about their own experiences. Any research project about the experiences of trans and non-binary communities should involve those who identify as such from the outset, but certain attitudes create further barriers for trans and non-binary individuals from pursuing academia as a career at a time when we need to elevate their voices. In a Medium post written by a trans woman and former philosophy graduate student under the pseudonym t philosopher titled “I Am Leaving Academic Philosophy Because of Its Transphobia Problem,” she describes that the positions the twelve scholars wish to freely debate led to her decision to leave the discipline altogether. “My gender is not up for debate,” she writes. “I am a woman. Any trans discourse that does not proceed from this initial assumption — that trans people are the gender that they say they are — is oppressive, regressive, and harmful.”

As members of trans and non-binary communities continue to fight for equal rights, the frameworks for discussion of issues facing them should be sensitive to their struggles, and at a bare minimum, acknowledge the fact that they exist in the first place. And while trans and non-binary individuals and their allies could very well choose to engage in the gender identity debate, they should not have to defend the existence of transness for the sake of fostering academic inquiry. Philosophical deliberations about the validity of varied gender identities and “biological sex” are far less important than the practical issues that philosophers and bioethicists are in a unique position to solve, like understanding the nature of implicit biases that some clinicians hold against gender minorities and determining appropriate standards for obtaining informed assent for gender affirming care for youth.

In continuing to perpetuate the notion that one’s sex assigned at birth determines one’s gender for life, academic enterprises move further away from pursuing lines of inquiry that create tangible changes for a more just society. Civil debate plays a vital role in academia, and scholars can—when it doesn’t come at grave costs to their wellbeing—present to those with whom they disagree a reasoned case for their viewpoints instead of silencing them. But this doesn’t mean that scholars ought to make all topics fair game in a world where trans and non-binary people are fighting for basic human rights.

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