I like thought experiments. I think they can be useful for expressing or exploring ideas in science (famously, a thought experiment about bouncing balls on trains is used to explain the theory of relativity, for example), philosophy, and ethics.
They can also be used to unravel the assumptions behind a position on social sciences, philosophy and ethics, where asking people to imagine scenarios that may or may not be possible (and may very well not be ethical) to reproduce in real life can prompt a deeper exploration of a person’s principles or motivations.
One area in which I find this especially intriguing is gender. From my real life perspective, I accept trans people as their experienced rather than assigned-at-birth gender (that is, trans women are women; trans men are men; genderqueer are in-between and genderfluid is a moving target). Likewise, cis people are their experienced gender, not defined by their assigned-at-birth (even though it matches).
However, to get to the root of what people think is important about gender, you can ask all sorts of hypotheticals. Usually these are posed with someone who is gendered one way or the other and say, “What if you change this, or that?”
I wonder, though, about something a bit more thought-experiment-y. A bit more science-fiction-y. A bit less possible (even if the other hypotheticals are unethical to try, some of them have been tried). Indeed, a bit Rocky Horror Picture Show…
Suppose I’ve created a new life form (let’s call hir “Rocqui” to honour the reference above) that is externally indistinguishable from a human, except that zie has no secondary sex characteristics, or genitals, or reproductive organs. My creation is absolutely without the features that would allow anyone to tell. Let’s even postulate that the skeleton is ambiguous, and other beneath-the-surface features are absent, that might lead one to conclude one way or the other. Being a completely new form of life, Rocqui also has no chromosomes as we would recognise them.
I’ve created this person in my Evil Mad Scientist (EMS) Lab. “It’s aliiiiive!” I cry as zie stirs (my excitement making me forget to use personal rather than impersonal pronouns). But, I have a chance as hir body becomes vivid and functional, to make alterations to the structures of the body and its functions. I could make changes later, if necessary, of course.
Now, picture the scene and answer the following:
- What pronouns would you use for Rocqui?
- If you were to choose a gender for Rocqui, how would you do so, and what would you change?
- What is the smallest amount of change would be sufficient for you to accept Rocqui as a particular gender? Are there multiple ways of producing a “minimum change” that would allow the same assumption (e.g. for male, perhaps only adding a penis, OR only adding testicles, would be enough, and nothing else would be needed)
My answers are simple: assuming that Rocqui has been imbued with knowledge of the concepts of gender and language, and understanding of the world, then I shall ask hir how zie wishes to be addressed, and ask hir what gender zie feels hirself to be – or that zie desires to be. The changes I would make would, again, be only those requested by Rocqui (who knows everything there is to know about gendered differences of the body, just as I, the Mad Scientist, would: zie learned it all from my knowledge). Rocqui’s body, Rocqui’s rules.
If Rocqui’s gender is based on what Rocqui says zie is, or believes hirself to be, then no changes need to be made to accept hir body as male or female, or whatever zie wishes it to be. That’s all there is to it.
This leads to a follow-up question. If Rocqui declares hirself to be one gender, does that declaration preclude requests for hir body to be given features associated with a different gender? What if zie declares hirself female and requests a completely masculinised body structure? What if zie declares hirself male but asks to be made completely feminine?
I confess to feeling uneasy about granting such a wish. I am less concerned about granting “I’m female, give me a man’s body” than I am the reverse. This realisation is challenging to me, and my self-perception as open-minded and accepting of trans rights. The fact that there is an asymmetry about the genders and the amount of unease they cause me is also a question that I should investigate in terms of my own assumptions and motivations.
Partly I think it is to do with perception of body variations: a flat-chested woman seems easier to accept than a man with a big, round, bosom (even though I want bigger and rounder breasts for my male body – huh). Part of it perhaps follows on from my own body vs identity issues and that I am in a male body and yet frustrated by feminine leanings as well. Part of the general unease with the idea may well be because I can imagine the difficulties Rocqui might then face (and if you can’t, then maybe this interactive story can help).
It’s unlikely that the people I really want to address these questions will bother, of course. I want them to, because I want to make explicit the assumptions they make about gender, and about gendered bodies. I’ve tried to discuss fearlessly my own assumptions and causes here, and have probably missed some anyway. But they are based intrinsically on Rocqui’s personhood and self-awareness. That’s what I hope to centre. Not bodies, but people.