Changing Race, Changing Sex: The Ethics of Self-Transformation

Journal of Social Philosophy 37 (2):266-282 (2006)
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"Why are there 'transsexuals' but not 'transracials'?" "Why is there an accepted way to change sex, but not to change race?" I have repeatedly heard these questions from theorists puzzled by the phenomenon of transsexuality. Feminist thinkers, in particular, often seem taken aback that in the case of category switching the possibilities appear to be so different. Behind the question is sometimes an implicit concern: Does not the (hypothetical or real) example of individual “transracialism” seem politically troubling? And, if it is, does not the case of transsexuality merit equivalent critique? Or, conversely, if one accepts transsexuals as people with legitimate demands (e.g., on medical resources or single-sex spaces), then would one not also be committed to accepting the putative transracial in analogous ways? Understanding the ontological constraints and possibilities with regard to transforming one’s identity is, I suggest, a project that should accompany ethical evaluation of those transformations. Under what circumstances is it (un)ethical to leave behind a gender or racial group with which one has once been affiliated? This question is, again, especially pressing for radical thinkers who endorse the claims that race and gender taxonomies are internally hierarchical and constituted through relations of oppression, domination, and normalization. Changing one’s identity under these circumstances will surely always be linked, however tenuously, to consideration of the larger political and cultural milieu in which such changes are advantageous or disadvantageous, complicit with oppressive norms and/or resistant to them. To illuminate these larger questions, in this paper, I first provide three examples of the analogy thesis in feminist thinking about race and sex change, each of which draws ethical conclusions about individual motivation, political strategy, or public policy, premised on the assumption that race and sex change are equivalent phenomena. None of these accounts consider the genealogy of each category as significant to contemporary possibilities. I next offer a descriptive analysis that highlights different norms at play in contemporary North American understandings: Sex–gender, I argue, is essentialized as a property of the individual’s body, while race is essentialized with reference to both the body and ancestry. This analysis, I conclude, shows politically significant disanalogies between the categories, and reveals the importance of genealogical accounts of race and sex in thinking ethically about changing ourselves

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Cressida J. Heyes
University of Alberta

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References found in this work

Transsexualism and “Transracialism”.Christine Overall - 2004 - Social Philosophy Today 20:183-193.
Transsexualism and “Transracialism”.Christine Overall - 2004 - Social Philosophy Today 20:183-193.

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