Sophie Grace Chappell Talks Sex and Gender

Jean Kazez interviews philosopher, Sophie Grace Chappell.

Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Where do you live? How are you being affected by the pandemic?

My home is Dundee, where there’s been a heartening amount of social solidarity. What we need in this pandemic is a whole society acting together, with discipline and self-restraint, to keep the rules that science gives us to beat it, and to keep patiently at it till we do. That’s what I call socialism, really: being friends and neighbours instead of selfish, foolish jerks; working together to solve the problems that affect us all; and actually solving them. That I think is the future for humanity—if humanity has a future.

The virus’s main effect on me personally has been that I’ve missed the whole Scottish winter, when normally I’d be skiing and ice-climbing. And now I’ve missed the Scottish spring, when I like to go as far as possible in Hamlet’s direction, north by north-west, for the incredible light nights that you get at 58 degrees north, the simmerdim as they call it in Shetland. But if our common efforts beat COVID, that will be a small price for me to pay.

You’ve written an open letter to JK Rowling, who made some remarks about trans issues on Twitter in May. She then explained herself in a long manifesto. As you say in the first sentence of your letter, you appear to be the only trans philosopher in the UK today. Did anybody correct you on that?

No, but that doesn’t mean there’s no one else out there. I was under the radar for a long time myself. And I came out in 2014 when it was easier than it would be to come out today—in markedly less threatening circumstances for trans people than we now have. It’s deeply shocking, how far tolerance has gone backwards in the UK in the last 6 years. Brexit and populist nationalism used to be lunatic-fringe positions in the UK. Now, thanks to England’s voting patterns, they’re in government. It’s dire.

In the past, you’ve also addressed gender critical feminists you disagree with. Why are you willing to engage?

I’m willing to engage—usually, and unless people are just trolling or monstering or gaslighting or sealioning me—because that’s what philosophers do: they replace conflict with dialogue. With any luck, we might even move towards convergence. At least, perhaps, we can learn to respect our differences, and each other. We certainly shouldn’t be silencing each other, even if we think the other side are idiots. Much better to call them idiots than just shut them down.

When Simon Schama’s talking about the great German philosopher Moses Mendelssohn in his History of the Jews, he has a great line: “The opposite of war is conversation.” That’s deeply right, I think. The abuse of so much conversation today to sow bitterness, false belief, division, aggression, and anger is extremely disheartening. But you can’t abandon the field to the trolls. You have to find ways of putting the truth out there.

The other side of this is that you have to protect your own mental health, and not try and fight every fight in front of you. I withdraw from the gender-wars fray sometimes, maybe not often enough. It does cost to be involved.

I don’t know how other people see me, but I certainly don’t see myself as a “transgender activist”. Really I’m an ethical philosopher—the history, and the future, of ethics is my main interest. If people would just stop talking so much bloody nonsense about transgender, I could stop talking about it too. And that would be fine by me.

I happen to be transgender. It’s just a thing about me. It’s by no means the most interesting thing about me. At least I hope not. I also happen to be right-handed and green-eyed. But no one is talking nonsense about being right-handed or green-eyed, so I don’t have to talk back about those characteristics. It could be like that with being transgender. It almost is like that, in civilised bits of the world, with being gay. In civilised places, no one actually cares whether you’re gay or straight. They care about you, of course. But which way you swing: unless they’re looking for a date themselves, why would it even come up? It’s great when that happens. Come on, people, we can make this happen with transgender too.

Let’s talk about JK Rowling. What made you want to respond?

I was picturing in my head a teenage Harry Potter fan who is also transgender. What would it feel like to be that person: to draw on Jo’s books for your soul food and your strength to cope, and then read what she wrote in that letter? I know from my own experience that young transgender people are extraordinarily psychologically vulnerable. I wanted to be there for them.

There is this blind-spot in JK Rowling’s discourse about the problems that trans women and trans men face. “If you were discriminated again on the basis of being transgender I would march with you”, she wrote. If. A counterfactual.How is it even possible for her to imagine that we’re not discriminated against? What on earth has she been reading, or not reading?

Because I care what J K Rowling says, I was in pain when I read her letter. At least one friend of my own who really should have known better wanted to interrogate me non-stop about what she’d said, wouldn’t back off even when asked to, and in the end, just got downright insulting and openly transphobic. All that really brought me down. And the thing is, I’m immensely privileged. So what must it have been like for those who, like most trans people, are right at the bottom of the pile?

Sometimes I’m horrified with myself for the damage I’ve done to my own status by coming out as transgender. I’m still privileged, sure, but as things are, to admit this about yourself is to surrender so much privilege. Suddenly you start seeing society from underneath. I used public transport all the way around LA the last time I was in the US. And because I was visibly transgender, suddenly I had new enemies. Well-to-do people in good parts of town were scowling or staring at me like they never have before. And I had new friends too, many in bad parts of town, like the broken people with the tatty plastic bags and the smelly worn-out clothes who pretty much live on the bus because they are homeless and don’t have anywhere else to be.

Transition changes everything. And it radicalises you. You lose some of your stake, and some of your faith, in the status quo. You begin to think: if this society does this kind of horror on so many human beings, then society needs to be remade from the foundations up. Societies are made by humans; so why are they so inhospitable to humans? What would be so terrible about aiming for a society that works for humans? Instead of, so much of the time, against humans?

Thank you for telling that story. I think people need to hear what it’s like to live as a trans woman and not pretend that these issues are just part of some culture war or Twitter battle. You start off your letter by drawing on Rowling’s own fiction and other narratives. Full disclosure: my husband is the one who read all the Harry Potter books to our kids. So I don’t “speak” Harry Potter, but you say the mirror of Erised resonated with you. I take it that the mirror shows who a person wants to be?

The magic mirror shows you what you would be, if you had all your heart’s desire. When I read that the first time, before I transitioned, the answer was so obvious to me that I almost cried: the mirror shows me myself as a woman, of course. So I did something about it! I’m really grateful to Jo Rowling for helping me to see what I wanted, and how I needed to change.

You ask Rowling to think about other fictional scenes and characters and end by wondering what stories she will tell in the future. It seems like trans people can make some people think of a narrative where feminine space is invaded by men, and there’s nothing over which women get to maintain control. There must be a story like that somewhere, but do you think this is not at all what is going on in the real world?

Oh, lots of things go on. And of course a lot of the time men do take things over from women, and not in a good way. I think I understand the exasperation of those women who see trans women as “male colonisers”. I sympathise. But I do think that’s a desperately unfair way to describe what’s really going on. I wouldn’t say I want to colonise women’s spaces. It’s more like I want them to colonise me…

Some people seem convinced that trans activists are going around forcing innocent children to become transgender. Or worse still, grooming them for sexual abuse. It’s horrifying what people will now say—quite openly, all over the internet—to denigrate trans people. Of course I can’t prove that nothing remotely like that has ever happened even once. But as a description of reality in general, it’s a complete lie. It’s a stark-mad conspiracy theory in which we, the trans women, are like the Elders of Zion in that book, The Protocols Of.

That’s a fascinating analogy—that trans women are seen as powerful in a certain way, in the way Jews once were.

And the trouble is that these conspiracy theories sometimes have powerful backers: did you know that in the 1920s Henry Ford—yes, that Henry Ford—paid for half a million copies of The Protocols to be printed and distributed in the US? There seem to be quite a lot of powerful people today who think it’s somehow in their interest to demonise trans women; I think the aim is to sow division and confusion in society, and particularly on the left. I’m a socialist, but we on the left have to have the sense not to fall for this rather obvious divide-and-rule ploy. And the courage to stand up and contest the lies, right now, before they get even worse.

Which of course is another reason why I want to be on the same side as the “gender-critical feminists”, if only they’ll stop monstering me: because nearly all the time, we are on the same side. They’re fighting for women’s rights against the patriarchy. Well, so am I. Who gains from it if we’re fighting each other? The patriarchy, of course. We should wise up and work together, not against each other.

One possible position is that trans women are genuine women, but on the level of biological sex, trans women are male, or male-bodied. This sort of “sex vs. gender” thinking used to be more popular in the philosophy of gender. How do you view biological sex? Natural or constructed? Fixed or changeable? The same or different from gender?

Before I say anything about the theoretical issues, there’s something else that needs to be said, something that I particularly want young, isolated, scared transgender kids to hear. It’s this: to be transgender, you don’t have to have any theory of transgender. At all.

You have the right to be you. And you have it unconditionally. Your right to be who you are is not contingent on your having some nifty explanation of who you are. No more than anyone else’s is. No more than your right to breathe is conditional on your understanding the physiology of respiration. Life first, theory later—if at all.

And this matters, because I get so many people coming at me with a clipboard quiz, apparently under the impression that I don’t get the right to be transgender till I’ve filled in their quiz to their satisfaction. To me, that’s just rude and annoying. To people who are less privileged than I am, this kind of interrogation-based approach to other people’s being-in-the-world can be no less than life-threatening.

I go back here to an early-childhood memory of my own. When I was about 5 I asked my mother if I could start going to school as a girl, not as a boy. My mother was a good person and a loving mother, but her response was terrifying. She stared me down and she simply said one word: “Why?” I couldn’t answer. Of course I couldn’t; it was 1970, in a mill town in the north-west of England, and I was 5 years old.

A while later when I was still very small, I asked her again to let me present as a girl. And probably a third time, I don’t know. However many times I asked, that single word “Why?” was always her response, backed up with a kind of tornado of anger. Psychologically, I ran away; and psychologically, she came after me. She saw that I was transgender before I did, and I think it frightened her, and she tried to beat it out of me. Sometimes literally.

What a painful memory. People want to figure things out and make sense of the world, but step one is certainly listening, and listening receptively, without preconceptions.

It’s taken me 50 years to recover from that. It’s taken me about 45 years even to remember it. I buried the whole episode, I pretended I didn’t know why my very existence was sometimes an intolerably infuriating provocation to my own mother. For decades it surfaced only as visualisations of self-harm and bouts of deep depression that never lifted till I started, very cautiously and very guiltily, to give my transgender nature some furtive air. But the point is that there are still people who talk about trans women in that kind of way, as if the onus were on us to prove our right to exist. And the point is that refusing to listen to trans people, refusing to allow them to be what they are unless they can prove to you their right to be that—it’s deadly behaviour.

So, with all that in hand: about the theory of sex and gender. People say that trans exclusionists erase gender and big up sex, whereas trans activists erase sex and big up gender. Maybe some trans activists do do that, but not me. I’m not actually interested in erasing anything.

Biological sex is not a social construct. But even if it was, it wouldn’t follow, for heaven’s sake, that biological sex “is not real”. Money is a social construct. Crime is a social construct. Science is a social construct. War & Peace is a social construct. Music is a social construct. This interview is a social construct. Yet all of these things are perfectly real. They have the reality of historical and social formations. They don’t have the reality of the natural kinds that science is concerned with, like Panthera Tigris Tigris and H2O and tungsten. But whoever said that the only real kinds of things were the natural kinds?

By contrast with biological sex, gender is a social construct. It’s real, but it’s a historical and social reality. Das ewig Weibliche exists. Though “ewig” is a bit of an exaggeration.

Does that mean that gender is more easily changed than biological sex? No, not necessarily. Just because something is a social construct it doesn’t follow that it’s easy to change; just because something is a natural kind it doesn’t follow that it’s not easy to change. You will sooner extirpate the weeds from your garden than end the history of racism. For similar reasons, the fact that gender is a social construct does not imply that gender is easily abolished or even readily malleable.

Whether gender should be abolished is another question. My own view is that gender is in fact oppressive in this society, but not necessarily oppressive in any society. The best way to spell out how it might not be oppressive is to use your imagination, and generate pictures of possible societies where it isn’t oppressive—either at all, or not as oppressive as it is in our society. Science fiction and fantasy can help us here. One such imaginary society, not a perfect one, not so much a eutopia (a good place) as an allotopia (a different place), is Lissounes, an Ursula-Le-Guin-ish fiction of mine that is out there if you google it.

So anyway, where do trans women fit into my picture of sex and gender? (I’ll talk about trans women here; mutate the mutanda for trans men.) Well, as far as I can see, it’s basically about bodies. To be a trans woman, as I understand it and as I’ve experienced it, is to be born with a male body, and to have a deep and enduring wish to have a female body instead. It’s not about gender at all; at least at the most basic level, it’s entirely about biological sex. It’s not about thinking that you have a Girly Essence or a Lady Brain, or that your mind (or soul?) is female but your body male, or that you were the Queen of Sheba in a previous incarnation, or some dodgy hippy metaphysics like that. You might think that as well, of course, but that’s not the heart of the matter. At root it’s very simply about wanting to be female; female-bodied. But not just wanting it a bit; wanting it in a way that is all-consuming, that goes to the roots of your psyche. And that drives you mad if you don’t do something about it.

I’m reminded of the way Julia Serano describes gender in Whipping Girl. She says she think being a woman is simply having an expectation of being in a female body. Like you say no Girly Essence needed. One appeal of the Girly Essence view is that perhaps anyone can have one, but being female-bodied is harder.

Is this wanting to be female an impossible wish? In some ways yes. I can’t fix my DNA, and I can’t re-enter the womb, and if I transition at 30 I can’t have the socialisation of a female up to 29. In other ways no. Given modern surgery and pharmacology, I can become someone with a phenotypical anatomy that is no less female than the anatomy of many natal females, and likewise for hormones, and likewise for socialisation after transition.

There is a gender binary, a natural biological division of humans into two sexes that is generic, not universal—it applies to most of us, though not all. But that binary, real though it is, is not marked by one all-or-nothing criterion; like most distinctions in biology, it is marked by a cluster of overlapping criteria. So in some senses of “female” a person born male can become female. It’s dogmatic and unmotivated to insist, as many do, that that’s just scientifically impossible. It’s often also—more about this in a moment—deeply unkind.

You wrote a very interesting, exploratory essay proposing a new way to think about it. You make an analogy between gender and parenthood. Can you explain?

Well, not all trans women go as far as the cases I’ve just described. They do want completely female bodies, but for good health and medical reasons, that quite often isn’t possible or advisable. So they have to stop somewhere short of that. Where do they stop? The answer often is, as for me, that they present as women and socialise as women. In that sense, they fit on the map of being a woman rather as adoptive parents do on the map of parenthood. For most purposes they’re taken as women, just as adoptive parents are taken as parents for most purposes. And if it’s rude and horrible to get in adoptive parents’ faces and scream at them “But you’re not a real parent, because science!”, it’s no less rude and horrible to do the parallel thing to trans women.

So with a question that’s had quite an airing in the US recently, “Are women adult human females?” As Ross Cameron points out to me, the possibility of alien women, as seen in a million sci-fi movies, immediately suggests that the right answer to this is, in fact, no; after all, alien women are adult females, but they aren’t human. Leaving that aside, we might compare the question “Are parents male or female biological progenitors?” To this latter question, it seems to me, the answer is either (a) “Yes, but that doesn’t entail that it is mistaken to call adoptive parents ‘parents’”; or (b) “No, because adoptive parents are a counter-example”. Interestingly, there is a prima facie case for both answers. But either way, when you run the parallel with trans women, you get a choice. The question “Are women adult females?” can be answered either (a) “Yes, but that doesn’t entail that it is mistaken to call trans women ‘women’”; or (b) “No, because (many) trans women are a counter-example”. And either way the argument doesn’t shape up to offer much succour to trans exclusionism.

The GC feminists, or trans exclusionists if you prefer, don’t insist that trans women are male to shield them from discrimination, but to make the case that they are a threat to cis women and undeserving of the protections that have been secured by cis women. Do you think that cis women are entitled to be treated in any way different from trans women?

One thing that goes wrong here, I think, is monolithic thinking. Trans women are an extremely diverse group—see the points I made above about what it takes to count as a female. Cis women too are an extremely diverse group.

We shouldn’t think either of trans or of cis women as always constituting clear, well-divided groups. There are plenty of trans women around who are, as we sometimes call them, “submarines”. They live, simply, as women, they are phenotypically indistinguishable from natal women, and no one knows any more that they were ever anything more complicated. (So consider the absurdity and cruelty—and if it’s urinals, the sheer mechanical difficulty—of getting these “submarines” to use the toilet that goes with their birth sex.)

That said, the short answer to your question is, of course, yes. Like everyone else, cis women deserve protection not only from actual threats but from perceived ones. In plenty of real-life cases, when cis women clock that someone is a trans woman—and it bears repeating that quite often they don’t clock that—then they may well feel threatened. They might also feel threatened, of course, by the presence in the Ladies’ of a hairy, stubbly, muscly trans man—whether or not they realise that a trans man is what he is. Or by a woman who is in fact cis but quote looks like a man to them unquote. (They had to repeal that bathroom law in NC, didn’t they? Because its practical upshot was that loads and loads of cis women were getting harassed in the Ladies’. For not looking stereotypically feminine enough. I’m struggling to see how there was a victory here for feminism.)

But anyway—however unjustified it may be for a cis woman, or anyone else, to feel threatened, it’s not sensible just to tell them that they ought to snap out of it. Rape survivors in particular can and should be allowed to recover in private spaces where they won’t be seeing people who trigger flashbacks in them. It doesn’t matter whether those people are trans women or scary-looking cis women or men or anything else. And it doesn’t matter whether they rationally should trigger flashbacks in the assault survivors. The point is that they do trigger them. In this situation, for sure, we should help the assault survivors to get over their trauma by not exposing them to whatever worsens the trauma.

On the other hand, I don’t think it’s always unkind or insensitive to wonder a bit about the quite extreme reactions that the thought of trans women using the Ladies’ seems to trigger in some people who aren’t assault survivors, aren’t actually involved at all. Just today I had an angry man on Twitter coming after me about this, calling me a “nonce enabler”. There’s a witch-hunt mentality out there which will get someone killed one of these days.

But anyway, for anyone who’s serious about practical policies regarding women’s spaces, there’s a lot of detail to think about. We have to look at the facts in the particular cases, and try and use common sense about them, instead of retreating to our trenches and lobbing sloganeering hand-grenades at each other. I fear common sense quite often goes AWOL on both sides of the usual debate.

We also need to use our imaginations more, to find ways of finessing or defusing the question. Toilets, for instance. This all-or-nothing question for trans women: the Gents’, or the Ladies’? Maybe we should do something to dilute the all-or-nothing-ness here, like provide more unisex single-occupant loos. But in fact if you propose that as a deadlock-breaker, you get resistance from both sides. It’s almost like both trans activists and trans exclusionists have got comfy in their trenches. It’s a pity.

I have found reading memoirs written by trans people an extremely important source of education. If you could ask GC feminists to read a memoir, what would you have them to read?

There isn’t a better book about what it’s like to be transgender than Conundrum, by Jan Morris. Everybody should read it. People who aren’t even interested in transgender should read it. Your cisgendered dog should read it. Everyone.

I’ve been meaning to read it forever. Now I’m going to. You wrote a brief memoir yourself, but not a book. Any interest in writing a full length memoir?

Not a full-length memoir, no. Because my full story is not just my story; it’s my wife’s and my daughters’ story too, and they’re entitled to their privacy. But a book, yes. I hope a book about transgender from me will be out there pretty soon, actually. Other commitments permitting.

You’re working on a book about epiphanies. That’s a word with religious connotations, but we also use it in other ways. Do you mean it in a religious way?

As I say, I’m primarily an ethical philosopher, not a trans activist or even a philosopher of transgender. For the last three years Epiphanies has been my main preoccupation—at about 200,000 words, it’s quite close to finished now—and to be frank, it’s often a blessed relief to write about that instead of feeling I have to wade yet again into the turgid old transgender wars.

Epiphanies are peak experiences in which value in the world—and beyond it—is revealed to us. Are they religious experiences? I’m not sure what that means. I’m not sure I believe in a hard-edged distinction between the religious and the non-religious. The spiritual is everywhere, and we all experience it. It’s just that we have different names for it, and it’s with the names that the hard lines begin to appear. For example, I don’t suppose an atheist would be all that likely to call it “the spiritual”, as I just have, being, as I am, a charismatic anglo-catholic Christian. But it’s the same thing that we’re all talking about in our different ways. Or so I believe.

You are a mountaineer and a climber. Are you able to get into the mountains despite the pandemic? Come to think of it, that might be the ideal place to go during the pandemic.

I really miss the big mountains of Scotland. Especially the winter mountains. What I do is, I go out with friends who know far more about climbing than I do, and we climb new winter routes. The two I’m proudest of are Moulin Rouge on Ben Nevis, a mixed route that Simon Richardson and I climbed, and Easan Feidh, a frozen waterfall in Sutherland that the sadly missed Steve Perry and I climbed in that same month, March 2018. There are reports of both adventures to be found on the internet, if you google Simon’s blog

No big mountains this winter, alas. But there are mini-mountains, the Sidlaw Hills, within cycling range of my house. In the Victorian era everyone from Dundee went there at the weekend: Dundee’s celebratedly terrible poet, William McGonagall, who was a weaver in a mill half a mile from here—he writes about the Sidlaws, and he went there. Now almost no one goes to the Sidlaws, or writes poems about them. Except me. This one, for example:


Prayer at Baldowrie Symbol Stone

The Holy being still with us though unknown,

to keep your ever watching listening care

over indifferent lives and living air,

set a strong good angel in this stone.


I just hope mine are better than McGonagall’s.

Is there something spiritual or philosophical about mountain climbing, or is that a part of your life completely separate from the life of the mind?

Nothing in my life is separate from anything in my life.

Sophie Grace Chappell is professor of philosophy at the Open University. This interview was conducted online by Jean Kazez and has been edited.