Talia Mae Bettcher Brings Philosophical Lens to Transitioning
By Aria Bracci '17 | Thursday, March 9, 2017
Aria Bracci '17
Thursday, March 9, 2017
At 4:59 p.m. on Wednesday, March 1, the sun was setting on a full room in in the Campus Center. Karen Lederer, WGSS undergraduate advisor, approached the podium giddily, extending her hand to the speaker at the front; “You’re a celebrity,” she said. The hand belonged to Talia Mae Bettcher, and all eyes were on her.
Visiting from Los Angeles, where she is a professor within and chair of the Philosophy Department at California State University, Bettcher was armed with layered theory to unpack the trans experience. She had been invited to campus as part of the Trans* Speaker Series, and with every seat filled, UMass showed it was ready to listen.
Bettcher began with a disclaimer: her approach was both “preliminary and provisional,” meaning such a dissection was not yet complete. Contemporary transgender discourse, she explained, inevitably exists within the context of transphobia, as well as within the socially constructed concept that is gender. For this reason, dissenting views of trans experience often spur from fundamental differences in how one perceives a “successful transition.” Such dissenting views often occupy the opposite realms of “born this way” versus “choice”; that is to say, while some people decry transgenderism as a flippant change of heart, defenders respond that trans people “always knew” they were trans. A true analysis of trans identity, Bettcher explained, refuses to be either.
“‘Born this way’ theory is out,” Bettcher said, since it “draws theoretical lines across idiosyncratic differences.” In other words, those who maintain that trans people “always knew” that they were trans are complicit in dividing the trans community.
“Idiosyncrasies” quickly became the common thread. It applies to the contrast between “always knew” trans stories and more gradual gender consciousness. It explains the personal receptivity that one’s community and self have in response to the experience of transition, while others experience hate and ostracization.
It also applies to surgery. "Some do some, some do others, and some do none,” Bettcher said. Cultural recoding—that is, assigning new vocabulary to preexisting body parts—is just as valid of a method to come to terms with one’s identity. This rests on Bettcher’s strong adherence to social constructionism.
Following this thread, she explained how the two generic modes of appearance (i.e. naked vs. clothed, intimate vs. proper) are best understood as social constructions. “The two appearances are dialectically bound together and co-constitute our physical appearance(s) to others,” read one of her slides.
To further pursue this, Bettcher explained that “standard thoughts about people presume clothed appearance,” even though nakedness is often considered more “basic” and “natural” than a clothed state. “Genitals being a private part and having a moral significance is a social construction,” she said.
“Proper appearance is the situation in which you are taken seriously in a proper context,” she added. This is where dignity comes from, and where the discomfort of shame arises. However, one derives the satisfaction of intimacy from its rarity. As Bettcher made clear, one’s negotiation of their body—and its relation to public gender presentation and individual comfort—is personal. For a trans woman, perhaps a wig isn’t just a wig: “it might be an integral device in securing proper appearance.”
For many trans people, particularly within the context of transphobia, “gender presentation is viewed as a disguise” rather than their true identity. But as Bettcher explained, “dignity is the engine that moves what one describes as a costume to a true experience.”
“You can’t predict how it’s going to go,” she said. Every trans journey involves a different version of perceiving one’s body and how it aligns with their gender. Bodily discomfort, gender conceptualization, and the extent of physical transition vary from person to person, and such diversity has a place in modern discourse.
Bettcher acknowledged the vast existential realm that true understanding of trans nuance requires the navigation of, but she was nowhere near finished. The room was bursting with questions, ready to explore this journey with her. “The project that I’m undertaking is huge,” she said, “and I don’t know how the story ends.”