The metaphor is not mine, so I can praise it extravagantly without feeling like I'm peacocking: being a trans woman is like being an adoptive mom.
The metaphor comes from a 2018 blogpost by philosopher Sophie-Grace Chappell, and while I will do my best to both explain it and say why I think it is so powerful, apt and convincing in this case, you could also go read Chappell’s original argument here, and might be better off for doing so. Seriously, it’s good. Go read it.
I will say one thing before I start: it is important to remember the analogy here. The question is how society judges someone—as a man or a woman, as a parent or not a parent. It is not about the relationship between the child and their parent. To put it SAT style (dating myself), you’d say:
Trans woman : cis woman :: Adoptive parent : parent
Ok? So don’t get hung up on the question of who is the child in this analogy. There isn’t one.
I will admit: sometimes the logic of gender critical feminists starts to sway me, and I feel like, shit, maybe I am just on their side. I don't want to be just on their side: I want to be a peacemaker! I care about my trans friends, and about trans people generally! But when people say things like Adult human female is just what woman means. Humans are a sexually reproducing species! Just because you want to be something doesn't mean you are that. To identify secondary sexual characteristics, or even outwardly feminine appearance, with actually being a woman is to simply deny reality. I kind of get swayed along. Maybe...
And then I think about adoptive parents.
There is a sense, a real sense, in which every argument gender critical feminists make about trans women is true of adoptive parents. All the let's-get-real insistence on the way human reproduction works is there. After all, in precisely the same way that people can say that trans women just are men, we could say that adoptive parents just aren’t a particular child’s parents. And there is an obvious, and important, sense in which both these statements are right.
And yet we would never say that adoptive parents aren’t real parents. It would be at best wildly insulting, and more likely be taken as simply deranged. Everyone knows about adoption as an option. It doesn’t confuse any children about how the birds and the bees work to know that some parents are adoptive. It simply, as Chappell puts it, “extends” the meaning of the term.
The metaphor works because while there is a powerful and important biological component to being a parent, one that is (in some sense) utterly essential, there is also a component—a huge component— of being a parent (what today we now call parenting) which has nothing to do with biology. And like "being a woman", "being a parent" is not just a biological role, but also a social one. And while it's true that no matter how much you love a child, change its diapers, help it with its homework, arrange its playdates, etc, you still won't have biologically have given birth/sired that child, to say you aren't really their parent is not only insulting, but on a real level not right.
Interestingly, it should be noted that an adoption can be annulled the way that a biological relationship can't be. A bio-parent can lose custody, even be forbidden from seeing a child if they are abusive... but in some way they are still that child's parent. This is not true of adoptive parents. An adoption can be taken back in sufficiently grave circumstances. (Although they do have to be very grave.) This is the answer to the question of, say, rapists who declare themselves women, go to women's prisons and then rape more people. GC arguments often say that, for consistency's sake, these people need to be seen as trans; but a relationship created by law and society is enable in a way that one that is naturally born is not.
The more you think about it, the more the metaphor solves. Take the claim, sometimes heard in the less polite and respectful wing of the GC side, that "we can always tell". The answer is: well it depends. Some adoptive kids will look sufficiently like their parents—in our society, racial markers are key here (even though they shouldn't be, since people can have biological kids of different races than they too!), but so are other things as well—that people don't realize the kids are adopted without being told. In other cases, it will be readily visually apparent that a child is adopted. But note that an adoption is not more real if the kid looks like their parents than if they don't.
Any time you start to wonder whether trans women are real women, ask yourself: are adoptive parents real parents?
Yorick! cry my faithful readers in chorus. Your whole schtick is being balanced and fair! In seeing both sides! You started off this essay saying you almost get swayed by GC voices, but are you now actually being entirely swayed by TRA voices?
No, Concerned Reader, the adoption metaphor is not just a rout victory for the TRA side; the GC side's points will get a hearing too.
First and foremost, it is important that there is a process to adoption. You can't just have a child move in with you and call them yours. And this is true not just because it would be kidnapping: this is equally true if the child has no other parent and wants desperately to be your kid. If you befriend an orphan, grow close to them, and want to adopt them, and they want to be adopted by you, you still need to do the paperwork. There are agreed upon standards.1
For that matter, there is gatekeeping to adoption that there isn’t to natural parenting. If two people have a biological child, no one will test them for fitness (and, despite an occasional brief temptation otherwise when we read about some horribly abusive family, that is clearly the way things ought to be). The biological role is enough. But adoptive parents need to prove themselves. The standards are higher—and while this may feel unfair to those in the midst of the process, I suspect most people would come around to agreeing that this is the right idea.
In other words, the adoption metaphor works with my idea that trans women become women, rather than the TRA idea that trans women are women (upon self-declaration), while also not according the GC insistence that woman means “adult human female”. Of course, just as is true of the “trans women become women” slogan, the adoptive metaphor leaves a great deal to work out: what the standards are, what it would mean to do the paperwork in this case, whether there are different standards for different things (bathrooms vs sports, say), etc. But my hope is that once the basic idea were agreed on (if we can imagine that happening), then we could see the remaining issues as technical policy ones, rather than sites of deep and bitter conflict.
(Parenthetically, the TWBW/adoption framework is why, from what I know of the British case, I tend to be more sympathetic to the GC argument for requiring various hoops to be gone through rather than amending the law to make self-declaration enough. I see why some people think its unfair. I see why it's a burden. But, again, society has a right to make sure these things are done properly and not casually.)
There is a second way in which this metaphor is not entirely taking the TRA side, namely, the issue of openly talking about things. But here too this approach lands us in the middle. On the one hand, no one denies to tries to cover up what adoption is. The equivalent to a trans woman saying "I am female" would be an adoptive mother saying "I am a bio-mom" or maybe "I gave birth". It's simply wrong.
But on the other hand, if there were a large group of people who wanted to treat adoptive parents as second-class parents, or not really parents, regularly saying to them things along the lines of you're not really the child's mom, then adoptive parenst might start to call themselves bio-parents: which is to say, if you start to use biomom where you would normally use mom, then yes, adoptive parents will want to claim that too. (This calls back to my discussion of the word “female”: on the one hand, I think we ought to preserve the option of discussing sex as opposed to gender and keep “female” for the biological meaning, but on the other hand I very much understand why the GC habit of simply using “female” instead of “woman” is going to push trans women into claiming that, too: keep the distinction, but only make it when necessary.2)
Which is to say that we don't go around labeling adoptive parents separately. We don't jump in every time an adoptive mother refers to "my kid" and say well actually they're not really your kid. And if someone were to consistently refer to your adopted child in places where we'd normally say your child—not when talking about other things, such as saying "what time is your child's dentist appointment"—it would be weird at best and more likely rude.
But in some cases you can talk about it, and in certain cases you even should. If a woman who was adopting a baby insisted on going to a birthing class, we would expect the teacher to politely explaining it's not necessary and (if they insisted) not appropriate. Chappell’s (much better) hypothetical is a group for mothers of still-born children: there we might reasonably say that the disanalogies are too great, but, in general,
We should be prepared to listen carefully and sympathetically to the case that might be made sometimes for biological-parents-only spaces. But in general, adoptive parents have similar enough concerns and interests to biological parents for it to be, in most cases, both natural and useful to include them in such spaces.
Finally, the adoption metaphor, at least to my mind, raises questions about those people who want to be seen as changing gender regularly, sometimes one sometimes another, or fluid. Oh, not in their rights to dress or do what they wish. If you want to be a scatterbrained distractible uncle who sometimes is there for a kid and sometimes is busy, no one can stop you. But we're not going to call you that child's parent (even if, were you a bio dad, we would say you were negligent but still a dad). And if you do adopt the child, you have responsibilities (the responsibilities that for a biological parent are, so to speak, inherited) which you can't ignore or put down.
As I said, the adoption metaphor leaves a lot unanswered. The question of what is required is not settled. Maybe in Britain it is: they have such a thing as a gender recognition certificate and an established process to get one. But it's not in the U.S., and the requirements are not widely endorsed at any rate. Personally, I think it might be better if there was a standard procedure, a standard set of requirements that must be met. But that obviously is far way at the moment. And of course to get there we would need a (civil, respectful, inclusive) conversation about what those requirements might be. Do you need to be on HRT? Do we want to insist that bottom surgery is in fact required? These are issues that would, in some alternate world, be discussed and worked out and compromised on, and while not everyone would be happy, no one would go around saying that you're not really a mother because the state's screening process is too lenient..
Look. It's a metaphor. It's not the precise same thing. There will be cases where there really isn't a parallel—the issue of sports, for instance, doesn't have a close match that I can think of. And because the safety issues are different (in adoption, one is concerned about the safety of the child; in the case of trans women, the worry on the GC side is to unrelated people), there may be slightly more blur in the trans issue— so that the requirements for competing in sports (to take that issue again) might be different from more generally acting as a woman in the world.
But as an ontological understanding, I think adoption really works. I think if both sides agreed to it—that trans women become women3—then what we would be left with is not total peace, but not a war either: what we would have would be a lot of technical issues to think through, compromises to be reached, which no one might be entirely happy with but which everyone could live with. It would become a series of practical problems, to be settled in the routine way that such things are.
And you, Yorick? What of you, in your autogynephilia?
Ah, reader, you thought of me. Kind of you. Well, if trans women become women, as I have said, than an autogynephile who does not transition is... not a woman. Just someone who longs, or fantasizes, about being one. In my case, an autogynephilic cis man. Now I could become a woman—take hormones, have surgery,4 the whole bit. But I am not going to—just as a person who can't biologically have a child might decide not to adopt, even if they'd always dreamed of having a child, either because they think they're too old, or they're not up to it in some other way, or whatever.
(Recurring) Notes on practical matters
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This is also true of my second favorite analogy, conversion, particularly Jewish conversion. (As regular readers may remember, I am Jewish, but by conversion.) It’s not as good an analogy: first and foremost, it’s more culturally limited; and secondly, the replacing of a biological function with a legal relationship which is present in both transition and adoption is much weaker and murkier in Jewish conversion (people are born Jewish, but it’s not really a biological status). That said, this aspect is the same: if someone is born Jewish, then it doesn’t matter if they know nothing and eat bacon at every meal; but if you want to convert, the standards are higher.
And a good rule of thumb here is to try to use the adoptive parent analogy, and see how far it gets you. Sometimes there’s no way to make it work, but it’s a good intuition-pump, to borrow Dennett’s phrase.
“Are you ever going to tire of harping on that slogan, Yorick?”
“Why, no, Gracious Reader. I am not.”
For me, at least, it would feel necessary; I am not judging for the broader world.
While I am trying to stick to a once-a-week schedule, things are busy enough in my life—and this is draining enough—that I can’t promise not to miss a week or three here and there. But even if I do, don’t panic: I’ll be back eventually; I have an irrepressible urge to proclaim my opinions, as you have no doubt noticed.