“I thought at that time that I was enjoying the conversation today with Darius, but I must admit now to uneasiness.”  “Why is that?” asked Alisha.  Ashley responded quickly, “I thought Darius agreed with me, but maybe, in retrospect, he was making fun of me.”  “I don’t think Darius would do that,” remonstrated Alisha; “You and Darius seem always to agree on the important issues.”  So began innocently enough an important conversation between the two friends.

Alisha wanted to know all about the fateful conversation Ashley had had with Darius.  She needed to know because there was something in Ashley’s demeanor that suggested disorientation. “Ashley, please tell me what happened today when you talked to Darius. What did he say? Did he not respect you? Was he trying to make you think that his fringe thinking was not homophobic?”  

Ashley glanced at the birch tree standing at her right, “Well, it seemed innocent enough at first. I told Darius that I was on a journey of discovery.” 

“A journey of discovery,” repeated Alisha, “What do you mean by that?” 

Ashley was remembering it all vividly. “I was telling Darius that we today are somewhat like the people in the 15th century that found themselves on a journey either to the celestial city or to eternal damnation. Like them, we are viatores, pilgrims on the way, but our journey is not a death dealing journey out of life, but rather a momentous journey within life itself.  I am on this journey, a journey deeply momentous, a journey in which I hope to find myself, a journey after my authentic gender.”  

Alisha knew of her friend’s confessed gender fluidity. She understood that Ashley had early on in life understood herself as primary a little girl, but then on entering puberty had thought maybe the she was psychologically an adolescent male, and then in college had actually traveled back and forth between these poles, sometimes even identifying herself as somewhere in between. Alisha had always cared for Ashley, and had been steadfastly interested in her friend’s voyage of self-discovery.  There was no reason, after all, why Ashley should have to pick one traditional gender in exclusion of the rest, as both her mother and father had.  Ashley needed to be who she really was, not some projection of an overwrought parent. 

But Ashley was visibly shaken. She wanted to tell Alisha the story of her conversation today with Darius.  Maybe, she thought, Alisha could help her, maybe she could cheer her up. Maybe, in fact, Alisha could make her forget the conversation she had had with Darius. Maybe if she explained to Alisha what had happened, she could be set free from the results of that fateful conversation. “Here is what happened today, Alisha.” 

Darius was in the Wal-Mart parking lot looking at his friend’s new Ford pickup, when Ashley arrived.  Seeing her, Darius said, “I love the fact that this one ton pick-up can develop so much torque.”  

“I do as well, Darius. Although I prefer a Dodge Ram. My dad always loved his Dodge Charger hemi engine.” 

“What brings you to the Wal-mart parking lot on this glorious day, Ashley,” asked Darius. 

Because Ashley did not know exactly why she was in the parking lot, she replied, “I was thinking how fortunate I was to be in America in this third decade of the 21st century, Darius. It is wonderful to have the freedom to express oneself.”  

“You speak rightly, Ashley, but about which freedoms are you most concerned about now?” 

“I enjoy the freedom to try on different gender roles. My life need not be like my mother and father’s lives were, lives of quiet desperation where there was an enforced hegemony of gender roles. I don’t have to be that which people once claimed I had to be, for I have freedom.  I find myself sometimes interested in living the traditional roles of an America male, but sometimes I just want to be female. I am free now to be no more (or no less) interested in plumbing than knitting. I can be male even if I have biological female parts, or vice-versa.  I can live in relationship with both men and women at the same time. I am liberated to experience the polyamorous life style that does not make me be what somebody else wants me to be!’ 

“This is a wonderful thing, Ashley, but do you think that you are able to choose to be other than you are?” 

“I believe it,” said Ashley, “for America protects the rights of those like me who do not find deep personal satisfaction either living forever as a male or forever as a female.” 

“You speak with conviction,” added Darius, “but are you able to do what you say?” 

“What do you mean by that,” quipped Ashley to her interlocutor. 

“Are you able actually to choose a gender?” 

“Of course,” Ashley quickly replied.

“But if you are choosing a gender, is there some definite gender you are choosing?” 

Ashley did not have to reflect on this for long.  “Of course,” she said, “a gender is a definite thing.” 

“But what is it for a gender to be a definite thing?  Is a gender a nature?” 

Ashley knew too much to be pulled into Darius’ apparent trap.  Clearly, she did not want to suggest that there are Aristotelian natures.  “No, a gender is not a nature, for I choose it.” 

Darius continued his interrogation: “Yes, I suppose you are correct. One cannot choose a nature because it is part of the nature of a nature not to be chosen. So what is the ‘it’ that you choose, Ashley, if it is not a nature?” 

“I choose a determinate set of dispositions to behave, dispositions that make me the one I am,” replied Ashley smugly.  

“You choose your dispositions to behave, Ashley?  How does one do this?” Are your dispositions prior to, subsequent to, or are they identical with your gender?”  

“They are identical to it, Darius.”  

“So you can choose your dispositions to behave, and these constitute your gender. Is this your position, Ashley.” 

“It is so, Darius. Upon a little reflection, one can easily see that this is the case. My gender is constituted by how I will act given different stimulus-response conditionals.” 

“But is it the case, Ashley, that you had a disposition to claim that your disposition to behave constitutes your gender identity?” 

“I don’t think I understand you, Darius.” 

“You claim that you can freely chose your dispositions to behave, and so is it the case that you freely chose to claim that you freely choose your dispositions to behave?” 

“No, Darius. I am free in my claim that to choose a gender identity is to chose dispositions to behave.  If my claim were simply the actualization of a disposition in a particular stimulus-response situation, then it would not be free. I am free, after all.” 

“I thank you for your deeply reasoned response, Ashley.  You are indeed no easy foe with whom to dispute.  So I think your position is that you could have done other than claiming that your gender identity could be freely chosen, and your choosing of this involves the taking on of a disposition to behave. Is this right.” 

“You speak with rectitude, Darius.” 

“So you are saying that you could have done other than choosing the gender identity you choose, and that the a gender identity consists in certain dispositions to behave.  Is this correct.”  

“As I said, Darius, this is my position.” 

“And you would concur, that dispositions to behave are objective determinates of behavior.  They are that from which actual behaving emerges, right? 

“Yes, if I said that a gender were not something determinate, it would not be anything at all. It cannot be a nature, for if it were, then it could not be freely chosen. One must choose freely one’s gender, for otherwise one could not be a viator.  One must be on a road filled with momentous decisions. There is no dignity in simply acting in accordance with a nature that has been determined by something other than the self.” 

“I am still failing to follow you completely, Ashley.  Are you saying that the dispositions to behave that constitute your gender identity are freely chosen, or are they determined by something else?” 

“No, Darius.  There are dispositions to behave that I have, and I can identify with some of them and not others. What I identify with is my identity.” 

“Let me understand this more deeply, Ashley. You are saying that you have a very complex set of dispositions to behave and that you can choose to identify with some of these dispositions and not others.” 

“That is my claim, Darius.” 

“Do you know how legislatures determine the districts from which representatives are elected?  They know that in districts there are regions where people tend to vote Democratic and other regions where they tend to vote Republican. If they are a Democratic legislature, they will try to gerrymander the district so that the Democratic regions are in the district and the Republican regions are excluded from it. They thus can elect a Democratic representative. One might say that the identity of the district is Democratic, and that they faithfully will elect Democratic representatives in perpetuity. Is this what you mean by a gender identity?  Are you saying that you can gerrymander dispositions to behave appropriately so that a particular gender identity is manifest?”  

“I have not thought of it in this way, Darius, but the condition you describe seems to me now to be the necessary condition of gender fluidity. We are a complicated set of dispositions to behave, and our identity is manifest by identifying with some of these dispositions and excluding others. After we accept an identity we are engaged in cultivating certain dispositions and suppressing others.  Such cultivation and suppression is the warf and woof of identity formation.”  Ashley was obviously happy to be able to use “warf and woof” correctly.  

“Thank you, Ashley. It is important that we get clear on these matters, for failure to clarify may allow a contradiction to lurk in our position, and from a contradiction anything follows.” 

“Upon this we agree, Darius. I don’t want to argue a position with a hidden contradiction because there is no possible world in which a contradiction can hold, and I have always thought, in fact, that if a position cannot hold in a possible world, it cannot hold in the actual world.” 

“Ashley, I am impressed by your modal thinking here, and you are, of course, correct. No impossible state of affairs can obtain in the actual world. But we digress from the main issue. We are trying to determine if you are describing a consistent state of affairs when you say that gender identity is constituted by either cultivating or suppressing already existing dispositions to behave. Your position is that gender identity A just is the inclusion of some set of dispositions G and exclusion of some set of dispositions H, that the original dispositions to behave are, as it were the raw data of your psychology, that these dispositions can change, and that identity is in fact freely organized.  We choose which dispositions with which to identify and with which not to identify.” 

“This is my position, Darius, and I think it is self-consistent.” 

“But let us reflect more deeply, Ashley. You have said previously that your organization of data is in fact a free one, emerging neither from a nature nor some set of deeper dispositions to behave.” 

“I have said this, Darius.” 

“So let me ask again, how is this possible?  How can one freely choose to identify and cultivate one set of dispositions over another?  What is that by virtue of which this occurs?  

“Darius, we are essentially free, that is, we have contra-casual freedom. We can do other than what we do, in fact, do.  When we choose to identify with a disposition, we are simply choosing freely.” 

“But Ashley,” replied Darius, “does this not mean that there are ultimately no dispositions that determine our character?  If we can choose freely to identify with set of dispositions G over H, and this is not determined by a disposition, then should we not say that the original dispositions constituting our raw psychological state is also the result of choosing to cultivate some tendencies we might have and choosing to suppress others?”

“I am not sure about this, Darius. This would mean that we really have no basic determinacy at all.  That is to say, we are just choosing all of our character. But I don’t think I want to say that, Darius. I want to say that I could choose to embrace those parts of me that I already am.”  

“But is that not the point, Ashley?  You are choosing to be who you are when as a viator, you explore different genders. You want to already be that which you become, right?”

“I think I can agree with that, Darius.  If I am to explore my gender identity, I need to be doing it on the basis of what I am. If I am going to identify myself as X, there must be some grounds of that identification.  But you are suggesting that what is good for the goose is good for the gander, that is to say, if it is on the basis of freedom that I choose to identify with a particular batch of dispositions, and if you further assert that this freedom allows me to cultivate dispositions that are consistent with the identity I wish to adopt and suppress other dispositions not consistent with that identity, then I am really engaged in freely constructing my gender.    But there is something about this that makes me uncomfortable.” 

“What is that, Ashley?” 

She reflected a moment: “Part of the justification with exploring other gender identities and making others respect those identities is that we ought not discriminate against others.”

Darius stared at Ashley for a long time before responding, “Yes, of course it has always been part of the way we have routinely regarded those having non-standard genders. We treat them as we do because we know at some level that they could not be other than how they are. It is an issue of civil rights, after all. A person can neither change the color of his skin nor change his sexual orientation. This is why we build gender neutral restrooms and enact gender neutral laws to protect minorities from prejudices of those in power. We do this because we realize that others have natural rights that we must respect.  It is not their fault, after all, that they have a non-standard gender identity.” 

Ashley looked at Darius inquisitively and said, “But have we just now agreed that what is good for the goose   is good for the gander?  What I mean is that if we have freedom to gerrymander dispositions, cultivating some and suppressing others, would we not have such freedom at the level of the original dispositions themselves?  Don’t we always have some identity or other and are we not trying to do those acts consistent with the identity we have?  What I realize now, is that the free choice of identity has likely always been the driving principle here, and that combing our subliminal depths for a real self is likely quite misguided.  After all, what rational support to we really have in the selection of criteria by which we adjudicate that one has a self and that, furthermore, that self posses a determinate nature?”  

Darius replied, “I see you are thinking this through carefully, Ashley. You see the problem now, don’t you?  The viator’s journey is supposed to be a voyage of self-discovery. Tying on gender roles is supposed to allow one to grasp one’s authentic self, one’s true nature, as it were, a nature that can finally order the chaos of our psychological life. The goal of the gender search is to find the identity that best fits one’s experience and being. Society tolerates those differently-ordered because it respects the rights of all to be happy, and happiness entails that tensions between one’s conscious and unconscious life be mitigated.  That is to say, one is a viator because one believes “to thine own self be true.”  

“Yes,” Ashley admitted. 

“But you know from our earlier discussions on the issue of freely choosing one’s identity that, if this freedom be granted — that is, there is no determinate nature that determinately prescribes or proscribes this choice — then this freedom likely trickles all the way down to our most fundamental dispositions, and if this be so, then one ought not to regard gender as anything determinate in need of protection by one’s civil rights.”  

“Yes,” replied Ashley, “and I see the problem.”

But Darius would not let her finish: “The one holding that gender roles are freely chosen cannot say that gender ought to be protected by civil law. As an effect of free-will, it is not the kind of thing that people could have irrational prejudice about. Moreover, if gender roles are completely determined, then one has really no freedom in trying out other gender roles. Determinism with regards to gender pulls the rug out from underneath our modern would-be viator.”

At this point, Ashley looked at Alisha and simply stopped talking. Alisha asked her to explain what happened next with Darius, but for Ashley the day had begun and ended with this conversation. Alisha told Ashley that she had done very well in her conversation with Darius, but Ashley would have none of it, for she knew that she could no longer do the things she had done before, or, if she did them again, she would hitherto have to think very differently about what she was doing. These things saddened her greatly.  

Alisha thought that a trip to the museum might cheer her friend, but Ashley wanted nothing more now than just to go home. So Alisha watched Ashley as the latter walked briskly away. Maybe tomorrow the memory of her conversation with Darius would fade and she could start to think about herself in the ways in which she was accustomed.  But Ashley knew this would likely not happen, and she remained despondent.  Things would likely not be the same ever again.    


  • Dennis Bielfeldt

    Dennis Bielfeldt, PhD is Professor of Philosophical Theology and President of the Institute of Lutheran Theology. His academic interests include Philosophical Theology, Luther and the Reformation, Phenomenology, Theology and Science, Logic and the Philosophy of Language. He resides in Brookings, South Dakota.

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