Universiteit Leiden

nl en

Woman, man or somewhere in between? You decide (and not just your body)

A female body equals a woman. Nonsense, says Professor by Special Appointment to the Socrates Chair Annemie Halsema. She argues that our sense of identity and social environment also determine our identity. ‘We should stop assigning people’s sex at birth.’

‘My main contention is that we shouldn’t think in contrasts between cisgender and transgender,’ says Halsema. On 12 December, she will give her inaugural lecture entitled ‘Hermeneutics of the Body’ as Professor by Special Appointment of Philosophical Anthropology and the Principles of Humanism. ‘Cisgender means you identify with the sex you were assigned at birth. And if you are transgender, you do not, but feel more of a connection to another gender. Cis and trans are now seen as opposites but that is not correct. Both cis and trans experiences consist of three elements: our relationship with our bodies, our sense of identity and our relationship with our social environment. I therefore propose a new philosophical approach to how we think about gender and our embodied differences in the social world.’

‘Very young children do not yet have a fixed gender identity.’

Body not decisive factor in gender identity

Halsema thinks it is important that our sense of identity is taken more seriously when it comes to gender identity. ‘Research on gender identity shows that this only emerges after birth and develops gradually. Very young children, for instance, do not yet have a fixed gender identity. Only when they are around three years of age do they make a connection between gender roles and their bodies and start to call themselves a girl or a boy. And this identity can differ from how the child was labelled at birth.’

Although there is increasing room in society for calling yourself something other than your birth sex, there is also some resistance, Halsema notes. Critics see the body as the decisive factor in our gender identity. Sex is biological and those who think otherwise are absurd. Halsema: ‘I think that is a naive form of biologism. You have a woman’s body so you’re a woman full stop. But the body is not unambiguous either. Take a runner like Caster Semenya. She identifies as a woman and was assigned woman at birth but is now considered intersex from a medical perspective. Does that mean she is no longer a woman?’

‘Let people decide over the course of their lives which gender they feel most comfortable with.’

Transgender Act

Halsema therefore fully supports the new Transgender Act, which is now being considered in the Dutch House of Representatives. ‘At the moment, a person’s sex and identity are determined at birth. This is not by the person themselves but by others. And as soon as this person has an idea of their gender and wants to change that gender on their birth certificate, others again – a doctor or a psychologist – have to provide a statement saying that this wish is valid. A crazy situation: why can’t people determine their own identity? In the current system others always decide for you instead of you deciding yourself.’ If the Transgender Act is passed, this expert statement will be dropped. Halsema believes it would be even better to stop assigning people’s sex at birth. ‘Let people decide over the course of their lives which gender they feel most comfortable with.’

Halsema was appointed by the Humanist Alliance’s Socrates Foundation. The Foundation aims to promote scholarship on current societal problems from a humanistic perspective. Besides her appointment as a professor by special appointment, Halsema works as an associate professor at the Philosophy Department at VU Amsterdam.

Text: Sabine Waasdorp

This website uses cookies.  More information.