In this interview, Robin Dembroff, assistant professor in the philosophy department at Yale University, talks about growing up Evangelical in the outskirts of Visalia, California, sports, books, early interest in religious epistemology and Kurt Vonnegut, going to bible college, what it’s like to be in the closet and not know it, epistemic humility and ideological mercy, why Elizabeth Barnes is amazing, Proposition 8, Notre Dame, joining queer affirming Episcopal churches, lifting, rock climbing, anti-gay slurs on campus, why Mike Pence is the worst, grounding, ontological oppression, landing a job at Yale with canine assistance, their forthcoming book Breaking Labels, anti-trans rhetoric, and Cardi B...
Where did you grow up?
Until I was 10, my family lived on the outskirts of Visalia, California, which is in the central, agricultural region of California. My childhood there was amazing. I played hide-and-seek in the alfalfa fields with my dogs, climbed on hay bales, swam year-round, and read books inside of a big oak tree that had been burned hollow when hit by lightning. Once, I ran away to the barn with PB&J sandwiches, fell asleep, got swarmed by ants, and sadly trudged my way back to the house. C’est la vie. Growing up surrounded by plants and non-human animals has impacted how I relate to the world. I’m deeply emotionally affected when I think about the climate crisis, and the destruction it is causing and will cause.
What’s your family like?
My immediate family is very religious, politically conservative, and middle class. My family also is white, though my dad and their side of the family are Jewish. My dad worked, but my mom ended their career as a biochemist to homeschool my sister and me. Despite that, my mom has never been one for wholly conforming to gender stereotypes: they were and are athletic and competitive, and expected us to go to college. That said, they also really wanted us to marry nice Christian men and have babies. My sister chose that route, but I was never, shall we say… keen.
I was raised fully embedded in the Evangelical and fundamentalist world -- church and religion was at the center of my life. To this day, it’s an intense bonding point for me when I meet someone else who was raised in that world or something similar, like the Mormon church. It’s hard -- maybe even impossible -- for people on the outside to understand what it is like to be in those communities. The recent movie “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” and the documentary “Jesus Camp” might start to give people an idea, though. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother taking my sister and me to protest and pray in front of abortion clinics.
Wow. As a little kid, what were you interested in?
I was a gender nonconforming kid from the start. I did not want to be marked as a girl, be part of groups and events that were ‘just for girls’ or be in social situations in which those marked as girls and those marked as boys were separated for distinct activities. I remember once when my mother tried to make me go to a ‘godly woman’ class where someone taught a bunch of young Christian children marked as girls how to knit and do household things -- it was modeled off the idea of a ‘godly woman’ found in the book of Proverbs. I refused to participate and played outside with the person’s dogs the entire time. That sort of sums up my childhood.
As a kid, I loved sports, and competed in softball, flag football, basketball, swimming, and volleyball. Of course, those were gender segregated (except for flag football), but I had no other option. Also, like most academics, I was also a huge nerd who frequently had my nose in a book. I also played piano but hated playing other people’s music and preferred to compose my own.
Similarities between you and the rest of your family?
To be honest, it’s hard to find similarities at this point other than a shared past. My dad and I both love 80’s new wave and craft beer, my sister and I both like post punk, and my mom and I both love chocolate and margaritas. Most everything else is a difference.
Any sign you’d grow up to be a philosopher?
I got into philosophy through my conservative religious upbringing. Having the family I do has hugely informed my philosophical thought, as well as how I present philosophical ideas. While I was growing up, my mom was never quite satisfied with any particular denomination of Christianity. Over the course of my childhood, we went to Baptist, Presbyterian, E.V. Free, Messianic Judaic, Covenant, and a variety of other churches. No doubt, my mom’s desire to find ‘the right answer/theology’ influenced me. From a young age, I was asking questions about religious epistemology and the impact of social identity on people’s beliefs and attitudes.
One really distinct memory I have is of walking past a Jehovah’s Witness tabernacle with my mom’s friend, Scott, who was an Evangelical street preacher, and (like my parents) did not consider Jehovah’s Witnesses to be Christians. I was probably ten years old. I asked Scott, “But aren’t they sure that they are right about God and you are wrong just as much as you are sure you’re right about God and they are wrong?” Scott didn’t know how to respond, and I remember feeling a huge amount of skepticism in that moment about people’s confidence in their religious systems.
High school? Extracurricular activities?
I was homeschooled, so I didn’t have a typical high school experience, though I did take a number of classes at the local community college. I pretty much loved all subjects, but especially literature. As a kid, I read constantly -- I was particularly obsessed with Kurt Vonnegut. I also was in a “Christian hardcore” band with my sister and few other kids in high school. I played bass and drums (cuz gay).
We were named “Akeldama”, which means “field of blood” in Hebrew -- or so my sister’s boyfriend claimed. I’m pretty sure we thought we were cool. We also watched the original Star Wars trilogy way too many times.
So did your interest in philosophical issues continue in college?
I carried the desire to ask what I now know are philosophical questions about religion into college. I went to Biola (The Bible Institute of Los Angeles) -- a highly fundamentalist bible college where it is against the student code to be queer or trans, to have pre-marital sex, to drink, to smoke, to gamble, and even to dance. I majored in philosophy there once I realized that what I thought was an interest in theology was actually an interest in philosophy. Biola was an incredibly traumatic place for me. I sometimes half-joke about making “I survived Biola” shirts for me and the other queer and trans people I know who went there.
Jesus! How did you deal?
I was totally closeted--both to myself and others--until I was 21. As a teenager, my mental health tremendously suffered as a result of not having even the concepts, much less the community, that I needed in order to understand my experiences and desires. I talk about that a bit here. That said, I suspect not having those concepts was a useful survival mechanism: if I had ‘come out’, I almost certainly would have been sent to a reparative therapy camp.
You say "my conservative upbringing and family have hugely informed my philosophical thought, as well as how I present philosophical ideas." Could you give a couple examples?
One way my upbringing has influenced me concerns what battles I see as worth fighting. For example, I think there can be a tendency among progressives to see views like biological gender essentialism or gender complementarianism as views we no longer need to address. For many, it is hard to imagine communities where those ideas are ‘gospel truth’, pun half intended. But these communities very much exist, and these views continue to harm people, and especially trans and queer youth. Knowing that, I can’t simply dismiss these views as ‘beyond the pale’ -- they may be beyond the pale, but they continue to have disastrous causal impact.
Another way I’ve been influenced has more to do with the whiplash of (rather quickly) moving from an intensely conservative, fundamentalist world into a progressive, academic world. That huge epistemic shift taught me two things.
First, it taught me epistemic humility. Much of what I believed as a kid and even as a teenager, I now strongly disavow. I try to keep this in mind when doing philosophy: some of the things I felt most sure about were pulled out from under me once -- it might happen again. That awareness makes me more pluralist in my thought, more cautious to make sweeping claims, and more open to alternative perspectives, regardless of the philosophical issue.
The second thing it taught me is what you might call ‘ideological mercy’. There can be a tendency to forget that people’s opinions have origin stories, and they often developed through rigorous socialization. We jump to read someone's opinions as the ‘tea leaves’ of their character. Don’t get me wrong: sometimes, this is entirely appropriate. Some people have had access to all the evidence they need to revise prejudicial beliefs, and either ignore or avoid that evidence. But not always. One of the things I strive to do in my work -- both in my public and academic philosophy -- is meet people where they are coming from. I try to show that I understand ideas from the inside before I criticize them from the outside, and to avoid what I think are somewhat elitist dismissals of ‘folk concepts’ of gender, race, and other social categories.
Do you worry about legitimizing views that are ‘beyond the pale’ by engaging them? I mean, I agree with you about origin stories and meeting people where they are coming from...it's part of the reason I do this! But you know, people get criticized for being too open-minded when associating with--interviewing, for instance, but in some cases even mentioning--people that are considered too close-minded.
I worry about this all the time. But in my view, largely inspired by Elizabeth Barnes’s brilliant (and I think correct) article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed on the issue, when to stop engaging with certain views largely depends on an empirical question: how widely are those views endorsed? When a destructive view is widely held, we don’t have the luxury of ignoring it, regardless of how beyond the pale it may be. Take anti-trans and anti-queer views. I don’t enjoy engaging those views. But these views proliferate, and are used to justify horrific treatment of trans and queer people. Given the situation, telling me to ‘not legitimize’ such views falls flat on my ears. Those views are legitimized. They are wreaking irreparable damage to people’s lives. I suspect that anyone who worries about ‘legitimizing’ those views doesn’t deal on a daily basis with their effects.
I should note a complication: there’s no single context by which to judge whether a view is ‘widely accepted’. What is globally widely accepted might not be in the United States, and what is widely accepted in the United States might not be widely accepted in progressive circles, or in my queer community, or in academia. For this reason, audience matters. Audience always matters. In international and national venues, I’m willing to engage arguments against the recognition of trans people, because (unfortunately) anti-trans views have traction in those contexts. I would not engage these views in an LGBTQ center, or at a Pride march.
I think philosophers have a tendency to forget that our words have audiences, and aren’t spoken into a vacuum. What we say is not all that matters: it also matters how and where we say it. For one, I don’t engage on these issues on public social media, as I don’t think those conversations change minds; they tend to cocoon people deeper into their silos. I have had very productive conversations on private social media: just the other day, I had someone message me on Instagram to tell me that ‘God made me a woman and nothing would change that’. I asked them a bunch of questions about what they meant by ‘gender’ and ‘woman’, and why they thought it was important to say what they did. They came away admitting that they needed to be more careful about what they say. Having those conversations is taxing and time-consuming, but I think they are conversations that we need to have.
In short: while I will engage widespread ideas, even when I think they are ‘beyond the pale’, I try to be careful about where, when, and how I engage.
How does one walk that line? How does one who is trying to talk to everybody, avoid being ostracized or worse by people who think they shouldn’t?
It’s impossible to not be ostracized by people who find it necessary to ostracize anyone who disagrees with them. I don’t think that can be avoided, because no matter where you go, be it right, left, or in-between, you can find fundamentalism. I was raised deep in the bowels of Evangelical fundamentalism. I can smell fundamentalism a mile away, and I want nothing to do with it. It’s reductive, and it lacks mercy and humility. The goal of my work is to step outside of fundamentalisms and scrutinize them; if that causes me to be ostracized, so be it.
So, back to Biola! Did you believe in God? Do you believe in god?
I certainly used to believe in God. I consider myself agnostic now, both in the sense that I don’t take the evidence to be conclusive, and in the sense that I don’t affirm either the proposition “There is a god” or the proposition “There is not a god.” (That distinction is thanks to a hallway conversation with my awesome colleague Keith DeRose.) Like many people raised in religious environments, I find religious spaces to be powerful places of nostalgia and introspection. Like many queer people raised in religious environments, I also find them to be painful and frustrating.
Any inspirational teachers or classes at Biola?
Carlos Delgado was and remains the most inspirational teacher I have ever had. Carlos was the writing instructor in the honors program at Biola, and is now a writing instructor at USC. Carlos supervised my senior project, which was (get ready for some full-on nerd) a novella written in the style of Kurt Vonnegut that told a modern rendition of Dante’s Inferno. Carlos taught me how to fall madly in love with a poem. They taught me the value of trust, and modeled how to sit with someone in pain. They made all of their students get some perspective, and reminded us that theory should never overpower compassion. Carlos is one of the few professors from Biola I remain in contact with. It’s so embarrassing: I still text Carlos when something great happens in my life, like when I landed the Yale job.
How did you find the room to be you, at Biola?
I didn’t. To this day, Biola, along with its peer institutions, enforce policies that render queerness from any form of joy -- people can only “struggle” with being queer, not rejoice in it. Or, to use their pathologizing term, people can only struggle with "SSA” (same sex attraction). Queerness is understood in these environments as a destructive addiction that requires “accountability and assistance”. I don’t blame my past self for remaining deeply closeted while at Biola -- it was easier that way (and it sure wasn’t easy!). Now I am very much myself -- among other things, glitter-bomb level queer.
What was going on in the country at the time?
The Evangelical world is so isolated (intentionally) from most world events… I certainly remember California passing Prop 8 in 2008, which modified the state constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. I remember trying to avoid any and all conversations about it, because I wasn’t ready to personally confront that issue. But honestly, I spent my college years trying to survive Biola and cram as much philosophy and poetry into my head as I could in three years.
Anything pierce that bubble?
The most formative ‘worldview changing’ experience was the time I spent abroad studying at Oxford, which was my first experience outside of the Evangelical/fundamentalist bubble. It wasn’t until then that I had the opportunity to dialogue with liberal Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, queer people, and others who challenged my ways of seeing the world. Even though I didn’t radically change my worldview immediately, I changed many of my opinions, and continued thinking about those conversations in a way that opened me up to more substantial changes later. It was the also the first place I went to a gay bar… Well, sort of. I walked up to the door, and then panicked and left.
Why did you decide to go to grad school? Did you consider doing anything else?
I decided to go to grad school because I love philosophy, and because I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I considered being a lawyer, and even worked at a law firm for a year to try it out, but found myself reading philosophy articles tucked into the pages of my California Civil Code book.
Who guided you through the process of applying to grad school?
No one really ‘guided’ me through the process. Kristin Irwin (now at Loyola Chicago) was a huge help though, as was Andrew Bailey (now at Yale Singapore). To be honest, I now feel that I was given some not-great advice by male faculty members about where I should apply. I remember a conversation in which, despite my professed interest in metaphysics and epistemology, a senior faculty member suggested I apply to schools that were strong in “history and ethics”. Obvious gender bias was happening there, but I couldn’t see it at the time.
Why did you end up going to Notre Dame?
I ended up at Notre Dame for a lot of reasons, which were largely constrained by where I had been advised to apply in the first place. But I was happy to be going there because of the breadth of the department, and I loved working with Peter van Inwagen, Ted Warfield, Meghan Sullivan, and Michael Rea, among others. There are some awesome humans in that department, and even more now that they've snagged Sara Bernstein, Daniel Nolan, and Kris McDaniel!
Did you feel prepared?
I am suspicious of anyone who feels prepared for graduate school in philosophy.
When did you acquire the concepts you needed to understand who you were?
I didn’t get those until graduate school. At that point, I got them through discovering the queer internet -- as well as corresponding with other queer kids from fundamentalist backgrounds who were struggling to reconcile their faith with their gender/sexuality. For a while, I tried to reconcile the two by joining queer-affirming Episcopalian churches. This also gave me a chance to spend lots of time with Bob and Marilyn Adams, who gave me rides to church during my first year in Princeton. Marilyn and I became quite close -- and remained close even after I stopped going to church. I miss Marilyn all the time.
When did you come out to yourself? Your friends? Your family?
All of that happened while I was in graduate school at Notre Dame, though not all at once. I only gradually came out to the other graduate students and faculty in the department. I had the mind-twisting experience when "coming out" of finding that everyone already knew except for me and my parents. I remember Skyping with Kristin Irwin, who had been a faculty member at Biola, and saying, "I need to tell you something..." to which Kristin responded something like, "I know -- you're gay." A lot of my "coming out" conversations went something like this. My cousin Nimai loves to tell me stories about how obvious my queerness was to my extended family. One story I particularly appreciate involves ten-year-old me going up to my Nimai and Taraka (another cousin), who were doing my sister Ellen's hair, and insisting that they use gel to "slick back" my already short hair. Nimai cracks up when they tell this story, and does a 'whooshing' gesture across their hair. "You just wanted it... slicked back."
In short, my "coming out" was less about giving people new information, and more about giving them permission to publicly treat and affirm me as a queer person. Cat Saint-Croix and I talk about cases like this one in our paper "Yep, I'm Gay".
Graduate school was an intense time to be coming out — the same-sex marriage debates brought a lot of homophobia out of the woodwork in the U.S., but also a lot of love. I think I watched the music video for “Same Love” a hundred times. I vividly remember the first time I watched it — I sobbed. Like many queers, I experienced immense anger, gaslighting, scorn, and rejection after coming out. Understanding yourself underneath all of that takes years. There’s a lot of fear and internalized hatred to unlearn.
Was the department supportive? The University?
While the Philosophy department is lovely, the Notre Dame administration has a long way to go in terms of supporting its LGBTQ students, staff, and faculty. For example: In 2017, the administration gave Mike Pence an honorary degree and invited him to be the commencement speaker. This is the same Mike Pence who was governor of Indiana (where Notre Dame is) while I lived there, and during that time tried to cut federal funding for HIV treatment, sponsored an amendment to change the US Constitution to ban same-sex marriage, and voted against both the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. That list is far from exhaustive, by the way. Being queer at Notre Dame was hard. I even had anti-gay slurs yelled at me on that campus. I should also note that I know from first-hand accounts that being at Notre Dame also is incredibly difficult for many students of color and students from working class backgrounds. E.g.: One of my friends from a working-class background told me that their Notre Dame’s scholarship included football tickets, but not health care.
Circumstances when you had anti-gay slurs yelled at you? How did you react?
The time I most vividly remember (because it was the first time) was walking around campus at night, holding hands with my girlfriend. Some undergraduate bros yelled ‘dykes’ at us. I didn’t know them. If that happened today, I would probably confront them, because I don’t feel the same humiliation and fear that I felt in that time and in that space. But at the time, I was newly out of the closet on a Catholic campus, and it was all I could to keep my chin up and keep walking.
How did you deal in general?
Luckily, I had great friends like the indomitable Amy Seymour (now at Fordham). Good story about Amy: we lived together in a house that was owned by a conservative theology student, who apparently (and unbeknownst to me) had put it in our leases that we were not allowed to have people of the “opposite sex” stay over in our rooms. (Yes, it really was in the lease.) When I had my girlfriend at the time stay over, this didn’t go over well. But Amy, who is the kind of person who read leases, pointed out that my girlfriend was not, in fact, of the “opposite sex”, and so the landlord had no grounds for accusing me of breaking the lease. I love it when heteronormativity shoots itself in the foot.
Advice for people who find themselves in similar situations?
It sounds cliché, but find people who can truly love you — a chosen family — and learn how to let them love you. Not people who can “love” you, or people who can love “you” -- people whose love is not conditional on your gender or sexuality. I promise that, even when you’re in the dark, you are not alone. It gets better, even if it might never be easy.
Favorite classes at Notre Dame?
So many! Here are a few: a directed study with Richard Cross on Aquinas’s and Scotus’s metaphysics of mind; a directed study with Ted Warfield on physicalism; a course on non-standard modal views with Meghan Sullivan and Sam Newlands.
What was trending at the time, philosophically?
Grounding, grounding, and more grounding. Oh, and some metametaphysics. (At least, in metaphysics.) Certainly, feminist and social philosophy was not trending at Notre Dame or in the Northeast Corridor — I.e., Princeton/Rutgers/NYU. In fact, I was advised by many people (not including my primary advisor Shamik Dasgupta -- thanks Shamik!) to not write a dissertation in feminist ontology, and keep on with my more traditional interests in modality and metaphysics of mind. I guess I’ve always been stubborn.
What did you do in your spare time?
While in grad school, I got into running, lifting, and rock climbing. Much of my spare time still goes to those things. My last couple years in grad school, I was dating a triathlete and marathon runner, and so I learned how to run 13 miles, mostly in order to hang out with them. But I’ve been climbing and lifting since I was at Notre Dame. That was about all I did for fun at Notre Dame though. I worked an unhealthy amount while I was there. I came into the program feeling like everyone knew so much more than me, and would often do philosophy every day from 7 or 8 am until I fell asleep. I don’t recommend that lifestyle.
Did you have better habits after transferring to Princeton?
I devoted more time to writing and reading poetry, which was and still is important for my sanity, and also to dating. I also made time to hang out with queer friends in Philadelphia and New York. Once of the things I really value about being queer is that it gives you an automatic network outside of the department/university.
Shamik Dasgupta was your primary dissertation advisor…
Yep! I spent many hours in Shamik Dasgupta’s office talking about whatever metaphysical issue I was writing about at the time. Princeton doesn’t have course requirements, but Shamik stepped up to talk with me about social metaphysics (which is not their area!). Shamik was an amazing advisor: Berkeley is lucky to have them!
Who else did you work with?
Sarah-Jane Leslie -- now Dean of the Princeton Graduate School -- was my co-advisor. I could not speak more highly of them.
I also worked closely with Elizabeth Barnes, who did and continues to do a bunch of unpaid and unrecognized labor working with graduate students at institutions that don't have faculty who work in social or feminist philosophy. One takeaway is that Elizabeth is a saint. Of course, there are other important takeaways about the distribution of mentoring labor in philosophy, and about the need for more faculty who can advise students in social and feminist philosophy.
Romance during grad school?
Oh, I did my fair share of dating in graduate school. It was quite shocking to go from someone who was not ‘conventionally’ attractive in the eyes of straight cisgender men (or, to be fair, attracted to them) to someone who was ‘conventionally’ attractive within the queer scene.
How did your worldview change?
In almost every possible way.
What was your dissertation on?
My dissertation was on feminist ontology. In it, I developed and defended a notion I call “ontological oppression”, which is a form of oppression built into the grounding conditions or other essential properties of social kinds. (Katharine Jenkins independently developed a similar notion they call ‘ontic injustice’.) I then used that framework to analyze the metaphysics of gender and sexual orientation. One of the chapters was “What is Sexual Orientation?”, published in 2016 in Philosopher’s Imprint. Another was “Real Talk on the Metaphysics of Gender”, which -- after countless re-writings -- is now forthcoming in Philosophical Topics. A lot of the ideas from the dissertation, though none of the material directly, will show up in the book I’m currently working on, tentatively titled Breaking Labels (Oxford University Press).
Breaking Labels: what's the thesis?
Breaking Labels is about the metaphysics and politics of gender. My starting point is the claim that we should stop looking for single answer to what it ‘really is’ to be a man, to be a woman, to be nonbinary, etc. Instead, I propose modeling gender categories in terms of their political relationships to patriarchy/male-supremacy. This means getting clear first about what male supremacy is and the ideology underlying it. (Here, I take my work to complement Kate Manne’s, which focuses on misogyny as the ‘enforcer’ of patriarchy, but doesn’t go into a lot of detail about the metaphysics of patriarchy.) From there, I look to the categories that are created by and sustain male supremacy, as well as the subversive categories that diverge from and challenge it. This gives us a different taxonomy of categories — one that does not track the classifications we typically apply to people (e.g., woman/man/nonbinary). That said, I think that our classification practices are essential to creating and reinforcing gender categories, for reasons that Ian Hacking, Ron Mallon, Ásta, and Sally Haslanger have discussed at length.
As the book is currently structured, the first half builds from my forthcoming paper “Real Talk on the Metaphysics of Gender”, and the second half builds from my forthcoming paper “Beyond Binary: Genderqueer as Critical Gender Kind” (Philosopher’s Imprint). The first half focuses on what I call the ‘Real Gender Assumption’, or the idea that how we should talk about and ascribe genders to people is constrained by the metaphysical facts about gender. I think this assumption is false, and that it has had a pernicious influence on both popular and academic discourse about gender. I think that gender categories are plural, are context specific, and are not guaranteed to match up with the normative facts about how we should talk about and ascribe gender. This opens up two questions for the second half. First, if everyday classifications are not our guide to the metaphysics of gender, what is? What would be a helpful way to model gender categories that makes sense of their relationships to each other, and to our political context? Second, and conversely, if the metaphysics of gender is not our guide to gender categorization, what is? What should our classifications rely on, and how does this relate to the metaphysics of gender categories?
On the first: Previous philosophical approaches to the metaphysics of gender have generally fallen into two camps. Social position accounts say that what it is to be a member of X, where X is a gender category, is to stand in a certain social position (such as subordination or privilege) due to one’s perceived reproductive features. Identity accounts say that what it is to be a member of X is to have certain psychological states in relation to the social group or class of Xs.
I think these views are important, and I don’t try to supplant them. But I do think there is important metaphysical and political work they can’t do, and that an additional approach is needed. I call this the ‘political gender kinds’ approach. Basically, I start with a model of the male-supremacist ideology that dominates Western society, and then work from there to understand various gender categories in relation to this ideology. I think it is more helpful to talk about what ways of being in the world embody resistance to or reinforcement of this ideology than to talk about what ‘womanhood’ or ‘manhood’ really are (as if they could be one thing). This approach also lends itself more easily to intersectional analysis of gender categories. I take my approach here to be hugely influence by work from Monique Wittig, Marilyn Frye, bell hooks, Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, and Sally Haslanger, among many others, but an approach that takes their insights and tries to find a common ground between it and the radical queer theorizing of people like Judith Butler, Riki Wilchins, Kate Bornstein, and others. In short: I am trying to preserve an anti-patriarchal, structural approach to the metaphysics of gender, but one that does not commit us to a gender binary, and in fact centers the importance of queer and trans persons in that anti-patriarchal struggle.
On the second: As Talia Bettcher has discussed at length, current dominant gendering practices attempt to track people’s genitalia. (Yep, just think about that next time a stranger calls you ‘he’ or ‘she’.) That practice is bad in a lot of ways — many of which Daniel Wodak and I discuss in “He/She/They/Ze”. This means we need a new basis for such classifications — one that it (a) sensitive to the intersectional complexities of how people experience and think about gender, and (b) helps resistant gender identities break down dominant, patriarchal gender categories. To this end, I develop a notion of what I’m currently calling ‘relational gender identity’, which has to do how individuals (or groups) signal, be it via assertions, clothing, use of certain spaces, etc., how they want to be understood and treated. I tie this together with what I’m calling ‘gender negotiation’, or the cultural negotiation of the number, membership conditions, and social meanings of gender categories.
Interesting stuff! What was the market like when you finished?
It was rough. But I had great mentors, and did well on the job market. Like many people, I got sick in the middle of fly outs: I remember being in a hotel room by myself, on my birthday of all days, sick as a dog, having just been grilled on my work for hours, and wanting to quit philosophy. I think I even texted Elizabeth Barnes and told Elizabeth that I was going to quit. That said, I met some wonderful people on my fly outs, and got to talk about issues I'm passionate about. My job talk Q&A’s varied a lot. I did get the metaphysics of gender ‘mansplained’ to me by someone who was sure that gender was biologically real ‘because of sports’. (Not at Yale, by the way!) That was actually pretty funny.
I credit Daniel Greco’s dog Bianca with my landing my current job at Yale. Yale was my last fly out, and I was so exhausted and increasingly pessimistic about the profession. Then I walked into the Yale department and was immediately lovingly assaulted by Bianca (who now regularly hangs out in my office - we takes lots of selfies together). My mood and energy skyrocketed, and that got me through the rest of the fly out.
Describe New Haven.
To me, New Haven feels like a miniature Philadelphia. It has a similarly thriving food and arts scene, has a strong university vibe, and is socio-economically diverse. I dig it, especially given that I can get to New York City in two hours when I want to be somewhere bigger. I don’t get into the local pizza wars.
Interesting projects in the works?
Oh lord, I would just send you my works-in-progress google sheet, except that would mean that I’d have to open it.
Right now, my main project is the book, which is single-authored. I’m also finishing up the final version of “Beyond Binary” (forthcoming).
After that, I have a few other projects, most of which are collaborative. One is a philosophy of law project with Issa Kohler-Hausmann (Yale Law). The Supreme Court is going to hear three consolidated cases that involve employees who were fired for for being gay or for being transfeminine. The Court will decide whether these firings count as sex discrimination. Issa and I co-authored an amicus brief for that case, which many philosophy professors signed. We also are planning to write a law journal article on related issues. On my own, I’m also working on a related paper called “The Ontology of Sex Discrimination”, which brings some of my social ontology tools to bear on these legal issues.
Apart from that, I also continue to work with Daniel Wodak (Penn) on gender-specific language. In addition to a bunch of public philosophy, we have a journal article out, one forthcoming, and an empirical study in the works with psychologist Andrei Cimpian (NYU) on public perceptions of gender-specific pronouns.
Finally, I have a couple one-off projects in super early stages. One is on metaontology with Maegan Fairchild (Michigan), and another is on political philosophy of language with Cat Saint-Croix (Minnesota) and Sukaina Hirji (Penn).
What do you make of the intense, sometimes nasty, debates between radical feminists (not sure what the right term is, here) and trans people going on right now?
I think it’s a misnomer to call them ‘radical feminists’. There are some people who have chosen to devote all of their energy to undermining social acceptance of trans people, and to ignoring the urgent need for political solidarity between everyone who is vulnerable in a male supremacist world. Consider the United States, where reproductive rights are disappearing, where black women are paid 38% less than white men, where immigrant children are being sexually abused in government-funded detention facilities, and where 41% of trans people report having attempted suicide. Given this state of affairs, I think that is neither radical nor feminist to concentrate one’s energy attacking trans people’s — and especially trans women’s — rights.
I’ll add, too, that I think there are people, many of whom are gender conforming white men, who don’t give a damn about women’s rights or feminism, and see this as a convenient moment to cloak their disgust and anger toward trans/gender nonconforming people under the guise of ‘feminism’.
I don’t have strong opinions about internet debates, because I think they are unproductive, and I stay away from them.
It seems like the views you think are wrong here are not unpopular, you know? Wouldn’t that suggest philosophers should engage with these arguments? No mercy here, ideologically?
Here’s the thing: philosophers and feminists have engaged these arguments. These trans-hostile arguments are not new. Most of them are arguments made in the 1970’s and 1980’s by the likes of Janice Raymond. Forty years of feminist literature has examined and responded to these arguments, but the trans-hostile philosophers typically do not read, and in fact often have not even heard of the central figures writing in trans and feminist theory in the last forty years. These philosophers are not contributing to the literature. So, sure, I will engage and have engaged these views in the public sphere. (So has Katharine Jenkins, here and elsewhere.) This is an awesome resource for those interested in better understanding why trans-hostile arguments are specious. But I believe that, until these philosophers start doing respectable scholarship, they do not deserve scholarly resources or attention.
Consider an analogy: Suppose someone is defending a basic counterfactual notion of causation, does not know or cite much (if any) of the relevant literature, is unaware or ignores the extensive discussion of problems for the view, such as preemption and transitivity, and even gets the facts wrong about the empirical research on counterfactual psychological judgments. Is this person a good choice to invite to give a talk or contribute to non peer-reviewed venues? I think not.
Do you think you could, in good conscience, given the current set of policies, work at a place like Biola? Notre Dame? Is there any place you wouldn’t work?
I couldn’t work at Biola - they would not hire me. They only hire Christians, and certainly won’t hire queer or trans people. They are quite forthcoming about having discriminatory hiring policies. I would work at Notre Dame, though — that situation is more complex, and plus I would get to annoyingly pop into Sara Bernstein’s office all the time.
Philosophy and the internet...good mix?
Does philosophy make progress?
It depends what you mean by ‘progress’. Such a philosopher response, but it’s true. I think we get gradually better understanding of the questions we ask and the possible ways of answering them. We also expand and grow in the kinds of questions that we ask: see the rapidly increasing number of research programs on philosophy of race, gender, sexuality, and disability, among many others. To my mind, that all is progress. It’s probably not progress in some cosmic sense, but for our discipline, and for the individuals within it, it is progress.
My favorite book is Slaughterhouse Five.
My music is constantly shifting around, but right now I’m listening to Lizzo, Cardi B, Troye Sivan, and Hayley Kiyoko. This job is hard; pop music helps. Also on my Spotify currently: Angel Haze, Leikeli47, Bishop Briggs, Bleachers, Chris Pureka, Robyn, and Neutral Milk Hotel.
Lizzo’s great. Cardi B and Leikeli 47 rule. What was your election night like in 2016?
It’s still too soon.
Does Belgian beer count as a meal?
Sure! If you could ask an honest, omniscient being one question, what would it be?
I would probably ask about how to address the climate crisis. I don’t care that much about whether or not the human race goes extinct, but I do care about human suffering (which will be especially imposed on those in the Global South), the inevitable escalation of nationalistic violence toward immigrants and climate refugees, and the incredible toll taken on plant and animal life. That said, I would be worried that this omniscient being would just tell me that there is no hope. And maybe I’d rather not know that?
[interviewer: Cliff Sosis]