Monday, March 26, 2012

Cartesian dualism and the trans* body

Biyuti is a bakla Filipina living on stolen Algonquin land. He works to sustain and increase the biyuti of the world through decolonization and through her explorations of the intersections of race with queerness/gender. She also blogs at The Biyuti Collective and you can find her on Twitter: @JustBiyuti.   



For those who don’t know Cartesian dualism is the philosophical theory that the mind and body are two distinct ontological entities. That they exist independently from one another. See here for a more philosophical explanation.

Much of trans* theorizing about the body and identity seems to occur within a framework of mind/body dualism: “I am a woman in a man’s body,” “I am a man in a woman’s body,” “I’m genderqueer but assigned female at birth,” etc.* I think part of this is a result of the way that dysphoria is a major part of trans* narratives. If you feel like the body you have isn’t the right one, it becomes somewhat necessary that you begin to understand that the mind and body are, perhaps, not the same thing.

This can also be seen in the term ‘trans*’  itself, since it is meant to imply crossing over, the transition one’s body makes to a different state. But this the crossing over or implied movement is intended to refer to the body only, not to the person since the person is already whatever gender they are and is simply transitioning their body to reflect this ‘internal’ gender.


Trans* discourse will often criticize social constructions of gender and the way that bodies become gendered via the cissexist gaze of society. However, few people seem interested in criticizing the euro-centric, western construction of identity/personhood as being distinct from the body.

This is an important step for the discourse of gender because of the ways that the western philosophy of mind/body dualism is entirely situated in a context of christian morality and theology. The contemporary trans* construction of identity relies heavily or appears indistinguishable from a classical, Christian conception of the soul/mind. That there is an stable, ontological reality to people that is separable and distinct from their bodies. That this soul/identity is who you are and you must work to overcome/transition away or beyond this cage of flesh that oppresses you.

It is remarkable just how much of the hegemonic trans* narrative is informed and influenced by this classical conception of a mind/body duality. The very notion of dysphoria operates within a discursive space where asserting a mind/body distinction is coherent, indeed the ‘treatment’ for dysphoria simply seeks to align inner conceptions of gender with the outer embodied reality.

But... Not everyone shares this worldview. Not everyone finds it useful or even coherent to speak about identity or the self in ways that don’t understand this as being inextricably bound to bodies. This is especially true for me as a person of colour. This sense of self cannot be understood as distinct from my body. My identity as a person of colour is rooted in my body. It is incoherent without my body.

I am my body and my body is me.

What does it mean to be cis or trans when your worldview states that the mind and the body are the same thing? How does the hegemonic trans* theory of gender accommodate non-dualist worldviews? Can it?

If the day comes that I decide that I would like to alter my body to alleviate what dysphoria I do have, I won’t consider this a ‘transition’ from one state to another. I already consider my body and my gender to be aligned. The problem with living in a cissexist society is that not everyone agrees with me.

*I realize that the “I am x in a y body’ discourse has somewhat fallen out of fashion and has been heavily criticized for similar reasons as I do here and for different reasons.