Selfish relative to what?

Among the many issues people have with transgender identities and the process of transitioning, one especially mystifying notion is that this is somehow selfish or vain. This is a difficult accusation to counter, because the concepts of “selfishness” and “vanity” are slippery things. In common usage, whether something is seen as selfish or vain is largely based on an individual’s subjective opinion, something which can widely vary. This makes it hard to refer to any kind of objective standard of selfishness or vanity and show them, “no, it’s not.”

But it often seems like they don’t even really intend to demonstrate how this is selfish or vain. They don’t actually bother to explain why it must be so, they just declare it to be so. Rather than making a serious argument, they may simply be using these labels to signal disapproval. They have some kind of problem with people being trans, and to justify this, they have to come up with a reason for why it’s bad. So they just pick any random thing that’s commonly seen as bad and which sounds vaguely plausible. They think being trans is wrong. Being selfish is a thing that’s wrong. Therefore, they’re going to argue for the bad-ness of being trans by saying that it’s selfish. In this process of thinking in reverse, they overlook the need to identify which aspects of being trans actually coincide with the distinguishing features of selfishness or vanity. They’re just trying to pass off a hollow imitation of a reason as though it were a real basis for their claims.

But despite how subjective people’s standards may be, there is still generally some minimal – if vague – consensus on what actually constitutes selfishness or vanity. Selfishness is typically understood as an excessive focus on the self, at the expense of concern for others. Someone’s gender identity and the process of transitioning are necessarily focused on the self, but that alone is not enough to make this selfish. Not everything that has to do primarily with the self is selfish just for that reason. There must also be some kind of negative impact on others as a result of that emphasis on the self.

It’s common for people to lower the threshold of selfishness on a situational basis so that they can attack almost anything for allegedly being “selfish”. For instance, someone might decide that my daily medications, which cost less than a cup of coffee, are a selfish indulgence because I could have sent that money to developing nations. Of course, we probably wouldn’t see them going to a Starbucks to berate the patrons for their “selfishness”. At some point, we have to recognize that it is often acceptable for us to do certain things for ourselves, and most people understand this when they aren’t trying to use the accusation of selfishness for dishonest purposes.

Things we choose to do for ourselves rather than others, but which are not actually selfish, might be better described as self-centered, self-focused, or self-oriented. But even this still carries the connotation of being selfish in a bad way, because the choice to describe it as pertaining to the self at all is often perceived as being in contrast to an unspoken baseline standard of appropriate balance between self-interest and concern for others. Any emphasis on the self thus implies that this is now out of balance, which makes it difficult to talk about anything that has to do primarily with the self without this being read as some kind of transgression.

But regardless of the difficulties in discussing this, it’s still not clear what exactly about being trans must be selfish. For this to be selfish in a bad way, there would have to be some element of it which adversely impacts others to an unacceptable extent, and which is disregarded so that the individual can pursue their own desires. Again, merely choosing to work toward their own goals is not enough to make this selfish.

So, does this cause any harm to others? If so, what are these harms? And are they genuine harms, or just harms that have been imagined and constructed? Finally, are these harms so substantial that they should outweigh the need for trans people to live as their true selves? Only then can we conclude that being trans is unacceptably selfish. So what might these supposed harms be? When might someone have such an important obligation to others that it overrides their own need to identify and live as they wish?

Many of these supposed “harms” seem to be of the same nature as the harm suffered by a Catholic mother who must endure the presence of gay people holding hands at a public park where her children can see, or the injury inflicted upon a Muslim who is exposed to an illustration of Muhammad. These are not actually harmful things. Plenty of people are able to be in the presence of gay people or drawings of Muhammad without acting like this constitutes some kind of real damage to them.

Those who pretend that this is a genuine harm seem to think that because they hold particular beliefs, everyone else is obligated to live their lives in accordance with these beliefs, and if they don’t, their unwillingness to let someone else’s beliefs deter them from living the life they want must mean they’re selfish. But this is not a legitimate obligation that anyone else is required to accept. The fact that you’re prejudiced does not mean that anyone is actually harming you by being part of a group that you’re prejudiced against. And the fact that you follow a certain religion does not mean anyone is harming you just by not following that religion.

People object to these things, not because they’re really causing injury to anyone, but because they choose to be bothered by them, and they believe the rest of the world must therefore honor that choice and tiptoe around it. But being gay, or doing something the religion of Islam wouldn’t approve of, does not deprive these people of anything other than their desire to control the lives of others to a clearly unacceptable degree. And the only burden it imposes upon them is one which all of us must already learn to live with: being part of a world full of people who won’t always agree with you.

It is not selfish to be gay, or to disagree with Islam, just because some people don’t like that. And likewise, it is not selfish to be trans merely because some people may vigorously disagree with it or claim that we’ve offended their delicate sensibilities. But considering the serious burden they seek to impose upon trans people by discouraging them from being themselves on the grounds that this is “selfish”, it truly is selfish for them to prioritize their personal comfort and inexplicable need for everyone not to be trans over another person’s identity and self-fulfillment.

It’s difficult to fathom how someone’s strong feelings on the matter could be important enough to obligate someone else to closet themselves, silence themselves, and disguise themselves every day as a gender they don’t identify with. Our choice to live our lives as we wish does not inflict any real harm upon those who demand we do otherwise. But their expectation that our life decisions should never stray from their standards would cause unacceptable harm to us. Such expectations really are selfish in a bad way.

There are certain situations where there could be more concrete harms tied to being trans, such as circumstances where it might have a significant impact upon someone’s partner or children and their relationships with them. This won’t be applicable to every trans person, and it isn’t something I have much experience with, because my partner and her entire family have always known me as a woman. At this point, it would be a surprise to everyone if I came out as a man! And again, it’s possible for people to be tempted to exaggerate the harm of someone close to them being trans in order to make it seem unacceptably selfish.

But when this does come out of nowhere, and nobody is sure of how best to work through it, the effects can potentially be similar to any other disruptive or destabilizing event that changes the nature of the family. Families are supposed to be a place where love, stability, and being there for each other are paramount, and choosing to be a part of a family represents an implicit agreement to maintain this and further these goals. To that extent, the feelings of one’s close family can be somewhat more relevant here than the opinions of random people.

For example, Dan Savage once claimed that it was selfish for a woman not to postpone her transition until her son was 18, because he was greatly distressed about this. If someone has children, how they’re affected by such decisions is certainly something to take into account, although it’s hard to see how the supposed harms that were previously compelling enough to demand that she delay her transition would suddenly cease to enter into the moral equation as soon as her son turns 18. If its impact on her children warrants such a delay, then isn’t it possible that she might be obligated to postpone this indefinitely? And if not, why would it necessitate such a delay now?

If transitioning were to lead to a breakup, then the effects this would have on one’s partner and children need to be considered as well, but to argue that this is unacceptable just because it would cause a breakup is essentially the same as arguing that divorce is always too selfish to be permissible. But sometimes divorces and breakups do end up being the better option once everything is taken into account. Similarly, each family’s situation is different in ways that make it impossible to issue blanket pronouncements of when being trans is or isn’t okay, or how it should be handled. This is something to be worked out on an individual basis.

And while it may seem easy to say that one person should be expected to make sacrifices for the sake of the rest of their family, it’s also important to consider the negative effects of having a member of the family repress and closet themselves for a lengthy period of time, in terms of how this impacts the health of the individual and everyone else. This is not something that can be simply ignored out of existence. Just imagine what kind of difficulties could arise from forcing a cis person to identify, present, and live in the role of the opposite sex for years at a time, in order to avoid disrupting their family. The very idea would likely be offensive to many people. And no matter how noble the intention might be, this could end up being quite unhealthy for themselves and the rest of the family.

All of these factors need to be weighed against one another, and many of them can be too complex to quantify in a straightforward way. This decision isn’t easy enough to be made by advice columnists and other amateur ethicists. It’s a deeply personal matter to be worked out by the individual and their loved ones. And if someone does choose to make a personal sacrifice in terms of hiding who they are for the sake of their family, that’s their choice. But it doesn’t mean that anyone who chooses otherwise is necessarily selfish. Being trans is not something that’s reliably harmful to one’s family. Not everyone finds it to be so flagrantly unacceptable, and not everyone believes their own needs are important enough to compel someone to pretend to be something they’re not. And if they do, there’s still the potential for selfishness in their belief that the individual’s need to live openly is not important and can be disregarded. In any case, people outside of these situations probably don’t have enough information to evaluate whether the impact of someone being trans is so severe that they should have kept it secret in order to please their family.

And just as with selfishness, the concept of vanity is usually misunderstood, misused, and mostly subjective. Most people care about how they look to some extent, so the accusation of vanity can easily be used to criticize anyone for caring about their appearance at all. Given that presenting as a certain gender is closely tied to how we look, it’s no surprise that trans people are often singled out and accused of being vain for altering our appearance. But simply caring about how we look is not enough on its own to conclude that we’re vain. Just as how selfishness describes an excessive fixation on the self, vanity describes an excessive fixation on one’s appearance – not simply caring about it at all.

At first glance, it’s easy to see why people might think that changing your appearance to that of another gender is so drastic that it can only be described as excessive. But the magnitude of that change on its own does not mean that it must therefore be in excess of what’s reasonable. In the case of someone who’s trans, the desire to live and present as their preferred gender is entirely reasonable. This is only excessive if people wanting to be seen as their gender is excessive. Do we call cis men and women vain for getting haircuts or buying clothes and makeup? Most of the time, we see nothing wrong with this. So how vain is it when I wear women’s clothes, compared to a cis woman wearing women’s clothes? If you consider all of the trappings of gender that people spend time and money on over their entire lifetime, it might start to seem pretty incredible no matter whether they’re cis or trans. Yet in the case of cis people, this isn’t usually treated as an excess focus on their appearance, but an acceptable focus.

Of course, one key difference is that trans people often take certain steps to present as their gender which most cis people will never have to. But this is simply the nature of the condition, and the various procedures associated with transitioning are considered by medical authorities to be necessary treatments as part of the standards of care. When cis people have to correct their appearance due to a medical condition, this generally isn’t seen as objectionable. If a cis woman with PCOS seeks to remove her excess facial hair, does anyone have a problem with that? Do they have to rock that beard or else risk accusations of “vanity”? So why should we consider it vain when a trans woman wants her facial hair gone? If a cis man with gynecomastia wants to have his breast tissue removed, is he just being vain? So why would it be vain for a trans man to have chest surgery? Sure, these can be major, costly procedures. But again, that doesn’t mean they’re excessive or unwarranted given the circumstances.

In the case of genital surgery, some people may consider it an act of vanity to operate on organs which are undesired but otherwise functional. But the need for genitals that match their body image is no less legitimate in trans people than it is in cis people. Consider the case of male combat veterans who have suffered disfiguring injuries to their genitals. If it’s easier to construct a vagina rather than a phallus, as it very well may be in some cases, would it be mere vanity for these men to prefer a functional phallus – or for them to have any preference at all? Should they have to settle for whatever they can get regardless of their desires, or else be considered vain? Whether people seek genital surgery because of their gender identity or because of involuntary disfigurement is immaterial. Just as in the case of undesired facial hair or breast tissue, the legitimacy of their preferences is what matters, and if these preferences are legitimate for cis people, they should be considered legitimate for trans people as well.

Simply living as your identified gender is not normally considered an example of selfishness or vanity. Yet this is all too often considered an outrageous act of self-absorption when trans people do it. The expectation that anyone should have to abandon their gender to avoid being seen as selfish or vain is never applied to cis people, because it’s plain to see how unreasonable this is. I’m entitled to my gender, just as you’re entitled to yours. But I’m not entitled to anyone else’s gender – and you’re not entitled to mine. One of the most important things my mother shared with me was her realization that she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life living purely for other people just to keep them happy. Is that selfish? No. They have their own lives to live, and I have mine.

Selfish relative to what?

10 thoughts on “Selfish relative to what?

  1. 1

    I had braces when I was a kid. I almost certainly could’ve had a reasonably healthy life without them. It was purely for appearances. Yet my parents and their insurance company surely spent thousands of dollars on the whole process, money which, in principle, could’ve been spent saving the lives of starving kids in $miscellaneous_impoverished_nation or doing some other equally worthy humanitarian thing. It was indeed selfish and vain (albeit more about my mother’s projected vanity than my own in this case, although I appreciate it in retrospect). Yet for some mysterious reason nobody has ever given them or me any crap about it. It’s almost as if people are willing to accept that this particular life choice, selfish and vain though it may seem to them, is really none of their business to criticize, and that if they don’t like it they’re perfectly free to not do it to their own bodies. I’ve never really heard a good explanation for why gender transition should be handled differently.

    1. 1.1

      The analogy with braces works in another direction, too. What looks like orthodontia for the sake of vanity can prevent a lot of tooth wear, periodontal trouble, TMJ stuff, migraine triggers (and the list goes on). The cost of one’s not having braces may well be higher–in money, time lost, function lost, work done badly, overall health and even longevity, psychological effects on oneself and one’s family–than orthodontia would have cost, and then where is the “unselfishness” in forgoing it?

      I claim that the parallel with “unselfishly” forgoing transition is obvious. (And I don’t have words for the arrogance of third parties’ dropping in out of cloud-cuckoo land to try to impose their religious imperatives on a stranger, whether about GLB, T, or anything else.)

      1. Good point, Corvus. The reason I’m glad I got braces is not so much because it’s important to me to look pretty, but because having straight teeth is one of those tiny little class marker things that makes it hella easier to be treated with respect and taken seriously in professional contexts. I appreciate that my parents went to the effort to provide it for me, even though they may not have been thinking about it in those exact terms. And a lot of other things that are often dismissed as vain can have similar practical usefulness underlying the apparent vanity.

        And, *shrug*, everything we do for ourselves above the bare minimum necessary to survive from moment to moment could be characterized as selfish by a sufficiently hostile or judgmental observer. But I’d wager that there are very few people making the “selfishness” criticism who haven’t themselves spent equal or greater amounts of money and effort on their own above-minimum comfort and happiness.

        1. I agree with you on this. I personally thought telling people that I was atheist was going to be a huge problem. I thought this because I heard from other ‘internet’ atheists that I would lose some friends over it. Well, after awhile it got more and more frustrating to not express how I truly felt on certain topics. All of my friends and family are Christian and when I finally told one of my closest friends, he didn’t mind at all. After that, I felt more comfortable with telling my closest family members and even went on to change my facebook religious views to atheist. Wouldn’t ya know it, I still had all of my friends even though some seemed to have expressed personal anguish over the matter.

          You eventually get to that point when you don’t care what anyone else thinks and being yourself is absolutely fine, TO YOURSELF. Constantly molding to everyone’s thinking and beliefs is tiresome and you easily lose who you really are underneath all those lies.

  2. 2

    Well said, ZJ.

    Xtians are pro-authoritarian and submitting yourself to the wishes of the church is the only good. Looking out for yourself or avoiding suffering or seeking a good life for yourself is secondary to the ‘the goal’. This self-abnegation meme is on my short list of why I’m an anti-theist.

    I also like your emphasis on harm analysis. If the only harm is having to know that someone doesn’t agree with you, it’s not a harm you get to complain about (and be ethical).

  3. 3

    This was eye opening. A nice hard kick to my cisprivilege’s teeth. I had *no* idea that charges of “selfish” were lobbed at those transitioning.

    Selfish, apparently, to want to be who you are. but it’s not selfish, apparently, to demand that someone else NOT be who they are because it makes you uncomfortable.


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