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February 6th, 2018 11:32:15 pm

Operatively True: Identity and authenticity

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This paper will seek to deconstruct the very idea of "authenticity" as achievable by anyone, regardless of gender, therefore rendering any accusation of inauthenticity on the part of transgender individuals baseless.

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Identity as a Truth BearerIntroductionThe current state of affairs is the policing of social identities such that people are perceived as deceptive and accused of merely “passing” as something they are not even if their presentation matches their inner sense of self rather than their bodies or ancestries or behaviors other commonly used markers of truth for social identities. This paper argues that self-identification is what should be taken as operatively true and persons should not be categorized as inauthentic or deceptive except on grounds related to inner sense of self to re-frame the idea of deception. Furthermore, the accusation of inauthenticity by asserting that inauthenticity is inescapable, and the compulsion to hold transgender individuals to a standard of “authenticity” that most cannot achieve, regardless of gender, is entirely baseless. Preliminary FrameworkConceptions of transgender identity has proven itself a contentious topic both in mainstream discussions of social justice, as well as academic discussions of identity politics. At the crux of these discussions is often a statement about deception and further than that, authenticity. The idea of deception as it relates to transgender individuals is a topic heavily discussed by Talia Bettcher in “Evil Deceivers and Make-Believers: On Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion”. Bettcher claims that transphobia (“hatred, loathing, rage, or moral indignation”) is hinged on the notion of transgender individuals being deceivers due to what Bettcher refers to as an “appearance-reality contrast between gender presentation and sexed body” (Bettcher, 48). Essentially, the onus of a transgender individuals “authenticity” is placed on their ability to “pass”, to fit in to derivative presentations of “woman” or “man” without biological sex being called into question. However, even upon “passing”, accusations remain and, as Bettcher describes, transgender individuals are faced with a dangerous “double bind” (bettcher, 50). Bettcher describes the concept of this double blind through the lens of Gwen Araujo, a transgender woman who was murdered in Newark, California, on October 3, 2002 as a result of perceived “deception.” Bettcher uses this case to examine the societal blame shifting rhetoric as well as the “trans panic defense” that Araujo’s killers employed in order to justify the killing. The media, and society portrayed Araujo’s killers as victims and then blamed Araujo for the violence she sustained. The rhetoric painted Araujo as a liar, a deceiver and a masquerader for not disclosing her “true status” and her killers as innocent boys who were manipulated. Bettcher points out that regardless if Araujo disclosed or not, her choices were limited—she was either a liar (being able to pass and live as a woman) or reveal her biological status and be seen as a masquerader (someone who pretends to be something they are not). In either scenario, the danger is possible genital exposure, violence, or possibly death—you are deemed inauthentic or a liar and blamed for what is done to you. (Bettcher, 50) The rhetoric went so far as to claim that boys were raped by Araujo. In court, a “trans panic defense” was employed. Trans panic defense is the claim that upon finding out that someone you had sex with was born the opposite sex—you are so disoriented and panicked that you kill. The rhetoric surrounding the case claimed that
Operatively True: Identity and authenticity
Jacqueline Alvarez
Araujo raped these boys when she didn’t disclose her trans identity. The claim is that when biological sex is hidden, sexual relations become assaults or rape by being coercive. The killers alleged that Araujo tricked them into sex that they wouldn’t have otherwise agreed to if they knew her “true” gender or biological sex. Despite evidence that they had discussed Araujo’s gender identity two weeks prior to her death.Essentially, regardless of if a transgender individual successfully passes or not, their authenticity is always called into question. They are either deceivers, refusing to disclose their “true self”, or masqueraders, pretending to be something they supposedly are not. Bettcher claims that, inherent to make this argument, biological essentialism is key; therefore, the argument of deception and masquerade balances on the notion that biological sex determines one’s gender (Bettcher 48). This argument is obvious enough and one cannot deny that culturally ingrained biological essentialism leads to transphobic conceptions of transgender identity. However, I believe that transphobia can be challenged more deeply than what has been presented and new questions must be asked. Typically, the so-called deception and masquerading of transgender people is perceived as a betrayal of authenticity, but one is left to wonder: what, then, is authenticity? Why is it so deeply valued in modern culture? Perhaps most importantly of all, though, is if authenticity is attainable for anybody regardless of one’s status as transgender or cisgender (identifying as the gender one was assigned at birth). In considering all of this, one may begin to understand that a deconstruction of authenticity may render the notion of transgender individuals as deceptores useless.We will begin by first exploring the concept of authenticity as it stands in culture through the lens of various philosophers, focusing on existential thought and feminist theory/philosophy. We will then move into an understanding authenticity as it relates to gender and gender presentation, which, for the sake of this paper, will mostly focus on the experience of femininity and transgender womanhood and the enforcement on these bodies through violence. AuthenticityIn Existentialism Speaking in plainly colloquial terms, the concept of authenticity is a difficult one to fully realize. We typically view the act of being “authentic” as being synonymous with being “genuine” or “true”. In this way, we may see the act of being authentic as the demonstration of knowing oneself and acting in such a way that demonstrates self-knowledge. But the concept of knowing oneself, the very idea that doing so is even possible, has remained harshly contested throughout philosophical discourse, perhaps most stringently so by existentialist thinkers. If we take authenticity as a demonstration of knowing and being and the interaction of the two, we can begin by exploring philosophical concepts of “being”. Take, for example, Jose Ortega y Gasset a 20th-century Spanish existentialist. In his essay, “Man Has no Nature”, Oretega y Gasset argues that humans, unlike other living things, are not limited by the a natural order in the same way a rock or flower are; without a naturally pre-determined existence, it is up to the individual human to “make [their] own existence at every single moment” (Ortega y Gasset, 153). Essentially, Gasser calls on us to make the distinction between
Operatively True: Identity and authenticity
Jacqueline Alvarez
being and existing: If we reflect on the entity of life, we find ourselves attempting to have a definitive or an explanation of existence. In regard to the self, it is a complex system devised out of careful thought therefore, the self begins as a blank slate, without a reality—you are still something but you are not yet what you aspire to become. (Ortega y Gasset 154)Using this framework, we can begin to understand that the attainment of authenticity is nearly impossible; in the midst of a future that Ortega y Gasset ascertains is uncertain, being made up on the spot as a result of circumstance, being is spontaneous—informed and influenced by the world and society around us, unable to exist in an independent truth. Essentially, Ortega y Gasset provides a framework of existence in which there is no “natural state” for humanity, in fact the only “natural state” is perhaps the universal experience of making ourselves up as we go along. Looking to Nietzsche, we come upon a more intentionally sardonic view of authenticity. One which is so obtuse, it is rarely discussed by name, rather being framed as attainable only under circumstances which are arguably impossible to create in contemporary society. As Jacob Golomb describes in “In Search of Authenticity: From Kierkegaard to Camus”, Nietzche’s take on authenticity (most noteably presented in “Beyond Good and Evil) can be summarized as the following: It appears that two seemingly contradictory models of authenticity are in Nietzsche’s thought. The first model…derives its inspiration from the biological metaphor of a plant actualizing the potential of the seed. It assumes the individualistic thesis, namely, that ‘every man is a unique miracle’, a unique aggregate of drives and wishes. One becomes authentic, according to this model, if one manages to manifest this complex fully in one’s lifetime. The second model employs the metaphor of art and artistic creation. The search for authenticity is seen as the wish to reflect one’s own indeterminacy by spontaneous choice of one out of the many possible ways of life. The individual is a kind of artist who freely shapes his self as a work of art. (Golomb 47)However, Nietzsche, according to Golomb, did not embrace these two models in equal measure. Nietzsche sympathized heavily with the very same framework Ortega y Gasset built upon, one which rejected “crude naturalism”, one which posited that an innate nature determined human’s existence (Golomb 47). Instead, Nietzsche believed humans had the ability to freely create their own existence. Doing so, however, required an element of self-knowledge and subsequently the ability to determine what is and isn’t changeable relative to our existence, and to do so in “heroic manner of amor fati (love of fate)” (Golomb 47). What must be mentioned is the critical environment in which this amor fati can actual exist, and that is an environment free of dogma—in Nietzche’s view, the single greatest threat to living a life of truthfulness is a dogmatic society. He specifically names Plato’s idea of the “good in itself” and “pure spirit” as the longest, worst, and the most dangerous errors to humanity. (Nietzche, 3-4)According to Nietzche, in order to live authentically, to live “unmasked” as it were, is to be free of dogma. This, however, is to say that authenticity can perhaps only exist in a utopia, a society somehow beyond the seemingly compulsory dogmatic nature of contemporary society. Is it not unfair to ascertain that, according to this framework of authenticity provided by Nietzsche, authenticity remains
Operatively True: Identity and authenticity
Jacqueline Alvarez
unattainable. Increasingly so, dogma has colored the ways in which contemporary personal (and societal) ideology—from politics to religious beliefs---are framed and created. Both Ortega y Gasset and Nietzche’s claims regarding a lack of natural order or determinism to humanity then, lends itself to an exploration of authenticity in regard to one’s identity: in an undefined existence, what does it mean to be an “authentic human”, an “authentic man”, or an “authentic woman”?In Feminist Theory/PhilosophyQuestioning the presupposed fundamentals of human nature was quickly adapted to gender and gender identity, perhaps no more famously than in Simon De Beauvoir’s seminal work “From The Second Sex”. De Beuavoir’s work undeniably shaped further post-structuralist feminist discourse regarding the origins and constructions of gender and therefore the conceptions of what authenticity means in relation to an identity that has been shaped and formed heavily by a patriarchal culture. De Beauvoir posits the fundamental question: “What is a woman?”, questioning the typically essentialist answer of “woman is womb” (De Beauvoir, 145). She then digs in further, describing how some women who have the physiological components of a women (uterus) reject being a woman. While others are recommended and warned to be the proper kind of woman, others are women, and some become women. The point is that not all biological females are women. But she questions what is then a woman? Is it an essence of femininity—some abstract idea of the Platonist type or is it something harbored by our physiological parts? How do we access it and furthermore how can we assess it? (De Beauvoir, 145) In this, we begin to see the inklings of a distinction between biological sex and gender that Bettcher focuses on. However, we also see a deconstruction of the very grounds of femininity, the very grounds of womanhood. If a true and authentic woman is one who possesses a womb, where does that leave cisgender women who have had hysterectomies? If a true and authentic woman is one who exudes what we deem femininity, where does that leave women who dress in a more masculine fashion, who reject social norms? We are beginning, now, to understand that even for women who are not transgender, who are deemed to be “true” women, there is still difficulty in achieving what society has constructed as authentic womanhood—are these women, then, deceivers and masqueraders too?The ideas first presented by De Beauvoir were then further expanded upon and contextualized by contemporary feminist theorists and philosophers, including Judith Butler. In “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity”, Butler goes further than simply questioning womanhood, than making a distinction between sex and gender; she does this, yes, but makes broader, more important claims about gender holistically. According to Butler, gender in and of itself is performative, lacking authenticity and based in a reality of its own creation. Butler describes the metaphysical discourse of substance, and describes gender as performative. She points out that turning to Nietzche’s claims in On the Geneology of Morals can aid us in rethinking the categories of gender by looking further than a metaphysical account of substance. In performing gender, with the previous metaphysical account of being there isn’t anyone behind the performance, i.e. no performer only performance. The performance is the deed
Operatively True: Identity and authenticity
Jacqueline Alvarez
and the performer is fictitious, there is no self that is “becoming” or “effecting” but that the performance is an expression of gender and that expression is constituting a fictitious identity. (Butler, 24-25)Much like Ortega y Gasset’s claims about being and humanity in relation to nature, Butler posits that gender and the subsequent performance of such exists rather spontaneously, almost paradoxically so; it is defined by its expression but its expression defines it. Therefore, the basis for what we know as being truthfully man or truthfully woman has no real basis, it is entirely constructed and the success of its baseless performance becomes the litmus test with which we gage the legitimacy of others. Again, though, it seems that gender-based authenticity or truth has no real beginning or end and is therefore as equally unattainable to cisgender individuals as it is to transgender individuals. Simply, every individual, regardless of biological sex, engage in gender performance, and therefore lacks any true authenticity by virtue of there being no authentic way to engage with a fictitious concept (gender itself).Transgendering Identity and Passing and “Authenticity”We now know of the various hang-ups of the concept of authenticity and the rigorous way in which it is applied to gender, we may explore the way in which it is most heavily applied to transgender identity. It has been established that with regard to gender, authenticity is typically related to performance, to one’s ability to most competently and aptly demonstrate their perceived identity to the world in a way that fits the rigid conceptions of categories “man” and “woman”. Perceived authenticity, when applied to transgender identity, comes down to the concept of “passing”. According to the Encyclopedia of Gender and Society, passing is defined as the following: “the actions of an individual who lives temporarily or full-time in an identity to which he or she is seen as not having an authentic or legitimate claim… While passing can be unintentional, it typically implies strategic intent to take on a new identity” (Schilt). In more nuanced terms, passing, as it applies to transgender individuals, defines the phenomena in which one’s presentation “successfully” (by the standards of society) demonstrates one’s gender identity; essentially it encompasses a transgender individuals ability to appear cisgender, to not possess any characteristics which may defined as inauthentic. As one can imagine, the concept of passing itself is rightfully contentious, as it often “anchors” a transgender individual to their biology, framing them as, once again, deceptive, masquerading, inauthentic, merely “passing” as a man or woman (Schilt).
There is much to be said about the troubling nature of a transgender persons perceived authenticity being hinged on the presumption of whether or not they pass, but it is perhaps most important to focus on the material reality of what is considered “passing” relative to one’s class position. Bettcher touches on the so-called “privilege of passing” as it applied to MTF (male to female) transgender individuals when she describes the ability to pass as being something contingent on comportment, and appearance as well as class which are usually not acknowledged. Bettcher is speaking from her own experience as a transwoman, and she explains that although she has a typically male type comportment she is able to pass because of her access to resources that aid in passing such as wigs, hormones, women’s clothing, nail care, etc. She explains that homeless persons who are transwomen are not afforded the ability to pass and are perceived as either liars or masqueraders straight away and the consequences for not being able to pass is violence. In short, as class decreases vio
Operatively True: Identity and authenticity
Jacqueline Alvarez
lence increases for transwomen. (Bettcher 52)In this way, one’s success in passing is hinged on their economic status. The more access to material wealth one has, the more access to gender-affirming surgeries, cosmetics, and hormones that will ultimately aid in the success of passing one is afforded. In this way, authentic womanhood as applied to a transgender women is not only a demonstration of aesthetics, but a demonstration of class, with full authenticity only being afforded to the lucky individuals who are afforded access to the tools supposedly necessary to gain it.
Again, the very concept of “passing” as the most concrete demonstration of perceived authenticity brings into question the concepts highlighted by gender theorists such as De Beauvoir and Butler. Namely, what do we define as “properly” woman? We find that, when applied specifically to MTF transgender individuals, what is deemed authentic is a reductionist, unrealistic conception of womanhood: acceptably long hair, a “feminine” body frame, “feminine” makeup, and so on. For many transgender women, this achievement of “authentic womanhood” can be the difference between safety and harm; there is very little diversity with regard to the interpretations of femininity afforded to them in the way it is afforded to cisgender women. But, as we have established, the grounds with which society conceives authentic womanhood is shaky at best and achieving such authenticity is arguably off the table for nearly all women.

ConclusionUnder conditions with which it seems authenticity and truth with regard to gender is universally unattainable, what, then, is deception? It would seem that all of us, collectively, by virtue of performing gender, a concept that is spontaneous and fluid, that changes based on history and environment, are deceptors, masqueraders, simply appearing to behold any sort of coherence with relation to our own identities. Perhaps our collective panic and accusation of transgender individuals being an identity group who can deceive and masquerade is a reflection of a collective anxiety, a manifestation of the fact that gender non-conformers and transgender individuals force cisgender individuals to engage in introspection regarding the material reality of gender. This is all to say that, to the cisgender individual, the supposed deception and masquerade of transgender individuals may lead to questioning the fundamental fabric of gender. If womb does not make woman, what does? If sex does not determine gender identity, what does? If society has constructed gender in an intentionally rigid and unattainable manor, where does that leave the individuals told to be “normal”, to be the “authentic” ring holders of gender?In this way we understand that deception and masquerade is not the defining characteristic of transgender individuals who must consider their wellbeing and safety, rather is it the defining characteristic of humanity. We move through the world deceiving others at every turn, by pretending to understand ourselves, by pretending to possess the ability to make decisions by our own fruition, by pretending we can access something true within ourselves when we are simply products of a dogmatic society. There is not somehow more egregiousness to the perceived deception with regard to gender when gender is not a solid, immutable category to begin with; when the self is not a solid, immutable category to begin with.Works CitedBettcher, Tahlia
Operatively True: Identity and authenticity
Jacqueline Alvarez
. “Evil Deceivers and Make-Believers: On Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion”. Hypatia, vol. 22, no.3, 2007, 43-65.Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. 1990. Routledge, 1999.Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Vintage Books, 1989.Golomb, Jacob. In Search of Authencitity: From Kierkegaard to Camus. Routledge, 1995.Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Cambridge University Press, 2002.Orteg y Gasset, Jose. “Man Has no Nature”. Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre, edited by Walter Kaufmann.Penguin, 1975, 152-157Schilt, Kristen. “Passing”. Encyclopedia of Gender and Society, edited by Jodi O’Brien. Sage, 2009.



Bettcher, Tahlia. "Evil Deceivers and Make-Believers: On Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion". Hypatia, vol. 22, no.3, 2007, 43-65.




Kurt Milberger

February 20, 2018 at 11:47 am

Hi Jacqueline,

Very interested in your approach to this issue, not sure I've seen anyone tackle the notion of "authenticity" in precisely this way before! Your intro makes the point that "persons should not be categorized as inauthentic or deceptive except on grounds related to inner sense of self," which makes me wonder who would do the categorizing and why we would want to hang onto the authentic/inauthentic distinction at all?

In its current form, the piece also provides a great opportunity for thinking about how to repurpose your relevant discussions of "authenticity" for audience that might benefit from reconsidering their perspectives. Could Araujo's killers have been conditioned to think otherwise than they did? How would proliferating a revised notion of authenticity change things and among whom? How could we proliferate that revised notion most broadly/effectively?

Lots of interesting research here, too. I'm keen to see how you develop it into a sustained piece directed at a specific audience.

Welcome to the program!

Jacqueline Alvarez

February 21, 2018 at 1:00 pm

Thank you so much for those questions, I think I will try to answer them:) Thank you for your support

Heather Stewart

February 20, 2018 at 8:02 pm

Jacqueline Alvarez

February 21, 2018 at 1:00 pm

Thank you so much Heather! 

Claire Skea

February 23, 2018 at 5:33 am

Hi Jacki,

This is a thoughtful piece that deals with the issues presented very clearly. I like that you have not only questioned 'authenticity' but also what we mean by 'womanhood', highlighting that our conceptions of 'gender' are not tangible. In doing so, I think your paper will be relevant for both trans- and cis-gender groups. 

Katina Fontes
February 26, 2018 at 7:41 pm

Jacki - Such an interesting topic! Digging into authenticity and "passing" is such a brave approach. Several years ago I did research on women who fought in the Civil War as men and have some interesting sources to share if you are interested in exploring some historical accounts of "passing" within that context. I look forward to reading more as your paper further develops.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick

March 02, 2018 at 8:04 am

Hi Jacki. Just a quick echo of Kurt's thoughts, above; I am really interested to see how your thoughts about authenticity/inauthenticity develop, as that pair of concepts pops up in a wide range of debates (I'm thinking right now about discussions of cultural appropriation) but too often winds up being left undefined, in that "we know it when we see it" state. Looking forward to seeing more!