Community of Scholars research looks at philosophical aspects
SPARTANBURG, S.C. - Dani Metzger is uniquely qualified to tackle the challenges of defining what it is to be transgender in philosophical terms. Not only is she a transgender student at Wofford College, she is a philosophy major as well. She relies on one of the classic philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche, to help explain why she chose his project as one of 19 student fellows in Wofford’s Community of Scholars over the summer.
“The key to empowerment and its offspring, liberation, is the ability to define one’s self, and to define who one is using one’s own terms,” says the Charleston, S.C., senior. “Nietzsche said that of greater importance than what something is, is what that something is called, because what it is called affects how it is defined, and thus, how it is understood. And finally, what it then becomes.”
Metzger points out that it wasn’t so long ago, 1949 to be exact, that women first started facing these same issues.
“Simone de Bouvoir, as women were beginning to make substantial contributions to philosophy, wanted to write that she was a woman,” Metzger says, “but the problem was that she had to define what a woman is before she could write that she was one, and what it meant for her.”
“This question resonated in my mind, because I have a similar problem. I want to write what it means philosophically to be a transgender person, a person who temporarily occupies the space between male and female. So I set out to answer two questions.
“One, what is the internal necessity or driving force that motivates someone to engage in the transition process? And two, what does it mean to have a certain identity, when that identity is less one of being than of becoming?”
If that sounds like a lot to tackle for one summer, it was and it is.
“I was originally planning on doing this project as my senior thesis,” she says, “but then I thought it would make a better summer project because it actually is more like an introduction into what it means to talk about a transgender identity in philosophy.”
Metzger expect that more and more people will come to identify themselves as transgender and “They’ll need some way of talking about themselves as a trans person from a philosophical standpoint. That’s the essence of my project … what it means to have a transgender identity and how that works out philosophically.”
In regards to her first question, Metzger leans on Nietzsche and another philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead.
“I use Nietzsche to talk about the impetus behind the expression of the identity, and Whitehead to talk about what it means to have an identity,” she says. “Whitehead talks a lot about process and change, and what it means for things to become. Instead of just static being, there is constant evolution of things. You and I are both processes in becoming. We don’t have a standard end, but we’re always becoming something else by relating to other people and discovering things about ourselves."
According to Whitehead “… an identity (is) based on becoming, and really all identities are about becoming, even political affiliation or what religion you believe in or your sexuality. All of those identities are shifting and changing based on your ever changing understanding of the world. I’m seeking to apply this to what it means to have a transgender identity.”
Metzger by her own admission had no idea how complex a topic she was delving into.
“I had all these assumptions about what gender was and what it meant for someone to be transgender until I started reading some of the books I have read,” she says. “Kate Bornstein’s books really tore open my idea of what gender means. She says that no one is perfectly gendered.” Metzger understands that to mean that gender is not absolutely polarized as either male or female but rather can be expressed across a spectrum and concludes that “gender is really performative. We perform our gender. We quantify our gender based on changing our clothes. That doesn’t change our body, but it does change the way we present our gender to other people.”
Now that Metzger has presented her research at both Community of Scholars Research Symposia, she has bigger plans ahead.
“I would like to continue to revise my paper and submit it to a number of conferences both on gender and philosophy,” she says. “I’m also planning on using a good deal of my research as the foundation for my honors thesis, which will be a narrowing of focus and extension into another aspect of the same topic.”