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how can you tell if someone claiming an identity is telling the truth?

Given a discussion I’ve sort of been informally talking about on tumblr, I just realized that my thoughts about it have finally become organized enough to write a proper post. Just over a year ago, I said I quit being a ‘trans woman of colour’ as a claimed identity. The precipitating factor, the straw, was something I was seeing about how such and such person was a Fake Trans Woman. At the time, it was the hypocrisy that drove me away, because many of the ppl saying this were the same ones defending a different Fake Trans Woman a few years prior. My stance on both cases is that both are Real Trans Women. How, exactly, did I come to this conclusion?

Evidence in favour of them being Real: they said they are trans women of colour.

Evidence against: various receipts of varying levels of believability (some quite compelling while others… not so much).

At the heart of the matter, for me, is the free loader problem and certain salient features about current discourses about identity.

First. We’ve reached a point wherein a lot of ppl accept the theory that various identities, like ‘trans woman’, are socially constructed. Which, among other things, means that there is nothing essential to these identities. In other words: there is no singular (or even plural) object method for determining whether or not someone is a Real Trans Woman. All we can rely on is the assertion from the individual that they are who they say they are.

Not that this stops anyone (most ppl) from trying to set up some sort of criteria for determining who is real and who is not. This is the start of community/identity policing. It also necessarily means that some people who do properly belong within the community, will be excluded. Because there is nothing essential to being a trans woman. And people are super diverse and there’ll always be at least one counter-example to the arbitrary criteria you’ve settled on. Because the criteria are made up and not based on any aspect of the real world.

Of course, for people who don’t perceive this as being all that much of a problem, cool. You can probably close the tab and stop reading. But as a person who quite frequently has been part of the excluded group from communities to which I do belong, I kind of have a problem with all of this. This creates real harm and, usually, just-so-happens that it is the ppl who most dearly need a community who end up being the ones left out. That the worse off accidentally just fail to meet the arbitrary inclusion criteria.

But wait, you say, what about the need for safe spaces? What about the harm that fakers do?

Here’s where the problem of free-loaders comes in. If anyone can claim to be a Real Trans Woman and there is no objective way to verify this, then Fake Trans Woman can enter spaces and do bad things. This is precisely what happened with Hambrook. And this is bad. I mean. He sexually assaulted women. Yes, this is an extreme example but it perfectly illustrates that real harm comes from not policing the boundaries.

So… how do we resolve this situation? How do we include all the people who ought to be included and exclude all the people who ought to be included?

It just isn’t possible. Inasmuch as I don’t usually ascribe to binary thinking, this is one case where the options are mutually excluding. You cannot have both at the same time.

Why? Because, as noted above, there is nothing essential to these identities. They are all socially constructed. Which means that there can be no principled way to distinguish between a Real and Fake. Any and all criterion created for attempting immediately excludes someone, because all of them are arbitrary and not based in reality. Leaving the community wide open to whomever self-identifies means that you run the risk of free loaders.

Here’s how I personally resolve this dilemma:

Self-identification is the only criterion for inclusion. In other words: anyone claiming to be x is x solely because they assert it to be true. Anyone who claims to belong, belongs. No policing. Nothing.


For me it comes down to moral responsibility. In the case of policing, the moral responsibility for the harm this creates is on the community and every individual therein (at least the ones that meet the arbitrary criteria). In the case of no policing? The moral resposibility for any harm this creates rests on the individuals pretending to be something they are not.

Since the decision can’t be based on harm reduction (both situations create harm and I’m not about to quantify ‘harm’), this seems, to me, to be the only viable alternative. Not very comforting, I know.