Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Consequence of Humanity

I recommend reading Inherit the Earth first, but those familiar with the concept of transhumanism can probably afford to skip it. In case you are wondering: no, I did not do all of my research on Wikipedia, but it does makes a convenient quick reference for readers unfamiliar with the terms.

Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game
At last year's Dragon*Con Transhumanism Open Discussion, someone brought up the idea that transsexual rights are similar in some ways to transhuman rights. While most people are not familiar with transhumanism, they do generally have a passing familiarity with transsexualism. Public opinion and legislation surrounding gender variance may well inform us about the way society will react to emerging transhuman issues.

Transgender (gender variant) people in general face a great deal of prejudice and, in some parts of the world, denial of basic rights. Transsexual people in particular, whose bodies do not match their gender identity, often seek medical procedures to transition to their target gender. This is accomplished through sex reassignment therapy, which may include hormone therapy, genital reconstruction, hair removal, and various cosmetic surgeries.

Many social conservatives regard gender variance of any sort as a deviation to be suppressed. Even social liberals often find transsexual people intimidating, and profess discomfort at associating with them. The fear and misunderstanding of these issues has lead to the development of a 'gatekeeper' mentality in legislation and standards of care relating to sex reassignment therapy. Transsexual individuals must undergo lengthy psychological assessment, and may be barred from medically transitioning if they do not meet the criteria.

Such barriers exist ostensibly to keep people from undergoing procedures they do not require. However, the gatekeeper mentality is, like censorship, founded on society's lack of confidence in itself. Transsexual people with no access to legitimate sex reassignment therapy often seek illegal alternatives, so the 'gatekeeper' system is not really effective at 'protecting people from themselves' in any case.

It is hard to imagine anyone going through the pain, expense, and social fallout of sex reassignment without good reason. However, if a man decided that he wanted breasts, or did not want a penis, he should have as much of a right to seek treatment as a trans woman (a male-to-female transsexual). In the same way, a man should have the right to seek a prosthetic replacement for his hand whether or not the original one functioned (I did not say this is a good idea, or that the technology is 'there' yet--only that it should be allowed). Mandating therapy (for all of the above) is still a good idea, especially in the case of minors, but ultimately the choice should belong to the individual.

I do not mean that the transhumanist desire for modification is equivalent to the agony of gender dysphoria and social rejection that drives so many gender variant people to suicide. At minimum, though, the rest of society will likely see transhumans the same way they see transsexuals--incomprehensible and frightening. Legal and medical gatekeeping of human augmentation will likely come to pass as such procedures become more common. I hope that society will grow more enlightened on the topic. Until then, transhumanists should advocate for the rights of transsexual people. Not only is it the right thing to do, it sets important precedents for other changes to come.


  1. You know, this topic reminds me of a book I recently read on what is the root of happiness. It presented many people's stories of what made them happy (within a certain context -- there it was family), and the takeaway for me was the importance of choice. If people can have what they want in life, no matter what those things are, they have a chance at happiness. No one should ever make choices for anyone else. I also think no one should be judged for their choices, only supported. (Were this only the mainstream reality, maybe we'd all be happier.) :)

  2. Do you have the title/author of that book? I might be interest in reading it. I try to remind myself that people always have choices--even when those choices are not good ones. Whenever I catch myself thinking 'I have no choice', I immediately stop and list all the other choices I have (no matter how undesirable).

  3. I don't think transhumans will face nearly as much intolerance as transexuals. The first transhumans will be relatively high status people - the disabled and veterans. Perhaps those who replace their limbs for augmentation rather than replacement will face higher discriminiation, but even then, the pioners of such devices will be the relatively rich. Maybe a Deus Ex style populist anger will lash out.

    1. You may be right, but I think a lot of people draw the line at modifying what they consider an 'in tact' body part. Replacing a damaged limb? Fine. Replacing a functioning limb? OMGWTFBBQ! Nobody freaks out about breast implants for those who have undergone mastectomies due to breast cancer or whatever, but find the exact same procedures distasteful when used to augment naturally small breasts (whether on cis or trans people).