Pride Month Q&A: Gender, Equality, and Feminism Through a Philosopher’s Lens

June 20, 2024
A graduate student with short black hair, glasses and an orange jacket stands outside with a backdrop of cacti and a brick building

In celebration of Pride Month, we spoke with Ding — a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Philosophy, working on trans/feminist philosophy — who plans to defend their dissertation in the spring of 2025. Note: For family reasons, Ding does not use their last name. 

Originally from Chengdu, China, Ding describes their hometown with pragmatism and fondness. “The best way I can describe the city, apart from the soul-crushing authoritarianism, is that it’s a gem of food and culture in every way. Chengdu is home to the iconic mapo tofu, much of Daoism, an allegedly 2,000-year-old public school, and pandas—oh yes, so many pandas.”

Ding’s research addresses issues of gender and equality at the intersection of feminist political philosophy, social metaphysics, and philosophy of law. In this Q&A, they talk about trans and queer equality — what it is, what it’s not, and how emerging scholarship is working to get it right.


Please explain your research for readers who are not in academia.

My primary research project is to develop a theory of gender equality that begins from trans people’s lived genders and gender realities on trans people’s terms. This is both a story of what gender is that reckons with the fact that, yes, trans people are a thing, and a vision of what equality would then mean and require in light of that recognition. In my dissertation, I motivate my answers to these questions by offering them as solutions to tricky conceptual and analytical challenges that trouble current trans law and feminist politics.

The punchline is that our understanding of gender equality can be so much better at addressing real issues of injustice (not to mention so much richer and so much more nuanced) if we take seriously transgender equality as an element, requirement, and condition of gender equality, rather than something in direct opposition to it.

Why has UArizona been a good choice for your doctoral research? 

I don’t think I could have gotten as far as I have without the space, autonomy, patience, and tolerance that the UArizona Department of Philosophy has allowed me to pursue work in trans/feminist philosophy. I also adore just how often Tucson reminds me of Chengdu. The laid-back way of life, the connection to cultural heritages, and even the moisture in the air during monsoon season all feel readily familiar, in a reassuring way.

What spurred you to choose this research?

I imagine there is a more inspiring way to say this, but the truth is that a lot of what I do is born out of a sense of frustration. Frustration with the status quo, definitely. But it’s also my frustration with just how removed even the explicitly trans-inclusive feminist scholarship can often be from real trans and queer lives on the ground.

For example, almost everybody nowadays assumes that something like the concept of gender identity is essential to the equality of trans people. What’s being missed, however, is that gender identity has occupied mainstream trans rights movements in important part because it is an easy way to simplify gender for a cis audience, to make our lived experiences more palatable to a dominant world that has not been hesitant to exercise power over our basic needs and our very existence when it feels threatened.

Would gender identity have as significant a part to play (if any at all) in a story of gender told by and for trans people? Does transgender equality perhaps demand far more than the mere inclusion of trans people in existing cis-centric analyses, movements, and institutions? What’s frustrating to me is not just that questions like these have been left unanswered. It’s that it has not occurred to all but just a couple of trans-feminist philosophers that we may need to ask them in the first place.

How do you see your work contributing to the broader movement for transgender rights and equality, practically speaking?

That’s a question always lurking in the back of my mind. The way I’ve come to think of it is, while philosophy cannot create social change all by itself, social change can be made possible by philosophy. For me, trans feminist philosophy helps us to do four things: to critique how we organize society and relate to each other, to imagine a better possibility of how we can live and flourish together, to articulate a way to get us there, and along the ride, to illuminate, affirm, and uplift lived trans and queer lives on our own terms, against political and social forces that seek to eradicate every last trace of our being. (I owe this way of putting things to trans philosopher Talia Mae Bettcher and feminist philosophers Alison Jaggar and Iris Marion Young — but again, to me trans and feminist philosophy are one.)

What are the main challenges that transgender equality poses to traditional concepts of gender equality within U.S. law?

I find it helpful to sort them into two broad families — one has been increasingly on people’s radar, but the other a lot less so.

The challenges that are getting more familiar have to do with how we can conceptualize issues of traditional feminist concern without diminishing trans people’s lived genders and gender realities — so, think reproductive freedom, bodily integrity and autonomy, sexual assault and harassment, exploitation of care and affective labor, and discrimination in employment, education, housing, health and childcare, and the democratic process, to name just a few. It is analytically as well as politically crucial that we can continue to recognize all these issues as issues of gender equality, even though they are not issues of gender equality unique to (cis!) women.

And then there are distinctive challenges that come up when you try to theorize the equality of trans people as an issue of gender equality in its own right. This might not sound like a big deal at first, until you find out that these challenges are apparently so mind-bendingly hard that, in just the last year, two federal courts of appeals in the U.S. have already come out to say that it is not even conceptually possible for discrimination against transgender people to implicate gender equality. Both courts looked at state laws prohibiting life-saving medical care for trans youth and decided there is no violation of constitutional requirements of gender equality, because — wait for it — those prohibitions apply to both trans boys and trans girls all the same, regardless of gender.

What are some of the most surprising insights or findings you have discovered in your research on trans-feminist philosophy and gender equality?

People often presume that trans people learn to navigate the social world as our lived genders by modeling ourselves after how cis people do gender, and philosophers theorize trans people’s genders as a problem to be solved by retrofitting gender identity into existing cis-centric frameworks. Might the right way to proceed in fact be the other way around? Could cis people learn to do gender better by borrowing from trans people’s gender practices and could we arrive at a better understanding of gender by likewise starting from trans rather than cis people's genders?

I think the answers are yes, yes, and yes. Trans people don’t just do gender differently from cis people. Our gender practices better explain important aspects of gender reality that may not be immediately obvious to most cis people, and our gender practices manage to turn gender into a source of love, strength, joy, knowledge, dignity, and freedom. I think we would all be better off for that.

Why is Pride Month significant to you?

I have on my laptop one of those “Pride Is Still Protest” stickers. A lot of Americans seem to shy away from the mere mention of the political, as if it’s a dirty word of sorts. That’s a shame, because the political need not be partisan or cynical. To construe something as political is to scrutinize it against principles of justice and to own up to its inadequacies as ours to fix.

It’s also a shame because to me, Pride exemplifies the kind of bottom-up, we-keep-each-other-safe, injustice-anywhere-is-a-threat-to-justice-everywhere, respect-us-or-we-are-gonna-identify-as-a-problem school of grassroots direct political action that’s intoxicatingly an American ideal. I’m wary, then, of the implicitly depoliticized framing of Pride as a joyful occasion for celebration, for patting ourselves on the back for our “inclusivity” and “visibility,” for dressing up in rainbow flags, pronoun pins, and those “protect trans kids” shirts. Are trans and queer lives worth celebrating? Obviously. But Pride is not even primarily about the parade and the merch; it was and still is protest.

When we put the spotlight on individual resilience, we allow to disappear from view the social structures and political institutions that compel such resilience in the first place. Reducing a political issue of justice to an individual issue of resilience obscures the workings of cisheterosexist oppression and diverts us away from meaningful direct political action. I would take actual efforts to improve the material social conditions of trans and queer people everywhere over the commodification and appropriation of our “strength,” “courage,” “joy,” “love,” and “diversity” any time of the year.

What are your plans for work after finishing the program? 

Academia is not all sunshine and rainbows, to be sure. But seeing a student light up right in front of you, hearing from other trans and queer people that my work means something to them, and having the freedom and autonomy to work on issues that are important to me, there is really nothing else nearly as rewarding as that.


I do want to try to be the role model that I wish I could have looked up to earlier in my own education. Representation matters, if only because it opens up our imagination of what’s possible for people like us. If there is a price to do that, it’s one I’m willing to pay in a heartbeat.