What I Mean When I Say Transphobia

Content Note: discussions of privilege & prejudice, esp. cissexism/transphobia & racism; mentions of deadnaming, transphobic jokes


Credits: torbakhopper vie Creative Commons

Recently, I made a comment that provoked several hours of debates on my Facebook wall. That comment was: “all cis people are transphobic”.  Followed by: “that’s how privilege works”. As a trans person, and as a human being whose sense of hope and personhood was pretty badly beaten into the ground by various events of yesterday (blame the Tories), I have no personal obligation to explain this to the mass of people who added me as a Facebook friend yesterday purely to watch, or join in, the train wreck.

However, as a friend of some of the people who have misunderstood my sentiments – as someone who respects the trust of many of them – I do want to explain. More importantly, as an elected representative of the LGBT+ community, I feel a personal responsibility for providing an explanation and promoting an understanding of these issues so that others will not have to.

What is transphobia? I think that’s the first major stumbling block here. It’s important to state straight off that dictionary and legal definitions only go so far (i.e. not very) in describing sociological phenomena. (In fact, the legal system and the market are almost always perpetuators of the very oppressions they attempt to neatly box.) A dictionary definition of ‘transphobia’ will almost always only encompass what I’ll call for clarity’s sake ‘direct transphobia’. This means “hatred”, “fear”, “intense dislike”, “prejudice” – understood not in societal terms, but in personal ones. That means, I guess, that many cis people who read “all cis people are transphobic” assumed that I was accusing them of these things, on a personal level. Of direct attacks on trans people. Of direct denial of acceptance. Of deliberately transphobic comments and jokes.

In fact, the majority of people I know are not directly transphobic in this way. Intentional “hatred”, “fear”, “intense dislike”, and “prejudice” against trans people aren’t things I would ever by any means accuse my cis friends and acquaintances of without very specific good reason. What these reductive and incomplete dictionary definitions do refer very accurately to, though, is not individuals, but societal systems.

I’m not going to even attempt to describe and explain the infinite ways in which society oppresses trans people. For starters, I don’t experience many of them. I’m an afab trans person, so I don’t experience transmisogyny. I’m white and British, so I don’t experience racialised transphobia/transmisogyny or binarism (the colonialist erasure of culturally specific genders not fitting into a white western male-female binary). I’m from a middle-class background, so I don’t experience the specific intersections of transphobia/transmisogyny and class oppression that result in such a high proportion of trans people, especially trans women and trans people of colour, facing poverty and homelessness. I’m out and open about my gender, so I don’t face many of the struggles specifically faced by closeted trans people. (This is by no means an exhaustive list.)

I am not the person to ask if you want a breakdown of every specific kind of violence society enacts on trans people. But rest assured that our society is transphobic and transmisogynistic. All trans people suffer from the inherent cissexism* it perpetuates. And, yes: all cis people – as well as, to certain degrees, trans people – perpetuate this cissexism.

I’ll attempt to explain what I mean. Privilege and oppression are, more or less, opposite ends of any particular axis. There are exceptions, but in general, if you are not part of a particular group oppressed by societal systems, you are part of a group that benefits from the same systems in the context of that oppression.

As a white person, for example, I benefit directly from the racist, white-supremacist society we live in. That’s a simple fact. As someone who directly benefits from racism, has been socialised into subconsciously internalising racism, and does not do nearly enough to actively attempt to deconstruct these systems, I contribute to it. Because of my whiteness and white privilege, I play a part in racism. (I understand the issues with comparing different oppressions, but I’m as yet uncertain of how better to properly explain myself in a manner that everyone demanding an explanation will, hopefully, understand. Some responses to my comment asked things like: “so does this make everyone racist or sexist?”  Hopefully this has served as a brief explanation of the answer to that question – basically, yes.)

In the same way, cisgender people experience certain privileges purely as a consequence of their being cis. Because of the cissexism (or transphobia) they have naturally internalised through being socialised into a cissexist society, as well as their complicity in cissexist systems that benefit them, they contribute to the oppression of trans people.

This is what I mean when I say that cis people are transphobic – not directly transphobic, but complicit in cissexism. Incidentally, cis people are not by any means the only people who have internalised cissexism. I’m non-binary, but I still gender everyone I meet instinctively on sight, for example: that’s a product of growing up in a cissexist society, and is directly detrimental to trans people. I’m still having to unlearn that instinct. I still contribute to cissexist systems: I just (for the most part) don’t benefit from them. I’m still capable of playing a part in transphobia, even though I am trans.

We are all privileged in some way or other. We all have work to do to dismantle and unlearn the things we have internalised, and the ways in which we contribute to others’ oppression. This deconstruction must be constant and on-going. If you’re committed to doing this, you’re probably not doing too badly as an ally. You should never take “all cis people are transphobic” as a personal offence. It isn’t one – it’s a sociological fact, just like “all white people are racist”, and does not say anything about any one person in particular but describes society as a whole. If you prefer to understand it as “all cis people are cissexist”, that’s fine, and there is no unspoken “trans people cannot be cissexist/transphobic” to go along with it – we are, too, we just don’t benefit from the system we’re perpetuating.

Understand “___ people” (referring to a privileged group) as reference to a societal structure, which perpetuates oppression but does not necessarily require conscious or deliberate participation from all its constituent parts to do so. Being transphobic (or sexist, or racist, or disablist, or queerphobic, or classist) doesn’t make you a bad person. Recognising that all of us are likely to be many of these things on various levels, and committing to working on a personal and societal level to fight against these oppressive structures, generally makes you a good one.

Em Travis (GR. Co-Editor)

*Cissexism and transphobia are similar, overlapping terms, but my personal use of them tends to be that ‘transphobia’ refers to what I’ve described here as direct transphobia, and ‘cissexism’ refers to indirect transphobia, i.e. anything that assumes everyone to be cisgender and therefore marginalises trans people in various ways. For example, gendering people based on their appearance or biology is cissexist. Providing only male and female toilets is cissexist. Cissexism is a form of transphobia.

Further Note: I have said that: “I am not the person to ask if you want a breakdown of every specific kind of violence society enacts on trans people.” In fact, neither is any one trans person. It’s incredibly exhausting to explain our own oppression on a daily basis, and unless a particular trans person (or any other oppressed person) has told you explicitly that they’re willing to answer questions, it’s best to attempt to educate yourself as much as possible – there are lots of resources out there to do so, many of which are on our campaign website.

As an elected representative of the LGBT+ community, I personally do try and answer questions and explain things with as much patience as possible, but as a general rule, in some places – such as on personal Facebook pages – if you’re met with blunt responses, rather than detailed, patient explanations, don’t be surprised. Marginalised people have no direct obligation to explain their lives and experiences calmly to you, even if they represent their community on some official level. I have tried to do so here, and recently by means of the Make No Assumptions campaign, as well as often in my life in general, but those who respond in an unfriendly tone are just as legitimate. We are all human, and we cannot be “a voice for our communities 100% of the time: nor should we be expected to be. I appreciate that often patience and calmness are useful tools for inclusion and education, but they take a lot of emotional energy.

I’m absolutely happy, as are the other members of the campaign, to answer any questions relating to trans issues on the Make No Assumptions campaign’s ask.fm, or via email at cusutranscampaign@gmail.com.

3 thoughts on “What I Mean When I Say Transphobia

  1. This makes NO sense. What you’re basically saying is just because you EXIST you are a part of the problem. If I fight against racism and transphobia/homophobia but because I’m white and not transexual/homosexual, I’m automatically just making it worse? Should I just kill myself to help the problem? Seriously, is this really helping anyone by just saying “there’s nothing you can do”.

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