Trans 101: Transphobia

CW: discussion of transmisogyny

Introduction

You’ve likely heard of homophobia: the fear, dislike, prejudice, or oppression of homosexual people. You may have also heard of the word transphobia, but are probably a little unclear about its meaning. “But of course I know what it means.” you may be thinking. “It’s the fear, dislike, prejudice, or oppression of transgender people.” Okay, fair enough. But do you really know what that means? “What do you mean? I just defined it. Of course I know what it means.” Well, we shall see.

In a previous post I talked bout cissexism: what it means, what it looks like, and what cis people can do about it. That garnered some disagreement and showed a lack of understanding. I recently had a conversation with some cisgender folks and it became apparent that there was a lack of understanding of what transphobia was as well, so in this post, I wanted to discuss transphobia and how it is better described as cissexism. What we are really talking about is transmisogyny.

Transphobia

So what exactly is transphobia? Let’s start with the definition we used in the introduction:

Transphobia – the fear, dislike, prejudice, or oppression of transgender people

Okay, so we have a clear, workable definition to start off with. Given this definition of transphobia, what does it mean to be transphobic? Well, put really simply, all it requires is one or more of the following:

  1. A fear of transgender folks
  2. A dislike of transgender folks
  3. Prejudice against transgender folks
  4. And that someone either oppresses or perpetuates the oppression of transgender folks

Looking at (1-4) we can see that prior knowledge of, or experience with, transgender people is not required to be transphobic. That is, you could be someone who has never heard the term ‘transgender’, or has never interacted with or seen a trans person before and still be transphobic. Do you have to have prior knowledge of, or experience with, trans people to fear them? No. In fact, that lack of knowledge and experience is very likely to be a major reason for that fear. Same goes for dislike, prejudice, and oppression.

Another way to look at transphobia is to consider what I have written about cissexism: a set of norms and acts that privilege cisgender people and/or oppress transgender people; a system of violence that targets transgender people for the benefit of cisgender people.

If we look closely enough at the definitions of cissexism and transphobia, we can see that they are very similar. In fact, cissexism is perhaps a better word than transphobia because it is the fear, dislike, prejudice and oppression of trans people that cissexism is built and thrives on. Neither requires knowledge regarding trans folks and neither require malicious intentions in order to be perpetuated. Cissexism is the better word because it more explicitly brings to mind the structural and violent nature of what we are talking about:

“So when I talk about cissexism, it should be absolutely clear that no matter who you are, or how good of a person you are, you have cis privilege, i.e., you benefit from cissexism (if you are cisgender). That does not necessarily mean that you should feel guilty and it doesn’t make you a bad person. What it does do is make it so that you and I are not on equal social footing. We may be moral equals, but there is a power difference between the two of us that puts me at a huge disadvantage and makes me vulnerable as a trans woman.

“According to Injustice at Every Turn

  • 41% of trans individuals have attempted suicide.
    • Compare that to 1.6% for the general population (4.6% according the Williams Institute).
  • Trans people are four times more likely likely to have a household income of less than $10,000 per year compared to the general population.
  • While in K-12, 78% of trans and gender non-conforming people experienced harassment.
    • 35% experienced physical assault.
    • 12% experienced sexual violence.
  • Trans folks have double the rate of unemployment compared to the general population.
  • 90% have experienced harassment at work.
    • 26% report being fired for being trans.

“According to the Office for Victims of Crime

Transmisogyny

Okay, so now that we have an idea of what transphobia is, we need to shift our attention to transmisogyny. First, let’s start with a clear, workable definition:

Transmisogyny –  the fear, dislike, prejudice, or oppression of transgender women, or woman-aligned non-binary transgender people; a system that under privileges transgender people who were coercively assigned male at birth

Describing transmisogyny, Julia Serano has written the following:

“Trans-misogyny is steeped in the assumption that femaleness and femininity are inferior to, and exist primarily for the benefit of, maleness and masculinity. This phenomenon manifests itself in numerous ways:

  • Studies have shown that feminine boys are viewed far more negatively, and brought in for psychotherapy far more often, than masculine girls.
  • Psychiatric diagnoses directed against the transgender population often either focus solely on trans female/feminine individuals, or are written in such a way that trans female/feminine people are more easily and frequently pathologized than their trans male/masculine counterparts.
  • The majority of violence committed against gender-variant individuals targets individuals on the trans female/feminine spectrum.
  • In the media, jokes and demeaning depictions of gender-variant people primarily focus on trans female/feminine spectrum people. Often in these cases, it is their desire to be female and/or feminine that is especially ridiculed. While trans male/masculine individuals are often subjects of derision, their desire to be male and/or masculine is generally not ridiculed—to do so would bring the supposed supremacy of maleness/masculinity into question.”

Given this definition and description of transmisogyny, what does it mean to be transmisogynistic? Transmisogyny, like transphobia/cissexism requires one or more of the following:

  1. A fear of trans women or woman-aligned non-binary folks
  2. A dislike of trans women or woman-aligned non-binary folks
  3. Prejudice against trans women or woman-aligned non-binary folks
  4. That someone either oppresses or perpetuates the oppression of trans women or woman-aligned non-binary folks

As with transphobia/cissexism, looking at (1-4) we can see that prior knowledge of, or experience with, transgender women or woman-aligned non-binary people is not required to be transmysoginistic. What is different about transmisogyny is how it specifically targets transgender people who were coercively assigned male at birth. In other words, transgender men or man-aligned non-binary people who were coercively assigned female at birth are transmisogyny exempt while transgender women or woman-aligned non-binary people who were coercively assigned male at birth are transmisogyny confined.

Transmisogyny, therefore, is a unique system of violence that specifically affects trans women and woman-aligned transgender folks. Trans men and man-aligned transgender people are not affected by transmisogyny and thus are in a position of privilege relative to those who were coercively assigned male at birth. For example, the recent hoopla over restrooms in North Carolina and elsewhere. Trans women and woman-aligned non-binary folks are derided as dangerous, perverted, etc. while trans men and man-aligned non-binary folks are being celebrated for going into the women’s room and taking selfies, reinforcing the idea that anyone who looks masculine doesn’t belong in the women’s room, which actually is an example of transmisogyny. The trans panic is is thus more accurately described as a trans woman/feminine panic.

Conclusion

Hopefully by now you have a better understanding of what transphobia is–how it doesn’t require previous knowledge of and experience with transgender folks, is better described in cissexist terms and how transmisogyny is a better term to talk about the systemic violence and oppression of transgender people who were coercively assigned male at birth. So next time you are discussing transphobia, remember these concepts.

Trans 101: “But How Do I Explain This to My Kids?!”

I came out and began transitioning very publicly, especially at work where we serve the public. One common question I heard was, “But how do I explain this to my kid(s)?” As a cisgender parent (or guardian) who has little to no knowledge regarding transgender identities and what transitioning is or entails, it’s understandable how explaining something so seemingly unusual for you to your kids can be a concern. I work with children of all ages. I have had to learn how to navigate this myself, so I thought it would be helpful to learn how to do this from a trans woman’s perspective and experience.

When explaining trans identities and/or transitioning, remember the following:

  1. Most young children are very flexible with their world views–the younger they are, the more flexible they tend to be.
  2. Your fear about confusing your children is probably projection on your part. In other words, you’re not necessarily worried that your kids will be confused as much as you are the one who is actually confused. That’s a perfectly natural response, but it’s important to not project.
  3. Being trans isn’t contagious. The only way that a child may become trans by learning about it is if they are already trans in the first place. If they happen to arrive at that truth by seeing and learning about others, then great! Being trans isn’t wrong, and figuring it out sooner rather than later has its advantages.
  4. It’s important to be as truthful to children as much as possible while explaining things in terms they can understand–it’s true you will have to tailor the depth and nuance to the child’s age. Kids don’t like it when adults lie to them, or aren’t telling them the full truth. Children need to know that you respect them, and being truthful is a part of showing them respect.

With all those points in mind, I will give you some examples that I have used in my personal experience.

Just the other day while I was at work, a child no older than five years old asked me, “How do you change from a boy to a girl?” I was caught off guard by this question. Usually kids don’t ask me this. They just typically ask me why I “look like a girl” and I simply tell them “because I am one”. In this case, it seemed like they were asking specifically about transitioning. I thought about correcting them by saying, “Actually, I already am a girl. I’m just trying to be more like other girls.” The reasons I why didn’t explain it that way had to do with my own personal safety. I thought, “If I don’t give a response their mother finds satisfactory, how would that affect me at work?” She might have already told her child that I was changing from a boy to a girl, so contradicting Mom might make things awkward. Also, some trans folks really do feel that they change from a “boy into a girl” (though that isn’t true in my case).

Considering all of that, I simply replied, “Well, first I start dressing like a girl. Then the doctor gives me medicine and the medicine does most of the work.” It was a simple explanation a five-year-old could understand that also had the lowest risk while being reasonably truthful to the child. As the non-parent, I had to sacrifice some details for my safety, but as a parent, it’s important to point out that someone like me is not changing from a boy to a girl, she already is a girl. She’s just a different kind of girl. This leads me to my next anecdote.

A young child of an age similar to that of the first who knew me pre-transition came up to me and asked me, “Why do you look like a girl?”

“Because I am a girl”, I replied.

“Really?”

“Really. There are different kinds of girls. I just happen to be a different kind of girl.”

“Okay.”

I was asked a similar question by an older child (around eight or nine years old) and I responded, “Because I am a girl. You see, being a boy or a girl isn’t about what you look like, it’s about how you feel inside. I feel like I’m a girl and that’s what makes me one.”

That explanation is a very simple and concise way to help children understand that gender is a part of one’s identity. It’s about how one feels about themselves and their relation to others, not about how one looks. The great thing about this is that it’s not just a true explanation, it’s fairly simple and accurate–simple and accurate enough for a child to understand.

 

Trans 101: Gender Dysphoria

CW: descriptions of gender dysphoria and mental illness. Note that the target audience is primarily cis folks. 

In my last post I described cissexism and how it impacts me and other trans individuals. In this blog post, I will be discussing gender dysphoria. I have previously described my personal experiences with gender dysphoria, but I never really explained exactly what it is and what kind of implications it has for my overall health and treatment. This will likely be significantly more challenging than my other posts, so here goes nothing…

Gender dysphoria is a condition in which a person feels dissatisfaction, distress, or restlessness as a result of their assigned sex not being in-line with their true gender. It may cause those who have it to experience a variety of difficulties such as social isolation, bullying, harassment, discrimination, confusion, low self-esteem, etc. which may lead them to “suffer with anxietydepression or related disorders at higher rates than nontransgender persons” according to the American Psychological Association. Note that most of the difficulties that I mentioned are often related to cissexism. In other words, cissexism is a major contributing factor, if not the primary contributing factor, to gender dysphoria.

I imagine many of you know what it is like to experience ostracism for being different and  how painful non-acceptance can be. If you have experienced the sting of being an outcast, then you know what kind of distress it can create. Some of my darkest and most painful memories are those where I didn’t feel accepted or loved by those around me.

This information may be causing you to think of a question or two.

Does this mean that being transgender is a mental illness?

Absolutely not. Not all trans people experience gender dysphoria, and those who do experience it don’t experience it in the same way or to the same degree.

Okay, being trans may not be a mental illness, but what about gender dysphoria?

Gender dysphoria is not a mental illness. The DSM-V has this to say about gender dysphoria’s status:

“DSM-5 aims to avoid stigma and ensure clinical care for individuals who see and feel themselves to be a different gender than their assigned gender. It replaces the diagnostic name ‘gender identity disorder’ with ‘gender dysphoria,’ as well as makes other important clarifications in the criteria. It is important to note that gender nonconformity is not in itself a mental disorder. The critical element of gender dysphoria is the presence of clinically significant distress associated with the condition.

“Persons experiencing gender dysphoria need a diagnostic term that protects their access to care and won’t be used against them in social, occupational, or legal areas.

“When it comes to access to care, many of the treatment options for this condition include counseling, cross-sex hormones, gender reassignment surgery, and social and legal transition to the desired gender. To get insurance coverage for the medical treatments, individuals need a diagnosis.”

 

Stated differently, gender dysphoria is not a mental disorder. Those who experience it sometimes need access to treatment for distress that is associated with it and the point of the diagnosis is to ensure access to proper care.

Do all those treatments really work?

The optimal type and number of different treatments for gender dysphoria can vary from person to person. Some may feel that dressing in accordance with personal and/or societal expectations of one’s true gender is sufficient. Others may seek psycho-therapy, hormone replacement therapy, or various surgeries. It has been shown many times (see references in linked post) that those who transition have improved health outcomes.

I can also speak from personal experience that transitioning is the best thing I have ever done for my mental and emotional wellbeing. Nothing else I have tried (believe me, I’ve tried a lot of things) has ever come close to being as effective.

What can I do?

Be our ally.

How can I be a good ally?

The answer to that question will have to be saved for a later blog post. However, I alluded to some of the basics in my post on cissexism.

In summary, gender dysphoria is a condition some trans folks experience as a result of their assigned sex being incongruent with their true gender. It is often associated with disorders like anxiety and depression and a primary contributor is cissexism. It is not a mental disorder and transitioning is an effective treatment.

A word of caution: beware of some of the opinions of certain medical ‘professionals‘. The scientific/medical community, as a whole, acknowledges the existence of trans people and does not consider being trans a mental illness or disease of any kind, though transphobia still exists in said community. If you seek the opinions and insights of particular professionals, it helps to (1) get more than one opinion, (2) make one’s self aware of the professional works about the topic in question when possible, (3) get a sense of what the expert consensus is, and (4) understand the relevant concepts and evidence supporting the expert consensus. (Sometimes systemic bias can negatively influence a consensus as can be seen by the history of rampant transphobia and transantagonism in the scientific community.)  There will almost always be disagreement to some degree, but that does not mean those in opposition to consensus have opinions that are equally valid. 

 

 

Trans 101: Cissexism

CW: Discussions of violence, suicide and prejudice. Note that though anyone can read this and get something out of it, the target audience is primarily cisgender folks.

Introduction

What I am about to talk about can be very unpalatable for cis (not trans) audiences and that is usually due to not being able to accept the existence of their privilege. Many want to believe that they are good people and acknowledging the existence of cissexism within themselves and the institutions that benefit them at the expense of trans people is perceived as a threat to that self-image. It’s uncomfortable.

Discomfort is usually seen as a bad thing. Whenever people experience it to a significant degree, they tend to try to alleviate it in two primary ways: confront it or avoid it. Confronting it involves being able to gather the strength to be present with it and deal with whatever situation may be triggering it. Avoiding it involves separating one’s self from the uncomfortable situation. Sometimes confronting discomfort is the right thing to do. Sometimes it’s not. Ditto for avoidance. But when it comes to systemic oppression (i.e., cissexism) it’s important for those in a position of privilege to confront the discomfort they feel.

Being cissexist, though definitely not a good thing, does not necessarily make one a horrible person. I am cissexist. I spent the majority of my life in self-loathing and many of the issues with my dysphoria today come from a place of self-loathing. For example, I tend to get dysphoric when I feel I won’t be able to pass (be perceived) as a female like cis women usually are. Though transitioning has done a great deal to help me feel better and to love myself, I do still occasionally deal with internalized transmisogyny.

Confronting an issue necessarily involves acknowledging it in the first place, and that acknowledgement almost always needs to start with one’s self. If I as a trans woman can recognize cissexism within myself, surely you can, too. The only difference between you and me (if you are cis, of course) is that cissexism helps you while simultaneously hurting me. Therefore, I ask that you confront the discomfort you are likely to feel as you continue to read.

What exactly is cissexism?

Let me begin by explaining the terms I will be using so you can more accurately understand what I am talking about.

Cis – on the same side as; also short for cisgender.

Trans – on the other side; also short for transgender.

Cisgender – someone is cisgender if the sex they were assigned at birth is in line with their gender.

Transgender – someone is transgender if the sex they were assigned at birth is not in line with their gender. In other words, someone is transgender if they are not cisgender. 

Cissexism – a set of norms and acts that privilege cisgender people and/or oppress transgender people; a system of violence that targets transgender people for the benefit of cisgender people. 

Cis privilege – the ability of cisgender people to directly, or indirectly, benefit from cissexism at the expense of transgender people. 

So when I talk about cissexism, it should be absolutely clear that no matter who you are, or how good of a person you are, you have cis privilege, i.e., you benefit from cissexism (if you are cisgender). That does not necessarily mean that you should feel guilty and it doesn’t make you a bad person. What it does do is make it so that you and I are not on equal social footing. We may be moral equals, but there is a power difference between the two of us that puts me at a huge disadvantage and makes me vulnerable as a trans woman.

It’s like you are 6’10”, had some of the best training from some of the most elite coaches in the world, can bench press 300 lbs, and have phenomenal natural talent. I, however, am 5’9″ (yes, that’s my actual height), can’t even bench press 150 lbs, have relatively little natural talent, and didn’t have any of the resources you had. Who do you think would win in a game of one-on-one basketball?

Society gives you a lot more power than it gives people like me and so that must be taken into consideration when considering your actions that affect trans folks. It also must be taken into consideration when thinking about both your conscious and unconscious attitudes about gender as it relates to trans people. This may not seem fair. Maybe it’s not. But I and other trans folks suffer when cis people don’t and that’s definitely not fair.

What cissexism looks like

In order to help paint a picture of what cissexism looks like (that is, what measurable impact it can have), it helps to look at some statistics:

According to Injustice at Every Turn

  • 41% of trans individuals have attempted suicide.
    • Compare that to 1.6% for the general population (4.6% according the Williams Institute).
  • Trans people are four times more likely likely to have a household income of less than $10,000 per year compared to the general population.
  • While in K-12, 78% of trans and gender non-conforming people experienced harassment.
    • 35% experienced physical assault.
    • 12% experienced sexual violence.
  • Trans folks have double the rate of unemployment compared to the general population.
  • 90% have experienced harassment at work.
    • 26% report being fired for being trans.

According to the Office for Victims of Crime

Keep in mind that I am only including a few statistics for the sake of brevity. I could go into more of them, but that would make for a really long list. Also keep in mind that when other factors such as race or class are taken into consideration, the statistics tend to be significantly worse. For example, 21 trans women were murdered in 2015 and the majority of them were women of color. If you are interested in more, please investigate the sources I have linked.

I’ve mentioned previously (here) that trans folks don’t commit suicide because they are trans. They commit suicide because society does not accept their being trans. In other words, cissexism is the primary culprit.

In previous posts, I’ve described my struggle with gender dysphoria. Most, if not all of it, can be directly and indirectly attributed to cissexism. After coming out and beginning my transition, I noticed people started to look at me differently. So many of them stared at me in confusion, fear, or disgust like I was some kind of freak. It made me feel very uncomfortable and unsafe. I was also treated differently. The more feminine I became, the more condescending people were to me. My social relationships became much more complicated, including my marriage. If people didn’t ‘get me’ before, they definitely don’t now. Talking to many of them is like talking to a brick wall. Being deadnamed and misgendered all the damn time has become painful and exhausting. Air travel became a traumatic ordeal when the TSA suddenly started seeing me as suspicious and a potential threat when they couldn’t automatically read me as either male or female. I’ve been harassed by the young and old. I fear for my safety and well being all the time, but I put up with it because that’s all I can really do.

Think about it. If you were in a position where you felt constantly out of place, mistreated, and abused for simply existing as who you are, how much more difficult do you think life might be for you? How much more likely do you think you might be pushed to the point of wanting to end it all?

What should cis people do?

If you are cis and have made it this far, you may be feeling at least a little uncomfortable right now. You may feel that you are not directly responsible for trans suicides, and perhaps you are not. But that does not mean that your attitudes and the actions that reflect them don’t perpetuate cissexism. You may not hold any conscious prejudices against trans people, but keep in mind that implicit (unconscious) biases are real. Even if you don’t have any biases on the conscious level, it’s still very possible (even likely) that you have them at an unconscious level.

This is one of the things that make cissexism so sinister. It does not require any conscious intent. Thus it can be really difficult to recognize in ourselves and in other people. Cis people need be willing to look deep within themselves and critically examine how they may be perpetuating cissexism, both consciously and unconsciously, and act to mitigate it as much as possible.

Use our chosen names, even if they aren’t our ‘legal’ names. Use our pronouns, even if it’s singular ‘they’. Avoid cissexist language (click here, here, and here for examples). Respect us as the human beings and moral equals we are.

If you are ever in a situation where you identify cissexism in others (for example, in conversation with friends) you should speak up if it comes at relatively little risk to your safety and wellbeing. You don’t necessarily need to be a full time advocate, but we do need you to stick up for us when you can.

If you have the means, consider donating money and other resources to transgender folks. Plenty of us are in need of assistance and your help is appreciated.

Final comments

If you have made it this far, thank you. I know that this can be uncomfortable for a lot of people. However, discomfort is not always a bad thing. It has the power to facilitate positive change in many situations if it is allowed to.

Remember, cissexism and cisprivilege do not necessarily make cis people bad, but they do create a reality that harms trans people. That reality may require cis people to recognize their privilege and act in a way that minimizes harm to trans people. Please do what you can. We need it.