Part 1: Identifying Transphobia
By Hazel Sanderson
C.W: sexual assault, transphobia, homophobia
I’m not going to debate here whether trans people exist, or whether we deserve rights, the science is settled and the deniers are wrong. Any reasonable analysis of transphobia and this denial has to contend with the deficit of facts on the side of people who claim to have all of them, and the fact that they’re being unreasonable is something that has to be brought up. Instead we’re going to look at some prominent transphobic myths and statements, why these statements are false or misleading and why a minority of people believe them anyway. By doing so we will examine how people get to be transphobic in this way and how to prevent these movements from growing and gaining support.
Though this will discuss as much transphobic rhetoric as possible, my identity as a white trans woman means that the direct perspective of how this affects trans men, non-binary people and POC is somewhat limited in scope. The ways in which this transphobia interacts with their other intersecting identities is subtly different, and I cannot speak for their individual experiences, but simply talk about the overarching ways transphobia effects trans people, and trans women in particular.
I also feel it is necessary to address transphobe identity, many of you will be aware of the acronym trans exclusionary radical feminists, or TERF, a term coined by cis radical feminists to denote a subset of their community who opposed trans rights. This term has come to contention recently, and for the purposes of this article will not be used. Transphobes in these spaces recently rebranded as gender critical feminists, a term which seeks to avoid the negative connotations that had become associated with TERF, an attempt to rebrand themselves to look less like a hate group.
On their part, this is a deliberate strategy, as they are rarely actually critical of gender, but use this to frame themselves as fighting against conservative values, and trans people as upholding these views. If they really cared about abolition or criticising gender they would criticise female celebrities or people in power for upholding these values, rather than attacking a trans woman with 30 followers on twitter for wearing a dress. Abolition of gender expectations is something I wholeheartedly agree with, but it is nearly impossible in the very gendered society we live in without massive systemic change.
I want to start by asking a question though, what defines womanhood to you? That is, how should we decide what it means to be a woman? You could use chromosomes, but what about intersex people? Or people with unexpected chromosomal makeup? It’s possible for people to be born with XX chromosomes and have a typical male body, or XY and typical female body, with the exception of being infertile usually. These would never be noticed unless you received a chromosome test, which most people never end up doing. It is also possible to be born with a number of other differing chromosome makeups, and this really blurs the idea of what we consider a strict binary.
The usual answer to this is to say that intersex people are a very small portion of the population, but intersex people constitute around 1.7% of the global population which is more than double the population of the UK. It is then suggested that we class womanhood based on fertility, but many cis women are infertile, or incapable of having children, or choose not to. Should we really reduce female identity to the capacity to breed? And whose idea of womanhood looks so patriarchal?
The point here is to show that our ideas of what constitutes sex are a lot more complicated than we first think, and even in the way we view strangers, we often take a large number of cues, social and physical to determine how we view someone, none of which are chromosomes either. The only real way to be 100% certain is to ask someone what they identify as.
WHAT ATTRACTS PEOPLE TO THESE GROUPS?
It’s easy to see how cis women that are same gender attracted and feel uniquely oppressed for that fact can be pulled into movements like the gender critical one. Many consider themselves regular leftists who simply ‘care’ about women more than regular liberal feminists, or that they’re seeing through some big conspiracy from trans people. Lots of gender critical women are from a variety of walks of life, many are from other minority backgrounds. There is to some extent, overarching racism and ableism in the community, but that oversimplifies their view point. It also ignores the people of these minority backgrounds in the movement.
All of their issues come from an inherently binary and exclusionary way of thinking about gender and sex. To gender critical people, sex is seen as obviously very strictly binary. Sperm fertilizes eggs, and to them men are people with a penis and testicles, so produce sperm, whereas women are people with ovaries and a uterus, so produce eggs. This leaves little room for variation. They believe women are solely oppressed because they can bear children and so women’s oppression is based on biology. This becomes the basis of their exclusion of trans women from their definition of womanhood, as by their definition it means being equipped with the assumed child-bearing parts. Intersex people are viewed as a biological aberration, and this all shows a fairly naive concept of sex and gender, with a bit of feminist language sprinkled on to make it more palatable.
Lots of these people are gender non-conforming, sapphic and don’t feel lots of connection to cis-ness or woman-ness which is why they are able to dismiss out of hand their various links to far right and conservative groups and talking points, because they don’t consider themselves such despite uneasy alliances with these groups.
This is not the space to go into detail about these links, but Julia Serano has written about this a few times which I will link at the end of this piece, and I would advise looking at institutions like hands across the aisle, an organisation claiming to be a go between for conservatives, Christians and radical feminists, or the heritage foundation, an evangelical organisation that regularly hosts gender critical feminists.
Many don’t believe they benefit from cisness in the same way that other cis women do. They do benefit from cis-ness of course, but they are unable to see it because of how tied up their understanding of sex and gender is.
This can make a lot of young, impressionable sapphics move toward gender critical ideology, because they feel that society and men specifically are preying upon them. Remember here we are using gender critical as a marker for the trans exclusionary lobby, which is a hate group. They share stories about trans women who maybe don’t pass very well and are arrested for sexually predating upon women to argue that all trans women are barely disguised men who want access to women’s spaces to attack women and lesbians specifically.
This is where a large portion of the bathroom myth comes from, gender critical people are genuinely terrified of trans women who don’t pass because they are genuinely afraid of men, and trans women who don’t pass are basically seen as men in their eyes, therefore the only reason they would want to be in women’s spaces is to hurt them directly.
Lots of gender critical people have histories of sexual violence with men and use that to excuse their hatred of men and by extension of their warped worldview of trans women. A fear of men from abuse survivors is a natural and understandable part of trauma, but does not excuse transphobia. There is lots of rhetoric about raping lesbians, which we will talk about later, and rhetoric about ‘bihets’, biphobia aimed at bi women who ‘choose’ men..
Gender critical movements are inherently exclusionary in this way because of the hatred they have for men, however, some gender critical people are tolerant of men and trans women–you’ll even find a very small number trans women, trans men and even some non-binary people in gender critical circles, and just like the alt-right they love to point to these people as proof that they’re not REALLY a hate group.
Gender critical people also like to say that they don’t want trans people dead, and lots of them probably don’t, or are ignorant of the consequences of these beliefs. It is, after all, relatively rare for people to actively want groups in society exterminated and when questioned in surveys even people with discriminatory views generally resist this extreme language. This doesn’t matter though, because they support and mask the ones who do, and their rhetoric and the things they want to achieve will result in deaths whether that is the intended result or not.
Humans tend to focus on direct or immediate results to our actions. In this context their allegiance to female-ness and sex based oppression is more important than the nebulous longer term consequences of discriminatory language. Some would claim they “don’t hate trans people, they just want trans people to have therapy to help them be comfortable in their birth sex” which has the convenient result of conversion therapy and erasure of trans people.
Their main hatred of trans women then, is because they think of us as men infiltrating feminism, which to them can only have abusive intent and harmful outcomes. There is disagreement in these circles about whether they think trans women or cis men are the biggest danger, with the distinction blurred by their very binary understanding of gender. They have more points of contact with transwomen in women’s spaces, and because they are by and large cis women who oppress trans women, they’re able to do significantly more damage to trans women than they could ever do to cis men, who are already oppressors.
However that feeling that ‘men are bad, men are inherently violent, men are inherently rapists, that men are inherently, naturally evil’ is what makes them so keen on gatekeeping trans women out of womanhood, because they’re rightfully afraid of men, due to their role in patriarchal power structures, but think the only thing that separates trans women from cis men is aesthetics, because, again, their understanding of sex and gender is extremely lacking, with the sex binary view being the only lens through which they view the world.
In this ideology trans men are rejected because they are seen to have rejected womanhood. However, most transphobes of this type don’t hate trans men and most would gladly accept them into women’s spaces before trans women because to them a vulva is what it means to be a woman, and lots of trans men have that.
Gender critical people also tend to have a fairly limited understanding of biology in any nuanced way. Feminism is a social science, and gender critical people who consider themselves feminists find it pretty easy to avoid any scientific information that doesn’t mesh with their ideology already. We should remember that although they very often have a fundamentally naive view of biology, a lot of gendercritical people are smart and well educated. This opens doors for us to engage with them and change hearts and minds, and it is that process we will consider next.
Helping transphobes recognise the ways in which their rhetoric mirrors fascist ones, and helping educate them in a more nuanced understanding of biology can help a lot of these people leave the circles that they have become entrenched in. Making it clear that transphobes are not welcome in leftist spaces is enormously effective, because so many gender critical people consider themselves leftists other than and become confused as to why they are unwelcome in these spaces when trans people are. It makes it honestly not worth being part of the movement, many are unwilling to lose other connections to these marginalised friends just to keep being a transphobe. This obviously works both ways though and excluding them could push them further into gender critical circles, which is why it is so important to help them examine their own beliefs and why they think what they think.
Pointing out how transphobia specifically harms women that are oppressed on other axes is also helpful. This is also true of a lot of the policy suggested by transphobes, such as bathroom bills or segregation by sex. A lot of this policy is reductive and oppressive to cis people as well as the affected trans people.
How do you police these policies? Who decides what is feminine enough to enter these ‘female’ spaces? How do you know that their ideas of womanhood aren’t flawed, or different to the next bathroom bouncer? This inevitably leads to policing of what is considered feminine enough, or passable enough, and inevitably calls out GNC cis women just as much if not more than trans women, who generally prescribe to femininity for safety. The fact that transphobes see this damage to GNC people as worth the risk just to potentially cause trans people problems is telling in and of itself.
The argument in withholding access to these spaces for trans people is also usually convoluted, usually focusing on the ways cis-men could use things like self id to infiltrate these spaces (despite this not happening in the various countries where self id already exists). This also holds the actions of another group, a privileged majority against a minority, as if trans women are to blame for the small potential for cis men to possibly misuse the law. This is also disregarding the fact that trans people already have access to these spaces, under the equality act trans people are able to use whichever bathrooms or changing rooms they feel most comfortable to use.
This idea though, is constrictive to all people, trans or not, in re-solidifying dangerous stereotypes about what it means to be a ‘real’ woman. The inevitable conclusion of this is usually racism of some form, with women of colour, trans and cis high on the list for not meeting white cis people’s expectations of what it means to be a woman. We see this especially in sports, where cis POC are called transphobic slurs or have people hyperfocus on their crotches becasue they do well in their sports so must be secret trans people. Again, this is a topic that would take a lot of time to discuss, but I would suggest looking into cases like Castor Semenya or the recent controversy around the Asian 400m relay earlier this year.
Even cis women who are not particularly unfeminine and who prescribe to stereotypes are often held under fires the of transmisogyny, such as Patricia Steere, a flat earther in America, who faces abuse from within her own group for being a secret trans woman or CIA plant, just because they don’t like her. In this it becomes obvious that transmisogyny can be weaponized against pretty much any woman or non-binary person, whether trans or not. Tranmisogyny becomes just a socially acceptable form of misogyny, and so a tool of conservatives and traditionalists to reinforce outdated ideas.
It is hard to exclude trans people when they are your allies in so many other leftist spaces, and when it is clear that the oppression you share together is worse for them because we are also oppressed for being trans. To help gender critical people realise just how much they are hurting black people, neurodivergent people, disabled and queer people who also just happen to be trans, because you can’t adequately address racism or ableism or homophobia without addressing how transphobia intersects with them too.
The attack against transphobia should be two-pronged, removing their power in leftist spaces by making it aware that their viewpoints are unwelcome, and by pointing out how language people use inside these spaces can come from transphobic sources, or echo transphobic rhetoric. Also to remind transphobes who do exist on other axes of oppression that they cannot adequately address those forms of oppression without acknowledging that transphobia hurts trans people uniquely.
The second prong should be actually convincing individual transphobes, but that should not be a job for trans people, and trans women in particular to do. This shouldn’t ever involve specifically publicly talking to or with individual transphobes, discourse feeds them. But pointing out how their rhetoric is inherently fascistic and sharing as much correct information about biology and sex and gender as possible, is the best way, I feel, to convince individual transphobes. It disrupts them greatly to lose theorists and rhetoricians from the community.
It is also important that any article written for the explicit purpose of convincing transphobes needs to be as friendly as possible and shouldn’t be written with the air of educating a bigot, because bigots rarely think of themselves as such. If they read an article and feels it is a vehicle for talking about trans people and gender theory they will likely dismiss it out of hand, but if it feels like it doesn’t have an agenda, and the facts presented don’t mash with transphobic rhetoric and information then it can plant the seed that gets these people to start questioning their own beliefs.
TRANS WOMEN AS PREDATORS
I talked briefly earlier about the ways that transphobes view trans women as inherently predatory toward cis lesbians, and I want to focus in on that for a bit and not only explain the origin of this but examine why this is false, or the assumptions we make in sex that lead to similar ideas. There is also some discourse about dating preferences and the transphobia that can be inherent in them, and on penis repulsion, which I want to try and explain.
Gender Critical peoples hyperfocus on ‘male embodiment’ and the intrinsic threat it poses to cis women presupposes a communal ownership of female embodiment. People should be free to date whoever they want but should stop trying to pass laws that bring their personal dating preferences into public policy. Only you get to decide what you call yourself because of who you date, and everyone else should have the same courtesy.
It is important to realise that any discussion about sexuality is a lot more nuanced than it is often made out to be, and I want to make it clear now that no one is or should ever be telling anyone that they have to have sex with anyone, trans or not. Being penis repulsed in and of itself is obviously not transphobic but the idea that being with a trans woman would by necessity involves the penis is indicative of assumptions we make in regards to sex and sexuality in a cisnormative society.
When people are brought up and socialised to believe that certain bodies/genitalia are male and some female we often fall into a very binary way of thinking, where being attracted to like bodies makes you gay and non-like bodies makes you straight. Combined with a media narrative teaching and displaying sex in ways that rarely discuss or vice physical boundaries leads to certain assumptions of entitlement and expectations of how we should or would experience a partner’s body, or their experience of ours.
Trans people in general cause problems with this narrative, throwing out the dichotomy of body types and removing this easy sorting. It is easy on the surface to say that some women have penises and some men vaginas, but it becomes more difficult to overcome the impact a life and upbringing of cisnormative society has on our instinctive reactions and ingrained bias. This has the benefit of helping to deconstruct these dichotomies, and broadening the conversation and social acceptance of divergence in body type.
It becomes important to ask yourself how cissexism (discrimination based on assumptions of cis-ness) and cisnormativity have shaped your views on sexuality and personal politics. There are also a lot of assumptions made about trans bodies in sex, especially if that trans person is a trans woman with a penis. If a person’s attraction (not just sexual, but total attraction) were to die upon finding out she had a penis, this is somewhat transphobic, because your overall attraction wouldn’t vanish unless there was an element of disgust involved overall. Having an unexpected set of genitals doesn’t change the other qualities you found attractive about them.
Even if you are not penis repulsed, and many trans women are too by the way, not just cis women, acknowledging that it is a thing that people experience in a variety of ways and to different degrees is important, and you should never be pushed to engage sexually in a way that would harm you, or pushed to engage sexually at all.
The key assumption here, which is false, is that engaging sexually with a trans woman with a penis would require you to be penetrated by it, that you would have to touch it, that it would be exactly the same as a cis man’s, or even that they would need to see or interact with a it at all.
This leads from the screwed up belief that we are fully entitled to the bodies of our partners, which is what is happening when people assume what must happen during sex in any context, in cis partners or trans, and assumptions like this are a brazen display of entitlement. It is also due to an almost complete lack of non-penetrative sex in media, stemming from heteronormativity. However, this is also indicative of a chauvinistic male-dominated approach to sexuality as it pertains to bodies, the idea that the entirety of the partners body is some sense ‘yours’.
A lot of these assumptions tend to frame trans women as aggressors, which seems largely tied to the mistaken societal view that trans women are in some way inherently predatorial or violent. A response like this that groups trans women with cis men in a cisnormative society is expected to some degree but is still cissexist and should be viewed as such.
All of this though, falls to the facts that a large number of trans women with penises do not want their partners to interact with it at all. This paired with the enormous and documented number of trans people and trans women in particular who have experienced sexual assualt from partners since transitioning, makes it extremely likely that even those trans women who entertain using their penises in sexual acts are usually vigilant on discussing boundaries with potential partners. Boundaries are important in any couple, especially sexually, and trans people in general are usually hyper aware of this, with their own boundaries to avoid discomfort or potential dysphoria triggers, but also because we are consciously aware of the simultaneous disgust and fetishizing that society treats our bodies.
The important come away from this is to better understand transphobia and transmisogyny, and to encourage people to engage with their own internal biases, with the end goal to be more comfortable around trans people. This is not about policing sexuality and definitely not about encouraging anyone to have sex with someone they don’t 100% want to, or to engage sexually in something that they are not comfortable with, but simply to understand how cisnormative society frames those attractions.
Another big argument against trans women is that we benefit from male privilege or in some way appropriate female oppression. This has a second dimension with trans men, who are often presented under this as confused women who seek to escape feminine oppression by becoming men, which is obviously false.
The important thing with this, is acknowledging that being a closeted transfemme is rarely a situation in which you are treat or viewed as an average boy or amab. It is often a situation in which you spend a large portion of your social interactions attempting to be unnoticed, to fade into the background, or to hyper perform masculinity and hoping you don’t draw attention to yourself. Life like this is deadening, and depersonalising, it is often survival at the cost of security and leads a large number of closeted trans femme people to commit suicide.
Society may treat closeted trans women as men, but that does not mean that closeted trans women experience said socialisation the same way, or engage with that ‘privilege’ the same way. We, and especially those of us who knew we were trans from a young age, we socialised as closeted trans women, with the knowledge that any inkling or display of who we really were would be met by revulsion and ostracization. We never truly have the experience of being male in society, and though that experience is obviously not identical to cis female socialisation, this begs the question of whether every single person experiences their socialisation and reacts to societies messages in exactly the same way to begin with.
Socialisation is also not a finite process, and never really stops, even if we accept that trans women are socialised in a stereotypical way, after coming out they are treated by society as women. They may not experience everything that cis women experience, but no woman experiences every single part of womanhood, or even experiences them in the same way. It is important here to recognise the diversity and intersectionality in the experiences and socialisation of all women, to better understand what the members of our communities go through and better support them.
This is some of the info describing links to right wing ideology, or from right wing pages espousing talking points from gender critical circles:
Hazel’s essay continues in Part 2, which will is to be added to Clitbait shortly, in which she discusses how trans issues and trans people are portrayed in the media.