By Alaina Monts
Welcome to another installment of our “Defining” series, where we unpack various terms and identities. Do you have a word that needs defining? Let us know!
Content Warning: This post includes discussion of violence against trans people.
Transphobia is the hatred of transgender people. Transphobia is typically accompanied by the belief that trans people don’t deserve respect or rights. Choosing to marginalize someone because they are transgender is a form of transphobic violence.
While transphobia’s root word, phobia, implies fear, transphobia has little to do with fear and everything to do with hate. To be transphobic is to believe that there is something inherently wrong with being transgender, and that trans people are lesser than cisgender people. Transphobia relies on the belief that a person’s gender should match the sex they were assigned at birth. It ignores the way that both gender and sex are constantly constructed and performed every day, and instead implies that these are static, pre-determined qualities.
One of the most prevalent types of transphobia in Western cultures is transmisogyny: the specific hatred and disgust directed at transgender women. Transmisogyny is also perhaps one of the most dangerous types of transphobia as well; it’s one of the reasons why many trans women are overwhelmingly poor, homeless, have statistically short life spans, and face fear of violence and death more than trans men and cis people do.
Transphobia is violent, and sometimes that violence is overt and easy to spot. For example, there have been over 20 murders of transgender people in 2017 so far. All of these people were killed because they were transgender. The Stonewall Riot—considered by many to be the first major moment in the LGBTQIA rights movement—was started because transgender women of color were reacting to the transphobic violence of the NYPD.
Physical violence isn’t the only way a person can be transphobic. Purposefully using the wrong pronouns to talk about someone is an act of transphobia. Legislation banning people from using the bathrooms that match their gender is transphobia. Whether or not you physically harm someone, creating an environment where trans people don’t feel safe and protected is a form of transphobia.
Sometimes it’s not as easy to spot transphobia because, unfortunately, it’s so prevalent in Western culture. Transphobia goes hand in hand with cissexism; an assumption that all people are the gender they “appear” to be. When you assume that a person with breasts is a woman or a person with an Adam’s apple is a man, you’re perpetuating cissexism and transphobia. This sort of everyday transphobia is harder to combat because it seems to be everywhere—think of how many television shows still use a man in a dress as a gag. When popular culture does things like this, they perpetuate the idea that trans people are pretending or playing a role, instead of living their truth. These seemingly harmless jokes lead to the ostracization and death of many trans people.
We combat transphobia by making people feel welcome. No one should be making assumptions about people’s genders, or jokes about how someone dresses or sounds. We need to encourage lawmakers to pass legislation that keeps the most vulnerable protected, instead of endangering their lives even more. To quote the TSA, “If you see something, say something.” Don’t let friends and family members get away with casual transphobia—ally yourself with trans folks by correcting cis people who mess up.
• Transphobia is rational.
It is not. Unless we are intimate with a person, there is no logical need for us to know what someone’s genitalia or reproductive organs look like. Transphobia, more than anything, is nosy. It’s a desire to know what a person’s junk looks like in order to determine something you consider essential about that person. Genitalia doesn’t tell us anything essential about a person, so needing to know about someone’s genitalia before deciding whether or not you can respect them and treat them like human beings is irrational.
• Transphobia keeps people safe.
Part of the way people rationalize transphobia is by arguing that it keeps people safe. This is inherently false. A pervasive myth right now is that transphobia, especially transphobic legislation, will protect (cisgender) people from sexual assault. But statistically, all these laws do are put transgender people in more danger. There is no proof that forcing a trans person to disclose their status will keep anyone safer. There is proof, however, that forced disclosure will put transgender people in danger. A quick news search will show you that most trans people who’ve experienced violence at the hands of a cis person dealt with it after the cis person found out that they were trans—sometimes even when this information was voluntarily shared. People who think their transphobia will keep them safe are kidding themselves.
• LGB people can’t be transphobic.
Transphobia is not just something heterosexual people do; cisgender LGB folks can be transphobic. Cis LGB folks often equate a person’s gender to their genitalia, and will say things like “I’m a gold star lesbian, I’ve never seen a penis!” as if women only can have vaginas or “I’m gay, I wouldn’t even know what to do with a vagina!” as if men can only have penises. The cis LGB community even perpetuates transphobia with casual comments like “bisexual people are attracted to men and women,” ignoring a wide range of nonbinary transgender identities. Cis LGB people also sometimes appropriate language that becomes a slur when it’s used by those who don’t identify as trans.
• Only trans women and men experience transphobia.
The fact that there’s so little discussion about nonbinary genders is, in and of itself, a form of transphobia. The constant erasure of those who don’t identify as a binary gender (i.e. male or female) is transphobic violence. While trans women and men often experience violence because their gender appears “wrong” to some people, nonbinary trans folks often experience violence because their genders are unreadable. Being able to place bodies into categories of man or woman is a large part of how our societies have decided to organize themselves. When people don’t fit into either category, they become unrecognizable, dangerous, and susceptible to violence.
Finally, for a discussion of what homophobia is, check out Defining: Homophobia!
Be sure to check out the rest of The Defining Series right here!