What Is Transphobia? How Can We Challenge It and Why Trans Advocacy Matters

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Everything you need to know about transphobia, how we can challenge it, and why trans advocacy matters.

Words by Morven Loh

Image by Nicolas Bloise

This article explores what it means to be transgender, and the very dangerous effects of transphobia. By educating ourselves on trans lives and trans rights we can all learn to become better trans allies, and build a safer world for our trans brothers, sisters and siblings.

What Is Transphobia?

Transphobia is a term used to describe people who are prejudiced against, and discriminate against, people who identify as transgender.

What Does It Mean To Be Transgender?

Transgender people identify with a different gender, or have a different gender expression, to the one they were assigned with at birth. Cisgender people are people whose gender identity matches the one they were assigned at birth.

We attach a child’s gender to their sex. When a baby is born with male anatomy, we assume that they are boys who will grow into men. Similarly, babies born with female anatomy are raised as girls, and we expect them to grow up as women.

If you want to learn more about being trans, Stonewall has a great Q&A that addresses some of the most common questions and misconceptions. You can read it here.

How Do Trans People Identify?

Not all trans people are the same. They don’t think the same way, identify the same way, live the same lives, or identify with gender in the same way. When talking about trans issues and trans people, we have to be careful to not homogenise a diverse group of people.

Some people don’t like using the term trans, some do. Some trans folk see themselves as non-binary, while some identify very firmly with a man/woman gender identity.

We are living in a time where some trans people are able to be more vocal about their experiences, their lives and the marginalisation they face on a day to day basis. This does not mean trans people are free from oppression, and are able to live their lives exactly the way they desire.

Trans rights and trans activism is important because trans people do face an immense amount of discrimination, prejudice and hate in the form of transphobic language/attitudes/actions/laws – just because they identify with a gender different to the one society assigned them.

A quarter of trans people in the UK (25 per cent) have experienced homelessness at some point in their life.

Almost half of trans people (44 per cent) avoid certain streets because they don’t feel safe there as an LGBT person.

In the US a trans woman of colour’s life expectancy is 31 years old.

More than a quarter of trans people in a relationship have faced domestic abuse from their partner in the UK in the last year.

41% of trans people and 31% of non-binary people have experienced a hate crime or incident because of their gender identity in the UK in the last year.*

This is why we need to be aware of trans people’s position in society and actively fight to change it.

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Misgendering

Transphobia can manifest itself in many different ways. One of the most common is misgendering.

Misgendering is when you refer to someone using the pronoun ‘she’, despite the fact that they identify as ‘he’ or ‘they,’ and vice versa. Not all misgenderings are meant in a harmful way – sometimes they’re mistakes, sometimes we forget. We’ve grown up in a world that has taught us to use gendered pronouns so unconsciously that we don’t even think about it.

But that doesn’t mean it’s okay. It means we have to actively think about using more inclusive language. A good way to avoid unintentionally misgendering a person is to ask them what their preferred pronouns are.

However, misgenderings can also be done on purpose – meant as a transphobic slur and used intentionally to hurt someone. This is a cowardly way to cause harm and pain to someone. Trans people fight every day to be recognised the way they want to be, and this sort of behaviour benefits nobody.

People misgender in order to show that they don’t accept a person’s gender identity. They do this because they believe that the gender you're assigned at birth indicates your self-identified gender, and so they believe trans identities are invalid.

There are many reasons why people think and believe this way, but by educating ourselves we can show why all these arguments have absolutely no leg to stand on.

Some people argue being transgender is unnatural, or that it’s not the way we were intended to live – that biology dictates men are men, and women are women. It’s the same reasons a lot of these groups are homophobic.

The bottom line is that trans people exist, therefore it is natural. Gay/Lesbian/Bi/Pan people exist, therefore, it is natural.

Non-binary people exist, therefore – you guessed it – it’s natural.

If someone identifies with a different gender to the one they were born with, or loves someone of the same sex, they should be free to make informed choices about this. People who do identify outside traditional binaries should be free to live their lives without experiencing hate or violence.

The Bathroom Argument

One row over trans issues that has gained a lot of media attention in the last year is the 'bathroom' debate. There has been a lot of backlash over the idea of trans women using women’s public bathrooms; which is largely rooted in an argument that cisgender women won’t feel safe in these spaces if transgender women are allowed into them, or that children shouldn't be exposed to trans women.

This is eye-opening on two levels. First of all, it shows that people are not willing to accept that trans women are women, and they can’t see past our natal sexual anatomy.

Secondly it points to a much larger problem. If women are terrified of men using women’s bathrooms, then we have a much bigger issue than trans women using the same space.

This an indicator of how scared women can be to be alone in enclosed spaces with men – and this is a very real issue. Therefore, the bathroom argument really isn’t about a fear of trans women. It is a fear of men. A fear of rape culture. A fear of gendered violence. That is the real conversation we should be having.

The idea that a man would face the amount of social prejudice and discrimination that trans women face just to infiltrate a women’s public bathroom is absurd – and it should also be noted that expecting transgender women to use male bathrooms leaves them vulnerable to harassment and violence from cisgender men.

What are TERFs?

If you've been following any of the recent rows around transgender issues, you might have heard of the acronym 'TERF'. TERF stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists.

Because of the history of patriarchal oppression of women by men, and of lesbians by gay men, a lot of TERFs believe that “real” women are being sidelined once again in favour of “men” who say they identify as women.

They argue trans women can never understand what it is like to grow up as a cisgender woman, as they have never faced the same set of oppressions – because they have had the privilege of being seen as a ‘man’ within society.

Fundamentally, there is a grain of truth in this. No, trans women have not grown up knowing what it is like to be treated by society as a woman from birth. However, this DOES NOT mean they have lived their life with male privilege. It means they have faced a separate set of difficulties and different forms of discrimination.

Both cisgender women and transgender women suffer under the patriarchy. Just because one person's fight is not exactly the same as your fight, does not make your fight less valid. This is something TERF groups need to learn.

TERFs fighting against trans women is not going to help dismantle the patriarchy – which is why we all need to work to be intersectional.

We need to stand beside our SIS-ters NOT just our cis-ters.

What we actually need to do is ask bigger questions about gender: from why men are afforded privileges that women are not, to why some people identify with a gender different to their sex. By asking these larger questions, and undoing harmful gender categories and stereotypes, we can stop looking at gender as a binary and start seeing it as a spectrum.

Gender should be a playground, not a prison

There are other ways to think about gender as well. Most women are born women, are labelled as women, and identify as women. That’s absolutely great, no one is asking you to change. Cisgender women exist, and have every right to do so.

Some women are not born with a female body. They are labelled men by society but are fighting to be seen as women, because this is who they are. This as well is a valid argument. No one should deny trans women their right in doing this. This is exactly the same with cisgender men and trans men.

Some people don't feel as they belong to either the male or the female gender binary. They have never felt as if they are 100% male or 100% female. They might identify as both, or sometimes as neither. On some days they might feel more masculine, on others they might feel more feminine. Again, this is perfectly valid. Non-binary people exist and should be allowed to do so in the way that works for them.

This is why trans and non-binary activism is SO INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT. It shows us that gender is not static. No one is confined to a box. You can identify in wherever you want on the gender spectrum. No one is forcing cis people to change. We are just asking for recognition that not everybody identifies that way.

There is literally nothing to lose and everything to gain in standing arm in arm with the trans community and shouting:

WE WILL NOT STAND FOR TRANSPHOBIA, NOT TODAY, NOT TOMORROW, NOT EVER.