Wednesday, March 04, 2009


What does it mean when something's transphobic? Like homophobic (the undoubted inspirational term), it means to words or actions or behaviors that are anti-trans- I generally take it to mean something that is unfair, hurtful, offensive or meanspirited, and negatively affects trans people, whether directly or indirectly. Today I read an offhand comment that had been made on a friend's journal, and I felt moved to respond, telling the author that I felt it was transphobic.

She had made a comment along the lines of "many transpeople are often selfish jerks while they transition!" and I had responded with "Hey, that's offensive. People are jerks all the time for all kinds of various reasons, and yet transfolks are the ones who routinely get chastised/written off for being "selfish" and "assholes" while we're trying to navigate an insanely difficult and stressful period of our lives. It's the kind of transphobic double standard that makes me wont to paraphrase Bella Abzug: we'll know we've won when an asshole transperson gets cut neither more nor less slack than an asshole non-trans person."

We talked it out via a few more comment exchanges, and I think I understand her perspective. She was making the point that transition is not a get-out-of-jail free pass, which is an exceedingly legitimate point. It's still not okay to be a selfish jerk, regardless of the 'reason' or stressful factors. I had moments in my early transition when I was self-centered, and I regret them, and I believe I mostly apologized to the people I slighted at the time. Equitable standards work both ways- just as we shouldn't be held to stricter scrutiny of when/why we're being jerks, we don't get to complain that it's not out fault, it's just all this pressure! For instance, the myth that taking testosterone turns one into an angry moody sex-fiend, seemingly held and perpetuated by trans and non trans folks alike. Yes, testosterone has effected significant changes in my emotional stability, the length of my fuse, and my sex drive. It's called self-control. I think going through transition is in many ways a second (or extended, in my case, since I started transition about 19) adolescence, and while we take it for granted that teens are often moody, angsty, and self-centered, we also hold them to reasonable standards of behavior, and recognize that not all teens are such.

Anyway. One of the more interesting bits of the exchange for me was that my conversational partner revealed in her initial response to me that she herself is trans, and hence had no small amount of perspective on the matter. And hey, all of a sudden I was reading her comments in a different light. I still feel like her initial comment was unfair, but her subsequent clarifications calmed me down, and inspired me to re-evaluate.

It was a nice reminder about the importance of context in conversations on tricky, potentially threatening topics. I was probably more defensive than I needed to be about her initial statement, because I've heard too many comments from non-trans folks that, as I commented "managed to both belittle and invalidate the stresses of transition." I went in with hackles up. It's much easier to accept critique of my community from a fellow member of said community, and I wasn't so trepidatious about her perspective. In the end, I was glad I challenged her, because in her explanations, she made several very insightful points that I was glad to have the opportunity to ponder. On the other hand, I still thought her initial comment was unfair, so it just goes to show that everyone can make insensitive statements sometimes, particularly in "in-group" spaces where they have reason to believe that they'll be taken with a grain of salt.
So transphobia (or spontaneous mildly transphobic statements, anyway) can come from unexpected sources! Not just trans folks, but trans allies. In a much more clear-cut instance, I was in a conversation with someone the other day- someone who has dated at least one trans person (to my knowledge), who is not herself trans, but who pushes for gender identity to be included in educational settings about diversity and nondiscrimination, in short, a trans ally- who unexpectedly brought up the subject of an unexpected crush she'd had last year.

"I think he was a bio-boy!" she chirruped almost bashfully.

The flow of conversation moved reasonably quickly, and I didn't say anything at the time, but arrrgh, how that phrase grates on me. As I'm sure I've mentioned her innumerable times, I despise the false dichotomy that it sets up between trans and non-trans men, or, more specifically transsexual and cissexual men. There are so many loaded and moral connotations with the prefix 'bio-' that I cannot tolerate it used in opposition to 'trans-'. Bio sets itself against synthetic, and I am not a fake man.

Yet there are plenty who would disagree, who would tell me to get off my defensive high horse and let go of my conceptions of the word 'fake.' I suspect these are the same folks who gleefully or casually refer to themselves and others as trannies. At any rate, I think the argument goes that transsexual men are NOT the same as cissexual men, so why get so bent out of shape about terminology?

Well, all terminology is not created equal, my friends, and to ignore the power differentials in the words used to describe us is to relinquish a powerful weapon in a fight to end oppression.

Relatedly, I've heard folks say proudly that they are NOT real men, not because they are trans, but because there is no such thing as a "real" man. That's an admirable sentiment, but one that isn't shared by the populace at large, and may not be for an exceedingly long time, if ever. In the mean time, I think groundwork is an important part of the Revolution, and until the notion of "real men" is finally stamped out, I'm certainly not going to let myself be defined outside that circle.


Mo Machiva said...

I consider myself an ally, although there is always more work I could be doing for equality. I know I have had moments of transphobia and ignorance: using improper pronouns, making assumptions about correspondence between the sex and the genders of the people I know, and so on. I will say I scrupulously avoid bio-boy or -girl, and try to spread the gospel of the very sensible term cisgendered, and that was very much an issue brought to my attention by you, and I thank you for it. I'm not endeavoring to defend the casual transphobia that you're discussing here. Just wanted to weigh in and show that your entry made me stop and evaluate how I've been doing as an ally, and as always, there's room for improvement. Thank you for the reminder.

Also, I am sure you will appreciate this is as a fellow language nerd: when you briefly began with the question of "transphobia"'s linguistic inspiration, I couldn't help but think of literal meanings. The fear of crossing over . . . anything. Heeheehee

Eli said...

Hey buddy, nice to hear from you! I think you've hit on the ponit that I was trying to make, which is that none of us is perfect, and we can all make thoughtless or hurtful remarks from time to time. Being an ally or even a member of a group doesn't mean a free pass to say whatever we want!

Also, yes, the 'phobia' part of transphobia/homophobia always makes me giggle a bit. Because I'm so scary, don't you know!!

leander said...

It's great to hear your thoughts again, Eli! It seems like every time you post, Elise and I end up having a really interesting conversation about that post!