There is a common misconception that the existence of transgender people is a threat to feminism. Much transphobia is levelled at trans women, who are considered to be threats to cis women (not that a transphobic person would call themselves cisgender because they question the existence of transgender people, as outlined in my previous posts). We saw this form of transphobia come up a lot last year, most notably by J.K. Rowling. In response, many people defended the comments made, defensively proclaiming that someone like Rowling isn’t and can’t be transphobic. But. Transphobia is interwoven into the fabric of our society and its norms, and regularly appears in our actions and beliefs. And rather than defend and double down on our prejudices we can acknowledge, challenge and change them.
I believe the origin of this form of transphobia lies in the widespread belief that men are threatening and violent. This view is underpinned by the huge amount of violence perpetrated by men towards women. However, this is a concern regarding cisgender men, not transgender women. But because many people do not believe or fully believe in transgender people, it is assumed that transgender women are actually just men dressing up as women and are, therefore, devious and a threat to other people, especially women and children. This is why they shouldn’t be allowed to use women’s toilets or changing rooms and why something like the Gender Recognition Act (which allows people to legally change their gender) should be questioned – because cisgender men will use it to pretend to be women so they can continue to commit acts of violence. This belief – that transgender women are actually just men – is both inaccurate and prejudiced, as are the resulting beliefs it produces, not to mention the huge amount of pain and suffering these beliefs cause. The truth is that transgender women are women.
Unfortunately, many people do not believe this and continue to dehumanise trans women while scapegoating them for the violence of cisgender men. Furthermore, even if a cis man were to pretend to be a woman so he could enter an all-female space to commit violence that still says nothing about trans women (or trans people in general) but everything about this particular cisgender man’s violence. I find it genuinely heart breaking to see trans people demonised and dehumanised in this way (just as gay men were once and still are regularly called paedophiles and perverts to justify undermining their human rights). The existence of transgender people really shouldn’t be up for debate just as we don’t question whether bisexual people exist or black people or cis women. I believe it is possible to articulate a form of feminism that champions all women, including cis and trans, and protects the reproductive rights of all women. Broadening our conception of womanhood does not dilute it but diversifies and strengthens it. This isn’t about trying to limit any women’s rights or limiting her access to spaces and resources. This is about enshrining more rights and creating more spaces and providing more resources. It’s about recognising the Patriarchy Pie is inherently unjust and causes minorities and oppressed groups to fight one another, rather than make a new pie together. As someone assumed to be male, amongst other things, the patriarchy pie affords me many privileges. But rather than cash in on them and turn my back on others I say, bullshit! I want a better pie, that’s fairer and tastier, for everyone, and that absolutely includes trans people.
I make these comments as someone who was raised a cisgender man and who now identifies as genderqueer. I will absolutely not speak for women and whilst I wish for a world of equality I cannot force anyone to suddenly feel comfortable with change. There may well be discomfort on the road to change as assumptions we long held about gender are challenged and dislodged. But I believe the discomfort felt by cisgender people as they are made to question the gender binary is so much less than the discomfort and pain they create by being transphobic. The former, I believe, is necessary for positive change while the latter is totally unjustifiable and inhumane.
Broadening our understandings of gender will allow us to be better trans allies and, thus, lessen the amount of transphobia there is in the world (of which there is so much). However, many of us do not do this and view the world through a binary lens – that the only genders that exist are male and female and these genders are synonymous with assigned biological sex. This view may be able to incorporate, to an extent, people who are perceived to transition from one binary gender/sex to another but this can still prove difficult to understand/accept, not to mention the existence of other genders. This view is the root of a lot of transphobia and one I used to hold.
Returning to my first post on transphobia, I described my 19 year-old self holding transphobic views towards a gender-nonconforming person who I assumed to be a man dressing up as a woman. I took certain physical characteristics and assumed this meant the person was male and made particular assumptions about the gender of the clothing they wore. I see it differently now. Firstly, an item of clothing cannot have a gender. It can, however, be generally worn by a particular gender (e.g. like how trousers used to be mainly worn by men) but this still doesn’t mean I can make any assumptions about a person’s gender based on their clothes. Remember, also, that the reasons certain items of clothing are associated with a particular gender often have to do with societal expectations, norms and/or prejudices (e.g. that women shouldn’t wear trousers). Furthermore, I cannot assume someone’s gender based on their physical appearance. Instead, I could ask someone for their pronouns and/or talk to them about their gender identity, if it felt appropriate to do so. Otherwise, I could just refrain from making assumptions and wait until I acquire further information or, perhaps, just not know those details about that person.
Another example would be my experience of being a cisgender male – i.e. being gendered in the same way as my birth sex was assigned (based on my genitalia). For a long time I believed that to be a man one must have testicles and a penis and be able to produce sperm. Now, my view has changed – I do not believe having certain genitalia and the ability to produce motile gametes are the hallmarks of the male gender. My view of the category of man includes people who have vaginas and can give birth, e.g. people who might call themselves trans men. I will not police the category of man, instead, I will welcome my trans brothers. Many, many people struggle with ideas such as these and the question remains the same – can we broaden our understandings of gender to embrace greater diversity or will we hold on to our current beliefs? As someone who identifies partly as genderqueer and who is also a trans ally I, of course, seek to enlarge my understanding and hope you will do so as well. It can seem confusing and difficult but I think going on this journey of learning is totally worth it and will lessen violence and increase love – my central aim (one many people are opposed to or claim to support until they double down on their prejudices). To be continued…
As an important caveat – many of the explanations and definitions I offer are not universally shared, which is a reminder of how important it is to not make assumptions and to spend time trying to understand other people’s beliefs and worldviews.
For a long time I assumed if someone was transgender it meant they used to identify as either male or female and now they identified as the opposite gender. I believed this because I assumed gender to be a binary – either male or female. Add to this my belief that the prefix trans- only meant across, i.e. a transgender person crosses from one gender to another. However, a deeper dive into the etymological origins of the prefix reveals that as well as across, through and on the other side of, it can also mean beyond. Add to this the realisation that gender is not a binary and there are many genders beyond female and male. And finally, an actual definition of the adjective transgender: denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.
All along transgender had a broader definition than I originally knew – while it definitely encapsulates those who transition from one gender to another, e.g. male-to-female, it also includes people who do not identify as either male or female, including non-binary, genderqueer, and neutrois. So trans can be seen as an umbrella term covering a wide range of gender identities, including one of my own. This is easily forgotten when we assume all that exists is the gender binary. Furthermore, deeper into the etymology and we come to the Proto-Indo-European (super old language) *tra-, a variant of the root *tere-, meaning cross over, pass through, overcome. As well as the idea of movement there is also the idea of overcoming, which (accidentally or not) relates to the huge challenge of being a transgender person in today’s world. Such prejudice and violence must be overcome so transgender folks can simply survive, let alone live the flourishing and brilliant lives they deserve.
2020 is asking a lot of us and one of the things I think it asks is that we broaden our conceptions of gender (and biological sex for that matter). I can’t see a way forward without this. Failing to understand the nuances and abundances of gender means we fail all the folks whose sense of personal identity and gender do not correspond with their birth sex, of whom there are millions, myself included. By informing ourselves and changing our behaviours accordingly we will be able to remove some of the many challenges that trans people are forced to overcome on a daily basis. To be continued…
There was one gay night a week when I was at university in the late noughties. Me and my friends would don our glad rags, have our prelash and pile into this tiny bar with a sweaty dance floor in the basement. I was nineteen years of age and a regular and pretty much always requested Candyman by Christina Aguilera. I remember one of the other regulars – long eyelashes, fabulous hair, glitter, make-up on point (as we say nowadays), feminine clothes and an array of body hair. I found this person equal parts captivating to repelling. I assumed they were male and used he/him pronouns (not that I spent much time thinking about people’s pronouns back then). I often found myself wondering why a guy would want to dress up like that. To my nineteen-year-old self this ‘guy’ was just weird.
Looking back I see my thoughts for what they were – transphobic. I was repelled by this gender non-conforming person and they evoked in me a whole host of internalised queerphobia, transphobia and misogyny. Why couldn’t they act like a normal man? Why did they dress so weirdly? What sort of guy would want to wear that much make-up (wasn’t guyliner enough)? Something else I also didn’t understand at the time was that I was deeply attracted to this person. But my mindscape was a shitshow of boarding school prejudices and conservatism with a big dose of toxic masculinity that I would have to battle for years to come. It wouldn’t be until the January sales of 2016 that I bought my first dress and not until the summer of 2018 that I wore a dress in public for a prolonged period of time. How sad that it took me so long when all those years ago that fellow regular at the weekly gay night (I don’t think it was called a queer or an LGBTQ+ night back then) was showing me how it’s done.
I share this here as an instance of transphobia in my own life. It would be a much better world if I had not been transphobic in the first place and had treated my contemporary with the love and respect they deserved. Sadly that wasn’t how it worked out and it took me a long time to learn my lessons. So I share this post, now, so we can learn our lessons quicker and more compassionately because transphobia is on the rise and so many trans people are suffering – whether it’s their mental and/or physical health, personal safety and/or their life.
One thing I wish I knew back then was that biological sex and gender are different. The former, also known as assigned sex, relates to medical factors including chromosomes, hormones and genitals. There are at least five sexes, if not more, and the two most common we label female and male. Someone’s sex tells us very important things about that person, their biology and the sorts of care they might require in their lives. Meanwhile, gender relates to someone’s identity and behaviours, which relate to larger social practices/norms/pressures/expectations of what it means to be a certain gender. Often the birth sexes of male and female are used to denote gender based on genitals (and presumed chromosomes), however, as I know now, there’s so much more to gender than a binary.
I shall leave you with a very simple online definition of the adjective transgender: denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex. I wish my younger self had this knowledge and understanding. I wish my younger self had sought it out. Instead, I was spending much too long analysing Descartes’ mind-body dualism (another binary we can do without) and sleeping off my various Wednesday morning hangovers. To be continued…
A response to Nigel Biggar’s article in The Times titled: Obsession with gender identity goes too far (if you replace the instances of Nigel Biggar with transgender you effectively get his article).
Recently a man decided to come out as Nigel Biggar at a public gathering somewhere north of Hadrian’s wall. He did it to raise the profile of people who identify as “Nigel Biggar” (of which I believe there is only one) who, he claims, are being refused “their human right to be recognised as they wish”. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are certain aspects of identity that I think are vastly important, especially sexuality, gender, religion, ethnicity, race, but being Nigel Biggar is not one of them. Unfortunately, the alleged Nigel Biggar seems to think that because he identifies as Nigel Biggar then others should identify him as such. He claims to feel his identity very deeply but, unfortunately for him, not all identities are equal and some just aren’t worth holding on to. No identity deserves uncritical respect and I think it’s time we jettisoned the identity of Nigel Biggar entirely.
When the self-professed Nigel Biggar came out as Nigel Biggar he claimed that his own community has difficulty grasping such a “complex concept”. He went on to explain that the signifier Nigel Biggar “describes anyone who feels that they do not exclusively fit the accepted definitions of people who do not identify as Nigel Biggar.” I have to confess to being a little puzzled by all this. Now, before you accuse me of being Nigel Biggarphobic, I can’t be, because before I can fear or hate something, I have to achieve some idea of what it means. And, frankly, I struggle to make sense of the claims of the new Nigel Biggarism. I mean, why should someone identifying as Nigel Biggar demand that society behave in such a way as to acknowledge their existence? Should we even bother having to put the words Nigel and Biggar together? Should Nigel Biggar identifiers be allowed to go to the toilet, fill out census forms or sleep? As far as I’m concerned the Nigel Biggar identity adds nothing new to our already diverse array of identities and is just an act of private obscurity made manifest. For example, we’re told that “Nigel Biggar” describes any person that trascends the “accepted system” of people who aren’t Nigel Biggar. But why does this already established system need any further identities, we have enough. Self-professed Nigel Biggars claim to transcend those who are not Nigel Biggar but I wonder what qualities actually remain after all other identities have been claimed? I’m struggling to imagine Nigel Biggar’s existence beyond some amorphous blast of hot air.
Most importantly though, why should we care? Whatever Nigel Biggar identity is supposed to be, what’s it good for? What does it achieve? The strength of felt attachment alone can’t endow it with value. So my attitude towards Nigel Biggarism is very much like some random person’s view that the inability of square pegs to fit into round holes has nothing to do with their shape. There are plenty of people out there who are in urgent need of our help – for example, the many transgender folks who are being routinely discriminated against, violently abused and killed in Britain and around the world. In their light, obsessing about the social recognition of the elusive Nigel Biggar identity does look awfully like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
Germaine Greer has made her point – she doesn’t like trans people and she doesn’t like being no-platformed (as a petition has called for at Cardiff University). She’s made her point and so many of us are repeating it for her, amplifying her voice so it drowns out many others. But I think there’s something else we need to talk about.
Transphobia is the intense dislike of or prejudice against transsexual or transgender people. It takes many forms – from extreme violence including murder and assault through to hate speech and everyday-acts-of-prejudice (e.g. hostile stares, offensive comments). One particularly distressing case of transphobia occurred in May last year. Two trans women were assualted on a train in Atlanta, US, and one was stripped. Passengers on the train cheered, filmed the attack on their phones and posted it to social media. The terror of this event speaks for itself.
I think it is against this context that we must understand Germaine Greer’s comments. She is openly transphobic and for anyone who is part of or cares about the trans community this is deeply distressing. I can understand why people would want to no-platform her as her regressive views continue to dehumanise and disregard trans people. However, the problem is that this is the problem – whether or not Greer should be no-platformed, when really the graver issue is the amount of persecution the trans community faces.
Yes, we can debate no-platforming and yes we can try to understand why Germaine Greer holds such prejudiced, transphobic views. But before that we must realise that what she’s saying will not help alleiviate the suffering that the trans community faces. It’s such a shame that the voices in the media that talk about trans issues so often belong to transphobes, where are the trans voices and the voices of trans allies? I think it’s time to stop talking about Germaine Greer and start talking about something else – namely transphobia and what we can do to stop it.
P.S. I’m a cis guy and the opinions in this blog are only my own – I am not claiming to write on behalf of the cis male community, the trans community nor Germaine Greer. You might also mistake me for one of those desperate, over-educated, white middle class people who thinks they have something to say about everything and who really wants to appear right-on and progressive. Well, I’ll let you be the judge.