Although I’ve mentioned it before, and have often had to explore it in order to make certain arguments clear, I realized yesterday that I’ve never really taken the time to specifically discuss and outline the phenomenon of trans-misogyny for its own sake. Trans-misogyny, simply put, is the unique confluence of various attitudes about gender that end up being directed as hatred, discrimination, scorn or ridicule towards trans women. Or pretty much just the unique and particular form of misogyny that targets trans women.
Because it’s such a central concept to understanding what trans women deal with, and why, and what motivates the pronounced cultural hostility towards us, I thought it could be helpful to take a post to just quickly go over the basic concepts at play here, and what makes trans-misogyny unique, in comparison to other related bigotries like transphobia and misogyny. Understanding trans-misogyny is also extremely helpful in being able to understand why trans issues are important to feminism, and vice versa, and how much the hatred directed towards trans women (and other people who were assigned-male-at-birth but deviate from gender norms) is connected to the cultural devaluing of women. It helps to make it clear why, contrary to the attitudes of transphobic feminists like Janice Raymond, Germaine Greer, Mary Daly, Sheila Jeffreys or MichFest and the Uncritical-Butlerians, trans women and feminism can and should be allies, that we absolutely need one another in order to be able to understand the problems we’re facing and attempting to overcome. Trans-misogyny is not just a trans women’s issue, it’s a women’s issue.
One of the basic things to recognize, as pointed out by a few commenters in yesterday’s “When Trans-Inclusivity Goes Wrong” comment thread, is that while transitioning to male is seen as “upgrading” in the cultural sense that male is still subconsciously regarded as the “superior” gender, transitioning to female is “downgrading”, regarded as giving something up, becoming a lesser kind of being. I find this is often expressed through the way that SRS is so quickly misapprehended as “amputation”, “cutting off your dick”… as though female genitals are just the absence of male ones.
This is connected to femmephobia, of course, and the idea that not only is femaleness of lesser value than maleness, but that which is culturally coded as “feminine” (or “associated with women and girls”) is subconsciously regarded as of lesser value than that which is coded as “masculine”. Frivolous, silly, delicate, inane.
Within this basic framework of “traditional sexism”, the age-old hierarchy of male > female, a trans woman just doesn’t really make sense. She can’t really exist. I think this is responsible for a lot of the cultural obsession with trans women, and non-gender-normative people who were assigned male… an obsession for which trans men do not experience an analog. While our culture has been more or less content to ignore trans men, or pretend they don’t exist, it has sought out, and endlessly theorized and pontificated upon, mocked, fetishized, re-theorized, belittled, and pathologized trans women.
A lot of that obsession is fueled because trans women can’t fit into the narrative we’ve constructed about gender. See, if maleness and masculinity is superior and preferable to femaleness and femininity, then how could anyone who has been blessed with being male ever want to give that up? How could ANYONE actually want to trade in the almighty phallus for one of those weird, squishy vagina things? Why would anyone embrace a female identity if they didn’t have to? How can a sane, rational, reasonable person actually find femaleness and/or femininity to be an empowering self-identification, and find themselves happier, more fulfilled, more at peace, more at home, and more complete within them?
The answer is pretty easy: obviously they aren’t sane, rational or reasonable. Right? They must be mentally ill. Or delusional. Or are a self-hating gay man who can’t accept his own homosexuality. Or if you’re a clever sort, you can construct elaborate psychosexual theoretical frameworks in which you can imagine a man might want to have a female body (he’s a gay guy who wants to attract straight men! He’s a straight guy who wants to have his very own female body to get off on! etc). Or if all that is too much work, you just mock and ridicule them. Or if that doesn’t quite take care of the problem, and the threat they pose, you can just go and bash their brains in or something.
A trans-women, simply by existing, poses a fundamental threat to the assumption of male superiority. That threat is part, but not all, of what constitutes and fuels trans-misogyny. There are other threats as well, such as to a man’s (and sometimes woman’s) own sexuality and gender.
One of the things that often triggers homophobic reactions is the way that human beings typically conceptualize “The Other” in terms of attempting to relate the other to themselves, “putting themselves in their shoes”. This is usually a healthy, adaptive behaviour, and very strongly connected to our capacity for empathy. However in trying to conceptualize homosexuality, and what homosexuality means, an individual will often have to imagine what it would be to engage in and enjoy homosexual acts. Given the immense cultural baggage tied to homosexuality, the stigma and hatred, the connections between sexuality and gender, how male homosexuality is perceived as “feminine” and “unmanly” and (by way of femmephobia and misogyny) therefore bad, that act of conceptualization, rather than simply being an emotionally neutral exercise in trying to understand, can end up eliciting intense feelings of revulsion, disgust, shame, self-hatred, and a bunch of other things, which are also usually externalized onto the object whose presence triggered those feelings. Because the thought of yourself engaging in homosexual sex elicits (largely by way of cultural conditioning) feelings of disgust, the person identifying as gay is thought to be disgusting.
The presence of trans women can trigger similar, but even more complex, chains of internal questions, associations and emotional reactions. In trying to comprehend transsexuality, most people will think in terms of why they would do that. Why someone who “is” the assigned sex would “want” to be the “opposite” sex. So initially you have the conceptual distortion of framing a trans woman’s desire for transition as being about why a man would want to have a female body (which is already way off the mark… it’s actually all about why a woman would want to have a female body), but a man may then insert himself into the conceptualization in order to understand it. Again, feelings of disgust, revulsion, shame, self-hatred, as well as all kinds of fears related to castration or body modification, and even the conceptualization of the gender dysphoria that would come along with his body being rendered female (ironic, really, in that his own disgust and fear of his own body becoming female actually gets very close to the actual motivations behind transition; it’s just the other way around), and those negative feelings are then again projected onto the object that triggered them. If the idea of becoming a woman is so thoroughly horrifying to a man, then any “man” who willingly does so must “him”self be horrifying and deeply alien (again, the irony being that the feelings triggering this sense of alienation could, with a very simple conceptual act of using that horror with a female body to comprehend why trans men transition, and then working backwards from there, help someone understand just how basic and human and not really alien at all it is).
A cis woman may also feel discomfort in the presence of trans women, feeling that the gendered elements of her own body are also not necessarily simply a given, a fixed reality, but something “acquirable” by a strange, external Other, or imagining herself in the position of having to fight for her body against an assigned maleness, or its femaleness being incongruent with other elements. That “female” can be a claimed state, rather than just something someone simply is. She may feel the validity of her womanhood is threatened, if other people are able to simply “fake it”. She might feel encroached upon. Or maybe like something fundamentally her’s is being taken away, that women don’t even have control over “woman” anymore.
This gets further complicated by a couple additional things: first there’s the introduction of awareness, or a reminder, that gender is mutable and not concrete. People want to feel secure and stable and thoroughly positioned in their gender. That their gender simply is. Being confronted with someone who made the choice not to accept their gender as a given makes someone realize that they could make that choice too, that gender therefore isn’t simply something that “just is”, but something destabilized, something that isn’t just solid and unwavering, something that an individual can define for themselves. That takes one of the most concrete, basic foundations of identity, one of the most comfortingly basic facts of one’s life and being, the very first thing about your identity that is proclaimed and known (“it’s a boy!” “it’s a girl!”) and throws it into flux, which is incredibly scary.
Secondly, there is the threat posed by potentially being attracted to a trans woman. You don’t even need to actually be attracted to her, just the idea that you might be, or might be attracted to someone like her, can end up being similarly destabilizing and terrifying. Like gender, but perhaps not to the same extent, our sense of sexual orientation is another very important and very central facet of our identity. In so far as most cis people aren’t able to simply conceptualize a trans person as the presented gender and leave it at that, they end up taking the comforting consistencies and certainties of one’s sexual attractions and throwing those into chaos as well. A man might wonder if it “makes him gay” or could “turn him gay”. A straight woman might fear the same. A lesbian might fear becoming straight. And so forth. The fact that trans women, by virtue of being women, are culturally positioned as sexual objects makes this a bit more prominent. And when you throw in the conceptual emphasis placed on the sexual aspects of a trans woman’s body, the cultural sexualization of what transition is (it’s all about boobs and vaginas in the documentaries; they don’t much talk about skin, scent, body hair, fat redistribution, lasering away the facial hair, changes in fingernail strength, muscle loss or all that other random stuff… just the sexy sex-times parts), and the degree to which our conception of gender identity and gender expression is confused with sexuality, and even the kind of attempts to conceptualize her gender I described earlier can lead to contemplation of her sexuality.
And the final main component fueling trans-misogyny is the gender binary. The idea of male and female as two discrete, mutually exclusive, non-overlapping, “opposite” sexes. Obviously trans men are an equal threat to this. Trans women, as mentioned above, require reappraising what gender is and means, which due to the degree of comfort we take in feeling our own genders to be stable, and how much of a personal stake an individual can feel in terms of wanting to maintain that sense of stability, any such reappraisal is scary and uncomfortable.
So altogether you have trans women embodying several uncomfortable, disturbing questions:
- Is maleness not necessarily superior and preferable to femaleness?
- Is masculinity not necessarily superior and preferable to femininity?
- How can someone choose to do something that I find so horrifying and the thought of which fills me with so much anxiety and disgust?
- How can they lay claim to a gender that is not rightfully theirs? Does that mean maybe mine is not a birthright?
- Is my gender truly stable and fixed? Do I have to be what I think I am?
- Is my sexuality stable? May my sexuality be something other than what I thought it to be?
- Is the concept of gender more complex than what I assumed?
and perhaps the sneaking suspicion that
- Are there are other basic truths I took as a given that are unstable, fluid or far more complex than I assumed?
This intersection of threats to pretty much ALL the basic assumptions our culture carries about sexuality and gender ends up creating a situation where there’s considerable emotional stakes involved in simply acknowledging or confronting the existence of trans women. But trans-misogyny is not simply the emotional responses. It’s the institutional discrimination, hatred, ridicule, trivialization, pathologization, dismissal and violence used to avoid confronting those questions, and render trans women either invisible or “invalid” in terms of having to be confronted, accepted and our implications considered.
There are a number of ways to make those questions go away. I mentioned a few earlier, but for the sake of making another fun little list-like thing, I’m going to make another fun little list-like thing:
- Enforced conformity / normativity. Through things like the “gatekeeping” system, or the constant threat of harassment and violence, it is possible to coerce or intimidate trans women into rendering themselves invisible, and reduce the degree to which they pose the threats and questions I mentioned, through conformity to cultural norms of gender. If you cause trans women to feel their safety, value, worth, or ability to access treatment at all, is dependent on blending in as cis women (“passing”), and NOT coming across as anything threatening or non-normative or thought-provoking, you can convince them to do the bulk of the work for you in terms of mitigating their socio-cultural impact.
- Pathologization. By establishing transsexuality and transgenderism as distinct medial pathologies / disorders, you can end up painting the trans experience of gender as fundamentally distinct and alien to human experiences of gender, and therefore not worth considering. By medicalizing our identities and treating them as “pathological” / “unnatural”, rather than accepting them as a natural extension of human variance, it becomes something apart from “normal” gender, and therefore does not have any implications for what gender “normally” means and how it “normally” operates. (note: I personally do not object to the term “gender identity disorder”, and do believe that GID is a medical condition that deserves medical treatment. However, I do not think of trans identities, or our genders themselves, as what are “wrong” with us. What’s “wrong” with us is the mismatched bodies, and that can successfully be treated). Additionally, by treating trans women as mentally ill or “insane”, it allows us to not have to imagine our decisions as having been reasonable and informed. We don’t legitimately embrace being female and find it more comfortable than being male, we’re “just crazy”!
- Invalidation. By treated us as “really” just male, only “cosmetically” female, refusing to gender us appropriately, refusing to use the appropriate pronouns, insisting that we must not enter the “wrong” bathroom or fitting room, etc. it is possible to sweep all the questions aside. One can just close one’s eyes, plug one’s ears, and just say “man man man man! gender is binary and fixed! you’re a dude! lalalalala! man man man!”. It’s surprisingly effective. That way the only uncomfortable thing left to worry about is “his” attractiveness “making you gay”. And if that happens, you can, again, just kill “him”. Problem solved. And if you get caught and go to trial? Trans panic defense!
- Ridicule. This one is easy. You mock and ridicule and poke fun at us, and that way you get to spend your time laughing instead of actually considering that we might, you know, be serious. And imply serious things. As long as trans women are a joke, we’re not a threat. “Pssssh, you think you’re a chick? HILARIOUS!” Similar to the invalidation technique in that it’s all about just plain not confronting our existence or accepting what that means.
- Discrimination and segregation. Although these kinds of techniques don’t directly get us out of the way, or eliminate the icky questions, they reassert the power structure. By refusing to create anti-discrimination laws and protections, by threatening to fire us if we transition, or not accepting us into housing, or kicking us off of airplanes, or insisting on your right to “sir” us, and all the little games cis people play in daily interactions where they assert who has control of the discourse, it is possible to keep trans people forever in a position of vulnerability, perpetually dependent on external validations and mercies, and thereby maintain power over the situation. That way you balance the conceptual threat posed by trans women by keeping them threatened by your relative social power. Keeps ‘em from getting all uppity.
- Trivialization. We’re “just” men who think they want to be girls. We’re “just” confused. We’re “just” trying to attract straight guys. We’re “just” not able to accept ourselves as we are. We’re “just” internalizing homophobia. We’re “just” looking for a kinky thrill. We’re “just” trying to get attention. We’ve “just” become fixated on this because of our autism / ADD / OCD / asperger’s / PTSD / depression / addiction / whatever. We’re “just” looking for an explanation for why we never fit in. We’re “just” unable to think outside of gender boxes and labels. We “just” have self-esteem issues. We’re “just” buying into outdated binaries. We’re “just” really really really gay. We’re “just” going through a phase. We’re “just” overzealous cross-dressers. We’re “just” jealous. “Just” a bunch of silly trannies. Putting “just” in front of things tends to make them seem a lot less scary, powerful or meaningful.
Anyway, altogether, trans-misogyny, as said, is intimately connected to maintaining the basic cultural standards of gender and sexuality. It isn’t really about trans women in particular. What it’s about is clinging to the same ideas we’ve been basing things on for centuries. Ideas which have simply proved inadequate and harmful.
By understanding how trans-misogyny is about things like maintaining the assumption that male is the superior, default gender and that masculinity is natural and powerful but femininity is artificial and frivolous, or understanding how homophobia is connected to the imposition of gender roles and attempt to corral men into not “giving up” their privileged station (and thereby invalidating its assumed supremacy), we can make a lot of headway into understanding the overlaps between different forms of oppression, and begin working towards a more cohesive movement in terms of gender rights.
Ultimately, feminism, LGB rights, and trans rights, are ALL about asserting that there is more than one way to be a man or woman. That biology is not destiny. Analysis of particular iterations of discrimination on this basis, such as the particularly forceful and violent discrimination towards trans women, can offer considerable insight into the commonalities amongst our individual experiences, and the common bases of our shared oppression. Identifying this kind of thing can allow us to work towards targeting the foundations on which our oppression is built, rather than just addressing surface-level symptoms of the problem. And it can allow us to perceive our shared goals.
If we work together, understanding what an individual form of oppression means in relation to others, we can build a movement not about minorities, but about a majority who deviate from the strict standards of a privileged few. When we get to the point of creating a feminism inclusive and understanding of the shared oppression of women, trans people, LGB people, other queer people, and non-gender-normative men, there will be more of us than them. And winning will become inevitable.