Continuing along with my little totally-accidental “covering the basics” theme for this week, it seems appropriate to cover one of the most basic and recurring trans issues of them all (and one of the most overarching), being the ubiquitous use of transgenderism as an insult or pejorative.
A common conversation in regards to whether or not the terms “gay” or “fag” are acceptable as loose pejoratives when their intent is divorced from literally referencing homosexuality is centered around the fact that regardless of intent, the association still exists in this usage, and the implication of such an association being an inherent or universally applicable negative is to suggest that homosexuality is inherently negative. What’s more, intent does not necessarily modify consequence. No matter what an individual literally means or intends through the usage of “gay” or “fag”, the ultimate effect is creating a world where gay men and boys are barraged with the constant message that their identity is considered negative and shameful. It creates a situation where reminders of the bigotry, hatred, ridicule and intolerance they face are omnipresent and inescapable.
But the often unexplored truth is that this non-literal usage of “gay” and “fag” does not simply mean “bad” or “negative”. It has clear and specific connotations. The most consistent of these connotations is that whatever or whomever is so described is weak, pathetic, cowardly, malleable, passive, frivolous, non-manly or feminine.
And all of the connotations that do not directly imply femininity or lack of suitable or proper masculinity nonetheless draw upon a secondary layer of connotations and associations- in that things like weakness, cowardice, passivity, artifice and frivolity are regarded as “feminine” characteristics.
Thus, examining the ubiquity of the use of “gay” and “fag” as pejorative, and the ubiquitous climate of homophobia enacted through it, reveals a deeper layer of the use of “feminine” as pejorative, and that this is directly interconnected with enacting and maintaining a climate of femmephobia and misogyny.
Let’s consider a few of the most common insults levied against men: fag, bitch, pussy, sissy, wimp, motherfucker, bastard, son of a bitch, cocksucker. Men are quite often insulted by comparing them to women, describing them as feminine (often by proxy of implying they’re homosexual), invalidating their manhood or masculinity, or insulting the women close to them, usually their mothers.
This would lead to the conclusion that gender binarism is the underlying issue here, that it is all about suggesting an individual’s dignity is measured in their adherence to assigned sex. But, if we look at the common insults directed towards women we don’t see a comparable, inverted pattern. Instead, we see slut, cunt, bitch, whore, cow. Women are insulted by either reducing them to the sexual aspects of their bodies, or by suggesting they are “impure” or “undesirable” as women, that they don’t live up to what a woman’s role is supposed to be (chaste, passive, attractive, endlessly attendant to the needs of men and endlessly patient with their demands).
So while gay men and boys have to contend with a level of ubiquity to people using their identities as a universal, catch-all pejorative (the fact that I’m using the word “pejorative” so much in this post is totally gay), and this ends up coalescing into an inescapable, constant reminder of their secondary status, women have to deal with an even higher level of ubiquity with our culture using them as the underlying bedrock on which insults and degradation are built.
But trans women? Oh, we’ve got it made. We exist as an insult that can be directed towards anyone. Compare a man to somewhere on the AMAB (assigned-male-at-birth) trans* spectrum, or suggest he is AMAB trans* himself, and you successfully deride his masculinity, even more so than calling him “fag”. Compare a woman to an AMAB trans* person and you’ve successfully insulted her “purity” and “desirability” as a woman just as well as if you’ve called her a “whore”.
While the use of transgenderism as a pejorative and insult isn’t quite as ubiquitous as “gay”, “bitch” or “slut”, it makes up for it in universality and punch. We end up being a go-to insult for any occasion, with a little extra heft for when you want to show someone you truly disrespect them.
Meanwhile, the open ridicule of trans women, in its non-insult form, remains constant, inescapable and explicitly tolerated.
And of course, there’s that extremely powerful cultural undercurrent I originally mentioned, about how the universally bad and horrible and insulting and very-not-good worst thing you can accuse a man of is deviating from his masculinity in the direction of womanhood.
In other words, the worst thing you can accuse a man of is being transgender.
This is more than just theory on cultural perceptions of gender however. What becomes very immediate, and very important to recognize, is the consequences.
As the worst thing you can accuse a man of is being transgender, thus the message is sent, over and over and over, in hundreds of thousands of subtle signals, that the singularly worst and most shameful thing someone who was assigned male can do is transition. As “were you born a man?” or “looks like a tranny” are used as denigrations of women, the message is sent, over and over and over, that all that awaits you on the other side is being a particularly pathetic and shameful type of woman. I hope I shouldn’t have to clarify what this does to how pre-transition AMAB people struggling with their gender identity end up perceiving themselves and their prospects, the sense of deep hopelessness and self-hatred it engenders.
We have the inescapable barrage of jokes at the expense of trans women. We have the use of challenges to a man’s gender as the most salient and consistently employed insult. It is effectively impossible for a trans woman to make it through a single day without being confronted with messages telling her she should be ashamed of herself for what she is.
I’ve mentioned before just how bitterly exhausting it is to live in a world where that’s what you hear, constantly, from all sides. That you are the worst thing that could ever happen to someone. That your life is a misery. That your body is a disgusting abomination. That you are brimming over with sin and immorality. That you are an unnatural freak. That your identity is a joke. That your mind is diseased and delusional. That you are unlovable, undesirable, unfuckable, untouchable, that beauty is by definition only attainable through the degree to which you suppress and hide what you are, and that in all likelihood, no one will ever love or want you. That if you have the audacity to pursue love or intimacy or touch, then you are a deceitful liar who deserves whatever violence befalls her. That you are “really” a man, but bereft of everything that makes men “superior”. That nothing awaits you further in life but more pain, more misery, more loneliness, and if you’re lucky, an early death.
I don’t care how much confidence someone has. It is impossible to fight that off forever. We are forever swimming upriver against our culture’s messages about gender, just to maintain the basic level of self-confidence and self-love necessary to survive. It is exhausting. Exhausting in a way I’m not sure anyone who hasn’t lived it can really understand.
“It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”
Is it any wonder 41% become too tired to continue?
One often hears the term “micro-aggression”. Micro-aggression is an extremely important concept in understanding how discrimination, bigotry and privilege work. A micro-aggression is a form of non-overt bigotry that nonetheless subtly needles away at someone’s identity, and undermines their confidence or empowerment in a way just beneath the threshhold of immediate notice. Micro-aggressions are the little comments a male co-worker repeatedly makes about a woman’s appearance. Or the little underhanded compliments a white professor may make about a black student’s eloquence, but describing her expression of her political ideologies in an essay as “unnecessarily hostile”. Or congratulating a person with disabilities for their “bravery” in continuing to live in what must be such a horrible, terrible life.
Micro-aggressions, while individually dismissible, end up coalescing into something much stronger, with much more harmful consequences, like stereotype threat, undermining an individual’s confidence and morale, asserting and maintaining engrained power structures, normalizing discriminatory attitudes (which may then provide justifications for escalating actions) or intimidating victims of discrimination into silence.
But what I find is the case in transphobia and cissexism is that while yes, we deal with the threat of micro-aggressions, we also deal with a coalesced macro-aggression. While the subtler enforcements of cis-supremacy remain in play even in “trans-friendly” environments through the effects described in the preceding paragraph, we’re also faced with the aggregated pressures of having to deal with our identity used as an extreme pejorative, as the most shameful possible iteration of identity (with that hatred motivated by intensely powerful cultural and psychological needs), and the (often literally) overwhelming bombardment of overt hatred and ridicule that we are constantly exposed to through media… and even “innocent” interpersonal interactions and socio-linguistic mores coded into our language itself. It would only be through total and complete isolation from our culture (and other human beings) that we could protect ourselves from this, which would be just as psychologically harmful.
The thing that makes this so hard to bear is that we have to actually be the insult, be the punchline. For a cis person, trans is a concept that can be visited (such as while reading this blog, or the Urban Outfitter’s Jack and Jill card, or renting The Crying Game) and then left, put aside. It is something else, something other, something you can choose to think about or choose not to think about. The transphobia may seem appalling, but it’s ultimately something you can put aside or tune out if you need to. And you do tune it out, I promise. One of the scariest things about transition was suddenly noticing it everywhere, no longer able to ignore it. You have the benefit that no matter what shitty, awful thing gets said openly about trans people, that is a conceptual category apart from yourself.
But that’s not the case for us. In every single moment of my life, for the rest of my life, I have to actually be a trans woman, be that thing that is used as an insult, a joke, an Exotic Other, an interesting story, a fascinating I’ve Never Met One Of You Before, a “Frankenstein”, a he/she, a shim, a thing, an it, a tranny, trap, ladyboy, shemale…
That’s me. That’s the identity I actually inhabit. That’s the body I inhabit. It was there when I began writing this post, and it will be there when I finish. And when the next awful bit of transphobia rolls around, which WILL be by the end of today, I’m still going to inhabit it, I’m still going to be trans, and I’ll still have to know it’s me they’re talking about with their hatred, disgust, scorn or ridicule. It’s me and who and what I am.
I can’t escape being trans. I can’t escape the world where that is seen as inconceivably shameful. And I can’t escape having to be that pejorative. It takes all the running I can do just to carry on.