Okay, this is turning into a thing.
So in the thread created to talk about the phenomenon where people announce on the internet that they’re too afraid to discuss issues central to (or sometimes merely implicating) trans persons’ human rights before immediately launching a conversation about their concerns about granting trans persons equal human rights, one new commenter, GG, decided to change the subject. Although I feel vexed that what I wrote seemed to be ignored in favor of the commenter’s preferred conversation, the comment and request for response were both respectful and, as it turns out, the issues that GG unknowingly raised are actually significant. So I decided to respond, but I’m not going to allow that thread to be derailed so I have created this new post to discuss what GG brought up. Let’s start with GG’s comment, which itself begins with a quote from a BBC news article:
“One of the lesbian women I spoke to, 24-year-old Amy*, told me she experienced verbal abuse from her own girlfriend, a bisexual woman who wanted them to have a threesome with a trans woman.
When Amy explained her reasons for not wanting to, her girlfriend became angry.
“The first thing she called me was transphobic,” Amy said. “She immediately jumped to make me feel guilty about not wanting to sleep with someone.”
Assuming, for the sake of this discussion, that Amy’s description of her experiences are accurate, the use of the word “transphobic” here is … complicated, to say the least. It would be good to hear your thoughts on “transphobia”/”transphobe”, as they probably speak directly to the example above.
Now, I’ve heard about this news article, but I haven’t read it and am not particularly interested in doing so because of things I’ve heard about it. Fortunately, I am only asked to respond to the quote, and I am trusting GG that everything relevant to GG’s curiosity is contained here. Please, no one consider any of this a commentary on that larger article. Haven’t read that. Can’t comment on anything not included here save as speculation.
That out of the way, and assuming, as GG requests, that Amy accurately described what happened, GG asks for my thoughts on the words “transphobia” and “transphobe”, presumably as they relate to this specific incident. I find that request problematic, however. There are much larger and more important issues here than the definition of transphobia and how it appears to have been used. As a result, this is going to be a long-ass analysis that only reaches definitions after quite a lot else is said first.
If we believe Amy, as we must here because of GG’s request, Amy’s girlfriend was verbally abusive. This is a serious, common issue, and I am disappointed to see it glossed over. While I think it is still impossible to know exactly how often abuse happens in relationships between two cis women intimate partners for a couple reasons, including because of problems in representative sampling leading to limitations on the ability to generalize beyond an individual study’s cohort, the state of the demographic research the last time I made a comprehensive review showed consistently high rates compared to relationships between one cis man and one cis woman. Experts can debate exactly why this is the case, but for me and for other experts with whom I worked the strong suspicion was that queer women are, as a demographic group, more versed in feminism and as a result are more likely to recognize abuse when it occurs and to identify it in surveys. I do not believe queer women are more abusive in terms of frequency than heterosexual men (or women), but proving that they are less abusive in terms of frequency wouldn’t have been possible, even generously correcting for sampling errors and assigning a large effect size to feminist recognition of abuse when it occurs. Experts might reasonably conclude that these are appropriate interpretive steps to take, and therefore reasonably conclude that queer women, including but not limited to lesbians, are less frequently abusive than het men, but we certainly couldn’t prove it.
All this is to say that the abuse of women by women within the context of domestic, romantic, and/or sexual relationships is real. We must not ignore or minimize it. When someone sees an account such as Amy’s the first thing to do is to explicitly recognize the abuse that occurred. We cannot care for lesbians and other queer women if we ignore abuse or diminish its importance.
For that reason, we can say (again, assuming accuracy of Amy’s reporting which we are doing throughout this analysis) that the real problem here is abuse, domestic violence to use the term of art common in the United States and Canada. This abuse is unacceptable.
Amy does not explicitly recognize another dynamic as abuse, but does identify as problematic her girlfriend’s seeming refusal to accept Amy’s right to refuse consent:
“She immediately jumped to make me feel guilty about not wanting to sleep with someone.”
This is rapey bullshit. Let’s be clear, even the worst person in the world (WHO IS NOT AMY) with the worst reasons in the world (WHICH ARE NOT AMY’S) still gets to decide whether or not they will consent to sex. That’s it. There’s no grey area here. If Amy doesn’t want to have sex, badgering her into sex cannot result in consensual sex.*1
Just from the considerations addressed so far it’s clear that on this report, Amy’s girlfriend has wronged her. This is bad stuff and we cannot take it less seriously because the perp in this case is a cis woman.
But now we arrive at this point and one has to wonder, if both Amy and the author of the BBC piece care about responding positively and appropriately to abuse, the words “transphobia” and “transphobe” are almost entirely irrelevant. They’re certainly irrelevant from a public policy perspective. We know from long decades of research that abusive partners abuse for the purpose of gaining and maintaining power and control. While each abusive person might have individualized deeper motives, power and control defines abuse. As a result, we know that abusive persons abuse on pretext. Even if an accusation of transphobia was made knowing it was false as a tactic to abuse, stigmatizing accusations of transphobia won’t stop intimate partner violence. Indeed if using the word transphobia is stigmatized more than being transphobic is, then abusers will accuse their victims of using the word. The point, for the abusers, is to use anything that might make their partner feel bad. They will punish and inflict pain using any rhetorical tool that seems to them to be advantageous and they will do so in response to the least, the most trivial, even to entirely imaginary slights.
The paradigmatic example, almost a joke, is the straight, cis husband who comes home expecting dinner to be ready only to find his straight, cis wife made an effort to prepare dinner but burned the pot roast. This example has been used so many times that some people who work in anti-violence efforts use “burnt pot roast” as a stand in for an abuser’s excuse for an incident of abuse.*2 The point of using this is that everyone knows that overcooking dinner is an outrageously unjust excuse for abusing someone, but many people who survive abuse have trouble with blaming themselves and need to learn to see that other excuses are just as outrageous. There is, by definition, no justification for abuse. In this particular case the burnt pot roast is Amy’s refusal to have sex with a third person. This is still a burnt pot roast, still a completely bullshit, unjustified excuse for abuse, whether that third person is trans or not.
The core issue raised by Amy’s anecdote, then, is not anything relating to trans rights. It’s an issue of domestic violence. Amy deserves to be assessed for appropriate support services, and deserves to receive those services. To make the issue of an abusive partner into an issue about a rise in discussion of (and ultimately accusations of) transphobia is to fundamentally misunderstand issues and dynamics of abuse as well as the motivations and determinations of abusers. To focus on the word transphobia rather than the fact of abuse is to suggest that one of three things is true. Either
- There wasn’t really any abuse at all, save the fact that transphobia was mentioned because the existence and use of the word in any context, well founded or not, is inherently abusive, or
- Amy’s girlfriend’s attraction to a trans person caused her to abuse Amy, or
- Advocacy for trans human rights causes cis persons to become abusive of their intimate partners
We discount the possibility of number one in this post, but not because it’s implausible that someone would treat discussion of transphobia as inherently abusive. In fact we all have seen many bigots scream that they are being victimized when their bigoted actions and statements are identified as bigotry. Racists often think that someone telling them that they are racist is morally wrong, even abusive. The idea that anti-trans bigots might think the same should not come as a shock.
Nonetheless we discount that possibility in this analysis since we have explicitly agreed, at the request of GG, to explore the implications of this story if it is true, if Amy’s recollection and recounting are accurate. And Amy told her interviewer she was verbally abused. So for our purposes here we are left with two possibilities. In either of these cases the focus on the word transphobia becomes an excuse for abusive behavior. It’s as if the people who identify the word transphobia as part of the problem here are either completely ignorant of the body of knowledge regarding intimate partner violence that feminist researchers, experts and activists have worked so hard to accumulate, or that they are consciously excusing abusive behavior by cis people in order to make non-abusers responsible and accountable for the injuries inflicted by abusers’ actions.
The first of those is sad and shows someone is unprepared for a serious conversation about how to respond to the victimization of people like Amy, as community members, as people requesting new or changed public policies, or even just as caring friends. The second is more ominous. One has to wonder why a person would want abusers to escape accountability for their actions. A possible reason, of course, is not that the person is devoted to maintaining abuse within intimate relationships per se, but that however much the person might wish to limit or end intimate partner violence, that person wants trans persons to shoulder blame for crimes that they did not commit even more than the person wants honest and appropriate accountability for abusers and the downward pressure on frequency of abuse that honest and appropriate accountability would create.
Focus on a specific word used by an abuser during abuse thus badly, badly misses the point. But though I’ve written a virtual book on where community and pubic policy should focus in responding to experiences like Amy’s, GG has specifically asked for my thoughts on “transphobia” and “transphobe” as terms. So let’s do that, but let’s also be clear about one thing right up front, anyone who uses abuse perpetrated by Amy’s girlfriend as a reason to push back against the human rights of trans people **is** being transphobic according to the popular definition of the term (though not mine, and my specific thoughts are still to come). This is scenario #3 above, blaming innocent advocacy for trans human rights for the human choices of a specific abusive person (in this case one who is not even trans). Like the policy proposal of kathleenzielinski in comment #38 of that Pharyngula thread, anyone who uses Amy’s story to push back against trans rights is engaging in apologia for domestic violence. Trans people aren’t responsible for Amy’s girlfriend’s abusive behavior most people will hasten to remind us, but just as importantly and far less often recognized is that blaming trans advocacy or trans liberation or just trans people for that abuse means that Amy’s girlfriend doesn’t actually have to shoulder 100% of the blame for being abusive. Anyone who uses Amy’s story to push back against trans communities, persons, or rights is allowing Amy’s girlfriend to dodge necessary responsibility and accountability.
Anyone with a decent grounding in feminism knows that the problem of abusers escaping accountability is long standing. We even rue the behavior of teetotaling feminism which blamed interpersonal violence (including intimate partner violence) on alcohol and assumed that if only alcohol was banned from the United States heterosexual men would not abuse their women partners. We know how that worked out. Refocussing Amy’s story on “transphobia” detracts from the necessary focus on domestic violence and continues the trend of letting abusers off easily while shifting the blame to someone or something else. The policy proposal of kathleenzieinski is a proposal to protect abusers and thus to perpetuate abuse.
Now, perhaps that BBC article from which GG pulled Amy’s story makes it clear that woman to woman domestic violence is real, is unacceptable, and occurred here. Perhaps the text made clear that the pretext doesn’t matter, and that your girlfriend doesn’t have to call you transphobic for you to gain access to services, and nor will you be denied help because your girlfriend thinks that you’re transphobic. Perhaps the author who interviewed Amy made sure that Amy had access to appropriate services. But I have little expectation that this is the case. The fact that GG excerpted this and only this makes me strongly suspect that either the author or GG or both are focussing on a specific word as more problematic than the long standing problem of domestic violence that has plagued our lesbian and queer women’s communities for as long as we have had communities, a problem that needs our serious efforts to eradicate and to respond caringly and appropriately to the people abused within their intimate relationships.
I cannot tell you how sad that thought is to me. I hope like hell that the article did pay proper attention to intimate partner violence and GG simply missed the importance of those passages because of curiosity about those two words, transphobia and transphobe. I don’t think it likely, but I hope for it.
But now, at long last, I can give my thoughts on how “transphobic” was used in Amy’s story, what it tells us, and then, ultimately, my more general thoughts on the word and its variants.
I think it’s important to start out with common understandings of “transphobia”, “transphobic”, and “transphobe”. Unfortunately for our work here, these comprise a range of meanings, from unnecessarily and overly sensitive to consciously bigoted and full of overt hatred to definitions that are about behavior, and not feelings, similar to “engages in the oppression of trans people” (which can be true regardless of one’s unspoken feelings or true motivations).
I have the feeling that GG would like me to say that use of the word “transphobic” was wrong or inappropriate of Amy’s girlfriend because Amy is not being transphobic. But we cannot honestly say that. Although I’ve agreed to accept Amy’s recounting as factually accurate, in this excerpt Amy never once denies being transphobic. We’re also never told of anything that Amy did that is clear evidence of transphobia as commonly understood. Simply declining to have sex with a trans person is not enough to prove transphobic thoughts, feelings, or motivations, much less behaviors. But nowhere in the story is there enough information to say that Amy has never engaged in transphobic behavior and never feels hypersensitivity to unevidenced threats from trans people that she would not feel from non-trans people. In fact, there’s not even enough information in this small passage to conclude that Amy never feels overt, seething hatred for all trans people as a class.
Although Amy says that she explained her feelings and reasoning to her girlfriend, she does not explain them to us. Having no evidence of transphobia or transphobic behavior, I would certainly not judge Amy transphobic. But her girlfriend knows her far better than I do, and might very well have such evidence.
An important nuance often missing from conversations about someone supposedly being called transphobic after merely declining sex with a trans person (usually a trans woman) is that while declining sex is the right of every person and while declining sex itself is not bigoted, it’s still possible for one’s motivations for declining sex to be bigoted. If I were to decline to have sex with a trans man because I believe that all trans men support the mass murder of women and girls, I would still have the right to decline sex with that trans man, but yes, my motivations for declining sex with him would be bigoted, would be transphobic.
This is important. Even white supremacists have the right to decline sex, but if they decline to have sex with someone because of their racist assumptions about that other person, then they are declining sex for a bigoted reason. If they are sufficiently transparent in what they say while declining sex, it could be that the same sentence that declines sex **also** contains rock solid evidence of their nauseating white supremacy. In that case, criticizing the white supremacist for the abhorrent racism they displayed **while** declining sex, is not the same as saying that declining sex with a person of color is an act of white supremacy. I, personally, have declined sex from white people, from cis men, from a deaf person, from a person taller than me, from a person shorter than me, from a person with sickle cell anemia, from someone whose native language wasn’t English, from someone born in Nigeria, and many more besides. None of those were inherently acts of bigotry, but just because declining sex with those people is not, in and of itself, an example of bigotry does not tell you that I’m free of bigotry. It should not surprise us that even bigots decline sex sometimes.
Because of the fundamental importance of consent, the response to a bigot declining sex with a person whom they target with their bigotry must not be to force the bigot to have such sex. That would be rape. But if a bigot displays their bigotry in the same conversation (or even the same sentence) as they decline sex with a target of their bigotry, the fact that the bigotry was adjacent to a refusal to have sex does not render immune to criticism whatever bigoted statements were made or bigoted actions taken.
So taking Amy’s reports as accurate, Amy’s girlfriend’s actions were wrong because she was abusive, not because Amy’s girlfriend believed that Amy was demonstrating transphobia. If we had enough evidence to conclude that Amy is not transphobic, and, further, that she engaged in no transphobic statements or behaviors, we could say that Amy’s girlfriend was **incorrect** when accusing Amy of transphobia. But we don’t have evidence (or even Amy’s declaration) either way. So the only reasonable thing to say based off that short story is that the accusation doesn’t have anything to do with what made Amy’s girlfriend *wrong*. That was Amy’s girlfriend’s abusive actions and denial of respect for Amy’s right to choose freely whether or not to consent to sex.
The story done, there is one more element of GG’s request to address: how do I define transphobia, and why, and do the particulars of my understanding of transphobia’s meaning have any implications for the story above.
Well, I stick with a definition of transphobia that focuses on the phobia. If you are hypersensitive to potential threats (physical, social, intellectual, career, whatever) in the presence of trans people, then your feelings are transphobic and would rightly be called transphobia. Similar to how phobia is used in professional literature (although seemingly at odds with the simplest definitions of phobia) if a person experiences an excess of disgust in the presence of trans people or towards behaviors of trans people that, when performed by cis persons, do not exhibit the same level of disgust, those feelings of disgust would by definition be transphobic and would rightly be called transphobia.
But when addressing public behaviors that target trans persons in ways that injure or oppress, I would not label that transphobia. I would instead label that cissexism (or, synonymously, “anti-trans oppression,” or, “the oppression of trans people”).
This distinction has multiple uses. With one term to describe the prejudice and another to describe violence or oppression, the classic equation used in various disciplines concerning human liberation and flourishing, “oppression = prejudice + power,” becomes intelligible in the antitrans context. If there was only one word for both phenomena, the specific form of the equation would appear so:
“transphobia = transphobia + power”.
This, of course, is entirely contradictory, confusing, opaque, and even worthless without additional clarification. Compare to the classic formulation in the context of white supremacy:
“racism = racial prejudice + power”
Note that this allows for anyone to be racially prejudiced, and does not say that some forms of racial prejudice are acceptable (much less positive or good), but still allows for the important distinction between, say, an antebellum white supremacist slave owner and the Black slave that has grown to hate all white people in response to her oppression. With no distinction between transphobia as prejudice and transphobia as oppression, we cannot speak meaningfully about the asymmetrical harm done to trans persons and communities by cis persons and communities compared to harm done to cis persons and communities by trans persons and communities. Prejudice against cis people is wrong, but oppression of cis people by trans people does not exist.
With the word cissexism (or, when speaking to the uninitiated, the phrase “antitrans oppression”), we can easily form the much clearer statement:
“cissexism = transphobia + power”.
Should we ever reach a point where political, social, and economic dominance by a trans minority were to exist, then cissexism would no longer be possible even if transphobia still existed. Similarly we can say of the real world in this current time that while prejudice against cis people is wrong and harmful, cis oppression does not exist, because the equation,
“cis oppression = anti-cis prejudice + power”
is not satisfied.
This creates clarity of thought, which makes productive community and public policy responses more likely to be appropriate and successful. If our goal is to change prejudice, then we must respond with interpersonal persuasion and compassion. On the other hand, if our goal is to end oppression, we must respond with changes to laws and policies and practices that have the potential to prevent abuse of power.
But especially relevant to GG’s comment, it also allows better communication between individuals. For instance in Amy’s case, because of the extremely broad definition of “transphobia” currently in popular use, it is possible that Amy’s girlfriend was attempting to say,
“I see that you are having irrational fears. This makes me sad for you and compassionate towards you and I want to help you get to a place where your decisions are not constrained by your fears, but free instead to follow whatever are your underlying desires.”
but that Amy heard something like,
“I see you oppressing trans people. This makes me sad for them and hostile towards you, and I want to fight you to stop you from hurting others.”
We currently do not well distinguish between, “I see you are afraid,” and “I see you working harm on others.” I would prefer that we as a society become better at communicating these very different ideas. That would not stop abusers from abusing, but it would stop a great deal of unnecessary and/or accidental pain.
*1: Some experts and researchers, for good reasons, label coerced sex as a category of rape, and others, again for good reasons, create coerced sex as a category of morally condemnable (and sometimes illegal) sexual violation, but still one that they would not describe using the word rape. This post is already going to be long as hell, so I won’t go into that definitional argument and instead will only say that such sex, if it resulted, would be nonconsenual and coerced regardless of whether a prosecutor (or any other person) would consider it to be rape or punish it as rape. Outside of use in law, specific policy discussions, formulation of questionnaires, counseling sessions where the counselor is allowing a client to label her own experiences, and articles published in academic and professional journals, coerced sex is sex without meaningful consent and is thus what nearly all good people would all call rape.
*2: It might go something like this: “So, you’re subjected to verbal abuse two or three times a week and physically struck once every couple weeks. Let’s talk about the last time you were struck. What was the burnt pot roast on that day?”