Additional note: This is applicable to checking any kind of privilege. If you’re called on saying or doing something oppressive – sexist, racist, homophobic, and so on – then the same principles apply. If an oppressed person tells you that you’re being offensive, check yourself.
Ampersand of Alas, a Blog, posted an article for white people, explaining how not to be defensive when accused of racism. In the spirit of that essay, I would like to explain to cisgendered people how not to be defensive when accused of transphobia.
I see this all the time. Someone makes a bigoted transphobic or transmisogynistic comment, is called on it, and immediately claims that accusations of transphobia are silencing tactics, or they claim that we’re saying any disagreement with a trans person is automatically equal to transphobia. This is similar to the ““you’re playing the race card” counter accusation, which is a silencing tactic:
Recently, I was asked by someone in the audience of one of my speeches, whether or not I believed that racism–though certainly a problem–might also be something conjured up by people of color in situations where the charge was inappropriate. In other words, did I believe that occasionally folks play the so-called race card, as a ploy to gain sympathy or detract from their own shortcomings? In the process of his query, the questioner made his own opinion all too clear (an unambiguous yes), and in that, he was not alone, as indicated by the reaction of others in the crowd, as well as survey data confirming that the belief in black malingering about racism is nothing if not ubiquitous.
It’s a question I’m asked often, and which I answered this time in much the same fashion as I have done previously: First, by noting that the regularity with which whites respond to charges of racism by calling said charges a ploy, suggests that the race card is, at best, equivalent to the two of diamonds. In other words, it’s not much of a card to play, calling into question why anyone would play it (as if it were really going to get them somewhere). Second, I pointed out that white reluctance to acknowledge racism isn’t new, and it isn’t something that manifests only in situations where the racial aspect of an incident is arguable. Fact is, whites have always doubted claims of racism at the time they were being made, no matter how strong the evidence, as will be seen below. Finally, I concluded by suggesting that whatever “card” claims of racism may prove to be for the black and brown, the denial card is far and away the trump, and whites play it regularly: a subject to which we will return
I’m not claiming that transphobia is identical to racism here, but there are parallels from one oppression to the next. One of them is denial when faced with the evidence of your own privileged actions. When people are faced with evidence of their own privilege, their first reaction is to deny it, and attack the person confronting them.
On the other hand, it’s a false analogy to equate manhood and womanhood to blackface, as if our gendered bodies are something we can take off every day when we finish with them. Second, you’re trying to appropriate racial oppression into your objections to transgenderism. Third, the blackface comparison silences trans people of color, as it denies their insights regarding race and gender.. Queen Emily covers this in more detail on Sexual Ambiguities.
Here’s my guide for cisgendered and cissexual people on how to not be defensive when accused of transphobia:
1) “Cisgender” and “cissexual” are not slurs. Many people who are known for expressing the most transphobic views in public, react very badly to the term “cisgender,” claim that it is a slur, that it is imposing gender on them. It’s none of these things – it simply means “someone who is not a transgender person.” However, saying that it is a slur is transphobic, because if “cisgender” is a slur, then how can you justify “transgender” as anything else? Imagine if “heterosexual” or “white” were considered slurs.This is an othering tactic – by claiming that “cisgender” is an offensive slur, you’re saying outright that you’re unwilling to allow trans people to stand on equal footing with you. That you’re normal and they’re deviant. They need a label to define who they are, while you should be free of labels, because not being transgender is assumed, in just the same way that not being homosexual is assumed in straight society. Also, notice how we can say “straight society” without being challenged?
2) Breathe. Stay calm. Stay civil. Don’t assume that because someone criticized your action as transphobic that this means they’re saying you’re a bad person through and through. Your first reaction is probably from your defensiveness, not your brain. You probably should not respond with whatever first comes to mind. If you immediately try to shut down the conversation because of the criticism, you’re attempting to silence the person making the criticism, rather than listen.
3) Take the criticism seriously. Do not dismiss it out of hand, especially if the criticism comes from a trans person. Trans people tend to be more aware of transphobia than most cis people are. This is because transphobic attitudes are often a matter of life and death – the ability to find a job, get housing, not get murdered, that sort of thing. Trans people do not find great enjoyment in randomly accusing people of transphobia, and would rather not have to bring it up. On the other hand, please do not appeal to other trans people to justify your words.
4) Don’t Make It About You. The best thing to do is apologize for what you said and move on. Resist your desire to shift the conversation into a lecture on How Against Transphobia You Are or How Accusations of Transphobia Are Just Silencing Tactics to Shut You Up The subject of the conversation is probably not the many trans people you know, and your deep and abiding acceptance of their life choices.
5) Don’t Make It About Your Accuser. Just as you shouldn’t try to defend how you’re not transphobic, you should not also try to turn the criticism around and attack the person who accused you. Don’t tell them they’re trying to silence you – they’re not, they’re trying to tell you how your words and actions hurt them. Don’t tell them they’re driving you away. Don’t make the accusation that “any disagreement with a trans person is labeled as transphobia.” None of these things are true, and trying to claim they are is simply an attempt to stop others from pointing out your transphobic behavior. This ties back into point #2.
6) Don’t Hate the Sin, Not the Sinner. Don’t try to justify your actions by claiming you’re opposed to transgender politics. Just don’t. You’re rationalizing your transphobia and imposing your worldview on trans people, by assigning motives and politics to them that they may not themselves have. Don’t say that the very existence of trans people is offensive and traumatic because they supposedly defy the idea that gender is a social construct, or something imposed upon you, or whatever your particular theory is. You’re not dealing with theory, you’re dealing with human beings, and their lives. To you, the question as to whether trans people have valid identities may be a matter of theory. For trans people, it’s a matter of life and death.
7) Let Occasional Unfair Accusations Roll Off Your Back. Sometimes, even after serious thought, you’ll decide that the criticism was unfair. Great! Now please let it go. Don’t enlist trans people to certify you as Officially Non-Transphobic. Don’t bring it up again and again, weeks or months after everyone else has moved on forgotten about the original incident. In other words, see point #4.
Don’t make an epic confrontation out of the fact you were criticized for transphobic statements. Apologize, move on, and consider the criticism seriously so that you can improve your thinking if necessary.
Final Note: This is a work in progress, and some of the rules are a bit close to Ampersand’s rules. I would love suggestions on improving this essay.
Other Final Note: If anyone would like to reproduce this, please feel free, but link back to this page and give me credit.
Other Other Final Note (Edit): Removed ableist language.