I linked to a post by Monica Helms about trans anger the other day, which was really me dodging writing a full post – however, Helen G pointed out that its focus is quite narrow and doesn’t really cover the reasons trans people have to be angry. And, I agree with her. I do not yet feel up to writing that full post yet, so I want to cover something that should help provide context:
I haven’t really done this before, but I wanted to go over what transphobia is and what transphobia is not. Quite a few cis people feel qualified to tell trans people what qualifies as transphobia, which always conveniently excludes whatever transphobic behavior they’re exhibiting at that particular time. It’s not unlike what I said to Uppity Brown Woman the other day about white people defining racism:
. . . white people shouldn’t be the ones to define when a racist act has occurred, because the answer will nearly always be “never,” . . .
What I mean by that is that without any reason for white people to check our privilege, we’re just going to do what we do and refuse to acknowledge that we’re hurting someone else. Part of privilege is that the pain we cause is either invisible to us, or we believe that the target of that pain somehow brought it upon herself or deserved it. Another part of privilege is interpreting events in our favor whenever possible, and expecting the dominant social forces to support that interpretation.
Also, read Uppity Brown Woman’s full post I linked, because it is all about privilege:
A dramatic metaphor:
Imagine you’re riding your motorcycle down the street. The car in front of you slams on their breaks to meet a stop light, and you swerve to avoid smashing into them, only to end up hitting a telephone pole. It’s your bike that’s a goner, but thankfully the other vehicles have no significant damage. You’re also the one bleeding internally from faceplanting. Only one ambulance has arrived so far. The paramedics are trying to help you in whatever way they can. The other person involved in the accident walks over and demands medical attention because they could be bleeding internally as well. They stopped really suddenly! Their airbag went off!
No doubt, they could be injured. Although it is a possibility, the biker is visibly in pain. The driver makes the point, “but sie must have known the hazards of motorcycles!” In this metaphor, the paramedics stop paying attention to the biker and start looking after the driver. The biker uses up a ton of energy just trying to say, “hey, wait a fucking minute! This is supposed to be about me!” and is only met with “when we’re done here, we’ll get to you. Just calm down and quit being so angry.”
This is what happens when conversations about issues surrounding disability, race, trans people, and other oppressed classes of people start: Privileged people walk in and demand to make the conversation about them. They ask to be educated, they demand justifications, they insist that they can’t be good allies if they don’t understand what’s going on. In the three threads I linked, one is about a girl with cerebral palsy whose family denied her life support machines that would improve her quality of life, and also arranged for a “do not resuscitate” order; one is about how white people often make use of work done by people of color without crediting them; one is about how a feminist made a pointed jab at the Transgender Day of Remembrance. In each case, able-bodied, white, or cis people came into the discussion and made it about them. In each case, this was highly inappropriate because the topic matter was itself sensitive to the people it directly affected: The perception of people with disabilities living incomplete lives that leads able-bodied people to think it’s reasonable to let them die; the fact that people of color do so much work and white people feel entitled to claim it; the fact that trans people cannot even talk about the fact that we have a 1 in 12 chance of being murdered, at least in America – the victims predominantly women of color. The average person has a 1 in 18,000 chance of being murdered. That we cannot talk about this fact that this is happening, and that we remember our dead once a year, and how we cannot even do this without a cis person begrudging the fact that we do remember our dead – and we cannot have this conversation without cis people blasting into the discussion and demanding that we justify our lives and our decisions and the medical procedures we’ve undergone before they’ll consent to both mourn and express sympathy that our mourning is begrudged.
And that’s privilege, or rather what privilege does to those who do not have it.
Nothing listed past this point is meant to be definitive, the sum total, the limits of the ways that cissexual privilege or transphobic actions manifest. They are examples, and are only the tip of the iceberg.
Cissexual privilege is the privilege of having a body that matches the sex your brain expects. Cissexual privilege is the privilege of having a body that matches what society expects. Cissexual privilege is the assumption that your sex, your gender are superior and more valid than trans people’s sex and gender, that you have the right to tell trans people who and what they really are, what their motives are for transitioning, to deny that their most basic realities are false because you cannot imagine how they can be true. Cissexual privilege is the sense of entitlement that tells you that you have the right to discuss my genitals at any time and then claim I’m the one bringing genitals up all the time. Cissexual privilege is the belief that you can declare what “being a transsexual” really is because you’ve thought about it a lot after rejecting what actual transsexual people and the entire medical profession have said about being a transsexual person. Cissexual privilege is the insistence that you have the right to shift the meaning of what trans people say about ourselves so that you can then use the reinterpreted arguments as easily destroyed straw men. Cissexual privilege is the attitude that you can interrogate and criticize everything a trans person does even though it’s no different from what a cis person does simply because the person is trans, and thus her sex and gender are not as valid as yours. Cissexual privilege is what makes you think that you can berate trans people for reifying gender roles and reinforcing the gender binary while at the same time remaining comfortably ensconced in your life as a man or a woman. A trans person claiming to be a man or a woman is doing it wrong but you claiming to be a man or a woman is only natural.
Cissexual privilege is the insistence that being called cissexual is othering and demeaning and implies that trans people are trying to make ourselves the norm and you the other, when it is simply a matter of equalizing cis and trans, defining both as normal and neither as other. It is no more othering and demeaning than distinguishing straight people from gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.
Cissexual privilege is the fact that you do not have to pay thousands of dollars for hormones, electrolysis, surgery, a new wardrobe, you do not have to risk losing your job, your family, or your friends. Cissexual privilege means that you don’t have to take hormones or undergo surgery to be comfortable – to be able to live with - your body’s sex.
Transphobia is the exercise of that privilege. It is not restricted to violence. It is not restricted to men. When you refer to a trans woman as a man, or a trans man as a woman, you said something transphobic. When you say that all trans people are fetishists, you said something transphobic. When you say that trans people are mentally ill, that is not only transphobic but also ableist. When you say that trans women should be excluded from domestic violence shelters, you not only said something transphobic, you also said that trans women should suffer emotional abuse, battering, or even die instead of possibly inconveniencing a shelter.
When you say that trans women should be placed in a men’s prison because their male history means they might rape someone, you have not only said something transphobic, but you have also said that the trans woman should be placed into a situation where she will be raped repeatedly. You have profiled all trans women as dangerous to cis women. When you say that trans women reify the gender binary, you absolve yourself of your own responsibility for reifying that same binary by simply existing and hold trans people to a standard that you simply do not demand of cis people. Plus, you said something transphobic. When you make a blog called “breathing is transphobic,” you did something transphobic, and you did it in a way that allows you to blame trans people for being too angry and bullying when we point out that you said or did something transphobic. That positions you in such a way as to dismiss everything that trans people say to you when they criticize your words and actions.
When you say that trans people should be denied access to hormones, surgery, and social transition and insist that we should instead seek therapy to help us stop being trans, you’re ignoring our voices and telling us what our real lives are like. You’re ignoring all the medical literature to date that says that the best treatment for trans people is to allow transition. You also said something transphobic. When you say that trans people are walking stereotypes of masculinity or femininity, you’re applying a double-standard to trans gender expression vs. cis gender expression – where a feminine trans woman is seen as a caricature of femininity while a feminine cis woman who presents exactly the same way is seen as natural and normal. You also said something transphobic.
When you claim that you have trans friends and that they agree with you, you said something transphobic. You also tried to claim that your friends’ voices and opinions should be more important than the voices and opinions of trans people who call you out on your cissexual privileged shit. You’re trying to establish that there are good trans people and bad trans people.
If you’re a trans person, and you participate in the bashing of other trans people, you have done something transphobic. Being trans does not make you immune to playing into cissexist normativity. It does not make you immune to saying hateful things about other trans people.
If you try to raise the spectre of men pretending to be trans women to gain access to restrooms, locker rooms, showers, shelters, or any other space set aside for women, you have not only said something transphobic, you are trying to hold trans people responsible for what other people may attempt to do (and something other people have not yet attempted to do).
If you try to raise the spectre of trans women triggering cis women survivors because of their assumed masculine appearance or penises, you are not only saying something transphobic, you are appropriating survivor voices to justify your transphobic statements. You are also holding trans women – and trans women only – responsible for managing triggers that are not theirs. You are also defining trans women by their appearance, as if what a woman looks like somehow reflects on her womanhood, as if it’s something she can control.
When you grab for a trans person’s genitals to find out what they are, you have committed sexual assault. When you attack a trans person because he or she is trans, you have committed battery. When you kill a trans person because he or she is trans, you have committed murder. These are all transphobic acts, but they are not the sum total of transphobic acts. They do not define transphobia. You do not get a free pass out of saying and doing transphobic acts because you are not out there personally running trans women over four times in a row, or shooting them, or stabbing them, or suffocating them, or bashing their heads in. The fact is that people who commit these atrocities upon trans people believe that they can get away with it because of all of the insults, the denial of trans people’s agency, the belief that trans people are really their birth sex and gender, the belief that trans people aren’t really men or women at all, the belief that trans people are so different from cis people that the accommodations made for cis people cannot be extended to trans people, the belief that what a trans person looks like discredits his or her sex or gender, justifying ridicule and abuse on that trans person.
When you say or do the things I have described here, you are supporting a cissexist society that justifies killing trans people, that justifies slapping our murderers, abusers, rapists, on the wrist. That justifies the idea that we’re not really human. And if you insist that your own words and deeds have no importance because you are not personally out there raping, beating, stabbing, shooting, strangling trans people, then you are part of the same problem that creates Andrade, Oates, Hyatt, Blake, and men who have murdered numerous other women and men just because those men believed that transphobic words and deeds that so much of the world accepts as reasonable justified their decision to erase women and men from the world simply because they existed.
This is the system you support – a spectrum of words and deeds that ranges from “You’re really a man/really a woman” to “Man is charged with manslaughter for deliberately hunting down and killing a trans woman.”
You reify and reinforce the oppression that affects me and all other trans people.
You can’t really help it, mostly. You’re born and raised in a cissexual society, a society that programs you to believe that people who change their sex are less than you. However, once you realize that this is the case – once it is brought to your attention, once your privilege is pointed out to you, once the fact that you – like all other cis people – are complicit in oppressing trans people, if you choose to deny that such privilege exists, deny that you are doing and saying transphobic things, while deliberately increasing the intensity and frequency of these actions? You are no longer at the point where you are simply complicit due to privilege. You are now an active participant.
You can always choose to stop.
Edit: I forgot to write about what transphobia is not: Just having cissexual privilege does not mean that everything a cis person does comes from that privilege or is transphobic. For example, treating trans people with respect, treating trans people as normal human beings? That’s not transphobic, and I see cis people do it all the time.