In recent months the ‘trans debate’ has reigned the social media sphere. At the time of writing, the latest casualty of this debate has been an op-ed posted by former Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore on her departure from the publication due to, in her view, being ‘silenced’ in her attempts to address the ‘trans debate’. Moore has previously come under criticism for her views which many within the transgender community would describe as transphobic. Moore received a substantial amount of support from those who sympathise with her, including prominent Irish Times journalist Roisín Ingle who retweeted the article. Ingle has established herself over the years as an outspoken feminist who took a central role during the Repeal campaign which was predominantly centred on the bodily autonomy of pregnant people. To see Ingle then retweet the work of an individual who espouses arguments aimed at restricting the autonomy of trans people in living their lives authentically and without fear, was surprising.
This is hardly a ‘new’ though. The UK has seen a substantial rise in anti-trans sentiment, often falling under the umbrella of gender ‘criticism’. Public figures such as Graham Linehan and J.K. Rowling have hit the headlines for their gender-critical commentary on the transgender community, particularly transgender women – and, with significant consequences. Following comments from Graham Linehan, UK children’s charity Mermaids (which works to support transgender children and their families) found themselves the target of a wave of vitriol that saw the legitimacy of their work called into question and their funding threatened. Similarly, following backlash for her viral letter, J.K. Rowling argued the criticism she received was akin to censorship and a restriction of her free speech, prompting a letter signed by many other creatives to the same sentiment. There have also been large expressions of support in solidarity with the trans community, a letter in response to JK’s saw a plethora of creatives reaffirm their support of the community.
It would be understandable for one to think that this is nothing more than a ‘debate’ in the cultural lexicon but it is so much more than that. These words have very real consequences for the people they’re centred on, who have often overwhelmingly been left out of the conversation altogether. But, where did this all come from? How can we understand the mechanisms at play propelling this ‘debate’ forward?
A Philosophy of Transphobia
‘Cultural imperialism’ (a concept introduced by philosopher Iris M Young) refers to the experience where the dominant social group mischaracterizes or stereotypes another rendering that group’s perspective and identity invisible and instead establishes this new mischaracterization as the ‘norm’. The group becomes ‘othered’ based upon these newly established norms which dominate society to such an extent they become difficult to contest or deny. The injustice, Young writes, lies in the oppressed groups own experience and interpretation of social life finding little space for expression within the dominant culture while that same culture imposes on the oppressed group this distorted interpretation of their experience and interpretation of life. In this case, the dominant social group could include those who are cisgender (folks who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth) as socially this is what is accepted as the ‘norm’ in contrast to those who are transgender (and do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth) who become a social ‘other’.
This phenomenon can be easily recognized in the current cultural ‘debate’ around trans identity particularly in terms of the expression of transphobia, or more specifically transmisogyny we’ve become familiar with via popular culture and social media. This mischaracterization of transgender identity has laid the groundwork for the oppression and social exclusion of the trans community within society. Although these transphobic stereotypes impact all corners of the transgender community, in recent years trans women and feminine aligned folks have become the go-to target for those who claim to be ‘gender critical’.
Julia Serano (Whipping Girl, 2007) identifies the depiction of transgender women in popular culture as falling into two main archetypes ‘deceptive’ or ‘pathetic’. This particular stereotype has often been played up in a comedic sense through depictions where oftentimes a character becomes attracted to a woman only to later express their shock and horror when their transgender identity is revealed. One such example is cult comedy ‘Ace Ventura: Pet Detective’ where it is discovered the police lieutenant Lois Einhorn is secretly Ray Finkle, in the movie’s final scenes this is revealed through Jim Carey’s character removing Einhorn’s clothing and remarking “She is suffering from the worst case of haemorrhoids I have ever seen” as to allude to the presence of genitalia that ‘shouldn’t’ be there and in turn ‘revealing’ Einhorn’s deception. These stereotypes only serve to undermine the legitimacy of transgender women’s experiences and expression of womanhood.
Oftentimes these depictions of transgender women and the wider transgender community would be described as transphobic or in the specific case of trans women, transmisogynistic in nature. Transphobia refers to the expression of hate or discrimination toward transgender people because of their identity, transmisogyny (a term coined by Julia Serano) refers to the intersection of this ‘phobia’ with the unique experience of sexism experienced by transgender women and feminine aligned folks.
The root of these stereotypes can often be traced back to a perceived fear or challenge to perpetrators’ interpretation of gender norms as established by society, which is then in turn expressed via transphobia.
Politicising the Bathroom Stall
In more recent times, this demonetisation has taken a more sinister turn through the popularisation of such mischaracterizations through social media. The proliferation of this cultural stereotype surrounding transgender women has been perpetuated further by those who describe themselves as ‘gender critical’ who suggest transgender women pose a threat to wider society, playing upon the idea of deception and positing that these women are merely ‘biological men’ adopting the ‘costume’ of a woman to pursue predatory motives.
This new characterisation of what it ‘means’ to be a transgender woman removes autonomy from those with lived experience of this identity and creates a potentially harmful narrative that can be utilized as a tool for oppression and discrimination.
The ‘bathroom’ debate offers a perfect depiction of the discrimination that can occur when fuelled by the misrecognition of transgender identity in society. The debate initially stemmed from a bill proposed in Virginia which asked whether transgender individuals should be allowed to use bathroom facilities that aligned with their gender identity or if they should be obligated to use the restroom that corresponds to the gender they were assigned at birth. This ignited prompted a wider cultural conversation around the issue in the US and further afield via social media.
The mischaracterisation of transgender identity began to manifest within the debate via arguments against the bill, the majority of which took on a transmisogynistic nature. The crux of many arguments against allowing transgender people to access bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity drew upon the transmisogynistic stereotype of transgender women as not being ‘real’ women but rather biological men ‘posing’ as women to engage predatory behaviour, such as sexual assault, in these venues.
We can see this play in real-time on social media. Far too frequently there is either an article, tweet, comment or headline surrounding trans exclusionary radical feminism which refers to a minority of the feminist community who reject the idea that transgender women belong within the feminist community or women’s spaces in general. For those who speak out against this perspective, they often become subject to an onslaught of online abuse, with members of the transgender community receiving the brunt of the negativity.
Consequences for the Transgender Community
A strange (but not unsurprising) phenomena of this ‘debate’ is that for the most part transgender people are completely excluded from it. Why?
W.E.B Du Bois describes the experience of ‘double consciousness’ where those living under cultural imperialism find themselves on the ‘outside’ looking in as these dominant cultural meanings arise from those who do not identify with them. As Du Bois explains this creates ‘double consciousness’ or the sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity as the subject of this mischaracterisation refuses to coincide themselves with these stereotypes.
By virtue of our existence, transgender people live in opposition to our (western) interpretation of gender and the norms associated with it. In turn, there is a ‘price’ to pay when society tries to re-affirm those norms by mischaracterizing what it means to be transgender to justify social exclusion and discrimination rooted in transphobia. For many trans folks, we spend years questioning ourselves, the legitimacy of our experience, searching for the words to articulate the conflict with our sense of self and the world in which we exist. So, to then have to constantly live with having your humanity ‘debated’ can take a tremendous psychological toll. Navigating a society that oftentimes feels as if it resents your very existence requires an innumerable amount of emotional resilience.
There is a responsibility then upon allies of the community, who aren’t directly implicated by these debates, who possess more ‘power’ in being a member of the dominant ‘group’. This is why, when we see hints of the gender-critical argument making its way from our neighbours across the water, many are concerned.
Something as innocuous as a retweet, like Ingles, shouldn’t hold any weight here in theory. This can only be the case if allies who possess the social leverage use it to delegitimize these narratives used to attack, dehumanize and discriminate against the transgender community. This can only be achieved working in solidarity alongside the community that it ultimately affects, who possess the knowledge and lived experience to inform how best to do so in a way that does not disproportionately cause more harm. This is why expressing solidarity in the face of transphobic sentiment may not necessarily translate to arguing with Twitter profiles spewing transphobic nonsense. Expressing solidarity means taking action in a more substantial and meaningful way that is productive in ensuring safety and unequivocal social solidarity with the trans community in reclaiming the sense of identity and autonomy that has been stolen by those who fear difference itself.
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