The Fear in Transphobia

Content Notice: mentions of cissexism, genitals, and reproductive organs

Have you ever heard that defence people use, when accused of homophobia, “but I’m not afraid of gay people”?

I don’t think everyone who says something like that is wrong about themselves, or lying, but I do think that fear is one of the root causes of identity-based bigotry like homophobia and transphobia. As I explain, it will become clear why this phenomenon is specific to these forms of bigotry, even though the bigotry often manifests in the same harmful ways that all bigotry does: with anger, hatred, microaggressions, and violence.

What I’m talking about isn’t direct fear of trans people as individuals – although that does happen – but a fearful reaction to the idea that one’s gender assigned at birth is not always correct.

I started to think about this when I stumbled into a thread where a cis woman was vehemently insisting that her vagina was the one and only “proof” that she is a woman. This woman – like most cis people – had gone her whole life never questioning her assigned gender, and assuming that genitals and reproductive organs are linked to gender, until suddenly she was presented with the idea that that could all be wrong.

For cis people who have never yet encountered the idea of transness, or who reject and refuse to consider that idea, genitals are a physical sign that they can point to and say “see, my gender is X”, and other people can corroborate their claim.

However, that isn’t how gender works. Gender is not physical (or, if there is a physical manifestation of gender in the brain, then it is yet to be conclusively proven). Gender is personal, internal, and about how you feel and identify. For some people it is ethereal and constantly shifting, for others it is clear-cut and immutable, and for others still it may elude labels and be hard to discern.

This means there is no part of your body you can point to to prove that your gender is what you say it is. Or what you think it is.

And that, I believe, is where the problem lies. Not that gender being internal means you can’t prove your gender to other people, but that you cannot prove it to yourself. If you’ve been sure of your gender your whole life because of cissexist assumptions, and those assumptions are challenged, there is suddenly the possibility that – if you where to look inwards and examine – your gender may not be what you thought it was.

That’s a scary idea. Scary enough that the gut reaction to that realisation – even if the realisation is subconscious – can be to reject trans people’s identities as valid and cling to cissexism and cisnormativity even more strongly. In this, transphobia and homophobia are alike, as challenging cisnormativity and heteronormativity can make people feel as though their own (cis and/or het) identities are being challenged.

Realistically, though, if someone has gotten to adulthood with no inklings that their gender, or sexuality (as gender noncomformity is often conflated with homosexuality), is not what they always thought it was, then chances are they probably are exactly the gender they’ve always thought. But I highly doubt anyone in this fearful stage of becoming aware of trans people’s existence would have thought that long and hard about it.

Myself, I’ve examined my gender identity twice. The first time was before I was even really aware of trans people at all, and borne out of frustration with my reproductive organs and bras. I concluded that being a boy would be weird. The second time was far more recently, and as and adult with a decent awareness of trans issues, I took a moment to sit quietly and examine my gender, finding that my sense of womanhood is quite strong and easy to identify – despite my non-compliance with feminine gender stereotypes.

I don’t think anyone should be pushed to examine their gender identity if that makes them uncomfortable – I’ve seen the toll internalised transphobia can take when someone isn’t completely ready to accept their gender identity. So I don’t blame cis people for being scared to examine their own gender identities. What I do blame us for is when we react with hatred and bigotry against trans people, when it is cisnormativity – not the increased awareness of trans issues – that is at fault for there being anything to fear in the first place.

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