We are taught from our earliest experience that heterosexual and cisgendered identities are “normal,” and that any variation from these norms is deviant and substandard. Consider the popular usage of the term gay, which has come to mean substandard, effeminate, and flawed. The word gay has become a derogatory slur used as unthinkingly as people use pejorative terms like retarded and lame. Sexual orientations and gender expressions which fall outside of a heteronormative framework are trivialized, ridiculed or met with violence. As noted in Violence Against Transgender People: A Review of United States Data: “Studies conducted since 1999 have shown that transgender people are the victims of a great deal of sexual violence, specifically sexual assault, attempted sexual assault, rape, and attempted rape. In addition, this violence is often being perpetrated specifically because of their gender identity or expression” (Stotzer 173). To change this, we need to challenge the ways in which people think. In lieu of overwhelmingly negative exposures to non-heteronormative individuals, we need to provide access to positive examples of individuals and cultures, and we need to start early. By providing access to ongoing education around transgender identities and challenges to a wider audience, we will take concrete steps to alleviating one of the major stumbling blocks which negatively affects the lives of gender non-conforming people: transphobia.
The term transgender in this essay is used as an umbrella term which is meant to be inclusive of all non-cisgendered expressions and identities, including transsexual, genderqueer, intersex, MTF, FTM, non-gendered, and so on. Cisgender is used to describe those whose gender identity is congruent with their assigned sex at birth (Rapier 3). All terms used in this essay are intended as categorization for the sake of dialogue only and should not be considered infallible definitions of any person’s gender identity or expression.
As of the writing of this essay, I identify as genderqueer, transmasculine and queer. Like many people who are visibly non-normative, I have been the victim of transphobic behaviors and prejudices – in the workplace, in public restrooms, and on the street. As Patrick Califia reflects in Life Among the Monosexuals, “I cannot imagine a life that is not full of stress and secrecy about conflict with my body, hormones, and secondary sex characteristics” (148). That stress – the external pressures to suppress myself in order to conform to normative social expectations – has strongly informed the person I am today and the work I do in this world as an activist and educator. I do, however, believe that by challenging what we define as socially normative and preferential – specifically heterosexuality and cisgendered identity – we can help create a future where being non-cisgendered is not a source of shame which puts an individual at risk of increased violence and lower quality of life (Stotzer 171).
What is transphobia? A phobia is generally defined as a mental condition which results in irrational fear and terror of its subject. Transphobia is one of the few conditions called a phobia (with other notable exceptions including homophobia and biphobia) where the definition includes violence and discrimination against another person. Therefore, transphobia is fully defined as an intense dislike or fear of those who are perceived as failing to conform to heterosexual and cisgendered social norms of gender presentation, and manifests as hatred, discrimination and violence against non-normative individuals. If this phenomenon was an –ism, like racism or ableism, such behavior would be called a hate crime. In referring to it as a phobia, violence against transpeople is implicitly excused; the perpetrator defends their actions as the result of irrational terror. Transphobia, then, shifts the blame of violence and discrimination from its perpetrator to the victim. By virtue of identifying or being perceived as someone who is non-gender normative, the individual becomes deserving of whatever prejudice or assault that may be visited upon them.
Talia Mae Bettcher notes the ways in which transphobia as a blame-shifting tool was utilized in the case of the murder of the transwoman Gwen Araujo in Evil Deceivers and Make-Believers: On Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion.
The murder itself was subsequently surrounded by suggestions that Araujo had herself engaged in wrongdoing (namely “sexual deception”). For example, Jose Merel (charged in the murder, but pleading innocent) was quoted as saying, “Sure we were angry. Obviously she led us on. No one knew she was a man, but that’s no excuse for anyone to hurt someone. I don’t believe two wrongs make a right” (Fernandez and Kuruvila 2002). Accusations of wrongdoing were also embedded within murder-excusing and blame-shifting rhetoric. For example, Jose Merel’s mother Wanda Merel was quoted as saying, “If you find out the beautiful woman you’re with is really a man, it would make any man go crazy” (Reiterman, Garrison, and Hanley 2002).
Ultimately, these tactics resulted in reduced sentences for the perpetrators; Merel and Magidson received sentences of second-degree murder, and Cazares that of manslaughter. None of them were judged guilty of a hate crime (Bettcher 45).
If transphobia is the result of discrimination and violence against people who identify as or are perceived to be other than cisgendered, one might ask how it is different from homophobia. While it is true that there are intersections of prejudice, they are separate issues, as homophobia is primarily concerned with sexual choices whereas transphobia is enacted based on gender expression. To put it succinctly, homosexuality, which is in this case inclusive of queer, bisexual, lesbian, gay, asexual, pansexual and other sexual orientations, is concerned with who one loves. Transgender identity is concerned with who one is. Transphobia can and does regularly occur within the LGB community.
Why does transphobia occur among people who are often considered our closest allies by the heterosexual, cisgendered majority? While LGBT is a very short acronym, it covers a lot of disparate identities. As illustrated above, sexual orientation and gender identity are two very different things. While queer and transgender people are both oppressed by a heterocentric and cissexist culture, it is more acceptable to be gay or lesbian than it is to be transsexual or genderqueer. Issues of transgender equality and discrimination are often the first to be dropped from LGBT political platforms, effectively making them only concerned with mainstream LG (and only sometimes) B individuals. As mentioned in Bisexuality and Transgenderism: InterSEXions of the Others, “The path to this end has largely been gender appropriateness and accommodationism, with the significant but single exception of same-sex preference.” (Alexander and Yescavage, 48.) Organizations which putatively claim to speak for all LGBT people regularly discard or completely disregard issues of transgender equality and justice, speaking instead only for lesbians and gays who ‘pass’ as socially normative. That is great if you’re a lesbian who is “just like” your straight neighbor, but disastrous for anybody who identifies or is perceived as other than gender normative. Alexander and Yescavage go on to say that “prejudice in gay and lesbian communities against bisexuals and transgender [individuals] is heterosexism because it is an accommodationist attempt to disavow these more ‘radical’ forms of sexuality” (53).
At its root, transphobic acts are the result of heterosexist attitudes enacted by oppressors against non-normative victims to enforce a heteronormative paradigm and suppress what they see as deviant behaviors. But what causes this? Why do people feel the need to exercise violence against people they perceive as different from them? In Gender Differences and Correlates of Homophobia and Transphobia, Nagoshi, et al, noted the following:
The finding of Wright et al. (1999) that lower education was associated with greater homophobia is consistent with numerous studies showing that lower education is associated with a range of prejudices against social outgroups (Sullivan et al. 1985). Lower education, in turn, is associated with right wing authoritarianism, defined as the combination of submission to government authority, approval of authoritarian aggression to maintain social order, and conventional social beliefs (Altemeyer 1981), which is also predictive of a range of prejudices against social outgroups (e.g., Heaven et al. 2006) (524).
They go on to say that “similar to what has been found for homophobia, for both men and women, transphobia was found to be highly correlated with socially conservative attitudes emphasizing adherence to rigid conventional social norms” (529).
In the cases of both homophobia and transphobia, socially conservative attitudes and lower education were key factors. This strongly suggests that individuals who are prone to transphobic behaviors have not been exposed to non-cisgendered people in positive ways. Indeed, this is hardly surprising, given that the most common stereotype of transgendered people in the media is generally linked with either the fetishization of them or treating them as sideshow circus acts – men “masquerading” as women and vice versa. It is clear that comprehensive access to diversity education around trans-identified individuals is needed to answer this need. In Homophobia, Transphobia and Culture: Deconstructing Heteronormativity in English Primary Schools, authors DePalma and Jennett state that “homophobia and transphobia are cultural phenomena and can only be addressed by purposefully promoting the equality of LGBT people as part of a broader whole school ethos which celebrates diversity and challenges inequities of all kinds” (16).
While some programs do exist to educate on transgender issues, access to them is limited and sporadic. Educators often opt to not discuss issues of gender or sexuality at all for fear of reprisal by fundamental religious groups. By being silent on these issues, however, they become complicit in the furtherance of transphobia. When the definition of “normative behavior” remains unchallenged, it enforces the notion that only that which is defined as normal is socially acceptable, and all other expressions, behaviors and identities are shameful. DePalma and Jennett note “the concept of ‘normal’ erases the processes by which the normal is constructed: who gets left out when one draws a circle around a particular group of insiders?” Normal is not particularly inclusive, and a rigid understanding of normal as only cisgendered and heterosexual means that anyone who identifies otherwise gets left outside the circle, cut off from protection and subject to violence and discrimination. By improving access to diversity-based educational models and resources, by including transgender people and experiences in the educational curriculum, we can help bring an end to transphobia.
Alexander, Jonathan, and Yescavage, Karen. “Bisexuality and Transgenderism: InterSEXions of the Others.” Journal of Bisexuality 3.3/4 (2003): 1-23. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 28 Feb. 2011.
Bettcher, Talia Mae. “Evil Deceivers and Make-Believers: On Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion.” Hypatia 22.3 (2007): 43-65. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 28 Feb. 2011.
Califia, Patrick. “Life Among the Monosexuals.” Journal of Bisexuality 5.2/3 (2005): 139-148. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 28 Feb. 2011.
DePalma, Renée, and Jennett, Mark. “Homophobia, Transphobia and Culture: Deconstructing Heteronormativity in English Primary Schools.” Intercultural Education 21.1 (2010): 15-26. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 28 Feb. 2011
Nagoshi, Craig, et al. “Gender Differences in Correlates of Homophobia and Transphobia.” Sex Roles 59.7/8 (2008): 521-531. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 28 Feb. 2011.
Rapier, Nik. “TransEnough Lexicon.” TransEnough.com. TransEnough, 21 Jan 2010. Web. 08 Mar. 2011.
Stotzer, Rebecca L. “Violence Against Transgender People: A Review of United States Data.” Aggression & Violent Behavior 14.3 (2009): 170-179. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 22 Feb. 2011.
This paper was originally written for Writing 223 E, taught by Professor Denning at Marylhurst University, Winter Quarter 2011.