So if it’s a phobia, why doesn’t the definition say it’s a fear of transgender people?
Some definitions do use the word “fear” when explaining the term. The Association of LGBTQ Journalists, also known as the NLGJA, defined “transphobia” this way:
Fear, hatred or dislike of transgender people, and/or prejudice and discrimination against them by individuals or institutions. May be harbored by gays, lesbians, bisexuals, heterosexuals and transgender people themselves.
But as that NLGJA definition hints at, it’s not a fear in the way we understand other fears. Similar to “homophobia” or “biphobia,” “transphobia” is used as a catch-all to describe behavior, words, and attitudes.
So “transphobia” can manifest itself in a variety of ways?
Yes. Writer and activist Julia Serano said this about “transphobia”:
[Transphobia is] often literally read as a “fear of” or “aversion to” people who are transgender or gender non-conforming. I typically use the term in a broader manner to describe the belief or assumption that cis people’s gender identities, expressions, experiences, and embodiments are more natural and legitimate than those of trans people. While “transphobia” is a useful catch-all category, I have argued that it is sometimes useful to make a distinction between attitudes and positions that are trans-antagonistic, trans-suspicious, or trans-unaware.
OK, so what do trans-antagonistic, trans-suspicious, or trans-unaware mean?
Here’s how Serano differentiates the terms:
Some expressions of transphobia stem from people simply being “trans-unaware” — i.e., uninformed (or under-informed) about transgender people and experiences. Other individuals may be downright “trans-antagonistic,” in that they are fundamentally opposed to transgender people for specific moral, political, and/or theoretical reasons. From an activist standpoint, this distinction is quite pertinent: Trans-unaware individuals tend to be “passively transphobic” (e.g., only expressing such attitudes when they come across a trans person, or when the subject is raised), and may be open to relinquishing those attitudes upon learning more about transgender lives and issues. In contrast, trans-antagonistic individuals often actively promote anti-trans agendas (e.g., policies, laws, misinformation campaigns) and are highly unlikely to be moved by outreach or education (unless, of course, they undergo a more comprehensive philosophical transformation). The “trans-suspicious” position acknowledges that transgender people exist and should be tolerated (to some degree), but routinely questions (and sometimes actively works to undermine) transgender perspectives and politics. For example, a trans-suspicious individual might treat me respectfully and refrain from misgendering me, yet simultaneously express doubt about whether certain other people are “really trans” or should be allowed to transition.
So are these terms more preferable than “transphobia”?
Not necessarily. Serano has used these terms often, as have some other writers, but there’s no universal agreement as to which term is “preferable.”
But those terms seem a little more specific than the term “transphobia,” right?
These terms can be more specific than “transphobia,” yes. Writer, actor and producer Jen Richards wrote an essay for NewNowNext about how the word “transphobia” can be a foggy, hard-to-pinpoint concept:
[The] word “transphobic” has a simple meaning that dissolves under scrutiny: Ostensibly it indicates that a person is in some way against trans… stuff. It’s mostly personal and subjective and circumstantial. Nine times out of ten when I hear “transphobic,” it means some trans person has had their feelings hurt. That’s not to diminish having feelings hurt: If my family, friends, or colleagues did something that hurt my feelings as a trans person, they’d want to know.
Richards then went on to share two examples:
- A lesbian comedian who made a joke about a lesbian princess who told a prince (and potential suitor) that she wanted someone who did not have a penis
- Laws targeting anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people, including laws mandating that people should only use restrooms and changing facilities corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates
Richards suggested that both instances might be called “transphobic,” though she would not think of the two instances as having the same impact or the same intent.
In the case of the joke about the princess, Richards said the comedian later said she hadn’t thought of it as being antagonistic toward transgender people, but she was able to appreciate why it was seen that way. Richards said the comedian was a caring friend who didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings.
But Richards had much harsher words for laws removing or preventing LGBTQ+ protections, calling those laws “unnecessary, unenforceable, dangerous, unconstitutional, and ridiculously costly.” Whereas the penis joke might have been a thoughtless or insensitive joke, laws targeting LGBTQ+ people were “intended to legislate trans people out of existence and motivated by, at best, ignorance, and at worst, overt bigotry,” Richards wrote.
So should we not use the word “transphobic” at all?
That’s not necessarily the take-away here, but it’s worth reflecting on what it is that you’re trying to say and what actions or behaviors you are trying to describe. As Richards wrote:
Arguments and explanations have power. Calling it “transphobic” furthers a conversation no more than calling it “bad.” I encounter these issues most often on college campuses and on social media, particularly Tumblr. That is, it’s mostly young people who are concerned about being an ally and not being transphobic. That’s a very good thing—it gives me hope for the future. But y’all have my permission to relax a little. Worry less about descriptions and more about actions.
The LGBTQIA+ Resource Center at UC Davis has aimed to reframe the way the concept is presented. In the resource center’s robust glossary on LGBTQ+ issues, there’s a note explaining that…
…as a staff, we’ve been intentionally moving away from using words like ‘transphobic,’ ‘homophobic,’ and ‘biphobic’ because (1) they inaccurately describe systems of oppression as irrational fears, and (2) for some people, phobias are a very distressing part of their lived experience and co-opting this language is disrespectful to their experiences and perpetuates ableism.
But some people still use “transphobic” and “transphobia,” right?
Absolutely. Tennis legend Martina Navratilova has taken heat for comments she has made about transgender women competing in women’s sports. In a recent op-ed in The Sunday Times, NBC News reported, Navratilova defended her position and criticized what she called a “growing tendency” to “denounce anyone who argues against [transgender activists] and to label them all as ‘transphobes.'”
But Rachel McKinnon, who became the first transgender woman to win a world title in track cycling and has been one of Navratilova’s most vocal critics, explained in an e-mail to NBC News why she thinks “transphobic” is an appropriate term to apply to Navratilova:
She trades on age-old stereotypes and stigma against trans women, treating us as men just pretending to be real women… This is an irrational fear of trans women, which is the very definition of transphobia… We do not denounce her comments as transphobic merely because she ‘disagrees’ with trans women who support inclusive sport. Her comments are transphobic because they are based on, and perpetuate, an irrational fear and aversion to trans women. And having a trans friend or two does not immunize someone from expressing transphobic views.
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