Transphobia: An increasingly liberal affair?

In this article, Jonathan Boniface rejects the notion put forward by Rebecca Reid in her recent Metro article that it’s time for trans people to be more receptive to cis people’s concerns about trans issues.


It’s always fun when you’re a member of a minority group and other people feel the need to talk about your rights, or pass comment upon how you being on a level with them makes them feel. We see this throughout the history of civil rights and the struggle of various minority groups over time to achieve what can be loosely termed ‘equality’.

What sounds more innocuous than the whole notion of ‘having a conversation’? It actually sounds quite non-threatening, pleasant even. To me, it even evokes the notion of sitting down with a cup of tea and a biscuit and having a friendly dialogue, and I do love a nice cup of tea. Surely, talking about issues is good, yes? Forgive me if my tone already sounds like it’s dripping with sarcasm.

I refer to Rebecca Reid’s article in Metro on 19 March, wherein the writer confesses herself nervous to discuss trans issues and to have an open dialogue about how such issues pertain, in her opinion, to matters such as how comfortable cis women may be in safe spaces, or the whole definition of what it means to be a woman. This boils down to issues such as “what makes a woman a woman”, especially when it results, in the view of the writer, in “single-sex spaces [being] open and vulnerable to infiltration”. Consequently, cis people need to be able to discuss trans issues openly and frankly without, for example, accusations of being a TERF thrown around with gay abandon.

It’s always fun when you’re a member of a minority group and other people feel the need to talk about your rights, or pass comment upon how you being on a level with them makes them feel.

What initially bothered me with this article is the reasonable and breezy liberal tone that it adopts. In some respects, we’re more at home with the views expressed when they’re framed in a vitriolic fashion, or with far more explicitly prejudicial language. I would conjecture that it’s more worrying when you find views like this contained in work that is at pains to point out how reasonable and non-threatening the writer is trying to be; worrying, but sadly not surprising.

Reid attempts to make this clear from the start, keenly stressing that “I consider myself pretty nonjudgmental” and that the last thing she wants to do is to “condone the abuse that trans people already face”. Nevertheless, you don’t need to read beyond the first paragraph to realise that you’re about to be treated to a “I’m not a transphobe, but…” argument and this is an issue with many people who otherwise present themselves as otherwise reasonable or ‘liberal’.

But what is so wrong with people opening a dialogue, or asking questions about trans issues? To answer that, I think you need to first consider their motivation for asking questions. Is it to educate themselves to be more open and inclusive? Is it so that they can be advocates for marginalised groups who may benefit from allies prepared to help them make their voices heard in what is still a deeply oppressive and dangerous society in which trans people live?

Well, no. The only reason such cis people want to have these conversations is because they feel uncomfortable with what they perceive to be a trans agenda that threatens them, not because they genuinely care about equality or the greater good.

I would conjecture that it’s more worrying when you find views like this contained in work that is at pains to point out how reasonable and non-threatening the writer is trying to be.

This article says very little that hasn’t been said before by those who feel threatened by what they label as ‘identify politics’, in addition to playing out age-old hypocrisies and dealing in the tired old tropes that characterise fear and prejudice. On the one hand, Reid is at pains to stress that there’s more to being a woman than just the biological aspect, or presenting a ‘traditional’ image of femininity, while then in the next breath retreating to the equivalent of ‘but you have a penis!’ I struggle to reconcile the author’s protestation that she ‘winces’ at aggression being levelled at trans women who “can’t afford surgery” by TERFs, but then explicitly agreeing with the notion that a trans woman shouldn’t be in a female changing room if they have made “no concession to transitioning other than saying they identify as a woman”. So… which is it?

Contradictions aside, this also reinforces the age-old obsession that cis people have with genitalia. It’s not really much better than those people who share pictures of trans women with what they deem to be ‘suspicious bulges’ and pose the question “would you want this person sharing the locker room with your daughter?” At least these people are honest about their prejudice, whereas ‘let’s talk about this’ liberals are trying to be something they’re not – namely, liberal and inclusive.

Add to that, it’s 2018 and we’re still having the ‘safe space’ argument; here it is in all its ugly glory. How many times does it have to be said that cis men do not masquerade as trans women to gain access to safe spaces for women? To argue otherwise is not only factually incorrect, but also ignores a sadly very pertinent point; in any space composed of a single binary group, you can still find abusers regardless of which binary gender we’re talking about, but when do we actually say that? Or does it not matter because those abusers are cis and gender normative?

If this is the case, is there any wonder that a trans woman may not want to metaphorically sit down with a cis person for a nice cosy little talk about trans issues? If this article sets the context for such a discussion then I for one shudder to think where such a discussion would start. Will the first point be for a trans woman to present her credentials, or to justify that her gender identification is valid? Given the average distasteful obsession of cis people with genitalia, goodness knows what that would entail.

On the one hand, Reid is at pains to stress that there’s more to being a woman than just the biological aspect, or presenting a ‘traditional’ image of femininity, while then in the next breath retreating to the equivalent of ‘but you have a penis!’

Such conversations aren’t intended to move trans issues along or to make trans people feel more comfortable or safer; they’re designed to give cis people an opportunity to express their fears about trans people and to force them into a corner. Reid is kind enough to offer her own view on what makes a trans person “genuine”, and whilst I stand happy to be corrected, this appears to be “going through years of reflection on their gender identity”. My question here is very simple: who is Reid to define this, or to say that this criteria is what makes a trans person a “genuine” trans person? This doesn’t sound like talking to trans people, it sounds like a cis person offering their own definitions of what it means to be trans, which is ironic when the author is herself apparently objecting to trans women ‘redefining’ what it means to be a woman.

There’s also an evident confusion, if not hypocrisy, in how Reid treats the recent ‘Man Friday’ movement, declaring thus: “While I don’t share the Man Friday group’s feelings about trans women, I respect them for putting their heads about [sic] the parapet on such a difficult issue.” Here, I confess I struggle to equate the author’s declared abhorrence of the abuse that trans people face on a day-to-day basis with a very clear expression of ‘respect’ for such a group of activists.

In my opinion, the ‘Man Friday’ movement’s actions, and their campaign against the Gender Recognition Act, are transphobic. The very best that you can say about them (and this is a reach) is that their actions are misguided because they belittle the very real struggle that trans people face; it’s all very well ‘making a point’ about self-identification, but I don’t respect that when you have trans people facing bullying, intimidation, physical assault and death for using the changing room or toilet that matches their gender. The ‘Man Friday’ movement got to make some headlines through a sensationalist gimmick, but what’s to respect about that? I’d sooner respect people who stand up for the rights of others even when they’re not directly affected by the struggles they face, rather than those who mock self-identification to express their fear and ignorance.

Such conversations aren’t intended to move trans issues along or to make trans people feel more comfortable or safer; they’re designed to give cis people an opportunity to express their fears about trans people and to force them into a corner.

So, let’s think again about how this conversation about trans issues would go. What exactly do cis people like this want to talk about? Is it trans people’s genitalia? Is it how much of a threat we perceive them to be to us in a changing room or toilet? Or is it about how we feel emboldened enough as cis people to openly scorn their attempt to self-identify and how it hurts our precious feelings if they dare to call us out for doing so?

My point is that just because you’re coming at this from an intelligent, fluffy ‘let’s all sit down and have a dialogue about this’ perspective, it doesn’t mean it’s any less prejudicial. Is there any wonder that trans people feel marginalised even in the most ‘liberal’ of political settings? I know nothing of Rebecca Reid’s political views or affiliations and it is most certainly not my place to speculate in great detail about what they might be, but I would hazard a guess that she would consider herself ‘liberal’ in the sense of being tolerant and, in her own words, “nonjudgmental”.

But that doesn’t make it any better. I’ve been fortunate to have interactions with people across the whole range of the political spectrum but as far as I can see, people on all sides of the political divide, even those that perceive themselves to be the most open and inclusive, have significant work to do in terms of their response to what they perceive to be narrow ‘identity politics’. Put bluntly, if you want to talk to trans people about trans issues then what you need to do is actually sit down and listen to how they have to say, rather than steamroller them with your own fears and prejudices.

Ultimately, what really makes me sad about an article like this is how it has been received by so many who clearly perceive themselves to be of a liberal persuasion. It’s like catnip to those keen to wring their hands and roll their eyes at ‘the world gone mad’ whilst still being at pains to stress their liberal credentials. In just one isolated example, I saw one such person commenting on this article pass judgement that this ‘problem’ with self-identification and how it threatens cis people is all to do with the fact that trans women have been unable to shake off the male privilege that they used to enjoy. Whilst there is probably enough to unpick in such a comment to allow me to write a whole separate article, it can probably be reduced to two points. Firstly, assuming that someone enjoyed the privilege that society constructed around their assigned or perceived gender is a slippery slope and, at best, a huge generalisation. Secondly, this person would be better off just being honest and telling trans women that they think they should shut the fuck up; it’s just another way of trying to silence marginalised voices.

Just because you’re coming at this from an intelligent, fluffy ‘let’s all sit down and have a dialogue about this’ perspective, it doesn’t mean it’s any less prejudicial.

Herein lies the issue; such dialogues are what I have witnessed in ‘sympathetic’, liberal settings. If such ignorance and lies here, what is it like elsewhere in our society? Rather than putting their own fears and prejudices first, liberal cis people really need to actually live up to their espoused values and finally be the allies that trans people should be able to rely upon.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter (@lepus_octavian)

Original article: http://metro.co.uk/2018/03/19/people-must-allowed-discuss-trans-issues-without-fear-called-bigots-7398359/?ito=desktop.article.share.top.facebook

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