Friday, June 10, 2011

The perils of a transneologism


I confess I've never felt altogether comfortable with some usage of the word transphobia.

That's not to say I don't understand the rationale behind its' construction, or what it technically stands for.

There are plenty of times when such a word is genuinely needed to describe a whole range of aggressively negative behaviours.

However, I worry that indiscriminate use of the word can not only dilute the meaning but can also diminish support for campaigners on the occasions when such a term is genuinely valid.

Behaviour that stems from fear

As a young adult in the late 1960's and early 70's I witnessed the emergence of modern LGB activism. This was the period when transphobia's antecedent "homophobia" was first coined.

Homophobia seemed then, and now, a usefully descriptive term. It not only works as a shorthand for a set of aggressively negative behaviours which most people recognise, but (in its etymology) it postulates a psychological motivation for why people behave that way.

The etymology is, of course, easily understood:

  • Homo- (besides the linguistic origins of the stem) is an obvious reference to "homosexual". "Homo" has even been used itself as a term of abuse, in the same way that racists in the 1950's and 60's reduced "Pakistani" to "Paki"
  • -phobia (which also has detailed linguistic origins) alludes to a string of popularly understood clinical terms for what are perceived to be excessive and irrational fear reactions. There is a wealth of cultural understanding bound up in terms like arachnophobia, triskaidekaphobia, and (perhaps most relevant) xenophobia. The latter is defined as the "hatred or fear of foreigners or strangers or of their politics or culture".

Putting hostility in a box

Creating a word like homophobia, which has a pseudo-clinical association, has a political as well as a purely descriptive function.

There is no clinical diagnosis of homophobia. At least, not in the way that scientists have sought to study (and sometimes treat) traditionally described phobias.

I have yet to hear of any homophobe seeking treatment for the negative effects of their behaviours. Neither do their friends gather round and recommend they get help.

Whereas someone with a fear of spiders might recognise that this is problem for them, homophobes are unlikely to think their behaviours are at all problematic, unless they end up on the wrong side of the law or public opinion.

Even then they may think their behaviour completely rational and blame the world for being out of step with them.

However the implication is clear. When you label someone's behaviour as homophobic you are transferring attention back onto them. You are attributing their actions to an out-of-control pathology that they should take responsibility for curbing.

Drawing political parallels

The term also makes a political connection with other forms of discrimination which have been studied for irrational behavioural drivers.

The attacks, abuse and discrimination in racism can be understood in terms associated with xenophobia. Negative beliefs and behaviours towards women can be linked to the concept of misogyny.

When the term homophobia was coined it was therefore readily understood. It tapped into a wealth of cultural history and analysis.

This simple association saved a wealth of explanation. People could figure it out for themselves.

Furthermore, because the term "-phobia" is associated with a mental health diagnosis, it carries the stigma that all such conditions unfortunately attract.

So, the act of describing anyone's behaviour as in some way phobic is not just a passive act of labelling. It aims to throw a little harm the aggressor's way. It casts them in a negative light which they have to defend or refute.

That's why people called out as homophobic can't just ignore the epithet. They have to actively deny it.

In a war of words calling someone a homophobe is a return salvo.

A homologue is born

The usage of the word homophobia had already been established for over twenty years when modern trans activism began to coalesce into an organised movement in the 1990's.

Unlike homophobia (which is attributed to an article by psychologist George Weinberg in 1969), I'm not sure it's easy to pin down exactly when the word transphobia was first coined.

The etymology hardly needs explaining. If homophobia drew on allusions to clinical phobias then transphobia simply took the family name of its' obvious political parent. It came out of trans people working alongside LGB allies or studying their methods.

Not a term we needed

Personally I can't remember it being part of any important discussions which we held as UK trans activists in the early years of the Press for Change campaign.

As one of the campaign's principal writers I thought hard about using any neologisms if I came across them. We realised how important language was.

I have a clear recollection of how we formulated a line on using terms like 'transsexual' as an adjective, and how 'trans' was consciously discussed and introduced to our informal style guide. However, I have no recall of us talking about transphobia.

Looking back, I think we tended not to resort to such a word because, as campaigners, we were focussed on describing outcomes.

A word like transphobia has always seemed to me about apportioning blame and explaining the irrational behaviour that trans people describe seeing in others.

As a campaign heavily invested in using judicial means to bring about legislative and social change, we preferred to describe events technically. We saw cases in terms of legal expressions like discrimination, bullying, harassment, and victimisation.

The cases that came to us could also sometimes be described as extreme examples of bad manners or people behaving badly. A term like 'transphobia' would only have served to provide a spurious justification for the inexcusable. "I couldn't help myself m'lud. It was the transphobia. It's incurable".

Nevertheless at some point the word entered our language. I suspect it came in through the increasing levels of online communications which we had with US activists towards the back end of the 1990's. And, as more trans people came out and started becoming politically active in the noughties, the word seems to have become just a convenient shorthand which people assumed could be understood.

A definition?

I could be wrong of course, but I think that this is a case where the word came first and then people attempted, retrospectively, to define it.

My impression is that the word gained currency because it felt right as a shorthand for a whole bundle of experiences. It would be interesting if anyone could investigate the editorial history of how Wikipedia contributors managed to come up with the current stab at a definition:

Transphobia (or less commonly cissexismtransprejudice, and trans-misogyny, referring to transphobia directed toward trans women, or trans-misandry, referring to transphobia directed toward trans men) is a range of negative attitudes and feelings towards transsexualism and transsexual or transgender people, based on the expression of their internal gender identity (see Phobia – terms indicating prejudice or class discrimination). Whether intentional or not, transphobia can have severe consequences for the target of the negative attitude.

One thing that has caught my eye in that definition is the expression "whether intentional or not". This would seem to me to be one of the problems in its' use.

What kind of "unintentional" are we meaning here? Do we mean an innocent gaffe which the perpetrator would be happy to correct with a friendly explanation? Or do we mean an action arising from that person's unconscious, like an irrational fear of feathers, which they are not even aware of?

The other problem that I perceive is that the word seems to have to engage a number of other pseudo-pathological neologisms to define itself ... opening up a potential gulf in understanding between those who choose to use it and those who find themselves having it applied to them.

All this, it seems to me, moves away from the simplicity of understanding the word homophobia in 1969.

Use with care and restraint

If I have ever used the shorthand of transphobia (and I admit I do so only with extreme caution) then I tend to be careful to restrict it to cases where it seems to me that all rational explanations for someone's behaviour have been exhausted and pathology is the only likely explanation left.

Before I get there, however, I run through all the other possibilities.

  • Was the person just unaware that certain behaviour offends or harms trans people?
  • If so, will they respond to polite explanation?
  • Was their behaviour simply accidental?
  • If that's pointed out politely are they motivated to apologise?
  • Are they an actual or potential ally who thought they were doing right but failed to understand the complexity of trans experiences, language or politics?
  • Are they just socially inept or bad mannered in general?

Part of my rationale is that, as a diversity specialist, I'm painfully aware of the potential for unintended offence which I may give to other communities, regardless of how well-intentioned I may be. And if people react straight away to my innocent blundering with a term that suggests I may have an unmoderated mental illness or a seriously unpleasant motive, then I know I would feel hurt and defensive.

I may be able to understand their impatience and annoyance when my blunder is explained to me. I'm likely to apologise as well. However, I also know that it is a perfectly human reaction to attempt to defend oneself if the initial response is unduly harsh and doesn't leave open the possibility for explanation.

And this is where I feel the problem can lie in trigger happy use of such a potentially powerful, accusatory and stigmatising term as transphobia.

Do we need a new word?

So, if transphobia can be problematic should we ditch it and find another one?

No. Personally I don't think so. Not if we don't address the underlying problem of people rushing to diagnose a malicious or fear-driven motive when simpler explanations would do. Besides we already seem to have too many words that serve as potential barriers to outsiders.

Overuse of a word in inappropriate circumstances simply dilutes the meaning. It also harms the cause, as others see over reaction in the trans community and can assume that every time someone cries Transphobia! another innocent commentator is being hauled over the coals by a community that takes no prisoners.

Or do we need a new attitude?

Interestingly, when I discussed writing this article, I realised that I myself wasn't alone in the fear of incurring the wrath of a powerfully vocal trans community if I accidentally said a word out of place.

I haven't yet experienced the ultimate irony of being labelled transphobic, though I figure it could only be a matter of time.

When it gets to that stage then a community has a problem. It's time to draw back and wonder seriously whether too much use of the linguistic nuclear option can deter otherwise useful allies.

Yesterday, for instance, I witnessed a young and politically aware rising star journalist, Laurie Penny, coming close to this experience on her own Facebook page. A commenter said that she "stopped just short of then (sic) line of transphobia".

Laurie's crime? She's a colourful and emotive writer. She draws word pictures. And, in an article for the Independent she had used both the word 'drag' and a reference to pantomine dames as a way of describing the approach of a certain reality TV show and its' star.

Laurie strikes me as a very conscientious writer -- a woman who is well aware of the strongly polarised responses her words can invoke.

She knew about trans sensitivities, so she tried to contact not one but three separate trans activists, prior to publication, to discuss the way she had borrowed and repurposed some well established words that far pre-date modern trans identity and language.

Pantomime Dames are a long established part of our culture and (in my view) a fair concept to use for a critical simile. Drag also has a long history. Neither concept is owned by trans people, nor is there any evidence of harm to trans people by discussing these things.

All three of us told her that we weren't personally troubled given the context, but to be aware that there was always the probability that someone, somewhere out there, could take her to task. And they did.

Giving the abuser an excuse

The complainant's case was that using these terms encouraged commenters on her article in the Independent to use genuinely offensive language ("tranny") in remarks below the line.

This is rather like suggesting we accept a rapist or domestic abuser's argument that their victim was in some way responsible for provoking what happened to them by wearing particular clothes or just being in the way.

That doesn't wash. Journalists can't be held accountable for what their readers do, unless they are directly inciting action. By all means tackle the commenter, but don't lump blame on someone just for using words which they've been careful to check beforehand.

The commenter themselves may have been transphobic. Again, they may not. One wisecrack comment is not necessarily enough to diagnose and accuse someone of a serious pattern of behaviour.

How to lose friends

Laurie is actually a trans ally. So it pained me to see someone come close to labelling her with a term which (as I've explained) denotes deliberate actions of hatred and possibly an out of control mental health problem.

She might understand that these things come out of a community with a lot of pent up anger for the abuse of decades. But what does it look like to the bystander?

Do trans people look like folks you would want to get involved in supporting if, when you put an innocent foot out of place, you could be instantly denounced on the internet as a hater?

In summary

As I said at the outset, I believe in using the term transphobia with care and restraint.

I'm not against the term altogether. When all other explanations for someone's bad behaviour have been discounted then it has its place.

And, when usage is constrained to those clear circumstances, everyone can be clear what it means. The word stands to grow in power by association with clear cases of egregious hatred which look as though the perpetrator can't rationally control themselves.

Used indiscriminately, however, the word loses both power and meaning. It becomes just a cheap shot, poorly aimed. It can also lose friends.

So there you have it. I'm aware that this viewpoint may itself provoke strong reactions. It won't be the first time I've experienced being on the wrong side of trans opinion if so.

But mark my words. If we cheapen the language then everyone loses.


Natacha said...

Excellent article Christine. You really have hit the nail on the head. I think others have been thinking along the same lines, that, despite the pent-up anger, as a community we have to be a little more patient. By all means use "transphobia" to describe the activities of hate-mongers like Sheila Jeffries and the right-wing (religious) zealots who are deliberate in their actions but the actions of Laurie Penny, who is an ally, should not be criticised. That would amount to cutting off our noses to spite our faces.

There are obvious examples of ignorance or simple slips of the tongue which would currently be jumped on which could be dealt with by a more reasoned approach INITIALLY. Obviously of the offender refuses to reconsider then other action may need to be taken.

Rather than Laurie Penny's article, which, in my opinion, is actually quite an clear-cut case, since Laurie is a known trans ally and definitely NOT a transphobe by any stretch of the imagination. What would people do about this article?

which is in today's Guardian, about Barcelona, in which Bill Sinclair says, in the second sentance;

"You may encounter prostitutes, rent boys, trannies, and absinthe-addled addicts..."

How would it be best to deal with that...?

Christine Burns said...


I'll grant you that there may well be something unconscious at the roots of Jeffreys' motivations.

However, isn't there the risk that using a word which focusses on that detracts from the observation that, regardless of our phobias, we all have to be responsible for our actions?

The damage is done by the politicking, so shouldn't we use words which focus attention on that?

I don't think that necessarily means rushing to concoct a new word for this kind of calculated political attack on a minority. It would be better for us to get out our dictionaries and find the right word to call a spade a spade. In turn that helps allies to understand what's going on as well.

You raise a good point at the end. Let's find out what others think.

- Christine

Harriet R said...

I don't think that there is a better word than "transphobia" to describe the actions and words of Jeffreys et al. I think it is perfectly analogous to the homophobia of various parts of the religious right-wing in Western societies, and I couldn't imagine a better word than homophobia for that.

I like cissexism to describe the sort of unconscious discrimination, but I'm not sure how useful it is when talking to people making these kinds of mistakes.

As for the article mentioned by Natacha, a link to GLAAD's page on usage of the word and a polite note that the word isn't appropriate with some sort of analogy, maybe? That tends to be my approach when I'm not feeling too hot-headed but if there's a better tactic I'd love to know.

SarahL said...

I've no doubt that Bill Sinclair feels perfectly justified in using the term 'tranny' in the context of describing a louche demi-monde which he regards as being attractively titillating. Almost certainly he sees 'trannies' as sexually motivated because he's never been challenged to think of trans people otherwise. Probably some of those in this bar are motivated to be there because they are sex workers. In ignoring the possibly sad human stories attached to the sex workers and 'absinthe-addled addicts' whom he portrays as contributing to the excitingly bohemian atmosphere, he's doing no different to a thousand travel writers before him.

I imagine if you, Christine and I were to invite him to have a coffee, he might initially be somewhat confused and subsequently reassess his view of trans people and his use of this term but we are too few and our time too precious to invite every journalist who uses this word for a coffee.

What TMW is trying to do is find ways of reaching as many broadcasters and journalists as possible from within the organisations they work for. We'd prefer it that if they are going to write about trans people, they have some familiarity with the people they are writing about beyond the two-dimensional stereotype which is instantly conjured up and recycled in Sinclair's article. We're at the early stages of this but hope to be able to announce some progress over the coming months.

I don't imagine the numbers of trans people in our society will ever match those of lesbian or gay but I think increasing visibility will turn out to be the only truly effective way to change the culture. People need to have met trans people, have trans friends or family or to have access to accurate portrayals in the media. It's a long road but one worth sticking to in my view.

Sarah L

Christine Burns said...

Thanks for that Sarah.

At the risk of shameless cross platform self-promotion you put me in mind of these thoughts by Juliet Jacques on the subject of trans people and the media

Natacha said...

I have just got an email back from Bill Sinclair. I was careful in how I worded my objsction to the term "tranny" and he responded very positively and aplogetically. He is even contacting the editor of the Guardian to ask to change the article.

So yes, not using "transphobia" works!

scattermoon said...

Great post, and hits the nail on the head when it comes to how the word has become so politicised within the trans community/ies. For certain individuals, it is the lens they chose to view the world through, and the boy calls wolf all too often.

One thing I would like to ask the author is what they make of the term 'internalised transphobia', as this does have a psychological basis? I refer to the term as used when people believe, for example, they are worth less than other (cis) people because they are trans.

Once again, great piece, thanks for saying this!

Juliet said...

I don't have too much to add to an excellent post. I agree with Sarah's point - it'll be useful when we have a diverse range of trans people allowed/given audible voices within the media so that the wider community doesn't feel so unheard or unrepresented, and thus less secure about types of representation.

Christine Burns said...

Dear scattermoon

To answer your question, I just googled the word "internalised". The suggestions for completing the phrase were:

internalised misogyny
... homophobia
... sexism
... racism
... oppression
... anger

So, clearly, lots of people have written about the phenomenon where a person can take the cultural negativity which they detect and turn it in on themselves.

But these are not separate syndromes. They are merely examples of the same inwardly directed self-loathing played out in the person's unique circumstances.

So, although talking about 'internalised transphobia' is no less valid than all the others, wouldn't we learn more (and see more common ground with others) if we used terms that everyone could apply?

scattermoon said...

Christine, I see your point, although what common language could we use? 'Internalised oppression' works as a catch-all, which could describe 'internalised racism' as much as 'internalised homophobia' for example, so that is an option. It is certainly an issue worth bearing in mind; a lot of the misguided accusations of 'transphobia' directed as trans people (usually by other trans people) could have the 'internalised' tag attached (as it follows that if one is 'transphobic' and 'trans' it must be 'internalised')...although from my experience this rarely happens for some reason, even amongst those for whom any dissent is automatically 'transphobic'.

However would it not be possible in some cases for someone who is trans to be transphobic, as you have defined it (an actual fear or specific hatred)? I am unconvinced of this, but if it is the case, should this then be differentiated from the 'internalised oppression' term mentioned above? Though if so, it would be another term that would have to be applied with extreme care and precision.

Thanks for your answer!

SonniesEdge said...

Within the trans "community" this is so often used as a political whip, to keep people "on message".

I myself have been branded transphobic several times for denouncing other trans people's quite patently anti-cis attitudes (have you heard some people starting to use "cissies" as an insult?). Alongside this I'm also transmisogynistic (shouldn't that be misotransgynist?) and a cis-quisling.

All this because I because I believe the vast majority of people really do not bear us ill-will and that the best way forward is by making allies.

I was part of the trans "community" as a teen back in the 90s and I think attitudes have really become much more negative amongst trans folks, despite the great strides in civil rights that have been accomplished in the UK.

See also: Social Justice Warrior

Cheryl said...

Excellent, thoughtful article. Thank you.

Ron Moule said...

I think Christine is too concerned with the idea of OWNERSHIP. Like her I was active in early gay rights and liberatoin movements, and we did challenge words and meanings. But we never owned the language of our successors and comrades.

Interesting that it is only in relation to transphobia that she says:

A word like transphobia has always seemed to me about apportioning blame and explaining the irrational behaviour that trans people describe seeing in others.

It is the only point where 'irrationality' is brought up in the article, and for that matter' blame'.

The trend of the article is that gay people can devise and deply terms genuinely and effectively, while trans people are merely apportion blame, and only have unverified complaint about irrational behavious.

The clear inference is that trans people do not have a right to change language, or adopt themes form other political movedments. What gives Chrtistine her right to make these judgements?

Christine Burns said...


Thank you for that perspective.

Back in my PFC days, there were occasions when hurt and angry people would kick out at me and my colleagues in private and very unpleasant messages.

This happens within communities where people are themselves abused and feel they have no other outlet or any sense of control in their lives.

I presume we were considered safe to abuse, because we weren't expected to fight back. Maybe they didn't have a cat to kick either.

Instead of rising to the abuse, we practiced the kind of thing I was taught years ago when I worked as a Samaritan volunteer. We kept reminding ourselves that those people were abused and that we were providing an outlet. And we supported each other quietly behind the scenes.

Now, that doesn't mean I condone or excuse that happening. As I've said before, regardless of the psychological pressures, adults must be expected to take responsibility for their own actions and not seek reasons to excuse bullying and intimidation.

This happens in many communities. I've seen other kinds of groups where particular personalities try to exert domination, using the language of the group turned back on itself as one of their tools.

So, in the trans community it happens that the political whip of choice is transphobia, because that is the most powerful accusation trans people have, short of questionning an opponent's identity.

I liken what's taking place in the trans world at the moment to a bottle of fizz which has been shaken, warmed up, and then had the top removed.

There's an awful lot of fizz coming out. People who've felt subjugated and silenced all their lives, and who have absorbed all that internalised self hatred we've been talking about, are suddenly out of the bottle. Some may have not learned enough whilst they were in there to realise that the respect they crave must also be given in return.

It's horrible. And we see it playing out in destructive ways, such as the current attempts in the US to divide and separate people because of labels.

Hopefully, however, we can get beyond that, by having honest self-searching discussions like these.

Martha said...

from a counselling in the widely accepted Person-Centred model point of view, internalised transphobia is an example of 'conditions of worth' imposed by parents and society on young growing minds, which lead to low self esteem and believing self stories that do not fit with the facts but very often become self-fulfilling. feel that it is a useful term in that context but do hear how 'transphobia' as a term can be misused. However 'racism' is seen as a useful term and they would seem to be very similar in focus.

Christine Burns said...

Ron, I'm not sure how you come to the conclusion that I'm concerned about ownership. My motive here was to explore the risks if people dilute meaning by using a word in particular ways.

In the sentence where I refer to 'irrationality' I am simply mirroring what I said about the subtext of 'homophobia' without repeating the same words. That's simply style. And I'm talking about the irrationality on the part of the transphobe in the same way as the unconscious motivation of the homophobe. Different words but intended to convey the same thing.

As for the rest, you're welcome to your interpretation but why would I, as an experienced trans politician, be arguing that trans people can't deploy intellectually sound descriptive language?

Why would I, as a successful former trans campaigner who championed certain aspects of trans language development herself, be arguing that trans people can't change language or adopt good ideas from other political movements?

SarahL said...

Transphobia and internalised transphobia must be things which are up for discussion but intention is of crucial importance. For instance the manner in which nearly all trans children are raised in a gender which doesn't work for them is a form of child abuse yet it would seldom be suggested that the parents of such children are transphobic and to blame for not understanding this. Another example would be a partner who signs up for what they believe to be a marriage between two cisgender people and then, on discovering that their partner is trans, in their confusion and anger, threatens to out them. This is domestic abuse. It may well be considered transphobic but who frankly can blame them in such a circumstance.

However, as with divorce, blame has to be taken out of the equation first before any discussion or a settlement can be achieved.

Charlie Butler said...

It's one of those "I wouldn't start from here" things, I think.

"Transphobia" has the problems you describe, I agree, but I would argue that "homophobia" does too, really. Phobias only make perfect sense when applied to people. What does it mean to say, for example, that "Leviticus is a homophobic book", or that "the Republican party is institutionally homophobic"? (I don't mean, do you agree with those propositions, I'm just asking whether they're meaningful.) And the problems you mention about losing friends apply just as much to people who are accused of being "homophobic" as those who are "transphobic". (Suppose - oh, I don't know - Laurie Penny had used one of John Inman's catchphrases in her piece, and someone had accused her of being homophobic - wouldn't it be a very similar situation?)

Essentially, "omophobia" and by extension "transphobia" are stretched too thin across too much semantic territory. It seems to me that what both the LGB and T communities need is a word that does a job analogous to "racist" as distinct from "xenophobic"; or "sexist against women" as distinct from "misogynist". Of course, a lot of racists are also xenophobes and vice versa, but "racist" is also a word that can be properly applied to organizations, discourses, works of literature, practices, etc as well as people. It's about politics rather than pathology.

Of course, we could invent such a word. Genderist, perhaps, by analogy with sexist. But I don't suppose anyone's clamouring for yet another term for the general public not to understand. Like I said, I wouldn't start from here.

S said...

Wow, you really opened my mind about the use of this word. I have certainly used it in the past without thinking it might be too harsh for a situation. You're right, sometimes a person may make a mistake and not seek to intentionally harm the trans community and a person like that shouldn't be labelled so harshly.

I just wanted to say I disagreed with a claim you made in the beginning of your article (I almost stopped reading the article when I got to this point). You said a homophobic person would never call themselves homophobic, but in my lived experience, this is not true. I know some LGB people that say they have or do struggle with "internalized homophobia". I also know a few very progressive/liberal/radical hetero-identified allies that have told me, in the strictest confidence, "I think I may be homophobic". I think that it is possible to recognize this about yourself. A few years ago, I was a racist. I grew up in a family that didn't approve of diversity. I hadn't met many people of different races and when I moved away from home and met racially diverse individuals for the first time, I felt nervous/uncomfortable, even afraid at times. I have been working very hard to outgrow these feelings. I hate that racism was inside of me. I am not going to claim it is all of the way gone, but I have been working on it. I think homophobia is the same.

Christine Burns said...

Charlie, I would agree that homophobia isn't exempt from these issues. It's not the word per se, but whether or not people devalue it by inappropriate usage. My recollections of the age are hazy but I think I do recall people using homophobia excessively in the 70's and 80's. The thing to remember when trying any comparisons is that one group of people has had over 40 years to settle down with a word whereas I don't think trans people have even had a decade.

I also agree with your analysis that the implied motivation in the 'phobias breaks down when the subject is an inanimate object or concept. In a way that's symptomatic of the way that people these days hijack words without any thought for the meanings they already possessed. For instance, we now have kids who reckon a good thing is 'wicked'.

Rather than go inventing words, however, could people not look into the dictionary and find an appropriate one that's already in there? Or is that a sign of my age?

And thanks for your comments too 'S'. I'd just like to say though that if you go back to what I wrote I didn't say anything as black and white as 'a homophobic person would never call themselves homophobic'. I said that I had yet to hear of any homophobe seeking treatment for the negative effects of their behaviours. I agree that there are LGB people who internalise their own homophobia .. indeed I've discussed it above .. however the context in the main text was people who aren't LGBT.

It's interesting though that a piece in which I was only ever intending to talk about the behaviours of non LGBT 'phobes has touched off so many comments about negative behaviour INSIDE the communities. I guess that's predictable in a way because LGBT people do have such a lot invested in getting on with other LGBT people. In a way that begs another blog, although I think I might be even more afraid to write that one than I was with this.

Charlie Butler said...

I don't think there's already a word that already has the required meaning (i.e. standing in the same relation to transphobia as racism does to xenophobia), so it boils down to inventing a new word, or else using a word that already has a different meaning. Both strategies have their dangers, the problem with the latter being that of potential ambiguity. It's tricky!

Pietagina said...

Babies and bath water spring to mind. Laurie Penny is almost accused of trans-phobia and suddenly the word is an issue? Rather than one particular persons use of it?

Seen from a long way off far from the incestuous London-Media-Political world it just seems a storm in a teacup. I have no long history of trans-activism or any other claim to fame, but here are my 2 pennies

1 She got it wrong, the fairy Godmother is seldom a "Dame" the Dame roles are generally the ugly sisters and maybe the stepmother in the pantomime most famous for its Fairy Godmother, Cinderella.

2 She is actually comparing a cis woman to a man norman tebbit in drag neither is about trans it might be body fascism or bitchy fashion criticism BUT putting the image of Norman Tebbit in drag in my brain is NOT unforgivable!

Neither of these crimes feel like the occasions when bottles were thrown at me in the small northern city where I live with the accompaniment raucous laughter and a loud "Yo! MAN!" or "Hey Mister". I'd quite like to have a word like trans-phobic I could categorise those incidents with. Store them away and blame the trans-phobia of perpetrators rather than myself for being trans and bringing the incidents on myself. But then in similar situation there has been nothing trans about the incidents, young men who fail to spot I am trans are still quite capable of coming up inches from my face and just saying "God you're an ugly bitch"

So I guess young pretty rising star Laurie Penny should be called on cheap "humorous" personal attacks on other peoples appearances be they trans-phobic or otherwise. She got that wrong. Think Russell Howard. Oh no sorry that was judged ok wasn't it!

Finally... trans-phobic also has some intended irony which probably stems from the fact that often the trans-phobia was emanating from the very people who coined and brandish homo-phobia with such gusto, LGB people.

Christine Burns said...

As I indicated in the article there's always:


And you could add:

incitement to hatred
incitement to commit a crime

My feeling is that if we cannot translate what is said and done to trans people into the existing general language of discrimination and abuse then we are, in effect, saying that the behaviour is something separate, new, and therefore open to debate about whether it is serious or not.

If you say something is transphobic then a person first has to consider what that word means. Then, as few people grasp the idea of universal rights, many will bring in what they think they know about trans people to consider whether they think they are fair game or not. So, regardless of the incident in question, a whole set of value judgements are set in motion.

On the other hand if you seek to establish that a particular incident is an example of a category of behaviour which people already understand then people are forced to look upon the actual evidence of what took place.

I'm not saying that one should ignore the trans context. That is necessary, for instance, to establish whether there is a hate crime element on top of the basic act. But that oughtn't perhaps to be the starting point.

Christine Burns said...

NB. That last comment of mine was a reply to Charlie Butler. Pietagina's comment wasn't on screen when I started typing

Charlie Butler said...

Yes, I see your point, and from the point of view of general campaigning and of hearts and minds then you're probably right, as far getting to the public is concerned.

I suppose my perspective is that of an academic who would rather have more precise language at their disposal. And I can't help wondering how different the history of race relations might have been if activists had had those very general words like 'bullying' and 'discrimination' in their toolkit, and the specific medical-sounding 'xenophobia' (problematic anyway of course when so many the people being discriminated often aren't even foreign, but probably accurate in terms of representing the haters' point of view) - but not 'racism'. It just seems as if we're a five-iron short of a full set of clubs by comparison.

janefae said...

Very good, very impressive piece, Christine. No doubt it will have resonance with the thoughtful tendency, whilst stirring some of the less thoughtful to apoplexy. Tough!

I think what you write is absolutely spot-on - though i'd go a tad further.

First in terms of my personal experience: second, in terms of what i get nowadays.

I'm not going to claim to be a good or bad thing as far as the trans community is concerned. I'd hope the former: i suspect some would suggest the latter.

What i'm not is some sort of quiet mousish girl. I'm active: have a public profile not quite up there with yourself or Laurie - but a profile nonetheless - and i get heard by all manner of people through various platforms i have in the national media.

When i first started to transition publically i was written about by the Mail. There was a positive agenda to letting them do the piece they did and i felt that with a few unhappy notes, it did what i wanted.

I wouldn't do the same thing the same way again. But one learns: and the reaction? From the cis world, almost universally positive: from the trans world (or at least those bits of it i refer to often as the eeyore tendency), nothing but nit-picking, criticism, condemnation.

I was stunned. My partner very upset. Were i a more malicious, grudge-forming type, i could see myself going: "well screw you!". Henceforth taking my own path with or without the community. Perhaps even being positively hostile.

I'm not. You know that. But the possibility is always there.

For now, i support the trans community in general whilst, as a writer, being increasingly irritated by the grammatical nitpicks i seem to encounter. I won't specify now...that'll probably derail.

But what i do see, hear, receive is a constant drip from people who seem not to "get it" - at least not in my terms: who fail to understand that the important is the underlying, the overall, the big picture - and that sometimes, obsessing with the detail (or focussing on a word like transphobia) is thoroughly unhelpful.

More power to your elbow (and typing fingers), Christine!


Christine Burns said...

Thanks for that Jane

And I'm with you all the way on the nitpicking that can sometimes occur.

Personally, I would rather that people wouldn't use certain words or punctuate them in particular ways.

For instance, I've lectured on the difference between "transwoman" (potentially a noun) and "trans woman" (an adjective preceding a noun). These are subtleties that theory and analysis can lead the expert into worrying about. Yet I wouldn't heap opprobrium on an outsider for missing the space.

And those ready to pour scorn on people's faltering steps in the media should ask themselves whether their own performance is faultless when it comes to getting the language right for other minorities. Would they appreciate being labelled as racist, sexist or disablist for making the basic innocent errors that an outsider can make?

Perhaps we need an adage:

To err is human, but very probably not transphobic

SarahL said...

When it comes down to it trans is a human rights, equality, diversity issue the same as others ... a concept which you have done a huge amount and continue to do to promote, Christine. But I have to say ... my experience is that this is still not widely recognised either outside [as evidenced by Ofcom's Russell Howard decision] or inside the trans community.

Outside the trans community, excepting for a minority of bigots, I believe this is almost entirely a result of unfamiliarity. I do admit to finding words like 'transphobia' and 'cisgender' useful for making analogies with 'homophobia', 'heterosexual' etc.. Essentially though my intention in flagging up such terms would be precisely to defuse them by analogy ... trans is trans, gay is gay, black is black etc.. What more really is there to be said except that they are all part of life's rich variety?

However the unfortunate result of the lack of familiarity with trans lives outside the trans community coupled with the obsessive nature of unaddressed gender dysphoria from early childhood within the trans community can lead to a very bruising collision. If every attempt to explain yourself is met with blank incomprehension or false assumptions usually to do with imagined sexual proclivities, it's all too easy to embrace the role of victim ... everybody who doesn't understand you is transphobic ... ergo cisgender people are virtually all transphobic.

This is so clearly illustrated in the ongoing battles to establish group identities within the trans community. There's perhaps something rather similar to Munchausen's by proxy in what might be called 'internalised transphobia' ... the attribution of 'unsavoury' motives on other trans people in order to portray oneself as the innocent victim of cruel nature worthy only of sympathy. If genuine transphobia is in reality probably much rarer among the general population than imagined, the perception that it is pervasive means, I think, that internalised transphobia is something which many trans people find very hard to shed.

I do think it's the experience of most trans people in the UK today ... thanks in large part to the advances made by other minorities ... that cis people quite quickly accept transness at the level of personal acquaintance. This doesn't mean you don't still see the cogs in their brains spinning while they try to rationalise such acceptance. The crucial point is that they understand quickly that it's something they just may not have personally come across before but which they need to accept. Yet beyond their immediate social circle, I still think there's a perception among far too many trans people that they [society] will never get it and it's pointless even trying to explain.

In a way changing the culture among cis people is the easy part. You just get out there and do your best to increase awareness all around in ever increasing ripples. The hard part seems more often to persuade other trans people that this is something worth doing. I suspect there is a tipping point which maybe will happen sooner than we expect. It may never be the case that everybody has a trans friend or family member as is now generally the case with LG or B but we can hope for far greater awareness. At that point perhaps what constitutes genuine transphobia will be thrown into sharper relief because there will be no comforting blanket of ignorance and unfamiliarity in which to hide.

janefae said...

just double-ticking the box about errors we ourselves may make when getting outside our comfort zone.

I am not intentionally racist although, in the way of these things, i am sure some individuals will point out that i obviously have privilege by virtue of being white and middle-class. I accept that - although there is little i can do about that.

my awareness of racist "tags" was formed in the 1980's and i would guess my language is pretty non-racist for that decade. But things move on.

And recently, i interviewed a trans woman "of colour". Don't ask: i don't even know if that term is now offensive or not. What i have done is sent the text of the interview back to her to ask her to point up any references that she considers offensive and i will change them.

Otherwise, though, i haven't the faintest - not at a day to day level, anyway.


Christine Burns said...

Thanks for your contribution SarahL

I know from experience that, even when we have made huge strides very quickly in legal protection and social acceptance, there seems to be a disconnect when encountering lots of people behaving as though nothing has changed or ever can.

Of course, I'm not discounting that, for some people, those advances may seem remote and detached from the experiences they are still personally receiving. There is still a long way to go and accepting change and moving forwards mustn't mean trying to erase the experiences of people whose difficulties start to sound 'off-message'.

However, I'm really thinking about the trans people who have found themselves accepted by family and friends, who have good jobs, and happy lives and yet still hang on to the narrative that the world is horrible and against them. (These are the instances which I think you're referring to).

For those people we have to question why they want to cling on to the familiar idea that the world is hostile. And, as you say, unresolved self-hatred could have a part in explaining that.

Such deeply ingrained beliefs can be very understandable. The longer you've been submerged in a culture that seems hostile, the farther you have to swim up for air.

And those are the kinds of ingrained beliefs that will be likely to lead people to always assume the worst about the slightest of mistakes by outsiders.

I wish we had a magic healing wand for that.

Significantly Other said...

Hi Christine

I'm a relative newcomer to the trans world, via my partner who began her transition last year. It became clear very quickly that I was (well, we both were) about to set foot on a massive learning curve, and I've learnt an enormous amount in the last twelve months. One of the things I hadn't even begun to think about before was the use of language, the shades of meaning behind all sorts of words that hadn't occurred to me before. I'm still learning now - I'm not particularly analytical by nature, I have to admit, and until I read this post I hadn't really thought about what the word 'transphobia' was really implying. It seems to me that there's a pretty broad spectrum of negative reactions to trans people, some born out of irrational fears, but many of them born out of simple ignorance and lack of awareness of what it's actually like to be trans. The trouble with neologisms that take an existing word and adapt it a bit, like transphobia coming from homophobia, is that they often don't quite convey the right meaning (I've often wondered whether chocoholism is really a condition on a par with alcoholism...) - but also it's quite hard to get that meaning across to people who aren't already in the know. Cissexism is fundamentally a good description, but it depends on people understanding what 'cissexual' actually means, and it's my experience that few people who don't have any connections to trans people know what it means. I have to admit, I didn't until I stumbled across it a few months into my partner's transition when she discovered it and explained it to me. Transphobia does at least get a broad meaning across because people understand what homophobia is and can see the connection - but you're right, once you think more deeply about it, it isn't so apt at all. But then, often homophobia isn't either.

I think I'm going round in circles here! But I'm definitely an advocate of thinking more carefully about the words we use and what they really mean. And of explaining their meanings to others, so that they understand us when we talk to them - because we can't engage with people if they don't understand what we're trying to say to them.

Anonymous said...

Really excellent article Christine! I have struggled within the LGB community over 'homophobia' for many years now as I think it is an unfortunate term in most cases. I am not going to consider the use of -phobia words were well intentioned people make innocent mistakes. I am thinking more what do we call people whose views express enmity and contempt for us. I prefer to use 'anti-gay bigotry/discrimination/prejudice' (or anti-bi or anti-lesbian as the more specific case may be). But have had to use 'homophobia' at times to join in with joint initiatives when I was director of Polari. It would seem transphobia has all the same problems - most especially that of making hatred into an inadvertent psychological condition.

On a historical note, I was active in Gay Liberation Front from 1972 and in the lesbian movement specifically throughout the 70s and early 80s. While I see from wikipedia the word homophobia made its way into print in 1969 it really had no currency over here in the UK, in spite of the fact we read many writings from the US. When I was in the US 77-78 amongst LG activists I never heard it used. I only heard it for the first time in the early 80s.

I am wondering why it is that so many of us LGB and T people have wanted to embrace these words that seem to mirror psychiatric diagnoses. I have a suspicion that subconsciously we may hope that we can subvert our detractors by implying 'you think WE have mental health problems for being gay or trans, well believe me it is you who has them'. I understand that impulse! Originally when I encountered it 'homophobia' appealed to me for that very reason. But I don't think it is a helpful approach. Phobias are not hatred and people with phobias deserve support. (I know I have had phobias and still have one).

I have hesitated to express my views on 'transphobic' ere now in case I was thought to be transphobic myself and indeed felt it was the business of the trans* community, not my business. I do feel more comfortable discussing 'homophobia' which I feel is mine to dismiss should I want to. And though I may feel forced to support statements that use it, I certainly don;t like having to. I really don't feel that 'homophobia' is any better as a term than transphobia.

Lindsay (River)