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.
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.
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 cissexism, transprejudice, 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?
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.