Bigotry and ignorance are not “phobias”

A very kind commenter recently pointed out to me that in using that word “homophobic” in my post about eliminating ableist terms from my vocabulary I was in fact (in an unfortunate irony) using an ableist term.

Phobias are, in fact, recognized mental health issues. Homophobia is not, in fact, a phobia, and conflating it with the very real experience of people with phobias is unfair. In many more ways than one. Let me explain.

The primary issue here is, of course, the unfair, incorrect, and damaging impact of comparing people with real phobias to bigots. Mental illness continues to be massively stigmatized, and people with mental illnesses are often portrayed as violent or otherwise inherently and uncontrollably abusive. By suggesting that anti-trans, anti-gay, anti-bisexual, anti-queer, and anti-asexual bigotry are “phobias” we are only contributing the idea that people with mental illnesses are bad people.

But I know that a lot of people are for some reason not convinced by this kind of argument, and think that because “everyone knows” that bi-, homo-, trans-, femme- and acephobia aren’t actually phobias that the use of the same terminology is irrelevant. So let me give you some other reason why it might be useful to avoid using these terms.

Referring to bigots as being “phobic” lets them off way too easy

The rhetoric of bigoted “phobias” carries the inherent implication that bigots can’t help the way they are, and that they can’t change. And, while I actually don’t believe most bigots ever will change, I also think it’s important to remember that the fact that they don’t change is entirely on them, based on a series of choices they make throughout their life (to not listen to other people’s experiences, to care more about their discomfort with learning than about the pain and death of other people, etc.) Bigots are responsible for their own bigotry and absolutely need to be held accountable, always. Calling them what they are (bigots), and calling their ideas what they are (bigoted), calling their actions what they are (bigotry) instead of couching it softly in terms of phobias is a powerful and necessary rhetorical move.

But it does even more than just holding people accountable.

Referring to bigotry as bigotry, and not as a phobia, makes it harder for the folks committing bigotry to derail the conversation

You see it again and again: someone points out that something another person said is problematic, and calls what was said (or the person saying it) ace/bi/femme/homo/transphobic. The person being accused of said “phobia” responds that they are not afraid of the group in question, and that they are therefore not “phobic”. Of course we know that this person knows that’s not what the word means. Of course we all know that no one thinks that anyone was actually referring to a real phobia.

But the conversation is derailed, just like that, and moves into a conversation about what it means to be whatever-phobic. Why give the person in question, the one who fucked up, such an easy out, when it can be so easily avoided? Call bigotry what it is, and close the door to this sort of derailment.

My commitment

All of this is really to say that I am making a personal commitment to no longer use the terms transphobia, acephobia, homophobia, and the like. I will instead refer variously to what is actually happening. There’s actually a plethora of better, non-oppressive, and more precise terms than “phobia” applicable to various incarnations of bigotry or just plain ignorance. Consider:

  • Acephobia may refer to:
    • anti-ace bigotry
    • compulsory sexuality
    • ace erasure
  • Biphobia may refer to:
    • anti-bisexual bigotry
    • monosexism
    • bisexual erasure
  • Femmephobia may refer to:
    • misogyny
    • devaluation of femininity
    • compulsory masculinity
  • Homophobia may refer to:
    • anti-gay bigotry
    • heterosexism
    • gay erasure
  • Queerphobia may refer to:
    • anti-queer bigotry
    • queer erasure
    • heterosexism
    • monosexism
  • Transphobia may refer to:
    • anti-trans bigotry
    • transmisogyny
    • cissexism
    • trans erasure

I mean, just look at the amazing list of more precise terms to refer to different kinds of bigotry and ignorance faced by LGBTQIA folks! There are so many options, and they are all so useful and way more accurate and direct than “phobia”.

I also plan to go back and edit references to phobias out of my old posts, although I currently barely have time to even sit down and write this out, so I’m not sure when I will manage to do that. I simply promise that it will happen.

I will, however, continue to use “phobia” terms in my tags, for indexing purposes. As a librarian, I understand that using the terms that other people use is sometimes important to make information searchable and findable. I am open to the idea of making sure that false phobias don’t turn up in the tag cloud on the right though, if that is potentially harmful or triggering for people. Please let me know if you have thoughts on this!

Gender Perspectives, Vol. 8

download[In the Gender Perspectives series, I hope to curate writing by people with a wide variety of gender identities and experiences, talking about their gender, what it means to them personally, and what it means for the ways in which they move through and interact with the world. Basically, this is where I point out that I’m not the only person in the world who has complex thoughts about gender, and that there as many ways to be Trans* and/or genderqueer as there are to be cisgender (and yes, there are many different ways to be cisgender). Check out the rest of the series.]

  • Sage Pantony discusses their experiences of changing privilege when going from a femme presentation to a masculine one, within their identity as a simultaneously gender-fluid/genderqueer and cisgender person.

    The catcalling I used to receive from men in the streets has almost completely stopped. I didn’t expect this. In fact, I thought I would experience more sexualizing taunts and threats once I went against the norm. I’m experiencing a form of masculine privilege in that I actually feel safer when I move in public spaces now. This is interesting, as I’m pretty sure people still read me as female. Store clerks still call me “Miss” or refer to me as one of the “girls” when I’m with a group of feminine folks.

    Masculinity affords certain privileges in a patriarchal culture. I believe that I’m benefiting from some of these privileges now.

  • The author of “An Exacting Life”, a cisgender parent with a trans* child, contemplates her personal relationship with and experiences of gender.

    I am a woman who was raised as a girl. What could be more natural?

    Until I think about what a strange construct that is. I was born with certain visible body parts, and that determined how I was raised and what my future role in life would be. My culture not only supports this, but pretty much requires it. My parents carried this out unquestioningly…

  • Belinda Cooper talks about being “she-zi-thee-he” genderqueer, zir intimate relationships, and dealing with the broader world.

    At time you can feel like an alien not fitting into the terms and conditions of society and the humans don’t understand your language and properly never will. So you squeeze your alien self into their terms and you get used to it as it is easier, easier for your mother, father, brothers and as well as the stranger talking to you on the bus.

    When they present you with a forms requesting your gender, they seem to ask a question that actually want to know. Sometimes you get lucky and there are more than two possible answers and you smile and say well done people. Other times you just feel bitter anger and frustration.

    This is how ‘I’ experience life and gender.

  • Sam Dylan Finch writes incredibly beautifully about dealing with his own internalized anti-trans thoughts feelings

    What they don’t tell you about being transgender is that sometimes, the transphobe is you.

    Those days, the only words I knew how to say were, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

    They never tell you that being transgender can sometimes feel like a run-on string of apologies – I’m sorry for being here, I’m sorry for being this way, I’m sorry for disappointing you, I’m sorry for your expectations, and I’m sorry for mine.

  • Olly from “Apparently I Don’t Exist” responds to the search term “gender fluid is utter nonsense”, which brought someone to their blog.

    I don’t think they found what they were looking for.

    Although privately I do agree with them; it is complete nonsense. I’m a logical creature who likes their patterns and progressions so not being able to predict where my gender identity is going to be on any given day of the week is what some people might call a nightmare. But it’s my reality.

    Gender is a social construct and yet in my head I know the difference between femme days and masc days and agender days and any other kind of days. Logic tells me that the clothes I wear on my body are *my* clothes, but there are days where the thought if wearing skimpy panties rather than my pirate boxer shorts makes me want to cry.

    So yeah, it is utter and complete total nonsense. But that doesn’t make it any less real.

Trans women, and women-only spaces: some general comments

sisters cistersIn the posts in this series, refuting the various justifications given for excluding trans women from women-only spaces, I’ve done my best to take the arguments at face value. The thing is, though (and I’ve touched on this a little bit already), it’s pretty clear to me that all of these arguments are after-the-fact justifications for the decision to exclude trans women from spaces, a decision that is generally based entirely in people’s visceral response to the issue.

Although I think that it is very important that we have arguments ready to refute these points when they are thrown out to try and justify discrimination against trans women, I also really feel that I have to acknowledge that all of these arguments have their foundations in plain cissexism. They are not reasoned arguments to begin with, and don’t really even deserve the time I’ve given them, except that by refuting them, there is some small chance that we can force changes to be made.

Ultimately all four of the arguments against including trans women in women-only spaces boil down to “but they’re not really women!”, or more directly “we don’t want to include them, because they’re men!” Which is absolutely untrue, and is the complete misunderstanding of trans identities that lies at the root of pretty much all anti-trans bias and trans erasure.

I touched on this point in some of my refutations; however, I think it is worth repeating the ways in which each of the four arguments ultimately boils down to this most basic unwillingness to accept trans women as women.

Trans women were raised as male and therefore possess male privilege.

As I pointed out in the original post (linked above), this argument is fundamentally based in the false attribution of manhood to trans women. Considering trans women to be men is rank cissexism. Nuff said.

Trans women have penises, which can be triggering for rape survivors and other women.

When women are triggered by the (presumed) presence of penises as a part of trans women’s bodies, this trigger is fundamentally rooted in the equation of penises with men, and thus in seeing trans women as men.

We aren’t equipped to fulfill trans women’s needs!

This one is a few more steps removed from the idea that trans women are really men. However, I think that the sense that it is somehow justifiable to refuse to provide services to trans women because of their (supposed) unique needs is rooted in the idea that men are not in need of the same kind of support as women are. I honestly don’t know how else someone would justify ignoring the needs of an exceptionally marginalized population, unless it is because they refuse to acknowledge that marginalization (see, we’re really just back to that whole “male privilege” idea again).

Considering trans women to simply be women reinforces the gender binary, and ignores the nuances of their unique identities (I wish I was making this up, I really do.)

Ok, this argument is I guess slightly better than the others in that it clearly accepts that trans women aren’t men. The problem is that it simultaneously asserts that trans women also aren’t really women either. Which, I mean, there are people who are neither men nor women (Hi there!), but trans women do not belong in that category. They’re women. This shouldn’t be this difficult.


I really, really wish that getting people to accept trans people as members of the gender they identify as (a.k.a. the gender they *are*, y’know) wasn’t as difficult as it apparently is.

So, while I hope that this series has been useful and/or enlightening, I don’t think I’ve even begun to address the real root of the problem at hand. And… I’m really not sure what I can say that will convince other people to stop being biological determinist, gender essentialist assholes. So, what I’d like to do here is just make room for other voices. Here are some people who are saying awesome and persuasive things about the trans experience that (I hope) will help people unfamiliar with transgender realities to approach these issues with more compassion and understanding. In no particular order:

Myths and Misconceptions about Trans Women

I really hope that y’all have found this series enlightening/interesting/useful. I think it’s been my biggest project on this blog to date! Thank you for reading.

Trans women, women-only spaces, and concern trolling

sisters cistersThis post is the fourth and final penultimate piece in a series examining the various justifications that are given for the (utterly unjustifiable) exclusion of trans women from women-only spaces. The four rationales being examined are as follows:

Today, it’s all about the concern troll argument:

Treating trans women as if they are simply women ignores their unique life experience!

So how is this concern trolling, you ask? This argument turns the tables and suggests that trans women need to be excluded from women’s spaces for their own good, out of respect for their identities. Inherent in this suggestion that trans women’s particular trans womanhood is, y’know, not the same thing as “real” (read: cis) womanhood. This, despite the fact that many trans women will tell you themselves that they do consider themselves to be “simply” women. Real women. Seriously. This isn’t difficult, is it?

Ok, there is also a slightly more nuanced framing of this argument. It goes something like this: trans people are on the forefront of the battle (or whatever) to break down the gender binary (or whatever). Their lived experiences prove that the gender system is broken, and if we ignore the trans part of their identity by providing them with vital services earmarked for women, then we are undoing all of their great gender warrioring (or whatever).

Listen, I really have no patience with this shit whatsoever. The thing is, many (possibly even most, I can’t really say) binary identified trans folks (i.e. the kind of trans folks who identify as men or as women, and not as some form of non-binary, like I do) don’t consider themselves as breaking down the gender binary. They may feel they fit perfectly well within it, just not in the way their parents thought they did when they were born. To tell them that be identifying as woman, they are somehow breaking down the category of “woman” is at best, really fucking rude and marginalizing. It’s nothing more than yet another manifestation of people’s unwillingness to accept that trans women are, in fact, women. We need to stop pretending that they’re secretly something different, something woman-like, but, you know, not in the way that cis women are. They’re non-binary women, or something.

It’s… just awful. And oftentimes this narrative of trans people as gender warriors feels almost appropriative. Feminist women often like the idea of breaking down the gender binary, in the sense of erasing the cultural ideas about the inherent differences between men and women, and their respective roles in society. And this is a great goal, for sure. Restrictive gender roles hurt everyone, after all.

But when someone starts insisting that they can’t treat trans women like other women, because then they’re erasing the trans part of their identity, and that part of their identity is important in the fight to break down the gender binary, please remember this: this argument is always being made in the face of real actual trans women who really actually just want to be seen as women, plain and simple. And really, the outcome of this argument is just plain nightmarish. What happens is trans women get denied vital and shelter in the name “respecting their identities”. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so truly awful and heart-breaking.

Stop putting words in trans women’s mouths. Stop pretending you know more about what being it means that they are trans, and how they relate with the gender binary. And don’t deny them things they need and pretend you are doing it for their own good. This is the definition of concern trolling. Just. Fucking. Don’t.

Trans women, women-only spaces, and …special needs?

sisters cistersThis post is part 3 in a series examining the various justifications that are given for the (utterly unjustifiable) exclusion of trans women from women-only spaces. The four rationales being examined are as follows:

Today, it’s:

We aren’t equipped to fulfill trans women’s needs!

The above is actually the most sanitized and faux-friendly version of this argument. Some women’s shelters defend trans exclusionary policies on the grounds that their services have been designed with cis women in mind, and they simply don’t know how to help trans women. The less friendly corollary to this is often that the shelters don’t want to divert their efforts or water down their services by actively working on being able to meet trans women’s needs.

First off, I am unconvinced that the needs of trans women escaping abusive situations will be all that different from the needs of cis women in the same situation. The promise of a safe place to stay, and help with putting one’s life back together seems adequate, and with the exception of potentially unique medical needs, cis and trans women are able to benefit equally from housing, job, and childcare services, among many other services, without any needs for special accommodation.

But secondly, I want to address this idea that taking special care to accommodate trans women might somehow take away from the resources available to cis women. Much like the previous argument, this claim is only valid if we accept the unstated premise that cis women’s needs are more important than trans women’s. If, for instance, someone said that they were going to exclude poor women from their shelter, because the unique needs caused by their poverty were too difficult to accommodate (and certainly, poor women facing abusive situations may have more complex needs and have more difficulty extricating themselves from a situation in which they are wholly dependent on their abuser for their welfare), it would be patently obvious that this is a ridiculous, discriminatory, and just plain awful thing to do.

So why do we allow the same treatment to be applied to trans women (who are in fact at extremely elevated risks of violence, abuse, poverty, and many other risk factors that we would normally consider as making someone a higher priority target for these kinds of services). Rather than being excluded, trans women should be a priority group targeted by women’s shelters offering community support.

When you get right down to it, the suggestion that trans women might somehow be too in need of help to be included in women’s shelters is yet another form of victim-blaming (we’d help them if they’d just stop needing so much help!) I mean, really. Can we please stop this shit?

Trans women, women-only spaces, and penis-panic

sisters cistersThis post is part 2 in a series examining the various justifications that are given for the (utterly unjustifiable) exclusion of trans women from women-only spaces. The four rationales being examined are as follows:

Today, I’m tackling the penis fallacy (more like phallacy, am I right?). Here we go:

But trans women have penises!

Ok, first off, let’s correct that. Some trans women have penises. This is true, I suppose. But why does this mean they should be excluded from women-only spaces? The argument goes that the presence of penises in spaces that are supposed to be safe might be triggering for people who have been the victims of male violence, and particularly of rape. Some people go even further with this argument and suggest that penises are an inherent symbol of female oppression in our phallocentric culture, and that they may be triggering of any woman, regardless of her experiences of violence.

While I am sensitive to people’s mental health needs, and I understand that this kind of trigger is not really controllable, the point needs to be made that it is simply not appropriate to accommodate all people’s triggers. In fact, it is never appropriate to accommodate triggers that are inherently based in bigotry (as the trans-woman’s-penis trigger very much is). If, for instance, a woman in a women’s shelter were to feel triggered by the presence of a black person (perhaps she was abused or assaulted by a black person?), it would not be appropriate to deny services to black women for the sake of this one racist woman. Nor would it suddenly become appropriate if the majority of the white women at the shelter were all racist.

Or, even if we remove the comparison to other oppressed groups, I still think it should be obvious that this kind of exclusion based on physical traits is unreasonable. If, for instance, someone found tall people, or blond people, triggering due to having been abused by someone having (or a number of people who shared) that trait, it would not reasonable to exclude all people with that physical trait on those grounds. Again, not even if many people shared the same trigger.

The reason that both these example will seem obvious to us all, but the case of trans women sometimes seems more complicated actually stems from the cissexist idea that trans women aren’t actually women, or more to the point, that they are actually men. Because, in fact, there is general agreement that excluding men from women’s shelters is an important aspect of ensuring both the mental and physical safety of those being sheltered. And, returning to the example of race, it is sometimes absolutely appropriate for people of colour to organize spaces that exclude white people.

It is only the fact that in the example concerning race, we were talking about a white (i.e. racially privileged) woman wanting to exclude black women that was the problem. It’s a question of whether the group being excluded is already the one with more power (i.e. the one more likely to have resources to create other spaces that will include them).

And I really do think that the idea that it is appropriate to exclude trans women in this way is deeply rooted in the bigoted idea that they are actually men, and thus can be reasonably excluded. In fact, the groups we are dealing with in this case are those of cis women and trans women; and surely we can agree that trans people are on the oppressed side of cis/trans binary. Active exclusion of oppressed groups of people is never justifiable, and is always based in plain bigotry.

When a woman says she feels uncomfortable being around trans women, because they remind her of the violence and oppression she has faced at the hands of men, she is revealing her cissexism, in the form of her inability or unwillingness to recognize the womanhood of trans women. Finding trans women indistinguishable from men is bigotry, plain and simple. And the fact that a large proportion of women seem to carrying around this trans-erasing bigotry, even to the extent that it has a negative impact on their mental health, doesn’t make the accommodation of their bigotry any more justifiable.

Trans women, women-only spaces, and victim-blaming

sisters cistersI recently read an anthology on the subject of the intersections between trans politics and feminism. I’m not going to name it here, because it was terrible, and full of a whole lot of transmisogynist apologia, some of which I want to talk about here.

Transmisogyny frequently raises it’s ugly head around the idea of women’s-only spaces, and ultimately, the question of who gets to determine what qualifies a person as a “woman” for the purposes of these spaces. I’ve written before about the ways in which I sometimes navigate my own inclusion/exclusion in this kind of space, as person who was assigned female at birth, but who is not a woman. I have come to understand that my perspective on these spaces is highly privileged, as in most cases, I am the one voluntarily including or excluding myself based on my own assessment of a space’s safety for me.

What I want to talk about is the explicit and active exclusion of trans women from many important women’s services, such as shelters for abuse survivors, and other places where women form communities and support each other. This post will be the first in a series examining the various justifications that are given for this exclusion. The rationales I have identified are as follows (the first point will be addressed in this post):

Trans woman are socialized as male, and therefore possess male privilege

This idea gets floated a lot in trans-exclusionary feminist thinking. It sounds kind of meaningful, I guess. And the argument usually goes that it is important for cis women to have spaces in which they can discuss the experience of being raised within the restrictive social roles allowed to people who are assigned female at birth, and that trans women do not share this experience.

Ok, first of all, it’s not like cis women have trouble finding other cis women to talk about this stuff with. And if someone wants to organize a workshop for cis women to talk their experiences being raised as girls, I feel pretty ok about that I guess. It’s the blanket exclusion from trans women from entire events such as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, or from vital and life-saving services and support like women’s shelters that I feel are utterly unjustifiable.

Here’s the thing: when people talk about trans women’s male socializations, they usually don’t actually stop to think about what that experience may have been like for those women. In fact, what we are talking about in many cases are people who were forced to try to conform with and pretend to be a member of a gender to which they felt little or no belonging. The fact that trans women were tricked or forced for part of their lives to live and act as males is a form of violence and abuse that they experienced, and should not be framed as a privilege. To tell a trans woman that she is unworthy of help because of the fact that her parents insisted on calling her a boy (an experience that is very traumatic for many trans people) is nothing more than victim-blaming.

I also want to call into question the idea that there is some unique experience to be had among women in being raised as female. Not all parents teach their children the same gender roles; there is a great deal of cultural variation, and moreover some parents do their damnedest to raise their children in a gender neutral manner. Your mileage, in other words, may very well vary.

Ok, you may say. But all people who are raised as girls within a given culture receive the same media messaging. And girls are inundated with messages from birth communicating that their worth lies in their attractiveness to men, and that there is only one correct way to be attractive, etc etc etc. But, here’s my thing: Trans women have been exposed to that same media their entire lives, y’know?

And I’m really not willing to buy any argument that would suggest that being assigned male at birth made them immune to those messages. Rather, I would argue that a young trans girl, being forcibly raised as male by her parents (whether they are well-meaning or not isn’t relevant to this discussion), might be more vulnerable to the media messaging about womanhood, due to a lack of explicit female role models, or a lack of their parents attempts to intervene and mediate the negative impacts of those messages the way they might have if they had known their child was a girl. The media might be their only source of information about how to be a woman.

So, no, I don’t accept the argument that there is something special or unique to cis women’s experience, and the exclusion of trans women on the grounds that they were raised as male is nothing more than a case of further victimizing someone because they were abused as children. It’s disgusting, and it needs to stop.