Happy Halloween, dear readers. To celebrate the spookiness of the season, I would like to talk about transphobia, with emphasis on the “phobia” part. Prepare to be disturbed.
Transphobia is commonly defined as “irrational fear and hatred of transgender people.” As a member of an oppressed and misunderstood class, I can easily accept that many people hate us, though I don’t very well understand why. It’s much harder for me to swallow that the bigots who I fear might actually be afraid of me. Seriously, I don’t see what’s so scary about trans people. We are just human beings at a disadvantage in society, more likely to be victims of violence than to commit it. Yet we have been constructed as vicious aberrations, by everything from horror flicks like Silence Of The Lambs to self-styled radical feminists.
Yep, that’s right. Feminists. As it turns out, a certain number of people who identify as such are only interested in rights for women who happen to be cis. Germaine Greer, Sheila Jeffreys, and Mary Daly are often cited examples of transphobic feminists. Daly is particularly noted for comparing trans people to Frankenstein’s monster. All three have accused trans women of being “parodies” of womanhood and of “mutilating” their bodies through surgery.
Considering that these arguments are based on the faulty assumptions that a) trans women all have “hyper-feminine” presentations (they don’t), b) they can’t ‘pass’ as cis (many can), and c) medically supervised surgery is equivalent to self mutilation, I feel safe stating these objections are not rational. I think what really scares and squicks these people is transgender surgery. After a couple of years of being out as trans, this doesn’t really surprise me. Cis people are alternately titillated and horrified by what they imagine we do with our bodies. They see us as medical miracles (man becomes pregnant!), grotesque freaks, or bizarre objects of desire (see “shemale porn”).
I think cis people are freaked out by trans surgeries because they fear our power to alter aspects of our bodies which they take for granted in their own. They see us as violators of “natural” physical and reproductive roles. A man bearing a child or a woman having a “penis” (whether she calls it that or not!) is seen by cis folks as a dramatic reversal of The Way Things Are; when for a trans person it might be just a fact of life.
This fear of trans people and our ability to shape our own bodies seems to be ancient. Demons like Baphomet are frequently depicted with transgender characteristics (to say nothing of their trans-species qualities). In the Greek myth of Hermaphroditus, a cis man is merged, against his will, with a female nymph, causing him to become physically androgynous. This story illustrates how cis people fear to undergo the transformations that many of us undertake voluntarily.
Sometimes this fear of transgender body modification includes the conviction that we will resort to mutilating cis bodies. Silence Of The Lambs is a perfect illustration of this trope. Instead of pursuing conventional transgender surgery, “Buffalo Bill” skins cis females to make hirself a “woman suit.” Buffalo Bill, of course, was based on a real trans person, Ed Gein, the same killer who served as inspiration for Norman Bates in Psycho. Although obviously it’s not good to stereotype trans people as murderers, I think the narrative of Buffalo Bill has something even uglier going on under the surface. Buffalo Bill’s mutilation of cis bodies represents the idea that all bodies are “cis bodies,” that trans people don’t have the right to alter the “natural” forms of cis “male” and cis “female.” When Germaine Greer asserts that “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact,” i.e. by simply existing, this is what she means. When people like Alix Dobkin accuse transgender men of mutilating “women’s bodies,” this is what they mean. Isn’t that unbelievable? Even though I am a man, and my body is self-evidently mine, somehow, transphobes would tell me, it belongs to a “woman,” it is a “woman’s body,” and not mine to alter– and in fact, that altering it is an act of violence and misogyny. Yet nobody seems to be able to tell me who this hypothetical woman is. She definitely never lived at this address.
In many cultures trickster gods such as Loki have assumed gender-bending forms, often in order to seduce somebody. This, too, exposes another cis fear– that we will “trick” them into having sex with us, thus “sullying” their heterosexuality (or homosexuality, for that matter). This is another way that cis people think we can harm them by our very existence– because what if they should find some of us attractive? (The horror!) I have to wonder why the prospect of feeling attraction for, having sex with, or falling in love with a transgender person is so terrifying. Apparently, our sexualities are just that dangerous and threatening, so much so that cis people who experience attraction to trans folks have felt justified in murdering us, and courts have accepted their “trans panic” defenses without blinking.
Now that’s scary.
It’s scary that trans people are victimized in public bathrooms. It’s scary that we face sometimes insurmountable obstacles in obtaining jobs or basic medical care. It’s scary that so many of us are homeless or marginally housed. It’s scary that so many of us are doing survival sex work, and that so many cops feel absolutely justified harassing random trans women on suspicion that they are working. It’s scary that there is so much hatred propagated against us in the media, and so much violence facing us in the world.
Transphobia is scary, not transgender people. So happy fucking Halloween.
I think I’ll go as Germaine Greer.