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Transphobia

Dr Surya Monro

 

Issue 15
Autumn 2001

Surya Monro
is the author of
Gender Politics:
Citizenship, Activism, and Diversity

Published by Pluto Press Ltd

 
In this issue I would like to discuss that delightful topic known as transphobia. The material I present here comes from my PhD, which was based on interviews with a number of transgender people, so thanks very much indeed to all of the people who helped with the project. I would like to apologise for the academic language that is used in this piece - I hope it makes sense. Any comments? Please write to me at the address below.

I argue that transphobia plays a key role in the social exclusion of transgender people. Transphobia means fear of transgender and prejudice against transgender people. Transphobic ideas are rampant in our society, and we often internalise them because of the pressures that we are under. So, if we are transgender, or have transgender tendencies, we may feel bad about ourselves, and what happens in the outside world reinforces this. But, these are just sets of ideas and it is possible for us to reject them and feel positive about gender diversity.

Research evidence shows that transphobia can be linked to the dominance of a range of discourses (sets of ideas) and processes, including ethnocentrism, racism and colonialism, patriarchy, homophobia, sexphobia and religion. With some exceptions, the economic and to an extent cultural interests of Western industrialised countries are currently dominant world-wide. This domination is built on the legacy of colonialism, which wiped out cultural diversity, including many forms of transgender (Nataf 1996). Patriarchy appears to be an important cause of transphobia. The construction of gender categories enables men as a class to dominate women, through structures such as the sexual division of labour. Challenges to the male-female divide, such as intersexuality, are erased. Homophobia is enmeshed with transphobia: transgender people are often stigmatised because they are seen as homosexual, and vice versa. Homosexuality, like transgender, threatens traditional gender binaries and heterosexual power. Body fascism affects many transgender people negatively, for example non-passing transsexuals face greater social discrimination. In the context of this cosmetic surgery becomes a contested issue: it acts to create a smaller range of 'acceptable' appearances (Kessler 1998), yet is used in an empowering way by many transgender people. Sexphobia is another cause of transphobia, particularly where transgender is recreational and linked with sexual expression (for example amongst some cross-dressers). This is linked with the taboo concerning non-procreative sexuality, a taboo that finds its roots in religion and patriarchy. Many of the main religions, particularly Christianity, Judaism and Islam, reinforce male-female binaries and frame transgender as an abonimation, thus legitimising persecution of transgender people. The spiritual traditions which support gender diversity have often been suppressed by these religions (especially Christianity) (Feinberg 1996). Capitalism is also linked with transphobia, although there are different models: conflict perspectives would frame capitalism as dependent on gender divisions thus enforcing of gender binaries, or alternatively as gender commodification and capitalist exploitation of transgender people; pluralist approaches would argue that capitalism enables transgender via commodification, which is linked with a loosening of sexual authoritarianism. Other forces, such as disablism, may also contribute to transphobia.

The forces which contribute to transphobia interweave, creating oppositions to diverse gender identification and expression. With the possible exception of capitalism, those people with stakes in maintaining these forces share an interest in supporting restrictions on gender and sexual expression, as freer expression would destabilise existing power structures. While gender diversity would not necessarily affect the personal identities of non-transgender, heterosexual, men and women it would certainly imply a movement towards a more gender pluralist society and reform of the cultures and institutions that block this. In policy terms, there is a great need for exploration of the possibilities and implications of gender pluralism. This would include state support for education, social space and cultural forms which promote diversity and the social citizenship of people of all genders. Gender pluralism could be set within the context of international multiculturalism, because it was cultural hegemony that initially enabled the world-wide erasure of much transgender diversity (although this would be problematic given the religious fundamentalism of some ethnic groups). It can also be related to discourses concerning consumer rights and sexual citizenship, both of which fit within the participatory democracy remit, and both of which can act in a empowering way to benefit transgender people. Notions of gender equality (including those developed by feminism) are also very important as a means of combating transphobia, both directly, in the sense that gender equality must surely include transgender equality, and also because equality between men and women would lead to a number of gains for transgender people, such as greater ease of transitioning because of a wider breadth of sex roles. In addition, discourses from disability rights could be useful for transgender people, as these concern physical difference, and challenge social norms concerning identity and social participation. However, this issue has yet to be explored.

References

Kessler, S.J. (1998) Lessons from the Intersexed. New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press.
Feinberg, L. (1996) Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman.Boston: Beacon Press
Nataf, Z. (1996) Lesbians Talk Transgender. London: Scarlett Press
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