Why transphobia hurts gender non-conforming cis people

Content note: This post will discuss transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, police brutality, some sources will include *phobic statements or arguments

Recent transphobic discourse has focused on claiming that trans people, by virtue of our mere existence, prop up patriarchal gender norms or that transition is a form of highly convoluted anti-gay conversion therapy by parents who are deeply homophobic but curiously accepting of the idea of having a trans child. This is obvious nonsense, it also begs the question of exactly what the effect of transphobia is on gender non-conforming people.

Gender norms are the set of social expectations placed on us by society based on our presumed gender, such as the expectation that women should be nurturing, shy and submissive while men should be strong, outgoing and dominant, the expectation that women will be exclusively sexually and romantically attracted to men (and vice versa) or the expectation in modern day Western societies that only women should wear dresses or skirts. Within the dominant heteropatriarchical view, gender is seen as binary, essential and invariant with respect to history and culture. Within this ruling perspective, gender is seen as innately linked to “biological sex” and reproductive capacity in a deterministic fashion. This view of gender is reflected in the recent leaked memo by the Trump administration, which seeks to write such a definition of gender into law as a means to deny civil rights to transgender people, such a move will also likely cause serious harm to intersex people. Interestingly, trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) who consider themselves of the left, such as recently resigned Labour councillor Ann Sinnott, have indicated their support for this attack on transgender people by a vehemently right wing government.


sinnot trump
Former Labour councillor Ann Sinnot links to a Christian Post article on Trump’s attack on trans people, commenting “Strange times, strange bedfellows. So be it.”

People who do not easily fit within these heteropatriarchical norms (whether because of their presentation, their identity, their sexuality or their bodies) can be termed “gender non-conforming” (GNC). While most GNC people are cisgender, all trans people can be considered to some extent GNC because our existence is necessarily in defiance of dominant gender norms.  GNC people are, to some extent, a spanner in the works of heteropatriarchy; a challenge to the perceived natural order. We are difficult to subsume within the heterosexual family, which is seen as the basic unit of society.

Transphobia, therefore, can be seen as a means of policing gender presentation and enforcing gender conformity.  Within this context, it is unsurprising that the recent hysteria about the alleged dangers of allowing trans people to use the toilet of our choice (despite a total lack of evidence of any such danger) has often had a detrimental effect on GNC cisgender women, with high profile examples of cisgender women, often butch lesbians, being challenged and discriminated against while attempting to use women’s public toilets, (see the Walgreens and Strike Bowling cases for examples). While it is obviously the case that such policies are explicitly targeted at trans people, it is also undeniably the case that GNC cis women are just as often the victims as trans people, due to their greater numbers in the wider population. The misogynistic nature of toilet policing can be particularly clearly illustrated in the Strike Bowling case, where the wife of the woman targeted was aggressively told on social media that her partner was to blame for dressing in an insufficiently feminine manner.

The idea of a strict divide between minority sexualities and gender variance is a relatively recent invention. In the 19th century, queer people were often considered as being of a “third sex”, with the term “Uranian” being coined by German writer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs to describe what we would now consider to be the LGBTQ+ umbrella, in this period a man who sexually desired other men and a person assigned male at birth who wished to live and be recognised as a woman, what we would today consider a gay/bisexual man and a trans woman, respectively, were considered to be subsets of the broader third sex that all GNC and queer people belonged to. Indeed, the Stonewall riots, considered now to be the origin of the modern LGBTQ+ liberation movement, were as much about gender non-conformity as they were about sexuality. At the time anti-gay legislation frequently targeted people wearing clothes of the “opposite sex”, the gay communities of the time, therefore, were a broad alliance of all gender and sexual minorities. The riot began when, during a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, butch lesbian Stormé DeLarverie was brutalised by the cops and fought back, self-described transvestites, Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Riveria, were amongst those who took the initiative to stand with Stormé. The history of Stonewall is a history of GNC people of colour fighting back against police brutality side by side.

Since Stonewall, an increasing emphasis on queer taxonomy has become de rigueur in LGBTQ+ movements, with frankly tedious arguments about whether bisexual women have an equal claim to the term “lesbian” or whether historical figures such as Dante Gill can be strictly considered trans often dominating queer discourse to the detriment of solidarity and taking action to support one another. Ultimately the oppression of LGBTQ+ people relates to the fact that we so often defy easy categorisation within heteropatriarchical hierarchies, as seen in arch-conservative Peter Hitchens claims that transgender activists are “destroying truth itself”. Our identities are messy and alien to the simplistic taxonomies we impose on top of them. The emphasis on self-identification in queer movements, therefore, can be seen as much useful heuristic as it is metaphysical claim. From this point of view “Anybody who says they are a woman is a woman” (for example) is not a statement of causation (“I am a woman because I say I am”), but an admission that the categories of gender are ultimately unstable and cannot truly encompass all of human gender and sexual diversity (“Identity as a woman is as good a way of distinguishing women from non-women as any other”).

Currently we are in the midst of a global backlash against LGBTQ+ liberation, with trans liberation seen as a key battleground and wedge issue. Attacks on our civil rights in the US, the rising fascist movement in Brazil and the ongoing transphobic moral panic in the British press will harm not only trans people, but all LGBTQ+ and GNC people and we have to stand together against it. Transphobia, homophobia and all the other *phobias we experience are aspects of heteropatriarchy defending itself, we have to get better and sticking together while standing against it.


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