Transphobia and Other Labels

Posted on Sat 09 October 2021 in trans

No-one likes being labelled, especially when one feels it to be pejorative or unkindly meant, or demeans you as part of a category of people. As a trans woman, I understand this. Nor is name-calling much help if you are minded to have a reasoned debate, if there is a debate to be had. Some labels, too, lose force through over-use, to the extent that they become unhelpful and lose precision. Nonetheless, we use adjectives and nouns all the time, to indicate concepts and behaviours, and the people who display them. For a long time, I resisted using terms such as transphobe or TERF, out of courtesy, and because of the anxieties I have mentioned. I have changed my mind on this, and in this post I will explain why, at least in relation to transphobia.

Recently, it has become a shibboleth, largely on the right, to object to any label which is critical, simply because it is a label, rather than because of the behaviour or attitudes that the label is used to criticise. For example, objections to people or institutions being described as racist, or complaints about anti-racist campaigns have been a feature of recent years, including a campaign by some Conservative MPs against the England football team taking the knee—until, that is, it became clear that they were doing rather well and had considerable public support. Pointing out racism became, for these people, worse than the racist behaviour that was being highlighted.

Similarly, a number of anti-trans voices have complained about being described as transphobic (noun: transphobe)—that is, displaying transphobia. What they mean by this, in fact, is either that they do not like being criticised or do not feel that they should be criticised for actions hostile to trans people. The objection may be voiced in terms of pedantic etymology, or, if they accept the everyday definition, by making the claim that they are not against trans people. I will deal with each of these in turn.

Transphobia and cognates are formed by analogy with homophobia, itself a contracted formation from homosexual (a hybrid coinage from both Greek and Latin roots) and phobia, ultimately deriving from Greek phobos, meaning fear. Homophobia, etymologically, then, implies fear of homosexuals or homosexuality. And as the great philosopher Yoda puts it, ‘Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.’ And we might add that ignorance leads to fear. So, strictly speaking, transphobia by analogy should mean fear of trans people. Yet etymology does not say much about how terms are actually used, and so it would be better to say that homophobia is an irrational prejudice against lesbians, gay men and bisexuals; transphobia is irrational prejudice against trans people. In some cases, it clearly rises to the level of a visceral hatred, and one may speculate about fear. Repeated and pointed exhibition of utterances and actions displaying such qualities make it a reasonable step to suggest that the person involved is a homophobe or transphobe, in each case.

In my interactions with anti-trans people, I have repeatedly come across the claim that they are not in fact against trans people. But let's review the evidence. There have been repeated attempts to undermine the Equality Act 2010, to argue that it says something other than what it says (which for the record is that undergoing or having undergone gender reassignment (transitioning), with or without medical intervention, is a protected characteristic; these are trans people). Those organisations and groups that have been clear on their goals indicate that they wish to remove current trans rights and remove trans health care, except to try to convince trans men and women that they are not trans (this is what people mean by ‘conversion therapy’). This would take us, not back to the 1990s, or even the 1970s, but to the 1940s. This being the case, it is reasonable to suggest that people with such views are against trans people. In the US, this is a right-wing phenomenon, which has led to, amongst other things, just those removals of rights and healthcare that I have mentioned. In the US, Hungary and Poland, it is part of a larger culture war, whose targets are feminism (including reproductive rights) and the entire LGBT community. In the UK, efforts have been made to set trans rights against women's rights by a small group of non-mainstream feminists, who are prepared to ally themselves with the US right.

So, in this context, I am prepared to call out anyone as transphobic if they do any of the following:

  • wishes to have a debate over the existence of trans people
  • wishes to deny a trans history, against demonstrable facts
  • lies about the Equality Act or about legislation for trans rights in the UK for over two decades
  • claims or implies, without evidence, that trans women are a threat to cis women
  • prefers to campaign against trans women (specifically) rather than acknowledging well-established threats to cis women, such as family, friends, and institutions which protect misogyny and empower male abusers (e.g. the police)
  • attacks trans people without explaining their policy agenda, or acknowledging the policy agenda when it is demonstrated
  • either refuses to explain how exclusion of trans women from women's space can be achieved, or how trans men are not to be forced into women's spaces
  • denies the association of the anti-trans movement with the US right and far-right, or refuses to acknowledge it when it is pointed out, as it has been in the Westminster Parliament
  • uses the term ‘gender ideology’ without acknowledging that the idea of gender stems from feminism, and that the term ‘gender ideology’ is used elsewher to attack feminism and queer rights generally
  • lies about what proposals to reform the Gender Recognition Act actually entail and how similar changes have operated in other countries
  • denies the realities of trans healthcare, which include years-long waiting lists that would not be tolerated in any other aspect of healthcare
  • uses anti-semitic conspiracy theories to attack the trans community
  • makes claims about trans people and the trans experience without talking to trans people about that experience or who dismisses that experience for no observable reason other than prejudice

These are in no particular order, and I reserve the right to add more. I am, of course, very happy to exempt from this anyone who is willing to listen to the facts of the trans experience.

And so, finally, to two other terms. I have used ‘cis’ throughout, to mean ‘not trans’. Some people object on unclear grounds to being called ‘cis’. It is semantically the opposite of trans, and similarly derives from Latin, in this case prefixes. I personally have always struggled with this, because I always think of Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul (as the Romans put it) and it seems to belong in a different world or category altogether. But it is no different from ‘heterosexual’ or ‘straight’ as the opposite of ‘homosexual’ or ‘gay’. This may be too binary, of course, so perhaps we should talk about the opposite ends of a spectrum. In any case, it has no pejorative connotations at all, although it does perhaps remind us that cis people talk about trans issues all the time without bothering to find out much about them.

And so to TERF. I've often wondered about this, as it seems quite a positive label, if you wish to pursue this ideology: trans-exclusionary radical feminist. I am not going to use this term, not because it is derogatory (in itself it isn't), but because of what it says about feminism. Yes, there is a strand of feminism going back to the 1970s which is anti-trans, and a radical separatist feminism was particularly essayed then in some quarters, but most of the feminists I know are definitely radical, and none of them are anti-trans. One of the biggest lies of the transphobic movement is to claim to speak for feminism, or women, in general, and at the time of writing (as evidenced by a number of polls) this is simply not the case. So, for me, TERF is inadequate—not descriptive enough and also too flattering. For the irrational prejudice which is exemplified in the campaign against trans people, transphobia is the accurate term. Yes, it is critical: it is meant to be.