Let’s talk about prejudice. Let’s talk about hierarchy. Let’s talk about transphobia.
Transphobia: any opinions, attitudes, behaviors of prejudice, disgust, fear, or hatred toward individuals or groups who do not conform to societal gender norms; can manifest itself in physical violence, media coverage, language/speech, social exclusion, just to name a few…
Until I can become a real adult-type person with a real job, I’m a cashier at a fairly large retail store. This is a conversation I had with some people at work a few days ago that got me thinking about transphobia specifically within the queer community. While nothing that was said was overtly transphobic, it was the undertones of it that indicated a more deeply-rooted, unintentional habit of transphobia that exists within the queer community.
My friend Ted and I were talking about our local Pride parade; he’s gay and he knows I’m queer. He said, “We should hang out more because I do much better with lesbians than with gays.”
I said, “Yeah but I’m not a real lesbian.”
And he was like, “Oh right you’re pan.”
Red flag number one: Many (NOT ALL) gay people have a hard time accepting identities that fall between the clear-cut categories gay and straight (and sometimes bisexual). In the current social climate, queer identities pose a very real threat to the legitimacy of the gay community that has been so carefully built over the last few decades. Ted’s casual misidentification of my sexual orientation, though unintentional, is an example of this general attitude that some identities (gay and lesbian) are more acceptable than others (pansexual and transgender).
Ted asked, “So if you met a guy you’d have no problem with that?”
I said, “Well, it might be weird at first but I’d go for it, sure.”
At that point I realized that two of my older co-workers, Kim and Ruth, were sitting near us and had stopped their own conversation and were looking at us.
Blushing, I said, “Oh hey guys.”
Ted said, “It’s okay, Ruth’s one of us (a lesbian) and Kim’s cool. We talk about this stuff all the time.”
Surprise number one: Alright, while I had wondered whether Ruth could possibly be queer, I never really gave it much thought. I find it’s sometimes harder for me to read older generations’ gender expression. Anyone else? Well regardless it was a welcome surprise to realize I was speaking with a gay man, a lesbian and an ally right there in the breakroom.
Kim said, “Okay, what is pan?”
Surprise number two: Ted and Ruth quickly chimed in with a fairly accurate explanation of what being pansexual is. Which was just a welcome relief, to be honest, not to have to explain it for once.
Pansexual: individuals who are potentially attracted to people regardless of their gender identity or biological sex, including someone who is male, female, transgender, intersex, or genderqueer
Ruth said to Kim, “So she falls in love with the person,” then she turned to me, “Even trans people?”
Red flag number two: I hope this is self-explanatory. For Ruth to immediately exclude trans people as potential romantic partners indicates serious prejudice.
I laughed and said, “Yeah! That’s actually exclusively who I’ve been into for a while now.”
“My sister’s a man. She is a transman,” Ruth said with tired sarcasm, like she’s so exhausted with him and explaining it to people that she had to insert some sort of humor in it so it’s not so sad and frustrating and so people don’t judge her. She seemed flabbergasted that I could be more attracted to transmen than anyone else.
Surprise number three: Ruth’s brother is a transman (so he was born female and has now transitioned into male) and he and his daughter have been living with Ruth. More queers living in my town that I never knew about! We really are all over the place!
Red flag number three: Ruth’s refusal to use her brother’s preferred (male) gender pronouns indicates that she does not yet accept his identity as a man.
Ted and Ruth discuss this a lot apparently, and Ted chimed in, “Well, with trans people they come with their own set of issues and that would definitely affect a relationship.”
(FLAMING) Red flag number four: Ted felt like he had the authority to make the generalization that all trans folk come with emotional issues. Like it’s a package deal that would inevitably sink a relationship with anyone who’s trans. I wanted to say that while that may be true, everyone comes with their own set of issues whether they are trans or not. But I don’t know either of them very well, so to my shame I just stayed silent (that is the definition of a bystander). Obviously Ruth is projecting her own experience with her brother onto transmen/transpeople in general, but Ted, as someone who had little emotional involvement in the discussion, demonstrates a more troubling trend in the community.
Surprise number four: This was a completely unexpected experience to have at work, and while it was lovely that I could find fellow queers at work and talk about this kind of thing relatively casually, it reminded me that I was not at college anymore and that people, even queer people, are not as open-minded as the people I surrounded myself with for the last few years.
While reflecting on this conversation I myself wondered, was this even an instance of transphobia? Some people, including Ted and Ruth, would probably say no. But when you consider a lifetime of experiences of well-intentioned people saying the wrong thing, a pattern begins to emerge, especially in the lives of trans individuals. It is instances like this that can be the most dangerous, where prejudice sneaks in out of nowhere. As a good friend said when I consulted him about this,
It does indeed sound like transphobia… Ted sounds more assumptive of the general trans experience, not realizing that perhaps trans people can be happy people without major issues with their bodies post-transition or even without transition. His statement could even almost be read as saying that trans people have issues or that dating a trans person can be an issue, both of which are transphobic as well. Since the “phobic” ending can range from a tiny detail to an outright “I hate ___ people,” I’d say both can fall under the category.
Any thoughts you all have about this are appreciated, since it is an extremely important issue and one that is particularly important to me. We need to start talking about this stuff folks!