Literal Transphobia

The following essay was written for my forthcoming book about dogmatic activism, which I'm currently publicly (!) writing, as a new blog post every day on my personal blog. If you want to follow along, you can get new chapters emailed to you as I publish them. Here's the link to the original post.

I’d be willing to bet the goal of most LGBTQ+ advocates, educators, and activists has never been to make people afraid of transgender people. If that has been your goal, these aren’t the words you’re looking for. You can go about your business. Move along.

For the rest of us, you might be able to relate to an annoyingly common experience I’ve had over the years:

During a training, or in some other setting, someone would say something homophobic or transphobic, I’d point it out, say it’s an example of homophobia or transphobia, then they’d reply, “No, I’m not afraid of gay people, I just…” then they’d usually double down on their homophobic thing (I’ll let you fill in the blank).

Or sometimes it would come up in a different way, with someone preemptively disclosing “I’m not afraid of transgender people, but I just…” and ditto.

The thing I’m getting at here is people conflating the terms “homophobia” or “transphobia” (as well as other “-phobia” words, like “biphobia”, used in social justice contexts) with traditional phobias, such as arachnophobia (bad movie, worse reality: they could eat us all in a year if they were organized – all they need is a leader).

People really latched onto the “fear” part of “phobia” being used to create the neologism, instead of the “irrational” or “extreme” or “aversion” parts. And I do mean latched.

This was one of those things that if you were a gender and sexuality educator – especially prior to, say, five years ago – easily wore on your patience. The first few times you heard it, you’d say, “Yeah, I totally get it, they’re similar words, and it’s confusing.”

But by the umpteenth time, it was hard not to cut people off, or assume malicious intentions. Because we knew the “correct” definition of the term, it was easy to assume they should, too. And that any pushback was derailment.

Adding to this frustration, even when people weren’t confused about the word, and they did know exactly what it meant, they’d still chime in.

“I’ve always thought it was funny that it’s a ‘phobia’, like omg gays lol!” Yeah. L.O.L.

A lot of us regularly updated our definitions of the “-phobia” terms to try to remedy this. For example, here’s my latest attempt:

_______-phobia: a range of negative attitudes (e.g., fear, anger, intolerance, invisibility, resentment, erasure, or discomfort) that one may have or express toward _______ people.”

“Fear” is still in there (which makes sense, because it has the suffice “-phobia”), but it’s followed by all the ways we usually see this concept showing up, the ways we were hoping to focus on.

We didn’t want the word to be 1:1 connected to fear or being afraid, and only surface that idea when it’s used. We just needed a word to talk about a thing we were seeing everywhere, and hoping to disrupt, the byproducts of heterosexism and cissexism (and the other -isms).

We know you’re not afraid of gay people. We get that. You’re just intolerant, and so are lots of other people, and this is the word – imperfect as it may be – that we’re using to talk about that, so let’s talk about that.

But then a lot of us started seeing something else.

Enter Literal Transphobia

I’m not sure when I started hearing about this, but it was recent. Within the past several years, for sure.

It started as a trickle, where I’d hear about it from someone (e.g., a dean at a university I was visiting, or an assistant principal of a high school), but then not hear about it from the next several dozen someones, before it popped up again. And at first I dismissed it when it popped up. An outlier. Noise, not signal.

Then I started to hear about it more consistently, where 1 out of every 10, then 1 out of every 5 someones I was interacting with would bring it up.

And before long, it was most of what I was hearing about. Where before, people would center their conversations with me on things like dismantling ways their organization perpetuated oppression, or asking for advice for creating welcoming environments for LGBTQ+ people, or different ways to explain gender to people in their sphere – our conversations were now centered on this more often than not.

Lots of someones started talking to me about literal transphobia.

I’m not sure what else to call it. And in a way it feels like we’ve kind of gone full circle, because the thing I kept hearing about was people actually and literally being afraid because of transgender people (or LGBPQ+ people, or sometimes women, people of color, and other marginalized groups). Not in general or the abstract (i.e., they weren’t afraid of “trans people” as a whole), but specific people in their lives (This transgender person. Bob. I’m afraid of Bob.).

And at first I thought it was silly. Why would you be afraid of Bob? I bet Bob’s great. I bet you’re the problem.

Then I kept hearing more and more examples. Here’s one:

A teacher told me that one of their groups had a trans girl who was a member. She was being cruel to other group members, and the teacher was afraid to intervene.

Outlier. Not a thing, I thought.

Then I was talking with a parent whose non-binary child was having a hard time connecting with one of their teachers, who prior to the kid transitioning served as a sort of mentor, but now wouldn’t be alone with them. The parent talked to the teacher, and was then referred to the Vice Principal, who said the teacher didn’t feel safe being in a one-on-one setting with the kid any more.

Ridiculous. What are these people on about?

Here are a few more examples I have heard:

  • Someone emailed me that their coworker (a “queer trans* female”) didn’t contribute to their team projects, and she was overloaded trying to pick up the slack, afraid to tell their boss about it.
  • A dean of students at a university told me that they had several conduct hearings regarding the same trans student’s behavior, but they were afraid to take action against him, so they kept finding him “not responsible.”
  • Someone emailed me that their supervisor (“who is a transwoman”) constantly made inappropriate jokes, but she didn’t know what to do, and didn’t feel safe going to her supervisor’s supervisor.
  • A hospital administrator told me they took down their “safe zone” type signage because they were afraid to keep it up

My list goes on.

Colleagues of mine, who do similar work to me and travel around having similar conversations, even began to share with me their examples of things like this coming up:

  • A person who works in a youth camp told a colleague their camp leaders didn’t feel comfortable enforcing rules on their transgender campers.
  • Someone who does corporate diversity and equity consulting said their conversations have moved from regularly being about “how to make the workplace inclusive and attract more queer employees to hire” to “being afraid of firing queer employees they have.”
  • A supervisor was afraid to give their young trans staff member feedback about their job performance for fear that they would be labeled transphobic if they gave them a bad review
  • A hiring manager didn’t feel like they could interview a trans person and then not hire them

And I started noticing other examples of things I’d hear that weren’t about “literal transphobia,” but I realized later might be connected:

  • A teacher told me the male faculty in her school no longer felt safe coaching girls teams
  • A (White) friend told me her (POC) girlfriend was abusive but she was afraid to leave her

I’m not going to continue sharing, but suffice it to say I have no shortage of examples of this. And I’m guessing the replies to this will be full of more.

I will, however, share that it took more examples than I’m proud to admit before I started to let myself notice what was becoming a trend, instead of dismissing these cases as “outlier” after “outlier.”

Even as I am writing this essay, today, a thousand words in – right now – I’m starting to doubt that this was something worth writing about. Sincerely. I was about to delete this draft, so I started texting friends and colleagues the thesis and asking, “Is this a real thing?”

One person replied, “A person who is trans is also aggressive and no one knows how to handle it because of them being trans?”

“Yeah, that would be an example,” I replied, then asked, “That real?”

They said it was, then immediately followed up with two detailed cases of this in their life, before they panicked and asked me not to share their examples (and I didn’t – they’re not included above).

So it’s probably a real thing.

What are they afraid of?

At this point, it’s safe to assume that most people have heard of at least one example of someone getting publicly dragged for doing something problematic. I’d even go so far as to assume literally every person reading this has.

Sometimes the person who becomes the target for the tomatoes is conservative, trying to make a point that’s unjust, or defending bigotry.

And other times the person is progressive, liberal, social-justice-minded, and supportive of liberation movements.

That part usually doesn’t matter, at least from our perspective as outsiders looking in (or one of the people throwing the tomatoes). We don’t care what their beliefs are, or their intentions.

The outcomes are the same. Someone gets fired for a (bad) tweet. Or put on blast for wearing a (bad) shirt. Publicly protested for saying the wrong thing. Boycotted for asking the wrong question. Canceled for sending an email with a bad idea. And so on.

I could link to examples for all of those, and dozens more, but I don’t want to be another dog in the pile, and I trust you know what I’m talking about here.

Even people who don’t know the examples, or aren’t in touch with the details, seem to understand this is a thing happening nowadays. Like it’s in the air.

One of my friends calls it “the cannibals,” but they don’t follow any of the stories. Another friend says, “Oh, you mean Twitter?”, because to her (a person who doesn’t use Twitter) this is what Twitter is. (And if I’m being honest, she’s not far off, depending on who you follow)

In any case, whether you read every issue of Cancel Culture Weekly, get mad about the rage du jour yourself, you try to avoid hearing about this stuff altogether, or are somewhere betwixt the three:

Everything I just highlighted is what people are afraid of. They’re not afraid of the trans people in their lives (even if that’s how they make sense of it); they’re afraid of what happens if things go wrong in their relationship.

The people I’ve been talking to, anyway. The ones who are sharing their examples of literal transphobia.

They’re afraid to say, think, believe, or do the wrong thing; or not do the correct, right, allowed, enough, or un-problematic thing; or just be perceived as any of the above.

“If you don’t want people to call you transphobic, don’t be transphobic” doesn’t apply here. Or, more generally, “Don’t be an asshole.” They’re not relevant advice.

Because the public perception that they did the wrong thing is enough to be afraid of. Just being accused of doing the wrong thing by the right person is plenty. There is no “innocent until proven guilty” in the court of public opinion. So, ultimately, it doesn’t feel like it matters what they do.

Because the people talking to me have all been social justice advocates themselves, they’re all subscribed to different progressive, intersectional-feminist-type media outlets, and their social feeds are algorithmically stacked with social justice stuff.

So they’ve seen examples of this celebrated by their peers again and again. They might have joined in on the celebration. And they’ve seen how every defense the person conjures gets thrown out, and how anyone who rises to defend them gets cast in with their lot.

They’re afraid of that trans person because that trans person, in their mind, has the power to ruin their life.

And not just that they “might,” but, based on the examples it felt like they were seeing every day in their social feeds, it’s likely. All it takes is one misstep. For them to make a mistake. Or to do nothing wrong and this person decides they have an ax to grind. Or their parent does. Or a friend. Or an unrelated third party who doesn’t even have a horse in this particular race, but cries foul.

And when I’ve talked to people who are living with this particular fear, literal transphobia, it feels like anything but irrational. And I can’t tell them otherwise.

Now, before we move on, I want to take a step back to say something important: I’m not blaming the transgender person (or any other person in these people’s lives who holds a marginalized identity that’s led to someone else being afraid of being publicly dragged).

In some of the examples I’ve heard, the trans person is being mean, or cruel, or an asshole, sure – but hey, sometimes people are assholes. Being an asshole knows no boundary of gender (or sexuality, race, etc.).

But in every case, I don’t think the transgender person is at fault for the fear. So who is?

Are We the Fear-Mongers?

Before I answer that, a disclaimer:

Maybe what my colleagues and most of the people I’ve talked to in the past several years about social justice have been noticing and feeling is not representative of a larger trend.

It’s anecdotal evidence after all, so it’s subject to updates and corrections by better methods (which, by the way, for all the people who write me for ideas on what to research in gender and sexuality justice: here’s a great topic!).

Maybe this is just a pee-colored snowball sample because I happen to be standing in the Mecca for full-bladdered dogs. But maybe it’s yellow because of acute environmental pollution? Does it really matter which one it is? Do I want to be holding the snowball? Is this analogy too gross?

Let’s try again.

What if there is something going on that’s causing people – progressive, social-justice-minded people – to be afraid of transgender people in their lives?

And what if that something isn’t effective fear-mongering by bigots, anti-LGBTQ+ people, and conservatives (although we’ll get to this in a second), but something that we are doing ourselves?

Here’s the thing: I can’t know for sure. I wish I could, but I simply cannot. We don’t have the data. (So we’re clear here, neither can you, unless you have a crystal ball or you’re sitting on some bombshell research you haven’t published; to which, in both cases, I’d say get in touch, friend – why’s it been so long?)

But it does seem reasonable that this is more our doing than anyone else’s.

Because of the siloification within social justice, we’re far more susceptible to being influenced by our own people than outsiders, by “us” than “them.”

We’ve become quite exacting when it comes to not not being persuaded by, or even having relationships with, conservative people, or people who aren’t in favor of social justice. That’s a tenet of the social justice dogma that has reached most of us: don’t trust outsiders.

And at the same time, social justice dogma (SJD) provides a lot of reasonable answers to why people have started to be literally transphobic. I’ll walk through three.

For one, SJD says that it’s oppressive to question victims, but only victimhood that works within the social justice power inverse. A dominant group member isn’t a valid victim, or at least their victimhood is totally up for question.

Secondly, SJD teaches us that intentions don’t matter, only outcomes. End of debate. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you wanted to do, what you actually meant, all we care about is the effect of your cause. And we specifically (and sometimes only) care about how it affected marginalized people.

Finally, SJD pushes us to name and identify oppression, recognizing it wherever it is, but makes it hard (if not impossible) to dismiss oppression, or say that a thing named as oppression isn’t. I call this the “Seconded Law” in the Social Justice, Minus Dogma Course and describe it like this:

“The way this works is one person can name something (e.g., a movie, an idea, a policy, a custom) as oppressive (often as a felt experience), and others are only allowed to second that claim. Someone else can’t rebut the claim, or name away oppression, or risk being named oppressive themselves.”

If you say something isn’t oppressive and you’re not affected by that oppression as a target group member, best case scenario is you’re told to “pass the mic.” More likely, you’re identified as an oppressor. You’re complicit.

Even if you’re a target group member, your dismissal will get swept away as internalized oppression, or some variation of the horrendous “Uncle Tom.”

So within SJD we have:

  1. A narrow definition of victimhood, which doesn’t allow us to see someone accused of doing something oppressive as a victim, and doesn’t allow us to question a marginalized person’s victimhood; combined with
  2. A lack of consideration of intentions, or the ability to weigh in what someone hoped would happen, or if they didn’t mean to cause harm; and
  3. A constant pressure to identify more oppression, and the inability to name away named oppression.

With all that in mind, what people are afraid of is that if a transgender person says they did something bad, in the eyes of a lot of good social justice people (1) they can’t defend themselves (they’re not the victim), and if they do defend themselves, then they’re not believing a survivor of trauma (a second thing they’ll get attacked for); (2) it doesn’t matter if they didn’t mean to whatever it was, or try to enact any ill will; and (3) it’s evidence of the transphobia in them and the organization they’re part of.

Now, not everyone reading is going to agree with those three items. My hunch is that the majority of us don’t. Not completely, or absolutely, or even mostly. We don’t want this.

We don’t want more fear.

But we have learned those rules, not pushed back against the dogma (For good reasons! We want to end transphobia! We want social justice! We don’t want people to suffer!), and we’re afraid to be on the wrong end of it.

So be it.

When a Reasonable Outcome is Fear, Reassess

Fear is regularly weaponized by opponents of social justice.

Infamously, fear of transgender people was effectively stoked to prevent Houston, my neighbor to the east, from enacting an anti-discrimination ordinance that would have protected trans people. And we’re currently in the midst of a swell of anti-transgender laws surging all over the nation, proposed by conservative lawmakers, and motivated by fear of the other.

The people in the examples above, who shared those things with me, aren’t motivated in these ways. They don’t respond to the “bathroom panic” button. They aren’t afraid of transgender people in the abstract, which is what those strategies require.

But they’re experiencing fear nonetheless. Fear that’s being stoked, or at least reinforced, by progressive media. Fear that’s a likely byproduct of the dogmatic bent within social justice, gender, and sexuality activism.

It might be summed up as the fear of being seen as a bad person, with the feeling that there is an increasingly narrow tightrope to walk to be a good one.

But it’s more than that.

It’s witnessing the glee many social justice people experience when a person is dragged through the coals for the “right” reason – glee that is sanctioned and encouraged by SJD. And the callous lack of compassion for the person in the aftermath. “Fuck them.”

And I don’t think that was most of our goal. I don’t think we wanted people to be afraid. I don’t think we had “terror” on our intended outcomes.

We wanted people to care, and to be careful. To be tender with their words, actions, and viewpoints. To hold compassion for the other, and be open to the truth that they might be causing harm without knowing it.

One of the most popular ways we exercised this care was with language. Because it’s something people can control. Because it matters. Because it’s ubiquitous.

We wanted to make the world a better place for everyone in it. We wanted to undo oppression, dismantle unhealthy systems, and create pathways toward liberation.

And we still can.

But if our strategies, actions, beliefs, and norms are becoming the source of fear, we’re venturing in a dangerous direction. And it might be time for us to correct course. To move toward not creating fear for social justice.

What might a course correction look like?

Well, Yoda said, “Named must be your fear before banish it you can.”

Fear Leads to Anger

The people I’ve talked to about this are ashamed of the fear they experienced. They came to me looking for me to assuage it.

“Oh I see,” they were hoping I’d say, “You’re missing this one bit. Does that help? You’re no longer afraid, right?”

But I couldn’t help. They weren’t missing anything. They often had as complete a picture as I did. They always left afraid, or more afraid, when I accidentally pointed out some wrinkle they hadn’t thought of.

Being open about this fear – naming it, publicly, and reckoning with it – might be a gigantic leap in a different direction.

And I don’t think gigantic leap is an exaggeration: right now, even talking about talking about this fear is terrifying. Everyone I spoke with as I was writing this essay was afraid of being identified, or to have people know they had this fear.

It’s easy to imagine the fear transforming into something else. The open-hearted-ness that people came to me with when they shared the above examples evolving into bitterness over time without a solution. With no outlets. Turning into something darker.

And it’s easy to see opponents of social justice weaponizing this fear, using it to create animosity toward equity for transgender people (or toward tactics of social justice more broadly), to unravel progress we’ve made, or slingshot us backward.

If we’re to trust Yoda (and why wouldn’t we?), “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.”

Suffering?! That’s not ideal. Beyond ending suffering caused by society being the goal of social justice, this is best to be avoided because “fear is the path to the dark side,” and that sounds worse than what we’ve got now.

For me, that’s reason enough for us to do things differently. I don’t want to take the path to the dark side. That never works out for anyone.

But maybe you’re unconvinced. You’ve read all this, and you don’t see the harm. There’s one more thing I have to say.

In the End, the Most Vulnerable Suffer

Maybe you don’t care if people are becoming literally transphobic. You’re not motivated by the idea that social justice people, progressive people, the people on “our side,” might be increasingly living in a state of fear as a result of our efforts.

I’m totally going out on a limb here, but perhaps, in a retributive justice sense, you dig that the tables have turned: “Trans people been afraid of cis people for so long, it’s about time they feel the fear.”

I don’t know. I’m just trying to cover all my bases here, because I know this is all likely to be spot-read and replied to with some mix of “cis tears” and “I couldn’t care less.”

Maybe you’ve taken an appreciation to the idea of employers being afraid to fire transgender people and you say, “What’s the harm?”

Full disclosure: I’m in favor of people not firing trans people – I think that’s a good thing, and I’d just rather “fear” not be the motivator. And for a reason beyond “I think it’s not good to be in the manufacturing of fear business” (although I think that’s a pretty compelling reason by itself).

If we only want to focus on the LGBTQ+, trans, or other marginalized people, and prioritize their well-being despite anyone else’s, there’s still plenty of harm being done. Harm we are complicit in, and contributing to, by perpetuating social justice dogma.

This fear isn’t just affecting the people who are feeling it; it’s driving their behavior, and their behavior affects others.

It’s causing people to treat transgender people differently – and not good differently – because of social justice.

It’s causing teachers to distance themselves from the marginalized students in their lives they were previously close to, they mentored, they helped after class.

It’s causing employers to second-guess the net benefit of interviewing trans people if they’re afraid to turn them down, or hiring a transgender person if they won’t feel safe firing them.

Economics might not trickle down, but suffering does.

When push comes to shove, people pass the buck. They protect themselves. And the vulnerable, as ever before, are left vulnerable.

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Sam Killermann Self Portrait

Hi! I'm Sam Killermann. I'm the author of A Guide to Gender: The Social Justice Advocate's Handbook, and I was featured in Katie Couric's NatGeo documentary "Gender Revolution". I created It's Pronounced Metrosexual in 2011. I write everything here and doodle the doodles myself. Bonus: everything I create is uncopyrighted and freely accessible — I even coded (& open-sourced) this site itself, my gift to you. Read More →

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