I decided to write this post in English, even though my blog is usually in French with the occasional English version as a PDF. I don’t know whether I’ll do this again in the future, but I did want to allow my English-speaking peers the easiest access possible to this particular article.
This article is aimed primarily at cis people – meaning : people who are not trans, meaning : people whose gender assigned at birth matches who they are at present moment, and who have no wish to transition, whether medically or socially.
Trans issues are not new, despite what some transphobes might wish to have us believe, but awareness of trans issues from the general public is somewhat recent. And while there have been major breakthroughs, there is a very strong backlash as well. At present time, there is a very strong anti-trans rhethoric pervasive not only to overtly anti-human rights people but also among people who claim feminism. If you’re unaware, please look into it. People are literally wishing us dead and protesting to strip us of basic human rights, using the usual conservative anti-queer arguments (« protecting the kids » « predators » etc).
I do believe, however, that a good portion of cis people mean well (at least I certainly hope so), but aren’t necessarily well-informed on how to actually be an effective ally for trans rights. I do not pretend to brief you on every aspect of « how to be a good ally to trans people » but there are a few things I would like to touch up on.
There is a specific thing that tends to come up again and again among people who are relatively new to trans issues, and while it’s not hateful and genocidal rhetoric by any means, it can be harmful nonetheless and needs to be addressed.
Referring to people as « female » or « male » or alternatively « AFAB » or « AMAB » (for « Assigned Female/Male At Birth » is not doing what you think it’s doing. It is decidedly not nice and inclusive and trans-friendly.
I see this in contexts where people, for instance, want to discuss misogyny in the work place, and instead of talking about women, talk about « females » or « non-men » . You might be thinking that this is inclusive of people who are assigned female at birth but non-binary and have to endure misogyny despite not being women. While some non-binary people might be okay with being referred to « females » or « non-men » , know that most absolutely aren’t. And crucially, these categories tend to exclude trans women from the equation in most people’s minds, even though trans women definitely encounter misogyny in the workplace and elsewhere. Of course, one could argue that trans women are « females » and « non-men » but be aware that transphobic discourse around trans women is centered around proving that they’re not, so the default assumption of someone reading you using those words will probably not be that they are, either. If you want to support transfeminine people (and I really hope that you in fact do!), it needs to be more explicit than that.
We cannot be summed up by our assignation at birth. No, sex and gender are not two entirely different concepts which can be neatly compartimented. Sex is, in fact, a social construct based on observable phenomenon just like gender is. Intersex people are routinely abused (including medically, from birth) because they do not conform to our society’s expectation of what sex/gender is. Trying to stress the difference between sex and gender will not get you very far in terms of human rights. Both are used as pretexts to oppress, none is neutral.
I repeat : we cannot be summed up by our assignation at birth. If you generalise about « AFAB » people you are lumping people with very different experiences unnecessarily, and with very likely harm to trans people at large. I understand trying to be mindful of the fact that other categories of people aside cisgender women encounter issues around consent and sexual violence. But « AFAB » is not the answer to that. Trans men experience the highest rate of sexual violence, all accross the board – yes, higher than women cis or trans, look it up ! Well deserving of its own category. Lumping trans men in the « AFAB » category erases this specificity. And of course, the « AFAB » category erases trans women, who also experience very high rate of sexual violence.
Bringing people back, again and again, to their assignation at birth, contributes to transphobic ideology. It can be as violent as conversion « therapy » and as subtle as saying « female » and « AF/MAB » while meaning well. It is, overall, transphobic to pretend to confine people to how they were assigned at birth, and it is inherently anti-feminist as well. Self-determination regardless of gender is key to all of us.
Very often, talking about « AFAB » or « females » betrays ignorance about trans people’s lives. If you discuss menstruation, you can just discuss menstruation. People for whom that is relevant will know who they are. There is no need to say stuff like « people with uteruses » because in fact, not all people with uteruses do menstruate, whether cis or trans, and none of them necessarily need be reminded of that. Not to mention being designated by your set of genitals is frankly weird and backwards.
In the same way, if you’re trying to discuss misogyny in the workplace you can just say that, and people will know whether that’s relevant to them or not. In a myriad of situations, there is no actual need to designate a category of people by a supposed identity, when the real deal is the power struggle faced.
Not to say identity politics are never ever relevant, or that labels are uselesss – but it’s not the end-all be-all and it does not necessarily underline what’s most important.
Another topic I’d like touch up on is something that came up recently. Not long ago, « testosterone » trended on Twitter after famous director James Cameron described himself as previously “a wild, testosterone-poisoned young man,” and labeled testosterone as “a toxin that you have to slowly work out of your system. Misogynists responded in a very inflamed manner – I’m positive many other people have done feminist debunking of masculinist ideas much better than I could in a few paragraphs, so I won’t go there. What I will say about this whole ordeal is that James Cameron is demonstrating stratospheric levels of cis ignorance regarding hormones. And you might think I’m being funny, but I’m not. Testosterone is a hormone which is vital to everyone, literally. If your body does not produce enough testerosterone, regardless of gender, you might die. Cis people tend to be incredibly clueless about hormones on average, and that poses a lot of problems to people (trans and cis) who need to take a hormonal treatment.
Of course, Cameron meant he had to work out sexism out of his system, I gather. But instead of saying « I was a misogynistic jerk and I needed to get over myself and unlearn misogyny to be a decent human being » he uses the testosterone talking point, like so many people do. The thing is, testosterone is not what makes a misogynist. Trans people who take testosterone do not suddenly become misogynistic if they weren’t already, it’s not a magic macho potion. It’s merely hormones, and your ethics are still up for grabs for social conditioning. Equating hormones to ethical or non-ethical behaviour is essentialist, profoundly sexist, and thus dangerous. You can imagine how fatigued we are to see Cameron say that sort of thing, regardless of what I guess are the best intentions in the world. No doubt he meant to raise awareness on the topic of machism (which is needed!), and try to encourage people to do better, but the way he went about it also does damage. Testosterone is not the enemy, and pretending it is proves very harmful. This kind of rhetoric can put pressure on transmasculine people not to medically transition, whether because they might internalise this prejudice about hormones making one an unhinged misogynistic pig, or because their entourage might to this prejudice and discourage them (or even prevent them!) from accessing treatment as a result. Hormonal treatments save lives. Transitioning saves lives. We can’t afford to spread ignorance on this topic.
There are many, many other issues that need to be addressed around gender and transphobia, but I’ll stop here for now. Below are resources which should be helpful to further dig into it. If you really do mean well, please do the work to educate yourself so you don’t spread misinformation or harmful rhetoric!
- Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference, Cordelia Fine
- Whipping Girl, Julia Serano
- Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg
- The Transgender Issue: An Argument For Justice, Shon Faye
- The Origin of the World, Liv Strömquist
- Queer: A Graphic History, Meg Jon-Barker & Julia Scheele
- Gender Critical by Contrapoints, Natalie Wynn (video)
- Pronouns by Contrapoints, Natalie Wynn (video)
- What is Transmisogyny ?, Eli Erlick (video)