January 24, 2016

What Drives Transphobia?

I got the following question from a blogger over at tumblr who is working on a research paper:

"Who do you see is more susceptible to being transphobic? Like...types of people?" 
Not all transphobes are conservative. The
radical feminist icon Germaine Greer is one
of the most extreme haters today. (Getty  Images)

Here is what I answered:

I would say that insecurity, anxiety and fear are the main drivers for transphobia, in the same way they are for homophobia, racism and sexist attitudes.

Life is not without its risks, and it takes a strong mind to handle all the uncertainty life throws at us.

If you have been raised in a dysfunctional family, or you are taught to fear “the others”, or you live in troubled times, it is easy to fall back on the more primitive sides of our minds.


We look for someone to blame; we look for a place to vent our fear, and we do so by turning our fear into anger. We then channel that anger towards those that are different, the ones we do not understand.

This may give  us a much wanted emotional release, and for a moment it looks like we have a solution to our problem. For instance: "If we can only get rid of those pesky LGBT people, everything will go back to the way it once was, back in the good old days”.

Another group of people are using the same language and playing on fear without feeling it themselves. These are people who understand such social and psychological processes intimately, and who make use of them to gain power and influence. Many of them are borderline sociopaths or full-fledged psychopaths. Adolf Hitler comes to mind.

There are quite a few of them around right now, both in Europe, in the US and the Middle East. Such bullies thrive in times of upheaval, when people live in fear of their future, and of the future of their children. 

Charles Schultz captured the dogmatism of
some types of theology in  Peanuts.

Some would argue that transphobia is caused by religion, pointing to the fact that some of the most vehement anti-trans activists are religious fundamentalists.

I would say that it is not religion per se that is the problem. The history of  Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and many other religions are full of activists who preach love and compassion for your neighbor and humility in face of complexity.

However, there is one type of religious community that attract the kind of people who fear uncertainty, and that is what we could call law based traditions.

Such people read religious texts as if they were laws written by God or their founder, eternal and unchangeable. I guess this illusion of predictability and certainty makes them sleep better at night.

By making their religious life legalistic, they turn scripture into a weapon that can be turned against those who are different.


Many conservative religious people see the very existence of transgender people as a threat to their fragile world order, as trans people seem to violate both the god given natural order and the customs of their culture. They then cherry pick parts of their texts and use that to strengthen loyalty within their own communities, and to destroy those that are different from themselves.

Indeed, transphobia is more often found among “conservative” people than among “liberals”. I guess fearful people, and personality types who thrive when the world is more predictable and ordered, are drawn to more conservative philosophies, organizations and societies.

This is not a right wing/left wing issue, however, even if it may seem that way right now. Some of the most aggressive transphobes in politics, science, and health services have thought of themselves as progressive. I have known quite a few conservative and transphobic socialists in my time. The TERFs (the trans-exclusionary radical feminists) believe they are  revolutionary radicals. They are, in fact, traditionalists.

(On the other hand: Conservatives may be pro-trans. In Norway a Conservative gay minister has suggested that trans people are to decide on their legal gender, no medical intervention needed. The Conservative government in the UK is doing the same.)

Dehumanizing science

Bigotry of this kind requires that you dehumanize your opponent.  He or she is seen as uncivilized, a beast, or an all of the devil. They are not like you and your tribe. They are “deviants”.
Christian transphobic propaganda from Canada.
This kind of propaganda is based on the
misconception that being trans is something you choose to be.
It is also an attempt to erase transgender lives.

Since the 19th century science has become an efficient weapon to be used against people of color, independent women, gay men and lesbians, as well as transgender people. Their identities have all been sexualized. Their demand for respect and freedom is understood as the result of a mental illness, most often of the sexual kind.

Psychiatric and psychological terms like nymphomania, hysteria, masochistic homosexuality, transvestic fetishism and autogynephilia are used to give transphobia a sheen of respectability and objectivity.

The health system can then be used to discipline and control those that challenge the status quo and force them back into the closet, out of sight.

Social repression

In other words: Transphobia also represents a kind of social repression.

I guess this repression is partly driven by people’s fear of being “deviants” themselves. After all, neither nature nor culture live up to the expectations of fearful conservatives. It is full of diversity and ambiguity, also as regards sexuality and gender.

This is why some of the most aggressive homophobes throughout history have been sexually attracted to people of their own sex, and why some trans people use the language of transphobic science and religion to invalidate other trans people.

They are willing to do anything they can to be accepted as part of “normal” society, and avoid being thrown out into the wilderness of “the perverted others”.

A cure
Activists and artists like Laverne Cox
are giving trans people a human face.
(Photo: Time Magazine)

But this is also where we find the cure for transphobia: You fight dehumanization with humanization. You make people see that transgender people are people, just like everybody else.

As human beings trans people should not be defined by being transgender, no more than a diabetic should be defined by his or her blood sugar levels.

The recent progress in the struggle for same-sex marriage is caused by the fact that gay and lesbian people have become more visible. Most people know someone who is homosexual and they can see for themselves that they are not monsters.

Hopefully the recent  transgender “tipping point” will make more people see that transgender people are people, just like them, not to be feared.

 SIDEBAR: How to Handle Transphobes

The blogger also asked: "What is the best way to teach others that alienating a transgender person is wrong? How should I, even as just one person...how can I make a difference?"

You can read my answer here!


  1. Very well written jack. This is the next big frontier if prejudice and its a big one since it strikes at the heart of what many people believe is something rigid and immovable. We have known for a very long time niw that gender identity is actually more a continuum than a rigid binary but this is a hard pill for the black and white thinkers who want their world to stay that way. The odd thing is that by aklowing a tiny sliver of the population to gain some dignity would hardly change their own lives but fear often leads to irrational behavior and thought which is an unfortunate side effect.

  2. I wish I could agree with your caption about Germaine Greer being one of the most extreme haters of trans people. Most of what she said in the interview is that she doesn't consider transwomen to be women, that it's not an issue she cares much about, that she's impatient with people wanting to talk about trans stuff instead of what she is interested in, and that in practice she refers to a transwoman with her female name and female pronouns as a courtesy. If that were really the most extreme hatred trans people had to deal with I would consider the fight for civil rights to be over.

    I don't worry about my transwoman friends encountering someone like Greer who thinks it is not possible to change sex and occasionally says so in rude words in public while treating them one-on-one with courtesy. Coping with someone who disagrees with some of what you believe, or even dislikes you for what you believe, is just part of life. Greer lives with it ever day and has done so for, what, fifty years? Feminists are loathed in many circles.

    No, the people who inspire me to worry about my transwoman friends are the ones who will fire them from jobs, deny them housing for being trans, refuse to hire them for being trans, beat them up for violating gender norms, rape them, and/or kill them.

  3. Jack,

    Great article. I have observed much progress in the past several years. We use the term transphobia to describe a wide range of views some people hold - from outright hate, to fear, to intolerance, to some who just seem generally annoyed by us. I have read a lot of comments on news stories about TG people that are along the lines of "I don't really mind these people if they would just keep to themselves, be quite, and live their lives. But I am tired of hearing so much about them." These sorts of attitudes seem to be more common since the Caitlyn Jenner story came out. Admittedly, there was initially a saturation of press coverage.

    But like you mentioned, as people get to know some of us, and discover we are just people like them, the fear and intolerance can be overcome.

    You wrote: "I would say that it is not religion per se that is the problem. The history of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and many other religions are full of activists who preach love and compassion for your neighbor and humility in face of complexity"

    I agree with this. I know a lot of religious people who are loving, tolerant, and welcoming to all people. My own church is full of people like this. We recently voted to perform gay marriages in the church. The change came about due to the leadership of the pastor himself and several prominent church leaders. But there are no openly TG people in my church. But who knows how many others like myself may be there, keeping our secrets. I sometimes wonder if I should show more courage and be more open about myself, thus perhaps helping the cause. Maybe someday I will find this courage.

    Concerning the conservatives, I am reminded of a news headline when Caitlyn Jenner revealed her story. It read, "Caitlyn Jenner comes out …….. as a Republican!" The story was about how a TG person was a conservative republican, which they found ironic. But why so, surly we are all across the political spectrum, and all walks of life. The next day one of the conservative candidates for the republican nomination for US president was asked about this. He said if Caitlyn Jenner is a republican, we welcome her support. He used the word "her". I was so glad to hear that. (In the interest of full disclosure I should confess that I too am a republican.)

    Another observation I note is that there is a generational component to this. I think the younger generation is much more understanding and tolerant. Perhaps in another 20 years, transphobia will be much more rare, or even gone completely.

  4. @Jill,

    I wish I could agree with you regarding Greer, but I am afraid I cannot. She has now definitely moved into transphobic rant territory:

    //“Just because you lop off your dick and then wear a dress doesn't make you a fucking woman. I’ve asked my doctor to give me long ears and liver spots and I’m going to wear a brown coat but that won’t turn me into a fucking cocker spaniel.

    “I do understand that some people are born intersex and they deserve support in coming to terms with their gender but it’s not the same thing. A man who gets his dick chopped off is actually inflicting an extraordinary act of violence on himself.”//

    She is even denying that transphobia exist.

    Compare this to right wing bully Jeremy Clarkson's recent attacks on trans kids and trans parents.

    As far as I can see, they express the same kind of aggression and hate. Trans people are dismissed as mad or being sexual perverts.

    That does not mean that I would deny Clarkson or Greer the right to express their opinions. But I also reserve my right to call them out, when they are abusing vulnerable and marginalized people.


    There are a lot of tolerant and openminded Christians around. But then again Jesus himself was a mind-blowing radical, constantly attacking the establishment for being narrow minded and intolerant.

    Although I am still a bit baffled by Jenner embracing the Republican party in the way she does (after all, the current bathroom hysteria originates in those circles), she must have the right to do so -- like everyone else.

    100 years ago, Conservative American women fought against women's right to vote. And now we have Carly Fiorina, Sarah Pailin and Michele Bachmann. I just hope they won't wait another 100 years before embracing LGBT people.

    By the way, in 2003, George W. Bush became the first president to welcome an openly transgender person into the White House. It happened during a reunion for his Yale class of 1968. Making her way through the president’s receiving line, a woman in an evening gown extended her hand. “Hello, George,” she said. “I guess the last time we spoke, I was still living as a man.” Mr. Bush smiled and graciously responded, “And now you’re you,” according to the woman, Petra Leilani Akwai. It seems to me that is a kind of respect you rarely see among the current batch of Republican candidates for the presidency, although your story gives me some hope.


    //The odd thing is that by allowing a tiny sliver of the population to gain some dignity would hardly change their own lives but fear often leads to irrational behavior and thought which is an unfortunate side effect.//

    It seems to me the LGBT struggle becomes a kind of symbol for all the change they fear, as it is the most visible one (besides race and religion).

  5. A lot of it is because they can, being transphobic is more socially acceptable than being racist or homophobic these days. Plus their own gender/sexuality demons and the fact that masculinity is so highly valued in our society that it is very challenging for some that some willingly give it up (that includes a lot of cis women too).

    For some this has become an obsession over time which you can see in the evolution of the opinions of some TERFs, Sheila Jeffreys being the perfect (textbook in fact) example. She started off (and remained for a long time) as a separatist, radical lesbian feminist. In her various books she has attacked everyone and everything that does not fit her ‘perfect’ lesbian model: femininity, queers, gays, lesbians, Aborigines, butch, femme, dildo users, those into BDSM, etc, etc. Heck even gay men knitting attracted her wrath (they were insulting cis women).

    Her position was: ”All women should leave their male partners, become political lesbians, or at least celibate. They should never have heterosexual sex. Marriage is a patriarchal institution of oppression and should be abolished”.

    But if you examine her books each one had more and more devoted to attacking trans people. especially trans women. Until we get to Gender Hurts, which is 100% anti-trans. During this process she abandoned every one of her separatist, radical lesbian feminist beliefs just to attack trans women. Take this in her earlier book Beauty and Misogyny, where she dedicates a whole chapter to attacking trans women.

    “The wives will have been trained since childhood femininity and may well feel that they have mistressed this behaviour quite well. They expect the rewards that go with it, such as being treated romantically by a ``masculine'' husband. This is, after all, how traditional heterosexuality is supposed to work. But when the husband begins to crossdress she is in danger of losing her sense of self and role in life.”
    ” The wife has been on a pedestal all alone, and she doesn't want to share the vaulted position”
    ” `Femininity'' may be a chore and a bore but it is likely to be, after a lifetime's work, the basis of a woman's identity and feelings of self-worth.”
    ” The rewards that femininity are supposed to bring disappear as, ``She can picture life with no more romantic dinner dances and no more nights out with the man of her life''

    Sheila, in her desire to make up ever more anti-trans things is now a proud supporter of heterosexual marriage and instead of leaving their male oppressor they are entitled to ‘masculine’ comfort.

    Now you can speculate as to the reasons, some speculate Janice Raymond became anti-trans after being romantically rejected by one trans woman , Dallas Denny said about another ”she is four shots of testosterone away from being a bloke”.

    And that last one is not so far fetched. We all know about the ‘gay hating closeted gay man’ syndrome and when you look at some of the most anti-trans ‘feminists’….well…… I was chatting to one trans girl on Facebook a while back and she found it amusing that some of the butch lesbian ‘feminists’ that gave her such a hard time years back…had transitioned.

    Being able to get away with it is another factor, insult trans people, especially trans women, then that is fine, heck you can get NYT or WSJ op-eds doing that.

    A transphobe, no matter how they identify themselves politically, often have clusters of conservative beliefs. This is obvious in religious extremists, but it also applies so many so called 'left' or 'feminist' people too. Greer’s absurd anti-abortion stance (despite her own ones), she also got hammered for her support of female genital mutilation. Raymond was another anti-abortionist and write a whole book against RU-486, she was so against it she wanted even any research into abortion drugs to be made illegal, the Catholic church applauded. Jeffreys with her ill disguised hatred of gay men and most other lesbians.

  6. Thank you Lisa, for a very interesting comment. I clearly have to read some more of Jeffrey's books. The idea that crossdressers steal their wives' feminine thunder is just beyond belief!

    It is hard to know what motivates someone to become an extremist. Personal experiences will play a role. I have also made note of the idea that some of the most aggressive TERFs may be transgender in denial. I believe Cathy Brennan argue that she was close to transitioning, and GallusMag's gender expression is what I would call militant masculinity, both as regards appearance and in the way she writes. That does not make them trans, but it may explain their desperate need to classify trans people as "The Other". We are too close for comfort.


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