Transgender (trans): an individual who identifies as a different gender to the one they were assigned at birth
Cisgender (cis): an individual who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth
Transmisogyny: the intersection between transphobia and misogyny against women; this intersection is the name of oppression towards trans women
Epistemic: relating to knowledge
Metaphysical: the nature of something
Content warning: Sexual assault/sexual violence, transmisogyny
An article was pitched for The Student’s Comment Section about making logical arguments as to why trans women are women. Although I understand the sentiment behind wanting to make arguments to validate transgender womanhood, these discussions actually do more to harm transgender women as they presuppose that there is a discussion to be had about the validity of transgender womanhood and that transphobia is something that can be explained through logic, instead of a complex system of oppression that affects transgender people and in this case trans women.
As a non-binary individual who identifies under the trans umbrella, I thought it would be more constructive to talk about some ways you can approach transphobia philosophically. Transphobia is usually based on false epistemic and/or metaphysical arguments about gender if it is even based on any logical argument at all. What follows are a few ways to contextualise transphobic arguments and the ways that some transphobes will assert their positions. This is not intended to be a prescriptive approach, but an example of how to look at these types of arguments.
The argument that ‘trans women are not women’ is a discussion of the concept of the word woman and not the definition of the word itself. This is known as metalinguistic negotiation. ‘Trans women aren’t women’ is a statement about what a woman is and this particular statement is saying that trans women don’t fit that definition of women. In this argument, transphobes are defining womanhood as simply being cisgender womanhood, without stating as such. There have always been discussions historically about not including certain women in the definition of woman. This has occurred with Black women and Native American women who were excluded from the definition of women for various reasons, such as to argue that they should not have the vote during the American Suffragette Movement or as a prerequisite for attempted moral justifications of slavery as abolitionist movements grew. Similar arguments have been made about lesbian and bisexual women.
Discluding trans women from the definition of womanhood by artificially restricting it to ‘cisgender womanhood’ is a not a philosophically sound argument as there is no clear definition of what a cisgender woman is. Transphobes usually move the goalposts of what it means to be a woman by arguing that womanhood is based on having a vagina, or a uterus, or a woman’s ‘fertility’, experiencing ‘female oppression’ or being able to experience sexual assault and will continue to narrowly define what a woman is despite not all cisgender women having these characteristics and these not being characteristics exclusive to women. Additionally to this, these arguments erase intersex individuals.
Another argument commonly used against transgender women is that cis women know what being a woman means, because they are woman, and on this basis can say who and who isn’t one and what experiencing womenhood means. This is known as epistemic contextualism; where the truth of the statement depends on the context of the attributor. In this transphobic argument, cis womanhood is falsely attributed to the definition of what a woman is, meaning that only cis women are allowed to comment on womanhood and know what it means to be a woman. This is commonly used to dismiss the experiences of trans woman, and cisgender woman can falsely argue that only they know what it means to be a woman and dismiss trans women on the basis of them being trans women and not cis women. In this framework, transwomen are invalidated from discussing their own womanhood.
Although approaching transphobia in this way can be useful to contextualise what transphobes are doing when they make assertions against trans people, it is important to understand that systems of oppressions do not work on a consistent logic. Transgender women are not assaulting women in toilets; there are no cases of this, yet this a very prominent argument against trans women. But this argument is used to bar trans women from domestic assault charities and shelters even though trans women are more likely to be the victims of assault, at a higher rate than cis women.
Making arguments about why trans women are women gives the impression that there is a debate about their womanhood when there is none. It distracts us from actually supporting trans women and dismantling transmisogyny. It stops us having discussions about what is actually affecting trans women. It provides us with a convenient separation between our own transphobic behaviours we may not be aware of and the more obvious transphobia that we see in British media.
This lack of logical consistency in transphobia is also true of other systems of oppression. We do not have arguments about whether people of colour, disabled folk, and LGB individuals exist. We just work to dismantle the systems of oppression that affect them.
Transphobia is rife in society and therefore in our university, and has tangible effects on the lives of transgender students, affecting trans women, trans men and non-binary/genderqueer individuals. It is important to be cognisant of this and how the university administration have tolerated and perpetuated transphobia’s existence on campus. It is important to understand that trans woman constantly have their womanhood examined, and as allies to trans women we should fight against, rather than contribute to this.
If you truly want to help trans women, and other trans folks in the transgender umbrella, namely trans men, and non-binary and genderqueer individuals, here are things you can do:
- Report instances of transphobia on campus, such as transphobic stickers in the toilets and on the #nNoExcuse campaign, or transphobic faculty and students
- Learning about what is important to transgender students and faculty and their experiences on campus
- Read about transgender experiences; no transgender experience is universal
- WellBlog did a series during Pride Month 2018 on the experiences of LGBT staff and students (https://wellcommkings.blogspot.com/search?q=pride)
- Learn about the adversities of transgender students and staff on campus, such as how the actions of Ann Henderson affected the PrideSoc committee this year, the transphobia from lecturers and tutors that has caused some students to drop out of or leave the university, and the hostile environment which may stop trans students running for roles in the student association
- Listen to transgender individuals when they try to open a dialogue with you about your transphobia; we live in a transphobic society so everyone will still hold some degree of transphobic ideas. The important thing, instead of getting upset, is to listen and take on board criticism. We are all learning, and transgender people are not calling you out from a place of hate, but from one where they want you and their environment to be better and safer for them
- Listen to other trans folks that aren’t me, try and find out what work other trans individuals, staff and students are doing and how you can support it
- These are not the only spaces in the university where people are doing work to dismantle transphobia, but looking at their work is a start:
- Staff Pride Network
- Trans and Non-Binary Liberation Campaign
- Women and Non-Binary Liberation Campaign
- LGBT+ Liberation Campaign
- LGBT Medics
- Understand that systems of oppressions intersect, listen to trans people of colour, queer trans individuals, trans folks who are disabled or are suffering from mental health and how these systems of oppression may interact with each other
- Read the work of trans feminists such as Julia Serano, Kate Bornstein, Kai M. Green, Marquis Bey, and Emi Koyama, to name a few.
Image: torbakhopper via Flickr