Recently, at a political education group I run, a friend pulled me aside and told me she’d heard another person referring to me as a he/she. Unfortunately the person accused wasn’t a stranger and had once been a good friend, but implicit transphobia had made that friendship awkward to the point that it was untenable. I decided it couldn’t last any longer during trans day of visibility. She didn’t say a word to me all day (despite me lending her my charger). They’d been one of my best friends and on that day of all days, I felt quite invisible.
When I imagine a transphobic person, I visualise a cis white, middle aged man, angrily waiting near the toilets, ready to challenge anyone who looks like they might be transgender. I expect most people would envision something similar but what I’m fairly certain about is that very few people would imagine someone like themselves. Even vehement transphobes don’t tend to think they’re transphobic and rarely stray into a level of wokeness that equates transphobia and their own behaviour.
I had to decide how I was going to handle the information my friend had given me, and so I messaged a few other friends looking for advice. One told me we would sort it out in our local political group and so I promised them I wouldn’t name the accused person online or report them in any official capacity. I was happy to promise this. Cancelling people isn’t always the best way forward and I definitely thought this would be a simple case of them apologising for a drunken mistake and educating themselves.
Most people, I like to think, are repulsed by transphobia. For the most part this is a great thing but the reality is we all mess up occasionally. We live in a transphobic society, we’re all transphobic and there’s no point pretending differently. What’s more important when you’re called out for transphobia is how you respond — do you recognise your mistakes and apologise; or do you do what my former friend did and demonise the accuser (me)?
Be suspicious of those who say trans people are lying about transphobia. Reflect on how ready you are to take the privileged cis person at their word because you can’t imagine your friend/co-worker/a public figure/etc. being transphobic — this speaks to a privileged assumption that transgender people don’t have, and which often results in us being pushed out of social groups if we do call our oppression out. We see a similar thing when some people call out sexual assault, homophobia, or the many other unjust oppressions.
Transphobia can be on many levels, it can be the recycled homophobic classic of assuming your queer friend is attracted to you and using that as a convenient excuse to stop being their friend or talking to them — essentially demonising them; or it can be my envisioned image of an angry white guy who dedicates his evenings to enforcing outdated and trans exclusionary gender norms. We’ve all grow up in a cis-normative society and tackling this starts by acknowledging our own transphobic biases.
My former friend accused me of lying about the transphobia and tried to bully me into making a twitter apology. I’d never called them transphobic publically and wasn’t even the one who made the allegation, but of course it was the trans person who was being attacked. I often think about the cis privilege it must take to feel comfortable doing such a thing. This from a person who knows full well the sheer amount of transphobia I face online, and undoubtedly how terfs would run with the tweet.
I’m still not planning on publicising who this person was. I don’t see the benefit to me of tearing a former friend down. We all need to think very carefully about the extent to which we engage in the call out culture that platforms like Twitter encourage, and the cancelling of people that tends to follow. I dare say we can do better than that. A few months ago I called out a different friend online for transphobia. They educated themselves and are now a much better trans ally, and if I could go back I would have simply messaged them instead.
To be transphobic isn’t usually as loud as those being trans exclusionary on the internet, or confronting trans people outside bathrooms; I think of all the cis gatekeepers I’ve had to overcome in my life: the headteacher I had to get a solicitor against; the manager I had to show the equality act to; my parents who haven’t always been accepting. People who aren’t shouting that trans women are men, but who put up obstacles I had to overcome nonetheless. We are all taught (however implicitly) that the more gender conforming/passing you are, the better you are.
I have to stand in front of society and hope that it won’t treat me differently because I’m trans, knowing the whole time that that just isn’t something I can rely on. I can unfortunately, rely on the reality that people are more likely to believe a trans person has lied about transphobia than they are to believe a trans accuser, especially when they know the accused. You shouldn’t doubt us when we call out transphobia — whether it’s from you or someone else — you should be sad because it’s (overwhelmingly likely to be) true.
We beat transphobia by standing in solidarity with trans people. If you’re reading this, please do. If you’re ever accused of transphobia by a trans person, don’t manipulate the story or paint a picture against the trans accuser. Transphobia isn’t a slur. Listen and learn and do better, and for the love of everything sacred, hold in your cis tears — you’re not the one who has to be vigilant against transphobia everyday and you aren’t helping trans people by making us feel sorry we called you out in the first place.