Updated: Nov 3
I've developed an unhealthy social media habit of getting sucked into twitter debates with angry, yet seemingly well meaning, transphobes. I've so far cured 3 of them of transphobia (out of several hundred). It was gloriously satisfying but not worth the amount of stress it took.
One of the things that frustrates me the most online is when 2 people are having an argument about a phrase or word and both people have completely different ideas of what that word means and rather than explain themselves they just assume the other person sees the world from their point of view. Both people then proceed to get increasingly irate.
Examples of this include:
With person A believing it to mean wealth or an easy life, and person B using it to mean not having experienced the specific hardships that another group of people has to put up with.
Where person A will argue tooth and nail that something isn't racist because their concept of racism only extends to aggressively harassing someone, while person B understands structural racism, micro-aggressions, and how racism can be ingrained in every facet of life.
In both of these instances I'd say person B is more correct, but the problem is that too often neither B or A seems to realise that the other person is talking about a completely different definition of the word they're arguing about. It's not a marginalised person's job to educate people about these things but unless the penny drops these discussions are completely pointless and will only serve to infuriate both people.
These two examples are complex and deserve their own blog posts (I'd recommend "Why I'm no longer talking to white people about race," by Reni Eddo-Lodge for a brilliant eye opener about racism), but for now I'd like to focus on a phrase that's being argued about a lot at the moment:
"Trans women are women,"
Most people use this phrase to mean "trans women are just as acceptable in our society in as non-trans women are and I'm happy to treat them as such and allow them to fit into the social categories associated with the term 'woman' if they so wish."
Some people react as if the phrase means "trans women are exactly the same as non-trans women in every way".
It's a lot more complex though, obviously.
And it really comes down to what you mean by the word 'woman'.
The word means many different things to different people. Some examples are:
Someone who fits into the social category of woman,
A person born with female reproductive organs,
Someone who looks how society expects a woman to look,
A person who's grown up experiencing the positives and negatives of being female and being treated as such,
A person who identifies as a woman.
Some people hate the word woman. Some find it empowering. Some people don't have feelings about it either way.
But as much as I dislike when people aren't accepting of trans people, like the above examples of the words 'racism' and 'privilege', something that really irks me about so many of these discussions is that arguers will so often just pick two separate definitions of womanhood and then duke it out, assuming the other person has picked the same one as them:
A: Trans women are women.
B: Trans women aren't women.
A: Yes they are.
B: No they're not.
A: But they share the same social experiences.
B: But their biology is different.
And then they continue in this manner, and because they're both coming from different definitions the arguments and explanations for their points of view that they give aren't going to match and no-one's going to be persuaded either way. And that's assuming either of them are open to listening to the other person in the first place, a thing that's very rare to find online, even among the most reasonable sounding people. And I'm not making any judgement here on what actually makes a person a woman, trans or otherwise. That's enough of an ocean of ideas for several books I don't have time to write and depends on what you consider the breadth of each definition to be (for example hormones and brain structure counting as biology).
What I love about "trans women are women" is that it's a simple phrase for allies to get behind to voice their support of all trans people. And the way it's become such a popular phrase feels really welcome, especially considering how little support non-transgender people generally show for us.
Usually if people dislike trans people they're quick to say so, but if people do support us they usually don't feel the need to say anything, just treating us like anyone else. Equal treatment is great but when all you hear are half the people saying how much they dislike you and the other half not saying anything you assume that they share the bad opinions as well and are just less vocal about it. That's how I felt, at least, until I started touring Too Pretty To Punch around the UK and found so many supportive people all over the place.
What I don't like about "trans women are women" is how it's become a political soundbite that's expected to exist and be understood on its own by everyone. It's a great start to a conversation but when people don't elaborate lots of people get confused.
I'm often naively optimistic about people. It's one of my strengths when it comes to seeing the best in someone, but it's one of my weaknesses when I underestimate a person's propensity for cruelty and get walked over.
For me, people being transphobic fall mainly into these four categories:
A) Cruel people.
B) People who have entrenched views against us due to being misled by the media etc.
C) People spreading fear to create division in our communities for political gain.
D) Well meaning people who've heard a compelling and sincere sounding argument against us without knowing the full truth and the often negative subtext.
The Ds are what I call the swing voters of the gender critical world, and I like to think that most transphobic people I come across actually fit into that category. The people spreading fear about us are really skilled at it. And if I wasn't trans and I read an article with misleading information about teenagers on hormone blockers or misquoting suicide statistics I'm sure I'd happily take them at face value. Until social media came along trans people had very little chance of getting their voices heard and most non-trans people get everything they know about us from misleading stories in the media.
Have you ever heard of a shit sandwich? It's a method of giving feedback where you give a compliment, followed by your criticism and then follow it with a compliment. It softens the blow and makes people more receptive to the negative feedback you give them. A lot of abusive people online use a similar format for being transphobic but rather than wrapping their hate in compliments they sandwich it between two reasonable sounding arguments. They'll give two plausible definitions of womanhood and add in something spiteful in between. Then someone else comes along, only noticing the reasonable sounding arguments and doesn't understand why the trans person is so upset by them.
Usually when someone's started a discussion online about 'trans women not being women' the subtext is 'trans women aren't acceptable in society.'
It's been used so often now to mean this that even when someone innocently comes along and thinks they're just discussing the semantics of what the word 'woman' means, it still carries that subtext to all the trans people reading it, whether the person discussing it means to or not.
So the subtext of those discussions can often be:
A: (Trans women are women) Trans people are acceptable.
B: (No they're not) My definition of woman is different to yours. A: (Yes we are) Stop harassing me.
B: (No you're not) I'm just talking about word definitions.
A: (Yes we are!) Back off. Why can't you just accept us as we are?
B: (No you're not!) Why are you trans people so aggressive?
Because our notions of womanhood are so varied, many people come into these discussions without knowing the negative subtext that even starting such a conversation online now carries with it. They get caught in the crossfire and end up thinking trans people unnecessarily antagonistic, not realising that before they entered the debate bullets were already firing from both directions, and their innocent comments were inadvertently shaped like bullets too.
What are your thoughts on this? Please comment below. This is a massive subject and as this is my first blog post I realise I'm just clumsily scraping the surface of it. I'll be posting a new blog post every two weeks on the subjects of Gender and Theatre making. Click here for a poem that sums up my thoughts on many misconceptions about trans people.