We Need To Talk About Transmisogyny

CW: Transmisogyny, transantagonism, misogyny, mention of abuse and murder, genitals, etc

If the shoe fits.

*** Update: I trimmed this piece by about 30% and removed some parts that deserve to be unpacked in their own space. So please don’t feel gaslit if you are missing a certain passage or phrasing that was present in the previous version. ***

Transmisogyny?

Transmisogyny is a term coined by Julia Serano in her book Whipping Girl. If you’re not steeped in queer theory and discourse, you might have never heard that term. Even those that heard and do use that term often misunderstand it as a mix of misogyny and transantagonism, but it’s more complicated than that and the term is maybe a little misleading. Misunderstandings like these make it even harder for people affected by transmisogyny (from here on called “transmisogyny-affected” or tma, for short) to have people recognize when transmisogyny is perpetrated against them or even take their call-outs of transmisogyny serious.

I have written about transmisogyny before, but the article I have for that was written in a rather academic way that made it inaccessible for anyone not partial to this kind of abstract and dry thinking that also puts up some classist hurdles, and I’m sorry for that.
For those completely unfamiliar with the concept, here’s a rough definition:
“Transmisogyny is a specific form of discrimination and vilification that affects all those that society would view as men by birth.”
But it’s more complicated than that and I invite you to trust the flow and let it carry you through this piece.

Transmisogyny is less a specific thing and more a dynamic that results from the interaction of several rules we unconsciously learn and apply, even if we consciously hold entirely different and often opposing views. And it being hidden under so many layers of gut reactions, which one has to be vigilant and critical about to actually unlearn, means many people will simply not recognize it as its own dynamic, or will convince themselves that since they did not *intend* anything like that, they cannot possibly be guilty of it. This is the very same problem as with all the things we internalized from a young age.

Men’s Rules

All of the currently dominant social structures all over the world are still patriarchical, controlled and primarily perpetuated by cis men. This might not be obvious to everyone, because on the surface most of them have removed most of the legal and clearly visible aspects of it, though many claim to have done so without having done anything at all about it. The framework is so old and so broad, that a view on it that feels neutral and factual can still be firmly rooted in it.
Often overlooked stays that misogyny, the most recognized negative aspect of patriarchy, is itself a result of transantagonism, not something independent. It begins with the “sexing of the body”. The tradition of looking at a newborn’s genitals to decide what societal roles and identities will be available to them and what society will expect them to perform for and endure from it. By binding a tangible, visible and definitely real concept, the different kinds of genitals, to an intangible, socially constructed thing, gender roles and identities, the latter can be presented as equally real and objective as the former, even though that is pure speculation, or rather, an arbitrary determination.

The very existence of what we now call trans people in every society throughout all of human history alone proves that this is not self-evident, and even if you wanted to push that aside, the fact that societies where people are allowed to be themselves as much as possible are the ones that seem to feature more trans people, more gay people, etc. The seeming uniformity of cis people must be primarily seen as the result of societies which enforce gender rules and restrictions most vigorously. Because if this was just humans’ natural tendency, then they would not need to be protect by rules, right? Hence we get narratives of “the gay agenda” and the “trans trend”, where they want to make you believe that this is something coming from a nebulous “outside” to corrupt the good cis.

Transantagonism is strictly necessary to create a two tiered gender dominance structure. Only when you essentialize a whole human’s being into one tied to their genitals can you justify one being better and more worthy than another. It would be difficult for cis men to claim natural superiority, if that identity actually included all the different bodily configurations and shapes that people who recognize themselves to be men take on. It needs to be immediately clear who rules and who is ruled.

With people so thoroughly divided, the most important rule of the whole disaster is that there is nothing better to be than a man. Everything else just follows from this first rule and will wrap itself around that first rule. There is no greater sin than to violate this first rule. Everyone of us has already suffered under a cis man who felt his manhood threatened or just disrespected, even though we might have different takes on the specifics. But what could be the most heinous crime you could commit against this holy rule?

Traitors And Admirers

From the perspective of this biologically essentialist patriarchy, trans people are seen as pretenders, as people who want to be something they are not already. So the narrative becomes that trans men are “women who want to be men” and trans women are “men that want to be women”. And the latter is the aforementioned cardinal sin against the holy rule of patriarchy: Being bestowed with the social recognition as a man and outright rejecting it.

Every other form of rejecting manhood can be spun into a validation of the holy rule. People who “want to be men” can be framed as just jealous and inferior, trying to climb upwards, making trans men a testament to the greatness of manhood to which they “aspire”.
Trans women and polynary (non-binary) people who would be recognized as men by their genitals at birth reject mandhood from an informed position. They could have it, but they just throw it away, as if it was worthless. And this is seen as the ultimate betrayal to patriarchy, all of it, not just the men that benefit from it. Mostly unconsciously, mind you. It’s rather unlikely that people who commit transmisogyny are so consciously aware of it.

Rather, they just perceive people suspected of transgressing against the holy rule as utterly despicable and any and all narratives will do to justify that gut reaction, as long as it dehumanizes tma people. There is no depravity and no crime that has not yet been associated with tma people. When it comes to seeing being trans as a mental illness or disorder the focus is always tma people. Those not affected by transmisogyny (from here on out called transmisogyny-exempt, or tme for short), of course, also face a society violently rejecting them. Many of them are still the target of misdirected misogyny, but they cannot be as guilty of violating the holy rule and no comparable vilification in popular culture exists for them. The violence directed at tme people lies in the system categorizing them as feminine, the violence against tma people is the system rejecting their femininity.
The system wants tme people to submit and it wants tma people to not exist.

Somewhere I’ve read that characteristics associated with men weight five times more than any characteristic associated with women when it comes to making a wild guess as to someone’s gender. From reflecting on my own perception I can roughly confirm that. You can test this in the privacy of your own head, too. It does definitely mirror the unequal standards that exist for tma and tme people when it comes to being validated in their gender. The most notoriously hard discipline is to be, even upon closer inspection, perceived as a cis instead of a trans woman.

Living With The Effects

Being affect by transmisogyny is a wild trip where we’re constantly faced with the most ridiculous of contradictions. Moving away from the “man” gender role will make us more suspicious of all the negative things associated with (cis) men. We’re under the constant pressure to “prove” that we’re not men. Even people with no interest in feminism will suddenly become aware of all the ways in which men pose a problem to everyone else, but project that only on us. While aggression and violence are afforded to cis men on the basis of “that’s just the way it is” and to cis women under feminism as a form of empowerment, they are violently denied to us by either. When we’re seen as men we are punished for things that cis men get a pass for. Everything about us that could be associated with men will be used as proof of our “deception” and that we really are the most dangerous of men.

That means first and foremost that we’re denied vulnerability and softness, anything that would frame us as feeling beings, rather than deceiving monsters. Should we dare to speak up or stand up for ourselves, we better put in some overtime on performing conventional femininity to make up for it. We’re driven into performing hyper-femininity even towards ourselves. Especially for mono-gender (people with only one gender) trans women this means being ever watchful of what they say or do and deny themselves interests, expressions and emotions that could be read as “male”. Each of them is an indictment and justification to treat us as morally and sexually deviant men.

That holy rule of patriarchy is found in everyone’s subconscious, making us easy targets. It is pretty safe to commit any kind of injustice against us, no matter who you are. Even within the queer community it is very easy to gain social kapital by framing us as aggressive and dangerous one way or another. Even when there is absolutely no truth to it, it will stick. Associating us with anything and everything bad resonates with the holy rule in the back of your head, rewarding you with feelings of righteousness and vigilance. And we can feel that.

Impulsive as I am, I came out immediately after realizing my true gender (or the lack thereof) and since I coincidentally (ha) had been wearing skirts in the summer the year before already, I could experience a fascinating and horrifying shift in how my gender, my rejection of manhood, changed how people perceived and treated me. My skirts already made men feel entitled to lift them, once in the middle of the office I was working in. It also got me some respect for being so secure in my manliness (HA!) that I even could wear skirts with pride. Yet after my coming out, it all just became weirdness and something to be cautious of, something to other and abuse me by.

So day in day out we get to observe the prejudices people harbor against us and how it ever so slightly paints everything we do and say in a negative light. We have the choice between getting hurt and rejected based on these prejudices and stay silent. That will be seen as admission of guilt. Or we can stand up for ourselves and have whatever remains of our vulnerability made null and void. It isn’t really safe for us anywhere, not even entirely among other tma people, because even among us there are many who can’t fight these intrusive narratives and prefer to appease society by performing femininity even harder and rather take abuse with a gracious smile than speak up. Some even jump on the bandwagon we’re thrown under in hopes of catching a scrap of validity from a society that hates us.

The accusation of “creating another binary” when we’re talking about the different experience between tme and tma people is also quite common, invoking the “talking about racism is the real racism!” trope of framing the pointing out of discrimination based on an arbitrary rule set as creating that rule set in the first place. The narrative that we created the terms tma and tme just to label people and get to know the genitals of other trans and polynary people by making them confess to being either tma or tme is one of my favorites, though.

Twisted Politics

Within political movements that claim to be on “our side” we’re usually at best tolerated. Rarely, if ever, do we get to be included in or get to even represent feminism. The same feminism that touts body positive messages about how women can come in every shape and form will suddenly sing a completely different tune if those shapes include tma people’s bodies.

That Sikh woman with the full beard? Feminist Icon!
Trans woman with stubble? Well if she wants to be recognized she should put some more effort in.
Women need better health care! But not for transition.
Women cannot be reduced to their body parts! Unless that body part is a penis.
Gender Equality! What you got there isn’t really a gender, though, is it?
Women are oppressed because of their bodies! But not those bodies.
Abused women need places in domestic violence shelters! Unless, of course, the mere unprovoked thought of your genitals makes rea.. *cough* other women uncomfortable.

Most often we’re just entirely ignored and get that awkward silence after which everyone will just pretend this never happened when we speak up and point it out within supposedly safe spaces. Empirically, feminism listens more willingly to actual cis men than trans women.

Feminism has even been explicitly used in narratives that invalidate us. Tma people speaking up against transantagonistic or transmisogynistic aspects of feminist politics get accused of misogyny and it is ever so subtly implied that trans women are not “real women”. The latter often comes with outright TERF dogwhistles like “male socialization” or “lived experience (as a woman)”. Disagreeing with cis women is quickly framed as violence against women or at least as trivializing the plight of “women”. Partial womanhood is afforded to tme people, even if they outright reject womanhood as many trans men do, while trans women’s womanhood is at best tentatively granted as a sign of goodwill, not considered a human right. Political lesbianism so firmly associates penises with men that they openly discriminate against trans lesbians, as if accepting trans lesbians as women meant you consent to having sex with all of them.

It’s not my place to speak of the specific experience one has when all of this is combined with being BBIPOC (Black, Brown, Indigenous, People of Color), but it needs to be considered and you should seek out the writings and teachings of BBIPOC who are affected by transmisogyny. Analogous to misogynoir, the specific intersectional misogyny experienced by Black women, there is transmisogynoir, an intersectionally complicated transmisogyny experienced by Black people who are tma. These terms will get you what you need to know.

A House Built On Quicksand

I’ve been deliberately vague about who is or isn’t affected by transmisogyny. There is no hard and fast rule to definitely say who is tme and who is tma. The basis of this oppression is not explicitly stated anywhere, compared to i.e. misogyny, where you have people being quite aware of what’s going on and the power dynamics involved. It’s to a large degree intuitive. It describes a form of oppression with a specific vocabulary that only makes sense within the oppressive system. So like with many other forms of oppression, the group of people oppressed can only be defined from within the system, as they do not form a completely coherent group outside of that perspective. The only way to describe who is tme and who is tma is by using the definitions of the system, which are in themselves not coherent. The existence of intersex people, people with “ambiguous genitalia”, upsets the system so much that it declared them disorders and malformations. And this accordingly makes their positionality in the transmisogyny dynamic… complicated.

But I think it would be quite foolish to try and create an all-cases-covered system to distinguish once and for all who is and isn’t tme, tma, or neither. I guess it’s the system’s way of undermining descriptions of its oppressive aspects by expecting a 1:1 description upon to which base the treatment of people. And after all, we want to uproot these dynamics, not keep them pristine. The concepts of tme and tma are about different social positions, not attributes of people. No discrete description will ever capture a living social context full of vague and changing constellations. They are meant to help unpack and make visible the hidden power dynamics that the holy rule of patriarchy creates. And it creates them even within spaces that, by their own account, oppose to them. But if you’d put me on the spot, I’d say that it is about whether or not someone is betraying the holy rule, so the definition can shift together with the system.

Up For Grabs

With the position of tma people firmly established at the relative bottom of the privilege hiearchy, even within queer spaces, it should not surprise you that we are faced with constant attempts of tme people to coopt our concepts and language. Tme people who who also happen to be trans often claim to be trans women or transfeminine, sometimes they even claim to experience transmisogyny.

Note:
Tme people can be both trans and feminine, but terms like transfeminine have their own specific meaning as a femininity that is considered a transgression to society, which is not the case with tme people.

Sometimes they will even claim to experience misogyny at the same time. Lately I’ve even seen the use of “misogyny affected”, a clear reference to “transmisogyny affected”. Other times they also just try to minimize our experience by claiming that their experience of misdirected misogyny was the “equivalent” of transmisogyny. The terms tma and tme are often under attack in an (unconscious) attempt to take the words from us we need to make visible what tortures us.
Conscious or not, there is strong dynamic among tme trans people to make it ever harder for us to even just talk about transmisogyny, much less hold people accountable for it.

So, Let’s Talk

In conclusion, transmisogyny needs to be talked about more. Everywhere, but maybe starting within the queer community and feminism as a whole. We need to get used to being vigilantly on the lookout for transmisogyny the same way we should be vigilant about racism, misogyny, ableism, sanism, lookism, ageism, etc. We need to get used to having uncomfortable conversations in which you realize how your unconscious is priming you against us and how you, no matter how consciously you hate the patriarchy, are most likely not free of transmisogyny. Listen to tma people when they say that a situation, probably one where you perceive them as threatening and aggressive, involves transmisogyny on your part, and make the choice to be part of the change, rather than get defensive and thereby reinforce the very thing you were called out for.

Speak up when you see a tma person being framed as belligerent and “too loud”. Take the time to look at tma people of all walks of life, “passing” ones and ones you couldn’t tell apart from cis men. Look at those you consider ugly and unattractive, repulsive even, and then begin to see them as vulnerable people, as soft people, as people who have good reason to be angry, because they’re getting constantly hurt, even by you, even though you probably don’t realize how. You don’t have to find them attractive, but don’t stop until you can look at them as a fully formed human being and not a cutout. That resistance you feel there, that’s the transmisogyny in you.

Just a polynary person (they/them) trying to make sense of the world and share their insights. @ purecatharsis on Facebook/Instagram, @puRRcatharsis on twitter