People are usually not shy to express themselves when they have strong objections to an idea they don’t agree with or believe. Folks who don’t support transgender individuals and our rights to safety and inclusion are very vocal about their disagreement of my “lifestyle choices.” People cling to their religion as a way to defend their right to not provide compassion, health care, and customer service to trans folks.
The defiance to acknowledge that we exist, as if our truth is made up of lies, perpetuates ignorance. My truth and experiences as a transgender person don’t matter to someone who can’t let go of what they think is true. Their lack of knowledge refuses to be compromised by facts.
But what turns that willful ignorance into disgust, fear, and violence? What is it about transgender people that is so threatening?
I wish I didn’t feel compelled to be clear here: If a transgender person hasn’t done anything criminal or physically or verbally threatening and is just trying to go about their day like any other human being, transgender people are not responsible for someone’s perceived threat just for existing. Infuriatingly, though, the gay/trans panic defense in cases where the victims are blamed for the violence done to them because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity is still alive and well in 42 states, though 7 states have legislation pending to ban this defense.
People are uncomfortable when their minds are forced to think outside what they think are “normal” gender expressions and roles. Gender nonconforming folks—men who wear makeup or women who have stereotypical male jobs—turn heads, but researchers at St. Louis University performed three studies and found that gender nonconforming folks are more accepted than transgender people. Transgender folks go against what people think they know about gender and biological sex. Many people hold onto the belief that biological sex determines one’s gender. Intersex and transgender folks prove this isn’t true. Our parts do not define our gender.
While my gender identity has NOTHING to do with the gender identity of anyone else, the reason cisgender people feel threatened by transgender people is because they think their own identity is under attack. They hold onto the idea that not only is gender determined by genitalia, but that gender is binary. The ambiguities of nonbinary folks like me who mirror both male and female genders do not allow people to place me neatly into a box. When they see someone who they can’t define or who breaks the “rules” of what it means to be a man or woman, they become confused, angry, and violent. This is called distinctiveness threat and feeds into the social identity theory. This is the idea that a person’s self-concept or identity is defined by being part of a social group.
Psychology Today defined distinctive threat this way: “The uniqueness of who we are as an individual comes under threat when the boundaries around group definitions that we use to define ourselves shift or become malleable.”
If I or another trans masculine person can pass as a man, yet was assigned female at birth, then a cisgender male will feel less than and become defensive and angry when a trans person is seen as just as masculine as a “real” man. I have experienced this. While I am not a threat, my existence is a threat to people who base their identity on mine. This puts a dangerous notion that trans folks need to pass as their gender and not enough responsibility on people who need to open their minds and not be so insecure.
But according to one of the studies done by Kristin Broussard and Dr. Ruth Warner from St. Louis University, “passing” transgender men and women were the least liked and were considered the most threatening. This means that cisgender people were most uncomfortable and on defense when they found out that a gender conforming man or woman was transgender.
Broussard explains: “Because they can ‘pass’ as their authentic gender, [gender conforming transgender people] are especially threatening because they provide some evidence that there are more than two binary genders, or that [one’s] binary gender can be changed.”
People do not like to be challenged with facts if they take away from what they think they know is true about a core belief. If someone doesn’t believe a person born with a vagina is a man or is a “real” man but then is “fooled” into believing a transgender man is in fact a man, then they reflect that back onto themselves. If they are a man, then what am I? The defensiveness and hatred and violence is compounded when a cisgender man, if even implicitly, believes females are less than men and then finds out that a man assigned female at birth is indistinguishable from a cisgender man—from himself.
I have been in situations where people’s confusion of my gender has shifted from apologetic remorse to embarrassment. Watching people assume I am one gender to then believe I am another has also caused defensiveness and irritation; the energy changed so quickly that I felt apprehensive. I am always aware of my surroundings and my intuition has alerted me on a few occasions that I was not in safe spaces. Public transportation and gas stations make me nervous. And public bathrooms are where my sensors ring the loudest because these are where I have been most policed by people who think they know where I should pee better than I do.
The stronger a person holds onto the belief that gender is binary and that gender is determined by biological sex, the more threatening a transgender person is to that person.
We can combat this with greater representation of trans folks, diverse books, and teaching healthy gender expression to our kids. Fighting against gender roles, understanding the fluidity of gender, and supporting nonconforming folks by getting to know us will go a long way too.
Cisgender people need to stop making my identity about their right to feel safe when more than 25% of transgender people have faced a bias-driven assault. My identity can’t be affirmed if those around me are so concerned about their identity being affirmed in spite of me.
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