J.K. Rowling famously wrote, “It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.” Unfortunately for many people, growing up to be transgender is seen as an existential threat to society. It is impossible to enjoy television comedy, movies, and the many genres of fiction without finding trans women being used as the butt of the joke. Tropes in fiction even go as far to demonizing trans people as heartless murderers. This strong, reactionary response to a transgender person can materialize in several ways. People tend to lash out at what is misunderstood and feared with abusive humor, taunting, and even violence. If someone has a phobia of spiders, they might want to do something harmful to the spider to get it out of the phobic person’s life. There are other names for transphobia since it does not truly describe the problem. On the other hand, transphobia is the word most used to describe this phenomenon. Transgender people, trans people for shorthand, are assigned one gender at birth and eventually transition to another gender through social or medical means. For gender fluid people, their gender is transitory, shifting between masculine and feminine. Some people report feeling like neither a man nor a woman. While all trans people face discrimination, and even a certain amount of danger in their lifetime, trans women seem to have an outsized grip on the transphobic person’s imagination. There are many reasons why transphobia is propagated and accepted by most people. Because we refuse to address the reality of trans lives, it is easy to create scapegoats out of trans people, so transphobia has become pervasive in our culture.
While many people made light of the term homophobia in the past, suggesting that it equates to simply fearing homosexual people, the intention of the term is understood to involve marginalization and sometimes assault. The same definitions apply to transphobia. Language can be misleading sometimes. On the other hand, language is important, writers can sometimes make a lot of money by manipulating and fashioning it into novels. J.K. Rowling delighted millions of people with her Harry Potter novels. Recently she has positioned herself as a radical feminist with the goal of excluding trans women from public spaces. The term for people who follow this ideology is TERF, or Trans Exclusive Radical Feminist. This is a form of biological essentialism. They are strict adherents to the belief that biology is fixed at birth, and that gender does not exist. Some bio-essentialists reject the label TERF, while others embrace it. J.K. Rowling, with all her fame and money, has begun to target the trans community, going as far as to pen a blog suggesting trans women are all predators (Baker). The reason that she has become obsessed with trans people is because of transphobia. Other terms for transphobia include cissexism, which is the idea that cisgender people are sexist toward trans people. Cisgender is the term for someone who is not transgender. Another term for transphobia is transmisogyny, which is the term used to specifically label discrimination against trans people with feminine characteristics (Understanding Transphobia”). While transphobia is common, there are fortunately many novelists and essayists who disagree with Rowling’s reactionary stance on trans women.
Audre Lorde is a notably good example of someone who understood the plight of people who are relegated to the fringes of society. She is considered by many to be the “Mother of Intersectional Feminism” (Princess-Weekes). Intersectional feminism, as opposed to trans-exclusionary feminist, seeks to empower all marginalized women, and non-binary/agender people, by exposing the interlocked nature of oppression. In the first chapter of her non-fiction book, The Cancer Diaries, she writes “What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?” (Lorde, Audre). When people are told they are worth significantly less because they are in the out group, as opposed to the in group, this can cause internalized prejudices. In this sense, it is quite possible, and even quite common, for trans people to harbor some transphobic beliefs. This self-hatred is toxic. Intersectionality explains why Lorde could write in such a passionate way about the stacking effects of prejudice. She was a Black, lesbian woman of Caribbean descent, raised in New York City during the civil rights movement (Lorde 153, 157). She was able to account for and disseminate many layers of systemic oppression in her prolific work. J.K. Rowling by contrast is an extremely wealthy, White, British woman living at the turn of the new millennium. There are stark differences that intersectional theory accurately describes. While there are many reasons that someone might be transphobic, ignorance of the deeply rooted prejudices that stem from the intersections of class, race, gender, and sexuality have a multifold effect. Cissexism can vary in its causticity considering where a transgender person falls among these lines. Ideas about the cross-sections of marginalization are new concepts to many people. Quite often people explain their transphobia in relation to the tenets of their church.
Church leaders all around the world seek to justify their discrimination against trans people using two arguments. They say that God does not make mistakes, and that God planned for there to only be two genders. For Christians, they will often point to the creation myths offered in the book of Genesis. These arguments are specious since transgender people are never mentioned in the Holy Bible. Intersex people are born with sex characteristics that do not match their secondary sex characteristics in some way. They have always existed and would have certainly existed during the time of the bible’s authorship (“What Does the Bible Say about Transgender People? | Bible and Homosexuality”). Even without historic proof of biblical condemnation of intersex people, modern misinterpretations are enough for many to justify open cissexism. Conversely, fear of heavenly retribution is a strong incentive to keep trans people from coming out of the closet. Transphobia’s main goal is to keep trans people from expressing themselves. The less transgender people who are out, the less likely trans people will stay closeted themselves. This is a self-sustaining cycle of suppression. Internalized transphobia is also at play. Transphobia is a tool to keep trans people silent about their lives. Ignorance about trans people feeds into cissexism. Education is necessary to help people understand that advanced biology courses can explain trans expression in all animals. This kind of curriculum might help to lessen the multiple negative consequences of transphobia.
Much of the transphobia in the past was relegated to one-on-one conflict or used in jest to tease and ridicule. With transgender people gaining more acceptance in public, transphobia is appearing more often as political rhetoric, even when it comes from the church. Since there is no mention of transgender people in the bible, and since transphobia is a form of dehumanization, the church would not seem to have much reason to enter the fray of transgender issues. Yet the Pope himself has condemned trans people and even used the term “gender ideology.” He has suggested that trans issues have less to do with physiology, and more to do with a suspicious, mysterious agenda which good and holy people should fear (Recent Transphobic Statements from Bishops Make Truth Claims without Facts). This kind of positioning places trans people in a place of power that is just not grounded in facts. Trans people make up a tiny sliver of Americans (Meerwijk). Trans people often face incredible hardship, including rejection from the family unit, and a higher risk of being the victim of homicide. There is clearly a misunderstanding for some about the actual, lived experiences of trans people. When discrimination is made acceptable by the leaders of churches and governments, it is only inevitable that it will create more bigotry down the line.
Religion is not known for breaking tradition in the name of progress. It is not surprising that gender non-conformity is an unpopular concept. The church is as split as everyone else on the other hand, and many trans people have found a comfortable life within it. There are many churches, and a handful are accepting of trans people. Unfortunately, evangelicals and the far right of religious thought leaders have teamed up with an unlikely group to keep spreading transphobia (Partridge). Radical feminists have little in common with the strictest dogma of the church. The reasons why feminists would be hesitant to embrace trans right might seem confusing at first, but set under the lens of transphobia, it is clear why they have made this uncomfortable alliance. Together they hope to convince the plurality of people that trans women pose a threat to the safety of cisgender women. “Bathroom bills” are legislation that seeks to limit the use of bathrooms according to what they call “biological sex.” The congressperson who introduces these bills believe that trans women are predators who fake being women to gain access to cisgender women in public places. This is inherently ridiculous, and clearly a transphobic belief. Fear of men dressing like women to prey on young girls is a trope that is at least as old as the fairy tale, “Little Red Riding Hood.” Enacting legislation limiting the rights of an entire subsection of society should require more proof of being necessary than tired, transphobic fantasies.
These bathroom bills have a negative impact on trans people that can be measured. Unable to find facilities that a trans person would feel safe upon entering, many will forgo relieving themselves at all, and according to one study, “32% of respondents reported limiting their food and drink intake in the past year to avoid using a restroom. Further, 8% reported a urinary tract infection or kidney problem” (Parent). It is important to remember while politicians might consider trans people an existential threat, the transphobic nature of these bills are having an actual negative impact on the portion of the approximately 1.4 million transgender Americans who live in the states that have these laws (What Percentage of the Population Is Transgender 2020). That is why it is so important to understand the various shapes in which transphobia or cissexism can appear. There is a history of making scapegoats out of specific groups. Even if it is as simple as raising youth to distrust children of the opposite gender in the name of tradition. These views are becoming outmoded as science is making it clear that transgender expression has a basis in biology. Bridging the gap between men and women does not appeal to people who prefer there to be a gulf between the sexes. Understanding the science of transgender people will not help ease transphobia in many people; it might not be enough to relieve animosity toward trans people. The systemic nature of transphobia might prove too strong. People are transphobic because the system itself is transphobic. If there is to be a debate about the lives of transgender people, it should include the voices of transgender people. Most importantly, it should be a debate that focuses on the fact that trans people are human beings who deserve the same fundamental rights as every other citizen.
There is a debate happening, unfortunately, it is currently being influenced by a popular writer. J.K. Rowling is strongly motivated to help organize radical feminists on social media. Writers have a better handle on persuasive techniques, so when an author has much fame, their words hold a lot of weight. Some of these feminists identify as lesbians. There is a growing fear among lesbians that trans acceptance in society is creating an extinction event among lesbians, though they might switch the term “trans acceptance” with “trans agenda.” This framing equates trans rights to something nefarious and suspicious. Lesbian people are not, in fact, in decline. Studies show there is a rise in people identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, with significantly higher Gen-Z identifying lesbians than millennials, or Gen-X (Stahl). Yet they still say that children are skipping their tomboy phase and identifying falsely as transgender. The culprit that they suggest is pushing this conversion is the medical community. This assessment is patently false. Trans children are encouraged to take their time. Therapists understand playing with gender is not unusual, and that it does not necessarily make somebody transgender. While there is no crime in holding misguided beliefs, Rowling is doing a disservice when she broadcasts her anxieties in a way that inflames public rhetoric. Fortunately, she is the voice of a vocal minority, and she is not the only famous writer that cared about transgender issues. As mentioned earlier, Audre Lorde was a lesbian who cared deeply about intersectionality, and though she never really mentioned transgender people in her writing, the foundation in her name does a respectable job educating people about trans issues (vlee14). Audre Lorde would agree that trans people are being used as scapegoats in modern politics, a projection of transphobia and prejudice on a massive scale. Another famous writer, and author of one of the first novels in the genre of feminist science fiction, Ursula Le Guin, would also undoubtedly agree.
In her short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Le Guin describes an idealized city, free of crime, and where everyone has everything needed to thrive. Unfortunately, this community shares a secret. For this utopia to exist, it requires the sacrifice of one child. This child lives its entire life in the dark, starved to the brink of death, and forced to suffer constantly (Le Guin). The author was undoubtedly writing about the large advantage that America has over the world. There is a tone-deaf tendency of its citizens and media to project excess, while countries with less access to farms and modern medicine suffer and starve. On the other hand, Ursula Le Guin could quite possibly be implying there is an underclass in her own country. Consider the near genocide of the indigenous, or the slaves who carried the economy on their backs, the story is a litmus test, but the child certainly describes a scapegoat. It seems clear that trans people are being used by a political minority as a scapegoat today, and if there is any doubt whether Le Guin cared about transgender people, consider her essay, “Is Gender Necessary?” where she reflected on writing the line “the king was pregnant,” in her novel, The Left Hand of Darkness (Drouillard). In this way, she figuratively turns the sexes on its head, forcing the viewer to deconstruct gender for themselves. Le Guin infused her science fiction stories with the concept of an anarchic drive to self-actualization, and there is little doubt she would disagree strongly with the transphobic excess of her writing peer, J.K. Rowling. Transgender women are treated as scapegoats, oppressed by ignorant masses, and made to be feared by people who deny their own cruelty to preserve idealized traditions that only ever existed in the imagination.
When a group has been made a scapegoat, they become the out group. The in group will grow to resent and even fear the out group. While Rowling and others who share her mindset believe that transgender rights use a foot-in-the-door approach to allow predators into shared women’s spaces, it is cisgender men who more often consider transgender people to be a threat and take a stance that includes violent reactions to transgender out groups in general. Trans people are targets of this prejudice regardless of how the non-conforming gender presents itself. This could be due to the way gender roles in our society are adhered to in our society (Mitchell). Testosterone is synonymous with masculinity, is correlated to trans women, and is injected by trans men as part of their hormone replacement therapy. Testosterone is the primary factor in most violence, crime, and even war (Myers). It is not surprising that transphobic people would develop some innate biases regarding the subject of transgender women and men. There is a fear that an overabundance of testosterone corresponds with uncontrollable urges and desires. Testosterone can create more muscle-laden bodies. These fears are one of the reasons why people are transphobic.
One arena in life this form of cissexism is showing up more often is the debate surrounding transgender women playing in segregated women’s sports. Transgender inclusion in sports has grabbed the collective imagination. The subject of sports does hold a sacred importance to many, and unfortunately, society once again has found a scapegoat. The argument that trans women are dominating sports is not based entirely in fact. This is because there are so few transgender women in general. Also, sex differences are not zero sum, with every woman being frail, and every man a hulk. The other reason that transgender women, or transgender men are not beating every record is because transgender people are systematically excluded from sports by a culture of trans misogyny, and cissexism (Hartmman-Tews). It is understandable to feel anxious about a changing society, but it is also undeniable that most transphobia is due to misplaced fear and projection. Trans people lives are misunderstood, and the representations that are seen in written and filmed media does not represent the actual lived experience of transgender people. If this were the case, people would understand that transgender people are far more often the focus of misplaced aggression, and not the purveyors of violence themselves.
Transgender people and transgender rights seem be a contentious issue that we cannot avoid in our media and news, yet trans people seem so rare in our lives. Transphobia is a powerful feeling. Even people who feel neutral about trans rights still have their own presumptions. Representation in film, if there is any at all, has been ubiquitously negative (Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen). A deep misunderstanding of trans people, fueled by these negative portrayals in television and movie narratives creates phobic belief systems. It is imperative that modern writers attempt to understand the many reasons for transphobia before they try to report on or attempt to create transgender characters in their works. J.K. Rowling has herself added to the trope of trans women being imposters who dress up to gain access to women’s spaces in her fiction. In her novel, Troubled Blood, the antagonist is portrayed as a “cross-dressing serial killer” (CNN). Perhaps if Rowling had a better understanding about the concept of intersectionality that Audre Lorde popularized in her essays, she would be able to write about transgender women in a less transphobic light. I assume Ursula Le Guin had this insight and is why she could uplift society with her gender nonconforming characters. Education and better representation are the antidote to transphobia. It might sound obvious, but it is also difficult to achieve while systemic forces are at play. To understand transphobia and finally end it, enough people simply need to believe that it is not as important how someone is at birth, but what kind of person they grow up to become, regardless of their primary and secondary sexual organs, or gender expression.
Baker, Anna. “JK Rowling’s Transphobia Is Not Harmless.” UWIRE Text, 28 July 2020, p. 1. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A630806286/AONE?u=jcl_jccc&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=d7276102. Accessed 4 Apr. 2022.
Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen. Directed by Sam Feder, Netflix, 1 2020.
Drouillard, Jill. “The King Was Pregnant: Reproductive Ethics and Transgender Pregnancy.” IJFAB: International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics, vol. 14, no. 1, Mar. 2021, pp. 120–140, 10.3138/ijfab-14.1.06. Accessed 24 Apr. 2021.
Hartmann-Tews, Ilse, et al. “Homo- and Transnegativity in Sport in Europe: Experiences of LGBT+ Individuals in Various Sport Settings.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport, vol. 56, no. 7, Nov. 2021, pp. 997–1016, doi:10.1177/1012690220968108.
Le Guin, Ursula. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Reading the World: Ideas That Matter. Edited by Austin, Michael, 479-486. New York, N.Y., W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.
Lorde, Audre. “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” Reading the World: Ideas That Matter. Edited by Austin, Michael, 153-157. New York, N.Y., W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.
Mitchell, Linas. “A Sociofunctional Approach to Understanding Transphobia.” Master’s Theses, 1 Jan. 2018, ecommons.luc.edu/luc_theses/3750/. Accessed 3 Apr. 2022.
Myers, David G, and C Nathan Dewall. Exploring Psychology. 10th ed., New York, Worth Publishers, Macmillan Learning, 2019, pp. 162-164.
Parent, Mike C., and Kevin Silva. “Critical Consciousness Moderates the Relationship between Transphobia and “bathroom Bill” Voting.” Journal of Counseling Psychology, vol. 65, no. 4, 2018, pp. 403-412. ProQuest, https://ezproxy.jccc.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/critical-consciousness-moderates-relationship/docview/2068604219/se-2?accountid=2200, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cou0000270.
Partridge, Cameron. “”SCOTCH-TAPED TOGETHER”: ANTI-“ANDROGYNY” RHETORIC, TRANSMISOGYNY, AND THE TRANSING OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 34, no. 1, 2018, pp. 68-75. ProQuest, https://ezproxy.jccc.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/scotch-taped-together-anti-androgyny-rhetoric/docview/2048052511/se-2?accountid=2200, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.2979/jfemistudreli.34.1.09.
Princess-weekes. “New York State Poet Laureate, Audre Lorde, the Mother of Intersectional Feminism.” Themarysue.com, The Mary Sue, 23 Feb. 2018, www.themarysue.com/audre-lorde-the-mother-of-intersectional-feminism/.
“Recent Transphobic Statements from Bishops Make Truth Claims without Facts.” National Catholic Reporter, 1 Sept. 2021, http://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/faith-seeking-understanding/recent-transphobic-statements-bishops-make-truth-claims. Accessed 4 Apr. 2022.
Stahl, Lynne. “The Latest Form of Transphobia: Saying Lesbians are Going Extinct: Lesbians Face Plenty of Threats. the Rise of Trans Identities isn’t among them.”ProQuest, Mar 18, 2021, https://ezproxy.jccc.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/blogs-podcasts-websites/latest-form-transphobia-saying-lesbians-are-going/docview/2503049619/se-2?accountid=2200.
“Understanding Transphobia.” Verywell Health, www.verywellhealth.com/transphobia-5077602.
vlee14. “The Audre Lorde Project.” WGS 552: Transgender Identities & Communities, 30 Apr. 2014, wgs552spring2014.wordpress.com/2014/04/30/the-audre-lorde-project-2/. Accessed 27 Apr. 2022.
“What Does the Bible Say about Transgender People? | Bible and Homosexuality.” Bible and Homosexuality, 7 Feb. 2019, http://www.bibleandhomosexuality.org/what-does-the-bible-say-about-transgender-people/.
“What Percentage of the Population Is Transgender 2020.” Worldpopulationreview.com, worldpopulationreview.com/state-rankings/transgender-population-by-state.