Many people have been working hard to change our society so that transgender people have more basic human rights. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but we’ve been fighting for a better world—and things are changing. It’s tough going, but stuff is happening.
Part of the work to be done involves shifting cultural norms. There’s a lot of ingrained mistreatment of trans people in the fabric of our society, and the average person doesn’t even know how to interact with us in a way that preserves our dignity.
This type of mistreatment is known as “transphobia,” and it’s everywhere. As a visibly trans agender person, I deal with it every day.
Nobody wants to be transphobic, just like nobody wants to be racist or sexist. We all want to be good people. But the truth is, our cultural norms make it a lot easier to be transphobic (and racist, and sexist) than it should be.
I’ve talked to many cisgender folks who are anxious about being perceived as transphobic, and feel stressed about how much work it is to avoid seeming like a bad person.
But that’s missing the point. Every single one of us will always have biases to overcome, and that’s totally OK. That’s just how we expand our minds—and the potential for expansion is endless. As a trans person, I’m not just looking around for excuses to stamp people with the “transphobe” label. I just want to be treated like a valid human being. (And when I’m not, it sucks.)
There are a lot of details we could get into about the finer points of terminology, language, and cultural norms that need to be dismantled to make the world less transphobic, and in fact, I do some of that in another post. But in this post, I want to give you three major guiding principles that will help you avoid being transphobic.
If you can get your head around these three things, the rest flows out from there naturally.
1. Treat other people like equals, not inferiors.
It’s a very common experience for trans people to be looked down on by cisgender people as inferior. We’re treated as though we’re mentally unstable, sinful abominations, dramatic attention-seekers, ugly, deluded—you get the idea.
All of these labels are just bigotry. Anyone categorizing us this way gives themselves permission to treat us as their inferiors, instead of as their equals.
Claiming superiority over any group of people is problematic—and that includes trans people. Pay attention to when you do that, and stop.
Cisgender people are not superior to trans people. If you believe they are, that’s transphobia.
2. Don’t ask questions you would be uncomfortable answering.
It’s disturbingly common for me as a trans person to be asked dehumanizing questions by cisgender people—questions that they’d never in a million years expect to be asked of them (and if they did get asked those questions, I’m sure they’d freak out).
You’re a new acquaintance of mine, and you want to know about my “biological sex?” I mean, how would you feel if I asked you to describe your genitals to me in our second-ever conversation? Pretty weird, right? This kind of thing happens to trans people constantly, and it’s not OK.
When you ask anyone a question, it’s a good rule of thumb to think about what it would be like for you to be asked that question. Be respectful of people’s personal boundaries—including trans people.
Just because you feel curious about a trans person’s body doesn’t mean it’s OK for you to pry about what’s going on under their clothes. Think about your own personal boundaries, and don’t cross them when it comes to how you treat other people.
If you perceive a group of people as less-deserving of personal boundaries than you, that’s bigotry.
3. Believe people when they describe an experience you don’t relate to.
Almost all transphobia comes out of not believing trans people. (I wrote a whole post about this subject, so I’ll just give a quick overview here.)
When someone tells you that their gender is different from the one you assumed, the only non-transphobic response is to believe them. If you don’t, you’re going to end up doing or saying some transphobic things, no matter how many best practices you memorize.
And trust me, if you’re just humoring a trans person, and you don’t really believe what they’ve told you about their gender—they can tell. I’m nonbinary, and I tell you what, it’s pretty obvious when someone thinks my gender identity is pretend, no matter how well they jump through the hoops of using my correct pronouns.
Trans people are the gender they say they are, regardless of what their body looks like. If you don’t believe them, that’s bigotry, and you’re holding onto a smaller false picture instead of learning what’s really going on.
It’s about treating all people with basic respect
You probably noticed that there’s nothing earth-shattering in any of these three principles. It’s just basic human-to-human respect.
It can be easy to go along with cultural norms that are very hurtful and disrespectful without intending any disrespect. That’s why it’s important to wake up and pay attention to the people around us, and to really work on perceiving their humanity and valuing who they are. There will always be ways we can do this more, and do it better.
It’s OK that there’s stuff to work on, and it’s OK that it’s hard work. We’re changing the world—and that doesn’t happen without some growing pains.