This is intended to be a challenging talk. I will call out many of you for your unexamined bigotry pertaining to trans people in this talk. I’ve prepared it in such a way that I expect at least one of you to walk out of the room in a huff at some point.
I hope the rest of you will be able to take at least some of what I say on board, and learn to see trans people in a new light. I hope that I can both show you your unexamined bigotry and help you change it.
Because of this dual focus, this talk will have two parts. In the first part, I will examine why you probably are bigoted towards trans people, even if you don’t think you are. In the second part, I’ll try and provide solutions and understanding.
A while back a had a funny experience. I was idly thinking about some hypothetical scenario where someone would break into a house and steal things. I don’t know why I was thinking about this, I just was.
The weird thing happened when only about half a minute into this visualisation I realised that the man who was burgling this house was black. It shocked me, of course, because I saw that without wanting it or realising it, my brain was racist.
I believe this sort of subconscious bigotry is very common. Intellectually we want to be un-bigoted, and usually, in our actions, we are. But subtly, subconsciously, our brain still discriminates.
The first stage of bigotry is to be overtly bigoted, for instance someone saying that all black people are dangerous. The second stage is to realise that your bigotry is wrong, and consciously try to correct that. Subconsciously, though, you are still somewhat bigoted.
The third stage is to be completely un-bigoted. I would posit that pretty much no-one here is entirely unbigoted, not about anything. Not even about your own oppressed group, if you are a member of one. Women are likely to subconsciously think womanhood is less valuable than manhood, queers are likely to be secretly at least somewhat ashamed of their queerness, and minority races are likely to have swallowed some of the disempowering messages about their race.
So in this room, we are likely to be either in the first stage of bigotry – overt bigotry – or the second stage of bigotry – subconscious bigotry – about most oppressed groups. Most here will be in the second stage of bigotry about most things.
Now that this has been explained, I will address my main point for the first half of this talk. In this talk I propose that most people nowadays are still in the first stage of bigotry regarding trans people. I believe that overt, not just subconscious bigotry, is ubiquitous, even among people who would like to call themselves enlightened about social justice.
I will proceed to demonstrate what I mean –
Please, put your hand up if you believe black people should be bought and sold as slaves.
OK. You are probably not overtly racist about black people.
Now, put your hand up if you do not believe women should have the vote. Do not believe.
Good. Most of you are not overtly sexist about women.
Now, put your hand up if you do not believe that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.
Excellent. No overt homophobia here.
Finally. And please be very honest here. Please raise or keep low your hand according to what you believe, regardless of what you think is going to be the “right” answer.
Put your hand up if you believe that a trans person is under some sort of moral obligation to reveal their trans status before having sex with a partner.
So – you who have your hands up – you are overtly bigoted.
I am going to explain why.
But first let me mention something. I should not need to explain why. And if someone argues with me about it, I do not need to argue.
If someone argues with a black person about why she or he should be bought and sold as a slave, the black person does not need to argue. There is no true argument, only an attack. There is no intellectual debate. There is only hate.
In the same way, if you try to tell me, a trans person, that I should not live freely and authentically as my true gender, without constantly being brought into question and being assumed to be a man, then that is not an argument. That is only bigotry. I have no obligation to answer your words. In fact, in a context such as this, I would be justified in asking you to leave the workshop.
Now, with this understood, I will explain why trans people are under no moral obligation to reveal their trans status to partners. I will explain it once, and I won’t engage in any form of debate about it.
Of course, some trans people can’t hide their trans status while in bed with a partner. We are not talking about them.
And usually, there is a matter of safety – it’s possible that a partner will physically attack a trans person if he or she ever learns that they are trans. Because of this, and because of the discomfort and difficulty in trying to hide something from others, I suspect I will never have sex with a partner without telling him or her I’m trans.
But these are not moral issues. They are practical ones.
As for morality – things are very simple. Many trans women in particular are able to pass so well as women that their partners would never find out just from looking at their bodies. These women do not hurt their partners in any way; their bodies are just what their partners want, and they are the same as non-trans women in every way.
So there is no reason that their trans status should be a problem to their partner. None. Therefore, being a piece of irrelevant information, they have no moral obligation to reveal it, just as you would have no moral obligation to reveal that you had surgery to remove a cist a while back.
The only reason that their partner could have a problem with their transgender status is because of bigotry. Because bigotry is not a valid reason to need to know something, the trans person has no moral obligation to reveal it. No moral obligation, though perhaps yes she might be obliged by safety concerns to mention it.
So, that is that. Anyone who has a problem with what I am saying is welcome to leave the room right now.
Now I want to make one other example.
Who here believes that gender is entirely socially constructed?
Interesting. Before you wonder, no, I’m not going to say you are bigoted. (Yet).
Now, let me explain why I think you are wrong, or at least, only partially right.
I believe that gender is partly socially constructed, and partly originates from other sources. To be exact, I think gender exists on a continuum, with much variation; and on average men tend to be masculine and women tend to be feminine. What is “constructed” about gender is that the masculinity of males and the femininity of women tends to be exaggerated by social forces, and variance from the more common gender expressions tends to be suppressed.
For example, when I began taking female hormones I very quickly lost a large amount of my sex drive, and started crying more often.
Pretty much all other trans women who take hormones report the same thing, and pretty much all trans men who take hormones report the inverse.
This is undeniable. Anyone who tries to deny this is closing their eyes to reality.
So there is a biological influence on traits which we consider “masculine” or “feminine”.
Besides this, another telling point is that trans people exist. Society was continually trying to “construct” us in the mould of our birth gender. Despite these incredibly strong forces, we eventually realised our true gender and began to live it.
We are not acting out our gender. For example, all my life, I had to fight against my body making feminine gestures, seemingly of its own accord. I had to learn to hold my body rigid and my face like stone so that (most of the time) people wouldn’t mock me for my femininity.
In the same way, when I get on the dance floor, I dance in an extremely feminine way. I don’t try to, it just happens. Actually, what would take effort would be to dance like a man. I spent most of my life “constructing” myself as male in this way, forcing myself to be something I was not. Under that, I was female, and that required no “construction”. It only needed to be set free.
Finally, I’ll mention my reaction when I first put on a pair of women’s underwear.
It was actually the very first step in my path of self-discovery. Because when I put them on, my face started glowing. Absolutely glowing. My girlfriend of the time took a picture, and I saw it myself.
It was a complete anomaly because at the time I had no idea that I was trans. I had no reason to particularly enjoy wearing women’s underwear. And before you assume, no, it wasn’t a sexual enjoyment. It was a glowing, radiant happiness, a sense of joy and self acceptance, like I had come back to my true self.
So. Like most trans people, I spent most of my life continuously fighting the impulses of my true gender. It was only by going against society, by becoming a rebel in the truest sense, that I could finally be myself, be who I am, and incidentally, be a woman.
Many times before I transitioned my womanhood shone through without me wanting it to or without me even realising that it was my womanhood. Neither subconsciously nor consciously was I “trying” to be a woman or constructing my gender. In fact, subconsciously and consciously I was trying as hard as I could to be a man, and failing.
So, who now still thinks that gender is entirely constructed?
Trans people exist as clear evidence that gender is not entirely socially constructed. I believe that if anyone still holds onto that belief despite hearing our experiences is ignoring us, invalidating us, silencing us. This is bigotry.
So I’ve spent the first half of this talk convincing you that you are all bigots. I bet you are very grateful to me.
Now I want to explain how you can be a little more decent towards trans people, by understanding them, respecting them, and taking their needs into account.
I take a lot of the inspiration for this talk from Julia Serano’s book Whipping Girl. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it; it is a classic not just of queer and trans literature but of feminist literature too, and of social justice literature in general.
Julia Serano believes that for trans people to truly be treated properly, non-trans people (who we call cis) must understand that they, too, have an internal gender.
As you might know, trans people are those who have an internal gender which is in conflict with their external gender. When they realise this, they usually transition to correct this conflict, making their bodies match who they are inside.
Many cis people don’t understand this. They think trans people transition to attract straight people (even though only about a third of all trans people are exclusively interested in the opposite sex – i.e. men for trans women or women for trans men) or to attain some other benefit of their target sex. Worse, cis people usually assume on some level that – for example – trans men are really women, or trans women are really men.
This causes so much pain and problems for us. Our true self is invisible to most people, ignored, erased. Or if we pass as our target sex, we know that if we come out to someone we will immediately start being treated differently. It’s dehumanising.
So cis people must understand that trans people have an internal gender, and that this gender is the more real of the two genders. After all, it is what we are inside that defines us, not who we are outside. (Or who we were outside). If you are a Christian or a Jew, people don’t require you to be circumcised to have that identity. If you were raised in an Asian country by Asian parents but are Caucasian, people don’t (or shouldn’t) require you to have a Asian body in order to identify with the local Asian culture.
Being trans is a bit more than just an identity, so these things are not perfect examples. But I hope I’ve made it clear that the inside is more important than the outside in defining who we are.
What stops cis people realising that trans genders are just as real as cis genders, is the fact that cis people usually don’t realise they have an internal gender at all.
This is understandable, as it often takes years for a trans person to be sure about their own gender, and that only becomes noticeable because of the conflict between mind and body. Cis people have no conflict, so it’s easy for them not to notice their own inner gender.
I’m going to steal something from Julia Serano’s book. In her talks, she asks her audience, “If I offered you 10 million dollars on the condition that you live as the opposite sex for the rest of your life, would you take me up on the offer?”
So I’m going to ask that to you now. If I offered you 10 million dollars on the condition that you live as the opposite sex for the rest of your life, would you take me up on the offer?
(Discussion about this)
I think most or many of us realise that living as the opposite gender would be just “wrong” somehow. Some people might not have felt their gender so clearly, and thought the money was worth it. Maybe one or two of you might have been a little too eager to take the money – if so perhaps we should have a talk after the workshop!
But it’s interesting, right, how so many of us realise there would be something weird or wrong about living in the wrong gender.
I’ll give you another example. It’s actually something I found by accident when watching an interview with the actors from the movie “Cloud Atlas”.
In this movie, many actors play several different people over the course of the plot, sometimes switching race or gender. This is interesting enough, but what stood out for me was Susan Sarandon’s experience, which I’m going to read aloud from a transcript:
“I loved being the man, because when I looked in the mirror I couldn’t even see myself, which was really the first time that’s ever happened, despite all the various things I’ve done to myself on film, I’ve never looked in the mirror and actually thought ‘..Is that Chris Walkin’s cousin or something? .. Who is this person, what’s going on here?’ And that was just a startling experience, you know, to not recognise yourself at all.”
What shocked and excited me was that these few sentences, these few innocent sentences were the best description of the subtle experience of gender dysphoria that I’ve ever heard from a cis person!
She probably didn’t realise it at all. But I, as a transgender person, experience that exact same “startling experience”, that experience of “not recognising myself at all”, every time I step in front of the mirror, at least when I haven’t shaved and covered my beard shadow with makeup.
In other words, cis people can feel gender dysphoria!
So understand that you have an internal gender. Understand that this defines who you are much more than your external gender does.
And respect that about trans people. Respect that their internal gender is their real one. Respect the suffering they go through because of the conflict between inner and outer.
Don’t ask trans people about their old name. Don’t ask them for “before” and “after” photos. Respect that they want to be seen as who they are now, if they have transitioned, and that referring to their past can be painful and jarring.
Don’t obsess about aspects of their transition. Don’t ask them too-personal questions about the status of their genitals. This is dwelling on or attempting to emphasise the artificiality of trans genders, which is bigotry. Instead, just respect that their gender is as authentic, natural and real as yours.