Friday, June 19, 2009

A Little Debate Over Ignorance and Transphobia

I came across this interesting debate at the Questioning Transphobia (motto: "My gender is rage") blog this week. The issue in this case is transphobia, but the same arguments apply as easily to homophobia or racism. The question has to do with ignorance versus outright prejudice. I have tended to distinguish between people who just don't know anything about something, for instance transgender people, and people who know something and actively promote an agenda of discrimination. I tend to call one "ignorance" and the other "hatred." There is a little more to it than that, though.

It started with a post on another blog called sexgenderbody (motto: "There is no 'should'"):
Most people in our culture view transsexual and other gender expressions as "freaks", "weird", "ill", whathaveyou. Television has far too frequently portrayed us as such, and let's face it--some of us have not been Our Own Best Representatives. And how many people that do not participate in Queer Community can actually say, "I have a friend who is trans"?

So how are they to understand? How easy is it to assume that the Television is true? How easy to be misinformed? Though biologists have known for years it's not true, we still teach kids that penis = male and vulva = female. If my position is unclear, let me say directly:


It's a pretty readable and interesting monologue. Skipping down, the writer, LanceWorth, says:
The assumption that despite my statements, I am female because that's what they always thought; and that therefore, I should feel the same toward my body as they do about theirs. Consider the ratio of folks whose sex and gender do/not match and it's a reasonable assumption, just incorrect.

It's possible that as we get to know each other (provided I manage not to act like some self-entitled, whiny moron), her discomfort may cease. It may not, but it's certainly not worth fighting over.

Lanceworth's point is that a lot of people haven't really thought about gender and what it would be like for somebody to have a different experience from themselves, and it's not really worth it to get upset with them. They just don't know better.

At Questioning Transphobia, queenemily responds this way (note: I am leaving in some language that I would not allow myself to use in a post and would most likely delete if a commenter used it):
Seriously? I understand the distinction being made there between outright wishing us violence and ignorance, but it’s not one that’s ultimately sustainable. Why? Violence against trans bodies is maintained by ignorance.

Ignorance is what fuels the vast majority of transphobia, not necessarily outright hatred. It’s what makes it hard for us to get work, what leaves us with few options to get by. Combined with fear, it fuels the bathroom panic.

Ignorance is what makes it hard to get decent medical care. When a doctor doesn’t know how to treat you, I’m sorry that’s a fucking problem. When a housing shelter doesn’t have a policy for people like you so you “just happen” to get put into your assigned sex to be put at risk of violence and rape, that’s a problem. Indeed, it’s not overstating the case to say that ignorance directly contributes to our deaths.

Ignorance is what tires us out, what saps our energy by making us answer the same question with every new person, every new institution. What makes us fight the same battles, over and over so we don’t have the energy to take care of ourselves.

The one thing ignorance is not is innocent, it is about having the power not to know and not to care.. and we simply can’t afford to be naive enough to think otherwise. Actually, ignorance *is* transphobia

I think the resolution comes by considering that there are two aspects to ignorance. First of all, ignorance is just a lack of knowledge. Any of us could make a bad decision or express something really stupid about a topic we don't know anything about, and you can't blame somebody for that. In particular, very few people have given much thought to gender identity as a subject, or have learned anything about it. There are not very many transgender people, and as LanceWorth noted, most people do not have a transgender friend. You have to forgive people for not knowing what it's like for someone to have a gender identity that's different from their own.

On the other hand, there is an attitude we call "an open mind," where we accept that there are things we don't know about and assume the best about them. The problem occurs when someone hears about something they have not thought about, for instance they hear about someone transitioning from one sex to the other, and assume that that person has bad reasons for doing so. It's as simple as that. If somebody does something I would never dream of doing, I can either think there is something evil or something wrong with them, or I can think there are valid things that people do that I don't understand.

You can't blame people for not knowing about something that they might never have encountered. You can blame them for judging without understanding.


Anonymous svelte_brunette said...

Jim noted:

“The issue in this case is transphobia, but the same arguments apply as easily to homophobia or racism. The question has to do with ignorance versus outright prejudice. I have tended to distinguish between people who just don't know anything about something, for instance transgender people, and people who know something and actively promote an agenda of discrimination. I tend to call one "ignorance" and the other "hatred." There is a little more to it than that, though.”

Indeed Jim, there is a LOT more to it than that. As you noted, ignorance and prejudice are entirely different concepts, however they are often intertwined, and at times it can be hard to distinguish between the two.

Ignorance is like tofu – it takes on the flavor of whatever it’s cooked with. Ignorance by itself is pretty bland and innocuous. Left on its own, it just sits there not doing much. It is easily digested with a little food for thought – i.e. some education.

The problem comes with what ignorance gets “cooked” with. If a child is raised in a village steeped with xenophobia, it should come as no surprise that if a stranger should walk into that village, he will be met with animosity, angst, fear, and possibly even violence. In some cases, this response has been helpful – tribes in Brazil and Peru have maintained their autonomy for centuries by actively repelling outside influences ( )

One has to wonder if the people we now refer to as “Native Americans” had been a bit more xenophobic when Columbus and the Pilgrims landed, if their wouldn’t be a lot more of them alive today. Of course is was the white man’s ignorance of native culture that, once stewed with technological superiority as well as a sense of “moral” superiority created a noxious recipe that ultimately led to the genocide of millions of Native Americans over several centuries. (“They’re savages! They don’t even believe in God!)

The America we live in today has a wonderful variety of flavors from all over the world. Unfortunately there are parts where machoism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and often religion mix in an unsavory fashion. We are so steeped in a stew that “naturally” assumes that all boys should grow up being the epitome of manhood characterized by John Wayne, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Clint Eastwood, that if one shows any signs of straying from this path, he will be ostracized by his peers, called a “fag,” “sissy,” and “weak.” We “naturally” assume this will make the boy grow up stronger – make him “grow up to be a man.”

We have grown up in this “macho stew” for decades (centuries?) – it’s how we were raised and how many of us view the world. It surrounds us like the air, so ubiquitous we often don’t even notice it’s there.

Many young boys will handle the “sissy” epithets just fine, if the moniker isn’t applied too often – or they’ll just beat up the kid that called him that. Most of them will conform to the pressures of the socially enforced gender binary.

(continued in next post)

June 20, 2009 1:21 PM  
Anonymous svelte_brunette said...

What most of us don’t stop to think is that there are plenty of children who don’t fall neatly into the “macho” or “feminine” category they are supposed to. For these kids the treatment they receive on the playground, in the classroom, from their parents and society at large amounts to a psychological stoning – small rocks thrown at them from all different directions. No single stone is enough to kill them, and if they can manage to run or hide, they may get away with just bruises; perhaps a few scars.

For those that can’t escape though, the stones keep coming, bruising yet another part of the psyche on a daily basis. If someone is being tortured badly enough, there comes a time when they can’t take it anymore – and he decides it would be better to be dead. This is what happened to 11-year old Carl Hoover – no longer being able to handle the brutal name-calling, he hung himself: “There was no reason for the mother to believe he was gay,"… "It just happens he was someone his peers targeted, calling him, 'girlie,' 'gay' and 'fag.' According to the mother, it was a daily occurrence.”

( )

Meanwhile, the people who threw stones at Carl go about their daily lives as if nothing happened… after all, the little stones that THEY threw didn’t actually kill him.

Meanwhile, other cooks throw their spices into the mix. Recently it was a couple of talk show hosts from KRXQ radio that threw their ignorance tofu into the stew. They went on a half-hour rant about transgender children and how they should be “cured” by throwing shoes at them. You can listen to their verbal diarrhea here; it starts about 5 minutes into the program:

or here:

The two male hosts (Arnie and Rob) manage to throw in a “fact” every minute or so which is actually, factually wrong. They don’t necessarily “sound” wrong if you’ve never stopped to notice the macho-centric culture we live in, and I’m sure to many people the unexamined dogma they spew out seems only “natural.” Dawn, the only female on the crew has actually done some homework and found some accurate information; unfortunately she is overwhelmed by the belittling commentary from Arnie and Rob and is unable to defend herself.
Fortunately Kim Pearson, the mother of a young trans man got wind of the program and was later interviewed on the same radio show. She and a few other people managed to have some good educational discussions with Arnie and Rob. It’s amazing the changes in attitude that can occur when you take the time to digest a few facts.

You can hear Rob, Arnie, and Dawn’s discussion with Kim, Autumn Sandeen and other folks at the radio’s web site here:

The 2.5 hour show is split up into 15 minute segments, just start at the top of the page and work your way down. Even if you can’t find time to listen to the whole show, it’s certainly worth listening to at least the first 2 segments.

Ignorance, like tofu, can be changed when mixed with the right ingredients. Education can go a long way to mitigate fear and ignorance. Ignorance when mixed with prejudice however, is a noxious and potentially deadly combination.



June 20, 2009 1:22 PM  
Blogger JimK said...

Cynthia, In writing this post I was tempted to use this debate as a platform for criticizing the media, but the fact is the media just give the people whatever will sell advertising. If stereotypes are titillating or cognitively easily to process, then that's what the media will serve up, they really don't have any formal responsibility to educate people. It will be important for articulate people like you to speak up and make the public understand that the stereotypes are inaccurate, which will in turn embarrass the media into providing more factual representations.


June 20, 2009 4:56 PM  
Blogger Lisa Harney said...

What is wrong with the language used in the post?

The points Emily makes in her post is that ignorance places a huge burden on trans people to justify ourselves to cis people, that ignorance feeds transphobia and transphobia is used to maintain ignorance. Why, for example, do you think that trans people are largely invisible in the media? And that the vast majority of portrayals are negative or fit into a narrow range of stereotypes?

The problem for trans people is when faced with ignorance (and that ignorance frequently comes laced with offensive assumptions and outright attacks, no matter what the ignorant cis person intends). At what point is it our responsibility to filter people by their intentions when simply being around them is stressful, frustrating, and often personally harmful?

I don't care what people believe deep in their hearts about themselves or what they're saying, if they start talking about me as if my reasons for transitioning are bad, I'm not going to give them a moment of my time unless it's a situation where I've agreed to do education. Why should I be obligated to deal with that person?

June 21, 2009 7:43 PM  
Blogger Lisa Harney said...

Or more to the point, if someone starts insulting you to your face, do you really care if he's doing it from ignorance or malice, or do you care that he's insulting you to your face and such people are unpleasant to deal with?

Also, I suggest watching this video. It's about dealing with people who say something racist, but it's applicable for dealing with people who say other kinds of oppressive things (like transphobic things).

June 21, 2009 7:47 PM  
Blogger JimK said...


I can't tell if you are disagreeing with me about something, I think I agree with everything you said. Remember that I said, "The problem occurs when someone hears about something they have not thought about, for instance they hear about someone transitioning from one sex to the other, and assume that that person has bad reasons for doing so." My point was that ignorance as lack-of-knowledge is not the real culprit, but something I sophomorically called "closed mindedness."

A naive individual may not know how to interact with a transgender person, and their awkwardness may be perceived as rudeness or worse. I'm sure it gets tiresome having to explain yourself all the time, but I don't see any way around it in a world where a large majority of people feel comfortably consistent with their physical sex and subjective gender. I have really appreciated the openness and lucidity of the transgender friends I have met through TTF, and their patience in explaining their views and feelings, and I think comments on this blog such as yours here have been an education for a lot of cisfolk. I understand if you don't feel like it should be your responsibility to educate people, but somebody's got to do it if things are going to get better and I really appreciate those brave souls who contribute their thoughts to the community here for discussion.


June 21, 2009 11:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what's "cis"?

June 22, 2009 12:06 AM  
Blogger JimK said...

The Latin-derived prefix cis means "on the same side." In discussions of gender it is used to describe people whose experienced gender is the same as the sex they were assigned at birth, as compared to transgender where they are different. Sorry to use an esoteric term, but it is a useful one.



June 22, 2009 12:15 AM  
Blogger Lisa Harney said...


Okay, but I do a lot of educating - I have a blog dedicated to it (Emily's one of my co-bloggers). If I'm face-to-face with someone I don't have any investment in, and they say something ignorant, I am likely to blow them off because at that point in time, I cannot adequately judge whether they're just ignorant or hostile as well, and that kind of exchange is exhausting.

If it is someone I have some investment in, I might take some effort. But my experience is that many cis people, whether they're just ignorant or not, tend to start digging their heels in when you tell them they don't know what they're talking about with regards to trans people. There's a kind of assumption that 'cis' is the right and natural way to be, and being cis gives one enough information to make judgements about trans people. Not all do this (I know many many cis people who do not), but even when hostility's not a factor, defensiveness often is.

So if I want to give someone a teaching moment, I have to assess whether the situation looks like it'll get anywhere - is the person talking to me invested in my well-being? In any other trans person's? Likely to do something harmful? Would it be safer to just correct this person and move on?

It's not clear cut as it might look because for cis people, the opportunity to educate other cis people about trans issues isn't the same as it is for trans people.

Cis people who step up and educate other cis people aren't likely to be discredited for being trans in the first place, which is a major hurdle. Cis people do not have to fight through the negative assumptions about trans people being applied to them in order to make a basic point in the first place.

For trans people, every encounter with a cis person has the potential to go bad - someone asks an insensitive, invasive question, or makes an insensitive, invasive, statement. For me, it's not something I can just put away and pretend it doesn't exist.

So I write my blog and I take the initiative in picking how and when I engage with ignorance elsewhere.

June 22, 2009 1:07 AM  
Blogger JimK said...

Lisa, that sounds like the best attitude you can take if you intend to keep your soul intact. I have your blog (Questioning Transphobia)in my RSS aggregator and check it whenever there is something new, it's a site that often inspires insight. Please feel free to jump in here whenever you feel like saying something.


June 22, 2009 7:12 AM  
Anonymous Robert said...


I agree with your thoughts on education. The school day is filled with teachable moments, but sometimes one just doesn't have the time, or the relationship with the student, or the energy, or the sense of safety, to teach in each of those momenents.

I agree wholeheartedly that non-lgbt people (allies) must take on that educational burden if there is to be change in hearts and minds, especially of students. That's why I think all school systems should have mandatory training for staff on lgbt concerns. Do you know of any system around here that does? Does MoCo? DC's trainings are voluntary. Arlington trains only counselors. Prince William has had some voluntary workshops for a few guidance advisors. FFX does little that I know of.

June 23, 2009 7:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The school day is filled with teachable moments... there is to be change in hearts and minds, especially of students."

This is why gays are trying to infiltrate the teaching profession.

They want kids who are forced to go to school and sit in their classes to have to listen to their propaganda.

Focus on adults, you bilge-rats.

June 23, 2009 8:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you don't like the secular and scientific lessons taught in public schools but prefer your kids receive instruction in particular religious views, you are free to enroll them in the parochial school of your choosing.

June 23, 2009 8:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If you don't like the secular and scientific lessons taught in public schools but prefer your kids receive instruction in particular religious views"

homosexual propaganda isn't scientific

the idea that it is, is propaganda

gays target kids because they are a captive audience as opposed to adults who can just walk away

June 23, 2009 9:52 AM  
Anonymous Robert said...

Honey, walk away, please! Leave the computer, go outside, get some sun, turn your back on the homosexual propaganda. Walk away, walk away, walk away!

June 23, 2009 2:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it is a nice day for the pool, isn't it, Robo?

think I'll make like the James Gang and walk away

June 23, 2009 4:26 PM  

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