What Does It Mean To Be Transphobic, Anyway?

Words like "ally" and "transphobic" have simple meanings that dissolve under scrutiny.

“Is it transphobic to …”

Let me stop you right there. If you’re asking the question, we’ve already gone awry. It makes me shudder the same way I do when I’m asked, “How can I be a better ally?”

Now, on the face of it, these are polite questions to ask, right? There’s a safe assumption that they’re asked out of concern, motivated by care and a desire to do the right thing. That someone is even concerned about being transphobic, or an ally, is a good thing. Right?

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The problem is that I genuinely have no idea what either “transphobic” or “ally” mean. Obviously I know the literal meaning, but it’s a rhetorical move that, when unpacked, leaves the circumstances it’s purportedly about unchanged.

Let’s start with “ally.” The intention is to signal support, i.e., “I’m not trans (or queer, or black, etc.), but I support you.” Lovely, but do you really? And even if you do, what makes that an identity rather than an act?

Why does acting like a decent human being require a label anyways?

If someone tells me they’re a trans ally, I don’t think “Oh, this person calls their elected representatives to oppose hostile legislation.” I don’t assume they ask their employer for trans-inclusive health care, that they stand up to bullies, give money to trans organizations, or hire and mentor trans people.

No, I think “This person has a lot of anxiety around their privilege and really wants me to think they’re a good person.”

nervous scared sleep illustration

Thing is, if they’re that concerned, they probably are a good person. But I don’t need that to be made my issue. I’d rather they be a good person, do the right thing. Now, if they have a sincere question about what the right thing is, great.

“If we want to support trans students, should our college make all restrooms gender-neutral?”

“Would legalization or decriminalization better help trans sex workers?”

“What’s a good trans organization to donate to?”

These are the kind of questions that tell me a person cares—not about being seen as a good person, but having an informed and positive impact. (By the way: No; decriminalization; and the Trans Justice Funding Project.)

The inverse of this anxiety around being affirmed as an ally is the fear of being perceived as an enemy, i.e. a transphobe.

Like “ally,” the word “transphobic” has a simple meaning that dissolves under scrutiny: Ostensibly it indicates that a person is in some way against trans… stuff. It’s mostly personal and subjective and circumstantial. Nine times out of ten when I hear “transphobic,” it means some trans person has had their feelings hurt.

That’s not to diminish having feelings hurt: If my family, friends, or colleagues did something that hurt my feelings as a trans person, they’d want to know.

I’m friends with Brittany Ashley, a talented, funny, and kind lesbian creator/comedian. She had a popular series on BuzzFeed called “Lesbian Princess”. In one sketch, Brittany tells a frog-turned-prince courting her that she’s looking for someone with less… of a penis. It’s a really funny video, but that one moment is a dissonant note for me. It excludes me as one of her possible maidens.

It’d be easy to label the bit as “transphobic”—I wouldn’t be surprised if some trans viewer then wrote her off as a transphobe. So the next time I saw Brittany, I told her how I felt. She was mortified. It simply hadn’t occurred to her. We talked about how the same joke could have been made in a different way. Not because she doesn’t want to be “transphobic”, but because she’s a smart comic and caring friend who doesn’t want to other me the way so much straight material others her. She knows I have her back, and she wants to have mine.

Okay, but what about a law like HB2?

Lee Churchill shows her support of HB2 during a rally on Halifax Mall behind the North Carolina General Assembly building in Raleigh, N.C., on Monday, April 25, 2016. (Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS via Getty Images)
Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS via Getty Images

I’d say HB2 is unnecessary, unenforceable, dangerous, unconstitutional, and ridiculously costly to North Carolina. Those are all arguments for repeal. I might go further and say it’s intended to legislate trans people out of existence and motivated by, at best, ignorance, and at worst, overt bigotry. That’s an explanation. Arguments and explanations have power. Calling it “transphobic” furthers a conversation no more than calling it “bad.”

I encounter these issues most often on college campuses and on social media, particularly Tumblr. That is, it’s mostly young people who are concerned about being an ally and not being transphobic. That’s a very good thing—it gives me hope for the future. But y’all have my permission to relax a little. Worry less about descriptions and more about actions.

And, as far as the question, “Is it transphobic to not date anyone with a penis?” Maybe, maybe not. But asking the question sure sounds like a dick move.

Jen Richards is a Los Angeles-based writer, actor and producer.
@smartassjen