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LGBTQ+

Beware instant experts

Every now and again, someone on the internet will read a few articles about something, decide they’re an expert on the subject and start arguing with others. At its most entertaining, they pick fights with actual experts without realising who they’re talking to and get their arse handed to them on a plate.

Sadly it’s not always funny. This is where the anti-vaccination, anti-mask and anti-5G conspiracy theories come from: they’re spread by people who believe that they have stumbled upon a Great Truth, a truth that of course They Don’t Want You To Know, and they surround themselves with people who celebrate rather than challenge their ignorance.

The phenomenon isn’t limited to people with Twitter handles like BigDave23632111. It affects celebrities, journalists and other public figures too: there are few people more zealous, and in some cases dangerous, than the person with an audience who has become an instant expert with Things To Say.

All too often, what they want to say is the same old shit.

It happens so frequently with trans-related subjects that  Julia Serano, biologist and writer, wrote an article to save her having to plough through the same long-debunked bullshit again and again. She wrote it four years ago and it’s just as relevant now. 

This is not an abstract debate.

Other people’s vocal ignorance about trans people has a direct effect on trans people’s lives. For example, Janice Raymond, an ex-nun who argued that trans people should be “morally mandated out of existence” in the 1970s (a belief that’s sadly still common in so-called gender critical circles), was partly responsible for the removal of healthcare from trans people in the US.

Much of the current wave of anti-trans activism is focused on restricting the healthcare and basic human rights of trans people, and some of it threatens violence against us. Just this morning I watched a video of a US demonstration, ostensibly about supporting the police, where the protesters switched chants from “all lives matter” to “kill transgenders”, a frightening echo of what’s commonplace in Eastern Europe and Russia.

Here in the UK, it’s the fifth anniversary of the UK government’s Transgender Equality Inquiry. In those five years, the “debate” about trans people – a debate almost entirely conducted by cisgender people talking to other cisgender people about trans people – has ensured that not one of its recommendations has been implemented. Meanwhile the crisis in trans healthcare continues to worsen and hate crimes against trans people have increased considerably.

Serano:

as transgender people have become more visible and have garnered increasing media scrutiny, trans-unaware politicians, pundits, and journalists have suddenly swooped in to weigh in on these important issues — issues that (conveniently) they themselves are not personally invested in. Some of these people have very clear anti-trans agendas. Others are (perhaps well-meaning) interlopers who believe that by simply reading a few research papers and interviewing a few people here and there, they can acquire an “objective understanding” about this complex subject that spans a half-century of history. And sadly, they often center their op-eds and think-pieces on an especially vulnerable segment of our community: transgender children.

As Serano points out, there is a common thread to much of this: the idea that somehow cisgender people can be “transed”: that is, turned transsexual, as if being transsexual is something we do for shits and giggles or decide on a whim.

The decision to transition does not happen in a vacuum. It occurs in the presence of systemic societal transphobia. Every transgender person is highly aware of how pervasive this double standard is (as we face it every day). And every transsexual who transitions does so in spite of systemic transphobia. This is a testament to how intense gender dysphoria can be, or (to put it in less pathologizing language) how deeply rooted our gender identities are: We’d rather live with the stigma of transphobia than be forced to live in our birth-assigned gender.

As Serano writes, there’s also a (sometimes deliberate) confusion between being transsexual and being transgender.

Transgender is a big tent. It includes non-binary people, gender non-conforming people and transsexual people. The transsexual people are the ones who may undergo some form of social and/or medical transition. But often, articles and discussions about transgender people assume that all of them will undergo hormone treatment and gender reassignment surgery. That simply isn’t true.

Much of the “debate” around trans people is based on ignorance and on bad faith. As Serano describes it, articles and discussions usually fall into one of two categories: the trans-antagonistic position, which comes from a belief that trans people are “delusional, wayward and/or misled”, and the trans-suspicious position, which mistakes the increased visibility of trans people for a “trend” where people who aren’t really trans pretend to be.

There’s no point in spending any time on the first position, because it’s simple bigotry. But the second is more insidious, because on the face of it it sounds reasonable: you don’t hate trans people; you just have reasonable concerns.

Serano:

the argument that some people are easily swayed or misled into transitioning can only be made if one intentionally denies, discounts, or downplays the existence of societal transphobia, gender dysphoria, and the legitimacy of trans people’s gender identities. In other words, this line of reasoning is condescending and steeped in transphobia.

The notion that some people who transition are not “really trans” presumes that cisgender and transgender are immutable, essentialist categories — this is absolutely not the case… Even if transitioning doesn’t pan out for these individuals for some reason, it does not mean that they were “really cisgender” all along; it simply means that transitioning was not the right path for them personally.

…If the trans-suspicious position were true (i.e., that cis people are needlessly being pushed toward trans identities and transitioning), then the clear implication of these op-eds and think-pieces is that access to gender transition (and possibly even the acceptance of, or information about, transgender identities) should be restricted to some degree.

…these op-eds and think-pieces are invariably written by cisgender authors who (as outsiders to all this) look upon this situation and reflexively come to the conclusion: “Oh no, some cisgender people are choosing or being misled into a transgender lifestyle!” But I would as ask: Why is this even a problem? I mean, so long as these supposed “cisgender-people-turned-transgender” are happy with their life choices and their post-transition lives, why should anyone even care? Frankly, I believe that this concern stems directly from the transphobic assumption that cisgender bodies are valid and valuable, whereas trans people’s are invalid and defective. It is this assumption that leads these authors to view these supposed “cisgender-people-turned-transgender” as an inherently undesirable outcome, even if these individuals wind up being happy in the end. After all, they have taken their precious and perfect cisgender bodies, and transformed them into defective transsexual ones. This helps to explain why the implicit premise of these pieces (i.e., that gender transition should be restricted in order to protect cis people) resonates with so many readers: Denying trans people access to healthcare and living happy lives seems like a small price to pay if it saves even a few cisgender people from making such a horrible mistake with their bodies.

As Serano writes, there is no evidence that cisgender people are being “turned trans”: the fact that a few people who transition decide it isn’t the right thing for them (whether that’s temporarily or permanently) does not change the fact that for the overwhelming majority of trans people who transition, transition is a positive and sometimes life-saving process with an incredibly low regret rate.

The dynamic here is quite similar to the “ex-gay” phenomenon. Conservative forces who insist that homosexuality is a “treatable disease” or merely an “alternative lifestyle” love to tout the existence of “ex-gays”

The article goes into a lot of detail about the various questions asked about trans people and trans children in particular. The highlight in the quoted text is from the original article: it’s a section that’s been highlighted by other readers.

The theme of [many] pieces is that something must be done to stop these cisgender-kids-being-turned-transgender, and the implicit solution is to curtail/limit/end childhood gender transition. Yet, in these pieces there is absolutely no consideration of how this might impact trans children who might benefit from gender transition. In fact, such oversights can lead to obvious hypocrisy. For example, authors often raise fears that some children (i.e., ones who are “really cisgender” in their minds) may be pushed into the “wrong” puberty, and thus may have to undergo expensive medical procedures to correct those bodily changes. But this precisely describes what a trans child would face if they were not allowed to transition until adulthood. If the former example concerns you, but the latter one doesn’t, then that’s a clear sign that you value cis bodies and lives over trans ones.

In her conclusion, Serano writes:

…what is really driving this debate is a difference of opinion with regards to what constitutes a “good outcome.” Trans activists and advocates like myself generally think that a good outcome is a happy child, regardless of whether they transition or not, or whether they grow up to be transsexual, non-binary, gender non-conforming, lesbian, gay, bisexual, etcetera. Trans-antagonistic and trans-suspicious people (who constantly cite “80% desistance”) seem to think that a good outcome is a cisgender child, and they seem to be willing to make transphobic arguments and subject transgender and gender non-conforming children to clinically ordained transphobia (i.e., gender-reparative therapies) in order to achieve that end goal.

There’s no doubt that life is harder for trans people than it is for cisgender people; anyone who believes otherwise is coming from a position of ignorance or dogma. But there’s no inherent reason why it should be. To be blunt, the problem isn’t us. It’s you.

Being a transgender person is not especially difficult in and of itself. But the one thing that does make transgender and gender non-conforming lives difficult and harrowing is transphobia.

The sad truth is that the people who are most vocal about trans people have nothing to say about, and no interest in, the health, happiness or safety of trans people. To them, trans lives are simply less valuable than cisgender ones.