Dear cis people: what we need are comrades, not allies

Despite the fact that over 78 per cent of Australians (or 93 per cent who actually know a trans person) already agree that trans people deserve the same rights as cis (or non-trans) people and equal protection under Australian law, trans issues have become increasingly prevalent in local politics in the lead up to the 2022 federal election.

What’s interesting about these arguments is their confusion. Even our most consistently transphobic parties, like the Liberal Party, who have been trying to undermine protections for the LGBTIQA+ community by allowing religious institutions to exclude them via ‘Statements of Belief’ circumventing our anti-discrimination laws, have produced official statements criticising MPs for transphobia. While parties you would expect to be more supportive of trans people, such as Labor or the Greens, have each had their own independent scandals over comments made by (Greens councilor) Rohan Leppert and (Labor leader) Anthony Albanese.

At the time of writing, no significant institutional consequences have befallen any of these politicians for their positions, which represent an existential threat especially to trans women (or people who are perceived to be trans women). Not that they would agree that they’re being transphobic. The excuse they’ll usually provide relies upon the cultural construction of ‘sex-based rights’ for women, which ‘some trans rights’ are supposedly in conflict with. To cis people, these arguments may look reasonable on the surface: ‘male’ and ‘female’ culturally imply specific reproductive roles, and vulnerabilities (or strengths) that come from their material (or biological) realities.

The problem starts the second that we put these beliefs into practice, however, and we come to realise that not everybody with a working womb or uterus is actually a woman.  If we decide that they are, we are automatically being transphobic towards trans masculine people, as well as automatically implying that women who have been through menopause (or are otherwise infertile) will no longer count as women.

Complicating matters further, new research has shown there’s nothing stopping us from implanting a working womb or uterus into a trans woman, who could literally have a baby with herself via a combination of her own (pre-HRT) sperm and an organ from a donor. Meaning that some trans women could fit into that hypothetical construction too.

But we don’t need to get into biology to see the ‘sex-based rights’ arguments for what they really are: a heterosexist, bio-essentialist view of womanhood and femininity that ignores the lived reality of trans masculine and trans feminine people for ultimately anti-feminist purposes. All we have to do is look at what a woman really is.

A woman is a person who is publically perceived as one, provided she identifies as such. Or, as Simone de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex (1949): ‘No biological, physical, or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female takes on in society; it is civilization as a whole that elaborates this’. De Beauvoir based this construction on Sartre’s definition of the Other in Being and Nothingness (1943), where he wrote: ‘By the mere appearance of the Other, I am put in the position of passing judgement on myself as on an object, for it is an object that I appear to the Other.’

What this passage says is that our identities don’t come exclusively from anything inside ourselves: where they come from is the way that our identities are viewed by other people, and the way that we choose to interpret what they see. Despite the popular transphobic meme that cis people can ‘always tell’ if somebody is trans or not, the truth is, if they could, it wouldn’t need to be a meme in the first place. The false conception of ‘cis passing’ trans people as a ‘trap’ that transphobic cishet people can fall into would also be completely untenable.

Politicised transphobia also makes trans people more visible and more likely to experience abuse, by encouraging cis people to be hypervigilant in public spaces for the presence of ‘transgender-looking‘ bodies. This of course doesn’t mean the object of that scrutiny is even a transgender person, since the criteria transphobes use to determine what transgender-looking bodies are and why they constitute a threat is drawn directly from historical misogynistic, racist, and homophobic stereotypes, often lacking a discernable relationship with the real effects of sex hormones on human bodies. These stereotypes are ultimately intended to place members of those groups into a manufactured, patriarchal hierarchy: with rich, cishet white men at the top, and everybody else arranged beneath.

In a process I have previously dramatised in fiction, this leads directly to fascism. Considering the way our government is already treating both our poor and disabled citizens in the still on-going Covid-19 crisis, with policies which Labor can’t be trusted to reverse, the further narrowing of who counts as a person that these ‘sex-based rights’ are designed to facilitate represents an existential threat, not just to trans people or the wider LGBTIQA+ community, but the rights of most cis people too.

This is why ‘trans rights are human rights’ is more than just a slogan. It’s impossible to separate us from society without creating rules that exclude other types of people, too. It’s also impossible to respect us, to respect our self-knowledge and our agency, by refusing to accept that we all really are the genders that we say we are. The same respect that cis people are granted by default.

For my part, I don’t want to see more allyship from cis people. What I want to see is more comradeship, or understanding that we’re both facing an existential threat. I want my personhood to be a given, not a question for debate, and I want everyone to fight with me for that, to help us to ensure their personhood is recognized completely too. Trans rights aren’t a niche issue, or something that it’s okay to be ignorant about. Trans rights directly impact everyone.

We need to talk about trans sex and trans identities in schools. We need to not be punished for that demand with the warmed-up homophobic accusation that it means we’re predatory. We used to be trans kids, too. We need more trans voices in the media, and more trans characters in fiction. We need them played by trans actors, and written by trans people. We need to understand the unique benefits the trans experience can offer us on subjects that are unrelated to our genders or our bodies. We need cis people to make space for us.

We need to treat trans people as the people that they are, surrendering the false belief that women’s rights and feminism can exist without us. If we cannot do this, if we let our socially-derived ignorance and discomfort over trans bodies allow us to exclude trans people from society, or relegate them to a secondary place?

Fascism will rapidly follow.


Image: Ted Eytan, Wikimedia Commons

Maddison Stoff

Maddison Stoff is a writer, critic and independent musician from Melbourne, Australia. Follow her on Twitter: @thedescenters.

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  1. Very good article.
    And thank you for using this far better word ‘comrade’ than the reductive ‘ally’ which sounds to me like it was invented by some HR department.
    To me, it’s no surprise that the word ‘ally’ seems to have come out of the US, which has never has a good understanding of class and the politics of solidarity.

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