Transmisogyny: what it is and why we need to talk about it

In January 2020, a science fiction short story named ‘I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter’, written by trans woman Isabel Fall, was published in the renowned Clarkesworld Magazine. The story, which co-opts a transphobic meme into a speculative reality where warfare and gender identity are inextricably linked, received favourable reviews and was even nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novelette. It was a landmark moment in trans femme fiction—until it wasn’t. Isabel Fall was harassed to the point of asking her story to be pulled, detransitioning, and checking into a psych ward. The catch was that this time the harassment didn’t come from the likes of 4chan or Kiwi Farms. It came from within Fall’s own community.

Why would this community, increasingly vulnerable and under legislative attack, willingly go after one of its own milestones? The answer is complicated, but it comes down to one specific prejudice— transmisogyny. The queer writing community became ostensibly paranoid about the possibility of a fascist troll and came up with spurious reasons, including Fall’s supposedly ‘masculine’ writing style and her small online presence (typical for trans femmes who have recently come out), to discredit her authenticity and achievements. In reality, all of this eventuated from the general suspicion and resentment surrounding successful trans women.

Coined by Julia Serano in her book Whipping Girl, ‘transmisogyny’ describes how trans women experience a heightened and more aggressive version of misogyny. This leads to trans women facing extreme levels of sexualisation, much heavier policing of our femininity and presentation, and greater silencing of our voices. Transmisogyny, Serano says, exists because the existence of trans women is by far the biggest threat to the patriarchal gendered hierarchy—which suggests that masculinity is desirable and superior whilst femininity is inferior. The presence of people who were assigned male at birth and yet seemingly reject masculinity in favour of womanhood dispels this patriarchal myth.

The idea that masculinity is strong, tough and natural while femininity is weak, vulnerable and artificial continues to proliferate even among people who believe that women and men are equals. And in a world where femininity is so regularly dismissed, perhaps no form of gendered expression is considered more artificial and more suspect than male and transgender expressions of femininity.

Transmisogyny is also prevalent among so-called ‘feminists’ who fear the presence of what they perceive as ‘men’ in women’s spaces, claiming that it sexualises and mocks womanhood. These claims begin with an underlying misogynistic assumption that there is a ‘correct way’ to be a woman, which is dictated by the patriarchy, or that the only reason why anyone could value womanhood is in a sexual or derisive manner. It shouldn’t be surprising, with such clear misogyny at the core to this ideology, that its adherents are known for allying with known anti-feminist fascists and those responsible for the repeal of Roe v. Wade.

In addition, the suggestion that sexual predation is inherently masculine or, heaven forbid, an issue of penises, not only invalidates the experience of anyone who has been sexually assaulted by a cis woman, but also throws away decades of genuine feminist insight into why sexual assault occurs. Despite the insistence that trans women are a risk to women’s safety, there has no reported increase in sexual violence in countries where Self-ID has been standardised. This is of course, because sexual violence occurs not because masculinity exists, but due to a sense of entitlement and objectification, which is common amongst men who usually have more societal power than women, not exclusive to them. This argument is a very thin false-feminist glaze over the top of arrant transmisogyny.

One of the most direct examples of this happened recently here in Australia. Katherine Deves, the former Liberal candidate for Warringah, made headlines for her constant attacks on trans women, which directly suggested that trans women are sexually predatory and that trans children are ‘mutilated and sterilised’ (a reference to vaginoplasty, which is not performed on anyone under 18 in Australia). She also claimed to have been the target of death threats, which were later found to be completely manufactured to fuel the prejudice of trans women as aggressive and woman-hating. To top it all off, despite all the fervent transmisogyny occurring in the media during the election campaign, trans women were very rarely given a right of reply. In some instances, the media only interviewed trans masculine people.

One of the most vicious aspects of transmisogyny is the assumption from cisgender allies that all trans experiences are the same, that all transphobia is the same, and that a trans masculine person is just as capable to speak for trans women as they are for trans men. That’s just not the case. While, of course, trans masculine people still face extreme prejudice, trans women are often the most heavily victimised, isolated, and least likely to be able to talk about our own experiences.

A report from 2009 demonstrated that of all LGBTIQA+ people who died through hate crimes, half were trans women, particularly black trans women. This is a pattern that has only got worse. Last year, 375 transgender people were murdered globally, with 96 per cent of those trans feminine. Over half (58 per cent) were sex workers, with the most common story behind these murders being instances where a client books with a sex worker and murders her upon discovering that she is trans. These murders are legally protected in many countries through the transmisogynistic ‘trans panic’ defence. This holds that not disclosing one’s gender assignation at birth amounts to sexual assault, which is not only false but hugely prejudiced and offensive.

Trans women also suffer the most in terms of job opportunities. A report by the HRC in the United States estimates that for every dollar earned by an average worker, a cisgender queer person would earn 87 cents, trans men would earn 70 cents, and trans women would earn 60 cents. Forbes estimates this kind of inequality is costing the American economy billions of dollars and can be attributed to a lack of self-esteem on the part of trans workers and a severe amount of silencing and harassment in the workplace. The Catch-22 is that transition is incredibly expensive, particularly in America where healthcare is barely subsidised. This leads to trans women turning to another means of income out of desperation, including sex work—where, as we have seen, they are extremely unsafe.

This level of discrimination and its lack of acknowledgement creates an atmosphere where trans women often feel a sense of hopelessness about our lives and ambitions. The case of Isabel Fall was replicated earlier this year. After writing the critically acclaimed book Wrath Goddess Sing, a trans-centred retelling of The Iliad, Jewish trans woman Maya Deane faced a similar controversy about the credibility of her work due to the presence of transphobia, which Deane pulled from her own personal experiences, and racism, which Deane adapted from her experiences of antisemitism and the original source material. This hostile atmosphere for trans female writers becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby there is a lack of trans female literature but that which does exist is often discredited and overtaken by stories written by trans masculine people, or stories about us written by cisgender people.

I wrote about how toxic this phenomenon becomes in my last piece for Overland, where the ABC aired a Four Corners documentary about non-binary exclusively featuring trans masculine people, and a children’s drama about a trans girl written by a cisgender woman. Both were ostensibly trans-positive but gave very hurtful stereotypes about trans people due in part to the lack of consultation of trans feminine people. If our representation is going to be based on cisgender comfort, then trans women will never get the speaking opportunities we need to dispel myths about our lives and fight for our survival—and that is simply not acceptable.

Trans feminine writer Maddison Stoff wrote earlier this year about how trans liberation is essential to the defeat of fascism. This doesn’t mean just tolerating trans women or sidestepping your discomfort—it means destroying prejudices altogether and placing trans women front and centre in progressive spaces. We are the people who the patriarchy fear most. We are the living proof against their lies. It’s well past time you let us speak.

Natalie Feliks

Natalie Feliks is a writer, activist and critic from Melbourne. Follow her on Twitter at @nataliesqrl.

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