Bad trans: how to go beyond conditional acceptance

Let’s imagine the most morally depraved trans woman anyone could ever know. She lives up to all of the toxic stereotypes that anti-trans activists deploy against us. She is abusive. She’s a danger to herself and her community. There are even rumours she’s pretending to be trans to access spaces that she wouldn’t otherwise be entitled to access. What would her existence say about the trans community as a whole?

If you answered this thought experiment with anything other than, nothing, this person is clearly an outlier who has a different experience to the majority of trans women and should be viewed accordingly, you’ve probably revealed a deep, internal transmisogynistic bias that you need to work on. This prejudice is fairly common both outside and inside of the transgender community, owing to a widespread ignorance regarding the distinction between transmisogyny and regular transphobia, as well as the proliferation of transphobic myths about who trans women are, and how we actually experience the world.

Take, for example, this recent article on transphobia within the Greens that focuses on the alleged misconduct of a specific trans Greens member, Bianca Haven. Haven’s repulsive views on women, sex, and sexuality have been used to legitimise the supposed ‘conflict’ between the rights of women and the rights of transgender people more generally, which cisgender people within the party are shown to be fighting against.

Although their beliefs are out of keeping with the current wave of feminism, these cisgender Greens are uncritically and repeatedly referred to in the Sydney Morning Herald article as ‘feminists’ fighting for the perseveration of a nebulous (to the point of being impossible to define) ‘biologically-derived’ version of womanhood (and which doesn’t even match the way that sex categories are determined in contemporary biology).

The lies used to shore up this argument are numerous: from the false belief that trans women want to coerce transphobic cis lesbians into non-consensual sex (often accompanied by the laughable idea that trans lesbians don’t prefer to date each other—a myth that even a cursory exposure to the trans community will reveal to be immediately untrue) to the sub-textual implication that there is no evidence that some trans women experience period symptoms despite being incapable of physical menstruation.

The dichotomy of good verses bad trans woman functions similarly to the dichotomy between the deserving and the undeserving poor. A good trans woman is a trans woman who has (or desires) a full medical transition, does her best to pass as cis, and is ultimately comfortable with being relegated to a limited, conceded form of womanhood. This trans woman is granted tolerance for her identity, but not acceptance or respect, provided that she doesn’t speak too loudly or demand that cis women afford her too much space.

A bad trans woman, by contrast, can be any trans woman who refuses to do any of those things. This is fundamentally the problem with the separation between good and bad trans women itself. For the same reason that classism doesn’t stop being classism when the poor person is a criminal or struggling with their poverty, transphobia can’t stop being transphobia when the trans person in question has done something that you personally disagree with—even if it’s unambiguously wrong.

We seem to find this easier to understand with other prejudices, but even some who don’t consider themselves transphobic view transphobia as a kind of ‘luxury’ or ‘middle class’ issue: a lower, less important type of bigotry compared to more familiar ones like racism or homophobia, which are seen as wrong by almost everybody on the left. However, as Shon Faye writes,

class is determined by your ownership of assets or capacity for acquiring them. The vast majority of trans people in the UK score low on both counts – they are by definition working class and have little agency over whether they can sell their labour, the kind of labour performed or the conditions in which they work.

This dynamic is ludicrous on two levels. Firstly, no-one chooses to be trans—we merely choose to either hide it or accept it, then do our best to live inside the consequences. Secondly, the state of being trans will colour every aspect of our lives whether or not we pass as cis.

However, the bare existence of the false dichotomy between good and bad trans women manufactures an illusion our identity is open to debate. The platforming of bad trans women as a symbol for the whole community helps to facilitate this. It also helps provide a framework whereby individual transphobes can claim that—since they’re happy to provisionally accept good trans people—they can’t be seen to have a problem with the transgender community as a whole. This idea is often used to silence trans perspectives on transphobia, too, especially if they are uncomfortable for cis people, requiring introspection about deeply held beliefs, or changes in their lifestyle to accommodate us.

I’ve made this point before with regard to disability acceptance, but it’s true about trans issues, too: we need to radically re-interpret how we look at sex and gender if we’re ever going to make real progress on alleviating both the threats and material pressures that negatively impact trans people’s safety and our actual lives.

We need to challenge the idea that individual trans people can be used to speculate on the totality of the trans experience. We need to know that this experience is vast, diverse, and truly global, and let the trans people who are part of it decide how everybody else should understand and interact with it. The same respect that we’d give anyone from any other marginalised group.

Otherwise, we’re opening the door to fascism, muddying the waters about what being transgender even is, and encouraging the continued normalisation of cissexism and transmisogyny. Nobody can claim to be ‘not transphobic’ if they’re doing that.


Image by Karollyne Videira Hubert                                                                                         

Maddison Stoff

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

More by Maddison Stoff ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *