Alex Blaze

Homophobia and transphobia aren't clear-cut, separate concepts

Filed By Alex Blaze | September 03, 2010 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: drag queens, gender, homophobic behavior, kidnapping, rachel maddow, sex, sexual orientatin, sexuality, Tel Aviv, transphobia

I've been saying for a while that perhaps the word gender-bender.jpg(if not the concept) of "homophobia" should be replaced since it doesn't really describe the whole of the concept. I'm not making the Amelia Bedelia argument that homophobes are not necessarily "afraid" so then the word doesn't apply (does hemophilia mean someone really loves blood?), but that it says nothing about biphobia and transphobia and queerphobia, all of which are about the fear and disgust people feel towards transgressions of gender and sexuality rules and the resulting anger. While it's important to understand the distinctions between gender and sexuality and sex, as well as the distinctions in the ways people break the more fundamental rules that come with "A doctor said you were X, so you must live your life a certain way," and the associated reactions from others, it's also important to understand and underscore that these are all coming from the same place lest we get lost in distinctions that aren't relevant to what people are seeing or feeling.

Take, for example, this story out of Israel from last week that some people in the LGBT blogosphere said demonstrated homophobia among Arabs:

Four residents of the northern Israeli Arab town of Tamra are suspected of kidnapping their homosexual relative and taking him on a 12-hour nightmare, all because of his sexual tendencies. They were arrested when they tried to "hide" their victim in one of the houses in the village.

The four were expected to face the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court on Wednesday afternoon.

The young man, 19, had left his family and moved to Tel Aviv, where he thought it would be safer to lead his life, but was persecuted by his relatives.

Several days before he was kidnapped he filed a complaint with the police, saying he was being threatened by his relatives who demanded that he return to the village and "act like a normal person".

On Monday night, the relatives decided to act on their threats. They arrived at the man's house in Tel Aviv's Florentine neighborhood, armed with pepper spray, and waited for him. As they spotted him walking on the street with a friend, they assaulted the two, sprayed them, snatched their relatives and escaped.

The man's friend rushed to call the police and report the incident. Investigators from a Tel Aviv police unit sought the help of the Shafaram Police, and discovered that the car was making its way to Tamra.

The four suspects allegedly beat the young man on their way to the north and threatened him. They held him for 12 hours before being caught by the police a moment before arriving at their hiding place in Tamra.

But now, a week later, more facts about the case are coming out and it has less to do with sexuality and more to do with gender:

"Angel," a 19-year-old living in Tel Aviv, was targeted by his Arab relatives for working as a drag queen in the city's nightclubs and posting photos of himself cross-dressing on Facebook.

His family was so disgusted by his lifestyle that they tried to scare him into getting "back on the right path" through violence.

"I started working as a drag-queen, and after my photos appeared on the Internet, I started receiving threats," Angel told Israeli news site after he was kidnapped for the third time.

"At first they told me 'take the pictures off the Internet, or we'll kill you.' I was surprised, but moved on as usual. I had a good relationship with my family, so I ignored it," he said.

The indictment charges eight of his family members for kidnapping and assaulting Angel over a period of four months to "defend the family's honor," according to the Jerusalem Post.

Angel's relatives first tried to kidnap him in May, forcibly driving him to his parents' home where they handcuffed and beat him.

"I considered filing a police complaint, but then I spoke with my family. There was an upcoming wedding, so everyone pretended that everything was OK," he told YNet.

Three weeks before the wedding, however, his mother called to threaten him, telling Angel to remove the photos of himself in drag or else "the family will come get you, and that'll be the end of you."

Sure enough, his family tried to attack him at the wedding, but he was able to escape.

I'm not saying that he is or isn't transgender; there's no way of knowing with the information we have now. The newspaper says "drag queen," but then newspapers don't always know the lines between "drag queen" and "cross-dresser" and "trans woman" and "woman of history." We're also talking about a culture at the border between East and West; these definitions might not apply the same way. On the other hand, he may just be a drag queen and he put up pics of himself in drag on Facebook.

None of this is to take away from the basic horror of the crime and how it shouldn't happen to anyone, for any reason. What I'm getting at is that here's a story that was originally labeled as a sign of "homophobia" that's looking more like what we'd call "transphobia," with a victim who may not be trans. (Can cissexual people experience transphobia? Can straight people experience homophobia? I'd say yes.)

I don't want to go too far in the direction I've seen some go and say that homophobia is, basically, fear of gender transgression and is really only about gender rules. Take, for instance, this story from this week out of Massachusetts:

christine-judd.jpgThe athletic director at Cathedral High School lost her job this week, saying she was pressured to leave after marrying her female partner in August.

Christine M. Judd, who served as athletic director and dean of students, said she is no longer an employee of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield school system after a meeting Wednesday with administrators of the Catholic high school.

The diocese listed her departure as a resignation, but Judd said she is still exploring her legal options.

"I was given a choice of termination or resignation," Judd said. "I'm hurt, but I wish nothing but the best for Cathedral, its students, the parents, the athletic teams, administration and faculty. I bleed purple (the school's color)."

Judd, a Springfield resident, worked for the Catholic school for 12 years, beginning as a science teacher in 1998. She became dean of students six years ago and was given the added duties of athletic director three years ago.

"I married my partner this summer," Judd said. "I was hoping that my loyalty, my professionalism the last 12 years would supersede the current hypocrisy that has already been shown with the Diocese of Springfield."

Asked to elaborate on her claim of hypocrisy, Judd said she questions if there are lay persons who work for the Catholic diocese who divorce and remarry without an annulment, or employees who use birth control, or men who have had vasectomies, or individuals who are pro-choice on abortion.

It does sound like the marriage itself precipitated her termination. If she worked at that school for twelve years and presented herself as she did in that photo and was then promoted to athletic director/dean of students, I'd have a hard time saying this is about gender expression and not sexual orientation itself.

Then there are the cases where these concepts get really mixed up. Consider this video that accuses ads of being anti-gay, yet...

The comments when I first posted that video here on TBP said, basically, that the ads are about gender and not sexuality so they're not homophobic. Perhaps under a narrow understanding of the word, but to me anxiety about gender is part and parcel with the concept of homophobia. Often gender is the only way to identify someone as gay, and people make instant assumptions based on gender that, while they may or may not be true, are basically about sexuality itself (if the the reaction to these gender markers isn't based in anything sexual, why was Miller Lite man there talking to a supermodel/bartender?).

It brings back Pansygate from the Democratic primary in 2008. In case the part of your memory that stores knowledge about Obama vs. Hillary has been blocked because it risks infecting the rest of your brain with extreme stupid (it's a good precaution to forget that whole year in politics), some Democratic governor said Hillary Clinton would make Rocky Balboa look like a "pansy" (he meant it as a compliment to Clinton). What followed was a weird debate in the LGBT blogosphere about whether "pansy" was an insult to gay men or whether it was an insult to effeminate men. For the record, Webster's says both are definitions of "pansy."

I found it interesting because to me those are both the same thing. No, effeminate men and gay men aren't the same, as there are straight, effeminate men and gay, butch men, but the hatred/anxiety/disgust/fear of either comes from the same source and is about rigidly enforcing gender-based rules. It's about a fear of fluidity, that somehow something could go terrible wrong if men are allowed to be not-men, so both homosexual sex among men and effeminacy among men are made taboo. Whether Rocky Balboa was supposed to look like a gay man or an effeminate man is besides the point - the governor was saying that a real man would be made to look like a he was not a real man.

For one last example, there's the right's constant attacks on Rachel Maddow's gender, expressed once by someone who worked for Tucker Carlson:

I have the gift of wisdom. Does that sound arrogant? I'm sorry, that wasn't my intention. I didn't choose wisdom. It chose me. If I had my druthers, I'd have chosen another gift, perhaps the untold riches of Lil' Wayne, whose teeth are made of actual diamonds, or to be the sexiest man alive, like Rachel Maddow. But wisdom is what they gave me, so wisdom is all I have to give back to you.

He wasn't the first and he won't be the last person to make a statement like that. Now, would the right be making that insult if Rachel Maddow were straight but presented herself the same way? I doubt it - there have been other famous women with short hair and glasses who don't get called men. Then again, I can't imagine a famous lipstick lesbian being treated the same way (although I can't think of any that are ideological liberals whose views, first and foremost, would stir up the right). That's just my instinct; I could be wrong.

My argument here isn't that gender and sexuality overlap, but that homophobia and transphobia overlap. In general, homophobia comes with lots of gender baggage, as lesbians are seen as wanting to be men and gay men are painted as uniformly effeminate. On the other hand, transgender people are often stereotyped as overly sexual and kinky, mixing anxiety about gender with anxiety about sexuality. That doesn't happen because people get their hates mixed up and don't know whether to be homophobic or transphobic towards a certain person or act, but that homophobia and transphobia, each, are about both sexuality and gender.

Which is why we ought to have a unified concept of the two. I'm not going to suggest a new word since it'll never catch on, but there has to be more of an understanding that homophobia is more than shouting "faggot" at gay people for what they do in bed and transphobia is more than making fun of "trannies" because of they don't present the way someone else thinks they should.

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This is a pretty complex argument, and I'm not sure I understand it all yet. But it's pretty cool, Alex. I will note that I discussed the roots of biphobia and transphobia within the gay community in a 2004 article, ascribing them to the same bin as internalized homophobia, and calling the whole thing "heterosexism." Not sure if that would fit in with your article. What do you think?

Would that include gender-based hatred? "Hetero" to me seems short for "heterosexual," but I don't want to go all Amelia Bedelia either.

I think that transphobia and homophobia and the like are manifestations of our good friend sexism.

So, then, you'd condemn the "she's a tranny" attacks on Anne Coulter and get back to the actual political disagreements? 'Cos that would be kewl, and kind of an apology to all us horse-faced women all across the spectrum.

I totally agree, Alex, that there is no clear distinction between transphobia and homophobia. Same sex orientation is condemned by intolerant people as a transgression of the gender rules. Straight marriages of transmen and women are misconstructed as gay or lesbian to invalidate them under DOMA laws. I have written for years that opponents of civil justice and human dignity for LGBTQ people don't make a distinction between L, G, B, T or Q. They just hate.

I like keeping the concepts separate enough so we can talk about homophobic straight trans people and transphobic cis LGB people without getting into notions of internalized heterosexism or cissexism. I mean, sure he said this in 1999, but like I want a way to coherently talk about how Barney Frank, a cis gay man, keeps pushing the idea that ENDA is about men in women's showers/restrooms, you know?

As a lesbian trans woman, I do think there's a distinction between homophobia and transphobia that I think is all too often elided in a rush to create a unified oppression theory.

Also, I kind of agree with Vene.

Very good article!

I'd add another aspect to transphobia and homophobia being close to one another. A lot of transmen have a body language, intonation etc. which tends to get read as "gay" even if they're not. Being read as a trans person is not the problem here, rather that they get the same problems with homophobia as anybody else who gets read as gay.

There arevery important differences between homophobia and transphobia.. but these differences cannot be apprehended solely by analysing the symptom (e.g. homophobia, transphobia) itself. You must analyze its cause (heterosexism, cissexism). Heterosexism gives rise to homophobia and straight supremacy. Cissexism gives rise to Transphobia and Cis Supremacy. Heterosexism and Cissexism intersect, along with Traditional Sexism (Male supremacy, male privilege), Oppositional Sexism (Man/Male/Masculine is The Opposite of Woman/Female/Feminine, and cannot/should not coexist in the same person), and Patriarchy (The socioeconomic institution of male power, male privilege, male rule) to create a culture that is constantly privileging a cissexual masculine male-privileged approach to sex, gender, and sexuality at the expense of its alleged opposite. Any element that can be interpreted as a threat to heterosexual cis male privilege WILL be attacked. Obsessing over whether or not something is homophobic or transphobic only reinforces the binary/oppositional nature of the oppressive intstitution as a whole. Either/Or'ing is what has gotten us into this mess in the first place and its what keeps us in this mess. When we refuse to acknowledge the intersectional nature of oppressive violence, we enable it and guarantee its continuing.

This says what I wanted to say about 1000% better than I managed to say it.

20th century is over | September 5, 2010 9:10 AM

If it only were that simple. BTW When you use ridiculous terms like "cis supremacy" you guarantee that the only people who hear your words will be people who think exactly like you and no one else. THAT is the problem. Endless tape loops of one group screaming cis supremacy at another and expecting them to care. Ain't gonna happen now nor never. Back to your drawing board and perhaps a new analysis may be needed. Yours is getting very very old and tired. And useless as it has yet to evolve into anything useable or real.

Jane wasn't screaming at all. She was laying down the reasons why saying homophobia and transphobia don't work. Her language (cis supremacy) highlights how the cis viewpoint, cis ideas about gender, cis ideas about trans people constantly dominate - and how many cis LGB people share and perpetuate these views.

This isn't a 20th century concept. "Cis" was coined in the 1990s, but discussion what this means has been happening for a few years now, among quite a few people. If anything, such thinking is at the leading edge of trans thought, and someday cis people might catch up.

You are correct that the 20th century is over, and a lot of toxic and harmful transphobia was perpetrated on trans people by cis people during that time. Hopefully in the 21st century, we can see cis people recognize trans people's basic humanity and see that our needs are legitimate and should be honored.

So your point is don't talk about silly things like cis supremacy because only trans people would possibly know or care what I'm talking about anyway and saying this only makes cis people feel uncomfortable or alienated.

Thanks for illustrating one of my points!

Fact is.. if you think there is no such thing as Cis Supremacy.. if you honestly think people don't really treat trans people differently than they treat people who never find reason to leave their assigned genders... you really ought to TRY it first before you go around declaring whose perspective is and isn't valid.

But you don't have to do any deep thinking about this topic... And that's your privilege. Your CIS privilege. And the fact that you could come roaring out of nowhere to attack me personally and say how pointless my input in this conversation was, my input that was directed at no one person in partciular, well,that says alot about how far we have to go until queers and allies can make progress on a unified front.

Oppressive systems ALWAYS resist self-analysis. Whenever there are knee-jerk "Shut UPs" like you just replied with, there lies privilege and supremacy in al;l its glory.


And you just proved my point. You are not interesting in understanding and dialogue. You are only interested in revenge, posturing, rage venting, self-aggrandization and basically doing to non-trans people every slight you believe they have made to you. A very immature and angry approach to social change. And one that is backfiring btw as more people encounter trans issues for the first time as fury and attacks (not to mention the onfighting over what is a T person) and recoil in indifference. PR is not a trans strongpoint! A movement built on hate and revenge and trying to convince 90% of the population that it's your way or the highway is doomed to fail. But you will feel a lot better about yourself and that's what it seems to be about for many T.

Man, this rhetoric sounds strangely familiar.

Also, you should try engaging in good faith sometime.

Interesting, because this starts to explore territory i have been writing about for some while... which is that the "protected category" approach to equalities is a cul de sac, leading to weirdness and anomaly.

Take UK law, f'rinstance: as a trans woman, if someone abuses me publically for wearing a dress, i have special protection; were i "merely" a transvestite, the same abuse would merit lesser protection in law. Why? Few of those calling abuse would be able to tell the difference. Its the same motivation...but different result.

Just to add fuel to the debate, i am also very wary oftaring allabuse with the same "-phobic" brush. I think discrimination and aggression possibly have different roots and if we are to deal with them effectively, we need to recognise that difference.


Charlie Butler | September 6, 2010 10:19 AM

Very interesting article. The recent plight of Tiwonge Chimbalanga also comes to mind, as do many cases - and in the case of children under 10 probably most cases - of "homophobic" bullying in schools, which is far more likely to happen in cases of gender non-conformity (body language, dress, choice of toys or friends) than as a result of same-sex attraction.

Jane's analysis is dead on, and the response to it from "20th Century" makes her point, as she notes. It's also a good example of the way in which that nexus of dominant -isms works to divide and rule oppressed groups.