Internalised Transphobia [my chapter from TRANS IN THE 21st CENTURY [pub. BT, 2011]

Kenneth Demsky, PhD/ 7435 6116


Internalised Transphobia


From a psychological perspective, the goal is never conformity, but authenticity.


A phobia is defined as an exaggerated fear or loathing of a thing or situation encountered in everyday life. In psychoanalytical terms, a phobia is the result of a psychologically scarring event that is associated with an ordinary thing or situation which then on its own can trigger the emotion displaced from the original trauma. Thus someone who witnessed a devastating fire in childhood might develop an irrational fear of any flame, no matter how contained and harmless; this would be called pyrophobia.


Since the late 1960s the term homophobia has been used to describe irrationally negative views of homosexuality either as held by individuals or embedded in society (through media, education, the legal system, etc.). In the past 15 years that term was incorporated in another, internalized homophobia; this term is used to refer to prejudiced views held by homosexuals about themselves directly as the result of growing up in a homophobic setting. Such a gay man or lesbian woman, for instance, exposed to only negative stereotypes of homosexuals whilst growing up, would lack self-esteem and would have a pathologically diminished sense of entitlement relative to heterosexual peers.


Transphobia is the belief that someone who is trans is intrinsically less valuable than someone who is not (also called cis-gendered). The generalization is broad enough to include a wide range of individuals, from those whose gender expression varies only slightly from that of the majority to ‘polar’ transsexuals who need to completely change genders in order to achieve psychological wholeness. Transphobic statements may appear to focus on one or more separate aspects of the lives of qualities of trans people—negative stereotyping of the appearance, sexuality or mental health, for instance, of trans people—and may varying according to the particular myths, ignorance and bias of the individual espousing this viewpoint; but the underlying devaluation is categorical: that someone trans is intrinstically less valuable than someone who is not.


In working with a wide range of clients in psychotherapy—both female-to-male and male-to-female transsexuals as well as gender-variant people of all kinds—I use the term internalised transphobia to refer to all the passively-received, unconsciously held negative beliefs about what it means to be trans that are held by trans people themselves This societally-induced prejudice about oneself must be overcome as part of psychological dimension of transition– which is sometimes overlooked due to the emphasis on more concrete aspects of transition. Even people who are quite confident about their core gender identity may carry baggage in the form of internalised transphobia which must be unloaded before transition is truly complete.


There are numerous ways in which the trans person’s internalisation of this negativity may manifest itself, and each may present itself at different points in someone’s gender journey.


One that often strikes when someone has just realized his/her own trans status is that being trans is somehow a tragic fate or that a trans self-diagnosis is comparable to being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.


In fact, the accurate discovery of one’s trans nature marks the beginning of an individual’s recovery from internalized transphobia. Internalized transphobia is potentially a life-threatening condition in that it can, in its most severe form, drive people to acts of self-destruction. However, once someone knows that he/she is trans, there is at long last an explanation of all sorts of past and present diffculties; there is reason to hope for much more out of life than was previously possible. No adult comes to the self-diagnosis of being trans without a fair amount of suffering–the inevitable result of a suppressed or possibly repressed identity—and self-reflection in attempt to end the discomfort. In fearing the loss of what they have known before, people in very early transition may regard their new awareness as the cause of their difficulties rather than cherish it as the beginning of the a path to greater personal fulfillment. A problem can be addressed only once you know what it is. Dismay over the realization may reflect internalized transphobia.
A second early manifestation may take the form of excessive apologising to others for changing.


Sometimes trans people will regard those around them as victims of their personal transition, as if the trans person could effectively choose to continue denying her/his own identity in order to spare their significant others distress. Realizing one’s potential for wholeness is an existential duty to oneself. Whilst members of the support network of the trans person are indeed challenged to grow, it is the trans person who inevitably faces the greatest bump of all. The trans person has the right to ask those who wish to continue being close to him/her to come to terms with changes in names, pronouns, etc., in a reasonable time-frame as part of that. If people claim they cannot adjust to such relatively minor changes, it isn’t appropriate for the trans person to make undue allowances; instead, significant others need to be challenged on the unspoken transphobia that holds them back. (I met with a transwoman who in many ways had successfully transitioned whose parents, five years later, still called her by a male name!)


As transition proceeds, Internalised Transphobia may be manifested in the acceptance of a doom-and-gloom vision of what life will be like at the end of the process.


This reflects the idea that only a cis-gendered person can have a high quality of life because anyone differing from that is condemned to loneliness, poverty, etc. The current outlook for trans people is really much more positive than it has ever been, and positive role models are almost too numerous to list, and the progress is clearly unstoppable. In addition, a trans person’s pre-transition relationships are often fundamentally flawed because they have been built around an inauthentic persona. The trans person has been essentially blocked from the most profound intimacy until the internal identity is privileged over the anatomical birth sex. Therefore, the trans person can appropriately anticipate more and deeper attachments to others as the result of transition. The opportunity exists for the significant others to participate in that new-found capacity with the individual, but they must prove themselves worthy of it by changing also.


Another manifestation of Internalised Transphobia is denigrating others elsewhere on the spectrum of gender expression.


If someone tries to bolster his/her own sense of self by putting down individuals whose trans expression is less conventional than their own, they are perpetuating a standard of value that will inevitably betray them. Only in a transphobic view are people more worthy when they conform more closely to received ideas of male and female. Someone who mocks individuals more gender-variant than her/himself will tend to feel bad in comparison with cis-gendered individuals using the same standard. By contrast, if someone understands what it means to be trans and values it for its authenticity, there is no need for upward or downward comparisons; people are accepted and deemed worthy for being and expressing themselves.


Internalised Transphobia also underlies some people’s excessive wish to ‘pass’ as a natal member of their gender.


It’s true that people who ‘pass’ and those who don’t may have different journeys, but there is no necessity that one is better than another.   I used to meet with one client, for instance, a transwoman, who said she enjoyed the fact that she did not ‘pass’ because it meant she did not have to declare her trans status; it was self-evident and she was spared the necessity of having to ‘out’ herself or of wondering how she was perceived. By contrast, those who do pass easily may be burdened by doubts about when and if to ‘come out’ to significant others. They may also be more vulnerable to the temptation of disowning their histories, which generally tends to have a negative effect on one’s self-esteem.


Another manifestation of Internalised Transphobia is an over-reliance on pre-existing models of manhood or womanhood in the process of self-development during transition (rather than developing oneself from within).


For example, a transman might burden himself by thinking he must be macho, attracted to females and interested in stereotypically masculine pursuits in order to be a legitimate male; in fact, if he pays attention to his core self and develops the truth of what he finds there, he will have the same sense of legitimacy that any natal man does. He will be his own man, not merely an imitation of someone else. Or a transwoman might believe she needs to copy the style of Audrey Hepburn in order to be a legitimate female.


Even after individuals have completed transition in the concrete sense—i.e., have made all physical changes—they can still carry Internalised Transphobia, with its negative impact on self-esteem and quality of life.


People make decisions all the time about how and when to be open about being trans as part of negotiating boundaries with others post-transition. It is, of course, personal information and thus relevant only in certain circumstances. Yet if someone is actively concealing her/his trans status—sometimes called ‘living in stealth’—she/he may be settling for a second-rate existence. The indications of an unhealthy adjustment post-transition would be avoiding other trans people, living in fear of being ‘outed’ as trans, or pretending to be cis-gendered. All parallels with the ‘closet’ of gay and lesbian people apply here, too.


Transphobia, like homophobia, racism, anti-semitism, male chauvinism or any other prejudice, thrives on ignorance and lack of experience; education and contact with the world contradicts stereotypes of all kinds, replacing them with the reality of normal human diversity. The struggle to identify and resolve bias against trans people represents the cutting edge in the ongoing struggle for universal human rights.


The good news is that, as widespread as transphobia has been in traditional cultures, it is yielding as it must in the face of greater awareness and information. Many forces have combined to bring this about, and many individuals known and unknown deserve credit for their part in the progress that has been made.   Just living as an ‘out and proud’ transperson is a forceful way to further the cause. Our society continues almost on a daily basis to adjust its perspective on what it means to be trans. As a result, it is reasonable to expect that as time goes on, the amount of transphobia in the world around us grows ever smaller until one day there may be no such thing as internalised transphobia.

One Commentto Internalised Transphobia [my chapter from TRANS IN THE 21st CENTURY [pub. BT, 2011]

  1. Vicki says:

    You’re a real deep thinrek. Thanks for sharing.

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