“Transtrenders” aren’t a thing, but transphobia-trenders are

It’s common nowadays to encounter the insistent claim that “there are only two genders, male and female”. These simplistic and loud declarations resemble nothing more than a random interjection by a person who’s shouting for no clear reason. This is one of those instances where a statement manages to be as wrong as it is brief. Inaccuracy is compact like that – reality is detailed, and the more details you strip away, the further you get from reality.

Often, nonbinary or genderqueer trans people have been insultingly labeled “trans-trenders”, a vague term for a poorly specified group, so flexible that it can be used to justify targeting and attacking nearly anyone. Contrary to the accusation that their genders are somehow “not real”, genders beyond solely woman or solely man have existed and been recognized throughout the entirety of human history. Descriptions of additional genders exist among our earliest recorded texts – these genders beyond the alleged dichotomy have played an established role in various societies for millennia. This is not a recent phenomenon, and certainly most of the world’s history has not been one of social justice.

There is not a question of whether nonbinary genders are “real” – not only are they real, they have been and continue to be studied in cultures around the world, and these are not studies of nothingness. Today, the 2nd and 6th most populous countries in the world regard a third gender as a valid concept worthy of the official recognition of the law. Altogether, 1.5 billion people live in nations where the existence of such individuals is accepted within the fabric of civil society. These countries have found that the concept of a nonbinary gender and the existence of nonbinary people are real enough to be acknowledged and affirmed in this way. Consider that there may be real reasons why this concept has persisted throughout history. It is an observed phenomenon of gender, as real as transgender women or transgender men.

In defiance of this historical and modern reality, those who’ve decided to target nonbinary people substitute this with a heuristic of absurdity, comparing their genders to individuals who identify with cats or other animals and nonhuman entities. But absurdity heuristics are personal – the comparison with people who identify as cats has been wielded against nonbinary trans people, but it’s also been wielded against all trans people. There are those who find the idea of even binary-gendered trans people to be too ridiculous to acknowledge as real, on just as thin of a basis: a mere appeal to mockery, the product of attitudes which are inherently subjective and influenced by however much intolerance happens to be present in a society at any given time. And given that this is subjective, they could have just as easily chosen to orient themselves in the direction of not attacking anybody – binary trans people, nonbinary, otherkin, or anyone else.

One perverse twist in this rejection of nonbinary people’s genders is that this is often claimed to be necessary in order to defend or validate binary trans people’s genders. This division of supposedly “real” trans people from the “not real” has a lengthy history too, and it is not a positive one. For decades, trans women were told that if they were anything other than 100% straight, they weren’t genuine trans women at all. Straight trans women were deemed to be “real” trans people, and queer trans women were “not real”, accused of being merely cis men with some kind of sexual fetish. Trans people have been told how they have to feel about different parts of their bodies, told their gender must be expressed as a narrow social stereotype of femininity or masculinity, told they aren’t “real” women until they’ve had surgeries that simply aren’t within the means of most people, told exactly how they have to feel about who they are lest their very self be branded inauthentic. The imposition of these false dichotomies never led to a better world for people, and it certainly won’t start now.

What appears at first glance to be a clash between two opposing groups is in fact a manufactured conflict – one which never needed to exist and has no reason to. This is not a debate, a discussion, or anything resembling that structure of human interaction. It’s not a matter of competing evaluations of the world made in mutual good faith by two groups that simply have different perspectives based on their respective interpretations of a given phenomenon. It’s just a part of humanity simply trying to live their lives and develop a meaningful understanding of who they are. They put a name to something that matters to them, and they reach out in the hopes of finding others and helping those who may see themselves reflected in this. And then there’s another part of humanity offering no real critique – just attacking them for no reason, merely because they’re different. If you’re looking to spot an evil scheme in all this, who seems to be more deserving of that label?

It’s obvious that people have a very wide diversity of understandings of gender, what it is, and how it functions in society. There’s an abundance of different perspectives on this, and so many different personal experiences with it. Why would we ever think that these many varying understandings wouldn’t inform a person’s view on what their own gender can be? A nonbinary person’s gender was never an attack on anyone – it was never harassment or trolling or mockery on a mass scale. When I see people trying to describe their experience of gender, I don’t see deception or conspiracy. I see human reality.

But to uphold this false framing of two sides, nonbinary people must be depicted as having done something that would merit such an aggressive rejection. And so they’re accused of all manner of nonsensical social crimes, like having a gender solely for attention – a claim that’s invariably made by an unimaginative crowd of people who do these videos of trumped-up schoolyard teasing just to gain popularity among the populist right. They’ve been accused of wanting to appear to be oppressed, on the grounds that there’s somehow anything popular about being unpopular. They’re accused of pretending to be under attack, by those whose judgment is so astute that they feel the best response to this is to attack such a person en masse. They’ve been accused of being boring, by those who apparently think being boring is the way to get attention, and indeed find these individuals so boring that they can’t shut up about it. At the root of all this, they’re being attacked simply for the alleged infraction of thinking there could be something special about who they are.

“Special snowflake” used to mean something wonderful. It meant knowing that if something so small as a snowflake can be one-of-a-kind, then certainly we are too. It means that each of us has something unique and important to bring to our world – that a life, our life, is irreplaceable. I don’t understand how anyone could see that as something bad.

I’ve never considered nonbinary people to be any sort of threat to me as a trans woman – the very idea makes no sense. Nonbinary and genderqueer identities have been and continue to be deeply important in my life and my personal development. My partner Heather is agender. She’s an incredible person, and it’s a privilege to share my life with her. I could never look at her very self and pick away at it as if it were something inauthentic or hostile. I can’t see who she is as some kind of nefarious plot rather than a human being.

Understanding your gender can be complicated, because gender is complicated. Trans people who’ve spent years trying to figure out who they are and what they want to do with their gender should certainly understand this. The existence of and recognition of spaces beyond solely female and solely male is valuable to everyone. I considered myself to be genderqueer for several years before coming out as a trans woman, and having that room was immensely helpful to me. Expecting me to commit myself immediately to being unambiguously a woman or a man would not have been good for me at all – it would have been pushing a decision on someone who was not ready. Rather than being pressured into something I wasn’t prepared for at the time, the possibility of being genderqueer let me know that on a conceptual level, I did exist. My gender wasn’t “I hope someone harasses me because I love being victimized”. My gender was a genuine attempt to understand who I am.

Some people are not faced with an oncoming decision at all – they already have their answer, and their answer is a nonbinary gender. I would never tell someone that they cannot have that, that they cannot be who they are or that I know them better than they know themselves. A person is entitled to understand who they are in the way that they do, and it is not inherently necessary for society to step into their life and tell them “no, you’re not”.

In my experience, it’s almost always been the case that binary people who accept nonbinary trans people are far more kind, understanding, and humane individuals than those who choose to focus their energies toward nothing greater than attacking and ostracizing innocent people. Most people aren’t spending their time spinning tall tales about how the world around them is full of individuals with false identities plotting some mysterious misdeeds. They’re just living their lives.

About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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4 Responses to “Transtrenders” aren’t a thing, but transphobia-trenders are

  1. Sara S. says:

    So, I’m going to be very up-front that what follows is absolutely not my opinion, it’s my attempt at philosophizing my way into describing what might make some otherwise very open-minded people uncomfortable with nonbinary genders. I think, perhaps, there may be some perception among people already accustomed to thinking about space along the gender continuum, that the existence of people in the middle of the spectrum creates a pressure that “pushes outwards.” That is to say, for people who already accept that (many) people have interests and attributes that perhaps don’t align with the most polarized ideal of their identified gender, there is sometimes a sense of incongruity to the idea or perhaps necessity of nonbinary genders. That, in a sense, by codifying the middle space as something that is neither, you reduce the space available to identify as a gender while having some traits idiosyncratic to it.

    Now, I personally don’t have difficulty with the concept of different genders overlapping on the scale, as it were, where if there was some quantifiable metric of gender there could be a border zone where people at numerically the same position could still identify differently. But some people tend to think in terms of clearer categorical boundaries than I, and so might see the emergence of those staking out the middle ground as something of a threat to those hard-win middle space for those who do still choose to identify in a binary fashion. At least, that’s the best I can figure it.

  2. tailcalled says:

    Whenever I read about nonbinary genders in non-Western cultures, they seem more similar to Western binary transgender people than nonbinary people. For example, Kathoey is sometimes named as an example of a nonbinary gender, but most of those are trans women (in the sense that if asked, most will identify as women, or sometimes ‘second type women’). Another example would be Winkte, a Native American gender label that directly translated means roughly “wants to be like a woman”, which I’d interpret as “gender dysphoric AMAB”. I think the example you mention in the article, Hijra, follows the same pattern, but it seems more ambiguous.

    (NOTE: I’m not saying nonbinary genders aren’t real – I’m nonbinary myself -, but I’m not sure your examples match what’s usually meant by it in the West.)

    There seems to be different types of nonbinary people, each of which should be considered separately for the topics you consider. For example, you say validating nonbinary genders doesn’t threaten the narratives of binary trans people, and while this is true for many kinds of nonbinary people, it seems to me that a small-ish but nonnegligible fraction of enbies identify as such because they don’t believe that it’s possible to change genders fully.

    That is, they might believe that while they *want to be* men/women, being born as women/men means that they cannot meaningfully achieve that goal, but that they can reach an inbetween-ish state. This is seemingly incompatible with the narratives of many (but not all!) binary trans people.

    (Of course, there are many other kinds of nonbinary people.)

    One thing that contributes to the confusion is that ‘Words For Nonbinary Identities Are A Huge Goddamn Mess’: https://thingofthings.wordpress.com/2015/07/12/words-for-nonbinary-identities-are-a-huge-goddamn-mess/

  3. Richard Schultz says:

    Once we break down the bipolar gender paradigm, it’s only reasonable to presume that those who don’t fit that discarded formula must exist somewhere in between the two extremes. There can be no other legitimate conclusion. The problem lies with those who refuse to listen to reason. You are someone who is least victimized by ad hominem attacks because you call them for what they are. This makes you a constant target of those who want to replace facts with willful ignorance. Even though you’ve spent literally years debunking bigoted opinions, they will never stop mis-characterizing your intentions. Educating the public is the only way to begin to marginalize the bigots. Unfortunately, since their ideas appeal to the less studious, your message has a harder time being heard and understood.

    P.S. I dislike the term “transphobia” because it has the connotation of a legitimate mental illness. “Trans-hatred” is more extreme, but more apt. But you can never call a hater a hater without significant blow-back. It is what it is.

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