What Is Transmisogyny?

image by Chris Cummings via FreeImages.com

My 2007 book Whipping Girl is probably best known for two things: It popularized “cis” terminology (which I did not coin) and introduced the concept of “transmisogyny” (which I did coin, albeit with a hyphen: “trans-misogyny”). In the intervening years, many people have taken up this language, often using these words in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. Which is perfectly fine, as language is always evolving, and I am not the “gatekeeper” for these words. However, there are times when others have criticized me for usages of these terms that I’ve never forwarded myself!

So to clarify my original intentions, plus share my thoughts on these new iterations, I have revisited these terms from time to time. All my essays revisiting cis terminology are collected via that link. This piece collects all my post-Whipping Girl writings on transmisogyny.

The basic argument I made in Whipping Girl goes something like this: What feminists have long called “sexism” actually consists of two forces. There’s “traditional sexism,” which is the notion that femaleness and femininity are inferior to, or less legitimate than, maleness and masculinity. But in order to maintain that hierarchy, there also needs to be a way to discourage people from blurring or traversing these distinctions. I called that force “oppositional sexism” and defined it as “the belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories, each possessing a unique and nonoverlapping set of attributes, aptitudes, abilities, and desires.” In other words, transphobia (as well as homophobia) stem from oppositional sexism.

While all trans people experience oppositional sexism in the form of transphobia, those of us on the trans female or trans feminine spectrums face additional scrutiny due to the specific direction of our gender transgressions — that is, toward the female and/or feminine, which are both delegitimized due to traditional sexism. I called this particular intersection of oppositional and traditional sexism “transmisogyny” and, over the course of Whipping Girl, I provide many specific examples of how it plays out in our lives, especially with regards to common stereotypes, media depictions, psychopathologizing theories, and sexualization. Some of these points are also discussed in the pieces collected below.

Part of why I’m writing this now is that I’ve seen the term increasingly debated online lately. These debates are often centered on the more recent terms TMA (transmisogyny affected) and TME (transmisogyny exempt), which I did not coin. I have no objections to TMA and TME per se — they seem like potentially useful non-binary- and non-identity-based ways of discussing the phenomenon. But I’m admittedly not familiar with everything that others are saying or claiming under this newer rubric, so there may potentially be some points of disagreement. I do know that some of these debates relate to who precisely is impacted by transmisogyny and who is not — I share some of my thoughts on these matters in the follow up pieces listed below (especially the first two).

The SAGE Encyclopedia of Trans Studies entry for “Transmisogyny” [PDF link]: Here, I outline the concept of transmisogyny as I forwarded it in Whipping Girl, followed by a brief discussion of alternate interpretations and critiques of the term. It’s a concise review — as there was a strict word count and reference limitations — but I touch upon most of the main points. For the record: 1) I was not aware of TMA/TME when I wrote this back in 2019, so they are not mentioned, 2) Transmisogynoir has its own encyclopedia entry, which is why it’s only briefly mentioned toward the end, 3) the publisher’s style guidelines forced me to refer to myself in the third person (which is always weird).

Articulating Trans-Misogyny [PDF link]: In my 2016 book Outspoken: A Decade of Transgender Activism and Trans Feminism, I have an entire section on “Articulating Trans-Misogyny.” It includes previously hard-to-find and unpublished essays, including two chapters written for Whipping Girl that weren’t included in the final book. The link above will take you to the introduction to this section, wherein I describe how the book came to be. On pages 70–71, I specifically discuss the coining of “trans-misogyny,” what I was hoping to convey with it, who it applies to and why, and potential misuses of the term.

Trans-Misogyny Primer [PDF link]: This was a pamphlet I created for a 2009 conference panel that I participated in. So it’s short, and some of the language is a bit dated. It was later republished in Outspoken, and in the anthology Trans Bodies, Trans Selves.

Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive was my second book, published in 2013. In the chapter “Reclaiming Femininity,” I discuss transmisogyny (specifically pp. 49–53). While much of it reiterates points I previously made in Whipping Girl, I do include two new anecdotes that I feel are especially illustrative of the phenomenon and how it intersects with anti-feminine sentiment. Here are those particular passages:

I have found that many people who have not had a trans female or trans feminine experience often have trouble wrapping their brains around the concept of trans-misogyny, so I will offer the following two anecdotes to help illustrate what I mean by the term. Once, about two years ago, I was walking down the street in San Francisco, and a trans woman happened to be walking just ahead of me. She was dressed femininely, but not any more feminine than a typical cis woman. Two people, a man and a woman, were sitting on a doorstep, and as the trans woman walked by, the man turned to the woman he was sitting next to and said, “Look at all the shit he’s wearing,” and the woman he was with nodded in agreement. Now presumably the word “shit” was a reference to femininity — specifically, the feminine clothing and cosmetics the trans woman wore. I found this particular comment to be quite telling. After all, while cis women often receive harassing comments from strange men on the street, it is rather rare for those men to address those remarks to a female acquaintance and for her to apparently approve of his remarks. Furthermore, if this same man were to have harassed a cis woman, it is unlikely that he would do so by referring to her feminine clothing and makeup as “shit.” Similarly, someone who is on the trans masculine spectrum could potentially be harassed, but it is unlikely that his masculine clothing would be referred to as “shit.” Thus, trans-misogyny is both informed by, yet distinct from, transphobia and misogyny, in that it specifically targets transgender expressions of femaleness and femininity.

The second example of trans-misogyny that I’d like to share occurred at an Association for Women in Psychology conference I attended in 2007 (for those unfamiliar with that organization, it is essentially a feminist psychology conference). One psychologist gave a presentation on the ways in which feminism has informed her approach to therapy. During the course of her talk, she discussed two transgender clients of hers, one on the trans male/masculine spectrum, the other on the trans female/feminine spectrum. Their stories were very similar in that both had begun the process of physically transitioning but were having second thoughts about it. First, the therapist discussed the trans masculine spectrum person, whose gender presentation she described simply as being “very butch.” She discussed this individual’s transgender expressions and issues in a respectful and serious manner, and the audience listened attentively. However, when she turned her attention to the trans feminine client, she went into a very graphic and animated description of the trans person’s appearance, detailing how the trans woman’s hair was styled, the type of outfit and shoes she was wearing, the way her makeup was done, and so on. This description elicited a significant amount of giggling from the audience, which I found to be particularly disturbing given the fact that this was an explicitly feminist conference. Clearly, if a male psychologist gave a talk at this meeting in which he went into such explicit detail regarding what one of his cis female clients was wearing, most of these same audience members, as well as the presenter, would surely (and rightfully) be appalled and would view such remarks to be blatantly objectifying. In fact, in both of these incidents I have described, comments that would typically be considered extraordinarily misogynistic if they were directed at cis women are not considered beyond the pale when directed at trans women.

As both of these anecdotes demonstrate, expressions of trans-misogyny do not merely focus on trans women’s female gender identities, but more often than not, they specifically target her feminine gender expression. Trans-misogyny is driven by the fact that in our culture, feminine appearances are more blatantly and routinely judged by society than masculine ones. It is also driven by the fact that connotations such as “artificial,” “contrived,” and “frivolous” are practically built into our cultural understanding of femininity — these same connotations allow masculinity to invariably come off as “natural,” “sincere,” and “practical” in comparison.

A Final Note on Whipping Girl, “Pathological Science,” and Gender Non-Conforming Children: While the aforementioned writings touch on many aspects of transmisogyny, there are two specific subtopics that I discuss at length in Whipping Girl, but have not explored much since. The first of these regards how transmisogyny has led to trans female/feminine-spectrum people being psychopathologized to a far greater degree than our trans male/masculine-spectrum counterparts. Most of this evidence and analysis can be found in Chapter 7: “Pathological Science” — particularly the section “Traditional Sexism and Effemimania” (pp. 126–139). [note: “effemimania” is my term for how psychologists and sexologists were historically obsessed with all forms of what they considered to be “male femininity.”] The second subtopic is how gender non-conforming (GNC) children who are construed as “feminine boys” are perceived far more negatively than those construed as “masculine girls.” I discuss this in both the previous “pathological science” section, but also in Chapter 17 — particularly the section “Effemimania and Feminine Expression” (pp. 285–289). In that latter section, I drew on a study by Emily Kane (cited in full below), and Stephen J. Ducat’s book The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity. In the years since, I’ve compiled a few more research studies demonstrating that feminine GNC children are viewed more negatively than their masculine GNC counterparts, so I figured that I’d share them with readers:

In conclusion, I hope that the pieces I have shared here help to clarify my original conceptualization of transmisogyny. I will be the first to acknowledge that all activist concepts have limitations, and may not be able to account for, or may even obscure, other manifestations of marginalization. This is, in fact, a major theme of my book Excluded.

Multiple things can be true at once. Transmisogyny can be a vital term for some of us to communicate the intersection of transphobia and misogyny that we face. But others may experience it more complicatedly or severely, as in the case of transmisogynoir. And for others (e.g., certain nonbinary people, trans male/masculine-spectrum people), misogyny may intersect with transphobia in different ways that aren’t adequately articulated by transmisogyny. This doesn’t necessarily make transmisogyny “wrong”; it may simply mean that we need additional language.

This essay was made possible by my Patreon supporters — if you liked it and want to see more like it, please consider supporting me there. You can learn more about my writings and activism at juliaserano.com.

writes about gender, sexuality, social justice, & science. author of Whipping Girl, Excluded, Outspoken, & the unusually queer novel 99 Erics. juliaserano.com

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