Transgender People, Social Exclusion
and Transphobia

Surya Monro


Issue 13
February 2001

Surya Monro
is the author of
Gender Politics:
Citizenship, Activism, and Diversity

Published by Pluto Press Ltd

As I wrote in a previous issue, I have just finished doing a PhD about transgender politics. Here are some more of the results, focusing this time on the challenges that transgender people face. Before I start, I'd like to thank and acknowledge all the people who contributed to the research.

It is important to point out that not all transgender people feel themselves to be socially excluded or oppressed. However, many transgender people experience social exclusion, in various ways. Intersexuals and androgynes experience the greatest levels of exclusion, as intersexuals are usually 'treated' when infants or children to make them fit the gender binary system. This sometimes results in serious physical and identity problems. Intersex is pathologised by the medical system and is framed as socially problematic, although some intersex people do not need surgery for physical well-being. There are no pronouns or widely known terms to describe intersex or gender ambiguous people. Non male and female people are bureaucratically erased, through 'male/female' coding on forms and official documents. Economic exclusion is a very major problem for gender ambiguous people, unless they are able to successfully 'pass' as male or female. Like other transgender people, intersexuals where visibly gender ambiguous are frequently victims of violence and abuse. Intersex people are currently socially invisible, with hardly any representation in the media, social policy and sexual minority subcultures and a lack of service provision in areas such as education, the family and the penal system.

Unlike some intersexuals, transsexuals require medical treatment in order to transition. Findings indicate that the NHS is both enabling of this and in some cases an institution of control. Attitudes to pathologisation vary, with most contributors rejecting psychiatric and in some cases physical pathologisation but arguing for treatment to be available where necessary. Gender role stereotyping and homophobia within the medical system seems to be a problem in some cases, although this is changing. Medics vary in approach and clearly exist within the constraints of the wider system. In some cases they appear to take a morally policing role, for example where transsexuals resort to prostitution in order to fund themselves. The growth of private medicine is linked with liberalisation concerning medical services for transsexuals as well as restrictions on the amount of service provision.

Both medical and legislative bodies adhere to a gender binary (male-female) system, but their models are in opposition, as medics recognise the assigned identity where as transsexuals remain their birth sex in terms of civil status. Transsexuals are denied many basic civil rights, such as marriage and in some cases parenthood. Transsexual rights are limited; only available to those who have had full surgery and with an emphasis on passing. Employment patterns vary, but many people are excluded and for those who are in paid employment there is often discrimination. Stigmatisation and abuse are widespread in certain specific contexts, such as prisons. Discrimination sometimes occurs in education, for example bullying at school. Access to social space is problematic, especially for non- passing transsexuals, and experience of violence is very common. Relationships and family life may be difficult, as transsexuals sometimes face discrimination from potential partners and family members, although this is by no means uniform. The media appears to be contested territory; coverage is mixed. Transgender people face exclusion from some subcultures, but are now mostly welcomed or tolerated in the lesbian, gay and bisexual communities.

Transvestites, drag queens and drag kings have been historically framed as abnormal by the medical system but because they do not usually receive medical treatment and they have managed to evade the more damaging effects of pathologisation. Findings indicate that transvestites vary in their attitudes towards pathologisation; the early groups took on a pathologised model but later groups mostly celebrate the identity, including the fetishistic aspects. Drag queens, and, later, drag kings, rejected stigmatising mainstream models of identity and established affirmative subcultures, playing an important role in queer subcultures. Transvestites and cross-dressers face less of the social exclusion, which plagues other transgender people. This is because cross-dressing is a part-time, recreational activity for most, and takes place in social space, which supports it. Transvestites, who are usually heterosexual, sometimes face relationship problems and cross-dressers are generally at risk of violence. In addition, they remain socially marginalised and are usually unable to express their identities in the public sphere, except in queer subculture spaces, where they also face a certain level of discrimination as well as celebration. There appears to be a widening of social tolerance for sexual minorities, which makes life easier for some transvestites, cross- dressers and drag queens and kings.

Transphobia, defined here as the fear of and stigmatisation of transgender people, is at the root of the problems that many transgender people experience. This occurs at the individual level, because most people are afraid of people who are 'different', or gender ambiguous, particularly when this is linked with sexuality. These things provoke their own suppressed and unconscious fears and desires, and it is easier to make transgender people 'wrong' or 'sick' than it is to face their own issues. There is also no social category into which people can 'fit' people who are gender-different, and this means that transgender can seem very frightening. Therefore, transgender people get shut out of society instead of society becoming more rich and diverse. In addition, there are powerful forces which support transphobia which operate at cultural, but usually unconscious levels. These are:

Racism and the legacy of colonialism. Many non-Western and pre- colonial societies value or valued transgender people, who are/were important in their cultures (see Ramet 1997, Feinberg 1996)

Patriarchy, or the oppression of women by men, because it relies upon a rigid male-female distinction and operates to support this

Homophobia, which is closely intertwined with transphobia: both act to support the social dominance of heterosexuality

Sexphobia, or fear of sexuality, especially when transgender is linked with sexual expression (for example some transvestism)

Religious traditions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism all condemn transgender and have also in the case of Christianity operated to wipe out indigenous religions which supported transgender

Body fascism, or the stigmatisation and social inequality of people seen as physically different or unattractive. This impacts heavily on some transgender people, especially for example non-passing transsexuals

Disablism, as some transgender people have disabilities (mostly it seems due to the social discrimination they face)

These forces impact in varied ways, depending on the context and the people involved. Awareness of the way in which they work can perhaps help to counteract them, in the same way that naming racism and sexism has helped the Black Civil Rights and the Women's Movements respectively.

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