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Why are transphobes so transphobic?

As a straight, white, middle-aged, college-educated, settled-community, cisgender man, I know that I benefit from more than my fair share of privilege. So if I have found Pride Month somewhat stressful, I can only imagine how others must have felt.

Pride Month just isn’t what it used to be. What was once a yearly celebration of self-affirmation for LGBT+ people seems now to have become an annual frenzy of abuse aimed at LGBT+ communities, and, for these past few years especially, at trans people in particular.

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, Newton said. Thus, the more visible trans people become within our communities and peer groups, the more relentlessy those who object to their very existence pollute social and mainstream media with streams of toxic whining.

I’m not even sure what we are supposed to call these anti-trans objectors anymore. The label ‘TERF’ appears to hurt their feelings. However, their threshold for this type of pain does seem rather low. They seem permanently primed to pathologise all forms of emotionally injurious experience: just the other week, I saw a national newspaper columnist suggest that even calling someone a transphobe is unreasonable and offensive.

Transphobia, the columnist explained, “literally” means “a form of mental illness,” one that causes a person to manifest an irrational fear (“or hatred”) of trans people. The somewhat ironic implication of their complaint was that they didn’t feel that people who express anti-trans views should be labelled as mentally ill. (I guess if the transphobia doesn’t get you, the ablism will.)

But as a psychologist, I can tell you that, no, that’s not what transphobia “literally” means. And as an ordinary person with regular human emotions, I can tell you that it isn’t mental illness that makes a person transphobic.

It’s a lack of basic human empathy that does that.

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So why exactly are transphobes so, well, transphobic? The research on this matter spans several academic disciplines. This is because transphobia itself can be classified as emerging at many different levels.

Firstly, transphobia may emerge at a personal level — it may be rooted in an individual’s own disposition and in their instinctive outlook on life. Transphobes often have a number of specific personality traits.

For example, transphobes tend to score high on scales that measure social dominance orientation. In other words, they tend to be the type of people who always want to be in control. A recent large-scale study from Belgium — which examined more than 5,600 adults — found a recurring pattern of relatively high dominance scores among transphobes, a finding borne out in a subsequent study by researchers in Poland. Similarly, several studies have shown that transphobia is also related to various measures of authoritarianism.

So far, so obvious, perhaps. But some aspects of the transphobic personality are a bit more subtle. For instance, research suggests that transphobes are much more likely to score high on a variable known as ‘need for closure.’ This means they are the type of people who favour clarity and concreteness over abstractness. They look for quick answers to complex questions, and find ambiguity inherently frustrating. By contrast, people who have high risk-tolerance thresholds — in other words, people who are generally unperturbed by uncertainty — are relatively less likely to hold anti-trans views.

All this might help explain why personal religiosity seems to be a strong predictor of transphobia. Of course, we know that lots of religious people hold genuinely positive attitudes towards the trans community, that many trans people themselves are religious, and that being an atheist doesn’t stop someone from being a transphobe. Religion, per se, does not turn people into bigots. The point here, however, is that study after study (after study after study after study after study after study) has indicated that people who describe themselves as religious are — on average — much more likely to express hostile transphobic views. And the more religious a transphobic person says they are, the more hostile their anti-trans views typically become. It is a general statistical trend rather than a universal law, but it suggests a distinctive propensity for transphobia among many religiously minded people.

A more disturbing transphobic trait is a tendency for aggression. A number of studies reveal transphobia to be correlated with expressions of actual and symbolic violence, including, for example, attitudes supportive of sexual coercion and rape. Transphobes have also been found to score relatively high on ‘antagonism,’ as measured using formal psychiatric tests of ‘maladaptive personality.’

Domineering, inflexible, cagey, antagonistic, sometimes violent, and often religiously sanctimonious, the character of the typical transphobe as suggested by research is not particularly endearing.

But for the present discussion, the quality of the anti-trans temperament is less important than its consistency. Transphobia, it would appear, often reflects something stable at the heart of a person’s nature.

Transphobes don’t always learn to be transphobes. Sometimes they’re just born that way.

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But that is not to say that transphobia never arises at a social level too. It is certainly the case that many people become transphobic only after they witness transphobic behaviour by others. This is especially likely if transphobia is exhibited by so-called authority figures, people who are perceived as being influential, trustworthy, or knowledgeable.

Contrary to popular assumption, social communication channels are poor at filtering garbage. It is a general principle of social psychology that any and all manner of fallacious reasoning can be propelled by word of mouth.

This is the dynamic that produces so-called epistemic bubbles, closed social networks where members share information without realising that it is incomplete. Most of us live in epistemic bubbles of one kind or another. The extent to which our knowledge is selective is always unclear; encountering a new point of view can therefore be quite shocking.

For many people, new information will ‘pop’ their epistemic bubble by making them realise what they have been overlooking. But for others, the experience causes such discomfort as to drive them toward denialism — in order to save face, they take active steps to avoid competing viewpoints, to exclude unfamiliar voices, and to ridicule and deligitimise perspectives that they find alien. In short, their network ceases to be a mere epistemic bubble anymore, and instead becomes an ‘echo chamber.’

Many studies have found that echo chambers play an important role in cultivating transphobia. For example, people are much more likely to develop transphobic attitudes if they have previously had minimal contact, or no contact at all, with an actual transgender person. Conversely, and perhaps unsurprisingly, people are much less likely to be transphobic if they have one or more LGBT+ friends.

Of course, there is a chicken-and-egg dimension to all this. Transphobes are most unlikely to make many trans friends because of one simple fact: they are transphobes. Their transphobia makes it improbable that they will ever even meet a trans person in any sort of neutral context. But that is the thing with echo chambers. By secluding people within silos of opinion, they constrain activities as well as attitudes.

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Another thing with echo chambers is that they facilitate moral panics. Misplaced anxiety festers the more it is shared. Classic moral panics typically involve the identification of scapegoats (or ‘folk devils’) and the exaggeration, or even fabrication, of controversies.

This is what allows transphobia to arise at a political level — transphobia often reflects, and is driven by, the dynamics of power as they operate within culture as a whole. In this context, trans issues serve as a proxy for wider cultural power struggles, with different subgroups of the population targetting trans issues — and scapegoating the trans community — as a way to further their particular political agenda.

Many studies show that transphobes are more likely to endorse right-wing political views, especially with regard to social issues (such as their strong support for traditional gender roles). But the research also suggests that their right-wing approach often extends to economic matters too. For example, in one British dataset, transphobic worldviews were associated with a broader “desire to maintain societal hierarchy and inequality.”

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But perhaps the most vivid political aspect of transphobia is its increasingly obvious link with far-right extremism.

In the US, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights advocacy group, highlights transphobia as “an animating force within the white nationalist movement.” Transphobic harrassment is frequently enveloped by fascistic symbolism, such as Nazi salutes or chants of “Jews will not replace us.” More broadly, far-right internet forums are awash with paranoid concern about ‘white replacement’ — a conspiracy theory claiming that white populations in developed nations are deliberately being replaced by non-white peoples — frequently implicating trans communities as a particular threat to the white race’s reproductive future. As described by Michael Feola in Slate:

To heighten the panic, movements for trans acceptance are persistently described by the far right as part of a plot by the ‘transgender-industrial complex’—a diagnosis based in antisemitic fantasies over a Jewish conspiracy to undermine white population growth. For this reason, the forums of the extreme right have fixated upon the definition of what is a woman, a talking point that seeks to secure gender identity at an essential, biological level. 

Around the world, a rise in populism has seen far-right extremism become ever more emboldened and violent. This year’s Vienna Pride march in Austria was targetted by significant far-right counter-protests, which drew together neo-Nazis, Catholic fundamentalists, and members of the white nationalist Identitarian movement. Anti-trans rhetoric emerged as a theme in France’s presidential election, with one far-right candidate railing against the “brainwashing” of schoolchildren with “LGBT propaganda” and the news magazine Valeurs Actuelles warning readers about a “trans epidemic” (“Le délire transgenre”) allegedly sweeping the country.

Illiberal politicians have found transphobia especially useful for rallying conservative voters. In Hungary this year, prime minister Viktor Orbán sought to shore up flagging support by organising a referendum on ‘gender non-conformity’ to be held the same day as his country’s general election. Orbán promised that his initiative would “stop at Hungary’s borders the gender insanity sweeping across the western world.” Despite sex-change treatments for minors already being illegal in Hungary, the referendum asked voters to reject “the promotion of sex reassignment therapy for underage children.”​ Panicked by the prospect of losing such a ballot, ultra-conservative voters duly turned out in their millions, helping to secure for Orbán a fourth consecutive term as Hungary’s leader.

The Washington DC-based Human Rights Campaign, which annually tracks reports of fatal anti-transgender crimes, attributes the current “epidemic of violence” against trans victims to “a toxic mix of transphobia, misogyny and racism.” Violent attacks on trans people in the US reached an all-time high in 2021. In 2022, the far-right perpetrator of the mass shooting in Buffalo singled out trans people in his ‘manifesto’, warning that “transgenderism” was “a mental illness and should be addressed as such.” In May, a school in Wisconsin received a series of bomb threats after it launched an investigation into an incident in which three eighth-graders refused to use the pronouns ‘they/them’ when referring to one of their classmates.

It is never a surprise to observe an uptick in organised transphobia during Pride Month. Here in Ireland, there was a days-long controversy involving a radio talk show on the national broadcaster, RTÉ, which unequestioningly showcased a series of anti-trans callers, prompting Dublin Pride to terminate its longstanding media partnership with the station. Writing in The Beacon, one of the founders of Dublin Pride, Izzy Kamikaze, describes in compelling detail how RTÉ essentially misrepresented the entire incident. In claiming that it merely wanted to facilitate members of the public to ask questions about “biology,” the broadcaster omitted to explain how it had been forewarned that the callers it was platforming intended to “stage an action” in protest against a trans woman being re-elected to the board of the country’s National Women’s Council. In fact, the anti-trans group organising the protest had gone so far as to issue a press release announcing their plans.

Disturbingly, as Izzy points out, none of Ireland’s major media outlets provided any of this important context when reporting on the controversy. Nor did they point out that the group concerned had previously organised an event involving a speaker who promotes a conspiracy theory blaming a handful of Jewish billionaires for the existence of the trans movement.

* * *

White replacement conspiracy theories may seem outlandish, but there are reasons to conclude that they are entering the political mainstream. Praising former president Donald Trump for his role in packing the US Supreme Court with anti-abortion conservatives, a Republican congressperson described the overturning of Roe v Wade as a “victory for white life.” And well she might, for in its longwinded opinion overturning the historic right to abortion, the Court did include an oblique footnote alluding, in passing, to a quote about “the domestic supply of infants” having become “virtually nonexistent”.

A recurring anti-trans complaint concerns a creeping paranoia about the desirability of so-called “shared spaces.” Simply put, transphobic commentators, especially those with extremist views, argue that trans women should not be allowed to access single-sex spaces such as toilets or domestic abuse refuges. This is despite the fact that there is no evidence that any such restrictions would ever be required on public safety grounds, or the fact that the majority of the general population are perfectly fine with trans people accessing the facilities of their choice.

Perhaps the real “shared space” for transphobes to consider is the space that they themselves co-occupy. The anti-trans lobby need to account for the fact that their preferred talking points are also happily pushed by neo-Nazis, racists, white supremacists, ultra-nationalists, and a wide range of other assorted fascists.

Not all those who complain about trans rights are bigots, by any means.

But pretty much every bigot is a transphobe.