Transphobia, in basic terms, refers to any expression of fear or hatred directed toward folks who are transgender, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming.
Like other forms of discrimination and prejudice, transphobia often stems from a lack of understanding and insight around:
- what it means to be transgender, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming
- the many careless actions and words that can cause harm
While transphobia tends to decrease as awareness around gender increases, it remains a major problem in some communities. It doesn’t just cause distress by invalidating someone’s identity, though that’s harmful enough. It also often leads to hate speech, hate crimes, and systemic discrimination.
Ready to learn more about recognizing, avoiding, and preventing transphobia? You’ve come to the right place. Read on for a detailed explanation, examples, and tips to handle a mistake with compassion and grace.
Transphobia extends beyond a “phobia” to include hatred, dismissal, and disgust. Basically, it describes any attitude, feeling, or behavior that:
- stigmatizes trans people
- denies their identities
- treats them as unequal or less than human
People commonly learn transphobic beliefs from parents, peers, educators, and religious teachings. These beliefs can show up in more obvious forms, like bullying. But transphobia isn’t always recognizably derogatory.
Even skepticism around the idea that gender occurs on a spectrum can quickly snowball down the slope toward discrimination and identity invalidation.
A person doesn’t have to put these behaviors or beliefs into words for them to count as transphobia, either.
Maybe they don’t consider trans people “real” men or women. Or they tell themselves, “I don’t have any problem with trans people — but I would never date one.”
Transphobia vs. cissexism
Cissexism arises from the belief that people can only be cisgender (cis) or have a gender identity that aligns with their sex assigned at birth. In other words, a person is either male or female, depending on the genitalia they were born with.
Instead of expressing messages of outright hate toward transgender, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming people, cissexist ideology fails to recognize their existence. This type of discrimination generally involves denying any and all expressions of gender that don’t align with a male-female binary, including:
- saying trans people are “confused”
- separating people into binary gender categories
- insisting a nonbinary teen only “wants attention”
- asking about “preferred” pronouns
- refusing to use nonbinary pronouns
Cissexism often occurs on a structural level, in healthcare, education, and other sectors, and tends to be more pervasive and difficult to address. Like transphobia, it can cause deep and lasting harm.
Again, transphobia can include any discrimination, invalidation, or negative judgment and beliefs related to gender identity. Clearly, that generates a pretty long list of potentially transphobic behaviors.
Understand, too, that a person can also express transphobic ideas unintentionally. These words and actions can still cause pain, even if they weren’t meant negatively.
“Many trans, nonbinary, or questioning people face frequent (often daily) discrimination and inappropriate questions or jokes directed at their appearance, genitals, and personal life,” explains Will Z. Zogg, LMHC, a child and family counselor and clinical supervisor in Washington state.
Zogg, who also works as a consultant specializing in transgender healthcare, offers some examples to consider:
- asking personal questions that likely wouldn’t be asked if the person was cisgender, like “What’s in your pants?”
- assuming trans people are open to these invasive questions
- fetishizing trans people — for example, watching pornography featuring trans people in private while denying their rights in public
- acting as an expert on someone else’s gender identity
- failing to recognize any cultural, religious, and spiritual perspectives on gender that don’t align with a male-female binary
- making comments like, “You don’t look like a real man (or woman)”
Another type of transphobia? Asking someone, “But what’s your real name? You know, the one your parents gave you.”
That’s called deadnaming. Here’s why it’s a big deal.
Trans people also face plenty of discrimination and stigma at school, work, or in healthcare situations.
They might, for example:
- be harassed or let go on a pretext after coming out as trans
- earn a lower salary and receive fewer (or no) opportunities for raises and promotions
- experience misgendering on a regular basis
- face curiosity and judgment from healthcare professionals, instead of compassion
Schools or workplaces that require gendered uniforms might also insist trans students or employees wear the wrong uniform. Similarly, those with gendered restrooms often bar trans people from using the bathroom that matches their gender identity. Both practices can lead to gender dysphoria, not to mention daily emotional distress.
Zogg notes that many insurance policies also discriminate by covering hormone replacement therapy for cis men and women with low testosterone or estrogen, but excluding hormone replacement therapy and gender affirming surgery for trans people.
What about outing?
Outing someone or sharing their gender identity without their consent to do so can also count as transphobia. A person who purposely outs someone is sending the message that they don’t respect their privacy or care about their safety.
Accidental outing, on the other hand, can happen with the best of intentions.
Say a person calls a friend by the pronouns they’ve shared with them in front of someone who doesn’t know that they’re trans. They respect and support their friend’s gender, and they absolutely didn’t mean to cause them harm. Still, this could put their safety at risk.
When someone trusts you with their gender identity, asking how you should refer to them around other people can help protect them from harassment.
You’ll find plenty of examples of transphobia in the news and media.
One of the most blatant is the persistent “bathroom debate” taking place at schools, locker rooms, and other facilities with gendered restrooms across the United States.
The intrusive need to control bathroom access generally masquerades as concern for the safety of cis women, a faulty line of thinking that casts trans people as voyeurs and predators. This myth also operates on the premise that a person can be instantly recognized as trans, which isn’t at all true.
Unpacking this myth lies beyond the scope of this article, so we’ll keep it simple: No evidence links inclusive bathroom policies to a higher risk of sexual violence. Trans people are no more likely to attack someone in the bathroom than anyone else.
As plenty of trans people and allies have pointed out, trans women in particular are far more likely to experience violence and harassment when using a men’s restroom.
Bathroom policies that prevent trans people from using the correct bathroom do double damage by telling trans people their identities and needs don’t matter and putting their safety at risk.
Cis actors playing trans characters
Positive media representation of trans people has definitely increased in recent years, yes. But it’s still far from ideal.
In many TV shows and movies, trans characters show up as aggressive or dangerous individuals, victims of crimes or abuse, and people struggling with severe mental health concerns.
In others, trans or nonbinary character roles continue to go to cis actors, when plenty of trans and nonbinary actors go unacknowledged — until they’re called on to fill the more stereotyped roles mentioned above, that is.
Limiting trans and nonbinary actors to trans roles also furthers transphobia. It emphasizes their trans identities, othering them and implying they aren’t actual members of their gender. Trans men are men, while trans women are women. So there’s no reason they can’t fill these roles like any other actor would.
Restrictions in sports
Numerous states have recently proposed laws designed to “save women’s sports” by excluding trans girls and women from participating in team sports.
The grounds for this might seem somewhat plausible if it’s assumed trans women are always taller, stronger, or faster than the average woman.
But one, that’s not always the case, and two, plenty of cis women are also taller, stronger, and faster than the average woman. Rather than excluding them, though, sports teams often seek them out for those exact qualities.
In short, these policies are just another example of discrimination.
Transphobia can cause lingering mental and emotional distress, whether it takes the form of prying questions, jokes, or words and acts of outright hate. Not only does it leave many people afraid to share their identities and be themselves, but it can also have a huge impact on other areas of life.
Zogg explains that transphobia often leaves people feeling isolated, exhausted, and hopeless. “People might question whether they can safely leave the house to run errands, for example, or feel afraid to communicate with their friends and family.”
Systemic transphobia can prevent people from getting needed medical treatment, which can complicate existing health concerns and have life threatening consequences.
According to a recent report from the Center for American Progress, in fact, nearly half of all trans people in the United States have experienced verbal abuse, physical abuse, or refusal of treatment from a healthcare provider. Among trans People of Color, this number jumps to 68 percent.
Other potential effects of transphobia and identity-based discrimination include:
If someone tells you that something you said was transphobic, it’s best to take them at their word. Maybe you didn’t mean to discriminate, but the impact can often land quite a bit differently than the intent you had in mind.
Even remarks you might consider compliments or questions you might consider innocent can be demeaning and hurtful:
- “OK, yeah, you’re a woman, but really, you’re a man.”
- “Wow, I would have never guessed you were born a girl!”
- “So, how’d your surgery go? Can I see?”
A good guideline might involve considering whether you’d make the same remark to someone who wasn’t trans. If not, you’ll probably want to apologize and avoid similar comments or questions in the future.
People make mistakes and say hurtful things, both accidentally and intentionally. What’s important to realize is that your words and actions can still cause pain and distress even when they don’t come from a place of hate.
Maybe you carried on a lengthy argument defending sex assigned at birth as the sole factor that determines gender. Or perhaps you expressed a little too much interest in your friend’s sex life and feel embarrassed over objectifying them.
Accidentally misgendered someone? Here’s how to handle it.
- justifying your actions
- making excuses
- insisting you didn’t do anything wrong
Instead, offer a sincere apology:
- Start with “I’m sorry.” Don’t follow it with “but.”
- It’s OK to offer an explanation, like “I didn’t realize what deadnaming was or how painful it might feel.”
- But skip excuses, like “Well, it’s just so hard to remember a new name.”
An apology means nothing without positive change. Going forward, commit to improvement by getting familiar with examples of transphobia to learn more about hurtful remarks and assumptions to avoid.
Hear an acquaintance make a transphobic comment? Notice people targeting one of your classmates or co-workers?
- Make a quick comment in the moment. “Actually, Cody’s pronouns are ‘he’ and ‘him.'”
- Catch them privately later. “In class today, you said being nonbinary isn’t a real thing. That’s pretty invalidating for some people to hear. Would you be open to talking about that?”
- Support the person being targeted. If you don’t feel comfortable saying anything, help them leave the situation safely. You might go up and start a conversation, for example, or say your teacher or supervisor asked you to find them.
If you’ve made some transphobic remarks in the past, you can work to change those attitudes and do better in the future.
Transphobia that grows out of ignorance often diminishes when you take the time to learn what it means to be transgender and recognize that you do, most likely, know some trans people in your everyday life, Zogg explains.
That said, expecting a trans person to educate you on all things trans is not the way to go.
Instead, try these resources:
- A Guide to Being an Ally to Transgender and Nonbinary Youth
- Addressing Anti-Transgender Violence: Exploring Realities, Challenges and Solutions
- Our Trans Loved Ones
- Tips for Allies of Transgender People
- Wave of Bills to Block Trans Athletes Has No Basis In Science, Researcher Says
Crystal Raypole writes for Healthline and Psych Central. Her fields of interest include Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health, along with books, books, and more books. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues. She lives in Washington with her son and a lovably recalcitrant cat.