How to Respond to Transphobia


Table of Contents

A guide for addressing cissexist statements, to aid you in sometimes tricky conversations.

Cissexism is the system of oppression that negatively targets people whose Gender does not correspond with the Sex they were assigned at birth, often referred to as transphobia. While Transgender people are often met with violence and discrimination, the latest cissexist policy initiatives in the U.S. attack Trans youth in an attempt to galvanize conservative voters around a single “contentious” issue. In the U.S., 15 states have restricted access to Gender-affirming medical care for youth, and parents who support them have been threatened with child abuse investigations. With the inflammatory and harmful rhetoric of these initiatives making their way into workspaces, we would like to provide a guide for addressing cissexist statements, to aid you in sometimes tricky conversations.

Breaking it Down

Many societies today classify people into a binary of Male or Female to point to seemingly “biological” explanations for the social differences between these groups. However, the wide range of cultural variations around Gender norms tells us that these characteristics are not inherent to people of different Genders. One of many examples of this is the long history of Afghan men who wear makeup, which in other cultures is often considered to be a “feminine” behavior. While the terms “Sex” and “Gender” are often conflated, Sex refers to one’s sex characteristics (such as genitalia, hormones, chromosomes, and secondary sex characteristics developed during puberty), of which there are many combinations, and Gender indicates unique self-identifications and expressions. So while someone’s Sex assigned at birth may have been ‘Female’, their Gender could be ‘Man’ or ‘Non-binary’. But even Sex is a socially constructed category, informed by what people choose to use as labels over time. Professor Cicely Marston explains it best:

“People who assert that biological sex is binary seem to offer varying and sometimes contradictory biological markers that they claim divide everyone in the world neatly into two categories. Is it chromosomes? Gametes? Testosterone levels? Genital appearance? Nobody seems to be sure. ‘Biological sex’ is a construct that helps our highly gendered society to categorise and label others.”

While institutions like the media, government, medical systems, and religious organizations project narratives of a strict Gender binary that assigns people into either the Male or Female category, these often do not align with the way many people express their Gender through things like action, dress, and demeanor. In reality, characteristics that have no inherent biological attachment are assigned to Genders to reinforce the binary.

Reflection Activity

Can you think back to your childhood to reflect on when certain gendered expectations were introduced to you? How did you learn what society associated with Men/Boys and Women/Girls? When did you learn that these associations were not fixed or biological? What does this tell you?

Looking at the pictures below, see if you can spot at least 5 Gender norms that are taught to children at a young age. What are the implications of these ideas? Who is excluded by them?

[Image description: On the left-hand side, there is an image of a White child in a red plaid dress, blonde hair, and bows in pigtails, holding a doll baby and giving it a pacifier next to its pink and purple doll stroller. On the right-hand side there is an image of a child of colour in brown suspenders, a black shirt, and a black hat scooping dirt into a toy truck, which an adult in a hat points to.]

Who Benefits?

While a multiplicity of fluid Genders have existed throughout time, namely in Indian, Native American, and Aboriginal cultures as well as in Ancient Mesopotamia, the project of colonialism necessitated their erasure to enforce a strict Gender binary that is designed to privilege Men. By claiming that anyone who is not a Cisgender Man is biologically inferior, Men are given a rightful claim to positions of power, leadership, and control. This ultimately legitimizes the oppression of Trans and Non-binary people, which is rampant in negligent healthcare systems and the increasing murder of Trans Women of color, especially. Systems like sexism and cissexism both ultimately serve patriarchy, showing us that the rights of Trans/Non-binary people and Women are all connected, rather than opposed, as Trans-exclusive feminist ideology would have us believe.

So who benefits from dehumanizing and delegitimizing trans people? For one, there are entire industries that profit off of selling things to two distinct Genders, and if these categories cease to exist so does their market! Many other patriarchal systems also seek to protect traditional Gender norms to serve and maintain Men’s power. If Gender was not neatly split in this way, there would be no way to distinguish people’s ability or role in society–making it that much more difficult to discriminate against people! In the case of Trans youth, scapegoating their supportive parents for child abuse is not only harmful to these families but removes attention and resources away from children who are in legitimately violent households.

Practice Conversation

Let’s take a look at a sample conversation that might come up in the workplace, and some methods of addressing cissexist statements in a way that brings people into the conversation and prevents future potential harm against Transgender people.

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