Overcoming my trans prejudice

I used to be prejudiced about trans people, literally prejudging them before I know any trans people personally. One source of my prejudice was Christian thought: not anything specific about male and female sex roles, but a more general belief that you should accept yourself as God made you. This was combined with a belief that trans people couldn’t “pass”, would always visibly still be part of their assigned sex.

The other source of my prejudice was old-fashioned feminism: seeing trans women, in particular, as accepting and reinforcing gender stereotypes of masculinity and femininity rather than challenging them. The one book by a trans person I (partially) read: Jan Morris’ Conundrum, tended to reinforce this prejudice.

What changed my views was knowing a couple of trans people; I didn’t know them very well, but it still made an impact. The first was a trans man whom I didn’t realise was trans until after I’d known him for several years. That rather put paid to any ideas I had about the inability to “pass”; he was a man living a happy Christian life. If I believed (as I do) that “by their fruits you will know them”, I had to acknowledge that his transitioning had been the right thing for him to do.

The second person I met was a trans woman at what I presume was a fairly early stage of transitioning. I did realise she was trans rather than cis right away. She was also studying for a PhD in chemistry, which hardly fits with stereotyped views of femininity. But what really caused me to rethink my prejudices wasn’t something purely intellectual. The college we were both attending at the time was organising self-defence classes for women. She and I went along to those and during general discussions, she mentioned having been attacked several times. I can’t remember if she said specifically it was connected to her trans status, but I suspected at the time that it was. And that made me face my own prejudices at a whole new level. If I was saying that transitioning or expressing your trans identity was wrong, was I to some extent encouraging hostility or even violence towards trans people?

I suppose it’s just about intellectually consistent to say “I disapprove of trans people, but they shouldn’t be treated badly”, but I wasn’t able to separate those factors out emotionally. If I did not accept trans people, I was contributing to a world in which people I knew and liked were being placed in danger. My intellectual arguments did not outweigh their lived experience and most trans people’s lived experience is that to live as a particular sex makes them happy and to live as their originally-assigned sex makes them profoundly unhappy.

I suspect it’s more important to respect trans people at that practical level rather than to try and theorise the whole matter, speaking as someone whose normal response to everything is to try and theorise it. I don’t know why trans people feel this profound disconnect with their assigned/biological sex, but my not understanding it doesn’t mean that sense doesn’t exist or is invalid. There are lots of experiences I haven’t had or find difficult to understand. The nearest I can get to imagining it is the down mood I experienced when my first period started a day or two after the first time I wore a bra. I felt I was never going to be comfortable again. I didn’t want to be a woman (indeed, my imagined alter ego for many years was a blond, Californian superhero, which I’m sure reveals other disturbing things about my psyche).

But although I didn’t particularly want to be female or a woman, and I often fail at performing femininity, I’ve never doubted that I was a woman or had the profound sense of cosmic wrongness that many trans people had about their own bodies. It’s in that sense that I’m willing to call myself (or be called by others) “cis”: I do not experience the conviction that my sex was wrongly assigned at birth. While a lot of feminists reject this label, I don’t have a problem with it.

This is because, while “cis” is not a label I would instinctively use for myself, I can see the usefulness in discussions of trans issues. It distinguishes between someone who may have a characteristic to some extent and those who have it to an extent that it affects their whole life. Thus, while I wouldn’t think of myself as “neurotypical”, I am neurotypical enough to be able to cope with most social situations in a way that an autistic person couldn’t. Similarly, I tick the “not disabled” box on job application forms, even though without my glasses my effective range of vision is probably about two feet away. “Cis” can be misapplied or used as a term of abuse, but then so can practically any other word in the English language, so I don’t want to reject it for those reasons.

I’m not trying to set myself up as some PC heroine: I’m probably still prejudiced or insensitive towards trans people at times. But what my experiences show is that people can change their views, and also that this isn’t necessarily done via activism. I hope that, as with gay people, once cis people know more trans people, and a wider variety of trans people, transphobia and prejudice against trans people will gradually become less common and more socially unacceptable. It probably won’t be quick, but I think from my own experiences, that it can and will happen.


13 thoughts on “Overcoming my trans prejudice

    • It’s hard to admit it when we’ve been wrong, but I think it is important to do so, or we can get stuck with some harmful ideas,

      “Cis” is used as the opposite of “trans”, and so to refer to someone who doesn’t consider themself as trans, like myself. It’s obviously an over-simplification to say there are just the two options, but it’s sometimes quite useful to have a single word meaning “non-trans”.

      Glad to hear that bluetopink is still blogging and that her surgery is almost finished. It’s very stressful having any medical procedure, let alone such a major operation.


    • It’s something I’m thinking a lot about at the moment both personally and professionally. How have social advances (such as the weakening of patriarchal structures and of homophobia) come about in history? And how can we make more of them happen in the future? It’s only by working out what works that we can change things for the better and talking about my own reactions is one small contribution to that.


      • I was thinking about this just last week (right before surgery so I didn’t get very far…). I’m intrigued by the changing attitude to control of women/gender/sexuality; it’s a cycle. Looking at what I know of history I’m reminded of watching a candle under a bowl pulse as it sucks in and burns up oxygen. The light waxes then wanes, over and over.

        I’ve never had the time or focus to work out what the societal equivalent of oxygen is. Wealth/surplus? Communications? Rule of law? All of the above?


      • From the bits of history I’ve studied, a lot of such increases in control arises in the context for struggles between particular groups of men for power (I once used the term instrumental misogyny).

        But it’s also quite hard for the early Middle Ages to be sure to what extent there is a change in control of women etc and to what extent what we are think are changes are actually due to differences in documentation.


      • “How have social advances (such as the weakening of patriarchal structures and of homophobia) come about in history?”

        I would not consider that either of these necessarily were social advances, but it may be that I don’t know enough history.

        It’s certainly too early to tell if the weakening of patriarchal structures and of sanctions (both formal and informal) on homosexuality, as manifested over the last 50 years in Western capitalist democracies, constitutes a social advance.

        Can you give me examples of successful past societies with weak patriarchal structures and few or no sanctions on homosexuality?


      • I presume, since you say that it’s too early to tell if the weakening of patriarchal structures and of sanctions on homosexuality are social advances, that you’re neither female nor gay. As a woman, I appreciate the fact that, for example, I can no longer legally be raped by my husband (since 1991) and that I cannot be dismissed from my job or discriminated against in education just because I’m a woman (since 1975). I’m also grateful that I’m not subject to life imprisonment if I ever chose to have an abortion (since 1967). My gay friends are doubtless also grateful that they can’t be sent to prison for sleeping with their partners (since 1967) and that they’re now able officially to marry the people they love and want to spend the rest of their lives with (since 2014). And I think everyone’s glad that the Magdalen Laundries are closed (since 1996). Do you think it’s too early to say that these are major advances? I don’t. And I’d also glad that the world I grew up in (I was born in 1965), in which the fact that I was illegitimate and adopted had to be kept a dark secret, is gone.

        As far as successful societies go, there’s always the problem of how you define success. But both Classical Greece and Rome had few sanctions on some forms of homosexuality. There have been relatively few societies with no patriarchal structures, but I think it’s safe to say that modern day Saudi Arabia has far stronger patriarchal structures than the UK does and is much more hostile to homosexuality. Which would you say was the more successful society?


      • I was hoping for something more than Greece and Rome, because I’m only an interested layman and those were the two which immediately occurred to me. But IIRC those societies were still pretty patriarchal and the homosexuality was mostly pederasty, which today is called “child abuse” and is pretty much frowned on. If those are your best examples it sounds as if the modern UK is a bit of a pioneer.

        You list developments of which you approve – but social advances are those which benefit society as a whole. It’s hard IMHO to say that the UK is “advancing” when the effects of many of these changes (including the very important demographic effects) are still playing out.

        Re Saudi Arabia and the UK, I think you have to look at the points they’re starting from. A hundred years ago, the UK was a hugely successful (relative to other societies on earth) nation while Saudi Arabia was a few tribes in a desert (read Doughty’s Travels In Arabia Deserta – available free online). Fifty years ago, the UK was less successful – but Arabia had only recently started to gain control over her natural resources. Now, we are still less successful, and in some respects – ideology being one – Saudi Arabia has made huge strides. The Wahabi strain of Islam may not be my cup of tea or yours, but it’s been successfully exported worldwide and has committed adherents in many countries. We’ve exported modern liberal democracy at gunpoint recently to Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, but it doesn’t seem to have taken root very well at all, especially in competition with Wahabism. But then, how many supporters of liberal democracy are prepared to die for their belief, something the Wahabist would consider an honour?

        A better comparison might be the UK of Macmillan and the UK of Cameron.

        (I think I’ll stop here – I’m in danger of hijacking the thread, which is on a different subject, to address what was an aside of yours)


      • In terms of successful societies accepting homosexuality, it also sounds like ancient China was, which was pretty successful both intellectually and often militarily. But I’m a historian of western Europe, so I’m much less well-informed about Asian societies. When I’m talking about social progress, I’m thinking of the fact that men are no longer executed for “sodomy”, and that Alan Turing wasn’t forced to undergo chemical castration. Having just visited Bletchley Park, it’s a worrying thought what would have happened to our war efforts if Turing had been convicted for homosexual acts and shamed into suicide before 1939. Do you really want to deny it’s social progress that the same fate wouldn’t happen today to Turing 2.0?

        As for a comparison of Macmillan’s Britain (1957-1963) and today, there’s a very interesting summary of twentienth-century statistics for Britain done by the House of Commons library. Life expectancy has gone up since 1960 and infant mortality has gone done. Vastly more men and women now get degrees. More people own their own homes than in 1960.

        On the other hand, there are also downsides. The crime rate has gone up, though changes in how it’s recorded mean it’s hard to assess exactly how much. The murder rate is definitely up, although it’s now coming down again. 550 people died in that way in 2011/2012. For comparison, 750 people died from one incident of smog in 1962. And there’s also higher economic inequality now than in the 1960s.

        In other words, there are both positive and negative aspects to the last fifty years, but I still doubt how many modern Britons would voluntarily choose to go back to that period, if they would have the same sex/class/age/race as today. I think few women or ethnic minorities, and I don’t know how many working-class people would want to go back to the kind of deference expected. As for sexual morality, during their marriage Harold Macmillian’s wife Dorothy was having an affair with a bisexual serial adulterer. I hope Samatha Cameron’s personal life is a little more savoury!


  1. Thank you, Rachel, from a TS woman from the States for your exceptionally written and supportive essay! When I am down I am encouraged to read understanding essays such as yours, most particularly when written by intelligent women. Though I am grateful for all declarations of understanding &/or emotional support, they are 1000s of times more important to me when they come from women. The same is true but in the opposite sense when attacks or undue criticism come from women in which case the hurt or offence is greater.

    On the “cis-” usage discussion, I typically avoid it’s use in any context other than a purely clinical one, such as is the case with social psychology, anthropological studies.


    • Dear Penny,

      I’m glad you found my essay helpful and I’m sorry if you’re getting attacked by anyone, female or male. I’m conscious that I still get things wrong sometimes concerning trans people and so do a lot of other feminists. But I hope that attitudes will continue to change for the better. Having seen how much more positive attitudes have become towards gay people in the UK in the last 30 years, I think society’s views aren’t fixed. And I’m interested in working out the best way to change views, which means starting by thinking about my own prejudices and what diminished them.

      “Cis” is a difficult word for a lot of women at the moment, because of the way it’s tangled up with distinctions between sex and gender. I’m still trying to work out how some of trans theorists’ ideas might connect to some of my own as a gender historian, and will probably post on that at some point. But as I said in the post, I don’t want to give my theories priority if other people are being hurt by them.

      best wishes,



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