Is “transphobia” a misnomer?

Unpacking etymology, fears, biases, discrimination, hesitancy and confusion

The word “phobia,” whether as a suffix or a stand-alone noun, comes from the Greek phóbos, meaning “fear” or “panic.” Clinically, phobias are, by definition, excessive, irrational, and maladaptive. Most of us are familiar with its clinical uses: arachnophobia means fear of spiders; claustrophobia means fear of enclosed spaces. While most of us wouldn’t willingly choose to cloister ourselves in a cave of tarantulas, we generally benefit from keeping such fears in check enough that we can tolerate a momentary encounter with, say, a daddy long legs in a walk-in closet, long enough to get the spider out of there and the laundry put away. 

The term “xenophobia” emerged in the late 1800’s to describe fear of foreigners to one’s culture of origin. Broadly speaking, xenophobia may be a useful umbrella for many forms of bias and discrimination. However, this began the shifting of the use of the term phobia. Whether xenophobia fits with the etymology of phobia depends on who is considered to be the one suffering. Does the xenophobic person recognize that she is suffering from an irrational fear? Is it something she would seek help to change? Or does she take out her “fear” as aggression and discrimination toward others?

I do think there is wisdom to noting that fear plays a role in discrimination, and that we have under-capitalized on the opportunity to better understand xenophobia, as a whole. A thoughtful perspective influenced by evolutionary biology, social psychology, and cultural anthropology might help us better understand where fear of those different from us — whether due to race, religion, culture, or other factors — comes from, how it influences our behavior, and what we can do about it. Moving on, though…

In the 1960’s, the word homophobia was coined, and has met varying degrees of agreement as to whether this is the most accurate term. Is discrimination against gay people fear-based? Oftentimes, probably. We know colloquially of many stories of men who bullied their gay peers and turned out to be closeted themselves. The term “internalized homophobia” seems spot-on there. But given that the term fundamentally addresses a subjective psychological issue, we cannot know if it is applicable in all cases. But broadly speaking, whether etymologically precise or not, the term is accepted as congruent with its commonly understood definition, and has served as a useful label in innumerable instances. 

However, one under-recognized downside of this particular term being the term we use to describe bigotry against gay people, is that it changes our associations with the word “phobia.” When use of that term is restricted to its original meaning, in which the person suffering the irrational fear needs help for a clinical diagnosis that inhibits their quality of life, then phobias remain a thing that is innocuous to all but the sufferer. Phobias are therefore not threats to anyone except the ailed; as such, they warrant only compassion, tolerance, and help from those of us who do not struggle with those same issues. 

The meaning of the suffix “phobia” fundamentally changes when it is expanded to include bigoted behavior that can only be assumed to originate from psychological fear, but the expression of which primarily manifests in acts that create fear for others. That is, homophobic behavior frightens gay people, and we cannot say that this is irrational or unwarranted. In the parlance of the DSM-IV, this would roughly move homophobia from an Axis-I to an Axis-II categorization. In the former category, the psychological condition primarily harms the sufferer, who often willingly presents themself to therapy seeking to alleviate those symptoms. Put differently, Axis-I symptoms are more “ego-dystonic”: they do not fit with the person’s sense of who they are, or who they want to be. Agoraphobia, for instance, is a condition for which a person may seek treatment. The sufferer knows she is not living her best life, and wants to overcome her fears.

In contrast, Axis II disorders, or personality disorders, primarily harm other people. People with character disorders have symptoms that are more “ego syntonic,” in other words, congruent with their sense of self. For example, a person who meets clinical criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder would not say, “I think too highly of myself and exploit other people, and I don’t like that about myself. It’s a problem I want help changing.” His core beliefs uphold his exaggerated sense of his own value in comparison to other people, and his corresponding sense of entitlement. This is much harder to change. 

Homophobia and other forms of bigotry have never been classified in any version of the DSM — neither as phobias, nor as personality disorders. However, I would argue that, were we to place it in some diagnostic category, it would fit better with the latter than the former. However, closeted gays struggling with internalized homophobia and mistreating others as a result would fall into the grey area, because their “symptoms” harm both themselves and other people. 

In any case, prior uses of the term “phobia” evoked sympathy for the sufferer, whereas the evolution of its use to include bigotry revokes sympathy for the person attributed to be phobic and places it on the victim of their behaviors. By all means, this is the proper response. However, the language confuses our understanding, because all anti-homosexuality sentiments, whether expressed internally or externally and to whatever degree, fall under the same blanket. When we lose the ability to distinguish how homophobic thoughts, feelings, and actions originate, our ability to know what to do about them diminishes as well. 

In cases where homophobia is just that — a phobia — then maybe it can be effectively addressed and treated as such. But I think we make a common mistake here: conflating feelings with actions. Bear with me for a moment while I try to explain this. A wise man once said that he teaches his children, “you can be mad, not mean.” Mad is a feeling; meanness is a behavior. A person is capable of feeling angry without taking out that anger on others inappropriately. The sooner this is modeled for children, the better off we all are. Similarly, one can feel scared, without running from healthy activities that push the limits of their comfort zone. And one can feel sad, but still get out of bed and go for a walk. What drives making healthy choices in the face of hard feelings? A recognition of the differences between thoughts, feelings, and actions. An internal locus of control. An awareness of our values, desires, and aims, and the ability to choose our behaviors accordingly. 

If homophobia is truly a fear, but the individual with that fear values basic human decency — you know, like treating all people as equally worthy of respect — then a homophobic person can learn to tolerate their fear without taking it out inappropriately on others. A therapist or other helpful person can help the homophobic person identify how their values are in cognitive dissonance with their behaviors, then grapple with that cognitive dissonance, and grow through the process. The fear of gays feels increasingly ego-dystonic: “I feel this way, and I don’t like that; I want to change it.” This process would not look altogether different for closeted gays with internalized homophobia from how it looks when helping straight people who also have an irrational fear that conflicts with their deepest values.

Sometimes, the path to treating homophobia could be precisely that described above. Other times, homophobia likely arises not so much from a fear that can be made to feel ego-dystonic via examining one’s values and grappling with cognitive dissonance, but instead arises from another source. My initial guess are that the primary factors involved here involve culture (and therefore, xenophobia) and displacement (eg. misplaced aggression turned toward gay people instead of, say, one’s abusive father). 

Where culture is the culprit, cultural evolution and change is the key, and understanding xenophobia is helpful. We can look to the successes of the gay rights movements of the last 40-50 years to learn what helps make this shift. The gay rights movement helped address the root cause of homophobia, xenophobia, by demonstrating to non-gays that they are safe, ordinary people — friends, family, coworkers and neighbors — and we share more similarities than differences. 

Where displacement is the culprit, I’m not sure what the solution would be. It’s sadly not uncommon for people to avoid dealing with the real source of their anger and hatred and instead redirect it onto an innocent individual or group. Were a person like this to come to me as a therapist, I am confident that in that one-on-one setting, I could help them recognize their bigotry for what it is, and identify who or what it is that they really need help processing their negative feelings toward. But on a broader scale, I’m not sure what to do about it. 

Moving along… now we have the rise of the more modern term, “transphobia.” In modern parlance, this word is used almost exclusively in contexts where it is meant to describe and condemn behaviors perceived as bigoted. One rarely witnesses discussion of understanding whether things deemed transphobic are truly arising from irrational fear, or from something else… or of understanding that which is labeled transphobia in general. I think this is a mistaken approach. More information would be helpful. Absence of curious exploration is a hindrance. 

Here, I posit that things labeled “transphobic” likely fall into a wide range of categories.

For one, you have xenophobia. I have much to say on this topic that is beyond the scope of this article, but there are deep evolutionary reasons why it is natural to all of us as humans to fear that which feels foreign to us. 

Secondly, let’s explore whether there is a natural corollary here to internalized homophobia. Others may disagree, but my initial guess is that no, ‘”internalized transphobia in people who are really trans but hate themselves for it” is not a thing in the same way that “internalized homophobia in people who are really gay but hate themselves for it” is. In fact, some people have suggested that the opposite may be true — that some people who identify as trans are doing so because of internalized homophobia, preferring, say, to be a straight trans man than to be a lesbian woman. Contrary to woke opinion, we do have ample evidence that most young people who believe they may be trans end up being gay. Another differentiating factor is that homosexuality has always existed in humans, across eras and cultures, and is usually stable across the lifespan, whereas medically aided transsexuality is a highly novel phenomenon, and gender expression is much more fluid across the lifespan. 

I do think, however, that the trans advocacy movements gains considerable traction by selling the narrative that many people are indeed secretly trans and have yet to discover or admit this about themselves due to internalized transphobia. That’s a slippery slope. 

Let’s compare it to homosexuality. Most people have sexual feelings during puberty, if not romantic crushes prior to it. By mid-adolescence, most teens know on some level whether they are attracted to boys, girls, or both. They may be confused, or in denial, but those feelings are there. They manifest in physiological arousal, fantasy, and infatuation, toward at least one person of at least one sex. Find me a fifteen-year-old who has never experienced any of these. Go on, I dare you. 

In contrast, gender traits and expressions are much more fluid. This is an aspect of identity that teens explore and experiment with over the course of years. “Have you had a crush on a boy, a girl, or both?” Is a question most teens throughout history anywhere in the world could easily answer (if permitted to answer honestly). However, aspects of gender expression such as personality, mannerisms, dress, grooming, vocalizations, interests, and so on, are all still forming during this time, and, while partially biologically driven, these are also much more subject to peer influence and social trends than the at times painfully visceral reality of sexual attraction. 

Taking all this into consideration, I think it is difficult to make a solid argument for the idea that there is a form of internalized transphobia that is a mirror image of internalized homophobia. 

I’m not sure that we’ve gotten to the root of what transphobia even means yet. I do think that there is at least one regard in which it differs from racism, sexism, and homophobia: skin color, ethnicity, sex, and sexual orientation, are all, to varying degrees, fixed. So is height, eye color, and, to a lesser degree, body shape and hair color. To have a problem with someone on the basis of one or more of these demographics is to have a prejudice against them on the basis of something they cannot change about themselves. And that sucks. I recognize, by the way, that I am not addressing all forms of bias here, such as ableism. Some of that will have to exceed the scope of this article; I am already long-winded enough as it is. But for the sake of this discussion, transphobia is unique and, arguably, opposite. While racism, sexism and homophobia all discriminate against a person on the basis of something they were born with and cannot change, transphobia involves some degree of judgment toward a person in response to that person’s choice to permanently or semi-permanently alter a fundamental aspect of how they were born — one that, until very recently, was not a thing that could be altered at all. Transphobia, however we conceptualize it, is a reaction to something extremely novel. Even trans identified people who do not opt to transform their physiology but who in some other way ask others to treat them as the opposite sex are presenting a highly novel phenomenon that flies in the face of all instinct. 

So when someone is “transphobic” — broadly defined as being in any way skeptical or hesitant toward anything remotely related to transgenderism or transsexuality — is this the same as discriminating against someone on the basis of something fundamentally inalterable about themselves? I would argue not. Perhaps it is more akin to confusion, whether instinctual or conscious, about the newfound phenomenon in which people do alter things about themselves that have been fundamentally inalterable until now. And when something feels that foreign to us on a gut level, aversion is a natural response arising from millions of years of evolution.

Is it useful to label this a form of fear? Bigotry? Discrimination? Xenophobia? If we were aiming to be as precise as possible in our language, what exactly would we call this?

I am not sure. But I want to declare one thing for myself, if for no one else. “Transphobic” as the woke internet is sure to label me, I do not believe I have an irrational phobia, nor a displaced aggression, nor do I espouse any form of discrimination based on something unalterable about a person. I do not see people who are trans — whatever that means to them — as fundamentally less than me. As human beings, we are equally worthy of dignity, compassion, and inclusion. I see a person who is trans as a person who is trans — and therefore worthy of the same respect I would extend by default to any person. That does not mean that I see them as a woman if they claim to be a woman, or a man if they claim to be a man. Nor does it mean that I see them as more worthy of any particular accolades or protected status than any other person, so when “trans rights” begin to trump women’s rights — that is, the rights of a group of people who have chosen to change things about themselves, begin to trump the rights of a group of people based on inalterable characteristics — you might find me alongside Dave Chappelle “on team TERF.” Perhaps most controversially, I do not see their trans-ness as inherent to who they are, or fundamentally inalterable about them. If anything, it is the grandest alteration of the most otherwise inalterable feature of a human being that humankind has ever seen.