This section includes eighty-six short original essays commissioned for the inaugural issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. Written by emerging academics, community-based writers, and senior scholars, each essay in this special issue, “Postposttranssexual: Key Concepts for a Twenty-First-Century Transgender Studies,” revolves around a particular keyword or concept. Some contributions focus on a concept central to transgender studies; others describe a term of art from another discipline or interdisciplinary area and show how it might relate to transgender studies. While far from providing a complete picture of the field, these keywords begin to elucidate a conceptual vocabulary for transgender studies. Some of the submissions offer a deep and resilient resistance to the entire project of mapping the field terminologically; some reveal yet-unrealized critical potentials for the field; some take existing terms from canonical thinkers and develop the significance for transgender studies; some offer overviews of well-known methodologies and demonstrate their applicability within transgender studies; some suggest how transgender issues play out in various fields; and some map the productive tensions between trans studies and other interdisciplines.
That transphobia exists is uncontroversial. Almost any trans person can attest to the existence of it based on personal experiences or the experiences of acquaintances. And there is documented evidence of sexual violence, physical violence, and verbal harassment of trans people, and at least the self-reports of trans people indicate that such behavior often arises from hostile attitudes toward them as trans. However, the exact rates, nature, and extent of violence are difficult to determine, in part because there are no reliable statistics on how many trans people there are and because the various methods for collecting these data have specific limitations (Stotzer 2009).
While it is clear transphobia exists, however, it is far from evident what transphobia is. Provisionally, the term can be defined to mean any negative attitudes (hate, contempt, disapproval) directed toward trans people because of their being trans. When taken literally, the word means a kind of fear. But like homophobia (on which the word is modeled), it is used more broadly. And while transphobia suggests an analogy with terms like agoraphobia and therefore implies irrationality (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines homophobia as “an irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals”1; most dictionaries do not define transphobia at all), this implication ought to be rejected. Transphobia occurs in a broader social context that systematically disadvantages trans people and promotes and rewards antitrans sentiment. It therefore has a kind of rationality to it, grounded in a larger cisgenderist social context (Hopkins 1996).2
The question, however, is how much such a definition can tell us about the nature of transphobia. I have defined transphobia as directed toward trans people. In doing this, I have tried to avoid smuggling an actual account of the underlying nature of transphobia into the definition. But much depends upon how the expression trans people is itself defined. If it is defined as “those who violate gender norms,” or as “those who are problematically positioned with respect to the gender binary,” then a very general account of the nature of transphobia is immediately forthcoming — namely, transphobia is a hostile response to perceived violations of gender norms and/or to challenges to the gender binary.
It is not wise, however, to build a robust account of transphobia into the definition. A trans woman may not view herself as violating norms of gender, and she may not view herself as beyond the binary. Rather, she may see herself as a woman living within the binary and in accordance with norms of womanhood. A robust definition of this type ironically invalidates her gender identity in order to function as an account of transphobia. That is, it perversely enacts a verbal hostility that it fails to explain. I therefore prefer to leave trans people undefined and open to the multiple, contested meanings. Consequently, while transphobia is provisionally defined, one of the central components of that definition (trans people) is not only undefined but left open to multiple interpretations.
Underlying the attempt to build a robust account of transphobia within the definition of the term is the problematic assumption that there is a singular phenomenon of which there can be a uniform account. Consider that while the pronoun it can be used to deny the personhood of individuals deemed outside the binary categories, the expression really a man disguised as a woman effectively accuses a trans person of pretense by deeming them within one of the binary categories. Both are instances of verbal harassment, and both can function as “justifications” for physical violence. But that the latter concerns a response to perceived violations of the binary is surely controversial. Both trans woman and transphobe may agree that she belongs in the binary. The question, on the contrary, is where. Whether there is a singular phenomenon here (hostile responses to perceived violations of the binary) is therefore far from clear.
And transphobia can be manifested differently in different cultures. For example, Latin American representations of trans people as deceivers may include stronger associations with criminality (Lewis 2010). Indeed transphobia can occur differently in different types of social contexts within a culture. In therapeutic contexts it is not uncommon for trans people to be viewed as mentally ill. Yet this representation need not be found in other contexts (say, sex work). The view that “mental illness” is the paradigmatic stigma elides different forms of stigma applied to trans people for whom access to medico-psycho-therapeutic narratives is irrelevant. And the controversial expectation that there is a single phenomenon is precisely what helps promote treatment of specific kinds of transphobia as somehow exemplary.
Finally, the view that transphobia can be separated from other enactments of power (such as sexism, classism, racism) is a nonstarter. This means that not all acts of violence against trans people need be transphobic in nature. A trans woman might be targeted not because of her trans status but because she is simply viewed as a sex worker (Namaste 2005). Moreover, at least in some cases, transphobia may be inseparably blended with misogyny or racism in ways that challenge a single-axis model of power (Juang 2006). Such inseparabilities undermine the attempt to account for transphobia in a way that excludes or marginalizes considerations of sexism, racism, classism, ableism, and so forth. This consideration is important because it questions why certain instances of violence should be characterized as instances of transphobia (as opposed to instances of racism or sexism) in the first place and what the underlying political agenda sustaining such characterization is. My conclusion, at any rate, is that while we might have a definition of transphobia, the term is not much more than a convenient (and not altogether innocent) placeholder for the real intellectual work that remains to be done.
1. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary Online, s.v. “homophobia,” accessed December 13, 2013, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/homophobia.
2. While Hopkins discusses homophobia, not transphobia, his idea is useful in this context.