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Ask Matt: Why Do Trans People Make Me Uncomfortable?

A reader writes:

“I am a straight male and consider myself fairly liberal. One of my best friends is openly gay and I have never felt uncomfortable around him. Yet the thought of being around a transgender person is extremely uncomfortable to me and I don’t exactly know why.

“I can understand the scientific reasoning for having a different gender than one’s do-dads would imply, yet some part of me cringes whenever I hear the words “tr***y, transgendered or transsexual” or read anything about it. (Asterisks mine – MK)

“Does this make me a bad person? How can I consider myself a liberal person who respects and judges everyone based on their character if I am uncomfortable with the concept of having a different gender identity? Is there any way for me to come to grips with this and perhaps regain my own self-respect?

“I hope this question was not offensive in any way, and if it was, I apologize wholeheartedly.”

I was not offended by your question. Some people might be, but in my opinion, it takes guts to do some self-reflection, realize that you have an issue, and take steps to try to resolve it. For this same reason, I don’t think you’re a bad person.

I also don’t think that, currently, you can consider yourself a person who respects and judges everyone based on their character, but I think that you can consider yourself someone who is trying to get there.

I’m going to throw a couple of thoughts out that might or might not apply, and then I’m going to suggest some questions that you might ask yourself as you’re doing some looking inward. Here’s something to think about:

Western culture has established very specific and very strict parameters for being a “man” and being a “woman.” And as much [pullquote align=”right”]Misogyny lies behind these concepts. The unwarranted devaluation of women and the feminine, along with the unwarranted elevation of men and the masculine, lies behind these concepts.[/pullquote]privilege as straight men have in this culture, you are constantly walking an extremely narrow tightrope in order to stay within those parameters and maintain your acceptable standing as a straight man.

Masculinity, as our culture defines it, is highly valued, and as a straight man, you are expected to possess it – in exactly the way it is defined. You are not only supposed to possess it, but you are supposed to value it at least as much as the culture does.

If you fail to do so, you are somehow considered “deficient” as a man – you are not “manly” enough, you are not “masculine” enough. Something is wrong with you if you don’t value traditional, culturally defined masculinity and do everything you can to cultivate it, maintain it, and celebrate it.

The existence of trans women can be a threat to the concept of traditional Western masculinity. If something so highly valued and prized can be cast aside – if a person who inherently has this privilege can reject it and “take a step down” in society’s eyes – then it might not be so great after all. It actually might be pretty shaky. And if it’s shaky at best, then where does that leave you?

Trans men can also be a threat to the concept of traditional Western masculinity. Maybe they are “usurpers,” trying to take something that is not really theirs to claim. And if people who were assigned female at birth can come in and take over something that is not legitimately their birthright, then maybe that thing is not really so special after all. How great is it, really, if just anyone can lay claim to it? And if it’s not so great, then where does that leave you?

Misogyny lies behind these concepts. The unwarranted devaluation of women and the feminine, along with the unwarranted elevation of men and the masculine, lies behind these concepts.

We know – at least those of us who have been paying attention – that trans women don’t “reject” masculinity and male privilege. They are not “men” to begin with, although outward appearance at birth and societal expectations based on that insist that they are. They cannot reject something that they never were.

They have not “chosen” to “take a step down.” Society devalues women, and so when a trans woman transitions (not a choice), she ends up on a lower societal rung – this has nothing to do with her and everything to do with the misogyny inherent in our culture. But on the surface, to those who don’t understand that transition is generally a medical issue, it all gets convoluted.

By the same token, trans men do not transition to gain male privilege. We are not “usurpers,” trying to “take something away” from non-trans men. But again, it all gets convoluted. And what happens is that non-trans men can feel very threatened by it all, even if they don’t realize exactly why.

This is just one thought and one possibility for your feelings. There are many others. Here are some questions to ask yourself as you do your own self-exploration:

[li]Am I comfortable and secure in my own masculinity? Do I feel that trans people threaten this in any way, and if so, how?[/li] [li]Am I comfortable with my own body? Does the idea of someone changing his/her body threaten my security with my own body?[/li] [li]When I am with a trans person, am I worried that other people will think that I am trans also? Why do I care so much about other people’s opinions of me?[/li] [li]Do trans people make me worry about my own identity? Am I afraid that I might be more like them than I care to admit? If I sometimes really hate being a guy or hate the roles and expectations that society has placed on me, does that make me worry that I’m trans? (Most people hate at least some of the roles and expectations that society has placed on them because of their gender. It does not mean they are trans. It means they are like just about everyone else.)[/li] [li]Knowing that I have probably met and interacted with trans people at many times in my life without being aware of it, would my feelings change about those people if I found out that they were trans? Why?[/li] [li]Do I feel any sense of sexual arousal, interest, or curiosity when I think about trans people? (You might have to dig really deep to answer this one, and you might have to be brutally honest with yourself. That’s okay – no one else will know.) If so, is this what concerns me, and why? (Attraction to trans women would simply reinforce your heterosexual orientation. Attraction to trans men might throw you into a tailspin, but you can figure that one out later.)[/li]

Once you have examined some of these questions, you just have to move to the bottom line, which is: Why does this bother me so much? What does it really have to do with me at all? Why am I not able to let this go?

There’s a thing called “reaction formation,” and basically what it means is that, when a person is drawn to something that he/she finds abhorrent or disgusting in some way, he/she reacts strongly in the opposite direction. For example, if a conservative minister is turned on by pornography but believes this to be unacceptable, he might be leading the charge to close down all the adult bookstores. If a person cannot accept being gay or lesbian, that person might be the biggest homophobe on the block.

I’m not saying that this is you. I don’t know. But it’s something to think about.

One thing that research has found is that, once a person “knows one” – a member of a group that the person fears or dislikes – that person tends to become more accepting and less apprehensive about that group. To help you get over your negative feelings, you could force yourself to spend some time around trans people.

Don’t use anyone. Don’t make anyone an “experiment.” Just go to some venues where trans people might be, such as a conference or an event. Go with your gay friend to an LGBT event – there are bound to be at least a few trans people there. Then talk to them.

You don’t have to talk about “trans stuff” – trans people have a lot of interests. Talk about sports, the weather, taxes, television shows, movies, music – you’re likely to find something that you have in common. Once you do this, you might find that your fear or disgust starts to dissipate.

Trans people are an “unknown” to you right now, and you have us all in this one big category filed under “people who make me uncomfortable.” Once you start relating to trans people as individuals, and once you are able to dissolve the walls of the box that you have established for us, you will be able to see that, yes, some of us do make you uncomfortable, just like some non-trans people do, and some of us don’t make you uncomfortable, just like some non-trans people don’t.

It’s just a matter of relating to individual people rather than a category of people. Look at it this way – you know I’m trans, and you were not too uncomfortable to write to me. That’s already a start. I wish you the best of luck.

Readers, what are your thoughts?

  • Christine Venegas

    I have been bothered quite a bit lately by the overt uproar about gender transitions. Even my dear friends have had some surprising opinions (which I don’t share), stating that “it’s against what god made” {lowercase intentional}, etc.
    So, I Googled: “Why is changing genders such a big deal?” Obviously, this is meant for someone NOT experiencing the desire to change genders, since this *would indeed* be a big deal; rather, my curiosity resonates in why people, upon which this topic has absolutely NO impact, have such strong, hateful, sometimes outspoken feelings about this?

    Matt, your article gave great context, situational recommendations, even a sense of empathy that was so kind. But really you nailed it with this:

    “What does it really have to do with me at all?”

    THAT is the ultimate question for which I have yet to hear a compelling answer.

  • D

    I think Matt’s answer kind of missed the mark, at least for me. I’m a big supporter of LGBTQ rights, and I’m a contemporary LGBTQ friendly social worker. Ethically, logically, socially, politically, etc. I support trans people in every way and never treat them differently. I have trans friends (both those who had already transitioned when I met them and those who I knew before and after) and I don’t think of them any differently than anyone else.

    At the same time, the idea of “dressing up” kind of freaks me out on a different physical level and makes me kind of sick to my stomach sometimes. This applies to cis women dressing up “too much” in my view (heavy makeup, fake hair, nails, etc.), costumes at Halloween or fancy dress parties, etc. Due to this, men dressing up as women or women dressing up as men sort of creeps me out. This is, as you might imagine, amplified in the case of people actually changing their bodies with surgery. It’s not just about trans stuff, but any alteration to an otherwise “natural” look. Rationally, I know this is silly and just a weird quirk I have. I think people have the right to choose however they want to be, and I couldn’t care less how people want to present themselves and identify. But nonetheless, I do feel sort of queasy on a basic physical level by the sight or idea of someone who looks obviously “done up” to me. I really don’t think this has anything to do with prejudice or a bias born of patriarchy or gender normativity, but since I am a straight cis man, people will assume this, and since it doesn’t really affect the way I behave toward people, I don’t ever feel the need to tell anyone I know about this. If I tell anyone it will just make me look bad. I have thought about it ad nauseum and finally just accepted that something about people masquerading as something they are not just gives me the willies, and it doesn’t have anything to do with me being uncomfortable with gender queerness or homosexuality.

    I wonder if there are other people out there who can identify with this?

    PS. as an interesting side note, I first realized this about me when I saw this episode of the Muppet Show as a child. There was a skit in which a puppet character finds a vending machine with various “parts” of faces in it, and they proceed to swap out features of their face with parts from the machine. This really really creeped me out, and I felt very sick to my stomach. To this day, this sort of thing still creeps me out.

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  • Guinevere deAmblia

    I think the question is wonderful because it does show an interest in self awareness and reflection. I like Matt’s response, it’s very thoughtful and full of insights.
    Thing is, a question like that can only be answered by the person asking, otherwise, if you get the answer from some one else you get to wear their answer, which may not be your truth, which just leads you down a different path than your own and sooner or later the same question is going to resurface and you’ll have deal with it again.
    I know most of us have asked ourselves questions that have required a lot of hard and sometimes painfully deep soul searching work. It is, at least, true for myself. My experience has been that when we do that work we get the answers but we also get presents for doing the work, such as, a lot less fear to look again, and a lot more empathy and compassion for those who won’t. We also get to be free of past indoctrinations and recover our natural happiness.!!
    One opinion, about the question, is, I’ve noticed that people who have image issues or a bunch of anger hanging around have a hard time being comfortable in the presence of someone who has done some really deep soul wrenching work, because most of us that have done the work are without that fear of the unknown, and that makes some folks nervous.
    I love this life though, even the difficult parts, because we’re all in it together…..
    Happiness and Love….

  • Dawn Renee Radford

    I’m trans*, and I have no illusions that this touches on some pretty primal stuff. I can handle it.

    And I do take offense to the notion that to be Feminine is to “lower” oneself. I’ve never been stronger, healthier or happier.

  • Gemma Seymour-Amper

    There’s something missing here. There is no mention at all of the links between how many people feel about transgender people and how they feel about homosexual people. Our society teaches people to be illogically, irrationally afraid of the concept of sexual contact with others of the same assigned sex/gender, and this sometimes transfers to an irrational fear of transgender people, because attraction to a transgender woman gets linked in a subconscious fashion, or even a conscious fashion, with homosexuality, which threatens traditionally held social standards of sexual activity.

    • Gemma Seymour-Amper

      Please change “transgender woman” to “transgender person” in my last sentence. Sometimes, even I fail to police myself successfully. 🙁

  • Dave

    Very interesting take on reactions, but I don’t think that it can be taken as even close to “universal”… When my best friend from H.S. came out to me, it certainly was a shock and caused me to do a lot of thinking… As I look back however most of that introspection was focused on “what did I do wrong to make my friend uncomfortable?” or what could I have done over the last 40 years to make this easier on him/her? I don’t know if this puts me outside of the normal reaction (I hope it’s more toward normal than anything else), but I do think/hope that much of the article is based on suspicion and stereotype. I’d hope that most people would think more about their friend who is going through a “process” rather than “how does this affect ME?” I don’t mean this to sound sanctimonious or anything, but maybe this is more about friendship than about gender roles?

  • Anonymous

    I actually know exactly why I am uncomfortable with the idea of transsexuality, and it has nothing to do with misogyny. In fact, I am perfectly fine with people who simply dress in a way that will cause society to treat them in the role that they see themselves more comfortably in.

    However, I get spine-tingles when I think of a person who has suffered so immensely that they have convinced themselves that they were born with the wrong body. Rather than fighting stereotypes, they view their birth sex as a disease that needs treatment, and proceed to mutilate their genitals, take drugs, and get reconstructive surgery, all in an effort to fit in with a broken conception of what they “should” be. I get uncomfortable because I feel guilty that I live in a world that would cause a person’s self conception to be so dependent on mis-formed modes of thinking, and I wish that there was something that I could do to convince them that they don’t need the surgery, that they were born correctly and society is the one that is wrong. It saddens me that they feel the need to go to such extremes, and I am therefore uncomfortable. I wish they wouldn’t do that.

    • Alys

      Transitioning is not only about societal gender roles. It’s also about how a person feels in their body, even when completely alone. If it doesn’t feel right, if a person’s body has felt like the wrong kind for their entire life, why not change it to feel like it truly belongs to them?

    • Frances Tadda

      I’m sorry you feel this way. I am a trans woman, and what I have is essentially a birth defect that needs correction. How you came to the conclusion that this is somehow a disease and that fixing the defect is “mutilation”, is erroneous. Our lives are our own journey; you have yours and I have mine.
      Thank you for your concern, but, for the record, despite society’s demands, both real and imagined, my perception of myself is not broken. I am a female, not a male; living with a male body is not acceptable to me, regardless.

    • T

      Your conception of trans people is a little flawed. Many of us do fight stereotypes, many of us would happily see enforced gender roles disappear from our culture entirely.

      Stereotypes refer to gender ROLES, constructed by culture. Gender IDENTITY is a far more ingrained, immutable and enigmatic thing. It’s harder to define, but it’s very powerful. Personally, I conceptualise gender identity as the means we have to understand and relate to our own bodies, and as a kind of bridge between the social (constructed) world that we inhabit and our bodies.
      If you think about it, a social organism needs to have some understanding of the contours of its body in order to function and interact with others, particularly sexually. That’s what gender identity is, and the expectations and stereotypes we as a culture drape over that is what gender roles are.

      I’m a trans woman who rejects stereotypes, and a strong feminist. I don’t view my body as disordered, and no one is going to tell me how to be a woman or a person but me- and my transition represents my empowerment.

    • Jess

      i am deeply saddened that you are saddened by trans people. you are not trans yourself, so why would you think that you understand the experience well enough to say that it is not a real one? i am trans, and i can tell you that it is not some deep confusion. my identity is as clear to me as yours. frankly, more clear because i constantly have to defend it. i also find it offensive and insulting to completely disregard the identities of millions of trans people because you’ve decided it’s false. how exactly would you know it’s false i wonder? the truth is that you can’t know if you are cisgendered.
      what you can do is look at all the things one has to give up as a trans person to be who they are, or look at the horrific way in which society treats us to know that nobody would go through all that you mentioned if they didn’t need to. your taking pity on me for the one right decision i’ve made in my life is truly cruel.

    • Lauren Glenn

      As many have probably already said here, it’s not the need to conform to societal roles that cause the transition…. it’s a means of people fixing what is wrong with how they see themselves. For me, I had an MRI at 17 that showed a female brain structure. Now, I’m 12 years post-op and, with no disrespect, if you tried to stop me from having my surgery, I’d walk all over you to get to where I need to be.

      What you state is nothing more than forcing conformity in ways that many people try to do with things that they can’t deal with. In fact, the reason most of us get harassed is because of people forcing us to go back to the roles that they feel we should be living. If those confinements didn’t exist, then no one would truly care that we are transitioning or that we need to hide the fact that we did.

    • Let me start off by saying that of all the misinformed opinions I’ve read on the internet concerning transsexualism, yours has been the least offensive so far. That you come from the perspective that gender roles need to be smashed, why, I quite agree!

      However gender identity has very little to do with gender roles. I wasn’t happy one bit living in a male body. I didn’t feel like I “failed to live up to the manly role” – in fact I was pretty much living it. During transition I would experiment with more “feminine” things, changing how I walked and getting all my things in pink colours and whatnot. I even started talking in manners that was completely not natural to me.

      ‘Twas all experimentation to me, and here I am, 3 years as a post-op woman. I still buy the occasional pink keyboard, but I’m mostly acting the exact same way I did while I was male-bodied, albeit speaking with a softer voice. I can’t be bothered with spending lots of time on my looks, and makeup is only for certain parties when I can feel arsed. The female stereotype, I’m not living up to it very well at all.

      But I’m much happier now. Cause now I can look down at my body and feel it is mine. This body is also respected by my peers, as seen when they address me with my new gendered pronoun and my new name (well, perhaps not so new any longer). Now I can just be me and I can be happy. I was a huge nerd back when I was male-bodied, and I’m the very same huge nerd today.

      It’s probably very hard to understand if you’ve not lived with these feelings, and I don’t mean to come off as a hipster when I say that. But hey, you’ll just have to take my word for it. I have nothing to gain by typing up a wall of text of lies =)

      Note that this is just my experience, others may or may not change more or less during their transition as they find a way of being that they feel more comfortable with.

  • Donna

    This is beautifully written. Thank you for taking the time to lay this out so well.

    For me, the anxiety is more like a performance anxiety.

    I have a trans woman friend and worked with a trans male. The anxiety lies in being unintentionally hurtful. There are moments where I get really afraid that I’ll thoughtlessly say something that hurts them. What if I say “she” instead of “he?” I wouldn’t hurt either one of them for the world. They are lovely people. I would be devastated if I ever made them feel bad. Even though I know my mistake would be unintentional thoughtlessness and both of these people are smart enough to differentiate that from hatefullness, I wouldn’t ever want to add to their greater experience of cruelty and pain.

    Looking at this written out, I can see how much I’m over-blowing a small faux paux. But I think other folks may be like me and in their anxiety not to be the bad guy, they get anxious and possibly miss out on some wonderful friendships. Just because they are afraid of a slip of the tongue.

    • Lauren Glenn

      That’s a wonderful response. Many times, unfortunately, people “slip” with the pronouns on purpose as a means to hurt us emotionally. As a friend, if you were to slip with the pronouns and apologize after, it would mean more as a sign of friendship that you were at least trying. Sure, it would be better if it didn’t happen, but as long as you weren’t doing it for spite or hostility, I know that I would be less likely to feel worse as a result.

  • mcc

    I would take an even simpler tack. He says “Yet the thought of being around a transgender person is extremely uncomfortable to me and I don’t exactly know why”. Wait, being around a transgender person or “the thought of” being around a transgender person”? Has he ever MET a transgender person (knowingly)? He’s talking about READING about trans stuff making him uncomfortable. I’m not sure it’s even established he has this problem he thinks he has.

    It seems plausible that either if he met IRL a trans person he’d realize whatever trigger is going off when he reads about stuff online is not going off, or as Matt suggests find that the mild familiarity he would walk away from that experience with makes it not scary anymore. I think we feel very differently about people once they are people and not Internet abstractions.

  • Dahlia Goodfellow

    I don’t agree with the oversimplification suggested here as to why someone is uncomfortable with a transgender person. As a transwoman myself, I know all too well that cisgender women often harbor more nonacceptance, discomfort, bigotry, prejudice towards us than men. So it isn’t about misogyny.

    • PJ

      Women can be misogynistc. It’s called self-loathing.

    • Ron Zurenko

      Those women are misogynistic as well.

    • Lauren Glenn

      Women do that with themselves all of the time, as I’ve learned. From what I’ve experienced, men hurt with fists and women hurt with words. Words leave emotional scars while fists leave physical ones.

      As a radio personality in NJ used to say, “men are from Mars, women are bitches.”

  • Diane Shaw

    I think one reason some feel awkward around people who are out/self-labeling as transgender is because it is seen as a medical condition, a set of circumstances that are way out of individual control, therefore it could have happened to anyone, even them. Trans is less of a “choice” to many in the mainstream, and they are more scared of that I think. Not that this is true or real or valid in any way. I also believe being LGBTQ is not a choice, but many would argue this. Some will argue that being trans is a choice, but I think that has less validity these days than it used to. (thank goodness.) Great article, great response! Thanks for this, and thanks for the discussion.

    • Ron Zurenko

      Transgenderism is no longer listed as a mental disorder.

  • Jessica Wicks

    Matt, what a remarkable wonderful response to this person’s question. I’m going to post this article as well, on Facebook, but also on my church list. It’s good advice worth sharing broadly.

  • Frances Tadda

    Dear Matt, Thank you for writing this response to his question; I think it hits all of the points we encounter, in our interactions with not only non-trans people, but anyone who may be different than ourselves.
    I read your book, “Just Add Hormones”, as I began my own transition, some 5 or 6 years ago. It was the second trans male autobiography I had read, after Jamison Green’s “Becoming a Visible Man”. To say that I was stunned, is an understatement; I had read literally dozens of trans women’s stories, identifying with almost every little nuance or situation in some way. When I read Jamison’s and your books, it turned my somewhat “self-absorbed” thinking around. We all can get involved in ourselves, regardless who we are. As this person’s question and your response shows, all it takes (sometimes) is a bit of introspection and exposure to a concept that we are not familiar with.
    Thanks so much!

  • Rivkah Freund

    This was beautifully written, concise, and really zeroed in on the question at hand! I suggest this response to the gentleman be put into a brochure of some kind for education purposes. The respondent might even consider writing a book on this material!

  • Erin Fuller

    he feels uncomfortable around transgender transsexual people! but he dosnt know why exactly? that statement is rather quite vague not really knowing how he feels uncomfortable make it really hard to answer his statement. for the most part I think he is not as accepting of most anyone as he is willing to be or claims to be why would being in close and personal to a trans person make anyone uncomfortable? society lacks a decent education about who we are for one thing there is to much misinformation out there for people to understand who we are the information is there but not many are willing to learn about us! we are not people to be feared or make others uncomfortable on the other hand most of us are uncomfortable around those who identify as heterosexual and for many good reasons most of which have to do with intollerance.