On the gender of an unknown bear

by Danielle Navarro, 11 Jan 2020

I grew up in rural Australia in the 1980s, in an industrial town. My parents were both working class immigrants, the first in their families to attend any form of higher education. They did quite well for themselves. When I was little they were constantly worried about money, but by the time I reached adulthood we were comfortably middle class. I left home at 16 to go to university (yeah, I was that kid) and I really struggled. My grades were mostly okay, but I didn’t adapt to university life very well and spiralled into the worst depression of my life. Alcoholism, self harm, rape, suicidal ideation, etc. It wasn’t great. I switched degrees four times along the way: I started out in engineering, switched to law, then arts, and somehow ended up with a social science degree focused on psychology and philosophy. Not knowing much about the wider world, I enrolled in a Ph.D. at my local university because… well, hey at least they paid a stipend and what else was I good for? Academic culture has always confused me. I didn’t know how it worked back then, and honestly I still don’t really understand how it works now. All that being said… I’m not really complaining: I’ve done well in academia, a lot better than I thought I would and probably better than I deserve.

I’m also transgender.

I didn’t mean to be trans, honest I didn’t. I wasn’t exactly planned and I can’t say I’ve found transitioning an enjoyable experience. It’s a pretty terrifying thing to do. I remember the first time I stood up in front of my colleagues to give a talk in a dress. It was a friendly room full of people who’d known me for years, and everyone there was kind. But I most certainly did not pass as a woman at that point, and it was painfully obvious to me that what I looked like is a dude in a dress with badly applied makeup with a visible beard shadow. The shame was overwhelming: I wanted to crawl into a hole and never show my face to the world again. I got through it though, and the next time I had to do the same thing it was a little easier.

I’m slowly coming to terms with it. I feel a little more comfortable about what I am, a little less scared to be in the room, a little less ashamed. I was luckier than most: for a late transitioner I pass as a woman far better than I have any right to. It surprises me, and I am endlessly thankful for it. These days it’s actually possible for me to look at myself in a mirror and see a person I recognise as myself without feeling that sense of low-key disgust and body horror that has followed me around my whole life. All I see is Danielle, an ordinary boring middle-aged woman, and it’s an incredible relief.

But all this is by way of prelude…

Outside context problem

The reason I was thinking so much about my background this morning is that – perhaps unwisely – I’d decided to comment on this somewhat frustrating thread on twitter. Generally, I try to avoid any interaction with the self-styled “open science” community, both on twitter and in real life. My interactions have generally been really unpleasant. I don’t feel at all welcome in their online communities and after a couple of horrible experiences at their workshops and conferences I made the decision that I wouldn’t attend any real life events either. This is simply not a community for me.

So why did I comment at all?

The thing that prompted me to enter the discussion was this transphobic tweet by Rickard Carlsson that caused me to become really distressed. The context for his tweet was a thread in which the original poster had shown a picture of a bunch of white male conference speakers; and the point of that post was to highlight the lack of women. Oh, and one of the pictures had a bear in it as well. So okay, with that as context here’s the entire tweet, in all its offensive, transphobic glory:

Umm excuse me, did you just assume the gender of that bear?!

At this point, I’d guess maybe 5% of my readership are thinking “oh fuck no, not this shit, not again”. The other 95% are thinking… “um, what are you talking about, that’s not transphobic, it’s not even nasty – it’s just a jokey tweet about a bear, what the hell is wrong with you???” That 95% are probably also thinking that I’m being deeply unfair to Rickard, and are about to get pretty furious at me.

There’s a lot to unpack here, because the thing that makes this tweet transphobic isn’t actually in the tweet itself, or even in the thread. It’s most definitely not in Rickard’s intentions either. It is very clear that he meant no harm at all and intended no offence whatsoever (this will become even more obvious later in the post). The transphobia lies elsewhere: it comes from something outside the immediate context, which renders it invisible to most people but deeply hurtful to (many, but not all) transgender people.

My goal here is to do this unpacking, to try to expose the moving parts, and to illustrate how something that looks completely innocuous can be deeply hurtful to transgender people, even when the person saying it has no harmful intent whatsoever and even when – as you’ll see if your read the whole exchange between Rickard and myself – there is a happy ending with nobody taking offence.

What transmisogyny is (and is not)

It is a sad truth about the world, but a lot of people despise trans women. They reserve for us a level of venom that they don’t have for trans men or nonbinary folks. It is rare, almost unheard of, to read an opinion piece inciting moral panic about terrible menace of transgender men (though there are a depressing number of “hey let’s all look at the pregnant man!!!” articles that seem rather disrespectful). Trans men mostly elicit sympathy. Even the most bigoted of transphobes tend to view trans men as the victims, not the villains. Trans women, however, are despised. We’re seen to be perptrators, perverts, potential rapists and generally a threat to the social order. The specific pattern of discrimination that is unique to trans women was termed transmisogyny by Julia Serano in her 2007 book “Whipping Girl”. Here’s how Serano describes it:

while there are many different types of transgender people, our society tends to single out trans women and others on the male-to-female (MTF) spectrum for attention and ridicule. This is not merely because we transgress binary gender norms per se, but because we, by necessity, embrace our own femaleness and femininity. Indeed, more often than not it is our expressions of femininity and our desire to be female that become sensationalized, sexualized, and trivialized by others. While trans people on the female-to-male (FTM) spectrum face discrimination for breaking gender norms (i.e., oppositional sexism), their expressions of maleness or masculinity themselves are not targeted for ridicule – to do so would require one to question masculinity itself.

Obviously, this is an oversimplification. There are specific forms of discrimination that trans men experience that trans women do not, but that’s another story. If we limit ourselves to the point that Serano is making about the particular way in which trans women are targeted for ridicule in a fashion that neither cis women nor trans men experience, she’s absolutely right.

Transmisogyny is a very real thing, distinct from both transphobia and misogyny. But what kind of thing is it? Some care is needed here. It’s not the same thing as hating trans women. As an example, I once had woman inform me that she’d punch me in the face if she ever saw me in the women’s bathroom. Surprisingly, perhaps, this was delivered with no ill-intent whatsoever and in fact these days we get along quite well. She wasn’t intending to threaten or scare me; she was talking out loud, musing abstractly on her own intuitions about trans women and considering the possible prejudices she might unwittingly harbour. What I experienced on the other hand, was absolutely a threat. She’s bigger than me and could almost certainly beat the shit out of me if she chose to do so. I was deeply frightened: after all, if she feels like this who knows what other women think? Maybe someone will really go through with it? Etc. Partly on that basis I was afraid to use the women’s bathroom for a long, long time. And my guess is she has no idea how terrified I was.

The point I’m trying to make here is that transmisogyny, like other forms of discrimination, isn’t really “a thing in your head”. Rather, it’s a thing in the world, a set of social/cultural norms that make the world a hostile and dangerous place for trans women in a fashion rarely experienced by others. This isn’t an original insight of course. When discussing misogyny more generally, here’s how Kate Manne makes (roughly) the same point in “Down Girl”. After contending that misogyny is essentially a social structure and not a psychological attribute, she writes:

There is hence no supposition of some notional universal experience of misogyny on my view. It is rather meant to be a name for whatever hostile force field forms part of the backdrop to her actions, in ways that differentiate her from a male counterpart (with all else being held equal). She may or may not actually face these hostile potential consequences, depending on how she acts. That is how social control generally works: via incentives and disincentives, positive and negative reinforcement mechanisms. She can escape aversive consequences by being “good” by the relevant ideals or standards, if any such way is open to her. Sometimes, there will not be. Double binds – and worse – are common.

Notice then that on my proposed analysis misogyny’s essence lies in its social function, not its psychological nature. To its agents, misogyny need not have any distinctive “feel” or phenomenology from the inside. If it feels like anything at all, it will tend to be righteous: like standing up for oneself or for morality, or – often combining the two – for the “little guy”. It often feels to those in its grip like a moral crusade, not a witch hunt. And it may pursue its targets not in the spirit of hating women but, rather, of loving justice. It can also be a purely structural phenomenon, instantiated via norms, practices, institutions, and other social structures

An entailment of Manne’s view is that it is entirely possible to act in a misogynistic fashion without holding any ill intent towards women. As my anecdote earlier illustrates, the same pattern holds for transphobia generally and transmisogyny specifically. An action can be transmisogynistic solely by virtue of the effect it has on trans women’s lives, even if that action is performed with the best of intentions and no ill-will.

With this in mind, I return to the gender of the unknown bear…

On tranny jokes

The hint that you need, in order to understand why Rickard’s bear joke was so upsetting to me, is to first take a little sideways step in that same thread, and look at this tweet:

Did you just assume their genders based on their physical appearance? How non-woke of you! #StayWoke

I don’t know this Jack Bennett person at all, but I feel very confident that – quite unlike Rickard – his intention here was to mock trans women specifically. The photo in James Heathers’ original tweet isn’t at all ambiguous: it’s a group of white men. Yes, it’s technically possible that one or more of them is secretly a transgender woman, and might one day transition. But it’s very unlikely, by virtue of the base rates if nothing else: transgender people are pretty rare. I’m not exactly James’ biggest fan, but he absolutely did nothing wrong here by presuming that this is a photo of several men. Not even the most “woke” of us (…sigh) would argue otherwise. Yes, transgender people tend to be a little more cautious than most in attributing gender to people based on appearance, but that’s just because in our lives and social circles it’s not as reliable a cue as it is for other people. In short, Jack Bennett’s tweet is malicious: it’s an attempt at trolling James, and it uses mockery of trans women as the vehicle to do so.

To put it another way, Jack’s tweet is making a “tranny joke”, and a tired one at that. It’s a puzzling thing to me that cis men in particular find tranny jokes so funny, because in all honesty there’s only two or three variations out there. It’s quite repetitive, and a lot of them are snowclones. Probably the most common form is the “I’m $ORDINARY_THING but I self-identify as $ABSURD_THING” joke, which also comes in a “my pronouns are $SOMETHING_RIDICULOUS” variant. Another favourite is the “lipstick on a pig / dude in a dress / bearded lady” joke: unlike the first example which is used against trans people generally, this one targets trans women specifically. If you’re trans, you’ve heard these jokes in so many forms that they become exhausting. They’re a constant reminder that this is what people see you as: a tranny. Perhaps if you’re Ricky Gervais you think this kind of joke is clever or novel…

Those awful biological women can never understand what it must be like for you becoming a lovely lady so late in life. They take their girly privileges for granted. Winning at female sports and having their own toilets. Well, enough is enough

… but it’s really just a variant on the “lipstick on a pig” joke and it’s about the thousandth time I’ve heard it. As someone who actually did transition to live as a woman relatively late in life, it kinds of hurt. Gervais was making the tweet in the context of this “satirical” article in The Spectator. Much like Gervais’ tweet it’s a joke. Sort of. It’s one of those ha-ha-kidding-but-not-really jokes that people make in order to provide a plausible-sounding cover. Really, the whole article is just a tranny joke: it exists to mock and belittle transgender people, nothing more.

After a while of being publicly transgender, you get quite good at detecting these anti-trans tropes, and “Did you just assume the gender of $THING hahaha” is a very common one. If you really want to get the full flavour of anti-trans tropes you could do what I did and spend months reading the archives of KiwiFarms, Spinster or r/GenderCritical but I wouldn’t advise it and you’re not missing much of value if you decide to give those a miss. Besides, it’s easier to let Google do the work. Here’s what pops up when I google “did you just assume my gender”:

I mean, it’s not exactly subtle, right?

It’s a common enough trope that all you have to do is google the phrase to discover that its primary function is to mock transgender people. If you’re openly transgender, you automatically get exposed to a lot of this stuff. It’s impossible to avoid, and it slowly wears you down. After a while you take it to heart, you internalise it. You start thinking that maybe this caricature is just what you really are. It erodes your sense of self-worth because – for you – the tranny jokes are everywhere and they never, ever stop.

Living in bubbles

But what if you aren’t transgender? If you don’t live in our world, you probably don’t see very much of this at all. From your perspective, anything to do with trans culture (the good and the bad) is a foreign language. None of the rules and norms make sense, and you can’t parse the subtexts of what anyone is saying. So… you make a lot of mistakes. This is a pretty universal property of culture shock I suspect. For example I remember moving to the US and making a joke about fried chicken in a context where other people were talking about race. For me, I was literally talking about fried chicken because fried chicken is freaking awesome. I had no idea whatsoever about the historical connotations in the US, totally clueless. Thankfully, a kind person explained it to me, and I was pretty embarrassed and ashamed at having made that mistake.

So it goes with transgender issues. I spoke to quite a few cisgender people yesterday after having the exchange I had with Rickard. Not a single one of them had made the connection between this

Umm excuse me, did you just assume the gender of that bear?!

and this

Did you just assume their genders based on their physical appearance? How non-woke of you!

None of them knew anything about the history of that particular phrasing as an anti-trans meme, and didn’t understand why I automatically connected the two, and why I found them equally hurtful. After explaining it, though, every single one of them actually did get it. Once you do know the context and the relevant history, it’s really not hard to see that “did you just assume the gender…” is a specific meme used to target and belittle transgender people. Moreover, to their credit, every single person I explained it to came to the conclusion that it’s not a good joke to make.

But I did have to explain it, multiple times. I cannot count the number of times I’ve had to patiently explain this kind of thing… hundreds? Thousands maybe? It’s exhausting.

Of course, I totally understand why I have to explain these things over and over. For me it’s the 1000th time I’ve explained it; but to the person I’m explaining it to, it’s their first time… so I do have to be patient. Every single time I try to be patient, and I try to be kind. But I’ll confess my psychological resources are limited. Sometimes I snap, sometimes I get angry too. Try as I do, my patience is not limitless and sometimes I lash out. Very often, the person I lash out at isn’t someone who deserves it – usually it’s just whoever happened to be “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened when I got a bit snippy in my initial reply to Rickard. At the time I was really angry at him, because just a couple of days earlier he had read this blog post of mine and said nice things to me about it. I was genuinely, deeply happy that my blog post had made it outside my usual circles and had been read (and appreciated!) by someone who I wouldn’t normally have a chance to speak to about these topics… and so I was so hurt when I saw his “gender of the bear” tweet.

This was a mistake on my part. Nothing in my blog post could possibly have given Rickard the context he would have needed to infer the existence of the transphobic “did you assume…” meme. It’s a long post, but this wasn’t a topic I’d covered at all. So of course, being as human as the rest of us Rickard didn’t realise that the bear tweet was leveraging a transphobic meme. He and I live in such different worlds that there’s really no way he could have known.

It still hurt though. It hurt a lot.

Opaque and transparent worlds

The problem that Rickard and I ran into yesterday is a culture clash: I live within a culture in which my gender and my sense of personal identity are constantly disputed. Like it or not, the “culture war” that surrounds transgender lives is being fought over and about people like me (and usually with little regard for us shown by either side of the political dispute). Rickard… doesn’t live in that culture. It’s not a part of his daily life the way it is mine, and so that which is painfully, exhaustingly obvious to me is – pretty much literally – invisible to him.

So we live in two very different worlds, but those worlds aren’t equally visible … I understand the world that cisgender people live in rather well, just because cisgender people are the overwhelming majority. It’s really easy to understand cisgender people! In contrast, transgender people – and the lives we lead – are almost universally misunderstood by cis folks. In recent years there’s been a little more opportunity for transgender people to talk about our lives, but only a little. Most of us are still scared of you, and we haven’t learned to trust you. That takes time. I grew up in a world where transsexualism was still considered a mental disorder… gender identity disorder wasn’t removed from the DSM until 2013 (contrast that with homosexuality, which was removed in 1974). In the last decade or so we have started to accrue some political visibility and some anti-discrimination protections (in a few places) but it’s new, and fragile. Many, many transgender people still live in stealth, hiding from cisgender people as much as possible because that is so much safer.

The wider world hasn’t earned our trust, and so we are often very cautious about what we reveal of our world to you. By design our world is opaque to you, while yours is rather more transparent. This places us in the awkward position of constantly having to explain our lives to you, even though we fear you. This is just how it goes, and there’s no real solution to the problem other than time and patience, but please remember that there aren’t very many of us, and the effort of fighting our fears and telling our stories is exhausting – please, be patient with us too.

Of class and character

As an epilogue, there are two other things I want to mention about my exchange with Rickard, one about class and the other about character.

First, character. It hurts to be told that you’ve just said or done something offensive. It really does, and it’s really easy to get defensive when we hear this. Most of us do that (me included!) and initially that’s what Rickard did too. But then… he didn’t. He recognised the issue, apologised for the distress he’d caused and I thanked him for that. It’s weird to say this, but that almost never happens. Almost invariably in my experience, people never apologise in these situations, and I was – and am – deeply grateful that he did. That takes quite a lot of courage and personal character to do, especially when you aren’t quite sure why your behaviour was hurtful. I chatted more with him privately afterward to say thanks, because that actually does mean a lot to me. Having someone simply say “oops, sorry!” rather than blame me for being hurt is… almost unheard of. This is worth calling attention to, because it’s genuinely admirable.

Second, class. One thing that surprised me in the conversation is that Rickard (and others) attributed the mistake to having a working class background, which I think is inaccurate. My own background is – as I mentioned at the start of the post – a mix of working and middle class, and I have a lot of my own anxieties and frustrations about academic culture, enough that I lurk in the “firstgen” and “hidden curriculum” twitter threads and find myself nodding along thinking “omg yes I totally don’t understand $THING either”. But as I said to Rickard on twitter, I genuinely don’t think this one is a class issue:

FWIW, my experience since transitioning has been that academics are pretty clueless about trans issues regardless of class background or political ideology, so they say a lot of really offensive stuff. You were the first person to say sorry though, and I’m thankful

Working class people are no worse than middle class and upper class people on these issues. Progressives are slightly better than conservatives, in my experience, but not by very much. Even cisgender LGB people are only slightly better on transgender issues on average than heterosexual people. Basically… almost everyone gets this stuff wrong.

In a way I’m puzzled that class is even part of this discussion. Middle class and rich people are shockingly transphobic. This isn’t something where we should point the finger at the working class, not even remotely. My guess is that the reason that subject came up is because of the “Why I’m not renewing my SIPS membership” blog post, and the surrounding discussion on twitter, that seems to have sprawled across all sorts of subjects, and I’ve noticed that “working class” comes up a lot in that conversation. Honestly, I don’t want to enter into that conversation at all. The SIPS conference and its associated society are dead to me. I have no interest in attending, ever. I made that decision after watching how its attendees behave on twitter, and I have no regrets. What they do with their society is up to them and is no concern of mine.

What does concern me though, is that transgender issues are a matter I care about, and I am not at all pleased to see that opinions about transgender inclusion seem to be forming around the usual lines. I’m tired. I have no fucks left to give about what an academic society I don’t belong to does with its spare time. Don’t drag me into this. My conversation with Rickard is its own thing and it had a pleasant, amicable conclusion because we both tried to act like adults and not make it “about” something other than the immediate issue at hand. I don’t want this to become part of the “bropenscience” discussion. If you want to fight about that, go right ahead.

Just leave me out of it, okay? I’m tired of this.