by William Lau
Content Warning: transphobic hate crimes, anti-Blackness, murder, incarceration
In the spring of 2021, I moved to Columbia City. I found the neighborhood to be welcoming and exciting. It’s close to bookstores and Asian grocery stores, and I spent much time going on walks around my home. On my walks, I paid close attention to public boards and postings. I found posters advertising community events and marches, as well as stickers declaring various points of view about the pandemic.
One day, I was surprised to come across a red sticker on a street pole that said “protect children from gender clinics.” I’d heard this phrase before. As a transgender man, I’m very familiar with the various right-wing dog whistles used to deny health care to my community. The claim that clinics that offer transgender health care prey upon children is a blatant lie, even as bills passed in the U.S. make it increasingly harder for transgender youth to receive care.
What shocked me was seeing such a transphobic statement in my own neighborhood. I scratched the sticker off, hoping it was a one-time thing. But as the weeks went on, my friends discovered other transphobic stickers that said seemingly innocuous phrases, like “no child is born in the wrong body,” to outright violent ones, like “trans ‘women’ are men.”
It was not lost on me that these stickers were appearing in a neighborhood where pride flags are a common sight. In Columbia City, I often passed by restaurants, hair salons, and bars that all proclaimed LGBTQIA inclusion — yet transphobic messaging persisted. Regardless of whether these stickers were the result of a collective or a single determined individual, they spoke to the prevalence of unaddressed transphobia in my community.
Seattle is often viewed as one of the most gay-friendly cities in the country. It was ranked as the most LGBTQ-friendly city in the United States by the Human Rights Campaign in 2015, and it was ranked as the best city in the U.S. for same-sex married couples in 2020. But transphobia, particularly transmisogyny, is still alive and well in Seattle.
What Is Transmisogyny?
One group of transphobes that has been getting a lot of attention in the mainstream media has been TERFs. TERF stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” and represents just one community of transphobic individuals (though one that definitely has long reach). A comprehensive history of TERFs can be read on Vox, but in essence, the group is a splinter movement of feminists who believe transgender women don’t belong in women’s spaces because they are “biologically men.” When the movement was growing in the 1970s, Black lesbian feminist group the Combahee River Collective warned against TERF rhetoric in a 1977 statement, saying, “As BIack women we find any type of biological determinism a particularly dangerous and reactionary basis upon which to build a politic. … it so completely denies any but the sexual sources of women’s oppression, negating the facts of class and race.” Not everyone who is transphobic is a TERF, but all TERFs are transphobic.
Another important term to understand is “transmisogyny.” It was coined by Julia Serano in her book Whipping Girl, and it refers to the intersection of transphobia and misogyny: discrimination against trans women. Related to this is the phrase “transmisogyny exempt,” often shortened to TME. This is an identifier for anyone who is not a transgender woman or transfeminine. If you’re a cisgender man, a cisgender woman, or a nonbinary person who was assigned female at birth, you are “transmisogyny exempt,” meaning you don’t experience this specific form of oppression. For example: As a transgender man, I experience transphobia, but I am TME in that I don’t experience transmisogyny.
While TERFs discriminate against all transgender people, transgender women are uniquely and violently targeted. To TERFs and many other transphobic individuals, transgender men are unfortunate victims of “gender ideology,” but transgender women threaten societal norms and public safety. The book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters is a prime example of the narrative that transgender ideology is drawing otherwise-cisgender girls into identifying as transgender men. Irreversible Damage portrays transgender women as “luring” young girls away from their natural femininity, enforcing the notion that transgender men are all victims and transgender women are all predators.
While being misgendered and infantalized as a transgender man certainly isn’t good, it’s not as life-threatening as the demonization of transgender women, which directly and routinely inspires transmisogynistic hate crimes: the assault, murder, and incarceration of transgender women.
In the weeks after I discovered the first transphobic sticker in Columbia City, my friends and I would go on long walks up and down Rainier Avenue, scratching off hateful messages we’d find on lampposts and stop signs. We found stickers that said things such as “self identification harms women,” and “trans ‘women’ hurt women.” Notably, these stickers especially accuse trans women of violence, while portraying anyone else (including TME trans people) as victims of ideology.
An Eruption of Transmisogyny in the World
While transmisogyny has always been present in the world, there has been a recent wave of celebrities, politicians, and writers speaking openly about their transphobic beliefs, a move that has actively fueled anti-trans legislation across the world. Perhaps the most famous of these transphobes is J.K. Rowling. It came as a shock to many in June 2020 when Rowling published a statement on her website defending her transphobia on Twitter.
The consequences for J.K. Rowling’s statements have been far-reaching. When one of the most famous and wealthy writers in the world openly and unapologetically discusses her hateful beliefs, it becomes much more acceptable for other individuals to be openly transphobic. J.K. Rowling’s vocal transphobia has acted as a foundation for greater transmisogynist platforming in the U.K., and recent transphobic legislation has made it harder than ever for transgender people to receive health care.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — a prominent Nigerian writer and author of the much-lauded We Should All Be Feminists — is another one of those individuals. She has published numerous articles and books and even been quoted by Beyoncé. In November 2020, when Adichie was interviewed by The Guardian, she actively defended J.K. Rowling, calling Rowling’s transphobic post a “perfectly reasonable piece.”
This transphobia directly affected one of Adichie’s former students, author Akwaeke Emezi, a nonbinary Nigerian author who uses they/them pronouns. Emezi spoke openly about Adichie’s transphobia on Twitter, speaking both to Adichie’s treatment of them as well as the overall lack of accountability within writing communities. In response to this, Adichie published a letter titled “It Is Obscene,” in which she accused Emezi of “cancel culture.” Adichie’s claim that she “fully support[s] the rights of trans people” in this letter is immediately refuted by her own incessant misgendering of Emezi in that same letter.
Transphobes often call any criticism of their beliefs “cancel culture,” claiming that speaking openly about their views leads to discrimination against them, even going so far as to call “TERF” a slur. However, while more prominent figures are being open about their transphobic beliefs, there have not been any significant consequences to their careers. Despite various actors expressing support for transgender women in order to deplatform J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter anniversary special still aired, to Rowling’s benefit. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is still being published, with her most recent book coming out in 2021. Here in the States, Dave Chappelle’s recent Netflix special was decried for its transphobic messaging and was criticized by local poet J Mase III. Yet despite criticism and staff walkouts, Netflix chose to keep the special on and even fired a Black trans employee for protesting.
Meanwhile, transgender people in the U.K. are facing rising levels of health care discrimination, and a law meant to allow self-identification for transgender people has been scrapped. Last year saw a catastrophic rise of anti-trans bills introduced in the United States aimed at reducing gender-affirming health care, blacklisting curricula about gender identity, and restricting self-identification. When U.S. Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma voted to block a bill on LGBTQ rights, he quoted J.K. Rowling, showing a direct correlation between transphobic celebrities and anti-transgender legislation.
By contrast, it might appear at first that Seattle and the whole of Washington are a safe haven from transphobia. In 2019, the Washington State Department of Licensing moved to allow individuals to have a gender “X” marker on their driver’s license instead of “M” or “F.” In 2021, the Washington State Legislature passed Senate Bill 5313, which will require insurers to cover gender-affirming health care starting this month and includes often-expensive treatments, such as laser hair removal. While these are certainly great strides for transgender people in Washington, transmisogyny is far from gone. In fact, it has been platformed by the City of Seattle government itself.
Transmisogyny in Seattle
To this day, I continue to find red stickers in my neighborhood with the link “ICantAnymore.com.” These stickers appeared much more often than others. I found them outside nail salons, on the street by Safeway, and elsewhere. When I went home, I looked up the link and was brought to the website Feminist Current. This Canada-based website is run by well-known transphobe Megan Murphy, who has given a variety of talks on her transphobic ideology — including at our very own Seattle Public Library (SPL).
In 2019, I remember being shocked that this notorious transphobe was not only giving a talk in Seattle, but doing so at a government institution, the public library. At the time, several of my friends who are transgender were working for Seattle Public Library, and all were extremely worried about Murphy speaking. Despite protests and criticism from local news, Megan Murphy still gave her talk in Seattle’s Central Library, where she misgendered transgender women and characterized them as a unified front masquerading to invade “women’s spaces” and commit assault.
In a since-deleted statement, Marcellus Turner, SPL’s head librarian, cited free speech as the reasoning behind Murphy’s talk going forward. In this statement, which can still be read on The Stranger, Turner said, “These values are easy to stand by when we agree with the viewpoints being shared, but when viewpoints challenge us in uncomfortable ways, it certainly becomes more difficult. It is in these difficult moments we must stand particularly firm in supporting the right to free speech.” But there is a marked difference between supporting free speech and actively platforming dangerous ideology. Giving a transphobe a platform, especially one associated with the Seattle government, is very dangerous, because it emboldens other transphobes and inspires transphobic hate crimes.
Transgender women are assaulted and killed in Washington State with terrifying regularity. For instance, in 2017, a transgender woman was assaulted in Capitol Hill in the restaurant Rancho Bravo Tacos. The woman was harassed and assaulted by three men, none of whom were ever caught by the Seattle Police Department. In 2019, Nikki Kuhnhausen, a 17-year-old trans girl, was murdered in Vancouver, Washington. Jessica Phoenix Sylvia has been incarcerated in a men’s prison by the Washington State Department of Corrections since 2005. The list goes on.
Who This Hurts
Transgender people are facing discrimination from the State, collectives, and individuals. But it’s critical to look at another intersection — race — and understand how transmisogyny and racism intersect. Time and time again, it’s been shown that Black trans women are the greatest victims of hate crimes out of all trans people.
An important term for understanding this type of violence is “transmisogynoir.” Transmisogynoir is a combination of two terms: “misogynoir,” meaning misogyny against Black women (coined by Dr. Moya Bailey), and “transmisogyny.” The full term “transmisogynoir” was coined by Trudy of Gradient Lair in 2014.
The consequences of transmisogynoir are clear when looking at the number of transgender people murdered in 2021. The Human Rights Campaign recorded almost 50 murders in 2021 (with the actual number most likely being higher, due to the misgendering of victims after their deaths). Of those recorded victims, 85% were transgender women. Since 2013, 66% of murdered transgender people have been Black transgender women. Several of the victims listed by the Human Rights Campaign were killed here in Washington.
When transphobic rhetoric is allowed a platform, the victims of hate will overwhelmingly be transgender women. And of those trans women, Black trans women will be the most targeted.
Support in Washington State
Thankfully, several organizations in Washington State exist to support victims of transmisogyny. Trans Woman of Color Solidarity Network is an organization that “upholds the self determination of Two-Spirit, Trans Women & Trans Femmes of Color 4 collective care in WA state” (taken from its Instagram). The organization can be supported on its Patreon.
Another organization that does great work is the Lavender Rights Project. As can be read on its website, Lavender Rights Project “elevates the power, autonomy, and leadership of the Black intersex & gender diverse community through intersectional legal and social services. We utilize the law as an organizing principle to affirm our civil rights and self-determination.” An important part of its organization is the Washington Black Trans Task Force, which provides direct support to Black trans people and works to provide housing to Black trans women. Its work can be supported through donation.
I still feel wary walking through Columbia City. Every time I pass a stranger on the street, I wonder if they’re the one who’s been putting up the transphobic stickers. I fear for my loved ones who are transgender women, and I hope that in the future we will be able to live in a city that universally condemns transmisogyny. But in order for Seattle to be safe for transgender women, there needs to be wider and greater understanding of transmisogyny and transmisogynoir and more support toward the organizations that directly help those affected by it.
The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.
The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.
William Lau is a journalist based in Seattle. He writes on historical racism and transgender politics and has been published in Roar Magazine, Wear Your Voice, and Viaduct Journal. Follow him on Twitter @wlllau_.
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