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Internalized Transphobia, Shame, and Self Hatred

By: Lillith Campos

When it was suggested to me that I write about my own internalized transphobia I readily agreed to the task, yet inside, I had no idea how to even write this. We know what transphobia is and most of us know what internalized transphobia is as well. I think its safe to assume that if you are transgender that you've experienced your own form of internalized transphobia. I did not know however, that cis people could experience it as well. But alas, it is true. As you read this, think about the things you've seen, heard or experienced that has shed a negative perception on the transgender community. You very likely automatically think of a man in a dress, not a woman in a dress, and that is a form of internalized transphobia. I can only speak from a transgender woman’s perspective here since those are my experiences. Usually in the media or in your workplace jokes it is the transgender woman that's the spotlight. Transgender men I would think experience this as well, my own eyes just haven't been open to it yet. We, the women, are the ones typically targeted by bathroom bills, seen as predators towards children or rapists towards women in the far right thinking community. As much as you try to let that roll off your back, part of you holds on to that and it created this self doubt, this self loathing inside of you. In my research for this I've read many articles and stories and my eyes were opened to things I already knew but couldn't vocalize, but I also came across a couple of new (to me) terms I'd like to explore as well. One of which is 'imposter syndrome' the feeling that you are a fraud, that you don't deserve whatever it is you have. Usually its linked to positions of employment or power. Yet I think it fits well in the transgender community. Myself for instance, I don't think I get to call myself a woman, I think I am a fraud. There are many reasons for those beliefs, upbringing, social interactions amongst peers, media portrayals, truscum and even terf rhetoric.

These are very dangerous ideologies because in the terf rhetoric you're being reduced to your ability to procreate. If you can have a period and bear children then you're a woman. If not, regardless of transition, surgeries, lived experiences, you're a man or as the like to call us TIM's, Trans Identified Males. The very thing that feminism is fighting against, the worth of someone based off of their genitals, is the very thing that TERFS use to separate us. They believe that because we didn't grow up as women, that we weren't socialized as women but instead forced to try and fit in as a man for our own safety or because we didn't have the lived experience as women then we could never truly be women. Or in the truscum rhetoric, you have to have dysphoria to be transgender. More of their beliefs are of the mind you have to be on HRT, actively seeking genital surgery as well else you really aren’t transgender. This is especially damaging because it comes from within our community. We're experiencing gatekeeping from our own people. Not everyone can afford hormones or surgeries and that's damaging to those of us that can't. It plants that seed of doubt that we are in fact not authentic. Not all of us choose or desire to have surgery, not all of us want to take hormones or even socially transition. For some of us, just saying we are transgender is simply enough and that's ok. Regardless of where you fall within your own transition, regardless of what you choose to do or not do, you are beautiful and valid.

The other term I came across is more of a definition and it's going to challenge (hopefully) our use of the word phobia. Misia (pronounced "miz-eeya") comes from the Greek word for hate or hatred, so similar to how Islamophobia means "fear of Islam," the more accurate Islamomisia means "hatred of Islam."

The definition of phobia is "an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something." Which was later expanded to include homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia and so on. Which in turn expanded the definition to include "dislike of or prejudice against". And while we are all used to the term transphobia, it has brought out the sheer ignorance in people with the arguments of "I'm not scared of transgender people or of homosexual people." Basically letting people be hateful while using the very basic definition of phobia as an example of how they aren't hateful. When in actuality what they are showing us is transmisia. A hatred towards transgender people. Will it catch on? Doubtful. But I challenge those that read this to use that term, learn new terminologies and try to spread that awareness amongst their circles and hopefully we can start calling out that behavior for what it is, hate speech.

Much like how we use identity in how we describe ourselves. That is harmful as well and we should challenge that. Do I identify as a woman or am I a woman? Do you hear cis women say they identify as a woman? No, they simply are women. It also leads to the old and invalidating statements such as "I identify as an attack helicopter" "I identify as rich or skinny", it gets old hearing those things and they are invalidating statements so we should stop them when we hear them and we should adapt every day and open ourselves up to the personal growth that benefits not just ourselves but our community as a whole. I am a woman and I won't stand for transmisic behavior.

So in all my reading and reflecting on things that could cause internalized transphobia/transmisia you read about others experiences and you think back to events in your life that caused you internal shame. Maybe you didn't realize it then but you more than likely internalized that and it can play a part on how you see yourself.

Think about this. How many of us experienced parental or familial disapproval? Bullying at school or the workplace? Or even intimate partners that engage in power and control tactics? Maybe this wasn't experienced first hand but you seen this behavior happen to someone else for being different and you see it so much that in your mind its normalized behavior, you think that if you're different that's just how you should expect to be treated. Or, you turn those behaviors in on yourself and you become your own worst critic all the while accepting that behavior from others in your life. Maybe you don't correct someone when the deadname you. Maybe you don't correct someone when they misgender you. By not standing up for ourselves we are enabling that behavior. We are showing others that it's ok to be mistreated. But it's not ok. Its damaging not only to oneself but to the entire community.

Many transgender people, particularly those who declared or displayed their gender non-conformity when young, have been subjected to years of messages that something is wrong with them, that they are unlovable, and that their gender identity will bring them lifelong pain and hatred. Not surprisingly, some of us grow up believing that ANY relationship is better than no relationship at all, and therefore they stay in unhealthy relationships. I had the chance to come out when I was 14. It was 1990 and my mom had found my stash of girls clothes on more than one occasion. Numerous talks and lectures didn't stop the behavior. There was no internet like there is today, there was no information out there. What was known is what was seen on the daytime talk shows of that time. Drag queens, or talk shows where the man comes out as a woman in such a ridiculous charade of a woman whole the audience laughs at them. Is that what people think of me? TV shows or Movies that portrayed a transgender woman, we were always the butt of a joke and made to sympathize with the man and not the poor woman who was just exposed and laughed at. Shows, movies, those were ways that I started to develop my own internalized transmisia. I didn't even know the words at the time, I didn't even know that transition was possibly, that it was something I could ever hope to achieve but already my own internal shame was forming and at 14 when I had the chance I chickened out and did everything I could to hate that woman inside of me that was screaming to be let out.

You see, I was sent to a psychiatrist. This is when the AIDS epidemic was still going on, it was illegal to be gay in most places. It was bad enough that someone was gay, but you find someone that wanted to transition? That wanted to walk away from “being a man”and live authentically as a woman? That's a cardinal sin. Men are perceived to be the top of the food chain, why would you walk away from that? Sadly it's still like that today, just not as widespread. So I see this psychiatrist, I already know I'm in trouble otherwise why am I going? I'm asked if I'm gay. No I'm not. Well am I a transvestite? No, plus I didn't know what that meant. Do you want to be a woman? Was I even allowed to say yes? The answer was no. I was scared. I still regret that answer but I've since learned it was for the best. So we continued with our sessions and determined that my behaviors were not normal. Normal is what everyone else was and I was not. Back to the closet we go for the next 26 years. Anytime a boy would do something seen as not manly he would be told to toughen up or called a sissy or called a girl. Why is being called a girl an insult anyways? Does this patriarchal misogynistic society detest women that much? Don't cry, boys don't cry. All those things you internalize. We think of ourselves as less than. As not deserving. And maybe that spills over into relationships. Some of us end up in emotionally or physically abusive relationships. And we justify being treated like that because we are different, who could really love us? We think that this is as good as we can ever hope for because we are different, less desirable. It stews and it grows and you loathe yourself for being different. But isn't being different beautiful? Why follow the masses? Follow your own path. Always be true to yourself.

I was ashamed of myself, my identity, my desires, my inner person. They crucify people like me. It would have been nice to know that I wasn't a freak and that there were others like me. But when they asked me what was my problem in school they always assumed I was just a bad kid. Little did they realize I couldn't stand myself. And hated what I was. I felt I needed to be bad to be respected and left alone. Internalized transmisia takes hold when people unconsciously absorb messages that shame, criticize, and dehumanize trans people. Overt and subtle messages that degrade or serve to exclude trans people from full participation in life are especially harmful to the transgender community.Internalized transmisia influences every trans individual differently, but it affects so many people who may not even be aware of it. We see so much transmisia around us that we might not realize how much we're carrying around internally.

Heteronormative and cisnormative pop culture and systemic institutional practices establish ideals that rarely reflects the transgender experience, but instead provide limited depictions of how people should identify, look, and behave. And when we don't fit into that neat little box we tend to get ridiculed, again, internalizing that shame. It can manifest in the thought inside you that tells you, “You’re not a REAL woman” or “You’re not valid.” It tells you that you’re ugly, that you’re not worthy of love. It tells you that the world is right to think you’re disgusting.

If you have a “successful” transition on the outside, you might pass as your gender to the world around you while still struggling to fight the demons within. This is why internalized transmisia is the hardest battle. It can be years after transition and you’re still fighting those voices in your head, the voices that tell us why we’re frauds, the voices that tell us we’re just wearing costumes. It has been one of my hardest battles thus far.

But these demons can be battled, and they can be defeated. Some of us might be lucky enough to not have such demons inside themselves. But for others, knowing how to fight them is an important part of surviving in a transmisic society. Because when you are confident in your own self, the hatred of society becomes easier to withstand. You can stand regally against all the discrimination knowing that these ignorant, hateful people don’t know the real you. But when you don’t even know yourself, you are at risk of being twisted by society into a small, frightful person, someone who is scared of themselves and then ultimately of everything else.

This attitude of being see as “less than" has been widespread and so to finally arrive at the idea that this could be you, that YOU could be a member of this hated group can be very scary. Not only that, but by growing up in a culture and society where this attitude is common, you take it in and part of you believes it whether you want to or not. This can happen because we often learn the attitudes and beliefs of those around us before we become self-aware enough or wise enough to start questioning them. We often learn these things from trusted people around us – parents, teachers, church leaders, etc. so that we tend not to question them. We learn that a certain group of people can be mocked before we know that we are IN that group, and thus we are stuck in the position of hating something about ourselves.

Another way to fight internalized transmisia is understanding the arbitrary nature of cis normativity. Cis normativity is the idea that cis-ness is normal and being trans is freakish. And not just in a statistical sense. Clearly trans people will always be a statistical minority. But fighting cis normativity involves the idea that being trans is a normal part of human variation, like being red headed or having freckles. It’s simply another way to exist that is just as valid as being cis. If we lived in a perfect society, all the negatives of being trans such as dysphoria would be nullified by affirmative therapies and we’d be able to exist without the discrimination of society teaching us to hate ourselves and causing numerous mental health problems.

In order to fight cis normativity, it can be helpful to surround yourself with other trans humans, to soak in the beauty of the trans experience, to learn from elders who have been traveling this path for many years, who have learned to love themselves, who have fought their inner demons and won. Trans elders exist as ppossible models for those trans people who struggle with the question, “Is this normal?” Yes! We are normal. Our feelings are valid. We might be a rare specimen but that doesn’t make us any less beautiful. For other trans people can only understand the struggles and hardships we've gone through. This is not to take away from our cis allies. On the contrary I have learned so much about womanhood from some of my closest cis allies, women who have accepted and loved me as a sister, as a best friend, as just one of the girls without so much as batting an eye. I think having a strong support system comprised of both cis and trans individuals has been what has given me the tools to battle my own internal demons.

When we understand the roots of cis normativity, we can take solace in the beauty of trans lives. Colonizing powers have erased so much trans history they have made it such that we have come to believe the lie that trans people are a recent fad. But trans history is both long and beautiful. We have always existed. Remember that. Internalize that. We have been shamans and magical people. Spiritual. Powerful. Respected. Trans humans exist in the liminal space between here and there, having made an internal journey that challenges the most powerful norms of society. There is great strength in that journey. Learn from it. Internalize it. It will be useful to fight those internal demons.

Sometimes I think I’m comfortable and confident in my identity as a trans woman, and then something happens, I “read the comments,” and my internalized transmisia rears its ugly head. There's a reason they say don't read the comments. But what is it that makes us read the comments? Morbid curiosity? Myself, for some reason I think that I have to suffer to earn the right to call myself a woman. But why? Why do I equate womanhood with suffering? That's misogynistic thinking that I have to let go of. Because womanhood is beautiful. Womanhood is strength and solidarity. It is so many things that are kind and beautiful in this world.

Most self-destructive behaviors serve some purpose. Internalized transmisia is helping me perform my gender according to cis standards, and thus win the approval of some cis people. Society rewards trans people who pass as cis, and it punishes trans people who can’t, or don’t care to. This sends a clear message to trans people that cis is good, trans is bad.

On the one hand I believe it’s my responsibility to eradicate my internalized transmisia—for one, because I’m responsible for taking care of myself. On the other hand, I have to be careful, because to blame myself for my internalized transmisia is a form of victim blaming. I need to be gentle with myself when I struggle, or when I’m triggered because some transmisic came out of the woodwork to remind me of all of the times I’ve been hurt, rejected, and made to feel inferior by cis people.

"I love you even though you’re trans”. When I first heard that, it brought me comfort. Peace of mind. But as time went on, I found myself questioning that phrase, you love me "even though" I am trans? What does that mean? You are not a saint because you have overlooked a “flaw” of mine, nor do I carry a flaw that needs to be overlooked. While not intended as a hurtful statement, the deliverance of this phrase still unsettles me to this day, and this mindset in the gay community is one that is a disguise for a lot of transmisia. And eventually, for me, it was one that was a disguise for my own internalized transmisia. “I love you, even though you’re trans” can quickly turn into “I love myself, even though I’m trans”.

For many of us, when we begin to go down the road of accepting the fact that we may be transgender, we go through a back and forth period of shame, self-doubt, elation, and wonder. The thought of finally being able to live as who we are is amazing. To be free of a life existing in the wrong gender and live the life we were meant to? How exhilarating that must be? But there is also a flip side, immense fear. How can I do this? Everyone will turn their back on me. I will be an outcast. What will happen with my job? These are only some of the many questions that enter our minds. Then comes the shame. How can I do this to my family? I don’t want to hurt anyone and so on.

A common proposition we hear when we are questioning our gender is some sort of variation on the phrase, “If you could just press a button and automatically be any gender, what would it be?” If you could press that button, without having to deal with all the shame, pain, discrimination, loss, judgment, and bigotry, would you press it? For me it was a resounding yes, but the reality of it was that I couldn’t just press a button. To be my true self, I would have to face all these things I was afraid of, but how does one do that?

When we are born, doctors assign us a gender based on our external genitalia, which is rooted in transmisia because they are basing it off the idea that men have penises and woman have vaginas. The reality is, we are who we are, and our outside appearance does not change who we are on the inside. We then navigate the world with the assumption that if a doctor told me so, then this must be true. For some of us, who we are does not match what the world has told us. But that is not always the case. We are and always have been our gender, it just may have taken us a while to affirm ourselves and who we are. Our outward appearance does not dictate and/or represent who we are.

There is no one way to look: male, female, trans, non-binary, gender non-conforming and/or any other identity. Therefore, changing how we look on the outside is not a transition, just like getting a nose job, liposuction, butt implants and/or other surgeries to affirm our self-esteem are not transition surgeries. Rather, they are affirming surgeries to how we want to appear externally. Yet, when discussing these external changes regarding trans people we are so quick to label with words like transition.

When a cis person takes hormones that their body is not producing enough of, we do not label their experience as a transition. Yet when a trans person takes hormones that their body is not producing enough of, we slap on the label transition. This others trans people and again reinforces the normalcy to other trans people. If the term transition was used for everyone; trans, cis, non-binary, gender non- conforming and/or other identities, then it would not be transmisic. When a cis person changes up their style, hair, accessories, and/or other parts of themselves/identity(ies) we do not label this experience as them transitioning, when trans people do, we label it as 'transition'. Why? Why do we get othered?

All this, all this we face everyday in fleeting thoughts inside our own headspace. It damages is whether we know it or not. And to hold our heads high and say "I am enough, I am valid and I belong", that is how we each do our own part to not only battle our demons, our internalized transmisia, but to start down the road of becoming the absolute best version of ourselves possible.


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