Yes, words can traumatise

A trans woman I admire recently withdrew from activism due to a diagnosis of PTSD, caused by the way she had been treated by a combination of right wing and “feminist” anti-trans campaigners. This has shaken me, because I know that on a lesser level I, too, have shown some signs of trauma from my (somewhat meagre) work standing up against “transcriticism” or “gender criticism”.

I am left wondering what I need to do to keep myself safe, without abdicating my social responsibility to care about the safety of others, particularly trans women.

I’m under no illusion, I don’t get anything like the shit trans women get. I have been committed to challenging “transcriticism” in feminist circles because it so materially affects the wellbeing and safety of transwomen when they are denied the social support and services they desperately need because they are not recognised as women. But it affects me too, when a group of people apparently committed to social justice dedicate so much of their time to undermining the very idea of being transgender.

Before Christmas, things got so bad I was having anxiety attacks and losing sleep. I started the New Year with physical health problems that were clearly a bodily response to stress. Whenever I saw the seemingly ubiquitous name of a local, prolific “gender critical” campaigner I had palpitations, and not in a good way. I had to make socially isolating decisions in order to avoid encountering her or seeing her name. I went to pieces every time her name came up.

It was disturbing me so much, I realise, because I have not come to any fixed conclusions about what, if anything, to do about my own gender dysphoria, and I do not want the prejudice of others to be what ultimately controls my choices. There is a “TERF” in my head that has internalised the hateful things I have heard – gay people are more important and more authentic and more socially and morally ideal than transgender people. I feel stifled by this all too ubiquitous narrative. 

“Nothing about us without us” is a really good rule of thumb in any activism, but it is an idea sadly not given any space when it comes to discussions about transgender people. People who are not transgender feel strongly entitled to their opinions and authority on trans lives.

The more clear my own transgender status becomes to me, the more distressing I find the extent of anti-trans or “transcritical” speech. But I know even when I identified as cisgender, I sometimes shied away from challenging transphobia in my community after genuine experiences of being ostracised for speaking my mind. The topic is so loaded with hurt and pain that simply raising it is felt as a betrayal by cisgender women who, even if they don’t agree with trans exclusion, would rather not live through another intractable and painful debate on the subject.

A recent and particularly distressing experience in a feminist group confirmed this for me – I was cast as the bad guy for posting a petition against trans hate that initiated “the most unfriendly debate we’ve ever seen in this group”. My perception was that the unfriendliness arrived in the form of “gender critical” campaigners, but I suspect most people were happy to take at face value the notion I was simply being uppity, without being prepared to do their own research or even read the petition.

It makes a cold kind of sense to preserve community cohesion by allowing those generally not present to be scapegoated. The feminist community rarely witnesses the devastating effects on transgender people of this oppressive, undermining rhetoric, led by people who are not trans, about whether or not being trans is a real and valid thing or simply something to be mocked, derided and campaigned against. The dialogue is particularly unbalanced because some “feminists” dedicate the majority of their campaigning to this single issue. If anyone highlights the huge distress this causes transgender people, words like “feeble”, “manipulative” or “over-emotional” are thrown back – this is to be a coldly academic discussion about how our self-experience is incorrect. 

But who but ourselves can judge the authenticity of our experience? Are we really saying the best way to discover yourself is to listen carefully to others and ignore the stirring of your own heart? Do we want to live in an authoritarian, hierarchical system, or do we want to give people the opportunity to self-actualise? The trans community have enough wisdom, grace, intuition, academic knowledge, feminism, spiritual connection, difference and disagreement to figure ourselves out without needing the input of people who simply are not close enough to our experience to understand it.

My New Year’s resolution is to avoid the emotional damage I am doing to myself by entering spaces on or offline where “transcriticism” is seen as acceptable, even if this does somewhat curtail my social and feminist involvement. I won’t engage with this toxic dialogue any longer, and I have enough self-understanding now, to see this ignorant prejudice for what it is, whilst acknowledging that it single-handedly kept me silent about my own gender issues for nearly a decade.

I urge any feminists out there who wish to be non-oppressive to consider ensuring balanced research and ample, empowered trans representation before accepting or engaging in any kind of debate or conversation that concerns transgender people. Our words are all too capable of creating an oppressive environment and thwarting or silencing people’s self-discovery, leaving them marginalised and traumatised.

8 thoughts on “Yes, words can traumatise

  1. Astrid

    Oops posting efore I finished. As a cis person, I can’t relate to your specific situation, but I do know how even self-proclaimed anti-oppressive activists are oppressing people they perceive as still lesser. I don’t mean this to derail, b ut I saw it for example when I was talking about an instance of trauma I’d endured. Because I am disabled, some survivor activists told me I had somehow called for the abuse. I understand that it hurts sometimes more when you are faced with transphobia from a feminist than from someone who is not claiming to oppose oppression anyway, because feminists claimt o speak for the trans community. I don’t mean to speak for you with this comment, so if I’m wrong, let me know.

    1. Sandy Hope Post author

      I really appreciate your empathy, Astrid, and your recognition of a common human theme and a sense of betrayal we have both experienced from people we hoped would be more aware – thanks for your response 🙂

  2. Bailey Summers

    Thanks for writing this really there’s something very trauma inducing about being further marginalized and even demonized by a class of people that you identify with on an incredibly deep level.
    I’ve tried my share of reaching through the divide to find only trauma or more trauma on the other side.
    And have felt the bewilderment of any kind of counter arguments brushed aside as “Too Feelie.” or just “Not academic enough.”
    Just to know there are people like you out there still writing things or the kind comments of people here gives me some hope at least.

  3. Eleanor

    I find it mind boggling that anyone who has been on the receiving end of prejudice – for whatever reason – would then dish it out to someone else. I know this happens and the Blue eyes/ brown eyes experiment by Jane Elliot illustrates this so well but you’d have thought we’d have learnt from this not perpetuated it. Brilliant post as always, Sandy.


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