The best deconversion stories involve shedding more than religion. I’ve talked before about how harmful beliefs like misogyny and being anti-abortion lingered with me long after my belief in God left. What I didn’t realize was that my transphobic views were the hardest to shake.
A post I wrote in April 2019 is a good snapshot of some of my work-in-progress stances on social justice issues. I admitted that I was still slowly coming around to the idea of being pro-choice, but more interesting to me is that when discussing my “thoughts on LGBTQ+ issues,” I said only,
I don’t think there are really any secular arguments, or any good arguments at all, against LGBTQ+ rights. To me, homophobia is no different from racism. Just don’t judge people or try to take away their rights based on qualities that are out of their control and that don’t affect your life. How hard is that?What I believe as an Atheist
I cringe at the lack of real-world complexity when I go back and read that now, but I need to remind myself that this was almost four years ago, and it’s all about taking baby steps. It’s not wrong, just overly rational and not very compassionate. What I find more telling, though, is that I made no mention at all in defense of trans identities, rights, or liberation, decrying only homophobia.
My transphobic blog post
Maybe that’s for the best, however, because I decided to expand on my “thoughts on gender” four months later, and those thoughts were… pretty bad. (Read at your own discretion. The password is “yikes”.)
The general theme was that it was pretty transphobic. (Trigger warning!)
Some of the highlights included:
- “I haven’t said before what my views on gender are. How many are there? Does gender work differently than sex? Can you pick either one?”
- “Some people are just female, some are just male, and some used to be one but are now the other (although in that case, they would still have the sex chromosomes of the former; that’s something they cannot change even with hormones and surgery).”
- “The deviation goes further: maybe you’re transgender and you identify as one gender but have the body of the other. Maybe you were born ambiguous of sex. Maybe you identify as neither, or both, or something on some days and something else on other days. Does this mean that there are more than two genders?”
Even more alarming than these (although it explains why I would say abhorrent things like that) is what I ended with:
Personally, I am a huge fan of transgender woman Blaire White and her YouTube channel, and watching her was the inspiration for writing this post. If you don’t know who she is, she is actually conservative in her views, and she never hesitates to criticize those with outlandish views on gender who can make the whole lot of them look crazy. I highly recommend her YouTube channel if you want to hear about these topics from someone more informed than I am and be entertained at the same time.My Thoughts on Gender
Yeah, it was absolutely awful. Interestingly, I was pretty transparent through the whole thing that I had no idea what I was talking about: “Also, you may have noticed that there weren’t any citations in this post; that’s because I’m just musing and writing down my thoughts on this topic for fun.” But I have to ask my 2019 self, why say anything at all? Why was I talking just to hear my own voice? To be sure, this is one of the problems with telling myself I have to write something every single week even when I have nothing good to say. This “blog hustle mentality” has created all of my worst posts.
In this post, that you’re reading right now, I want to show you what led me to believe these transphobic things, and why. Maybe this can help us all understand what causes people to be transphobic today and how we can combat those beliefs.
If you don’t know her, Blaire White is basically what conservative (or “centrist”) cisgender people wish all trans people were. She passes, she’s pretty, she’s white, she thinks nonbinary people and their pronouns are invalid, and she loves to make fun of any trans person who she perceives as “weird.” She’s the transphobe’s trans.
I remember that virtually everything I said in that post was taken straight from Blaire’s ideas. I loved her videos. I trusted her because she was giving an Official Trans Opinion on Trans Issues and therefore could not be transphobic, or so I thought. She was also (and I believe still is) friends with Jaclyn Glenn, one of the first atheist influencers I ever followed.
I was completely unprepared for J.K. Rowling’s first viral transphobic tweet in December 2019.
This tweet made complete sense to me. She was being totally reasonable, even saying to live your life however you please. It couldn’t have been transphobic to say that “sex was real.” Of course, I had no idea who Maya was, but after a quick search, I determined that her beliefs were not transphobic. (They were violently transphobic.) I appreciate the way this NBC News article about Maya Forstater ends:
So, J.K. Rowling: Write whatever you please. Call yourself “gender critical,” if you like. Support any transphobic adult who’ll discriminate with you. Live your best life with your piles of Muggle money. But force cis, trans or intersex women to live with hostile work environments because of the fairytales that transphobes tell themselves? No. [hashtag]TransRightsAreHumanRights [hashtag]WhatDrillAreYouTalkingAboutDr. Veronica Ivy, NBC News
A few days later, I was listening to Hemant Mehta and Jessica Bluemke discussing this on the Friendly Atheist Podcast, and I was starting to get mad. I remember that they were calling Rowling so transphobic, and I thought they were crazy. I agreed with these people about everything else, but they couldn’t get this right. It wasn’t just them, it was everyone. Everyone was calling Rowling transphobic, and I felt like no one was getting it. Except one person: Blaire White.
It seemed like Blaire White was the only person on the planet that saw this the way I did. She was the only one that knew Rowling and Forstater were not transphobic just for believing in immutable biological sex. Besides, there were heated accusations from conservatives at the time that “the left says they’re so dedicated to science and reason, but not when it comes to gender.” It was a total gotcha. I couldn’t argue with it, and thanks to Blaire, I didn’t have to.
I knew it wouldn’t end well for me to publicly tweet out, “I agree with Blaire White, J.K. Rowling, and Maya Forstater! They believe in the science of biological sex!” Not because I thought I was wrong, but because everybody else was crazy and I didn’t want to get yelled at. Instead, I told the only person who would understand me.
Blaire did not respond.
I didn’t like it that no one saw it my way, or that I didn’t see it their way—especially Jessica Bluemke, the Friendly Atheist Podcast co-host. Someone had to budge. I would change my mind if someone could just explain it to me. Ideally, however, I’d love it if people like Jessica could just see reason.
Instead of tweeting out to the world, I tagged Jessica in a comment on a now-deleted tweet from Blaire announcing a new video a few months into the Rowling controversy.
(I’ll recall the best I can without the tweet replies to refer to.) After watching the video and agreeing with Blaire’s points, I commented on Blaire’s tweet, “@blueburie, I was wondering what your thoughts were on this.” Jessica wrote back, and I believe she said, quote, “Fuck this transphobic bullshit.” I was appalled. Someone I had admired, and that I agreed with on nearly everything, just aggressively shut down an opportunity at conversation and diminished the chances that I would ever see it her way. I was stunned. I replied, “How? Blaire’s trans herself.”
I feel torn when I think about this exchange now. If I was in Jessica’s position today, I would have responded the same way. (Honestly. Fuck that.) The problem was, I had been genuinely asking. I didn’t know that much about the nuances of gender, and if there was something I was missing, I really wanted to know. If Jessica had refuted Blaire’s points to me, I probably would have begun to change my mind about Blaire.
I know why she didn’t, but I wish Jessica had taken the time to tell me, or at least told me to do my research (even though neither was her job). She could have won a convert that day. Eventually, I did figure it out, and I am on her side now, but I would have figured it out a lot sooner if she could have somehow read my mind and known that I was asking earnestly.
Blaire White, again
A couple of months went by of me watching Blaire and making a point not to listen to the Friendly Atheist Podcast. This was the height of the pandemic, and seeing everyone spreading the virus was driving me crazy. I didn’t expect Blaire to respond to an irritated comment on her Instagram story of a group dinner at a restaurant in September 2020, just as she hadn’t responded to my praise on Twitter in January. But I did get the honor of receiving a response from Blaire White.
I include the original screenshot that I took immediately (before deleting the conversation and blocking her) as well as a screenshot of it within my photo gallery to show that it is from September 8th, 2020, since the original screenshot doesn’t show the date.
So yeah. After years of seeing and thinking nothing of her transphobic gatekeeping, transmedicalism, and bigotry, it literally took Blaire telling me to go fuck myself for me to actually stop watching her. The irony wasn’t lost on me that the first time an influencer had said something similar to me only four months earlier was when I was defending Blaire. That was the last time I would ever do that, and I’m proud to report that no influencer has told me to fuck myself since.
The floodgates open
Journeys away from harmful ideas or groups, which for me included a bigoted religion and colorblind racism as well as this transphobia, begin with less of an epiphany—”Blaire White is transphobic!”—as it did a snapping-out-of-it moment—”Blaire White is a pretty mean person and doesn’t care about the people who support her. What else does she have wrong?” It didn’t happen all at once, but when the floodgates opened, I could never see Blaire as an honest or kind person again.
That was when I started to really listen to more trans influencers, and to listen to my gut and educate myself when someone says something that feels wrong. I learned that I always need more than one perspective on every issue. I was able to appreciate and learn from other creator’s videos about why Blaire White does not and never has spoken for the trans community, finally seeing her clearly for who she was (and starting to feel very concerned regarding why Jaclyn Glenn was friends with her). As for J.K. Rowling, her transphobic vitriol and direct harm to the trans community has become more and more openly violent over time. Before long, it was pretty easy to see through the façade of “I just think sex is real.”
A long journey
A journey away from transphobia, just like any other journey, isn’t one where you “arrive” one day. I can’t tell you that I’ve taken intentional steps in a linear direction to try to become a real trans ally or accomplice. It’s been messy, and that’s the only way forward.
My next post that focused largely on trans rights was The Dawkins Problem in April 2021. Believe me when I tell you I really thought this was the greatest post I had ever written. I had really tried, and I think you can tell when reading it. The only way I knew how to refute this transphobic and racist tweet was to use transmedicalism. I wrote,
. . . I’d like to emphasize that while yes, both gender and race are social constructs, they are not the same thing. They are both linked to physical phenomena which are not really similar in any way. To be transgender is to have gender dysphoria when presenting as the gender you were assigned at birth, because it is not consistent with the gender that best aligns with your identity. To be clear, transitioning does not make a person transgender. Transitioning makes an already transgender person more comfortable in their own skin because it is their only way to truly be themselves. And no, Richard, your gender identity (and experiencing gender dysphoria) is not a choice.The Dawkins Problem
And that’s not even what it originally said. Originally, it had included the line, “To be transgender is to suffer from gender dysphoria.” To be transgender is to suffer, I had said. When I edited that post a year later, I was shocked at how I could have actually typed that and not realized how cruel it sounded.
However, I knew I probably wasn’t entirely right, because I still didn’t know much about trans issues. I had followed that section with, “Please be patient with me as I continue to educate myself on the scientific and cultural meaning of both race and gender, and feel free to kindly correct me if I am wrong.” But I also knew that Dawkins was wrong, that what he said was transphobic and repulsive, and I didn’t want to have to wait to become an expert on transphobia before using my blog to call out bigotry in the atheist community. Fortunately, I had some commenters who helped me understand that being trans does not always have to be a result of clinically diagnosed gender dysphoria, and does not always have to be solved by medically transitioning.
By February 2022, I think I was starting to get it. I wrote in a post,
Creating a world that does not cater primarily to wealthy, able-bodied cis straight white men requires compassion even more than it requires reason. There is nuance in this life. Issues especially pertaining to trans identities are hard for many of us to grasp logically, but fortunately we don’t need to. Not everything has to make perfect sense. New or non-Western ways of making sense of the world don’t fit perfectly into this system that was built by and for white men.
Opponents of trans liberation, spokespeople for the gender binary, fight against gender-affirming pronouns on the basis that “you don’t get your own pronouns.” They’re frustrated that nonbinary and other queer identities seem to defy logic and are new, unfamiliar, and frankly scary.
(They’re not. Queer figures and stories—or the queerness of otherwise straight-presenting people—have just been intentionally erased from Western history. Indigenous and other non-Western cultures have done a much better job of including gender non-conforming people in their societies for millennia.)
But to those people, here’s my counterargument: Who cares? Most people don’t choose pronouns just to be logical, they do it to feel at home in their bodies and identities. Not to mention that the concept of gender is entirely made up and never in history has it accounted for the immeasurably complex human experience.How Atheists Can Fight for Social Justice
It’s not perfect. The post I’m writing now isn’t perfect. I’m not perfect. But I am making progress.
Reading that, I realize that in 2019 I thought that “nonbinary and other queer identities” defied logic and were new, unfamiliar, and scary. I knew in my heart that it didn’t matter whether or not I understood why someone might identify as nonbinary, that I should support them regardless. But it bugged me.
I felt justified by Blaire, who didn’t see trans nonbinary people as valid. I was dead serious when I asked Jessica, “How could someone who’s trans be transphobic?” I didn’t know. I see now that it’s a red flag that I followed and listened to only one trans person, who passed and who spent her time and energy bullying those who didn’t.
How not to take criticism
While I wasn’t questioning Blaire at the beginning, I was always questioning myself. In my original transphobic post, I had written, “Gender is far from my area of expertise, but I think it’s definitely something to be aware of and sensitive to.” My heart was in the right place. I was just so unfamiliar with the territory that I didn’t know how to identify transphobia when I saw it and repeated it.
It’s interesting to me now that at the end of that post, I wrote, “I’m definitely not the authority on gender, so feel free to correct anything that I may have gotten wrong.”
If I really meant that, why did I feel so defensive and not engage with this comment?
I couldn’t disagree with you more. And recommending Blair White as an educational resource is just abhorrent! She speaks with such visceral rhetoric that is not only disagreeable but nasty and mean spirited.
As a transgender woman and philosopher I welcome you to my page to look up some arguments and scientific resources on the subject.Jubilee Nunnallee on “My Thoughts on Gender”
And why did I delete this next comment, only to find and restore it today, when this trans nonbinary person took the time to spell it out for me? I want to share it in its fullness because it’s spent the last four years in my trash bin.
Everybody here seems to be a non-expert on gender, so I am not sure why you think your opinion about this matters, but I will try to educate you without being bitchy. I will probably fail. But here are all the problems I have with this article as a graygender person who identifies under the trans and non binary umbrellas and has to constantly defend their identity:
First of all, you say that you think there are only two sexes but also acknowledge the existence of intersex people. Around 2% of people are interex, which means they have sex characteristics that don’t fit neatly into the male/female binary, such as genitelia that is something between a penis and a labia or XXX chromosomes. So there are more than two sexes.
Not all genders can be related back to the female/male binary. There is a gender identity that falls under the non binary umbrella and is called maverique. It means that you have a sense of gender but your gender is completely outside the male/female binary. If you don’t understand this concept you should research maverique gender. Maverique people are valid whether you understand their genser or not, so shut up about things you know nothing about and do your fucking research (I am so sorry, I said I won’t be bitchy, but ignorant people just piss me off).
There are a ton of non binary genders and saying that you can have one, two, or zero genders is an oversimplification. Do your research.
While some trans people’s gender changed at some point in their life, they weren’t “born in the wrong body” or “used to be the other gender”. Since there are more than two genders you shouldn’t say ” the opposite/other gender” because that erases the existence of non binary people. Trans people were not born in the wrong body, somebody looked at their body and wrongly assigned them a gender. I don’t have the body of a woman, I have the body of a graygender person because I am graygender.
Even if you don’t understand how a person can identify as a thousand different genders at once you should still respect them and research their gender identity, or ask them if they give you permission. What you understand doesn’t matter, they will still be valid, and the least you can do is respect them.
While I never watched her videos I heard bad things about Blaire White. Here are some other resources I recommend:
Some awesome trans YouTubers are Riley J. Dennis and Kat Blaque (trans women), Vasper @ QueerAsCat, Ash Hardell, Celeste M. and Luxander (non binary people), and Ty Turner, Jackson Bird, and Aaron Ansuini (trans guys). Everyday Feminism is an awesome website and most of these YouTubers are on Instagram and Twitter as well as a lot of other trans people.Untitledollover on “My Thoughts on Gender”
I’m going to try and find these two commenters and apologize to them, but I don’t deserve their forgiveness.
A colonialist construct
The important thing here is that trans people do not have time for us to take years to shed our transphobia. They are being harassed, threatened, and murdered every day just for being who they are. Gender is a colonialist construct, invented so that men and women would be seen as eternally distinct, with men always in control. (This goes hand in hand with the invention of race, but this post is already really long. Read White Tears/Brown Scars.)
Gender was never supposed to make sense in the first place. It is cultural—colonialist—not scientific. To see gender identity only through a medicalist lens is to not see it. My post was an attempt to fit gender expansive people into a gender binary that they were never supposed to fit into. It literally doesn’t matter if cis people don’t understand it. We’re the ones that made this mess, these arbitrary categories so that we could keep people in tiny, tidy, organized compartments.
Humanity is not a science. To be trans is to listen to what your body and mind are telling you, to use what you know and feel to become your whole, true self. It is to know yourself, and to know your lived experience, better than anybody knows you. And it is to not listen to cis people like me who think we know better.