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Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Microagressions: 'Brazilian Transsexuals'

This has been a bad week for trans people (especially trans women) in the UK media. Here is a fairly neutral summary of the latest thing in a long week of things.

A friend asked me on facebook, why people were upset about Moore's original phrasing: "The cliché is that female anger is always turned inwards rather than outwards into despair. We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual." The tl;dr answer to this question is that no minority group wants to be used as a metaphor for otherness.

The long answer is somewhat more complex. I don't want to pick on the writer, just to discuss the issues raised, so let's first note this is not a big deal – by itself. This is a microaggression. I'm sure everyone has been in situations where they were given little, frequent reminders that they didn't belong or were disapproved of. Alas, this is routine in some interpersonal relationships. It gets you down, but it's such small things that you can't ever bring it up. Over time, so many small things turns into kind of a big thing. For people who are members of a minority group, they get this more often than just from dysfunctional family. Some people have to deal with microaggressions whenever they engage the public sphere. As you can imagine, it gets them down. This is why it's a good deed to say something if you see a microaggression against somebody else. They might not want to say anything because it's a single small event (in a long stream of events) that might lead to an awkward conversation, that they would need to have every single time they decided to engage.

My friend wanted to know if the problem was the phrasing. Indeed, using the word 'transsexual' as a noun is a bit like saying 'the gays.' It's best avoided. Also, using the word 'transsexual' as a synonym for trans women erases trans men. Again, not cool. But the problem here is not just the phrasing but also, more importantly, the idea. She has a stereotype of a particular body shape in mind. Alas, she is referencing porn. I googled the phrase, 'Brazilian Transsexuals,' and all but two of the first page of results link to porn. One links to a question about porn on a general discussion forum. And one links to the news story that triggered this post.

I would strongly suspect that the reason this phrase is so linked to porn has to do with a lot of factors. Obviously, it's now a self-perpetuating meme, but how it got there probably involves racialised stereotypes about South American women, sexualised stereotypes of trans women, and, indeed, a pornified view of women in general. Porn is not IMO intrinsically bad, but seeing a group of real, diverse humans as synonymous with porn actors is bad. Nobody wants to be seen that way.

This particular stereotype is also troubling because of the actual, real-life situation of trans women in Brazil. Last year, more than a third of trans people murdered in hate crimes were Brazilian trans women. A trans woman is murdered there more often than once every three days. They face horrific levels of violence. Many trans women flee for their lives to other countries. Even though they face a reduced chance of being killed, they still face discrimination based on being women, based on being trans, based on being an immigrant, based on being a refugee and possibly undocumented, sometimes based on language. (Yes, some get into sex work in order to survive.) Their situation is so dire, that some commenters have compared Moore's statement to saying that (please pardon the next phrase, it's fairly offensive) women desire to look as thin as refugees of a Nazi concentration camp.

Alas, this phrase has wider implications than just Brazilian women. There's also the problem of gender-based othering. In Moore's formulation, women are disappointed they don't look like 'Brazilian transsexuals.' Of course, one group of women that look like Brazilian trans women are Brazilian trans women. However, in Moore's formulation, Brazilian trans women are other – they are not women. Thus, by extension, trans women are not women. This is the central tenent of transphobia.

This was not said deliberately. Like many microaggressions, it was a thoughtless expression of unexamined biases. By itself, it's a very small thing, but it's part of a much bigger context where this idea is repeated over and over again in tiny ways.

If you're a writer, or especially a journalist who might be called upon to write on a variety of topics, this may all seem alarming, as it is definitely possible to cause unintentional offence, and, indeed, nearly everyone does from time to time. However, fear not! If you do get something wrong, do NOT follow Moore's example! Apologise and say that you did not mean to offend.

Of course, it would be better to avoid this kind of slip up in the first place. The rule of thumb is mentioned at the top of this post – don't use any group of people as a metaphor for otherness. If you're not sure about a turn of phrase, try substituting other minority groups and see if it sounds bad. Or ask a friend.

Sometimes we do need to reference otherness. The original quote could have said 'femmebots' and gotten the point across without causing any offence. They're more widely known than the stereotype she did invoke and, even more importantly, they're not real. They are fictional constructs, designed to represent exactly what she means. How perfectly convenient it would have been to use them.

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