Combatting “Combatting Ignorance” Part 2: How Could You Have Known? –You Already Did.

February 6, 2010

This is the second in a three four part series. The first is available here and the third here. I’ll link to the fourth once it’s up.

So, last time I talked about the ways that using the concept of “ignorance” furthers racism, classism, colonialism, etc, and misdirects us away from the bigger issues. This time, I want to talk more about how the discourse of ignorance serves to let people off the hook once their transphobia has been called out.

Last time, we established that some people are culturally pre-defined (stereotyped) as ignorant, and others as knowledgeable. For those labeled “ignorant” with a broad brush, it’s a moral failing, a character flaw, a mark of deficiency, and a legitimation to dominate them–“backwards,” “illiterate,” “primitive,” “brutish,” “hillbilly,” “uncivilized,” etc. For them, then, using the concept of “ignorance” doesn’t get them off the hook, doesn’t forgive their actions, doesn’t make them seem OK, just bigoted. If their transphobia is rooted in “ignorance,” it becomes simply one more justification for marginalizing them.

However, for those defined as knowers and those one is otherwise unwilling to dismiss (e.g. family)–those who have no risk of being demonized as “ignorant and stupid”–the story is very different. Can you imagine the following being written about some “hick” who harassed you the other day, or the teenager who said “that’s a dude” about me last weekend?


…If I’m right, that’s an example of transignorance: The assumption that despite my statements, I am female because that’s what they always thought; and that therefore, I should feel the same toward my body as they do about theirs. Consider the ratio of folks whose sex and gender do/not match and it’s a reasonable assumption, just incorrect.

So while ignorance as a systemic trait is despicable, ignorance-in-this-one-area is A-OK, because it’s non-essential knowledge, knowledge you *couldn’t possibly expect everyone to have already, or find on their own*.

Obviously, this ties into it’s-your-job-to-educate-us. Which brings me to the absurd example that drove me to finally write these posts that have been bouncing around in my brain since before I even started this blog. As y’all may remember, I’m in a Women’s and Gender Studies graduate program. This term, I’ve related trans issues, and/or being trans, to the issues at hand almost every week. The very first week of class, I mentioned how I hated the discourse of non-binary gender that goes “man, woman, transgender” instead of “man/woman, cis/trans.” I was talking to a classmate about something outside of class, and when I mentioned something that said I was trans, she said “I thought you were a woman!”


Her justification? That she “didn’t know the discourse.” She told me that she was offended that I characterized her words as transphobic, because she wasn’t phobic, just didn’t know the lingo. She just didn’t know!


In an unrelated incident, I’d been working at [retail establishment] for five or six months. A co-worker in another department had gotten my pronoun right all this time, seen other people get my pronoun right all this time, and thought nothing of using “she” until, after five months he found out I was trans and called me “he” to a customer. When I confronted him? He ‘didn’t know what I wanted to be called.’ Riiiiiiight.

They both knew. And they both had the tools to find out, if they really didn’t know, if they’d wanted to. But see, once you’re in the position to not be labeled ignorant, “not knowing” trans things is perfectly innocent. It’s totally optional, because any hurt you inflict in the mean time a)isn’t important, and b)will be washed away by the magic of intent. Except it’s not innocent. I would actually go further than Queen Emily when she says

The one thing ignorance is not is innocent, it is about having the power not to know and not to care… and we simply can’t afford to be naive enough to think otherwise.

It’s actually the power to know and not care.

There’s a widespread trope that trans people are super rare and new, that most people have never heard of us and thus can’t know what to say. And of course, “[y]ou can’t blame people for not knowing about something that they might never have encountered.” But here’s the thing: they have.

I don’t care that you’ve never met a trans person before, I don’t care that you’ve never had a women’s studies course before, I don’t care that you’ve never had a trans 101–you can find out what we want to be called from the worst transphobic screeds and jokes. Making fun of trans people is a widespread cultural trope, it’s not something you’ve never heard of: (warning, transphobia abounds in this section. Skip past the quotes if you need to.)

Yes, there we go again, cis people making fun of the dumbed-down explanation we made for them as though it was the depth of our thought. “Woman trapped in a man’s body,” hur hur hur.

But you know what? You know that person who says that (to use language I *hate*) “identifies” as a woman. And you know that invalidating someone’s self-concept isn’t nice.

Even Paul Scott knows what we want to be called, and knows that he’s invalidating our identities–and even from him, you can figure it out:

“It’s a social values issue. If you are born a male, you should be known as a male. Same as with a female, she should be known as a female,” he said.

…He said his mandate would be in place even for those who had completely undergone sex reassignment surgeries.

“That’s who you are. You can have cosmetic surgery or reassignment surgery but you are still that gender,” he said.

The clear implication? That we disagree. There’s no other way this makes any sense. And as Zoe Brain notes in the comments on this article (scroll down)

Because he’s not just ignorant. It’s not that he hasn’t been told about intersex conditions. Comments have been made on his blog by biologists and medics – which he’s deleted so they don’t get seen. E-mails from scientists and educators on this area have been sent. He ignores them. He just needs a scapegoat to demonise, and this group is perfect for the job.

Or take this transphobic blog post:

Two decades ago, Chastity Bono, the daughter of Sonny and Cher, announced to the world that she was a lesbian. … But last week, she announced that she was no longer a lesbian, but a man and would undergo surgery to change her female parts to male parts.

…Apparently, Chastity’s gender confusion has confused her and now she realizes that she has been living a lie. She wasn’t really a lesbian, but a Sonny trapped in a Cher’s body. So, after a little plastic surgery, a shave, and a haircut, Chastity will no longer be Chastity the lesbian, but Chaz the artificial man. The gender “experts” tell us it is perfectly normal and that anyone who would question it is not normal but hateful, judgmental, and intolerant.

Could it be any more clear what Chaz wants to be called? Could it be any more clear that Richman, like Scott, is familiar with “the lingo”? And if right-wingers like these know what we want to be called, and if even five minutes listening to them will tell you what we want to be called, then you knew, too.

You may not know the ontology behind our claims to reality, you may not know what the word “ontology” means, you may not know our critique of the sex/gender distinction or of biology. But you know how we see ourselves, you know that implying we’re not really women/men is offensive, and thus that claiming to be more real (in any of the myriad ways that cis people do this) is offensive.1 At some point, almost all of you made a conscious choice to disrespect us. Misgendering and ungendering1 transsexual folks has nothing to do with terminology, and everything to do with expressing contempt towards us and superiority over us–no matter how strongly one denies it.

Since you’ve seen us ridiculed and objectified all over the place, and there’s easy internet access, you’ve had the prompt to go check on how to be respectful, and the means to do so. And clearly, my readers, you have chosen to do so, but I suspect that most of you, like me, and like the country at large, had a long history of acting dismissive and superior before you did so.

Trans education so often focuses on glossaries and definitions. A lot of cis people are hungry to know the right language, but they want it not because they don’t actually know the terms or couldn’t look them up quickly and painlessly, but because they want to be able to pass themselves off as not transphobic without doing any of the soul searching that would reveal their transphobia to them. They want to look not-transphobic, whether because it has social value or because it makes them feel better about themselves, or maybe even because they don’t want to hurt people/to be tolerant, but they have no desire to decenter themselves, lose their ontological privilege, and eradicate transphobia inside themselves and in society.

Framing the issue as ignorance has allowed cis people to ask for more glossaries, more definitions, more trans 101–and to silence challenge and accountability. It’s played along with privileged cis people’s delusions of innocence, it’s let them get away with their history of complicity, at the same time that it has justified their sense of superiority over other oppressed groups. It’s kept up the demand to “tell our stories,” and tell them depoliticized, it’s heaped cis people’s work onto trans people. And it condones cis people’s ongoing transphobic acts, even when they clearly knew better.

It’s time for a new frame.

Up Next:

Part 3: Cis Denial, Self-Knowledge, and Sexist Epistemology

Part 4: Transphobia as Authoritative Knowledge Claims

1: edit 3:30 CST.
EDIT 2-24-10 to account for addition of a fourth part to series.

12 Responses to “Combatting “Combatting Ignorance” Part 2: How Could You Have Known? –You Already Did.”

  1. [...] 5, 2010 This is the first in a three part series. The second is here. When the third is posted and written, I’ll link it [...]

  2. queenemily said

    Really great post.

    I agree, “ignorance” is just not possible anymore. And I’d say it goes further than the obvious point of calling trans women women (and so on), it’s about the patently obvious point that we experience discrimination. You know, when conservatives or radfems blather on about how transphobia couldn’t possibly exist – that’s disingenuous bullshit. Like, disgust at trans people is nigh on universal, it’s not exactly hard to find out.

    I think my point stands though in another sense – regimes of ignorance intersect with what you’re talking, but not about pronouns etc – it’s about genuine ignorance as to how institutional policies premised on sex. So the homeless shelter I talked to doesn’t have a policy for trans people, and seemed genuinely shocked that I would consider that a recipe for disaster. That’s a difference kind of ignorance, I think.

  3. Carto said

    Yeah, good stuff. Ignorance is just another word for derailing.

  4. Rebecca said

    Framing the issue as ignorance has allowed cis people to ask for more glossaries, more definitions, more trans 101–and to silence challenge and accountability

    This. And the way you’re discussing people makes me think of experiences my family members have had encounters with antisemitism.

    For example, my brother was at a checkout lane at the local grocery store while at college. He went to college in a relatively small town in Colorado – not particularly conservative by virtue of being a college and tourist town, but not particularly liberal, either. He was buying some things during the holidays, and the cashier wished him a merry Christmas. He replied, “Oh. Thanks, but I’m Jewish.”

    At which point she asked if he had horns.

    I hadn’t made the connection before your post, but it reminds me of the all-too-common question trans women get, “So did you have your penis cut off?”

    Sure enough, the intent is often not transphobic or antisemitic. And the person themselves may be coming from an honest place of attempting to resolve their own ignorance. But the framework in which they’re operating allows them to ask questions that – if they took a moment to think – they would know aren’t totally appropriate. But “they didn’t know any better.”

    At some point, ignorance no longer becomes an acceptable excuse or justification for being a bigot, or exhibiting behavior which places your own privilege over that of someone else.

    I need to think more on this, and I’d be curious to hear your thoughts. Obviously, there are some parallels between various types of bigotry, but different -isms/-phobias aren’t automatically equivalent. My goal with the ‘horns’ comparison is to place transphobia in a framework where I’m more used to thinking “yeah, you’re not really allowed to be ignorant of that these days…”

    As a somewhat tangential final thought, I understand how this post relates to “the demand [for trans people] to “tell our stories,” and tell them depoliticized.” But I do want to reiterate that Trans Form (the piece which prompted you to write that linked post, Picture Frames) came from a desire to tell and make sense of my own story, for my own sake. As much as any artist can be creating from selfish motivations, I wasn’t really working to create a piece for an audience. That’s a little naive (or a little bit of bullshit, depending on how generous I’m being with myself) but my primary motivation was to make sense of my journey for myself. To that extent, it was successful in part because of the very conversations and discussions it prompted between you and I, in which I’ve gained a better understanding of how the experience of being trans is not a purely internal thing, but a function of societal/familial/interpersonal/etc pressures and oppression. But I’m still slightly uncomfortable with my piece being held up as why the desire to “tell our stories” is a function or fits within a model of oppression toward trans people. I do understand that you were more using my piece as a jumping-off point and less trying to attack it (I hope!) but I can’t resist the opportunity to stand up for art-for-arts-sake. ;)

  5. “A co-worker in another department had gotten my pronoun right all this time, seen other people get my pronoun right all this time, and thought nothing of using “she” until, after five months he found out I was trans and called me “he” to a customer. When I confronted him? He ‘didn’t know what I wanted to be called.’ Riiiiiiight.”

    I remember talking to my then-boyfriend about a trans woman I’d met, and talking about how she said this and she said that, and having him come back and said I should tell “him/her” that “s/he” was such-and-such. And I thought, what is that all about? Isn’t that actually harder than just using “she” like I’m doing?

  6. Emma said


    I read your piece in Yes Means Yes & was like, I know that name–ah ha! I’ve been reading through some pieces on your blog the last few days off-line & am totally so glad you’re writing. So refreshing, just on the level this one’s brain has been craving. Your perspectives on ‘ignorance’ are articulations of some familiar feelings & questions.. and delicious lenses to perceive through. Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to Part 3 & beyond.

    Emma C. from your undergrad feminist theory class

  7. [...] 24, 2010 This is the third in a three four part series. See the first and second posts. I’ll link to the fourth here once it’s [...]

  8. chartreuseflamethrower said

    What would you suggest for non-binary discourse that actually includes non-binary people? Cisgendered/Transgendered and Man/Woman/Neutrois/Androgyne/Bigender/GenderQueer/Non-Gendered/[your gender here]?

    • Cedar said

      Pretty much? I mean, I think the first variable is cissexual/transsexual+labeled-intersex/not-labeled-intersex–because some of the labels on the second side are inherently transgender, but not necessarily transsexual or cissexual, and intersex folks never have full cissexual privilege yet also may or may not have ever transitioned/experience different degrees of their lived/identified sex being in/validated by the State/Science/medicine/etc. And while the population that has some degree of intersexuality is completely amorphous, it’s those who’ve been so labeled that have an attenuated relationship to cissexual/transsexual dichotomies.

      My sentence in the OP was ambiguous; I wasn’t proposing a “discourse of non-binary gender” of trans/cis+man/woman, so much as how those variables-as-stated relate to each other. It was a class where the curriculum reduced all trans people to a deconstruction of the gender binary/the category woman (both in the tokenizing/dehumanizing sense and in the sense of actively ungendering binary trans folks’ identities), and so I was sometimes less careful about making space for genderqueer/non-binary identities in the process of resistance than I could’ve been/would want to be outside that context.

      (I suppose the other way of reading your comment would be to say that “man/woman/transgender” doesn’t actually make room for non-binary folks either, which the class, in effect, also did. It’s a tendency most easily documented in the cis/non-intersex feminist appropriation of intersexuality–making them out to be neither male nor female and not asking “how do they see themselves?” but asking “How do we classify them?” (An Invitation to Feminist Ethics, introduction, emphasis mine. Assigned for a different class but readings we did for that class did the same thing.))

  9. [...] with “I did not see because I did not wish to see”, which is an equally valid point- people of privilege are not as ignorant as they claim to be. The only reason that we don’t know about the discrimination going on around us every day is [...]

  10. [...] privilege than the oppressed people are.  If you’re trying to reach out to people who may be ignorant of your issues and haven’t unpacked the privilege they have over you (and it’s fine if [...]

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