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Homophobia and transphobia have more in common than you think

A significant proportion of homophobia is really about gender expression, which means it’s impossible to whip up fury against the trans community without this eventually backfiring on cis gay people

There has been a staggering increase in LGBTQ+ hate crimes over the past five years, which, in England and Wales, have risen year on year. Homophobic hate crimes recorded by the police have tripled since 2014/2015, while transphobic hate crimes have quadrupled in the same period. Because LGBTQ+ people are often reluctant to report these crimes, the real figures are likely to be even higher. This increase can’t be attributed to any single factor. Hate crimes tend to happen more during times of socio-economic turbulence; when people are angry, minorities get scapegoated, which is why we’ve also seen an attendant increase in crimes linked to race and disability.

Hate crimes can function as a kind of retaliatory violence against social progress, and they are often directly downstream from government policy. Within the same timeframe, right-wing authoritarianism has become resurgent in Britain, which is a worldview that goes hand in hand with discrimination. But if we’re talking about the rise in anti-LGBTQ+ violence specifically, the anti-trans or “gender-critical” movement surely deserves a portion of the blame. It stands to reason that if you flood the media – including online platforms – with vitriolic attacks on a given minority group, this is going to make them more vulnerable. Moreover, the specific way that the anti-trans movement demonises gender variation is something which poses harm to all LGBTQ+ people – which makes it all the more frustrating that a small contingent of cis gay men and lesbians are continuing to propagate it. What these people fail to understand is that, sometimes, transphobia and homophobia really aren’t all that different.

It’s true that gay people do frequently get abused in the street for expressing intimacy with their partners in public, and that discrimination based on sexuality alone is still a big problem. But in public, we are less at risk because of who we are, innately, and who we are attracted to, and more because of how we act and what we look like – both of which relate to gender. If someone attacks you because you “look gay”, that has very little to do with who you sleep with. It’s entirely possible to be the victim of a hate crime while you’re walking around and minding your own business – and this has far more to do with gender expression than sexuality (as it relates to either sexual or romantic behaviour). It’s a popular line that the two concepts are entirely distinct, but in reality they collapse together all the time.

I recently read the playwright Travis Alabanza’s forthcoming nonfiction book, None of the Above: Reflections on Life Beyond the Binary (published by Canongate this August). In it, Alabanza depicts how ruthlessly gender nonconformity is policed in public; the way that harassment forms a near-constant backdrop for gender-nonconforming people, and how suffocating this can be to live through on a daily basis. “There’s actually not much of a clear line between gender and sexuality,” Alabanza tells Dazed. “This is why we often misunderstand what’s happening with transphobic and homophobic violence. With the latter, we place it as a form of discrimination based on sexuality, which can sometimes be the case. But I think the majority of the time what’s happening is a punishment based on gender. What it stems from, in my opinion, is a correction back to the gender binary: when people see others being free from the expectations which they believe are a contract, violence starts to happen.”

Because of this, homophobia and transphobia can’t always be delineated as two distinct forms of bigotry. To offer an obvious example, and one which is true for lots of gay men: I wasn’t out in my early years of high school, nor was I going around getting off with guys or wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the rainbow flag. In terms of behaviour that could be classed as “gay”, I wasn’t doing much of anything, really, other than acting a little bit fruity – but this was still enough to get bullied. Later in life, just about every instance of homophobic abuse I’ve experienced has been occasioned by simply vibing in a way that was read as feminine, rather than doing anything explicitly “gay”, such as engaging in public affection with someone of the same gender (although needless to say, this does also inspire violence.) Because a significant proportion of homophobia is really about gender expression, it’s impossible to whip up fury against the trans community without this eventually backfiring on cis gay people. You only need to look at the situation now unfolding in the US, where LGBTQ+ people of all stripes are being smeared en masse as groomers, degenerates and perverts, to realise that this rhetoric can’t be targeted with precision at one subset of the community.

A society where we are policing each other’s gender, which is fundamentally what they want to enact, leads to violence for all of us” – Travis Alabanza

To be clear, this is not the only basis on which we should fight transphobia – the fact that it harms trans people, and that it is so evidently cruel, is reason enough. Leaning too hard into the “watch out gay men, they’ll be coming for us next!” framework risks being a little self-involved; on social media, it can sometimes feel as though we’re a little too keen to position ourselves as the protagonists of a dramatic moment in history which is still primarily impacting other people. “We should extend solidarity because it’s our natural human inclination and we should fight for that, and not for something as boring as ‘at some point this could affect me’,” says Alabanza. 

But at the same time, there is merit to the idea that it’s in the self-interest of cis gay people, and indeed everyone, to support trans liberation. “In a sense, they’re already coming for you,” says Alabanza. “The gender binary is already harming us and the anti-trans movement is creating further harm. A society where we are policing each other’s gender, which is fundamentally what they want to enact, leads to violence for all of us.” As has been made clear time and time again, you don’t need to be trans to be the victim of transphobia. The scores of butch cis women who’ve been challenged in public bathrooms over the last few years can attest to that.

Maybe the gay people pushing anti-trans narratives are aware of this, and simply don’t care because they think it will never affect them personally. But “gender nonconformity” can be extremely subtle and still draw negative attention. If you’re a man, you don’t need to be sashaying down the road in a fabulous, sequinned pantsuit to be perceived as feminine: I often hear about masculine-presenting guys being subject to homophobic abuse in public simply because something about the way they moved or spoke rubbed someone up the wrong way.

A lot of gay people with anti-trans views seem anxious that being lumped together with a more marginalised group will expose them to greater risk. But it’s impossible to bargain your way out of the fact that significant segments of the straight world still consider you a degenerate. Handing over trans people on a sacrificial platter isn’t going to appease them for long. The people who would attack you in the street are likely to be significantly less invested in the gay-trans distinction than you are. If you’re a cis gay person concerned with your own safety, the wiser strategy would be standing against the cruel ideologies which oppress all LGBTQ+ people, and endanger even the most conservative of gay men. As Alabanza says, the punitive enforcement of the gender binary is something which impoverishes us all.