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This is an issue that I've been running into quite a bit in the last year or so, primarily on an online image/meme sharing site. It usually pops up in the context of cosplayers' or animes' depictions of transgender or crossdressing fictional characters, which almost inevitably kicks off a roaring dumpster fire of really gross comments.

These really gross comments usually fall into, or are posted by, two opposing factions.

  1. The general *phobic nastiness.

    • Openly challenging and condemning people's gender, sexuality, mental health etc.
  2. The fetishization of trans and/or crossdressing people.

    • Oddly claiming to be supportive of trans and crossdressing folks using hypersexual and often plainly derogatory terms.

This is obviously really unpleasant to witness if you happen to be trans, or are close to folks who are... Basically walking in on a fight between two groups who both get it completely wrong.

Now I know that going after the generally phobic doesn't tend to help, so I'll set that aside for the purposes of this question.

I'd like to focus on group 2, the fetishists, because it almost seems like they're attempting to "get it", or at least may at some level be a little more receptive.

I don't see anything inherently wrong with having a fantasy, most people do, and for the most part that's healthy and normal. But... at point... These fantasies intersect with the real world. That's where things can get more than a little irksome. The way a trans or crossdressing person is talked to, or about, in a sexual fantasy piece written by a cisgender person often isn't how they'd like to be talked to, or about in reality. Often the way these characters are depicted is completely divorced from reality.

So far I've tried gently, and admittedly, at times, less gently, explaining that some terms aren't ok. The most common one being the term "trap". Usually saying something as simple as:

Hey, maybe if you like them, you could stop using derogatory terms to talk about them.

This usually just leads down a semantics rabbit hole, and seems fruitless. They're kind of dug in, have the support of their peers, and seem to think that the anime, or other fictional work, is somehow authoritative.

How does one begin to untangle the fantasy, or fetish, from the reality? How does one explain that the depictions of trans and/or crossdressing folks, and the language used, in these fictional works doesn't generally connect to the real world? And that when they use that language and believe those depictions, they may end up doing harm to real people in the real world?

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    So just to be clear, are you wanting to communicate some of the ideas expressed here? And what meme sharing site was this exactly? Is there any reason simply stating your last paragraph would not achieve the goal of "explaining"? I would expect a similarly unsatisfactory response on any meme sharing site... but that has nothing to do with how well you explained. Persuading on the other hand seems pointless, but if its your goal then you should state it. – Jesse Nov 26 '18 at 8:28
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    I appreciate that you ultimately ask "how to explain..." something, but your goal isn't really to have a conversation with a specific group or an individual - it sounds more like you vs the internet. I think this is a little out of scope - how can we possibly give a suggestion that will explain this effectively to countless web users that you don't really know? – Astralbee Nov 26 '18 at 9:32
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    @Astralbee : more or less the idea... It's like working: you need the right tool to do the right job. Here, the arguments (and counter-arguments) you'll need to use will depend on the final target I believe. It's very broad, even though OP has been improved.... – OldPadawan Nov 26 '18 at 9:50
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    This still seems to be an extraordinarily broad question. It's asking how to deal with potentially lots of random people who use various words/phrases etc that are derogatory. For comparison, there's a question about people who don't appear disabled using the handicap spots, but it has a very specific case that really helps clarify the issue. I don't want to get in a "close war" (which it looks like we are "close" to) but I'd also like to see more specificity. – DaveG Nov 26 '18 at 21:03
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    Still don't know what site you are talking about here. This would at least give us SOME access to the site specific culture, communication tools and access to find an actual example with what sort of things are being said. – Jesse Nov 27 '18 at 4:58
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+150

Basically, what you are asking is how to fight a meme, and an online meme at that. The short answer is that you don't, at least not head on. The best you can hope to achieve is to sow a seed of doubt in those that can think for themselves instead of endlessly repeating the same memetic content. For those that can think for themselves this might eventually defuse the meme. Garner sufficient people in which the meme is no longer active and you may end up in a situation where through self-policing of the community it is no longer done to repeat the meme, although there always will be a group that perseveres.

This particular meme, that crossdressers and transgender people are hypersexualized and out to 'trap' men (or women as the TERFs would have you believe) is just as transphobic as the former category that believes that ones gender is firmly seated in ones biological assigned sex and is binary, either based on religious tenets or lack of education. Both are arguably counterfactual. And both are mortally dangerous to crossdressers, transgender people and intersex people with 25 transgender persons killed in the US this year, 369 in the world (not counting the suicides - many, many more). In fact, the sexualization of transgender people and the meme of entrapment contributes to the homicide figure because 'trans panic' (your honor, I was shocked to find it was a man and I panicked) is still an acceptable plea in 47 out of 50 states in the US.

But, in an online forum, never, ever, say that it is transphobic. That will only serve to alienate people. It is very much like pointing out something that is systematically or institutionalized racist (white folks don't like that and think they are being accused of being a racist) or sexist (men don't like that and think they are being accused of being a sexist). This is the same: cis people don't like that and think they are being accused of being cisnormative. The sense of being accused leads to a defensive reaction and as a result, they stop listening and either defend their position or attack their perceived accuser, only strengthening the harmful meme.

Instead, give factoids - backed up by links if necessary - or alternate narratives - preferably based on personal experience - and leave it at that. Walk away. Don't argue. Sow a seed of doubt and let people think for themselves. Most are smart and those that aren't you cannot lure away from their meme anyway, unless you replace it with an even more powerful beneficial meme (and good luck finding that!).

Now to the topic of the fantasy/fetish and why it is counterfactual.

  • most transgender persons (and crossdressers, for that matter) I know (and I know quite a few) are ordinary people who would like to get on with their lives. They go to work (or to school), have love lives (just as much monogamous relationships as the cis-population), families, hobbies and interests (some quaint, some very ordinary). They would like to live that life in the gender they identify with (permanently for transgender people and occasionally for crossdressers) and are in that respect mostly not different from the cis-people you would meet day in day out - especially post transition you would never know unless you'd be told or went out of your way to find out;
  • there is a bit more sexual diversity among transgender persons/crossdressers than among the general population. This is natural, if you can be honest to yourself and investigate your gender identity and gender expression then it is natural to sidestep into questioning your sexual and romantic orientation (http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2015/03/the-genderbread-person-v3/), instead of following the heteronormative path foisted on you by societal norms. Still, most transgender persons are heterosexual/heteroromantic but this statistic is slightly skewed because it used to be a prerequisite for receiving care that you were attracted to the opposite gender;
  • pre-op trans women in particular have very low libido due to hormone replacement therapy. Testosterone has a key role in sex drive for both men and women and the anti-androgen leaves trans women with very low testosterone levels, much less than most cis women. Post op, trans women only have levels generated by the adrenal cortex, not the boost generated by the ovaries just before ovulation (http://archive.transgenderuniverse.com/2016/07/18/sex-and-the-transgender-libido/). For trans men, their testosterone levels are comparable to cis men but much of that goes into building up muscle;
  • most transgender persons dress very ordinarily once they have found their style (it takes a bit of time to learn that). Sure, a trans woman might want to feel pretty and/or sexy but that is just like cis women do. Crossdressers (self identified men who like to express themselves as female from time to time, or vice versa although this is much more easily accepted in today's society) tend to exaggerate the femininity/masculinity a little but for the most part this is still quite decent. For only a minority of crossdressers this is a sexual fetish and they do dress the part. Drag kings and queens dress for the performance and the show, but that is exactly what it is, a show.
  • a small portion of pre op trans women are sex workers, often out of sheer economic necessity as there is a lot of discrimination in the labor market against trans women (especially of color) and medication and surgeries are expensive if you have to pay for it yourself because you are not covered by health insurance (how big a portion depends on the nation and nationality of the trans woman, for my country this is estimated to be below or near 1% by a reliable source, on a par with cis women engaging in sex work). Some men do have this fetish (having sex with a woman with a penis) so there is a market for their services. Generally speaking both customer and sex worker are fully aware of this situation (often unspoken), but sometimes the customer gets cold feet (of having his fantasy become reality) which may result in violence. Sometimes the reverse happens (blackmail, extortion) but that is even more rare. It is this latter narrative that is one of the roots of the 'trap' meme.
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    Great answer overall. However, many transgender people find the use of "transgender" as a noun to be dehumanizing and offensive. "Trans(gender) men/women/people" is a much better alternative. See here: glaad.org/reference/transgender – ekl Nov 28 '18 at 18:49
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    @ekl Being a trans woman myself, I don't. I am not very politically correct in that respect. I can even bear the term transsexual, in some contexts, showing my age when I found out I was one and chose to stuff my gender identity deep in the closet for decades. – GretchenV Nov 28 '18 at 22:10
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This isn't a comprehensive answer, but I wanted to address the tactic that you've tried which hasn't been working.

Hey, maybe if you like them, you could stop using derogatory terms to talk about them.

When I read this it comes across as accusatory and fairly confrontational. Your phrasing implies that you don't think they actually like trans people because they used a derogatory term. It's only human nature that they would then try to defend themselves, so they respond that of course they support trans people, so this term can't be derogatory. Everyone gets entrenched in being right and no one wins.

Instead, approach it from a stance of education and assume good intentions.

Hey, I know you support trans people, so you probably aren't aware, but all of my trans friends say they find the term "trap" derogatory and offensive. It's because the term "trap" implies that trans people are trying to trick you when really they just want to be loved for who they are. Instead, I would just say that she's a beautiful woman. (or whatever explanation is most accurate and appropriate for the situation)

This approach does a number of things

  • You acknowledge that you know you two are on the same side and don't think they are trying to be offensive
  • You cite first-hand sources (all of my trans friends say...)
  • You give an explanation for why a term is offensive so they can better understand, not just "because I said so"
  • You offer an alternative so that they know how to avoid using this term in the future

This general approach should apply for most any instance where you see someone advocating for a cause or group and still using words or arguments that you consider harmful. This way you are not just telling them they are wrong and should feel bad about it - you are educating them so that they can be more conscious of their words. And if they are truly sincere about being supportive of the trans community, then they can hopefully help to pass it on and educate others in the future as well.

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Differentiating fantasy from reality is a basic requirement of being a responsible or mature adult. Unfortunately, plenty of people never grow up.

Similarly unfortunate, humans are driven primarily by emotion. The most effective argument you can make, on any subject, is an appeal to emotion. It doesn't need to make sense or be well structured; if you can touch someone on an emotional level they are far more likely to be persuaded to your point of view than through any amount of evidence, data, or apologetic argument. As you seem to be asking how to persuade these network users to embrace your opinion, this is the best advice I can offer.

I recommend appealing to sympathetic tendencies, e.g. analogy or allegory, to make them think about what how their family or loved ones would feel if they were part of that community and were exposed to their behavior. Alternatively, you could try to get them to think about themselves being in that position and focus on the discriminatory aspects that accompany fetishization, or the isolation that many of these people feel.

Unfortunately, I think this is especially difficult due to the simple reality that it is statistically unlikely that these people know any trans people on a personal level, which makes an emotional response more improbable. As a last resort I recommend ceasing to interact with the site community in question if you find it more objectionable morally than you enjoy the material.

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