Fostering Empathy

For the past couple of days I’ve been trying to really understand what it is that makes the general population so freaked out by trans people.  I say trans here, but what I mean is anyone who does not identify as cisgender.  When people learn that someone is transgender and they are planning to transition, what is it that makes people have all of those negative “ick” and “oh gross” feelings inside them that are sometimes verbalized into very hurtful and transphobic comments?  That is the question I’ve been trying to answer lately so I can understand where their feelings come from.

What I’ve realized is that, while we who question our birth gender and have felt gender dysphoria or dysmorphia to some degree, cisgender people have never experienced gender dysphoria.  I think when they think of someone changing genders it gives them gender dysphoria.  Why wouldn’t it?  They are putting themselves in our shoes for a moment and it’s really, really uncomfortable for them.  They get an immediate “ICK, TAKE IT OFF OF ME!!” reaction inside themselves.  They were born as, for example, a female and are very comfortable and happy being a female.  For them to suddenly think about becoming a man is not something they can relate to and not something they can even imagine or want.  Some people I know, who have a bit of a sick side to them, might say something about having a penis being fun for a day.  Or a guy might think that it would be fun to have breasts (for sexual reasons).  Some men do, in fact, have breasts and enjoy them.  But these are rare men and they still don’t want to be women.

So I think that when someone gets really disgusted by the idea of someone transitioning to what they see as their true gender it would be helpful if we could somehow say to that person, “Hey, what you just experienced for a few seconds there?  That’s what we live with every day for YEARS.  That’s called gender dysphoria and it does not feel pleasant at all, does it?  Imagine feeling like that all the time.”  Transitioning, whether fully or partially, is the answer to alleviating that uncomfortable feeling for many of us.  I still don’t know if they’ll “get it” or “see it” but maybe some will.

I think this also explains why, even before I identified as transgender, I was not freaked out by the notion of people transitioning.  I had a little trouble understanding why any man would want to become a woman because of my own dysphoria with being gendered female but I just figured that it was up to them to decide what was best for them personally, even though I wouldn’t choose it.  This doesn’t mean that I didn’t internalize shame from the negative reactions of others.  I did.  When you hear people make transphobic comments it definitely gets filed away in your brain and your body as something you want to avoid experiencing first hand.

Understanding requires a certain amount of empathy, I think.  I’ve often tried to paint a picture for others of how it would feel to be stripped of their birth gender and placed suddenly in the opposite gender.  I don’t think this has been a very effective tool in which to grow empathy.  So I’ve been searching for a better tool.  Maybe this new idea that their initial, gut reaction is actually a taste of what we experience daily and for many years will help some to empathize with why we risk our lives, relationships and livelihood in order to feel whole and complete.  Here’s hoping anyway.


12 thoughts on “Fostering Empathy

  1. Whoa, I’ve never thought of that before. There’s definitely some merit to that thought. I’ve always sort of considered those gut transphobic remarks from others as an aversion to thinking about their own gender, not necessarily a momentary glimpse of dysphoria, but I’m definitely going to keep my eyes open to this in the future.


    • Well, it’s probably some of both. Certainly I’m not stating that this is a fact and an absolute in every situation. It’s just really a hypothesis that I thought I’d throw out there. I do think that some of the negative reaction comes from people’s own shame about how maybe they secretly don’t feel quite adequate in their own gender roles. Maybe a guy has a feminine side that he hides and is ashamed of and this brings all of that up for him so he rejects it in a harsh way as an example. That’s another good reason that I can think of too. Thanks for adding that into the mix for me.


  2. We are taught to fit, and required to fit, into the cisgendered, heteronormative, binary system. Almost all children are corrected repeatedly when they are little for even minor strays outside the lines (body posture, choice of toys, clothing colors, showing emotions etc.). They are told this by their families and teased by other kids.
    Most kids absorb the gender policing even though it is constrictive because it offers them lots of other privileges and they are rewarded for conforming. They never question it.
    They are taught that there is something wrong with being a sissy or a tomboy, and that they need to grow out of it or buck up. This is deep in their consciousness, and very hard to get over. In the US, variant equals deviant – and anyone who grows up and is still that way is considered pathological (whats wrong with them that they can’t act like a normal man or a normal woman?).
    The media does not help matters, often making visibly queer people and transgender people the butt of jokes or criminals. Ultimately, all we can do is talk to people and give them stuff to read, and remind them that we are who we are.
    I’m still working on explaining, so if you find a way to tell people that seems to work, please publish it!


    • Yes, that is definitely all part of it too. But some people can relate better than others and some are actually quite accepting while others have violent responses. If I ever stumble on the perfect metaphor or explanation to help people understand I will definitely share it with everyone.


  3. My BFF got to terms understanding me wanting to get rid of my breasts (I shudder writing “my” as I never owned them), by imagining herself with a penis and needing to hide it from the world. It helped her understand my dysphoria.


    • That’s a great way to help someone understand dystopia and maybe even experience it first hand for a few moments. I’ll tuck that away for future use. Thanks.


  4. I had never thought about transphobia this way but it makes sense. Maybe we can use their reactions to try to explain gender dysphoria. This is an excellent idea. Thank you for sharing this thought with us and helping us all to have a little more empathy!


  5. I just wonder why gender variance is okay, but not trans people.


  6. Ooh interesting idea; I really like your perspective. When I took a human sexuality class in college, we went through an exercise where we had to imagine we woke up one day as the wrong gender– how wrong we would feel in our own body, how uncomfortable it would be to look in the mirror, how frustrating to be for everyone to mis-gender us. The lesson: this is what trans people feel like all the time. I credit that class for making me empathetic when my spouse came out as trans 12 years later. I immediately empathized and supported her transition because I was educated. You’ve inspired me to post a blog about this!


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