How to Dehumanize a Trans Person in Three Simple Steps

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
June 3 2014 9:25 AM

How to Dehumanize a Trans Person in Three Simple Steps

493561217-actress-laverne-cox-attends-nyx-cosmetics-talent-lounge_1
Laverne Cox, human woman.

Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for NYX Cosmetics

Humans are hardwired for empathy, which means we are prone to treat other people’s struggles with compassion and sympathy. This rule, however, doesn’t apply when the other people in question can be made to seem disordered, disgusting, and inhuman. The trick for those who oppose granting basic human dignity to any given minority group, then, is to deny their humanity. A human being probably deserves our empathy and respect. A debased freak clearly does not.

Mark Joseph Stern Mark Joseph Stern

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

The effort to smear gay people as less-than-human was always destined to fail: There are a fair number of us, and once you know a gay person, it’s hard to see them all as disturbed weirdoes. But there are really very few trans people in the world, and, as the National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson recently illustrated in a strangely angry hatchet job on Orange Is the New Black star Laverne Cox, the drive to deprive them of their dignity remains alive and well. In fact, Williamson’s article is such a marvelously thorough polemic against treating trans people as people that it deserves to be studied in detail. For the convenience of all those who hope to follow in Williamson’s footsteps, here’s a handy guide for dehumanizing trans people—in three simple steps.

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1. Compare a trans person to an object or caricature.

Williamson titles his essay “Laverne Cox Is Not a Woman,” and he repeatedly drives home his point by referring to Cox as “he” throughout. But Williamson’s real aim is to prove that Laverne Cox is not human. If we see her as a human being, we might start to empathize with her plight and thus agree to respect her identity and personhood. Williamson is obviously horrified by this possibility (though he never actually explains why), so he mounts a clever rhetorical effort to reduce Cox from a person to a mere object. First, Williamson describes Cox as “an effigy”—that is, one of those dummies you burn to show how much you hate someone. Then Williamson brings Cox down yet another notch, comparing her to a “voodoo doll”—that is, those things you stick needles into to cause someone pain, at least in the popular imagination.

I ran Williamson’s comments by David Livingstone Smith, a professor of philosophy at the University of New England and author of Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others.

“What he means here is something like—this person isn’t a person,” he told me. “This isn’t someone with her own identity and her point of view—a human being just like he is. She’s something alien, something that we want to put at arms length.”

The net effect of these insulting comparisons is, of course, to make Cox sound like something you should either light on fire or poke with needles, not a human whose innate dignity deserves your respect. Rather than portraying Cox as a person (or, God forbid, a woman), Williamson has turned her into a caricatured object designed to be destroyed. With that groundwork laid, Williamson moves in for the second, even more degrading blow.

2. Make the trans person sound grotesquely disordered.

Williamson refuses to use the scientific term for a physical sex change, “sex-reassignment surgery,” which sounds far too clinical to meet his purposes. Sex-reassignment surgery sounds like something your neighbor or uncle might get; “genital amputation and mutilation,” as Williamson describes the procedure, does not. This graphic rebranding places in the reader’s mind images of disgusting disfigurement, even barbarism—certainly not the kind of thing a healthy, well-adjusted human being would voluntarily undergo.

By swapping out “sex-reassignment surgery,” the term that doctors with real medical degrees use, with “genital amputation and mutilation,” Williamson has set us up for his next dehumanizing move: demeaning Cox as deeply disturbed. Here’s Williamson’s decidedly non-professional diagnosis of Cox:

There are many possible therapeutic responses to ... the trans self-conception ... but the offer to amputate healthy organs in the service of a delusional tendency is the moral equivalent of meeting a man who believes he is Jesus and inquiring as to whether his insurance plan covers crucifixion.

Did you catch that? Cox isn’t just disordered; she’s “delusional.” And, according to Williamson, so is the medical establishment that supports people like Cox’s desire to physically change their gender. Williamson’s claim—which he backs up with nothing but his own hunches about trans people—is, I admit, an impressive display of chutzpah, given that the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Psychological Association all strongly endorse sex-reassignment surgery. But professional opinion is no match for Williamson’s intuitions, which dictate that all trans people who achieve physical self-actualization are grotesque and deranged.

3. Recast the trans community as petty, powerful, and demanding.

Trans people make up a tiny sliver of the population, and among their main concerns are the current epidemic of trans suicide and rampant, widespread discrimination, harassment, and abuse. They are a socially maligned, politically disfavored, frequently victimized minority—but from Williamson’s description, you’d think they secretly controlled the world. He sneers that “we are expected to defer to all subjective experience in the matter of gender identity,” and jokes that referring to trans people by the wrong pronoun “is now considered practically a hate crime.” Williamson scolds trans people and their allies for “inculcating” a “mass delusion … on the question of transgendered people” that may soon “impose on society at large an obligation ... to treat delusion as fact.” Note the almost epic scale of the conspiracy for trans tolerance that emerges from Williamson’s fevered imagination: Suddenly, trans people are not a beleaguered minority, but a group of dangerously influential colluders scheming for a new world order. (Sound familiar?)

“This is a repeated motif when people persecute others,” Smith told me. “Persecuted people are imagined to be uncannily powerful. This was Nazis’ attitude toward Jews. You know—the ‘international Jewish conspiracy.’ I guess this reaction is a measure of the magnitude of the threat that certain individuals feel [trans people pose] to their value systems, their frameworks.”

Using time-honored smear tactics to stoke transphobia makes a certain kind of twisted sense to me. But I’m still not certain why Williamson, or anyone else, is so desperate to dehumanize trans people in the first place. I asked Smith whether he had any insights.

“My very strong suspicion,” he said, “is that these people are insecure. They see trans people as a threat to their value systems, their frameworks, and develop a peculiar view laden with fear and ideology. And this view comes out in their propaganda.”

Does Smith really think articles like Williamson’s reflect a genuine concern and not a calculated ploy?

“I think they actually do believe this,” he told me. “There are exceptions. But for the most part, these people are scared.” 

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

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