An overall warning for deep discussion of transphobia: varying from general, internalized, and direct transphobia. Mentions of misgendering also included.
I really didn’t want to do this article. But one person with a Brooklyn Nine-Nine icon starts calling trans men transphobic, and sometimes a man (me) just breaks.
First, a lesson in terminology. If you don’t spend half of your day on social media, and especially if you aren’t trans, there’s a high likelihood you have no idea what the term “truscum” means. Hell, I’m trans, and it took me a while to understand what the term even meant.
A few varying definitions float around online- it’s not exactly known enough to warrant a spot in the dictionary, after all- but I managed to find one that fit well enough for our purposes:
Truscum (pronounced “true scum”), also known as transmedicalist[…] are trans people who delegitimize the gender of other trans people. They claim one can’t truly be transgender unless one experiences gender dysphoria, in this context it can sometimes be called physical dysphoria, as defined by cisnormative psychiatry and medicine.
Truscum, boiled down to their essence, are trans people (men, women, non binary alike) who believe that a trans person has to suffer from dysphoria in order to be “really” trans. They believe that there are two kinds of transgender people: “real” ones, of course, who, according to their criteria, suffer from dysphoria, get surgeries, are on hormones, etc. The other kind of trans person is a faker — as you’ll see portrayed in the art below, the “other” trans person is really just cisgender with a “need to feel special”. In my experience, those targeted are non-passing trans men and women, non binary people, and any trans person who doesn’t subscribe to the idea that “dysphoria = transness”.
On Twitter, they identify themselves with the crossed swords and shield emojis, as if part of some secret society. On YouTube, rest in peace to my recommended algorithm before this, countless videos pop up with titles like “TRANS MEN CAN’T BE FEMININE”, “The Worst Transtrender I Have Ever Encountered”, “Congrats On Your Transition From Female To Female”, on and on and on.
[Note: the shield emoji is primarily used by anti-truscum individuals- the opposite of truscum, who believe that dysphoria is not required to be trans- though there’s been a small movement to “reclaim” the use of it and I’ve seen truscum with the emoji on their handle. Of course there is variance between the two, but it’s important to know that both are in use in the general discourse. Overall, swords = definitely truscum, shields = a 25% chance of truscum, though most likely anti-truscum].
Know that having to cite the art and websites of truscum here genuinely makes me feel horrible.
In writing this article, I don’t think its possible to separate my own personal feelings from any effort I might give to be academic. I do want to dive into truscum ideology and why its nothing but bullshit, but I can’t do that without turning the bullhorn inwards on myself; this is just as much a look into my own experience with transness as it is a general overview.
So, why do truscum matter? Why does this strange phenomena of inter-community fighting mean anything to an outsider? Why do truscum think in the way they do?
Sometimes, when I think of truscum, I think of “Itty Bitty Titty Committee”.
Back in March, I undertook a self-imposed challenge of watching a movie every day of the month that involved trans men, in order to get a sense of how I was being represented in the media. One of those movies was this completely unwatchable mess called “Itty Bitty Titty Committee”, a 2007 comedy-drama by the absolute loosest of definitions. We meet Aggie there.
Aggie is the character that puts “Itty Bitty Titty Committee” on this list, the singular man in the group of radical feminists. The girls’ justification for this is that he “was born with a clit”, and so right off the goddamn bat is Aggie apparently forever marked female because of his ‘birth gender’ […] when the lead girl tries to apologize for questioning Aggie’s place in the group, he responds with “I’m used to it”. It’s a heartbreaking response to transphobia; and the phenomena of trans people parroting transphobic rhetoric in order to come off as “one of the good ones” to transphobes or cis people in general is a real thing and awful, but this movie never so much as considers looking at this angle. According to this movie, this guy just stays with these girls for the fun (?) of it, and he’s fine with putting up with being constantly belittled if it means he gets to help spray paint a clit onto the side of a building.
I’m not going to act like truscum and TERFs are even close to companionable in real life as that film depicts (the whole point of TERF ideology is that they hate trans people, after all, no amount of boot licking will change that)(also comparing trans people to our actual oppressors is terrible and shall not be done here), but the phenomena of Aggie has a point in being brought up. In real life, trans people do and have peddled transphobic rhetoric for a wide variety of reasons. When they do that, the whole community hurts, deeply.
In doing my research for this (the most depressing set of rabbit holes I’ve ever forced myself down), it was impossible to miss the number of deeply conservative websites that came up alongside the results I expected to see. I can’t pass off the truscum phenomena as just inter-community fighting that doesn’t matter in the real world when it so very clearly does — those who wish to do us harm do not care if you’re truscum or a “transtrender”, because all they see is a transgender person they wish to in some way hurt. By creating this bizarre subdivision, it lends strength to the transphobe.
(“Transtrender” is the generally accepted term used to describe these “fake” trans people, though sometimes “tucute” is used as well.)
In a website I outright refuse to link here in some hope to limit their audience, truscum have a very strange, specific idea of the “fake” trans people who are, according to them, undeniably spreading throughout the community.
Transtrenders (or “genderspecials”) are people who pretend to be transgender in order to be trendy, which — as one might imagine — is rather offensive and devalues the issues trans people experience […] it may be bloggers trying to be a minority when they’re not in order to (a) not get hate, or (b) seem “cool.” A transtrender uses whatever gender labels they feel like using at the time, even though gender isn’t actually something you can choose (what can be chosen are gender roles).
There seems to be variance from person to person (isn’t there with everything?), but the theme of people “pretending” to be transgender is one that persists throughout most of truscum ideology and rhetoric. It’s as if we’re already past the whole thing about transness literally getting you murdered and we’ve made it to “trendy social standing” and I didn’t even get the memo.
Of course, people fake things online all the time to seem “trendy”, I will not deny that. I have no doubt that a couple of idiots are wandering around on Twitter somewhere pretending to be transgender, just as people go online and pretend to be gay, as white kids go and pretend to be non-white. I don’t doubt it happens, but to act as if its a trend of growing infestation completely neglects the actual problems facing our community. I can’t give a shit if someone doesn’t “look like” they’re using the right pronouns when I’m watching my government actively strip away my rights as a human being for the crime of being transgender.
Some months ago and again more recently, a friend of mine got piled on by some truscum on Twitter. My friend is a semi-closeted trans man, hasn’t gone on testosterone, any of the things really “required” by truscum to be considered a true trans man. According to truscum, because he doesn’t “pass” (which, the concept of passing is obnoxious and only exists because of a cis-centric society; it’s a stupid idea that we find ourselves conforming to is what I’m saying), he’s seen as lesser, an “embarrassment”.
What baffles me about truscum is that at some point, nearly all of us were closeted for some period of time; literally none of us have always been the way we wanted to be. To look at a closeted man embracing his body, however much he may or may not wish to change it in the future, and to decide to try and destroy him for it, comes from a place so dark and damaged I can’t even comprehend.
I was closeted as a transgender man through my senior year of high school. During this time, I was also in the school’s orchestra. It was there that I met another closeted trans guy, two years younger than me, and we struck up a quiet acquaintance if for nothing more than the comfort of not being alone. For the sake of keeping his identity vague, I’ll say that he soon left the class for reasons beyond his control, and I was only able to keep up with him through his Snapchat and Instagram.
That’s when I started noticing some confusing things.
Initially, I didn’t really care about the things he was posting; he was, what, 15 or 16, and we had only our marginalization in common. But when I did pay attention, the truscum rhetoric he was putting out made me angry. He talked about how irritating it was to see trans men showing off their breasts, how those actions proved that these people weren’t truly transgender. And I wondered how, as both of us were closeted individuals with no real autonomy to change our bodies, he could think that of people who likely didn’t either.
(Shit, I won’t deny that earlier in my transition, I found no discomfort in wearing shirts that revealed my breasts. I wanted to enjoy them as long as I had them, and seeing as top surgery continues to move further and further away from me, I have to maintain at least a neutral relationship with them in order to keep sane. I am strong enough in my identity to know that that makes me no less of a man.)
I wish I could say that as the older kid, I found a way to reach out and help him, engage in some discussion. But back then I was not in the mental place to help someone so deeply fried in Tumblr identity discourse, and ultimately I took him off my Instagram and kept his Snapchat just to keep up with his safety (to date, he’s still closeted). But when I think of truscum, I think of him. I think of this tiny, pale little blonde kid, and the conversations we had in the hallway about our minimal experiences, and how amazed I was that people were realizing who they were so young. I think about that happiness souring over time as I realized he was using himself as a weapon to mow down others just like us.
The thing that hurts is seeing how many of these people with truscum ideologies are just children. Some adults, of course, but I’ve stumbled upon so many that are just 16, 15, nowhere near old enough to even know themselves yet. And ultimately I think it’s a child’s mindset that sends so many of these people down this awful, hateful spiral.
The burst of anger that sent me on this article had me desperate to know how other trans people could turn on their own community. And getting to that answer has been heartbreaking and infuriating. I’m equal parts destroyed for these kids and enraged that they’ve weaponized themselves to hurt other kids just like them, just like me.
I didn’t accept that I was a trans man until I was 17. Before that, I considered myself non binary for two years, and before that, all I could ever really consider myself as was an ugly cis girl. I didn’t think I could be a trans man; I still identified with some aspects of femininity, I was indifferent to the idea of having a penis or not having my breasts, and I was scared that if I took the leap that I’d one day regret it. I thought I was too old to come to any realization, that I should’ve known since childhood. I thought that all I was was this ugly cis woman, who couldn’t cope with life and so hoped to fruitlessly retreat into someone else.
Truscum know these fears. They know them better than any other person could. And rather than step in to help other kids through that no man’s land of terror, they weaponize that idea of fake, they turn it into a nuke.
I think I got lucky that I didn’t truly stumble into truscum ideology until I was already transitioning, because if I had, I don’t know how long it would’ve taken me to finally be able to accept myself, if ever. I was a baby at 17, and I had no idea how happy I would be once I finally accepted myself as Logan. To be out, really and truly, is such a different experience than being closeted could’ve led me to believe. Because of that, it’s somewhat become my mission to protect the trans generation coming up after me; knowing that some of them are going to get hit with the truscum tidal wave is mortifying to me.
While writing this, I found myself bouncing between two extremes. In some moments, when I was so angry I couldn’t think straight, I had to remind myself to be sympathetic; truscum are, after all, trans kids, and there’s a part of me that wants to still save them from those hateful flames. But when I found myself beginning to embrace that viewpoint, I ended up angry again; no matter the hurt you go through, there is not a moment where it is right to direct that hurt onto someone just as vulnerable as you.
I found myself digging through Kalvin Garrah’s Twitter, looking to pinpoint some more ideologies. Kalvin, in short, is widely known within the trans community for being truscum, amassing ~345,000 subscribers and 23,000 followers across various platforms. I’d spent probably less than an hour on his YouTube, mostly because there’s only so much of that level of intensity and vile that I can stomach in one sitting. So I was hoping for a more manageable insight when one of his tweets genuinely made me stop. On the topic of pride month, Kalvin said “i dont celebrate pride for myself, im not proud of being trans[…]”; and in the replies below were those agreeing.
To be clear, this man should in no way have the audience he does. At the time of this article, he’s eighteen, by all accounts still a child. No one should have the following he does at this point, at this age, especially when he is someone so horrifyingly hateful. And I will say it’s genuinely hard for me to be objective here, it’s hard to watch so much bile be thrown and not want to throw some back.
At what point do you have to be at to willingly misgender other trans kids? As a trans person himself, how does that feel good to do? How does it feel right to capitalize on such hatred as to sell merchandise (upwards of $35) to promote these ideologies?
Still I continue to bounce between my own rage and that strange mix of sympathy and pity. The oldest truscum I’ve come across in my experience has been 22 — all others are teenagers, children. And every account I check I find nothing short of miserable children, every single time. Kalvin, knowingly or not, pinned the pain of truscum direct on the head: they’re not proud of being trans. They’re angry children who cannot understand the idea of people being proud of what they themselves hate.
Again, I cannot stress enough that my intention here is not to create excuses for what truscum are and what they do. But there is, seemingly, a reason for the anger. Mixed in along the rantings on their subreddit are posts of misery, children grieving that they themselves are unable to transition, teenagers clawing brick by brick to try and secure their happiest life. They have been stuck in misery so long that it is all they know. I feel bad for them in the same way I feel bad for any bully, pained by their suffering but only to a point.
Some months ago, some truscum discourse spilled into my sphere of awareness as Kalvin Garrah fought on Twitter with a black woman, Maya Assata; as a result, Maya’s Twitter was suspended, so I can only hope that using singular they pronouns is correct. Because of the loss of Maya’s Twitter, I have no way to accurately go into detail about what the fight even was about- to my best guess, the “is dysphoria required to be trans?” argument had resurfaced again- but regardless there are two important things to learn from that instance.
First, while Maya’s tweets are gone, by pure luck I’d managed to write down a part of their tweet that I genuinely loved. That being, “self loathing isn’t an innate part of us”. I think that idea is genuinely one of the most powerful things to have stuck with me during my journey through transition, and something that I think we all could stand to remember. Transness is not and should not be defined by how much we suffer- internally or externally- and we shouldn’t violently harass those of us who are so lucky to be happy in themselves.
Trans people are some of the strongest people I’ve ever met; none of their or my strongest traits can be summarized by suffering.
And, secondly, the interaction between Kalvin and Maya highlights something not yet touched upon in this article, that of how race factors into general truscum and transphobic ideology. I only feel comfortable saying so much, as a white man myself, but it’s definitely noticeable that most truscum are predominately white or white-passing. In a statement post-suspension, Maya said “What Kalvin did to me was exactly what every white man has ever done to me: told me to sit down, shut up, and learn my place under his boot”. After finally sitting down and watching some of his videos, I side with Maya even more strongly than I did before.
(In an article by Susan Schmitt, they write that “Identities that can be readily translated into a gender binary may be regarded as more valid since Western medicine seems to thrive on either/or logic. Unfortunately, many identities do not fit the binary, making it difficult to access competent health care. Some trans community members may possess other privileges such as being white, able-bodied, middle/upper-class that increases access. The non-discussion of race, class, and ability status in truscum blogs is telling.”)
Truscum who are white or white passing inherently benefit from a rigid system. And Susan is right that there seems to be a non-discussion happening, as an outsider looking in.
The people who harassed my closeted friend didn’t seem to care why he wasn’t transitioning, or even consider it. All they focused in on was that he was someone they didn’t agree with, someone that didn’t “look trans”, and that’s all they needed in order to target him on multiple occasions.
I know a multitude of people who aren’t out yet. For some it’s because they still live at home with transphobic parents, for some it’s because they can’t afford to transition, or its the area they live, or its just not safe, and for some I genuinely don’t know why. I will never ask. Because, not only as a trans person but as a friend, my job is to make sure my brothers and sisters are safe. As someone lucky enough to be medically transitioning, I’m aware that it’s hard: it’s fucking stressful and it doesn’t look like it’ll be getting any easier. I am nowhere near a high enough power to deem someone lesser than me because they don’t want to mirror me in these actions, nor is anybody else.
For a brief period of time, when she was about twelve, my sister considered herself a trans man. This lasted less than a year, and we never really sat down and discussed it until just a few nights ago.
Over dinner, my sister now edging ever closer to seventeen, I brought up the concept of “transtrenders” not even looking for any particular insight. But we ended up discussing it in brief and I’m glad to know more about her experience (it was her clashes with our parents that served as the backbone to why I didn’t come out while I was living at home). Poorly paraphrased, she cited having multiple trans friends at the time as the main reason as to why she chose to identify as trans as well. She said she never wanted a chest binder, and we never touched on the topic of HRT. By definition, she was a “transtrender”.
So, with that now on my brain, I look at this article in the context of my sister. I consider the arguments of truscum, that “transtrenders” like her are sapping resources from those who “really need it” and that make the “real” transgender people in the community look bad. First of all, imagining my sister, age twelve, rocking her new short hair, as the “bad face” of the transgender community is honestly hilarious.
Secondly, I try and consider any harm she could’ve done to anyone by identifying as trans for a few months and I just genuinely don’t see it. Our parents struggled, yes, but, to look back, it was a helpful stepping stone in getting them used to the idea for when I came out. Me and my friends didn’t care, and most of them very readily followed my lead as I called her my brother. While I can’t speak for the reactions of her friends, I can’t see any branch that leads to long-term suffering or damage.
She was curious if an identity would work for her, make her happy, and it didn’t, so she took a step back and stopped. Simple as that; no harm, no foul.
To consider “transtrenders” still doesn’t validate the truscum logic, though. I don’t see any reason why kids trying to figure themselves out should be so heavily villainized, why actual kids should fear self discovery. I don’t think I could’ve made the jump from cis to trans man in a single bound; I needed a stepping stone to test the waters and see if this was the path that would make me happy. Ultimately, it was, but even if it didn’t, what’s so wrong with identifying with a community temporarily? It happens all the time with sexualities (lord knows I’ve bounced from pan to gay to bi through the years), so why is it when it comes to gender, some are so quick to demonize our most vulnerable?
Out of the two of us, I think it was more of a surprise to our parents that I turned out trans and she didn’t. We were both “tomboys” growing up, though I was considerably more comfortable embracing femininity than she ever was. I liked my dresses and earrings and half of my childhood room is still an absolutely horrific shade of pink. Contrast with her, who continues to fight against any and every effort to put her in anything other than a button-up and jeans, who seemed and seems to continue to reject most of the traditional callings of being a girl. Even as a trans person, if I were to look at our descriptors without context, I would pin her as my family’s “Most Likely To Be Trans” far above myself.
But that’s the thing — you can’t tell someone’s relationship with their gender just from observing them, not really. While I enjoyed dresses and aspects of femininity, none of that reflected the intense feelings of being an alien in my own skin that I felt from middle school onward. And while my sister rejects a lot of things, she’s undeniably proud of being a bisexual woman. And I’m proud of her for ending up in a place where she can comfortably exist as herself. Gender is a complex and bizarre thing to feel and have to express, and she seems to be at peace much earlier than I was.
In 2018, a trans guy named Sam Finch wrote an open letter to those who identified with truscum ideology. While it warrants a read all its own, I wanted to highlight an important passage.
[…]When you use a singular measure like dysphoria to decide if someone is worthy […] you run the risk of doing a lot of harm to folks who aren’t “faking” anything — folks like me who needed to process things before they could make the right choice.
And there are plenty of reasons why medical transition isn’t an easy decision, too. Some people can’t access it for financial reasons or are denied access by clinicians. Some folks have chronic illnesses that would make medical transition risky or undesirable. Some folks might consider it safer to remain closeted. Some folks are in abusive environments where they can’t even begin to contemplate something like this.
And for some folks, right here and right now? They just don’t want to or aren’t ready to. Maybe they’re questioning, maybe they’re afraid, maybe they’re overwhelmed, or maybe they’re just fucking tired. That could change and that may not… but it’s not up to us.
Doing this article was a struggle for me; I’ve already stated that I’ve fought in the past with feelings of “fakeness”, but those still persist even now. At the time of writing this, I’ve been on testosterone for going on nine months, and, as stated, am actively the happiest I’ve ever been. But that little voice in the back of my head persists that one day when I’m in my 30’s, I’ll wake up and realize this was all a mistake. In writing this, its felt like sitting across the table from my own demons while trying to analyze the demons of others.
But that little voice in my head is my own issue. It’s not something that anyone else can step in and take out of my brain, and it’s not something that I can throw onto someone else and rid myself of. What truscum trans people are doing is they’re taking that little voice of fear that lives inside their head and siccing it on other people, hoping that by doing so, the voice will in turn leave them alone. But that’s not how it works.
Whenever I’ve felt blindingly hateful towards trans people with seemingly no internal problems (I’ll admit I’ve been there, I’ve had my weak moments), it didn’t quell my own insecurities. The voice is still with me when I debate whether or not to wear a binder, every time I step into a men’s room, every time I shower, every time I lay down to sleep. Running away from it doesn’t work, and neither does trying to pass it off on someone else; trying to force someone to have dysphoria when they don’t would never rid me of my own.
We’re all stuck with that voice, whether we like it or not, accept it or not. The question I posed with the title of this article, why truscum hate the way they do, I think can be answered with that analogy.
Truscum are terrified of that voice in their head. Many of them are kids, staring down the barrel of a lifetime of possible oppression, misgendering, and systematic transphobia. Transgender people are murdered year after year and we can’t know the true numbers because so many of us are erased after death. Of course they’re scared. But instead of dealing with that fear, they turn to hurting other trans kids. They harass and misgender and bully whoever has the misfortune of falling into their line of sight, and that is inexcusable.
I don’t think that truscum rhetoric will ever become an actual institution of oppression in the way cisgender-enforced transphobia is. A majority of truscum are trans themselves, a subset of an already deeply marginalized community; cis people who align with truscum ideology are the only ones who really trouble me deeply in regards to wider oppression. But the existence of truscum or transtrenders will never result in one or the other being placed in a higher priority in regards to medical and social care. There will never be such an influx of trans people that there will be a limit of resources. And people have been detransitioning for decades now; that isn’t any new, trendy consequence of people apparently blindly rushing for hormones.
I think I want the underlined point of this article to be that truscum genuinely need to be helped, while at the same time that they shouldn’t have the ability to hurt other trans people in the way that they do. Everything that I read and everything that I see continues to point me towards pain, and the optimist in me wants to help them find acceptance within themselves. That said, they also shouldn’t be allowed to platform targeted harassment against their own community; I saw too many cis people in the replies of Truscum Twitter, and it’s a huge problem that in their efforts to keep “transtrenders” out, truscum are causing active pain to real trans people as well as validating cis peoples’ transphobia.
After writing this, I look at truscum the same way I look at normal, public school bullies. Their actions are the result of kids who are crying out for help and attention, and they need therapy to help their internalized issues. They also need to face consequences for their actions, because weaponizing transphobia to hurt other trans people is egregious; because selling merchandise to capitalize on internalized transphobia is one of the most appalling things I’ve seen. Because we have enough enemies in the world, and we should not be helping them dig the knife deeper in.
Kalvin Garrah said he wasn’t proud to be trans — I want to help him and the others reach a point where they can be.
“Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.” — Anne Carson