Internalized transphobia refers to the discomfort that a person may experience after internalizing society’s normative gender expectations. Transgender and gender nonconforming people often experience stigmatization, which may cause them to internalize gender attitudes and develop negative health outcomes.

In this article, we will be replacing the term “transphobia” with the term “cissexism.” This is because the term transphobia inaccurately focuses on an individual’s irrational fears as opposed to the oppressive systems that can affect a person’s health.

This article will discuss why internalized cissexism occurs, how it can affect someone’s health, and how to get support.

A transgender person walking.Share on Pinterest
Zave Smith/Getty Images

Internalized cissexism occurs when a person judges themselves through society’s anti-trans bias. The term derives from the notion of internalized homophobia, or internalized heterosexism.

People with internalized cissexism may feel ashamed of their gender identity or expression, feel judgment from others, or remain closeted. This may result in negative health outcomes among transgender and gender nonconforming people.

This system of discrimination and exclusion suggests that there are, and should be, only two genders and that a person’s gender relates to their assigned sex at birth.

This system oppresses those whose gender or gender expression does not fall within cisnormative constructs. Cissexism perpetuates the idea that cisgender people are the dominant group and causes transgender or gender nonconforming people to experience oppression.

The term transphobia inaccurately describes systems that use irrational fears to subject people to oppression. Phobias can also be a distressing part of lived experience, so using this language is disrespectful to their experience and perpetuates ableism.

Gender stereotypes pervade virtually every aspect of mainstream culture — from “gender reveal” parties to ideas about “normal” jobs, appearances, or behaviors for people to have based on their appearance.

Transgender people who normalize these stereotypes may feel shame for their “failure” to conform to society’s gender expectations.

Even when a trans person outwardly transitions and passes, they may fear people finding out or hate themselves based on stereotypes about trans individuals.

Transgender people face high rates of violence, even in a more accepting modern society. The Human Rights Campaign report that 2020 was the deadliest year on record for this group, with at least 37 bigotry-fueled murders of trans and gender nonconforming individuals.

Some transgender people report difficulties getting their doctors to acknowledge their gender, their co-workers to use the correct pronouns, or society to acknowledge that their gender presentation is real and valid.

With so many images of hatred of transgender people and outright denial that they do or should exist, it is understandable that many people who are transgender or gender nonconforming may experience embarrassment or feelings of self-loathing.

A number of studies have explored the potential factors that may increase the risk of internalizing cissexism. These may include:

  • expecting or experiencing rejection
  • having exposure to prejudice
  • having a tendency to obsessively think about negative emotions and experiences

Additionally, trans people often grapple with the contradiction between their actual gender and their sex assigned at birth. This incongruity can be frustrating and painful, particularly when a person is unable to transition.

One 2020 study proposes The Transgender Identity Survey as a measure of internalized cissexism. The authors of that study propose four dimensions and predictors of internalized cissexism:

  • Pride in transgender identity: This pride may help reduce stigma and internalized cissexism.
  • Investment in passing as a cisgender person: People who do not want to appear trans tend to have more internalized cissexism.
  • Isolation from other transgender people: People who do not have relationships with other trans people, who see themselves as disconnected from trans communities, or who view themselves as fundamentally different from other trans individuals may internalize more stigma.
  • Shame: People who feel ashamed of their identity, their gender expression, or their transition are more likely to have internalized cissexism.

Trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming individuals have a high rate of suicide and self-harm behaviors as both teenagers and adults.

Internalized cissexism, as well as the factors that contribute to it — such as rejection and discrimination — may play a key role in this phenomenon.

Some other potential health effects include:

  • higher rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, such as low self-esteem
  • a reluctance to call the police when one is a victim of a crime
  • delays in seeking healthcare because of shame or concerns about discrimination
  • stress-related illnesses
  • a lower quality of life
  • difficulties coming out as trans or seeking gender affirming care

For some transgender people, getting the right support may begin with seeking gender affirming care, including the ability to externally transition if one desires.

A 2020 study, for example, found that children and adolescents who had access to drugs to suppress puberty were less likely to experience suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

However, it is worth noting that these people may have been in a supportive community and in a position to receive medical care without prejudice or judgment.

Some other options for finding support may include:

  • Advocacy groups: Connecting with local transgender advocacy groups may help people feel welcome and part of a community. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation maintain a comprehensive list of groups.
  • Therapy: Finding a therapist who supports trans and gender nonconforming individuals may help people with their mental health.
  • Activism: Becoming more involved and taking pride in trans identities can spur meaningful activism and may protect against internalized cissexism.
  • Healthcare: Work only with doctors who support and affirm trans identities.
  • Community: Getting to know trans or gender nonconforming people and the variety of different lifestyles they lead can help dispel stereotypes and stigma. People can try spending time at a local trans bookstore or community center, for example.
  • Identity: Choose when and to whom to disclose trans identity. There is no obligation, moral or otherwise, to tell anyone about one’s identity.

People who want to be allies to those in transgender communities should focus on listening and supporting trans individuals, rather than defending themselves as allies.

Allyship is an ongoing choice, not something a person can decide to be in a single instance.

The following strategies may help a person be a better ally:

  • Share one’s pronouns to make it easier for trans people to share theirs.
  • Use inclusive language whenever possible. Never assume a person’s gender or assume that gender expresses itself in specific, predictable ways.
  • Do not use cissexist language or mock someone for their gender representation.
  • Intervene whenever others engage in cissexism.
  • Do not confuse gender and sexual orientation or make assumptions about a trans person’s sexuality.
  • Do not ask a trans person about their “real” name or “real” gender. Being trans is not a costume.
  • Do not out a trans person.
  • Know that transition looks different for everyone, and do not pressure someone to transition.
  • Understand that gender stereotypes are just stereotypes. People who do not conform to these stereotypes are not necessarily trans.
  • Consider joining an organization for friends and family of trans individuals. For example, TransFamilies offer online and in-person support.

People may experience internalized cissexism due to the pressure of society’s normative gender expectations. This can be very damaging to people in transgender and gender nonconforming communities.

This may result in multiple adverse healthcare outcomes as well as mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.

People may be able to find support and advocacy from several organizations. Allies can also provide support by using affirming language and educating others about the problems and issues that trans communities face.