Photo of the cover of the book, reading “A SHORT HISTORY OF TRANS MISOGYNY” with an image of a dolled up woman behind.
A Short History of Trans Misogyny, by Jules Gill-Peterson.

Processing a “A Short History of Trans Misogyny”

Amy J. Ko
7 min readFeb 20, 2024

There are times near the end of a book where I do not breathe. Its ideas pile up, bound together, a crescendo of thought that will peak at silence, and only in that quiet will I have the space to process its meaning. In these moments, I need to be alone, because everything the book has constructed in my mind is new, fragile, and fleeting. Sometimes I just sit and stare at the hardcover, letting the thoughts simmer in its textures and colors, until it cools sufficiently to pick up. And then, after the form is solid, all I want to do is tell people about it.

This was my experience reading Jules Gill-Peterson’s new book, A Short History of Trans Misogyny. I first heard of it from Jules herself on the Slate Outward Podcast two weeks ago. The brief and engaging discussion of its ideas, and its goal of historicizing trans femininity through a global lens, was a quick sell. It arrived a few days later in its little serious jacket, with a beautiful face behind its title suggested through a pointillist haze. The title promised a jaunt; but it was a journey.

The essence of the book’s argument is that there is a difference between trans femme identities and trans femininity. This difference and its significance can be hard to see in modern Western discourse, where phrases like “gender identity” have made crucial space of trans people’s internal identities. Trans femininity, in contrast, is something that lives in the minds of other people, in how they see not just trans people, but any person. It is an idea made up of socially constructed cues, crossed against socially constructed norms of what people are supposed to look like, sound like, and act like. Trans femininity is something that trans femme people can claim for themselves, but as the book points out, it has more often in history been something that people have ascribed to others, often followed by disgust, rejection, and violence.

The book, then, asks why trans femininity carries this power. It answers this question by touring trans femininity over the past several hundred years, across India, Hawai’i, Latin America, and North America. It talks in particular about trans femme people of color, who, in so many contexts, did not have the privilege of an internal sense of gender. The only thing that has practically mattered, due to the intersection of race, class and gender, was how trans feminine people were perceived by others. Across the world, often at the intersection of colonial projects of cultural destruction, these perceptions determined whether people had shelter, whether they were hungry, whether they were safe, whether they were raped, beaten, murdered, and jailed — “it didn’t much matter how they felt on the inside”, Gill-Peterson writes, in a recurring refrain. The book presents gender identity, as much as it is something real, as a part of white privilege, for how it depends on safety as a precondition. And in that way, it is trans femininity, woven through race, class, and gender, that tends to structure what power, rights, and safety a person has, meaning that it affects not only trans femme people, but femme gay men and even cis people perceived to be trans feminine.

Why does trans femininity have so much power? Gill-Peterson suggests that it derives its violent power through its contestation of white supremacist heterosexual patriarchy. It is, in simple terms, the single greatest threat to a system of domination that places white men at the top of a hierarchy, because it makes plain that manhood is not only something that people are willing to give up, but also willing to risk their lives to give up, if it means they can be free. This is a direct assault on the ruse that upholds the whole system that presumes white cis het men to be unequivocally superior to all others. And to be faced with that threat is apparently too much for men to handle, to the point where governments throughout history have permitted men to abuse, rape, and murder trans people without consequence (the trans panic defense). And in a lesser form, trans misogyny has been and continues to be a threat to LGTBQ+ rights, leading gay men in the 1970’s and today to quickly abandon trans feminine people for whatever scraps cis heterosexual men are willing to leave on their seat of power.

While I’m not enough a scholar of queer theory to understand the significance of this theory, it was profound for me personally. This is because there is always something that has been so lonely about my experience of being trans femme. I struggle to make friends, I’ve always felt disconnected from queer community, and since coming out, I often only get unwanted attention in public. In queer spaces, I do not feel alone, but I do feel othered. I remember going to my first trans Halloween party shortly after coming out and few believed I was trans; many questioned whether I was trans, making sure I was not a threat. And in cis spaces, I feel othered for my trans femininity. I was just at a meeting last week, for example, where after I outed myself, most of the people in the room wouldn’t talk to me or make eye contact. I have sat with these experiences with a heaviness, because I dreamed that coming out might help me find community. But instead, I seem to only have found a different kind of isolation in womanhood.

Gill-Peterson’s thesis gives me a reason for this isolation. It argues that my experiences in the world are predominantly shaped by how I am seen, not who I am. I do not know how I am seen, but if I had to infer from how I am treated, it is probably most often as a cis, white-passing, possibly “ethnic”, attractive woman. Even people who know I am trans or know me professionally, there is a distance, perhaps because of my writing and thinking, or perhaps because I am trans. I suspect that none of this particularly reads as trans feminine, despite being a trans femme person, because I usually pass so well. And so I sit instead in a different box: the intimidating, pretty woman box, where there is always a hypothetical threat of sexual violence, but mostly an isolating pretty privilege that creates distance through desire, jealously, and judgement. My lack of perceived trans femininity is what separates me from many of my trans feminine sisters, even when I share so much with them on the inside.

As the book elegantly argues through history, my lack of trans femininity is also what separates me from violence, poverty, murder, and sex work. My white/cis passing privilege, and my profession, are the two things that let me safely coast through a trans misogynist world within the limited rights granted to cis women. And these privileges are almost certainly the reason that I, like gay men and cis allies alike, are not fighting every day against patriarchal violence, sexual assault, police brutality, and mass incarceration that trans feminine women of color continue to face today. I, unlike my trans sisters of color, have plenty to lose, and so I commit the same sins that gay men in the 1970’s did against Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson: cowardly abandonment.

There are other ways that I still abandon myself, out of desperation for safety. Gill-Peterson concludes by simply declaring, “Trans women are extra”, and calling upon everyone to celebrate that fact, in the way that we enable every other gendered experience to define itself against our extremes. I have this extra in me. Physiologically, anatomically, experientially, intellectually. I have so much to say, so much to share, so many feelings, so many ways I want to be, so much I want to give, so many moments of seeing better worlds that are invisible in the one we have. There are days I feel an overwhelming lifetime of impossibilities and I cannot find the words or art or music to communicate everything that could be.

But instead of embrace that extra, and proudly share it with the world, I keep it locked away, knowing that the world as it is does not want my extra, and if given the chance, would destroy it (and in doing so, itself). Gills-Peterson makes the case that the only way through that internalized trans misogyny is for trans women to “lead a coalition in the name of femininity… to show what the world might look like for everyone if it were hospitable to being extra and having more than enough.

What might that world look like? I am afraid to find out. But I am also afraid not to. I’m going to be my Information School’s Associate Dean for Academics starting this July, and nothing terrifies me more about the role than having to lock myself into an even tinier cage. One in which leaders must be silent listeners, suffering in isolation for the good of the whole, where they must not change too much, too fast, and they must sacrifice their wellbeing to make the hard choices of who to serve and who to harm. Where holding power is seen as a privilege instead of the burden it is. I want to be an extra leader, one where my faculty, staff, and students are overwhelmed, just like I am, of just how much a trans femme person can be, and just how much is possible, if only they let go of their scarcity mindset. I want to show them that our collective work in education can be extraordinarily full of love, possibility, change, and discovery, and that no one has to get hurt. If A Short History and its chronicle are any guide, I should expect that unleashing my extra might be a disaster personally. But maybe millions of trans femme disasters is what the world needs, just to see how extra the world can be.



Amy J. Ko

Professor, University of Washington iSchool (she/her). Code, learning, design, justice. Trans, queer, parent, and lover of learning.