Tuesday, October 8, 2013

In Defense of Partners

[note added January, 2017: This essay now appears as a chapter in my third book Outspoken: A Decade of Transgender Activism and Trans Feminism]

This last weekend, I finally got around to reading Janet Mock’s recent essay How Society Shames Men DatingTrans Women & How This Affects Our Lives (note: there is also an excellent interview that includes her and Laverne Cox on HuffPost Live discussing the same issue). Mock wrote the piece in response to the media coverage and public backlash against DJ Mister Cee (a cisgender male hip-hop artist and radio personality) for his attempt to solicit sex from someone who he thought was a trans woman. Mock’s piece rightfully points out how the public’s shaming of men who are attracted to trans women—e.g., by insulting their manhood, or presuming that they are closeted gay men—undermines our identities too, as the underlying assumption is that we must be “fake women” or “really men.”

Mock’s essay is very timely, as it shines light onto what I feel has become a huge gaping hole in trans activism. Namely, while we have made some progress in challenging mainstream attitudes toward trans people, we have barely made a dent in the public’s attitudes toward, and assumptions about, people who choose to partner with us.

For instance, over the last ten years there has been a noticeable decline in jokes directly targeting transgender-spectrum people in the media, especially in shows that have more liberal/progressive audiences (e.g., programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report). Yet these same programs continue to regularly make jokes that insinuate that we are undesirable and that there must be something wrong with (and therefore hilarious about) people who are attracted to us.

Why does this discrepancy exist? Well, here is a pragmatic explanation: These days, when shows poke fun at trans people directly, the trans community will strongly protest. Petitions will go up on the Internet, GLAAD and other organizations will start sending out press releases. Suddenly the show in question will have a big PR mess on their hands. So while many cisgender comedy writers may still consider us to be laughing stocks, they won’t risk making those jokes if they know that there is going to be a big blowback.

However, when they ridicule people who are attracted to us, typically nothing happens. A few people may grumble about the incident on Facebook or Twitter, but the community at large does not push back. Why not? Well, the sad truth is that we (the trans community) are often just as suspicious of cisgender people who choose to partner with us as the cis majority is. And while the mainstream regularly belittles people who find us attractive, unfortunately trans people often do the same too.

Admittedly, we do it slightly differently. The cisgender majority will shame Mister Cee and men like him by questioning their manhood and sexual orientation. In my own trans community, people routinely dismiss such men by labeling them as “chasers” and “fetishists.”

While there are legitimate critiques to be made of way in which some (albeit not all) cisgender men who “admire” trans women express their attractions (e.g., by exoticizing us, viewing us as mere sexual objects, not fully respecting our female identities, not treating us as human beings), I believe that the wholesale stereotyping of them and using psychiatric language to pathologize them only worsens the problem—not just for them, but for us as well. Once again, the underlying premise that drives these accusations is that there must be something wrong with them because, after all, they are attracted to us.

This suspicion extends *far beyond* those men who watch trans porn, solicit trans sex workers, or secretly occasion trans pickup bars. Cisgender women and men who are in loving committed relationships with their trans partners are also regularly dismissed as being “chasers” and “fetishists.” If they want to avoid these accusations, then they have to defend themselves via a convoluted (contradictory even!) set of claims:

“I am attracted to my trans partner, but not *because* they are trans, but also not *in spite of* the fact that they are trans. Because, after all, I believe that trans people and trans bodies are attractive and deserving of love. But by saying that, I am not trying to imply that I am specifically attracted to my partner’s more trans-specific traits, but at the same time, I am not grossed out by them either. Honestly, I view my partner’s body the exact same way that I view cisgender bodies. Oh God, I hope that last comment doesn’t come off as too cisnormative...”

Of course, this I-accidentally-fell-in-love-with-a-trans-person-and-I’m-totally-OK-with-it-in-a-completely-non-creepy-way spiel only works if you’ve only ever dated one trans person. If your dating history includes more than one trans partner, then good luck shaking off that “fetish”/“chaser” label.

Way back in the past, I used to assume that people who were attracted to trans people had some kind of a “fetish.” But then a trans friend challenged me on this. She asked me why we call men who are attracted to trans women (the vast majority of whom also are attracted to women more generally) “fetishists,” yet men who limit their dating pool to *just* non-trans women somehow manage to avoid the “fetish” label? Isn’t the latter group more restrictive and particular in their desires? Aren’t they the ones who really have a “fetish?” Her question stumped me. I thought about it for days, but I couldn’t come up with a reasonable rebuttal.

Years later, it became perfectly clear to me what she was getting at. I was doing research to debunk the concept of autogynephilia (a psychological theory that undermines trans women’s identities). In the course of that work, I read paper after paper by Ray Blanchard, the psychologist who coined the term. If you don’t know who Ray Blanchard is, here is a quick yet distressing introduction to the guy. Anyway, what we lay folks call “fetishes,” pathologizing psychologists like Blanchard call “paraphilias.” For the latest DSM manual (DSM-V; the so-called “psychiatric Bible”), Blanchard was put in charge of defining the term, so unfortunately, here is how “paraphilia” is now described by the most authoritative of psychiatric texts:

“Any intense and persistent sexual interest other than sexual interest in genital stimulation or preparatory fondling with phenotypically normal, consenting human partners between the ages of physical maturity and physical decline.”

I am 100% behind the idea that consent is crucial and that adults having sex with children is wrong. But everything else about this definition is completely fucked up! Basically, if your sexual interests or desires drift in any way outside of what *other people* perceive as normal, then congratulations, you now have a paraphilia. Welcome to the fetish concept.

By the way, the term “phenotypically normal” means “normal” with regards to observable anatomical or behavioral traits. And as you can probably guess by now, Blanchard does not view trans people as "phenotypically normal." In fact, he coined the term “gynandromorphophilia” to describe attraction to trans women. He considers it to be a paraphilia. In lay terminology, gynandromorphophilia is the “fetish” that Mister Cee, my girlfriend, everyone I’ve dated post-transition, and all of my trans woman friends’ partners, supposedly have in common.

Attraction is a messy and complicated matter. I have researched it extensively, and I can tell you that absolutely nobody knows why people turn out to be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual/pansexual, or asexual. Nobody understands why some people prefer certain body or personality types or traits over others, while other people have different (sometimes extremely different) predilections.

I have no idea why some people are attracted to trans people. And let me be clear: When I say “attracted to trans people,” I am not talking about that extraordinarily rare person (who I doubt even exists) who is *only* attracted to trans people, but not at all to cis people. Rather, I am talking about a heterogeneous population of people who are attracted to many cisnormative and non-gender-related human traits, but who also (additionally!) happen to be attracted to some human traits that are considered to be gender-non-conforming or non-cisnormative. Sure, some of these traits maybe bodily traits (these being the ones that garner the most attention and consternation in discussions about so-called “fetishes”). But such gender-non-conforming or non-cisnormative traits may also be behavioral traits (e.g., related to gender expression) or personality traits. Indeed, I have had partners tell me that they find trans women attractive because, in their experience, we tend to be especially self-assured, interesting, and critical of societal norms. The point is that being attracted to trans people can take on many forms and can vary significantly from person to person.

So to restate: I have no idea why some people are attracted to certain gender-non-conforming/non-cisnormative human traits (and who therefore find trans folks particularly attractive). But I do know why most people *are not* attracted to such traits: because trans people and bodies are highly stigmatized throughout society. This stigmatization inflicts shame on those of us who are trans—a shame that many of us work hard to overcome. (For the record, I am still overcoming it.)

But this shame also affects people who find us attractive—not in the same way, nor to the same extent, but it does affect them. Rather than seeing their attraction toward us as “normal” and “healthy,” society teaches them to view it as a “fetish.” This shame encourages them to keep their attraction secret—this applies to both cis people who self-identify as “admirers,” “fetishists,” or “chasers” and purposefully seek out trans partners, as well as to those cis people who are surprised to find out that the person they are attracted to, or dating, or have fallen in love with, is trans and who subsequently hides that info (and sometimes even their partner’s existence) from friends and family.

If we want to move past all this shame, then we need to embrace the fact that trans people are worthy of desire, and that some cis people (as well as some trans people) will find us attractive. To accomplish this, we need to destroy the psycho-pathologizing myth that so-called “fetishists” and “chasers” exist. And we need to create space for cis partners of trans people to *respectfully* discuss their desires and to articulate (in concert with trans people) how the fetish concept demeans both them and us. I am not suggesting that we should bend over backwards to include cis people who invalidate our gender identities or view us only as sexual objects. But we should amplify the voices of cis partners who are willing to challenge cissexism and who truly appreciate us as living breathing people.

Last June at Girl Talk (a spoken word show intended to be a dialogue between trans queer women, cis queer women, and genderqueer people), I performed a piece called “Desirable.” It thoroughly debunks the fetish concept (more so than I have done here) and also challenges the silencing of cis partners of trans people more generally. I received a lot of positive feedback for the piece—to be honest, more so than for any spoken word piece that I have written since 2007 (when I first wrote/performed PerformancePiece). But I heard after the fact that some trans women who went to the show did not like it. I suppose this isn’t surprising given how taboo the subject matter is.

The video of my performance has just been made available, and I offer a link to it below. But before I share it, I want to pre-emptively address a few misconceptions that I have heard from other people about the piece:

1) One person told me that they thought that I was making fun of people who hate the word “tranny.” I do no such thing. The jumping off point for the piece is a show I curated way back in 2004 that was billed as “The Tranny Lover’s Show” (it was a spoken word event featuring partners of trans people). As I make clear in the piece, while this use of the word "tranny" might sound problematic or offensive to many people today in 2013, back then (in that very different era, within the confines of the San Francisco Bay Area trans/queer community) the word was routinely used in a reclaimed way. I no longer use the word on a regular basis these days precisely because many trans people today (in this very different era) find it offensive. [note added on 5-20-14: I have recently written a more extensive post about my personal history with, and thoughts about, the "T-word" here.]

2) The same person also told me that they thought that I mocked the concept of cultural appropriation in the piece. Again, I do no such thing. I do point out how the concept of appropriation can be (mis)used to police people’s genders and identities, and how overzealous usage of the concept often results in trans people using it to silence our partners. Appropriation is an extremely intricate subject, and I admit that the super-brief mentioning of it here does not do it justice. So recently, I have written a more thorough essay on appropriation—please refer to that for my actual views on that subject.

3) I heard that some people thought that I was mocking the concept of cis privilege in the piece, which struck me as bizarre given that I have written so extensively about the subject (see Whipping Girl pages 159-193 and this follow up essay). In watching the video, it seems that this misconception may have arisen because I use my hand to signify quotes around the phrase “have cis privilege.” To be clear, I meant to indicate that “have cis privilege” is something that trans people actually say to dismiss cis partner perspectives; I was not putting the concept of cis privilege in “scare quotes.”

Anyway, here is my reading of the piece Desirable. I don’t expect everyone to agree with everything that I say in the piece. But I do hope that people will view it with an open mind and consider the benefits of moving away from the fetish concept, and toward a world in which trans people can be seen as legitimate objects of desire.

[note: If you appreciate this essay and want to see more like it, please check out my Patreon page]

P.S., Here are a few other related pieces that I have written on this topic:

“Love Rant” is a chapter in Whipping Girl pages 277-281

The Beauty In Us was a speech I gave at the SF Trans March in 2009

Why feminists should be concerned with the impending revision of the DSM discusses Blanchard’s expansion of the definition of “paraphilia”

Psychology, Sexualizationand Trans-Invalidations [PDF] doesn’t address the fetish concept directly, but it does show how related psychological theories sexualize and invalidate trans people


  1. I really like the convoluted explanation that a partner might have to provide. I can totally see that happening. They're between a rock and a hard place. -Gwen

  2. THANK YOU SO MUCH for this. This is about me, a cis female lesbian/bisexualish partner of a trans girl. I always feel like I have to explain myself, to just everyone: cis lesbian friend, cis straight friends, trans people. To cis people I have to defend that I am not straight and that our relationship is a lesbian relationship (god, I whish I could play the 'I've never ever been attracted to guys' card but it's just not true and I want to be proud of my sexual fluidity....). To trans people I have to defend that I am part of the trans community. They also tend to have no idea that I have minority stress too and that I constantly have to explain trans stuff to everyone, which makes me feel like I'm constantly reminded of being different from the norm. Yes, I have cis privilege, but as a partner I feel that I occupy my own complex place i between the trans community and the cis majority. And in-between spaces are not necessarily very comfortable...

  3. I am a transman and personally I don't mind if potential partners fetishize me - it gives me the opportunity to treat them the same way. Example: I tend to have a fetish for cis gay males, so I don't mind if they are interested in me the same way. As long as we are aware of the game, it doesn't matter.
    However I too decide on an individual basis whether this fetishthing is mutual or not... Especially when there are moments I wish to be perceived first as a person, and not first as transgender.
    I've published a cruising guide for transmen that addresses this issue in case anyone's interested, but please note it is all set in the Dutch social/cultural context in which I am living:

  4. Thank you so much for this! I am a bisexual cis woman, and my wife, a trans woman, often teases me about being a “chaser.” While I know she is just kidding, it still makes me feel a little bad or even guilty. I often times do feel like my affection and attraction to trans women may be seen as creepy or as a fetish, and I worry about that a lot, especially since I am new to the community, as she just came out to me last year and is at the beginning of her transition.

    Even though I have always felt attracted to trans women, I was under the mistaken impression that there were no trans lesbians. Since I was in my little sheltered bubble of misinformation, I felt immensely lucky when I met my wife, who at the time was identifying as a male cross dresser. Although she never dressed that way in public, it was always a part of our relationship, and I would have been happy to go out anywhere with her if she had wanted to. Since she is just at the very beginning of transition now, she is still in “boy mode” outside of our house, but I am so ready for the day when I can shout it to the roof tops that I love her and I think she is so amazingly sexy!

    Also, since we have been together for a long time, most of which was before she began transitioning, I am afraid that when she does come out fully, people may think that I only stay with her because I feel obligated to do so. That is as far from the truth as possible! Since she began transitioning, our relationship has only improved (even as wonderful as it was before), we are so much closer, and, can I tell you, the sex has been amazing! She is crazy sexy and there is everything right with that!

    So, before I ramble on any longer, although I know she appreciates my affection, it is very nice to hear from someone else that it is a legitimate desire. It’s a little sad that I feel like I need that validation, but I guess I really did, and I thank you so very much for it.