I had two sexually revelatory experiences recently. If you’re me, sexual revelations never happen during sex, of course, but at make-up counters or in daytime conversation. The first of these experiences was discovering, for the first time, how to apply a make-up combination that hides the shadow of my beard. The second was talking to a friend – a trans gay man – about the reactions trans men get on the gay dating app Grindr.
I’ll explain why they were revelatory. My beard shadow, as a dark-haired and pale-skinned transfeminine person, is the most visible means by which people assess my gender and conclude, incorrectly, that I am a man. Having learned how to cover it up (usually just on nights out, not every day – who has the time?!) I have had increased experience of what is called “passing”, i.e. people on the street have assumed I was a cis woman. This, at night time, when I am in heels or a skirt has led to me being catcalled by straight men. Growing up as an effeminate gay boy – mocked by straight men for being gay and not really the source of loud sexual attention within the gay community either, this is a new experience.
Passing is not a particular goal of mine though it has its advantages – last weekend when a man heard my testosterone-inflected voice combined with my made-up face on the street he approached me, put his hands on me and spat in my eyes. My overwhelming feeling was that I was “lucky” he did no more than this and I got on with my night. I think men have no right to catcall any woman and, in reality, they intend it as no compliment – it’s an assertion of power. Nevertheless, having received it has given me brief glimpses into what it is like to be on the receiving end of straight male sexual attention. And it’s sometimes affirming – certainly better than being spat at.
“The straight male consumers of trans porn do leave me with the uneasy sense that a discussion must follow about transgender sexuality and sex appeal”
The reason that the conversation with my transmasculine gay friend was revelatory was – as I discussed my memories of the trials and tribulations of Grindr with him from my past life I also realised this fact: I am no longer a gay man. Of course, I was never was really – in reality I’ve always been trans and never exclusively attracted to men but it’s how I was socialised, what I was told I was and where, on the LGBT spectrum, most of my friends and romantic attachments lay.
As an out transfeminine girl (a nonbinary person closer to “female” than “male” on the spectrum), I’ve realised that all of my previous sexual and romantic reference points have now fallen away and I am having to intuit – from amongst the cultural experiences of cis women (with whom I do not share a body type) and gay men (with whom I do not share a gender) much of what I can or should expect in any future sexual or romantic life.
Yet it’s one with its own unique negotiations. The current proclaimed moment in “trans visibility” is, we must remember, one lain at the feet of celebrities like Laverne Cox and models like Andreja Pejic, both amazing women but still – of course – only representative of a handful of trans experiences. When, after the man spat in my face, I asked a friend, exasperated, what motivates a person to react to another person that way he suggested: “I think it’s because they desire femininity but seeing it in a form they don’t expect makes them scared of that desire.”
It’s not a perfect explanation – I certainly don’t believe all the men who hurl abuse fancy me – but there’s some truth to it. Many instances of extreme violence against transfeminine people (which, in its most horrendous forms can involve rape and murder) begin with catcalling or sexual contact. It’s when the victim is “clocked” as trans that she is in gravest danger. I am loathe to make sweeping generalisations but perhaps it is logical, in some instances, to conclude the violence comes (partly) from the men’s shame and self-loathing in response to their own attraction to a trans body.
We know that this attraction exists, secretly, in society – trans porn is one of the biggest genres continuing to grow and make money in a porn industry in financial recession. The women desired by men consuming this porn are trans women prior to gender confirmation surgery: in essence, the attraction is for bodies that physically exist between what most people understand to be “male” or “female”.
This is a hidden, second kind of visibility – different to that of the Caitlyn Jenners and Andreja Pejics of the mainstream visibility of trans women. While I and other trans people rightly insist focussing on our bodies in mainstream discourse is dehumanising, the straight male consumers of trans porn do leave me with the uneasy sense that a discussion must follow about transgender sexuality and sex appeal. Men who desire trans femmes in private are, sometimes, the same ones who attack or shun us in public. I believe perhaps the next discussion in transfeminism is how to integrate the sexual and the public in a way that sees us as valid subjects of desire yet whole people nonetheless: something I know cis women already struggle with and disagree on in their own feminist discussions.
When it comes to actually dating this presents unique issues – for example, that trans misogyny gets reflected onto the men who date transfeminine people. They too will potentially experience shame or family rejection for dating a trans person or confusion about their sexuality. This, unfairly, is often made the trans partner’s problem when actually it points to a wider discussion about masculinity. It is positive to see support groups in the US for men attracted to trans women to begin to break down their own bullshit around it – on their own time, not simply asking their girlfriends or partners to do it for them – though I haven’t seen any such group publicised in the UK as yet. The men who desire transfeminine people are no heroes and deserve no special applause, but I believe a society in which they are encouraged to be open and renounce their own shame helps us all.
“I’ve realised that all of my previous sexual and romantic reference points have now fallen away and I am having to intuit much of what I can or should expect in any future sexual or romantic life”
In the face of this minefield, I find myself instinctively wanting to retreat to what I am most (if not fully) at ease with – the gay dating scene. At present, I can also pass as a boy too and this feels like an easy and familiar option. Yet it’s one I’m equally unsure of – last year I quit all gay dating sites as I realised I personally could not negotiate embarking on any kind of new relationship with a man who is, by his own definition, attracted to men. I found myself a little resentful of an easy world of types and labels – twinks and bears, tops and bottoms – which gay men inherit and for which there are no trans equivalents. I, being the wonderfully liberated non-binary trans femme I am, realise there’s probably more fluidity in some gay men’s sexuality than they realise. But is it for me to prepare and rehearse a recital of my own complex history to break down such walls in people I have yet to meet? Much like beard cover-up, I really don’t have the time, boys.
I’ve had relationships with other trans and non-binary people in the past and this makes certain experiences more easily legible to each other (though there are just less of us!) but, in this much trumpeted moment of “visibility”, I hope a human, wider discussion of what questions trans people bring to sexuality as well as gender begins. I hope I will move into a space where my points of reference are not a mere, insufficient, patchwork of those inhabiting more understood identities or merely trying to find myself reflected in someone else’s desire. I am optimistic that this will come but we’re certainly not there yet. I can be a bit patient with this personally as – right now, I’m not looking to date. At this particular juncture, I guess I consider myself already taken: taken by and with the girl I am becoming, for it is only she who I think of before I go to sleep and as I wake.
Follow Shon Faye on Twitter here @shonfaye