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trans*scribe illustration © rosa middleton, 2013
Recently, I went on a dinner date with a cis woman that ended a bit awkwardly. Some of the conversation we shared was nice, we talked about film (fyi - an easy topic to hold my interest, ladies!), our common roots back in the States, and her background in performance art. At one point she shared with me her frustrations over a performance meant to showcase artists from our region in the U.S. The thing is, whoever put together this particular exhibition had invited a number of men from her theatre program to participate -- meanwhile she and several of the other women who graduated from the program found out about the event later when one of the guys posted it on facebook.
It's pretty easy to feel anger over such blatant sexism, and it immediately reminded me of some of my own experiences of feeling ignored at times in my own workplace. But then she said something that struck a really odd chord:
"Yeah, it's supposed to represent artists from the South, but it turns out it's just a total sausage fest."
Okay, we all get the basic intended meaning here. But is she really implying that the men who were invited to exhibit their work were asked to do so on the basis of their genitalia? As a woman I have to say that having a penis never got me special treatment in the academic world. And given that she was aware of my body configuration I have to think that is a strange comment to make to me on a date.
Sadly, the situation only further deteriorated with the appearance of the word "ladyboy," and the fact that somehow the subject kept getting changed when I tried to discuss these things. After the point that she referred to me as a "trans woman" as opposed to a "woman woman," I found it difficult to bring myself to even say much for the last few minutes of our little disaster date.
Okay ladies, let's stop right here and get our game together. One point is that this isn't just a matter of grossing out a trans woman over dinner; it's also a matter of a cis woman making herself look like kind of an ass. And beyond that, this kind of ignorant cissexism just gets in the way of us getting closer and having fun together.
Now, if your response is to start worrying over having to figure out all this 'complicated trans stuff,' then I would emphasize a lot of this boils down to respecting us as women just as much as you would want to be respected yourself. And the fact is that trans women are a component of queer women's communities, so a lack of respect amongst us just means more devaluing of women, when society dishes out plenty of that for all of us already.
Not to mention that this results in some probably well-intentioned cis women missing out on connecting with lots of beautiful, amazing trans women. So with that in mind, I have put together some suggestions for cis women on thinking through some basic trans issues, including ideas on approaching trans women in a romantic or intimate context. And I want to be clear that working through this stuff applies the same in the context of a casual hookup as it does a romantic date.
I also want to be clear that the following represents only my own perspectives; I don't speak for all trans women. Most importantly, whether you agree with every single point or not, the main thing is if you just think through some of these issues a bit you'll probably be in a better place to come off as a well-intentioned friend rather than a jerk who doesn't know any better. And you'll be in a better place to have more fun.
In the last few years this situation has improved in some respects at least in some parts of the U.S. and Canada. But the fact is that there are still parties held in some places in which admittance is "women OR trans" only, meaning in this case that one should be either woman or trans, but not both. But even at parties, clubs or women's spaces where we are included, many trans women have at times expressed feeling more tolerated than accepted.
As a further point, our inclusion in much of queer women's culture is still nominal at best. As a nearby example, I've gotten some laughs out of some of the serial lesbian content on the sidebar here at Autostraddle, but I'm still waiting for a woman like me to show up on screen and join in the fun. Also, it's rather cliché at this point that mainstream lesbian-oriented content tends to show more interest in trans men's stories (who are, after all, not women) than ours (The L Word being the most obvious example).
Look, I get that it takes some time to work some of these things out, but part of my point is just that making it clear you believe trans women should be included is a good step towards developing meaningful friendship with us. On the contrary, referring to a bunch of dudes as a "sausage fest" might not be such a cool/sexy/romantic thing to do (regardless of anyone's actual genital status... after all, some men have a vagina).
Recognize Our Perspectives
I realize there are a wide variety of trans narratives out there, and maybe it could seem like a lot to work through. But the basic script isn't that difficult: respect our identities and our bodily autonomy, and when you're not sure, find a gentle way to ask that doesn't put anybody on the spot. (And if it's just not your business to know something in the first place, then don't ask.)
Another good idea is to understand that many trans people (including a number of trans-feminists) have come up with language to describe the cissexist world they see around them, and to challenge society to do better. Please respect our way of describing the world.
Sadly, a small group of aggressive anti-trans activists have gone far out of their way to introduce a lot of confusion about words like "cis," claiming that it has some type of anti-woman meaning. This is completely false (and it makes no sense considering the word describes cis men just as it does cis women).
The word "cis" means "not trans" and it has no other meaning in this context. The point of using the word is to acknowledge that trans identities are equally valid and that cis privilege exists in our world and should be challenged.
It also conveniently provides you with the opportunity to refer to a "cis woman" instead of a "woman woman" and avoid wrecking our hang out session.
Please adopt this language, even when trans people are not around.
Cut Out Trans-misogynistic Language
This should go without saying, but referring to trans women as "trannies" or "shemales" is not only ignorant, it's adopting language that is associated with social stigmatization and even violence against trans women. And having one of those words appear in the middle of our dinner-date is, um, anti-climatic in just about every sense of the word.
And from a trans-feminist perspective, I would emphasize that what underlies trans-misogyny is nothing more than misogyny itself. Remember ladies; you can't buy into hateful language specifically directed against trans women without chipping in on hatred against women in general.
Dating Us On The Side
There are lots of wonderful, workable approaches to relationships out there, and different things work for different people. One of the awesome things about the queer women's communities is that I think we tend to be much more open about possibilities for intimate relationships. Some women are poly, some are looking for an exclusive partnership, and there's everything in between. Personally, I don't even know if I have a strong preference; I think I'm more open to just working out the dynamics between individuals when the time comes.
I happen to have had a couple of awesome relationships with cis women who were already in long-term, (explicitly) non-monogamous relationships. That said, I can't help but notice there seems to be a pattern in which I am invited to be someone's "thing on the side." While I can't know for a fact if this is because I'm trans, I have heard other trans women relate similar things. In principle, I have no problem entering into such relationships with someone I trust and with whom I feel genuinely close. I'm just saying I know I'm not the only trans woman who feels a bit frustrated when this kind of thing seems to be on constant replay.
Fetishizing Trans Women
Again I'd like to think this goes without saying, but sadly I see it happen plenty. Look, I get that drawing the boundary between healthy, affectionate sexual curiosity and fetishization might not always be an exact science (and it might be a little different with different women). Personally I think I'm pretty relaxed and I can work with you as long as it doesn't all reduce down to one thing (*cough*). However, if you're on a date with a trans woman and your thoughts about her body are constantly distracting you from the conversation, just stop yourself and think: what if I was interacting with a guy and he kept having these kinds of thoughts about my body instead of listening to what I was saying? Would I feel comfortable around him?
Don't reduce us to our genitals
Obviously this follows pretty strongly from the don't-fetishize-us thing. A big part of this is what should be a pretty obvious hard rule: don't put us on the spot with questions about our genitals.
Personally, I happen to be pretty open about this stuff (you might even notice a subtle dick joke appears in the previous sentence), but even if you know something about my body from reading one of my articles, that doesn't make it cool to randomly bring my junk into the conversation if you meet me in real life.
Just the same, if you meet a trans woman who is a sex worker or if you've seen pornography in which a trans woman appears, that doesn't give you some special right to ask her questions about her body anymore than it would if you met a cis woman who was involved in sex work.
Then there is the other side of the coin: some cis women might have an issue or feel uncertain about hooking up with a woman who has different genitalia than her own. First of all, you should never feel pressured to do anything you don't want to do or that you're even unsure about. If you aren't comfortable or you just aren't into it, say no.
That having been said, if genitalia is the one and only reason for not being into someone, I do think it is worth thinking through that. Responding to one of the claims that some have made, I would emphatically state that nobody's physical body is a representation of patriarchy. Such a statement is not only somewhat cruel to inflict on someone who herself is oppressed by patriarchy, it is also pretty defeatist from a feminist perspective (if we were really to buy into the idea that penises are the source of patriarchy, rather than socially constructed male privilege, aren't we pretty much saying that patriarchy is a permanent fixture of human society? Eek).
Talk With Us
Beyond all these more detailed considerations, another key point is simply communication. Of course there are a myriad of situations that could arise that I've never even thought of, but if two people really care about developing a positive friendship or intimate relationship (whether for one evening or a committed partnership) then they will be willing to sit down together and talk through these things.
I have written previously about some of the alienation I have experienced as a trans woman dating in the queer women's community. Now, I want to emphasize here again that no one is obligated to touch a woman's penis if they aren't into that. However it's also important to emphasize:
1) Not every trans woman has a penis.
2) No general means exist to distinguish trans women from cis women.
The implications of these two points together are that statements such as "I am attracted to cis women but not trans women" simply do not make sense and are rooted in social prejudice.
(As a side comment, before moving on let me briefly address something that appears in the previous piece that I linked above. My article from about a year ago contains a reference to the concept of the so-called "cotton ceiling," which deserves a brief comment here. While several trans woman-hating "radical feminists" have intentionally misconstrued this concept in rather bizarre ways, there are also a few trans people who have made statements in relation to this idea that I think are problematic. Hence, after having some time to reflect on the previous debates about this I have come to the conclusion that the "cotton ceiling" should be considered an unhelpful concept for this type of discussion and should be set aside by trans activists moving forward.)
Awesome! Glad we made it this far. I would say, "now comes the fun part," but actually the whole process of getting to know one another should be fun. And the fact is that respecting your potential partner and vice versa is really sexy, and it's actually not that hard... err, difficult, to do.
At this point, again, the key is communication. There are trans women who like being touched in certain places or in certain ways, but not in others, just as a similar statement applies for many cis women. Those boundaries must be respected throughout by everyone involved. The key is to keep the channels of communication open throughout, and to rely on active consent as the model for sexual intimacy at every moment.
Underlining all of this of course is the opportunity for new experiences of friendship, solidarity and more.
About the author: Savannah is a queer trans woman and physicist originally from the great state of Carolina (that alone should tell you which one). She also writes on trans feminism and other social justice issues on her blog leftytgirl, preferably while listening to metal. Savannah presently lives in Tokyo where her principle hobbies include singing at karaoke clubs and getting lost on the subway.
Special Note: Autostraddle's "First Person" personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.