In Defense Of Cis Men And Trans Women In Love

Trans women have been fighting for decades. Cis men now need to join the fray.

Laverne Cox has proclaimed that “Loving a trans person is a revolutionary act.” As a man who first fell in love with a trans woman at the age of 20 (I am 38 now), at first I found this statement puzzling—I never wanted my love to be a battle—but experience has shown that my partners and I have been up against a de facto prohibition on our love: whether strolling the sidewalk or sitting in a bar, unfriendly looks and impertinent comments find us, and we have to maintain a fighting spirit.

Revolutions demand commitment to a frustrated cause worthy of sacrifice, and in my case, for 18 years, this cause has been to love who most stirs me, though early on I didn’t think of it in political terms. Craving love or intimacy has nothing revolutionary about it, and stealing bits of selfish satisfaction seems even anti-revolutionary. So where is the line between personal soldier-of-fortune and participant in what Cox calls a “revolutionary act”? In his review of the film La La Land, Slavoj Žižek paints a picture of love between Bolshevik revolutionaries, but I think it is a different model of revolutionary love than Cox has in mind:

a new form of love couple emerged: a couple living in a permanent state of emergency… enjoying rare moments together with extreme intensity. The lovers’ passion was tolerated… but ignored in the public discourse as something of no concern to others… There is no attempt… at enforcing the unity between intimate passion and social life.

Part of what Cox’s statement implies is that when a cis person loves a trans person, that love has the potentiality to be a cause. For the Bolsheviks fighting for a tolerable world, “enjoying rare moments together with extreme intensity” did not contradict the revolutionary spirit. But in the context of transamory, from a place of cis male privilege, if I limit my connection to trans women to serial hookups or secret trysts, I am weaving a painful web for myself and others. Unfortunately, the notion of these sensual moments being part of a cause has completely eluded the cis male imagination, which, with very few exceptions, has floundered in repression and shame.

In 2015, Time Magazine announced a “Transgender Tipping Point” calling transgender issues “America’s next civil rights frontier.” Trans success stories began to abound, yet we hear even more tales of anti-trans violence, almost always perpetrated by cis men against trans women. It is tragic that at a time when a great leap forward is imaginable, cis men with an affinity for trans women have abstained completely from building “the unity between intimate passion and social life” that would make their lives and the lives of their lovers so much happier.

Six hundred words into the writing of this essay, I learned that two of my trans friends were attacked in NYC; one received a broken jaw; the other was gashed with a knife. These events enrage me. But over the years my friends’ tales of social frustration and woe have affected me even more. They continue to be treated as dirty secrets—abused, abandoned, or taken advantage of by cis male lovers addicted to conventional and toxic notions of masculinity and femininity, Manhood and Womanhood. Why are the implications for their sexuality—not so different from my own—so vertiginous and violent when they have not been for me? I can testify that a smoother experience is possible, but it takes some work—like it or not, some philosophical work: when I consider the way I am oriented in the world and what I take to be authentic—this is what metaphysics is about; my gaze and how I perceive—this is epistemology; and how I behave—ethics—these are the three branches of philosophy.

When I began studying Buddhism as a teen, the Four Noble Truths, explained that suffering comes from believing that one’s Self and the things it encounters are fixed and in need of policing, rather than mere products of conditions. If this is at all true about something as fundamental as the Self, then how much easier is it to be flexible about one of its myriad attributes, such as Gender? Anti-trans violence and transam psychosexual neuroses seem to erupt from the habit of interpreting our own and others’ bodies for what they entail socially or existentially, how they fuel or disrupt rigid expectations and raw anxieties.

This is the understanding I had when I finally began to meet trans women, and was spared the disorientation and discomfort that seems to afflict many cis men who come into contact with trans women. With some luck, stubbornness, and a measure of reckless pride, I was free to love in ways that felt right to me; our bodies were just our bodies, our experiences ours alone.

Things have not always been so simple in public though. When subject to the uninformed or hostile gaze, I have felt like Zizek’s torn Bolshevik: “in a permanent state of emergency,” but unlike them I have felt a pressing need to build a “unity between intimate passion and social life” that includes me, my partner, and the wider community.

Trans women have been fighting for decades. Cis men now need to join the fray. Transamory is not a dumping ground for regressive notions of manhood; loving a trans woman should not be a form of self-improvement, a mere practice of subverting one’s privileges and cowardice. I cannot in good faith participate in love as a catbird-seat-ally waiting for the revolutionary spoils others fight for. Žižek’s Bolshevik lovers have their own nobility, but they do not provide an adequate model for transamory. I must offer a voice of solidarity to trans people and transamorous lovers whose experiences resonate with mine. The global rebound of conservatism suggests that this revolution will be permanent. How inspiring!

Our love is no distraction but the very ground of the cause itself.

-Joseph McClellan holds a PhD from Columbia University’s Department of Religion and currently teaches philosophy, Buddhism, and Gender Studies at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh. His recent book Trans*am: Cis Men and Trans Women In Love is available from ThreeLMedia.

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