Transgender People: Strangers in Gay Land

transgender flag painted on...
transgender flag painted on...

Transgender people exist. Now we, the cisgender mainstream, know. Cher's son and R. Kelly's son, America's highest-paid woman CEO, Netflix's most-watched original series and the cover of Time told us so.

What many of us fail to fully comprehend is that transgender people are not some sort of über-gay creatures. Though the intellectual and factual lines between gender identity and sexual orientation are thin (sometimes they are not even there, as some transgender people are indeed gay), they are separate things. Trans people who are LGB are not so because they are T but in addition to being T. They belong to the LGBT community twice, and for different reasons. This "Transgender 101" introduction may seem pretty obvious, yet intimate understanding is not, both for the general population and within LGBT communities.

For the sake of conserving brain power, let's focus on only two identity categories: gay cisgender men and gay transgender men. The first group is made of men who were considered males at birth, were raised as boys, identify as men and are attracted to other men. The second group is made of men who were considered females at birth, were probably raised as girls, identify as men and are attracted to other men. Assuming the transgender men in this example already transitioned either by presenting as men, undergoing medical treatments or a combination of both, if these two groups stood in front of us today, they would be generally indistinguishable.

Still basic and pretty straightforward, right? Wrong. It isn't for many. In February 2014 Queerty, the online magazine and newspaper focusing on gay topics, ran a piece titled "Seriously Sexy Trans Men Make Us Say 'Mmmm!'" What's interesting and horrid about the article? The comment section, where all hell broke loose. Now, I know that online anonymity can be a magnet for the worst in people, yet most of the comments were not evil in nature but displayed the pervasive lack of understanding of transgender identities within the gay community. The article showed a few pictures of transgender men described as the sexiest on the Internet. A few comments were sweet, while others demonstrated candid ignorance. User "iltman" found these men sexy and pondered whether that makes him bisexual, while "EdWoody" wondered if, in his case, that means he likes feminine faces. Some users got all surgical (pun intended). "QJ201" thinks "top surgery really needs improvement." Lastly, some comments ranged from pretentious to insulting, like the comment by "Mel," who wrote, "Good luck to them but they have female DNA in every cell of their body," or the comment by "DShucking," who thinks those men were and are still female.

When I switched to offline conversation, things didn't get better. I asked gay men whether they had dated or had sex with trans guys, or if they would. I spoke to transgender men about experiences of acceptance and rejection. These conversations were more relaxed, sensitive and intellectually stimulating, but some of the ignorance and close-mindedness persisted.

Many gay men I talked to would not date transgender men, primarily because they feel like something would be missing. Making assumptions, they seem to be awfully concerned with the presence, shape and appearance of genitals. Those who enthusiastically entertained the idea of hooking up with transgender men always described it in the context of sexual adventures, like, say, having sex in public, participating in group role-play scenes or trying bondage. Other men, including otherwise brilliant men, couldn't even grasp the question.

My friend Peter is a good example. He looked quite puzzled at the Rusty Knot on the West End Highway as the gender bender crowd danced to jams from the '70s. Peter's choice of words was sensitive. He didn't screw up pronouns. It was the content of his observations that showed the intellectual abyss. My initial question -- "Would you date a trans man?" -- didn't even find the basis to make sense to him. Peter said:

No! I wouldn't date them, I think. This is what I don't get: Why would you go through all that pain, through medical treatments and possible harassment to become a man if you are into other dudes? Wouldn't it be easier to just be a female and hook up with all the hot straight guys?

Exactly why, Peter?

After these conversations, I wasn't surprised to listen to transgender gay men's narratives of rejection. What amazed me was their patience and ability to rationalize frequent dismissals. J., a bisexual trans man from New York, described his experience through jokes:

It can get complicated. Imagine someone trying to assemble an IKEA bed frame with no instructions. Excitement, then confusion. I figure some people are not ready to renegotiate their identity.

For J. being turned down by men is not a problem. Mentioning activist Angela Devis, he says he finds himself attracted to people who are willing to break barriers and be bold. Hesitant guys don't attract him to begin with. He doesn't feel like he's missing out. He explains:

There will usually be some wonderfully charming, strapping man ready to enjoy the spectrum of gender positions with me.

Brandon from Brooklyn shed a positive light on alternative gay cultures. He told me that while in the larger gay male community guys tend to be rather dismissive of, turned-off by or rude toward transgender men who have sex with men, his experience has been different in certain subgroups:

I have found that the leather/BDSM community, the bear community, and the HIV-positive community (often overlapping) have been much more open to transgender men who have sex with men. There are several reasons for this. All these communities face additional discrimination from both the general population and within queer communities; therefore there is a much greater tolerance of what is "different," "taboo," etc. They are more open to different bodies and identities.

Quinn from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, offered an understanding point of view about those gay men who pushed him away:

I have been rejected multiple times by cis gay men. It feels horrible, every time. Their reactions have ranged to simply walking off without saying a word to outright verbal disgust. I was being rejected for being born differently. I was rejected, in my opinion, primarily out of fear. I'm not rejected because of my identity; I'm rejected because of their false assumptions about my body, my genitals, or the way I have sex. They see being attracted to trans men as a challenge or threat to their identity -- both a threat to their masculinity and a threat to their homosexuality. If cisgender gay men were really open to the education, they'd realize many of their fears are unfounded mythology, and that there is no reason to be afraid or opposed to a trans man as a lover or boyfriend.

So what's the point? There isn't one, just follow-up questions, one observation as old as time and one opinion.

The questions: What exactly makes a man attracted to another man? How much attraction has to do with their penises? And, opening the discussion to multiple identities, what makes people attracted to females? Is it ultimately their vaginas? Or does it go deeper, all the way to the ovaries? Would a neovagina suffice? Would cisgender females without ovaries be excluded? And, ultimately, why is it so easy to make assumption about transgender people's genitals? Or better, why does it seem that we cannot get past the curiosity about their sexual organs? What is it that makes us gay or straight? What is it that makes us men and women? Questions, questions. Alas, no definite answers.

The observation: Humans need to simplify complicated environments. Organizing the confusing world around us is life-sustaining. It makes sense, evolutionarily speaking. Categorize and compartmentalize: man and woman, gay and straight, black and white, conservative and liberal and so on. Humans don't like in-betweens. In-betweens are difficult and confusing.

But nature doesn't like categories. Biology generates diversified environments. In other words, biology is all about the in-betweens. Diversification is at the base of evolution and of human development. Diversity is life-sustaining too.

The opinion: Let's bow down to diversity. Let's open our minds to a few more categories and possibilities. We can do it, I'm sure.

Happy Pride Week.