“Can I ask you a personal question?”
If you’re transgender, you’re probably familiar with the feelings that question prompts. You try your best not to roll your eyes, keep smiling, nod along as you reply “of course”, hoping this time it might be something different. You find yourself looking for an exit, glancing at your phone trying to summon an excuse to get out of there. You know exactly what they’re about to ask.
One of the questions trans allies — and a few strangers — have asked me at some point is whether not wanting to have sex with trans people is transphobic. These are people who advocate for inclusion, believe in trans rights, but feel they need to draw the line somewhere: sexual desire. It’s easier to dismantle your prejudices and biases when they don’t pertain to your personal life — the uncomfortable question to ask oneself is whether your sexual desire is problematic. Being called bigoted for not wanting to have sex with someone from one particular community feels a step too far to them.
To me, what’s curious about that question is the wording. It’s rarely direct. Most of the time it’s not even a question. Sometimes it’s a declarative statement along the lines of “I could never have sex with a trans woman.” Sometimes it’s disguised as a compliment: “Your wife must really love you; I don’t know if I’d be able to.” Sometimes it’s just nodding and replying “it’s not for everyone,” as if they were describing shower sex or favouring a particular sex position. People ask these questions for a variety of reasons: they may have trans people in their lives, or feel they’ve done enough work to unpack transphobia to “deserve” an answer to more intrusive questions.
So, how did we get here? How did not wanting to have sex with human beings from one community in particular become a legitimate preference? The othering of transgender people in sexual contexts is not only in the context of dating or intimacy. It’s systemic and as such it bleeds into most interactions and environments — dating and sex is no exception. Part of the reason why people often don’t want to have sex with transgender people is that they don’t know what that sex would look like. Sometimes, they’re not even sure what trans bodies look like without their clothes.
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Then there’s the fetishisation of trans people, which is not flattering, by the way — it is a dehumanising way of reducing us to sexual objects, not subjects or participants with sexual agency. “Transgender” (often using less flattering terms) is one of the most watched porn categories, but rather than showing a desire to engage with trans people, it reveals that’s how most people see transgender people: as a porn category, a fetish. That content is created for cisgender audiences and consumption: trans people are the actors, but not the target audience. It presents trans bodies as a forbidden desire, a deviation, a fetish. And in many cases, it’s like most mainstream porn: a misrepresentation of what sex looks like in real life. This genre of porn doesn’t show how people have sex. It shows how cisgender people think transgender bodies work: trans women in it typically perform the way cisgender men would in these scenes, often taking on the dominant sexual role.
Trans people’s lived experiences differ greatly — everyone’s social and medical transition is different, and even just hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and dysphoria, for example, can have a huge impact on how trans people experience their bodies. It can affect the way they have orgasms, feel pleasure, and sometimes change their desires. Transmasculine people who take testosterone can experience “bottom growth“, and can have vaginismus — a condition that causes the vagina to tighten when you attempt to insert something into it. Many transfeminine people struggle to maintain an erection and ejaculate. And lots of trans people don’t feel comfortable having their genitals touched at all. For example, some transmasculine people have never had penis in vagina sex. Having sex with me is not largely different from having sex with any other gay man. This means that when people say they would never have sex with a trans person, they’re making assumptions about what that sex would look like, such as thinking it would involve penetration or fellatio.
You can’t know someone’s genitals based on their gender. And you can’t know someone’s genitals unless they tell you what they are. That leads us to disclosure. When it comes to trans people, one of the most daunting and harmful stereotypes is the belief that trans people are sexual predators, trying to coerce people into having sex with them by not disclosing what their genitals are, or “crossdressing” to enter single sex spaces. Laws that legitimise violent reactions to that disclosure still exist. In the U.S., 46 states still allow the ‘trans panic defense’ — when someone (usually a cisgender man) is charged with murder of a trans person (usually transfeminine), they can claim the violence was prompted by being told that ‘that woman has a penis’ or ‘used to be a man.’
This year has the highest number of deaths on record for trans and gender diverse people, most of them transfeminine people and sex workers. The statistics we hear are hammered in our brains, sometimes long before we even come out or realise we’re transgender. It’s hard to thrive when you’re afraid of being the next one. And that means we rarely take risks. When safe to do so, the disclosure happens quite early on, before entering a bedroom, before meeting up for the first time after matching on a dating app. We’d rather out ourselves than be killed. It’s always easier to assume someone isn’t safe for us than the opposite. So, what might be a simple question of ‘sexual preference’ to some is a matter of life and death for us.
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When we bring up the fact we are transgender, often putting ourselves in danger, the conversation shifts to sex. Being trans often comes hand in hand with being hypersexualised and that means our genitals aren’t just discussed in the context of sleeping with someone. From my experience, I’ve discussed my genitals more often with random strangers than with romantic love interests. Due to fetishisation, curiosity, or fear, the “what’s in your pants” question always arrives early on. On dates, cisgender people wouldn’t ask that question of one another. They might not even mention sex on a first date (though bold daters might not pay much heed to such rules). Yet, that highly intrusive question somehow seems a reasonable question to ask trans people, be it online, at a bar, waiting in line for a concert, as friends, as strangers, before a date is even suggested. My answer is going to change how you perceive me. It’s going to make a difference between being, in your eyes, a “real” man or woman, or a work in progress, or just “confused” or going through a “phase”. It’s going to make the difference between being viewed as a human being or a porn category, between being someone you’d introduce to your parents and a dirty little secret.
Talking about sex is healthy. It’s useful to discuss boundaries and kinks. So what happens when there’s incompatibility? “No trans people” cannot be a preference, because the only characteristic shared by all trans people is transness. Being trans doesn’t determine what your body looks like, and it’s an exclusion that reinforces systemic discrimination. Preferences are usually related to specific physical characteristics (you might have a “type”, like a certain hair colour) or actions (oral sex, kinks). Reducing trans people to either of those categories is an oversimplification often rooted in misunderstanding or transphobia.
Think about what’s really preventing you from engaging with certain people: is it a lack of experience? Not knowing how something works? Internalised transphobia? Trauma? Understanding our desires better is the first step in unpacking whether they’re problematic.
It’s easy to think that, when discussing genitals, the answer a trans person will give will be a dealbreaker for any romantic or sexual escalation, but maybe the issue is asking the wrong question. Don’t ask me what I look like. Don’t ask me how to tell if your crush is trans. Don’t ask me if you’re transphobic. Ask me what my ideal first date is. Ask me if I want a drink. Tell me about yourself. Tell me about that ex you’ve definitely dated longer than you should have. Tell me about what you’ve always wanted to try. Ask me what pet names I like. Ask me what turns me on. Ask me what’s off the table. Ask me if we should turn off the light. Ask me if you can play with my hair. Tell me you want to kiss me. Get to know me, all of me. Ask every question but that one, and you’ll realise that maybe, just maybe, I’m a human being that’s worthy of being desired, that I’m a sexual participant with needs, wants, and agency.