Reclaiming our transgender sexualities

Consider this: How do you feel sexy when half of the country thinks you rape people in public bathrooms?

As a trans woman, it’s staggering to think about just how much of my sexual existence has been defined and circumscribed by the sexual concerns and anxieties of cis people. To be sure, we trans people have sexualities much the same as anyone else – we’re gay, straight, bi, pan, asexual, or any combination in any degree; we’re tops, bottoms, doms, subs, switches, vanilla or kinky; we’re diverse because people are diverse, and we are people. Sometimes we’re horny, sometimes we’re not. Sometimes we feel sexy, sometimes we don’t. We should be free to pursue sexual fulfillment like anyone else, but, as with anyone else, we’re also subjected to outside factors in society shaping how we define and understand our sexual selves. In the case of trans people, we face the impact of both openly transphobic prejudice as well as the more broadly cis-centric lens through which our lives are viewed.

The ways in which our sexual lives are unduly affected by the mistaken beliefs and hostile attitudes of larger society are so vast and numerous, it’s hard to know where to start. The intrusions of a cisgender world into our sexual selves, introducing disruptive elements and telling us what we can and cannot be, are practically unlimited. When I wanted to do something so simple as a basic sex advice video, I soon realized that I would first have to cut through layer after layer of issues that our culture has accrued around trans people as sexual beings. And by the time we’ve worked through other people’s problems, there’s very little room left for us in all of this.

As I sort through the plethora of problems we can face in our sex lives, I ask cis readers to think deeply about what it means to be treated in these ways, and how this can affect our view of ourselves. You’ll find it’s not a pretty picture.

Most of us grew up learning that a transgender person inspires revulsion in all who see them. We learned this from a constant stream of the same media depictions. Imagine how you might feel growing up and watching people on TV throw up or have a sudden outburst of violence every time they contemplate getting close to someone like you. Think about how difficult it is to open up about who you are, when who you are is invariably associated with fear, anger, and sickness. Having the truth of your very self defined in relation to someone else’s vomit can make the vulnerability of intimacy almost unthinkable. And because everyone else grew up learning this as well, one all too common response when we come out is: “But who would possibly want to be with you?” This fundamental devaluation haunts us over the course of our lives.

Trans women seeking something so basic as a relationship with a man are instead subjected to endless public arguments over the precise moment they’re required to out themselves as trans, a topic so fraught with obvious disgust toward our bodies that we can’t help but get the sense we’re not supposed to be with other people at all. Cis people will sometimes protest, without provocation, that they just aren’t interested in us and we can’t change that, as if they expect we would have any interest in sleeping with people who express these views.

Uninformed cis men ignorantly meet these disclosures with thoughtless exclamations like “You’re a man?”, as if this woman’s gender hinges on someone else’s opinion. Conversations around dating and disclosure often seem to fulfill a need for certain people to carve out imagined situations where it’s acceptable to reject us for being trans, call trans women “men”, or even beat or kill us specifically due to our transness. But this does very little to help us as trans people – they’re nothing but someone else’s disturbing fantasies projected onto a complex reality that we navigate on a case-by-case basis.

The other side of the coin is that our gender itself becomes someone else’s fetish, because in a world where we’ve been pervasively defined as disgusting, simply loving us is taboo. Not incidentally, loving ourselves as trans people also becomes defined as a pathology. Misguided theories in sexology seize hold of our identities and explicitly overwrite who we are, declaring trans womanhood to be not a gender but an outgrowth of a supposed man’s alleged sexual interest in the trappings of femininity, or a strategic ploy by purported gay men to sleep with straight men – because that’s totally how gay guys work.

The damage this does in the lives of trans people struggling to discover and define themselves is far-reaching. How can you be comfortable in your sexual development when you’re told that simply being sexual as the woman you are is somehow evidence that you’re not really a woman? This erasure of who we are introduces so much unneeded doubt for trans women, casting our sexuality as something that could have the power to overturn who we know we are. Who would be enthusiastic about exploring their sexual self when those are the stakes?

This sexual anxiety surrounding trans people spirals outward: Viewing our transness as itself sexual means projecting sexuality onto trans children, feeding into the argument that these kids are “too young” to deal with the “adult topic” of being trans. We’re expected to understand and accept that the mere sight of our bodies in bathrooms, locker rooms, or bedrooms could likely be actually traumatizing to others. Regarding our genders as a mere manifestation of a sexual interest makes it easier to depict our desire to use the proper bathroom as a potential sexual threat to those around us. Due to this conflation of gender and sexuality, trans men and trans women are seen as “poaching” a supposedly dwindling population of butch cisgender lesbians and femme cis gay men – as if any community is entitled to overrule an individual’s selfhood in this way. This, along with ongoing depictions of trans women as enacting stereotypes of traditional femininity, erases the possibilities of just being a tomboyish trans lesbian or a femme trans guy.

Where’s the room for us? Where, in all of this, is there room for us just to be? It’s hard enough for anyone to get past self-image hang-ups, work through sexual anxieties, and gain a steady footing in your understanding of your sexuality. How about trying to figure all that out when you’ve been taught that the very substance of who you are marks you as unlovable? How does it shape our sexual imagination to be constantly told that we’re undesirable, disgusting, even traumatizing? It becomes tremendously, uncomfortably constricted.

Trans people deserve the opportunity to explore their sexuality without first having to face down this minefield of bias and invalidation. Trans people should get to imagine themselves being with someone without their transness being considered a repulsive element. Trans people deserve to be able to see their bodies as sexually attractive. Trans people deserve to think about what’s most comfortable and pleasurable for themselves. Trans people deserve to explore kinks and other fun stuff without their gender itself being the kink. Yet we’re often deprived of these commonplace indulgences.

What’s especially unfortunate about this is that transitioning can often be a time of sexual blossoming in our lives. Many trans people do begin to become more open, comfortable, and confident in bed during these changes. Being able to feel more like myself has finally allowed me to inhabit my body sexually, getting out of that closed-off space in my head and getting into the moment. The physical changes to sensation have been extraordinary – being turned on is something I can feel across my entire body rather than just one little part. And this has made it so much easier to pay attention and discover what feels good for me. I love the way my body looks now – I feel sexy, and I love having really great sex.

But to get there, I had to battle my way through a thicket of discomfort that I’d been taught to feel about my gender and my sexuality. It’s a battle that much of the world has yet to join us in fighting. 

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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12 Responses to Reclaiming our transgender sexualities

  1. Carrie says:

    Thank you. I have been dealing with this for my whole life, ever since I was 6. At one time I tried to be gay but, that didn’t work. The gays around me recognized I wasn’t one of them, although accepted as a part of them. This was 1972. After that I went on and got married, that didn’t work. She knew I was different somehow, slept around on me and beat me up. Every relationship I ever had fell apart until I became alone…for the past 25 years, hiding what I am. I came out 2 years ago and live comfortably in my own skin but still have major trust issues.

  2. Sue says:

    Dear Zinnia – Your posts educate me every day. And for me as an older, cis woman, anything that makes me more aware and compassionate is so very welcome! Thank you!

  3. Michele Luke says:

    Very good read. Described me exactly. I’m going to re-post so that cis people can read it

  4. Jenn C says:

    Thank you for articulating this so succinctly.

  5. Stephanie says:

    You know … I am an older transgender woman, in my upbringing I was always discouraged by my Mum from doing anything consider feminine…
    She always knew I was different from my 3 elder brothers, but in the 60,s I was too young to do anything & society didn’t let you if you wanted too, so I grew up into the perfect man, playing sports, married twice with 4 kids, & holding down what was considered at the time a very manily job.. Everyone was happy … Except me..
    My second wife whom I love very deeply knew that I was not happy as a man, (she knew that there was something about me before we were married so I told her & we still got married) she has to this day encouraged me to be myself, so that’s when I became Stephanie in waiting…
    Today in this time of acceptance ( unlike the 69’s I now live a good life, that’s because at work I am known as Steph, and have the freedom to express myself as such.
    And at home due to respect to my family I tone it down & I am dad when they need me to be for them.
    Once my wife & I are childless she has told me that she will support me in any changes I undertake, as my children are now in their late teens I am now on HRT & will continue with my transformation at a slow pace..
    I’m 59 now and will retire from work @ 64, then god willing I can live & breath the life I knew I should have all these years & enjoy the love of my wife & family still….
    Hugs Stephanie

  6. Sophie Coleman says:

    When I was young people just called me a freak. They didn’t have words like we do now since the awareness of one’s gender status was suppressed, or driven into silence and isolation. I think that many people are confronted by what they think is fearfully unfamiliar. I know that it is up to me to present myself with confidence in who I am. In that manner everyone around me is made aware of my gender identity. I think that most of the time I pass, but at the same time no one really minds being around a 6’4″ woman.I think, although it can be difficult, transgendered women need to be just have faith and courage so that people can be made aware and be given the chance to feel comfortable. I started out going to safe places but now I go everywhere I want. I am still learning about my changing sexuality.

  7. Jaci says:

    I echo what Sue said. Also, the more I learn, the better able I’ll be to help educate others.

  8. neila/matthew irwin says:

    Good article. I am 50 years old and have only just embraced my transgender identity both to myself and to others, friends, family and in public. I decided only at the age of 48 to become more open about my true self, a transgender lesbian mtf woman, that I kept hidden or secret to myself, or tried to deny both to myself and others for fear of rejection, hostility, ridicule, abuse, etc. I tried to come out back in the 80s and 90s, or rather began to slightly open up, but received too much misunderstanding I gave up even trying to be my true self. Thank God society has changed somewhat (but still not enough) that I can finally be myself and open about it. I regret I didn’t do this years ago and wasted so much of my life being often unhappy, frustrated, angry, hopeless, depressed, even suicidal at times because I thought I could never be myself and express my true gender identity and expression. I don’t wish anybody to go through 35 years of frustration I went through (I knew it all by age 15 but hid it from others and myself out of fear of rejection by family, friends and society) and I am currently writing a book about gender so other people with varying gender identities can underdtsnd and come to terms with themselves. If I had the access to the knowledge and to others with similar gendrer issues like today via the Internet I could have been my true self years ago. But it is never too late. Thanks for article

  9. Nicole says:

    I really liked this article. A lot of it hit very close to home. One thing that I related to was the fetishizing if gender. For so long due to social conditioning and media portrayals I thought my feelings meant I was a guy who had a fetish. I thought that was just a secret desire not a sincere self image. And because of that I put off transitioning. I told myself it was ok to have a fetish if I kept it secret and for years I did nothing. The more and more trans people started being seen on social media and the stories became clearer and not just some taboo kink the more I realized that my feelings were not going away and they were much deeper than some sexual desire. Eventually I took some time and really found out that female/woman/feminine was not a sexual desire. It is me. It is who I am. And I just wish that I had learned and heard and gotten accurate information sooner. I would have started my transition a decade ago.

  10. Pingback: “But who would possibly want to be with you?” | Tish

  11. Jessica6 says:

    Very articulately written, I would echo some of the same experience myself as a 49yr old mtf straight woman. I would add that it is harder for trans people to make friends with other trans people because of internalized transphobia. I am always greeted with great suspicion by other trans-ladies i invite out for coffee. I’m not looking for sex, just community and friendship, but too many times i have been accused of being a gay cross dressing male looking for some kinky action or whatever. One girl explained that because i once identified as a gay male that i can’t help but see transwoman as gay men. She couldn’t get past that idea so we had to set up boundaries and we won’t be friends either. Sad. Frustrating. It’s easier to reach out to cis people because they outnumber us a gazillion to one, so the chances of meeting someone cool are higher. It sucks that building community is so hard with people that identify as trans, because of our own internalized transphobia, but it’s a persons right to establish boundaries, and it is our duty to respect those boundaries, which makes it hard to be friends with some people.

  12. Xandra White says:

    Well put, well written!

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