See? I love provocative titles! God, I am going to get into so much trouble now. This one’s about when fetishes are harmful and why the queer community’s fetishization of trans men is problematic.
In one of my posts earlier this Summer, I suggested that to unthinkingly fetishize transmasculinity can be sexist, and I wanted to flesh out (that one’s for all you vegans) that thought more. For me, there is a slight difference between having a fetish (a kink, for feathers or toes or suchlike) and fetishizing a group of people, such as a gender or an ethnicity.
According to the dictionary definition of a fetish as a sexual obsession, our whole culture fetishizes symbols of maleness (cue image of skyscraper) and we can see the eroticising of many women of colour as suspect exoticism. Fucked-up assumptions about ethnicity + misogyny = extra gross sexism.
Although both the noun fetish and the verb to fetishize have similar dictionary meanings, as someone who likes to think about sexuality and sexual behaviours like, a lot, I find it useful to draw a kinda PC line between the two. For me, I am unlikely to judge someone who says they have, say, a leather or bicycle fetish. Regardless of whether black and bikes turn me on, I can respect someone who says they have a fetish. Have a thing for buttons or custard? Go for it, tiger. I don’t even need to understand these fetishes. They are not harmful, and are therefore none of my business.
Things become more complicated when people’s fetishes start to cross into ideologically laden territory, specifically when we start to fetishize groups of people. Fetishizing a button doesn’t hurt the button. There are (probably) not any button-ists out there fighting for equal rights for buttons or a Students Against Button Objectification group. But when we fetishize a gender, or an ethnicity, we start to deal with the squiffy area of identities that are assigned to people. We start to be attracted to people based on unfounded assumptions we make about them. These assumptions are informed by stereotypes about the social groups to which the person belongs.
For example, if I am a white girl who has a thing for black dudes, then my fetish is a bit more problematic. If I say that I prefer black dudes, then I have to ask myself what assumptions I am making about black men that makes them seem more attractive to me. Everyone knows that we, as a culture, believe a lot of clichés about black men. That they have larger penises and are in general more virile or aggressive. These myths probably originate in the racist assumption that people of colour are closer to nature and more in touch with their ‘animal’, and therefore ‘sexual’ selves (we also think the same about women; the man=intellectual / woman=irrational dichotomy). This racist, evolutionist ideology influences my apparently innocent sexual preferences. My fetish for black dudes is shown to be informed by some really dodgy cultural values.
A similar thing happens in the queer community around transmasculinity. Most of us queers profess to only be attracted to queers on the masculine side of the spectrum and say we ‘just don’t find femmes, or feminine folks, that attractive’. I find this unthinking celebration of transmasculinity and its corresponding rejection of femininity extremely problematic. That to even write ‘transfemininity’ feels like an oxymoron – how can something be ‘trans’ and ‘feminine’? – reveals that we use ‘trans’ as an adjective that means someone or something is inherently radical and inherently masculine.
So often, I find in queer communities that we assume a man we know to be trans will be feminist or queer. (Cis men at a dyke sex party? No thanks! Trans guys? Oh, that’s OK.) So often, we use the word ‘trans’ to mean only transmasculine folk, which leaves trans women and transfeminine peeps totally out of the picture. This kind of trans-misogyny from within the queer community mirrors the way patriarchal society values men and women.
Awesome blogger Natalie Reed sums up the way trans men are fetishized in the queer community:
“I am getting sick of trans men being treated as these totally awesome hot sex-pots in the queer community while trans women are treated with open contempt and revulsion. … I’m getting annoyed by trans men being perceived as radical super-duper gender rebels, smashing apart outdated norms, while trans women continue to be painted as tedious, conservative throwbacks to patriarchy- no matter how we express our gender. … I’m sick of femme straight trans women being pushed out of the queer community entirely while trans men are appreciated as the vanguard no matter how they present or who they fuck.”
I agree with Natalie that we in the queer community put trans men on a pedestal. We see them as the embodiment of sexiness and as the embodiment of queerness.At the same time, we explicitly (in, like, rules) and subtly (y’know, by staring and making them feel unwelcome) exclude transfemininities and trans women from queer spaces.
I, too, am not immune to this collective adoration. I have a ‘thing’ for trans men just like all the other queers out there. But I find it problematic that I fetishize trans men. What makes me so much more likely to jump into bed with a guy, just because he’s trans? Then, I realised, oh that’s because I’m making all these assumptions about a guy who’s trans. I assume he’ll be better at non-normative heterosexual sex, I assume he’s more likely to be feminist, to be open-minded, to want to have penetrative sex and to be a considerate lover. Wow, all that and before I’ve even talked to the guy! Crazy.
Although it would be nice to think that a trans man will have a better understanding of sexism and be more feminist because he has been treated by others as if he were a woman, this assumption just doesn’t hold up. I am beginning to realise that there are also some lovely cis guys out there who are just as aware of and into the above things, and that being trans does not give a guy a magical pass to queer- and awesomeness.
To have the possibility to live as a transgender or transsexual person, that is radical. To fight for the right to change your name and decide your own sex, that is radical. To be a pregnant man, that is radical. But to be trans, is, in itself, not radical. That is (or should be) normal. It’s your gender identity and it shouldn’t have any values imposed upon it (of course it does, but that’s what I’m discussing, innit?).
I am not trying to suggest that living as a trans person isn’t harder than living as a cis person. It is. I am not trying to say that to fight, every day and in myriad ways I will never, as a cis person, understand, for your right to exist as a trans person is not radical. It is. I am, however, saying that just because someone is trans, it doesn’t mean that they are inherently left-wing, feminist, queer, clever or considerate. You can be trans, and you can be a jerk at the same time. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. That is all.
I am stating this, not to interrupt the momentum of trans activism that is building up all over the world, but to ask us, as self-proclaimed feminists and queers to think about what values we assign to the different gender identities in our community, and why.
Of course there are truly radical trans dudes and transmasculine folks out there. There are trans men, and masculine genderqueers whose embodiment of masculinity is beautiful and does a wonderful service to feminism and great relationships everywhere. It’s just that we tend to assume trans men will be awesome for no other reason than they are trans. And that’s just silly.
So, back to fetishizing. I think we, in the queer community, fetishize transmasculine folks. We make a whole lot of positive assumptions about a guy, just because he’s trans, which may or may not have anything to do with him as a person. This is not only unfair to the individual personalities of all the transmasculine folks out there, it is also part of the demonization of trans women.
My thoughts in this article have been informed and developed by the brilliant writing of other folks around the web. I heartily invite you to check out the articles below.