Why fetishizing trans men is offensive

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.

Warning! Controversial material.

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.

I Googled phallus and skyscrapers. It was fun.

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.

Demure, submissive, avoiding eye-contact? Yup, that’s the Asian Doll stereotype

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.”

– When Trans-Inclusivity Goes Wrong

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.

Further reading:

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.

A Beginner’s Guide to Trans Misogyny

When Trans-Inclusivity Goes Wrong

‘No cis guys’ – No thank you

Self-Examination and Shifting Desires

Enough with ‘I date women and trans men’ and follow-up post

‘Socialised as a woman’

25 thoughts on “Why fetishizing trans men is offensive

  1. This is a brilliant and well-written blog.

    Personally, I don’t have a ‘type’ – I never have. I like men & women (cis or trans or whatever). I like all different nationalities and colours and religions. I like disabled people and non-disabled people. Despite this I don’t fancy most of the people I meet. I have stupidly high standards and these are based on physical, mental, funniness and other totally unpredictable, unknown qualities (probably chemistry or something!).

    Through the years people have made assumptions about me because of whoever I am with at that time (whether it’s someone I’m in a relationship with, a lover or a friend). It’s funny and you can see the cogs in their brains trying to work it out. They make assumptions. So I get introduced to people as if I’ll automatically fancy them when actually I don’t. Or I’ve almost missed out on being introduced to people I do fancy because people have assumed I wouldn’t.

    I can laugh this off most of the time but in fact there’s an important judgement (negative or positive) by society happening here purely based on appearance.

    Your blog post directly addresses a serious issue within a supposedly progressive group of people. Everyone is an individual, whatever their gender or sexual orientation. You can’t tell by looking at someone what their political views are, their taste in food or sex (or music), whether they’re lazy or proactive, what their dreams are… There are femme tops and butch bottoms, trans people who are gay or straight or bi, there are people who only like sex outside or dressed in leather or who can only get off if they’re in the missionary position with the lights out. And ALL of these people are beautiful and strange and a little bit odd and a little bit normal.

    Any kind of ‘scene’ tries to give a sense of belonging to a group of people, this feeling of family is super important and necessary in such a vicious world. But where does the ghetto stop and acceptance begin? Who decides on the rules for each group or each club night. Who’s let in and who’s turned away? Trans people don’t have ‘one voice’ they have just as many voices as anyone else and all of them should be heard.

    So, thank you Lipstick Terrorist, I look forward to reading more of your writing on here. Off to explore the rest of your blog now.

    @annamadeleine x

    1. Lipstick Terrorist

      Thanks Anna Madeleine, for this comment. Your questions, “where does the ghetto stop and acceptance begin? Who’s let in [to club nights] and who’s turned away?” really rang true with me. I have been thinking about how we police our spaces a lot recently. Who we let into (queer) places and according to which criteria. How do they have to ‘prove’ themselves etc. A queer transsexual woman friend of mine said she felt like she might have to show her boobs to ‘prove’ she is trans and to be let into a queer party.

      I am torn between wanting to keep the queerness of queer spaces – I think it’s important to have spaces just for queers – and the fact that policing our spaces and having an excluding policy is never ideal. We exclude and include groups based on generalisations about their behaviour e.g. dykes will be respectful, but cis men might be macho and aggressive. And that also means we judge people according to appearances, which again is all about ‘looking the part’ and ‘fitting the stereotype.’

      It’s almost a cliche now that femme women are often refused entry to queer parties because they ‘don’t look queer enough.’

      I have no answer to these questions, but they provide a lot of food for thought.

  2. Pingback: Trans-misogyny: the (mini) round-up « Diary of a Lipstick Terrorist

  3. My trans brothers deserve better than sex in a frame that undermines their identities. This doesn’t mean queer cis women and gender non-conforming female assigned folks can’t fuck trans men, but then they owe it to these guys to reframe their sexuality in a way that’s not undermining – to recognize that they sleep with men, and to question why they’re OK with sleeping with trans men and not cis men. I just don’t think it’s OK to process your sexual trauma in a delegitimizing way through the bodies of folks who’ve often faced tons of trauma at the intersection of gender and sexuality.

    1. Lipstick Terrorist

      Sorry this comment has only just been approved, gold account. It went straight into my spam box and I only just found it. I agree heartily with what you say. But I am confused about your last sentence. Do you mean that lesbians or queers have sex with trans men and not cis men, because they feel safer? I think that this feeling of safety is understandable. It comes from assumptions about the history of a trans guy and where his politics will lie. Whether or not these assumptions are true, are another question.

  4. Alasdair

    IMO, fetishising trans woman is at least as problematic as fetishising trans men. Maybe that doesn’t happen so much in queer communities, but it definitely does in the mainstream media and most notably in porn. I realise that’s a different issue to what you’re talking about here; I can’t comment on that because I’m not queer or trans myself, and not part of these communities, but I just wanted to make the point that it goes both ways. Not that one is really any better than the other: it’s wrong to reduce any group of people to lust objects based on their bodily characteristics.

    1. Alasdair

      Further comment… coming back to this after having read a bit more widely, perhaps that last sentence of mine was a bit simplistic. Natalie Reed has a good, nuanced article on the subject of ‘trans fetishisation’ here: http://freethoughtblogs.com/nataliereed/2012/02/15/chicks-with-dicks-trap-chans-chasers-and-trans-fans-the-question-of-fetishization/
      It’s written from the perspective of a trans woman, but some of it applies equally to fetishisation of trans men.

      1. Lipstick Terrorist

        Hi Alasdair, thanks for the link! Natalie Reed is pretty brilliant. I am aware of the fetishization of trans women by some straight cis dudes, but I specifically wanted to focus on the elevated position of trans men in queer culture in this post. I think I should also do a helluva lot more reading about the trans women fetishization; it’s really interesting and I am not so familiar with it.

  5. Logan FTM

    Really? I’ve been treated like shit for not having a dick. I have never heard of a case of a transman being “desirable” for anything other than their personality.

    1. Lipstick Terrorist

      Hi Logan, thanks for the comment! I agree that, in the ‘mainstream’ world, being a trans man means you have to face a tonne of homophobia.

      But in the queer communities I have lived in, inhabited mostly by queer women and queers who were assigned female at birth, being a trans guy is seen as a the best kind of queer you can be, which I find problematic.

      I would be interested to hear though if you have been involved in queer communities where that isn’t the case. Do you have different experiences?

      1. Extremely outdated reply, but I second Logan’s comment. Perhaps it’s because I’m gay and not interested in women, but I have never found my trans status seen as a good thing in any way. Pretty much the opposite. Most gay guys I know don’t want to be with someone who doesn’t have a dick. I have yet to be in a relationship with anyone, let alone have sex.

      2. Lipstick Terrorist

        Hi Anakin, thanks for the comment. It’s really great to get different perspectives on these things. I think the fetishization of trans men is specific to a certain first-lesbian-now-queer radical community, which is predominantly made up of dykes, fab gender queer folk and some trans men. I certainly have no knowledge of how trans men are treated in the mainstream gay community!

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  10. Jon

    ‘To be a pregnant man, that is radical.’ From which position are you speaking to tell trans masc folks what actions were and which were not radical? Especially pregnancy is a complicated, hard, triggering and emotionally charged subject for many, and while yes, having a child as a trans masculine person IS a courageous act, I object to setting it as THE outstanding act of radical engagement for trans rights. Reproductive rights for trans people matter, and that should include the choice NOT to want to reproduce using our original plumbing. Many of us have experienced sexualized violence and sexual assault. Many of us are scared of getting pregnant and traumatized by incidents where that was the case. Many view the pressure to reproduce very critically, as they have been pressured many times, against their will, and have had to defend that position against a norm. Please do not talk about one personal choice as if it was more politically relevant than another, especially if that means erasing the entire other side of that discourse.

    You said that you, as a cis person, could not know our struggles – So please do acknowledge that the issue is more complex than your illustration makes it out to be. Thanks.

    1. Lipstick Terrorist

      To be honest, this was more of a throwaway comment that is performing a rhetorical function in this piece, rather than a fully examined core concept of the blog post. I don’t think being pregnant is “THE outstanding act of radical engagement for trans rights.” I also wouldn’t try and tell a trans person what is or isn’t a radical thing for them to do with their body – that goes against my political beliefs. This post is more about the way trans men are put on a pedestal in a specific queer community comprised mostly of people who are FAAB. I’m sorry this sentence resonated with you in such a strong, negative way. It really isn’t meant to hold the weight you ascribe to it. That said, I probably shouldn’t have included it as a rhetorical device given the tendencies of critical reading from people within the community – it has been given more weight than was my intention in your response to this article.

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  12. karhu

    “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.”

    As an early middle aged, ugly, hairy and overweight trans man with thinning hair I can’t help beign a little bit amused by an idea about being an ultimate embodyment of sex appeal to somebody. Makes me think about Onslow and Daisy in the British sitcom Keeping up Appeareances.

    It’s a serious issue though, definitely not a laughing matter, and it’s important to discuss about it. Thank you for writing this!

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