“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
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I’m an out, proud lesbian and radical feminist who’s happily loved other women for more than four decades. (I came out in my twenties, and it was a big deal back then.) I support trans rights, but I have to admit that I am just not attracted to most transgender women, especially those who have not had surgery. I don’t mean that there is anything wrong with the way that trans women look, but it’s simply not what floats my boat. After all, I am a lesbian—not bisexual—and to come right out and say it, I just do not find penises attractive. I suppose this could be taken as offensive, but I’ve never been able to do anything except speak my mind as I know it.
Recently, I’ve heard that there is a faction of trans rights activists saying lesbians have to be attracted to trans women or else we are transphobic. This feels very wrong to me, like trying to control whom lesbians have sex with. Corrective rape and conversion therapy are forms of violence that have been used against gay and bisexual women for centuries. But then again, I recognize that I am of a “certain age” (i.e., old! ha ha), and I know I might be missing something. As a member of your generation who seems somewhat reasonable, can you help me understand?
Ornery Lesbian Dissident
Thank you for speaking your mind and asking this bold question! In my experience, it’s true that the topic of lesbian sexuality and trans women can be politically and emotionally charged. Yet I think you have brought this up in a respectful way, which I deeply appreciate. How will the queer community ever learn to get along if we don’t ask hard questions and open up deep conversations? As a member of my generation (a millennial) who strives to be somewhat reasonable, I believe that it’s especially important for queers of different ages to form respectful intergenerational connections so that we can become stronger as a movement.
Now to your question, OLD: Is it wrong for cis (that is, non-trans) lesbians to exclude trans women as potential sex and romantic partners? And on the flip side, is it wrong for trans women to advocate that lesbians should treat them as sexually and romantically equivalent to cis women?
These questions are powerful, and they have sparked no small amount of debate in recent years. They touch upon many other, deeper questions that go straight to the messy heart of discrimination, desirability and consent: Are trans women “really” women, and if so, are they equal to cis women? Is discrimination based on identity or appearance acceptable when it comes to sexual preference? Is it ever okay to tell someone whom they should or shouldn’t be attracted to?
Just reading the above paragraph sends a jolt of electricity through my body. When it comes to such hot-button—and tender—issues, it’s very easy to jump to simplistic conclusions, and to self-righteously condemn the opinions of others. Our personal histories, sacred values and political belief systems are all implicated, so the stakes are very high indeed. Our answers seem to reflect whether or not we are good people and so, naturally, we want to be right—which means that everyone else must be wrong.
I believe the most helpful and compassionate way to navigate this emotional and ethical maze is to soften our stance and take a step away from ideology (how we think the world “should” work) toward what actually works in relationships. We might think of this as a shift from a “right or wrong” approach to a “getting along” framework.
Let’s begin, in this case, with what is most obvious: That all people—cis, trans, straight and queer alike—are entitled to sovereignty over their own bodies. No one can or should tell us whom to have sex with, ever, and historic attempts to do so have resulted in terrible legacies of violence and trauma. Therefore, OLD, you are entitled to decline the sexual or romantic invitations of any person, trans women included.
With that said, I want to address your concern that a cis lesbian might be coerced or pressured to have sex with a trans woman, or else be labelled “transphobic.” I’ve seen this concern brought up a lot in the debate about whether cis lesbians “should” be attracted to trans women, and my guess is that a lot of the anger and fear that some cis lesbians have expressed about this comes from the long history of the dominant culture attempting to control and redirect lesbian sexuality. For some cis lesbians—especially those who have lived through sexual violence—being told that they “ought” to be attracted to trans women might trigger powerful, painful feelings about being coerced into unwanted sex.
Yet it is important to note that, in reality, the vast majority of sexual violence and harassment against cis women is not perpetrated by trans women. In fact, when researching this column, I could find no significant statistics at all of trans women committing violence against cisgender women, though I did find many studies reporting that trans women are at heightened risk of receiving both physical and sexual violence, largely from cisgender men.
Based on my own experience, I would hazard to assert that the vast majority of cis women do not walk through the world in terror of being sexually harassed and assaulted by trans women. On the other hand, if you ask any handful of women (cis or trans) if they have ever been sexually harassed or assaulted by cis men, well, the answer is obvious. Men, as a category, are the primary perpetrators of sexual violence. Trans women, as a category, are most often the targets of sexual violence—just like our cisgender sisters.
Why, then, is there this idea out there that cis lesbians today are being sexually threatened or pressured by trans women who are attracted to other women? Video blogger Riley Dennis asserts that it comes from the persistent social stereotype that trans women are not really women at all, but actually men in disguise who are invading women’s spaces for predatory reasons. Yet, as mentioned above, there is literally no statistical evidence to support this idea. And while I could believe that some tiny minority of trans women are predators, that’s true of people of literally any gender.
So, OLD, I think we have established that cis lesbians are not in danger of systemic violence from trans women—in fact, cis and trans women ought perhaps to be united as partners in working against the patriarchal violence that affects us all.
But what about trans people like Dennis and writer Brynne Tannehill, who suggest that it is transphobic for cis people to not want to date trans people?
First, I would suggest spending some time with Dennis and Tannehill’s work, because they present their perspectives with intelligence and nuance. They point out that all sexual and romantic preferences are in some way shaped by cultural and political forces. We are taught, for example, that thin is attractive and fat is ugly; that young people are deserving of sex while elders are not; that white skin is more beautiful than dark skin. While we shouldn’t let this observation dictate our sexual behaviour by immediately (and tokenistically) seeking out “diverse” sexual partners in the name of political correctness, it’s worth thinking about in the long term.
Radical feminist and scholar Gayle S. Rubin observed that there is a “charmed circle” of sexuality that the dominant culture constructs, with white, heterosexual sex between married partners at its centre and sex with trans people at its farthest edge. (For the record, Rubin places cis lesbian sex just one step closer to the centre than trans sex.)
There are a lot of lessons that we can pull from this, but I think the most salient one is the issue of access to erotic love and pleasure. Both cis and trans women who love women know the pain and loneliness of being shut out of the world of erotic fulfillment. A deep and compassionate understanding of this is crucial to an understanding of desirability politics: The struggle of people who are classified as “unfuckable” by the dominant culture—or whose desires lie outside the borders of the dominant culture—to be recognized as erotic beings with erotic worth and agency.
Interestingly, my own experience is that there is great inconsistency in the world when it comes to desirability politics. Some people will immediately agree when a fat woman asserts her right to be seen as equally beautiful and desirable as a thin woman, but then will have nothing to say when Asian men complain that they are heavily desexualized in Western culture; some will argue that it’s transphobic not to date trans people but then refuse themselves to date visibly disabled individuals.
I believe this speaks to the fragmented, highly traumatized state of sexuality in our collective consciousness. Sex, eroticism and attraction are a part of our deepest selves, yet they are inextricably intertwined with violence and shame in the dominant culture. So when we talk about sexual preference, I believe that it is both possible and preferable to work towards healing our erotic selves by entering into a more mindful and intentional relationship with desire. This is decidedly not about forcing ourselves into sex with someone we aren’t attracted to, but rather about making empowered choices to experiment and expand our desire at a pace and direction that feels right.
You mention, OLD, that you are not attracted to penises or “the way that trans women look,” which I think is fair in the sense that you know your own feelings best. Yet I have to point out that not all trans women have penises, and not all trans women look the same. You also identify as someone who loves women, and I imagine that you love more than their genitalia and their outward appearance. So what does this mean for your assertion that you are not attracted to trans women?
Choosing to stay open to new possibilities while also staying grounded in empowered choice offers us a third way forward in a world where clashing ideals tell us that we can only have love for trans women or consent for cis women, not both. Yet of course, love and consent can only thrive in the presence of one another. Reclaiming control over our own bodies can sometimes open new pathways to erotic joy—throughout history, a great many cis people have discovered a deep and powerful attraction to trans people despite being taught to revile us.
So much of the dominant, colonial, patriarchal culture is about force, violence and power over others—and sex is no exception. We are taught to see each other through suspicious eyes; the patriarchy tells cis lesbians to fear trans women and vice versa. What if we made the choice to let go of the impulse to cast each other in the roles of victim and villain, to regard each other through the eyes of possibility instead? What might we see?
I see women longing for safety and love, OLD. I see women who are worthy of both. I see a sisterhood that is strong enough to heal this whole broken world and breathe a new way of love into being.