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[CW: discussion of rape, cissexism, transmisogynistic violence]

Disowning desire: how cis people use deception, contamination, and stigma to deny their attraction to trans people

The biggest threat to cisnormativity is the idea that a trans person, particularly a trans person who was coercively assigned male at birth, could be attractive.

The social stigmatization of trans people creates a positive feedback loop of attraction and desire in cis people's minds. A minor manifestation of that feedback loop is the OkCupid question that has ruined more of my potential relationships than I care to count: "When is it most appropriate for a transgender person to reveal their transgender status to a match?" [Screenshot of an OkCupid question; the text of the question and answers are in the body text.] The answer choices are, "It should be clearly stated in their profile," "During messaging prior to meeting in person," "Prior to having intimate contact or sex," and "Never." Absent is the answer I want to give: "Only if and when the particular trans person in question wants to and feels it is safe to do so."

Typically, cis people frame their answers to this question (if asked to justify their answers, which they seldom are) as being about "honesty." A cis person might say, "I have the right to know important parts of someone's history before I get into a relationship with them." Absent is an explanation of why it's only the parts of someone's history relating to the sex they were coercively assigned at birth that are relevant, and why no other aspect of someone's history requires this level of transparency.

Platitudes about "the right to know" or "honesty in relationship" are tidy disguises for a messy collection of fears, insecurities, and desires. I think they serve to conceal the work that the OkCupid question does: the work of shifting emotional labor off people in socially privileged classes, and onto people in socially disprivileged classes.

In a (current or nascent) relationship, who does the work? Who takes risks? Should a cis person risk embarrassing another cis person by asking, "Are you cis?" on a date or in a message thread on a dating site? Or should a trans person (in practice, usually a trans woman) take the initiative in disclosing that they are trans, thereby taking on the risk of being harmed or killed? How much bodily harm does a trans person need to be willing to risk in order to spare a cis person from embarrassment?

In a relationship, who takes the blame for interpersonal violence? Many social norms serve to place blame on the victim of violence, rather than on the aggressor. The expectation placed on trans people to disclose is one of those norms. When a cis man lashes out in violence against a trans woman for being attractive -- which has a lot to do with all violence against women by cis men, since cis men are taught to simultaneously desire women and to never, never want to be anything like a woman -- whose fault is it? Is it the woman's fault, for existing and being attractive? Or is it the man's fault, for being unable to deal with his internal emotional conflict without lashing out in violence against someone else? The question is: are cis men responsible for their own feelings about their identities? Or are trans women responsible for doing emotional labor to protect cis men's feelings and identities -- and should they be punished with violence for not doing this labor?

The concept of emotional labor is a useful framework for questions about who does the work in relationships and who takes the risks. The belief that trans people are more obligated to do more emotional labor than cis people, in situations where trans and cis people interact, is pervasive:

  • Trans people are expected to present in a way that's gender-conforming, and are held to much higher standards for that than cis people of the same gender. This is emotional labor because the task here is protecting cis people from having to think about gender.
  • Cis people who want to be seen as "allies" expect trans people to be extremely polite and deferent to them. This is emotional labor because the task here is assuaging cis people's guilt about being in an oppressor class.
  • And, of course, trans women are expected to do a lot of work to both be sexually available to cis men, and to absorb all the risks of relationships -- or even just one-way attraction -- between trans women and cis men. They are expected to be desirable, but disposable. They are expected to go away with no hurt feelings if a cis man at any point decides he doesn't want the stigma of being with a trans woman. And they are expected to bear responsibility for cis men's actions if those cis men get upset about what being attracted to a trans woman means about them. This is true not just for trans women who enter freely into relationships with cis men, but for any trans women who happen to be in a cis man's line of sight.

Cis people feel so strongly about this that they have been known to falsely accuse trans people of rape because they allege that the trans people -- before consensual sex -- did not disclose their trans status.

So what the OkCupid question really asks is: "Who do you think should do the work in a relationship that crosses a power divide? Should it be the more-powerful person, or the less-powerful person? Who do you think should be blamed if the relationship turns violent: the person who does the violence, or the person attacked?"

Relationships As Transactions: The Deceptive Advertising Trope

Edit: Comic was removed, sorry! [Follow link for transcription of comic]Comic by Sophie Labelle, "Assigned Male"

Trans people are often accused of deception by virtue of being trans (Talia Bettcher examines this trope in her article "Evil Deceivers and Make-Believers: On Transphobic Violence and the Politics of Illusion" (PDF link)).

The scenario that is most often discussed (and rarely happens) is this one: A cis man meets a trans woman and doesn't know she's trans. They end up in bed together, at which point he discovers that she is trans. Despite having all of the power in this situation, the cis man is framed as a helpless victim of the contamination that results from having sex with a trans woman; it is assumed that he is not free to leave the situation.

The reason this happens to rarely is that as trans people, we're generally so afraid of what cis people will do to us if they're surprised to find out that we're trans that we avoid sexual contact with cis people or disclose well before entering into intimacy with one.

But occasionally it happens.

The idea behind accusing a trans person who has sex with a cis person without explicitly stating that they are trans of rape is that being trans is false advertising. Sex is a transaction, and substituting inferior goods -- a trans body -- where a cis body is expected is fraud. Bait-and-switch, as if by consenting to sex you are entering into a business transaction.

That's not what I think, but it is what cis people appear to think.

When cis people say they want us to disclose our trans status in advance of -- we presume -- any chance for them to become attracted to us, we know it has nothing to do with honesty and a lot to do with stigma management. Cis people find trans people attractive all the time. Why wouldn't they? That's fine, but the problem comes in where a cis person experiences cognitive dissonance between their attraction to a trans person -- often, a cis man attracted to a trans woman -- and their desire to maintain their own purity or avoid contamination through contact with -- or even desire for! -- a trans body.

It is a profound misunderstanding of rape to characterize consensual sex as rape because the "buyer" didn't get what he wanted.

And of course, in these situations, the buyer gets exactly what he wants. The scenario Sophie LaBelle depicted in the comic is much more representative of reality: a scenario in which a cis man knows perfectly well he's dating/sleeping with a trans woman, and commits violence against her knowing that he can get out of it because trans women are considered disposable, especially trans women with intersectional identities. (The woman in the comic only gets scolded, rather than violently attacked, but in reality things aren't likely to go so well...)

Intimacy As Contamination: The Purity Trope

If I don't disclose that I'm right-handed before sleeping with someone, it's not "fraud." We recognize that if (for some reason) it was really important to somebody to not sleep with a right-handed person, they should ask.

If I don't disclose that I'm lactose-intolerant, it's not "fraud."

But according to cis people, if I don't disclose that I'm trans before getting involved with somebody, it's "fraud."

The difference is nothing to do with honesty, and everything to do with contamination. To cis people, contact with a trans person is apparently magical and powerful. It can change who a cis person is. If heterosexual men are only attracted to women, and trans women are constructed as somehow not-exactly-women, then being attracted to a trans woman changes who a heterosexual man is.

Of course, it's wrong to hold somebody responsible for the fact of other people finding them attractive. I don't control who is attracted to me. I also don't control who I am attracted to, but I do control what to do about being attracted to somebody.

Cis people believe that if they have contact with a trans person, they'll be contaminated by it. They don't believe this about right-handed people or lactose-intolerant people. At the same time, cis people often find trans people attractive. The tension between the desire and the fear of contamination creates cognitive dissonance, which cis people -- due to their superior position of power -- can channel into violence against trans women without being held responsible for it.

The purity trope isn't really about who has to disclose, but about maintaining the balance of power.

Power Imbalances, Risk Imbalances: The Stigma Management Trope

Suppose for the sake of argument that cis people who express worry about whether they might accidentally sleep with a trans partner actually are concerned about whether their potential partners are trans (rather than being insecure about their own identities.)

Suppose, then, that cis people who worry about this question take responsibility to manage their own feelings: by asking every potential partner, "Are you cis?"

In this case, it's the cis person who does the work, and takes the risk. The risk being taken is the risk of offending another cis person (if that cis person is cissexist enough to be uncomfortable with even the slightest possibility that not everyone might always assume they're cis.)

So that is a pretty good strategy for a cis person worried about "accidentally" sleeping with a trans person.

The fact that cis people don't simply do this -- that, rather, they go on and on about how trans people are obligated to disclose to them -- shows that accidentally sleeping with a trans person isn't what they're worried about. They are concerned with trans person knowing their place; with ensuring that emotional labor gets done by people with less social status, with ensuring that emotional (and more-than-emotional) risks are always placed on trans people.

To ask "are you cis?" is to acknowledge that you might be attracted to someone who is not cis. Because trans people's genders aren't universally recognized as valid, acknowledging your own attraction to someone whose gender is in question places your own sexual orientation into question. And to take any risk that your sexual orientation may not be heterosexual is to put your own value as a person into question, in a heterosexist society.

Cis people's fears about their identities, though, do not justify them expecting us to take risks in order to protect them from having to confront their own fear.

Cis people expect us to take on responsibility for managing their emotions.

They expect us to take it for granted that our bodies are less valuable than cis bodies, are dangerous to cis people, are impure, that we could seduce a cis person into contaminating themselves, that our bodies are contaminating and the social stigma we experience is contagious.

Cis people expect us to pay the psychic cost of believing in our lower value, all to protect themselves from devaluation.

In other words, cis people expect trans people to manage stigma for them.

"My relationships have always been about desire, not about stigma management." -- 'My Body Love Story', Dominika Bednarska

Authenticity, Cis Fantasies, and Trans Realities

The two most common casually cissexist things you hear cis people say are:

"I always know." For some reason, cis people like making the unfalsifiable claim that they always know, just from looking at somebody, whether that person is cis or trans. It's an unfalsifiable claim because there is no way to know whether you have correctly assessed somebody as cis, or you just haven't found out yet that they are trans. All this really means is that when you see somebody who you think is trans, you... think they're trans. Kind of circular, isn't it?

"I'm afraid of being tricked into having sex with a trans woman." Let's be real, though, they rarely actually admit that they're afraid; often, cis men go straight into painting ugly images of the violence they would do to their partner if they found themselves in this situation.

But these two things don't jibe. Hey, cis people, make up your mind: can you always spot us from a mile away? Or are you worried about not knowing we're trans unless we tell you? And the dissonance between these two tropes -- one amounting to, "I would never find a trans person attractive" (if transness is obvious, and if it goes without saying that visibly trans people can't be attractive, then no cis person would ever accidentally find a trans person desirable), and the other amounting to, "I know I could find a trans person attractive and I'm afraid of acting on it" -- hints at the fear that underlies both of them.

To defend the value of their own cis identities, cis people maintain that a trans person could never appear as good as a cis person of the same gender. They take it for granted that cis people are special -- have the special ability to authentically be their own gender -- and that trans people oculd never be authentic. That part of authenticity is measured by appearance. And so this is the source of the "I always know" trope: the need to believe that trans people's supposed lack of authenticity is always immediately visible.

Of course, this is ridiculous, and cis people know it. They just don't want to admit it. So their fear of being "tricked" is really fear that maybe cis people aren't the only authentic ones. The fear that trans people might be as real as cis people are is the foundation for the fear of being "tricked." It's the fear of not having a foundation for your own identity: if the fact of your cisness doesn't guarantee that your gender is real, what does? And if your gender might not be real, what else about you might not be true?

So the answers to the OkCupid question are not harmless. They are crucial to maintaining cis people's belief in their own unique authenticity, and thus crucial to maintaining their belief that trans people are counterfeit members of their own gender, and should not be treated with respect.

The two cissexist tropes also illustrate the tension between desire and aversion when it comes to cis male desire for trans women. Recognizing these tropes helps us see the idea of being deceived into sex with a trans person really is, for cis men: a fantasy.

The idea of deception means that you (as a cis man) get to have what you want -- the forbidden, the filthy, the tainted -- without having to take responsibility for your desires or question your sexual orientation. You were, after all, tricked. It's not your fault.

It's fine to have fantasies. The problem is when your fantasy translates into real-life violence against trans people.

Maybe if cis people were able to accept their fantasies for what they are -- to accept their fears as ambivalence about their own fantasies -- they would be less inclined to take their discomfort out on vulnerable people.

Cisnormativity Contains the Seeds of Its Own Destruction

When I say that trans people's (especially trans women's) desirability is a threat to cisnormativity, I don't mean that hypothetically. Many cis people do find many trans women to be attractive. To cope with the threat, then, cis people must destroy the evidence. This is why you never want to be alone in a dark alley with a privileged person experiencing cognitive dissonance.

Heterosexual cis men can't generally confront their self-contradictory beliefs about trans women -- which are superficial veneers over their beliefs and fears about their own desires and identities -- directly. Rather, they must explain it away by blaming trans women. They must construct a narrative in which the trans woman engages in some masterful act of deception to pass herself off as cis.

Heterosexual cis men's fears about their own identities are so strong that those fears often cloud their judgment and understanding: for example, by preventing them from understanding transness as being about anything other than impersonating a cis person. They can't imagine a reason for trans people to transition other than wanting to steal the specialness, attractiveness or desirability that they believe solely belongs to cis people. So if they are attracted to a trans person, they can only make sense of their own desire by imagining the trans person to commit some masterful act of deception to pass themself off as a cis person and that's how cis people conceive transness as solely about impersonating a cis person. They can't imagine an explanation other than trans people wanting to take the specialness/attractiveness/desirability that is rightfully theirs.

Rationalization is a defense mechanism. Cis people will conjure up any rationalization for their fears about us before they examine that fear directly. They are so terrified of what the existence of trans people says about them that they can't just leave us alone. Currently, in the United States -- in North Carolina, Mississippi, and in other states where legislators are attempting to make it illegal for trans people to participate in the public sphere by denying access to public accommodations -- they are waging an initiative to make us stop existing. And the fucked up thing is that a big part of why they want to make us not exist is because they find us attractive.

The opposite of love is indifference. If cis people didn't care about us, didn't desire us, there would be less violence against us. They would ignore us, rather than try to wipe us off the face of the earth. When you don't care about people, you don't try to destroy them. You only try to destroy people when you believe they threaten you.

The fact that trans people's genders aren't universally recognized as valid makes trans people contagious, a threat. To touch a trans person is to bring your own identity into question if you construct your own value based on the genders of people you're attracted to. Of course that's a fucked-up way to construct your own value, but there you have it.

The threat trans people pose to cis people isn't material or physical: it's a threat to self-image. We threaten heterosexual men's idea of themselves as valuable, valuable because they are male and heterosexual rather than because of their inherent worth. We threaten men who have no sense of their own inherent worth and can only derive a simulacrum of self-esteem by being in socially valued groups.

Trans people aren't going to go away, or stop being attractive (since we are just as likely to be attractive, or unattractive, as people in any other group; not to mention that there isn't a single standard of attractiveness.) Nor can cis people just kill us all off. That's why cis supremacy is doomed to fail.

We need to examine the emotions behind the deception, contamination and stigma tropes because to take them at face value is to deny trans people the right to have boundaries. If we place responsibility on you for who is attracted to you and what they do as a result, we're not respecting that you have a right to exist in the world, even if you make someone feel attracted to you by virtue of your existence, even if that person feels uncomfortable with their attraction to you. And this is where the current moral panic over public bathroom usage comes from: cis people want to destroy us not because they don't want us, but because they do.

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Tim Chevalier

December 2018

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