This article originally appeared on The Thought Erotic.
Part I: Acknowledging your own cissexism
Although transsexuals have long existed, they have not long been at the forefront of public consciousness. While mainstream society is finally beginning to acknowledge and openly discuss trans issues, trans people remain very much marginalized and continue to be persecuted. Most cissexual individuals—those of us whose gender identity matches the one society assigned us—have such a limited understanding of the trans experience because we grew up learning limited definitions of gender, biological sex, sexuality and sexual orientation that fail to account for trans people. As a result, even the best intentioned among us inadvertently harbor cissexist ideas—the belief that transsexual genders are less legitimate than, and mere imitations of, cissexual genders.
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A good friend of mine is married to a woman named Jessica who is trans. Because of this, I used to naively think that I couldn’t possibly be cissexist. As the creator of Manic Pixie Nightmare Girls—a comic shining a spotlight on trans issues while upending hetero-normative, patriarchal ideas that suppress women—Jessica has alternately educated and frustrated me, the latter being those times her comic challenged my self-image as an open-minded, accepting individual.
A recent strip, for example, made me grapple with the possibility that I might be a transmisogynist—someone who discriminates specifically against women who are trans. In a Facebook post, Jessica wrote:
“There is no quicker way to upset cis people (or anyone else who isn’t a trans woman) than to tell them their romantic repulsion towards trans women is linked to transmisogyny. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been pursued by someone up until the moment they found out I’m a woman who is trans … if you’re attracted to women, and if a woman being trans is your one and only deal-breaker, you just might be a transmisogynist.”
I support the rights of trans individuals. Any trans woman should be able to walk into a women’s public restroom without being harassed. To walk to work without some idiot screaming obscenities at her. To go on a date with a man without that man’s friends later making her the butt of their jokes and a constant point of ridicule for years to come. Surely, I am not a transmisogynist, I thought. And yet, I was confronted with the idea that I just might be one, because my initial reaction—which not only missed the point, it reinforced transmisogyny—was that genitalia and sexual orientation go hand in hand.
For a long time, my understanding of gender dissonance was that affected individuals feel trapped in the wrong body. Their internal identity doesn’t mesh with their genitalia. So, while a trans woman is a woman, I couldn’t help but think she was nonetheless a woman in the wrong body if she does not have or has not yet had sex reassignment surgery. So I thought it wasn’t really fair to call someone a transmysogist for not wanting to have sex with a woman who is trans (or for defending someone who doesn’t want to have sex with a woman who is trans). If a man is classified as straight because he’s aroused by breasts and vaginas, if a lesbian is defined as such because she’s aroused by the same, are they really to blame if they’re not aroused by a woman with a penis?
Repulsion, of course, is problematic. But I don’t want to have sex with most people—that doesn’t mean I’m repulsed by most people. I’m not. If someone was repulsed by the thought of having sex with a trans woman, that is unequivocally transmisogynist and cissexist. But it’s possible for someone to not be aroused by a trans man or woman without repulsion coming into play.
If sexual orientation is inextricably linked to genitalia, the implication is that only bisexuals or people with a trans fetish could be attracted to trans individuals. And yet, if I were to say that only bisexuals or fetishists could be attracted to trans individuals, wouldn’t I be undermining people who are trans? Yes. Because by saying so, I’d be saying that trans women aren’t one hundred percent women. I’d be sanctioning them as women in the mental and emotional sense, but denying them the right to declare themselves women in the physical sense. And that’s wrong. That’s cissexism. Writer, spoken word performer, trans activist and biologist Julia Serano calls it trans-objectification:
“When people reduce trans people to their body parts, the medical procedures they’ve undertaken, or get hung up on, disturbed by, or obsessed over supposed discrepancies that exist between a transsexual’s physical sex and identified gender” (Whipping Girl, 186).
So what now? Defining both gender and sexual orientation by genitalia is what we’re accustomed to, what so many people have been raised to believe is absolute truth. To better understand and embrace the trans experience, both I and other cis folks have to rethink these beliefs. We must acknowledge that our conceptions of both gender and sexual orientation are too narrow. We are too hung up on genitalia.
Read the full article, including “Part II: Redefining gender” and “Part III: How the trans experience impacts your sexual orientation,” at The Thought Erotic.