The backs of the magazines sometimes had small, grainy ads for more fetish magazines, bondage gear, and what we used to call party lines. One of my favorites, that I’d flip to, were ads for “Shemales.” These women, who had both beautiful breasts and real penises, fascinated me. At the time, I had no idea how that was possible biologically, but — and without these words to explain it — I was drawn to the dichotomy that existed in each of these persons, of very obvious female and male sex characteristics.
When I was graduated to home video porn, I rented some of the stuff labeled “shemale,” all of which was presumably aimed at straight men. But since that dovetailed with my coming out as a lesbian and then as a feminist, I evenutally stopped renting and stopped talking about my history of attraction to this type of adult film star, in part because I learned that “shemale” is highly derogatory to trans women. It equates all trans women with sex work, it fetishizes trans women who are pre- or nonoperative, and it lets straight men buy porn with penises without confronting their homophobia.
The word “shemale” was an invention of the porn industry, though it’s been employed plenty by the entertainment industry, popular culture, academics, and rabidly antitrans scholars like Janice G. Raymond. There are other slang terms we no longer (should no longer) use like “tranny,” “chicks with dicks,” “dolls with balls,” and so on, for the very same reasons we don’t use “shemale,” though they show up on television constantly. (See this GLAAD report if you don’t believe me.)
But I’ve been thinking more about this issue after Hot 97 DJ Mister Cee, a renowned figure in urban music, got trans-shamed for soliciting a person he thought was a female trans sex worker. He resigned, and then his boss talked him into coming back (after all, this is the guy who introduced the world to Notorious B.I.G.). He’s come out about his orientation: He’s a man attracted to trans women and cross-dressers. and he hires sex workers who fit into these categories. (He’s also agreed to get therapy, perhaps because of his predilection for hired hands, but that’s another column.) The reason Mister Cee was outed was that he hit on the wrong person this time: Bimbo Winehouse, a cross-dressing vlogger and personality who taped the solicitation and posted the audio online.
That’s led to a lot of discussion around all the issues this brought up:
1. Why are trans women often perceived as sex workers, and what does that mean for the vast majority of trans women, who aren’t?
2. The most common occupation for a trans woman on a TV show or film is sex work. And on top of that, according to GLAAD, 61% of those episodes feature derogatory language like everything in the paragraph above or worse.
3. Why are men being shamed for being attracted to or loving a trans woman?
“We, as a society, have not created a space for men to openly express their desire to be with trans women,” writes author Janet Mock. “Instead, we shame men who have this desire, from the boyfriends, cheaters, and ‘chasers’ to the ‘trade,’ clients, and pornography admirers. We tell men to keep their attraction to trans women secret, to limit it to the Internet, frame it as a passing fetish or transaction. In effect, we’re telling trans women that they are only deserving of secret interactions with men, further demeaning and stigmatizing trans women.”
Mock says she’s witnessed numerous so-called scandals, like those of Mister Cee, Eddie Murphy, and LL Cool J, “where passing interactions with trans women spawn hundreds of headlines, particularly for a man with fame and social capital.” She asks, “When a man can be shamed merely for interacting with a trans woman – whether it be through a photograph, a sex tape or correspondences — what does this say about how society views trans women? More important, what does this do to trans women?”
The answer is plenty, and it’s not good. But I’m thinking now about what it does to these admirers — the boyfriends and girlfriends, husband and wives of trans people. And it leads me back to pornography, in a way. Porn director Joey Silvera is the man who made transgender porn (in this case, adult films with trans women who had not had bottom surgery) acceptable to the public. It’s no longer the taboo it once was; there’s even an annual awards show devoted to the genre (sadly, it’s called the Tranny Awards), and the AVN Awards (the Oscars of porn) celebrate trans actors of both genders. (The most popular FTM star: Buck Angel, a trans man who has also not had bottom surgery; his fan base is primarily gay men even though he bills himself as the “man with a pussy.”)
Maybe Silvera was just making a buck off these women (and buyers), pushing forward the ages-old “circus freak” type of mentality in exploiting them, but what if he wasn’t? What if, like me — and like a lot of people out there who don’t classify themselves as “tranny chasers” or “fetishists” — he was attracted to beautiful women whose bodies don’t conform to our idea of what a “woman” is supposed to be?
I feel a bit like Mister Cee some days, in that I maybe am reluctantly clinging to a label that doesn’t fit, but perhaps no label fits. He feels straight, and he’s attracted to women, which I say makes him straight; but the fact that he’s attracted to women who sometimes still have male genitalia confuses people who need their binaries and bodies to be clearly delineated. Doesn’t that make him gay if he likes dick? Or bi? I don’t know.
I came out as bisexual 26 years ago, then as a queer a year later (and I still love and defend that term because I use it today with my husband, who used to be a woman). When I was working at lesbian magazines I started using the term lesbian because those were the women with whom I was most closely aligned, devoted to even, and to whom I was attracted. Then, eight years ago, when my wife decided to come out as my husband, a trans man, I had to reevaluate what any of these terms meant. I still use many interchangeably (lesbian-identified bisexual, queer, lesbian, bisexual-identified lesbian, and so on), and both my husband and I call ourselves queer even though at this point he’s primarily attracted to women.
I’m, well, somewhere else now.
I’ve found myself in the last few years becoming more and more attracted to trans men. Not all men. Just trans men. There is something about transgender men I find exceptionally attractive both physically and mentally, especially those who were acculturated as lesbian feminists. I know some trans guys — like T Cooper, who has written about why dating a lesbian isn’t as validating as dating a straight woman — find this idea offensive. And few women understand how one can be attracted to trans men and not be straight. I don’t know; sometimes there’s a beauty trans men exude that I am drawn to, like the dozens of lesbians before them.
Does that make me a fetishist? No. I think that just like your sexual orientation makes you attracted to men or women or both, my sexual orientation makes me attracted to trans men, trans women, and nontrans women. And maybe those guys who are buying (or downloading) what is still called “tranny” porn or “shemale” porn are also oriented towards trans women who haven’t had surgery. Why does being attracted to trans women make those men fetishist, but if they were attracted to cisgender women or other men, it would merely be considered their orientation?
Look, I’m not the only woman who is attracted to women (trans and nontrans) and trans men; I’m just one of the few brave enough to come out about it and that’s sad. But I know I have those humble beginnings looking at “shemale” pornography to thank for my openness about gender, even though I wish the men watching it could be open about their orientation, their desires, and could rename the whole damn genre so that trans women were at least no more exploited and abused than cisgendered women who do sex work. But until we open up about all this, that’ll never happen. And every time a celebrity looks at a trans woman it’ll be the “ruin of his career.” At least according to TMZ.
DIANE ANDERSON-MINSHALL is editor at large for The Advocate and editor in chief of HIV Plus. She's a Lambda-nominated Bold Strokes Books mystery author, an L.A. Pride and NLGJA honoree, and one hell of a wife. Today she's either a lesbian-identified bisexual or a bisexual-identified lesbian, depending on which hour of the day it is.