Last week, Diane Anderson-Minshall wrote an op-ed for The Advocate titled "My Attraction to Trans People Is Not a Fetish." The article has been widely shared, with the reaction from trans readers being mixed, to put it politely.
In the piece, Anderson-Minshall says her particular brand of sexuality leads her to be attracted to cisgender women, transgender women, and transgender men. Even after reading her column for the fifth time, I continued to find that particular assessment problematic in that it split trans men away from cis men, leading me to briefly question whether the author believed them to be part of the same category.
Let's say that I find blond women attractive, but couldn't possibly imagine myself being with a brunet. Or that I'm into transgender women, but cisgender women don't really do it for me. In both of these cases, to outline my sexuality would be to say, "I'm attracted to women." When you begin breaking down sexuality to include subsets of individuals within that category, you're making it clear that you don't really view the people in these subsets to be part of the initial set itself.
By separating trans people into different categories than cisgender people, this creates an implication that these people aren’t actually the gender they know themselves to be. Here’s what Anderson-Minshall wrote:
"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."
Right there, the author makes a clear divide: men and trans men (note that, as she does throughout the piece, she employs language steeped in cisnormativity, where cisgender men are just "men" or "nontrans men," but trans men are always referred to using a qualifier). I now understand that she didn’t intend to write something that gives a sense that she didn’t view trans men as men, or trans women as women, but it was only through speaking with Anderson-Minshall that I was able to fully grasp what she meant by that divide and on what basis she was making it.
In referring to radio personality Mister Cee, Anderson-Minshall addresses the age-old question of whether a straight man can still call himself straight if he finds trans women attractive. Unfortunately, her response was less than what I’d hoped for.
“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.”
Actually, this is simple. If he's attracted to people who identify as women and doesn't find himself attracted to people who identify as men (or any other gender), he's straight. End of argument.
Simply put: If a straight man is attracted to a woman, he is still straight, no matter what the genital configuration of that woman happens to be or have been. Why? Because he says he’s straight. If a straight woman is attracted to a man, she is still straight, no matter what the genital configuration of that man is or may have been at any point in his life. Why? Because she says she’s straight. Orientation is something that can only be expressed through our own labeling of it.
Am I implying that I believe a straight woman should feel obligated to partake in a sexual experience with a trans man? Should a lesbian feel obligated to find themselves attracted to trans women? Are straight trans women obligated to find themselves attracted to trans men? Absolutely not. Genitals are a fair deal-breaker in any relationship, and this occurs across the spectrum of sexual relationships. From the straight cis woman whose male partner is too large or too small for her own comfort level to the cisgender lesbian who finds herself disgusted at the thought of being with anyone of either gender with a penis, these are legitimate genital-based deal breakers that may preclude someone from being in a relationship with someone else.
When the author stated that she feels "a bit like Mister Cee some days, in that maybe [she is] reluctantly clinging to a label that doesn’t fit, but perhaps no label fits," I really began to question her intentions. Was she implying that based on Mister Cee’s actions, he couldn’t really be straight if he was into trans women? Or, rather, was she simply providing commentary with her own inner struggles with coming to terms with attraction to people who may physically appear outside the clear-cut images of what “man” and “woman” look like? I’m inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt, taking that brief section as more of a comment on her own sexuality rather than that of Mister Cee. After all, the only person who can define their own sexuality is themselves. One man’s “gay” is another man’s “queer.” One woman’s “pan” is another woman’s “bi.” While there are guidelines that differentiate “gay” from “queer” from “straight” from “bi” from “pan,” it’s up to the individual to find the label that best matches their own mind and heart. Just as the author is the only one who can define her sexuality, Mister Cee is the only one who can define his, and I’m the only one who can define mine.
I could write a thousand articles on gender and sexuality, all to little fanfare, minimal impact. What the world needs are more individuals with the same comfort level as Anderson-Minshall, more people who aren’t afraid to say, “Yeah, I’ve dated trans women,” or “I’ve been in committed relationships with trans men,” the more we can begin to normalize what the world still considers to be odd, to be different. One of my good friends, Jen Richards, said it best recently when she wrote a response to the death of 21-year-old trans woman Islan Nettles:
“Maybe if every man who has ever hired a trans escort, if every boy who has ever beat off to trans porn, if all the guys I and thousands of others have hooked up with via Craigslist, if the millions who fetishize our bodies, who enjoy us on our knees in bathrooms, who press us against hotel windows, who lay with us in our beds; if the men who adore me and my sisters, but only behind closed doors, would stand the fuck up and speak out, maybe 21-year-old women just enjoying an evening out with friends wouldn’t be beat to death.”
If only these men knew that it’s OK to be attracted to trans women; if only they took a minute to think about how attraction works. If you’re walking down the street, or in a bar, would you look at a beautiful woman and think, “If only I could see her vagina! How else will I know if I find her attractive?” No. Attraction develops well before you’re aware of what someone’s genitals look like. It makes perfect sense that trans porn like Bailey Jay’s is targeted to straight men and Buck Angel’s is targeted to gay men. It’s the secondary sexual characteristics that trigger attraction. It’s face, hair, breasts, muscles, figure, and so much more.
Our relation to human sexuality is a beautiful and unique part of us all. What that orientation pulls us toward doesn’t, in itself, make anyone a fetishist or a chaser. Those labels are tied to the actions and the intent of the individual, not the desires themselves. A man who goes online sending mass messages to all the trans women he can find, seeking sexual experiences with any trans woman he can come across — he’s a chaser, he’s a fetishist. When your sole reason for pursuing someone is their trans status or a fixation on one particular body part, that’s when one might have to worry about having that label become applicable to their own actions.
Is Anderson-Minshall, a cisgender woman married to a trans man (also attracted to women, both cis and trans) a fetishist? Is she a chaser? Absolutely not. She’s just a woman who finds qualities about those individuals stimulating on a sexual, physical, and intellectual level. Her preference aversion to cisgender men isn’t as a result of their bodily structure, but rather, the simple likelihood that trans feminist men will be able to relate to her own interests and advocacy over that of cis men.
Men and women come in all shapes, sizes, and genital configurations. Find the one who brings you happiness and satisfaction, emotionally and sexually. Create a mutually beneficial relationship, whether it be one night or one lifetime. Identify how you want, love who you want, and live how you want.
PARKER MARIE MOLLOY is the founder of Park That Car and works as a freelance writer. She has contributed writing to Salon, The Huffington Post, Death & Taxes, and Thought Catalog. Follow her on Twitter at @MissParkerMarie.