Dating, and finding the right person to be with is hard. It’s even harder when you’re transgender.
A 2018 study showed that only 1.8 percent of straight women and 3.3 percent of straight men would date a transgender person. A small minority of cisgender lesbians (29 percent) and gays (11.5 percent) would be willing. Bisexual/queer/nonbinary participants (these were all combined into one group) were most open to having a trans partner, but even among them, just a slim majority (52 percent) were open to dating a transgender person.
Right-wing (and anti-transgender) opinion outlets looked at the results of this study and concluded that of course no one wants to date transgender people, based on the assumption that people can tell if someone is transgender, and that as a result there will be no sexual attraction. However, this analysis fails based on several key facts. One is that there are transgender people who are very attractive by any conventional standard. Another is that, according to data provided by PornHub, the U.S. is the world’s largest consumer of pornography, and trans porn is one of the most popular types.
In other words, you can’t always tell who is transgender, and a lot of Americans are sexually attracted to transgender men and women when they think no one is paying attention. However, the answer changes when they think someone is recording their answers.
In another study, 348 cisgender college students were shown pictures of 48 cisgender members of the opposite sex. Each picture was randomly assigned a fake biography, which included whether the person in the picture supposedly was transgender or cisgender. The college students were then asked to rate the attractiveness of the people in the pictures. The researchers found that participants were far less likely to find the people in the pictures attractive if they thought they were transgender.
The question that gets danced around, however, is: “Are all these numbers indicative of transphobia?” The answer, I believe, is clearly yes.
Before we dive into why these numbers reflect some combination of ignorance and transphobia, I want to get one point out of the way first: this article is not to suggest in any way, shape, or form that people “owe” transgender people dating opportunities or sex. It is to point out that flat rejection of any possibility of dating any transgender people is rooted in an irrational bias against transgender people themselves.
Much ignorance can be traced to the simple fact that only about 16 percent of Americans have a close friend or family member whom they know is transgender. As a result, all sorts of myths, misconceptions, and stereotypes about transgender people can become “truth” to people who don’t know anyone who is transgender.
Thus, there’s a lot to unpack in these numbers. One is the discrepancy between heterosexual and homosexual respondents. Straight people were much less likely to be willing to date a transgender person, and it is likely because they see it as a threat to their sexual orientation, i.e. that dating a transgender person would make them “gay” or “queer.” Lesbians and gays have less fear of such labels about their sexual orientation. The fear of being seen as gay would also help explain the results in the second study rating attractiveness using straight people as subjects.
Conversely, straight men are often deathly afraid of being seen as gay because they are attracted to a transgender woman. And TERFs — trans-exclusionary radical feminists — have even conflated being set up on a blind date with a transgender person with rape and sexual assault. Though, it does call into question whether they understand what a blind date is, you don’t have to have sex on a first date, and that the owners of the coffee shop where you’re having it generally frown on that sort of thing. Conversely, some gay men are afraid that dating a transgender man would call into question their “gold-star” status.
Another assumption inherent in these numbers is that transgender people have the “wrong” genitals, or that they aren’t functional. While it is true that most transgender people have not had “bottom” surgery, ruling out an entire class of people based on a false assumption (that all transgender women have a penis and all transgender men have a vagina) is discriminatory.
Which brings up the question: is it transphobic to have a genital preference? I would argue that it is not, using the sort of logic that would be used in legal circles. Namely, this rule can theoretically be applied neutrally across cisgender and transgender people. Thus, the rule of, “I am not attracted to people with a vagina” or, “I am not attracted to people with a penis” can be equally applied to both cisgender women and transgender men.
The legal realm also provides insight into whether a something is inherently transphobic in and of itself. There is a legal concept call the “but for test,” where but for a certain fact or action, something would not have happened. It is also referred to as the sine qua non rule, which means "without which not." In civil rights cases, this is a crucial test to see if individuals are being discriminated against.
For example, if a woman was fired for wearing pants to work instead of a dress, and her male co-workers wore similar pants, “but for” the fact that she was a woman, she would not have been fired, and this constitutes a clear case of sex discrimination.
Applying this concept using previous case law is illustrative. After Diane Schroer was offered a job at the Library of Congress, she came out to HR as transgender, and the job offer was withdrawn. The withdrawal was not based on her fitness for the job, but purely because she was transgender. But for the fact that she was transgender, the Library of Congress would not have withdrawn the offer, and this was clearly a case of discrimination based on transphobia.
Similarly, imagine a date that’s going well. There’s mutual physical attraction and definite chemistry. Then you find out they’re transgender via conversation (yes, everyone still has their clothes on), and end the date right then and there. But for the fact that the other person was transgender, this would have been a really good date, and you probably would have seen them again. This is discrimination against the transgender person for being transgender.
Obviously, this isn’t illegal, nor should it be. But, from a logical standpoint, yes, this is discriminatory and transphobic. Similarly, the belief that all transgender people are unattractive to you (when there are some undeniably very attractive ones), and that you could not have chemistry with them, or you religiously object to transgender people, and even when presented evidence to the contrary, is an expression of transphobia.
Finally, there’s the pretext of “I only date people I can have children with,” the implication being that procreation is more important than any other part of a relationship. This is generally something you hear from straight people (since lesbian and gay couples will need help with children regardless) and is generally just a cop out. At the same time, there are transgender people who have banked sperm or eggs prior to transition. There are transgender men who have carried their own children to term. But, when was the last time someone started a date with a demand that they provide a sperm count lab result anyway? Or made them fill out a questionnaire about the regularity of their menses?
Short version: they don’t. For cisgender people, the starting point of dating is attraction and chemistry. Sex, and procreation, generally don’t happen in the first hour of “Getting to know you” of coffee and chit-chat. Putting a different standard on transgender people to exclude them from the dating pool is an expression of bias based on false stereotypes, irrational beliefs, and fear.
Which is basically the definition of a phobia.
There are conventionally attractive, intelligent, charming transgender people who can have children out there who are physically indistinguishable from their cisgender counterparts. Blanket refusals to even entertain the possibility of dating someone who is transgender is borne out of transphobia, just as “No Asians,” on gay dating apps is an expression of racism.
Brynn Tannehill is a former naval aviator who currently serves on the boards of SPARTA and the Trans United Fund. She has nearly 300 published articles across a dozen platforms. She lives in northern Virginia with her wife and three children.