By: Rebecca Kling
This is Ecstatic Kling, a sex column for the LGBTQueer community. Written by a queer identified trans* woman, this column will come from a Queer perspective but is open to questions from all. Whomever needs the answer, be it you, your friend, or “your friend.” All bodies, all genders, all sexualities.
I’ve been hearing, from one or two cis friends/acquaintances, snippets of conversations that fetishize trans* bodies and people. I understand there are preferences, attractions, and the trans* body is to be celebrated as sexy; but sometimes these people get in to weird (read too intimate and presumptive) comments about other people’s bodies.
I feel strange about even offering the slightest call out, as I am a cis-man. Is there a way I can gently nudge these people out of their pattern of making these types of comments? Is that even something I should be doing?
There are a few questions in this email, so lets try to address them one at a time:
QUESTION THE FIRST: Is that [calling out problematic comments about trans people] even something I [as a cis man] should be doing?
ANSWER THE FIRST: Yes! It is critically important that members of a non-minority community (in this case, cis folks) speak out against oppressive/problematic/jerky issues impacting that minority community (in this case, trans folks). As a white person, I try to speak out on issues of racism. As a non-Muslim, I try to speak out on issues of Islamophobia. As someone who is able-bodied, I try to speak out on issues of disability rights and access. Etc, etc, etc.
Now, that doesn’t give a non-minority individual free reign to speak on issues facing that minority community. (Check out The Do’s and Don’ts of Being an Ally or What Not To Do As An Ally for some thoughts on how to be an awesome ally.)
So we’ve agreed you can and should speak out. That takes us to…
QUESTION THE SECOND: Is there a way I can gently nudge these people out of their pattern of making these types of comments?
ANSWER THE SECOND: Maybe, maybe not. It depends how much they care about your opinion of them, and of being good allies to the trans community. If they care quite a bit, a simple reminder (“Hey, that’s not cool.”) might be enough. This could be handled similarly to people who use ‘gay’ as an insult, even though they are supportive of gay rights. Simply calling them out on it – politely, but repeatedly – may be enough to change their behavior. You may need to compromise: for example, ask them to at least not say such things around you, if they’re unwilling to change their language all of the time. Hopefully that will get thing thinking about these issues and may eventually turn into more lasting change.
If they don’t care about your opinions, and/or aren’t really interested in being strong allies to the trans community, you’re in a trickier position. That’s where the rubber of allyship meets the road of bigotry. (I am aware that this is a poor analogy; don’t think about it too hard.) You have to decide how much you’re willing to put yourself out there, how awkward you’re willing to make things for the people saying problematic things, and how much of an issue it’s going to be. These are questions you can answer on a case by case basis, depending on the setting, your physical and emotional safety if they don’t take your interjections with good grace, how well you know the people, and so on.
THOUGHTS ON FETISHIZING TRANS FOLKS: Something your email brings up, but doesn’t directly address, is whether it’s always possible or easy to tell the difference between fetishization/tokenization of a minority population and simple attraction. If someone finds my body attractive – trans history and identity and body and all – how can I tell if they’re fetishizing me versus simply finding me attractive?
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to this question, and different people have different thresholds for when something feels creepy. I like to think about whether they’re talking about me as part of a group, or as an individual. For example, the difference between a total stranger telling me, “Shemales are so hot!” and a sexual/romantic partner of mine saying, “I love your cock!” The former is lumping me within a group, and using an identity label I may or may not like. The latter is giving me, personally and specifically, a compliment.
Now, not all trans women are going to like that complement. What language is OK to use for someone else’s body depends on that person’s comfort, your relationship with them, the situation, and so on. So run what your friends are saying by some trans people you know. Maybe there’s even a trans advice columnist you could send some specific examples. ::wink::
At the end of the day, however, your friends are saying things that are making you uncomfortable. It sounds like you have good cause to believe that what they’re saying would make trans folks uncomfortable, too. I certainly hope you’ll speak up about it.