Using critical reflection and lived experience to crack open concepts of gender, sexuality, identity, community, and more.

Is it wrong to fetishize trans people? 

Adrian Silbernagel is a coffee shop manager by day, poet/editor/philosopher/educator by night. He identifies as a queer transgender man. He has a master’s degree in philosophy, and has published a book of poetry (‘Transitional Object’) with The Operating System: a queer-run press based in Brookyn. Originally from North Dakota, Adrian now lives in Louisville with his partner, Hallie, and their two cats, Wally and Flower. 

The short (and obvious) answer to this question is “yes.” Fetishizing trans people, or any group of people for that matter, is problematic because, much like discrimination, the fetishization of a group of people always involves stereotpyes and generalizations of that group. For example: the stereotype that Asian men are more submissive, or that black men are better endowed, or that trans women have a special “forbidden” extra feature, etc. etc. 

Just as one cannot have a preference for black men without being racist, one cannot have a preference for trans women (or trans men, or nonbinary people) without being cissexist, i.e., without appealing to norms that result in the oppression of trans people. 

It’s one thing to prefer a certain type of genitalia, a certain set of personality traits, or a certain dynamic in the bedroom. Many of us have these preferences, and having them is generally healthy and harmless. What isn’t harmless, is assuming that all trans women (or all trans men, or all nonbinary people) have this or that type of genitalia, or prefer this or that in the bedroom, etc. Think about it. Why would we all be the same, or even similar to each other? Our bodies, backgrounds, sexual orientations, and preferences are just as diverse as cis poeple’s. To assume that we are all the same and also fundamentally different from cis people (which is what one does when one fetishizes us) is to view us through the lens of a stereotype.

If you are someone who intentionally seeks out trans people as romantic or sexual partners, whether on the regular or just on occasion, I urge you to seek out the stereotypes, biases, and assumptions that are underlying your desires. 

Some biases are blatant, others more subtle, but all biases result in the continued oppression of a group of people, and are therefore harmful. Here are just a few examples of biases that underlie trans fetishization (note: this list is not exhaustive):

  • Trans people have the same genitalia they were born with. False. Not all trans people have the same genitalia they were born with. They may have had lower surgery, and/or hormone therapy might have changed the structure or appearance of their genitals. You don’t know. So don’t assume. And for chrissakes don’t ask. We don’t ask you questions about what is in your pants! The only time it’s reasonable to ask questions of this sort, is when both parties are interested in one another as sexual partners.  
  • Gay/queer trans men are “bottoms” (i.e., sexually submissive / enjoy being penetrated.) Just like gay/queer cis men, gay/queer trans men can be tops, bottoms, or verses! These preferences might change or evolve after surgery and/or after more time on hormones, or they might not! Some trans men may never have lower surgery, but use other means of penetration. Some trans may have lower surgery, but have no interest in using their dick for sex! Genitalia does not dictate gender, and it certainly does not dictate preferences in the sack! 
  • Trans people are “the best of both worlds.” Ew. Gross. If you’ve ever uttered this sentence, please go wash your mouth out with soap and possibly formaldehyde if you’re thinking about saying it again. Trans men are men. Trans women are women. End of discussion.
  • Trans women have a penis/male genitalia. Trans women are women, regardless of whether they have had lower surgery, and therefore, regardless of whether they have had lower surgery, they have female genitalia. How they choose to use their genitalia is 100% based on their own personal sexual preferences, which are not dictated by the genitalia they were born with or their gender assigned at birth. And most crucially, what their genitalia is like or how they choose to use it is 100% not your business, unless they are interested in sleeping with you, which they most likely are not if you are a chaser (someone who fetishizes trans people.)     
  • Trans men are more sensitive, compassionate, in touch with their emotions, etc. than cis men. Cis women: it’s not just cis men who can be creeps. Cis women who fetishize trans men are also creeps, and this type of thinking is a type of fetishization (albeit a more subtle one)! Trans men, like cis men, come from all walks of life. Our upbringings, our transitions, our worldviews, our personalities, our values, and our capacities, are not all the same. Some don’t assume that we are! Even if you mean it as a compliment, chances are we aren’t going to take it that way.

In no way am I arguing that it’s problematic for cis people to be attracted to trans people. On the contrary, I am arguing that fetishizing trans people is just as problematic and hurtful as ruling them out as potential partners. Discrimination and fetishization are two sides of the same coin.

Why I Choose To Be Visible 

For me, choosing to be visible means speaking freely about my identity and about my experiences if or when I feel inclined to do so. Sometimes this looks like marching in a Pride parade or wearing a rainbow t-shirt to work. Sometimes it looks like writing a blog post like this one. Other times it just looks like a guy living his life, not necessarily talking about my sexuality or gender, but not hiding these parts of me either.

I say “choosing to be visible” rather than “coming out” on purpose. I came out a decade ago, when I drove back home to Casselton, North Dakota on a cold winter day to tell my conservative Christian parents that I was attracted to women. I came out to my ex, a lesbian, when I told her that I was not a woman, and that I wanted to transition. I came out to my current partner, when I told her that my transition clarified some things about my sexuality, and that it turns out I’m bisexual, or attracted to multiple genders. “Coming out” implies disclosing something about yourself or your identity that is “different” than what is expected of you. Since lots of trans men simply see themselves as men, and lots of trans woman simply see themselves as women, it is more accurate and more inclusive to talk about trans people as “choosing to be visible” rather than “coming out.”

There are countless factors that play into how visible a person chooses to be. A gay highschooler who shares a roof with a homophobic father may stay in the closet in order to avoid physical or emotional abuse and/or homelessness. Similarly, a black trans woman may choose to “go stealth” (i.e., erase all traces of her life pre-transition) out of concern for her safety, or to increase her chances of survival in a world where the average lifespan for trans women of color is 35 years. (In 2018 alone, the Human Rights Campaign tracked 26 murders of trans people, the majority of whom were black trans women.) A nonbinary person who works a service industry job in St. Matthews (a very white, very straight, very cis part of Louisville) might choose to “keep their head down” when they get misgendered, because it’s less exhausting and less anxiety-provoking then correcting people and bracing themselves against hostile responses. A lot of trans and queer people have experienced trauma, and struggle with mental illness as a result: factors that also weigh into their decision to be more or less visible. 

After nine months of “living stealth” in Louisville, I was being eaten alive by the paranoia and fear of being “found out.” I constantly felt anxious, depressed, alienated. I catastrophized over what would happen if or when the people in my life learned I was trans: how it would change their perception of me, what this would mean for my material security and mental health. On one level, I resented my “passability” (my ability to read as a cis man or blend in with cis men) for putting me in the position of having to either 1) announce that I was trans or 2) let people assume that I’m cis. Why did I have to choose between 1 or 2? Why couldn’t I just be me? Why was my gender such a factor in everything, whereas cis people just get to skate through life not thinking about it? It didn’t feel fair. And in truth, it isn’t. 

On the other hand, my ability to “pass” also gave me an advantage. Because I pass, the vast majority of people who learned I was trans would continue to gender me correctly and validate my identity (with the exception of the occasional transphobe who’d misgender me on principle.) This willingness, in cis people, to validate trans people so long as they pass as cis is cissexism, whereas a true ally validates your gender regardless of how well you “pass.” It sucks knowing that a lot of the people who are affirming of me now would not have been so affirming earlier in my transition. This artificial sense of validity is one of the defining features of my experience as a white masc trans man. My whiteness, along with my maleness, translates as power and privilege in this society. It’s like social currency. But unlike that of white cis men, half of my currency—my maleness—is considered counterfeit.

The choice to be visible is never simply a choice in favor of, or against, social progress. It’s far more complex than that. In many cases, it’s literally a matter of life or death. I choose to be visible because for me, at this time and place, the benefits far outweigh the costs. I choose to be visible because, in addition to helping others feel seen, it’s better for my mental health, my sobriety, and my relationships. If my employer wasn’t cool, or my neighborhood wasn’t safe, or my social networks weren’t as stable as they are, visibility might not be the right choice for me. There might come a time when going stealth again is the right choice. I hope not. I much prefer to live in the open air and sunlight.