or: Since When is Masculine a Compliment?
The whole world seems to have come together without my consent and arrived at the grand decision that in this life I will be a gay guy. Again and again people who don’t know me assume that I’m both male and gay. But they couldn’t be more wrong.
Perhaps it’s because I’m a non-transitioning trans woman with a body considered masculine, but a manner that’s pretty feminine. I also happen to be into guys which just fulfils their expectations even more. “So how’s gay life in Brussels?” I’m asked by a total stranger. “You gay guys have it good I’m told by another.” It’s weird…I mean, just a couple of decades ago, it would have been a massive offence to outright accuse a stranger of being gay.
I’m not actually a gay guy. Not in the least. But for work and play, I do need to infiltrate into that world and this intersection of identity I find myself in – a femme disguised as a boy – brings me to the heart of the toxic masculinity cult that is modern gay culture.
And it really is toxic. I can’t count the number of times this week I’ve been complimented for my masculinity. It seems to have become a standard greeting on gay cruising apps and websites. It’s also a compliment, apparently – the new version of the classic ‘hot, mate’ or ‘nice pic’. The same people who have (trigger warning: femmephobia and fatphobia) “No fats, no femmes…’ on their profiles, compliment me on my very sexy masculinity, my authentic, hot, maleness. And my sneakers, of course.
And, in a way, I guess, I’m asking for it (to quote rape culture). The pictures I choose to represent myself in these social arenas are considered masculine. For one thing, I’m a domme., so I’m more likely to show a picture of me looking strong and wearing (boy’s) clothes that are associated with power and control. I’m also more likely to dress in this way when I go out for fun.
For a person with my physical appearance, ‘masculine’ is the only option I have if I want to get laid, in the way that I want to get laid. Dresses and heels can be powerful – of course they can, but I don’t even want to explain to you what happens if I wear them when looking for sex.
I also kind of like wearing boy stuff for sex. I have a thing for sportsgear for example. Not in a class-fetishising way because unlike a lot of the middle class gays with a hard on for ‘chavs’ or working class accents, I can’t really sexualise my own class in that way. It’s more, just, it’s hot, you know? And I look really good in sneakers, and that’s it. But all of this – the self-aware masculine presentation, my sexualising of masculinity – becomes an authenticity issue for a trans woman very fast. Well, not for me, so much, but for the rest of the world.
Because for trans women, everything we do or say has the potential to delegitimise us. I call it the cliché/enemy double bind (and endless thanks to Julia Serano for helping my brain to interpret these things).
In many so-called feminist, or queer spaces across Europe if I wear something feminine (which I do sometimes, because I like it and feel identified with it), I’ve been accused of ‘performing’ a ‘cliché’ of what women look like. There’s no reason women should wear lipstick I’m told. I’m reinforcing patriarchy. I’m not an authentic woman.
On the other hand, if I wear something masculine (which I do sometimes, because I like it and often, it’s just safer for people with bodies like mine), I ‘look like the enemy’ and any masculine designated thing I might do or wear is a sign of my inauthenticity. I’m obviously not a woman, I’m told, just look at those jeans I wore to the supermarket.
Shave: sexist cliché. Don’t shave: man. Wear heels: sexist cliché. Wear sneakers: man. The fact that this entitled discourse comes most often from cis women who neither shave nor wear heels, yet never have their womanness questioned is apparently not something we can talk about.
So much of femme pride building has been about precisely this: feeling comfortable in what we want to wear. Detaching our presentations from societal expectations, feminist or otherwise. Wearing lipstick, or not, because we want to, or not. Not because misogyny told us to wear it, not because second wave feminism told us not to, not because some new wave of feminism told us not-not to. But wearing make up just because it looks nice and makes us feel happier. Or not wearing it because lipstick tastes funny and leaves a sticky mess on your wine glass. It’s all okay, just do what makes you feel good.
But back to sex: you know… I do want some from time to time. A romantic date with wine might even be nice. Somewhere in the darkest, most secret parts of my imagination I even fantasise about having a partner once in a while. And yes, this imaginary person, perhaps on a horse, riding into town to make me dinner and rub my tired feet, would be a straight guy. Or a bi guy. Or a queer guy. None of that is any of my business – I’m just a woman who likes men who wants to be wanted by men who like women.
I guess I just came out as straight.
But it’s exceptionally difficult to date when trans women are both simultaneously hyper-sexualised in the media and also presented as deeply undesirable. We are seen by many as both predators, deceivers and also pathetic, ugly pseudo women all at the same time. Even trans women who ‘pass’ – meaning they are read by people as cis women – find it hard. For a trans woman like me, with my impossible-to-hide masculine body, there’s no chance.
This means that unless I dress the part – pretend to the world that I’m a cis-gay guy – then sex is pretty much impossible, to say nothing of love. I also don’t live in a major metropolitan centre where – in my imagination at least – there are busy trans scenes and dragons and unicorns as well as those beautiful and political men on horses who are into women who look like me.
I’ve tried presenting myself as a trans woman on mixed dating/cruising/BDSM websites. And nothing. My sexy, articulate profiles receive only a cold, stony silence. On an equivalent gay site, I’m overwhelmed by messages every hour. I am, apparently, either hideous, terrifying or just unconvincing as a straight woman, but super hot as a gay boy.
Sometimes I have what I call ‘false outings’, where after all the effort of coming out to people, they don’t really believe it anyway and just carry on believing me to be the (hot, masculine, gay) boy that they desire. People have literally told me as much to my face, often in public – you can’t be a girl, because I’m gay. You can’t be a girl, because I saw your genitals that time. I get to decide what you are. My sexuality trumps your gender. Stop kidding yourself, they tell me.
Fiction is so much easier for these entitled brats than my truth.
Upon coming out I also run the risk of being called hyper academic (‘gender is a construct, nothing has any meaning, I’m whatever I want to be’), sexist (because evidently I have nothing better to do than colonise women’s spaces) or plain delusional. None of which are very sexy.
Since really coming out uncompromisingly as a woman several years ago, I stopped dating. In fact I’ve almost never dated anyone as who I am, a trans woman. It’s just not a thing. No-one believes me enough to get that far and I guess it would take a tonne of money and medical technology before that would change.
Which is kind of a shame, because you know, loving sex, romance, intimacy: these are things I quite enjoy. Lots of people do apparently. For now though, I settle for meaningless sex.
So, although dressing masculine for play – and enjoying it – is definitely asking to have my authenticity questioned, it’s also pretty unavoidable. For transmisogynists, everything I do is a sign of my inauthenticity and I’m not left with many good options. Also, if experiencing some kind of sexual intimacy is a basic need (and in my case, it also pays the rent), then I’m wearing sneakers, not heels, for my survival.
Also, they’re really comfy. Also, totally hot.And you know what? Women can wear sneakers too. I’ve seen them do it. Really, out there in the world, there are many, many women wearing sneakers and no-one ever questioned their womanhood. So if you pass me in the street and see me, a woman, wearing my second-hand adidas and feeling good, don’t worry, don’t panic and don’t make it all about you – I’m not wearing them to be objectified (probably) or to have my identity delegitimised. I’m just wearing them for myself. And you know? If I happen to be smiling, just let me smile and move on. Because, once in a while, even trans women get to be happy.