[ETA: WordPress keeps breaking my formatting, and I don’t know why. Hopefully now the post is at least readable, though.]
Once again, it seems, my little corner of the Internet has exploded with posts and threads about whether or not trans* people should disclose their genital status in a variety of situations — usually dating, but also things such as bathroom use, participation in gendered clubs/events, school attendance (yes, really) and various other things. What’s infuriating (besides the way in which people are perfectly willing to talk about “what society should do” about us without actually including us in the conversation) is the fact that this is even considered a discussion-worthy question. After all, cis people aren’t required to describe their genitals to people to do any of these things, nor is the state of cis people’s genitals (even those who, for whatever reason, have genitals that society would consider “abnormal”) held to invalidate their genders or raise questions about their character. Yet if we trans* people (trans women especially) fail to let everyone know what our genitals look like at all times, people flip out like it’s the apocalypse. So what’s the deal?
From what I can tell, it comes down to a few things:
- Insecurity about one’s own sexual orientation. This is an obvious one, I think. So many straight cis men are terribly, terribly concerned that a woman they’re attracted to will turn out to have a penis, and that this will make them “gay” somehow. (Never mind that, if you’re a straight man who’s attracted to a woman because of her feminine features — as is basically always the case in these instances — then you are quite clearly straight!) This is a dangerous belief that literally gets trans women murdered. You also see it (albeit less commonly, and certainly less fatally) from cis lesbians who base a big part of their identity in hating penises, and from straight cis women who are scared of “turning lesbian” if they find themselves attracted to trans men.
I’ve long since stopped outing myself as trans on gamer forums and such, because inevitably I’d get a bunch of PMs from dudes I’d never even met, nervously “wanting to make sure” that I was always open and up-front about my genitals so that no guy would ever be “tricked” into sleeping with me. I always wondered why these guys, who would never meet me IRL and who knew I was just there to talk about videogames, saw fit to immediately reduce me to my (un)fuckability without so much as a hello beforehand. I mean, I know male gamers don’t exactly tend to be paragons of humanity, but even cis women usually get at least something of a reprieve from the sexualization every once in a while. I must have really caused these guys a lot of anxiety!
Well, said dudes (and ladies with similar hangups), if it makes you feel any better, I think it’s safe to say that the vast, vast majority of us are not interested in fucking you. Also, we don’t want to make out with you, we don’t want to date you, and we don’t even want to be your friend. Because clearly, in your mind, your own issues are crowding out everything else about us — and why would we want to subject ourselves to that? You’re so concerned about not wanting to sleep with us that you haven’t recognized the arrogance of your presumption that we would want to sleep with you. Which, by and large, we don’t. So, relax; your oh-so-fragile sexuality is safe from our evil, evil junk.
Speaking of which:
- Fear of penises. This is a big one, and it’s why the “debate” tends to focus on trans women specifically. The idea is that, since penises can be used as instruments of rape, and since they are heavily related to violent masculinity in the minds of most people, they are inherently dangerous to safety and sexuality.
And I mean, look, I don’t want to be insensitive here. I’m a rape survivor, and the man who raped me used his penis to do it. So even now, there are times when the sight (or sometimes even the mere thought) of a penis, my own included, can turn me into a triggered, frightened, bawling wreck. So, I mean, I do get it; hell, I probably get it more than most.
Yet even I understand that the mere presence of a penis does not mean that a rape will occur. As much as certain cis men would like us to believe that they’re slaves to their horndog impulses, there just isn’t any evidence of this, and most men (of any variety) would agree that they are, in fact, perfectly capable of controlling themselves. (And even if testosterone was this irresistible mind-controlling drug, surely the fact that trans women take testosterone blockers would at least mitigate that effect, if not outright eliminate it.) Meanwhile, women — ciswomen, women without penises — are just as capable of committing rape as cis men are, yet these rapes tend to be ignored and overlooked despite the fact that they are just as devastating to their victims. And as far as I know, there’s no campaign to protect women and children from cis female rapists in bathrooms.
Come on, y’all, this is Feminism 101 here: The only way to avoid being raped is not to be in the presence of a rapist. Banning penises from women’s spaces, or insinuating that a trans woman’s self-presentation as a woman is “sneaking in” a penis or attempting to “trap” others with a penis, does not meaningfully help to stop rape. All it does is alienate and demonize an already-vulnerable group of women — many of whom, frankly, hate their own penises more than anyone else possibly could.
(As a side note: In theory, I don’t have a problem with the existence of vagina-only spaces, or DFAB-only spaces. If people need such spaces, then great; more power to them. Just please don’t call them “women’s spaces”, alright?)
- Just plain essentialism. This is another one that seems really obvious, but I think it’s worth discussing nonetheless. One of our ongoing frustrations in the struggle for gender liberation is that, despite our best efforts to explain that sex and gender are separate concepts, most of society still hasn’t gotten the memo. So we have to contend with policies and arguments based in absurdities such as, “Every cell in your body is male!” or, “Wearing a dress doesn’t change who you really are!”
If you’re trans* (and especially if your presentation tends to be “opposite” your assigned sex), you’ve probably experienced this at least once: You talk to somebody. They seem polite and nice enough, and they treat you as you want to be treated… until they learn that you have different bits than they thought, at which point their entire demeanor changes and they start treating you like you’re a gender you’re not. What makes this experience so bizarre is that, clearly, nothing’s changed — you’re still the same person with the same personality — but they act like everything has changed, and that you’re a completely different person than they thought, all because of a little piece of flesh that you keep hidden and that was never any of their business.
The idea that genitals determine personality/identity/etc. seems ludicrously goofy to those of us who know what’s really up with gender, but to those who don’t, to those who’ve swallowed common gender narratives whole, it seems like “common sense”. This is why, even in seemingly innocuous contexts where genitals are otherwise irrelevant, trans* people are so often accused of “deception” and “lying about who they really are”. (In reality, of course, the opposite is true: we’re being honest about who we really are.)
So, to sum up: People make assumptions about our bodies and identities from our presentation. When they find out that our bodies are not what they thought, they feel as if they’ve been “tricked”, and mentally edit their assumptions about our identities and personalities (usually erasing our real selves in the process). Based upon this, they make judgments about “who we really are” and therefore what our motivations must be, etc. in order to keep their own mental gender frameworks intact.
The solution, I guess, is to keep challenging those frameworks — to keep insisting that biology isn’t destiny, that not all men have penises and that not all who have penises are men (and similarly for vaginas and women), that gender identity is something that transcends body parts and binaries, and that private parts really are just that: private. Once people realize this, I hope, they’ll also realize that the “disclosure” “debate” is a giant (and sadly influential) red herring that has nothing to do with anything besides the bigots’ own fears and hangups with regard to gender.