If you live anywhere in the West, you know this transphobic joke. Girl and guy go to bed. Guy wakes up and finds out somehow that his lover was not born a woman. The moment of realization is sketched out across his face in excruciating slow-motion, and then he runs away in horror/vomits his brains out/gets very, very, very angry. The message?
1) A trans woman isn’t a “real” woman, she’s a freak.
2) His being attracted to her somehow makes him less of a man.
3) Most importantly, he’s been duped.
Feeling duped is the bedrock of transphobia. Those who feel indiscriminately upset at the very idea of transsexual and/or transgender people usually say something along the lines of, “They’re deceiving people! I’d be pretty pissed if I found out my girlfriend/boyfriend had had a sex change.” This feeling is usually enshrouded in the myth that transitioning into the opposite sex is done capriciously, just for laughs and the thrill of going undercover. This mentality never ever acknowledges the fact that many transsexual and transgender people feel as uncomfortable in the body they were born in as cis people would feel in a body they were not born in. And it fosters the view of cis people as victims of trans villains, ignoring that trans people in the United States have a suicide rate 26 times higher than the nationl average and that worldwide one trans person is murdered every three days.
This all too common belief that trans people are deceptive, and maliciously so, has now reached new heights as two trans men in the U.K. have been charged with and convicted of sexual assault. Their accusers claimed that the men’s failure to disclose their gender at birth before they slept with them was a form of fraud and thus the consent the women gave to sex was under false pretenses. I am in no position to make a final judgment about these two specific cases. Perhaps they involved many other factors revealing coercion and predatory behavior. I cannot speak for the defendants or the accusers. But I can and will speak out against the widespread belief that the freaks of the world are obliged to warn everyone they know about their atypical features and histories before they dare try to get close to someone.
My husband thought I must have been in a car accident years ago when we met for the first time at a birthday party. I was wearing a sleeveless top exposing the lavender scars that traverse my upper arms. I know I told him soon after, on our first date, about my long medical history, but that was because we were having an intellectual debate about the role of the media and I decided to use my childhood experiences as an example. I decided to do so because I liked him and trusted him in a very special way. It was not because I felt that anyone I was interested in romantically “deserved” to know.
What do potential sex partners deserve to know? Do they deserve to know I had my calf bones removed? Do they deserve to know I had my tonsils out? What if I had been born deaf and had a cochlear implant? What if I used to weigh twice as much, or half as much, as I do now? What about veterans or cancer patients who have lost body parts normally only seen by sex partners? Is it fraudulent of a cancer survivor to wear a prosthesis that would suggest she still has both breasts?
Indeed, the moment I read about the British cases, I was immediately reminded of a poem by Robert Hass about a woman who is abandoned at her doorstep by a young admirer after she tells him she has had a double mastectomy. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I could,” he mumbles before he turns his tail and runs. I do not know what it is like to be a cancer survivor or transsexual, but surely many of us know what it is like to fear being rejected for something we never had much of a choice about.
In reponse to the British accusations of sexual assault, law professor Alex Sharpe has asked, What if a potential sex partner appears white but is in fact of mixed race – is a failure to map out your entire family tree grounds for prosecution? Of course not. He points out that individuals are not legally obliged to reveal to sex partners that they are bisexual, married, divorced, have a past criminal record… The list is endless, and thus he argues: “Given that we all have gender histories but only some of us (transgender people) are required to disclose them, there appears to be a good basis for arguing that a legal requirement to disclose gender history constitutes discrimination contrary to Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”
Of course, any counselor or psychologist will tell you that trust, openness, and honesty are necessary for a healthy relationship and true intimacy, but the right to privacy and personal dignity are also necessary for any community founded on justice. And there can be no genuine trust when certain people reveal personal information only because society’s hang-ups about gender, sexuality, or atypical bodies demand they do.
Everyone is entitled to their sexuality. No one should ever be pressured into a heterosexual, homosexual or pansexual relationship. Open and honest dialogue about this is essential. But the more we blame minorities for upsetting our delusions of normalcy just by being who they are, the more we tell jokes implying that any normal person would be disgusted by their physiology, the more we insist that their identities are a perversion of ours, the more difficult we make it for them to be open and honest with us.