I have two queer identities and they are at war with each other. I have one queer identity and it is fully integrated. I have one queer identity placed in conflict with itself by outside forces. I have to pick one. I refuse to pick one.
There’s always been a troubled relationship between the (cis) gay male community and the trans community. To the extent that when we say “the gay male community,” we mean, “the cis gay male community.” It’s presupposed within the language that “the trans community” and “the gay community” are discrete and nonintersecting entities. There’s been an equally troubled relationship between the (cis) lesbian community and the trans community, but in different ways (read: radfems, Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, Dirt’s blog, etc), and ultimately I think the (cis) lesbian community and the trans community—at least the FAAB trans community—are more interlocked. I think FAAB trans people who once identified as lesbians are more likely either to continue identifying that way or to carry on a tight relationship with the lesbian community, whereas MAAB trans people who once identified as gay tend to shed that identification and community connection. I don’t know if this is correct, or if it is correct why it is correct; it’s just my observation based on the trans people in my little Lebenswelt. (Things I am in addition to a gay trans man: a douchey person who says things like, “my little Lebenswelt.”)
What I can say is that there is a barrier between cis gay men and trans people in general. It’s been there for a long time, in the social spaces we occupy within the queer scene, in the ways we present ourselves and are presented to the straight world in media, in the organizations that purport to protect our interests. It exists because the gay men at the top (who are also, incidentally, white and rich) think trans people are a little too queer, or queer in the wrong way. At best, they think we’ll scare off the straight people. At worst, they’re just as transphobic as a straight person who says things like, “But you’re really a man/woman, you silly [insert slur here]!” All of this is pretty much commonly agreed upon, and we’ve seen it in action many times. There’s the HRC’s less than stellar record with ENDA, there’s Christian Siriano calling ugly things “hot [slur] messes,” there’s any number of things.
What about the barrier between cis and trans gay men, though? We belong to the same little gay gang. Shouldn’t we bro it up and listen to Gypsy together? I certainly think it would be a good time.
I’ll suggest a few reasons why this hasn’t happened yet.
1) The gay male community is deeply entrenched in the exact same harmful ideas about bodies that trans activists are working to smash.
When this whole “gay movenent” thing got started, we all got very excited about idealizing the (cis) male body and looking up on it in a sexual way. Now, that’s all very cool in the way it (sort of) subverts the male gaze (or at least turns the male gaze on other men), and can make it clear in one piece of visual art that this is about finding another man sexy and that is perfectly okay. The end result of all this, though, has been that one of the banner images of the gay male community, one of the essential elements of our culture, is the image of a cis male body. That’s going to exclude trans men pretty effectively, for my money!
Also, at some point, young gay men started to engage in a discourse about their sexuality that validates their queer identity through degradation of FAAB bodies. I don’t know when this happened; I just know I hate it. Jokes like, “And then she was like, do you want to go out some time? And I was like, ew, no, I’m gay, I don’t want to fall into the gaping black hole of your vagina!” Or painting, “Kiss me! Penis only please,” on your chest when you’re shirtless at Pride. Like the above example of idealized images of the cis gay male body, it comes from a desire to validate/express one’s queerness and one’s sexuality, but it ends up being cissexist and loathsome (and, in the case of degrading talk about FAAB bodies, misogynistic more often than not). It occurs to me that this misogynistic denigration of FAAB bodies is not dissimilar to the femme-shaming that’s so omnipresent in the gay dating scene. It’s rare to see ten gay male OKCupid profiles without running into quite a few with “no femmes” or “masc. only” in them. Misogyny in the gay male community is far from a non-issue.
2) Gay trans men are erased from histories of gay men.
All queer people are to extent estranged from our own history because of the silence surrounding queer bodies and lives. But woe betide you if you’re trying to find examples of trans people in history, and woe betide you to the nth power if you’re trying to find examples of trans men. Good luck finding me an example of a well-known trans man from history who isn’t Alan L Hart, Billy Tipton, Reed Erickson, or Jack Bee Garland. Even those are well-known only in certain circles, and we spend about half our time trying to keep queer women from falsely claiming that these men were queer women—with the exception of Reed Erickson, where we spend all our time going, “That guy had a fucking leopard. A leopard! For a PET! And knew Chris Isherwood?” (Both of these things are true.)
Gay men have a history in common. In many cases it’s a cobbled together history, and in some cases it’s still murky, but it has an established canon, stories that are easy to tell and remember, and it’s fairly easily accessible if you have the internet or a library. (The full extent of the devastation caused by homophobic negligence at the beginning of AIDS is a good example of a murky period.) Gay men can point to stories of Oscar Wilde, Harvey Milk, Rimbaud and Verlaine, Walt Whitman, James I, or Larry Kramer (if they’re feeling a bit radical that day), and say, “Look, that’s us, that’s our past, that’s where we come from.”
Gay trans men are implicitly excluded from this history. There’s Louis Sullivan, of course, the founder of FTM International and a great man who was taken from the world by homophobic negligence during the AIDS epidemic, but discourse on Sullivan’s life is never a part of gay history except when all queers are lumped into “gay.” Sullivan is never ever discoursed upon as a gay man or a part of gay male history. He is always a part of trans history, usually as a “trans man who was gay,” and often as “the first gay trans man.”
In this way, gay trans men are implicitly declared to be modern, new, exclusively contemporary, springing fully formed from the skull of Judith Butler. Did people like me exist before 1980? I know they must have, but aside from a single photograph I saw once in a Leslie Feinberg book, I’ve never had any real confirmation of the fact. The dominant gay male paradigm erases the existence of trans gay men from history, and if we don’t have a place in the gay past, it’s going to be very difficult for us to have a place in the gay present.
3) It is assumed that gay male culture is largely about sex, and it is also assumed that trans men are sexually unattractive to cis gay men by virtue of their trans bodies, ergo, trans men cannot participate in sex-centered gay male culture.
People usually point this out with astonishment at the idea that any trans man could ever possibly try to live a “gay life,” whatever a gay life is—I think these people are assuming a “gay life” is one where you fuck/date/love people of the same gender. I’ve had this articulated to me usually by people who aren’t queer, except for the countless times I’ve heard gay trans men talk about being worried no gay man will ever be interested in them because of their FAAB bodies. The latter makes me impossibly sad to hear. (I’m obviously a walking refutation of the idea, but you know. It always feels a little self-aggrandizing to say, “Well, gay men want to have sex with me! Or maybe I’m just crazy hot.”) Basically, it’s an assertion that cis gay men will never be interested in trans gay men sexually, ergo, trans gay men can’t really participate in the gay community.
This relies on the ancient homophobic assumption that gay men and the gay male community are obsessed with sex and exclusively focused on sex. Promiscuous, constantly horny, thinking with their genitals. Of course you can’t participate in the gay male community! The gay men don’t want to fuck you, and that’s what their community is, a giant orgy!
Of course, the whole assumption that cis gay men won’t be interested in trans men is founded in cissexist and transphobic ideas about bodies and gender. And I mean, well. Buck Angel. Have you heard of him. And all the gay men who watch his porn.
4) Gay male culture often involves feminine gender play and expression, and when trans men engage in this, their gender identity is immediately questioned.
If you’ve spent your whole life asserting that no, you’re really not a girl, you didn’t make this up, you aren’t lying, the idea of doing something as quintessentially gay as dressing up as Madonna for Halloween is going to seem pretty terrifying and likely to invalidate you. The minute a gay trans man participates in the time honored gay male tradition of performing an outrageous, campy version of femininity, his maleness is questioned by those around him. I once had a boss tell me the reason he consistently mispronouned me was that I liked ballet and musical theatre and sometimes tapped my feet when Britney Spears played in the office.
5) Straight women sometimes feel more comfortable in the company of gay men, and the dominant paradigm assumes this is because they are insecure about being able to attract straight men. The dominant paradigm assumes that trans people are self-hating and this is the etiology of their gender identities. The dominant paradigm therefore deduces that gay trans men belong to the aforementioned group of insecure straight women.
This line of thought is usually a sibling to Zucker-esque “straight trans men are lesbians who hate themselves” and “gay trans women are attracted to the image of themselves as a woman” ideas. It conceives of gay trans men as inadequate straight women. Because these straight women are inadequate, they seek out the company of gay men, who will not scorn them as straight men do. They feel so comfortable with these gay men that they wish to become one of them, and they therefore try to do so.
This obviously rests in the idea that femaleness is an inferior condition, one that women must try to escape. It is profoundly misogynistic and thus of course extremely common, because misogyny is the little black dress of social evils and goes perfectly with every single -ism you can think of.
6) Because of gay activism’s poor record with trans issues, there is significant pressure within the trans community for trans people to minimize their gay identities.
I noticed this especially when the marriage equality movement became extremely intense in New York. Complaining that the queer movement is too focused on marriage is perfectly legitimate. I agree. But I received significant backlash that took this form: “This is a gay issue. You’re trans. You are betraying your transness by involving yourself in a gay issue when the queer movement is overly focused on gay issues.” It’s just one way that gay trans people are attacked for trying to fully live and express their sexual identity and gender identity together.
That’s the end of my litany, I think. There are more ways the gay and trans male communities are estranged from one another, of course, but I have to leave some ground to cover for the dissertation I finally write, right?
I’d love other people’s thoughts on this. You may have noticed it’s a subject close to my heart.
I’ll leave you by repeating that it is incredibly fucked up that we think of “the trans community” and “the gay community” as discrete things. I feel stretched between both and barred from fully joining both because of my membership in the other. I’m going to drown my sorrows in sushi and Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall.
NB: When I first posted this on my Tumblr, one of my followers brought up wanting a discussion of how race intersects with this; I want that too. I unfortunately am not yet at a place in my anti-racist education where I’m competent to provide that. If you’re reading this and you are, your thoughts would be a gift.