by Kai Cheng Thom
Originally published on Everyday Feminism and re-published here with their permission.
“I cannot promise to love you fearlessly / But I can love you courageously” – d’bi young anitafrika, “Rivers of Love”
This is a love letter to each and every one of you.
This is a letter to let you know that I still think about everything we did and will do together, everything we’ve talked about, every fight we had, and every tender moment we’re going to share.
This is a letter to P, who was always gentle. It’s a letter to M, so curious and kind, if occasionally thoughtless. To S – with whom the sex was freaking unbelievable. To J, always punning and making me laugh; and to E, who is always truthful.
This is a letter to all the men, both cisgender and transgender, who have ever loved me, and to all the men I will ever love.
I want you to know that you change my life and give me strength – even when things between us were/are hard. I want you to know that I see you, I appreciate you, even when I am challenging you to treat women like me – trans women and women of color – better than men in this society are taught to.
I know that being a man who is dating a trans woman (who is outspoken and only sometimes passes) is not always an easy thing. Let’s also take as a given the fact that being a trans woman who is outspoken and only sometimes passes is pretty much never easy thing.
Both of these things are true because of the transmisogyny that still runs rampant in our society and the communities we live in. And while this discrimination and hatred is mainly leveled toward girls like me, I know that some of it is reflected onto you as well.
This is something that is so, so hard to talk about. It’s something has remained unspoken, yet incredibly real, between us, as it does between so many trans women and the men they date.
Part of the difficulty, I know, is that you may not want to admit that being attracted to, going out with, and having sex with trans women comes with intense social stigma.
Another part is that trans feminists like myself believe that any discussion of transmisogyny must center around trans women ourselves. I don’t agree with Laverne Cox (for once in my life) when she says that men who date trans women “are probably more stigmatized than trans women.”
Because that is blatantly untrue.
Men who date trans women are not murdered regularly the way that we are. You don’t experience employment and housing discrimination or exclusion from social spaces in the way that we do.
But neither can I pretend that you live your life totally free from the violence and humiliation that a transmisogynistic culture attaches to my body – a body that you have touched and held and become associated with.
And as much as we may wish that things were different, you and I know that there are so many walls that lie in the way of our loving each other. These barriers have caused us to question ourselves, and our relationships.
Often, we fought about them. Sometimes, we broke up because of them.
You shouldn’t have to learn how to fight transphobia and shaming in order to be with me. I shouldn’t have to teach you how. But the truth is, this is world that often necessitates both.
Whether I like it or not, I am in this fight to the end. I have to be.
You, however, have a choice: your privilege allows you to choose whether you want to walk away from the struggle that is loving trans women, or stay fighting with us.
And if you should choose the latter – and I hope you do – then there are a few things I need you to know about shame, loving trans women, and loving yourself.
1. Dating Me Doesn’t Change Your Sexual Orientation
A huge amount of the stigma around straight men who date trans women is actually based in homophobia. Straight men who are attracted to us are called “f*ggots” and “h*mos,” and may have their heterosexuality called into question.
The implication here being that trans women aren’t really women, so if a man dates us, that means he’s gay.
Conversely, gay men often shy away from dating us – even if they want to – because they “aren’t supposed to be into women.”
And most anyone who dates trans women is at least occasionally subjected to the notion that they’re “into freaky stuff.”
Freaky stuff meaning, of course, women like me.
Past, present, and future boyfriends, I need to tell you something: If you identify as straight, then you can date trans women. If you are bisexual, you can date trans women. If you are gay, pansexual, omnisexual, or asexual, you can date trans women, and it doesn’t change your identity one little bit unless you want it to, because you know what?
You and only you get to decide how to define your sexual orientation.
2. Dating Me Doesn’t Make You ‘Abnormal’
I sometimes meet men who believe (or have been told) that their being attracted to trans women is a form of mental illness. Some of you are, or have been, those men.
Most often, you have absorbed this message from the media: How many Hollywood comedies feature jokes where a straight man finds out that he’s been dating or having sex with a trans woman and flat-out vomits? How many tabloid stories proclaim that a male celebrity has been caught with a trans woman as though this were shocking, sensational news?
More rarely, though still frighteningly often, they have been explicitly told this by a religious/spiritual leader or a health professional.
The implication here is that trans women are so repulsive that you would have to be “crazy” to want to be with us – which bears a striking resemblance to the idea that a person must be mentally ill if they identify with a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth.
But neither my body nor your attraction to it is disgusting or sensational or ill. My body is beautiful, and so is your love. If we are abnormal, that means only that our relationship is different from the one prescribed to us by society.
And there is nothing repulsive about that.
3. Dating Me Doesn’t Make You Less of a Man
As men who are attracted to trans women, you already know that one of most intense forms of transphobia that you will experience is an attack against your own gender identity.
Ignorant people – mostly other men – may insult your masculinity, questioning your ability to attract “real women,” and insult that ways that you have sex.
Cis men are not alone in this – trans men, too, are affected by the backlash that comes from dating trans women.
What you have to understand is that these attacks come from a place of fear. You, me, and our relationships are all very frightening to men whose sense of confidence and power come from reinforcing patriarchy.
The existence of romance and sexuality between a man and a transwoman is a challenge to the invisible rule stating that in order to be a “real” man, you have to “win” a cisgender woman’s companionship and sexually dominate her body.
It forces all men to question their belief in the foundations of their identity and privilege.
Remember this: Their masculinity is weak, because it relies on the subjugation of other’s bodies in order to exist. Yours is, or will be, strong, because it is learning how to stand on its own.
4. Having Sex with Me Isn’t a Fetish (Or It Shouldn’t Be)
Conventional straight couples have many love stories written about them: the prince and princess, the beauty and the beast, the hero and the damsel in distress. You and I have only one: the “tranny-chaser” and the “she-male/chick-with-a-dick.”
This story reduces us and the entirety of our relationships to nothing more than a tired old sex joke, a pornographic trope, an offensive cliché.
As trans activist/author/scientist Julia Serano writes, “People automatically presume that any person who is attracted to, or has sex with, a trans person must automatically have some kind of ‘fetish.’”
It’s true, of course, that there are some men who fetishize trans women – who want us only to fuel transmisogynist sex fantasies. I come across them all the time on OKCupid.
But you and I are much more than that. Our relationships have been deeper and more complex than any cliché could ever hope to contain.
And no amount of ridiculous jokes can ever take that from us.
5. You Don’t Have to Pity Me to Love Me
You may hear from people trying to patronize or subtly insult you that you’re “such a good person” for bearing through the difficulties of dating a trans woman.
It’s possible that you’ve received backhanded compliments on how progressive you are, since you’re willing to put up with the burden of my gender identity.
This is insulting to you and me. I am not something you have to pity in order to love. You’re not doing charity work by going out with or sleeping with me.
Our relationship is not defined by the judgments of others, or even by the violence that I – and by extension, you – experience in the world.
It’s true that you, as men, have privileges and power that I don’t. It’s true that this is something that comes between us from time to time.
But real relationships – like ours – are dynamic and transforming, constantly opening up into new dimensions. At our best, I learn from you and you, from me. We fight, we hurt each other, we heal, we grow. We leave and come back together and leave once again.
It isn’t your job to “save” me from transphobia. I’m doing that already.
The only person you need to save is yourself.
6. Loving Me Doesn’t Define You
Transphobia is greedy. It wants to swallow everyone and everything.
Because of this, whenever people talk about me, they usually refer to me in terms of my gender identity. I’m not a writer or a therapist or an artist. I’m “that Asian trans woman.”
And when we are dating and people talk about you, they may refer to you “that guy who’s into trans woman.”
It’s easy to be consumed by thoughts about the ignorance and hatred of the society that surrounds us.
How can we not be anxious and angry, when your families get uncomfortable when they find out who your partner is, when your friends snicker at us behind your back, when we have to be wary of violence when we go out at night?
But just as I am more than a trans woman, you are more than someone who loves trans women.
It’s your right and responsibility to decide what that means to you, what it means for your identities as men, and how you will explain (or refuse to explain) it to the people around you.
Choices like this are never easy.
But in the process of making them, you just might find a whole new truth about who you are.
This Is How You Love a Trans Woman
Dear boyfriends past and present: Thank you for being with me.
Please know that I’m not trying to either scare you off (!) of dating trans women or “sell” dating us. As you’re probably already aware (it’s not like I let you forget these things), trans women don’t need to beg men to be into us.
We really don’t.
But some trans women – like me – do want to be with men who know how to do the thing, and do it well. Which is not to say that you can’t make mistakes, or feel confused, or get overwhelmed.
We live in a world that says trans women don’t deserve love, and it will try to stop you from loving us.
Knowing how to love a trans woman is simple. You do it the way you ought to love anybody else: not fearlessly, but courageously.
Kai Cheng Thom is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a Chinese trans woman writer, poet, and performance artist based in Montreal. She also holds a Master’s degree in clinical social work, and is working toward creating accessible, politically conscious mental health care for marginalized youth in her community. You can find out more about her work on her website and at Monster Academy.