This Sunday, Erica and I posted our joint response to some unfortunate comments made by trans man porn star Buck Angel during an interview with Salon, in which he publicly bought into society’s trans-misogynistic victim-blaming narrative that trans women are being “disrespectful” if they do not disclose trans status in romantic/sexual relations with their partner. The following would be the most pertinent quote:
I’m a huge advocate for disclosure, because I believe a lot of people get themselves in bad situations because they do not disclose. For example, trans women who might hook up with a cis-gendered guy and then he goes home with her and finds out she has a penis and flips out and beats her up or kills her. That’s horrible, and I really believe by not disclosing it’s very disrespectful to the other person because they might not be into it and it makes them feel very freaked out about themselves.
Here I would like to elaborate on our previous response, more narrowly focusing on the issue of disclosure and drawing out more fully the implications of the above line of thinking.
In the initial posting, we touched on the case of Gwen Araujo, a trans woman of color who was tortured and then murdered by strangulation in Newark, California in October 2002 by four men, at least two of whom she had previously engaged in sexual relations.
According to the standard narrative of how events unfolded, it was during a party held at a private residence that these men began asking questions about Gwen’s status. One of them then went into the bathroom with Gwen and forced her to reveal her genitals against her will, confirming her trans status. It was this confirmation that preceded brutal violence in which Gwen was beaten on the head with a soup can and had a skillet smashed across her face. The setting only becomes more gruesome when we consider that much of the violence apparently occurred in front of party attendees.
However, there are in fact several conflicting accounts of what actually happened, including some key gaps in this standard narrative.
One of Gwen’s murderers, Jason Chase Nabors, has acknowledged that he suspected her trans status all along. And while he further claims that the others did not realize that she was trans, oddly, in a letter to his girlfriend he acknowledged that he and one of the other attackers had discussed killing her days before the party at which her trans status was purportedly revealed (San Jose Mercury News, February 25, 2003, archived here).
Now, this is odd, because if the sole motivation for the murder is supposedly “panic” in response to Gwen’s status, why was Nabors discussing the murder with his friend days before it occurred? It seems clear that we have either a lie about the motive for the murder (i.e. did one of them desire to kill her before he even realized she was trans?) or we have a lie about the moment when a second attacker realized that Gwen was trans. I quite strongly suspect that the latter is the case, and that in fact at least two of Gwen’s attackers realized, on some level, that she was trans all along.
Now, given that the courts were apparently fully aware of this information, what are we to make of the “trans panic” defense that was used to obtain reduced sentences for those who murdered Gwen Araujo? Let me emphasize that it was not only the legal defense team for the murderers that bought into this line of thinking. In fact, it was the prosecutor Chris Lamiero in the case who is on record as stating:
Gwen being transgender was not a provocative act. She’s who she was. However, I would not further ignore the reality that Gwen made some decisions in her relation with these defendants that were impossible to defend. I don’t think most jurors are going to think it’s OK to engage someone in sexual activity knowing they assume you have one sexual anatomy when you don’t.
In other words, the defense, the prosecution, the public-at-large, and just about everyone down the line bought into the idea of this idea of “panic” regarding Gwen’s status, despite the available evidence to the contrary. What are we to make of this?
The underlying reason for this of course is cissexism, because society wishes to imagine that cis identities represent “true,” normative genders, while trans identities represent purely artificial or “deceptive” genders, and that no heterosexual cis man would ever, under ordinary circumstances, be attracted to a trans woman (i.e. he could only be attracted to her by “deception”). Society wishes to imagine these things, despite the fact that they are not true by objective terms.
The emotional investment that many place on these assumptions is only emphasized by the fact that one writer for an Iowa student newspaper (archived here) actually claimed that Gwen committed “rape” against her attackers; this, despite the fact that the only incidence of sexual violence in this case was when one of the men forced Gwen to reveal her genitals against her will.
As another example, there is the case of a pre-op trans woman in Philadelphia who was transferred from a women’s prison to a men’s prison after she accused a correction’s officer of forcing her to perform oral sex. Following along with the dominant cissexist narrative, the union president representing the correction’s officer made the bizarre claim that the fact that the woman turned out to be trans actually proves that the correction’s officer could not possibly have sexually assaulted her in the first place.
Then there is the case in which a judge in Sweden ruled that intended rape is actually not intended rape at all, based merely on the fact that the woman that a cis man intended to rape turned out to be trans and the intended rapist wasn’t aware of it during the act.
And another particularly damning piece of evidence would be the well-known “comedy” film Ace Ventura, which culminates in a “deceptive” trans woman being publicly attacked and sexually assaulted while a group of police officers look on, eventually retching when her genital configuration is revealed. Of course, this all happens while the audience at home is intended to point their fingers and laugh at this supposed asshole mockery of a woman.
With these scenarios in mind, I would like to recount an experience of my own that happened about two and a half years ago, back when I lived in Toronto:
One evening, a trans woman friend and I decided to rent a movie. We picked something out at the rental store then began walking back to my place along Toronto’s Bloor Street in the West End. Although Bloor is a major traffic artery, there weren’t many people out that Sunday night. However, we passed a man about halfway between the video store and the house. He looked at my friend, and then kind of grinned at me as he walked past, which I interpreted as flirting.
My guess is that this man picked up in my friend’s trans status, and then picked up on mine by association. Note I am only pointing this out to illuminate that “disclosure” was never an option for me in this situation, one way or the other.
At the time I interpreted his behavior as friendly, so as this guy went past I kept my eye on him. When he had passed and he was a few feet behind us, he stopped. I thought he was going to say something playful, so I stopped as well, looking back at him with a little smile waiting to see what he would say.
“You’re a tall woman,” he said as he began walking towards us again, his eyes trained on me.
This was not what I expected to hear, and it immediately took me off guard. Mentally, I recovered to the point of saying, “Yes, I am,” as in, I am not ashamed to be the person that I am. But what he said next took me completely by surprise.
“I don’t like to use a gun, I like to use a knife,” he said while looking directly in my eyes, “That way I can feel everything.”
This man proceeded to act out what he imagined would be my experience of death at his hands. He leaned against the concrete wall of the bank that we happened to be passing when we encountered him; and he convulsed his body, arms pushing outwards, intimating me attempting to push him away as he would drive the knife into my belly.
I was so stunned by this that in the end, I stood there in silence, watching this man’s ‘performance.’ Finally, the expression on my friend’s made it clear: it was time to go.
I looked back at the man defensively as we walked off. He started walking the other way, but his expression never changed as he also looked back, and said, “Don’t worry, you’ll be alone one night, I’ll find you!”
The thing that I remember most vividly about this incident is that the man made unwavering eye contact with me the entire time. Never for a moment did he seem “freaked out” by me in any way; on the contrary he had a smile on his face and joy in his eyes throughout the encounter.
That was at an earlier point in my transition, which is, I think, part of the reason I didn’t know any better how to react than to stand there watching this asshole play out my supposed ‘final scene.’ However, given the knowledge and the experiences that I have obtained in the years since that evening, I now realize the sad truth that society’s cissexist myths hand so much power over to sociopaths like this man. Looking back on it, I can’t help but think: what if I had encountered him alone at a later time? What if I had been alone that night on Bloor Street? If he had dragged me to an alleyway or back to his house, done Goddess-knows-what, and then killed me, would he be able to claim the “disclosure” myth as an alibi?
If society is so willing to believe, contrary to available evidence, that a cis man would never be knowingly attracted to or interested in a trans woman, couldn’t this man just say that in the middle of consensual sex, he “found out I had a penis, flipped out, beat me up and killed me”? (to paraphrase one Buck Angel). Given my experiences about how society tends to think around these issues, I can’t help but feel extremely vulnerable realizing that many people would be inclined to believe that that was true, even if there was evidence that contradicted that narrative.
So we see that what’s happening in these situations: there is an unresolved tension between the imagination of a cissexist society that heterosexual, cis men are only attracted to cis women, and the real-world fact that heterosexual, cis male sexual attraction to trans women is far from an uncommon phenomenon. Given that this larger cissexist imagination often emerges from voices with greater power in society, that tension tends to be resolved by assuming that such attraction never happens, and that even if it does, it is the just the result of some “deceptive tr*nny,” who probably deserves whatever violent “retribution” she receives— even in the case that this violence was never retributive in the first place.
Now, this isn’t to say that there are not instances in which a cis man does discover a woman’s trans status “in the moment,” then reacts in a violent manner. But this is to say, first of all, that the “disclosure” myth hands this man respect and power that he does not deserve, in the form of a ready-made, socially palatable alibi for violence against a woman with whom he willingly decided to engage in sexual relations. And secondly, given that this hypothetical cis man is indeed attracted to a trans woman, we cannot allow ourselves to buy into the cissexist imagination that she has somehow “disrespected” him merely by accepting or encouraging his very real sexual desires.
The fact is that regardless of what this man likes to imagine about himself, or what any of us might be inclined to tell ourselves, he is indeed attracted to a trans woman. That is an undeniable fact, and there’s no manner of obsessing, or fidgeting over it, and certainly no amount of blood splattered across the wall that is going to change that. So from the point that the man realizes that he is in fact attracted to a trans woman, he has two choices: get up and leave the room if he so desires, or else get the fuck over it.
There are no other socially valid responses, and no trans woman is obligated to disclose anything at any point under any circumstances unless she so chooses.
If a man is truly determined that he should never sleep with a trans woman, then he does have another option: he can ask up front every woman with whom he shares sexual attraction whether or not she is trans. Given that trans women are already widely discriminated against, it makes no sense to place the onus on us in these matters.
So in the end, we may see the irony in the fact that trans women are often referred to in internet slang as “traps;” that is, as deceptive beings that exist only to lure unsuspecting heterosexual cis men. On the contrary, it is the disclosure myth that is in fact a trap: designed to make trans women vulnerable almost no matter what we do.