An op-ed from The Advocate has been making the rounds today, My Attraction to Trans People Is Not a Fetish, by Diane Anderson-Minshall. From the piece:
“…few women understand how [women] can be attracted to trans men and not be straight. I don’t know; sometimes there’s a beauty trans men exude that I am drawn to, like the dozens of lesbians before them.
Does that make me a fetishist? No. I think that just like your sexual orientation makes you attracted to men or women or both, my sexual orientation makes me attracted to trans men, trans women, and nontrans women.” (Emphasis added)
I’ve thought a lot about what it means to have a fetish, versus a predilection or a leaning-towards or a simple interest. So have lots of trans women I know; underlying our relationships is far too often the question, “Is this person attracted to me, or to me being trans?” So I use a rule of thumb about fetish-versus-not. I’ve heard others use it, including Dan Savage on his podcast. It’s pretty simple:
Are you attracted to me, as a person first and foremost? Or are you attracted to me, as a trans person, first and foremost?
Obviously, there’s going to be some overlap. Using myself as an example, I am so out – and so explicit about trans activism as an important part of my life – that there’s a fuzzy line between my trans-self and not-trans-self. But the question I would ask someone, if I thought they were fetishizing me or if they worried they might be fetishizing someone else, is this:
Would you still be interested in that person if we could wave a magic wand and de-trans them?
Lets go back to Anderson-Minshall’s piece, and that emphasized quote in particular. My problem with Diane – and why I think she’s giving herself too much credit in saying that she doesn’t have a fetish and isn’t fetishizing trans people – is that she’s separating trans men and women from cis men and women. She’s using an identity characteristic – trans – rather than talking about what is attractive to her. Is it that trans men are more likely to be political? More likely to be thin? Or less likely? Is it that trans men feel less like a threat; don’t have negative socialization that Diane associates with cis men? Is it something else entirely? But lets talk about the roots of her attraction, not just put it under the umbrella “trans people are awesome!”
(Although we are pretty awesome.)
And it’s not that I completely disagree with her piece. I totally agree with Diane that people who are attracted to trans and gender-variant folks should come out of the closet. On that, we are in 100% agreement. We also seem to be in agreement that attraction to trans people shouldn’t call someone’s sexuality or orientation into question. But lets answer Diane’s rhetorical question: “Why does being attracted to trans women make those men fetishist, but if they were attracted to cisgender women or other men, it would merely be considered their orientation?”
Being attracted to trans women doesn’t make men fetishist. However, being solely attracted to trans men or women, at the exclusion of cis men or women, is fetishizing because it says – when you get right down to it – we’re not ‘really’ like those men or women. It’s lumping us in a different category, when it comes to sexuality and interpersonal interaction. And if you’re going to go down that road, why stop at trans/cis? Why not say, “Someone who is solely and exclusively attracted to ________ isn’t fetishizing that identity or body type or ethnicity, it’s just their orientation.”
(Why not? Because you would be wrong; it is fetishizing.)
So excuse me if I’m offended that you’re segregating my identity from real/normal/typical/whatever sexuality, and placing it in a separate category.
As a post-script, it’s also worth noting that – on a larger level – Diane’s piece naively equates cis women’s attraction toward trans people as being culturally equal to cis men’s attraction toward trans people. For a whole host of reasons (hint: all related to patriarchy and sexism) a cis woman attracted to a trans man is going to be viewed more positively than a cis man attracted to a trans woman. Ignoring that inherent sexism and transmisogyny, and simply wringing her hands at how uncomfortable she is at being labeled a fetishist, is missing a really important point.