Being Transgender is Dishonest

A recent Feministing post on transgender people having sex with cisgender people attracted many negative comments focusing on the "dishonesty" of transgender people.

First of I’d like to say that I completely agree that it is dishonest for a transgender person and a cisgender person to have sex, full-stop.  We live in a world where notions of sexual orientation and gender are defined from a cisgender persective.  Since transgender people don’t fit neatly into these cisgender definitions, we are always going to be viewed as dishonest from a cis-only perspective.

The whole notion of gender is commonly defined in terms of "biological sex".  Interestingly very few people seem to see any need to decide what "biological sex" actually is, given that it has about a million different scientific meanings.  Transgender people don’t fit into these ideas of gender, so we are dishonest always.  I can’t say I am female without being accused of lying about what my assigned biological sex.  And I can’t say I’m male, because that isn’t my gender identity nor is how I’m usually perceived, so that of cause would make me dishonest as well.  And I certainly couldn’t say my gender identity is anything other than female or male, because those options don’t even exist in a lot of people’s eyes.  So yes I am completely dishonest, because I can’t even give an honest (cisgender) answer to what my gender is.

Thankfully comments along the above lines have become rarer at Feministing, and transgender people are less often accused of being dishonest about their gender.

But now with this recent post, there was a lot of people making comments based on similar thinking.  That transgender people should reveal their transgender status, because it’s something a partner needs to know.  Yet the reason usually given is that its relevant to the sexual orientation of the cisgender person.

But this argument has the same problems as that of defining a transgender person’s gender.  We have these artificial labels that people apply to themselves – heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, or assexual.  And this is what defines us, but when it comes to transgender people and cisgender people having sex, these labels become ambiguous and we no longer have an "honest" labelling system – which is of cause blamed on the transgender person who caused this anomaly.

It is this system of labelling sexual orientations that is the problem.  The reality is that a human being is sexually attracted to some other human beings.  But we then feel the need to categorise people into heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, or assexual.  But given that these categories are based on the gender of the person you are attracted to, this can not possibly be meaningful when the gender of a person isn’t straight-forward.

The reality is that you can be attracted to somebody, without even knowing  what their gender (however you as an individual define it) or even being mistaken about the gender.  This situation clearly makes a mockery of the system we use.  Though I have no doubt that many people would just blame the person they are "mistakenly" attracted to for being dishonest about their gender.

And the other obvious anamoly which seemed to be completely ignored in most comments – that if a cisgender person is sexually attracted to a transgender person, then the attraction exists.  The cisgender person can’t then say that they aren’t attracted to trans people, that’s just a plain contradiction.  What of cause can be said is that the cisgender person chooses not to have sex with transgender people, which is of cause a valid preference – just as racism classism, biphobia, and ableism are also valid reasons for choosing sexual partners.

Now I realise that the above "systems" of defining gender and sexual orientation are very widely used in society.  But I am disturbed that on a Feminist blog, people are defending the use of these cisgender-only systems – systems whose consequence is to oppress transgender people.

To call a stealth transgender person dishonest (or worse) for having sex with a cisgender person is a defense of this transphobic system.  If people want to choose to only sleep with cisgender (or white/able/middle-class/non-bigots/liberal/conservative/etc) partners, then people should take care that their sexual partners satisfy their particular prejudices.

Even if a majority of people are transphobic (or racist/ableist/classist/etc) then that doesn’t justify obligating transgender people to partake in that oppression.  Surely the real issue is tackling that transphobic culture, pointing out the absurdity of society’s ideas of gender and sexual orientation, rather than accusing transgender people of dishonesty or sexual assault because we don’t fit society’s norms and expectations.

And to be clear, I acknowledge that it is possible to construct hypothetical situations that would be dishonest and/or sexual assault committed by a transgender person (just as the case for a cisgender person).  I am talking about the general idea of a cisgender and transgender person having sex.

And in this post I am not making any comment on the argument that being open about big things is important/necessary in a relationship – that is a seperate issue to this

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30 Comments

  1. insomniac
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    With you 100%.

  2. voluptuouspanic
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for writing this. I really don’t have anything to say, other than thanks!

  3. Gular
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    I’ve done a lot of serious thinking about this since this discussion has been going down. It’s actually carried with me out into my non-internet life’s thoughts and has really made me challenge my own thoughts on the matter.
    I think your post really highlights a lot of thoughts that I had had, on both sides of the fence, about this issue.
    I’ve come to a point where I’m not sure how to get both sides to compromise in my mind. The trans person is a victim of the binary system, just as much as a cis person is — however much in different ways. The cis person is a victim of their lack of knoweledge and the trans person is a victim of the binary directly.
    So, I’m stuck in my thinking right now because it’s not particularly either side’s fault given the constructs of gender in society.
    I can’t expect the trans person to always be an educator, especially of sexual partners. On the other hand, I can’t across the board expect a cis person to understand the gender binary enough to understand how trans function in the realm of (the already complex) realm of sexual orientation.
    The cis person, only after this encounter if they’ve previously been unaware in a real sense of the binary, can and should educate themselves about gender issues. However, the encounter that, I’ve assumed, we’re talking about is one where this cis gender person has the sexual encounter first.
    So, in other words, I’m stuck.

  4. JupiterAmmon
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Right on! People shouldn’t go about assuming people’s genders or sexualities and carry out interactions based on their eyes’ assessments only to then scream about how “deceived” they were. The question one should ask is, “deceived by whom?”

  5. Nepenthe
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    I wish I could “like” this post.

  6. ErikB
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    This ^

  7. thetroubleisme.wordpress.com
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    I don’t really understand why it’s such a big deal to have consensual sex with someone you are attracted to.
    This may just be a function of my pansexuality, but I can’t see why one would have an freak out over the fact that they slept with someone who is trans.

  8. Nicole
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Just one comment: This was beautifully said, and thank you for posting it.

  9. Vassae
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    As a queer-identified transwoman, I completely agree with this–asking anybody to participate in their own oppression is an invocation of The Master’s Tools. Feminists do not willingly oppress, nor ask others to willingly participate in their own oppression, because those are the tactics of the patriarchy and we all know where that will get us.

  10. ladyiconoclast
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Just wanted to add my voice to the chorus of THANKS!
    Thank you for saying this, here, in this way.

  11. ladyiconoclast
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    “it’s not particularly either side’s fault”
    Yes.
    Many trans folk’s reactions (often including mine) are to this issue being presented as our fault. This generates lots of reactionary statements, and not a lot of understanding.
    Thank you for taking the time to think about this.

  12. Gular
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    I think that this topic has challenged a lot of unexamined privilege of my own and it’s really been an eye opener. I have a lot of work to do because theoretical me is like “the cis person just needs to accept!” but the realistic part of me is “the trans person may be a big help in this”.
    The theoretical me is the one who wins out when it’s just me, but when making it about everyone, I’m having a hard time keying into a paradigm that doesn’t slight one side or the other.

  13. Jos
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    “The reality is that a human being is sexually attracted to some other human beings. But we then feel the need to categorise people into heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, or assexual. But given that these categories are based on the gender of the person you are attracted to, this can not possibly be meaningful when the gender of a person isn’t straight-forward.”
    This is exactly how I feel about desire, sex, and sexuality as a trans person. Brilliantly, beautifully said silver unicorn. Your exploration of trans identity as “dishonest” is completely on point, revealing the dominant ways trans folks are understood and treated. I’m pretty bowled over by how excellently you’ve framed this topic – hot analysis!
    I think the maximum possible amounts of openness and honesty are ideal in sexual relationships. But we can’t let ideals blind us to reality. Allen Ray Andrade beat Angie Zapata to death with a fire extinguisher because she was “dishonest.” There is absolutely no argument about how trans folks should or must disclose our histories that doesn’t lead easily to victim blaming. Don’t impose morals developed from a position of greater power and privilege on an oppressed population whose experience you do not understand.

  14. JupiterAmmon
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    I would like to add my own experience as a cisgendered gay man who developed a crush a couple of years ago on a transboi who I initially assumed to be cisgendered. When I first found out that he was cisgendered I was shocked, and then very confused sexually. However, I believe that this shock, which had less to do with his gender than my own sexuality, and that sexuality, like gender, is as fluid as a glass of water, was only able to be understood and developed intellectually in my mind within the context of the feminism that I was being exposed to in college. I cannot say how I might have reacted if I had only been exposed to the very rigid and very commodified one-size-fits-all sexuality reproduced and taught in the media.

  15. Blithely Zealotic
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Thank you!
    If we didn’t have labels of “gay” and “straight” (which people confuse with gender identity as well, which is another can of worms) then I don’t think there would be the same level of anxiety about cis-gendered people sleeping with transgendered people.
    The anxiety comes from what the beliefs surrounding what the desire for a transgendered person means from a cis-gendered perspective. “Am I gay?” No, you’re not anything. You’re a human being attracted to another human being, which is pretty common. If there was no homophobia and anxiety around what these desires mean, I think the acceptance of trans-folks would go a very long way.
    If a trans person later comes out that they once lived in a different body, you should feel honored and privileged that they felt comfortable enough to trust you with that information.

  16. arielmorgan
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    “It is this system of labelling sexual orientations that is the problem. The reality is that a human being is sexually attracted to some other human beings. But we then feel the need to categorise people into heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, or assexual. But given that these categories are based on the gender of the person you are attracted to, this can not possibly be meaningful when the gender of a person isn’t straight-forward.”
    I also, 100% agree with this.
    Technically speaking, if a transgendered person is to be considered “not male” and “not female” because they do not fulfill the requirements of the cis-gendered definition… then, by default, any sexual interaction between a transgendered person and a cis-gendered person, is “heterosexual”, i.e. sex with someone of a different gender. (Hetero- meaning “different”, “other.”)

  17. aletheia_shortwave
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    I just wanted to talk about my own experience dating a trans woman as a survivor of sexual assault, and how even though I identified my girlfriend as a woman I had a hard time not having severe flashbacks sometimes because she had a penis. I was nearly killed by a sex partner at 14.
    My girlfriend was forthcoming about her trans identity. She was also a totally amazing person, and I felt terrible that there was this intersection between my trauma and her oppression re: her gender identity, because she has already been made to feel enough shame about her identity as it is.

  18. Suzy Q
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    Jos said, “Allen Ray Andrade beat Angie Zapata to death with a fire extinguisher because she was “dishonest.”
    Actually Andrade is a freaking liar and is the dishonest one. He met Angie Zapata in traffic court where she was dealing with a summons that used her original name and that name was called in open court.
    Virtually every single one of these cases has but one dishonest person, the one doing the violence.

  19. dirty democrat
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this post. I’m embarrassed to say that even as a long-time feminist activist, gay rights supporter, and all-around progressive, I myself only even learned what the term “cisgender” MEANT a year ago (I’m 23). I and others in the cisgender group of people have a lot to learn about transgender folks and issues, and I appreciated this opportunity to learn. :)

  20. Elyse
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    You are awesome. Great post.

  21. Devoted_Toucan
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    “We have these artificial labels that people apply to themselves – heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, or assexual.  And this is what defines us, but when it comes to transgender people and cisgender people having sex, these labels become ambiguous and we no longer have an “honest” labelling system…”
    Nice (and the rest). My partner recently “came out” as a transman. We’re pleasantly surprised at the amount of support people have shown towards him so far. However, most people who know seem to have lost faith in us as a couple. They question how we can stay together when “Joey” (me) “likes t*ts and vagina”, “is a lesbian”, etc. (Which is funny as I don’t believe I actually said to this group of people “I’m a lesbian”.) A couple of the folks we’re closer to say they understand that we love each other a lot and therefore can see why we’re staying together, but are still very questioning (five weeks after we first told them). My partner says to be understanding of their confusion (and I am), but it’s as if we have something to justify; have to keep explaining something they must know they won’t be able to think/feel “Ah, I get it now” to.
    (I find that, in my case, people also think I’m being dishonest to myself – and to my partner – about what my supposed sexual orientation is and about being able to continue my relationship. As if they can say “You’re ____, so you can’t like ____” :| .)
    At the end of the day, I believe no healthy relationship (sexual or/and loving) should have to be justified or explained. We like who we like; love who we love. No matter how the person I’m with looked or looks, I’d always have fallen for the personality he has. (For once, I’m going to say “luckily” to us having met online – it’s helpful in my attempts at trying to explain to friends that the body he has is barely significant to how much I want him. After all, I fell for him before I saw any photos or videos, or met him physically.)

  22. TD
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    But this argument has the same problems as that of defining a transgender person’s gender. We have these artificial labels that people apply to themselves – heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, or assexual.
    I see nothing artificial with any of those labels. The decision of a person on how they identify is their own choice and I’m inclined to believe that the person is more capable of judging their own sexuality than another person is of determining whether that label is “artificial”.
    But given that these categories are based on the gender of the person you are attracted to, this can not possibly be meaningful when the gender of a person isn’t straight-forward.
    Again I disagree on several fronts. Yes, to an outside observer this may complicate factors if we were to attempt to predict how a person might react or view a particular scenario, but this does not mean the persons view of their own sexuality is not meaningful it does not even suggest that they will have any difficulty navigating how they feel about the situation.
    It certainly does not mean, as was repeatedly claimed in previous posts on this subject, that sexual orientation is a merely a kink or hangup.
    Further you assume that the sexuality of the person is based upon the gender of the their partner. This is not inherently true, people can readily define their sexuality on the sex of their partner, the particular set of equipment of their partner and on a wide range of things. All of these are equally valid viewpoints.

  23. FrumiousB
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    this can not possibly be meaningful when the gender of a person isn’t straight-forward.
    I find this phrasing problematic for two reasons: First, it sounds as though you are saying that trans peoples’ genders are not straight forward. If a given trans person wants to identify their own gender as “not straightforward,” I am down with that. For you to categorize all trans folks’ genders as “not straight” forward is a little presumptuous. Most trans folks know what their gender is, just as most cis folks know what their gender is.
    Second, I speak only for myself, but if I, a woman, started dating another woman, I would still identify as straight. My orientation is something that is part of me, not something that is defined by external factors. Casual polling indicates that many people feel this way about their orientations.

  24. April
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t call people who are transgender dishonest as a whole at all. But to take it upon yourself to assert that my sexual orientation is invalid and just a made-up thing is insulting and rude. I certainly wouldn’t tell you that you’re not a woman, so you don’t get to tell me that I am not “really” heterosexual, which is what you very clearly implied in your post. You just did the gay rights movement a great disservice and practically declared the entire movement to be in vain. After all, if sexual orientation is super fluid for every single person and one can simply choose which sex or gender they are most attracted to based on the day or weather or person, then gay people can just figure out a way to be attracted to the opposite sex, and we’d never have this silly homophobia problem, right?

  25. silver_unicorn
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    “this can not possibly be meaningful when the gender of a person isn’t straight-forward.”
    This phrase I used was clumsy I admit, and i’d change it if I could. I meant “… straight-forwardly defined from the cis-only perspective (or not defined at all)”

  26. silver_unicorn
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    I think you are missing my point about sexual orientation. I was making a distinction between a natural sexual attraction, and the fact that for an individual identifying as a sexual orientation is a choice from the limited range of heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, assexual.
    I’m also saying nothing about whether or not a person’s view of their sexuality is meaningful. It is the standard way of describing sexuality that is inadequate to actually meaningfully and accurately describe a sexuality
    “Further you assume that the sexuality of the person is based upon the gender of the their partner”
    Not anywhere in my OP.
    -Jen-

  27. silver_unicorn
    Posted November 6, 2009 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    Firstly, my OP doesn’t say anywhere that sexual attraction is a choice (in fact I explicitly say the exact opposite). I’m making no presumptions about who you are attracted to and I’m not saying that it is invalid to describe your personal sexuality in anyway you want.
    “After all, if sexual orientation is super fluid for every single person and one can simply choose which sex or gender they are most attracted to based on the day or weather or person”
    I think you misunderstood my OP here. I was saying that calling yourself heterosexual is a choice (distinct from being sexually attracted to a person of the opposite sex). And making that decision has consequences as to how society perceives you and entitlement to heterosexual privilege.
    There is also a choice to act on a sexual attraction or not, I’m hoping that is not too controversial a statement. A person can take all the people they are biologically attracted to, and make a choice to only have sex with the male/female/white/cisgender/penis-possessing/able/middle-class/blonde-haired/etc (delete as appropriate) subset of them. And I believe that those choices are valid.
    But my point is that these all involve choices. Not about who you are attracted to, but about the attractions you are willing to act upon. Of cause somebody can find that every person they are attracted to is of the opposite gender (however you define it) to themselves, and so calling themselves “heterosexual” is a completely valid (and I think pretty sensible) choice.
    “You just did the gay rights movement a great disservice and practically declared the entire movement to be in vain.”
    I think that sticking to our society’s limited number of accepted sexual orientation labels does are far greater disservice. Surely identifying as heterosexual carries the implication that you are only biologically attracted to one gender (however you define it), implying that you somehow have enough control over who you are attracted to, to be able to make such a statement. Reality is that people have no control over who they are attracted to, and pretending that we have enough control to fit into one of our pre-defined categories is the disservice.
    You have also missed my main point completely. That sticking by our society’s standard heteronormative definitions of sex, sexuality, sexual orientation and gender, results in a homophobic and transphobic society.

  28. Lizzie (greeneyed fem)
    Posted November 6, 2009 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    if sexual orientation is super fluid for every single person and one can simply choose which sex or gender they are most attracted to based on the day or weather or person
    This is a complete mischaracterization of what the OP said. The OP is talking about the “system of labeling sexual orientations.” If you identify as straight, gay, or bi, that’s real for you. My identity as queer is real for me.
    But these categories are specific to this time and place — they are not universal, they do not transcend all historical eras. These categories can, and do, change. Someone from ancient Greece or Persia would have no idea what we’re talking about when we talk about our sexual identities as gay, straight, bi, or asexual.
    So cultural/social sexual categories/identities change. What is constant in human history is attraction. People are attracted to other people. If you identify as straight and go your whole life only ever being attracted to cisgendered/cissexual people of the opposite sex, bully for you. You will have no internal conflict about your sexual orientation. BUT. If you identify as a straight woman and find yourself attracted to another woman, this can create internal conflict: Are you straight? Are you bi? Are you really a lesbian?
    And if you identify as a gay man and you find yourself attracted to a trans man, this can also create internal conflict: because our transphobic culture labels trans men and women as not “really” men and women, but as “really” their birth sex or as something else entirely. This cultural transphobia manifests in people freaking out about their sexual orientation when they think about having sex with a trans person.
    The point is that this conflict is a result of the male/female binary and the sexual orientation categories that we’re all given to work with, in this time and place. No one is saying that your sexual orientation is invalid. But if the only way you can fit a trans person into your sexual orientation is to invalidate their identity as a man or woman (or neither/both — no one is really talking about trans folks who reject the binary — I mean, who is allowed to have sex with them? /sarcasm), then there is a problem with the system in which we all live.

  29. crazylikezelda
    Posted November 6, 2009 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    I am having a few problems with this whole debate if I am being honest. I was raised to believe that if something or someone causes no harm then there is no moral issue, there is nothing to hate. A little simplistic I’ll grant you, but it has always seen me through.
    Which leads me to my issues. I am a Bisexual, cisgendered (which doesn’t seem to have caught on this side of the atlantic yet) woman. I like men and women and am attracted usually to things such as personality and passion over physical appearance. I also had a short lived affair with a transwoman who is lesbian identified. I’m not a fan of labels really, but I feel this still fits my “bisexual” label. I like men and women, she is to my mind, a woman. No difficulty there as far as I can see. We went out a few times before we slept together, however she still felt the need to tell me, when it seemed things were heading towards the bedroom, that she was pre-op and was technically “still a man”. I feel uncomfortable with that. She was never a man as far as I can see. She just had the wrong bady (again too simplistic, I apologise) and was always a woman. I can see why she felt it necessary as she was pre-op and she thought it might save every one the embarrasment in case I recoiled in horror. Even if she hadn’t told me I would never have recoiled! Perhaps all this is down to bigotry. In fact I am willing to bet that is the case. We need to deal with it the same way we still need to deal with racism and sexism. Society should be such that if two consenting adults, any two consenting adults, are attracted to each other and want a relationship sexual or otherwise they would just do it. There would be no need for “stealth” or “coming out” or indeed hiding yourself or your relationship. That’s the issue as the OP points out. In a fair and accepting world honesty would not be an issue.
    Not only this, but a few of my friends reacted VERY badly. It was almost like I had a relationship with a martian. I actually think they would have handled a martian better. It seemes that their gut instinct was that she is outside normal society. Wrong in herself therefore wrong to sleep with. There was such bile spouted I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know these people were capable of hating and dehumanising. Honestly the reaction was appalling. Interestingly I was not treated with anything other than curiosity while she was represented as something totally disgusting and disease spreading. As the “normal” person my participation in the act was glossed over while one of my (now ex) friends actually said that he “hoped it would die during the [gender reassignment] operation”. It??!! I have never been so angry, shocked and disillusioned in my life.
    Also I find it difficult to accept that a woman who has undergone a lengthy process to have the body that fits who they are should have to then spend the rest of their lives saying “I used to be a man” or “I am transgender”. I totally underminds their ability to be a real woman! Whatever that is.

  30. preciousflight
    Posted November 6, 2009 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Eye-opening, teaching post – I loved it! Thank you!

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