It was sometime during my first half-dozen dates with my girlfriend when I first became conscious of my body as a queer one. We would hold hands, walking through Manhattan, cuddling up against one another on the subway. But if it was late at night, our interlocking fingers would separate within seconds. We never knew who we were sharing the streets with when it was dark. Because when you’re a gay woman, signaling your queerness can be an invitation for violence.
I had been thinking what my body meant as a trans body for a long time. I knew I looked like a woman to the rest of the world, and I certainly had the secondary sex characteristics to prove it. But I felt caught in an endless feedback loop: knowing my body was a woman’s body but still struggling to fully accept myself as a woman.
Thinking of my body and my identity as a “lesbian” strangely helped me to solidify my relationship with my womanhood. During those first few months of dating my girlfriend, I really began to own the term. There was the fact that I was seen as a lesbian, much to the approval of other queer people who walked past us on the street. Then there was the fact that I was a trans woman in a relationship with a trans woman; it didn’t matter whether I had breasts or a penis or looked feminine from hormone replacement therapy. I was a lesbian. We were queer women. We knew each other’s bodies for women’s bodies.
But for some trans women, calling themselves a lesbian remains an uphill battle. And even now, I still struggle to accept that I can be both a transgender woman and queer. Sometimes, it feels like “lesbian” isn’t my word to use.
Who gets to be a lesbian?
Think about the term “lesbian.” What’s the first thing that comes to mind? In most cases, probably not a transgender woman. While trans rights are slowly becoming a mainstream topic of discussion, sometimes it feels like there’s an ocean of separation between the “L” and the “T” (and not just literally because the “G” and “B” are there). You get to be one, but not the other.
This is because lesbian women are primarily seen as attracted to cisgender women. The L Word shows lesbianism as purely cisgender, more often than not shrugging at trans experiences, and indie faves like Blue Is the Warmest Color put a spotlight on cisgender lesbians while completely avoiding trans ones altogether. Sometimes, it’s even cisgender lesbians themselves who are pushing the point of view.
“I am a lesbian who doesn’t want to date trans women,” one Reddit user wrote on on r/offmychest, a subreddit for anonymous confessions. “If you’re pre/non-op, you have a penis, and I’m not into penises. If you’re pop-op, you have a neovagina, which is not, in my eyes, identical to a natal vagina.”
On sites like Reddit, it’s common to find queer women arguing against dating trans women. More often than not, women who make that claim have plenty of support, too. In this thread’s case, commenters went on to stress that lesbians are, by definition, only attracted to vaginas. And trans women need to lay off on arguing otherwise.
“I’m not attracted to penises,” one woman wrote. “That’s sort of the crux of the whole ‘lesbian’ thing. I don’t care if the penis happens to belong to a woman. I don’t want to play with it.”
Other responses in the thread were worse, flat-out arguing trans women aren’t real women: “A lesbian is a homosexual female human being—i.e. a female human being attracted to other female human beings,” a user argued. “Heterosexual male is not a ‘lesbian’ on two separate bases—no matter how much he wishes it were not so.”
It doesn’t take much digging to see others arguing the same point. One trans woman on Twitter detailed an unnerving encounter with a transphobic lesbian on Tinder, who complained that her lack of a uterus was “appropriating my (oppressed) sex’s most vital organ.” And on a Facebook page for Her, a queer dating app with a strong lesbian following, several queer and lesbian trans women have left critical reviews, warning the dating platform’s users are “not trans friendly.”
These cases aren’t outliers. Back on Reddit, just check out r/GenderCritical, a transphobic subreddit dedicated entirely to refuting transgender activists’ beliefs and proving gender dysphoria doesn’t exist. In many cases, discussions veer back to trans lesbians, claiming trans women can’t consider themselves gay women because people with penises are automatically men.
“They’re straight males,” one user called iPood wrote. “Ofc they’re not attracted to penis. So subconsciously they know trans women aren’t women—if they truly believed that, [trans women] would have no problem dating other [trans women] because genitals don’t determine sex as they’re so fond of arguing.”
I wonder what iPood_ would think if we ever met. In my case, I spent the first 21 years of my life predominantly sexually attracted to cisgender women. But ever since I began my gender transition, most of my sexual experiences have been with other trans women. That’s not because I look down my nose at cis women or suddenly think their bodies are unattractive. Rather, the emotional labor that comes with dating cis lesbians is incredibly high, and that means the risk for having a bad encounter is, too. Even among women who don’t consider themselves anything remotely similar to trans-exclusionary feminists (TERFs), fears and anxieties about trans women’s bodies are often there subconsciously. And honestly, it just grows tiresome if all your date wants to do is ask you stuff about your body, and not about you.
In my trans relationships, I’ve come to understand just how beautiful sex can be between two transgender women. Trans sexuality is a healing presence, and more often than not, I feel inexplicably attracted to other trans women because they make me feel less alone. We share something in common: Our transness. And that makes us special.
I’m not an outlier in that regard, either. Just as cisgender feminists look to one another for fellowship, trans women search for belonging from other trans women, too. And is there any better way to tell someone that you care about them than by being intimate together?
“Believe it or not trans/trans dating is REALLY common,” one trans woman wrote on the subreddit r/asktransgender. “You meet other trans folk through the LGBT community, there’s this sense of connection and shared experience… It’s easy to crush on/fall for another transgender person, or at least it is for me.”
But it doesn’t seem to matter if trans women consider themselves lesbians. Trans women are still considered outliers who don’t fit neatly into cisgender conceptions of sexual attraction: Non-op or pre-op trans women are seen as too masculine because they have a penis; post-op trans women’s vaginas are considered “not identical” enough to a vagina developed in the womb. Meanwhile, lesbian relationships between two trans women are discredited, because those sexual and romantic connections simply aren’t centered around a cis person’s sexuality.
It’s easy to see how a hierarchy emerges. Suddenly, some lesbian bodies are more desirable, or more legit, than others—while those at the bottom of the rung are told they are not. It’s a way to police trans women by replicating the larger social problems that happen outside of the queer community, pushing transmisogyny into queer bars, clubs, and parties. Suddenly, gay trans women have to share space with other women who think their bodies don’t belong.
So much for the LGBTQ “love is love” umbrella.
Conditional love doesn’t make for a ‘truer’ lesbian
Policing is a common problem in queer spaces. That’s in part because queer spaces often stress that the personal is political. There’s the “gold star lesbian,” for instance, a common trope where lesbian women brag about never having any sexual contact with men in their lives. Instead of being a tongue-in-cheek joke, there’s a real sense of weight that comes with never having sex with a man, almost as if someone who has is lesser or tainted. But that just ends up treating women who question their sexuality like they’re impure, and turns bisexual women into outcasts for feeling physical attraction to men.
In n+1, writer Andrea Long Chu stresses that political lesbianism just doesn’t work. That’s because, at the end of the day, the heart craves what it wants. And for many queer women, that includes trans women.
“Desire is, by nature, childlike and chary of government,” Chu says in n+1, criticizing political lesbianism. “The day we begin to qualify it by the righteousness of its political content is the day we begin to prescribe some desires and prohibit others. That way lies moralism only.”
If we are questioning whether a cis woman being attracted to a trans woman is lesbianism, we are entering with our biases, not our sexuality. Besides, as Chu suggests, “there is no woman more woman-identified than a gay trans girl like me,” because trans women choose to embrace their womanhood by transitioning. Among women, we stand alone.
Chu isn’t the only trans woman to make the point against trans-exclusionary beliefs. Others have pointed out that if sex is a product of gender, that what makes you “female” isn’t based on body parts, then a trans woman’s genitals can be considered feminine too. As it turns out, cisgender lesbians’ disgust toward trans women’s bodies have more to do with cultural conditioning than so-called “preferences.”
“When it comes to queer women’s culture, in particular, many lesbians misguidedly deal with trauma from the patriarchy by attacking essentialist notions of manhood,” Raquel Willis wrote for BuzzFeed back in 2015. “But the penis is not an essential element of manhood—it can beautifully and comfortably coexist with womanhood in one body.”
my argument: "maybe your preference for women with vaginas over women with penises is, to some degree, influenced by our cissexist society."— Riley J. Dennis (@RileyJayDennis) July 12, 2017
Since TERFs still don't get it, I'm gonna break this down. Genital preferences are not transphobic but your rhetoric around them is.— The Impossible Girl (@actuallyalice) December 16, 2017
Linking womanhood to genitalia is cisnormative and erases trans lesbians and their cis partners.
To own the identity of ‘lesbian’
Trans women deal with plenty of sexual baggage—we don’t need to be piled upon by the very community that’s supposed to embrace us. When I first began dating my girlfriend, all the internalized hatred and anxiety I felt about being a trans woman flooded my brain. I had to deal with some pretty complicated questions about my body that I suppressed over the years. Like, what did I want to do about my genitals? Could I really call myself a lesbian if I held onto my penis? Why did I feel masculine when I slept with another woman?
These were things I never asked myself because I wanted to fit into that perfect lesbian image of a cisgender-passing femme top who wore turtleneck sweaters and just so happened to have sex with other women. If I was attractive to a cisgender woman, then maybe that truly meant I was a lesbian woman.
However, I didn’t fall in love with a cisgender woman. I fell in love with a trans woman. And one issue at a time, I admitted that I had a problem with my transness and began working things out. I realized that my genitals have no bearing on my gender identity. And I decided if trans women are women, I am a lesbian regardless of how my body looks. What made me a lesbian is actually, honestly, believing I am a woman. Not by reading enough queer theory books or collecting enough gender dysphoria diagnoses to prove I was one. Just looking at myself and accepting reality: I’m a woman, I’m a lesbian, and I’m pretty attractive to boot.
So if trans women like me—who have to live with their queer bodies on a regular basis and navigate the world through them—can come to terms with their sexuality and call themselves lesbians, then cis women can do the same when they think about us, too.
I wouldn’t dare question a cis woman who told me she was a lesbian; I’d feel at least more than a touch of solidarity, knowing what it’s like to deal with misogyny on an everyday basis. Oh, and if she wanted to go on lesbian double dates, I’d be cool with that, too.