Dating is hard. Dating as a person who is transgender can feel nearly impossible. When you’re a transgender person in the dating world, you always need to “out” yourself to potential relationship interests at some point during the process, and not doing so prior to the first date can be tragic and deadly — Trans panic is so real that, in 2014, California enacted the first law in the US eliminating the ”panic defense.” This defense allows defendants in murder cases to plea down to a lesser manslaughter charge if the defendant claimed that he was so shocked to find out his victim was gay or transgender that the sudden “heat of passion” caused him to lash out. Unfortunately, this is a defense that can still be used in 49 states. I imagine your online dating woes pale in comparison.
I’m a so-called “baby trans,” which means I am a woman who is transgender, but I’ve only been transitioning for about a year — and learning the social queues of being a woman, especially a woman in the world of dating, has been a fascinating experience. I’m sitting at a unique crossroads — I’m presently transitioning and living as a woman for the first time in my life, when so recently I was walking through the world looking, for all intents and purposes, like a man. That experience — of presenting, being perceived, and dating as a man — is still in my recent memory, albeit fading quickly.
To better understand my experience and the road that lay ahead for me as a trans woman, I decided to conduct a social experiment. What if I posted two mostly identical profiles on the same dating site, with the only difference being my picture, gender marker, and the gender I was seeking? I decided I’d create a female profile and a male profile — one profile representing the woman I am today, the second profile representing the person I was prior to transition. I have a lot to learn about my new identity, and I hoped comparing the experiences of my former and current selves would lend me some insight.
I was bisexual “then” but am pansexual now, and have always dated more women than men, but for this experiment I wanted to get a feel for the “typical” dating experience of the average man or woman. So for my male profile I listed that I was seeking women only, and for my female profile I listed that I was seeking men only. As far as my gender identity, I decided to go ”stealth” — my profile did not state that I was transgender, and therefore it allowed for people to contact me without it spurring in them a sexual identity crisis or terminal freak-out.
There is endless discussion inside the community about when to disclose a person’s trans status during dating. I typically disclose my transgender status after a lengthy “get-to-know-you” chat but prior to an arranged date. This allows a person to engage with me as a person without making assumptions based on my gender identity. After all, I am now legally a woman according to my newly issued birth certificate, have always identified as female, and feel that my status as female is valid for dating online. So, for the purpose of this experiment I kept my transgender status private — I’d disclose it if and when anything developed.
I checked out some of the most popular dating sites for my experiment — MeetMe, OKCupid, and EHarmony. EHarmony wasn’t free and I’d heard negative things about OKCupid from friends, so I chose Meetme with absolutely no regard for what kind of features the site may have. I created the different profiles, with the exact same responses to the stock questions about favorite food, music, etc, and cast my first line into the water with my female profile. Now all I had to do was wait…43 seconds before the first five emails landed in my Claire-Renee inbox. Thinking these were internet bots or advertisements, I logged out and decided to check back later.
After three days, there were 267 email messages waiting for me in my Claire-Renee profile, and zero in my male profile inbox. Of the 267 emails, 265 were from men and two were from women, both telling me that I looked pretty. All but a small handful of them sent less than a four-word introduction, most consisting of “Hi,” “Hey,” and different variations of “How’s it going?” Though I wasn’t wowed by the messages, my experiment initially seemed to prove what I had suspected all my life when I was presenting as male — that women have many advantages when it comes to dating. But I would soon find out that they have disadvantages too.
Women have argued that men have historically been in charge of the selection process when it comes to dating and relationships because women are said to be looking for commitment and men are not. Having lived on both sides of the gender line, I can tell you from experience that prior to transitioning, I never had the opportunity to select the person I wanted to date — my online dating success came when I found a person with mutual interests and sent them an interesting enough message that they got back to me. On average, women will receive five times the amount of messages that a man will receive when online dating.
Online dating as a woman, I had more than 250 potential suitors express interest in me within a week, and I could filter through the pool to find some suitable dates. The decision was in my hands. I answered every single email politely, regardless of whether I was interested or not. When I dated online previous to my transition, I knew how frustrating it could be to send out messages and never receive a reply.Two of the messages were actually nice — one from a person I will call Harley Guy and another one from Halfway Hipster Dude.
Harley Guy sent me a picture of himself standing in front of his new Harley and he seemed to have a great personality. Halfway Hipster Dude seemed caught between looks — part hipster, part identity crisis, but very alluring with an awesome personality. It didn’t take more than two minutes into our nice little chat that it was revealed that he had a “slipper fetish.”
Well, if I do own slippers, I’m certainly not going to tell you now.
Up next was a nice guy whose profile said, “Who wants to pump some iron?” Honestly Mr. Schwarzenegger, I really don’t want to pump any iron and I don’t know too many women who do, But he was nice — he complimented me, asked questions about what I like to do, and genuinely seemed interested in what I had to say; but then the conversation got strange. “You don’t like muscles or cash?” he inquired. I laughed out loud while typing my reply. He immediately disengaged.
The messages I was receiving were gradually getting more and more sexualized and aggressive — so much so that I had to wonder if men really believed these lines would work.
I’m not even sure how to respond to that, so I didn’t.
Do you really expect me to converse with a man who’s suggesting he might break into my home and kidnap me? After his odd intro, this guy wasted no time in delving into sexual preferences. I’m not exactly sure that his opening line conveys that he’s looking for quality women, but I’ll give him an A for putting it out there.
True, inappropriate internet stranger…you’ve wasted my time.
Suddenly it became clear that all the negative things my girlfriends had told me about online dating as a female were true — that it had the potential to be minimizing, demeaning, and humiliating. This was especially apparent when I learned about the site’s “lunch money” feature, where users can accumulate currency based on their site interactions, and use that currency to “purchase” other users. I received an email from the site that said “John just owned you.” A user named John had “purchased” me. For a dollar. I was being treated not as an autonomous human being, but as a piece of property — which seemed like a metaphor for my interactions on the site in general.
The more time I put into this social experiment, the more I realized online dating was no better than going to a bar to meet people. I also realized, once I’d been asked the same question multiple times by multiple users, that, for men only, the site provided randomly generated pickup lines for guys to send. I kept receiving a certain message over and over again and it was time to answer that question honestly.
He immediately blocked me and set his profile to private.It was time to walk away from this project with what little dignity I still had.
It was not necessarily a bad experience, but certainly an eye-opening one. I’m one of the very few lucky transgender people who can say that navigating my world is much easier and brighter today than it was prior to my transition. Knowing that I was never socialized as a male, I continue to be astounded by how much privilege men have, especially over women. Despite the slight advantages I had as a woman in this realm, this experience reaffirmed that male privilege is alive and well.
Since transitioning, I’ve found myself disturbed by the inappropriate, unapologetic touching and verbal harassing that men do on the street and at restaurants and bars. It should be assumed that we own our bodies and that we are not to be violated simply because a man hasn’t been taught some basic level of respect for women, respect that should continue online. The online world for women seems to echo the real life experiences of treating women as a toy or public property — the difference is that online, you are faceless and there are no consequences for your misogynistic behavior.
Two months later, my male profile remained empty while my female profile stacked up with over a thousand chat sessions most saying some form of “Hi.”
Hi! I’m Claire-Renee; I’m a woman who is transgender and it’s really nice to meet you.
Photo via Claire-Renee Kohner/Twitter
This article originally appeared on Bustle. Reprinted with permission.