Say you had a list, and on that list you wrote down everything you’d want in a prospective partner. Maybe you’d put down things like must have a mutual attraction, or the classic good sense of humour. Maybe you’d be looking for someone confident, or with a great smile. Perhaps it’s got to be something casual at first, because you know how hot this fire can burn, or maybe you want to dive right in, discovering everything about this new person in a rich and glorious storm of emotion.
Most, if not all of us have made these lists, and you could argue that they’re an essential part of finding the right person. If you know what you want from a relationship then it should make it easier to find one, right?
Now, suppose you meet someone. Suppose they tick most, or even all of those boxes, and you’re excited and happy, and then they tell you: “I’m trans.”
What’s the first thing that goes through your head?
Maybe that’s an unfair question. Perhaps you’re feeling put on the spot. Maybe you’ll think to yourself, I don’t have a problem with it. Maybe though, you might also be thinking these things…
If I’m attracted to a trans woman what does that make me?
What will my friends think?
This is really complicated
I don’t think I do trans.
How will we have sex?
So maybe you’ll ask your friends, because you’re not sure, and this is new territory for you, and maybe your friends will say….
“Trans people have a lot of mental health issues, do you really want to take that on?”
“But if you go out with a trans person what does that make you?”
“Are you really a lesbian then if you’re dating a trans woman?”
“What are you going to tell your family?”
and of course….
“How will you have sex?”
and suddenly that person you found attractive, and ticked all the boxes, doesn’t seem to fit as well as they did before you knew.
I know not every person will think like this, but based on both what I know from personal experience, and from what other trans people I’ve spoken with have told me, quite a lot of people do.
In fact, everything I’ve quoted as things people think and say are actual things I’ve had people tell me.
In my last long term relationship, my partner’s friends, upon learning that she was dating a trans woman, all expressed concern about my mental health, despite knowing nothing about me, other than that I was trans.
A friend of mine told me that after she’d introduced her new partner to her friends, one of them came up to her and asked if she was bisexual now she was dating a trans woman.
Another told me about how she actually lost supposed friends over her choice of partner, all because she was trans.
Talking to other people it quickly becomes evident that preconceptions of trans people run deep. This stigmatisation is insidious and ingrained, and causes untold damage both to us as a society and as individuals.
It’s a similar story when you look at online dating. I’ve been single for two years and nine months, not that I’m counting or anything, and in that time I’ve messaged a lot of people. In my profile I say that I’m trans as I want people to know, but I also always mention it before I meet someone in real life, just because sometimes people miss it. I say sometimes here but I really mean most of the time.
As soon as the words “Hey, by the way, did you notice in my profile that I’m trans?” pop up on the screen a couple of things happen.
First there’s the pause. This can take up to 30 minutes. Then I get two things. First people always say “Wow, I wouldn’t have known!”
This is the standard response when people don’t realise, and I’m never sure what to say. It’s meant as a compliment, but it’s also a loaded compliment, as if by not being obviously trans I’m deceiving people, or hiding my identity. The implication that, as a trans woman, I’m only attractive if I don’t look trans is an unpleasant and frequent occurrence, especially when it comes to dating.
Then we get to the crunch. How people word it varies, but the overall theme is nope.
I’ve had the brutally direct (I don’t do trans), the honest (I’d only be sleeping with you to see what it’s like), the awkward misdirection (I’m not actually looking for anything right now, don’t know why I’m even on this site, haha), the blind panic (blocked), the gentle let down (we can meet, but you’d have to understand it would just be as friends) and of course the classic I’ve got no idea what that really means so I’ll say the first thing that comes into my head (OMG! You’re a ladyboy?)
As before, these responses are all things people have actually said, word for word.
I’m not alone in this either.
I spoke to Maeve, a trans woman from Brighton, about her experiences of online
“Well I have experiences of online dating such as Tinder and OKCupid, both of which I stopped using. I did an experiment for a week where I put that I was trans on my profile and I got no interest whatsoever ever. Then the following week I took it off and I did get some banter going with people until I told them that I’m trans and then it stopped pretty much immediately. That’s pretty depressing.”
This experience isn’t uncommon when it comes to interactions with trans people. I’ve heard similar stories time and time again, where as soon as someone’s trans identity is known, whether through disclosure or the other person realising, the trans person is disregarded completely.
Even when trans people do enter into relationships though it doesn’t always get easier. Audrey, a 25 year old trans woman, told me about how she feels when out with her girlfriend.
“It has been quite difficult to navigate how the world sees us. Till recently we’ve been perceived as a straight couple. Now we face homophobia, transphobia, weird looks, comments… We are the same people, sharing the same love, but the world suddenly became extremely hostile. It suddenly isn’t safe to make out in public spaces. It’s weird and scary and sad. We aren’t used to it, so the reactions often take us by surprise.”
The stigma attached to trans people runs deep into our society, to the point where anyone seen to be dating a trans person also faces prejudice, and stigmatisation. You have to ask yourself, if society as a whole is so against this, then is it any wonder that people switch off as soon as someone’s trans identity is known?
Even when this isn’t the case, people’s lack of knowledge and understanding can still be damaging.
Josie, 36 told me about the time she slept with a cis woman after meeting her online. “The date seemed to go really well, and we went back to hers, but after sleeping together, she turned to me and asked why my boobs were so small. I’d already told her I was a trans woman, but the directness of this threw me completely. She then followed this up by telling me that if I really wanted to be a woman that I should get surgery to make them bigger. Needless to say I left soon after that.”
Josie later told me that this felt like she’d been dragged back to reality, after getting her hopes up that someone might finally be okay about her being trans.
So what can we do? Obviously to say that you should sleep with every trans person you meet is both an extreme solution, and also not what attraction is about.
Mostly we sleep with people because we find something about them attractive. Quite often, at the start, that attraction is a physical one, so maybe I’m saying this.
You meet someone, either in real life, or online, and you find them attractive. You message them, or go and talk to them, and find out you share similar views, or interests, and you think to yourself, I like this person.
Maybe there’s some flirting, and you’re getting a good feeling. Maybe this is going somewhere.
And then they say they’re trans.
This is the bit where, if you’re thinking I’m not sure about this, you need to stop. You need to stop and think what’s changed?
If you still find them attractive, interesting, funny, clever or any of the other things you found yourself drawn too before, then what exactly has changed?
Because in reality, the only thing that’s changed is that someone you’ve only just meet has felt comfortable enough to tell you something about themselves. They’ve felt comfortable enough to tell you something about themselves that they know is stigmatised and rejected on a daily basis.
Telling someone that you’re trans is an act of bravery. The default response I, and many others expect when we disclose this, especially in terms of relationships and sex, is of rejection.
Every time we tell someone we are in actual fact putting our faith in them. We are trusting them not to go with the default. We are trusting them, we are trusting you, with something so precious, so personal, and so fragile.
This is why you need to stop. This is why you need to think. This is why you need to remember that the only thing that’s really changed is that someone has decided you’re amazing enough to be let in.
This article originally featured in the May 2015 issue of Diva magazine.