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Bridegrooms and Porn Stars – The Construction of ‘Normal’ Trans Bodies

BY LANI ALDEN


In 1936, Milton Bronner published a front-page article in the Austin Statesman entitled “The Girl Who Became a Bridegroom,” which recounted the story of Mark Weston, an intersex person who described himself as having “lived 23 years as a female” and then, subsequently, “some years in a sort of twilight zone where [he] doubted [his] sex.”[1] Ultimately, he received surgeries and became recognized both medically and socially as male. Although intersex, in a manner quite understandable within transgender discourse, he specifically cites his ability to “live as a man”[2] as bringing him personal comfort and relief from his former dysphoria. What is notable about Bronner’s article, however, is not simply that it described and disseminated to a wide audience the notions that sex changes were possible, that sexual ambiguity existed, or that one could even have a dysphoric relationship to one’s body. All these things were important, but what is of yet more importance is the mechanism by which Weston’s identity, and non-normative bodies in general, became integrated into heteronormative structures regarding relationships and sex. The article itself is adorned with a large photograph of “Mr. and Mrs. Mark Weston… hand-holding newlyweds”[3] and Weston recounting his story is punctuated with moments discussing his wife and the ultimate thrill he felt “[signing] the marriage register”[4] as a man. For Weston to be truly known and recognized as a man, he needed, it would appear, to have a wife. The euphoria he felt writing his name in the marriage register was not due to his relationship with his own masculinity, but rather the relationship his masculinity now formally had with society. Put another way, as someone with a non-normative body, in order to be viewed as real or socially intelligible, he had to be framed within a simplistic narrative of cisgender male/female “sexual pairing through opposition” and he had to engage in “heterosexual marriage and the creation of social, if not biological, family units.”[5] However, as socially intelligible as ‘normal’ this trans/cis marriage in 1936 may have been within the article, it obviously could not have been ‘normal’ in practice. These differences are ignored by Bronner.


Although time has since passed, and there are obvious differences, articles such as Geoffrey Nicholson’s “On Being a Transamorous Man” use similar methods as Bronner in order to render trans and non-normative bodies legible within heterosexual frameworks. There is much to discuss about Nicholson’s lack of even a single transgender voice (a flaw not found in Bronner’s article from 1936, it should be said), his fetishization (and subsequent denial of said fetishization) of transgender female bodies (which he describes as pornographic “creatures” of his sexual fantasies), his silence on matters of the transgender experience outside of his own sexual pursuits, and his baffling decision to focus the discussion of the victims of transphobia on himself, a straight, white, cisgendered, well-educated man with clear access to institutional resources. That these flaws present themselves with the rhetoric of brave (yet anonymous) emotional vulnerability is especially galling. Indeed, one may even very reasonably argue that an article like this, whatever its intentions, might well be better suited for an insert presented between pictures of buxom women in a transgender focused issue of Playboy than a scholarly journal. However, putting these obvious issues aside for a moment, there are other, much more subtle, yet nonetheless equally insidious, threads that are worthy of serious consideration. Specifically, although Nicholson primarily uses objectification in pornography, rather than participation in marriage, as his means of advocating for ‘normalization,’ through this process, he nonetheless necessarily restricts alternative possibilities regarding heterosexual configurations and he renders invisible important differences between cis/trans and cis/cis portrayals in pornography.


Nicholson’s stated goal is simply to reduce the “stigma within broader society towards transamorous men”[6] and to “contribute to normalizing relationships between trans women and cis men.”[7] He concludes by saying that one reason he is secretive about his “attraction to trans people and trans pornography” is due to a “stigma” in society surrounding cisgender “men loving trans women”[8] that he wants to reduce. This sounds laudable, of course, but one must wonder the value of attempting to reduce heterosexual trans/cis relationships to merely being the same as ‘normal’ cis/cis relationships. Put another way, rather than challenging the oppositional logics of traditional forms of heterosexuality, Nicholson seems to want to adapt those logics in such a way as to allow himself and his romantic interests to successfully become legible as ‘normal’ within them. To that end, when he refers to his own sexuality, he does so in uncomplicated and unexplored ways, simply using phrases such as “I have always considered myself heterosexual,”[9] and he argues that his sexual arousal for transgender women is a normal, “heterosexual one.”[10] Although this desire to make one’s sexual attraction to women with penises (of trans women without penises, he is conspicuously silent) ‘normal’ is understandable, and certainly affects some sort of progress, it also nonetheless wastes the rich opportunity that trans/cis relationships present to pose deeper questions regarding the logic of the ‘norm’ itself.


This is not to say that he should not perceive his attraction to be heterosexual. He is attracted to women, after all, although this may primarily be towards a specific subsection of women. Rather, instead of attempting to ‘normalize’ the phenomenon he calls ‘transamory’ and his pornographic viewing habits within an existing oppositional binary, he might have explored the ways in which his particular heterosexual experience differed or challenged the normative logics that he seems to want to assimilate his experience into. There is no exploration of the ways that relationships with transgender women represent alternative futurities to those proposed within heteronormative frameworks, the ways that his own masculinity (and femininity) changed as a result of these relationships, or the material conditions within which a trans/cis relationship is necessarily going to differ from a cis/cis relationship, not to mention other, similar topics. Just as presenting butch and femme as mere copies or replicas of heterosexual relationships “underestimates the erotic of their internal dissonance,” ignoring the ways that “the varieties of performative gender… generate new and unpredictable dissonances which implicate entire spectra of desire”[11] is equally reductive. Nicholson, much like Bronner, attempts to render these spectra invisible in order to attempt to transform them into mere replica.


To that end, at one point in his article, Nicholson declares that the objectification of trans women in pornography is “not necessarily any different to the objectification of cis women or other specific groups in pornography.”[12] His argument is that all forms of objectification equally objectify people “based on their... status, rather than appreciating them as people in their own right.”[13] However, the process that goes into this objectification will always have a history and articulate itself differently in different environments. The absurdity of saying that there is no real difference between the socio-economic conditions that typically lead a cis woman to become objectified in pornography, not to mention those that lead her audience to view her pornography, and those of trans people ought to be obvious.


The objectification that results from these socioeconomic conditions will also, necessarily, vary. One can hardly, for example, argue that women of color and white women are objectified in similar ways within pornography. These differences are quite well documented.[14] Similarly, other intersections outside of race such as age, access to a social safety net, or access to education likewise also impact pornographic production and objectification. In the case of the women of Nicholson’s sexual interest, specifically the transgender women with penises that seem to be his focus, it is important to note that “historically, transgender people who engaged in more marginalizing forms of labor – sex work and pornography” have been “seldom able to access reassignment surgery.”[15] Therefore, Nicholson’s own education on trans issues, which he acknowledges to have begun through watching pornography, like the objectifying lens with which he views that pornography, is a product, in part, of economic decisions within the trans experience that are invisible to him. To use Nicholson’s own language, some women involved in these forms of sexual labor have more access to the rights of personhood or freedom of self-definition within the context of pornographic objectification than others. This is not to say that cisgender women do not face problems relating to socioeconomic conditions or disenfranchisement, but rather that these problems are distinct and exacerbated in the case of transgender women. Although all types of women in pornography tend to be objectified in some way, this objectification and its history, its advertising, and its audience, necessarily differ based upon an axis of identity related to the women in question. This sort of differentiation is elided within Nicholson’s analysis precisely because he is so invested in assimilating the trans/cis heterosexual experience into the rhetoric of the cis/cis heterosexual experience.


What Nicholson presents the reader with is simply an “almost, but not yet, normal" heterosexual complementary pair of man and woman. Instead of attempting to find, and advocate for, a new way that heterosexuality could articulate itself, Nicholson promises the eventual eradication of difference. His intention is to render the transgender women he discusses (but whose voices are quite conspicuous in their absence) as “not necessarily any different,”[16] despite their radically distinct socioeconomic conditions and histories. Rather than recognizing that difference and exploring the possibilities and benefits it provides to destabilizing traditional forms of heterosexuality, or interrogating the historical conditions that led to its existence in the first place, he instead dreams of a day where the perception of that difference is eliminated and only the “normal” remains (merely somewhat changed from the present). Through this work, he hopes to allow his reader to perceive the femininity of the transgender women he discusses (and his own sexuality by association) as being “real” or “legible” within frameworks that the reader is already familiar with. The danger of such assimilationist rhetoric goes without saying.


NOTES

[1] Milton Bronner, “The Girl Who Became a Bridegroom,” The Austin Statesman, 1936, 1. [2] Ibid. [3] Ibid. [4] Ibid, 2. [5] Morgan Holmes, “Deciding Fate or Protecting a Developing Autonomy? Intersex Children and the Colombian Constitutional Court,” in Transgender Rights (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 110. [6] Geoffrey H. Nicholson, “On Being a Transamorous Man,” Transgender Studies Quarterly 7, no. 2 (May 2020): 270. [7] Ibid, 271. [8] Ibid, 270-271. [9] Ibid, 268. [10] Ibid, 269. [11] Sandy Stone, “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto,” Camera Obscura 10, no. 2 (May 1992): 165. [12] Ibid. [13] Ibid. [14] Mirelle Miller-Young, “Confessions of a Black Feminist Academic Pornographer,” Journal of Contemporary African Art 1, no. 38-39 (November 2016): 90-95. [15] Julian Glover, “Redefining Realness?: On Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, TS Madison, and the Representation of Transgender Women of Color in Media,” Souls 18, no 2-4 (December 2016): 347. [16] Nicholson, 270.

Lani Alden is a second year PhD student at the University of California at Berkeley in East Asian Languages and Cultures with a Designated Emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality and New Media. She received MAs from the University of Colorado at Boulder and Yale University and did her undergrad at the University of Maryland at College Park. She is currently focused on Japanese kabuki theatre and the figure of the onnagata during the Edo-Meiji transition period. She works from trans and queer theory perspectives and has attendant interests in fan and audience studies, photography, and critical theory.


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