BY JOHNATHAN SMILGES
“By most measures, my life would be considered quite unremarkable” begins Geoffrey H. Nicholson (2020: 268) in his reflection “On Being a Transamorous Man.” As “a sixty-year-old, white, cisgender male,” who is “essentially heterosexual,” married with four children, and has “a successful career,” Nicholson’s self-professed unremarkability is bound to his privilege: his body disappears behind the non-normativity of the remarkable trans bodies to whom he is attracted. While there is plenty that can be said about Nicholson’s essay, I am particularly interested in what it suggests about the relationship between (un)remarkability and desire. All too often trans people experience this kind of desire, a wanting fueled by fascination, as a kind of fetishization, an objectifying gaze laced with eroticism. What Nicholson calls transamory is more colloquially referred to as “chasing,” or when cis people “actively eroticize transgender embodiment” (Valentine 104). As most trans folks know, this active eroticization depends on a very specific imaginary of who trans people are, what their bodies are like, and what relationship a given trans person has with their body. Indeed, transamorous desire is less of a desire for trans people than it is a desire for a niche instantiation of gender nonconformance, a particular variation of trans embodiment that is far from the objective or reality of most trans lives. To be chased, or to be transamorously desired, is to confront a transmisogyny that affirms the desirability of one’s transness only to the extent that it remains remarkable.
I am intentionally and temporarily hedging on the particularities of this desirable remarkability, of what makes a desirable trans person desirable, so as to leave room for what I hope will be a useful corollary analytic. In an essay on devotees or disability fetishists, Alison Kafer (2012) argues that what distinguishes violent fetishization from routine erotic desire is the role of disgust. Devotees claim not only that they find disabilities desirable but also that they are the only people who are not disgusted by them. “Within this framework,” Kafer writes, a disability “can never be neutral: it is always the determining aesthetic factor . . . charged with either desire or disgust” (336). This binary charge resembles transamorous logic, which presumes a normative and normalized rejection of trans people to shed light on the reputed exceptionalism of transamorous acceptance. Perry Gruber (2017), who founded a dating site The Transamorous Network, refers frequently to transamory as “heroic” and to transamorous people as “unsung heroes” because they are “trans supportive.” Similarly, Nicholson (269-70) argues that his “competitive advantage over many other men” lies in “the way I make [trans people] feel” about themselves. By affirming the authenticity of their partners’ genders, Gruber and Nicholson attempt to purify their desire. If no one else will acknowledge that “these beautiful creatures [are] women” (269), Nicholson reasons, then surely his desire must be good for something.
And maybe his desire is good for something. In spite of the violence implicit in transamorous desire—Nicholson calls trans women “creatures” for god’s sake—transamory and devoteeism both pose important questions about who is allowed to desire transness and disability. Certainly, many trans and disabled people are forthcoming about their preference to partner and sleep with other trans and disabled people; however, this preference is often mitigated by issues of access and availability. The online spaces created to facilitate interactions between transamorists, devotees, and their respective fetish objects have ironically helped to build trans and disabled networks (Kafer 2012; Malatino 2019a). Kafer admits that for many disabled people, these spaces, such as the devotee site ASCOTWorld, offer community and mentorship that are otherwise difficult to find (342-3). Likewise, Hil Malatino notes that even as Craigslist personals “miscontrue[d] trans as a sexualized gender category,” they still curated “a kind of proto-trans-separatist space” that allowed trans people to find one another (653).
These opportunities for trans and disabled socialization not only honored existing t4t (trans for trans) and c4c (crip for crip) desires but also helped to generate new ones. “Analyzing devoteeism has exposed me to a world I otherwise would have never known existed,” Kafer writes, “and I can’t pretend to know the full effects of this encounter on my sense of self” (342). These readings of transamorous and devotee forums reveal an additional layer of complexity in the relationship between desire and disgust. How to untangle desire from the conditions that produce it? How to extricate one desire from another? Kafer likens this complexity to “a Gordian knot: the more I attempt to unravel the strands of desire and disgust, the tighter the pieces hold together” (344).
I do not claim to have a solution for this knot, nor am I convinced that having a solution would be all that useful. Putting devoteeism and transamory in conversation with each other, however, might help to loosen the strands a little—enough to trace the twists, loops, and folds that hold desire and disgust together. This tracing begins with the rather obvious observation that both devoteeism and transamory stem in part from the perceived aberration of their objects. Both rely on the disgust that the world presumably feels toward disabled and trans people’s “queer corporealities” (Malatino 2019b: 2). Building on Kafer’s Gordian knot, I argue that this disgust is not only interwoven with devotee and transamorous desire but fuels it. This disgust-fueled-desire operates on a spectacularizing logic that accords value to trans and disabled bodies based on an erotic currency defined by the perceived undesirability of transness and disability. In other words, what makes trans and disabled bodies attractive to transamorists and devotees is the disgust they are said to elicit. It is a kind of desire not pitted against disgust but growing out from it, a love born by hate.
The roots of this hatred are perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the ways that devotees and transamorists view themselves. Despite insisting on their own progressive exceptionalism, they are resistant to any minoritizing framework for their own desire. Per Solvang (2007), writing about devotees, notes that “Disability . . . is pointed out as something unique and special, but when it comes to [devotees’] own position, being part of the ordinary seems to be of prime importance” (57). Kafer identifies this tension as part of “a striking double standard” (341), where devotees presume the naturalness of disgust aimed toward disabled folks while simultaneously calling for an end to any and all stigma against their own desire, including the stigma wrapped up in the pathologization of devoteeism as a paraphilia (Bruno 1997; Solvang 2007). One would think that a group committed to loving disabled people would not necessarily oppose being disabled themselves, but thus is the limit of devotee desire: disgust is to be eroticized in the object, not borne by the subject.
We pick up hints of a similar double standard in Nicholson’s reflection when he experiences a sexual crisis after masturbating to images of trans women. “I initially questioned my sexuality, as I had not previously considered myself gay or sexually attracted to men . . . [but] I reassured myself that my response . . . was essentially a heterosexual one” (269). Nicholson is correct that being attracted to trans women does not make him gay, but his use of the verb “reassured” suggests that he is less concerned with affirming trans women as women than with protecting his own (hetero)sexual integrity. This suggestion is confirmed later in the piece when he admits to being “secretive about [his] attraction to trans people” and using a pseudonym to avoid “stigma within broader society” (270). Regardless of how devotees and transamorists treat the disabled and trans people they sleep with, their personal dependence on ableism and heterocissexism render them complicit in the very forms of systemic violence that endanger disabled and trans lives. Their desire is not radical but constitutive of the very same machinations devotees and transamorists claim to oppose. Fucking a disabled person is not the same as leveraging nondisabled privilege. Jerking off to a trans woman is not a substitute for dismantling transmisogyny. But of course, in order for devotee and transamorous desire to sustain itself—for disabled and trans people to remain desirable—the systems of oppression that subject queer bodies must stay intact. Perverse erotics depend on their perversity to be erotic.
There are, however, limits to acceptable perversity, to what is perversely accepted. These limits bring into focus the contours of remarkable trans bodies that I elided above, for not all trans people are deemed worthy of transamorous affection, much like not all disabled people are deserving of devotee admiration. What distinguishes remarkable trans and disabled bodies from unremarkable ones is, in large part, the interanimation of gender and disability, which both foregrounds the parallels linking devoteeism and transamory, as well as reveals new routes to potential intimacies between trans and disabled people.
For devotees, Kafer (2000) notes that nearly all desirable amputees are straight, cis women who are at once “hyperfeminine objects reliant on male saviors” and “pillars of strength [who are] less feminine because more independent (sic)” (113). The inherent contradiction between these versions of femininity reveals the crisis cisnormative gender faces when confronted with disability. On one hand, the connotations surrounding disability liken it to the epitome of white femininity: to weakness, to fragility, to dependence. On the other hand, popular representations rehearse masculinist “overcoming” narratives that locate the disabled body as an inspirational model of personal achievement. This gender tension between disability characterizations is ultimately a transgender tension, one that reveals the cissexism embedded in ableism. The ideal, nondisabled body is presumed also to be a cis body; whereas, the disabled body is always already gender nonconforming (Tyburczy 2014). What makes a particular amputee desirable is not simply the marked contrast between her perceived femininity and her disability but that the source of her gender variance can be pinpointed at the site of her amputation.
Locating a gender variant site becomes important when we shift our focus to transamory. A quick internet search will show that, similar to devotees, most transamorists are cis men, who are looking for trans women (Gruber 2017, 2019). But not all trans women. Transamorists are particularly (if not exclusively) interested in trans women who resemble cis women in all ways but one. Sophie Pezzutto and Lynn Comella (2020: 161) explain that “Mainstream trans porn’s queer appeal . . . is arguably made most starkly visible by the large and erect penises that feature prominently as the object of desire . . . alongside an otherwise hyperfeminine embodiment.” The value of a penis cannot be overstated. Pezzutto and Comella say that for trans porn performers, having bottom surgery “is tantamount to ending one’s career” (161). Indeed, it is the presence of a penis that marks a trans woman as attractive to transamorists; or, more precisely, it is the discord between her penis and the remainder of her cis passing body. As Nicholson puts it, “I have a preference for a fully functioning penis . . . [a]lthough I am not attracted to men” (269).
It is notable that transamorists perceive penises in much the same way that devotees perceive the site of amputations: as that which brings into relief their fetish object’s remarkability. I am not suggesting that trans women’s penises amount to a disability, but I am pointing to the cis-ableism underpinning transamorous desire, which casts the penis as an impairment to be juxtaposed against an otherwise nondisabled body. Just as devotees seek to curb amputees’ gender variance by restricting it to the site of their amputation, transamorists attempt to shore up trans women’s able-bodiedness against their phallic disability. By containing the erotic charge of their objects’ trans*gression, devotees and transamorists hope to recirculate that charge within an external anomaly on an otherwise cis-ablenormative body. Much like they rely on the fantasy of others’ disgust to stimulate their desire, so too do they rely on a perceived incongruity between the sign of their object’s perversity (the amputation site or penis) and the rest of their object's body. The disjuncture between the amputation or the penis and the remainder of the body corporealizes the relationship between desire and disgust, rendering Kafer’s Gordian knot all the more embodied. The source of disgust is also the siren of desire. How then to parse disgust from desire, desire from disgust? How, too, do we reconcile the violence of this Gordian knot with the violence of unremarkability? How to attend to the pain of fetishization as well as the erasure of the bodies left out?
With these latter questions, I am not asking about the Nicholsons of the world or their privileged unremarkability. I’m asking about illegibility, about all the trans and disabled people who do not meet the cis-ablenormative interests of devotees or transamorists. As I’ve said before, the range of bodies that devotees and transamorists find desirable is strikingly narrow compared to the breadth of existing and potential disabled and trans embodiments. Kafer (2012: 354) suggests that this tension between desirable and undesirable, remarkable and unremarkable, lies in the (in)visibility of disability or, for transamorists, of gender variance. “Perhaps . . . the rhetoric of disgust on which devoteeism relies so heavily” she writes, “requires some kind of visual marker” (354). This explanation would account for why the majority of devotee discourse revolves around popularized indicators of physical disability—including the absence of one or more body parts (e.g., an amputation), the presence of assistive technology (e.g., a wheelchair or crutch), or the use of sign language—at the exclusion of disabilities without such indicators.
Likewise, it would account for transamory’s focus on the penis as a symbol of disgust, as the queer hinge on which transamorous desire rests. Necessarily absented by this desire are expressions of trans femininity that don’t align with conventional cis femininity, as well as nonbinary expressions in their entirety. Also, while Nicholson claims to have “enjoyed encounters” with trans men (268), it is unclear how his desire for trans masculinity functions within a transamorous schematic for trans embodiment, which seems to be little more than a teleological trajectory from AMAB (boring) to trans woman with a penis (hot). The sheer proportion of disabled and trans bodies that remain illegible—and thus undesirable—within devoteeism and transamory testifies to the fact that neither fetish is really about disability or transness at all. They are about the eroticization of difference, about the fantasy of perversion, about pleasuring yourself outside the window of remarkability: close enough to see it glisten but not so close as to feel its skin.
What strikes me as particularly ironic about both devoteeism and transamory is that in their attempt to isolate queerness, to restrict it to a single physical and visual site, they inevitably overdetermine their fetish object’s non-normativity. The queerness of trans and disabled bodies is burdened with so many rules and regulations that it is effectively rendered nothing but a chimera, a symbol of deviance that in the process of symbolization loses the queer significations intended to make it desirable. This is not a valuation of the trans and disabled folks who are pursued by transamorists and devotees but a reflection on the highly stylized roles that these folks are expected to play, the performances meant to conjure erotic fantasies. To what degree do transamory and devoteeism produce the very disgust that they desire? To what degree does the Gordian knot tighten because desire and disgust are in fact one and the same thread?
I suppose these final questions are a bit leading. Of course transamorists and devotees engender the hate they love. Of course, they’ve come to love that hate. But I think it’s important to keep these questions around if for no other reason than they beget other questions. I am still left wondering, for instance, about how to affirm the queer pleasure that many trans and disabled people take in the Gordian knot, in performing a masochistic role that eroticizes the inequitable power dynamics they are forced to navigate every day. How to hold space for those folks who recognize transamory and devoteeism as opportunities to disidentify with the stigmas thrust upon them? I wonder also about the intimacy between desire and identification, about those transamorists and devotees who may in fact be “prerealization,” to borrow from Aster Gilbert (2020: 234), and who are looking for a path to self-expression. How to condemn the violence of objectification and still leave open routes to queer desire that allow trans and disabled people to renegotiate their relationship to this violence as an exercise in freedom?
Perhaps one way is to turn fetishistic remarkability on its head. As transamorists and devotees predicate their desire on an ever slimmer margin of queer legibility, trans and crip communities would do well to explode the boundaries that define their own legibility. This explosion would, importantly, dissolve the cisableism that fractures so much of trans and crip cross-movement work, inviting all of the stickiness their communion brings. Malatino (2019a: 657) calls for a “t4t praxis of love [that] enables and elicits more finely grained attention to differences between and among trans folk, with all the dissonance and difficulty engaging such differences entails.” They welcome the mess because anything less isn’t really love. Perhaps we need a similar approach to trans-crip coalitions, a t4c praxis of love, that digs down deep into our bodies’ legacies of disgust to mold a new kind of desire. A desire that would be shaped but not powered by disgust, by our shared histories of surviving it and not. A t4c desire that would lust generously, pursuing of all the endless iterations of bodies and genders past, present, and future. A desire thirsting only for creativity and lawlessness. A desire that would not spectacularize nonconformance but would celebrate the spectacularity of variance. A desire that would yearn not for an abstracted remarkability but for the sexy, fleshy irreverence of our remarkable selves.
Kafer, Alison. 2000. “Inseparable: Gender and Disability in the Amputee-Devotee Community.” In Gendering Disability, edited by Bonnie G. Smith and Beth Hutchison, 107-118. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Johnathan Smilges is an Assistant Professor of English at Texas Woman’s University. They identify as (neuro)queer, trans, and disabled, and their scholarship, teaching, and activism are led by commitments to transfeminism and disability justice. Their writing, which can be found in Disability Studies Quarterly, Peitho, Rhetoric Review, and elsewhere, lies at the nexus of disability studies, trans studies, queer studies, and rhetoric. Currently, Smilges serves as the co-chair for the Disability Studies Standing Group at the Conference on College Composition and Communication.