Reflecting on the Affective Dimensions of the “Transamorous Man” Backlash
Updated: Dec 17, 2020
BY FLORENCE ASHLEY
“I wonder if I have him blocked on Twitter,” I wondered as I read the self-styled transamorous man’s research article [sic]. Finishing, one descriptor imposed itself upon my mind: masturbatory, in more than one sense of the term. The essay struck an unusually uncritical chord on the relationship between cis men and trans women—especially those working in pornography and other parts of the sex industry. Unusually—for a scholarly journal comfortably steeped in critical theory and taking pride in fighting against “the objectification, pathologization, and exoticization of transgender lives.” Uncritical—because of the all-too-casual dismissal of the specter of fetishism when, week in and week out, I find myself blocking countless cis men on Twitter after they retweet my bland selfies alongside swathes of pornographic videos and photos, under the panoptic gaze of their erection-cum-profile picture. I am just shy of certain that most would readily sport the ‘transamorous’ label.
By the time these words find you, others will have dissected why the essay “On Being a Transamorous Man,” published in the latest special issue of the Transgender Studies Quarterly on trans pornography, is problematic. I have no interest in duplicating their efforts. I instead hope to direct my attention to and reflect upon the affective dimensions of the backlash against the publication. In other words, I want to talk about why people, including myself, were pissed that the essay was published in TSQ. Inspired by discussions I have had the chance to observe and some others I have taken part in on Twitter, Facebook, and in private, hope to add shades of nuance to my early reactions and, perhaps, to yours too, making space for us to move from anger and hurt to kindness and productive dialogue. I will organize my thoughts around four themes: bitterness, forsakenness, casualties, and distrust. Since my submission was invited by an editor of the quarterly, it only seemed fitting for me to write under a pseudonym. I wouldn’t want my family to know I am one of those trans creatures, to borrow the essay’s term, after all.
I refuse to read Butler, don’t understand Foucault, and can’t seem to give enough of a rat’s ass to figure out what tranimals are supposed to be. Although peers and mentors have previously located me (much to my protest) within the overbearing family of queer and trans studies, I’ve never felt quite at home in the sole scholarly journal dedicated to trans studies. As a trans graduate student, I have never felt like the journal held a space for me. Like many others, I come to the table with the bitterness of rejection still at the back of my throat. Like many others, I have submitted to TSQ and been rejected. Like many others, I have come to believe that the hyper-competitiveness of the general issues—populated by edgy roundtables and overtheorized, inaccessible (I mean, ‘sophisticated’) queer theory—were no more a place for a graduate student like I than the special issues slated years in advance on topics that I simply do not have the time to mold my work towards given the pressures to publish or perish for early-career scholars. However interesting the topics may be, the issues are ill-suited to me or most of my peers unless they just so happen to fall in our area of specialization.
Bitter, then, that a cis man with no qualification was solicited and published in TSQ while we trans scholars continue to struggle to publish enough to guarantee our academic livelihood. That he was published while we trans scholars feel as though TSQ fails to hold space for our professional flourishing. Bitter for good reasons? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Whether our reasons are good or not, we are bitter none the less and this bitterness made the essay a more difficult load to swallow.
Had you forsaken her, before we came to you? I cannot blame the graduate student who, co-editing a special issue for the first time, may have been struggling to fill the issue, and fearing that all her labor would go to waste at a crucial moment of her career, chose to include an essay that would generate all-but-certain backlash. I have not been in that position, but I have made questionable decisions in the past, both with full appreciation and foresight of the social landscape and without. But as I imagine her emotionally crumbling just like I would under the acerbic words of the Digital Trans Cool Kids Club, I do resent her senior co-editor and the TSQ’s general editors for failing to mentor her as they should.
Finding mentorship as a scholar is a momentous, career-defining task. In trans studies, it is also a one that too often stays incomplete. Mentors who know the lay of the land and can aid us to navigate through the torturous paths of academe are worth their weight in gold—well, maybe a bit less since that’d be in the ballpark of several million dollars and let’s be real I’d take the money, but you get my point. A co-editor who previously acted as a supervisor working beside you and a general editor picked from among the finest minds in the field ought to provide at least as much mentorship as needed to prevent a predictable mid-pandemic, backlash-induced emotional collapse. Even if I question the wisdom of the decision to publish at all, prefacing the essay with explanatory notes and reflections by the editors or inviting comment on it by trans women scholars before publication could have substantially enhanced the value of the essay and the intensity of backlash. I take little comfort in the possibility that the backlash wasn’t predicted. Failure of foresight also strikes me as a falling short of mentorship.
Perhaps I am misled in my speculation. Perhaps a backlash was foreseen and thoroughly considered before publication and a reasoned choice was made to proceed as is. But I doubt it. And if it wasn’t the case, I fear for what the impact will be on the most precarious of the targets of the backlash—the graduate student who co-guest edited the issue.
Early in my transition, I learned of a rule popularized by the dreamlike Morgan M. Page. It is a simple one: do not criticize other trans women publicly. Others already do it enough, demonizing us and turning us against one another. The rule is not without its exceptions, but exceptions to the rule should not be made carelessly. In my response to the essay’s publication, I have blamed the editors who invited and accepted it. I am afraid that I may have carelessly broken Morgan M. Page’s rule, one that I strive to follow myself, breaking it without the requisite consideration and solemnity. And so, my words and actions may reverberate through the social web ‘til there is yet one more casualty of the intra-community violence we forged out of our trauma. Wounded, those who participated in the backlash struck back, forgetting who it was we were targeting, forgetting that we were targeting someone at all. “The most dangerous animal is the wounded and cornered one” is a tale of lateral violence.
I do not want to silence myself when confronted by the objectionable. I do not want to silence others’ pain, either. But I struggle to find contentment with the casualties of our anger and hurt, the casualties borne by our hands. It is a dissonance that has yet to find a resolution, that has yet to circle back to its tonal center. All that I am left with is a question: if we are unable to hold intra-community disputes without casualties, is their price too high?
After manually blocking 800-something cis men for turning pictures of me from the most mundane moments of my life into objects of sexual consumption, I struggle to trust cis men. I struggle to trust cis men after getting threateningly yelled at and having objects thrown at me on the streets by them around the same time another of them messages me ‘that’s hot’ on Straight Tinder. Many trans women and other transfeminine people, like me, struggle to trust cis men when they tell us that they love us, that they are not ‘chasers’, that they do not fetishize us, that they only have a healthy, respectful preference for us. I might opine that it is a form of dystrust, a distrust inescapably wedded by the dysphoric hyper-sexualization of phallic female bodies qua other, qua never-quite-female.
At the same time as I track its roots to the dangerous proclivities of cis men towards fetishism, objectification, and intimate partner violence, towards transmisogyny, I wonder if there may be in this distrust a seed of (self-)contempt. In approaching the eponymic transamorous man from an original distrust, am I not also motivated by my doubts in the very possibility of an authentic male love for the transfeminine not in spite of our transness, but because of it? Rather than naming a phenomenon, does the term ‘chaser’ in its current deployment set up the self-fulfilling prophecy of our fetishization? Is it a term whose toxicity flourishes in the bosoms of those who don’t date or fuck cis men, of those whose distrust may partly reflect the ease at which they can romantically and sexually live without them?
Much of the conversation surrounding the essay has taken place against the background of a presumed universal transfeminine experience that belongs to a relatively privileged white trans woman whose romantic, sexual, and economic life isn’t inseparable from those of chasers and/or transamorous men. The collective indignation we saw and the cluster of responses that you are reading may not have existed had the voices criticizing the essay been solely those of Black women, had the imagined victim of the essay not been white. Nor would the condemnation of transamory and chaserdom have likely been articulated in the same terms, either, had the conversation reflected the role of race in sexual desire or the complexity and heterogeneity of transfeminine people’s relationships to ‘transamorous’ men in a romantic, social, and economic world constituted by the confluence racism, colonialism, ableism, transphobia, and the indomitability of sexual desire. As someone pointed out to me in private conversation, very few if anyone seems to have mentioned the racial hierarchy of desire implicit in the essay—which named ten trans porn performers as favorites, nine of whom are white, with the last being East Asian. Reflecting on the reactions to the publication of “On Being a Transamorous Man,” I suspect that the dire need to recognize the racial dynamics of trans sexuality and outrage and to listen to voices representing the diversity of trans communities was lost in the tempest.
Dismissing cis men who prefer transfeminine people based on the hurt they cause comes to me with little effort. Falling into the trappings of good-and-bad thinking is all-too-easy when your position in the social web uncouples you from these men, as is the case for me as a white, abled, t4t, bisexual woman whose romantic and sexual life can flourish without cis men. For transfeminine people whose dating and sex life is intertwined with theirs, ‘chaser’ and ‘transamorous’ can name both pain and pleasure. Reducing “On Being a Transamorous Man” exclusively to pain erases the richness of experiences and sidesteps the fact that many trans women date and fuck men that they or others would call ‘chasers’ or ‘transamorous’. Women who experience the most pleasure with them, but also often the most pain.
Every time I open a dating app, lately, I wonder if I am open to being loved, to being lovable by cis men. The hurt I hold because of ‘chasers’ and ‘transamorous’ men is real, but in my animosity towards cis men who have a preference for transfeminine people I also discern a hint of self-hatred: part of me doesn’t believe a cis man can like me because I am a trans woman rather than only despite it. Not without their preference being sourced in fetishization or in transmisogyny. Perhaps my initial reaction to “On Being a Transamorous Man” was tainted by these doubts. Are we open to being loved, to being lovable? I don’t know if any of us has answers, and perhaps we should be humbler in our ignorance. For the time being, I will wallow in my dystrust. It is all I know.
Where do we go now?
I don’t have a solution to the messiness of human experience. I am not sure I want one, but if there is one it will be a collective project. As communist daddy G.A. Cohen puts it, “The present paper has no conclusion.” I apologize for talking about myself so much—a masturbatoriness not unlike that of the essay I criticize—but that is all I know how to talk about with any accuracy. Lest I feel that I contributed nothing of worth, I wish to conclude with a few thoughts about where we may tangibly wish to go in the wake of “On Being a Transamorous Man.”
Much remains to be said about the topics I have touched on. It is plain to me that we have not yet made space for the discussion that must be had about ‘transamory’ and ‘chasers’, a discussion that should be led by those of us who are already lightyears ahead of the pack in their thinking—those who date them. Hasn’t Diana Tourjée written about it? I want to read, learn, and reflect more on cis men who prefer dating (and fucking) trans women. I hope we will be kind to one another as we advance in that conversation, holding space for those coming from different places and arriving with different traumas from our own. I hope we learn to simultaneously hold space for those who are hurt and for those who make mistakes. To be neither stoic nor mean but aspire to kindness towards both ourselves and others.
As for the Transgender Studies Quarterly, I hope it will flourish into the space and mentor we so sorely need. I am grateful for the place it has carved for trans studies in academia and hope that we can all feel at home with it. We are at a time when the overwhelming majority of trans scholars in, around, and outside trans studies appear to be graduate students, and I hope that TSQ will focus on accommodating and adapting to their needs so that each successive generation of trans studies can be stronger than the last. Towards this goal, I invite the editorial board to ask itself whether a model driven by hard-to-fill special issues and rarer, highly competitive general issues is optimal for the sole trans studies journal. I hope that the journal will also consider apologizing—genuinely, this time—to those in trans communities who felt betrayed by the publication of “On Being a Transamorous Man” as well as to the graduate guest editor who fell in the eye of the backlash because the TSQ failed to apprehend an essay that carried a predictably high risk of recoiling with concussive force.
And lastly, as we explore how we may respond in ever-healthier ways to intra-community conflict, I hope that we can apologize to Sophie Pezzutto, the graduate student who co-edited the issue. I am sorry for my contribution to the animosity directed towards you as guest editor. Your work is important. You are important. I am glad you are in academia and willingly denounce anyone who endorses negative professional consequences towards you in relation to the invitation and publication of “On Being a Transamorous Man”. You are not disposable, nor a tolerable casualty of our righteous wrath.