Updated: Dec 17, 2020
BY AQDAS AFTAB
In the groundbreaking TV show Pose, many trans women of color find themselves in transactional abusive relationships with white cis men for survival. These men, who control the women through money and security, are, in many ways “transamorous.” Ford, the older rich white man that Elektra Abundance has a relationship with, is attracted to Elektra because she is trans; because she has something that cis women do not. Under the cis gaze, Elektra fits into the descriptive category of Nicholson’s imagination of trans women: “here were these beautiful women and they had penises!” (Nicholson 269). Once Elektra gets surgery, Ford robs her of any semblance of financial security in sheer rage of losing the object of his desire. When she is no longer trans enough for Ford, when she can no longer fulfil his sexual fetish, she is forced to become homeless. Her precarious life hinges upon the whims and fantasies of “transamorous” men like Ford.
The young character Angel Evangelista also enters a relationship with Stan, a white cis man who lives a heteronormative suburban family life. This white man seems more benign than Ford since he is not blatantly abusive or fetishistically attached to certain body parts of Angel. Similar to Nicholson, this white man “learns” about his attraction to trans women through partaking in porn magazines and sex work, while also maintaining a boring heternormative life with a wife and kids. Like Nicholson, he too is not rigid about Angel’s genitalia, even as he desires her otherness. Like Nicholson, he too feels “stigmatized” for his attraction to Angel. However, while Nicholson’s essay adumbrates his own surface-level fantasies and fascinations, Pose shows us glimpses of Angel’s complicated affective life, allowing us to witness the invisible subtle violence of Stan’s cis white gaze as he fails to see Angel as a full human.
In Pose and Nicholson’s essay, white cis men’s “transamorous” attractions are often articulated as colorblind; yet race is always at play in examinations of gender. This is not only because of the dominance of Black and brown trans women in street-based sex work — which often serves as a location for white cis men’s sexual explorations — but because of the long history of the racialization of trans identity, and the colonial sexual fascination with Black and brown people’s apparent gender nonconformity. Instead of doing a sentence-by-sentence critique of Nicholson’s essay, here I want to examine the notion of “transamory” through a decolonial lens, analyzing it in the context of the afterlife of coloniality and enslavement. How does transamory operate as an after-effect of colonial histories that sought to simultaneously demonize and fetishize Black and brown gender nonconformity? Considering that gender is always already racialized — since race, colonialism and migration always inform and intersect with how one experiences gender — how does the cis transamorous gaze uphold coloniality and whiteness? I briefly examine these questions to unpack the violence in “transamory” as it relates to trans of color life.
The racial history of trans identity demands that we also carefully examine the racial history of cis attractions to trans identity. Black feminist scholars, from Sylvia Wynter to Alexis Pauline Gumbs, have taught me how the modern conception of the Human is rooted in the white heterosexual cisgender man. Since binarily opposed genders are a requirement of the Human, to be excluded from humanness also results in an exclusion from the binary cisgender system. In her essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American grammar Book,” Hortense Spillers delineates how Black people were “ungendered” during slavery because of their violent transformation by the white gaze into commodities. Under the violence of enslavement, Black bodies became a “territory of cultural and political maneuver, not at all gender-related, gender-specific” (Spillers 67). According to Spillers, the captive female body was unnamed and ungendered because family roles and kinship bonds were robbed from Black women. Spillers’ essay suggests that since binary gender was dictated by the white conception of the Human, Black women were never allowed to be normatively cisgender to begin with.
C. Riley Snorton’s trans reading of Spillers’ work shows how ungendering entailed forced and fugitive transing. Arguing how “black” and “trans” are not distinctly separate categories, Snorton teaches us that these categories constitute each other since “blackness finds articulation within transness” (Snorton 8). According to Snorton, the fungibility of Black flesh under enslavement created conditions of gender manipulation and rearrangement, hence giving birth to different forms of trans experiences. Black women who were ungendered, therefore, occupied a trans space. Since Black people were considered queerly excessive under the white cis gaze, their bodies were forcibly trans-ed by structures of whiteness. This forcible transing overlapped with the long history of white enslavers’ sexual violence against Black women. White cis men’s (and cis women’s, as pointed out in Spillers’ essay) violent sexual desire for those they had forcibly transed points to a genealogy of “transamorous” attraction: desire for those who are considered “excessive,” “unwomanly women” “women but different” by the white cis gaze. Tracing a racial history of cis desire for those who were forcibly trans-ed reveals that white people’s “transamory” first emerged as a titillating mechanism of white supremacist control.
While the Middle Passage was the founding block of racial-capitalist modernity (and it’s accompanying gender systems), different histories of colonisation (that intersected with enslavement) also produced gendered modes of racialization. Like the enslavers who fetishized the ungendered other, European colonizing travellers also harbored sexual desire for the excessive other. In the white imagination, colonized people’s gendered excess was often represented through orientalist animalistic imagery that coded Black and brown people as less-than-human or non-human. At the same time, such representations eroticised and sexualized colonized people, transforming them into objects of exotic sexual fantasies. From the writings of Joseph Conrad to those of Rider Haggard, European literature is profuse with mentions of the titillating effects of “native” bodies on white travelers, hence transforming colonized land into spaces of sexual exploration, while maintaining Europe as the “clean” site of cisheteronormativity. Since the European notion of the Human excluded Black and brown people, the white imagination also depicted colonized “natives” as excessively gendered (as hypermasculine aggressive men or hypersexualized voluptuous women) or not-properly-gendered (as androgynous).
Colonial excursions in Africa and Asia led to the forcible “queering” or “transing” of Black and brown people when the white gaze read bodies of color as nonnormatively gendered. For example, many European colonial travel writings described regions like North Africa as spaces of queer sexual exploration where white men could experiment with transfeminine people they called “Eunuchs.” Joseph Boone’s analysis of 18th and 19th century British writers shows that the Victorian colonial gaze saw the “East” —particularly Egypt— through a sexualizing orientalist lens, that I would argue was particularly transerotic. While colonizers considered the Orient to be sexually corrupt, they simultaneously harbored a sexual fetish and desire for the Orient’s gender nonconformity represented through the “effeminate Asiatic” figure of the “transvestic dancer” (Boone 52). While trans identity did not operate here the way it does in the contemporary moment, the particular trans aesthetic of colonized Black and brown people— as a function of orientalism — fascinated and tantalized European cis men. This colonial fetish to indulge in “native” trans/ gender nonconforming transfeminine bodies points to another genealogical thread in the long history of white cis men learning “transamorous” desire through colonial encounters.
The transerotics of orientalism continue to function in neocolonial sexual tourism today. The history of trans sexual fetishes through colonial travel suggests that those outside of normative gender and sexual norms continue to be desired and exploited through orientalist fantasies. Sexual tourism markets — such as Western tourists’ sexual adventures with trans sex workers in Thailand— sustain global capitalism and the Western consumption of bodies of color. Here, my critique is certainly not directed towards trans people who choose transactional sexual relationships with “transamorous” cis people for survival, pleasure, or both; rather, I am arguing that the “transamorous” gaze cannot be separated from the violent intersections of global capitalism, racism, antiBlackness, and transmisogyny. Therefore, we need a decolonial analytic framework to examine cis people’s sexual desire for trans bodies, particularly when the interpersonal and structural power differences between such people are so stark. While Sophie Pezzutto and Lynn Comella, the editors of TSQ’s issue on pornography, acknowledge that the lack of research on the Global South is a shortcoming of the issue as well as of trans studies, it is important to note that the same frameworks that analyze the work of trans performers in the United States, and the same Western cisfeminist and transfeminist debates around the value of porn performance cannot be applied as neatly to the Global South where the aftertaste of colonial sexual tourism continues to linger.
What I am arguing is this: if trans identity cannot be divorced from racialization and coloniality, then white cis “transamorous” desire must also be examined from and through histories of violence, fetishization and consumption. What if, instead of reading about white cis men’s fantasies, we fully centered the reflections and responses of trans women of color to white transamorous men, the way Pose shows us Angel’s perspective of Stan? What if we examined “transamorous” desire as an outcome of colonialism that sustains neoliberal economic structures, which force women like Angel and Elektra into encounters with “transamorous” white cis men in the first place? While there are many aspects of Nicholson’s essay that incite an affective revulsion— from his use of terms like “beautiful creatures” to his generalizations about trans women— I am most invested in centering analyses of the racialization of gender in current conversations about “transamorous” desire. If transness stemmed from and through coloniality and enslavement, with white people’s first encounter with gender nonconformity coinciding with their histories of commodifying and invading people of color, then “transmory” too must be examined as a violent erotic product of colonial encounters.