The Age of the SOFFA, Trans Care, And Other Reflections on Transamory
BY AREN AIZURA
I initially volunteered to respond in this cluster of articles because I wanted to say certain things about TSQ’s editorial process, as someone who was around at the beginning of TSQ’s existence, a long-term editorial board member, and sometime special issue editor. I wrote hasty notes, which I sent to Grace in May. Then the summer happened, featuring an uprising in Minneapolis where I live and a national reckoning about anti-Black violence and police abolition. I forgot the entire affair. When the first cluster of essays appeared in TSQNow, I discovered that others have already pointed out editorial concerns perfectly well. Over summer, however, the Nicholson affair kept unspooling: a podcast appeared, reputedly featuring Nicholson himself, which seemed at moments genuine and at others pure parody, and a Twitter account appeared which is also reputedly authored by Nicholson and to me reads also as parody. (Maybe it doesn’t matter.) Debates about TSQ itself have continued to rage on Facebook groups and Twitter, disarticulated from the Trans Pornography issue.
When I reread and reflect about Nicholson’s piece and about the logic of the chaser and the transamorous man now, it is not about academic journals, publishing, or the state of the field. As an exercise in investigating why cis male chasers seem so enraging, I want to contrast the chaser figure with a historical moment that feels very remote, although it was only 20 years ago. Let’s say 2000: when cis partners of trans people called themselves SOFFAs. SOFFA stands for Significant Other, Friends, Family, and Allies of trans people. Yet, in the trans symbolic, the classic image of the SOFFA is a cis femme partner of a trans man. It’s not surprising: in that moment, trans men topped the U.S. queer erotic hierarchy. The most accurate account I can find of SOFFA’s emergence is on the FORGE Forward website, a Milwaukee-based trans support org that has always felt very 1990s to me although it’s still running. In an article by Loree Cook-Daniels about her partner Marcelle, who passed in 2000. “The first, 1995 and 1996, FTM conferences divided trans people from their partners, restricting partners from many workshops and offering vastly different agendas (including some that were offensively stereotypical, such as scheduling “shopping”) to non-trans partners,” writes Cook-Daniels. The Cook-Daniels believed that difference in identities complemented, rather than detracted from, their capacity to organize. They soon met Gary Bowen, a Native trans man and trans activist, who agreed with them that “the best and fastest way to advance the trans community was to include SOFFAs.” The three organized the first True Spirit conference in 1997. Loree and Bowen also founded American Boyz, a national trans men’s support group.
In the vision elaborated by Cook-Daniels, SOFFAs take on the responsibility of educating, passing on knowledge, training up allies, and through this collaborating on the task of trans world building. At the time, Cook-Daniels also advocated for SOFFAs to be integrated into trans conferences, organizing, and social activities. A SOFFA flier asks that, among other things, trans people should “understand that SOFFAs face their own difficult issues, and be respectful and supportive as they work through them,” as well as advising that trans orgs open leadership and public speaking positions to SOFFAs, and encourage SOFFAs to fill these roles.
Amazing, right? We’ll return to that point.
While the FORGE Forward information sheet about the SOFFA does not say so explicitly, it felt like a given at the time that SOFFA meant cis femme partners of trans guys. And although Cook-Daniels clearly didn’t intend the term to be used this way, people often understood SOFFA to mean cis femmes whose role in the “movement” was to support their butch partners to transition. Often, these cis femmes stayed in the background while their trans guy partners attended the FTM International Conference or any of the trans guy conferences proliferating in the mid 1990s, attended surgeons’ talks about phallo, meta, or top surgery, flirted with other trans guys, and sometimes (often) decided they were actually gay. SOFFA, to me at the time, meant cis femmes who nursed their trans guy partners through surgeries and whose feminized emotional and reproductive labor reinforced trans guys’ sense of themselves as men.
Jane Ward has written astutely about these dynamics as gender labor, suggesting that femmes perform “emotional, physical, and sexual care- taking efforts aimed at… helping others achieve the varied forms of gender recognition they long for” (2010, 236.) Although I am speaking explicitly about cis femmes in relation to SOFFAs here, Ward points out that feminine subjects of all kinds are held particularly responsible for the labor of gendering (2010, 240). Like other forms of care labor, gender labor is naturalized as something feminine subjects simply do well, and thus it is expected of them—whether that’s trans women who mother each other into being, or trans and cis women and femmes who support trans guys and butches in their masculinity. I am in awe of Hil Malatino’s insight that trans care often involves “seeking ways to make the multivalent and necessary care hustle that structures so much of our lives sustainable”, rather than “exporting the feminized forms of care associated with the white, bourgeois home” (2020, 43). At the same time, it seems important to register how sometimes those latter feminized forms emerge as archetypes of trans care.
Because reproductive labor is so inevitably and intensively naturalized, the figure of the SOFFA could often seem devoid of erotics. In the early 2000s, some people referred to being attracted to trans men as “transsensuality”. But that term never really took off. Instead, being a SOFFA seemed to mostly mean doing dishes, cooking and cleaning. It sometimes meant embracing heterosexuality in order to buttress trans guys’ sense of themselves as guys, in the process giving up queerness, and subsequently desiring outlets to be read as visibly queer. (As if in direct response to this problem, just a few years later a series of femme conferences proliferated, championing femmes’ sexiness, autonomy and queerness.) As my memory goes, SOFFA duty also often involved, and sometimes still involves, listening to zit-infested, perpetually masturbating trans guys talk demeaningly about “women!” in an effort to blend into normative heterosexual masculinity. Those efforts to blend were a bitter project of internalization imposed by the overwhelming normativity of trans health at the time, which often imposed hegemonic masculine norms on trans guys in exchange for a top surgery letter. At any rate, whatever form that reproductive labor took, it acquired what I interpreted as a non-erotic glaze. Instead the SOFFA figure seemed cuddly, domestic, caring. Like a mom. Maybe a hot mom, but definitely a mom. I hasten to add that while I know lots of femmes and trans guys who did, and do, sustain super sexy dynamics, often hella kinky, this almost always happens when partners refuse, rework, or otherwise fuck with the naturalization of femme care labor.
I came out as trans in the age of the SOFFA. Although I’d had a bunch of different kinds of partners of many genders, cis and trans and genderqueer, I was dating a lesbian at the time I changed my pronouns and started hormones. She and I would make merciless fun of SOFFA as a term, and as a role. “Don’t make me go to one of those SOFFA support groups,” she would plead, and we would both crack up. We both knew we didn’t fit that mold. She did sometimes aver that being in a relationship with me as I transitioned meant doing a lot of emotional labor, and it was true. But she didn’t want to occupy an adjunct relationship to transness, or have that define our sex life or our relationship. We knew for sure she wasn’t a SOFFA because she was butch, passed as a guy regularly, and my desire for her was avowedly masc4masc. After all, she taught me how to shave. Finally, though, I think it’s that we both identified a kind of abjection in the feminized labor of the SOFFA. We both wanted to refuse her that abjection.
But let’s return to Cook-Daniels’s appeal that partners are so central to the trans movement, one must respect and support them while they work out their issues. This appeal (or demand?) simply doesn’t fly in the current historical moment. Firstly, it’s now an accepted logic that trans people shouldn’t need to support cis people in processing their transphobia. Cis people are supposed to do that within their own support networks. Secondly, the division between trans/nonbinary and cis now almost totally defines the ground of who can speak about transness. Many of the people who identified as non-trans in the past now identify as nonbinary and thus are not the “cis” partners of trans people. And finally, t4t is now a vastly more familiar and accepted register for trans erotic and social relationships than it was 20 years ago. In one swift, beautiful, ruthless move, t4t renders cis people completely redundant to trans community. Do they desire us? Too bad. We have our own erotic economies. We don’t need them anymore. (And that formulation works despite the multiplicity of t4t erotic dynamics.) Indeed, my personal enjoyment of t4t lies in a gleeful refusal to countenance myself only as a locatable object or subject of desire in the logic of the “transsensual femme”, the rule that trans men and cis femmes go together. From the perspective of t4t and the current trans/queer sexual economies in which everyone’s gender is probably nonbinary at least, the SOFFA feels archaic, backwards, precisely because it lies heavy with the burden of the domestic feminine.
In an expanded version of this essay, I would think through how the “backwardsness” of the SOFFA might be productive and desirable. And while it’s not my precise goal here, it feels very important to historicize how SOFFA literature focused so heavily on involving non-trans people in trans community. It is not coincidental that Loree Cook-Daniels’s partner Marcelle was a Black trans man, and that her collaboration with Bowen meant she was close to trans of color communities. The SOFFA could read as analogous to ideologies of white allyship, if we read cisness and whiteness together—in all the negative connotations of that term. But Cook-Daniels’s emphasis on cis partners involving themselves in trans struggles also reads as an acknowledgment that queer and trans of color survivance means individuals (partners, friends, family) providing support that cannot be gotten elsewhere: from the state, healthcare providers, or from institutions which participate in necropolitical abandonment, criminalization, and disruption. It reads as a bid for trans communities to hold not just the individual trans person as the center, but for many people who are outside of gender normative social structures to work together. This is crucial for communities of color, given that gender normativity is always already white and that the ambit of the Human, as properly gendered, excludes Black, Indigenous and POC subjects in the historically specific ways imposed by settler colonialism and the Middle Passage, among other things. But it also emphasizes a point, which is that in an “allyship” paradigm, cis partners are expected to struggle with and advocate for trans people. To use their cis privilege to advance trans people’s struggle. It is no coincidence that cis femme partners of trans people often excel at that political labor.
When I talk to my partner as I’m writing this, he points out that the reproductive labor performed by SOFFAs can also be found in another location: in crossdressers’ and trans women’s cis female partners, almost always referred to as wives. In relation to trans women, the wife locates a domestic maternal similar to cis femmes, as well as the responsibility to perform activist or political labor. Think of Helen Boyd’s books My Husband Betty: Love, Sex, and Life with a Crossdresser (2003) and She’s Not the Man I Married (2006) which now, from a transfutural t4t milieu, seem as antiquated and backwards as the SOFFA. Being a trans woman’s wife could mean support in the form of modeling femininity, and sometimes supporting wives even saw themselves as birthing trans women into womanhood. Boyd not only published books; she ran an online message board for wives of trans women and went on speaking tours, visiting trans orgs across the U.S. in the mid 2000s. While the figure of the trans woman’s wife as celebrity has waned, that same maternal advocate figure lives on in memoirs by parents of trans kids (or, in Amanda Knox’s case, a trans partner AND a trans kid).
Where are the cis guys in these imaginaries of supporting labor? Cis guys are not known for doing reproductive labor for their trans women partners. Cis men are not known for doing reproductive labor for trans guys either—at least that is not a recognizable cultural narrative in the way that cis SOFFA-hood functions. This is not to say that actual queer cis men do not bring gay trans men out. (I know a bunch of cis guys who fuck and partner with trans men who are superstars, and who certainly do their share of interdependency and care.) But the cultural forms we have to imagine that happening are limited and few. I can think of one, the transmasc4masc porn website Bonus Hole Boys, where cis guys play with trans guys. While a range of cis and trans guys top, Bonus Hole Boys videos usually feature a trans guy bottoming; the cis guy or guys are always Daddy, usually top, and they are generally both caring and mean.
This brings me to Nicholson’s words and chaser narratives in general. “On Being a Transamorous Man” did feel like an objectively bad piece of writing. But it also highlights the redundancy of straight cis men as figures who symbolize care. Because the archetypal chaser is a cis man, desiring a trans woman, the dynamics of gendered reproductive labor work in a very different way. Chaser narratives feel overdetermined by the opposite dynamic to that I’ve been sketching: all objectification, no care. “Chasers” objectify and fetishize trans women and trans femininity, while trans women have to work to be seen outside of complete hypersexualization, or make their hypersexualization work for them. Outside of trans femdom kink, where submissive cis men perform service for trans dommes, I cannot think of a single cultural site in which cis men habitually and willingly provide care for trans women. (And even that is bounded by sexual objectification: if the scene is not explicitly transactional via payment, the submissive likely gets sexual gratification.) What is missing is the non-erotic, or differently erotic, emotional labor of supporting trans partners that so heavily overdetermines the figure of the SOFFA. Cis male partners of trans women seem to be rarely involved in trans organizing (or if they are, they take an invisible back seat.) Queer/trans culture approaches straight cis masculinity as hapless and incompetent, so the idea that straight cis men could share leadership duties appears ridiculous.
Others—trans women, mainly—have provided important takes on why the haterade directed at Nicholson forecloses straight trans women’s erotic and sexual lives, and why the “chaser” narrative is not sufficient as an interpretive frame for talking about desiring transness. I want to tease out something a little different. While there are certainly some elements of Nicholson’s story that echo the standard chaser narrative, what stands out to me is how he suggests that he does perform emotional labor for the women he dates: “several lovers have said it is the way I make them feel that they enjoy” (Nicholson 2020, 270). But rather than understanding this as simply his job as a person or a capacity so normal that it doesn’t bear mentioning, as a femme partner of a trans person might do, Nicholson presents this as something that differentiates him from other men. In his words, it provides him with “a competitive advantage.” This feels like such a classically straight cis man move. It exceptionalizes care labor, rendering it into something trans women should feel lucky to receive. And while Nicholson declares that he loves trans women (trans women with dicks, anyhow), he just doesn’t seem to have the emotional or sexual vocabulary to show it. When he writes that he has learned some sexual techniques from trans porn, the editor part of my brain wants to scribble in red pen: WHAT techniques? Have you read Fucking Trans Women, Geoffrey? Why are you being so coy? What is it about your coyness that makes us think you are probably as fumbling in bed as you appear on the page? Finally, Nicholson’s unwillingness to be identified makes things feel extra shabby. While he offers the stigma of being transamorous as one reason to stay anonymous, there’s also the fact that he’s married to a cis woman. We never learn whether he and his wife are explicitly poly or whether he keeps his sexual life a secret from her. So while he says he loves trans women, he is not willing to give up a veneer of normativity that his trans sexual partners may not be able to access. What kind of love is this? I want to tell him to start a support group, at the very least; to take on the task of educating his peers; to be out and proud. Be a good SOFFA. (The liberal individualism of these fantasies is not lost on me, which is why it’s galling to have them.)
But as we’ve already seen, aside from the problematics of allyship in general, being a good SOFFA is gendered. It locks one into gendered reproductive labor dynamics that don’t necessarily feel good. This is one of the stark and incredibly shitty things about trans and queer culture, as it is in patriarchy at large: if we rely on the heterosexual couple-form to organize our erotic and social relationships, we might always end up in a place where trans men are overvalued and overcared for, and trans women are denied the honor, love, and care labor that should be their birthright. Just like cis men are overvalued and cis women are denied care. This not only sucks mightily; it subtends any potential for trans folks to work and play and think together without constantly running into the trauma, resentment, sadness, and lack of solidarity that those sexual and erotic hierarchies produce. We can refuse or disidentify with these hierarchies all we like, but they are still real and violent. And while many relationships between, say, cis men and trans women, or cis women and trans men, do not reflect these rather overdetermined superstructural forms, we must grapple with their toxicity or our relationships will fail.
What is the solution here? Is it, in Jamie Hood’s vision, for trans women to claim back the figure of the housewife, to “reimagin[e] the Housewife beyond the bounds of cisness, whiteness, and subjection under late-capitalist variations on the family?” Is the solution to rewrite cis masculinity in relation to transness? Is it to do away with these categories and identifications altogether? To refuse cis trucking with trans sex or being and stick to t4t? Whatever the case, we need to look to reproductive labor to make sense of any of this. One fantasy of trans politics is that we may subvert gender and sex and that this might revolutionize the social entirely. While the forms we actually have lived do sometimes revolutionize everything, they just as often don’t. We might just as well ask Geoffrey Nicholson to forego the heterosexual, bourgeois privilege he holds and, if he’s serious about who he wants to fuck, redistribute his life and income and property to a trans commune, or to sex work decriminalization campaigns, or to police abolition, or to the racial justice movements that desperately need resources right now. He might be happier if he did. As an individual solution, it would be a drop in the bucket of need to end wealth, racial capitalism, sex work criminalization, and all the other things that make our lives hard. Yet somehow I don’t think even that’s gonna happen. Bummer for him, and for us all.
1. All links referencing Cook-Daniels direct the reader to an archived link of the website, the link was active as of early December 2020, but has since been removed.
Aren Aizura is the author of Mobile Subjects: transnational imaginaries of gender reassignment (Duke UP, 2018) and is an Associate Professor in Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota. He is working on a project about queer and trans attachments to utopian family and care relationships.