BY LEXI TURNER
A special issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly would have hardly struck me as a likely contender in the already febrile 2020’s new edition of “Meltdown May.” Nevertheless, the essay “On Being a Transamorous Man” generated a panoply of response: some reactive, some reflective, but none, that I observed, positive. I believe that my own writing here somewhat bridges the divide between the reactive and reflective, as my own position did the same. Accordingly, I crave the reader’s indulgence with regard to any inconsistency in tone: what was originally to be a complaining commentary, submitted to Duke University Press, has become a short essay submitted to this TSQ initiative, itself. To erase entirely its original form would, I believe, sacrifice the anger “On Being a Transamorous Man” elicited within me, for the sake of an over-emphasized semblance of rigor. Nevertheless, I hope as the piece continues, it opens – or at least indicates – some paths toward a constructive resolution.
I may depart from some fellow detractors by asserting that I do very much consider transamory to be a reasonable line of enquiry for such a journal as the TSQ. Indeed, I might imagine going so far as to say that, without the presence of a cisgender voice, an essay on transamory would be incomplete; perhaps impossible. Nevertheless, I believe it would be appropriate in such a circumstance to expect the author to be subject to all the more vetting; not simply being invited to contribute, despite having “no scholarly expertise in the area of trans studies… through personal acquaintance with one of the editors,”1 something which sounds ethically ambiguous at the best of times.
Although the topic of transamory may indeed warrant exposure and investigation, it is my emphatic belief that it did not warrant it in this issue, by this author, in this way.
This is for the following reasons:
1. Even accepting the broad standards of tone within this particular issue, the quality of the writing is - at best - journalistic, and - at worst - like a bizarre school report. I am aware that TSQ has no official policy of only accepting trans-written articles. How, after all, would such a policy be effectively yet non-intrusively enacted? Nevertheless, were “On Being a Transamorous Man” the journal’s first cis-written publication, it would come as no surprise. When I consider the number of transgender academics who would like to be published in TSQ - I am, indeed, one of them - I cannot help but think it would be reasonable when a self-identified white, cisgender, “essentially heterosexual”2 man is invited to have a piece published, with no expertise in the field, instead of any of them, that it could at least be a better-written article. What, I must ask, was the editing process, here?
2. It is also marked by an abundant prurience which is no more welcome in a response to the topic of pornography than it would be anywhere else. Indeed, it feels all the more galling to see a collection of discussions about the social, emotional and political dimensions of sex work be so rudely interrupted by an over-eager inventory of a chaser’s personal fetishes. This article directly contradicts the second sentence in TSQ’s “About” section on the Duke University Press website, which indicates it as a high-profile venue for innovative research and scholarship that contest the objectification, pathologization, and exoticization of transgender lives.3 TSQ’s mission statement should alone have been enough to exclude this article from publication.
3. Beyond simply being distasteful and/or sloppily presented, I would defy anyone to suggest the content of the essay addresses the titular premise: what it is to be a transamorous man. Reading a Top Ten list of the pornographic actresses to whom “Geoffrey H. Nicholson” most enjoys masturbating4 is not an illuminating exercise on the dynamics of structural privilege and social tribulation one might expect from such a title. It is not until the final two paragraphs that “Nicholson” even attempts to get to grips with such a question and, needless to say, he fails to do so.
Yes, the article is itself highly objectionable in its quality, in its tone, in its relation to its supposed thesis and - with all such factors taken into account - the overt nepotism that not only led to its inclusion but strikes me as the only explanation for its inclusion. But what must also be considered is that it is of such little academic value that the TSQ’s demand for academic responses from its dissenting readership marks the exceeding asymmetricality of labor demanded from transgender and cisgender authors: a seemingly lecherous paragon of privilege is invited, despite the profound non-existence of qualification, to contribute an article. He contravenes that foundational mission statement of the TSQ and the TSQ not only publishes the article and refuses to remove it, but now places the onus on a justly offended transgender audience to right this wrong for them. A journal’s readership should not bear the responsibility of ensuring that it lives up to its own editorial standards. This feels like a landmark moment for the publication, and not a good one.
So, how do we move on from this, and what should perhaps have been discussed? I do not believe, as I hope I have clarified in my opening paragraph, that we should remove discussions of transamory from the table. Rather, we should perhaps consider that “On Being a Transamorous Man” - by virtue of being little more than a personal account of one individual’s sexual philias and fetishes - was by no means a meaningful exploration of transamory. Thus, perhaps we should credit this experience as having indicated a lacuna in coverage that wants - if not needs - to be filled. “On Being a Transamorous Man” references far too late to address properly the problem of societal shame directed towards cisgender heterosexual men who have sexual relations and relationships with transgender women. Historically, we know that gender variance has at times been an effective negotiator of hegemonic principles surrounding perceived homosexuality: George Chauncey’s exploration of urban queer culture from the turn of the 20th century until the events of the Second World War, addresses the “fairy” subculture as an example of “effeminacy as a cultural strategy,”5 that “would serve to confirm rather than threaten the masculinity” of rough trade and passers-by alike.6 Accordingly, meaningful contemporary accounts of the aggressive interrogation of their sexuality to which transamorous men are subjected upon discovery of their relationships provides a potentially crucial key to deconstructing the dispositifs that so influence the tectonics of gendered and sexual conformity in this, the third decade of the 21st century.
Indeed, with the relative degree of mainstream social acceptability bestowed upon cisgender homosexuals in the contemporary Western world, such questions now pertain not simply to the socially-challenged integrity of a cisgender man’s heterosexuality following relations with a transgender woman, but to the “gold,” or even “platinum star” status of cisgender gay men and lesbians sleeping with transgender men and women, respectively. The disquieting nuances of star-status’ promulgation by Dan Savage speak to the degree of arbitrary calculation that can inform such discursive regimes: “You’re still a gold star gay...You dated a trans man, trans men are men, you’ve never been with a woman. But this ‘platinum’ nonsense is about genitals, not gender. So, if your trans ex-boyfriend had a vagina and you touched it, well, then you’ll have to mail your invisible platinum gay card back.”7
Anxious as I am to clarify my vociferous support of sex workers as workers, I do not believe that a consumer of pornography’s relation to the medium is beyond critique or reproach. Nicholson’s stated preferences in pornography, that he “enjoy[s] it most when the performers interact well with each other and appear to be enjoying themselves…[which] has helped me learn more about trans women and what their bodies are capable of,” self-admittedly speaks to his relation to trans women, as a whole.8 Leaving the humorous accidental Spinozism to one side, we should consider the admittedly permeable but nevertheless extant diving line between authenticity and materiality. Heather Berg defines authenticity in relation to pornography as “a type of emotional and communicative labor and a marketed commodity…a performance of being oneself and wanting to be there – and, emphatically, being there not just for the money.”9 The centrality of emotional labor in professions and subject positions hegemonically most associated with queerness and femininity, be it sex work or the field of retail and service industries known as “pink collar,” demands and increasingly receives theoretical scrutiny for the unique manner of Entfremdung to which the laborer may be subjected in this performance.10
The navigation of hegemonic codes that are dismissive of, even damaging to the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of queer subjects, specifically those of color, is certainly one interpretation of José Esteban Muñoz’ term disidentification: “to read oneself and one’s own life narrative in a moment, object, or subject that is not culturally coded to ‘connect’ with the disidentifying subject.”11 The number of anecdotes I have heard that indicate trans pornography as the introduction for so many trans people to the potentiality of their bodies and their identities speaks to the sheer complexity, cruciality and vitality of a dynamic “je sais bien, mais quand-même” enacted by both the transgender performers and spectators alike. Through engagement with the spectacular trans body, the transgender non-sex-worker subject explores the parameters of corporeal materiality, and that body’s relation to desire – not merely of sex but of self. Nicholson’s implementation of the present tense, as he describes pornography as an educational tool regarding the realities of trans women’s experiences betrays his lack of recognition of the disjunctive synthesis; Deleuze and Guattari do indeed tell us that, when we make love, “we always make love with worlds,”12 but the distinction between the fantasy and reality of the trans world appears to be of next to no interest to him.
To Nicholson’s credit, he does accept in a final paragraph that should have been the piece’s introduction, that “the taboo in society about men loving trans women affects both transamorous men and trans women.”13 Unfortunately this does not discount the privilege marinating such an observation, revealed starkly in two passages bookending the above quote: First, In saying that “Western society has become much more aware and accepting of trans people...At the same time, there still appears to be a stigma within broader society toward transamorous men,” we are led to believe that the acceptance of trans people has been all the greater than acceptance of their cisgender male companions.14 Such a claim demands citation far beyond the paragraph’s opening justification, “from my observations,” especially when one considers the vast discrepancy between the recorded numbers of trans people murdered each year, and the recorded numbers of cisgender lovers of trans people murdered each year. Second, Nicholson’s conclusion that “the resulting secrecy among transamorous men affects their ability to form relationships with trans women and also impacts trans women who may be seeking meaningful relationships with men.”15 Whilst this assuredly is true, in the minds of many trans people, the resulting secrecy’s most prominent result is the murder of women such as Islan Nettles at the hands of men attracted to them, for the crime of being attractive to them.16 One of the many reasons for the discrepancy between the numbers of murdered trans women and murdered transamorous men, is that the former are often killed at the hands of the latter. As writer Janet Mock expresses through character, Elektra (Dominique Jackson): "They don’t kill us because they hate us. They kill us because they hate what it means to love us."17
Shame is an abuser, and a killer, in all directions. In August of 2019, Maurice “Reese” Willoughby declared on Instagram his love for a trans woman by the name of Faith Palmer. A viral video of him being harassed in the street for his transamory was spread about social media. Several days later, he took his own life. The facts of the case have been troubled by various accounts of chronology and motive, but we do know that a man who was public about his relationship with a trans woman was bullied for it, and died. He was also, it later emerged, abusive to Faith, threatening even to kill them both, his suicide seemingly ultimately triggered by her taking the initiative to escape his violent conduct.18 For the most part, the highly necessary discussions of transphobia, masculinity and race surrounding the relationship and death of Reese Willoughby and Faith Palmer have been raised and held not by academics, but by journalists and celebrities, who find themselves in the position of spokespeople and activists by default.
Thus, it is indeed vital to give a voice to the transamorous within the academic sphere, and for that voice to be received respectfully to reduce the stigma against their relationships with trans people, but I hope the transamorous readership of TSQ will forgive me when I suggest that the crucial necessity of such a policy is not first and foremost for the emotional wellbeing of cisgender men (though I do not wish to denigrate such efforts), but rather for the physical safety of transgender women. It is not an unreasonable demand from a community made of marginalized bodies, histories and professions that the privileged men – not least of all sex work clients – with whom they engage meet a minimal standard of expressed care for the former in all cases, at all times, including when contributing to a high-profile venue for innovative research and scholarship that contest the objectification, pathologization, and exoticization of transgender lives. Accordingly, if TSQ is to publish an article, entitled “On Being a Transamorous Man,” I argue that a policy of zealous – strident, even - adherence to such principles is not merely a question of living up to the promise made by the journal’s mission statement as a mode of transparent academic rigor, but is a question of reflecting the necessity for such principles in combatting the quotidian aggressions faced by trans people, on the streets and within relationships. As is clear, the stakes of the circumstances that inform the transamorous confessional are far beyond Nicholson’s expressed understanding. Someone who does not possess that degree of understanding has no right, and no place in a journal on the issue.
How may this be achieved?
I do not think it is unreasonable to suggest that, when relying upon the personal account of a self-identified transamorous man who - however long and lascivious his journey to the topic may be - decided to relate his story to a general conclusion regarding shame towards transamory as hurdle to cisgender-transgender romantic relationships, the journal would do better to select an author whose main hurdle to such relationships is not his current marriage to a cisgender woman. That factor reduces his citation-free conclusions - no matter how correct they may be - to pure speculation from an admittedly naive source. I would suggest that the publication and the topic cannot afford to be entirely free from transgender voices. Accordingly, I would recommend the topic best be approached as interviews, with transgender interviewers: I doubly emphasize this, as and when the transamorous individual insists on anonymity / pseudonymity.
After all, what does the author’s pseudonymous status afford him, here? Granted, one may consider it a blessing that his publication in TSQ will not contribute to any career advancement (were the quality as such as one might consider that a possibility), but it has also liberated him from accountability. Nicholson had no imperative to write a better article, less distastefully, because his name would not be stamped upon it. A special issue dedicated to sex work is, of course, likely to be replete with noms de guerre, but we must mark the distinction: a sex worker’s assumed identity is a means of protection from social, financial, legal, even fatal consequences as might befall a member of a marginalized and maligned community; a client’s assumed identity is a means of protection from the social, financial and legal consequences, as might befall a privileged member of the bourgeoisie. Nicholson’s pseudonym is not for his personal safety; it is for his marital safety. No matter our individual moral stances on adultery, I do not believe preserving the ersatz verisimilitude of a cisgender man’s marriage is a worthy enough endeavor to allow him to avoid all accountability for such an article as this.
Although I maintain my belief that nothing new was learned from the article itself - reticence with regard self-criticism and prurience with regard trans bodies from the chaser community coming as no surprise, I would imagine, to any of TSQ’s trans readership - it is my great hope that the response from said readership can function as a catalyst for the learning opportunity we were so denied, the first time round. Trans people cannot afford the luxury of speculation on the material realities of our engagement with cisgender men. Nor can we afford to promulgate such discourse as would dehumanize us. However, mindful coverage of the realities, consequences, and potentials of transamorous relations, in a manner that holds the authors accountable to the community at large may help us end stigma, support those struggling and hurting, and even save lives. There is work to be done, let this be that work’s instigation.