As a Trans Woman, Our Obsession With Labels Feels Limiting—Not Liberating
I’m trans, HIV positive, and I don’t seek to fit into a single gender binary. But my simple desire to land a date on a dating app is often lost in the terms I'm expected to use.
Illustration by Jacqueline Lin.
This essay originally appeared in the Privacy & Perception Issue of Vice Magazine, created in collaboration with Broadly. You can read more stories from the issue here.
I met a man online recently. We talked on Facebook Messenger and video call; he was attractive, sweet, and had a lovely dog. Most important, he was kinky. I would have described him as “lazy masculine”—masculine with a good body, but not one from a gym; a beard that isn’t trimmed by a salon. Masculine that doesn’t shout “masculine,” but just is.
I liked him. When we discussed kinks, I could feel fluttering light kicks of sexual expectation kick in. We talked in enough depth for me to feel comfortable messaging him to say that I was trans and would like to meet in person.
His response was swift and unquestionably clear: “That should have been the very first thing you told me… Times are changing and I wish you luck finding someone else.” Then he blocked me.
I wasn’t sure which times were changing if his instant response was to walk away.
I can remember a time, back in the 80s and early 90s, when attraction lived outside of labels and descriptions. Occasionally, there might have been a pull that your mind didn’t logically understand, but that your body told you was real and worth following. Our physical bodies responded to others in real time, without needing to ensure that the corresponding labels fit.
Now dating apps offer a whole list of shorthand to get the partner you want. But how much of myself do I need to give away for intimacy? How easy is it to meet someone for something casual without having others define or name me? The simple desire to land a date is often lost in the terms I need to use. I’m trans, HIV positive, and I don’t seek to fit into a simple gender binary. My Tinder or Grindr profile might look something like: “Trans femme seeks masculine top who may or may not have a home-grown cock.”
Often the replies will be versions of “so you’re a woman with a cock?” or “so are you pre or post op?”
Here it becomes difficult, problematic, and tiring. I want to have easy, breezy sex—nice sex, not a ridiculous fumble populated by insecurity and thoughts that my body isn’t good enough. I don’t want my genitals to become a deciding factor—it isn’t for me with theirs. Whether their cock is attached by ligaments or a robust harness, it works for me if their intent is masculine.
Next, we move on to an exchange of photos, face, and body—but not genitals. I have had surgery, but I see my neo-vagina as a queer space that should open up options, not close them. I shouldn’t have to disclose my vaginal status to confirm my womanhood—especially not when that also throws my trans sisters who haven’t had genital surgery under the bus. (Plus, my vagina has no sensitivity inside, so someone fucking me in the most basic sense of the word isn’t going to move any mountains.)
The person on the other side responds: “I’d never have known you were trans; you look real, I’d go for you.”
They see this stinging line as a compliment. To me, it means that I haven’t been seen as I really am. My labels need to be clearer—but how and where to go from here? I want sex or maybe, at a push, a fun date, but I don’t want to disclose any more. There is a line between loving myself and making myself understood to cis people. Every time I log on, it feels like I keep giving more and more of myself away.
At the back of my mind is my HIV status. I was diagnosed at a time when tabloids declared that we, the “infected ones,” had a moral duty to tell the world about our “toxic” blood. My condition brings up a whole raft of privacy issues around if and when I should tell someone. My viral load is undetectable, so there’s no risk of transmission, but I have been met with aggressive reactions when potential sexual partners have discovered my status. One man told me that he would tell people that I was “infected” with AIDS and was trying to infect others; another told me he’d beat me up for putting him at risk.
I try again with my online paramour. “I’m not cis nor will I ever be or want to be cis,” I say. “No offense, but I’m happily trans. In the words of a friend, ‘I do trans really well, cis I do very badly, especially up close and personal.’ I need you to at the very least understand and not judge the contours of my body shaped by both testosterone and estrogen.”
Understandably, at this point, the juices are not flowing on either side of the screen. We are both curtailed by a sense of needing to know and a sense of not needing or wanting to say. When it comes to dating, it seems trans bodies and lives must be a completely open book. I must give away all sense of myself to try to fit with someone’s expectations of what I can and cannot be, of what binaries are and are not. Trans women often face violence for apparently not being clear enough about this—look at the numbers of trans women who are attacked for supposed deception; listen to the list of names read out on Transgender Day of Remembrance, growing longer every year. The year 2017 saw 28 trans murders in the US—the highest number of deaths ever recorded in the country.
We are living in incredibly exciting times for LGBTQ rights, but struggling with the black and whiteness of our language. We see this everywhere in our inability to accept and nurture new language and new labels, as both cis and trans people fight for the right to use labels like “woman,” “natural,” or “real.” Trans folk, in all of our fineness, are used to this current tension; our “realness,” after all, has been consistently questioned throughout time. We are well placed to develop a new vocabulary for online intimacy—one that embraces all identities in their subtle, murky complexity. After all, my own body has been shaped, upcycled, recrafted, and given a second life. My labels are never going to be that straightforward.