Illustration by Vivian Shih
While researchers have yet to determine whether changes in hormones lead to changes in sexual orientation, for many trans lesbians, the logic is clear: If you don't have to live as a man anymore, why would you date them?
There aren't many people who are fortunate enough to have lived their lives first as gay men and later as lesbian women. Alison* is one of them.
"Seriously, I used to be a rake-thin, femme, fag bottom, and now I'm a curvy, andro dyke, mostly top," she told Broadly. "What the fuck?"
Growing up, Alison was slight and slender, something she frequently bragged about "to the confusion of her boy peers," as she recalled. When she started puberty, she began to struggle with feelings of discomfort in and anxiety about her body—she was terrified of becoming big, muscular, and masculine like her older brother, whom she described as "a very shitty misogynist."
Fearing the psychological and physical discomfort that puberty would bring, Alison turned to "drugs that DARE taught me would stunt your growth," which she took in an attempt to ensure her body would remain small. At the time, she just saw herself as a particularly femme gay guy; though she was undoubtedly attracted to men, she had difficulty relating to them. "I found guys hot, but I also found a lot of them repellant in terms of personality or maturity," she said, noting that most of her friends growing up were women. "I was raised by a feminist mother, so almost all dudes and their misogyny were a complete turn-off."
It wasn't until college that Alison realized that she identified as a woman. A few months into her transition, she realized she was attracted to women as well.
Alison isn't entirely sure why her sexual orientation changed after she began living according to her true gender identity. "I was in a different gender position," she said. Because she didn't identify as male anymore, she suggested, she could "conceive of women as possible romantic or sexual interests" without having to stomach her "disgust at male heterosexuality" or having to view herself as complicit in it. She also noted that having sex with men before her transition made her feel more feminine: "With men, I could be smaller and feminine and be fucked, which I didn't conceive as possible with women." After she started living as a woman, that was no longer an issue for her.
Seriously, I used to be a rake-thin, femme, fag bottom, and now I'm a curvy, andro dyke, mostly top. What the fuck?
In addition, Alison believes that transitioning had a profound effect on her sex drive—she mentioned feeling a noticeable mental and emotional shift after starting hormone replacement therapy (HRT). HRT for trans women generally includes two medications. One is a testosterone-blocker, which effectively nullifies testosterone in the body. The other is estrogen, which replaces the testosterone and begins the process of a second puberty. On HRT, trans women experience many of the pubertal changes that cisgender women do, such as breast development. Alison says that, once she got testosterone out of her system, she no longer felt like she absolutely had to have sex—or, as she puts it, that "cloud of incessant horniness dissipated."
"Having testosterone in my body made me need sexual release to an extent I found embarrassing and shameful," Alison said, explaining that some days her sexual urges would cause her to masturbate multiple times.
Dr. Walter Bockting, a professor of medical psychology at Columbia University who specializes in LGBT health, says there isn't a clear consensus on whether hormones influence sexual orientation. "Pubertal hormones, including testosterone, play an important role in sexual development," he explained. However, "the role of hormones in the development of gender identity or sexual orientation is less clear and remains unknown."
One hypothesis Dr. Bockting mentioned posits that, with the suppression of testosterone and the administration of estrogen, "transgender women's sexual orientation becomes somewhat less fixed—as research indicates that it is more fixed among men than among women," as he put it.
The role of hormones in the development of gender identity or sexual orientation is less clear and remains unknown.
But there could be a cultural or psychological explanation as well, Dr. Bockting was quick to note. "Another possibility is that once a person challenges prevailing social norms about gender and sexuality, this person feels more free to explore sexual orientation in addition to having explored gender identity," he explained. "In other words, all of us fall somewhere on the spectrum of sexual orientation, but many of us may not explore a certain level of same-gender sexual attraction because this continues to be socially stigmatized."
Research on the topic remains spotty at best; there's little sense of how common shifts in sexual orientation are among trans people, though among trans communities anecdotal evidence suggests such shifts aren't uncommon. A 2014 study, which surveyed 115 trans people who visited the endocrine outpatient clinic at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, found that "self-reported change in sexual orientation is quite common" in both male-to-female and female-to-male trans people. Of the 70 trans women in the study group, 32.9 percent said they'd experienced a change in their sexual orientation during their lifetime; of the 18 male-to-female subjects who started out exclusively attracted to men, two said their orientation had switched to being attracted to women only, and one said she had become bisexual. (The study clarifies that such changes don't "solely occur in the context of particular transition events.") The researchers concluded, "Whether changes in sexual orientation were attributable to biological effects of hormone therapy or to psychological factors," the study reads, "is still under debate."
Ann*, another trans woman who previously identified as a gay man, told Broadly that she "pretty much forced myself to be gay" before her transition. "It might've been partly that I was forced to feel that way, or it was that with a man I felt truly feminine, so it's hard to say for sure."
Like Alison, Ann feels that testosterone—and, later, estrogen—may have played a role in her sexual shift, but she recognizes that it probably occurred in conjunction with the social and psychological changes that occurred once she was able to live as a woman. "I think now that I've transitioned it's easier for me to date a woman, honestly," she said. "I don't feel forced into that male role."
Ann's story, as she tells it, is less about strict changes in sexual attraction and more about the loosening of sexual preferences that once seemed fixed and inalterable. She still finds men attractive, and is even dating a man right now, but she no longer holds herself to fixed ideas about what her sexuality is or how it should be defined. In fact, Ann feels that after transitioning, it became easier for her to "open up" romantically and "to love."
Laura Erickson-Schroth, a public psychiatry and LGBT health fellow at Columbia University, emphasizes that "we know very little about whether hormones for transition affect sexual orientation," noting that "many people, transgender and cisgender, experience shifts in their sexual orientations over the course of their lives." Anecdotally, she said, she's spoken to many trans people who felt that their sexual orientations had shifted after transitioning "because they feel more comfortable with themselves or their roles as their self-identified gender in relationships."
One of the gifts of having transgender people in your life is [that they allow you] to recognize and experience that gender is not entirely binary.
Dr. Bockting similarly noted that there is an interplay among one's self-esteem, social identity, and sexual orientation. "The more comfortable [one is] with oneself, the more comfortable [one is] in relationships with others," he explained.
In college, when she was five months into her transition, Alison remembers becoming interested in a young, beautiful woman who attracted a lot of attention from both straight guys and lesbians on campus. She was surprised by herself, finding it hard to believe that she felt such a strong attraction to a woman. And she was even more surprised to find that this person was attracted to her, too: "I swear, she literally had to start sucking my nipples before I realized we weren't just playing around; she wasn't just being friendly and cuddly gal pals," Alison said.
The experience was transformative. Afterwards, Alison found that she was attracted almost exclusively to women. And because she felt comfortable in her body, she was able to experiment more freely with the limits of her sexuality. "I got on Grindr and fucked a twink" after her first experience with a woman, Alison said. This was the nail in the coffin for her former "fag" self: "His man-smell made me certain that I didn't want to do that again," she said.
Today, Alison is primarily attracted to cisgender women, but she can also be into trans women. In a way, sex with trans women is easier for her. "I've noticed that my sexuality is more into ass stuff and dick than most cis dykes are usually into, which can be a bit of a pain," Alison explained, "so being into trans girls makes that work for me."
We live in a society that constantly enforces strict norms about how women and men should behave, and with whom. But such expectations are limiting, boring, and antiquated. "One of the gifts of having transgender people in your life is [that they allow you] to recognize and experience that gender is not entirely binary but, like sexual orientation, is also on a spectrum," Bockting said. "Being in a relationship with a transgender person can enrich the way you think about and experience your own gender identity as well as the gender identity of others."
For Alison, this realization has been extremely fulfilling. "I think, honestly, once my subject position shifted, men were in my rear-view mirror," she said. "I found women so much better, hotter, more interesting, having some real depth. Men I just wanted to top me relentlessly and watch TV with and get high with. With women, I wanted literally everything."
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