Thursday, July 26, 2012

Equal-opportunity romance

Amber brings our attention - and Dan Savage brought our attention - to a post by Jos about why women who say they only date women or transgender men (for my stodgier readers, this means men who were born female) are a problem.

Jos makes two arguments. One is something barely comprehensible about how women with this preference are afraid of "trauma" (rape? the idea of rape? catcalls? the abstract patriarchy?) coming from The Phallus. Convoluted and obtuse.

The other, which is more straightforward, is that it's offensive (as in, basic manners, not simply a violation of PC) to imply that trans men are any less male than their biologically-male (cis, for my less stodgy readers) counterparts. Which it is. But does that mean everyone who dates trans men must also date cis men?

This is a sensitive topic not only because of the typically-assumed and true-in-nearly-but-not-all-cases relationship between sex-at-birth, current genitalia and gender, but also because not all trans people who wish to do so "pass" as the sex with which they now identify. So even in an ideal world of sensitive pronoun usage - which, it should be noted, we don't live in - some who are trans would continue to be referred to with the incorrect ones by acquaintances who didn't have the full scoop, and who, however apologetic the might be afterward, may have brought out whichever anxieties. (A policy of calling every narrow-shouldered, small-boned, short-haired, bare-faced individual "he" is going to end up offending a lot of women, who are no less women for not handing over X% of their paychecks to Sephora.)

On the surface, this seems like an incredibly complex and touchy issue. Is it OK for women who identify as "queer" (as vs. "lesbian") to date cis women and trans men but not cis men (what about trans women?) as though it's somehow "queer" to date someone who's changed sex? Doesn't this depend on how the trans man in question identifies - i.e., as someone who's transcended the stifling limitations of gender labels and wishes to remain active in the "queer" community, or, conversely, as a boring ol' straight dude who happened to be born in a woman's body and just wants to be done with it once and for all? Is a woman with a preference for masculine-looking individuals with female genitalia, who uses pronouns impeccably but who perhaps ultimately, in her heart of hearts, doesn't see a huge difference between a very masculine-presenting woman and a trans man who hasn't undergone much in the way of reassignment, in part because some of the people she's dated have been both, perhaps in the course of their relationships... is such a woman a bigot for subconsciously denying the female-ness of very masculine women and the maleness of the male-identified androgynous, and if so, what can she do about it? And what on earth would yours truly, a straight, cis woman, have to contribute to such a complicated discussion?

In fact, while these issues are certainly complex, the issue at hand isn't all that complicated, nor does it require any particular knowledge of gender theory, correct terminology (which doesn't hurt to know regardless), etc.:

When it comes to choosing partners for romantic relationships - which is a euphemistic way of saying relationships with a sexual component, without specifying which acts, if any, are taking place or might soon - there's no such thing as bigotry. By this I mean, if you wish to date only men or only women, or only Thai men and Finnish women, or only those with a certain set of anatomy, and that's that, so it goes. 

And there's no other way it could go, because we-as-a-society deem it wrong to force someone to be romantically involved with someone against their will. If you feel that all someones who meet whichever criteria are not ever ever ever of romantic interest to you, there's no ethical way for someone or some entity to intervene and ask that you become an equal-opportunity dater. It's fundamentally not like hiring someone, or running a country club, because of just how wrong we believe it is for someone to be forced into a romantic situation with someone they don't see in that way. Society impacts individual romantic preferences, but individual romantic choices simply aren't the arena in which justice in terms of beauty standards and the like is to be achieved.

Happily, society influences but doesn't determine desire, allowing the vast majority of people not attractive/conventional-looking enough to ever in a million years get paid for their looks to experience, at least at some point in their lives, a choice between multiple interested parties. But it's certainly possible to have preferences that are self-defeating, as the plain-looking, low-earning men who'd only be happy with a swimsuit model can attest. But dude doesn't owe dates to the women of the world who aren't swimsuit models, and is in fact doing them a disservice if he dates them out of the principle of the thing.

Now, what can be offensive is how one voices one's preferences. This is especially the case if you have preferences that happen to line up with something likely to hit a nerve. It's one thing to only date six-foot-five blue-eyed blonds (a pattern your friends may pick up on, or not, if you live in the Netherlands), another entirely to announce that you 'only date Nordic types.' One to only date those 30 years your junior (assuming you're at least 48), another to announce your unwillingness to date anyone closer to or above your own age. Along the same lines, evidently, it's one thing to only date cis women and trans men, another to make that preference known.

But what if you want your friends to help steer you to the right people? What if you're constantly being set up with the wrong ones - wrong for you, that is - and don't want to waste anyone's time? To stick with the original example, given that the vast majority of men were not born female, if those who were are the only ones you date, but you identify merely as "bisexual," you're... I suppose functionally not so different from someone who lives in a place with very few Syrian Jews, but will only date a Syrian Jew, but thinks her friends will find her closed-minded and so defines her romantic interest as "guys." Technically true, and enough information in many situations, but not an efficient way of finding a partner.

Where offensiveness really enters into it is less in what the preferences may be (because as much as society influences desire, there somehow ends up almost being someone out there who likes everything) than in their presentation. If you present your subjective preference as a universal, as in, 'only X are attractive,' this is offensive even if your preference is something as seemingly inoffensive and fixed as, say, preferring men to women romantically. If you hold forth on what screeching nags women are, then you've turned an otherwise innocuous announcement - that you're a straight woman or gay man - into something objectionable. Along the same lines, if a woman announces that she dates only women and trans men, and does so in such a way as to imply that these two groups are part of one category, if she elaborates that trans men are OK in her book because she doesn't think dating them makes her any less a lesbian, then this, yes, would be a problem.


Abby Spice said...

I identify as a lesbian (though I hate the word and tend to use "gay" in conversation). When I dated (for three years) a trans woman, people tried to challenge my "lesbianness". But I see no problem with identifying myself as someone who only dates women. My ex was, and is, a woman, regardless of what's between her legs. Dating her doesn't mean I want to date men, doesn't mean I'm suddenly okay with anyone attached to a penis.

In other words, I think you're right that someone dating only women and trans men is not really a lesbian, and I think that conflating women and trans men is disingenuous and disrespectful. But I don't think the other applies, dating only women and trans women. Because that's just dating women. I'm still as much a lesbian as any girl who has never been within ten feet of a naked penis.

Phoebe said...

That seems right. The point was that it's transphobic (or cissexist?) to lump together women and trans men. So, by the same token, it's offensive to suggest that trans women, whatever their parts, are not women. And what better way to affirm that than being a lesbian with a trans-woman girlfriend? So yeah, you could have accused your authenticity-brigade accusers of transphobia.

caryatis said...

I would add that if you do have certain specific preferences about potential partners, you really ought to accept that potential partners may have their preferences too. In other words, don't be the older man on dating sites who notes that he only dates younger women, while railing against the bigotry of young women who refuse to date older men.

Phoebe said...

Indeed. I mean, a little of that is understandable - no one likes rejection - but once it spills over into a sense of entitlement, it's anywhere from unpleasant to dangerous.