The elements of attraction and what role they play in our sexuality
By: Lorelei Erisis*/TRT Columnist—
Here’s a problem I encounter as a bisexual woman, particularly as a bisexual trans woman: people who are more concerned with maintaining a strict sense of static sexuality than allowing for realistic dynamics of attraction.
“Okay, but Lorelei,” you might be asking, “what the heck do you mean by that?”
Let me back up a little and describe the situation. Though I identify strongly as bisexual, I date vastly more women than men. This is because, in my experience, the women I meet who are attracted to me are already halfway to parsing out any of their own issues they might have around my gender. They can easily accept that I am a woman while also understanding that, for instance, I don’t have the standard set of genitalia that cis women are born with. And it doesn’t tend to threaten their sense of my gender as female when I/we experience any lingering effects of my many years being gendered as male.
However, many of the men who find themselves attracted to me seem to be just a bundle of hangups and insecurities wrapped around their perception of my gender. They tell me what a sexy woman I am, but worry that somehow my having the original, factory-installed equipment makes them gay. Or at least it means they’re not not straight. Beyond genitalia, they’re also freaked out by the parts of my trans-ness that often prompt other people to male-gender (misgender) me when I’m out in public.
For instance, people often associate great height with masculinity, or find my directness of speech to be a “male” quality. Mind you, neither of these are inherently “male” qualities. I have met many tall cis women in my life, and I learned my directness of speech primarily from being raised in a family of strong and direct women, but they often get me called “sir.”
It’s not that the women I date don’t notice these things as well. It’s just that they know it doesn’t have to threaten their sense of my gender as female, even—and this is important—if they find these very qualities part of what attracts them to me.
Now, it’s important for me to admit that as far as actual dating, I’m working with a vastly larger pool of women I have dated than men. But a big reason for this is the differences in how things can go wrong for trans women who are dating women versus those who are dating men.
When things go “wrong” with a woman, there might be some high emotions, or some drama, but nothing more than the standard range of things that happen when anyones’ relationships go pear-shaped (horribly wrong).
With men, however, things can get “murder-y.” As demonstrated by the long list of the dead that we read every Transgender Day of Remembrance, we as trans women always face the possibility that a man will freak out over his perception of our gender. He may feel that his attraction to us threatens his own static sense of his sexuality and become physically violent.
Because of this risk, as a trans woman, I am far less likely to date a man who I don’t yet know really well, than I am to date a woman.
I should note that these problems of static sense of sexuality versus dynamic elements of attraction don’t only come up when trans people date cis folks. They also happen between cis folks and even between trans folks—but it’s a more regular and easily demonstrable pattern in cis-trans relations.
I think that’s because trans people, by the very nature of our trans-ness, threaten this sense of sexuality as being static. The easiest and most clearly visible example is trans women who, while living as men, marry or enter into long-term relationships with cis women, and due to the mistakenly perceived gender dynamic in their relationships, they are identified as straight, and often self-identify that way as well.
When these trans women transition and find they are still attracted to their cis female partners, they will often change their sexual identification from “straight” to “lesbian” to match their new (or newly public) gender dynamic. I sometimes call these types of relationships “lesbian-by-default.” But even when the cis partner is still attracted to, and accepting of, their trans female partner, she may not be comfortable with changing how she identifies her own sexual orientation.
I have observed this phenomenon most visibly, and dramatically, for cis-trans partners where the trans partner previously was identified as a woman and before transition, both partners identified as lesbians. The reasons for this seem pretty straightforward (ha!) to me. In our society, people who have public identities other than heterosexual have often spent much of their lives discovering and fighting for these identities. As a result, they may have a much stronger sense of self and ownership connected to their sexual identities—which makes any threat to that hard-won sense of sexual identity quite difficult, or even scary.
Trans people’s very existence is fundamentally threatening to the identities of monosexual folks, both heterosexual and homosexual. The perception, if not the reality (another column entirely…), of our “change” in gender forces these monosexuals to actually think about who they’re attracted to, the specific elements of their sexual attraction, and what that means for their sexual identity. No more relying on the dictionary definition, as it were.
So, that’s almost a thousand words explaining the problem. But here’s the solution, at least as I have come to it. If we are willing to focus more on what actually attracts us to partners or potential partners, instead of being locked in by our preconceived definitions of sexuality, we can more easily experience the full breadth of possibilities for potential relationships in our lives—whether sexual, romantic, platonic, or any other type of attraction.
A straight man who is attracted to a woman who happens to have a penis can still think of himself as straight. Even—and this is important—if he finds himself having a ton of fun with that woman’s penis! Similarly, a lesbian-identified woman whose partner transitions to male may hold tight to her hard-won identity as a lesbian, but remain attracted to and committed to her male partner. This doesn’t necessarily mean she will be attracted to other men—just this one, under these circumstances, who fits her personal attractions just right.
Similarly, an asexual-identified person who finds themselves in a relationship with an allosexual (non-asexual) person doesn’t have to let go of their asexual identity, even if the relationship eventually incorporates sexual or romantic elements, or doesn’t. The reverse, of course, also applies to allosexual partners of asexual people.
Even when sexual identity stays static, if we can allow for and accept the wide range of variation that happens when dealing with actual attraction to actual, individual people, I strongly believe we will all be a lot happier, more fulfilled, and more secure in ourselves, our partners, our public identities, and our private good times.
Basically what I’m saying is this: be attracted to who you’re attracted to because you’re attracted to them—not because of what Webster’s dictionary or Professor Kinsey said you should or shouldn’t be.
* Lorelei Erisis is an actor, activist, adventurer and pageant queen. Send your questions about trans issues, gender, and sexuality to her at: [email protected].