What is a lesbian or a gay man? Generally speaking, a lesbian is a woman attracted to women, and a gay man is a man attracted to men. And of course, we use the word ‘straight’ to mean a man attracted to women, or a woman attracted to men. But scratch the surface of these definitions and I believe we usually find some treacherous and insidious transphobia.
What does it mean to be a woman? I have met lesbians who say they call themselves lesbians because they are attracted to women, but when asked they clarify that they are only attracted to cis women. There is something, therefore, about trans women that makes them something other than women in many lesbians’ eyes.
Of course, I am not saying there is anything wrong with not being attracted to trans women – that you can’t control – but it is disingenuous to state that you are a lesbian (i.e. attracted to the group of people called ‘women’) but to exclude trans women from that group. By excluding trans women from the group you call ‘women’, you are being transphobic. This all, of course, applies to straight men as well (and replace ‘trans women’ with ‘trans men’, and it applies to gay men).
Similarly, some lesbians find themselves attracted to trans men. In this, are they stating that there is something about trans men that makes them “really” women (the only group that lesbians are ostensibly attracted to), or are they willing to admit that, by finding themselves attracted to men as well as women, they are probably actually bisexual or pansexual? Because by calling themselves lesbians despite their attraction to trans men, they are being transphobic.
The plot thickens. How about attraction to someone like me, who identifies as genderqueer – neither a man nor a woman? Even a lesbian who hasn’t internalised enough cissexism to exclude trans women or see trans men as women, might still be guilty here. Because if a lesbian is attracted to me because she perceives me to be female, she is, even without meaning to, misgendering me and being cissexist in her assumptions about my gender based on my presentation and/or bodily attributes.
Are the only people attracted to people like me, people who identify as pansexual? I don’t think so. Because I am privileged to ‘look’ like I am one well-recognised gender, people place me in that box and allow or disallow themselves to be attracted to me based on their assumption.
And the thing is that usually you can’t tell that somebody is trans*. People say to me “I’ve never met a trans person!” and all I can say is “Yes you have, they just weren’t wearing a sign.” For some reason people expect all trans women to be butch and hairy, all trans men to be small and effeminate. It doesn’t work that way.
The majority of trans people are just going about their daily lives and no matter how astute you think you are, no matter how much you believe they’re leaving little ‘clues’ to their ‘true sex’ left, right and Chelsea - you can’t ‘tell’. So to say “I’m not attracted to trans women” (or men) is also transphobic in the sense that you think that it’ll be apparent to you that they are trans.
And some might say “Well I’m attracted to certain bodily attributes.” For example, someone who calls herself a lesbian might be turned on by soft, hair-free skin, gentle jaw-lines and the smell we as a society attribute as being a ‘woman’s smell’. Nothing wrong with being solely attracted to those things at all.
But they usually say this as a way of excusing their exclusion of trans women, and inclusion of trans men and genderqueer people in their attraction. Of course, anyone with any sense will realise by now that many or most trans women have the attributes we associate with ‘womanliness’, some assigned-female genderqueer people don’t, and many or most trans men don’t.
So I suppose what I’m saying is not that lesbians, gay men and straight people are all automatically transphobic, I am saying that perhaps they ought to self-analyse a little bit and ask them why they are only attracted to one of many genders, what it is about that gender they find attractive, and what they would do if they met someone of that gender who defied their expectations of what a person of that gender should look/smell/sound/feel like – whether they feel they would be capable of attraction to that person. The answers to those questions, especially the last one, will tell them all they need to know about whether their sexuality is based in cissexism.