Back in September, a friend of mine admitted he was attracted to me. Not emotionally, he assured me, just physically. That seemed off — he’s usually into women, and he knows in no uncertain terms that I am not a woman — but I wasn’t going to let that ruin a four-year friendship. That took a few more months to ruin.
The vulgar jokes didn’t bother me so much; those had always existed. It was the sudden commentary about all the sexual things he wanted to do with transgender guys, things he didn’t talk about before I was 18 and living an hour away. It was the sudden inquiry into the circumstances under which I would send “someone” nudes. It was the lamenting over my lack of confidence in my transgender body because it was “so hard” for him to listen to, as someone who appreciated that body in such a way. He said more than that, of course — nor was he the only one — but those words don’t belong in a newspaper.
We often hear of the transphobia and disgust directed toward trans people, but the opposite is often true as well: We are simultaneously fetishized by the same transphobia that deems us undesirable until rejection and exploitation are our only options.
When speaking of transgender exploitation, sex work comes to mind. Transgender porn (almost always of trans women) is undeniably popular, in some cases being the most popular genre for a given porn studio. This sexualization partly explains why so many trans people end up in sex trafficking, trading sexual favors, as victims of sexual assault or in prostitution. This works in tandem with the fact that we’re at high risk for homelessness, a fact uniformly addressed in these particular studies about trans sex work. Within the trans community, we use the term “chaser” to refer to someone who fetishizes and seeks out trans sex partners because of our transness, as it’s such a common experience.
The fetishization of trans people remains prevalent even in non-sexual media because porn was previously the only sphere in which the existence of trans people was acknowledged. The New York Times, for instance, reported on the death of a trans woman in a fire, noting that she was “curvaceous” and “was known to invite men for visits to her apartment” within the first line. The article was published in 2012 and was never edited to remove the unnecessary, sexually-charged commentary despite public backlash.
Mainstream media finds other ways to exploit us, too. Once trans people started to make themselves known to the public, news outlets leaped at the chance to cover the controversial matter of our existence. Caitlyn Jenner’s transition was one of the biggest news stories of 2015, to the point that she was given an eight-part documentary series, garnered a million Twitter followers in a matter of hours when she launched her profile and was considered for TIME’s Person of the Year. A transgender person’s transition, often a long-awaited and life-changing process, was broadcast nearly constantly for the world to see, knowing that many people would give her backlash for it. In a sense, her fame made this publicization inevitable, but to this extent? It is hard to call Jenner’s news coverage altruistic in nature.
Even fictional media co-opts trans stories for the sake of drama. In some cases — 21 percent of cases according to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation — we’re made to be the villains, often portrayed as serial killers like in Sleepaway Camp and Silence of the Lambs. Other times, our existence is played for laughs. In “Friends,” Chandler’s “father” is supposedly a drag queen but is portrayed much more like a trans woman, and she apparently only exists to be misgendered and made fun of; “Family Guy” takes the same concept to another level, with other characters being downright disgusted and terrified, while demonizing the trans women in question as if this terror is funny rather than dangerously true to life.
Then, in most other cases, we are victimized: “The Crying Game” sees a trans woman beaten when a straight man takes her clothes off; and “Boys Don’t Cry,” one of the few mainstream portrayals of a transgender man, is about the murder of the trans protagonist. All these stories were written by cisgender writers, seizing experiences that are foreign to them for the sake of comedy or drama and condemning trans people in the process. If that wasn’t already exploitative enough, consider that none of these parts were played by trans people, or even by cis people of the correct gender — each of these roles is filled by a cis actor of the characters assigned gender at birth (that is to say, men playing trans women, and women playing trans men).
This sort of backhanded acknowledgment of our struggles showcases how we interact with all of society. Trans people are twice as likely as others to serve in the military (driven in no small part to disproportionate homelessness), yet we’re banned from serving at the behest of our commander in chief. I personally have denied recruiters several times with equal parts smugness and bitterness. The medical establishment we depend on to transition forces us to jump through hoops to get healthcare, such as a therapist’s approval letter to start hormone replacement or get surgery, while said therapy and procedures may or may not be covered by insurance (if we even have insurance). I received my approval letter for testosterone back in April, only to be denied care by every trans-serving practitioner in my county until other health issues inevitably demanded my attention. The legal system charges us to petition for name changes, update our passports and similar documentation and often mandates expensive and invasive “reassignment” surgeries before we can legally be recognized as the correct gender; thankfully, Michigan has recently eliminated the last issue, which otherwise would have prevented me and many others from legal transition indefinitely. Even within the LGBTQ+ community, trans people have historically spearheaded activist work only to face hate from transphobic members of the community.
Unfortunately, allies and even trans people themselves don’t always realize how exploitative these establishments can be, thinking that media representation and sexual appeal are inherently a net positive. The truth is that it’s the same transphobia as before rebranded to seem less malicious. The choice between exploitation and rejection is often life or death: For trans sex workers who can’t get wage work because employers can fire or deny them for being trans, for trans people who have to shell out thousands for surgeries they don’t need or want so that their driver’s license doesn’t out them and for trans youth who want to love and be loved without experiencing domestic violence, there is no real choice. As a trans college student choosing between sexual harassment from a “friend” and a nagging sense of unwantedness, I’m one of the few who could afford rejection over exploitation.
Ray Ajemian can be reached at email@example.com.