OK, let’s talk about “no trans” dating preferences, a recent fixation in sexual politics that often ends up in transphobic and abusive conversations.
Take, for example, a recent video by LGBTQ commentators Arielle Scarcella and Blaire White, which argued that lesbians are not transphobic if they are only attracted to cisgender women.
Trans feminists and YouTube personalities, such as Riley J. Dennis and Contrapoints, have been arguing for some time that a lack of sexual attraction to trans folks is, to some degree, shaped by societal prejudices and stereotypes. As a PhD student in sociology and a trans feminist, I am concerned about how the debate has misrepresented trans critics and led to attacks on trans feminists and activists.
The attraction debate has been popping up on-and-off over the last few years, but seems to have been kicked off by a video posted by Dennis called “Your dating ‘preferences’ are discriminatory” which explored how social inequalities and oppression shape our attractiveness to marginalized peoples.
Dennis concludes in her video, “Because these dating preferences are ultimately harmful to people who don’t fit into your box of what a conventionally attractive person looks like, it makes people feel isolated, alone, and unwanted to hear that they are universally unattractive to people.” Dennis urges her viewers to critically reflect on the stereotypes that shape their preconceived attractions to others.
But Scarcella and White twisted the terms of this argument to read as an assault on the rights of lesbians and cis-women, an attack on the lesbian community by “SJW” authoritarians. This isn’t entirely surprising as Blaire White’s YouTube channel routinely resorts to offensive conservative arguments that belittle and misrepresent the feminist community.
Scarcella claims “being gay is transphobic.” But their hot take has a selective hearing problem: it cherry picks controversial lines from trans feminists and ignores the important context that frames the entire argument.
This video struck a nerve in far-right circles, which led to a harassment campaign against Riley carried out by an angry cyber-mob of thousands of users systematically downvoting her videos and sending her hurtful content, comments, and venomous response videos. For instance, her video mentioned above has two thousand likes and fifty thousand dislikes followed by an endless stream of abusive comments, many of them misgendering Riley.
Many of the critiques of Riley’s arguments alleged that her video accused cisgender folks of having sexual identities that were transphobic. Such an argument would understandably irritate a lot of people. Critics argued that Riley was attempting to coerce straight men and lesbian women into having sexual attractions to trans women.
Of course, this is not what Riley was arguing.
This debate has riled trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), which has heightened the already intense transphobic harassment practiced over online spaces like YouTube and Twitter. TERFs, for those of you who don’t know, are radical feminists who accuse trans women of being “men in dresses” trying to infiltrate women’s spaces for god knows what reasons. Many of these TERFs already go out of their way to harass, intimidate, and dehumanize trans women, especially those women in publicly-facing positions. As any woman and feminist killjoy could likely tell you, gendered online abuse and harassment is not only highly prevalent and commonplace, but very damaging and traumatizing.
It is especially dangerous for trans women who speak out against transphobia and abuse. The last time I wrote an article about transphobia, I was featured on Kiwifarms (a troll website dedicated to abusing, harassing, and embarrassing transgender folks and those who suffer from mental health issues). A group of aggrieved trolls dug up my Internet history, misgendered me, threatened me, and lamented that me and people like me should not exist.
Scarcella and White argue that sexuality is defined entirely by biological factors, which implies that it is entirely static. They propose that sexuality and gender are not at all influenced by “society,” despite the commonly-accepted fact that homophobia and transphobia are culturally-motivated belief systems.
In her video, Riley asserts, “we know that sexual orientations are more innate than learned.” And she goes on to assert that the ways people talk about their dating preferences are most assuredly shaped by societal prejudice. For instance, when someone expresses disgust towards a trans woman that they mistook for a cis woman—that is transphobia. In fact, that is the very definition of transphobia; the irrational fear of transgender folks.
Many trans feminists, including myself, would argue that this sense of disgust isn’t a given in our predetermined sexual identities; it is a flexible frame of mind that can be changed through critical self-reflection. There are plenty of people, including heterosexual men and lesbian women, who might find themselves surprisingly attracted to a trans woman. That is very different than saying that if you’re not attracted to trans women you are transphobic.
Let me repeat: I am not saying that it is imperative to be attracted to trans women. I am arguing that your attraction is shaped by preconceived notions and stereotypes of transgender folks. So, no, I am not shaming you because of your sexual orientation. I am merely asking you to critically reflect on the factors that might shape your attractions.
For me, these arguments feel super reductive. Sexuality and gender are complicated identity categories that sit on a shifting identity continuum. The social scientific canon has an abundance of research on these topics, starting with the famous Kinsey scale that reveals the diversity and flux of sexual identities. For many sociologists such categories are culturally constructed and historically situated. This doesn’t mean that you have individual control or agency over your sexuality or gender, but that the meanings and perceptions that inform our sexuality and gender are relative to your culture and history. This also doesn’t mean there’s no biological influence, but how we interpret our biological impulses do not exist in a vacuum empty of ideological takes on the world.
Much of the work towards queer liberation in the past few decades have been literally engaged in re-shaping public perceptions of LGBTQ folks from a perceived medical and psychological illness to a legitimate, normal, and natural continuum of sexualities and genders.
Sexuality and gender aren’t simply something that comes from some biological imperative. They are phenomena that are developed through a messy brew of social, cultural, historical, and psychological factors. They can also prove to be lightly malleable if we try to dig into the foundations of how those oppressive structures influence the ways we see and understand the world.
It is essential that YouTube personalities like Scarcella and White who are engaging in sexual and gender politics critically interrogate the nasty effects of their reach and influence. They might get thousands of views, but there are trans women who need to deal with the fallout of their wide breadth of influence. We get shit on enough as it is, and we don’t need our arguments grossly misinterpreted so that you can make a few dollars on advertising.
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