I went out with another straight, cisgender man last week. Jason fed me pho, drove me home on his hog, and said goodbye shortly after coming all over my face. As he rode away on his motorcycle, I wondered who he would carefully strap into his spare helmet after me. Would the man my sisters and I share ever connect us? Or would Jason stay invisible, passing through trans girls like a ghost, the way he weaves between midnight traffic on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway?
Together, he and I were two clear halves of one area of trans culture, the romance between straight men and girls like me that spans backward to the beginning of our history. But when Jason left, I remained a part of the trans community, and he rode away, as if he could ever go fast enough to escape the truth. On his bike, Jason might as well have been every companion to trans girls, racing into the night to escape us, his empty spare helmet the missing girl in his life who might need its protection.
Yet Jason isn’t just some dude with a “thing” for transgender women. It's tempting to assume that the men who casually or secretly sleep with trans women are nothing but community outsiders with a kink. But the cisgender straight men who have sex with us, date us, love us, ghost us, send us dick pics, are not individual anomalies. They are the missing half of our community.
To state the obvious, trans-amorous men are not transgender. These are cisgender men who typically identify as straight. Jason was a good guy. He didn’t think twice about going out with me in public, and he didn’t treat me disrespectfully. But as a social group, our men are invisible. Their existence is rarely acknowledged, since it’s assumed no straight men could possibly love us. When they are acknowledged, it’s through shame, and they’re often pushed back into isolation by people who don’t like who they are.
Our men are stripped of a cultural narrative. Without a shared sense of community, they are forced to discover their attraction to trans women in the privacy of their minds, through pornography, the media, or however else; places with a distorted lens of who trans women really are. And yet their place in our lives is integral to the experience of trans women who date cis men.
Most people, including straight people, could say their sexual identity places them into a broader community, which usually includes their partners. But because trans-amorous men are generally straight guys who use trans girls like a fetish, they seem like the last people you'd perceive to be part of us. That's a luxurious amenity to provide them. It allows our men to keep trans women at a distance, devalue our humanity, and in some cases, abuse or even kill us, with seeming impunity. By believing that we are a subculture they just have a taste for, our men are privileged to live free of all accountability. They get to walk away whenever they want; we are abused, homeless, dying.
Trans women might not want cis men in our community, but just because they’re hiding doesn’t mean they’re not already here. Whether or not these men are accepted as being part of the social world of straight, trans women, underscoring their proximity to us, at the very least, gives weight and responsibility to the presence they have in our lives. Don’t let them get away with being the lone wolf any longer.
When we talk about community, we tend to think about public partnership and relations, the way that culture is built in collaboration between people of shared experience. It's somewhat unsettling to imagine cis men as any part of the trans community because they've played no part in the work we've done for each other and ourselves. But they don't need to be constructive to have an outsized influence over the conditions that trans women who date men live in.
I don’t know if I’ll ride that motorcycle again, but it doesn’t matter. Though Jason and other trans-amorous men tend to live in isolation from us and each other, we are all still connected. Like dark matter detected by observing the way that light bends around it, men's presence in our community can be seen in the way their invisibility impacts the trans women they fuck, whose lives they play with carelessly in the dark. The consequences stretch from loneliness to the worst kind of loss.
Mike lives in my neighborhood and contacted me after reading a few articles that I had written about trans-amorous men and sex. He’d never seen stories about people like himself in the media before, and he was moved by what he read. Mike first realized his attraction to trans girls a few years ago, and since then has pursued his interest in the time-honored tradition of total discretion and shame. He hoped that meeting me would illuminate a path out of the down-low lifestyle. I met Mike as a courtesy, and then he vanished for weeks. When we finally did get on the phone, I told him that he’d repeated the mistakes of his trans-amorous predecessors: asking a girl like me to meet with him in secret, only to disappear without any accountability. Mike didn’t agree and, in the background of the call, I heard his colleagues greet him, and he hung up. None of them will ever know who was on the other end of the line—but while they couldn’t see me, I was still in that room with him.
Anything can happen for Mike, but it’s nothing simple. I asked Mike about what’s at stake for him; it seemed that by publicly dating a girl like me, he would likely face severe negative reactions from his friends and his family. Despite concerns like this, trans-amorous men—because they are men—hold so much power to change things for the ways they’re perceived, the perceptions of trans women, and sadly, our societal value in a patriarchal world. They have long elected inaction, but doing nothing is also a choice.
Choosing silence does not subtract you from the trans community, it simply favors the preservation of your anonymity. That comes at a great cost to one’s self, but it also charges other people. Any man who desires trans women should know that such seemingly personal choices are also communal, and they cause harm to trans women.
When our men are absent from our lives, we are deprived of meaningful love, left with no helmet on the highway, praying not to collide against the very forces men fear will crush them.
Trans girls are sometimes symbolized as butterflies, because we also undergo metamorphosis—but if we’re that pretty insect, these men are chaos theory’s Butterfly Effect, where one seemingly small act determines another, much greater, consequence. And when you realize that every trans woman in your life is involuntarily single, you have to wake up and realize that it’s impossible that nobody loves her. Causing harm is often an unfortunate quality of trans-amorous male culture. Like anything, it exists on a spectrum, where only one far-off fringe inflicts physical violence. When a murdered trans woman's body is found in a lake, someone put her there.
In 2015, the U.S. Transgender Survey, the largest of its kind ever conducted, found “disturbing patterns” of discrimination against trans people, in every social institution from housing to healthcare and sexual violence. Trans women, particularly trans women of color, face startlingly higher rates of violence than the general population. More than half (54 percent) “of all respondents experienced some form of intimate partner violence in their lifetime.” For those in underground economies, like sex work, that number jumps to a chilling 77 percent. Comparatively, one in four cis women will endure this.
The longer cis men who love trans women believe their sexuality needs no definition or is best kept private, their bad behavior will continue to be passed down from one generation to the next, as trans women shoulder a burden that cis men could help carry. Meanwhile, for so many transgender women, sisterhood has become the bedrock of our lives. You see it reflected in modern imaginings of trans culture, like Pose. If you’ve ever known trans women, you know it yourself. These partnerships are part of who we are. While we tend to the wounds of heartache, repair the damage of abuse, mourn the loss of a sister, or navigate adult life without the men who seek us out at night, those guys resume their lives as straight men in a community of straight cisgender people.
How many cisgender women would think it perfectly okay to have a discreet relationship with a single guy who refuses to be seen with her in public? Because that’s entry-level information in a straight, transfeminine life. We don’t get real love unless we meet somebody special.
Jeremy didn't have a problem meeting me for a date. We met last spring, and have seen each other casually since then. Unlike most trans-amorous men, he isn't ashamed of his sexuality. He said a trans girl first opened his mind to the idea that a discreet relationship to trans women would connect him to the same culture that wants trans women dead. He was young and didn't understand exactly what that meant, but he knew he didn't want to be a part of that cycle. So from the start, Jeremy wanted to do better. But, he told me, other trans-amorous men hide their sexuality so well, they hide it from themselves. It can be disillusioning.
"We don't see ourselves as a demographic," Jeremy told me recently. "A lot of us hide and live in secret so long, we don't even see it as part of our identity." To Jeremy, part of the problem is that trans-amorous men have isolated themselves from normal relationships. They "don't have trans women as partners, friends, or wives and are in low-stakes relationships with trans women," he said. "Some fear getting too close to women or a woman becoming too real."
When I asked Jeremy what he thought about the idea that he and I are culturally connected, he said "it would be an honor to be considered part of the trans community." But he knows it’s not so simple; it may be an honor, but it’s not something he would claim. Jeremy told me to speak with his cousin, another forward-thinking straight guy who is into trans girls.
“Our track record as a demographic doesn’t speak to a reliable resource of solidarity,” Rakim said, expressing his doubt in cisgender men. Like many trans women themselves, Rakim rejects the idea that his sexuality should be understood as anything other than straight. “Being ‘trans-amorous,’ to me, means that I like women. To make it any more than that would not only be presumptuous, but it would be dangerously entitled on my part,” Rakim said.
This is a popular perspective among some trans women. Many people in the trans community condemn the naming of a sexuality specifically oriented toward transgender bodies. I have always felt that ignoring a specific attraction to trans women out of respect for the authenticity of our gender as women is kindhearted, but naive, and suggests that there is something wrong with loving a transgender body.
Whether or not you believe that trans-amorous men really belong within the communities of the women they desire, don't you wonder what sort of world trans women would live in if more of our men saw honor in being part of us? That if they embraced their place among trans women they love, they would have the power to help us enact change.
Loving trans women is more than a private venture into an exotic subrosa world. Our bodies are not products men happen to enjoy. I—we—breathe and love and fear. I am the woman whose chin he strapped in for safety, before bringing her home.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.