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Illustration by Kelsey Wroten

Why Can't My Famous Gender Nonconforming Friends Get Laid?

Meredith Talusan

Meredith Talusan

Jacob Tobia and Alok Vaid-Menon are femme nonbinary icons. But that won't get them dates, and the reasons why speak volumes about our discomfort with those who exist between genders.

Illustration by Kelsey Wroten

This article originally appeared in VICE US

It's a cool Saturday night in my East Village apartment, and Alok Vaid-Menon has just created a Tinder account for me, while Jacob Tobia bats their eyelashes in the background.

Alok and Jacob are two of the most publicly visible gender nonconforming femmes I know. As a performance poet, Alok has just gone solo after touring in dozens of cities in the US and abroad as one half of the poetry duo Darkmatter. Jacob was named to 2016's OUT 100, has made a web series for NBC, and been the subject of a GLAAD-nominated episode of MTV's True Life. Both are trans-identified, but belong somewhere in between genders, and they've amassed huge social media followings as gender nonbinary, femme, and fabulous human beings. They've become celebrities in their own right, with Jacob regularly walking down the red carpet at LGBTQ galas and Alok featuring in the Janet Mock–narrated HBO documentary The Trans List.

But if you think all that would land them a date, you'd be wrong. And nobody is more puzzled than me as to why such obvious catches are having dating problems when so many clamor for their attention.

It's a reliable source of ennui in our group chats, and as the elder among my nonbinary pals, I've been giving Jacob and Alok dating advice for weeks. Trans dating is tricky, because you have to deal with prejudice on top of all the usual insecurities around wanting to be as attractive as possible for a potential mate. Dating among nonbinary femmes is even trickier, as the vast majority of people, even queer ones, imagine themselves as dating men or women exclusively, so nonbinary folks can complicate how others view one's sexuality. I've seen Alok and Jacob wade through crushes and ambiguous interactions, live-texted flirtatious lines to help them reel those crushes in, and coached them to project insouciant confidence so the cuties would come back for more.

I'm partnered and not really looking, but since my relationship isn't exclusive, Alok and Jacob convinced me to open a Tinder account so I could demonstrate IRL the maneuvers I'd long touted. I intended to show them something I've learned over time—that if you treat being trans like it's a source of shame, then that's how your date will feel, too. My whole game is predicated on projecting my most desirable self, and not treating my transness as an obstacle.

Instead, what I learned during the social experiment that followed is that Jacob and Alok, like many gender nonconforming femmes, live in a world where admirers applaud them for their radical politics on social media, and people they're attracted to associate with them because of their slayworthiness and social capital, but refuse to make love to them, or at least fuck them well.

As Alok set up my Tinder account, I became confused when they asked whether I wanted to set my gender as "man" or "woman." This all happened in those dark days of autumn 2016, before Tinder added 37 new gender options to the app. Since I'm on the femme side of nonbinary, I thought it would be obvious that I wouldn't label myself a man. Alok then added pictures of me from Facebook. In each of them, I was androgynous and without makeup—except for one from an event the three of us attended, where I borrowed a lycra bodysuit from Alok and painted my lips black.

"OMG, I'm going to switch my gender to 'woman' too so I can look at straight guys!" Alok exclaimed as they picked up their phone, and Jacob followed suit. I'd vaguely known that most of their prospects had been gay-identified men, but it didn't even occur to me that if given only two gender choices, they would need to pick "man" on Tinder so they would get gay instead of straight matches, along with the rare bi and pan guys.

I personally felt that dating straight-identified men was the right choice. My experience has been that straight guys are more willing to experiment with GNC folk than gay guys, because their attractions aren't as socially defined and don't come with a lifestyle attached. Also, there are a lot more of them. This was my experience, anyway.


Watch: Ex-Scientology Leader and Trans Icon Kate Bornstein on What It Takes to Survive:


"Straight boys are soooo cuuuute," Alok said as they and Jacob started swiping, their exaggerated intonation managing to feel both sincere and ironic. "Maybe we should get electrolysis and take hormones," Jacob added in jest, perking up at the bevy of new options.

We spent the next hour swiping away, and as I began getting matches, I put on the charm. One guy's profile described him as vertically challenged, so I messaged with, "I like vertical challenges," and I got rewarded with a smiley face and an invitation to a Broadway play. I told a literature grad student that if we gandered at each other maybe one of us would end up getting goosed, the kind of nerdy wordplay I sensed he'd like. I was off to a good start, and passed the phone around to show them how text flirtation was done.

In the meantime, Alok and Jacob complained that they couldn't get matches in the first place, even when they resorted to swiping right on almost everyone. And even with the few matches they did get, guys didn't respond when they messaged.

It became apparent that my brand of gender-nonconformity was somehow more attractive to men than Alok and Jacob's, and as the night wore on, I found myself sincerely befuddled. The looks I gave in my pictures were just as funky as theirs, with my partly-shaved head and my geometric bodysuit plus oversize platform heels, or a close-up of me sans makeup that showed off my strong brow and flat chin in all their androgynous glory. I wondered aloud why Alok and Jacob weren't getting matches, if there was some algorithmic mystery at play—whether guys were racist against Indians, in Alok's case, or if they found Jacob's bright makeup too intimidating.

"Meredith," Alok finally blurted out, interrupting me in a tone replete with tolerance. "You look cis."

With those words, Alok exposed the key difference between me and them. Though I've come into my own gender-nonbinary identity, to many, my body reads as cisgender because I'm short and don't have body hair. I've also taken hormones and had reassignment surgery, because I went through a period when I thought I was a binary trans woman, before figuring out I wasn't comfortable with that identity either.

What I didn't quite grasp until Alok pointed it out was that now, regardless of how GNC I tried to present, cis people still predominantly read me as a cis woman. If I told a stranger I was trans, it's likely they might think I'm an early-transitioning trans guy more than anything else. So on Tinder, I can still get dates, since there are plenty of guys who like the androgynous female look. On the other hand, Alok and Jacob's features haven't been softened by hormones, and they have visible body hair that marks them as more obviously trans, so they have a much harder time. Nonbinary femmes like them are too masc for the straights, too femme for the gays, and too out for nearly everyone else.

Shortly after our Tinder experiment, Alok embarked on a world performance poetry tour, and Jacob moved to LA to work as a director's assistant on Transparent, while I went off to the Philippines to work on a memoir. But we kept each other abreast of our experiment through a running group chat, even when we often responded to each other hours late due to round-the-world time differences.

Between the three of us, Jacob seemed to have the most exciting life, dating-wise. Between moving to a new city and working on a glamorous, award-winning TV show, their life was full of newfound opportunities to meet prospects. But by Valentine's Day, they'd ended up in a crisis: The supposedly femme-friendly gay guy they'd been hanging out with for weeks told them he didn't end up reciprocating their crush. It's a scenario that's played out over and over again for them.

Jacob's Valentine's Day disaster story started when they posted a screencap of an Instagram post from a trans organization to our group chat that said "LOVE STARTS FROM WITHIN." Jacob captioned it, "Subtext: none of y'all trans femmes can get laid." Jacob revealed to us what had inspired it, sending us screencaps of a series of texts they'd exchanged with this crush, who, in the end, didn't want to be alone with them on Valentine's Day. "That intimate component is not what I'm seeing for us," he finally wrote. Jacob in turn sent him a link to a Facebook post they'd written a couple of weeks before about wanting to be found desirable. "I'm not sorry for my body or what I want," they'd written. "I am only sorry that we live in a culture where people like me have to struggle in order to have romance, companionship, and sensuality in our lives."

The guy responded back with clapping and raised hands emoji, then a lengthy missive about his struggle with his own masculinity. According to Jacob, this type of reaction is typical of guys they approach sexually: The guys empathize while unwittingly minimizing Jacob's hardships, and affirms their gender with words while simultaneously rejecting them. And sure, maybe this one particular guy wouldn't have been interested in them either if Jacob was masculine-presenting, but the fact that this has happened with literally every gay guy Jacob has tried to date is clear evidence that their femme identity is the problem.

What's ultimately true is that, as easy as it is to support someone like Jacob with conscious words in a world where it's now cool and progressive in some circles to publicly applaud gender-nonbinary people, it's virtually impossible to undo the centuries of social conditioning that has defined what the world deems unconsciously desirable—desires that rarely include nonbinary femmes with hairy, hormone- and surgery-unaltered bodies.

Alok woke up in London to several dozen messages from my exchange with Jacob—words of encouragement and counsel, evil plots and manipulations, catty comments about ignoring hangers-on who only want them for their social caché but don't actually want to sleep with them. Alok responded to the previous evening's mess with: "I got femmezoned by my masc crush yesterday too. #solidarity."

Alok went on to tell a similar story about how they had this crush on a masc boy while they were on tour, who would come over all the time to talk and watch TV shows, but would always find some reason to go home when Alok invited him to spend the night. The guy kept talking about boys he wanted to bring home, but took it for granted that any gender-nonconforming femme was just a friend.

"It was obvious that he sought friendship with GNC people because only friendships with masc people were sexualized," Alok wrote. "He created this distinction between friendship as asexual/femme and dating as sexual/masc."

In the meantime, Jacob and I both OMG'd over our new favorite word—"femmezone"—as I imagined saying it with three syllables, fe-me-zone, like Amazon. That kind of wit and creativity is exactly how so many of us trans kids have trained ourselves to combat rejection. Jacob replied that they should just write a TV pilot in which they play themself having sex with cute mascs. "It's really my best shot at getting laid," they said.

"You can be the nonbinary Mindy Kaling," I replied.

"NB Mindy" has been one of our nicknames for Jacob ever since. Through our lols and OMGs, on three continents that span more than half the world, the underlying validity of Jacob's logic lingered between us. There was a better chance of them getting what they wanted if they played themself on TV rather than being their actual self in the real world.

Intuitively, it still makes no sense to me that my cute, smart friends couldn't find someone to be with. Yet even as I remain confident in my judgment, it's clear our Tinder experiment showed how skewed my perceptions are—that maybe the dating world isn't as kind to femmes as I thought it was.

I admire and love Jacob and Alok for remaining steadfast in their convictions about their gender, in choosing a path I wish I could have chosen but didn't know I could forge when I discovered my own trans identity more than a decade ago. That was before social media and before the trans tipping point. Jacob and Alok don't need more claps or raised hands, more YASSSS's or SLAY's. What they need is to be found deeply, undeniably fuckable. Yet for all their brilliance, fuckability is exactly what some gender nonconforming femmes, even social media celebrities, don't ever seem to have.

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