By Victoria Davis
Dan Savage called me an asshole. Well, not exactly, but he compared me to one. It all started when I wrote to his sex-advice column Savage Love with a queer conundrum: is it possible to remain a trans ally while at the same time expressing a preference for cis-gender people? His answer: definitively no.
I was surprised at his reply, in part because he’s one of my heroes and we tend to agree on most things. Naturally, I shared the column with friends via social media and many jumped in with their opinions. Their thoughts were varied, but there were at least one or two whose responses I couldn’t help but perceive as aggressive or combative. One friend suggested that such a statement would help contribute to a culture where the murder rate of trans people is higher than that of cis people. They added, “There is a reason you asked this question. There is a reason you are hesitant to post this requirement on your profile.” It made me feel as though even the question itself was transphobic, and it was hard to swallow as a politically active, queer, feminist woman.
Such vitriol made it difficult not to be defensive. Even harder was avoiding the temptation of announcing, ‘Hey, I love trans people. I want them to have all the rights in the world. Some of my best friends are…’ Now, hopefully we all know why we shouldn’t go down that road. But the truth is that There are people I’ve know who are transitioning or have transitioned, but nobody with whom I’ve been particularly close. And contrary to the perhaps unintentionally misleading wording of my question (which was entirely mine—no edits), it had not been the case that I had ended up on dates with trans women without knowing they were trans beforehand. Actually, at the time I wrote Savage, my closest encounter with a trans person had been on a date.
In the summer of 2014, I was, well, horny. I took to OkCupid to find casual sex partners and was matched up with a beautiful woman. We messaged back and forth (both heavy on the flirtation) and set a date. She too was only looking for casual hookups, and she too identified herself as “horny.” A day or two before our date, she messaged and asked me what my preferred pronouns were. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but this didn’t clue me into the fact she may not be cis. I actually thought that she might’ve suspected I was trans and was trying to be polite or welcoming. In hindsight, my response was, at best, embarrassingly naive, and, at worst, just plain offensive: “‘She’ works for me, but I’ve always been naturally androgynous.” I didn’t realize she was trans until a day or so later when I looked a little deeper. The first thing on her profile was a link. I hadn’t clicked on it the first time around because I’m admittedly a lazy online dater. Clicking it directed me to her professional website, where the first words on the screen were “trans model.”
Truth be told, I wasn’t sure what to do. Like many of us in 2014, I was just beginning to be exposed to trans people in pop culture, and was just then becoming more cognizant of the political and cultural hurdles that they face. I very clearly remember watching Laverne Cox tell Katie Couric that she had no right to ask her or anyone else about their genitals and thinking, “Of course. Who has the right to do that?” But suddenly I couldn’t get that out of my mind. Here I was, going on a date with someone to presumably hook up with if the chemistry was right. I consulted some of my queers about this. A good friend pointed out that I’m slightly homoflexible (a 5 on the flawed but important Kinsey Scale) and had recently had some unexpected experience with cis guys. She said something along the lines of, “You seem to be somewhat ok with both sets of genitals, so maybe it doesn’t matter.” My friend had said this with the best intentions, but I now think this was very much the wrong approach. I went on the date and I shouldn’t have. She was beautiful, smart, and funny, but I was not attracted to her. As I said in my Savage letter, it’s entirely possible that the reason I wasn’t attracted to her had nothing to do with the fact that she was trans. But in reality I couldn’t get it out of my head that she was trans, and I have no doubt that must have been obvious to her despite my efforts to conceal it.
When I wrote to Dan that I wanted to avoid “potentially awkward and painful situations,” I wasn’t talking about it being awkward and painful for me. I meant I wanted to avoid awkward and painful situations for my dates. Dan and commenters are right that the only way to create a more inclusive and welcoming LGBTQ community (or any community) is to go out and spend time with those with different experiences. However, I don’t think that dating is a proper way to accomplish this. Going on dates is not merely “having a coffee now and then” with strangers, cis or trans. Dates are laden with expectations. They are intimate because their very natures are that they may become intimate, either through sex or romantic connection. My feeling when I wrote to Savage was that it was abusive for me to use these intimate settings as a way to broaden my own horizons. Ultimately, I was a bad ally: not because I wouldn’t go on a date with a trans person, but because I did. I used her in order to learn something about myself and my own limitations. I’m not at all proud of it, and I’d like to avoid repeating that mistake.
I would never write “not into trans women” on my profile, nor would I ever think it. Dan Savage clearly chose those words in order to make an example of the exclusionary suggestion of stating a preference for cis-gendered people. But it seems that many replies from his readers, and even some friends of mine, were in response to that statement in its literal form. I was considering writing something along the lines of “prefers cis-gendered women.” I hoped to emphasize the preference aspect, not the exclusionary part. It could be the case that they are one and the same, but I am not yet convinced of this. There’s another downside to Dan’s wording. Not only did it shift the discussion in a way that emphasized the exclusionary nature of preference, but it also resulted in my gaining some unfortunate defenders. One person said, “Dan’s wrong, you’re right.” I didn’t quite know how I could be “right,” as the whole point of the question was expository. And Dan’s focus (like mine) was about minimizing hurt. My friend’s statement made me feel like people thought I was saying, “This is what I’m going to do, and I don’t care if it hurts anybody.”
After I was able to let go of feeling attacked and inappropriately defended, I reread Savage’s answer and the comments. I realized I had posed the question to Dan Savage because he’s Dan Savage, but it hadn’t occurred to me that I was a cis person asking another cis person how to be a good ally to trans people. I’ve gotten some comments from trans folks, but it would be irresponsible to suggest I can deliver “The Trans Opinion.” I will say that I was surprised at the variation in opinions and that they’ve heavily informed my views about this. Dan was right to implore me to try and make a safer space for trans people, but we may have different ideas about how to do that. Oddly enough, nobody has asked me if I ended up stating the preference. I did not. I don’t know if the words would hurt someone, but I do know the risk that they might is too grave. I do know it was wrong to go on that date. I guess it’s possible to be an asshole and an ally at the same time.
Victoria Davis is a single underemployed lesbian and a self-appointed cultural critic. She co-hosts a podcast about sex and dating and the politics of sex and dating, called Livin’ and Lovin’ in NYC. You can listen and subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, and anywhere podcasts are found.