Dating as a transgender woman often means being forced to make impossible choices.
Here’s the first option: I can choose to disclose my gender identity only after men ask me out. This often results in an extremely awkward Saturday night. After learning about my gender identity, one date clumsily asked about my medical history in order to discover if I’d had “the surgery.”
My other choice is to date what many in the trans community call “chasers,” shorthand for men who explicitly seek out trans women. If you browse your local listings on the “M4T” section of Craigslist, there’s no shortage of men seeking out “sissies,” “femboys,” or even “shemales,” the latter a term associated with porn. These words indicate that men view you as an objectnot a human but an identity to fetishize. Once, when visiting a date’s apartment, I noticed that the walls were covered in photos of him and various trans women, his arm slung around them.
When I later rejected him, his response was telling. He refused to be friends. Should we ever be alone together, the man told me he would try something “regardless of what you want.”
While many trans women can and do enjoy fulfilling relationships with men, we often must fight our way through a horde of harassment and abuse before we do. We have to struggle just to be viewed as viable partners, people who deserve the same intimacy and affection as everyone else.
The commonplace rejection so many trans women experience is what makes Playboy’s selection of Ines Rau as its first transgender playmate so powerfully revolutionary. For over 50 years, the men’s periodical has been the standard bearer of cisgender, heterosexual male sexuality. It has set the norms of male attraction by educating the desires of its once massive readership, which reached seven million at Playboy’s 1970s peak.
Featuring Rau, an out-and-proud trans woman, on the cover has the potential to help normalize what has long been kept secrettucked under the sheets and hidden away in Incognito tabs.
Society and popular culture educate us to view transgender women as repulsive and the men who desire them as fools, perverts, or closet cases. In films like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Crying Game, men retch when they discover that a desirable romantic partner is transgender. It’s as if their bodies repel even the very idea. Male celebrities “caught” with trans women experience that visceral shame both internally and externally. Eddie Murphy claimed that a transgender sex worker was just “giving him a ride home” when police picked him up during a 1997 arrest.
Needless to say, having consensual sex with a trans woman shouldn’t be viewed as a national controversy. But nearly two decades later, little has changed.
Orange Is the New Black actress Laverne Cox claimed in a 2015 interview that men attracted to trans women “are probably stigmatized more than trans women are.” That’s a provocative claim, but it’s one that has merit. When radio personality Mister Cee (neé Calvin LeBrun) was filmed soliciting sex from a transgender sex worker in 2013, he was forced to apologize on air. In a tearful confession, LeBrun feared that he wouldn’t be “looked at the same way” if people knew about his trans attraction.
Unfortunately, he’s probably right. In a 2015 essay published on her website, author Janet Mock explains that men who date transgender women frequently have their manhood stripped from them. The implication, she says, is that they are no longer “real” men because they “sleep with ‘fake’ women.”
These narratives are internalized by trans women from a very young age, even before we have the vocabulary to describe our identities. That can do serious damage to our self-worth or our belief that we could be loved. Maury, the daytime talk show and paternity testing center, was known for a recurring segment in which a series of models were put on display. Host Maury Povich would ask his audience “Man or Woman?”, urging the crowd to decide which women were “real.” Growing up, I learned that the person I was in my heart could never be more than a spectacle for laughs or shock.
When our culture encourages us to view trans women as counterfeit or deceptive and sleeping with them as a humiliation, it only furthers the ubiquitous violence we experience.
More than 20 transgender people have been murdered in 2017, a majority of whom were women of color. Most victims were killed by romantic and sexual partners. In 2002, 17-year-old Gwen Araujo was slain by two men she had previously been intimate with; the defendants would claim in court that her death was motivated by “trans panic,” a controversial legal argument which suggests that men fly into an uncharacteristic violent rage when they realized they’ve slept with a trans woman.
This defense, which is banned in California, sends a clear message to transgender women: If your partner beats you or kills you because of who you are, it’s your fault.
Araujo’s story is never far from my mind when I’m out at a bar or surrounded by strangers at a party. It’s the reason I look away when a cute guy glances my direction or pretend not to notice when someone flirts with me. I cannot shake the feeling that they would be repulsed if they knew about my gender identity and the thought of what they might do to me as a result. If I smile back, I worry that I might end up another bloodied body on the front page of the local Metro section.
By appearing in Playboy, Rau has the power to help the trans community change that narrative and dispel the deadly shame around transgender bodies. Although the magazine isn’t known as a feminist trailblazer, it has long played an important role in that conversation.
More than two decades ago, former James Bond actress Caroline Cossey earned a nude spread in the magazine after being outed by the U.K. tabloid News of the World. Critics might say that her 1982 spread further encouraged the objectification of trans women, who are often packaged as an exotic “Other” by the porn industry. But it also helped Cossey take the power back after the story became international news, owning her body without apology. It’s hardly a coincidence that the Bond girl’s iconic shoot is what inspired Rau, born in North Africa, to begin transitioning when she was a teenager.
One magazine cover, especially Playboy, is hardly a solution to the myriad oppressions trans women face. But these opportunities for visibility allow transgender people to be seen as gorgeous and desirable. Even more than that, it might encourage men who would rather dispose of us than admit to loving trans women to see our lives as valuable.
Photography: Getty Images /Victor Boyko