“Queer Trans Women Need Theory, Too!: Approaching the Intersections of Trans Sexuality, Gender, and Expression”

At the beginning of this year, my partner at the time and I had been a part of a photoshoot for an upcoming issue in Butch Is Not A Dirty Word!, a queer, not-for-profit magazine, and also the world’s only magazine created by and for, specifically, butches in all forms, shapes, and sizes. Our close friend, a freelance photographer and tattoo artist from Oakland, had driven into San Francisco that morning for the photoshoot and prepared to take a wide variety of pictures featuring my partner and myself in different artistic scenes throughout our home–making out in our flowery green backyard garden, lying naked together in our queen bed, embracing ourselves in the steamy shower stall. The photoshoot experience as a whole, in addition to bringing my partner and me emotionally closer to one another, also created a deeper ontological understanding surrounding our own personal sexualities as trangender (hereinafter trans) butches in relation to our intersecting identities as complex individuals. Neither of us had ever been in any type of formal photoshoot before this experience, let alone one executed by a queer artist for a queer magazine, and my whole-hearted self felt ecstatic to take some explicitly sensual photos with an intimate partner for a wider-queer audience. And yet, when the following week the magazine editor emailed me asking for a personal anecdote surrounding my identity as a butch and the intersecting social identities I hold, I was frozen. I could not respond. I had no way, not at the time at least, of knowing how to articulate my identity as a trans butch woman; besides those specific identity labels on their own, I did not possess the cultural vocabulary nor theoretical frameworks to understand my sexuality as a queer trans butch woman utilizing any form of community epistemological knowledge or form of discourse. As I continued searching more and more into the theoretical worlds of transfeminism and interdisciplinary trans theories and literatures, I came to realize the harsh reality that a large portion of my own epistemological ignorance to my sexuality stemmed from the severe lack of critical trans literature and theory discussing these intersections of trans queer sexuality in existence altogether. 

I openly identify as a white, queer trans butch woman who likewise, in her personal life, practices ethical forms of non-monogamy and consentual kink/BDSM throughout her various sexual and/or romantic relationships. I am a woman of Irish, Italian, and German ancestry living on stolen Ohlone land in the Bay Area. I live with–and write from a place of–accreted trauma and varying levels of bipolar disorder, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and anxiety. For me, I believe it would be a disservice to contexualize my own identity as a woman of trans and queer experience without addressing the simultaneous intersecting identities I hold; my experience as a woman is entirely subjugated on the intersecting social identities I hold as someone who is white, middle-class, butch, queer, trans, and mentally ill.  My experience as a lesbian, likewise, rests on the fact that I am a white trans woman. My experience as a trans person cannot be understood nor critiqued without concurrently addressing the forms of power and privilege from systems of oppression that manifest in our lives on the basis of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. None of this, however, I knew before socially or medically transitioning. None of this I knew before I first made love with another trans person. None of this I knew before reading any theory by other trans scholars, radical feminists, or community organizers. Upon engaging in these forms of discourse and realizing the critical intersections between our gender and sexual identities and various forms of expressing such identities, I took a leap of faith in attempting to create some theory for myself that could begin to address this question. 

The purpose of this paper is, in a way, a win-win for me (or a double-edged sword, depending how one may read into it). While a part of me is inevitably writing to make sense of my own identity as not just a woman or a trans person or a queer individual but rather as a complex queer trans woman holistically, another part is explicitly aiming to provide a form of sanctuary for other queer trans women who, despite the differently varying and utterly personal terminology each of us holds on an individual level for articulating our own identities, may also be potentially trying to articulate their complicated reality of autonomously living out one’s own gender and sexuality from a place of theory, relativity, and discourse. bell hooks in her piece on “Theory as Liberatory Practice” explains “[when] our lived experience of theorizing is fundamentally linked to processes of self-recovery, of collective liberation, no gap exists between theory and practice” (1991:2). It was upon reading theory by hooks and others like Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, and the Combahee River Collective in a college classroom that I personally first came into contact with any form of critical feminist theory that spoke to the experiences of marginalized women at the axes at various forms of oppression. This is not to say, because I may have found a place within theory, however, that the college classroom ever necessarily felt like home to me. All throughout my years of formal education, I have been repeatedly the only trans woman in the classroom (let alone queer butch trans woman) and, while I have felt humanized by the majority of my cisgender (hereinafter cis) teachers and professors in my past, it has been difficult to see a reflection of myself in them when not one has had a body like mine. I, thus, approached theory because I needed to engage in dialogue with anyone who could truly hear me and actually respond back–I had become exhausted from being misunderstood and isolated by every other individual in yet another classroom. Similar to what hooks expresses in her piece, “I came to theory because I was hurting” to find a form of sanctuary (1991:1). This is what theory has been for me since–it has become a home–a place of healing, traveling, and dreaming new realities. The way in which I began to understand–and strive to pursue–a relationship with intersectional feminist theory undoubtedly resulted from the recognition of women who had articulated their experiences prior. At the same time, none of the works I was initially being exposed to within feminist theory had been created specifically by trans women; I thus, nonetheless, lept once again into a new abyss of genealogies within the specific discipline of transfeminism.

The academic discipline of transfeminism has distinctly taken shape only within the past three decades (Stryker and Bettcher 2016; Williams 2019). Yet in 1944–predating the formation of formal transfeminist discourse and what historians would label as the era of second-wave feminism–Pauli Murray, an individual “whose racial appearance and gender expression fell outside black/white and female/male binaries,” analyzed that the system of Jim Crow in the South post-Civil War acted as “a system of binary racial categorization… [and] classified humans into two binary gender categories…” emulating his/her articulation of the institutionalized “Jane Crow” in U.S. society (Fisher 2016:95-96; Serano [2007]2016). Murray’s critical intersectional analysis of the parallels and connections between white supremacy and cissexist-heteronormativity serves as an early transfeminist genealogy approaching such frameworks of thought that Kimberlé Crenshaw would later be cited for defining as “intersectionality” (1989/1990).  At the same time, although radical feminists before the 1990s may not have used the terminology of intersectionality that Crenshaw specifically utilizes, just as in the case of Pauli Murray and his/her recognition of various axes of oppression operating concurrently in society, the underlying theme of critically analyzing and challenging the intersecting social categories of race, gender, class, and sexuality has been nonetheless just as present for decades prior within transfeminist discussion and dialogue. Much of the theories I specifically pull from for this essay stem from such earlier intersecting frameworks of critical transfeminist thought, hopefully illustratively underlining that this “transfeminist paradigm relies on intersectional approaches such as Kimberlé Crenshaw’s articulation of gender, race, and class” (Espineira and Bourcier 2016:86). As Che Gossett notes in their piece on “Blackness and the Trouble of Trans Visibility,” the majority of our transfeminist genealogies originate from pre-dated versions of radical Black feminism, as such philosophies and forms of organizing like Crenshaw’s have “always already [encompassed] trans radical feeling” (2017:186). For trans women, our histories often run parallel to the intersecting oppressive binary cycles of racism and white supremacy, cisheterosexism and trans/homo/phobia, classism and economic disenfranchisement. My purpose in highlighting the voices of those like Crenshaw, hooks, and others is to explicitly highlight how such radical cis women’s feminist voices have helped propel further transfeminist conversations in asking how we might likewise seek to live out a feminist life and end all forms of sexist oppression that surface throughout our lives, inclusive of our lives of trans women specifically (hooks 1984; Ahmed 2017).

The title of this paper is, rather, a demand that queer trans women need theory, too. In doing so, I am not arguing that queer trans women are unable to find themselves within other theoretical lanes of intersectional feminist thought; instead, I want to illustrate the disheartening reality that when a trans woman enters even into the realm of transfeminism looking for theory pertaining to her sexuality, she will almost always exit emptyhanded, with little to no queer transfeminist genealogies to outline a path of past stories. As a result of the historical progressions of both radical lesbian feminism and transfeminism in recent decades, neither disciplines have yet amounted to addressing the complex subject of trans sexuality and various forms of sexual and gender expression that queer trans women nonetheless have exhibited for centuries. In 1987, transfeminist lesbian activist and recording artist Sandy Stone released a response to Janice Raymond’s trans-exclusionary feminist text, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male (1979), where Stone suggested that we as a culture recognize trans people “not as a class or problematic ‘third gender’,  but rather as a genre–a set of embodied texts whose potential for productive disruption of structured sexualities and spectra of desire has yet to be explored” (1987:14). Raymond had previously published a conservative-feminist paper targetting trans women in 1979 where she was quoted for saying, “All transsexuals [sic] rape women’s bodies by reducing the female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.” While Raymond’s transphobic, and more explicitly trans-misogynist, rhetoric was quickly challenged and silenced by other activists and scholars, Stone’s proposed question surrounding further theorizing the complex intersections of trans women’s gender and sexuality remains unanswered to this day. Because of the trajectory of trans history in the United States–from Christine Jorgensen’s front-page story in the 1952 New York Daily News with “Ex-Gi Becomes Blonde Beauty” to various trans-led anti-police riots at San Francisco’s Compton Cafeteria Riots in 1966 and New York’s Stonewall Inn in 1969–as well as the emerging discipline of transfeminism in the academy originating from the writings of Stone and others like Margo Schulter, Carol Riddell and Susan Stryker during the 1980s and 1990s, trans identities have been studied as subjects in an abundance of interdisciplinary feminist areas where intersections of race and ethnicity; class and economic status; nationality and immigration status; physical and mental (dis)ability; and, religion and spirituality have thoroughly been addressed. Yet, to little avail, the topic of one’s trans sexuality and variations of expression has remained a lost cry in the abyss of theory and community-based discourse (Riedel 2019; Snorton 2017; Stryker [2008]2017; Stryker and Bettcher 2016; Williams 2019). 

Today, there is a greater abundance of transfeminist theory since created both in community and the academy that does begin to address the lack of literature written and created by trans women; however, this does not mitigate the painful reality that the subject of trans sexuality theorized by queer trans women still remains close to inexistent. Sara Ahmed explains that within transfeminist theory, our paths “can be made by the repetition of ‘being trodden’ upon [becoming] a trace of past journeys” (2017:45). The more times we tell our stories and respectfully trod upon the genealogies that have been shared and curated prior, the more space and access we create for others who may strive to tell of their experiences in the future to come. I see now as a crucial moment in trans history and, thus, am here to express my understanding, my thoughts, and my questions surrounding the subject of trans women’s various ways of expressing and conceptualizing our genders and sexualities. There is a severe lack of critical intersectional feminist theory from queer trans authors who recognize and critique the intersections of sexuality in relationship to one’s trans gender identity. Whereas other lineages of feminism have surely created wide arrays of traced interlaced histories and literature for other intersecting groups of marginalized peoples and communities, the lineage for queer trans women specifically in theory is seemingly depressingly nothing more than a few thrown stones in the path. 

I aspire that we gain the tools and capacity to deconstruct and rearticulate trans sexuality and the role it plays in specifically trans women’s lives. I am striving that we may utilize such frameworks of intersectional feminist theory and begin to deconstruct even the identity of a trans woman whose identity nonetheless remains politicized, ridiculed, misunderstood, and more often than not ignored in the twentieth century today. Susan Stryker argues in her piece on “Transgender Feminism” that the major task of transfeminism is to begin “queering the woman question” (2007:59). Ironically, all the while transfeminist discourse has attempted in recent decades to “queer” the identity of a woman by recognizing the validity and experiences of trans women as a holistic subject, and thus redefining the concept and ontology of women as something besides essentially biological, such spaces of discourse nonetheless fail in attempting to explicitly queer the conception of a trans woman and her sexuality. Within this third-wave of feminism, radical feminist thinkers have begun to echo similar sentiments spanning from Stryker, attempting to articulate the validity in their own muti-faceted, complex trans identities as well (Williams 2019). Talia Bettcher argues that the “contrast of gender presentation (appearance) and sexed body (reality)… yields a dangerous double blind” for trans women (2007:50). This double bind takes away us trans women’s self-autonomy and our power in naming not only our own genders but also our sexualities. While Bettcher’s theoretical foundation asserts powerfully the duality of living at the intersections of being trans and woman, I would like to add on that trans women who particularly do not adhere to the social and political expectations of hegemonic heteronormativity and further express forms of gender and sexual nonconformity (i.e. trans lesbians, butch trans women, queer trans women, etc.) may find themselves within a reality compiled of mutiple, mutifaceting, and monumentally violent binds. 

Much of Stryker and Bettcher’s points, encapsulating the theoretical frameworks of intersectionality from Crenshaw and others, likewise highlight the complex relationship between a queer trans woman’s gender and sexuality, both of which serve as a vector for her experienced-violence, systematic maginalization, and economic disenfranchisement. Laura Westengard characterizes this oppressive cycle of queer trans accretion as “the growth of a substance by an accumulation of layers” such as insidious trauma and institutionalized violence (2019:31). Sarah Ahmed similarly expresses the experience in which trans women face persistent violence as “a hammering away at our being… a chip, chip, chip” manifesting from such accreted identity-based forms of physical and emotional trauma (2017:221). When the gender expression of a trans woman does not match her sex assigned at birth nor the gender expectations connected to her supposed assigned sex, she faces a particular form of violence; Julia Serano defines this unique cycle of faced-violence as trans-misogyny: “When the majority of violence and sexual assaults committed against trans people is directed at trans women, that is not transphobia–it is trans-misogyny” ([2007]2016:14). For a queer trans woman, her faced obstacles, marginalization, and violence do not manifest solely in spite of her trans identity or solely pertaining to her identity as a woman; instead they are altogether combined and collected because of her inability to to meet and follow society’s expectations of hegemonic cisheternormativity and other institutionalized systems of feminine binary gender roles because of the ways in which she expresses her queer sexuality and trans gender.

Because of the nature of this paper, I see it important to analyze the intersections of three specific characteristics that play a crucial role in the subjugated realities of queer trans women. Because of the medical construction of trans bodies and contrasting frameworks offered from queer theorists and radical feminist scholars in the 1990s like Suzanne Kessler (1990), Anne Fausto-Sterling (1993; 2000), Judith Butler (1990), and Kate Bornstein (1994) during the initial stages of third-wave feminism, discourse in such feminist spaces became more focused with the ways in which gender and sex are objectively different yet have been socially constructed and upheld as synonnymous characters. Third wave feminism, intersectional feminism, and transfeminism all in their own unique ways teach us how additional intersections in relation to our gender affects our placement in society and the experiences and relationships we hold as individuals. Distinctions between one’s assigned sex at birth and gender identity, for example, have become ubiquitous in feminist publications and discussions since the early rise in intersectional feminism, transfeminism, and other branches that were birthed out of this third wave of feminism. However, I aspire to further address the distinctions between other additional intersections that manifest in the lives of us queer trans women.

The first distinct characteristic worth defining, as potentially expected, is a trans woman’s gender identity. I recognize, as mentioned earlier, that every trans woman most likely uses varying terminology not always solely that as a “trans woman;” many use other individual and combination of labels to define their gender identity including–but obviously not limited to–transexual, trans femme, transfeminine, MtF, MtX, Two-Spirit, non-binary, genderqueer, woman, femme, dyke, tranny, and so forth. Defining one’s gender identity is a deeply-rooted personal experience and, specifically for individuals who were not assigned-female-at-birth and may have thus been forced to obtain and maintain gender identities adhering to those of men and hegemonic forms of masculinities in their earlier experiences, it may feel traumatic even to try and conceptualize the different ways in which we begin to articulate our gender identities. Because I personally use the terminology of “trans woman” to define my own gender identity, the following points I articulate thus will blossom from this personal assertion. 

When I wake up in the morning and glance at my face in the mirror, I personally define my gender as that of a trans woman. I see my body reflected to me explicitly and I name myself and my gender. I am a woman with a penis, yes, and a woman nonetheless. I do not see sexual biology as something that should play a part in one’s individual identification of their gender. A woman with a vagina and breasts is just as valid as a woman with a dick and breasts is just as valid as a woman with a dick and no breasts is just as valid as a woman with a vagina and no breasts. Genitalia ambiguously misinforms and redirects the conception of one’s gender identity and their self-autonomy in naming their gender for themself. For me, when I see my reflection and my breasts and my penis and my face look back at me in the mirror, I know I am woman wholeheartedly.

The second characteristic crucial to highlight, following that of gender identity, is a trans woman’s gender expression. For many, this attempt to define our gender expression may seem, for lack of a better word–silly–seeing that oftentimes trans women are forced to fulfill expectations of hegemonic femininities in order to survive throughout this trans-misogynystic Western society in which we exist. In the words of actress and activist Laverne Cox, “It is revolutionary for any trans person to choose to be seen and visible in a world that tells us we should not exist” (2014). However, to consolidate all trans women’s gender expression solely as that of feminine in effort of survival would be despairingly unethical and simply not the full reality. For queer trans women, expressing our gender identity is more often than not a constant battle of expressing non-hegemonic forms of masculinity against our own unhealed wounds from internalized forms of trans-misogyny and cisheterosexism surrounding our differing forms of personal expression. Aspiring to be seen as a valid woman in a Western society while simultaneously attempting to nonetheless express varying forms of masculinity, femininity, androgyny, and non-conformity restructures the trauma-based violence and exclusion we face because of the ways in which we express our genders. 

When I prepare for survival in each of the days in my life, I constantly struggle to find an authentic form of autonomy in expressing the masculine and feminine and non-conforming gender I hold as a trans woman. I recognize each and every trans woman expresses her gender in different manners, and the search for safety and solidarity is nonetheless prevalent in our search for connections and experiences that may potentially help heal from those forms of trauma because of how we choose to express ourselves. Some days I simply stare into my closet aimlessly empty-handed because I have no idea how I wish to be present myself, or, rather, how I wish to be perceived by others. I can do this for minutes on end and struggle profoundly with the act of putting together an outfit for the day. How I wish to express my gender may result in something more masculine or more feminine, or rather non-conforming and androgynous. I never wish to replicate the hegemonic femininity many cis women I see wear on their sleaves each and every repeating day of their lives. I do not live my life in aspiration of cis women and I certainly do not strive to achieve a level of feminity that adheres to such forms of blatant Western hegemonies of cisheteronormativity.

The third and final characteristic, and potentially the most undiscussed in transfeminist sectors of academia as well as trans communities to this day, is that of a queer trans woman’s sexual expression. Why I think this aspect of identity is crucial and often misconstrued is because for a queer trans woman, her form of expression is instrically connected to both her gender and sexual identity. What happens when a queer trans woman expresses herself in a way that highlights her identity as not just a woman and not just a trans woman but a lesbian? A dyke? A butch? What happens when a trans woman does not necessarily abide to cisheteronormative expectations of expression and she, rather, in addition to claiming an identity as a woman of trans experience, stands firmly in her identity as a woman with queer sexuality? Personally, identifying as a queer trans butch woman myself, I feel a constant tension to secure my validity as a woman and perform a certain level of feminity while also attempting to explicitly express my sexual identity as a dyke for a wider, yet more intentional, lesbian and queer audience. These contesting feelings regarding such salient identities is complex to say the least; at the same time, I believe that this lense of critically analyzing such intersections of gender and sexual identities and forms of expression may begin to dig at what Sandy Stone argued decades ago.

When I get ready for an average day, I cannot help but reflect on how my identity as a queer woman plays a part in my personal form of expression. While undoubtedly my gender identity is articulated in a variety of forms of expression based in how I strive to illustratively personify that part of my identity for myself and others, my sexual identity just as much sneaks into my form of consciousness and manifests in additional and simultaneous forms of expression. There are undeniably dyke and queer aesthetics that remain unspoken about in mainstream society, yet they are completely and visibly expressed for other queer dykes who likewise have obtained the capability to pick up on such sexual cues for particularly a queer viewer. It is a common understanding that there is not one definition of a woman; with that comes the side-note that just as the ways in which a trans woman chooses to express her identity as a woman is a form of her expression, she may likewise decide to express her sexual identity as well in additional forms of expression.

Here is a more illustrative way of visualizing the importance of conceptualizing the distinctly different forms of expression, specifically of importance to the trans lesbian – here is an example. You are at a bar. You are smoking in the back, drinking a beer, with a group of dyke queer friends. Suddenly, from across the bar, you see the most beautiful trans woman you have ever laid eyes on. She walks by and you cannot help but observe her. You are drawn to her. You are drawn to the idea of yourself, a woman, with another woman. You are drawn to the idea of yourself, a trans woman, with another trans woman. Thus, you are above all else drawn to the idea of yourself, a trans lesbian woman, with another trans lesbian. You are enamored by the potential to be with a woman like her–like yourself–to feel your body on hers on yours. However, there comes a time when you may begin to evaluate the scenario once again and you might ask yourself, “Could she really be interested in me? Could she be attracted to a woman like myself? Is she sexually attracted to women at all?” A critical moment surfaces when you begin to search for clues about whether or not she may intentionally be expressing her sexuality in public light for a woman like you to follow and pick up. You look for a bandana in a back pocket, or a subtle metal chain attached to a belt buckle. You search to see if she has any queer tattoos. You question how might she identify herself if she did in fact claim a queer sexuality, too. Is she more butch? More femme? Maybe more so nonconforming in her expression? You are past the point of seeking to understand her gender identity as a woman and how she chooses to express her gender at this point; you are searching for signals of her expression derivative from her sexuality. 

Similar to the ways in recent years many feminist theorists, many of whom were mentioned earlier, have since begun to clarify and reconceptualize the distinctions between one’s gender identity to their gender expression as well as one’s gender identity to their sexual identity, I aspire likewise to challenge the misconstrued duality of one’s gender expression and sexual expression. We can no longer pretend as if people do not intentionally display their sexual identities in ambiguously ubiquitous ways in every social realm in effort of attracting the eye’s of a specific audience–an audience which has its own historical epistemologies of understanding and displaying love and sexuality. Regardless of one’s gender, each and every one of us as individuals, consciously or not, exhibits a certain level of our sexuality for the public eye to catch onto, objectively criticize, and potentially follow along with. This intersectional framework is one that must be ultimately utilized when particularly looking into the lives and experiences of trans women at the axes of sexual marginalization in society, yet obviously not solely limited to any particular community. Queer trans women are generally terribly misunderstood across cultural and geographical lines, and the severe lack of queer trans theory in existence even today certainly does not decrease the accreted internalized pain and trauma we may face day by day. 

We queer trans women undeniably possess our own epistemologies that stem from generations of radical organizing, grounded community theorizing, and intersectional practices of praxis in our everyday lives. From utilizing such intersectional frameworks of thought, we may continue to address the many other intersections that link on the basis of our identities from a place of community knowledge, theorizing, and discourse. We queer trans women do not live realities that can be understood from a non-intersectional lense; we do not live static, stable lives. We are marginalized women coming from a foundation in which we automatically fail in every cisheternormative expectation of expression and livelihood yet strive not to conform complicitly. And, while we queer trans women may come to articulate our identities and experiences in personal ways specific to us as individuals with deep cuts and deep longing for love and belonging, we may use intersectionality as a tool to address our complex gender and sexual identities and likewise leep into more new, untrodden paths. 


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