Controversial Trans-Fans Like Margaret Cho

July 17, 2007

By Dr. Carol QueenOh dear… when allies do not feel the alliance, it is so sad. I think this is an ongoing issue with progressives, but that’s not what I’m thinking about today. Today it’s trannies and tranny-chasers, transfolk and transfans, and sex (or really people’s reactions to sex) making things complicated in unexpected ways. Here’s what I’m talking about.

Margaret Cho, bright shining alterna-star and Good Vibrations board member, came to visit us at GV a couple of months ago, and she sat down with the team who makes GVTV clips for GoodVibes and also posts them on YouTube. Violet Blue was there, too, to interview Margaret for her own fabulous podcast, Open Source Sex. We talked about lots and lots, and one of the of things that came up was Margaret’s fondness for and attraction to transsexual men. She was dating a transguy when she visited us for our holiday party, and so we knew she had things to say about this; and GV has many transfolk on staff, so this seemed like a relevant and interesting line of enquiry. You can see what Margaret said here:

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and also here, from Violet.But wouldn’t you know it, her comments proved to be controversial among some transmen: controversial enough that there ensued a little outpouring of anger. This is so easy to do on a blog or YouTube posting that it probably isn’t very surprising; and even when this kind of stuff hurts people’s feelings, it’s culturally useful to know what varying things can be brought up when we say, well, just about anything. This medium allows opinion, including (as I blogged about this spring) the option for people to pop off anonymously and with no real chance for back-and-forth discourse. Margaret’s detractors seemed insulted about two things, mainly: that she would single out transmen (who wish not to be singled out for being trans; after all they have gone through to be men, they simply wish to be ID’ed as men from now on); and that she’d express erotic interest in transguys, which was termed fetishism and not appreciated.

Now of course every transman may well want to be desired simply for his own individual qualities. (This has been my impression of the way most everybody else also wants to be desired: transguys do not really break the mold here.) The idea that someone would be desired only because he/she/ze fits a definition, has a particular body configuration, skin tone, hair color, breast size, cock size… though these sorts of building blocks of identity shape the way others see us and respond to us, most of us don’t want those elements to only be what others see and the only basis of their response. Others, of course, cheerfully place personal ads based on just those kinds of distinguishing element, but this ability to focus on outward manifestations that might draw others’ attention isn’t how we all want to work what we’ve got. Many of us even seem to want others’ erotic attention *in spite of* who we are and how we’re configured; and of course there are people who don’t want others’ erotic attention at all.

A sex-positive perspective is helpful here, but doesn’t help us simplify this issue away. It would imply that we want to support each individual’s consensual (adult) attractions and the choices they make in acting on those attractions; it also means we support each individual’s sexual boundaries, and we don’t feel people should be pressured into sexual experiences they don’t want to have. So I, for example, am comfortable that Margaret expresses any attractions and desires that she feels; in fact, because some people vocally and/or behaviorally express DIScomfort at the idea of having a transsexual partner, maybe her comments may help some trans-identified individuals feel more desirable and give hope that they may have not only a loving partner but one who actually finds them hot. When it comes down to our human antipathy at being desired, I find it often stops at the bedroom door of someone we also find hot: not always, but often.

But again, some transmen do not wish to be desired because of their transsexuality but without regard to it, and some, or perhaps many, transsexual men do not identify themselves as trans, but simply as *men*, and it is among these men that the greatest controversy seems to be generated. I’m pretty sure these are not the guys who populate our relatively new genderqueer social substrate — which is quite urban, for the most part, and lives right next to or smack-dab within urban queerdom, which also includes the new dyke who loves and accepts transmen and bois. These are guys who don’t spell “boi” funny and don’t want to spend as much time at the dyke bar as they may have done pre-transition, when they may have identified as dykes. These are guys who want the testosterone to do its magic and then go on living their lives a men, just men, no qualifier, and no being called out as a different kind of man.

But I wonder to what extent some of these guys understand (or are comfortable) that some transmen and transwomen DO identify as trans, and that not all TS individuals understand gender to include only two options. Margaret hangs out with and referenced folks who might consider themselves genderqueer or two-spirit; some actively embrace identities that seek to blend or transcend maleness and femaleness — which seems to be the very issue in Margaret’s comments that made the angry viewers angry. That others would appreciate them or desire them for these qualities might seem fetishistic; it might also seem like a radical transformation of cultural, gender, and erotic possibility.

Another locus of this notion of fetishism is, of course, porn, and MtF porn has been available for a long while, often presented in just this fetishistic way. Lots of transwomen do not feel comfortable with it or the view of MtFs and the language it presents: very few, it turns out, aspire to be thought of as a “chick with dick.” (Note to porn and sexwork consumers: this may be true even if the lady in question uses that phrase in her ad to get you to come sport with her and give her money.) But there’s another side to trans-porn, too. Presenting diverse bodies as erotic is important, because the larger culture does not adequately reinforce everyone’s sense of their own eroticism and attractiveness — and this may be especially true of transsexuals. The trans communities today include people who understand that explicit material featuring diverse transfolk adds to our understanding of sex and adds to cultural representations of transsexuality, and they want to make their own erotic materials; so the means of production is no longer solely in the hands of big porn distributors who have no stake in the positive portrayal of their subjects. Porn can be one resource for diversity; at the same time it’s understood that not everyone will want to view it.

And in fact this reminds me very much of the controversy around porn and erotic attraction that I know from the feminist community, in which some women are squicked by the very idea of porn (or of strangers desiring them based on no interpersonal connection), while other women happily learn to use a camera (or hit the clubs) so they can partake in and/or help shape the discourse (and hopefully have some hot sex along the way).

It boils down to this: *all* people and their erotic desires and limits must be viewed through the lens of diversity, because not every person who may be described with a gender or sexual identity label (woman, lesbian, leatherman, transman) is the same as others who might also be so described. What will please some will not please others. What will make some of them come will leave others cold. What excites some will be offputting to others. Margaret didn’t seek to erase the diversity among transmen with her comments, and I hope the individuals who are uncomfortable about her comments didn’t either. Put another way, one guy’s feeling of being fetishized may well be another’s sense that someone loves and desires him for all of (not in spite of) who he is. Both of those guys have every right to their own response; neither is wrong, and neither tells the whole story.

Want to see more about this? Study up, class! Margaret blogged about it:

And this site has more commentary on the fetish issue:


9 Responses to “Controversial Trans-Fans Like Margaret Cho”

  1. Kuono Says:

    I felt myself get anxious when I watched the video and heard Margaret start talking about Transmen in relation to Brad Pitt.

    It’s not everyday we hear a nationally known celebrity talk about transguys. (Let alone in relation to Brad Pitt!) And, to use the word “Trannies” … which I feel is so San Francisco Bay Area lingo… I have to admit I was startled.
    However, Words and Identities can be a hard topic for people to hear because they hit so close to home. Ultimately, I believe Margaret’s intentions are good. I’m not upset that she’s bringing sexual and gender diversity to the limelight. Thanks Carol for blogging about this.

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  3. YORMOM Says:

    I think it’s safe to say that you can’t please everyone all the time no matter how good the intentions are. However, I think people need to feel comfortable in their own shoes before attacking others who are simply expressing their genuine comfortabilty and admiration for those who are different from themselves.

  4. YourDad Says:

    She jokes about her open marriage in her standup. Who is she ‘putting on?’

  5. Carol Queen Says:

    It doesn’t surprise me in any way that a bisexual woman who’s comfortable with multiple relationships would 1) be married; 2) be married to a heterosexual man; 3) have another relationship (or more than one) with someone of a different sexual or gender identity. What’s *surprising* is that a famous person with a relationship configuration like that would talk about it openly in the public sphere; I think way more people who are in the public eye would hide things like that than reveal them. Just another way Margaret breaks the mold, in my view.

  6. Saoirse Says:

    the road to hell is…you get the idea. I have no idea what Margaret Cho’s intentions are. I actually care about what she does and what she says and how that relates to and impacts the lives of transexual and transgender people. I think her comments are not naive but endemic of the fetishic side of transphobia that has largely blossomed unchecked in the dyke/lesbian/queer community.

    I am not having it.

  7. annie Says:

    What ever happened to famous transguy Fairy Butch? I used to come into Good Vibrations to secretly flirt with him acting as if I needed yet one more sex toy! Can you tell me where he is now? I would much rather take one his classes than listen to a famous womans viewpoint on trans sexuality.

  8. Kitty Says:

    You know, the first time I had a trans lover (m2f), I felt really unsure how to act, or even what to say. I didn’t want to spend too much time on her genitalia, because I didn’t want her to think I was turning her body into a fetish, but I didn’t want to spend too little time on her either, making her feel undesirable! I didn’t know how to act. I mean, when I’m with a female partner, I love to explore her genitals, because each set is like something new… but I felt acutely aware that what to a lover comfortable with her genitals might seem sexy and loving might make someone else feel uncomfortable.
    And yes, I asked, we tried to talk about it, but you can never be completely sure what’s ok and what isn’t until you start to realize boundaries are being pushed…
    On the other hand, while in theory I’d say yes, it’s wrong to fetishize genders, I also think that gender (and the fucking around therein) is something that I desire. I desire men with beards and boots and glitter and tutus. I desire Buck, with his muscled abs and chest and perfect pussy. I desire the shy boyish butches and the high femmes I come across in the nightclubs.
    Now, it’s not a fetish. I can achieve orgasm without it. But it IS something I find desirable.
    I don’t think that’s wrong.
    I think maybe what people MEAN to say and what fetishizing has come to mean in this way is OBJECTIFYING. Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t objectify the people that make me wet, because part of what makes me wet is body language, and their intelligence, the sort of people they are. Part, granted, is also that I find them hot.
    Just some musings…

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