a perspective on unpaid emotional labor of queer acceptance – An Arse Elektronika Talk

This past weekend I went to Arse Elektronika, a sex and tech conference in San Francisco that has talks from many different perspectives on whatever lies at the intersection of sex and tech. I wanted to share the transcript of my talk since I put a lot into it and it’s about a highly personal subject that I think needs more people reading it. So before you read it below, know a couple of things: I divulge a lot about my sex life, for a reason, and if that would make you uncomfortable you probably should skip this one; given that, this might be NSFW, though nothing graphic is written or shown; and I will be talking a lot about transphobia and cissexism, so please take care of yourself before reading this if you need to. Thanks for reading!

Hello everyone! I’m Mattie Brice, and my main trades are in writing media criticism on interactive experiences and designing what have been avant-garde games for the past few years. But today, I want to focus on a concern from my other area of work, social justice and organizing, that has been on my mind lately, about everyday activism. As you can tell from the title of my talk, I suffer from having a humanities degree, and set out to present this topic in such a way. You could totally tell I was going to whip out Foucault, get some charts, and toss in an obligatory nod to communism. But you know, I started to realize that there was no need for specific evidence for my case, or at least, when it comes down to it, you’re going to have to take my word for it either way. So I decided to speak straight from my personal experience; I’m not every woman, nor every trans person, nor every transwoman. I don’t promise that my experience is statistically relevant enough to be generalized in any manner. So I hope you don’t generalize this, and accept that my story exists because we live in a world that allows it to, and that stands for something, no matter how singular it is. Instead of intricately made slides and long bibliographies, I’m just going to talk at you, and I just want you to listen, absorb, and respond. Because, you know, people don’t do that enough. I’m going to leave some time for questions hopefully, so keep that in mind as I talk. Also, I’m going to be talking about stuff centering around transphobia, so please take care of yourself if you’re in a vulnerable place and feel free to excuse yourself, I won’t be at all offended. So here we go!

Good news! We now have gay marriage in America! Yay! Go us! When I first heard the news, a part of me was like, “Finally,” but the other, sociologist part of me was curious: people have been fighting for this for a long time, and it takes more than just straight-up legislative and judicial persistence to get something like this passed. Society had to change enough for attitudes to sway, for something like homosexuality to finally be seen as American, or at least, not in conflict with American values any longer. Basically, gayness became normal enough. While there will be unpleasant sentiments about gay people marrying for a while, eventually it’s going to be commonplace enough to not comment upon it. Soon, if the only laws that discriminate against a person is their ability to get married, their lives will become mainstream, or even conservative, according to people who see marriage acknowledged by law as an inherently regressive institution (like myself). This might seem unfair, and it is a little. I do think people should enjoy what every other citizen gets to, and it’s not anyone’s fault they were brought up in a society that values marriage.

Thankfully, we’re all discerning people here, and can hold the good with the bad and know things are complicated. If you followed conversations around gay marriage, especially the efforts put in by the Human Rights Campaign, you will know that it isn’t without criticisms. A lot of queer people who have more pressing concerns than marriage legalization felt marginalized by all the effort and focus funneled into gay marriage, particularly women who are transgender and aren’t white. It’s documented and commented upon how often gay rights activists would cut out or ignore lobbying for the advocacy of those in the community, you know, all the letters after the LG but often forgotten or literally left out for convenience. The reason? Those kinds of queer people are too weird, they aren’t legible like the HRC who are known for being predominantly gay WASP dudes who just want to have kids, a house, and some wealth like ‘normal people.’ In the past year there has been a lot of bad blood between the more visible LGBT groups and advocates who aren’t white or cisgender, often neither. Take San Francisco’s Pride parade committee, who allowed Facebook to participate in the festival despite having their real-name policy that routinely shuts down the accounts of trans people, sex workers, and victims of abuse. So basically, gay cis people are now looking like the oppressors, if they haven’t already.

But the whole story isn’t just gay people fighting to be normal. There are also straight people who are becoming degrees of, well, un-straight I guess. If you look at diversity stats at some tech companies, you’ll see numbers of people who, anonymously, identify as something other than heterosexual at matching or higher ratios than are reflected in the US census. One could attribute that to many companies being in liberal areas of the country, but if that were true, we’d see similar increases with other identities. For some time now, being out and not straight increases your chance of being unemployed, homeless, and without traditional support networks that could propel you into fields like tech. So I don’t think there’s just an increasing tide of people who went through life not identifying as straight, rather that as queerness fought for visibility and acceptance, those who never really considered or pursued it until recently are now further identifying with not being totally straight. We can see this in the rise of terms like ‘heteroflexible,’ which became a selectable identifier on OkCupid the same time queer and trans did (think on that).

I’m sure it would warm all of our hearts if we thought that advocacy was the main reason that more straight people started to show colors and eventually contribute to a social environment that would usher in queer acceptance. However, I think a more traditional factor pioneered this movement, that is, porn and general sexual curiosity. Clandestine cruising for sex always surrounded both the internet and queerness, so with the two rising in visibility and more opportunities to make such arrangements became available, the rate at which people realized something was deviant about them shot way up. This is a good time to remind people that what I’m going to be talking about is purely from my personal experience, but I choose to speak it because I believe there is some wider truth to it. I will be focusing on myself, who for convenience’s sake will identify as a transwoman, and cisgender men who are predominately white and pass as heterosexual but have some sort of relationship to queerness. I’m sure there are other factors and stories to what I’m talking about made by other women and queer people, but those stories aren’t mine, and I can’t speak to them as earnestly as I can with my own.

So, I’m a queer-identified trans lady with radical politics who primarily has sex with men. I know I’m pretty hot, cool, a great conversationalist, have awesome selfie-game, currently on-watch as shameless thirstbait in many queer circles. But I have the most difficult time getting laid despite all these great qualities, which really fucked with my ego for the longest time. There is no easy way for a lady like me to find a decent guy to go at it with at any reasonable frequency. A large part of this is very few spaces facilitate transwomen meeting men in enough places and contexts to get connections going on, purely sexual or otherwise. Clubs and events that do, they cater towards men and their typically shitty preconceptions of who they think transwomen are and how they should be treated. Ultimately, I haven’t found many events that don’t explicitly free me from guys approaching me in a way they consume their porn, most likely made by other dudes who have very narrow and exploitative visions of transwomen. Meaning, men are often overtly gross and assume I’m a sex worker, also having shitty attitudes and preconceptions on how sex workers should be treated.

“But what about queer events Mattie?” some of you may be thinking. If not, I’ve been asked that before by well-meaning people very often. The answer has a way of being simple and complex at the same time: queer events that look to include transpeople, especially sex-positive- and kink-related events, don’t attract, or they explicitly exclude, men, especially cisgender men, even if they identify as queer. This severely cuts down the chance that I will meet a man I’m interested in enough to fuck in a space that has radical politics in place to respect me. Now, some of you might be thinking “They shouldn’t be excluding people!” and others will be like “We need spaces away from dudes to feel safe.” Both are well-intended, but one-dimensional when it comes to my predicament. First, we definitely need spaces where queer people can convene and not be hassled by those who have privilege over them, because let me tell you, nothing is more of a killjoy than having to deal with a blundering cis dude when you’re wanting to fuck. But more importantly, am I not a queer woman? Are my needs all of a sudden inconvenient? Am I just not the right kind of queer to have a space welcoming of who I am in my totality?

“Okay Mattie” you say, “What about sex-positive and kink spaces where there’s lots of men? Surely in a place like San Francisco you’d be swamped with ass.” Oh, you kind and gentle soul. The long and short of it is, those spaces are predominantly cissexist and heterosexist, meaning, I’m allowed to attend, but only on the sidelines. The thing is, despite how enlightened sex pervs think they all are, men in sex-positive and kinky communities aren’t too different in attitudes from general society when it comes to who and how they fuck. Here in San Francisco, many events say they are ‘pansexual,’ but really what you most often get are ‘heteroflexible’ couples, where heteroflexible means the woman partner plays with other girls and the guys aren’t afraid to compliment another man on his apparel. Of course, me being trans violates this because cis dudes still read me as something other than woman, and ostensibly treat me like a gay guy, saying things like “I’m not wired for that.” I even had a guy who, after we planned out completely non-sexual play, freaked out on me and called off our scene when he realized I was trans. As an aside, I’m sure I know many good people who identify as heteroflexible, just giving you a heads-up on how heteroflexible people most typically influence my sex life.

So, where does that leave me to find sex? Yes, our best friend, the internet. Since sites that resemble offline spaces I’ve just described are just as unfriendly to me, I’ve made a really tenuous home on Craigslist. The sucky part about this is Craigslist is treated like a garbage dump, the last place you want to go to for anything. It has a shitty reputation that gives it a self-fulfilling prophecy, where there are fuckboys as far as the eye can see, and not nary a hopeful blip of respectable man flesh. I can’t readily admit to cruising on the good CL because it’s honestly embarrassing, people look down on me for it, or assume I must have something horrifically wrong with me, and wheel into sexual disease shaming. But the fact of the matter is, almost all of my sexual encounters have been through that site, most with guys who really don’t treat women with respect, but every once in awhile, I get a gem I try to hold on to. My chances are really slim, but they are greater than all of my time going to events and participating in sex-positive and kink-friendly communities. Simmer on that for a bit.

I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m divulging my sad sex prospects and methods. Well, as anyone interested in internet culture could tell you, weird yet amazing things can happen online that just don’t manifest as strongly in purely offline situations. In fact, there is extensive documentation on self-identified straight men doing things that may look pretty queer from the outside. Take Jane Ward’s work, centered around how men are having sex with other men, but are, like, totally not gay. I could make an entire talk on just my interest and issues with this stuff, but to make it quick, one of her earlier papers centered around str8 men who wanted to have sex with other str8 men on Craigslist. Anyone who’s been on a site where men cruise other men will be familiar with this, but it’s particularly prevalent in places, like Craigslist, that aren’t directly marketed towards queer people. To me this is pretty queer, though these men make it explicit they don’t identify that way. The same attitude exists for men who are seeking transwomen to have sex or experiment with, such as being “100% straight” and wanting “totally passable” women.

I knew I was going to have to deal with some bullshit to have an existent sex life at all. What I didn’t expect was the amount of post-coital therapy I would be doing over the years. For the vast majority of my hookups, men would break down, sometimes in tears, about how he was confused about his sexuality and all the internalized shame he had about what he just enjoyed. Putting aside that these men undermine my womanhood, and really personhood overall, by saying things like that, I had to learn how to navigate these waters in fear that he could turn violent if handled improperly (which is a very real concern to have). Though this still happens to me, and I actually kind of hate it when it’s with someone who has no emotional investment in me, it’s pretty hilarious thinking about a radical activist who got educated in critical theory surrounding gender and sexuality trying to handhold a man’s fragile ego just so he could get out of her damn house. Or potentially worse, I’d end up more involved with a guy and deal with a constantly hot-cold switching of emotions, who goes from completely present and into it to totally distant and scared he was going to be made a pariah if anyone ever found out we fucked or held hands or some shit.

For better or for worse, I became an educator to these men, probably the only queer or trans person they had met and/or had sex with up until then. Through my time hooking up with men online, I’ve introduced many to basic concepts of sex, gender, and sexuality that they wouldn’t seek out of themselves. I’ve taught many safer sex practices and, in general, more kinds of sex practices deftly. I’ve introduced many, many men to ideas of informed consent and better communication tactics with their sexual partners. There are many of them that I linked to sex-positive and kink groups that had other men who they could relate to and feel supported by. Even though we might have not played together much or even more than once, I know I have done my part to push men into queerer and more radical practices since they don’t seek out that education themselves. It doesn’t sound right that the burden is being put on me when it should be put on them, and that’s totally true. However, as I’ve said before, there’s little support for people like me and there aren’t many radical spaces available or inviting for men to be exposed to this stuff, so I can either do it or be even more miserable than I already am. There’s little choice for me.

The sad part about all this is that, when it comes down to it, many of these men can’t stand the shame and potential pain that would come with having an open and healthy sexual relationship with a transwoman. It’s selfish and pitiful, but it’s also the case; there’s no amount of words that will sway someone when they get to that conclusion, rather, it takes lived experiences to lessen the fear until it’s manageable enough for them to surmount. A cis dude respecting a trans lady like a cis woman is one of the rarest occurrences on this planet. Unfortunately, that’s not often with me, but every once in awhile a man arrives at my doorstep already having gone through that experience, and I thank my other trans sisters out there fighting the good fight and fucking these men to their senses so they are over their bullshit by the time they get to me. And thinking of it that way, I feel like it’s my duty to do the same for them. Just think of it, transwomen, fucking guys, hoping that one gets fucked enough to eventually get his shit together and be decent already. If that’s not work for the better good, I don’t know what is.

There’s a big catch to all this, of course: is this even really queer? Some of you may groan at hearing that, but it’s for real, I get this question from queer people and even other transwomen. I’ve regularly been shunned or incidentally left out of events, social gatherings, and support systems because I am not ‘queer enough,’ or at all, for some people. Obsentibly, my romantic life reads as heterosexual, since when it’s convenient, people will reduce those involved to simply ‘a woman and a man having sex,’ and therefore, not really a part of the queer narrative. Queer spaces actively resist anything that smells of heteronormativity and don’t move to encompass people who are queer, yet have aspects of their lives that might look that way despite striving against it. Simply put, as many people forget, being queer isn’t something you’re born with, it’s something you decide to call yourself. Queer is a political statement, and isn’t just about who you fuck, it’s about how you relate to and act against normativity. It might be tough to include every single person who calls themselves queer, but that’s the duty of a space if it wants to call itself that. I think it’s sad that queer advocates are more concerned about how to keep cis guys out of queer spaces than inviting someone like me in.

“But those guys are basically closeted, and leave you out to dry!” some concerned people might be pleading. “How is it fair that guys who are hiding who they are and using you should benefit from queer social cachet?” Believe me, I totally empathize with this sentiment. It is really frustrating to not be able to find many guys who are willing to be out there with me in public, to not feel humiliated that others might see me as ‘unpassable’ and therefore direct homophobia at us. It’s further frustrating when this person is privileged and leans on his power in queer communities to sleep with or sway whomever he wants while you’re left at the bottom. But being closeted doesn’t make you any less queer, or completely free of hate and violence related to heterosexism. Being out is one of the touchstones of gay normalization that was turned into a hammer that sees everyone as a nail. Announce yourself! Be proud! Show your colors! This is a good time to note that as the visibility of women who aren’t cis nor white has gone up, so have their murders. Seeing that LGBT organizations have yet to catch up to serving their trans communities, I don’t really find much stock in equating people to their public personas.

To deny my experiences as queer robs me of existence, space, and the kind of action I can afford to integrate into my life. By simply walking outside, I face a ridiculous amount of threat and risk to my well-being, and that’s before I even attempt to have sex with anyone. Communities have built-in safeguards and practices against those who would harm their community members; kinky and queer communities have socials and parties of varying exclusivity so reputations and vetting are within reach, as are people who can watch your back or be your safe-call when something goes awry. If radical spaces leave me out while straight spaces don’t accommodate me, that means I have to date exclusively at the whim of internet moralities, often meeting people by myself and out of contexts that could be used for my safety. Then ~all of a sudden~ the presence of transwomen who fuck men are providence of companies who control the media, and especially porn, that is the majority of cultural reference people, even some queers, come in contact with of someone like me. Transwomen rarely even get to fuck men in so-called feminist and queer porn, and of course, it’s the same excuses of not knowing enough people who would perform. Is that a problem with transwomen, or with queer spaces? The result is that my experience and visibility on my terms is erased.

Ultimately, being left out of all these spaces is forcing me, and imploring others, to do this emotional and sexual labor for cis men. We rarely get to do it how we want it, and on our own terms, rather, only the ways ashamed heterosexuality allows. Without community structures, without support networks, without visibility, without affirmed existence, we are compelled to make do and deal with fragile cis masculinity in the gutters between everyone else’s celebratory debauchery. If I want to celebrate, a word, which, I have a bunch of issues with, particularly for this context, I have to build the whole thing up myself. I’m based here in the [San Francisco Bay Area], and the only play party I’ve been to that had queer politics and cis men attending who knew they’d be in shit for treating transwomen differently was an event I myself ran. You think it wouldn’t be so hard to do, and you’re right, it’s actually very fucking simple! But this is a sort of theme in my career: I didn’t see any writing on trans issues in games, so I wrote it myself; I never saw a game that featured a lead character who looked like me, so I made it myself. And while I do feel accomplished, I would much rather all of this be the norm, and have other people take credit just so I could cruise and love in acceptable amounts of turmoil like everyone else.

As I come down to the end of this, I can’t let my lovely men completely off the hook. Despite being victims in this scenario, men are also the source of all the bullshit that plagues them. So I want to start of my conversation to men with this: destigmatizing sex and love with transwomen begins and ends with men. You shouldn’t have to sleep with us in order to finally come to terms with the fact that we should be treated like human beings. Whenever you’re talking about women in general, you should be including transwomen as well, unless you make the distinction on purpose; of course, you might start to notice that you always qualify your attractions to only cis women, and it’s going to make you look like an ass: good, it should. Unlike what cultural narratives have taught you, you are not ‘wired for vagina,’ as one guy once said straight to my face. You don’t need to be prompted with some codeword to share with other men that transwomen are attractive and should be treated with respect, because all other men are assuming you feel like we’re gross and worthless. Even if your life is settled in a certain way where you won’t ever be intimate with a transwoman, you never know who in your life is suffering and will have their entire life changed because you validated who they are. It sounds grand and exaggerated but it’s the real truth.

Men, both those who do and do not sleep with transwomen, are riding in to queer acceptance on transwomen’s backs. This is evident from the first glass thrown at Stonewall to the emotional labor worked behind closed doors. Transwomen, especially those who aren’t white, have the burden of moving society forward because they continue to be ones most at risk. It’s because of those who have no choice but to be brave and strong that one day you will come to peace with yourself. And believe me, it’s tiring, and on my weaker days, I’m extremely bitter about it. However, you have to come to terms with this, as uncomfortable as it may be, and find a way to bridge the gap. You will likely feel a lot of guilt, but know it isn’t me who is making you feel guilty, it’s your conscience telling you something is fucked up. Guilt isn’t always a bad thing, sometimes it’s there to notify you that you really need to get yourself together and take a higher path. It’s never too late to recognize your place in a power dynamic and do something about it. Remember that!

Furthermore, you need to pick up your end of the slack, and create safe middle grounds for you to be around transwomen and other queer people. If you run events, have explicit policies that validate and protect transwomen. If you’re a creator, keep trans people in mind and use them in your narratives when talking about what you do. If you perform, request more of a presence from willing transwomen and be sure their labor is valued. Whatever way you impact and inhabit the world, there is some conscious way that you can make it more welcoming to people like me, you just have to do the work and educate yourself. And don’t rely on queer spaces being made for you first, make your own, recruit your friends that are more into the scene to make these meeting grounds inviting. There is absolutely no need for “not all men” type grumbling in this process, because the onus is on you to display through active effort that you’re not a jerk wanting validation for every little thing you do when you’re rarely ever asked to be decent to those you have power over. The point is that you have a lot to get over and prove, and it’s going to discourage you at first, but you really have a responsibility for all that you’ve coasted on all this time.

And here’s the shameless self-promotion: I already made a very long list of what I think the contemporary man should be aware of when unpacking toxic masculinity, and respecting the people in their lives that they have power over. Here’s the thing, all this talk about social justice and queer acceptance seem huge and out of your control and influence, but they’re not! Instead of framing it as you needing to solve all of the world’s oppressions, focus on the day-to-day attitudes and interactions that build up over time into a power dynamic. The most important thing you can do, starting today, starting now, is salvaging the relationships you currently have and learning to respect those people in a way that doesn’t serve shitty masculinist values. All of the things I’ve written about are super achievable, and are mostly about training yourself into a state of mind that values growth and communication. You are not going to be perfect tomorrow, and neither am I. The difference is, my quality of life is affected by how men value and treat me, and not as prominently the other way around. So, for my sake, and for everyone who is trans, please take this chance and honor the work we’ve done for you all this time. Thank you!

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