On Internalizing the Cis Gaze When Thinking About Sex and Relationships
As a heads up, this essay tells several detailed stories about transmasculine people internalizing the cis gaze and passing those messages on to other transmasculine people, particularly with regards to sex, dating, romance, and relationships, and the representation of trans and/or non-binary people in romance and erotica. It includes descriptions of cissexism and internalized trans oppression. It references amatonormativity and sexnormativity. It references, but does not describe, sex, dating, desire, love, romance, and kink.
Note: If you want to learn what I mean by the cis gaze, I list resources at the end of this post.
A familiar narrative
Several weeks ago, I picked up a collection of personal essays about faggotry and community in a bookstore, and sat down to read one of the essays written by a trans guy. It was a rather long detailed description of crushing on a queer cis guy, flirting with him several times, coming out to him as trans, and being rejected for being trans. As the cis man put it: “I’m gay, and penis is important for that.” The essay felt full of despair, and a sort of inevitability. This sense that this is the way things are. This sense that trans guys are lucky to find a (presumably cis) partner at all.
This is a very familiar narrative, this assumption that most people wouldn’t want to be with us, one that has been passed on to me for years. Yes, I learned it from dominant culture, of course. And from queer culture as well. But what got inside the most are the ways I learned it from other transmasculine people, in the spaces I have been connected to as a transmasculine genderqueer person and trans stone butch, spaces dominated by trans men and transmasculine folks. The ways we taught each other this way of thinking about ourselves, seeing ourselves through the cis gaze.
In the late 90s, I met this couple at a queer bar in San Francisco, a high femme cis woman and a trans guy. He had recently moved to the city from a Midwestern town, to be with her. They’d met online. When he was telling the story about how he ended up moving to California, he said that he knew he couldn’t meet anyone where he was, after all, he was a “special commodity” because he was trans, and he knew most people wouldn’t want to be with him. He said it like it was a universal undeniable truth: that being trans meant that there were very few options for partners.
The saddest thing about that moment was that it seemed to be something they both believed to be fact. That she was rare and a miracle because she wanted him, and that he was a different kind of rare because few would want him. I remember thinking, is this what my future holds, as a trans person?
About a decade later, I was at a trans conference, and attended a workshop for trans men who were interested in cis men. It was supposed to be a panel of cis men talking about their experiences dating trans men, where the trans men in the audience could ask them questions. Except, it turned out that no one who was supposed to be a panelist had shown up. The room was packed; there were easily 40+ queer trans guys in rather tiny space, sitting on the floors and the cabinets, with every chair possible crammed into the room.
The facilitator, a queer trans guy, announced that he wanted to keep the conversation focused on how trans guys could date and have sex with cis men, and not have it include any conversation about dating or having sex with each other. I remember being deeply struck by the strangeness of this decision, as clearly many of the trans folks in the room were there to cruise, but we were directly told not to talk about any interest we might have in each other. The reason soon became clear: the facilitator and several of the most vocal trans men in the room were extremely focused on how to make themselves attractive to cis men, how to disclose to cis men, how to cruise and have casual sex with cis men. They dominated the conversation, which culminated in the facilitator exclaiming fervently that his biggest hope was that trans men would leave the workshop knowing that they could be desirable to cis men.
Desirable. This was the best that he could imagine for all of us. That we would believe we could be desirable to cis men. It was like a blow to my gut, hearing those words. I just kept thinking, can’t we dream bigger than this? Where is our own desire in this? Do we even get to have desire? Is the best we can imagine that we are desired by cis people, that cis people see us as viable sexual objects? What about being sexual subjects? Does the desire of trans people even matter in this room? Do we even think it counts?
I have written before about my experiences of being framed as a failed sexual object because of my fatness, and how important and radical it can be to instead center the sexual subjectivity of fat people both in how we see ourselves and in how we write fat characters in erotica. This is a similar kind of shift in thinking about ourselves as trans people, and I believe it is deeply needed.
Last year, I was excited to learn about a recently published young adult romance written by a trans man, a book about a queer teenage trans boy character dating a teenage cis boy. Then I read the blurb. The blurb begins by stating that this character thought no one would ever want to date him, declaring, “Everyone knows nobody wants a transgender boyfriend.” My stomach dropped, because there it was, yet again. This supposedly universal truth about our undesirability. Everyone knows that nobody wants us. Everyone. A stated fact, the premise that we are all starting from.
We are stuck in this framework, have been stuck in it for a very long time.
The framework of the cis gaze
This is the story about being transmasculine that I’ve been told for the last twenty years of being trans, over and over and over, a story that centers my potential desirability, and leaves out my desire. A story that values what cis people think about me over anything else. A story about how being trans means I am “doomed” to being alone. This story is usually steeped in amatonormativity and sexnormativity. It’s generally told in a way that conceives of sex and/or romantic relationships as necessary to humanity, and frames this supposed “truth” about me as a way to mark that I’m not really human.
Transmasculine people have been telling me this as unquestioned gospel since I first started seeking out trans spaces and thinking of myself as trans. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a transmasculine person will forever be in want of a partner. (So you should take what you can get and not complain about it.)
This story is not just told to and about transmasculine folks; it’s commonly told about trans and/or non-binary folks across the board. There are transmisogynist messages everywhere, targeting trans women with similar stories of rejection and erasure, often ones that have deep deep violence woven through them. Non-binary folks are often deeply desexualized, erased and othered, in ways that assume our lives are quite lonely (if our existence is acknowledged at all). I’m focusing on transmasculine folks because those are the communities I’ve known the best, those are the trans folks that personally warned me about this “reality” and described it as universal truth that applied to me.
We hold cis gaze for each other, pass it between ourselves. How cis people see us, whether we measure up, whether they want us, becomes the framework, becomes our story. A story we reinforce for each other.
I do it too. Some of my early trans erotica dreamed a fantasy acceptance of (my) transness by cis partners, after disclosure of trans identity. (Something that was problematic on a number of levels, that I recently got to rewrite so that it did not include this kind of disclosure and acceptance moment.) These stories were not only steeped in the cis gaze in how they were structured, they were also written from the point of view of the accepting cis partner. (My own erotica rewrite of the acceptance narrative that’s so common in trans YA.) I was trying to resist the story of my undesirability, but I was doing it while stuck in the framework of a cis gaze.
Telling different stories
What if we could tell different stories? Stories that center transmasculine folks seeking what we want from relationships, in whatever form that might take? Stories that don’t assume trans disclosure is inextricably intertwined with the likelihood of rejection? Stories that don’t even require trans disclosure conversations with new potential partners because they choose not to evoke the possibility of that supposedly inevitable rejection?
We can tell those stories. I know, because I’ve read them, and written them. It is possible to frame transmasculine characters in ways that don’t work from this assumption of undesireability that is so intensely steeped in the cis gaze. I want to tell you about a couple of them.
Peter Darling by Austin Chant is a trans Peter Pan retelling, where Peter is trans and has a romance with Hook, who is cis. One of the things I loved about the story was the way Peter was unabashedly in his desires, all of them, recklessly at times, insistently pretty much always, driving so much of the story. His will, his choices, what he needs and wants, are deeply centered in this story. Chant discusses this in an interview, centering both the character’s agency and his mistakes, saying:
“I wanted him to lash out and fuck up as Pan would, rather than being a martyr. We all deserve happy endings, and we ought to be allowed to struggle and make mistakes, especially when we’re dealing with intense pain and distress.”
Peter is a deeply flawed, and completely loveable and infuriating tyrant for a good chunk of the beginning of the story. Then the book turns, and begins to unpack the ways he has internalized toxic masculinity, shows him growing to allow himself to be more complex, to have desires that seemed unfathomable before. There is so much to adore about this story but one of my most favorite things is that it’s a book in which the trans main character takes action for himself, over and over, goes after what he wants, thinks about what he wants, doesn’t move from a place of scarcity around what he wants. Oh, Peter is arrogant, and kind of a jerk sometimes, but he gets to have will, and subjectivity, and desire, and fully embody them, live into them.
The author wrote a blog post about his decision to not include a conversation where Peter discloses that he is trans to Hook. He made that choice precisely because that kind of scene is built on the assumption that such conversations almost inevitably lead to rejection. He talks about how he tried to write them, and ultimately decided to cut all of the drafts, saying “maybe the coming out scenes I kept writing were uncomfortable because cramming them in only served to entertain the idea of Hook rejecting Peter.”
And why should a romance novel entertain the idea of a cis character rejecting a trans character because he is trans? Why do we even need to invoke that possibility at all? As Chant says:
“why should we not assume, in the context of a romance novel, that a trans person’s love interest is going to accept and adore them for who they are? Do we always need to see acceptance on the page to know it’s there? Why not have it be the expectation, the default?”
This approach rejects the cis gaze, and rejects cisnormativity. It sets up a universe where we are not going in with the assumption of rejection as likely. Sure, the reader may go in with their own assumptions, but they are not answered by the text, not engaged. This is one of the core ways that Peter Darling presents a possibility of a romance with a trans main character that doesn’t center the cis gaze in its framework, doesn’t center cis readers and their desires in how it is written.
We also have no sense of Peter’s body, his transition, which I absolutely love. We do know his deadname (a common cis question about trans characters), but this is one of the few stories where that really worked for me, narratively. It didn’t feel like that was written for cis readers, but to honor the trans reality of Peters life, which includes the pain of being deadnamed and misgendered by his family. It was hard to read those passages, I’m not going to lie, but they didn’t feel like they were for the titillation of cis readers, and that made them work in the story, I think. A good portion about why they worked was due to when they happen in the story. Stories that start with the trans character being deadnamed and misgendered feel very much like they are for cis readers. Placing these passages later on gave them a different context and meaning. They worked differently.
The Topside Test
Topside Press (a trans-led publisher of trans literature) teaches writing workshops for trans writers where they offer exercises based on the Topside test (akin to the Bechdel test): “Does a film or piece of writing have two trans characters talking about something other than transition?” Writing from a framework that puts trans characters in conversation with each other about things other than transition radically alters the framework of the story, because it removes the cis gaze. Cat Fitzpatrick says that the radical potential of it is that “it’s an easy way to give you a trans speaker speaking to a trans audience.” It helps trans authors write for trans readers.
Removing cis people from the center of the story is one of the core strategies I’ve used in writing stories that reject the cis gaze. Especially when I focus on ways trans and/or non-binary people want each other, and what we sometimes bring to relationships, sex, and kink with each other:
The particular ease of being with folks who also have gender dysphoria so they get yours on a deeper level.
What it’s like to be desired, in all your transness, by another trans person, in a way that doesn’t hold cis objectification and fetishizing at the center of that desire.
The way trans and/or non-binary partners accept and know daily life things about being trans and/or non-binary, so they can sit with misgendering being part of daily trudgery and also hold those times when it feels huge and insurmountable.
The possibilities that open up when you are doing gender play with folks who really get how it can be both playful and turn serious and intense on a dime, can hold the sacredness of the work along with the play.
The kinds of intimate connections that are sometimes possible between trans and/or non-binary folks with vastly different genders and histories, where folks make room for those differences and can also draw connections to those things that are deeply shared experiences.
The intense and scary joyousness of being with someone who has been working on rooting out their internalized cisnormative beauty standards, who you really believe thinks you are gloriously attractive just as you are.
How tremendous it can be to be seen as the gender you are by someone who doesn’t imply for a second that it might be hard work to see you, or that your gender is false, or that you are anything but who you are.
The particular joy of being with a non-binary partner that flows with your gender fluidity as you are on a date or having sex or doing play, where you dance together in that because you both deeply know that gender can move in beautiful ways.
There is all of that, but there is also the thing that Fitzpatrick mentions, the way that centering trans and/or non-binary characters in my story means there is no need for trans 101 info dumps or explanations of things that would clearly be shared knowledge. That the story can begin from where the characters are with each other. The story doesn’t need to imagine a cis readership who might be confused by insider language or community specific references. It doesn’t need to frame a character’s transness as problem, object, fetish, or curiousity.
There is one more piece to this. Centering trans and/or non-binary characters in an erotic or romance story doesn’t frame cis partners as of course the ones we want, the ones who need to accept and desire us. Not only can it center our own desires as trans and/or non-binary people, but it can frame us as folks who may not just want this particular partner, but also can include trans and/or non-binary folks who prefer to be with other trans and/or non-binary people. And not as a last resort because we couldn’t find a cis partner who wants us—which is what the cis gaze would frame that as. I know plenty of trans and/or non-binary people who prefer to be with other trans and/or non-binary people—I’m one of them. For me, writing romance and erotica that centers trans and non-binary people in relationships with, having sex with, and doing kink with each other is creating stories that reflect my own life and my communities.
A Boy Called Cin
I fell so hard for A Boy Called Cin by Cecil Wilde because it felt like it held my experience more closely than any other trans romance I’d read, that it was written for me as a non-binary trans reader. Part of that was because there wasn’t a cis love interest. It shaped the book, on a really deep level. That said, I’ve loved other romances where both main characters are trans and/or non-binary. (Three I would recommend are Defying Convention, also by Cecil Wilde, Long Macchiatos and Monsters by Alison Evans, and Documenting Light by EE Ottoman, which I’m in the middle of reading.)
This book felt different. It cracked something open for me as a writer, taught me something about what trans and non-binary-centered romance could be. I had a similar experience reading Nevada by Imogen Binnie, in the way that it felt so deeply trans-centered and written for a trans audience. It taught me something so important about writing trans stories. But it wasn’t in a genre that I am actually writing, and genre is meaningful. A Boy Called Cin taught me something really important about writing trans romance.
It took these classic romance tropes like May/December romance and billionaire romance, and showed what they might be like if they were trans and non-binary centered. Showed what a romance arc might look like if the cis gaze wasn’t part of it, except in the ways that trans and/or non-binary people internalize it and need to unlearn it. It showed the critical importance of deeply consensual negotiated sex for trans and/or non-binary people, how central that needed to be in order for both characters to feel seen and respected in their genders. It didn’t just center two trans and/or non-binary characters; I loved the way even the secondary characters were pretty much almost all trans.
I fell so damn hard for Cin right along with Tom, his grumpiness, his certainty about the importance of boundaries and consent, the way he really saw Tom. I know that this book will be read by many as fantasy wish fulfillment for Cin (the whole billionaire thing). It definitely is that. But for me, as a genderqueer reader, Cin is a fantasy of a dream lover who sees your gender and holds space for you to be who you are. It happens during sex, as well, which feels like such a gift to me personally. I just swooned for the ways sex is working in this book.
For me, one of the most amazing things that can happen in sex and in kink is to have my partner see my gender and hold space for me to be who I am. And it’s incredibly tender for me to do that for my trans and/or non-binary partners. I’ve written story after story about this experience from all ends of it, and even titled my erotica collection Show Yourself To Me because this experience of being seen and held in who you are during sex and kink is one of the things closest to my heart. I wrote erotica stories about trans and/or non-binary characters having this experience partly so that I could read them, so I could hold that kind of possibility out for myself. It was the only way I knew to access that kind of hopeful framework that centered people like me, in our own desire and our own need to be seen and honored as who we are. That kind of recognition is rare enough in life; it’s even more rare in fiction.
There was something so intense and beautiful about getting to read an entire love story that included those experiences of recognition in a larger romance arc. It made me cry, to watch Tom get to have that for the first time after years of not having it in his sex life. To watch Cin get to offer that, and be held and honored in return by Tom. It felt like it had cracked scars open, and they were getting the light and air they needed to begin to heal. It made me feel less alone.
This is what I want from the stories we tell each other, as trans and/or non-binary people: that they center us. That we work to root out the ways we have internalized the cis gaze, in our stories and in our communities. That we tell stories that center what trans and non-binary people want and need in our relationships, instead of focusing on how cis people see us, and whether they want us. It is not easy, I know. I will keep working on it myself. Join me?
Note: If you are trying to understand what I mean by the cis gaze, here are a few things you can read:
A twitter thread where I discuss being the object of a story vs being the subject.
Writing Better Trans Characters by Cheryl Morgan.
My essay that differentiates between cis POV characters and the cis gaze.
Tagged: amatonormativity, cis gaze, ciscentrism, cissexism, compulsory sexuality, dating politics, non-binary, non-binary authors, non-binary characters, queer, queer romance, relationships, romance, sexnormativity, sexual subjectivity, trans, trans authors, trans characters, trans erotica, Trans non-binary, trans oppression, trans readers, trans representation, trans romance, trans sexuality, transmasculine
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