[Founder’s note: We did a podcast and YouTube interview with transamorous man (or Transam, as he calls us) Joseph McClellan, author of the new book Trans*am: Cis Men and Trans Women in Love, from ThreeL Media earlier this summer. But the quality was so bad, we decided to try again when he’s back in the states. In the meantime, his book has been getting some buzz and we wanted to be in on that. So Joe shared the following interview with us, which he did with Teadate co-founder, Michael Osofsky.]
Can you describe a recent sexual experience?
I have been working in Chittagong Bangladesh for six months, so I live in something of a self-imposed sexual quarantine. My last sexual encounter was over my winter holiday when I flew to visit a trans women in the Philippines with whom I’d had a very enriching correspondence for a while. I stayed there for three weeks and it was a lovely experience. As for any sexual details, I will pull a page from Laverne Cox’s interview with Katie Couric and contend that the details are nobody’s business.
How has your attraction to trans people changed throughout your life?
The changes have only been subtle. Early on there was an element of exploring, experimenting, and accumulating experience to make sense of why I was attracted to trans women as much, or more, than I was to the cis women I was expected to love. Knowing that my attraction to trans women stirred up others’ curiosity and bewilderment, I asked myself versions their questions. Over time I figured out some reasons why I am attracted to trans women, and why I have a general respect for trans people. At this point it is somewhat old-hat. At least half of the people I consider my closest friends are trans, and I have been happy to settle into a kind of kinship and gratitude that trans people exist and that their lives have been connected with mine.
When did you know for sure you weren’t gay?
I really never dwelled on that question and found its reductionism kind of funny. As a kid I was always attracted to the feminine romantically, and while I may have had a vague presentiment that was more sexually open than my friends and peers, I had a pretty good idea about what attracted me and what did not and felt that the hetero end of the binary fit me better than the other label. These days I am grateful for the rise of the term queer since it refuses to go into such linguistic cages.
How do you know that you’re not transgender?
The terms cisgender and transgender are quite easy to distinguish. I always refer people to Julia Serano’s peerless book, Whipping Girl, for her explanations. To paraphrase, “cisgender” simply means that you do not experience a conflict between what others perceive to be your sex or gender and what you take to be your sex or gender (See Thomas Laqueuer’s book Making Sex about how difficult it is to make sense of a firm difference between sex and gender). “Transgender”, on the other hand, is to feel that others’ interpretive gaze toward your sex or gender does not match your own inner experience of those categories. So in my case, everyone has always just taken me for a boy/guy/man, and I feel no compunction using those broad labels for myself. In Trans*am I make it clear that I have no truck with the idea of a mystical “Manhood” that establishes me as cisgender; it’s just that I present my sex and gender in ways that are comprehensible to the limited number of conventional labels we traditionally use.
Are you transam by choice?
I’m of a mind that attraction is, at the most fundamental level, intuitive. So no, my initial and subsequent attraction to trans women has never required the conscious effort of choosing. However, not repressing that attraction and cultivating it to be an open transam is a choice. I like to use the example of a man who sees a girl he is attracted to across the room at a party. She is trans and he does not know it. That is an unchosen intuition. What he does after he finds out she is trans, however, is up to him.
What are the essential qualities and behaviors of masculine & feminine and which of these do you exhibit?
I have many philosophical reasons for denying the existence of “essential qualities.” Trans people certainly suffer when they “fail” to manifest the qualities and behaviors that others expect. The same goes for transamorous people. There are qualities and behaviors that we could conventionally call masculine or feminine, but I think it is very important not to believe that any quality or behavior corresponds to an unchanging essence. For example, at first glance I’m pretty masculine, athletic, I sport a beard, and people make assumptions about how those masculine qualities entail assumed masculine behaviors. I don’t have a problem describing someone aesthetically as masculine or feminine, but I think it is very toxic to give those terms a metaphysical significance.
What do you make of cisgender men who say they’re a lesbian trapped in a man’s body?
I may have even made that joke about myself, but I don’t think it’s a productive way to look at things. The “wrong body” paradigm is dying a belated death in trans discourse. Trans writers like Sandy Stone and Thalia Mae Bettcher have done an excellent job of exposing how that paradigm has a bleak history based on cis psychologists insisting that to be trans is to have a pathology characterized by feeling trapped in the wrong body. For generations trans people knew that they were expected to describe themselves in this way, so they did. Now, however, there seems to be a slow turn toward allowing people to simply describe their own singular experience of being a person with a certain kind of body who feels a certain way and likes certain things. I believe transamorous cis men—indeed everyone—should also try to look at things this way. A nuanced first person account makes a lot more sense and is a lot more relatable to others that absurdities like “I’m a lesbian trapped in the wrong body.”
What does it mean to “fetishize” trans women and what makes it a bad thing?
This is a serious ethical issue. In Trans*am I discuss pieces about it by the trans writers Christin Milloy, Charley Reid, and Princess Harmony. Men have a tendency to not appreciate the full humanity of a trans woman, but to treat her as a symbol of the exotic, the exciting, the transgressive, or whatever else. Or in the worst cases, they just think of trans women as pretty purveyors of a forbidden penis. This leads to unethical patterns of behavior and terrible feelings borne by the objectified, fetishized lover. The scholar Avery Tompkins has written some wonderful studies about the same issue pertaining between trans men and their cis female lovers. Tompkins points out how dissatisfactory it is, however, to suggest that anyone who considers transness an attractive quality is automatically a fetishizer. They argue that this leads to a climate of shame and sex-negativity that are at odds with queer politics. Transamorous lovers are afraid to articulate their attraction for fear of being labeled a fetishizer. One reason I wrote Trans*am was to try to weigh in on this. I have certainly been accused of being a “chaser” because trans women are my preference romantically and sexually. I have not been able to concede that my preference is pathological, and since I do not believe squelching my transamorous feelings is healthy, I have tried to think about how to make it ethical.
What advice would you give people discovering they might be transam?
My coarsest formulation is “If you don’t act weird about it, neither will other people.” That was always my ethos, but of course it assumes a level of privilege. But right now there is an unprecedented level of awareness about gender and sexuality, but that brings with it an imperative to engage and advocate. Don’t take shit from anyone. Study a little bit and learn arguments to shut people’s ignorance down. Value your trans partners and friends and tie your struggle to theirs. Celebrate that you are a little different and don’t let anyone tell you what you’re supposed to be like.
What changes have you noticed in your sexuality since you started meditating?
This is hard for me to answer, since I started meditating very young, before my sexuality had developed. From my teens until my early twenties I lived in meditation centers and did many long solitary retreats. I believe this had a profound impact on how I viewed trans people, since Buddhism teaches an aggressive anti-essentialism. When I encountered trans people, I was not encumbered by presumptions that they—or I—contained essences that I needed to worry about. As I’ve gotten older, and for personal reasons have become a less zealous Buddhist, I still hold those lessons dear, but I do not formally meditate very much anymore, with some regret. Lacking discipline and burdened with grownup problems like making a living, I find that really good sexual experiences sometimes bring me to the meditative place that I still value.
How has your sexuality been received by different cultures you’ve visited?
In Bangladesh, I don’t get to live my sexuality much, but I talk about it quite often in my gender studies and philosophy classes at the Asian University for Women. 80% of my students are Muslim, and I have been very impressed by how open and non-judgmental they are. Outside of campus, however, it may be a different story. If a trans lover happens to visit me here, I will definitely be aware of the gaze on us, just as I have been in small American towns. In Thailand and the Philippines, there is a lot of trans visibility, so the gaze is tolerable. In Brazil, there is a big problem with anti-trans violence, but I wasn’t really aware of it when I lived there. When you’re in a transamorous couple, you definitely feel the gaze differently in different places, but, in my case, my privileges and stubbornness have allowed me to hold my head up high and go about my business.
What’s been the reaction of your family and friends to your sexuality?
For my best friends and brothers, it has always seemed like something they’ve admired about me. Many of my friends have become sort of de facto cis-trans ambassadors from what they’ve gleaned from me and from the time they’ve spent with my partners. I don’t have the kind of relationship with my parents where we talk a lot about our private lives, but over time they got the picture of the kinds of women I like and they have are accepting. Nevertheless, I’m a little nervous that my book will be too-much-information for them. I’m grateful for these privileges though. I never felt like I had much to lose by being open, but I sympathize, to a degree, with those who do feel that they have a lot to lose.
If labels such as top/bottom, dom/sub, etc. are detrimental, how come they exist?
I don’t think there is anything at all wrong with these terms per se, but when they are automatically gendered they are problematic. The kink community is not guilty of this, but it is still the global default to assume that a man is (or should be) a top or dom, and that a woman is (or should be) a bottom or a sub.
If I identify as transam, how can I become fully enlightened when Buddhism advises us to stop identification altogether?
I presume in the same way that enlightened beings still use the words “I” and “me” and “myself” or call themselves Buddhists. Buddhism does not advocate the annihilation of language, but a realization that all terms are mere conventions, that they are not indexed to fixed essences.
What would you like to say to your critics?
Since the book is only newly released, the only thing I’ve had to contend with so far is resistance to a cis white man sticking his nose into trans issues at all, and the accusation that I am just contributing to the privileging of cis male voices. But the book is really about cis men who are attracted to trans women, not a study of trans women. The vast majority of the people I cite in the book are trans, and I am very much in support of a trans-driven discourse. I am trying to contribute to a specific niche. In my experience, and, importantly, in the experience of all my trans friends and lovers, there has been an obstinate unwillingness by cis men to analyze and articulate the ways that their lives intersect positively with their trans lovers. Many trans writers have addressed the subject, but at some point it seems to me that cis men whose lives are truly connected to trans women should attempt to engage and be accountable.
Joe’s book is available on Amazon.com.