Trans Summer School: Dating While Trans, Yes You Can!
Dating and romance can be fraught spaces for anyone, regardless of their gender. But a common, specific fear we see among trans and otherwise gender-nonconforming users is that their gender identity means that no one will want to be their partner, that no one will ever find them attractive, or that it will limit their sexual orientation. Those fears can come from all sorts of places, be that messages from your family or the images of trans people you see on TV. Let’s pull those worries out into the light and take a closer look at them
No one will ever want to date me because I’m trans or otherwise gender nonconforming: This is flat-out false, not matter what the nasty voices (be they from around you or in your own brain) say. There are people out there who will think you’re the most rad person on earth and want to date you. If you want something monogamous, polyamorous, casual, or serious (or something else entirely), you can find people who want to have those relationships with you. The fear of not being able to find someone tends to lessen the more you get to know other trans and gender nonconforming people. You start to see examples of people of your gender in different, happy relationships and you have people to talk to about some of the challenges of dating.
You may find yourself dating someone who tells you you’re “lucky” that they’re dating you because not everyone is willing to date a trans or otherwise gender nonconforming person. While they may be technically correct that there are transphobic people in the world, a statement like this is a red flag. It is not an act of benevolence to date someone gender nonconforming. They should be dating you because they like you, the person, and not because they think it earns them points in the acceptance Olympics. Also, saying you’re lucky that anyone would date you also implies that your gender makes you less desirable than if you were cis. That can sometimes be an unintentional, boneheaded comment. But it can also be an abusive tactic to make you feel like you should be grateful that they’re stooping to date you.
Because I’m trans/genderqueer/agender/etc I must have this one, specific sexual orientation: The truth is that gender identity and sexual orientation are independent categories. Being a certain gender doesn’t mean you automatically have a certain sexual orientation. For example, not every cis woman is straight but we don’t see that as invalidating their gender. By that same logic, a trans woman doesn’t have to be straight to “count” as a woman. Your gender identity does not determine your sexual orientation.
If you’re trans or otherwise gender nonconforming dating a cis person, you may have questions or concerns about navigating gender roles and expression in that context. Two members of the Scarleteam put together a guide to help you out.
If you’re someone who likes using dating apps or websites in your search for partners, there are some safety considerations you need to make. The online world gives you space to put a carefully crafted image of yourself out into the world. However, that same ability to pick and choose what other people see can help unsavory people hide their true motives. With that in mind, let’s do a quick run down of the basics of online safety. For those of you who grew up using the internet, some of this advice will sound very familiar. But hey, there’s no harm in a little refresher course.
- Be selective about what information you share. Putting up your address, phone number, or where you work makes it all the easier for someone to track you down.
- If you agree to meet with someone you’ve met online, meet in a public place. Do not go to their house, and do not invite them over to yours. In addition to the safety angle, this strategy also helps take some of the pressure off by putting you in “neutral” turf.
- Tell a friend where you’re going and who you’re meeting. To be extra cautious, if you and the person you’re meeting decide to move to a different location, send your friend an update.
- Control your transportation. Whether that’s you having your own means of movement, having a friend pick you up and drop you off, or utilizing public transit, being able to get to and away from the person you’re meeting will help keep you safe (and give you an easy way out if the interaction turns out to be painfully awkward).
- Finally, if the person you’re meeting tries to talk you out of any of the above, that’s a red flag. Someone who’s on the level will not object to you taking precautions.
A note on chasers: “Chasers” are people with a fetish for the trans community, and they tend to be particularly interested in trans women. These people say they’re attracted to transness, but you’re not a fetish object. There are a few warning signs that can tip you off to the fact that someone is a chaser, both before and after you’ve met:
- Using the T-word. For some reason, chasers love whipping out the T-word, and if you encounter a cis person using it, it could be a sign that they’re a chaser (or a transphobe) (or both). See also: “T-girl” or “she-male.”
- Saying they’re “attracted to” trans people — “I really like T-girls” “I’ve always wanted to date a transgender” “I just think trans guys are sexier.”
- Curiosity about your transition status. Asking about someone’s genitals or whether they’re on hormones is invasive, gross, and not someone’s business, especially if you’ve never even met! Someone who claims to be “attracted to pre-op people” is also a red flag.
- “I’ve been with lots of trans people.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — trans people are pretty great and plenty of people have dated more than one of them — but it can be, especially in combination with comments suggesting that this person is sexually attracted to trans people, or attempts at making you think you’re sexually undesirable to anyone other than a person who “gets you.”
- Using terms like “admirer” or “chaser” in a dating profile, or in casual conversation.
- Comments about your ability to pass, whether it’s “you pass really well” or remarks about only wanting to date “passable” people.
- Lack of interest in anything but your gender. Dating online? Messages that lead with your trans status should go straight in the trash, and repeats should get reported as abuse. Dating in person, or navigating after disclosure? If the person you’re dating (or considering dating) doesn’t pay attention to the fact that you’re an artist, you love horses, you play in a local roller derby league, or any number of things that are about you, not your gender, that’s a dangerous indicator.
- Confusing pretty basic stuff, or using outdated/strange terminology: trans people aren’t transvestites (not that there’s anything wrong with being one!), they aren’t wearing drag, they aren’t cross dressers, and they aren’t (cringe) “hermaphrodites.” If someone uses these terms liberally and doesn’t understand the difference between them, it suggests either cluelessness (usually obvious from context) or fetishistic interest.
- Fascination with your body, especially parts of your body that make you uncomfortable or cause dysphoria.
- The chaser bottom line: If you’re feeling insecure and you’re not sure about whether you’re just overthinking it/making things up/overreacting, think about it this way: If someone referred to another member of an underrepresented group like this, how would you feel? “I really just prefer Asian girls.” “I’m so fascinated by Black guys.” “I like seeing if I can turn lesbians straight.” “I think amputees are really hot when they let me play with their stumps.” Gross, right? Trust your instincts: if someone’s interest in you makes you feel slimy, get out of there.
How, when, and where to disclose
The first thing to say about disclosing is that the specifics of how you do it will always depend on your unique situation. The person you’re talking to, how long you’ve known them, and how safe you feel being “out” can all affect how you approach disclosure. What we can do is walk you through some factors to consider when deciding when or if to disclose to someone you’re dating (or hoping to date).
Ideally you’d be able to disclose somewhere public, like a coffee shop or park. This has the advantage of keeping you in a place where other people can see what’s going on in case the person you disclose to reacts negatively. That should keep you safer than if you disclosed in a private space. As with meeting online people in real life, it’s important that you have a way to get back home that isn’t dependent on the person you disclose to. That could be your own car, public transportation, bike, skate-board, or anything that means you don’t have to experience an awkward or dangerous car ride with someone who just demonstrated that they’re transphobic.
In addition to letting a friend know the details of the planned meeting, you and they can also develop a strategy for getting you help if the meeting goes sour. For instance, if they get a text that says “get me the heck out of here” they call you with an “emergency” that gives you an excuse to leave. You don’t need an excuse per se, as discomfort and fear are reason enough to end a date, but some folks prefer to have a subtler escape route.
If you’re anxious about disclosing face to face, you can bring technology into the mix. Calling or emailing someone lets you say what you need to say while giving you and them space to process the interaction. The barrier of distance will help keep you safe in the event that they become aggressive when you disclose. Our coming out guide has some suggestions that may help you out.
There are two unpleasant outcomes of disclosure to prepare yourself for, so let's walk through how to handle those if they arise.
If the person is violent when you disclose: Unfortunately, there are still plenty of transphobes in the world, and some won't be identifiable until after you've told them you're trans or otherwise gender nonconforming. And their reaction could be pretty scary. How you respond depends upon your location.
Are you in public? Try to find backup, sit tight while help arrives, and get out. Look to an employee or fellow customer if you’re in a business, and signal that you need help. Don’t be afraid to shout or scream for help. Ask to have the person removed and request a safe space like an employee break room or seat in clear view of the counter until a friend arrives. If you’re in a community space like an LGBQT youth center, a library, or a hackerspace, alert organizers and request that the person be banned in the interest of community safety.
Are you in private? Take whatever steps you can to get away from the person and to somewhere even a little public. A hallway, a lobby, a common area, the street, anywhere that other people might see and hear what’s going on. If your transportation is there, get on it and get out of there. If you’re afraid they’ll follow you home, go to a public space first. If you can’t get out of the private space, do what you can to put a barrier (preferably a locked door) between you and them. Once there, call for help. And again, be ready to yell or shout for help.
If the person is just plain clueless when you disclose: Sometimes you come out to someone and it’s like they’re playing clueless cis person bingo. If that happens, you have a few different approaches to try. You’re under no obligation to perform Trans 101 for anybody. If you want to spend some time answering the person’s questions, go for it! But if for any reason you don’t want to, you don’t have to. You also have the option of referring the person to resources you think are good. That could be a book, video series, website, or even Trans Summer School. They get the information they want without you having to walk them through it all. Lastly, you’re free to say, “I’m not comfortable answering that” without giving any further information or resources. Most people know how to use Google or their local library, so you’re not robbing them of their chance to get answers by refusing to pony up personal information.
You might find that how you respond to questions varies depending on the person asking them. A tone of voice, the phrasing of a question, how you’re feeling that day are all factors that can shift a reaction from “I will gladly answer that” to “I will not answer that and also please go away now.”
The sexy stuff
While not everyone who dates wants to be sexual, plenty of people who date do. Heck, some folks prefer looking for primarily casual, sexual partners instead of more "traditional" dating arrangements. Regardless of what kind of sexual relationship you're looking for, being trans or otherwise gender nonconforming brings some considerations, challenges, and benefits to the table that being cis does not.
The first step in having sex as a trans or otherwise gender nonconforming person (and, really, as any person) is to get sexual with yourself. Maybe you’ve gone through some physical transition steps that have changed how your body works and feels. Maybe you’re in a new headspace in terms of your gender and that’s affecting what feels good. Or, maybe you’ve got dysphoria that’s flaring up and you’re trying to find a way to masturbate that isn’t going to make the situation a billion times worse. As with everything sex related, how you choose to masturbate is up to you and what makes your body happy.
In a perfect world, you’d be able to walk into your local LGBT-friendly sex store and find vibrators, masturbation sleeves, and other toys to fit your needs. However, if you’re under the age of eighteen, those stores are not an option. The same goes for if you’re short on cash or if you don’t want a sexy purchase showing up on your (or your parent’s) credit card bill. Plus there are plenty of places where sex toy stores are not inclusive of trans or otherwise gender nonconforming clients or simply don’t exist. For that reason, we’ve built two handy D.I.Y guides to show you how to make your own sex toys for solo or partnered use.
If you’re interested and able to access non-D.I.Y toys and want help narrowing down what to look for, there are some basic options to experiment with. If you’re someone who tucks and is looking for a vibrator to use while doing so, Good Vibrations recommends you use external toys that are fairly small and compact. That way they can fit into your underwear with minimal fuss. Another set of options, as the Center for Sex and Pleasure outlines, are masturbation sleeves. Sleeves are aimed at people with penises, and may also work if you’ve had phalloplasty or if you’re taking testosterone.
Raiding the Toy Chest
Let’s look at some items that can aid you and your partner on your sexy, sexy journey together. It’s okay if some of the objects listed here don’t sound appealing to you. Just as there’s no one, true way to dress as a trans or otherwise gender nonconforming person, there’s no one, true way to have sex as a trans or otherwise gender nonconforming person. You get to pick and choose the methods that help you feel your best.
Sexy Underwear: Underwear is something that is still heavily gendered. Finding some sexy undies may help you feel more comfortable in your body. If your sexy underwear doesn’t match society's expectations for what your gender is “supposed” to wear, don’t let that stop you. There’s no reason why trans masculine folks can’t rock lace or trans feminine people can’t wear boxers. If it makes you feel like hot stuff, go for it.
Strap-ons and harnesses: If you’re unfamiliar with them, strap-ons are are dildos that fit into a harness, meaning that all partners have their hands free to do various fun things during sex (or, you know, keep their balance). Strap-ons come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and their designs range from realistic to fantastical. Harnesses are not quite as varied as strap-ons, but they still come in different styles and materials. The common harness types are:
- Single strap: Fit like G-Strings. Some people find this style provides greater control while others find it super uncomfortable to use.
- Double strap: Are known for being comfortable, although may take practice in order to put them on and take them off smoothly.
- Lowrise: Are cut so that the dildo braces against the pubic bone, which allows for greater control. That positioning can also put greater pressure on the genitals of the person wearing the harness, which you may or may not feel pleasant.
- Underwear type: Look and fit like underwear, which some people find more comfortable to wear and use. Other folks find these harnesses work okay for them, or find that they don’t work at all for sexy purposes. Again, it’s about what will be the best fit for your body and your needs.
Looking for more tips and tools to use as a sexually active trans or otherwise gender nonconforming person? Check these out!
Communication & Experimentation are Your Friends
Partnered sex can be fraught for some trans and otherwise gender nonconforming people, and for so many sucky reasons. Disclosing your transness to a partner can be emotionally and physically dangerous. Your partner could trigger you. Plus, the narrow, gendered scripts that influence how many of us think about how sex should go assume both partners are cis. The means everyone involved can be raring to go but be stuck going “ummm, so how do we…?”
That leaves you with the question of how to have sex with each other. The number one, absolute best answer to that question?
No matter the genders and bodies of the people involved, communication is the key to a happy and healthy sex life. If you feel like you don’t even know where to start with talking about sex with a partner, this piece will guide you through it. Another recommendation is to have a thorough discussion with your partner about what your desires and boundaries are in terms of sex. You can improvise that conversation, or you can use our Yes, No, Maybe So guide to help you along.
When discussing sexual boundaries as a trans or otherwise gender nonconforming person, the following topics are ones that you may want to pay extra attention to.
Language: Your partner using the right name and pronouns is obviously important, but what about common pet names that people use during sex? Are there ones that misgender you? Or are there ones that help you feel more like yourself when your partner uses them? The same questions should apply to the names of body parts. How would you like your partner to refer to your genitals? If you don’t have the answers to all or any of those questions, that’s okay! You get to play around with what pet names, slang, and other words work for you, adding new ones into the mix as you discover them. If a word you thought was fine turns out to not be, you’re not stuck with it. If you don’t like a word or phrase, you get to stop using it.
Don’t touch me there: There might be parts of your body (chest, genitals, butt, etc) that are no-go zones for being touched. This could be many reasons, from not enjoying being touched there to triggering dysphoria when someone touches a certain spot. That is 100% okay. You get to set the boundaries of where and how you want to be touched. If you communicate where those “nope” spots are to your partner, the two of you can adjust how you go about getting down so they’re only touching you in the “yes!” places. If you and your partner have sex where “no” and “stop” are meant to be disregarded (such as pretending that you’re resisting more than you are) make sure you have a safe word clearly defined ahead of time. That will make it so your partner knows when they need to actually, seriously stop.
Roles: Many of us carry at least some preconceived notions about which gender takes what role (active vs. passive, penetrated vs. penetrator, etc) during sex. We here at Scarleteen would be thrilled if everybody scrapped those black and white ideas and replaced them with more nuanced understandings of how people interact in bed.
However, we also need to acknowledge that those roles can still have deep meanings for people. As a trans person, you might find that those ideas about roles are more ingrained in your brain than you thought, and that they’re influencing which sexual activities you’re comfortable with. For example, if you’re a trans masculine person, taking any action in bed that you see as “feminine” may trigger dysphoria. If that’s the case, you and your partner should have a frank conversation about that pattern before getting sexual.
Speaking of roles and scripts, that script that so many of us have around sex has no room in it for trans and otherwise gender nonconforming people beyond fetish objects or objects of ridicule. You can throw it out the window with glee. What I mean by that is you can view your transness as something that opens your sexual experiences up, rather than constraining them. If you feel like the world has ill-prepared you to have sex as a trans person, we suggest adopting this as your mantra: there is no one right way to have sex.
If you’re a trans feminine person, Mira Bellweather created “F**cking Trans Women" a guide to help you out if you’re still feeling a little unsure in terms of your sex life. For trans masculine folks, Everyday Feminism put out a sexual guide for you. And if you’re nonbinary, there’s a Tumblr dedicated to providing you with sex advice and resources.
Side Effects May Include
If you’ve undergone top surgery, bottom surgery, or are participating in HRT, any one of those processes can affect your sexual experiences. Sometimes those changes are about how your physical body reacts, other times they have more to do with shifts in your level of desire. The tricky part is we can’t guarantee what those changes look or feel like. Different bodies react in different ways to the same treatment. To give an example, some people who start testosterone find it makes it easier to orgasm. Others find that testosterone makes it more difficult to orgasm. Plus, the effects of physical transition on trans and otherwise gender nonconforming people are a woefully understudied area. So we sometimes don’t know just how common a certain side effect or result of surgery or hormones is. We’ve done our best to give you a sense of some of the possible outcomes when it comes to interacting with your sexytimes.
Testosterone: Increase in sex drive. Inner genitals can become more delicate and less self-lubricating, so people on T should be using lube. The body part commonly called the clitoris may noticeably increase in size. Changes in sensitivity — some parts of the body may become less sensitive, others more so. Skin becomes rougher and more hairy, especially around the face.
Estrogen: Breast tissue and nipples may become more sensitive and the breasts may gain a cup size or more. Decreased sex drive. Penis and testes may atrophy (shrink), and you may be unable to get or retain an erection, with ejaculation typically decreasing and sometimes tapering off entirely within the first few months. Skin softens and becomes more sensitive while body hair decreases.
Top Surgery: If you’re having breasts removed, your chest may be sore and tender for several months, and you will experience significant loss of sensation, especially if you had larger breasts. Depending on the surgery used, you may lose nipple sensation temporarily, in the long term, or even permanently — it will take around two years for you to determine the extent of sensation loss. Your surgical scars may also feel uncomfortable under direct pressure. If you’re having a breast enlargement, your breasts will feel tender for a few weeks after surgery, but when you’ve recovered, you should experience sensation levels comparable to those you had before surgery (though your breasts may get more sensitive because of estrogen if you’re taking it). Some people partially or fully lose nipple sensation, but this is relatively rare. Your top surgery (whether additive or subtractive) may also change the way you carry yourself or the way your body fits together with your partner.
Phalloplasty/Metoidioplasty: Metoidioplasty frees the clitoris and can allow you to achieve erections. Many patients report increased sensation and more intense orgasms, including multiple orgasms. Usually it is difficult or impossible to use your clitoris (in medical terms — you can use whatever term you're most comfortable with) for penetrative intercourse, but lots of other sexy options are available including manual stimulation (solo or partnered), oral sex, toy play, and using a strap-on (sometimes with a vibrator on your end of the harness to heighten sensation). Phalloplasty involves the construction of what surgeons charmingly term a “neophallus,” and because of the range of techniques used, it’s tough to provide a broad overview of results in terms of sensation. Many patients notice reduced sensation right after surgery, with a gradual recovery of sensitivity over the following two years. Many are ultimately able to experience orgasms. Phalloplasty alone won’t allow people to get erections, but it may be possible to use a penile implant if that’s something you want — and some people report that they’re able to have penetrative sex even without an implant. It’s important to use ample lube to avoid microtears that could expose you to the risk of infections and other complications.
Vaginoplasty: Because the vagina that results is not self-lubricating, it’s advised that lots of lube be used for penetration of any kind, and you should also keep up with dilation as prescribed by your surgeon. Your surgeon may have specific lube recommendations — as always, make sure they’re compatible with condoms and sex toys!
If you're sexually active, it's important to schedule regular sexual health exams (and even if you're not sexually active, those same exams are important in keeping an eye on your overall health). Before you even get to the check-ups, you can take steps to minimize the risks of sexual activity. That includes using protection that works for the genitals you have and educating yourself about the risk levels of different sexual acts.
Healthcare of all kinds can be tricky to access if you're trans or otherwise gender nonconforming, because you don't want to deal with a doctor who has zero ideas (or all the wrong ideas) about how to serve you. Luckily, a few resources are raising the bar for connecting trans and otherwise gender nonconforming people with healthcare, sexual and otherwise. The first is Rad Remedy, which provides information and resources for connecting with providers. They're also producing a series of zines for trans and otherwise gender nonconforming people, the first of which covers self-exams and sexual health check-ups. Another resources is My Trans Health, which aims to connect patients with quality, trans-savvy care.
That wraps up our session on dating and sex! Hopefully our advice will help make being trans or otherwise gender nonconforming feel like just another part of your romantic and sexual adventures instead of a barrier to them.
Previously on Trans Summer School: The Wide World of Surgical Transition
Coming up next time: When Things Go Wrong