Some of the most distressing moments for Sophia Banks as a trans woman have come when she’s been among gay men. In Toronto’s gay village she’s as likely to hear “tranny” and “shemale” as anywhere else—and more likely to be casually manhandled.
“Gay men will grab my crotch to see what I have, or grab my chest to see if I’m wearing prosthetics or if my breasts are real,” says the photographer and bartender. “There’s a lot more entitlement to my body, as if it’s public property. It’s sexual assault, but it’s so normalized among gay men.”
Banks offers an astute theory about the predatory behaviour: “They don’t think they can be misogynist because they’re gay.”
Trans people in Canada and the U.S. have made incredible progress in recent years. More and more politicians and activists are working for their protection and equality. Society’s evolution on the subject has been aided by such celebrities as Chaz Bono, Laverne Cox and the ubiquitous Caitlyn Jenner. Their high visibility has triggered conversations about transgender issues even among the least aware and least sympathetic of heterosexuals.
Yet the relationship between trans people and cis gay men (“cis” refers to those having been identified as male at birth—I’ll get to trans gay men later) can be tense and acrimonious. Some trans people say they feel excluded from spaces dominated by gay men, particularly Pride festivities, and that gay men’s carelessness around pronouns and slurs can rival that of unenlightened straight people. Some gay men, on the other hand, complain of having to walk on eggshells around trans issues or, perhaps even more frustrating for trans people, wonder aloud why they should care about trans issues now that they themselves have achieved equal rights and broad social acceptance.
Toronto-based journalist and activist Christin Milloy suspects that the falling out between G and T is a relatively recent phenomenon. During New York’s Stonewall riots in 1969, oppression and hate toward homosexuals was spewed with little differentiation and fought against as a group. The film Stonewall, which makes the historically dubious decision to portray a white gay man as the lead protagonist, illustrates how that time of unity may have slipped away, pushing trans people to the margins. “I know for a fact that trans people were involved in organizing the first Pride that arose out of [Toronto’s 1981] bathhouse raids here,” says Milloy. “Here we are at each other’s throats when we should be hand in hand.”
Milloy contends that this new division is a side effect of the mainstreaming of gay and lesbian people through civil-rights gains. Oppressed people may stick together, but formerly oppressed people don’t like to look back.
Sheer numbers, too, must also play a part. Though many statistics on sexual orientation and identity are largely guesses, it’s clear that gay people outnumber trans people by perhaps 10 to one. According to a 2013 survey by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center, gay men are more likely to be attached to LGBT venues such as neighbourhoods and bars than lesbians, and so are more likely to dominate those places. (It’s telling that the number of transgender survey respondents was too small to be statistically significant.)
As the use of the Internet and smartphone apps—and the comforts of same-sex domesticity—have eroded the array of shared LGBT spaces, real-life touch points become more hotly contested. Even as Toronto’s Trans March has gained stature and funding over the past few years, Milloy resigned from Pride Toronto this summer, claiming the organization failed to represent people who don’t identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual.
Perhaps there is something inherent in gay-male culture that explains its sometimes indifferent—if not flat-out hostile—attitudes on trans issues. In North America, gay men have positioned themselves as tastemakers, arbiters of style and gatekeepers of the culturally relevant. Wherever there are gay men, it seems, there are sharp-tongued opinions on every trend, including trans ones. What vulnerable person, maybe in the midst of transition, wants to face that crucible?
Last July, writer, broadcaster and motivational speaker Shaun Proulx wrote a SiriusXM piece about Caitlyn Jenner, who originally rose to fame as the track superstar Bruce Jenner. The piece raised a firestorm with sentences like: “Her walk in heels is clunky, the handbags are not yet carried skillfully, and a lot of the movements on the whole made by the former muscular Olympic athlete are less than feminine and nowhere near that of the graceful supermodel she is being touted as.” Proulx, a friend I’ve worked with in the past, declined to comment for this story, but seemed blindsided by the controversy, particularly because he’s written admiringly about trans people in the past. But it’s exactly that frenemy turn that can damage trust.
In a February 2015 interview with U.S. lesbian activist Cathy Renna, Proulx started a question warmly with, “I’ve always had a special place of admiration and respect in my heart for anyone who is so hell-bent on their own authenticity that come hell or high water, they’re going to be authentic,” only to quickly shift gears into what sounds like conspiracy theorizing: “Do you feel there’s been a trans take-over of the LGBT movement?”
And then there’s the cultural bubble created by drag. Despite their delight in gender transformation, female impersonators employ an exaggerated and sharply defined sense of femininity, combined with harsh humour full of “bitches,” “sluts” and “whores,” providing gay men with a poor, perhaps misleading education about trans people. “When trans people get upset over the word ‘shemale,’ people will say we’re being too sensitive,” says
Banks. “But we’re still living in a culture where, when someone says ‘shemale’ to me, I’m waiting for them to hit me.”
Gay culture’s obsession with masculinity might also be to blame. Some psychologists would suggest that encountering someone first identified as male who is now a woman may be threatening, especially for someone who’s spent his life trying not to be a “sissy.” But maybe the simpler explanation is more accurate: Misogyny trumps sexual orientation. In the decades of community politics I’ve witnessed, I’ve found the relationship between cis gay men and trans men to be much less fraught. So it could be a guy thing. The trans men I talked to have had more positive experiences than the women.
“I think the relationship between gay people and trans people is getting better,” says Taylor K. Gesner, arts and culture manager at Pride Toronto.
“If it seems worse, I think it’s just because we have more opportunities to hear people’s opinions.” When he came out as trans, his straight peers were more straightforwardly congratulatory, his gay ones more vocal—judgmental even. (Lesbians who feel betrayed by trans men are fodder for a whole other story.) For Gesner, that’s an aspect of community engagement. We argue, we learn, we continue the struggle. “We all wish we were all together,” says Gesner, “and fighting together and all on the same page and all for the same things, so here’s our list of six things. But there’s really a list of 600 things we need to change.”
When you’re looking at 600 things—for example, full access to health care, supports for LGBT youth, inclusive education and hiring practices, homophobia and transphobia outside urban centres—there’s still much unfinished business on which gay and trans people can work together. If gay men and trans people didn’t rush to judgement about appearances or carelessly used pronouns, if they could find compassion in both humour and politics, they might see how much they still have in common. “Our struggles are still interconnected,” says queer activist and artist John Caffrey.
“We are sadly mistaken if we can’t see that.” Recognizing that won’t just benefit trans people, but gay men, too, if they take a look at the big picture and where they’ve come from themselves.