CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses sexual assault and other topics some readers may find distressing. If you need support, contact Qlife LGBTI counselling service on 1800 184 527, or visit qlife.org.au, or you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Earlier this week, in a small session at the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, a group of transmasculine-identified conference delegates discussed some of the issues affecting them. It was the only session dedicated to trans men in the entire main-conference program — the focus was on trans men who have sex with men, and on HIV and sexual health.
The issues that came up were complex and challenging. Some speakers talked about the challenges of accessing contraception at sexual health clinics that are primarily set up to serve cisgendered (or “cis”, i.e. non-trans) gay men. Others talked about what it means to be a trans man on PrEP, or how medications interact with hormone treatments. When it came to STIs and sexual health, some speakers talked about the very different risks some STIs pose to transmasculine bodies. One speaker discussed the ways that having an STI can heighten feelings of gender dysphoria, when visible STI symptoms can draw attention to sometimes “unwanted” body parts.
The most confronting parts of the session involved the speakers discussing their experiences of sexual assault in gay-male spaces – experiences that appeared horrifically common.
Cianán Russell is a transman working for the Asia-Pacific Transgender Network, based in Bangkok, Thailand, and they coordinated the conference session. Star Observer journalist Benjamin Riley spoke to Russell about some of what came up, and how to begin building bridges between trans gay men and cis gay men.
Benjamin Riley: I guess first of all I’d be interested to know how the session came about.
Cianán Russell: It really didn’t coalesce until the day of the session, or the evening before when the handful of transmasculine folks that are here got together and made contact and were like, ‘oh, okay, here’s the thing that’s going to happen’. I think that sort of speaks to the problem at large, which is that we’re forcibly making the only space that exists at this conference in this one hour.
BR: It felt almost voyeuristic — I felt privy to this very intimate space. It seems like a potentially confronting way for you as individuals to start getting attention. How was that for you?
CR: For me personally it was actually really quite difficult. I hadn’t planned to talk about my rape experience, and then I did, and I ended up having a bit of a dissociative, post-traumatic stress episode afterwards that lasted me the rest of the evening. I think I pushed myself a little bit too far. I feel like everybody felt a little bit exposed from the conversations that I’ve had with people, but I also feel like the folks who were there and the position we have in this kind of activism makes it so that we know that we have to be that vulnerable at this point, that we’re not a statistically significant population when you’re looking at key populations. We have to pique people’s emotional interest because we can’t do it with numbers, at least not yet, because there are no numbers.
BR: Were there things that came up for you that were unexpected? Or that you haven’t had an opportunity to talk about in that way and in that kind of space?
CR: I think those are different questions. Were they unexpected? No. Not at all. The separate question is, are there spaces to talk about this? And those are very limited. When talking about trans men who have sex with men, one of the confounding issues is that a lot of us don’t have sex with cis (non-trans) men, because cis men are unsafe.
The misogyny alone in cis-gay male space makes it so that we just can’t participate, We’re unsafe, we get sexually harassed, we get sexually assaulted, we get told that we’re not men on a really regular basis, both in person and online on gay apps, and so we just don’t engage with cis-gay men. Why would we? And so that means then that you’ve got trans MSM who really only sleep with other trans men, and those folks have a completely different set of issues than trans men who sleep with cis men.
BR: I get the sense, and tell me if you disagree, that it’s almost two sets of related issues when we talk about trans men and MSM spaces and HIV. It’s service provision, and discrimination, often very direct discrimination, in health services, and then there’s the more social, sexual aspect of discrimination as well. I was particularly interested in the way that second set of issues were coming up in the group discussion. There are clear pathways, even if they’re difficult ones, for making change in service-provision environments, but in those social spaces, how do you even start to have these conversations?
CR: Yes, they’re two completely separate issues, and one of them is much easier to address. I agree with you 100 per cent on that. I think the place we have to start on addressing the socio-cultural issues is in transmasculine development of our agency, in the context of interacting with cis-gay men. And that is a long, long road.
There are really complex conversations about socialisation that are just beginning to happen, and part of what makes them complex is that they intersect with identity in a way that can undermine the whole conversation. So if you say, I as a transmasculine person was socialised as female up until a certain point in my life, what does that mean? When does that start and stop? What impact does that have on the person that I am today, and then how does that change with time and distance when I transition? And then the other side of what makes it complex is that trans-exclusionary radical feminists use that argument as a way to undermine and invalidate the identities of transwomen. And so we’re having conversations that are at odds with one another and that are really difficult to navigate. I need to be able to talk about the impact of being a little girl and told that my voice didn’t matter as much as little boys’ voices—whether I identified as a little girl or not, I internalised those messages—without having that invalidate the identities and lived experiences of transwomen. I feel like we end up fighting amongst ourselves at this point because of the ways that trans-exclusionary radical feminism has centred on this one idea that ends up invalidating everyone’s experience.
So, to bring that back around to the socio-cultural problem, I need to be able to talk about how misogyny in gay-male space directly impacts me, whether I looks like this and pass as a man every day and all the time or not. You use references to vaginas in ways that are deeply derogatory and just get thrown around because nobody has one in this group of people. Additionally, the world ‘bitch’ is like top of the vernacular, and you use that word to put each other down because women are less and because we don’t give a shit about women, apologies.
Cis-straight men at least have to interact with cis women to live their lives, They have to be sensitive at the very least to their one cis-female partner, but cis-gay men don’t do that, and are woefully incapable of interacting with cis women, trans women or trans men, because the cultural primer is missing. And I don’t have any idea how you solve that. It starts with talking about it, and making clear that that is the direct cause of my rape experience. It’s the direct cause of the sexual assault experiences that I was talking about in the session of the trans men that I know that live in New York. It’s the direct cause. Because cis-gay men think they should have access to our bodies, because they are not cis-male bodies. They think they should be able to do whatever they want with our bodies because of male entitlement, and we, those of us who do experience female socialisation, don’t have that entitlement, and also don’t have the functional agency that cis men have. And so it creates a really upsetting and deeply difficult power dynamic.
Unfortunately, part of the problem is that many trans men who are attracted to men want so badly to be validated by those men that we will take anything and everything from them if it means that we might still have a thread of belief that validation is around the corner. And the number of trans-queer men and trans-masculine queer folks that I’ve heard standing up for cis men when those cis men are berating or in other ways invalidating trans men is extraordinary. We don’t have the agency. We don’t have the social tools that are necessary to help us just not take an inappropriate amount of shit. And it’s all intertwined with our dysphoria, and the ways that our gender identity make us want to be like these people, and the belief that if we just let them do this then eventually they will accept us. And obviously these aren’t global ways of interacting with cis-gay men amongst trans men, I’m not trying to say that we all do this, but that’s part of it.
And so back to your question: where do you begin? I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t have any idea. I know part of it is we need to develop tools and healing mechanisms that focus on the very unique trauma that comes from having your body violated at the same time as having your gender identity invalidated by the bodies that you believe you should have.
Unfortunately that answer, and all the other answers I have a post-facto answers for how to deal with the damage that’s caused after it’s already been caused. What does preventing the damage look like? Well it looks like cis men taking responsibility for patriarchy, misogyny and male entitlement, and working to undermine and deconstruct those things on their own. We can’t fix that. I can’t teach cis men how to not be the awful thing that everyone who’s not a cis man knows that they are. I can’t do anything about that. They have to decide, that that’s what they would want and do the work themselves.
Russell runs an online sexual assault and rape support group for trans people who were assigned female at birth, which you can request to join—contacting them on Facebook by searching for “Cianán Russell”.
The Victorian AIDS Council (VAC) is supporting Star Observer’s coverage of the 2016 International Aids Conference in Durban by providing travel and accommodation for a VAC staff member to attend as a journalist. Star Observer retains editorial control over the content published as part of this agreement.