I wanted to link to this post of Nix’s about the movie Boys Don’t Cry because he makes a really good point about the way trans sexualities are proscribed and flat out denied by cis expectations. It’s worth copying this out in full:
Cissexism is apparent in many criticisms of Boys Don’t Cry. In [the article under discussion in the lecture], Judith Halberstam argues that a space for trans subjectivity is at one point preserved by Lana’s refusal to look at Brandon’s genitals when he is stripped by John and Tom. However, Halberstam and other critics also claim that the film portrays Brandon and Lana’s last sex scene as a lesbian sex scene, betraying Brandon’s trans/male identity and turning Brandon into a woman/female. I don’t think that the film is that great in this regard – I particularly don’t think that the last sex scene is really appropriate after such a graphic depiction of rape. However, I’m also really uncomfortable when people describe it as a lesbian sex scene for the most part because Brandon takes off his shirt and doesn’t use a prosthetic penis*. What that assertion says to me is that the viewer can’t see (or refuses to see) Brandon as a man if they also see his breasts. It also implies that trans men are not allowed to be comfortable enough with their bodies and/or their sexual partners to have sex in any way other than fully (or partially) clothed. The underlying belief here is that if a trans person is comfortable enough with their body to be naked, then they mustn’t really be trans, and they aren’t the gender they say they are.
I think that the viewer of a trans film has a responsibility towards the viewing of trans bodies. I think they have a responsibility to step out of this cissexist paradigm and understand that a trans man in a sexual relationship with a woman is not switching from heterosexual male to lesbian (dependent on what bits of his body we see onscreen) but is, more likely, inhabiting a trans subject position. The inability of so many critics to recognise a possible trans space in Brandon’s relationship with Lana echoes a wide-spread inability to comprehend that trans bodies are legitimate, even though they do not seamlessly conform exactly to sexist, heterosexist, cissexist expectations of what bodies should be. Some people have a real difficulty understanding and acknowledging that a trans man’s body is male if he says it’s male**, no matter what kind of genitals he has. That’s cissexism, and it’s not OK.
* It is also because of the way the scene is shot, but, erm, I DON’T HAVE TIME to go into that at this point of the lecture!
** Likewise, that a trans woman’s body is female if she says it’s female.
Ironically given that trans bodies are so thoroughly over-sexualised in a cultural sense, we rarely ourselves seem to talk about what it means to have sex as an embodied trans person. What I think is interesting about Nix’s post is that he’s very clearly making the point that the meanings of trans bodies are viewed through a cis lens that the trans person in question very definitely does not share (and indeed a cis partner like Lana may not share that either). That nudity does not mean the cis “revelation” of the gender you really are. Rather, the first time I was naked with my girlfriend I felt open, because the peculiarly trans mixture of my body and my identity were accepted and valued for the complex things that they are.
“you’re still my girl,” she whispered to me as she pulled off my shirt, knowing how insecure I was about my body
Rather than a regression to cis-sexuality, it was an affirmation of my femaleness, of the legitimacy of my trans identity.
Of course, I do have body issues, though how that figures in sex does not fit the profile with which psychology has pathologised sexual trans bodies–the false binary between the over-sexualised auto-gynephile and the stone, sexless pre-op trans person who, if they can have sex at all, covers their body as much as possible and can’t bear to have their genitals touched. The reality is something else rather different, one that shifts from day to day.
And further, I think about my own fraught relationship with my penis as a pre-op trans woman, and how sometimes I re-figure it in my mind as a clit, or as a strap-on, and sometimes I don’t. How, sometimes using it feels like it undoes my identity as a woman.. and sometimes it doesn’t.
And none of this is particularly readable through a cis frame, because the meanings that I make from my body, are not the same meanings that of a cis-sexist society that can only see truth when its stories are mirrored back to itself.