My heart was beating a little faster as I walked down the hotel hallway. I had done this plenty of times before, but Mark’s voice had betrayed a different kind of nervous energy than I was accustomed to. There was an edge to it.
I’m often the first trans woman a guy has been with. I’m white, passable, easy-going, confident, and a strict bottom—for the most part, I’m just a hot chick they get to have anal sex with. I’ve come to enjoy first-timers. It’s my specialty. I like their innocent anxiousness, the relief that washes over them when they see me and realize I’m even more attractive than they hoped. I know how to put them at ease, get them excited, make sure we both have a good time, and inevitably leave them hooked. I pride myself on being a kind of ambassador to trans sex.
For me it’s about much more than sex, though.
What I’m really seeking is affirmation of my womanhood, and this is the most available means of doing it. No one is more anxious about their sexuality that straight cis men, no one more frightened of being labeled “gay.” This is especially true for first-timers. Hooking up with them is like handling a volatile explosive—and I like the rush. I need that intensity. It’s the only thing that keeps the din of self-doubt and self-loathing at bay. Their wanting me is the proof I need of who I am.
It’s different with Mark, though I can’t put my finger on why. My intuition tells me not to see him, but at this point in my life I don’t know how else to quiet the demons in my head. He opens the door and my doubts are immediately eclipsed by desire: He’s tall, built, incredibly handsome. The darkness I heard in his voice now becomes a sexy broodiness in my eyes. I slip into my routine, we chat, start making out, get into bed and start stripping down. He’s distant, but I ignore it, kissing his broad smooth chest and undoing his belt. Suddenly he grabs my arms with strong hands and pushes me off, sits up on the side of the bed with his head buried in his hands. I ask him if he’s okay. He starts hyperventilating.
I know this sound well. It’s animalistic, the way men breathe as they’re nearing violence. I jump off the bed and grab my clothes and purse—holding them against my naked body with one hand, the other resting on the doorknob. Adrenaline surges through me and time stands still. I’m listening for other sounds in the area, praying other guests are near and would hear me yell because I know I can’t outrun him. I can already see him grabbing me, throwing me onto the bed and muffling my screams with a pillow. This could be how I die.
I know what the story would be if my lifeless body were later found, and if Mark were arrested. He would say that I didn’t tell him I was trans. That I came to his hotel room and it was only when we were in bed that he discovered I was “really a man.” That he panicked and the next thing he knew I was no longer breathing. If the case went to court, his lawyers would argue “trans panic,” an admissible defense in 49 states. And the only person who could contradict his statement, me, would be unable to. I would be further proof of a stubbornly pervasive narrative: the man who dresses up as a woman to trick a man. We as a society have decided that such deception justifies murder. He might go to jail for involuntary manslaughter—maybe—but there’d undoubtedly be sympathy for him, too. How awful to think you’re with a woman and have it turn out to be a man. (The unspoken subtext being “the faggot had it coming.”)
No one would know that Mark sought me out in a forum specifically for men looking for trans women. That he was one of many straight men who watch trans pornography, hire trans escorts, troll Craigslist for “discreet” hookups, go to clubs trans women are known to frequent, or look for trans sex workers on the “stroll” that every city has. No one would know I don’t trick men, that I don’t need to.
I made it out unharmed that night, but many women like me don’t.
Women like Mercedes Williamson, a 17-year old trans girl living in Alabama. When her body was found in Mississippi, bludgeoned to death with a hammer, Joshua Vallum was tied to the crime. He originally told police that he only discovered Williamson was transgender when he put his hands down her pants, and that he blacked out and didn’t remember killing her. It was only later that it came out the two had been dating. After their relationship ended, when a friend of Vallum’s found out that Williamson was trans, that he went to kill her. Vallum was a member of the Latin Kings, which forbids homosexual acts, and he was afraid word would get out.
It’s a particularly tragic story because it all hinges on the belief that a man having sex with a trans woman is a homosexual act.
By all accounts Vallum is not gay. That fact underpins his whole defense and is supported by the accounts of others, particularly his mother. There’s no indication that Vallum had dated any men, and there is that he had relationships with women. Vallum dating Williamson is gay only if you hold that trans women are men.
On May 15, 2017, Vallum became the first person convicted of a hate crime for killing a trans person and was sentenced to 49 years. I confess I feel bad for him. While his action was unforgivable, he was surrounded by people who found it inconceivable that a straight man would willingly be with a trans woman. The friend, a fellow Latin Kings member, who outed Williamson created the situation. Williamsons’ own mother seems to blame her for her own death, and only uses male pronouns for her. Vallum’s mother refers Williamson to as a homosexual living in sin, implying she got what she deserved. Vallum himself, however, consistently refers to Williamson as a woman and expresses deep remorse for his actions.
Vallum wasn’t gay and felt like he had to kill his girlfriend to prove it, but only because other people refuse to believe trans women are women.
Trans people are often accused of being oversensitive, that we’re looking to be offended. That’s the feedback I received when I made a joke at the expense of Bryce, a contestant on the upcoming season of The Bachelorette. In his intro interview, Bryce said his greatest fear was being on a date and finding out “the chick is actually a dude.”
Dear Bryce, on behalf of trans women I can assure you: none of us want to date your bland preppy 1980's teen movie villain rhombus ass. xo https://t.co/VbcN4bya4s
— Jen Richards (@SmartAssJen) May 19, 2017
I was no more hurt by Bryce’s comments than I am when a Trump-supporting white supremacist calls me a race traitor. You have to consider the source, after all, and my outrage is in high demand these days. However, I have been the real girl in Bryce’s fictional nightmare. In fact, I created a whole web series, Her Story, dedicated to telling the trans side of that very story.
But of far greater concern than any personal hurt to me is the dangerous narrative that Bryce contributes to with his supposedly harmless joke. Such asides are shorthand for the very dynamic that leads to the murder of trans women like Mercedes Williamson. Bryce trusts his audience will laugh at his quip, thinking it’s part of his rakish charm. And ABC apparently thought this was okay to share (though it’s since removed the comment from his cast page). Imagine if he said his greatest fear was finding out his date was Jewish. Would the network have approved that?
Bigotry is rarely as simple as we’d like to believe. We say we’re not racist because we’re not burning crosses on lawns, that we’re not homophobic because we have a gay friend. Not wanting to date a woman with a penis isn’t transphobic, we say, it’s just a preference. But every time we make or laugh at a joke about a woman who it turns out is “really a dude,” every time we applaud the performance of a cis man playing a trans woman, every time we look sideways at a male celebrity caught with a trans sex worker, we’re contributing to the idea that trans women are really men, and that it’s therefore at least a little gay for a man to be with one.
The guys I date are straight. They’re not closeted, and for the most part they’re not bi. They’re not interested in men, and never have been. They’re attracted to women, and some of those women are trans. Gay men have shown zero interest in me since very early in my transition (which is tragic, but true). I know this, the men I partner with know it, and countless other trans women and their partners do, too.
But no matter what any of us actually in these relationships say, the public says otherwise.
I fantasize about the day when a masculine, straight male celebrity falls in love with a trans woman and embraces her publicly—a man so strong that he simply shrugs off accusations that he’s gay with, “She’s a woman to me, and I love her.” All it will take is one, and then other celebrities will follow. Eventually that nonchalant attitude will filter down to D-list future nobodies like Bryce, and perhaps even to hyper masculine street gangs like the Latin Kings. Such a change won’t end all violence against trans women, of course, because all kinds of women suffer at the hands of those with more power. But it will help, and the violence won’t be an act of heterosexual performance to ease the anxiety of others.
My hopes are modest: I hope that men like Mark would be able to say, “I know I wanted this, but I’m not sure I’m ready just yet.” I hope that it won’t occur to men like Bryce to fear learning that his date is trans, and that if it did, a TV network wouldn’t think it harmless. I hope that straight men like Joshua Vallum can date trans women without fear of mockery or the death of those women. But I won’t passively wait for such hopes to come to pass. I will continue to point out when anyone, intentionally or not, adds to dangerous narratives of trans women. And I will continue tell our stories.
Joshua Vallum loved Mercedes Williamson, but was convicted of a hate crime for killing her. The tragedy is that the hate wasn’t his, but ours.