In August, video of a 20-year-old Philadelphia man named Maurice Willoughby being harassed and bullied for having a transgender girlfriend went viral. The video circulated on Twitter and Facebook for several days. Days later, the news broke that Willoughby allegedly died by suicide on August 18, just days after the video’s events.
Willoughby’s death, and the harassment that preceded it, sparked a public conversation about the trauma and hardship faced by men who publicly admit to finding trans women attractive. Willoughby’s suicide was framed as a sort of martyrdom — a call on straight men to overcome “shame” brought on by their trans attraction and instead celebrate it. The queer media site them even called Willoughby “a beacon of hope” for those straight men attracted to, and in relationships with, trans women.
Soon after, American actor Malik Yoba (Cool Runnings, NYPD Blue) announced that he, too, was “trans attracted,” calling for it to be recognized as a normal and acceptable form of heterosexual love.
But, as with most things online, these stories are more complicated and far darker. Willoughby had been a victim of abuse himself, and his relationship with his girlfriend, a woman named Faith Palmer was also frequently abusive. Poverty and substance-abuse led to violent tendencies in their relationship. After their most recent breakup, Willoughby threatened to kill Palmer; on August 16, she sought a restraining order. The police didn’t take her seriously, and refused to provide it.
After Willoughby’s death, Palmer said she was harassed online and received death threats, mostly from Willoughby’s friends and family. And the same week that Yoba announced his “trans attraction,” a Facebook post by a trans sex worker named Mariah Lopez Ebony revealed that Yoba’s “love” for trans women was more accurately a bid to cover up what she alleged to be a pattern of him buying sex from underage trans girls. She said his announcement was a way to mask his abuse of women in the convenient language of victimhood (when asked about it in an interview with The Root, Yoba compared the allegations to being misgendered).
The stories that are told about trans women are ones in which we are either victims or partners to men.
For any woman who has been involved in an abusive relationship, these stories are painfully familiar. Intimate partner violence, sexual abuse, and domestic abuse have an impact on nearly all women, even indirectly, but it’s long been observed that transgender women are remarkably vulnerable to these forms of abuse, especially when they are disabled, undocumented, Indigenous, or Black.
The Willoughby case, and Yoba’s subsequent announcement, reveal the threat of violence that animates narratives of trans womanhood in mainstream media. Yoba’s specific mental gymnastics, and the press’ positive response, demonstrates how powerful men can manipulate certain ideas about trans womanhood to their own benefit. Browse Instagram, Twitter, or any media site you’d like — them, Out, VICE, Mic, the now-defunct Into, whichever. Time and again, trans women’s stories are packaged by cisgender people for cisgender audiences with men at their centers. The stories that are told about trans women are ones in which we are either victims or partners to men. We are only recognized as women through the actions and beliefs of the straight men who fuck and love us. Our place is in a straight man’s orbit.
Stigma and misinformation makes it difficult to talk about domestic violence in LGBTQ relationships and households. For trans people in particular, data issues are exacerbated by the dearth of competent services for trans survivors. The statistics that do exist are telling. Research by the British LGBTQ organization Stonewall showed that one in five trans people (women, men, and nonbinary) experienced abuse from a partner in 2017. A 2015 American survey by The National Center for Transgender Equality revealed that 54 percent of respondents have experienced some form of domestic abuse, and nearly one in four trans people have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner (compared to the U.S. average of 18 percent). And according to one 2017 American study, transgender women experienced intimate partner violence at more than five times the rate of cisgender women.
To get a sense of scale, organizations that deal with violence against women estimate that around three women are murdered by their intimate partners per day in the U.S.; one-third of all homicides of female victims in the United States are committed by intimate partners, most of whom are men.
Simply put, trans women are at high risk of violence for similar reasons as other vulnerable women. These are interpersonal symptoms of a broader societal condition, wherein some people’s lives are figured as simply less valuable than others. For those who are trans, Black, Indigenous, disabled, or undocumented, to try to be normal — to fall within the bounds of a body that our society considers worthy of love — feels like striving for the impossible. Life for “normal” women, as bad as it is, is still far beyond our reach.
In her fabulous essay Pussy, the poet and activist Gwen Benaway writes that one of the conditions that defines trans womanhood is the constant demand to provide perfect accounts of ourselves. In navigating medical providers, political institutions, social services, family conversations, and casual interactions, we are asked to explain the fact of our existence. This spills into our romantic and domestic lives, creating an uncomfortable cocktail that manipulative people know how to mix and spike. This societal demand for — and entitlement to — perfect and highly personal information about ourselves defines and limits the spaces available for trans women to tell our stories. Cissexism and transmisogyny consistently reduce us to trans tragedy or trans spectacle.
Trans writers have unfortunately had to play into this narrative — devoting ourselves primarily to the crusade of making it “normal” for straight men to date trans women — all at the behest of cisgender editors, producers, and executives. In the process, we have aided in the dissemination of the idea that there is anything normal about a type of “love” that results in three murders per day.
Heterosexuality is the yardstick by which womanhood is measured, even by the most ostensibly progressive creators of popular culture.
Egged on by surface-level “LGBTQ-friendly” businesses with cisgender boardrooms and magazines with trans women on their covers but don’t employ any, the public-health crisis that is transmisogyny is mostly addressed by diving into the minds of cis people — namely, men — and appealing to their good graces, massaging their heterosexuality, reminding them that trans women are just as fuckable and lovable as our cisgender counterparts. We are drafted by cis people into collaborating with them in constructing the argument that trans women’s womanhood is only accessible and expressible through straight male desire. Perhaps, we are told, if we try hard enough to look and sound and act like “real women,” we’ll become real enough to be fucked, married, and killed like they are. If it sounds grim, then imagine how tired we feel.
Womanhood is often imagined as something that follows from men, rather than existing apart from or alongside them. And heterosexuality is a product of this; it is the yardstick by which womanhood is measured, even by the most ostensibly progressive creators of popular culture. As Adrienne Rich wrote in her famous 1980 essay Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence “the constraints and sanctions which, historically, have enforced or insured the coupling of women with men and obstructed or penalized our coupling or allying in independent groups with other women.”
We see heterosexuality as natural because it is compulsory. And while this is certainly true of all women, it’s weirdly explicit when it comes to depictions of trans women. In fact, heterosexuality even formed an essential diagnostic criteria through which medical gatekeepers defined someone as trans. The patients of early sexologists like Dr. Harry Benjamin were persistently interrogated about their sexual histories and preferences, such that to be called a “true transsexual” meant a desire for a vagina and a male partner to penetrate it (this, despite many patients stating their fluid sexualities or disinterest in sex altogether).
That perception has bled into the very process of transition. When Christine Jorgensen came back to America with her new vagina in 1952, the press misgendered her when she described herself as anything short of the perfect straight girl, and continually asked her about potential husbands and former partners. Last year, I wrote about how trans women are often over-prescribed spironolactone, an anti-androgen with dangerous side effects when consumed in excess. There’s an expectation that we want to be as conventionally feminine as possible, as quickly as possible, whatever the cost. And it impacts trans men, too: recall the case of Lou Sullivan, a gay trans man who couldn’t access hormones in the US for years because treatment facilities couldn’t make sense of a gay trans person. Heterosexuality, no matter how constructed, is the matrix that made gender real.
Despite our imagined enlightenment on trans womanhood, this same formulation is what animates the bulk of the mainstream writing you find today — variously obsessed with the who, what, where, why, and how of fucking trans people, presented as the primary way that cis people can perceive us as our correct genders. In an infamous essay for VICE titled, "Why Can't My Famous Gender Nonconforming Friends Get Laid?” nonbinary “advocate” Jacob Tobia jokes about taking hormones and getting hair removal — two common transition-related treatments — in order to attract straight boys on Tinder. The line is unsettlingly similar to the plot of a viral teaser promoted by the gay porn company Men Dot Com. In it, the main characters asked to be transformed into beautiful women by a fairy godmother (played by Ru girl Farrah Moan) in order to sleep with straight guys. Both cases are intended to be jokes, but the underlying premise is familiar: people become girls so straight men will fuck them. It’s the same concept that animated earlier treatments of transsexuality, albeit expressed through a queer and comic sensibility. Women don’t make women. Men do.
If, even among those with the best intentions, the view that is offered of trans womanhood is one centred around male partners and their sexual practices, perhaps it is not surprising that trans women so frequently find themselves trapped in situations where a partner is willing and able to break down their sense of selves. Perhaps this is less an accident than an expression of the material interests of the men who abuse us. Men don’t seem to mind harming women, and if the evidence offered by the cases of Yoba and Willoughby tell us anything, it’s that the wider world doesn’t mind much either. In fact, they’ll likely just be celebrated by our “allies” for liking us at all. Maybe the issue isn’t that men feel too much shame; perhaps, they don’t feel enough.
This isn’t anyone’s fault; it’s a feature of how heterosexuality works and sustains itself. And I don’t blame my sisters for producing work that’s occasionaly retraumatizing, sexualizing, or sensationalizing — when all you can get paid for is trans sex stories, then trans sex stories become your brand, if only until cis people get bored of watching. But as trans women, we are rarely given space to be complete people outside of the men we date.
In the end, the people who gain from this are mostly men. The ones who fuck us get raised up as heroes. Our love is imagined as their healing, nevermind how we feel. Our sex is imagined as the sex they truly crave, even if that also means they might want to hurt us. Our transitions are imagined as being for men or about them, because why should a woman want something for herself — or, god forbid, for other women?
So perhaps “trans attraction” is a normal part of heterosexuality. But why is heterosexuality normal?