Editor’s note: The unusual use of prefixes and pronouns in this article honors Mx Justin Vivian Bond’s requests.
As you can already tell, this week’s Just the Tips is going to be a little different because we have to acknowledge Caitlyn Jenner’s amazing and very public transition. So instead of answering a reader’s question this week, I think we should talk about how to date a trans person, and for me to do that we have to talk about Mx Justin Vivian Bond…
My love affair with Mx Justin Vivian Bond started in Providence, R.I. The first time I encountered v’s work I was 19. A friend of mine who had a very cool tattoo, a toe ring, and who criticized collegiate essay writing as a waste of time, told me I had to come see a film with him.
The film was Short Bus, directed by John Cameron Mitchell, and it was showing at The Rhode Island School of Design. We filed into the enormous theater with art kids sporting striped shirts and various flavors of BO to watch a movie that featured Mx Bond in a signature role as the mistress/master/hostess extraordinaire of a downtown New York sex and performance venue called “Short Bus.”
“The sex in this movie,” my friend whispered to me, “is REAL.”
The film left its mark, as did Mx Bond’s transcendent rendition of “We All Get it in The End,” a rousing anthem that celebrates life as much as it acknowledges death. I’ll never forget sitting there in my turtleneck watching JVB up onscreen singing: “And as your last breath begins, you find your demon’s your best friend, and we all get it in the end” in the most fabulous fascinator hat I’d ever seen.
My friend and I could hardly wait to move to New York and live out our fantasy of free love. And years later, we both made our way to the big city and ended up curating a lecture series featuring Mx Bond. I watched as my friend (who had swapped his toe ring and long locks for academic glasses and a close crop) asked v questions with an authority that barely disguised his fangirl nature.
I finally mustered the courage to approach v months later to have a conversation. V always embodied a deeply felt, whimsical yet critical viewpoint on sexuality for me. I had the chance to talk to Justin Vivian, and v was as sexy and fabulous as when I first saw v on that screen in Providence. We covered everything from astrology to bad dates to self-care, with a particular focus on the experience of what it is to be a transperson in the modern dating world.
Given the events of the past two weeks, it seems a particularly apt time to share v’s tips on “How to Date a Transperson.”
Justin Vivian’s candid stories about love and sex life provide wisdom for all of us. This advice is directed at people who might be gay, queer or straight, who are interested in dating trans people but don’t know if and how that process may be different from their current dating culture.
It’s also for people who may find themselves on a date or in a sexual interaction with a trans person when they were not actively seeking to date a transperson. It’s also for transpeople who, during or post-transition end up dating straight people. And it’s for transpeople who do not see themselves as transitioning to another fixed gender but rather choose to occupy a gender space that is in between or alternate to male/female.
UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SEX AND GENDER
“Sex” is often characterized as the stuff that you’re born with. Some people have “male” genitalia, others have “female” genitalia and still others are born intersex—they have some of both. Gender, on the other hand is the set of categories that we identify with and are identified by. Examples of these might include: “man,” “woman,” “transperson.” There has been much theorizing done about the relative instability of both sex and gender as categories. Read up! Edify yourself!
We all make active and passive decisions in the realms of sex and gender. It is important when discussing these things to take people at their word. Especially in the realm of dating.
As Justin Vivian says, “People who identify as a gender that is the opposite of the one they are assigned at birth ARE that gender. If someone says they are male or female, then that’s what they are. Period. I say I’m trans because that’s what I am. But if I said I was a woman no one would have the right to question that. People may be in the process of ‘transitioning’ physically, but their gender identity is what they say it is and has nothing to do with the status of their medical process.”
MASTER THE ART OF DISCLOSURE
I’ve worked with matchmaking clients that are both cisgendered and trans, and questions often arise about disclosure. In matchmaking with trans clients, and in listening to the concerns of many cisgendered men and women, a question often arises about disclosure. How much responsibility lies with somebody who is transition or has transitioned to share that information with another party? Do you put in on your online dating profile? Do you mention it on first date?
Justin Vivian clarifies for us: “We all should have the right to reserve personal information from anyone we’re dating until we trust that person and feel the timing’s right for us to reveal whatever it is that we’ve been keeping to ourselves. It’s the same for everyone. People have things in their lives that make them feel vulnerable, and if you’re going to become vulnerable in front of someone you should wait until you feel safe enough with them to expose yourself–and that varies from person to person. When do you reveal that you’re a single mom and have a kid? When do you tell a person that you’re a breast cancer survivor? It all depends on the person and the situation.”
At the end of the day I’m inclined to say that if you’re a person who ends up going on a date with somebody who has transitioned from one sex to another and you find yourself turned on by that person, the question of whether or not they told you they were trans is moot.
Similarly, if you find yourself turned off by a transperson in a romantic context I would venture to say that it has to do with you and your attraction. Not the other person. Treat that feeling like you might treat any of the myriad things that turn us off about people. Note it for yourself, be polite and do not shame the other person.
KNOW YOUR CONTEXT
On the other hand, if you are a transperson engaging with online dating culture, which is dominated by cisgendered men and women, be aware of the expectations of that culture. Justin and I spoke about the challenges of various online interfaces for single trans people. V breaks it down:
• GRINDR: “It’s for the gays,” v tells me. “I went on Grindr when I was doing a residency in the middle of nowhere this summer at Bard. It was like fun flash cards on the campus. ‘Oh! Look! That’s the masters student from Grindr!”
• TINDER: “You have to pick if you’re male or female. I go on as alternately male then female. It just seemed like all the guys on there want to come over and stick it in you. I don’t think it’s for me. I want to know what they think they’re sticking it in!”
• OK CUPID: “I only go on as bisexual. But this is where being over 50 is just as difficult as being trans. My girlfriend told me to change my age from 51 to 40. Then I was showing up in over 200 searches per day!”
FETISHIZE WITH FINESSE
“As the object of a fetish you have power because you’re the focus of the desire,” Justin said. “You can spurn the desire or indulge it. The problem is that it becomes tiresome when you’re only that.”
If you are a trans person or a woman with huge boobs or a gay man with a ton of hair, you may be fetishized. The objects of a fetish know how to take pleasure in being worshipped as an object and know how to get real when they have to. Tired of being called “Orlando” in the bedroom every night? Try suggesting you just read the book out loud…
AND IF YOU’RE A FETISHIZER…
Know that you are engaging with somebody who may at some point want to be something other than the object of your desire. Fetishizing is a very particular structure for desire, and as JVB says, “You can’t expect that it will always lead to a meaningful relationship.”
But fetishization is of course part of most relationships to a certain extent, not just ones with transpeople. Keep the human in mind as much as the fetish.
Ladies, gentleman and everybody in between, now is the time to date our fellow trans human beings with grace, tact and impeccable seduction skills. Go forth, and may you lucky enough to land yourself a date with somebody as talented, intelligent and gorgeous as JVB.
Just the Tips is Playboy.com’s weekly advice column, with professional matchmaker Katherine Cooper. Have a question for Katherine about sex, love or dating? Shoot her a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.