Recently I got a response on an online dating site telling me how interesting my profile sounded and how pretty I looked in my picture. It ended, “too bad I’m not the transgender type,” before wishing me good luck.
That sentiment is shared by many. Attracting attention online with a profile that identifies me as transgender is worse than rolling Sisyphus’ stone uphill.
I’m not alone. In a recent poll on this site, more than three quarters of the respondents answered that being trans made their dating and romantic lives either “much harder” (50%) or “impossible” (28%). It’s no secret that being transgender greatly narrows an already difficult dating pool.
It’s tempting to dismiss these disheartening facts as unimportant. Millions find happiness without romantic attachments. Surely there are bigger fish to fry for a population with our economic, employment, and safety issues.
However, lack of romantic attachment is a contributing factor. By all studies and on all scales, members of romantic partnerships fare better economically and are healthier and safer. They suffer less stress, and often find it easier to hold and keep jobs. That is unsurprising. In a multi-person household, people look out for each other. They care for one another when they are ill. They accompany each other so neither need travel alone in areas that may be less than safe. They back each other up during times of personal crisis, lessening impact on work. They share expenses and act as a hedge against the financial risks of firing and layoffs. And, much as we wish it were otherwise, in many fields stable family attachments are seen as a sign of general stability and serve as an advantage at hiring time. Closing off our already vulnerable population to the benefits of couplehood makes a bad situation worse.
I was speaking with some cisgender friends, and I brought up that online dating response. I told them how angry the response made me, and I called it out as prejudice. I was surprised by their reaction. “Trans folks aren’t for everyone,” one said. Another likened it to not wanting to date heavy people or only wanting people of a particular religion. To them this was just another preference. People have their dating “types”, turn-ons, and turn-offs.
That cannot be disputed. Some people prefer tall, some short, some people want brunettes, some want slender, some want freckled, some want chatty, some want rugged. Isn’t being trans just another one of these turn-offs (or being cis a turn-on)?
The thing is, there are tall and short trans people, there are blonde and brunette trans people, there are talkative and shy trans people, there are worldly and down-to-earth trans people. Just about any trait associated with appearance, personality, lifestyle, or preference, can be found in some trans people and not in others. Trans people have as much variation as the general population. You can’t tell if someone is trans by looking at them, by talking with them, by spending time in their company, or even by knowing the details of their life. The only way that being trans figures into someone else’s preference is if they think being trans makes someone different.
That is the very definition of prejudice.
In fact, historically the line between preference and prejudice has been so fine as to be almost invisible. Racially segregated neighborhoods, schools, clubs, and businesses were justified by “preference”. Being near black folks made white folks “uncomfortable”. It wasn’t that they were prejudiced. It’s just that they “preferred” their own kind. We all know where that led. Segregation resulted in inferior schools, employment opportunities, and living conditions. “Preference” became a pretext for the marginalization of black people, just as it became a pretext for excluding women from all-male privileged spaces. In our (slightly) more enlightened times, it is simply illegal to deny someone access to a public space because you prefer not to be in their company.
Of course, a date is not a public space, and there is no way to make it illegal to exclude transgender people from the general dating pool.
But make no mistake, refusing to see transgender people as fully a member of our identified gender for dating purposes is every bit as pernicious as refusing them our gender for any other purpose. No, it is not illegal for massive numbers of cisgender people to refuse to date transgender people who’d otherwise attract them. But it is an injustice. Unfortunately the remedies for this injustice are not legal, but cultural. Attitudes and understanding need to be improved. People need to learn that trans people are members of our identified gender in every way that matters. We are every bit as satisfactory a romantic partner as a cisgender person with similar looks and personality. When people understand this, when it becomes part of societal assumptions and heritage, dating for transgender people will become much less of an issue.
Getting there is the problem. How do we bring about new attitudes and understanding? Cultural change is often facilitated by legal change (for example, desegregation of schools and civil rights laws) and made much more difficult without it. Therefore in this case, we are short a primary tool of reform. But that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands in surrender. The journey is longer and harder, but that makes it all the more important to take that first step.
And the first step is to call exclusion of transgender people as eligible romantic partners what it is.