Fighting fetishism in the transgender community

By Opinions Editor

“When a man can be shamed merely for interacting with a trans woman—whether it be through a photograph, a sex tape or correspondence—what does this say about how society views trans women? More important, what does this do to trans women?” said Janet Mock, activist and icon in the transgender community,  in an essay she wrote on transgender fetishism on her Sept. 12, 2013 blog. 

From how the transgender experience is sexualized in pop culture to online dating, fetishism continues to be an issue.

Naomi Anurag Lahiri, was named in the Windy City Times’ 16th annual 30 under 30 list, which honors “the best and brightest individuals” in Chicago’s LGBT community, for the work she has done with various LGBT organizations. Lahiri is now a social worker with The Habitat Company, which assists people living in public housing, located at 350 W. Hubbard St. She said fetishizing transgender people reduces them to one part of their experience and identity.

“I cannot pinpoint one specific issue, but I know I see [transgender fetishism] everywhere,” Lahiri said. “[It] can create this differential between cis men and trans women where they are taught that their worth is in their body. [Transgender people] expect to be turned down if their trans-ness is ‘too real’ and not just a fetish.”

Charlie Cote, a 2015 interdisciplinary alumnus and transgender man, said he experienced this fetishism firsthand when using the dating app “Grindr.”

“I met this guy on ‘Grindr,’ and he was great,” Cote said. “Then I realized he was with me because I upped his ‘queer cred.’ It was a weird sort of fetishism. I realized that was going on, and it was not the most wonderful experience.” 

Erin Tomlinson, who is currently building experience to become a life coach, experienced this fetishism before realizing it was a problem.

“[Fetishism] takes the humanity out of someone and turns them into an object and does not account for their desires, needs or well-being,” Tomlinson said. 

Tomlinson said looking back on a cis man they dated in their early 20s— considering what they know now about fetishism—they realized that person was fetishizing transgender people.

“It was a specific thing he was seeking out, and it was absolutely a fetishization,” Tomlinson said. 

Lahiri said this fetishism has led to trans people being asked invasive questions, such as personal questions about their sex life and medical history. 

“There is a weird thing where people trying to date trans people feel very entitled to information,” Cote said. “People who do not even know me will feel the need to interrogate me. They would not do that to anybody else, so they should not do it [to me].”

Lahiri said social services should be more inclusive of transgender people to help those who have been negatively affected by situations involving fetishism.

“[Social services should be] making sure the assessments we do and the questions we ask are nontriggering and inclusive,” Lahiri said.

However, Lahiri said there are positive media portraits of transgender people that do not fetishize them. 

“Hopefully with people like Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Angelica Ross and Jen Richards creating more positive visibility, it will create a better image and environment,” Lahiri said. 

Julia Serano, an LGBT activist and writer, said she sees transgender fetishism as a problem, but not all people do. 

“Some trans people are fine with people who seek out trans partners, while others feel that it delegitimizes them,” Serano said. “Many of us who are OK with it in theory, nevertheless feel that some of the individuals who express this preference do so in an overly aggressive or disrespectful manner.”

The biggest problem with fetishism of transgender people is that it reduces individuals to one aspect that does not represent their whole identity, Cote said.

“[Fetishism] takes away from the individual human and reduces people to a medical reality, which is unfair and bad in a lot of ways,” Cote said.