If I had a dollar for every time someone has called me a “sweet, baby boy,” “smol bean,” or some other cutely condescending name, I’d have enough saved for top surgery by now. The comments don’t just stop at basic physical appearance, and usually relate to my gayness. I’ve been called “twink” or had someone inappropriately insist that I’m a bottom an absurd amount of times. Yes, it’s true that I’m short, blonde, relatively hairless, and have a higher voice. I would think that it should come naturally that I wouldn’t want to be associated with these traits, since they go against the masculinity I try so hard to cultivate as a trans man. Yet cis people seem borderline obsessed with pointing out my more feminine characteristics, which are often out of my control. Why is this?
Graphic by Dyanna Bateman. Background courtesy of Wikimedia. Resources compiled by Emma Collins, Benjamin Davis, Ezra Mal Fry, Daniel Salas, and Shoshana Weinstein.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash.
As a trans man who was raised as a girl, I do embody some aspects of femininity. I tried to embrace my femininity through my clothing, mannerisms, and beliefs before I realized that I am a man. Though I am a man, this inner sense of femininity is still something important to me, and my previous experience as a woman continues to inform my feminist beliefs. My femininity remains an important part of my identity, even if I’m not female. I think the reluctance to completely abandon one’s femininity is a common phenomenon among trans men, as femininity was an important part of our lives. But just because we have experience living as women in a sexist society and we feel empathetic, rather than simply sympathetic, for women, doesn’t mean that we are women. Yet the cis gaze morphs our femininity, whether it be a personal choice of expression or the constraints of our bodies, into a constant obsession rather than a part of the personal history of trans individuals.
As stated above, all of the infantilization I’ve experienced as a trans man comes from my transness, rather than any of my personal choice of expression. My short stature, large hips and high voice are all traits of a trans man, something borne from my assigned female sex at birth, rather than a cultivated appearance or identity. The infantilization thus comes from my perceived womanhood/femininity. This has troubling feminist implications. Though I’m not a woman, people still perceive me to be sexually submissive because of my genitalia. Does that mean all individuals with vaginas are suddenly sexually submissive? If cis women can (to some extent) reclaim their sexual agency, why does society insist on forcing trans men into submission? In my experience, gay trans men especially are expected to be sexually submissive to gay cis men. However, infantilization doesn’t just stem from transphobia, but rather becomes a tool to perpetuate the subjugation of trans individuals.
Though social progress has been made for trans individuals, and we have more visibility and rights than before, transphobia is omnipresent in the lives of trans individuals. Trans individuals have long faced issues about our appearance in relation to sexual attractiveness. Because our bodies often don’t conform to the strict societal standards of femininity or masculinity, and our presentations may often disregard the gender binary, we are often considered not sexually attractive to cis people. We still face being called “ugly” and “weird” by cis people on a regular basis. But the infantilization of trans men serves as an efficient new wave of transphobia in a society that grants trans individuals more acceptance than before. Infantilizing trans men by emphasizing their cuteness and more feminine features creates a sort of backhanded compliment that allows cis people to simultaneously continue the subjugation of trans men while fabricating a facade of acceptance. Many trans men are eager to be found physically attractive through any means, and terms like “baby boy” and “smol bean” provide the validation they seek, even if the compliment is based upon their more traditionally feminine characteristics. The emphasis on traditional feminine characteristics implies traditional sexual roles, and thus the emphasis on the femininity of trans men creates pressure for trans men to be sexually submissive. Cis people have morphed their subjugation of trans men from outright disdain of our femininity to fetishizing our femininity.
The fetishization of trans men isn’t uplifting; it’s a means of oppression. As society offers more visibility and rights for trans individuals, it becomes less acceptable for outright persecution of trans individuals. But the pressure for trans men to be sexually submissive enables cis people to dominate us not only sexually, but also to perpetuate their social domination. The fetishization of sexually submissive trans men transforms trans individuals into an object of sexual desire for cis people and strips trans men of their own sexual agency. Trans men cannot reclaim their own sexual agency until their sexuality is no longer mediated through the cis gaze’s desire for an infantilized, sexually submissive trans man.