Category Archives: Identity

Discussions of things related to identity formation, representation, and portrayal.

We Are, and Will Remain: An Armenian-American Lesbian’s Quest for Space in her Mother Tongue

“I am Armenian-American.”

What, in my case, does this sentence mean?

It means that about a century ago, after escaping from genocide in the Ottoman Empire, my ancestors immigrated to this continent, where I was born. In my case, this applies to both sides of my family. Others are of mixed roots, Armenian and odar (“foreign,” i.e. non-Armenian), and have no less of a claim on the above term than myself.

“I am Armenian-American” also means that these roots, in some measure, matter enough to me that I would choose to continue claiming them as my own, despite a gap of a century from them. It means, in my case, that despite my birth on these American shores, that I can claim two languages as my native tongue: one a language of world politics and commerce, the other an endangered tongue of a scattered people. Others, with equal claim to this identity, do not speak Armenian. Some in the community deride them for it, but in doing so these detractors forget their own Turkish and Kurdish-speaking grandparents. One’s primary, or sole, language is not a determinant of their ethnic identity.

“I am Armenian-American” means that, in my case, I pass as white and am thus afforded highly conditional privilege that can, and does, evaporate in an instant. This is, for example,  the case in airports, where as soon as an official reads my non-anglo name, I am invariably subjected to further searches and probing questions.

“I am Armenian-American” means that, in some measure, I am neither wholly Armenian nor wholly American. I am a little too alien for white Americans, with my non-anglo name, my taste for “weird” foods, and my occasional, decidedly non-English exclamations of surprise or disgust. I am a little too assimilated for many Armenians too, with my (slight) American accent, my lack of interest in putting my Armenianness at the perennial forefront, and my minority, non-Christian religious affiliation with Shintoism.

I’ve long since given up on choosing one or the other: I exist somewhere in the liminal space between these two identities. And that is enough.

But our identities as humans are multifaceted and complex; we exist at the intersection of many identities. Another one of mine is my sexual orientation as a lesbian.

I am Armenian-American and I am lesbian. And here, one might say we reach the proverbial wrench-in-the-works. But I prefer to think we reach an interesting crossroads.

The Armenian diasporan community strongly tends toward two affiliations: Christian and conservative. Its conservatism is of both social and political bent. Homophobic and transphobic violence in the Armenian community is well documented, both within the country itself as well as in the Diaspora. Were the words of some self-styled defenders of the community to be believed, there are no LGBT Armenians. A chilling irony, given how easily they erase us, reject us, and even kill us. Yet all the same, we exist, we survive, and we struggle to be heard, acknowledged, and respected by our community. As one of our people’s sayings goes, “we are, and we will remain.”

But we have a challenge: language.

***

Armenian language is ancient and rich. It even preserves terms, largely unaltered, from long-dead tongues like Akkadian and Hittite. Armenian literature, in the 16 centuries since its alphabet’s creation, is full of soaring prose and moving, lyrical poetry. But when I was coming out to my family and wanted to do it in Armenian, I came up short. Armenian simply does not have a broad body of language with which to discuss gender and sexual diversity.

So, for a long time, I stuck to English, while my parents responded in Armenian, with horror, guilt-tripping, and accusations of disloyalty to family and nation. It was not an optimal situation, but I made do.

That I was unable to properly express myself in Armenian was galling. There were but two terms of which I was aware at the outset: miaseragan for gay, pokhaseragan for transgender. This is a start, but it is not nearly enough. Added to this is the further complication that there do exist other words, but they are overwhelmingly pathologizing.

I refused to accept this state of affairs as unchangeable. I still do. While we LGBT+ Armenians in the world can, and do, articulate our identities in our mother tongue regardless of the vocabulary’s imperfection, this shortcoming of vocabulary makes that a greater challenge than it needs to be.

And while I have the good fortune of another language with which to express myself, I refuse to be erased from, or hamstrung in, my mother tongue. In my case, to have my parents control the storm of Armenian-language family discourse on my identity was incredibly chagrining.

As I now live outside any of the Armenian diaspora’s major population centers, and as I was single for many years, I could afford to put this off in some measure. Then I started dating other women, my frigid relations with my parents began to slowly warm, and I felt a newfound sense of urgency. Even if I lived outside the diaspora, I simply had to be able to express myself to my parents, and to do it smoothly and clearly. If I had to coin new terms, I would. If the space did not exist for me in my mother tongue, then I would carve that space out myself.

So, with all of this in mind, and fueled by righteous indignation at heart, I took what I saw as the only sensible course of action:

I got to work.

Transgender Day of Remembrance 2016

Content Notice: This article discusses suicide and the 2016 US presidential election.

Once again, Transgender Day of Remembrance has passed, and I am faced with the fact that at least one of my friends has committed suicide every year since I first became involved with the transgender community nearly four years ago.

We never really get the chance to properly mourn our losses, because they just keep coming one after another with no hesitation between them.

As is the case every year, there were periods over the past year where I became uncomfortably close to being part of that group.

This year is worse than normal.

People are literally killing themselves to avoid the repercussions of what the President-elect is promising, and the negative things he has already accomplished. And, as every time the trans community has been in danger, the only ones who consistently stand by us are other marginalized groups.

The country is going to be led by someone who has consistently actively encouraged violence against marginalized groups, with the Vice President-elect being just as bad. They’re fucking talking about putting people in internment camps. The VP-elect advocates for conversion therapy.

I’m drawn back to this quote from my article about Transgender Day of Remembrance 2015:

When the only ones who reliably stay beside us are others who are similarly targeted, it is unsurprising that our progress moves slowly and is paid for with the lives and safety of those who are most vulnerable. Often, this is trans women of color.

Likewise, when the only ones who reliably stay beside us are others who are similarly targeted, it is also unsurprising that progress can regress so quickly.

I am very afraid right now, and so are a lot of other people. Please do your best to take care of and stand by each other.

What should I do if I can’t tell someone’s gender?

Not give a shit.

Glad I could clear that up for you.

 

Also, you shouldn’t really be assuming gender anyway, because it’s literally impossible to always accurately guess it. There’s also the problem where gender and pronouns aren’t directly tied, and what you probably want to know is what pronouns to use.

Remember: If you don’t know someone’s pronouns, it’s usually safe to use singular they. However, if you can ask or they tell you, only use the pronouns they say to — to use anything but what they want you to is just fucking rude.

Be sure to follow @trainsgendering and @_inatri on Twitter for more helpful advice about Not Being An Asshole To Transgender People™.

Reconciling The Past

I have a problematic relationship with my past. This is not just in the sense that I have a good memory, and those memories often find themselves in my focus at the most inopportune times. Nor is it necessarily in the sense that I’ve done horrible things I’m not willing to admit. My problems with the past stem from the fact that the past exists, and there’s nothing I can do about it. It evokes the need to flee or to reconcile, and that is immensely problematic for me.

A few weekends ago I went to Hamilton for the bridal shower of a friend I’ve had since high school, and it made me think a lot about the past. I wouldn’t say I’m a stranger to Hamilton, I go back at least once a month, but I tend to stick to places that were never really associated with my childhood, and I tend to hang out with friends who grew with me as people. Having to go to this event and potentially see people I haven’t seen for more than 3 years meant that I would need to reconcile these two points in time and explain the gap, which means having to explain my transition.

I’ve often thought I would love to erase the past. Take the good, bad, and mediocre elements of my upbringing and just throw it all into a shredder. It’s extra weight I can’t seem to shake free, and as a trans woman this is simply a huge extra burden I have to deal with. No matter how hard you run, how well you can disappear, your past will be always be just another weapon that transphobes will try to use against you at every opportunity. Hate groups like TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) and MRAs (“Men’s Rights Activists”) revel in attempting to dehumanize you by trying to throw your past in your face. This is something that weighs heavily on me and many other trans women I know. There were times when I lied, denied, or covered up to prevent my identity and activities from being known. Times when I tried to convince myself that I wasn’t who I am, that I was normal, whatever the fuck that even entails.

I was raised Catholic. I attended Catholic school throughout my entire education. Though I made some lifelong friends, Catholic school made me hate myself. If you are lgbt, Catholicism will try its hardest to change you. After a few years of listening to anti-gay rhetoric, attending mass, guest speakers, and mandatory theology courses, you’ll try to hide your identity from your peers and from yourself. This is exactly what I did for nearly a decade. I started dressing en femme in grade 7 and by grade 10 I had quit that not because I felt comfortable in my assigned gender but because I feared all the things I was told would happen to me.

There’s a lot of nostalgia for childhood in western culture. If you were to watch coming of age movies, you’d think that high-school was the most important time of your life. To me, high-school is a mixed bag. I’m so happy I met my friends, they’re fucking wonderful in every damn way, but it’s an institution that made me hate myself in a very vulnerable and suggestible time of my life. Because of this, I’m completely torn. Part of me would like to burn the whole damn thing to the ground, but without it I wouldn’t be the same person I am today. Despite the hardship, or maybe because of it, I turned out to be someone I’m immensely proud of.

As much as I want to forget those 4 years ever existed, I also want to send a selfie to every jerk-ass little shit I ran into in the hallways. I’d love to see the look on my uptight teachers’ faces. I’d love to find out that there were other people like me who were just living under the radar and I’d love to hear their stories. There were at least a couple thousand students enrolled at my high-school, so it’s statistically likely that at least 50-100 of them were gay and maybe 5 or 6 were trans. Coming to terms with my past instead of running away means I could swap stories and learn about the experiences of my peers. Finding others who share your struggle is often cathartic.

My past is painful, but it’s my past. While hate groups will always attempt to weaponize it against me, it could also be something that builds community, provides perspective, and helps me connect with others I may have not connected with before. I still dread events like the bridal shower, but I’ve accepted that some good could come of it. There are still things I can gain from connecting with my past provided I don’t let the bastards get me down.

On Transition and Unemployment

Today marks the year anniversary since I was laid off. One year ago today, I was given my severance and told to hit the road.

It honestly wasn’t that bad of a day. I talked with my co-workers, wrapped up some loose ends, had an excellent burrito at Mex-I-Can, and had some hope for the future. I had just started a publication with my partners in crime who had stable work themselves, I was going to build an excellent guitar, I’d have some time off of work to lounge around and transition in peace. It honestly looked like it was going to be a good year, but it wasn’t.

Inatri started slow; honestly we were discouraged by the response to the second piece. My guitar came together but was a lot of hassle. My mental health started to change drastically come summer. My transition progress was slow and I wasn’t making the gains I wanted to. Lastly, when I started to look for a job, I found nothing. Most of my responses were instant rejection, or failure to contact.

As the months dragged on, I lost hope. Where before I had looked for jobs in my field of study, now I was just looking for anything. When I thought about commuting, it felt alien and weird to me. I couldn’t imagine ever feeling that normal, ever being one of the nine to five workers again. I began to feel strange and detached, like I was less than others.

Unforgiving Job Market

It’s not a good time to be unemployed, especially when so many are underemployed. In Canada, youth unemployment is 13.9%, but youth underemployment was found to be 26.4%1. Admittedly these are 2013 numbers; however, the unemployment rate in Canada has been a fairly consistent ~7% with a few dips as low as ~5%2. This may not mean much to a lot of people, as the youth bracket is defined as 14-28 years old, but I am at the top end of the bracket and this experience is consistent with my friends and I.

Because of high underemployment, job opportunities that would normally be available for the unemployed are now receiving interest and applications from the underemployed. These individuals are often looking to move up from their current position or to step sideways from a similar position into a new company or environment which would offer full time or higher paid work. We are overqualified for our jobs.

The jobs I was applying for over the last year, were not jobs in my field, nor were they jobs that suit my qualifications. I am a Political Science graduate looking for mostly administrative or secretarial work. I was laid off from an administrative job in finance paying $16 an hour with no benefits and no future. I was part of that underemployment statistic.

There is also a rather worrying shift in Ontario from full-time to part-time work, which dramatically increases underemployment. Furthermore, there is a growing trend of involuntary part time work; extra jobs individuals are taking to make ends meet due to a lack of well paid full time employment3. The shifting ideas of employment in Ontario have done me no favours over the past year. Competition for full time jobs is fierce, and that will not change any time soon.

Let’s be clear: I’m not applying for anything above my reach, I’m applying for entry level jobs. Most of the entry level jobs I’ve found have asked very clearly for experience doing that job. Most of the people I know have assured me that the experience requirement is just there to deter non-confident individuals from applying. More than once in the last year, though, I’ve been rejected on the basis of lacking experience.

One of these rejections was fairly recent. It was for an educational software company looking for QA testers. This is a basic entry level contract job for most developers. The required experience was one year as a QA tester. I did not have that on my CV, but I did make it clear that I have had similar experience with my former employer when our Oracle system went live and we had to create routines, test the limits of the system, and design processes as we were thrown head first into a shark tank. Seven hours later I got a rejection saying I lacked the required experience.

Whether or not my rejection was based on a different reason, the justification being used was the lack of experience. Lack of experience for an entry level job that, in essence, should require little to no experience but rather job training and mentoring. However, with a job market so glutted by capable individuals looking to move up from part-time or unsatisfying work, even in an entry level position experience can matter greatly. To get a job in this market, you need to have a job.

Throwing Trans Into the Mix

Things really get tough when you start throwing any marginalization into the mix. Transgender individuals face higher unemployment and more barriers to employment than cis[gender]4 individuals. As a demographic, 37% of us are employed full time, 15% are employed part time, and 25% are students. Our unemployment rate is 20%5. Bear in mind that’s the overall trans population; trans youth unemployment may skew higher since youth unemployment tends to be higher than the general population.

If finding a job were based on qualifications alone, the statistics would look very different. A study by Trans PULSE found that 71% of trans people in Ontario have post-secondary education6. That’s nearly 3/4 of the trans population who have qualifications and training above and beyond high-school. These are individuals with expertise in their fields, and diplomas to back them up. However, to get a job you often have to do an interview, and this is where being transgender will most likely ruin any chance you have at getting a job. In a TorStar article, a transgender woman noted that no-one would give her a second interview and that occasionally interviewers would make up excuses as to why they couldn’t conduct an interview5. I’ve had similar experiences myself.

There is a certain level of transphobia I’ve experienced in interviews. I am a femme leaning trans woman and because of this I feel immense pressure to conform to cis-normative beauty standards. I’ve only been on HRT for 14 months, my hair has not grown out nearly as long as I’d like, and I still see things I hate about myself when I look in the mirror. I feel like because of these, because of my failure to meet normative beauty standards, that I tend to be judged harshly by hiring managers most of whom only see gender through a binary lens. Since interviews are just as much about appearance as they are about qualifications, trans individuals who do not embody cis-normative beauty standards are often judged harshly.

Being a marginalized individual in any way makes it hard to be confident. Even if there’s no overt vibes of transphobia, I find it very difficult to be put in centre stage and judged on appearance, demeanour, and confidence. I don’t believe I conform to cis-normative standards and I don’t believe that people are taking my identity seriously. This very much hurts my confidence.

I’m very sensitive and care a great deal about what others think of me, so negative comments about my appearance, my gender, my genitals, my height, my weight, my lack of wardrobe, always have a huge impact on me. I take all of these comments to heart, even when I know they’re untrue and even when I know people are just looking to get under my skin. I internalize these thoughts and it completely erodes my confidence. Where I was once assured of the truth, the negative comments will eventually wear away at me where I’m simply full of self doubt, and this is baggage that tends to weigh heavily on me during an interview.

Conclusion

My experience is not unique, and this is a problem. In a generation that is constantly attacked as entitled and lazy7, we sure as fuck don’t seem to have a whole hell of a lot in terms of gainful employment and market power. Most of us are incredibly overqualified for what few jobs are available.

We were sold a narrative that the baby boomers would retire and leave a vacuum in the job market. This is yet to happen; the boomers have yet to retire8. What this means, however, is that we face incredibly high youth unemployment rates, almost double the overall population. It also means that marginalized individuals are more likely to be left out, competing for jobs in a market scarce of employment opportunities.

In a game that rewards confidence and conformity, being different often hinders an applicant’s ability to compete. Especially for trans people, the lack of conformity could become a huge hindrance to the pageant portion of a job application. Trans individuals may find themselves passed up for a cis applicant simply because they do not fit into a strictly binary and cisnormative model of gender, even if they possess similar or greater qualifications to a cis individual. Eventually, the discouragement faced by these individuals becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; when you’ve been turned away so often from interviews because of your appearance, you become less likely to apply in the first place.

I think it’s about time we start to think both about who we have as hiring managers, and how the hiring process is conducted. Hopefully when we’re given the reins of power we can have an honest discussion about hiring and decrease the amount of sway a hiring manager with appearance based prejudices could have on the hiring process.


Endnotes:

  1. Alex Paterson and Claude Dumulon-Lauziere, “It’s not unemployment, it’s underemployment,” Canada 2020.
  2. Canada Unemployment Rate,” Trading Economics.
  3. Robert Benzie, “Ontario’s job market undergoing ‘seismic shift’ from full- to part-time jobs,” Toronto Star.
  4. Cisgender, as opposed to transgender. Individuals whose identity (closely) matches the “sex designation” they were coercively assigned at birth.
  5. Transgender unemployment is a result of discrimination, advocate says,” CBC News.
  6. Helen Wolkowicz, “Transgendered Ontarians struggling with jobs and equality at work,” Toronto Star.
  7. Margaret Wente, “Inside the entitlement generation,” The Globe and Mail.
  8. Lydia Dallett, “Hard-Charging Baby Boomers May Never Leave Their Jobs,” Business Insider.

Interview: Daina, A Former Escort

Preamble

I’ve known Daina for a while. We met while playing a certain MMORPG and quickly hit it off after I recruited her for my guild. A charming conversationalist with opinions on a great deal of things, she would keep me up most nights, and we would just gab on about anything and everything until sunrise.

It came as some surprise to me that she formerly worked as an escort. I’ve known sex workers in the past, but none were from eastern Europe. We started talking about sex work, both her background as an escort, and my fall-back plans of pornography and prostitution. It’s something a lot of unemployed and underemployed women consider, especially when money is tight, so it’s often a very engaging topic.

Almost immediately after meeting her I proposed the idea of an interview and she agreed. The following is a modified transcript of that interview. Hopefully, you find it as engaging as I find her and it sheds light onto the experience of being an escort, the economics of sex work in Ukraine, and remains respectful to both the profession and its clients.

Because I never asked for the basic information in the interview, I’ll write the basics out here. Daina worked for a large escort company based in her home city of Kharkiv. She’s 27, cis, and holds an advanced University degree. She worked as a call centre employee after she stopped working as an escort.

The interview was conducted over the course of 2 hours on January 14th, 2016 via text. There were a few cuts made for information that was shared in confidence and not to be shared in the article. There were also readability changes made by the editor with the interviewee’s consent. The raw transcript will not be made available.

Interview

Elizabeth: How long were you an escort?

Daina: Around 4 years. To be precise: 3 years, 10 months.

Elizabeth: I didn’t know it was that long. Did you work for yourself at all in that period or was the work strictly done with a company?

Daina: Strictly with a company. I was afraid to start my own business of it. [I’d] rather have protection and a secure environment.

Elizabeth: Being a big company, they must have offered a good amount of protection. Was that the case?

Daina: Yes it is. Three to four security [members] at each apartment and a personal driver if client requests to come over or go somewhere. Personal driver waits for you outside at the place ur going into if it is by hour. If it is paid for day or night you can ask him to wait or let him go.

Elizabeth: That sounds like really tight security. Knowing that there was always muscle around, did it make you feel safer working as an escort?

Daina: Yes, especially in the first months.

Elizabeth: Did you ever have to rely on them? Was your safety ever threatened while working?

Daina: I can recall four or five times they had step in, but only one was a really serious case.

Elizabeth: Ah. I can understand if you don’t want me to prod, but may I ask what happened?

Daina: Client on xhimia (Bath Salts) which wouldn’t leave after his time was up. Started screaming, saying he didn’t even cum, that it was 20 minutes not a full hour. When I tried leave room and call for lady in charge grabbed me and tried force me into having sex. I recall my attitude wasn’t quite nice too. I simply hate xhimia and what it does to people. Lady in charge came check just few seconds later to remind me the hour was up and noticed client and called for security.

Elizabeth: That sounds like a dreadful experience.

Daina: Partially my fault as well. My attitude wasn’t professional at all. Kept nagging and stuff. He refused take a shower before we started. Kinda deserved what came to me

Elizabeth: I wouldn’t say that. In my opinion a client should be as professional as the escort. If he didn’t clean up before hand, that’s on him, but I digress.

Daina: There’s a certain way to talk. Lets just say I was in a grouchy mood and it was 5am. Just got woken up by the lady in charge.

Elizabeth: Apart from the dangerous, drug using clients, how was the work? What were you responsibilities to the company and the client?

Daina: Depends on the client choice and how much you can bend rules. Some clients just wanted company or drinking partners, some looking for sex only, and some rare people were looking for love or the rubbish “blah blah” they see in movies.

Elizabeth: The 80s movie cliché of the sex worker with a heart of gold?

Daina: Yea or a girl to save from escorting or “blah blah” which made me pretty sick.

Elizabeth: Yeah, that’s such a strange narrative to have. What precious metal would you say your heart is?

Daina: I can’t be objective for that, you’d have to ask people around me, but I’m pretty sure it would be something close to gold.

Elizabeth: Having known you I’d probably agree, maybe Platinum. How much were you paid?

Daina: Depends. At first, when I was still new, 45% less than the last time I worked. Also depends on how many clients.

Elizabeth: That’s fair. Would you be able to guesstimate monthly income? Like on an average month how much would you be taking home?

Daina: On good months up to $350 – $400, which is really a lot in my country.

Elizabeth: That’s interesting. How much was your rent/food per month?

Daina: Spent around $140 – $180 a month and saved the rest. Well first I was a VIP (above average) because of my short height and my Arabic ethnicity.

Elizabeth: That’s actually a fairly really nice chunk of savings. In general what were the demographics of the clientèle? (age, ethnicity, poor/rich, etc.)

Daina: Most client either were either rich or foreigners. Foreigners were mostly young, around early 20s. Since Ukraine is mostly known being a huge university [destination] for foreigners, some cities stack up 28k foreign students.

Elizabeth: Was it easy dealing with clients, given the nature of the business?

Daina: Most of time yes, but it was harder with client who were looking for BDSM and extreme stuff

Elizabeth: Ah. I could imagine. That’s more of a speciality thing, isn’t it?

Daina: Yes i did my share of extreme BDSM, but i found my most comfortable space in swingers/couples.

Elizabeth: So you were often employed by couples?

Daina: Not a lot. Most of time I was escorting people to parties or foreign student sex. Foreign students for sure made 70% of my clients during all my escorting days. To them $50-80 a hour is a joke and the most expensive are $80-120 an hour. The cheapest were $15-30 an hour.

Elizabeth: Wow, ordering a pizza costs more over here. Does it ever get boring?

Daina: Boring? How?

Elizabeth: I mean, the sex. There’s this narrative that a lot of people have that sex as work could make sex boring.

Daina: Yes it does. Standard sex, regular foreplay, at a certain point you’re just like laying down on your back, letting him stick his penis and faking joy.

Elizabeth: Did the boring-ness of standard sex make the fetish work more appealing? Enjoyable?

Daina: Yes it did.

Elizabeth: What tips would you have for other women considering sex work?

Daina: Know your employer and its reputation. Have clients shower before sex even if he said he did, condoms at all times, have that water that make dick slip in easily (Don’t know name in English), be creative and most of all do not agree with every type of sex. Set your limits.

Elizabeth: Moving forward, how do we (as a society) promote safe sex work? How do we make sex work sustainable? Change societal opinions?

Daina: Unfortunately we can’t, but safer sex work comes when people realize we are not simply whores. Just like them we need money to live on and that some of us have already received university degrees. Personally I majored in economics, I’m a pro accountant which is equivalent to Economic Engineer. Five years of university. And I know others who had same or better degrees.

Elizabeth: Some of my friends over here have similar qualifications. But yes, I fully agree with you, it must be treated as a valid profession. That was my last question, thank you.

Daina: Hahaha you didn’t even bother ask what I learned from escorting or how it changed my personality.

Elizabeth: I had intended to ask: How did you experience working as an escort change your personality, your opinions, and your character? We were running a bit long on time.

Daina: It ain’t all bad, you know, it forged my personality and made me discover aspects of my self to be true and honest with my soul. Never make me believe in a mist and that some things just happen good or bad. That’s a fitting ending.

Comment: On “Unconditional” Love and Support

I was always told that I was loved and supported unconditionally. It wasn’t until later that I figured out that was a lie. Certainly, you could tell your children, or your significant other, that you love them unconditionally. But until they test your patience and test the limits of your love, you will never know exactly how unconditional your love is. So I wanted to write something on “unconditionality.”

Unconditional love, unconditional support, is a lie. Of course there are conditions to everything, there should be, and it’s something we should admit to ourselves. All relationships are predicated on certain conditions, common examples of these are: mutual respect, not being an abuser, and reciprocation. Sometimes relationships are predicated on shared politics and understanding of the world, some are centred around mutual interests.

Ask yourself: “Why do I like this person?” About every reason you give is a condition for why you like, love, or support a person. When those conditions are not met it sours and harms the relationship. If I found out a friend of mine was transphobic, supported transphobic individuals, or had no respect for me, I’d cut them off. I have absolutely no qualms with ceasing communication with people that rub me the wrong way, where I see red flags, and where I begin to question why I liked them in the first place.

Saying love is unconditional is an outright lie, and does a huge disservice to anyone involved. There are ways to embrace your conditions, set high standards, and tell people why exactly you love and support them, without having to fall back on meaningless rhetoric.

Comment: On Words and Assignment

Words are political, there’s no way around this. Unless you’re inventing language on the spot, every time you open your mouth you have to accept that that with the noises your making comes centuries of meaning, use, and history. Try as you may, it’s inescapable even if your intention is not to offend or harken back to historical use.

Because of this, writing articles about trans identity can be difficult. It’s hard to talk about ourselves when so many of the words we use have been used against us by cis people. Language can be a tool of oppression and, for our community, this was often the case. The slurs that have been used against us are obviously terrible, but even cis individuals in the medical community, masquerading as allies or friends, have been equally as shitty and oppressive. Understandably, the majority of the trans community has been pushing hard to move away from these terms, whether slurs or “science”.

While writing about masturbation, the word choices became the hardest part of writing the article. I had conversations with individuals from a very specific subset of the trans community, all with similar genitals, but with different gender identities. To lump them all in the same category would be doing a violent disservice to them, however, to not be able to specify that only certain people were willing to talk to me would also let down the strength of the article. Because of this I made a compromise and used two acronyms that are not without controversy in the trans community: assigned male at birth (amab), and assigned female at birth (afab).

The problem with these terms will be immediately apparent to a large number of trans people but in essence they combine three things I hate: shitty science, assumptions of sex based on genitals, and terms cis people appropriate for us. It is, in essence, the most politically correct way to say “birth sex”, while still being used to justify cis oppression, bigotry, and ignorance. It may be a softer way to say something incredibly shitty, but it’s still saying something incredibly shitty with all the garbage history that terms like “birth sex” and “x-to-x” bring.

That’s not the whole story though, there is a second meaning to unpack. When I first heard amab and afab a few years ago, I heard it as a term trans people were using to describe themselves. In this context it was often used in a more self-deprecating manner. Assignment is dehumanizing, to tell someone they’re something they don’t identify as, against their will, is violent. Assignment is patronizing, unnecessary, is used as a gate-keeping tool, and is a huge hassle to change. When applied to ourselves, it serves as a little tongue in cheek reminder that the our doctors made a mistake we’ll spend the majority of our adult lives correcting, that cisnormativity is pervasive, and that the social construction of sex is a reality.

Obviously, these terms are now more centred around the former than the latter, but it is still something descriptive of a subset of the trans community that had a similar starting point while not explicitly connecting genitals to gender and assuming a similar experience. I reluctantly used these terms however, but with an addition. When my editor suggested using “Coercively” in front of amab or afab, I immediately relished the thought. It was just icing on an already implied “fuck you” cake. Cis people could never re-appropriate the term without having to deal with the baggage calling themselves “coercive,” and implying that they too are continuing the violence.

Hence, I felt justified using those variations of assignment terms in my first article about masturbation. I just wanted to clear up any misgivings I had with the language used in the article and explain why I used the terms I used. As a writer I’m always keenly aware of the use of language and it’s implications, but I’m also aware that this explanation would have been ungainly or irrelevant in the article itself. There’s always the nagging through, every time I publish something, that would I have to mount a defence to justify my word choice. Nobody has actually called me on my shit yet, but I wanted to do good by my sources to pre-emptively publish an explanation as to why I used those particular terms to refer to them, while unpacking and discussing the particular language. My trepidation is always that my words will lead to eventually being ostracised, so I’d rather have a pre-emptive discussion than face a backlash.

To see the article this comment was following up, check out “Deviations in Masturbation in the Transgender Community”

To Those Unable to be With Their Family

I avoid my family because they are at best begrudgingly accepting of who I am, and always abusive and manipulative. I haven’t spent any holidays with them since 2013, by choice, because I don’t feel safe doing so.

Still, though, I find myself desiring the familiar; I find not being around large groups of people during holidays, as I was for the vast majority of my life, unsettling and lonely. I miss the company of the handful of people I trusted there. I occasionally miss my abuser during these periods, and that scares the fuck out of me. I especially miss playing with the younger kids during the holidays.

To those who are unable to be with their family during the holidays because they are unaccepting of who you are, they are abusive and you had to leave to be safe, or any other reason:

You deserve companionship. You deserve to be surrounded by people that care about you, every time of year. You deserve to spend the holidays with those who are dearest to you. You are worthy. You are loved. You are important. Please don’t ever forget that.

There are people who care about you. There are people who want to be with you. You may be separated from them by distances you can’t close right now — cities, states, countries, continents, oceans — but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

It’s rough as hell, sometimes, but please take care of yourselves. You deserve that, too.

Deviations in Masturbation in the Transgender Community

This time around I want to talk about something taboo, but something that we should be sitting down to discuss. It’s something that most of us have done, and continue to do. Something that alleviates a lot of pressure and (hopefully) gives us pleasure. I’m talking of course about masturbation.

This topic is not an easy topic to tackle, it is a controversial topic with a lot of variation but even more misconceptions and assumptions. There’s a lot of aversion to this topic, it’s immensely personal, and it may provoke feeling of disgust in other individuals. It’s been highly politicized by religions, scarcely talked about in the education system, shown for humour in early 2000s frat-boy comedies. There’s way too much baggage to unpack.

But as a trans woman, it is one of the ways I experience my changing body. It is something that has certainly been affected by hormone replacement therapy but also something that was abnormal long before I came out. Human sexuality, as a whole, has been of great interest to me for a while and this is one of the many facets of sexuality that I’m interested in.

It’s also another area where I want to see the assumptions of cisnormativity destroyed. The large problem I have with these assumptions is that it assumes one masturbates a similar way given the same genitals, a wrong headed assumption that is basically biological determinism for sexuality. Cis people assume that because some trans women and cis men share the same genitalia, that they operate the same, that these two groups masturbate the same. This myth is perpetuated by the porn industry as well as ignorant cis individuals and basically treats both groups as “dick-centric tops”. While this has lessened in recent years thanks to the work of trans femme porn stars, such as Chelsea Poe and Zinnia Jones, many cis people still don’t understand trans sexuality.

Hence, I wanted to use this article to sit down and have a discussion about my sexuality and the sexuality of other pre-operative and non-operative coercively-assigned-male-at-birth (CMAB) transgender, nonbinary, and genderfluid individuals as it relates to our masturbation techniques, how we differ from cis norms, and how masturbation affects how we conceptualize our body.

Methods and Ethics

To accomplish this, I didn’t simply want to get on my soapbox and expound on end about how I touch myself, I wanted to talk to others like me and get a general feel for how we all differ. To this end, I talked to 6 individuals candidly, via direct message on twitter, and asked roughly the same informal interview questions. I’ve never really liked using a formal script, because the answers can feel forced or devoid of subjectivity, thus a more organic, conversational approach was used.

When I put out my request for individuals to talk to about this subject, I received very few responses initially. It took a few requests on twitter, and through contacts, to find individuals willing to talk about this subject. Because of that, the sample size is incredibly small. If I cast a net of about 1500-2000 users, by best guesstimate, receiving only 6 responses from individuals willing to speak to me is slightly worrying. This could speak to how sensitive the topic is to individuals. Given how only two users were willing to put their name on record, this is an easy conclusion to make. Essentially, you’re trusting very personal information to someone who wants to publish this information publicly, and hoping that what you’ve committed to record does not affect you negatively. The sample size is small because the stakes are high.

However, sample size is somewhat a moot point as the purpose of the article is to get a snapshot and start discussion, rather than research behaviours patterns in trans individuals. That type of research would require more time, a larger sample, and probably the backing of an institution that could assure anonymity is maintained and everything is ethical. That’s not to say that I’m not acting towards the best interests of my sources, it’s just that when it’s a writer researching these kind of topics alone, there’s a higher degree of risk.

Trans Identity and Masturbation

Frequency

Of the 6 people I’ve interviewed, I must say that each individual had surprisingly different answers to every question. When asked how often they masturbate, the responses varied. Overall the range was large, between a couple times a day, and a fortnight. However, most reported masturbating at least every other day. Whether the individual was on HRT or not seemed to have very little affect on their masturbation, and everyone interviewed still actively masturbated. However, this could be a slight misrepresentation as I did put out the call for people who wanted to talk about this subject.

Techniques

Importantly, each individual approached self-pleasure in different way and used a variety of techniques to achieve pleasure. One anonymous interviewee reported tickling the underside of her penis head, remarking that it “Actually just fucking tickles a lot. Too much to do more than a a little bit at a time.” She also noted that this was a very mood specific thing, and it had to “strike her.” Bug detailed that xe uses petting, a technique xe stumbled upon as a teen in the shower, as water hit a “particular spot.” Several individuals do report using the “rub and tug” technique, but this is often complimentary to other methods or in absence of certain external criteria.

In addition to these techniques, several of the individuals report anal, prostate, and perineum play. Hailey, for instance, fingered her asshole, but did stipulate that most of that play occurs during bathtime because it’s cleaner. Others find pleasure a bit higher up. Kitty uses a vibrator on her perineum, as it gives her the sensation of a phantom vagina. She also uses her vibrator to stimulate her prostate anally. Similarly, Robyn reported using her vibrator on her perineum while also engaging in anal play, but stated that she had to be in the mood.

Toys and other apparatus factor a great deal into how we masturbate. As mentioned before Kitty and Robyn play with vibrators, but most respondents mentioned at least some kind of toy play. However, a lot of the reported experiences were with make due “toys.” Zoey mentioned having a large old cellphone that “vibrates like a beast” which she likes to put where “the opening for a vagina would be.” In college, Hailey used to use a vibrating razor handle as a vibrator in the shower. She states, “It was a small handle that I wrapped in duct tape and a condom, and hit the on switch. Felt pretty good. And that was before I realized I was trans!” The use of items in play is not limited simply to objects that vibrate either. Bug reported using clothing, and plush toys, to help xem heavy pet. Xe also does this with a partial tuck because “It sometimes helps because, often, I’m visualizing having different parts.” Lastly, both an anonymous respondent and Kitty reported using nipple clamps as a means of heightening the pleasure.

Self-conceptualization

As alluded to above, some of the respondents felt that how they masturbate greatly affected how they see themselves and how they connect to their body. Concerning the nipple clamps, an anonymous respondent said: “I always clamp my nipples with something because it makes me feel better about my breasts, even though I don’t quite *have* any.” Kitty stated that the way she masturbated was tied into her gender identity, and that masturbating from stroking can feel dysphoric. Because of that she mixes up erogenous zones. Robyn stated that the changes that came with HRT also changed her sexual experiences. “I don’t think about sex or masturbating as purely a penis thing, I have to be much more into it mentally and physically.”

In addition to changing conceptions regarding sex, in some cases these techniques helped the respondents to re-imagine their bodies. When asked if her gender identity affected the way she masturbated, Zoey said:

Well, yeah. I’d love to have a vagina and a penis (minus the two nuts they hang with). So… I mean, I’ve gone to some spectacular lengths to keep the phone vibrating while playing with the other bits. Cause it feels more fulfilling, or at least more exhausting in the “Oh my god I just came” way.

Zoey is not the only respondent who imagined fluidity or hybridity between genitalia, Bug described a similar scenario. “It’s probably more often than not that I imagine having clitoris/vagina, and then sometimes i’ll also have a penis.” Lastly, Kitty’s masturbation was also largely affected by how she imagined her body. “I go back and forth between feeling a phantom sensation of a vagina (occasionally very strong) and just accepting my cock, that tends to dictate whether I spend more or less time rubbing and fingering myself as though a vagina is there.”

Not all respondents reported a connection however. Hailey stated that she felt no connection between her gender identity and how she masturbates. “… I am not particularly bothered by my cock. I recognize my ass is just that: an ass. Unless I underwent GRS of some kind, I’ll never have a vagina. It would be nice to have, but I also have accepted my body for what it is.”

Quality of Orgasm

The final thing of note is how techniques and conceptualization can have an affect on how satisfying the orgasm is. I asked the respondents if their gender identity (and self image) had any effect on the quality of their orgasm. As mentioned above, Kitty feels that mixing up her erogenous zones can help her hate her body less and make the orgasm feel better. Zoey reported that sometimes her identity would have an effect on her orgasm and sometimes it would not. Robyn said, “Yes, it’s not so much about cumming anymore. It’s about enjoying the experience and even teasing myself after I’ve cum and enjoying the hyper sensitivity. Sometimes I can’t even tell when I’ve cum because the whole thing can feel like cumming if I have the magic wand in the right spot.”

Discussion

Going into the interviews, I really didn’t know what to expect. I had a, frankly misguided, hunch that because my friend and I masturbated completely differently that perhaps the rest of the community had similar experiences. What I got out of the interviews exceeded expectations. I genuinely did not know how different my 6 interviewees would be in how they masturbate and while there are some similarities between them in body conceptualizations, the means were all very different.

It was important to me to have incredibly candid conversations with individuals about our sexuality, about what gets us off, about how we see ourselves, and how all of this interacts with our gender identities. It’s a very tough conversation to strike up, especially without any level of intimacy prior to having the conversation. Learning about someone’s inner most kinks, desires, and their feeling towards their bodies, is something I will never take for granted.

In the case of most respondents, it was evident that how they masturbated was affected by how they saw their body, as well as aversion to certain elements of their body. This ranged from dysphoria and loss of concentration while orgasming, to intense orgasms. Even in the cases of dysphoria, no respondents ever stated outright that masturbation was a chore. This was something that respondents did willingly in most cases. Although, this is a tough question to ask, so the respondents could very well see it as a chore or a nuisance sometimes and perhaps didn’t mention that to me in the interview.

If there’s a takeaway from this article, from this experience, it’s the complexity of imagining and enjoying your body with a fluid gender identity, or genitals that do not match your gender identity. As someone who is fine either way, I found the notion of stimulating a phantom vagina to be fascinating and interesting. This is something I’ve never thought much about, I make due with my muff and anus in most cases, but a few of the respondents prompted me to consider this. Similarly, imagining and preferring a body with both a penis and a vagina must be difficult, however, it also makes a lot of sense when you begin to think about fluid identity and what that entails.

Conclusion

By interviewing CAMAB transgender, nonbinary, and genderfluid individuals, it’s obvious to me that masturbation is another instance where trans individuals deviate from cis-norms. However, this deviation helps us to understand, imagine, and enjoy our bodies more appropriately to our gender identity. The various techniques we use, the areas we stimulate, are all affected by our concept of gender identity but also may inform that identity as we explore what “feels good.” Since so much of human sexuality is tied into cisgender norms, it is important for trans people to break those norms and establish sexuality of their own. However, there is still a great deal of taboo regarding masturbation and until we can eliminate the taboo, there will still be a great deal of misconceptions regarding masturbation both outside of the trans community and within it.

This discussion then, should serve as a reminder that we are all different, that we think about our bodies differently, and that even though we’re a community it’s more of a mosaic than it is a homogenous blob. It should also serve as an example to individuals discovering their identity for the first time. Try some of the things outlined in the article, see which ones work for you and which ones do not. Masturbation may still be seen as a very personal thing, a journey of body discovery, but it’s a path heavily trodden by individuals just like you.

Admittedly this article is limited by it’s sample. It’s lacks representation from post-op trans women, individuals coercively assigned female at birth (CAFAB), and intersex individuals. I did not seek individuals to interview, but rather, posted on twitter and interviewed only people absolutely willing to talk to me. Perhaps the masturbation techniques of CAFAB trans men, non-binary, and gender fluid individuals could be explored in a future article provided I could find individuals to interview.