This article is about trans-, gender, sexuality, and fantasy and their mutual materialization through uses of technology and contact with the bodies of others. I aim to theorize the relationship between trans- and fantasy—my transness and my fantasies—especially as I struggle to find their realization in a cultural milieu that insists upon limited and fixed identity categories, categories that I argue thwart desire. I explore the relative lack of attention to trans- desire and sexuality in academic work and in public and political discourse and argue for the importance of attention to the erotic in understandings of trans-. Thus, I complicate notions of (mis)recognition that characterize many post-structuralist theorizations of trans- subjectivity in favor of centering the erotic. I tease out threads of my own fantasies and their materialization as they were realized in one weekend trip to Boystown in Chicago. Ultimately, my aim is to open more discursive space for considerations of trans- fantasies and sexuality and to argue that it is crucial for us to pay more critical attention to fantasies and their fulfillment in our consideration of what it means to be trans-, indeed, what it means to become a gendered and sexual body at all.
I am bent over a cold wooden table in the dark outdoor backroom of Manhandler Saloon, a dive fag bar on the outskirts of Boystown in Chicago. I’m short, so my small feet dangle just above the floor. My jeans and boxer briefs are pulled down to my ankles. I’m one drink past tipsy, just drunk enough to loosen my inhibitions and relax my internal censor. A noxious odor of stale beer and cigarettes mixed with worn leather and the testosterone-scented sweat from men’s bodies fills my nostrils. I breathe it in and let out an ecstatic sigh. It will forever remind me of what my pleasure smells like.
There are four (maybe five) men behind me. I hear them talking about my giant ass. I’m not sure if their comments are directed toward me or each other; nonetheless, I smile. Tonight, I revel in my fatness. They take turns fucking me. I’m overwhelmed with tongues, fingers, and dicks. I feel a big, strong hand gently trace the contours of my lower back while alternately striking my ass, sending a mix of pain and pleasure through my body. Simultaneously, a warm, wet tongue prepares my asshole. Waves of pleasure animate my body, which trembles and shakes the wooden table beneath me. The tongue is replaced by the searing pain of a thick cock covered in silky cold lube slowly but deliberately entering my hole. I feel like I’m being ripped open, and I unconsciously let out a deep groan unlike any sound I’ve ever heard escape from my own lips. I experience the pain as ecstasy, and I never want it to end. In the dark shadows on the other side of the backroom I strain to glimpse the outline of a large, bearded man stroking his cock while he watches the gang bang before him, each of us propelled by the erotic energy of the other.
I’m pulled off the wooden box, my boots meeting the hay-covered floor for a moment before I’m forcefully pushed down to my knees. I welcome the aggression. I fleetingly think that the individual pieces of hay cutting into the flesh of my knees will hurt tomorrow, but it will be worth it. One man shoves his cock into my mouth. I wonder, is this one of the cocks that just fucked me? It’s hard to tell. I start to choke on its fullness, but my gagging doesn’t stifle my insatiable hunger. Another man drops to his knees beside me. We take turns sucking cock and stroking and licking balls. As I watch my dick-sucking partner out of the corner of my eye, I feel a sense of honor as if I’m the only pupil in his unplanned master class.
Following my teacher’s lead, I strain my neck to wedge my head between the man’s thick, hairy legs so my tongue can rim his asshole. A symphony of grunts, groans, and deep breaths accompanies our movements. We are acting spontaneously, although an observer would swear it was all choreographed in advance. The man who just fed me his cock lifts me up off my knees, and with the deepest most assertive voice, he tells me it’s his turn to suck mine. I’ve dreamed of hearing these exact words my entire adult life, and the sound waves that carry them into my ears and through my body are accompanied by an erotic charge that ironically can’t be described in words. It’s a blustery night in Chicago, but I don’t care. I don’t even notice the cold. I’m having casual anonymous public gay group sex—I am [be]coming.
Although I was assigned “female” at birth, I dreamed of being a gay man my entire adult life—but I didn’t desire to be just any kind of gay man. I desired the casual, anonymous sex that I presumed to exist in some gay cultural spaces, and I wanted to be the kind of promiscuous gay man I associate with that kind of sex—I wanted to become a fag. My body, however, kept me out of these spaces in “real” life. Glory holes and backrooms existed only in my fantasies—fantasies unconsciously constructed through a vision of a particular kind of gay sex that I paradoxically never experienced. As I neared middle age, I considered that maybe I could become the faggot that I was in my most private fantasies. In fact, I realized after a lifetime of unfulfilling relationships, sexual and otherwise, that my ability to have a livable life depended on it. I made the decision to exchange all that I knew about my place in the world for what was most personally and intimately true. I started injecting exogenous testosterone after my thirty-ninth birthday, and I set out to make my dreams of faggotry come true.
The account that follows is about trans-, gender, sexuality, and fantasy and their mutual materialization through uses of technology and contact with the bodies of others. I aim to theorize the relationship between trans- and fantasy—my transness and my fantasies—especially as I struggle to find their realization in a cultural milieu that insists upon limited and fixed identity categories, categories that I argue thwart desire. I explore the relative lack of attention to trans- desire and sexuality in academic work and in public and political discourse and argue for the importance of attention to the erotic in understandings of trans-. Thus, I complicate notions of (mis)recognition that characterize many post-structuralist theorizations of trans- subjectivity in favor of centering the erotic as it, in the words of Amber L. Johnson and B. LeMaster, “drives us to live satisfying lives and to note and resist—as one is able and equipped to do so—that which emerges as hegemonic constraints delimiting said satisfaction.”1 My analysis is informed by psychoanalytically inflected queer and trans- theories regarding desire and embodiment. Methodologically, I build on an emerging form of critical autoethnography, termed critical erotic/a, which centers sex acts both as they are fantasized and embodied.
In the following, I first explain my particular uses of psychoanalytic theory and B. LeMaster’s conception of critical erotic/a,2 a methodological approach that allows me to flirt between immutable identity categories and self-shattering experiences of ecstasy. I then tease out threads of my own fantasies and their materialization as they were realized in one weekend trip to Boystown in Chicago. Ultimately, my aim is to open more discursive space for considerations of trans- fantasies and sexuality and to argue that it is crucial for us to pay more critical attention to fantasies and their fulfillment in our consideration of what it means to be trans-, indeed, what it means to become a gendered and sexual body at all.
Psychoanalysis and Fantasy
Beginning with my earliest memories, I fantasized about submitting to the domination of older boys and men. I tried to materialize these fantasies even before I knew anything about sex. I remember playing “house” or “school” with older boys in my neighborhood and provoking them to punish me. I always played the role of a boy in these fantasies, as well as when I acted them out. Although they were not sexual to my young mind, these thoughts always gave me a “funny” feeling that animated my entire body. It’s the exact feeling that animates me today. My heartbeat quickens, and the entire surface of my skin feels warmed from the inside. My cheeks blush in an intoxicating mix of shame and longing. My palms start to sweat, and an uncontrollable swarm of butterflies flittering their wings fills my midsection. My senses of sight and hearing blur. I live for this feeling.
My fantasies seemed to invade me from the outside, even though paradoxically nothing else felt as intimate and personal. I somehow knew I should keep my fantasies a secret, and they were a tremendous source of shame. As I grew older and learned about sex, the fantasies too became more explicitly sexual, and their realization became more difficult. Scenes of misbehaving boys and their strict teachers were replaced with fantasies of unidentifiable men, their body parts protruding through gloryholes in the dark recesses of backrooms. I couldn’t admit to my “straight” boyfriends what I had to imagine in order to reach satisfaction, and I was too old to play “house.” I envied my gay friends as I watched them struggle through a gay sexual adolescence and becoming that I thought would forever be out of reach for me.
I tried for years to get these thoughts out of my head—to find something else that would bring me sexual gratification—but the more I tried to sublimate my thoughts to something more appropriate to my given “subject position,” the stronger my libidinal attachment to the objects of my fantasies became. I didn’t hate my body, and I didn’t hate “being a girl.” I did, however, endlessly run up against barriers to entry into specifically gay sexual spaces that my “female” body barred me from entering. I liken the relationship of my fantasy life and my sex life to the promise of following the yellow-brick road only to find out that it’s just a picture painted on a brick wall. I am forever metaphorically scarred from running up against it over and over again. Tarrying with the limits imposed on our bodies by institutional, interpersonal, and individual constraints as we nonetheless strive to make livable lives corresponds to B. LeMaster’s conception of trans- relationality. She argues that trans- relationality “marks the materialization of queer world-making that is comprised of queer bonds that explore individual-institutional dialectical tensions.”3 To LeMaster’s definition of trans- relationality, I would emphasize the complications and possibilities wrought by psychic tensions, and it is the inclusion of psychic tensions that leads me to analyze my fantasies and sexual experiences through psychoanalytic theory.
Trans- people have a fraught relationship with psychoanalysis, as “psychoanalysis has a regrettable history of pathologizing non-normative genders and sexualities.”4 Some psychoanalytic texts have certainly informed the continued medicalization and pathologization of trans- people, as well as cultural representations that lead to such damaging images as the mythical “transsexual bathroom pervert.” On the other hand, however, psychoanalysis opens a conceptual terrain to think about relationships between language, bodies, fantasies, desire, and affect that is unavailable elsewhere.
Psychoanalysis allows us a way out of the essentialist/social constructionist (i.e., nature/nurture) debates that characterize many of the conversations concerning trans- subjectivity (especially outside of academic spaces, these conversations play out on trans- social media groups ad nauseum), not by offering some kind of synthesis between the two but rather by offering an alternative. According to Tim Dean:
it remains a basic psychoanalytic postulate that while there is always sex, there can be no sexuality without the unconscious. Thus for Lacan sexuality is explicable in terms of neither nature nor nurture, since the unconscious cannot be considered biological—it isn’t part of my body and yet it isn’t exactly culturally constructed either. Instead, the unconscious may be grasped as an index of how both biology and culture fail to determine subjectivity and sexual desire.5
Making room for a notion of the unconscious when thinking about bodies and desire provides much explanatory force to my own fantasies, not wholly chosen (at least consciously), yet not wholly determined by the symbolic structures and “subject positions” into which I was thrown either. It explains why I have never experienced my fantasies as consciously manipulable and also how a dimension of sociality that I never actually experienced in my history “inhabits the innermost, ostensibly private zone of the subject.”6 Finally, it elucidates why many post-structuralist theorizations of gender that consider it to be a purely symbolically constructed phenomenon seem unable to account for the desires that drive my gendered and sexed becomings, or as Hil Malatino puts it, “There’s something ineffable about transness that exceeds the terminological and the identitarian.”7
Psychoanalytically speaking, desire is caused by the impact of language on the body. It is ultimately the disharmony between the raw material of the body in all its plenitude and the language that dissects it that introduces loss into the newly founded divided subject of desire and simultaneously creates the unconscious. Desire is nothing more than a desire for an impossible wholeness that we paradoxically never had, a desire to heal the traumatic wounds resulting from our alienation in language. Fantasy, as I invoke the term here, is our unconsciously constructed idiosyncratic answer to our foundational division. This invocation of fantasy complicates common wisdom that conceives fantasy apart from reality. In fact, fantasy is reality’s constitutive condition. Although, according to psychoanalytic theories, fantasy serves a universal function, the way that each subject structures their relation to the trauma of lack predicated by desire is particular. According to psychoanalyst Patricia Gherovici, “psychoanalysis is a paradoxical science of the particular that follows a ‘logic of the singular.’ It is only by sticking to the specific features and idiosyncrasies of each particular case history that one avoids the imposition of an obsolete vocabulary on slippery facts.”8 It is the particularity of the content of our fantasies, our individual means of relating to our lack in being, that calls for the use of autoethnography as method.
Trans-, Sex, and Critical Erotic/a
According to Carolyn Ellis, Tony E. Adams, and Arthur P. Bochner, “Autoethnography is an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno).”9 In their introduction to Critical Autoethnography: Intersecting Cultural Identities in Everyday Life, Robin M. Boylorn and Mark P. Orbe describe a limitation to “un-critical autoethnography” that, in its focus on particular experiences, “can sometimes jeopardize attention to larger cultural issues.”10 Instead, they advance a critical autoethnography that “moves beyond simply documenting an experience to deconstructing it through theorization and critical analysis,”11 and the critical autoethnographies in their book “look at simultaneous and infrequent roles of privilege and marginalization that occur at the intersections of socially ascribed and constructed identities.”12
Boylorn and Orbe’s focus on “socially ascribed and constructed identities” tends toward post-structuralist accounts of trans- identity that overlook the dimension of desire in that, according to psychoanalysis, identities are always purchased at the cost of desire. For example, in “I Went to Bed with My Own Kind Once: The Erasure of Desire in the Name of Identity,” David Valentine shows that “paying attention to what people say about their desire—and the ways such assertions are accepted or rejected—enables us to investigate the power of identity categories to obscure particular desires both in people’s lives and in scholarly discussions of them.”13 Likewise, LeMaster offers that “approaches to sex and desire that begin with (imposed, compulsory) sexual identities will always already limit what we can know about sexuality.”14 A focus on identity, however, doesn’t exhaust uses of critical autoethnography, nor does it necessarily require us to foreclose desire in our accounts.
There is a rapidly growing body of queer autoethnographic work that penetrates critical autoethnography with desire. Even as early as 1997, Frederick C. Corey and Thomas K. Nakayama wondered, “How is it possible to write in the fulcrum between the language of academia and the language of sex?”15 As I do here, in their article “Sextext” they take up the difficulty of articulating desire in language as “desire continues to escape language at every turn.”16 Nonetheless, Corey and Nakayama insist on the importance of writing sex and desire into academic spaces, not in the abstract but in terms of concrete practices, especially as the materialization of sex and pleasure rubs up against systems of marginalization and privilege. Their insistence opened a discursive space for others to answer desire’s call.
Queer autoethnography has now [be]come a method of its own, defined by Tony E. Adams and Derek M. Bolen as autoethnography that “offer[s] personal stories ripe with sexual desire, infused with issues of reproduction, kinship, and family lineage, tangled by harmful, taken-for-granted norms tied to intimacy, and/or that celebrate uncomfortable, inappropriate, and disgusting experiences, practices, emotions, and affects.”17 Queer autoethnographies center stories and critical analyses of desire and sexual practices as integral components of queer worldmaking projects that seek more queer, more socially just realities.
Although queer autoethnographers continue to struggle for academic legitimacy,18 there remains relatively little scholarly work in the emerging field of transgender studies that attends to the specificities of trans- fantasy and desire. There are some reasonable explanations for these exclusions. First, the gatekeeping functions of psychological and medical regulatory regimes require that we (trans- folk) articulate our desire to transition in nonsexual terms. In the words of Tobias B.D. Wiggins, “Trans people have been caught in a taxonomical double bind, where finding pleasure in their natal body would risk the delegitimization of their identity claims, while simultaneously, finding sexual pleasure in their trans-gender thoughts, fantasies or aspirations also jeopardized access to state-controlled transition resources.”19 Historically speaking, according to Zowie Davy and Eliza Steinbock, “true transsexuals were expected to signal a lack of sexual desire, primarily by expressing disgust for their genitals. The clinical understanding of transsexual desire as directed solely at the object of transition (changing the form of the genitals) meant that desire for others as well as for oneself, was foreclosed.”20 I didn’t dare disclose my erotic intentions to my therapist when I sought access to testosterone, even if such an exclusion erected barriers to my own desire.
Another reason for a lack of attention to trans- fantasy and desire in scholarly work and public discourse is that the conflation of sexual identity, sexual practices, and gender identity and expression manifests in institutional and interpersonal discriminatory and violent actions against trans- people. The hypersexualization and fetishization of trans- people follows a predictable logic in a settler colonial white supremacist cis- heteropatriarchal culture. Trans- women of color, particularly Black trans- women, are depicted as hypersexualized and predatory vessels of desire, and these depictions are used to justify violence against them.21 As Johnson and LeMaster put it, “we understand gender to be a colonial refrain, a performative perpetuation of racialized gender normativity rooted in colonial control and domination.”22 For example, proposed “bathroom bills” that aim to limit trans- access to public bathrooms rely on myths of trans- women as predators stalking the innocence of young (white) girls. Wiggins argues, “A reification of this fantasmatic, predatory pervert also emulates aspects of the racial segregation of toilets by Jim Crow Laws. In both cases, a category of people has been fashioned and correlated with sexual impurity, disease, and degeneracy in order to justify the prejudiced management of physical space.”23 He concludes: “Current bathroom segregation panics demonstrate how concepts of race and nationhood have been formed in tandem with sexuality, and further, that these discursive trappings are still inseparable. Transgender people of color are consequently far more likely to be constructed as aberrant and encounter violence.”24
It is, in part, a defensive response to the perpetuation of Western colonial domination for trans- activists and educators to insist that sexual identity corresponds to whom we go to bed with, while gender identity corresponds to who we go to bed as, and this distinction remains salient in arguments about issues that immediately affect the lives of trans- people (such as arguments over access to bathrooms). Engaging questions about trans- fantasy, sex, and desire, therefore, necessitates ethico-political considerations about how these conversations, once public, might affect the material realities of the trans- people who have the most to lose. How can I, a white trans- masculine person who is in no way a primary target for violence, center my fantasies and argue for my access to sexual pleasure when the consequences for others are so dire?
In the words of Gayle Salamon, however, “deemphasizing sexuality to avoid the perils of fetishization would seem to be accompanied by a different set of perils, for it is certainly an impoverished account of subjectivity that cannot make room for desire, and we might ask what sorts of contortions result when trans subjects are required to suppress or deny their sexuality.”25 For example, Valentine demonstrates that focusing on immutable gender identity categories that are always separated from equally immutable understandings of sexual identities is specifically a raced and classed construct that renders desires that take shape among many poor people and people of color ultimately unintelligible.26 As I have explained, I am unable to think my own gender separated from my fantasies and desires.
How, then, are we to think and write about the intersections of gender and sexual desire and practices in ways that avoid the perils of fetishization (that further marginalize mainly trans- women of color), while also struggling against our erasure as desiring subjects? How might trans- folks create autoethnographic work that invokes our sexuality as a means to resist our pathologization while also helping to create the conditions through which ours and others’ gendered and sexual [be]comings might be coaxed into being? Perhaps the answers to these questions can be discovered through our contact with the erotic.
In “Felt Sex: Erotic Affects and a Case for Critical Erotic/a,” LeMaster “flirts” with a method of critical autoethnography that she terms critical erotic/a. Critical erotic/a as method is inspired by Audre Lorde’s definition of the erotic as a “measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.”27 Lorde’s words speak to my psychoanalytic understanding of fantasy as a structure of feeling erected in the place of our division (between the self and the chaos of the unconscious) that orients us toward the world. Fantasy is aspirational because the “fullness” it promises us will never come. Lorde, however, emphasizes that the erotic stages our relationship to our satisfaction, and she takes the striving for our satisfaction seriously.
LeMaster advances critical erotic/a “as a narrative approach to representing lived and envisioned sexual experience and desire placed in tension with structural constraints delimiting sexual potentiality.”28 More specifically, following Lorde’s theorization of the erotic, LeMaster argues that in the context of sexuality, “the erotic highlights the space [measure] between what sexual experience and desire is, as a result of structural constraints, and what sexual experience and desire can be—with the envisioned and eventual removal of the same.”29 Perhaps most important, she emphasizes attention to the ways that “sexual experience and desire can provide a blue-print for actualizing sustained transformation.”30 My analysis is indebted to her conception of critical erotic/a as she extends previous instantiations of critical autoethnography not only in the focus on erotic experience consistent with queer autoethnography but also in her inclusion of erotic experiences that are also imagined and fantasized. Critical erotic/a opens a space of possibility that allows us to complicate notions of (mis)recognition in favor of [be]coming.
Although becomings leave open the possibility that I can [be]come again and again, becoming is difficult to contain within discourse. As Salamon puts it, “the labor of elucidating that which escapes language through the use of language itself is a formidable and frustrating task,”31 so as you continue, I ask you to notice the nonsymbolizable excess that haunts the recounting of my narrative. For, according to Cavanagh, “There is, as trans* subjects know all too well, something central to being that goes unseen. In other words, trans* studies may be guided by a desire to apprehend something beyond the visible, yet central to being, in Lacanian terms.”32 This excess is noticeable in those moments in which I express seemingly incompatible ideas that “exist side by side without being influenced by one another, and are exempt from mutual contradiction.”33 An example is the way that the otherwise disgusting odor of beer, cigarettes, sweat, and leather can smell like pleasure to me as it enters the frame of my particular fantasy and is endowed with an excess of significance that I can’t explain in words. The experiences as a trans- masculine fag that I share here culminate in my insistence that we question the hierarchy of political seriousness that leads us toward attending only to concrete practices and identities and away from the seemingly trivial ephemerality of fantasy and desire.
The road that led me to Manhandler Saloon wasn’t without strife, and I learned a lot (and continue to learn) about the barriers that stand in the way of the realization of my fantasies, as well as the beautiful possibilities and pleasures that are enabled by my constant striving. There were so many social privileges that led to my decision to transition in the first place. I often ponder that it was, in part, by virtue of my academic background that I was even able to perceive of transitioning as an option. I wonder if I would have set out on my quest without first unlearning sex and gender as mutually exclusive, fixed, and essential social categories. Would I have transitioned earlier in life if I had come across this article in a journal when I was younger? Would I have been able to consider my own valorization of sex and pleasure if my fantasies and desires were contradicted by strongly held religious convictions? Would I have the psychic energy to invest in my dreams if my waking life was marked by a fight for survival? I can’t know the answers to these questions, but it’s worth considering the ways that our social privileges might determine what is even thinkable.
When I began my transition, my white racial privilege and masculine presentation allowed me to surround myself with supporters and largely avoid situations in which I might be met with transphobic, sexist, and homophobic sentiments or violence. In fact, unlike my trans- kin of color, I am not a primary target for sexualized and racialized violence. I didn’t have financial pressures that prevented me from seeking the required diagnosis of “gender dysphoria” that would allow me access to testosterone, and my job gave me access to insurance that covered visits to an endocrinologist. While my testosterone-altered body still bars me from entrance into some sexual spaces, the built physical environments I encounter do not currently disable my body and its entrance into most spaces. Compared to so many, my journey toward satisfaction was mostly unencumbered by external constraints.
Starting transition in a small, southern town in the United States, however, I quickly learned that the realization of my fantasies was far more difficult to achieve than I ever expected. Although, as Miriam J. Abelson argues in Men in Place: Trans Masculinity, Race and Sexuality in America, “[m]ore recent queer concerns with place have emerged as a challenge to the body of scholarship that tends to assume gay, lesbian, and transgender people flourish only in cities,”34 I found my quest for anonymous gay sex constantly frustrated in the South. For example, I once attended a workshop called “Fag Cruising Skill Share,” at the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference. I was so thankful the workshop existed because I was sorely aware that I lacked the social scripts I would need to navigate gay sexual spaces when I was ready. To my dismay, though, the workshop was led by a trans man from New York and a trans man from San Francisco who focused their teachings exclusively on the navigation of gay bathhouses. There were no bathhouses near the small town I called home.
Instead I was forced to search for hookups on online apps, like Grindr and Scruff. I was one of a very few, if not the only, self-identified trans fag in my area. When I did receive solicitations, they were always from men who identified as straight. They wanted to have sex with a “man with a pussy.” They were most likely attracted to masculinity but terrified to be gay. They asked me the most disconfirming questions—“Can I fuck your pussy?” “Do you still have tits?” “Will you let me eat you out?” While I respect their own journeys to make their fantasies come true, I was unwilling to consent to playing a role in a scenario that didn’t promise me pleasure. I understood more than ever that the becoming I most desired depended significantly on place. As Lucas Cassidy Crawford offers, “it is clear that where one lives and moves is more than a blank space into which subjects arrive fully formed; rather, choosing where to live and how to live with/in its spaces are technologies of the (undoing of the) subject, equally as much as those surgical and hormonal technologies we recognize more easily as body/gender modification.”35 Choosing where and how to live are privileges, and I was able to realize my great privilege of mobility. I left the South behind and moved to a town close to Chicago. The architecture of that city has come to be as much a part of my fantasized body as the morphological landscape created by the testosterone I inject into my thighs every two weeks and the breasts that still occupy my chest.
I approached my first trip to Boystown for sex with a mix of excited anticipation and anxious fear. All I knew about gay sexual spaces came from academic literature, gay fiction, stories from gay friends, porn, and my own fantasies. Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman note: “Such sources may list and describe the sorts of behaviors that mark or display gender, but they are necessarily incomplete.”36 They continue that “[t]o be successful, marking or displaying gender must be finely fitted to situations and modified or transformed as the occasion demands.”37 I was aware of my ignorance and the unavoidable fact that my mind was filled with problematic stereotypes, but I reminded myself that most gay men don’t have access to cultural scripts for navigating queer spaces until they visit them. This is one reason that creating and sharing critical erotic/a is so important. Much like slippery lube on the tip of a finger preparing an asshole for a cock, I cannot overstate the ways that more trans- work detailing the negotiations between bodies, fantasies, sex, and spaces would have helped to alleviate my anxiety and more easily enable my [be]comings.
My anxiety was caused not only by my transness and fear of rejection. I am also fat. I am familiar with the idealized aestheticized standards for the gay male body. I have seen them enacted in gay media and porn, and they are also the subjects of many scholarly projects. In “Embracing the Catastrophe: Gay Body Seeks Acceptance,” for example, Keith Berry describes the ideal male standard in relation to his visit to Steamworks, a bathhouse in Boystown:
A veritable somatic ploy of public relations, he is either “cut” or “toned” (fit) and should be “smooth” (hairless). If he is not smooth, or if he has more than a “treasure trail” or “happy trail” of hair, the ideal gay male “trims” (shaves) his chest. The ideal gay male is typically covered with form-fitting clothing, so as to openly display his toned chest and “abs”—preferably a “six pack” of abdominal muscles. He can also wear a slightly looser shirt but should never go so far as to wear something baggy.38
Berry adds his own insecurity: “As a stocky man who makes strategic choices, I have come to learn that a baggy shirt conceals a belly that I wish others not to see.”39 I would add that the gay male aesthetic ideal is occupied by a man who is also white. No amount of testosterone or weight loss will alleviate that constraint. Anti-racist activism is the only antidote.
Bathhouses remain one of the most desired venues in my fantasies. Unlike many bars, bathhouses only existed for me in my imagination until I became legible as a “man.” I would not have been allowed inside before. I dream of walking around with only a towel around my waist, making eye contact with a big hairy nameless bear through the thick steam, getting fucked by him, and then never seeing him again. However, on top of the insecurities Berry vulnerably shares (I have a belly too), I do not have a legible “male” body. I can’t imagine taking my shirt off in a bathhouse until I have “top-surgery” (a double mastectomy). As C. Jacob Hale describes these limits from his experience, “Some of these limits are constituted personally in that we cannot ourselves reconfigure the social meanings of certain bodily zones, and others may be externally imposed in that we cannot manage to communicate our attempts at idiosyncratic rechartings in ways that others are able and willing to read.”40 My breasts were certainly not a part of my fantasized body, and I doubted that they entered the screens of the fantasies of the men I might meet there. I decided I wasn’t yet ready for Steamworks (or maybe I feared Steamworks wasn’t ready for me).
My friend and I chose the Manhandler Saloon based, in part, on online reviews. One review posted on Foursquare, for example, remarked, “Stop by this gay watering hole when you are feeling kind of sleezy. Never mind the inside bar. The action is out back on the patio, regardless the weather. Grab a drink and head back.” It certainly sounded like a place where my dreams might come true. At the very least, the “one drink minimum” sign on the door indicated to me that men don’t visit Manhandler Saloon for the drinks. I couldn’t wait to get “manhandled.”
The front of the bar looks run down. The brick is dirty brown with darker brown trim, and the words, “Est. 1980 Manhandler Saloon” made with red painted wood cut-outs are displayed above the door. I noted the significance of the establishment year listed above the name of the bar. Manhandler Saloon survived the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ’90s. It’s likely that many of its patrons didn’t. It survived when so many bars like it were shut down. The Manhandler Saloon has enclosed death, mourning, and an insistence on pleasure and community that I will probably never wholly understand. I do understand, however, that this place is sacred. Its existence reminds me that there are others who chase their fantasies, in their case, even beyond the threat of death. The bar looks dirty, and it stands out like a sore thumb from the upscale restaurant next door and the newer apartments across the street that are surely out of my price range. It was just after 9 pm on the day after Christmas, and outside, families with small children were everywhere. The juxtaposition between the fag bar and the family-oriented heteronormative display all around it intensified my longing for what I hoped to find inside.
I was so nervous that it took every bit of grit I could muster to force myself inside. I’ve never jumped from a plane, but I imagine the apprehension feels similar. The affect reminded me of the feeling I had just before I injected testosterone for the first time—jumping off a cliff with no safety net below. The interior matched the dirty exterior but somehow felt cozy. A warm fire flickered in a fireplace on the far back wall, and the remainder of the bar was decorated for the holidays: tacky Santa Clauses, Christmas stockings, garland hanging on the walls. I’m not a Christian, but I often fantasized about catching a fat, hairy Santa replacing the coal in my stocking with a handful of switches and then using them to discipline me for my misbehavior. Thinking about it makes that feeling begin to emerge—quickened heart rate, warm skin, sweaty palms, and so many butterflies. Although it was early for a weekend night out, about fifteen (mostly white) men were in the bar area. They all seemed to know each other. I’m in my mid-forties, but I was among the youngest people there. I admittedly made some quick problematic assumptions. “This older generation doesn’t get trans- people,” I thought. “This is going to be a disaster.” I also wondered how many of these men had been coming here from the beginning, drinking with the ghosts of lost loves I couldn’t see.
My friend and I went directly to the bar to get drinks. The bartender obviously recognized that this was our first time. “This is a cash-only bar,” he told us. My friend asked him about the backroom. He gestured toward the back of the bar past the bathrooms. “There is a smoking area just out back, and the backroom is behind it.” He paused. “It’s a cold one tonight, but there will be people back there.…Maybe I’ll see you out there after my shift.” He winked. He was so friendly that he quelled my fear that this might be a “members only” group. He was also just my type—a chubby, hairy bear with worn jeans and no shirt. The barrier between my fantasies and their realization blurred as my eyes darted back and forth between the bartender and the gay leather porn playing on the televisions behind him. I was grateful for his heavy pour when he mixed my gin and tonic.
My friend suggested we go out to have a smoke and check out the backroom. I was happy for the opportunity to surveille the bathroom situation on the way. Bathrooms in gay bars can be difficult to navigate. Sometimes the stalls don’t have doors on them, which, depending on the bar, can be intimidating for this trans- boy. The bathrooms can absolutely determine how long I’m able to stay in the space. I was lucky this time, though. The bathrooms were single-stall and stocked with toilet paper. Despite there being no locks on the doors, I decided I could manage.
My friend and I made our way outside to the smoking area. I was so glad I wasn’t alone (I wouldn’t have gone alone). It wasn’t his first time having sex with strangers at a bar, but he’s also a hot, cis- man with a great body. The smoking area was lined with mismatched chairs and ashtrays, and we were the only people back there. The backroom loomed just beyond the smoking area. True to the saloon theme, the backroom looked like a wooden barn, complete with a hay-covered floor. It was too dark to see past the entrance. I wondered: is this the place where I will finally become a fag? We heard a man clear his throat from within the recesses of the backroom. My heartbeat quickened, and despite the cold, my palms started sweating. Here comes that feeling again. “There’s someone back there. Go suck him,” my friend prodded. I staged a silent argument in my head. “You don’t have to do this,” I told myself on one hand. “Don’t be a wimp. You’ll never see these people again,” I thought on the other. My dreams were there, just beyond the threshold of the door, but I couldn’t make myself go in. “I need another drink,” I told my friend, chugging the one I held in my hand.
I went back inside to buy another much-needed drink. Coming in from the cold, I first noticed the smell of cigarettes, beer, leather, and sweat. I crinkled my nose at the odor, not yet knowing how intoxicating I would soon find it. The place was already busier than when we first entered. I found a spot at the bar next to a man who appeared to be alone. He was sitting in front of the video poker machine, but he wasn’t playing. He was older than me (I would later learn he was about to celebrate his sixty-fourth birthday). He was an attractive Black man with balding gray hair, a matching goatee, and a pair of thin-framed glasses pushed down to the edge of his nose. I saw the steam rising from a hot cup of coffee cradled between his hands. I was hesitant to talk to him. He certainly didn’t strike me as the hot Daddy from my dreams, but he also seemed safe. I thought maybe my fantasies could accommodate a nice grandfather type. “Do you come here often?” I asked him, and then immediately felt stupid for conjuring such a cliché. “I come here a lot,” he answered. “I’ve never seen you here before. Do you live in Chicago?”
I’m not sure what came over me. Maybe it was the gin or maybe it was just because he seemed so friendly, but I surely answered with more than he was expecting. People who are trans- are accustomed to accounting for our bodies, and for me, the accounting is always awkward. Jay Prosser accurately offers that “narrative is also a kind of second skin: the story the transsexual must weave around the body in order that this body may be ‘read.’”41 “I’m a gay trans- boy,” I shared, careful not to call myself a faggot just in case it might offend him. “I’ve sucked a lot of dick in my life, but I’ve never gotten to suck gay dick since I’ve been a boy myself.” He looked amused, so I continued. “I’m desperate to have gay dick in my mouth.” He started to smile. “I want to go suck gay dick in the backroom so bad, but I’m scared.” As soon as the words left my mouth, I regretted them. I thought, someone should shove a dick in my mouth to shut me up. My first conversation with a stranger in a fag bar, and I broke just about every rule I know about masculinity. I shared my insecurities and fears with someone I just met, and it was completely unprovoked. He was just trying to make small talk. My performance was far from the suave confidence I imagined in my fantasies.
But this sweet man just looked in my eyes, smiled wide, and answered with the gentlest voice, “I’ll go to the backroom with you. You can suck my dick, and don’t worry, everyone is scared their first time.” Words don’t exist to explain how I felt in that moment. My fear was immediately replaced by that burgeoning feeling—quickened heart rate, warming skin, blushing cheeks, so many butterflies. He took my hand and led me to the backroom. Just crossing the threshold excited me. “Before you suck my dick, I want you to kiss me,” he instructed. I like being told what to do, but there was never any kissing in my imaginings. “If this is the price I have to pay to suck his dick, it will be worth it,” I thought. He surprised me with the sweetest most gentle kiss—but I wasn’t there to kiss.
I started clumsily working at his zipper and trying to drop to my knees. He briefly stopped me. “I just need to tell you before you do this that I don’t have a big dick.” I immediately thought about racist assumptions about Black men’s bodies. I didn’t ponder this at the time, but on later reflection, I wondered about the role I played in the structure of his desire, and I wondered at the role he imagined he played in mine. After all, he wouldn’t have felt compelled to offer that disclosure if he didn’t assume that I imagined him with a big dick. I admit that I did, and his Blackness absolutely carried with it an erotic charge for me. Was this why he requested a kiss? Was this his insistence that he be treated as more than an object? Yet, I disregarded his insistence to kiss as an odd request, only thinking about the ways that it might nullify my pleasure. This was my first time letting my fantasies out of my own body and mind to mingle with the fantasies of another, and I have a lot to learn about the racist tropes that animate my fantasies and the ways that I am complicit in erecting barriers to others’ satisfaction. Instead, I responded with a joke. “That’s okay. I have the smallest cock in the room.” He laughed and allowed me to drop to my knees while he took out his cock.
Sucking his cock in the backroom at Manhandler Saloon was everything I wanted. Warm skin. Blushed cheeks. Butterflies. The smell of sweat, leather, cigarettes, beer, his coffee, my gin. Heart beating out of my chest. Sight and hearing blurred. Sweaty palms that slide up and down his cock in rhythm with my mouth. So much saliva. More butterflies. Groans. Cum. As I looked up at him, his warm cum dripping from my chin, he recognized me. “That was a good blowjob boy.” More than referring to me with the correct words, this man gave me the gift of materializing my fantasy for the first time—a queer recognition indeed. I now knew what becoming a fag felt like. It felt good.
My new friend walked with me inside and introduced me to his other friends who had arrived at the bar. “Our fresh meat is no longer a backroom virgin,” he told them. I smiled and repeated the story I had shared with him. It worked once, after all. Maybe my vulnerability doesn’t taint my masculinity in this space. “Do you want to get fucked, boy?” one of the men asked me. His words lit an inferno of desire in my belly. “Let’s all go,” said another. So there I was, bent over a cold wooden table in the dark outdoor backroom of Manhandler Saloon. Beating. Blushed. Blurred. Sweat. Butterflies. I [be]came again.
Desire Becoming Visible
Lest you think that my experience at the Manhandler Saloon was an anomaly, I had similar experiences many times in many different bars on the margins of Boystown over the months that followed. I also had experiences in which my [be]comings were denied. Some bars required I take off my shirt before I could enter their backrooms. Some spaces have bathrooms that seemed prohibitive to my trans- body. Some potential partners rebuffed my advances because my transness didn’t fit into the frames of their particular fantasies. I suspect I will forever strive to become, and I will experience each [be]coming as a gift.
Over time I have learned to be more reflexive about the racist, ableist, and sexist underpinnings of my own desires. It has always been men of color, particularly Black men, who populate my fantasies. So many times I have justified it to others by explaining that my political commitments prevent me from allowing myself to eroticize white men, but in truth, there does not exist an intellectual or political reflection that can blush my cheeks and rush my blood through my body like my unconscious fantasies do. While I’ve argued in this article that our most intimate and personal fantasies are not necessarily consciously chosen, we do choose how to or even whether to materialize them with others. As Susan Stryker writes in reference to her own gendered and sexed embodiment: “These feelings were real. I am agnostic as to their origin. I did not choose them. I chose only how I would inhabit the architecture of their affect.”42 We must be attentive to, in the words of LeMaster, “the ways a lack [or overabundance] of desire operating under the guise of ‘preference’ risks drawing on and perpetuating systemic exclusions and erasure of marginalized bodies, identities, and modes of relating.”43 I am still learning how to navigate the institutional and interpersonal barriers that stand in the way of my satisfactions, and I am most certainly still learning how to avoid erecting those barriers for others.
Several months after I was first “Manhandled,” I went to another bar on the outskirts of Boystown called Touché, an explicitly fag leather bar. A spanking demonstration was planned for the backroom that night, and I was excited at the possibility of realizing yet another fantasy. Gone was my foreboding sense of nervousness and fear. I knew the chances were good for me to get laid, but at the very least I would leave with some good jerk-off material (which unbeknownst to me at the time has proven vital since backrooms were closed due to COVID-19—a true cockblocker of a pandemic). I walked to the bar, procured my gin and tonic, and headed straight for the backroom.
I was immediately greeted by two of the men who participated in my “gang bang” at Manhandler Saloon. Just the sight of them brought memories rushing back. That familiar feeling began to emerge. One of them commented on my newly found confident swagger. Then I saw him—another trans- guy like me. He was also there to get fucked. He was also a fag. He also had not yet had top surgery. “I’m always glad to have a tranny fag sighting in the wild,” he told me. “Have you been here before?” “Nope. First time,” I answered. “Let’s get fucked together then,” he said. I didn’t tell him that it was not only my first time at this bar but also my first time getting fucked with another trans- guy. T4T (trans-4-trans) was a fantasy that had been quickly ascending my list. “I just need to visit the bathroom and get another drink,” I told him. “I’ll come find you in a minute.” I realized that in my excitement to get to the backroom, I had forgotten to check out the bathroom situation. “I’ll let you in on a secret,” he whispered. “The guy at the door holds a key to the ‘ladies’ bathroom,’ and us trans- guys usually feel more comfortable in there. Just tell him you’re trans- and he’ll give it to you.”
Thankful for his advice, I made my way back to the door of the backroom, and I found sitting there the hottest Latinx bear I have ever seen. He was wearing leather chaps, and the straps of his leather harness were nestled in between thick patches of chest hair. I must admit I instantly forgot all about my new trans- friend. “Hello. I’m trans-,” I started to tell him. He pulled out the bathroom key attached to a long stick before I could finish my sentence. “Maybe you can come show me where it is and how this key works,” I flirted. Without a word, he rose from his seat at the door and gestured for me to follow him into the bathroom. Once inside, he turned me around and pushed me up against the bathroom stall door. “Yes, yes, yes,” the words unconsciously flowed from my lips. He reached around, unfastened my jeans, and pulled them down to the floor. “Is this what you want?” his bearded face growled into my ear as his waiting fingers traced the outside of my asshole. “Yes. Please sir,” I responded (I was in a leather bar after all, and I enjoy using the honorific). His spit-lubed finger entered my ass. He fingered me for what felt like forever but was probably only a few seconds. “I am [be]coming,” I panted. “You’re a naughty dirty boy,” he chastised. Then his demeanor quickly shifted to kind. “Bring me back the key when you’re finished, and don’t hesitate to let me know when you need it again.” I was struck by his caring recognition of my transness and my fantastical wanting simultaneously, and I will never forget it. I find myself continually surprised by the caring affection I have found alongside pleasure in these dens of anonymous sex. I made my way back to the backroom, winking at the door man on the way inside, and found my new trans- friend.
Critical erotic/a is a method that opens a discursive space for us to “interrogate lived and envisioned sexual experience and desire as critical means to interrogate embodiment, identity, and modes of relating,”44 and I argue that this discursive space is crucial for the flourishing of trans- futures in particular. Bernadette Marie Calafell and Shinsuke Eguchi insist, “If we are going to embrace and perform gender futurity, it requires that we find new ways of speaking and creating knowledge.”45 Similarly, Susan Stryker calls for a “militant insistence on an epistemic parity between the disparate knowledges of the scientist, the philosopher, and the whore—and a refusal to discredit what our own carnality can teach us.”46 We must make room for fantasy and desire in addition to symbolic recognition as we work to create livable lives. We must disrupt strict divisions between our gendered embodiment and our desires. For, in the words of Cavanagh, “While transpeople may very often be eclipsed by the monstrous (often transphobic) desire of the Other, we should also recognize the creative potential that is unlocked when the nostalgic longing for totalizing coherence is relinquished in favor of imaginative conception.”47 Although psychoanalytic theories have historically been used to marginalize us, they can also be used to open us up to the idea of our lack as a space full of possibility—our idiosyncratic, creative strategy for survival and pleasure. After all, we trans folk are the ones who daily refuse to give ground relative to our desire. Our embodied lives are a testament to the shimmering radiance of desire [be]coming visible.
Amber L. Johnson and B. LeMaster, “Erotic as a Site for Normative Disruption.” In Gender Futurity, Intersectional Autoethnography: Embodied Theorizing from the Margins, eds. Amber L. Johnson and B. LeMaster (New York: Routledge, 2020), 144.
B. LeMaster “Felt Sex: Erotic Affects and a Case for Critical Erotic/a,” Departures in Critical Qualitative Research 9, no. 3 (2020): 105–111.
B. LeMaster, “Notes on Trans Relationality,” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking 4, no. 2 (2017): 87.
Patricia Gherovici, Transgender Psychoanalysis: A Lacanian Perspective on Sexual Difference (New York: Routledge, 2017), 23.
Tim Dean, Beyond Sexuality (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2000), 221.
Dean, Beyond Sexuality, 260.
Hil Malatino, Trans Care (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020), 11.
Gherovici, Transgender Psychoanalysis, 63.
Carolyn Ellis, Tony E. Adams, and Arthur P. Bochner, “Autoethnography: An Overview,” Historical Social Research 36, no. 4 (2011): 273.
Robin M. Boylorn and Mark P. Orbe, “Introduction: Critical Autoethnography as Method of Choice/Choosing Critical Autoethnography.” In Critical Autoethnography: Intersecting Cultural Identities in Everyday Life, vol. 2 (New York: Routledge, 2021), 7.
Boylorn and Orbe, “Introduction,” 6.
Boylorn and Orbe, “Introduction,” 9.
David Valentine, “I Went to Bed with My Own Kind Once: The Erasure of Desire in the Name of Identity.” In The Transgender Studies Reader, vol. 1, eds. Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (New York: Routledge, 2006), 410.
LeMaster, “Felt Sex,” 108.
Frederick C. Corey and Thomas K. Nakayama, “Sextext,” Text and Performance Quarterly 17, no. 1 (1997): 58.
Corey and Nakayama, “Sextext,” 67.
Tony E. Adams and Derek M. Bolen, “Tragic Queer at the Urinal Stall, Who, Now, Is the Queerest One of All? Queer Theory/Autoethnography/Doing Queer Autoethnography,” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking 4, no. 1 (2017): 104.
See Angela Jones, “Pornographics as Queer Method,” in Other, Please Specify: Queer Methods in Sociology, eds. D’Lane Compton, Tey Meadow, and Kristen Schilt, 95–108 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018). Jones discusses the lack of attention to concrete sexual practices in sexuality research. She focuses specifically on academic and institutional struggles for legitimacy for autoethnographic and ethnographic work that attends to sex.
Tobias B.D. Wiggins, “The Pervert on Your Couch: Psychoanalysis and Trans/Sexual Health.” In Sex, Sexuality, and Trans Identities: Clinical Guidance for Psychotherapists and Counselors, eds. Gary J. Jacobson, Jan C. Niemira, and Karalyn J. Violeta (Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2019), 172.
Zowie Davy and Eliza Steinbock, “‘Sexing Up’ Bodily Aesthetics: Notes Towards Theorizing Trans Sexuality.” In Sexualities: Past Reflections, Future Directions, eds. Sally Hines and Yvette Taylor (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 271.
Siobhan Somerville, “Scientific Racism and the Emergence of the Homosexual Body,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 5, no. 2 (1994): 243–266.
Johnson and LeMaster, Gender Futurity, 4.
Wiggins, “Pervert on Your Couch,” 162.
Wiggins, “Pervert on Your Couch,” 162.
Salamon, Assuming a Body, 45.
Valentine, “I Went to Bed,” 407.
Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde (Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 2007), 54.
LeMaster, “Felt Sex,” 106.
LeMaster, “Felt Sex,” 106.
LeMaster, “Felt Sex,” 108.
Salamon, Assuming a Body, 82.
Cavanagh, “Transgender Embodiment,” 306.
Dean, Beyond Sexuality, 147.
Miriam J. Abelson, Men in Place: Trans Masculinity, Race, and Sexuality in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), 11.
Lucas Cassidy Crawford, “Transgender without Organs? Mobilizing a Geo-affective Theory of Gender Modification,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 36, no. 3–4 (2008): 137.
Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman, “Doing Gender,” Gender & Society 1, no. 2 (1987): 135.
West and Zimmerman, 135.
Keith Berry, “Embracing the Catastrophe: Gay Body Seeks Acceptance,” Qualitative Inquiry 13, no. 2 (2007): 265.
C. Jacob Hale, “Leatherdyke Boys and Their Daddies: How to Have Sex without Women or Men,” Social Text 52/53 (1997): 231.
Jay Prosser, Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 101.
Susan Stryker, “Dungeon Intimacies: The Poetics of Transgender Sadomasochism,” Parallax 14, no. 1 (2008): 42.
LeMaster, “Felt Sex,” 107.
LeMaster, “Felt Sex,” 109.
Bernadette Marie Calafell and Shinsuke Eguchi, “Are We Queer Yet? Queerness on the Horizon in Academia.” In Gender Futurity, Intersectional Autoethnography, 78.
Stryker, “Dungeon Intimacies,” 39.
Cavanagh, “Transgender Embodiment,” 322.