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In this episode of The Turn On, Erica and Kenrya talk to Trystan Cotten—gender studies professor and founder and managing editor of Transgress Press—about the fluidity of gender, building Black cultural institutions, how collectives can help Black trans folks overcome some of the barriers to publishing their work, and the beauty of romantic relationships between trans men and cishet women.
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Kenrya: Before we get started, we're here to do some begging.
Kenrya: So before we get started, we're here to do some begging.
Erica: We are here to beg like 1980s and 1990 R&B stars like who? Keith Sweat.
Kenrya: Keith Sweat, yeah. Remember when we saw him in concert?
Erica: It was like the apex of niggas in linen pants, those little A tank tops, and Stacy Adams.
Kenrya: It's true, but it was a damn good show. We were in our 20s when we went to that show.
Kenrya: We were very young.
Erica: Now I wouldn't be mad at a fine gentleman in some nice linen pants.
Kenrya: Me too. And I can still appreciate the begging of Keith Sweat.
Erica: Can we? Like he says, he begs to your woman so you don't have to.
Kenrya: Exactly, but today we actually do have to beg.
Erica: We doing our own begging, right?
Kenrya: Yeah. And you don't have to break out your linen, but what we do want is for y’all to tell us what you think about the show.
Erica: Yeah, so it sounds like work, I promise it does, but it's painless. All you're going to do is head to TheTurnOnPodcast.com/Survey and answer a few questions. It will help us give you more of what you love.
Kenrya: Yes, help us, help you.
Erica: Yeah. On the survey, is one of the questions, “Do you guys enjoy Erica singing?”
Kenrya: That is not one of the questions on the survey.
Erica: I feel like it should be.
Kenrya: You think it should be?
Erica: I feel like it should be, but whatever.
Kenrya: Just yo, if y’all give us a few minutes of your time, you can help us give you more of the show that you love. And all you got to do is head to TheTurnOnPodcast.com/Survey. Yes, please, and thank you.
Erica: Okay, so let's start the show.
Kenrya: All right.
Kenrya: Come here. Get off.
Kenrya: Hi, y’all. Thanks for joining us. Today we are talking to Trystan Cotten, pronouns he and him. Trystan is a professor, publisher, and entrepreneur, and he's currently professor of gender studies at California State University Stanislaus and the founder and managing editor of Transgress Press. He's published several books on transgender issues and identities, as well as on African American and Native women's cultural productions. He's currently working on a documentary film about transsexual men's experiences with genital reconstructive surgery. Thank you so much for joining us for our final episode of Season Four. Wow. We're so glad you're here.
Trystan: Thank you for inviting me. I'm really glad to be here.
Erica: Okay, Trystan, so as folks that like to talk about sex every week, we like to ask all of our guests, what was the prevailing attitude about sex in your home when you were growing up?
Trystan: It's interesting, my mom didn't really talk a lot about sex, so we didn't have that conversation. Keep in mind my mom died when I was 14, so we might have had more conversations as I grew into young adulthood. Certainly growing up as a kid we didn't talk a lot about sexuality. When I got my menstrual period, we didn't have a lot of conversation around that. My mother was like, "Here are these sanitary napkins."
Erica: "This is what you do."
Trystan: "This is what you do with them. This will happen to you once a month. It's no big deal." We didn't really have a conversation. I think my mother in a general sense said, “Keep your mind open and your legs closed.” That was the extent of the conversation had around that. Of course my mom, when I was a kid growing up I didn't watch her date a lot. Sexuality might not have been a big part of her life particularly once I came into her life. It may be a number of reasons why that was the case. If I had to do it over, I certainly would have a much more in-depth conversation with my kids, certainly if I had sons. If I had a daughter, I would want my wife or my girlfriend or whoever, a woman influence in my life at that time to have that conversation with my daughter. I think that's really important. I think in my opinion, some ways my mom's attitude was what you don't know won't hurt you, which we know that doesn't make a lot of sense, but that was-
Kenrya: It can be easier when-
Trystan: It can be easier. It can be easier. My mother may have detected ... You know when you raise kids, you know their personalities, you know what they're geared toward. I was certainly a rough and tumble kid. I liked to roam with the guys and play football. I never really exhibited behaviors that suggested I might one day grow up to be a feminine woman and a heterosexually identified one at that. My mother might have also picked up on those cues, thinking there's not a lot to ... Why bring it up if this child's not, doesn't see my child particularly interested in that at that age. It could've been a number of factors.
Kenrya: That's real. I'm wondering, how did you come to start Transgress Press?
Trystan: I started Transgress Press, we founded the press in 2012. Certainly the leg work and all of the organizing happened about a good year, year and a half before that. I transitioned in 2007. I became acutely aware of just how marginalized and ostracized trans people are in our society and just how disempowered we are, meaning that we have very few resources, very little access to institutions of power, and little capital. It was a number of different factors that came together. One was that recognition.
Trystan: Myself having grown up in the Black Nationalist tradition, I have always been aware that Black people, at least in terms of how we think about survival in Black Nationalism, is that African Americans or anyone of African descent, wherever you are in the world, need to control two things. One is economic power or wealth in our communities. We need to control the relation to production and own the wealth, which we don't do. We know that here in a good bit of America Black wealth is a tenth of that of white wealth.
Trystan: Then I think the other has to do with cultural institutions or what we call building institution or institution building in Black communities, so building schools that serves Black children's interest to tell our history from our perspectives. It includes libraries. In my case, something like a publishing company, historically in Black communities, at least for 170 years going back in America, we have produced newspapers and some form of media to express what's important to us and to educate our own, knowing that white institutions, white newspapers and publishers were never going to do that in a way that was authentically representative of Black experiences. It would always be told from a white perspective.
Trystan: Coming out of that tradition of needing to have economic power, needing to have control over the culture, cultural productions in our community, I decided to start Transgress Press out of my own gifts and talents as a professor, in the sense that I do research, I'm a scholar, an author, and an editor. I decided to start this press for trans people, and to produce literature that would more accurately represent trans people's experiences. A lot of the books we produce are by and for trans people and about trans issues, but then a lot of them were not. For example, some of them are by cisgender people. Some of them are cisgender heterosexual people. Some people are cisgender gay people. In some way or another they deal or delve into the trans experience.
Trystan: Understanding the need to, how institutions that serve Black communities, I decided to develop Transgress Press to serve trans people and our interests. I came up with the term Transgress because I wanted to make sure the literature that we produced was the kind of works that think outside the box or think outside normative values, because a lot of trans people do live outside the heteronormative order of the values. Some of them live within that as well. Just by nature of being trans, we transcend, so to speak. We transcend as for the heteronormative framework in way of existing. I wanted it to represent trans people, hence Transgress Press.
Trystan: I also wanted it to be literature that forces or at least encourages its readers to think beyond what is, beyond the everyday, and to imagine what it's like to be a trans person, to imagine what it's like to be connected to trans people, and to hopefully educate people about our lives, because as you can see, we've been under attack quite immensely over the last few years. It's not that trans people historically have ever had a period in time where we've just been able to be who we are and not look over our shoulder. That's much more intense now, the scapegoating of trans people, the scapegoating of Black people, scapegoating of immigrants and Muslims, all in the service of reestablishing white patriarchal dominance, and in some ways white supremacy, because that's really what we're engaged in now.
Trystan: A fight against white supremacy. I wanted that literature to serve people and get people to think beyond what stereotypes that you see of trans people and come to understand us and relate to us as human beings and see that we in many ways share a lot of commonalities with non-trans people. At the same time we're a unique group of people who also need help. We still have yet to enjoy the full scope of citizenship rights. We're definitely in a battle for our lives, along with other marginalized folks as well.
Kenrya: That's true. You spoke about how a lot of what you're trying to do is to give folks some real insight into what it means to live, to be of trans experience. We read “Vicissitudes” on the show, by Kim Green. We asked you to come on, because first of all, y'all hit it out of the park when it comes to that mission.
Trystan: Thank you.
Kenrya: We really want to talk to you about how you came to bring that story to readers, why you chose it. For us, we picked it because it features a Black trans main character, and it's beautifully written. We want to know what made you say, "You know what? This goes on the roster. This goes on the list."
Trystan: That's a great question. Like you said, number one, it's a beautifully written book. When I first picked it up as a manuscript, I think I got through it in two and a half, maybe three days, which is unheard of.
Kenrya: Yeah, because it's long.
Trystan: I just couldn't put it down. It's really a page turner. It's long. It's a page turner though. When you get to the end of the chapter, you want to just keep going, like, "What's going to happen? What's going to happen?" The couple, and then there are other characters in the novel who have their own issues and how are their things going to get resolved. Some of them are trans and some of them are not. Number one, I really love a beautifully written book. That just mainly goes back to my experiences in graduate training with literature. More than anything, the book is bold. I love a bold writer. I love it when people take chances and really take the reader out on a limb to see if they can push the reader to thinking differently about norms and values.
Trystan: In that book, as you very well know, you have a Black trans man who ends up dating a cisgender heterosexual woman. I thought that in and of itself is bold to talk about in the sense of most people don't even realize that, for example, they could be dealing with trans people in their everyday lives. They have no clue about a person's history. What I found particularly interesting is that their love relationship brings together two communities that they consider separate and having no overlap. Most people wouldn't imagine a trans man being able to date a cisgender heterosexual woman or wouldn't be able to imagine themselves as a cisgender heterosexual woman dating a trans man, because you have all of these stereotypes that are consistently pumped out in the media about us. I think that's part of what contributes to people's inability to fathom a relationship. I thought it was really bold to take that chance, to explore what would a relationship, what would it look like if a woman, a cisgender Black woman, fell in love with a trans man, unbeknownst to her in the beginning, and then to have that reveal, and what would that relationship look like, what would the negotiation process look like. I enjoyed that particular trajectory of the book, because it's very realistic. As you know, Jahn and Morgan, they go through their struggles. They have their ups and their downs.
Trystan: Then I think to talk about other aspects of the book that I think that are bold, that hook into that, is that I saw the author as very much trying to get Black people in America to think about the assumptions that we have about queer and trans people in our communities, and to educate our communities about where our fears and anxieties come from. In that book, there's a moment where the character Rene, who's a Black lesbian, ends up attending her mother's funeral, and then subsequently does something with her ashes that me, you, and Erica know would be ... It's excommunicable type of behavior. It was really bold for her to do what she did. I'm not going to reveal it to the audience because ... What do you call that when-
Erica: Especially among Black folk.
Trystan: Especially with Black folks. It's blasphemous what she did. The author took a chance to do that, because something like that could really blow a book beyond the pale of redemption for certain people, for certain readers. I like the way that she took a chance and did that. It's beautifully written. It doesn't come across as just trying to step on Black religious traditions and Black heterosexual suspicions. There's a nuance in a way that the writer goes about teasing out why Rene does what she does.
Kenrya: It felt true to the character. It didn't feel like this-
Trystan: It did. It very did.
Kenrya: ... shocking thing that she just decided to throw in there. It felt like, oh, I see how she got here.
Trystan: Exactly. I'm sorry, go ahead, Erica.
Erica: I was going to say I think that the book wasn't overly preachy, it wasn't like an after-school special. It was just a really good story that you can learn from. That's what I loved about it. I felt like I learned even more about the trans experience, about aspects of the trans experience, through this character. It wasn't like, "This is how we do this," or, "This is what happens next." It was just, "This is a story-"
Kenrya: “A very special episode.”
Trystan: I think that's very much what the author wanted to do. She wanted to accomplish that goal with the readers, that readers could situate themselves somewhere in the novel's characters and go through this storytelling process and the way people's lives were affected by trans experiences. I think it's because of those, speaking to the Black community, very much trying to deal and educate Black folks around sexuality and gender issues, it was particularly important for me as well. I think also it's important for us to support women writers and Black women writers. I was on the market for a Black woman's text this year. I was looking for that. We ended up publishing a couple of other women authors too. This year we really focused on publishing women authors, and particularly women of color. I think Kim would be quite happy that you got that experience out of it, Erica.
Trystan: The book really takes you through some of the issues that come up for trans people in relationships, so what happens when you're a cisgender person and you're dating a trans person, regardless of their gender identification, what are some of the issues that come up around how other people regard you and how you deal with that sort of thing, how trans people themselves continually have to manage our own lives. Some of us have to be very secret. Jahn, he's very secret in that book about his identity. He's not out at work. Some of these are very authentic representations of trans people. I very much like the way the author took the time with each one to take us through and really peel back the layers and give us humanly relatable characters that we could like and not like, for that matter, and think complexly about.
Erica: We struggled. I think you were in on a bit of that conversation in the beginning where we struggled with deciding to take on this book, because we really wanted to find books that were written by Black trans writers to reflect the Black trans experience. After conversations with you and among ourselves, we figured, okay, let's go for it. However, it has been a struggle on our show to find particularly erotica written by Black trans folks. Can you tell us about the challenges that stand in the way of our trans siblings around publishing and getting their work out there?
Trystan: Sure. When I think about this, I think from an intersectional perspective. I also think about the way in which trans identities intersect, the way we're trans but we're also Black and brown and white and we're differently abled people.
Trystan: That was another thing I wanted to say about the book is that, before I answer your question, Erica, I very much appreciate the way the author took time to integrate different characters with disabilities-
Trystan: ... into the book, because I think that's ... First of all I think disability issues constantly remain on the periphery of both the culture and individual people's consciousness. Certainly in our society we don't make a place for disabled folks. I think we're also not as well educated about the range of disability. Most people think of disability as someone who's in a wheelchair or someone who's got a cane, but they don't think about disabilities that are invisible. Some of those have to do with mental health issues, which actually comes up in the book, but also physical disabilities that people can't necessarily see, but that really impact and affect every aspect of your life, so from your work to your family and how you show up, if you're hurting all over, if you have joint pain, for example. It's difficult to show up for family, for children, when you're in pain. That was the other thing I wanted to say about the book. I really enjoyed the way the author brought disability issues and characters into the novel without making it about that or without it being so obvious. She slides in and talks about them and the things that they're dealing with as any other character with a disability. It's just a normal part of your life, that they do however have to manage in some sort of way.
Trystan: To get to your question about trans authors, I think about it intersectionally. Sorry, I'm having to wipe the sweat off.
Trystan: It's about 106 down here. I think there's a fair amount of trans erotica out there. Most of it is produced by white trans authors. I think that when it comes to Black trans people, and I'm going to throw Latinos in here, Black and brown trans people, and this may even be applicable to people of Asian and API descent, though within those three groups, there are nuances as well, in terms of how we deal with gender and sexuality and why we do it in the way that we do.
Trystan: For Black folks I feel that there's a double burden, or maybe even a triple burden. It's hard for Black trans people to just be out and visible as Black trans people. So much in our own Black communities, so many, whether there's churches or community centers or sororities, fraternities, we still have a really reactionary approach to trans people.
Trystan: I think that Black trans people don't feel safe coming out and being visible as trans people. We stay in the closet about who we are and about our pasts, because it's also important though as Black people that we have connection with other Black people, regardless of the differences that we have, whether it's religion or sexuality or gender. It's still really important for African Americans to have that connection, because that's still home in a country that has yet to treat Black people as full citizens. We can't just wander off or leave the Black community and wander off into the sunset, because that means either being nowhere and being alone or being in white trans and queer spaces, where we also have to deal with racism, class elitism, and even mythologies about who we are, in terms of playing a certain role or performing a certain Blackness for white people that's aligned with racist ideas about Black folks. It's hard for us. We need those connections. I think that a lot of us are not out about that or we don't write about that because we can't be out about that. It would expose us, and there's so much to lose.
Trystan: I think on another level, Black trans people are politically and economically even worse off than cisgender Black folks and white trans people. For example, we represent a higher percentage of homeless queer and trans people per capita. Now certainly if you look at it by population size, white trans and queer youth, for example, outnumber youths of color, but if you think per capita, by percentage, racial and ethnic percentage, we are at the top of having youths, and not even just youth, but just trans and queer people who are homeless, people who don't have jobs, people who are dependent on social systems for our existence. I think that's part of it too is that we don't have that kind of economic or the financial ... What's the word I want? The financial-
Kenrya: It's hard to write a book when you're trying to eat.
Trystan: Thank you. That's a nice way to say it.
Erica: I was just saying that. Writing is a luxury. Being able to sit and write out all your hopes and dreams and write about fiction. You got to know that you being fed.
Trystan: That's right.
Erica: It's hard to make up shit when rent's not getting paid or you're unhoused.
Trystan: That's right. I think you said it best. You've got to eat first before you can write. It takes time to write a good book. I would even argue that's the case for erotica. I know lots of people like to put down erotica, although they're reading it-
Kenrya: At night.
Trystan: ... on the back end at night [inaudible 00:28:27].
Trystan: Yeah, fronting is right. A lot of the time you talk to academics and they want to marginalize erotica as if it's something easy. It's not easy to write any particular thing, especially if you want to do it well. I think that would be the case also, across the genre. It takes time and money. It takes support. You have to have someone to work with. You need someone to read your work, give you real feedback. Sometimes that cost money. That's part of the reason also why you don't see us writing our stories and writing memoirs about our lives is that we're struggling, many of us, just to keep our homes. Now that COVID has hit, I think you probably see even less activity among trans authors in general, and Black and queer trans authors.
Trystan: I could just say from my case, for example, I have the money, I can sit back and write it, but then I don't have the time. I have to run a press. I teach full-time. If I don't do those things, then if I don't care of my responsibilities, those two areas of my life will fall. I'll be a failure at them. I have to think about hiring someone to write my own memoir.
Trystan: I think it's about visibility, not wanting to lose community that we need, Black folks, and not having the means, for that matter. Even white trans people have the means to that, even though they themselves also suffer from transphobia and discrimination.
Erica: What advice do you have for Black trans people who want to get published?
Trystan: I would suggest that people form collectives, because you can get more done as a collective. In writing circles, writing collectives, that's one way to do that. That way you get support from other people. If you do it with Black writers, then you get support, that kind of implicit support. Black people, we know our lives, we know what we're writing. You don't have to educate us the way you would a white writer who didn't necessarily get it. Writing collectives, provide support. They provide editorial, technical support from other people. It's not just emotional and cognitive support, but it's technical support. I would suggest to people think about publishing as collectives, not just as individuals, because a collective can come together and raise money to produce a book, in a way that an individual has more difficulty doing that. That would be part of my advice for that. Then there's also the problem of dealing with the visibility. We still have to get over this hump, this barrier of what's going to happen when I come out publicly about being trans, what's my family going to say, what's my community going to say, what's my minister going to say? That's what I would suggest in terms of Black trans writers.
Trystan: I also think that there needs to be a whole lot more work done in our communities to educate Black cisgender people so that we don't lose our families and our churches and communities, so that we keep them, and that we feel that we have their love and approval and support as we go forward writing these stories that are very important.
Kenrya: Word. To that point, we're wondering, what do you wish that more Black people knew about gender?
Trystan: That's a good question. One of the things I wish Black folks would know is that gender is fluid, that gender's more than just two genders. This is something that we know not just from human experience, but we know that from looking at the animal kingdom, for example. We have certain animals. For example, seahorses, for example, do you know that in that cluster of species, it's actually the male, the sexed male that gives the birth of the seahorse? It's not a female. If we were to try to take our human experience of woman produces egg, man produces sperm, and try to map that onto seahorses, we would completely miss the mark and would not be able to appreciate the fact that males can get pregnant in that particular species. Even nature itself has what we call a variance of sex coded genes, if you will. In terms of gender roles, nature just is varied. For example, penguins. The empire penguins, the ones who hang out up there in Alaska. I think penguins are really cute.
Erica: They are cute.
Kenrya: They're adorable.
Trystan: Even penguins, the gender roles don't align the way human beings' gender roles align. Once, for example, the female penguin gives birth, then the male penguin comes along and he sits on it and wraps himself around it and incubates, waits on the little guy, for it to crack. When it's the female penguin, they take off. They go sometimes hundreds of miles to find food. They get that food and they store it in their bodies and then they come back. By the time they get back, that little egg has hatched and that little baby is ready for that food that mama has brought back. Here's a case where you have a sexed male penguin who engages in what most of us would call feminine behavior, but it's not engaging in feminine behavior. It's doing what it's been preprogrammed to do genetically.
Trystan: I think one of the things I would like Black folks to understand is that when it comes to sex and gender, the human experience is much more varied than what we think it is and what we read or maybe people are not reading. Maybe people are just listening from the pulpit or only reading the Bible. Nature shows us, nature actually gives us a map for how we could be more open and live in accord with one another rather in discord.
Trystan: I'd also like Black people to explore something that's really important in terms of our sexuality and our gender and the way that we respond to people who are not heterosexual or who are not cisgender. That has to do with the trauma and the degradation that Black people experienced for the first 250 years of being enslaved in this country. The things that were done to bodies, Black women's bodies, Black children's bodies, were heinous in what slaveholders did. It carries a cultural memory that's been handed down from one generation to the next, that pain and that trauma of having your 12, 13-year-old daughter raped in front of you, having your wife raped in front of you, not being able to fight back, indeed not having ownership of your children if you're a Black woman, to have the slaveholder come and just sell them down the river as they please.
Trystan: One of the things I want Black people to do is to become more in touch with that history of trauma around our sexuality and our gender, which I believe that has over generations upon generations has crystallized into this fear of anything that doesn't look like the white man's social organization of family and community. What that means is just heteronormative, a woman and a man and a child. If you go back to our experiences prior to contact and conquest and look at the way African, particularly Yoruban cultures, organize their societies. The gender roles were very different from the way that white people understood and organized their societies. The women, for example, held the power, because the women presided over the agriculture. Even though the men went out to hunt and bring back food, it was never enough to feed the family or the clan. African woman have always held some esteem and power with men in the tribe in terms of decision making, in terms of power. There have even been women chiefs, for that matter. We had, in Africa, a very different way of organizing our societies.
Trystan: In fact, sometimes, I don't know if you guys have ever heard of this, but there's something called female husbands. This is a term in anthropology. It's one of those things you have to pay attention to nuance. We want to be careful that we don't map homosexual Western values onto that as well. What would happen, for example, is that if a woman was ... Hold on, let me just take these glasses off. I'm having trouble with these. If a woman, she got married, and she had a husband, and she brought a certain amount of property and value to the marriage, and then her husband that she coupled with brought value to that marriage, one of the things that was permissible in the society is that husbands could take additional wives. They weren't necessarily wives the way we think about conjugal relationships. Same was also the case for the wife. If the family had amassed enough land and enough wealth that needed to have additional bodies to control it, to manage it, to use it productively, she could take on what we call a female husband. She could take a wife.
Trystan: This is an important part I think to tend to the nuances here. She could take a wife. She would get married. That woman would become a part of her clan. Together, they would bring that land together, and it would increase the wealth of the family as a whole. The woman that she married also may have children or she would give birth to children, which were seen as, on top of children, they were seen as little laborers. We're talking an agricultural-based society, so you have to have people to work the land. Now what that relationship was not, as far as we can tell anthropologically is it was what we call a nonconjugal marriage, in that it wasn't a relationship between two women where sex was involved, in the way that we think about sex in Western society. Certainly there was emotional connection. There was nurturance. There was cooperative negotiation between roles and support for one another. This was largely because women were grouped together. They tended to live together, and then men tended to live together.
Trystan: In those societies, prior to Europeans coming over there, people of African descent, we thought about the organization of our society in terms of gender and sexuality very differently. We did not ascribe those kinds of negative connotations to two females coupling together in a marriage. It was a part of a norm. You fast-forward to today, and we have such an intense homophobic reaction when we find out someone is gay, we find out someone is trans, in our Black community. I feel like that goes back to the many years of shame and guilt that Black people experienced under slavery. It continued. It wasn't just 250 years of slavery. It was another 100 years, because they continued to rape Black women, continued to lynch Black men, in highly ritualized, sexualized, symbolically sexualized lynchings. There was a lot of pain around that, a lot of shame. Not just shame for what happened to us, but shame of not being able to protect ourselves, our children.
Trystan: One of the first things African Americans realized around the Victorian era, this is about 1890s or so, and this is when you begin to see Black people openly embrace white Victorian morals of that time, is because it was actually a performance or a façade for staying safe in Black communities and not getting lynched or not sticking out. Black people began to couple up, get married. A lot of this happened in churches. We began to police. When I say police, I mean to surveil, observe, to chastise one another, particularly women. This is something that happened mainly toward women, but also toward men, if men were queer. Certainly if women didn't wear the dress long enough, or maybe if they were showing a bit of skin, they were chastised by other women as immoral or what they called back then intemperant. Very much in Black communities, the policing of Black gender roles and Black sexuality is intertwined with staying safe in a white country that will kill us all if we don't play by their rules.
Kenrya: It's like the early acting out of respectability politics, how that still plays through today and it's meant to keep us safe, even as it robs us of our freedom.
Trystan: Great metaphor. That is respectability politics, because the other thing too about that, Kenrya, is that we've always had Black queer and trans people in our-
Kenrya: Exactly. Ain't nothing new.
Trystan: ... communities and our churches. Ain't nothing new. bell hooks writes about this and talks about this, and so does other people, Barbara Christian, Barbara Jordan, to write and talk about what it ... In a Black community, everybody knew Miss Sally and Miss Ellie May. They grew up up on the hill. They came to church every week. They did their tithes. They were there for the picnics.
Kenrya: They went home together at the end of the day.
Trystan: They went home together and wasn't no man around and that's how they lived. That's their special friend. That's how that went. What was interesting about that is as long as you stayed within the confines of the Black community, and this is before people run around carrying rainbow flags and all kinds of things-
Kenrya: Don't be out about it.
Trystan: ... swamping through the streets. Don't be too flamboyant about it, because there would be serious consequences to Black communities. You'd have some white night riders visiting your community and burning it down. We've always had queer people. The choir boy in the church-
Kenrya: The choir director.
Trystan: ... was typically gay. The choir director, typically gay. Everybody knew. Long as he didn't sport it out on the street, it was fine. When I grew up as a kid and in Atlanta where you guys are now, I grew up over there by Spelman. There was somebody in our community, I swear, I didn't know it at the time, but certainly look back now, this person was probably trans, certainly was a gay person. We called her, because Miss Rowland. Miss Rowland had been born pronounced male sex at birth, but Miss Rowland, that was her name. We called her Miss Rowland. She walked around with her flip-flops on and her rollers in her hair, with her daisy dukes and her little-
Kenrya: Yes come thru daisy dukes.
Trystan: ... shirt tied up around her. She was doing her thing. Everybody like, "Hey, Miss So-and-So! Hey, Miss Rowland! How you doing?" Everybody knew about Miss Rowland, but nobody ever beat-
Kenrya: Y’all respected her.
Trystan: Respected her. It was never nothing. Nobody ever called her a name or anything like that. We just all lived like a bunch of poor Black people over there near Spelman, just trying to make it along.
Trystan: Together. That's right. There was no hate in that community around that.
Kenrya: Thank God. We asked you if you had any questions that you wanted us to ask you. They're so good. We're going to go through these quickly. The first one is do trans people have satisfying, loving relationships? How do they find partners? What are the challenges and rewards of those relationships?
Trystan: That's great. In “Vicissitudes,” Kim Green delves a little bit into that. You get to see in that book the melting of barriers that separates Jahn and Morgan and the deepening of their connection. I would say yes, I think trans people do have satisfying relationships. I think our relationships look a lot like other people's relationships, except sometimes we have the added pressure of dealing with things like surgeries or hormones or getting access to those things. Sometimes we have to deal with phobia and oppression. I think trans people, certainly people have children. I've got quite a few friends who are married. They've got three or four kids, and living out in the suburbs or living somewhere in the city. I think very much so, we have good, satisfying relationships. Then sometimes we have them, they don't work out very well. They go south. They go south in a minute. Those are the ones you have to jump off, say, "Okay, she's not for me, but maybe she's for somebody else."
Trystan: That said, I also think that it can be a challenge for trans folks to find partners. Some of those challenges have to do with the fear that we're going to be rejected, so many stereotypes about us out there. We're scared that the moment we tell somebody that we're trans, they're going to say, "It's not going to work for me," or, "Owee, what's that? That's weird. That's queer." I think some of that has to do with overcoming our fears and just taking a chance sometimes, just showing up authentically, "This is who I am. This is my life. Like to know more about you," and giving people a chance. I think we can have some challenges particularly around that when it comes to our own fears and anxieties. Nobody wants to be rejected, for that matter.
Trystan: Also, the challenges of dealing with mythologies about trans people. I think sometimes too when people think of trans or transgender, what they think of is a transgender woman on Oprah or Maury or something like that or Jerry Springer. They have these stereotype, over-the-top ideas about who we are, and may not even necessarily take a chance connecting with us if it's something like you're dating online or dating through one of the cellphone apps. We very much I believe have a little bit of extra work to deal with around overcoming the mythologies about us, and I think also being when you're Black and brown, you deal with ... Those mythologies pile up.
Trystan: I was struck when I first started dating many years ago, I was struck by how many women reacted more to me being a brown man, a Black man, than me being trans. You can tell when people are responding to you, whether or not they're responding to you in terms of stereotypes or misgivings about people. I date women of all races or ethnicities. I don't discriminate. I didn't find it as much with Black women, but certainly when you go outside the race, whether it's Latina women, Asian women, white women, I found more stereotypes dealing with people in terms of Black men are deadbeat dads, we're thugs, that sort of stuff. That was something more I had to overcome.
Erica: What is it like for a cisgender woman to be in a relationship with a trans man? How's it any different from being with a cisgender man?
Kenrya: This was another one of your questions. Thanks for that.
Trystan: Was this my question?
Kenrya: Yes, this is your question. You're like, "That's hard."
Erica: It's been a while.
Trystan: That was the professor speaking right there. That was a guy thinking of a test question. I don't even know what a cisgender woman thinks of. I will tell you what I think as a trans man, what we bring to the relationship that women, regardless of their gender, sexuality, but that I think women can get from that.
Trystan: I think that trans men, because we're different from cisgender men, because we have lived on the other side in some manner, even if we didn't identify with our bodies. Myself, for example, I didn't really identify with the sexed characteristics of my body. I just lived from the neck up. I certainly know what it's like to be brown and female in body in this culture and the sexism and how it combines with racism, the things that Black women go through. As trans men, we have an extra level of consciousness that women don't have to teach us about sexism and misogyny, because we know what that's like. You don't have to rope us into or convince us to get down with women's struggle. Many of us come into it already geared up. A lot of us have already had that history. A lot of us have marched in the streets for women's rights. We bring that into a relationship.
Trystan: Sisters don't have to educate us about what it's like, what the hardships are for women, and women of color. They don't have to drag our asses into the streets and say, "Come on, I need your help. I need you to get out here and run interference for me." They don't have to do all of that work. We're there already when we show up. I think women can appreciate that, particularly women your age and younger, or even women my age who've grown up in the aftermath of feminism. You don't have to explain to us. We bring an extra level of sensitivity and support for that. I can tell you that the trans community is up in arms about the shit that went down in Texas.
Kenrya: In Texas. Lord.
Trystan: They're already organizing. There are trans women that are organizing. I can't really reveal it right here because there are some things that they're putting together. One of the authors of another book, her name is Brynn Tannehill, she came up with an incredible strategy for what trans people can do to help our sisters there. We are beyond angry. I'm livid. The thing is, we bring the extra level of understanding.
Trystan: I also will say this too. I know one of the things that women like to have with men is better communication and a better open channel of emotional sharing and caring. I think that a lot of trans men out there are better equipped around that, around those kinds of practices in relationship than say cisgender men, who were raised to be independent-minded and aloof and self-absorbed. This is no knock against cisgender men. I certainly am thankful to my brothers that I've connected with over the years since I've transitioned, who really taught me a lot about manhood and masculinity, and particularly Black men. It is to say that cisgender men are taught to be a certain way. Their gender socialization masculinizes them in such a way that it can close them off from communication modes and good emotional sharing, connections with women, that trans men, because we've been around women, a lot of us are coming out of circles of women, particularly feminist circles of women, we already have that training. In other words, you don't have to train us. We come to the table with some understanding about our feelings and our emotion and wanting to talk about those things and not wanting to run away necessarily when things get emotional and difficult.
Trystan: I would say trans men are better at processing, emotional processing than cisgender men, who for cisgender men it sometimes takes several decades to go through life and have several divorces, children are alienated from you, and somewhere in your late 40s, your early 50s, you start to clue in somewhere like, "Oh, maybe the factor here is me. Maybe I need to do some work on myself." I'm saying this because I know an awful lot of cisgender men who have become alienated from their children and their previous wives and girlfriends because they just acted out some of those old masculine ways of dealing with women, and women left them. Then after it happens enough, and enough pain and struggle, they can't take it anymore. They have to look inward. I know guys who are going through that.
Erica: You mentioned just a moment ago about some of the work that our trans siblings are doing to help Black women and women in general. What can our listeners do to support our trans siblings?
Trystan: That's a great question. I would say showing up for us. Instead of being so self-absorbed or one-dimensional in the way that we think about our lives and what's a problem, instead of just responding just to those things that are in our lives, that affect us immediately, remember that somewhere in your life, you've engaged in one way or another with a trans person. You may have known that person was trans or you may not have. I'm struck by how often sometimes I connect with people, and then I'll get a call from them later or an email or something later and it'll say, "Hey, I didn't know you were trans." I'll be like, "Yeah, yeah." It made me think about how many people deal with trans people on a regular basis and don't even realize it. What we need is for our people to, next time somebody is standing up in the pulpit trashing trans people, or next time somebody's sitting around the bar or the pool table and they want to tell a queer joke or a trans joke, hey, intervene. Say, "Hey, that's not okay. That's not okay. Don't talk about people like that." You don't have to love someone to do that. You don't have to like someone or a group of people. You just have to have a certain set of principles and a commitment to those principles, to eradicate this society of that kind of negativity.
Trystan: I find myself occasionally, if I hear antisemitism, I'll let you know about it, "Hey, dude, not okay," and wait to deal with the response. For me it's an opportunity to educate someone. It's also an opportunity to say, "Hey, that's not tolerable here." I think sometimes people do continue to do that, engage in that kind of behavior, because other people sitting around either laugh at it or don't say anything at all, which is lending tacit approval to that.
Trystan: One of these things that's getting to me these days is the murder of Black trans women. These are not white folks that are killing us. These are our own Black people. These are Black men, cisgender men, many of them, who are killing trans women, because what happens in many of these instances is that these men are actually dating these women. They're actually coupled up with these women in some way, but it's on the down low. They're afraid to be visible about it-
Kenrya: Of exposure.
Trystan: ... because they're afraid that someone's going to call them queer or faggot. They're afraid they're going to get thrown out of the man group. When something like that, it is discovered, the first thing the guy says, "I don't know her," or, "You got me wrong," and/or is to kill the woman or to murder her. That's a way of establishing himself as someone who's not only manly and capable of eradicating what some people in our society call nuisance, but it's also a way of distancing himself and saying, "I'm not queer. I don't date those trans women, because see, I can murder one. I can kill one, so I'm at a distance from them." We've got to stop this.
Trystan: This is one thing, white people are not doing this, because in these communities, white people don't come in these places in some of these, where you see these women are murdered at. White folks would never step foot in those communities, especially at night. This is something that really pains me. I want people to speak up and speak out about it, to call it out for where it is.
Trystan: I also think in our community we need a certain level of compassion and engagement with people like that to tell them, "Hey, you're okay. It's not okay what you did. It's not okay to be hurting people. If you want to be with somebody, you want to be with a trans woman and you're a cisgender man, okay. It's your thing. Do your thing." Stop judging people. Stop driving people to these extreme behaviors.
Trystan: We have a lot of work to do, because the thing is the women are dead and then the men go to jail. Who's winning there? White patriarchal capitalist society, that's who wins there, because now you have one less trans woman to serve the interests of the state. Then you have a Black man sitting in prison who's going to serve the interest of the state through free-
Kenrya: Free labor.
Trystan: Free labor. Free labor. Exactly.
Kenrya: That's right. I'm wondering, what are you reading right now?
Trystan: Wow, you did ask me that last time. I'm actually reading an old book, that it's been a while since I've read it. It's called “Transgender History.” It's by Susan Stryker. I'm reading that book because I'm reconnecting and reilluminating my mind with the deeper history of trans people in the United States dating all the way back to the 1900s. What I like about that book is that Stryker also looks at trans history as it's intertwined with Black and brown civil rights struggles. There's a fair amount of material in there that links civil rights movements to trans activism in the 1960s, a lot of that which was on the West Coast. I think people would be fascinated to know just how many people in the Black Panther Party and trans people in the 1960s were actually linking up together and creating street demonstrations and street protests for civil rights for both Black people and for trans people. I know that there were quite a few Black trans people who worked in the Black Panther Party in terms of serving those institutions, like the breakfast program, the literacy program. I'm very much refamiliarizing myself with trans history, and particularly how it was intertwined with Black civil rights struggle, which probably sounds boring, but I am a professor so there's that.
Erica: What’s turning you on?
Trystan: Wow. What turns me on every day is, I was thinking about this the other day, because I talked to a friend of mine I hadn't talked in a while. I used to have a crush on her, and still do have a little bit, but she's dating somebody right now. I'm really happy for her. It got me to thinking about how much I love smart, powerful women. I like women who get shit done. I like them smart. That's what turns me on. Smart and sassy. A little bit of attitude thing, little neck rolling thing. You know what I'm saying, y’all? You know that's hot. It just is. Every man's got his thing, what he thinks is hot. That's what I like. I like smart and sassy, a little bit of little neck roll and got a big brain and a big heart. That's what turns me on.
Kenrya: That's not where I thought you was going with that.
Trystan: Sisters like that. I've been wired that way forever. A good intellectual discussion for me easily finds its way to the bedroom in a matter of time. I'm wired that way. Who knows why? Everybody got they thing. I think it's because, we haven't talked about my mother, but my mother is the reason why I'm here, why I exist. My mom imprinted on me as a child very heavily. As I aged I got to see parts of my mother that would come out in me, depending on circumstances and context. They say that you're attracted to your first loved object. Your first loved object you experience in the world. That's what you eventually put on a pedestal in terms of attraction. My mother was very much a very determined woman, a very, very smart woman. She was no-nonsense, as they say, nothing to fuck with, but yet very compassionate, had a deep heart, and caring for animals and plants. That's the kind of woman I like. I like a woman who's smart and sassy, gets shit done, also though has a little penchant for the flair and finesse and loves animals, has a vision, can be extending of herself, can be nurturing and strong at the same time. They say men grow up and they want to marry their mom. You want to marry a version of that. Maybe that's what's going on for me.
Trystan: I tend to be partial to Black women. I think Black women have more sass and sexy. Black women have more finesse. Black women, they don't try to look alike. Most sisters I know, they have their own thing going. They're like, "I like that, what you doing, but I might try it this way." They put their own little touch, their own little unique stamp on something. It's one of the things I like about Black women too is that they try to be unique and really care about being individual, whereas I see sometimes, and I won't call no names specifically, but other ethnic or racial groups, the women just all try to tend toward the same bouffant thing or little bob thing cut, whatever. It's just, nah, Miss Ann, nah. Not working. Not working for me. There's that.
Kenrya: Word. For those who want to be able to find you, let's talk about where they can. On Twitter you're at TransgressPress1. I'm going to spell that out. T-R-A-N-S-G-R-E-S-S-P-R-E-S-1. Right?
Trystan: That's us. We're also on Facebook.
Kenrya: As Transgress Press. Why do I keep tripping up on that? Then your website is TransgressPress.org.
Trystan: That's true, dot org, yes.
Trystan: They can find out more about books there, about authors, and about the press.
Kenrya: Word. Then you're offering a special code for our listeners. If folks use the code trans, T-R-A-N-S, they will get 20% off all books that they purchase on the site.
Trystan: All books. All books. That's been set up already.
Kenrya: Dope. See?
Trystan: If they just online and put “TRANS,” they get 20% off any book.
Kenrya: Y’all need to head on over there and learn some shit.
Erica: Learn some shit. Get your copy of “Vicissitudes.”
Erica: All of that.
Trystan: I love it. I love it.
Kenrya: Yo. Thank you for coming on.
Erica: This was the best.
Trystan: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Erica: It's always fun talking to you.
Kenrya: Y’all, that is it for not only this week's episode of the show, but for the whole ass season. We about to close out-
Erica: Season Four. We about to close out-
Kenrya: ... on a great note.
Erica: ... with-
Erica: ... Trystan.
Trystan: Awesome. Thank you.
Kenrya: Thank you. Thank all of y’all for listening.
Trystan: Don't forget to visit the site, 20% off. Thank you for having me on. Love being able to contribute and give something to your listeners as well.
Kenrya: Thank you. All right, y’all.
Kenrya: This episode was produced by us, Kenrya and Erica, and edited by B'Lystic. The theme music is from Brazy. Hit subscribe right now on your favorite podcast app and at YouTube.com/TheTurnOnPodcast so you'll never miss an episode.
Erica: Then follow us on Twitter @TheTurnOnPod and Instagram at @TheTurnOnPodcast and you can find links to books, transcripts, guest info, what's turning us on, and other fun stuff at TheTurnOnPodcast.com.
Kenrya: Don't forget to email us at TheTurnOnPodcast@gmail.com with your book recommendations and your pressing sex-and related questions.
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Kenrya: Thanks for listening, and we'll see you soon. Holla.
The Turn On
The Turn On is a podcast for Black people who want to get off. To open their minds. To learn. To be part of a community. To show that we love and fuck too, and it doesn't have to be political or scandalous or dirty. Unless we want it to be.