Every other day I log onto social media and there’s an ongoing debate about whether someone’s personal dating “preferences” are “problematic”. The conversation tends to follow a very particular, predictable structure:
If you don’t want to date a trans person, you’re transphobic.
If you don’t want to date a Black person, you’re racist.
If you don’t want to date a dark-skinned person, you’re colorist
If you don’t’ want to date a fat person, you’re fatphobic.
These debates usually start when someone shares their dating “preferences” publicly. Usually this conversation is cyclical because once someone argues that it’s “phobic” or “ist” not to be attracted to certain people, it’s natural to become defensive. The reasons we’re attracted to certain people are often nonsensical. Most people aren’t trying to make sure that their attractions are inoffensive to others. My standard reaction to this conversation is that people will date who they want to date and really that’s no one’s business; but obviously if you make your “preferences” known, they will be criticized. Aside from that, this debate is interesting to me because as a Black transgender woman, I’m often outside of the romantic “preferences” most men have. This often puts me in a position where I’ve shared myself with people who do not exactly prefer me, and those experiences have left me with lasting pain.
Personally, while I’m deeply uncomfortable assigning bigotry to someone’s attractions or lack thereof, I’m also uncomfortable with the idea that the people who make this argument are trying to force people into their bedrooms. A huge issue with this discourse is that these statements of “preference” often do degrade into bigotry. It’s one thing not to want to sleep with a transgender woman; it’s another to suggest that she’s predatory for communicating attraction to you. That said, I can understand why people tend to interpret these arguments as citing bigotry to strong arm someone into including transgender people in their dating pool. If it’s transphobic not to date a trans person, and transphobia is bigotry, then the clear argument seems to be that it’s bigoted to reject a transgender person. However, what people are usually trying to draw attention to is that our dating “preferences” don’t develop in a vacuum. They’re usually established through our socialization; and for that reason, they’re often influenced by a culture that has historically been transphobic, racist, colorist, fatphobic etc. Because our culture has been so influenced by those isms, people usually digest those who directly experience them as unattractive. Our beauty standards almost always reflect the aesthetics of the privileged, so it isn’t farfetched to suggest that bigotry and the “preferences” people develop are related. The argument being made is these attractions should be examined for that reason. That said, while attractions can certainly shift as we explore beyond our initial socialization, there are plenty of things about it that will remain static. In truth, these conversations fall apart because they tend to ignore how attractions develop and shift in the kind of society where attractions are so deeply influenced by a culture with such history.
This isn’t a perfect metaphor, but I think dating preferences are quite like food preferences. There’s what you know you like, what you’re curious about, what you’ll eat on very rare occasions, what your religion says you should and shouldn’t eat, what you’ve had, but wasn’t a fan of and what you know for a fact you don’t want ever again. I grew up eating mostly soul food and other, standard American fare. I remember the first time a guy asked me out to a Thai restaurant and my immediate thought was “Ew, Thai food is gross”. I felt that way with absolutely no exposure to it beyond what I assumed it might be. However, when I had Thai food for the first time, I fell completely in love with it to the point where it’s one of my preferences to this day. While I may have expanded my flavor profile, there are still plenty of things on the menu that I’ll never order. I still have this strong aversion to very spicy food so “Thai spice” is my absolute limit. Similarly, with attraction, there are some things that are an “acquired taste”, but they may eventually become a preference, while other things will always be off the table.
On paper, I exist within one of the least desirable bodies. I am fairly dark skinned, I’m unambiguously Black, I’m transgender and I’m plus sized. I very much know what it feels like to exist outside of the idealized standards most people have for their romantic partners. It can be lonely because even when you’re not being romantically rejected, you’re often being socially rejected in very subtle ways. It materializes in how people never seem to invite you to certain things. How you notice that your white friends are just treated with more dignity. How often you’re put into a position where you’re completely desexualized and treated as though you’re some sort of mascot or caricature. This is a nuance I almost never hear discussed when we talk about these dating “preferences”. Most people want to twist the conversation to be about bitter ugly folks who are angry that no one wants to fuck them, but it’s much more than that. Existing outside of these standards commonly exposes you to bigotry. That rejection reaches wider than romance. That said, my position is that this is a symptom of these phobias and isms, but I struggle to feel correct in saying that they –are- those isms. While I recognize that, for example, a white person rejecting a Black person because of their race could be described as racist; I tend to think the actual racism is how much that white person will subconsciously exclude Black people socially because of that “preference”. To me, that would feel like a more useful description of bigotry because it’s about a general attitude of exclusion that affects more than just the people, they choose to build their lives with. In my view, dating is an inherently exclusionary practice and it’s not unreasonable to want to date people who share a similar background. Of course, there’s some degree of bigotry in assuming that the only people who you could have commonality with are people who look just like you, but that’s still probably a safe bet in most situations. While I get the emotions behind why people make these arguments about bigotry and attraction, I know from my own personal experience how much bigotry tends to exist among people who are indeed attracted to me. I personally understand what it feels like to be included into the sex life of a person who is trying to solve their ignorance by using your body to find themselves and it is a less than desirable reality.
I don’t think it’s necessary for anyone to be attracted to a transgender person and I certainly don’t buy into the idea that those who are could never be transphobic. When you’re a transgender person, you become hyperaware of the fact that dating you is complicated for most people because we live in a society that politicizes relationships between transgender people and cis people. When people wanted to attack former President, Barack Obama, they did so by suggesting that his wife was a transgender woman. This was supposed to be embarrassing and say something about his masculinity and sexuality. Quite often, people define themselves by their sexuality. While heterosexual men may feel like they don’t define themselves by their sexuality the way a gay person might, you see by how many heterosexual men fear the stigma that comes with being seen as gay, that this identity and the privilege that comes with it, is incredibly important to them. Offline, most of the men who express attraction to me are heterosexual and because this is such a central part of their identity, this often puts me in an uncomfortable position. When transgender women are murdered, society is quick to argue that she “tricked him” by existing as a person who he found attractive that existed outside of what he believed were his “preferences”. That rhetoric makes me incredibly nervous around men, but it hasn’t stopped me from dating. What I’ve learned through my relationships is when you live in a society with this degree of stigma and ignorance against you, it takes a very long time for most people who were socialized with that stigma and ignorance to reach a point where they can pursue you without shame. It’s unfortunate, but for me, part of existing in this society has been accepting that to many people, transgender women are an acquired taste. One that requires a degree of work and exploration beyond what’s readily presented by society. Transgender people are very rarely depicted in a positive way, which means they are very rarely seen as viable romantic partners. If you follow society’s messaging, you can easily reach the conclusion that a relationship with a transgender person could only ever be negative. So, for many transgender people this pushes them to only date other transgender people because the reality of dating a cis person who was socialized to see you as lesser than requires a lot of patience and the desire to educate. A lot of people don’t want to do that in a romantic relationship, so some transgender folks prefer dating other people who directly understand their experiences. Realistically, most cis people who been socialized in this way are going to have to do a lot of work to unpack those biases. For me, the complicated question is what exactly does that work look like and is there a version of it that doesn’t indirectly harm transgender folks?
Most people’s first attractions are reflective of the communities they were raised in, which, because of our country’s history, aren’t often diverse. It’s easy to write off an entire category of people when you’ve only been exposed to a few of those people or you’re only familiar with stereotypes. While I was raised in a racially diverse area, there were certainly groups of people I became more attracted to once I moved to the city, which is the most racially diverse place I’ve ever lived. It’s taken me a while to understand that quite a few white people are raised in communities where they never encounter people of color. In that environment, it’s easy to make statements that exclude all people of color from their dating pool, but attractions may or may not shift when they venture beyond their small towns. When people point out that your dating “preferences” may be reflective of society’s history of bigotry, the next natural step is to self-reflect and ask yourself if you’d date someone outside of your “preferences.”. The answer you come back with might be “no”, but maybe it’s a curiosity instead. For most people, that curiosity will be predominately sexual and sadly what often results is fetishism.
When you exist outside of most people’s preference, the flipside is commonly fetishism that never quite leads to more than a one-sided sexual relationship. A white person from a white town who was told all their lives to only engage in romance with other white people, might fetishize the idea of violating that taboo by having sex with a Black person. A society that rejects transgender people’s bodies as valid is also one that deeply fetishizes them. As a trans woman, most of the men I’d describe as “chasers” are men who get off on the social taboo of sleeping with transgender women and the fact that no one knows what they’re doing. Partially because they’re ashamed, but also because the secret excites them. Their secrecy also maintains their chances with cis women, who tend to be their preference. These men know that a lot of cis women would be repulsed if they knew they were attracted to transgender women, and this is the excuse they give for treating trans women how they do. Unfortunately, most chasers are in the position they’re in because they saw a trans woman who challenged their understanding of self, and they slowly but surely developed the habit of secretly consuming transgender pornography and contacting transgender women. They were curious, but then they learned they can prey on a group of people who are so used to not being preferred that they are often willing to go the extra mile to satisfy those who have privilege over them. In fact, because transgender women know that they are rarely preferred over cis women, the attention of cis men is very validating to transgender women who are in an insecure phase of life. It’s not uncommon for transgender women to feel flattered by the affection of a man who identifies as heterosexual because, to them the expression of attraction is also a validation of them as women. So, you have a group of heterosexual men who might otherwise be unimpressive whose inherent quality is now seen as impressive long before anything else is established. Some men become intoxicated by the idea that all they have to do is say they’re straight and gorgeous transgender women, who haven’t quite found their worth, will overlook all of their flaws, all of the reasons other women have rejected them all to feel more proximity to their privilege. This often leads to some very toxic and abusive dynamics that are very stressful for transgender women. These men are actively attracted to them and choose to mistreat them because they are transgender. For me, that will always feel more transphobic than someone simply saying no to me.
In these conversations, you’ll often hear the defense “everyone’s got a preference”. I’ve dated a handful of people who have argued that they were more highly evolved. They swore that they didn’t have preferences, but I’ve never found that to be true. Understandably, voicing your preferences sounds harsh and puts you in a position where you have to defend them. I understand why people struggle to openly state their preferences, but as a person who is often the least preferred, there are times I wish I didn’t naively believe that certain people saw me how they’ve seen others. I’m polyamorous and I only date people on the left; I guess that makes me “rightphobic”, but I’m okay with that. Who men tend to prefer becomes very obvious when you are polyamorous. I’ve dated men of various racial backgrounds who all denied they had a preference but were often primary partnered to cis white women. If they weren’t when I met them, almost all of them left or paused their relationships with me because of a new, cis white partner. Removing monogamy from the conversation, allows for these things to be seen more clearly because a monogamous person could easily argue that it’s a coincidence that they just so happened to fall in love with someone who fits the idealized beauty standard. When you live in a very diverse city and all of your partners are that idealized beauty standard, it’s obvious you have a preference; but these people will deny it. If you went to a Polyamory social and lined up every woman who was primary partnered, most of them will be cis and white; that’s not a coincidence. You’ll notice the “secondary” partners tend to be a bit darker skinned, often more queer, sometimes less cis than their primary. Often times, men primary their “preference” and keep their curiosities or the less socially acceptable partners as secondaries. To this day, I have never met a cis man primary partnered to a transgender woman with a cis woman as a secondary, but I have been the transgender secondary partner for many polyamorous men in LA. If you were to ask these men if they had a preference, they would absolutely say no, but you see their preferences clear as day and you notice how when new women of color come to the event, they don’t get swarmed with attention the same way a white girl would. None of these socially aware, left leaning people want to say that they have a preference, but they do. But being a bit graceful, another aspect of “preference” that isn’t often discussed is that sometimes their “preference” really isn’t even their own.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, I coincidentally, started dating a lot of Jewish men. Not intentionally or anything, there’s just far more Jewish people in LA and all of the men who were pursuing me when I moved here were Jewish. These men all had different degrees of reverence for Judaism. Some very secular, others quite devout. They all had temporary, but adventurous relationships with me before ultimately leaving me to pursue a Jewish woman because that’s who they are expected to bring home. Frankly, it’s also who they tend to connect with the most culturally because they have similar backgrounds and often similar parental pressures. I know that I’m a badass and a great partner, but I would be a disappointing one for these men to bring home and these men know that. I doubt any of them were consciously deprioritizing me as a partner, but that’s how I felt each time they decided to stop seeing me because they met a Jewish woman. It felt like they had a preference but didn’t want to actually vocalize it because it would have given me the opportunity to decide not to spend time with them. What got me about these relationships was that I got along with all of them quite well. We had no real issues, and we had a lot of good times together, but that was it. I was the temporary fun partner before they found someone, they could bring home to their parents that would be less embarrassing. Intentional or not, dating people who deprioritize me has affected me very negatively.
I was in a monogamous relationship for almost 6 years with a white passing man in Orange County. This man told me constantly that he found white women to be unattractive. He had a “preference” for everyone but white women. I never needed to hear this, but he said it to me constantly. His parents were always very distant with me. His family was very conservative and for most of our relationship, they didn’t know I was trans, but they for sure knew I was Black. My ex would mention pretty frequently that he didn’t believe in marriage. Like a lot of modern men, he had a lot of reasons why marriage was a scam, a mistake, something he didn’t want. I’m not sure I wanted it either, but I know as we got closer to 6 years, I started asking what we were doing. We had a lot of other issues, and I completely lost who I was in that relationship. As I became more successful, he became lazier and less motivated. He’d lean into me and say that once I start making more money, he can relax a bit. I started paying all of our rent to support him while he was going to culinary school. I thought we were a team, but I would go on to pay most of our expenses for the last two years of our relationship. He quit culinary school, along with every job in a kitchen he got after, but he knew he could lean on me. I had enough once I saw him planning on getting an expensive tattoo that was about the same price as his part of the rent. I realized that he had accepted that I was going to pay for our way regardless and he didn’t care about the burden I had taken on. So, I dumped him and moved to LA. He married a white woman less than two years after. I’m sure his parents are proud.
Maybe it’s because I date men, but my experience with being less preferred has often been that I’m placed in a position where my intimate partners mistreat me and expect me to stay because they know I’m less preferred. It took me a while to understand that white men like my ex who very performatively trash white women to uplift women of color are doing so out of bitterness and a history of rejection. A lot of times when these men have low self-esteem, they’ll pursue someone they know they have more privilege than to prey on theirs instead. Through our relationship, I knew he had insecurities, but I didn’t make the connection that those insecurities meant that he was intimidated by the white women he preferred and that he saw me as easier to connect with because I existed outside of most people’s preferences. When he spoke about white women, it was always about how they were too prissy or high maintenance. He’d complain about women who had standards and were willing to say no and not settle for less. In retrospect, I can see that he knew he’d get away with relying on me financially because perhaps subconsciously, I did buy into the idea that a relationship with him was flattering, and I didn’t want to walk away from it. Chasers will often trash cis women in a similar way. They’ll talk about how much more feminine trans women are and how bitchy and stuck up cis women are. It’s all constructed to prey on the insecurities they know society promotes within you. These are often relationships where I’m expected to do a lot and to put up with more shit than the women they prefer. I cannot even believe that I spent all of this money in my last relationship providing for a man who is far more privileged than I’ll ever be, but that’s often the position you end up in. These men often expect you to do more labor for them because you do not have the same bargaining power as their preference. I’ve seen men who were broke for me, be rich for their preference. These relationships always left me feeling depleted and the only reason I speak so much about them is that they’ve left me with lasting trauma that has very viciously affected me and made me so fearful of men and their true desires. For that reason, it’s hard for me to hear conversations that attribute bigotry to someone rejecting someone they do not prefer. I struggle to buy into the idea that because a man is attracted to me, he’s less bigoted than the men who reject me on the basis of who I am and leave me alone. I wish so many of my former intimate partners simply left me alone and pursued their preferences until one stuck. I wish they’d stop using me as a stop gap between relationships with the kind of women they prefer. I wish I could stop being in relationships where I’m expected to settle for less, because of who I am. I cannot remember every man who’s rejected me for being a trans woman, but to this day, I feel the pain of being so intimate with men who mistreated me because I’m a transgender woman.
It’s been a very long time since I’ve entertained men like this, but a lot of the men who pursue transgender women will only do so in secret. I had many relationships through college that never left my dorm room because the men who were interested in me did not want anyone knowing we were intimate. There is a massive stigma against transgender people and those who date them, so I recognize that their fears do not come from nowhere. However, those men often made their fears my burden. I remember “dating” these men who’d make me feel so miserable about myself because they were obsessive about me passing as cis and not embarrassing them. Some of these men would very manipulatively say that I didn’t pass and that’s why they weren’t going to take me out. Always dangling that in my face as the justifiable reason they couldn’t be seen with me. It took me a while to see that was something they said to limit our relationship to secrecy, but it encouraged me to feel less of myself. Sometimes these men have to hurt a lot of trans women before recognizing the harm they’re causing. Some of these men are just trying to figure out if they can sexually enjoy a transgender woman enough to be able to actually date one, but whether they have a “valid” reason or not, the experience with them is still very demeaning. I want to encourage men to explore their curiosities, but I have no personal interest in being involved in that process.
One of my own dating “preferences” is for men who’ve already been in long term relationships with transgender women. If you’re still trying to figure yourself out in that way, I respect your journey, but would not date you. Doing so puts me in a vulnerable position where someone may be attracted to me, but not my body. Or they’re attracted to my body, but not really attracted to me. Men with experience have usually done the work of self-reflecting and researching to a point where they no longer have anxieties about dating a transgender person. That self-work requires them to unpack and examine the societal messaging that has dehumanized transgender women. It sounds simple to many transgender people who’ve spent most of their lives self-reflecting on things like gender and sexuality; but for people who’ve never asked those questions of themselves, it can be a daunting task. One most of them will avoid.
What I dislike about this discourse is that on one hand it acknowledges that the type of people we’re attracted to is linked to our socialization, but it downplays the depth of that socialization. Things you’re socialized to believe take a long time to unpack. A person who’s been socialized with fatphobia, for example, is probably going to require a lot of education, exposure and experience before they start genuinely seeing fat partners as romantically viable. They’re not going to get there by being told their attractions are bigoted. Maybe it’ll make them think, but it’s more likely to make them defensive. In my view, trans attraction is even more complex because unlike things like race and size, your sexuality isn’t usually something you’re truly socialized into. You certainly receive messaging from day one pushing you in one direction, but every gay person raised in a conservative Christian home can tell you that it didn’t change their sexuality. Most people have a very strong boundary around their sexuality because it might be one of the most solid things, they understand about themselves. I’ve known a handful of people who believed they were heterosexual for most of their lives who figured out they weren’t much later in life. The commonality between them is they had to unpack all of the messaging that shamed them from pursuing the relationships they wanted to pursue. Then they had to reach a point in their life where they’re comfortable swallowing the bigotry they may experience. It was a long journey and one that required a lot of self-reflection. It’s a path they had to discover for themselves. Unfortunately, this can take a lifetime and some of the men I’ve known who’ve reached the point where they fully include transgender women into their dating pools reached 50 before they stopped internalizing that shame.
There are men in my life that once rejected me because I was transgender who now very much include transgender women in their dating pool. For most of the men I’ve known who’ve felt this way, what usually changed is that they met a trans person who they were indeed attracted to, and surprisingly, they had a relationship with them. Once it ended, they understood that transgender women could indeed exist within their dating pool. However, most men will never get to that point. To me, it’s perfectly clear that the current status of our society influences how open or not open someone is to dating transgender women. I can say that as transgender visibility has increased, I’ve found dating to be much easier. More and more men are observing transgender women and realizing that they can indeed imagine themselves in relationships with them. However, for most of these men, figuring out how to get there will be complicated in a society that actively dehumanizes transgender women. When they research, they will be immediately fed hypersexualized images, and this will only feed the cycle of fetishism. You’ll notice that conservatives freak out when they see transgender women get representation beyond these types of depictions and they will often cite “grooming” or sexual predation if transgender women are ever presented the way cis women are. A society where this happens is not one where the statement of “attracted to women” will inherently include transgender women for most people. It feels more truthful to me, to argue that our society having such history is what makes it transphobic; but for me, it feels wrong to suggest that a person privately rejecting a transgender person is necessarily always going to be reflective of said culture. I know this is a sticking point for a lot of people, but to some degree, I think we have to accept that and move forward.
I’ve spoken about this topic many times and I know there are many other transgender people who disagree with me, and that’s fine. Everyone has their own experience and mine is that of a transgender woman who only dates men. I’ve been mistreated by too many of my intimate partners for me to buy into the idea that those people are less transphobic or racist than the people who simply rejected me because I was outside of their “preference”. I don’t need for people to find me universally attractive and I’m incredibly uncomfortable with adding “romantic/sexual access” to the list of human rights we should advocate for. As I said, it’s not like these romantic “preferences” don’t influence how we treat others outside of a romantic context, but that feels like a cultural practice that should be unpacked on its own. Dating is inherently an exclusionary practice and while I will not argue that rejection isn’t painful, I still struggle to define it as bigoted. I’ve observed that the people whose attractions are being policed pretty much never leave these conversations with an open mind. They leave feeling more assured by their preferences, but they understand that they probably shouldn’t share them out loud. While I agree that there’s bigotry in these unprompted confessions of how an entire group of people is universally unattractive, I’m not sure I feel the same about someone carrying that preference and keeping it to themselves. I don’t trust anyone who says they don’t have dating “preferences”. My experience with men who’ve said they do and said they don’t have been functionally the same. Perhaps subconsciously, people do indeed have preferences and I personally think that’s fine. We can sit and examine all of the various ways in which other people’s dating preferences are bigoted in some way and we will probably make some truthful points; but my point is: who cares? In my view, life is too short, and dating is too personal for us to devote so much time towards policing the attractions of others. Especially when we’re not even in those relationships. From my race to my size to my gender, groveling for affection from men who do not prefer me is degrading.
When I was younger, my ideal guy was reflective of my socialization. I didn’t grow up around many white folks, but I still idealized white men. This influenced a lot of my early ventures into romance. I started dating when I went away to a predominately white college so most of my partners have been cis white men. I can look at most of these relationships and say that to some degree, they were mismatched. Not necessarily because we were different races, but because we had different values, expectations and desires. I’ve spent too much of my romantic life trying to convince men with more privilege than me that I’m a viable romantic partner. Looking back, so many of these men were men I’d never date now, but it felt nice to feel desired and that’s all I needed back then. For years, I’ve mourned how some of these relationships ended, but I know they have no such emotions. When I get the occasional text from them, thanking me for how much I’ve helped them grow and understand themselves it’s always bittersweet. That’s all I am to the men who prefer me less. A fun story of self-exploration that fleshes out their own story line. A person to reference to a liberal white woman as evidence of them being open minded and not bigoted in their romantic histories. An inspiring, sexual creature that they never fully took seriously. These men will often contact me with facetious regret about how our relationship went, but each time I’ve been foolish enough to rekindle these relationships, they all end the same way. I am pushed aside for their preference. While that hurts, to some degree, I do it to myself. I’ve learned to become more discerning and to not feel bad about having my own standards; my own preferences. I know how I want to be treated, and realistically, while men of more privilege may have more freedom to do that, I’ve learned not to expect that they will ever see me as more than a good time or a charity case that feeds their ego.
As I’ve exposed myself to more diversity through my life, not only has my preference shifted, but it’s shifted to the point where I’m far less drawn to white men as a group. Perhaps it’s because of how many white men I’ve attempted to date who’ve left me for white women; or just the pain and othering of not exactly being their preference, but either way my preference has shifted. It’s possible that a white cis man could be aware enough and educated enough to treat me well, but it’s a bit too optimistic for me to assume that’s the average white cis man. As I’ve gotten older, it’s been more important for me to date someone with a similar world view, similar morals and similar experience with life being unkind to them. I have a hard time wanting to date someone who’s never struggled or had to fight the way I’ve fought through life. I’ve learned that teaching my partners about my own oppression isn’t something I want to do because if I have to, chances are, they’re unaware of the ways that oppression materializes in our relationship. My primary partner is Mexican and Palestinian. He has brown skin, ethnic features and, like me, knows what it feels like as a person of color in a society with a white supremacist history. This has become my preference. On top of it all, he is indifferent to me being transgender and doesn’t treat me like I’m a complicated moral question that sabotages his image. He’s far from ashamed of being seen with me. In fact, he loves hitting the town with me and the number of compliments we get from others. He’s proud to be seen with me. My previous experiences with men are surprising to him because it’s so far from how he’d ever treat me. I wouldn’t have said he was my “preference” in the early days of developing my own attractions, but I’m glad that the many ways my preferences have shifted have led me to what is the most loving relationship I’ve ever been in. I look forward to the time when transgender women aren’t an “acquired taste”, but for now, I’m going to give my attention and time to people who’ve read the menu ahead of time and already know what they’re ordering.