The Red Light District, Pose, & Chasers

unknown photographer

Yesterday, while attending a trans clinic in Amsterdam’s infamous red light district, I had an interesting encounter. Vice was doing a piece on Proud, which runs the clinic for trans sex workers, immigrants, and others. So, most of the attendees for the monthly clinic waited outside the small PIC building where we were flanked by a triple bay of the district’s signature windows. I sat and chatted with other trans people in the street for several hours which gave me ample opportunity to both be observed as a feature of the voyeuristic landscape, and to observe. What I observed were tour groups starring with ignorant bemusement at the dancers in the windows — and then us — sleazy men making rude gestures and snarky chortling noises at the windows, and a few bewildered travellers who were obviously lost. Amongst the crowds was a young man, maybe 20–23 years-old. He had a serious lurker vibe. At first, he stood away from us, across the square by the kerk, and then closer, and even closer, as if too shy to join the group. My friend, also put off by the lurker vibe — but more outgoing than me — asked him if he was here for the clinic. He said “no.” And with an awkward, yet deadpan face, he replied, “I want a blow job.” My friend directed him to the bay of windows to our backs. The young man continued to stare unblinkingly. “No, I want transgender.” I said he wouldn’t find that here and he backed off a little, eventually disappearing.

I didn’t think about him again for a while, instead, he was absorbed into my overall experience of that small corner I had inhabited for an afternoon, as both the observed and observer. I had become a curiosity of sorts to strangers in a way I’d never experienced. Sitting there, bracketed by sex workers to one side and a gaggle of trans people beside a sign reading “trans and proud” to the other side, it had somehow become permissible for people to stare (parentheses of the bizarre). The blow job seeker was merely one part of a larger experience. I didn’t give the lurker much more thought until later.

Last night I watched Pose, the seventh episode of eight (not really spoilers, but you know, minor thematic ones). The last two episodes have dealt with “chasers.” I’ve been thinking about them on and off recently. In part because of Instagram, I was popular with a certain demographic of men until I stopped tagging myself as #transgender. But also because I listened to a podcast where a trans woman offhandedly dismissed all men who are predominantly into trans women as “chasers,” which from her tone read more like “perverts.” This didn’t sit well with me and I wasn’t sure why. But Pose, and it’s potentially nuanced depiction of men who are attracted trans women — we will have to wait to see how Stan’s storyline works itself out — got me to thinking about “chasers” more.

I want to start by saying that I in no way support the objectification of trans bodies or the hypersexualization of parts of our bodies. But I don’t think this is something men only do to trans women, I am sure the women in the adjacent windows could attest to this — if they were indeed cis. Most insidious here is the pathologization of men who express interest in trans women, as this mostly harms us trans women/femmes. Trans people, but especially women/femmes, are marked as deviant and pathological for rejecting our masculinity and/or birth sex/genders. But this stigma is extended to the people, usually cis men, who are attracted to us. Tightly policed notions of masculinity are not flexible enough to accommodate men who are attracted to trans women within a heteronormative framework. They are “freaks,” like the subjects of their desire and affection — “faggots,” which is ridiculous if you at all understand gay men, and also trans women are real women. Thus, affixing a label like “chaser” to men interested in trans women/femmes fetishizes, i.e. makes them paraphilic, a contagion spread through our own pathologization to them (and also back again). Look, there are lots of toxic and dangerous men seeking trans women, but to suggest they’re more deviant than any other douchebag, is to suggest there is something wrong with trans women. I suspect, if we were allowed to be viewed as beautiful and desirable then some of that shitty behaviour would disappear, maybe.

Thus I return to my lurker, the blow job seeker, his face awkward and deadpan, his shoulders rolled forward self consciously. Perhaps his attraction to us was objectifying, even fetishistic, but by labelling it so, and not all other similar male behaviour towards cis women, trans women are marginalized, unworthy of legitimate desire within normative sexual attraction (whatever the fuck that is). Surely the cis dudes hollering and gesturing at the women in the window were no less game for pathologization, all things being equal. But the lurker seemed somehow diminished for his attraction, meek and shy—if very honest and direct.

Ultimately, this is an issue of our deep-seated societal (trans)misogyny. If you look at who is pathologized, the so-called autogynephilic and paraphilic, then it becomes clear that it is people transgressing traditional concepts of masculinity, i.e. those abandoning it, and those who are attracted to women with non-phenotypical female bodies (thus somehow abandoning their masculinity and becoming gay[?]—so it’s homophobic too). My partner, a cis woman is not similarly stigmatized for her attraction to me and other trans women/femmes. Similarly, Blanchard and those he’s unfortunately influenced, have no issue with trans men/masculine people, they’re not paraphilic (though as Serano points out, if anyone is autogynephilic, it should be cis men and their obsession with their own cocks). It seems to go without saying that people wanting to gain masculinity are not mentally Ill, after all, who wouldn’t want to join that club, right? In the case of cis women who are attracted to trans women, a recent study suggests the numbers are potentially so low that no one seems to care. I suspect the real numbers are much higher, but still, no one would care because it doesn’t affect men and their hyper guarded gender supremacy.

I don’t know what the rules of attraction are, I think, as many people do, that gender nonconformity is sexy — perhaps I am biased. Nevertheless, by stigmatizing the men who are attracted to us, it sends a strong message that the desired subject, the trans women/femme are somehow wrong, that being attracted to us is a sickness. Sure, “chasers” do mistreat trans women; but many men in general mistreat and objectify cis women, but they are free of stigma for it. But why should I care? I like girls…okay, and really femme boys (sometimes). I guess I care because as a potential subject of men’s attraction, I don’t want to be double-pathologized for it. I have enough concurrent pathologies thank you, and being trans isn’t one of them.

I’m trans, a grad student in gender studies, and a legal researcher.

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