Bodies have been learning each other forever.
It’s what bodies do.
They are a grab bag of parts
and half the fun is figuring out
all the different ways we can fit them together;
all the different uses for hipbones and hands,
tongues and teeth;
all the ways to car-crash our bodies beautiful.
(from ’How To Make Love To a Trans Person’ by Gabe Moses)
For a long time I thought I was a straight man. I vividly remember a particular time I was having sex with my then-girlfriend. We had been dating for several years, and the trust between us was strong. Maybe it was because of that trust that I dared to say, surprised by the impulse myself: I wish I had a cunt so you could lick it. We did not discuss it any further. About 1,5 years later, in fall 2016, I came out to myself and the world as a transgender woman.
After I came out, my sex life with my girlfriend withered away. Neither of us really knew how to be and what to do with my body and my various and gradually intensifying dysphorias. Every old and familiar thing just brought back the wrong me, wrong role, wrong thoughts. I wondered if I would ever enjoy sex again. And besides, who would even desire a body like mine? They would need to be sick or perverted, at best desperate or cruel. This I had internalised early in my life, way before I had words for my identity.
I first encountered transness on fifth grade, when a substitute teacher showed our class the film Ace Ventura – Pet Detective. In that classic 90s ”comedy” Jim Carrey plays Ace Ventura, an oddball detective investigating a murder and a dolphin theft. One of the characters in the film is Lois Einhorn, a feisty redhead with whom Ace shares a passionate kiss. When Ace figures out that not only is Einhorn the villain, but that she is also a transgender woman – or, as the movie depicts her, a deranged and vengeful man – his reaction is to ”furiously brush his teeth” and to ”slowly curl up into a ball under the steaming water with an expression of horror on his face.”
In the climax of the film Ace reveals Einhorn’s ”secret” to a bunch of police officers. To prove his allegation Ace rips off Einhorn’s skirt, revealing ”a healthy set of male genitalia” for everyone around to see. This results in nausea (in the film) and laughter (in the classroom). Only years later did I understand why those scenes stuck in my mind so sharply. For this essay I read the script of the film and found this bit which I think very accurately depicts the filmmakers’ attitude towards transgender people:
How is a trans person supposed to develop any kind of a healthy relationship with their body and sexuality when all of the surrounding world treats our kind as jokes, threats, sexual criminals, pedophiles, perversions, disgusting and mentally unstable non-humans, or at best embarassing fetishes?
Before I came out and during the early steps of my transition I often thought whether my sex life was going to die off completely. Would anyone – let alone myself – ever see me as desirable? How on earth would I approach, process, and let go of my internalised transphobia? Paradoxically, in my case the answer was to have more sex.
I was concerned about my mismatched body,
but after that first kiss I felt that we could undo our shared riddle.
(from ’Queer Sex’ by Juno Roche)
In early 2018 I borrow Cory Doctorow’s book Walkaway from the local library. In one scene in the book three women are having sex. One of them is trans, and she has the same kind of body that I have. Doctorow doesn’t fetishize her, or depict her as a disgusting or exotic curiosity, but neither does he give her any special treatment. She’s one of the women, she just happens to have a penis. After reading that short scene I cry my eyes out. I have never before, in any media, seen a person with a body like mine treated with respect, as an equal, independent, and sexually desirable being. I am 28 years old at the time.
The sex life of trans people is practically invisible in mainstream media, but at the same time transness – whenever it briefly appears – is reduced to genitals and surgeries that might be done to them. Our job is to give cis people something to gawk, gasp and/or wank at. But god forbid we reclaim our sexuality and our bodies. Then we are accused of rubbing our ”lifestyle” on people’s faces, corrupting children, and demolishing the nuclear family system. Or, as the Vatican claimed in a statement published in 2019, we ”annihilate the concept of nature.”
Some months after reading Walkaway I end up having sex with a woman who does not know me from my past life. It’s a first for me. She knows I’m trans (one of the perks of being an openly trans performer and public persona: it reduces the need to come out each time), and has made it clear that she’s into me. After a particularly flirtatious evening at the pub we end up in her hotel room. For the first time I experience how it feels to be seen, wanted, and touched as a woman, by another woman, in my current body, without the weight of past roles or heteronormative dynamics crawling out of my subconscious. I grin from ear to ear on my way home.
Some time after that evening I begin my first polyamorous relationship. I had thought about polyamory for years, but only now I felt ready to take the plunge. It took me a while to get over the initial challenges and difficulties (which mostly stemmed from me having to face a plethora of my own insecurities), but these days I consider choosing polyamory to have been one of the best decisions of my life, right after transitioning. Like transitioning, polyamory has made me take a long hard look at myself and subsequently grow as a person. Polyamory has enabled me to build deep loving companionships and more short-term (not that a relationship’s length in any way indicates its meaningfulness) or low-key (sexual) encounters. In other words, I don’t think I would be in such a good place with my sexuality – or be writing this essay – without polyamory.
In July 2018 I travel to Iceland for two weeks. I am truly by myself, in solitude, for the first time after my transgender diagnosis and subsequent start of HRT in late 2017. By the second week my solitude had turned into crushing loneliness, so I arrange to meet a friend of a friend for coffee. We wander through the streets of Reykjavik, discussing, among other things, our cringy attempts at manhood and the difficulty of making friends after transitioning. She invites me to join her and her friends for a trip to nearby hot springs on the last night of my trip.
That evening we get in her car and head to the mountains. Our jolly little entourage consists solely of trans people. One of them is one of the most handsome and charming men I have ever met. We strike an effortless conversation that lasts the entire drive and the ensuing hour-long mountain hike to the hot springs.
Soon all of us are laying in the springs, letting the warmth engulf us. We share stories of transitioning, sexuality, losses, and tiny victories. At some point the discussion moves into labels, and I loudly state how much power I draw from the word ”lesbian” (after I had given myself permission to use that word). All the while I keep eyeing the man, laughing at his jokes and marveling at his witty comments.
About an hour later me and the man are lying next to each other in a secluded nook of the spring. The others have remained downstream. Raindrops are falling on our faces, and the midnight clouds move swiftly above us. I fall silent for a moment. After a while, he turns to me and asks: ”So what are you thinking?” ”Nothing much, just questioning my sexuality,” I answer. He catches my drift, and, after explicitly asking for permission, leans in and kisses me. I don’t know how long we lay there, wrapped in each others’ bodies, my pink hair dye slowly dissolving in the sulphuric water.
These days if someone inquires about my sexual preference, my honest answer is: anyone but cishet men. Since there is no good shorthand for this that I know of, the word I’ve found most comfortable and fitting for my sexual identity is ”queer.” Sometimes I use ”lesbian” too, partly because it sends a clear – though unfortunately not always understood – message to cishet men that they should not try to hit on me. This does not mean that I see transgender men as any less of men (just like I don’t see myself as any less of a woman because I happen to be trans), but that I have a hard time believing that most cishet guys would be able to process and deal with their attraction and arousal towards transgender women in any healthy way. With trans men I can trust that our shared experiences reduce the need to give them a Trans 101 lecture. It also reduces the threat of violence stemming from toxic narratives – such as ”trans women are really men, so if a man has sex with a trans woman he is turned gay.” And besides, average cishet sex lasts for approximately 20 minutes. To quote one of my partners: ”That’s not even enough for one kiss.” So, no thanks.
Here, here is my skin that feels like your skin,
my muscles and frailties that feel like yours,
the lift of your flesh something I intuitively know from my own body,
inner maps that, for most of my life,
I thought were purely shameful and mine alone.
And here, with you, with me,
for minutes, for hours, if nothing else.
If I loved you, this is how I would love you.
(from ’Little Fish’ by Casey Platt)
When I was eight or nine years old I asked my mother to buy me Barbie dolls. I played with them at home, changed their outfits, and occasionally placed them in different sex positions. My mother’s friend group has always consisted of gay men and strong, independent women. None of them questioned or ridiculed me for playing with dolls. My drag artist godfather was one of the most important people of my childhood. When me and my mom visited him, he would ask us what we wanted to do. ”Let’s play girls!” I responded, and he happily brought out his wig- and dress-filled drag boxes. Regardless of all the support, I knew that I couldn’t tell about my Barbies or ”playing girls” outside of home. No one had explicitly forbidden it, I just knew my activities weren’t socially acceptable.
At some point keeping the secret became too burdensome, and I told one of my classmates that I played with dolls. I made him swear he wouldn’t tell anybody. Next day at school the other kids looked at me funny, and I understood that I had placed my trust on the wrong person. My classmates bullied me because of my ”girly” pastimes, and I tried vehemently to deny the existence of the dolls.
It still took me about 16 years to give myself permission to call myself a woman. One of the things that held me back was the tragic misery narrative strongly linked to being trans. In simple terms, you cannot be trans if you a) did not always know you are trans, b) haven’t suffered from massive dysphorias all your life, and c) don’t hate your body nor want to die. None of these are true in my case, even though – in hindsight – signs of my transness can be seen in my past, and the outside world always knew to punish me for being ”girly”.
In mainstream media transness is still mainly seen through the lens of the misery narrative. Transness is discussed – mostly by cis people – like it was the worst imaginable fate after death. It feels like the trans experience is bound to be full of misery, dysforia, abandonment, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
The sad truth is that, for many trans folks, the aforementioned things are a reality. But it is not because transness itself would cause misery and suffering – the true culprit is the transphobic society that wants to punish trans people simply for existing, and at the same time demands trans people to center their suffering if they want to get their stories heard. Surrounded by all those tragic stories, how is it possible for a trans person to find pleasure, or even feel deserving of pleasure and respect?
”Am I the only one who finds this funny. I’ve actually always been a woman. It is comical, comical like a doctor trying to make a blue-eyed person brown-eyed by clawing out the blue eyes from their sockets,” writes Finnish author Selja Ahava in her novel Ennen kuin mieheni katoaa (’Before my man disappears’). The autobiographical book details Ahava’s own feelings and experiences after her (currently ex-)partner came out as a transgender woman. The book was published in Finland in 2017, and was met with (cis) critical acclaim and plentiful media attention.
The blurb describes the book as a ”unbelievable story and human tragedy”, as if a partner’s transness would be something horrifying and undesirable. In the end, Ahava’s personal tragedy has nothing to do with transness. Her tragedy stems from the loss of a long-term relationship, and from her heterosexuality that she doesn’t manage to break free from – even though she claims to want to. Ahava also acts in terrifyingly possessive ways towards her partner, which I feel perfectly reflects cis people’s typical entitled attitude towards trans bodies. She feels annoyed by the intrusive questions posed by acquintances, but at the same time feels entitled to describe her partner’s genitals in vivid detail in order to prove that she ”had a husband”. By equating having a penis with being a man – among all the other trans- and homophobic and bioessentialist content in the book – Ahava firmly positions herself in the long line of terf ”literature”.
Don’t get me wrong: I think that Ahava has a right to tell her story, and like any big change, your partner’s transness can be difficult or painful to process. But it feels perverse that Ahava’s book – in all its bitterness and lack of empathy and self-reflection – is the best-known work about transness in Finland, receiving accolades and dubbed a ”geniously constructed piece of literary art” and a ”brave act” by critics. All the while art made by trans people struggles to get visibility or support. To add insult to injury – while widely platformed in Finnish media – Ahava did not once mention the oppression and lack of basic human rights that trans people face in Finland. Another brave act, I suppose.
While I feel that almost every story ever seems to center a forced heterosexual romance between a cisgender straight couple and that straight cis people could really use some wholesome stories of men and women being platonic friends, what I deeply long for is happy and healthy romance and love stories between sexual and gender minorities. Preferably ones without storylines built on the secrecy of their desire, their internalised shame, and a violent death of at least one of the lovers looming at the end. You know, stories that can be enjoyed while wearing rose-colored glasses.
In spring 2019 I meet a beautiful trans woman in a queer bar’s open mic night. After a couple of hours of nervous flirting she finally kisses me and invites me to her place for the night. I am scared. I have never had sex with another trans woman before. I am afraid I will project all my own insecurities and dysphorias onto her and her body. That fear quickly melts away once our bodies find each other. We undress slowly, one piece of clothing at a time. ”How would you feel if the panties came off?” she asks between hungry kisses and gropes. When we are finally naked, we simply lay there for a while in each other’s arms before plunging into each other.
Few days later we are lying in my hotel room bed, languid, her soft body on top of mine. The afternoon light trickles through the curtains, and somewhere in the distance the city buzzes. She moves, and I can feel our penises slide against each other. Two women, embracing, content. I wonder what our teenage selves would think if they saw us/themselves now.
Just because I wasn’t born Princess
doesn’t mean I have to perform Princess
Better than the princess who is Princess Cis
’cause I’m allowed to define what a princess is
(from ’Princess’ by Tami T)
I started HRT in December 2017. It has changed my relationship to sex completely. Before, getting turned on meant that all my focus went straight to my crotch, and the pressure required a quick release. It was as if the rest of my body did not exist. A few months into HRT, the changes I experienced gave space for other parts of my body to react and feel, and for me to explore a whole new set of positions and ways of being touched. I cannot say how much of the change had to do with hormonal changes, and how much with me simply giving myself permission to explore new ways of getting turned on. Either way, I would never return to the past.
In my ”past life” my idea of an orgasm was inseparably connected to ejaculation. It took me a long time to relearn masturbating, and to discover that it could be so much more pleasurable. After numerous sessions ending in thinking that I’d never enjoy solo sex again, I slowly started to find better positions for my hands and fingers, new ways of touch that didn’t revolve around genitals, and to dive into the magical world of sex toys. But the best thing was locating my clitoris (pro tip: it’s on the underside, roughly between the tip and the shaft).
In Spring 2018 I’m traveling with my new partner. We have sex for hours at a time. I can’t remember which one of us suggests it first, but we decide to try penetrative sex. In my head, I thought I had already bid farewell to it: it felt too linked to my past and the cisnormative role of a man, and I was afraid it would set off a whole bunch of unwanted physical memories, dynamics, and dysphoria. My partner did not have very fond memories of getting penetrated either. Very gently, I slide inside them. A penis that does not belong to a man, and a vagina that does not belong to a woman. The cisheteronormative meanings linked to genitals melt away as our bodies entwine. We call it magic.
In one of the episodes of my podcast Trans Enough I interview trans activist Kasper Kamppuri. His comment about sex between trans people sticks to my mind: ”When there’s not this experiential gap between people that requires all kinds of explaining, it’s so much easier to focus on the fact that here we are, two sacks of flesh, and we’ll just focus for this moment on what feels good to us, and how we can form a titillating connection through stimulating each other.”
Queer sex deserves celebration and praise. Stories of the freedom that comes from being truly seen as yourself in your own body – a body that has been deemed unworthy of love and respect by the society – and finding your own ways of giving and receiving pleasure. Having queer sex has helped me grow tremendously as a person, it has supported and strenghtened my relationship to my gender, and it has given me endless realisations about myself, my sexuality, and my body. It has shown me ways to break the shackles of cisheteronormativity, the ones that hold all of us back from expanding our ideas of pleasure and enjoying our bodies to the fullest. But above all, queer sex is wonderfully, breathtakingly amazing. Sex is thrilling play between bodies, and like any form of playing, it shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
Just as my transition and personal growth are never-ending, my relationship to sex is in a constant state of change. I consider myself terribly lucky to have already had such beautiful and spine-tingling sexual experiences. I feel like I am just taking the first steps in my sexual exploration, and I cannot wait for all the pulsating moments and encounters life has in store for me. I am still not completely at terms with my body, and from time to time my insecurities and dysphoria knock me down. But transitioning, the effects of HRT, my loving chosen family, and those rare but oh-so-crucial moments of media representation (I’m looking at you, Pose and She-Ra) have made them lose much of their previous power to shake or hurt me.
While working on this essay I meet an absolutely wonderful queer person on Tinder. We fall in love hard and fast. One night we are laying on my bed, and they ask me if they can lick me. Something in the way they touch my clit and hold me, something in their position and mine, something in it all hits my brains in just the right way. For a moment I don’t just forget my body, for a moment my body feels right. I did not know it was possible in this body, with this body. After orgasming I shake uncontrollably, unable to form even simple words. My lover holds me tight for a long time, and I know I can hardly wait to feel their fingers and tongue (and many other fingers and tongues) in my cunt one day.
you begin to do
such delicate things
to such delicate people
and doesn’t it feel
like licking thick fire
out of the batter bowl
(’Hands’, from ’Written on the Body’ by Lexie Bean)
Mira Aurelia Eskelinen
The author is a cultural manager, drag artist, and a trans rights activist.
Photo credit: Shia Conlon, shiaconlon.com, IG: @shiaconlon
You can Read the text in Finnish here.
Quoted and referred texts and other works:
Tami T: Princess (listen to the song here)
Cory Doctorow: Walkaway (Tor Books, 2017)
Juno Roche: Queer Sex: a Trans and Non-binary Guide To Intimacy, Pleasure and Relationships (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2018)
Casey Platt: Little Fish (Vancouver Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018)
Lexi Bean (edit): Written on the Body: Letters from Trans and Non-Binary Survivors of Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2018)
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (animation series, 2018-, creted by Noelle Stevenson)
Pose (TV series, 2018-, creted by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals)
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994, directed by Tom Shadyac, written by Tom Shadyac, Jim Carrey, and Jack Bernstein)
Selja Ahava: Ennen kuin mieheni katoaa (Gummerus, 2017)