Trick… or Trans?
Written by Pooya Mohseni
Art by Michelle Tse
October 31, 2016
A few weeks ago I was asked to be a panelist at Samuel French’s #Identityweek panel for a discussion regarding transgender visibility both on stage and off. The discussion covered a gamut, from the evolution of trans characters, the growing visibility of trans performers as well as writers, designers and so on. As the night went on and I listened to other stories that were being told by my trans siblings, I realized that as different as we are, we had one thing in common: the feeling of awkwardness around cisgender (non-trans) people who think they understand our journey and want to retell our stories – and then fail miserably. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of people being interested in telling stories about my community. But, for the same reason I don’t write about slavery, the Holocaust, or uterine cancer without conducting proper research/interviewing people who have first hand experience of these topics, I feel offended when someone else tries to tell me what my experience as a transgender woman must have been like. They expect me to swallow their falsehood – whether it’s a blog, a movie, or political rhetoric – and be grateful that they even acknowledge my existence. I cannot and will not stand for it. I, and many like me, have put up with this for a long time, but no more!
Then I thought maybe we, the trans community, should tell our own stories. But who? Me?
Who the fuck am I to write about this? Well, if not me, then who? I may not be the best choice, but I have seen eye opening things in my community and I need to tell the rest of the world what I’ve seen…
The stereotypical lying, tricking transgender – who is possibly a street hooker – does exist, as do all stereotypes, but is as true as almost all other generalizations; it does not acknowledge a whole community. As a trans woman, I admit that there is some truth to the fact that the trans community – especially the trans-feminine community – has higher numbers of sex workers per capita than their cisgender/non-trans counterparts and maybe even the gay community. But, do we ever wonder why?
Do we ever wonder where the myth of the lying, cheating, manipulative Tranny prostitute who is out to trick the unsuspecting straight man comes from? Most of us don’t think about why there are so many trans women who turn tricks to make a living – why they would give unprotected blowjobs in back alleys and get propositioned in the least humane way by people who, on the surface, seem respectable and “normal,” but in secret, drool over the idea of being with a “chick with a dick.” We don’t ask why because we don’t really care enough to want to be bothered by the route of this issue. In the same vein, we blame rape on what the victim was wearing, or what she/he/they was drinking, or where they were walking. The perils of the trans community are looked at as our punishment for being freaks. We are disowned, thrown out, bullied, fired, refused proper healthcare, raped, assaulted and killed…because we asked for it!? I was born into an educated, reasonably progressive, middle class Iranian family. I had no confusion about my gender since as long as I can remember, nor do I think it was any real secret to my immediate family, even though they couldn’t come to terms with it until they had to. By the time I hit puberty and started having questions about love, attraction, and gender, I realized I had no place in the world around me. I would be safer if I didn’t speak. I would be left alone if I stayed in the dark. I would be better off if I were invisible.
Have you ever felt invisible? Have you ever wanted to feel invisible? Did it feel good? Did you enjoy it? No. I would bet that the thing that made you want to disappear was a painful and traumatic experience, one that you probably would never want to repeat and would like to forget at some point. This is how most LGBT youth, especially the transgender population, feel most of their lives: at school, on the street, at home…
We wake up to fear most of our lives – fear being hurt physically, emotionally, economically, and spiritually. We are afraid of being beaten by our families, harassed by classmates or even killed by a total stranger, for no reason other than the fact that we are transgender. When we do decide to step up to our truth and be open with the world, we risk losing our homes, our families, our jobs, and our lives. We look for warmth and safety wherever we can find them. They say “beggars can’t be choosers,” so let me tell you a little story:
When I was 16, my parents became familiar with the term “gender identity disorder” – now referred to as gender dysphoria – for the first time from a therapist that diagnosed my gender variance. I was depressed, couldn’t sleep, didn’t eat. I was bullied at school. Boys would offer me “protection” at school in return for “favors.” At home, I felt like an unwanted guest. My parents couldn’t look at me or speak to me, let alone ask me how I felt. Don’t get me wrong, I love my mom and my late dad, but the truth is they didn’t know what to do. Their culture had not prepared them to deal with a transgender child. To them, I was sick, and they looked high and low to find a cure; I was the guinea pig of this “conversion” therapy. It was mental and emotional torture, as anyone who has suffered such treatment would agree. I looked for affection anywhere I could find it, and I found it in the worst places. I got in cars with strangers. I went to parties. I got handed from person to person and I, at the age of 17, thought those people cared about me. Maybe some of them did, but the majority didn’t. I got offered money, which I had no use for at the time, so I refused, but it gave me a sense of power, control, and worth that I had no prior experience of. IT FELT GOOD! It felt great to be wanted.
That’s just a small part of my story, and I was one of the lucky ones. Even though my parents couldn’t talk to me, hug me, or tell me that it’s going to be okay, they didn’t throw me out and I didn’t have to run away from home. Many LGBT youth are not so lucky. In my 20-year journey of transitioning in New York City and seeing people’s attitudes change, I have seen many trans and queer youth who didn’t have a voice. These kids may not have had the education to verbalize their pain, but their pain was real and their pain would be unbearable for most heteronormative people to live through one day of their lives, let alone a lifetime. I saw kids who were thrown out of their front door with nothing more than the clothes on their back. I met queer youth of color who lived in group homes that were LGBTQ friendly and still suffered harassment. I encountered beautiful souls who engaged in unprotected sex with strangers in back alleys just to barely make ends meet or to buy their hormones illegally from some shady street dealer. I have known at least six or more trans women at different stages of transition who were escorts at some point in their lives, two of whom are now dead.
Pre-op transgender women are much more sought after by straight men than post-op Trans women. We are the golden idols of the human gender spectrum: worshiped in secret, vilified in the open.
Why are so many members of my community escorts and prostitutes? Plain and simple: we need it emotionally. We need to feel wanted and desired. We need to feel that we exist. We need to feel that somewhere in this world, someone wants us.
We need it financially. We were mostly let go of by our families and our communities. We have no ideas as to how we are suppose to prepare ourselves for the work force. We have no idea how we are suppose to pay for our meds, our therapy, or our gender-affirming surgeries, since until not too long ago, most transgender health needs were not covered by most insurances.
We DO NOT see ourselves represented. During my 19 years in New York City, I have only seen three individuals that I could discern were trans who were working behind a counter at a coffee shop, a bank, or any other store. I acknowledge that in stores which cater to the LGBT community, or areas that are more trans- and gay-friendly, the number of trans employees may be higher, but not enough to offer jobs to a greater portion of my disenfranchised community.
To add insult to injury, most of us in the LGBT community are never told, “You are worthy of love and respect.” We are told, “It is your choice,” “You are asking for it,” “God hates you,” and “You are sick.” We hear such hate so often that we begin to believe it. It becomes our inner punisher – so much so that even if no one else is around to harass us, we have our inner voice to beat us down. We carry shame because we have disappointed our loved ones: shame, guilt, doubt, and self-hate are very familiar feelings to us, not because we have done anything wrong, but only because we are different. We are openly and unapologetically ridiculed and vilified as pedophiles by the right, and shunned as frauds by radical feminists. Very few people, until recently, have stood up for our rights. In such a world where over 40% of trans youth have tried to commit suicide at some point, where transgender women showing up dead is rarely headline news, where a trans sex worker getting killed is just another “well, that was to be expected,” is it hard to imagine why the transgender community has such high percentage of sex workers? You may not like it. You may judge it. You may even condemn it. But it does not change the harsh truth my community lives through every day.
So, next time you want to judge my community for not being open enough, truthful enough, or worthy enough of your respect and compassion, ask yourself: what have you done to deserve that truth? Did you make us feel loved and safe, so we could tell you who we are? Did you help build our self-esteem so that we could also contribute to our society as others do? Did you at least give us the courtesy of respecting our gender and identity? If so, we are thankful for your humanity. If not, you deserve no respect or truth from anyone, because WE DON’T OWE ANYONE ANYTHING! We are part of the human race, just like anyone else. We exist, we love, we hurt and we learn. If you teach us love, we will love back. But if you teach us fear and hate, we will inevitably hide and lie. The choice is yours.
With much love, Pooya, your unicorn princess.
I am an Iranian/American actress, born and raised in Tehran, Iran. I moved to New York in my teens, where I discovered my love of acting and story telling. I am a graduate from the esteemed Maggie Flanigan Studio. I continue building my resume of a variety of characters from weak to strong, while exploring their humanity and fragility. I am fluent in Persian/Farsi and a transgender advocate, as well as a voice for immigrant issues and women’s issues. I am also involved in writing and co-writing original LGBT stories to shed light on an otherwise under represented community.