“The Cotton Ceiling”

7 Comments on “The Cotton Ceiling”

OK … So this is going to be more of a rant than an article because I’m speaking about something I know very little about.

In the process of doing research for another article I came across the term “The Cotton Ceiling,” which at first I was a bit surprised I hadn’t head before since it was being talked about like this was some big push in the trans-activist community and I thought I was pretty well informed about that. So, catching a hint that something was going on I should probably educate myself about, I did an internet search on the term and what I found was pretty troubling so I thought I’d post my reactions to it here. I’m basically just going to outline a process I went through today exploring the “cotton ceiling” um … theory? I’ll give my first reaction and then also more educated reactions I had once I discovered the context of the term and it’s criticisms … so if you’ve heard the term you might find this interesting and if you haven’t, maybe it will be a good heads-up about some pretty vitriolic fights going down on the internet now and few months ago. There was a flurry of activity about 6-8 months ago but I doubt this issue is dead.

For those of you who haven’t heard the term before, it apparently refers to the difficulty transsexuals (and particularly trans women) have finding sexual partners (particularly women partners) who are not repulsed by their unique anatomy (aka: many lesbians dislike penises!).

While this is a valid concern and one which I have seen at least indirectly, I was immediately put on the defensive by the fact that this issue was being discussed,mostly by cis women, as if it were one of the primary goals of trans activism and as if the push for the rights, respect, and dignity of trans activism was largely or primarily about whether or not we were accepted sexually as lesbians. My first reaction to learning this was something along the lines of “This is dramatically misrepresenting our priorities.” I mean, I can understand that getting rejected really sucks; and though it’s never happened to me personally I can imagine that it doesn’t feel great to be rejected by someone because they “only like women” when you ARE a woman and you just happen to have uniquely shaped genitals. That’s a real issue and I don’t want to minimize it. On the other hand, I grew up under a constant fear of hate-related violence, and many people I knew or was connected to (through clubs, school, community, etc) were the victims of both fatal and non-fatal violent hate crimes. I stayed in the closet to nearly everybody, including my own family until a few years ago, out of fear of violence.

I have now come out at work and present as female in public (which, by the way, has been just about the most freeing experience of my life and is completely worth it!) but that’s only been within the last few weeks now. I only had the confidence to do this because I now live in a far safer and more accepting city, have a stable job with strong oversight against discrimination, I have coworkers and management whom I personally trust, and because I’ve been building up to and preparing for this for years. I KNEW that this was what I wanted for years before finding the courage and situation to actually take the plunge, and that is because I was afraid of being killed. That’s far more than any person should have to go through just to be able to tell people their name and gender; but sadly it’s the norm for trans people even i more accepting parts of the world. Even after coming out, there’s a whole host of issues related to the difficulties and gate-keeping around actual medical transition, which we are doing a bit of, but which is proving difficult in part because we’re not on a “traditional” path, what with my headmate still being a man and our goal being a body we can BOTH be comfortable in.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is, if I were to make a list of hardships transsexuals have to endure and things that I would like the activist community (myself included) to focus and work on, “we get rejected by lesbians a lot” is not very high on that list; and I don’t think it is for most people who speak up to try to promote equality for trans people, either. Even now, I’m STILL more worried about whether flirting will get me attacked than whether or not it will get me rejected. Also, the panty reference isn’t really appreciated, the last thing I need is more people focusing on the differences between what’s in my panties and what’s in a cis woman’s. It’s not that this issue isn’t important or worth talking about; but the fact that these other issues were being minimized by a group of cis women who preferred to talk about our sexual and romantic difficulties and ignore so many of these other realities was quite frankly insulting.

So yes, that basically summed up my first reaction to this idea; but I didn’t want to just turn up my nose in uneducated disgust without at least figuring out where this term came from, who’s promoting the idea, and in what context. Again, this isn’t something I’m an expert on by any means, this is something I learned about a matter of hours ago. I also wanted to say, that initial reaction wasn’t very mature. Somebody somewhere was trying to talk about an issue that seemed important to them, and I had basically responded “that’s not important enough for me to take notice” which was not an appropriate reaction; that’s never appropriate. I like to think that I usually respond to new ideas more open-mindedly than I did in this case, but something about this idea, and the way it was being discussed started pushing my subconscious buttons. The fact that this was largely a discussion by cis women as though they thought this was the be-all and end-all of trans activism certainly didn’t help.

BUT WAIT! It gets worse! I was very quickly able to find dozens of criticisms of “The Cotton Ceiling” idea. Solidarity, right? I mean I just made my initial incredulity with the idea pretty clear. Nope, no such luck – these criticisms almost universally consisted of pretty standard vitriolic radfem anti-trans hate which, if you haven’t been exposed to it yet (count yourself lucky!) usually comes down along the lines of “Anyone with a penis is really a rape machine and if they want to be called a woman it is probably because they want to rape us. Also, trans women are co-opting our issues and are all really men who are trying to sneak into women-exclusive spaces and particularly lesbian spaces.” So yeah, criticism wasn’t along the lines of “don’t we have better things to do?” and more along the lines of “OMG Rapey rape men are after us! Don’t fall for the fact that they are hiding in dresses! Saying that people shouldn’t discriminate is exactly like trying to coerce us into sex we don’t want!”

Really guys? I can’t say I’m surprised (as any of you who’ve read my “Letter to the Feminist Community” could probably guess) but damn there were some good examples of “feminist” refusal to accept transsexualism as anything more than cross-dressing. One of these “feminists” that I read while randomly clicking through links even stated that all trans-activists were actually men’s rights activists masquerading under the guise of a new name; so many problems with that one I’m not even gonna touch it.

Alright, I thought, so there are a bunch of radfem lesbians who think I’m wearing a dress to get into their pants because I’m really a creepy perv man or something. Whatever, that sucks but it’s nothing new; but I was a bit concerned that all I was finding was these criticisms, and not examples of anyone actually talking about or complaining about this “cotton ceiling” thing that apparently came out of nowhere one day some months ago. Well, it’s not made up, I did find people actually talking about this but it’s much more minimal and has gotten less attention and search engine hits than the “Trans women want to rape me!” reactions. The things I did find were actually mostly reactions to the reactions and were mostly pretty good, and focused on categorical portrayal of trans women as not-women within the queer community. Which hey, save for a poorly chosen name, seems like something I can totally stand behind.

It seems this term came up during a Planned Parenthood conference workshop that was specifically focused on sex and sexual pleasure and overcoming some of our barriers about talking about it. (LINK: http://pleasureandpossibilities.com/programming/workshop-descriptions/) Other workshops included one on “dirty dancing” and one on sexual fantasies. So you know what? That actually sounds like exactly the appropriate kind of place to bring up a discussion about trans people’s unique difficulties with lesbian sexual relationships, and really maybe even to use a provocative panty reference to draw attention. That this is being portrayed as some big part of the “transsexual agenda” that all trans women are just super concerned with getting into cis lesbians pants is just blatant anti-trans hate peddling. You know what my “agenda” is? I want trans people to be able to go out in public without being attacked. I want people who are different, whether it’s through being trans or multiple or gay or anything else, to be able to tell the people they know who they are, form meaningful relationships, talk about their loves and interests, even flirt and find love without the constant fear of being fired, evicted, denied medical treatment, attacked, raped, or even killed. THAT’S my agenda. But it’s not the entirety of my being or anyone else’s and it should be perfectly acceptable for a trans woman (or anyone else!) to discuss their sex lives in the appropriate setting. It’s absolutely disgusting to see this issue blown out of proportion into another smear campaign to paint trans women as rapists with absolutely no grounding in reality.

WHALE RAGE! (inside joke ;p)

Anyway, yes. Anger. Disgust. There you go. THAT’S what’s going on and now if anyone asks you your position on the all-important “cotton ceiling theory” you’ll know what the hell they’re talking about.


NOTE: This article was edited on 12/31/2012