Hip-hop, trans people, and a glimpse of a hopeful future
Last week, influential hip-hop deejay Mister Cee resigned from New York radio station Hot 97--for fewer than 24 hours. Andrea James writes how it reflects changing attitudes toward trans people in hip-hop.
Last week, influential hip-hop deejay Mister Cee resigned from New York radio station Hot 97 for fewer than 24 hours. Fabulously-named transgender vlogger Bimbo Winehouse had just published a recording of an encounter where Cee is apparently, as WorldStarHipHop thoughtfully described, “tricking for head & sex.” It wasn’t the first time Cee’s been in the news for seeking out transgender sex workers, so that part came as no surprise to anyone who’s kept up with his personal life in recent years. However, few listeners were prepared for the intensity and candor of Cee’s September 12 on-air conversation with program manager Ebro Darden. It was a watershed moment for both hip-hop and for one of the least visible segments of society: people who are attracted to transgender people.
By one measure, T-girl sites are the fourth most popular category of adult website, according to the authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts. Most of the consumers of this material identify as straight men, and it’s often classified as a straight specialty genre. But despite a huge population with some level of sexual interest in trans people, it’s the rare person who discusses this interest openly. Among the rarest of all is someone involved in hip-hop willing to discuss their interest in trans women. The relationship between trans people and hip-hop is at the center of a volatile intersection of race, misogyny, and homophobia. I’ll try to contextualize hip-hop’s transphobia with a few examples from old school rap, showing what it was like back in the day for hip-hop artists of a certain age, like Cee, and what was at stake for him personally and professionally.
In the late 1980s, when Cee was DJ for Big Daddy Kane on his debut album Long Live the Kane, the few early mentions of transgender women in rap reflect the attitudes still largely in place to this day. Probably the first track with significant sales was Eazy-E’s "Nobody Move” from his 1988 album Eazy-Duz-It. That track describes an armed robbery during which Eazy plans to sexually assault a female hostage, only to find she is transgender:
I said: "Lay down, and unbutton your bra!"
There was the biggest titties that a nigga ever saw
I said: "Damn", then the air got thinner
Only thought in my mind, was going up in her
The suspense was making me sick
She took her panties down and the bitch had a dick!
I said "Damn," dropped the gat from my hand
(What I thought was a bitch, was nothing but a man)
Put the gat to his legs, all the way up his skirt
Because this is one faggot that I had to hurt.
The more mainstream Tone Lōc track “Funky Cold Medina,” from his 1989 album Lōc-ed After Dark, was a less violent version of the same sentiment.
So, I took her to my crib and everything went well as planned
But when she got undressed, it was a big old mess, Sheena was a man
So, I threw him out, I don't fool around with no Oscar Meyer wiener
You must be sure that the girl is pure for the Funky Cold Medina
You know, ain't no plans with a man
This is the 80's and I'm down with the ladies.
While hip-hop was blowing up, there was a parallel house music scene in New York that developed out of disco, centered around drag balls and voguing, captured in the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning. Several of the women featured in Paris Is Burning made money as sex workers; most of the subjects featured have since died from AIDS-related complications. Rarely did hip-hop and trans culture meet in public at the time, but by many accounts, there was plenty of overlap on the down low. In those divergent worlds, people like Cee had to choose one world or the other.
Fear of gay men, trans women, and AIDS was pervasive in popular culture. Eddie Murphy, whose “Faggots” bit opened both his eponymous 1982 album and his 1983 Delirious HBO special, perfectly describes the fear that AIDS could be passed on from gay men to unsuspecting straight-identified men. When Magic Johnson abruptly retired in 1991, he blamed his HIV status on unprotected sex with many women. When Eazy-E died of AIDS-related complications in 1995, he blamed it on unprotected sex with many women. In 1997, Murphy was pulled over by police after picking up Shalimar Seiuli, a trans woman who was arrested during the stop for an outstanding prostitution warrant. When the tabloids started publishing pieces alleging other trans encounters for Murphy, there was a little cottage industry in getting those sources to recant, and Murphy initiated several lawsuits against the tabloids, saying the stress over the disputed allegations left him needing medical attention. In some circles, there were (and are) few things worse than being perceived as gay. In those circles, any man interested in trans women is gay, and even Mister Cee acknowledged “I don’t know all the categories.”
Describing attraction to trans people exposes the lack of adequate language for the phenomenon. “Experts” who see trans people and those who love us assuffering from a pathology make up ridiculous diseases to impress their academic buddies, like gynemimetophilia or gynandromorphophilia. One term created by AIDS researchers and epidemiologists, men who have sex with men (MSM), completely erases trans people. That term emerged to address the problem that many men who do not consider themselves gay, especially men of color, will seek out unsafe anonymous sex with other men as a way of expressing that part of their sexuality. This behavior is a significant factor in new HIV cases for both men and women, including trans women. One recently proposed academic term, men sexually interested in transwomen (MSTW), is accurate but overlong and specific to only one type of attraction, the kind Mister Cee discusses. Non-medicalizing terms gaining favor include transfan or the adjectives transoriented and transattracted.
I recently mentioned the Tyranny of the Binary and how it forces people to conform along rigid male/female and gay/straight dichotomies in ways that do not reflect human diversity. Noted sex researcher Milton Diamond says, “Nature loves variety. Unfortunately, society hates it.” When people are forced to choose either or when they might be better identified somewhere along or off that spectrum, the suppression of that part of oneself can manifest in unhealthy ways. Because straight and male are the “good” options in our society, anyone who can pass as straight is going to choose that option. Fetishizing heterosexuality in this way is a form of self-hatred found throughout the LGBT community: just look for personals touting or seeking “straight-acting” as a trait, or gay men requesting “no femmes.” Because of the stigma around a “gay” identity, many men attracted to us seek out trans women who are “passable,” or they parse their desire so only the receptive partner in a sexual act is gay, and the other is straight. Their interest in passable trans people helps maintain their identities as passable straight people. Mister Cee, for instance, mentioned several times that he had “only” received fellatio, and had engaged in no other types of sexual activity, including giving fellatio. Trans people often become the go-to object of desire for self-hating people, which is why trans sex workers are among the highest at-risk groups for sexually transmitted infections and violence. Some men interested in sex with us see us all as faceless and interchangeable, or they take out their self-hatred through violence against us.
It would be irresponsible not to acknowledge that I am viewing hip-hop culture through the lens of my whiteness. I’m only trying to explain why this moment in hip-hop is historically significant in a trans context. The race aspects add a layer of lived experience to which I can’t speak. For some excellent insights, I recommend checking out this HuffPost Live conversationthat includes Janet Mock and Laverne Cox. They do a great job of explaining how other specific aspects of Mister Cee’s revelations translate to larger issues for our community, a follow-up to Janet’s earlier thoughts.
One of the more troubling aspects of the recent media coverage is that it implies that transphobia is predominantly a problem in the “hip-hop” (read: African-American) community. News flash, mainstream media: it’s not that great anywhere for trans people and those who love us. A wide swath of men attracted to trans women in all demographics have deeply conflicted feelings. They won’t let their trans partners meet their friends or family, or they want to have the occasional tryst when their wife is out of town, believing that attraction to trans people is an embarrassment to be hidden at all costs.
Last year, Cord Jefferson wrote a great piece titled how I learned to hate transgender people, which nicely summarized how the relentless negative depiction of trans people in the media has affected our safety. Trans people are typically portrayed in the media (and not just in hip-hop) as prostitutes, punchlines, or psychopaths. But things are changing slowly. One reason my friend Calpernia Addams and I produced and appeared in a competitive dating show with men competing for her affection was to counter the lack of representations of men attracted to trans women. Usually they’re presented as pervy losers (Glenn Quagmire on Family Guy, Barry Zuckerhorn on Arrested Development, etc.). Turns out guys attracted to us are no better or worse than any other guys. More prominent trans women are talking about the men who love them, about their long-term relationships and marriages. Many of these men, it turns out, were not specifically seeking out a relationship with a trans woman, but they were not put off when they found out. Others don’t distinguish between trans and non-trans women, or they appreciate both types of women. There’s much more to be heard from these men as more and more are willing to share their experiences.
Finally, I want to acknowledge the true heroes of this story. Mister Cee has continued to be very generous about sharing an incredibly personal part of his lifeafter decades of silence and secrecy. But neither Mister Cee nor the trans woman who outed him is the real hero here. The main hero is Hot 97 program manager Ebro Darden, who did not accept Mister Cee’s resignation and asked him to on-air to stay in his noon daytime slot. I was deeply moved by Breeze’s compassion and acceptance during his emotional half hour with his colleague and friend Mister Cee. I’m not alone in that assessment. It’s remarkable that Hot 97 management is standing behind Mister Cee, just as I am. Thank you, Mr. Darden and Mister Cee’s family at Hot 97. I hope families of every kind follow your inspirational example of principled tolerance. Never have I been more proud to be a hip-hop fan.
The American Civil Liberties Union has released a brief overview of the transgender rights movement, focusing on the 1960s and 1970s, beautifully illustrated by Molly Crabapple.
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Raised Without Gender looks at young people in Sweden who express their gender and identity in an affirming approach, instead of outdated disease model approach developed in Toronto last century.
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