The Cotton Ceiling: One woman's story
By Sue Donym
I think I received permission to cross-post this from Sue’s excellent Substack. If you have any problem with me reproducing it here, Sue, please let me know. It’s an important piece on the straight invasion of LGB spaces and the many forms of abusive sexual coercion that come with it.
I remember my college days studying journalism, which don't seem so long ago, but actually are now, and as a young eighteen year old, a friend gives me something she says explains gender. It is Judith Butler's Gender Trouble. I have heard of this book. People treat it like The Bible. I eagerly open the book and attempt to read it.
I cannot make heads or tails of it. I conclude I simply am not smart enough or well-read enough to understand the religious revelation. I make it to page sixty before giving up, the constant mentions of ‘Althusserian’ and ‘structuralist’ and ‘reifying’ finally defeating me. I don’t feel like any of the book has actually managed to lodge itself in my head.
I give the book back to my friend, and then I pretend to everyone around me that I have read the book. No one figures me out.
When I get older, I realize they all did the same thing.
In my senior year, I win election to student government. I am to represent ‘LGBT’ people. I am proud. I am unaware I am now standing on a cliff, the ground beneath me slowly breaking. I bury my head in the sand as my position becomes increasingly precarious.
I meet with faculty during the first semester. I read through a policy. Suddenly ‘LGBT’ has morphed. It’s ‘LGBTQI+’. I don’t know what the Q and I stand for, let alone that seemingly erroneous plus sign. I am supposed to be the expert, and all these middle-aged people are looking at me to explain the youth speak which is even bedeviling I, the putative youth. I muddle through, using this surprise new acronym, and then I Google it surreptitiously in the meeting. It means ‘Queer’ and ‘Intersex’, and the plus sign appears to be decorative in nature. I wonder what the Q covers that ‘LGBT’ doesn’t, let alone the God-damned plus sign, and I wonder why ‘intersex’ needs to be included at all.
They talk enthusiastically about how everyone has a gender. There are women with penises, men with vaginas. Gender is understood to be how you feel inside. I contort my mind around this way of thinking as best I can. A man is someone who behaves like a man, and a woman is someone who behaves like a woman. That is the working definition you have, even though you paper over it with phrases like ‘identifies as.’
I don’t think about. You can’t. You are told this is how it is, how it has always been, to think otherwise is actually you replicating the kyriarchy, over and over and over again, and you nod and accept it, because you are given this set of facts and told to nod. Pseudoscience justifies it. People talk about ‘brain scans’ and ‘the wrong bodymap’, and ‘indigenous genders’. It’s all conjectural bullshit, but everyone goes along with it.
When I can’t perform the cognitive contortions, I simply don’t acknowledge contradicting evidence. To do so would be to jump off a cliff into an abyss. It is a reflexive thing, unconscious, and its origins lie in the instinct for self-preservation.
Everyone goes along with it. I am a coward, so I accept it and move on. I am twenty two years old, and I don’t know any better, and I want to trust the organizations that say they hold my best interests at heart.
Part of my role on student government was providing student-based pastoral care in my college’s LGBT center. By the time I get there, it’s morphed into the LGBTQI+ Center. I consider myself even-keeled and well-adjusted, perfect to help ‘my people’.
Many of the people that come see me have fairly normal problems. I speak to lecturers about not being homophobic, meet with faculty about LGBTQI issues, and sit through interminably boring student government meetings full of bloviating Young Democrats self-assured about their future self-importance. Increasingly, more people come to speak to me about trans issues. Walking through the center one day, someone assumes I am a ‘pre-hormones trans man’. When I correct them, and say I am a butch lesbian, they suddenly become hostile. I don’t know why, but I feel offended to my very bones about being assumed to be a man.
More and more of my fellow butches suddenly start declaring themselves to ‘truly be men.’ I don’t think about this. You’re not supposed to think about it, or question them, just accept and affirm and acknowledge and adulate their new found authenticity. I get a new package of fliers from an LGBT charity, open them up, and suddenly find that I, simply defined as ‘butch’ (forget the lesbian!) am now supposedly ‘trans’ and under the ‘trans umbrella.’ I call this ridiculous, and loudly.
Someone pulls me aside to ask why I’m being so transphobic.
I meet with a charity group. They have this young woman on staff who declares herself ‘non-binary’ and uses ‘they/them’ pronouns. She does not strike me as gay, and her entire purview of ‘LGBT’ seems to forget the first three letters. She assumes that I am a trans man. When I tell her I am a lesbian, she asks ‘are you sure? Maybe you’ll change your mind’. She then starts talking to me about her boyfriend.
I wonder why this straight girl with dyed hair is telling me what to do on gay issues. What gives her the right?
At the end of the meeting, someone I know from the charity group tells me that ‘Aiden’ is upset I forgot her pronouns. I hadn’t realized. I tell him that this dyed hair fag hag told me I’ll change my mind about being a lesbian. He says that doesn’t excuse messing up Aiden’s pronouns.
The next time I meet Aiden, she keeps calling me ‘he’. She gets upset when I get angry with her.
My student body president sends me a please explain email the next day about upsetting Aiden.
One day in the center, in walks a man in a dress. That’s what I thought in my unfiltered thoughts, before the cognitive dissonance kicks in. But the Aiden experience has taught me a lesson to not speak up. The man uses ~the magical pronouns~, ‘she/her’ and this means he is a woman. He dresses like a prostitute downtown and declares he’s a lesbian.
He says he is a trans woman. But Chloe is different from all the trans women I had met before. They would call themselves ‘gay men gone too far’, tell you hilarious stories, wingman for me at the bar, argue about ‘when Madonna went bad’, arguments that turned into handbag duels at dawn. Many of them were older, and many of them had stories about surviving in a homophobic world, surviving AIDS, dangerous johns, and the joy they felt now, that gay rights had gone somewhere. This man was very different to them.
My hair stands up on the back of my neck every time I deal with ‘Chloe’. It requires conscious effort to make sure I don’t mess up his pronouns, because my brain says that’s ‘a fucking man’, but my cognitive dissonance around the situation and my sense of self-preservation knows that if I don’t call this man a woman I will be in for it. I have seen the results - ‘Chloe’, all six feet of ‘Chloe’, screaming at a fellow trans woman, Clara, half his size, for saying ‘you’re a man honey’. Chloe himself came to me demanding I ban her from the space. I refused.
Clara stops coming into the center. I ask her why, and she says ‘those flipping transvestites, they’re not us.’ Clara never comes back to the center.
None of this thinking about Chloe’s pronouns is conscious. I feel guilty every time my thoughts use the ‘wrong pronouns’. My head is tied up in knots - not something freshman me would have considered, turning up to the center with the goal of getting laid, now trying to smile and put up with this man.
He makes every conversation in there uncomfortable. We relax when he is gone and only homosexuals are in the room.
Suddenly, my straight friends start asking if I’d ‘sleep with a trans woman’. I try laughing this off. One friend gets very insistent, and when I tell him that I wouldn’t consider someone with a dick, he starts wondering if my preferences are ‘rooted in bigotry’. I ask him if he’d sleep with a trans woman. He tells me that no, he’d prefer a woman who can have his children.
I smile and nod, and when the conversation ends, walk out of the room as fast as I can.
Chloe tells us at length about their sexual proclivities. Bondage and leather and ‘being a dom’. Chloe tells us about his lack of luck on lesbian dating apps. I keep to myself that I had ended up setting a height filter to filter out ‘the trannies.’ Nor do I tell him that me and a group of women had made fun of men like him on lesbian dating apps, swapping screenshots and Silence Of The Lambs jokes.
Soon there are more Chloes and fewer women. They all start talking about radical communism, about ‘sex work is work’, ‘cultural appropriation’, and about ‘TERFs’ and how hideous they are. One of them expounds to me at length why I shouldn’t read any feminist works from the seventies, because they hated trans women, and I wouldn’t want to hate trans women, wouldn’t I?
They all behave the same way. I keep getting reports about the Chloes harassing people in the center, particularly young lesbian women. Then there is an influx of ‘Aidens’, straight women declaring themselves to really be gay men. One of them tells me I am ‘appropriating the culture of trans men.’
One day I am in the center, and I look out the glass window of my office. There are a dozen people sitting in the common room of the center, talking animatedly. I realize none of them are lesbian or gay in the actual sense of the word. I feel uncomfortable, but I cannot articulate why I feel such discomfort.
One of the Chloes knocks on my door. This one wears a pink tube top and a pencil skirt. I am strongly reminded of Buffalo Bill. He asks me out for coffee. I decline. He asks why, as I am single. I say that I am busy that day. He tries asking for another day. I say I am playing club football that day. He keeps trying to cajole me. Eventually I dispense with the politeness and tell him I am not interested in him. He shouts at me that I am transphobic and leaves.
A few hours later, my phone blows up. His friends are calling me transphobic for not being interested in him. It’s just one date, they say. One little coffee. You might like it. You don’t know. Your last girlfriend dressed the same. You need to unlearn your genital preferences.
I think to myself my last girlfriend was a foot shorter and had a vagina, but I don’t say anything. I ignore the messages. He is allowed boundaries. I am not.
I am sitting in a class. It’s on sexual histories, a class I took to broaden my horizons from my journalism degree. I try not to think of the student loan I’ll be incurring from taking it.
Strangely enough, it is perhaps the first blow to the self-imposed contortions of my thoughts. The professor starts his lecture by pronouncing that sexual orientation is, in fact, a social construct. He explains that the word ‘homosexuality’ did not exist until the 19th century, and thus, homosexuals are a creation of repressive Victorian sexuality. I find this theory strange. I had grown up in the ‘born this way’ era, to be sure, but my homosexuality seemed biological, instinctual, basal to my very way of being. A powerful attraction to women came to me as naturally as breathing, or seeing, or farting inappropriately on the second date. Yet here was this man telling me, that in fact, my perceptions were merely constructs based on my surroundings.
It seemed strange to me. Someone from the class, notorious for asking questions, puts his hands up and asks about the Romans - you see, he is a student of the classics, and he remarks that the Romans knew of homosexuals. The professor gravely informs in that in fact the Romans were aware of a ‘behavior’, and that as ‘homosexual’ as a word did not exist at the time, there were no homosexuals. Only behaviors, that we codify and understand on a cultural basis.
This made less sense to me than before. It made even less sense to me when someone else asks about trans people. The professor remarks that ‘trans people have always existed’.
Yet homosexuals were invented by the first sexologists, rather than through self-definition? We had to have heterosexuals invent us, as other, first?
I am sitting with some gay friends, and one of them complains about the focus on trans issues when we still don’t have same-sex marriage federally yet. We talk about our disappearing spaces, and I voice that sometimes I am the only lesbian out of thirty people sitting in the LGBTQI+ student center (it had been renamed). I think of it in terms of getting laid - because suddenly all the ‘lesbians’ in the center had penises. It happened so quickly that it was easy to notice. I went to a lesbian group, and it was a sausage fest I made up an excuse to leave. The Chloes moved in, and the lesbians instantly left. I feel constantly uncomfortable, watched, stared at, envied. The Chloes all talk about their genitalia and violent pornography at length, in public, and it makes me feel gross and dirty, and I start to dislike most of them.
I post on my Tinder that I’m not into penis. I log in the next day to find out my account has been banned. Tinder never gives me a straight answer as to why I was banned.
I finish out my term on student government. I don’t run again. I’m a senior. I finish my degree and hurry off to the real world. One of the Chloes takes my place as ‘LGBTQI+ students representative’.
It is the one who tried getting me to go out on a date with him. He makes me feel uncomfortable throughout the whole handover.
I am upset, because he will destroy everything I worked for.
I go to the gay bar with some friends. But when we go, we feel like the only homosexuals in the whole god-damn bar. It’s full of people with dyed hair. A man in a dress tries grinding on me, and when I turn around and tell him no, he calls me ‘transphobic towards trans femmes’. When I declare I am a butch lesbian, people ask if I am a ‘TERF’. I don’t know what a ‘TERF’ is, other than ‘terfs’ are bad. I have been told terfs are bad, so it has to be true right? I don’t want to be a bad person.
I try going to other gay events, and suddenly I am outnumbered. Me, a few older lesbians, and some gay men huddle in a corner of spaces we once proudly called our own, as the Chloes and the Aidens declare it their own - and even worse, that they are just the same as us. It is unnerving, and they no longer feel like safe spaces for me. Gradually, we all stop going. There were no more gay people in the gay space.
I have a lesbian friend. She tells me excitedly about a first date. She meets them in a quirky coffee shop. It is a trans woman twice her size. When she tells the trans woman that she’s not interested, they lose it at her in the coffee shop, calling her a transphobic bigot and screaming and shouting and threatening to hit her.
She tells me, because she knows I don’t tell people things. But she cannot say anything in public. She’ll be transphobic. So she keeps it to herself, and this man gets to continue preying on women who think they’re safe, catfishing, coercing and abusing them.
To say otherwise gets you labelled a terf. And terfs are bad. Why are terfs bad? Don’t ask. Just accept that terfs are bad. Terfs hurt trans women, and you wouldn’t want to do that, would you?
Eventually, my friend hears of her date doing it to someone else. She writes a call out post, saying that you shouldn’t hide important facts about yourself on dating sites. She gets called a terf for saying that ‘lesbians don’t have dicks’, and being verbally abused in public was the rational response of an oppressed person to oppression. It’s a scarlet letter, and she is branded with it. I am a coward and I do not speak up in public. I hate myself. I am thinking of my personal prospects, and not my friend, and not my people. Because if I speak up, I can kiss the career I dream about goodbye. I fear that scarlet letter being branded on my forehead.
I tell my friend in private that I support her. But I daren’t say that in public.
I daren’t ask questions.
One day, I am aimlessly browsing the internet at work. I have written enough copy to cover my ass for the next few weeks. I wait until my boss leaves for the afternoon, and wait out the rest of the day mindlessly scrolling. I see a post in an LGBTQI+ students group on Facebook I’ve forgotten to leave. It’s a troll post, which is apparently ‘terf rhetoric’. The link is still there, and the comments are blowing up, united in performative outrage.
I click the link . I find myself laughing at the description of ‘men in dresses’. To these ‘terfs’, a man has a penis, and a woman has a vagina. Anyone saying otherwise is a damned fool. It seems such an easy way to think about it. I mean, what is a woman, anyway? It doesn’t seem evil, wicked or bad. It seems… sensible.
Finding out more about this new way of thinking becomes addicting. I keep my scrolling through it on my phone. I have always had a fondness for reading people being harshly critical about anything, and now I have an endless source of it, articulating things I knew instinctually but could never find the words to verbalize, could never find the courage to verbalize. I wonder if I am being radicalized - images of ISIS radicalizing fighters over the internet run through my head. But everything seems to make so much sense. I am no longer contorting my thoughts around the desires of others, but thinking freely, observationally, openly, fearlessly.
It felt like my mind had freed itself from chains, chains placed upon it all those years ago, when that naïve eighteen year old who wanted to get laid tried reading Gender Trouble.
The gunk on my mind slowly unclogged. My way of thinking suddenly changed. I was no longer denying what my eyes saw in front of me. No, now I saw things as they were. There was no more contorting my way of thought. For the first time in a long time, I felt clear-headed.
One of the links I clicked in my flurry was a link to Dr. Ray Blanchard’s paper on ‘autogynephilia’. I read it, and finally, I had an explanation. Homosexual transsexuals. And ‘autogynephiles.’ The two types of his famous and controversial typology.
‘Autogynephiles’ - men who had a sexual fetish for ‘being a woman’, a fetish for an alter-ego female self, a fetish for our bodies, our minds, our souls, our experiences. All reduced to jerk-off fodder for some blockhead man.
It explained why they were so desperate for lesbians to date them. They needed us for validating their sexual fetish. Our lives and experiences, our spaces, our dating apps, our culture, our media, our websites, every breath we took, as far as they were concerned, needed to be focused on validating them. Because otherwise, the fantasy was ruined! These straight men would not be able to jerk off over their fantasy of ‘being a lesbian’! We were not people, we were non-player-characters in their video game. Actresses in pornography, extras in a film where they were the protagonist, and we were off script. We weren’t fully-formed people, with our own desires, we were things, objects, film props.
The entire gay movement, from the lesbians to the gays, to the homosexual transsexuals, reduced to nothing but props in some straight man’s sexual fantasy. That’s all we were to them, ultimately.
And I was expected to go along with it?! We were all expected to go along with it?
Not only that, I had gone along with it. I had advocated for this.
What had I done?
Every moment you come close, every moment you start thinking something isn’t right, you start feeling a little foolish.
Of course this is fine. Everyone is telling me so. The media, the public, the people around you. No one voices concerns. When you have them, you don’t say anything, because no one else is, and because you are a coward.
You feel a little foolish because this is foolish. Saying some women have penises is foolish. You know it is foolish, from the minute that idiot phrase leaves your mouth, to the minute it dances across your tongue, to the minute your nerves send the signal to your larynx to make the required movements to produce the very sounds. But, you think, you are no fool.
You are no fool, you think, when someone says ‘biological women have XY chromosomes’, or that it’s okay for a man on the college track team to identify as a woman and take a place on the women’s track team. You know that’s not right. But everyone else is going along with it, and you are no fool, and you shouldn’t feel foolish, because everyone says this is the right thing to do, the right side of history, doing right by an oppressed minority, so you go along with it.
You are frightened of realizing you are a fool. So too, is everyone around you. No one likes being played the fool, no one likes realizing they were sold a pack of lies as a naïve eighteen year old looking for other gay people. And no one plays you for a fool. And thus the dance continues, everyone one too frightened to admit that, perhaps, we are all fools, believing in something physically impossible, no different to the bible-banging megachurch attendee, with our own chants, our own magic words, ritual knowledge, and ability to be born again. We are smart. We’re liberal. We are on the right side of history. We couldn’t be believing in something that isn’t scientifically backed. We’re smarter than that. We’re not fools.
And when it finally gets too much, and you drift over to the cliff’s edge, the cliff that you can see the bottom of, the cliff you know you can’t come back from, you pull away. Because to go over it would to be to admit that you’ve been played the fool. No one likes that feeling, the shame, the embarrassment, the horror, the fear. What lies over that cliff is exile, a scarlet letter, fear and hatred and nasty women who just want trans women dead.
What lies beyond that cliff is a realization that you have been used. You have been used by something greater than yourself, to push medication on children. You have been used by straight men to participate in their sexual fetish without your consent. Your entire community, rendered a jerk-off prop for some straight man overnight, and you were told that objecting was ‘transphobic’. You have been used to spread homophobia beyond your comprehension, to take part in the destruction of your own community, and you were told this was right and good.
To realize this, to acknowledge it, to move on and try and forge something better, that takes true strength of character. To realize this, to deny it, and obfuscate what you are doing, that I can understand. I too, was once a coward. I too, did not want to believe what my eyes told me was sitting in front of me. That cliff is scary, and to jump off it seemingly lies nothing but social death.
But eventually something pushes you over, without your consent. You realize you have been played the fool, because finally, something so gratuitous occurs that you must. Even the greatest cowards will eventually be blown off the cliff. The music will stop, and the dance will end, and you will finally feel the shame, the embarrassment, the horror, the fear, the guilt.
Because no one likes being played for a fool.
Perhaps, then, it is best to get this over and done with now, while you still have dignity to defend.
Some details have been changed to protect the identities of those concerned.