“My Asian friends and I sometimes call each other lotus blossoms because that's the big stereotype: lotus blossoms—so fragile, so petite, so delicate, so blah blah blah. I even have a T-shirt with 'Lotus Blossom Lounge' written on it.” Gwen Park's experience might sound familiar to any Asian American woman coping with fetishes surrounding Asians. But Park, a transgender woman, copes with two sets of prejudices at once.
Transwomen (or “T-girls”) like Park are part of a vibrant and diverse scene. While all transgender women begin with a male birth certificate, some become female only on a part-time, playful basis. Others will become female permanently, often using hormones and surgery to transform their bodies forever. When groups of transwomen gather at bars, clubs and social events, they may include both full-time and part-time women.
And where T-girls gather, men will follow. The subculture of male “admirers” or “tranny chasers” is just as widespread and diverse as the transgender community itself. Most of these men consider themselves straight because they're not seeking men—just women who were originally called male at birth. Many prefer transwomen who haven't had genital reconstruction surgery, because they find an otherwise female body with a penis sexy. And many trans admirers also actively seek out Asian girls above all others.
Many tranny chasers believe that male-born Asians have an easier time appearing convincingly female because of facial features or less body hair. Look on any dating/hookup service for men-for-trans (M4T) posts and you'll find “Asian only” or “Asian preferred” all over the place. The top-selling transsexual porn videos, according to industry trade magazine Adult Video News, depict Asian transwomen, including the number one bestseller Fuck My Young Transsexual Ass.
“Asian transgenders/transsexuals are way sexy,” says Jerry, an advertiser from the San Francisco Craigslist.com personals who asked for Asians in his posting. “The eyes and features tend to be much more feminine. Usually they have much better and slender bodies, which makes them more passable and attractive.” He also thinks all Asian genetic females “have hot bodies.”
There's also a cultural dimension to the fetish. Several Craigslist advertisers interviewed for this article referred to Asian transwomen as “submissive” or “giving.” “Maybe it's the Asian personality,” speculates Samuel. “They tend to be more delicate and subtle,” says Frank. Some men also claimed that they believed Asian T-girls were less likely to cheat on them.
Mainstream culture portrays transgender women as more feminine than most genetic females, and admirers “eat that shit up,” says Park, who doesn't date men. Add that to the delicate ethnic stereotype, and you've got a double whammy in many mens' eyes. “Someone looking for an exotic Asian princess would probably be pretty disappointed with me,” she says. “I'm tall, I like getting my hands dirty, I burp out loud in public. In short, I'm a normal girl, not some fantasy.”
Keiko, a transgender artist, says she still gets clocked as transgender when she's around other Asians. The combination of Asian and transgender makes her “feel like a two-for-one fetish-gratification special.” The Asian tranny fetish is really no different than an obsession with Anime or feng shui, she says. I's just people projecting an image onto a person or thing. “How many [tranny] chasers have imposed their Asian stuff on me? To be honest, every one I've met.”
That mixture of fetishes makes the men feel powerful in relation to Asian transwomen, says Cecilia Chung, a transgender advocate who works on HIV prevention among Asian and Pacific Islanders. “These men usually see Asians as inferior and subservient, which seems to be their perception of both Asian women and transwomen.” It certainly doesn't make for a sustainable relationship, says Chung.
But Keiko admits that for her, “it can be fun playing into the role.” As long as she's not in danger, she gets a rush from “starring in someone else's private show.”
“When someone is 'China-Dolling' you during sex, you know that person isn't really seeing you for who you are. But that doesn't mean it's always bad,” says Keiko, who's currently in a relationship with a woman. “This one guy kept saying 'thank you, thank you' the whole time. I guess I represented some sort of longtime fantasy for him, and that made it good for me, too.”
Keiko will be in a bar, listening to a guy complain about his work and his troubles, and then she'll do something to make him laugh. And then she wonders, is that a “geisha” thing, or something all women are socialized to do?
Such moments of stepping into a role, and then questioning where it comes from, are common among all transwomen, not just Asians. Women who weren't socialized as female have to invent themselves from scratch as adults, and it can be thrilling as well as terrifying to play with different versions of the female role. So it shouldn't be surprising that men find this self-made femininity charming—or that they confuse it with ethnic as well as gender stereotypes.
— Writer Charlie Anders; Artist Georg Pedersen
Charlie Anders is author of Choir Boy, a transgender coming-of-age novel, and publisher of Other (www.othermag.org).