Kai, a 21-year-old student in D.C., used to identify as a lesbian — until they started testosterone. Ever since, Kai has retired their previously held lesbian identity, both because they no longer identify as a woman and because they’re experiencing attraction to men for the first time. “I think maybe before I wasn’t giving myself the option to be attracted to queer men, but now because I’m more comfortable in myself, [my] gender and gender presentation, I’m allowing myself that possibility,” they write via Twitter DM.
Kai is far from the first trans person to experience a difference in their sexual orientation after transitioning. Last year, them rounded up a number of studies tracking the changing realm of attraction many trans people experience: In one study, 40 percent of trans men reported a change in their sexual orientation; in another, 49 percent of transmascs recorded the same.
It’s not uncommon for everyone, trans or cis, to experience shifts in their sexual orientation as they move through adolescence into adulthood. Still, the data regarding transmascs is eye-popping. I mean, 49 percent? That’s a huge amount of trans people undergoing a pretty significant change on the heels of a totally different significant change. If half of all trans men united to do anything else — anything besides owning this one shirt, that is — we’d be unstoppable. (Studies of trans women bear similar statistical results to trans men in terms of changes in orientation, regardless of whether they came out socially or pursued medical transition as well.)
I know what you’re thinking: It’s the hormones, right? Not so fast. “I don’t think anyone knows what factors would cause a change in sexual orientation,” says Joshua Safer, executive director of the Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery at Mount Sinai. “Trans people sometimes report changes in sexual orientation with treatment. However, there’s no evidence that hormones themselves influence sexual orientation.”
In short, hormone replacement therapy (or HRT) isn’t sex magic, which makes sense. Not all trans people medically transition, and plenty still experience a change in their sexual orientation after coming out and socially transitioning. Also, almost all humans have hormones, and HRT generally only brings a trans person’s testosterone or estrogen levels within the average range of a cis adult’s hormone levels. In other words, if hormones were the cause, everything from birth control to steroids would shake up your sexual orientation like a Magic 8-Ball.
Neil, a 19-year-old gay trans man from Pennsylvania, previously identified as a lesbian. In fact, realizing he was attracted to men was actually a catalyst behind him examining his gender identity with more scrutiny. And once he came out as trans, the cycle of examining his sexual orientation began anew. “Now that I’m socially transitioned, I’m starting to question my sexuality again, because the way I’m approaching my bisexuality this time around feels pretty similar to the way I approached it the last time. I keep catching myself thinking, ‘Well, I’m still attracted to women. I just don’t know if I see myself dating one.’”
New sexualities can be liberating, but they can also mean having to face new stigmas — or rather, old stigmas that are complicated by a new gender identity. Biases against gay men, and gay trans men in particular, have left Neil in an uncertain place about how to publicly identify. “It feels safer to keep identifying as bisexual. I’m very aware of the ways transphobes, and TERFs in particular, talk about gay trans men. If I’m bi, no one can take that away from me. Or maybe I really do like women, and I can stop worrying about it.”
Remember a couple of paragraphs ago when I said hormones weren’t sex magic? Well, that doesn’t mean they have zero impact — hormonal transitioning is pretty much like going through puberty all over again — but their affect is generally on your sex drive, not who you’re attracted to. Or as Safer puts it, “Hormones are more typically associated with sexual interest independent of orientation.”
Of course, as anyone who’s ever been so terminally horny that they’ve tossed aside their entire personality and became unrecognizable to themselves and their loved ones for the sake of a decent fuck knows, altering the degree to which you want to have sex might have a trickle-down effect on who you choose to have sex with. In a slightly less dramatic example, Rowan, a gay trans man, previously had little-to-no sexual desire. “Before I realized I was a guy, I identified pretty solidly as asexual,” he says.
Fast forward to college, when Rowan socially transitioned. “I figured that I’d start feeling attracted to people when I started T, and based on the fact that I had some amount of romantic or aesthetic interest in both men and women, I started identifying as bisexual,” he tells me. But even after he started testosterone in 2014, “it wasn’t until last September that I actually felt sexually attracted to someone for the first time. Thus far, I’ve only been attracted to transmasculine folks — but to a pretty broad array of them. So I’m still gay, but in a much more specific way.”
For others like Avery, the change in sexual attraction — in his case, from monosexuality (trans folks who are exclusively straight or exclusively gay) to bisexuality — was more abrupt. “I exclusively slept with women until I played a show with a super buff trans guy wearing a tank top and I was like, ‘I could definitely be into him,’ which cracked my brain wide open, and it was off the races,” he writes over DM. “It turns out that I’m also into guys now, which was NOT the case pre-transition. It probably had to do with feeling more confident as a man. I didn’t want to be a woman fucked by a guy; I’m a guy being fucked by a guy!
“Also, fucking other trans guys made me realize how hot we are,” he adds.
There is a tidy way to answer the question of why so many transmasculine folks experience a change in their orientation, one where I suggest that, because transition allows trans people to live as their most authentic selves, a change in sexual orientation is just another manifestation of that newfound authenticity — another piece of oneself that was hidden away in the shadows until the cleansing light of transition finally released the inner truth of who you really want to fuck.
That definitely rings true for Kai and Avery, who downplayed certain attractions they felt and played up others prior to transitioning, choosing to exclusively date women when identifying as women, and feeling more comfortable engaging in sexual and romantic relationships with men once coming into their own transmasculine identities.
In the end, though, it’s probably too simplistic of an explanation: Others I spoke to didn’t see any of this coming, and experienced their shifting field of attraction as something entirely new, rather than something that had been latent or repressed. So it’s also probably worth remembering that coming out as trans can sometimes result in a forced narrative, one where any subsequent ways you become different from the person you were must somehow be related to your transition, which either uncovered a previously uncovered aspect of your selfhood or otherwise directly fueled the change.
Not to mention, no one really knows why they’re queer or straight, or trans or cis for that matter, and one can’t neatly explain the other. The only advantage trans people have, then, is that we paid enough attention to our desires to come out at least once, so it might seem a little less intimidating if we need to do it again.