Thanks to gross misrepresentation in popular culture (due in large part to the deplorable “50 Shades” franchise), the long maligned and misunderstood aspects of human behavior known as BDSM/”kink” are lately even less understood. To the average person, the mere mention of BDSM conjures up images of violence and abuse. While it might be easier for practitioners to simply hide their inclinations from the general public, I think this is problematic. Just as I feel there need to be representatives of the trans community putting themselves into the public eye to normalize “trans-ness”, so too does the BDSM/kink community need such representatives. Not only is the misrepresentation of this approach to life, love, and sexual expression unfair, but in the right circumstances, certain elements of BDSM and BDSM relationships can actually be helpful tools in processing and coping with some of the issues many trans people experience. I intend here to touch on just a few, to give those with minimal exposure to the actual practice of BDSM an idea of the possible beneficial roles healthy BDSM can play in the lives of those inclined to explore it. This approach will focus on the BDSM lifestyle, not actual sexual activities. While these can be and often are an integral part of a BDSM relationship, it is not necessary to include them in such a discussion, and in reality I feel would even distract from my purpose. Throughout this piece, I will make reference to BDSM concepts by their known parlance in the community. A brief explanation of these abbreviations and terms will follow.
One of the first things I’m often asked when I reveal that I’m a Dominant is about my gender identity and power roles. The public (including many in the trans community) tend to think of women in general and trans women specifically as naturally submissive. Add to the fact that my chosen gender presentation is unabashedly “traditionally femme”, and people are often caught off guard when they discover that I’m a Domme. While this clearly points out problematic assumptions about gender identity and gender roles, on a more personal scale it’s easily understandable. I, too, asked myself the same questions during my self-discovery and early transition. Am I still a Dominant? What’s the difference between Dom and Domme, really? How much of what I think is my natural inclinations towards dominance is really me, and how much is just the (toxic) masculinity I adopted when playing that role for so many decades? This was a very important part of my coming to terms with being trans, and I almost lost myself in it. There are precious few resources that address these concerns.
Further questioning of assumed power dynamics in regards to gender identification, from within the BDSM community, illuminates another point that I think worthy of note. The concept of “Femme Domme” or feminine/female domination is deeply connected to many aspects of BDSM, both in intimate practice and in lifestyle. Within the community, women who are interested in expressing dominance are highly sought after, by men and women alike- even moreso if they have considerable experience doing so. There are myriad sub-types of domination, many totally removed from the bedroom or bedroom analogue. What does this say about what society seems to expect of women, versus what a large, but hidden, portion of society openly pursues and praises? How does this affect how we as trans people should view ourselves as we struggle through our personal journeys of discovery? Is there a case to be made for indulging in one’s inclinations towards dominance in this way, in order to freely express one’s self without fear of being judged for not conforming to societal expectations?
Some practices within BDSM seem to be purely of the bedroom-analogue type, but actually extend into the life of the practitioners. One such practice is known as “forced chastity”, where a mechanical device is used to restrict access to the genitals. Those who engage in forced chastity tend to be submissives, although I do know of some “switch” couples who practice mutual forced chastity. The people I’ve talked to that engage in this practice talk often of the feeling of disconnect they have because of the device. The restriction is symbolic of the power they have elected to give their Dominant over themselves and their bodies; it reminds them that those parts do not “belong to them” anymore. The specifics of how this plays out in practice varies from couple to couple, but the idea of this disconnect is common. This leads one immediately to think of genital dysphoria, suffered by numerous trans people who feel their genitals are “wrong”. Could this be a tool to lessen that distress? Properly managed by a caring dominant, it seems this idea of separation can be enhanced and channeled. The dysphoric person who wishes to not have those genitals might find some comfort in the idea that even though still physically attached, those offending parts aren’t theirs anymore. And, if they aren’t theirs, then they certainly can’t define them. It’s not clear how effective this might be on a broad scale, but this is an example of how combining concepts of BDSM with challenges faced by trans people might yield possible solutions worthy of further consideration. My limited experience and discussion with members of both groups imply a lot of promise, but these discussions won’t ever happen without bringing these groups together for that purpose.
The most interesting overlap between BDSM and being trans, to me, is the idea of D/s relationships as a healthy analogue of and surrogate for a failed relationship with an authority figure, such as when a trans person is rejected by parents or family. This is a sadly widespread experience in the trans community, and many practitioners of BDSM openly admit to finding comfort in their relationships as a replacement for the lost approval and support of their parents or other such figures of authority. The benefits here should be obvious, provided the submissive finds a healthy relationship with a good and caring Dominant¹.
And that last bit is key to why these types of communication and support are so badly needed. There are predators in the world, and the BDSM community might just have more than their share. Potential practitioners of BDSM are going to find the community one way or another. Certain aspects of BDSM (“gender play” being the most glaringly obvious) are tailor-made for the gender-questioning, and one could throw a beach ball at a trans support group and probably bounce it off of a dozen people who have already had at least *some* exposure to BDSM through such practice. Ignoring the overlap between gender-questioning and BDSM/kink is like abstinence sex ed- we do nothing and get the exact results we should expect from doing nothing. BDSM is NOT for everyone, and no honest supporter of such would say so, but creating a safe and open resource for folks who are questioning, or even engaged in the practice or lifestyle who just want to work through issues, should be considered a necessary part of community support. When the idea of a BDSM support group for trans people was first suggested to me, my initial thought was “Well, if it’s done right, I’d be part of that” and that was the end of my thoughts about it. But the more time has gone on, and the more my name has been tossed around with the idea, the more people have approached me about it. This is a need. The community wants this, and the community needs this. BDSM is about choice, communication, and consent, and those drawn to it will universally extoll how it has positively impacted their lives. Just as the popular narratives regarding trans people are misinformed and false, so too are the narratives regarding BDSM and its practitioners. If we owe it to our community to help correct the popular misunderstanding of one, then logically we owe the same for the other.
- This concept can apply in reverse, as well. A Dominant trans person may have been cut off from their children (either by wish of the children or action of the other parent). A D/s relationship can serve as a surrogate and outlet for those parental instincts, potentially providing the Dominant with a way to come to terms with that situation
BDSM– An overlapping acronym representing 3 different concepts- Bondage & Discipline, Dominance/submission, and Sado-Masochism. While each of these 3 concepts are distinct, there is often overlap between them. The first and last focus largely on practice and physical expressions of intimacy; the middle concept tends to be more about how participants choose to structure their personal relationships, be it short-term or long, physical or emotional, or combinations thereof.
Consent– The backbone of all BDSM interaction. Participants agree beforehand what is not permissible (“hard limits”), what is permissible or even desired, and in some cases areas the participants wish to explore that may still be uncomfortable to them (“soft limits”). In some cases, “soft limit” is used to describe when a submissive participant wishes to be “pushed past” that limit- having an experience they think they desire but may be reluctant to try.
Dom/Domme/Dominant– A person who takes a dominant role in a BDSM relationship or scenario. While it’s not an official distinction, the label Dominatrix usually implies one who does so in a professional capacity. These are the masculine, feminine and gender-neutral forms respectively. When used to describe a specific individual, it is usually capitalized.
D/s– Dominance/submission. In this form it is usually used to describe a relationship, where the participants have opted to structure their power dynamic strongly towards the Dominant. There are varying degrees of immersion into this type of relationship.
Dynamic– a blanket term used to describe the specific nature of and agreements within a particular BDSM relationship. Most commonly applied to a D/s relationship.
Gender play – A fetish subset of BDSM practice wherein participants present as a gender other than their own to varying degrees; such presentation may be restricted to private space, but possibly also in public. The exact expression and particulars of this vary from dynamic to dynamic, in some cases being described as “forced”, although this is a misnomer as such play would have been consented to initially between the participants. There is an overlap between gender play and a desire for or interest in degradation/humiliation which is considered problematic by many transgender people.
Submissive (“sub”)- A person who takes a submissive role in a BDSM relationship or scenario.
Switch– A person who identifies as both Dominant and submissive. A switch may swap roles with the same person, or play different roles in different dynamics/relationships.
TPE (aka “24/7” or “24/7 TPE”)- Total Power Exchange. A level of D/s relationship where nearly all decisions are made by the Dominant. This sort of relationship, in order to remain healthy, requires deep trust between the participants, a mutual understanding of their individual needs, and constant communication. While such situations could be potentially abusive, participants in healthy TPE relationships report relief from anxiety, confusion, depression, and lethargy. By taking control of aspects of life planning and simple decision making, the Dominant frees the submissive from the mental anguish that might be felt from such tasks as basic as simple time management to what to have for dinner. Such relationships can be long or short term, and are as different as those who choose to practice them. As with all aspects of BDSM, consent and communication are key, and all aspects of a TPE dynamic are clearly laid out by and between both parties. Practitioners who choose to make their dynamic long term and celebrate with a ceremony often exchange contracts outlining their responsibilities to each other, their mutual goals, and hard limits.