Talking Trans Erotica with Tobi Hill-Meyer

Updated May 05, 2016 2:27pm PDT
2013 Tobi Reading Credit Alexis Green

Photo Credit to Alexis Green

Tobi Hill-Meyer is one of the filmmakers and performers working to create spaces and projects where trans bodies can be celebrated, respected, enjoyed, and understood on their own terms.

I can attest to this as both a consumer and collaborator within her oeuvre. 

She's working on a trans fiction anthology (with an emphasis on sexuality); with the ubiquity of tubes sites, tumblr porn, and digital stacks of free erotica, opportunities for trans people to be guaranteed payment for their emotional and sexual labor is rare. 

Tobi was gracious enough to speak with me on the upcoming anthology (especially as I missed the original deadline). The deadline is May 16; you still have about a week and a half to pitch her a story after reading this interview and getting inspired.

The idea of "trans erotica" under a cis-centric, heteronormative lens (transformation fetish,"trapped" porn) can be somewhat limiting. What does trans erotica made for trans people look like, or rather, what can it look like? Do you think there's space for tragedy or frustration in erotica? You mention in the call for submissions that you welcome stories about ignorant hookups or dysphoria—why is their inclusion important?

You can't understand how incredibly valuable a moment of being accepted for all that you are in the midst of a positive healthy sexual experience can be for so many trans people unless you have a sense of the despair that can come with the fears that such a moment will never come.

When every story is about how incredibly hot people have incredible sex together with incredible orgasms, it becomes flat. 
Compare that to a submission I received in which you've seen the traumatic past that causes a woman difficulty having any sex at all, and now she's masturbating in her lover's arms, who gently pets her forehead to ward away flashbacks, finally shuddering in gentle release to an orgasm she hasn't had in who knows how long—that story legitimately moved me in a way that would not be possible without room for a fuller emotional pallet. That's what sets this work apart from typical cis-centric erotica. 
I hope to create an anthology readers can enjoy on several levels. While there will be moments to arouse you, there will be much more to it than that. Because unlike how we are often treated, trans people have much more to offer than the opportunity to arouse you. This will be a book where trans readers will be able to glimpse reflections of themselves in powerful and affirming ways, and cis readers may find themselves learning things about trans people's experiences they had not realized.

What's a work of erotica that's stayed with you? 

When I read The Leather Daddy and the Femme, I was hungry for any representation of gender fluidity and trans people having queer sex—that book was amazing. Granted, it's been a while, I wouldn't be surprised if the book felt a bit dated if I were to read it again, but the idea of trans women finding inclusion in lesbian sex parties and a genderqueer femme dressing in drag to attend leather men's events was incredible. 

It came out during a time when most queer sex positive spaces would exclude trans people from their women's parties or men's parties. I think the example of trans inclusion gave many people the courage to demand inclusion in our own sex positive spaces. I know it did for me.
Talking with Carol Queen, who wrote the novel, she told me that after it came out she had many people contact her asking her where these amazing inclusive sex parties where gay men and lesbians played side by side and trans people were welcome without question were happening and how they could be a part of them? 

She admitted that she made up the underground warehouse parties in San Francisco But then an amazing thing happened: people started connecting with each other and creating those spaces. And now, they very much do exist in San Francisco and elsewhere. That's what I think good fiction can do—give us the opportunity to envision how we would like the world to be, and provide a blueprint for those who want to make it happen.
As the editor of an anthology of trans erotica written for a trans audience, how do you feel about the modern axiom that "trans people shake hands with their genitals"?
I think the idea that trans people quickly and freely have casual sex with each other is really just a limited expression of one set of experiences. Sure, there's a segment of the population that is like that. I guess you and I had sex within a couple hours of meeting when the friends get-together we were at turned into an orgy.

But as a sexuality expert working in the trans community, it's obvious that sexuality is a difficult topic for so many of us, often leading to long bouts of celibacy or discomfort with the topic. For some of us, there is this moment of breaking through and setting aside all the messages that held us back—and when that happens, it's common for people to start having lots and lots of sex. 

But it's very important to me that narrative doesn't take over. The story I'm writing for this anthology is about a trans woman who's been invited to her first ever sex party and almost decided not to go. Her awkward discomfort with the whole situation and not being sure what she thinks about what's happening around her is reflective of the difficult relationship many trans people have with sexuality. I want this anthology to be have something everyone can find to relate to—whether they have a similar relationship to sex as that awkward protagonist, or if their experience is closer to that of her friends throwing the sex party.

When so many expect erotic content for free, and so few places pay for fiction at all, paying your writers is itself a radical act of solidarity. What do you think it would take for porn-consuming audiences to engage critically with the exploitation in "free tumblr porn" on a large audience scale to enact change? 

The old adage is true —you get what you pay for—and I think I can deliver something that is unlikely to be found elsewhere. While many writers have broken into the ebook market, did you know there's never been a printed erotica anthology edited by a trans woman? At least not one I can find. 

The reason I'm willing to work so hard on this anthology is because I've wanted something like this and have never have been able to find it. It's something I know I'd be willing to pay for—and I expect many others would be willing to as well.
Paying for this anthology is something I've committed to. I decided to go with a new trans-led publisher that I'm really excited about, Instar Books, but by virtue of being new and small they were very clear that there wasn't enough money to pay contributors an amount that wouldn't be insulting. I looked over the finances, and I get it. To bring in that money they'd need to raise the book price to such a degree it would make it unavailable to many people. Both of those just simply weren't options for me. 

So I made the personal commitment that once the lineup is complete I will fundraise what we need to pay contributors. So keep an eye out for a crowdfund pitch later this year.

The last time I saw you, we were at The Octopus Bar and you read your children's book to the group—did you get any flack or wariness from people for writing a children's book after you've done porn? There is this attitude where having had sexuality in any way taints your ability to engage with the youth. I'm 30. I can say "the youth" if I want.

Actually, I haven't gotten one word about it. I think it's pretty clear to anyone who knows my work in porn that the whole reason I'm doing it is to create a better alternative to what currently exists and embed anti-oppression feminist values into my work—that's essentially the same thing I'm trying to do with my children's book. As more people who are less familiar with my work make the connection, we'll see if that changes, but I do have one amusing anecdote. 

Last summer I was tabling at Gender Odyssey and had both my children's book for sale and was promoting my porn work with postcards. Whenever children approached the table, I'd subtly cover the postcards with my conference materials. I'd been incredibly nervous about having a children's book and porn postcards on the same table. Perhaps due to my discretion, I didn't get any negative responses. And at one moment, there was a very enthusiastic six year old trans girl who brought her mom and grandma over "This one, this is the book!" Her mother recognized me from a workshop we had just met at hours earlier and she said "Oh, you're the author! I've got money for you!" then quieter "and, um... can I have some of those postcards?"  

Any writing advice for prospective erotica authors out there, eager to unfurl their perverse wit but shy from inexperience? 

To begin with: I'll let you know that very few submitted stories have dealt with trans women and cis men. In our queer networks, that seems to be something people are less willing to write about—or perhaps less experienced with. But in either case, if anyone is planning to write a new story in time for the deadline of May 16th, or has an old story that they could submit, that's something you may want to consider.
I would also encourage writers to make sure they are giving their characters proper motivation for their behavior. In erotic writing, it's really easy to fall into the sexy stranger who shows up and is mysteriously really really into you. And that can work, as long as you give the reader a reason to believe in it. Tell us just enough about the stranger to know why they are really into the protagonist. The story should never be so simple. 

Even if you don't include it, you should have a detailed understanding of your character's backstory, where they come from, what they want, what their fears are—how does connecting with another character influence those motivations? The last thing you want is to have your characters professing love and your readers left scratching their head and asking "But why?"
What makes erotica hot in general is the context of the scene, not just which body parts go where. The pacing and building of tension and desire are essential. For this anthology, I'm also really looking for interesting stories that have something to say about trans people's experiences. 

And of course, the old advice "Show, don't tell" is incredibly important and can be a difficult trap for even experienced writers to fall into.
So let me leave you with two tests I run through in my head when reading a submission:

If the trans character could be re-written as cis and nothing is lost from the story, then it's not really a trans story

If the description of sex could be taken out and I still would want to read it, then it's an interesting story. 

You can submit to Tobi's anthology here. The Deadline is May 16.

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Jetta Rae co-founded HARLOT Magazine in August 2015 and currently serves as Editor-in-Chief.