Pop Theory: Is the “Cotton Ceiling” Theory All Fluff?

Late Friday night I got a one-line text message from a very dear friend of mine:

“What are your thoughts on the ‘cotton ceiling’ theory?,” she asked.

Although I assumed it was a riff off “glass ceiling,” I replied “I’ve never heard of it,” while simultaneously googling “cotton ceiling” on my laptop. One of the first hits was to a piece on femonade explicitly about the “cotton ceiling” theory:

The cotton ceiling is a theory proposed by trans porn star and activist Drew DeVeaux to explain the experiences queer trans women have with simultaneous social inclusion and sexual exclusion within the broader queer women’s communities. Basically, it means that cis queer women will be friends with us and talk day and night about trans rights and ending transmisogyny, but will still not consider us viable sexual partners.

The term cotton ceiling is a reference to the glass ceiling that second wave feminist identified in the workforce, wherein women could only advance so high in the workforce but could not break through into positions of power and authority. The cotton represents underwear, signifying sex.

The theory of the cotton ceiling is useful in identifying the dynamic trans women are experiencing, and is meant to open up conversation around desirability’s intersections with transmisogyny and transphobia.

While the allusion to “cotton” baffles me, and, therefore, while I don’t feel the metaphor to be apt, I do comprehend what the author is saying: how inclusive are queer women of transwomen if said queer women refuse to have sex with them?

The concern as it is articulated comes across as petulant and, ironically, a tad misogynistic. This individual believes that lesbians won’t sleep with her because she’s trans, but how can she make that judgement? Her feeling smacks of the “all homos are sex maniacs” argument. But just because I’m a homo it doesn’t mean that I want to hump everything with a vagina, “born” or “made.” To be honest, I don’t want to sleep with 99.9% of the women out there. Why? Because my standards are such that it takes more than simply having a vajayjay — although a vajayjay is required — to get into my knickers, and, to boot, when I’m with someone I only fantasize about and desire that woman. My point is that we all have our own unique sexual way(s) of being. Or, as my therapist might say, this woman should think about the type of woman she’s attracted to — clearly the type she’s attracted to doesn’t seem to be attracted to her, for reasons that probably have to do with her character than solely upon what’s in her pants.

photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty

I think, rather, that the writer’s frustration is a symptom of an underlying cultural problem of how women treat other women, cis or otherwise — from the Michigan Women’s Music Festival to dinner table small talk. Read anything by my queermother Kate Bornstein to get a sense of how ze gets flack from both trans and feminist circles. Why are we policing each other so heavily? What is this fear? This hate? Is it an internalized misogyny? Self-loathing?

Even though women statistically outnumber men, patriarchy is irrevocable. As such, we all have to want to be women — we have to accept and love our woman status — in a world structured and powered by and for men.

My friend who asked me for my thoughts on the “cotton ceiling” did so because the term came up during a dinner conversation that she and her wife had with a much older, second wave feminist, lesbian couple. My friend — a very handsome butch, who, like all contemporary butch women, frequently contemplates and negotiates her own identity in relation to trans — became upset at the couples’ continual transphobic and transmisogynistic comments.

Exasperated from the dinner conversation, she vented, “I sort of just wish women of a certain age would shut up about trans issues. I’ve been around a bunch of 50 and 60-year-old folks lately and I just want to tell them that ‘No one is f–king oppressing you. It’s not the ’70s anymore, for god’s sake. Be out and [stop] all the trans bashing.'”

This couple, not surprisingly, did not know any trans people. We agreed that actually meeting some trans folk and realizing that they’re not a threat to feminist and, furthermore, a monolith — meaning that some prescribe to culturally created, rigid gender conceptualizations, some continually go between genders, and others refuse gender altogether — would be enlightening. All these variations of being are what the umbrella of “trans” holds within, but this older couple, clearly, feels threatened by transwomen they don’t even know.

“I think there’s a misconception that all trans people believe in rigid gender and that,” I continued, “correlatively and somewhat consequently, second wavers feel ‘ripped off’—like gender discrimination no longer is their battle or legislated on their behalf but is discussed as pertaining to trans people alone.”

Photo by Cris Borouncle/Getty

In other words, these women are probably feeling bitter because — to appropriate a phrase that has recently attained a lot of cultural currency — there’s a belief out there that women have achieved equality and that, therefore, there is no “war on [cis gender] women.”

Trans issues and feminist issues are fundamentally gender issues. In this regard, I feel the trans and feminist communities have more in common — for political coalition building — than, say, the trans community and the LGB communities, the latter of which is grounded upon sexual orientation. For political advancement, and to create new directions and new strategies for empowerment, I truly believe that the fight for gender equality and the fight for sexual equality should be fought separately. Granted, each of us has both a gender (or genders) and a sexuality (or sexualities), but what I’m wondering, and what I’d like your thoughts about, my dear readers, is if you think it might be more politically efficacious (not to mention educational—because I can’t tell you how many times my family has asked me, a queer femme, if I think about “transitioning”…you know, because I am a lesbian, and, well, it’s all one queer jumbly mess, ammi right?) to delineate the generic fight for equality into terms of gender and sexual orientation.

What are your thoughts about “cotton ceiling”? Do you think it would be more politically efficacious to adopt a strategy of “divide and conquer” in regard to gender and sexuality? If so, what might be the ramifications of doing so?