“T4T” Has Become a Deeply Vital Term to Trans People. Here’s Why.

“T4T” Has Become a Deeply Vital Term to Trans People. Here’s Why.

“T4T” Has Become a Deeply Vital Term to Trans People. Here’s Why.

This abbreviation of “trans for trans” has evolved into a shorthand for a trans-centric politics of care, love, and solidarity.

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Asanni Armon, the founder of the Black, trans-led mutual aid collective For the Gworls (FTG), first heard the phrase “t4t” in 2018.

At the time, Armon was new to Brooklyn’s queer scene, but she’d quickly found a safe haven at Body Hack, a monthly party that usually takes place in the neon-lit, astrology-themed Bushwick dive bar Mood Ring. Each edition of the party—which, in the words of its hosts, is “for trans people, non-binary cuties, and the squirrels that love us”—raises cash for trans-led collectives and causes worldwide, from bail and recovery funds to networks supporting young people living with HIV in Peru.

Armon discovered that there was an added bonus to attending Body Hack—if, that is, you knew the right words to say.

“Their whole thing is that there’s a little cheat code,” Armon explains. “If you want to get two-for-one drinks, you say ‘t4t’ at the bar.”

This term—an abbreviation of “trans 4 trans”—is typically traced back to Craigslist personal ads around the turn of the millennium. (Of course, since queer lives are often erased from the history books, there’s a chance that it could have originated before then.)

The term “t4t” “was the best way to find each other at the time,” says Chloe Corrupt, a trans porn performer, “but it wasn’t much more than that.” It was, and still is, a term of desire—linguistic proof that trans people have long loved, nurtured, and sought out sex with each other.

To Armon, the term felt like a vital discovery. Born and raised in Atlanta, she only knew “two Black trans people” growing up, but otherwise, the only visibly trans people she saw were “being ridiculed” on the streets. At Body Hack, she found a collective that embodied t4t “not only as something sexual or romantic, but in the sense of ‘we are trans people for trans people,’” she says. “It’s about community.”

Trans communities freely share their skills, knowledge, and experiences with one another, both online and in person. They affirm one another’s gender, even when the world won’t. Before moving to New York, Armon had read trans histories, absorbed gender theory, and sought out the words of Black queer writers. Yet she describes immersing herself within trans communities as revelatory, and instrumental to her own decision to transition medically in late 2018. “I think you’ll be hard pushed to find a person whose transition hasn’t been influenced by other trans people, whether that’s in person or in the media,” she says.

The phrase “t4t” may have started as a hookup shortcut, but it has come to occupy a much more expansive space in the trans world—one that reflects the broader solidarity that Armon describes. “T4t means something a bit more political now,” says Corrupt. “It means looking out for our people first.”

Armon concurs, pointing to a definition of t4t that goes beyond sex and romance—one equally rooted in platonic love and community care. These values drive her work at FTG. Initially formed to host a rooftop fundraiser party for two friends facing eviction, the organization has raised vital funds for the housing, medical care, and general survival of Black trans women over the past few years. As she puts it: “We need to show up for each other, because usually, nobody else will show up for us.”

It’s an ethos that parallels the identity politics of the Combahee River Collective, outlined in its 1977 statement, which “sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable.” “This may seem so obvious as to sound simplistic,” members of the Black feminist collective wrote, “but it is apparent that no other ostensibly progressive movement has ever considered our specific oppression as a priority, or worked seriously for the ending of that oppression.”

Trans people have led this shift in definition. In 2016, for instance, oliver flowers formed a Tennessee-based network of trans caregivers who draw from their own experiences to look after other trans folks. He called it T4T. As hostility towards trans communities continued to rise, a growing number of mutual aid projects put the concept of t4t into practice, building low-cost, community-led clinics for trans folks in need. By 2019, a handful of t4t parties had cropped up, Body Hack among them. These nightlife organizers used t4t as a clarion call, curating lineups of all-trans performers, allowing them to let loose and make joyous, authentic art without self-censoring for cis audiences.

Recently, writers and academics have fleshed out t4t as a broad descriptor of a trans-centric ethos of love, care, and solidarity. In February 2022, Transgender Studies Quarterly dedicated an entire issue to unpacking the plurality of t4t, exploring it as both theory and praxis, an animating force behind trans-led collectives and projects worldwide.

In practice, it means affirming one another when nobody else will—celebrating “transition birthdays,” sharing medication, and creating safe houses for trans people that offer not only material resources but wisdom and experience. (These stories go way back—in 1970s New York, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson’s STAR House was a safe haven for queer and trans youth.) These are vital acts of solidarity, rooted in the notion of t4t as a trans-centric politics of care. In a world seemingly determined to eradicate transness, t4t has become a mantra, a lifeline, a healing practice, and a political statement.

Much like other marginalized communities, trans people loving and prioritizing one another in this way is nothing new. These stories can be traced back to Indigenous communities around the globe, usually before they were colonized, and in countries like Weimar-era Germany, where there’s evidence of gender-nonconforming people coming together, and seeking gender-affirming care. (Some of this evidence was literally set ablaze by Nazi youth.)

Kit Heyam is one of several trans scholars working to resurrect and rebuild these archival tales of trans solidarity, most notably in their comprehensive book, Before We Were Trans. You could say they are writing the hidden history of t4t.

“Some of the communities that particularly stood out to me were the early-20th-century communities of gender-nonconforming people in First and Second World War internment camps,” Heyam tells The Nation. In Knockaloe camp on the Isle of Man, “female-presenting internees would work together as waitresses in the cafe, and there are these lovely photos of them having fun together, arms around each other, having a drink and a cigarette.” Heyam adored these photos so much that one even made it onto the cover of the UK edition.

Most importantly, Heyam says, these communities “were the ones really engaging in bolstering and supporting each other’s female identities. They really encouraged everybody else to call them by female names and pronouns. Inside such a brutal environment, it really stuck out to me as the resilient creation of what we might, from a modern perspective, call a t4t community.”

This sense of kinship is as important now as it ever has been. Carson Hartlage, an Ohio-based medical student, says that their definition of t4t is continuously growing. When he first came out as trans, he “understood t4t as a romantic relationship between two trans people, or as a descriptor for trans people who are only interested in dating other trans people.” Gradually, the term came to represent something more to them, a “solidarity and power in the trans community, and an understanding that we are all fighting for the same trans liberation.” Especially as a medical student, Hartlage views the notion of t4t as an ethical drive to “protect, serve, stand by, and advocate for trans people.”

Of course, in an ideal world, trans people wouldn’t have to show up for one another, because the world would readily show up for them. There’s a tendency to romanticize resilience, but the concept of t4t would be different—maybe nonexistent—in a world that didn’t trample trans communities in the first place.

Even in its romantic and sexual definition, t4t can be seen as a political statement, because trans people are so often told that their bodies are undesirable and unlovable. Especially for trans sex workers and trans women of color, the mere existence of their bodies has been historically seen as justification for murder, their transness a source of shame at best. “There’s this stealth imperative that dates back to mid-20th-century gender clinics,” says Heyam. “There’s this idea that transition probably means destroying all of the potentially important relationships in your life. If it doesn’t destroy them, it’s something that needs to be held up and valorized as survival.”

This “stealth imperative”—the pressure to “pass”—means we’re lacking visible blueprints of how to exist and move through the world as a trans person. Trans experiences are thus often framed as unprecedented. Heyam is currently six months pregnant, and sharing this news with trans and cis people alike has led him to some “really fascinating and sometimes painful” observations, some of which have proven the obvious fact that trans people aren’t always supportive of, or kind towards, other trans people. Plenty of these reactions are fueled by “the way trans people’s bodies are treated as spectacular, or they’re fetishized,” says Heyam. “There’s this societal investment in reducing us to our bodies.”

Reducing someone to their body means dehumanizing them. It means not thinking of their human needs—in Heyam’s case, the need for care. Marginalized scholars have long theorized and practiced new ways of caring for one another. From Loree Erickson’s care collective to Hil Malatino’s Trans Care, which Heyam describes as “really influential to [their] thinking,” these theories are reframing the act of care as one of love rather than begrudging necessity.

In these contexts, it’s community care that’s particularly important; that’s why t4t care networks can be crucial. As Heyam says, being surrounded by other trans people can mean “not having that baggage of explanation or expectation that you have to deal with.” That’s not always the case—Heyam warns that “[t4t] can run the risk of fetishizing this idea that all trans people are better partners or community members than all cis people”—but in these contexts, shared gender nonconformity can make for more-affirming and less-fraught experiences.

Recently, Armon has been thinking of ways to make her work at FTG more sustainable; to use the notion of t4t as fuel to build transformative politics. “As trans people, we’re building new worlds inside of our own bodies every day,” she says, but she’s pushing these ideas further. “I’m trying to imagine what the world would look like if we actively showed up with love, care, and community at the forefront. What does this world look like?” It could mean working consistently with doctors and clinics to subsidize gender-affirming care, she says, or sharing resources and knowledge so that “when one community elder moves, maybe because of transition or violence, that work doesn’t stop with them.” In this hypothetical world that centers love and care for trans communities, “equal access to resources and opportunities would naturally follow.”

Armon reiterates that she’s immensely proud of the millions of dollars she’s managed to raise through FTG, but “I know that our work is rooted in survival, that we’re always having to fundraise. How do we make something that thrives? Something that stands on its own, and then helps people figure out how to get to a place where they can also stand on their own?”

Increasingly, we’re seeing acknowledgments that mutual aid has its limits: Marginalized communities are so routinely starved of resources that they’re forced to pass around the same $10. The same can be said of t4t. Sure, communities band together to keep themselves alive, to support one another, to love one another. Yet anti-trans attacks are so relentless that defense takes up all their energy; their work remains rooted in survival, rather than allowing them to thrive. “I’m always thinking of how cis people are plugged into [our mission at FTG,]” Armon says. “If you’re coming from a space of privilege and relative access based on your identity, when you decide to redistribute those resources, that is an intentional act of learning how to love, and show up for others, and care.”

Here, Armon pushes back on framing allyship as transactional. “Trans people aren’t just using cis people for their resources,” she continues. “If you were given these resources by virtue of identity, I think that you should figure out a way of making access more equitable to people who do have it harder than you.”

These battles for resources, access, and rights continue on broader, structural levels, but behind the clickbait headlines and dehumanizing “debates” about trans existence, there are communities of trans people actively prioritizing one another’s needs, sharing their resources, and loving one another unconditionally. “Being trans is sacred,” says Hartlage, “and I strongly believe that only other trans people can truly understand what that means. T4T love is what heals us from the hurt and the hate that we face from those outside of our community.” That’s not to say that nobody else has loved them. In their research on historical queer families, Heyam highlights that “trans people have long been loved, upheld, and affirmed by people who aren’t trans, and that’s really important, too.”

As for Armon, her work continues to exemplify t4t in practice. “It’s so important to see other Black trans people, their walks of life, and their ways through gender,” she says, “and that’s why it’s so important to read [about these experiences, too]. The agenda has always been to show up for each other with love and care because, ultimately, we’re the people who understand the love and care that we not only need but that we deserve.”

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