Philadelphia suicide throws 'transamory' into the spotlight

Activists say the bullying of Maurice Willoughby before his death highlights the risks faced by trans people — and those who love them.
Angel Bismark Curiel as Lil Papi, Indya Moore as Angel.
Angel Bismark Curiel as Lil' Papi, Indya Moore as Angel in "Pose" on FX.Michael Parmelee / FX
By Tim Fitzsimons

When Maurice “Reese” Willoughby died by suicide last week, it came at the tail end of months of cyberbullying after a video emerged of him defending his girlfriend — a transgender woman named Faith — to a crowd of people who were hurling transphobic and homophobic comments.

“You f--- what?” shouts the person holding the camera, in a video that racked up millions of views.

Willoughby was an aspiring rapper from the Philadelphia area, and initial reports stated that he took his own life because of the bullying seen in the viral video. However his girlfriend, Faith Palmer, said on social media that he struggled with drug addiction and intentionally overdosed.

"Oppressors will always find a label for you, so it’s better to have your own that’s a positive word that puts you in a positive light."

Piper Dawes

For transgender activists, however, the viral video was a rare opportunity to shine a light on the harassment and violence inflicted on the cisgender (non-transgender) people who openly love transgender people.

Kiara St. James, executive director of the New York Transgender Advocacy Group, said this moment is a time to teach people about the concept of “transamory,” which she defined as people who are attracted to and seek out relationships with transgender people.

“Transamory has had many names,” St. James told NBC News. “One of the original names, which was more stigmatizing, was ‘tranny chaser,’ which we don’t use any more. But for a lot of community members, there were a lot of gentlemen who dated a series of trans women. The term was used to kind of say that they had a fetish for trans women.”

“I think that as we have evolved, we have understood that there are people out there who are transamorous, who intentionally seek trans women or trans men for relationships and, it’s something that’s ongoing,” St. James continued.

For viewers of the hit FX drama “Pose,” this will be familiar: The show features several transamorous story lines, particularly with Angel, a sex worker and model, played by Indya Moore.

Indya Moore as Angel and Evan Peters as Stan in "Pose" on FX.JoJo Whilden / FX

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In a tweet posted Tuesday, transgender author and “Pose” producer Janet Mock shared the video of Willoughby being bullied and condemned his harassers.

“These men screaming at him are beyond fragile, standing on a shaky altar of masculinity, too insecure to do what Reese did: Unapologetically love a woman who everyone says is unworthy of love,” she wrote.

Mock later shared an image from “Pose” of transgender woman Angel and cisgender man Lil’ Papi, whose romance blossomed in season 2.

St. James said she has been using her platform as executive director of a trans advocacy group to draw attention to transamory, because the violence that is faced by so many transgender women is the same violence faced by those who openly love them.

“Over the past couple of years, especially around Trans Day of Remembrance, we talk about the number of especially black trans women who have been murdered. Oftentimes, they were murdered by someone who they were intimate with over a period of time,” St. James said. “One of the reasons for those types of incidents is fear from the transamorous man of being outed.”

Ashlee Marie Preston, a trans activist based in Los Angeles, echoed this sentiment on Twitter: “When trans attracted men kill us; it’s out of fear that this will happen to them if they are outed.”

St. James said one of the ways to fight back against the violence that so many trans women face is to “create spaces where we see transamorous relationships as normal and healthy.”

“Transamorous does not necessarily mean men who are attracted to women, it can be men who are attracted to men who are of transgender experience; it can be women who are attracted to trans women; it can be women who are attracted to trans men — it’s not just a cis male-trans woman situation; it really runs the gamut of sexual orientation,” St. James said.

Piper Dawes, a trans woman living in northern England, was one of the first people to coin the term “transamory.” Her 2013 blog post used the term after wrestling with more stigmatizing and cumbersome terms like “gynandromorphophilia.”

“Oppressors will always find a label for you, so it’s better to have your own that’s a positive word that puts you in a positive light,” Dawes told NBC News.

Dawes said she realized that some people she dated really preferred transgender people. “It’s not fetishized, but it is a specific love for people like me,” Dawes said.

So, she created the term so that people could find a better way to express their attraction. “I don’t think, really, that it’s necessary to delve deeper than that, because it’s such a personal thing,” Dawes said.

St. James said that showcasing positive transamorous relationships also works to dismantle the stigma felt by trans people themselves.

“Too often, trans women are socialized to think that we cannot be in relationships, so the only way that we can really express ourselves is through sex work and things of that nature,” St. James said.

“I’m in a relationship, so I’m always sensitive of where we go,” St. James said of her and her boyfriend. “Even though he is very comfortable being seen with me, I still have that reservation of making sure we are in spaces where no harm will come to either him or me.”

“I think that’s something that a lot of transamorous couples think about if we go out in public,” she added.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

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