New York City, 2012.
Webster Hall was booming with life. There was a chill in the autumn air, much different than the chill from the midwestern country, where I’d traveled from to attend NYU. It was a sharper cold, more biting.
I attended a small concert with a few friends to see a relatively new musician perform. Someone I’d heard of before, but only in the peripheral. He gave a brilliant, high energy show that would earn him the success he deserved in the years that would follow.
As an import to the city I didn’t know that many people. I was still finding my way and making new friends, adjusting to the fast pace of New York. It seemed to me that everyone else had settled into a nice groove, etching themselves out a small space in a very crowded terrain. One of these friends knew someone from security who allowed us to go say hello to the performer and get his autograph.
He was still damp with sweat, loose hair matted to his forehead and he introduced himself and shook my hand. I wasn’t starstuck, but more enchanted by the energy he exuded. The frenzy around him; for him. It seemed to buzz around me. The closest parallel I can make is recalling the first time I set foot in Times Square. It was bright, loud and alien to a girl from Ohio. A spectacle.
As we prepared to say our goodbye’s he asked if anyone was getting breakfast. He looked me in the eye and said “Wanna come?” and I agreed.
We spent four hours talking about life, careers, dream interpretations, spirituality, family- and that’s when I let it casually slip. “Well, I’m not close to my family, being trans has been something they’ve had difficulty with.” And he leaned in and said “I’m Gay, I get it.” From there we talked about the social and career implications of being out… and visible. His risk was much greater than mine, as he was just setting out to expand his audience. I was just a hopeful screenwriter trying to learn to walk fast enough down a sidewalk so I didn’t piss off the natives. New Yorker’s move at the speed of light.
Before parting ways we exchanged numbers and met up again the next evening. We walked and talked, then took a boat out onto the Hudson River and stayed out until the sun set. “I’ll always remember this sunset with you.” He said. He nudged my hand first before nestling his fingers between mine.
I stopped him “I thought you were gay?” I said awkwardly. I admit there was a swell of discomfort rising in my chest.
“I like you, do I need to identify a label for it to be valid?” I didn’t answer but sighed heavily, “I’ve been with women. I’ve referred to myself as bisexual before but I’m attracted to men in general.”
My eyes widened and my body went a bit rigid. “I’m not a man…”
“No, I know.” He paused before turning his back to look at the few stars left on the indigo sky, “But, you put a spell on me, I guess.”
Our first kiss didn’t come until his second visit to the city. Although we chatted frequently and he’d play me music over the phone, he’d been gone for three weeks. Upon his arrival, we met at his hotel and went to find a restaurant on the Upper East side. It was like no time had passed. We joked flirtatiously, talked about all the exciting things in his world and later, in Central Park, we would kiss by the Bethesda Fountain.
“I have such enormous admiration for you- being unapologetically who you are.” He said, taking my face into his hands.
“Well, who else am I going to be?” I laughed, but was serious. I’ve always found compliments uncomfortable. Usually, self-deprecation is my diffuser.
“That’s why I’m, like, drunk with joy when I’m with you. You make me better just being in your company. In all the world, from two different sides of it we found our way here, at the same time, in the same place… just us two out of a million places and timelines and possibilities. Like two stars falling from different parts of the galaxy and landing just inches apart.”
In another day, he was gone again. This time a month went by, then another, and while we spoke frequently, he began ended our conversations with “I love you, you know that?”
As he began to become a more recognizable figure in his industry, I heard less and less from him. He would’t ask me to any of his performances, or invite me to meet up with him the next time he came to town.
He would call at 2am and say “Hey gorgeous, want some pizza?”
I realized, in retrospect, that I didn’t have a place in his world. Although what felt like a normal, developing relationship to me had been a carefully executed plan to make sure we were never seen together. I don’t know if there was an element of shame or embarrassment or confusion- or concern over confusing other people, but I declined the pizza.
He showed up at my door anyway, wanting to go for a drive.
This is my friend Phaylen, he told the driver who took us to Battery Park and dropped up off. The whole care ride there he was polite, a little nervous, no “I love you’s” or I missed you’s.” It was sterile…
Until we were alone.
Then the floodgates of emotions opened and he said things like “You inspire me” and “I think abut you every day and wonder where you are, what you’re doing…” He rubbed my shoulders and asked if I was cold. I wasn’t.
“How does this end?” I asked point blank. “What is your intention here?”
He stopped hard, eyes darted around, “What do you mean?”
“When we’re on the phone you tell people you’re talking to your friend. You never ask if I’d like to attend one of your shows. You only show up in the middle of the night when you’re here. You don’t say the things like you’re saying now when anyone else is listening.”
“Not on purpose.” He said softly.
“At first I thought this was dating, then long distance dating… but that isn’t what this is at all. I don’t know what this is and neither do you, except that you’d prefer no one knows. Am I right?”
“Don’t be silly,” he tried to console me, “I’d have no issue taking you to meet my friends… or my-”
I stopped him; “And would you act this way, like you’re acting now. Would you say these things?”
He avoided looking at me. I knew the answer.
“Why.” I asked again.
“I don’t know!” he said abruptly. “I’ve already had to deal with the judgments and the stigma and the shitty remarks and questions of my character.”
I nodded slightly. “I won’t be another thing you’re ashamed of.” I took a step backward. “I won’t be a secret you have to keep to be happy.” I started walking away.
“Are you serious?” I heard his voice crack. “You’re just going to walk away because I don’t- I don’t know how to navigate this. I thought you cared about me!”
I kept walking. I head him quietly cry to himself. “My god, Phay.” He sounded breathlesss, shocked even. “Wow. I was safe with you.”
From then on, I ignored his calls and moved on with my life. It has been years now. I don’t regret my choice.
It took a long time to love myself, and the only way to find certainty in that was to refuse to be someone that anyone else could only love in dark places, quiet places.
In the time since then, I’ve been approached by many men who want “discreet” relationships. Oftentimes, they’re very powerful or married or have grown children whose opinions they’re worried about being soiled, so they want to keep me in the same fashion that a 14 year old boy keeps his dirty magazine. Hidden away, embarrassed of the implications of having it, fear of being shamed for possessing a sexuality.
I have also been in relationships where I have been the security blanket. “I was safe with you” rings through my head often. A great many men, whether consciously or unconsciously, have felt that by the sheer act of existing as a taboo being, they felt it was okay to behave in ways they would not with a cis-woman. I had dated one gentleman for three months when he suddenly walked out of my bathroom in full make-up and lingerie he had purchased online and wanted to be intimate. I was visibly uncomfortable with this, not to mention blindsided. He had never done this before, not with any of his ex-girlfriends, but I was someone he viewed as a fringe-walker- it’s wasn’t as much liberation for him as much as it was a dare to judge him, given I was transgender thus had no right to react because by virtue of my transness, I was “more perverse” on the scale.
Men I have dated have frequently expressed outrageous kinks or interests they wouldn’t otherwise with cis-women they respected or whose opinion of them they valued more. I was safe to display their darkest, sometimes deeply disturbing proclivities to since they deemed me as a lesser by comparison to themselves and previous partners.
Sometimes that was physical violence. One man I dated had several previous relationships with women he maintained friendships with, even while we were together. However, he drank an absurd amount throughout our time together, and harbored a deep seated and dangerous resentment toward me explicitly because of his attraction to me. He hated himself for loving me, and would become unexpectedly, physically violent. One time, while just watching television one evening, he flipped his lit cigarette into my face and said “People think I’m a f*ggot because of you. You ruined my life.”
After choking me to the point of unconsciousness once, he ended up going to jail and I, to the hospital. His ex-girlfriend messaged me on facebook days later asking which jail he was at so she could see him and then proceeded to tell me that she didn’t believe he would ever assault me because he never had done anything remotely violent to her. The safety we’re presumed to provide others to show their ugliest sides or having our transness leveraged against us like blackmail for men to flaunt their most repressed and bizarre kinks and fetishes behind closed doors, is a safety that is rarely ever returned.
Transgender women are taught by the passive aggressive way society situates as circus sideshows that we do not deserve to be treated with dignity, respect or courtesy that cis-people afford each other. Our culture has manipulated us into a fictitious war that pits us against ideologies of masculinity and the go posts of hetero-normative behaviors. We threaten men, we threaten their desire to feed their peers positive perception of “normalcy.” We threaten their indoctrinated beliefs of sexuality and who they’re allowed to be attracted to without slipping over that invisible line into the the territory of humiliation. A humiliation that induces self flagellation and the victimizing of innocent transwomen they abuse as a form of penance for their own shame.
It is not better today than it was 40 years ago for the men who are interested in dating a woman of the trans experience. They believe the suffering their will be subjected to outweighs the benefits. They don’t want to spend their lives explaining, offering excuses, defending themselves against a myriad of religious and political persecutions that they currently stand in the wings of life’s area and watch us battle daily.
It’s easier to randomly message women like me “For an appointment” or ask how much we charge for a sexual encounter or bait us into believing their interested in anything beyond the fantasy they’ve drummed up in their imagination for self-satisfaction than it is to have a relationship with us. They get up at 3am, sneak out from beneath the comforter they share with their sleeping wife, tip-toe past the kids bedrooms and fire up their laptop to send some unsuspecting transwoman playing Candy Crush pictures of their genitals. These men treat us like an alien being, there specifically for their discreet sexual pleasure by the dim light of their computer screens or dashboard. We are rendered inconsequential to their lives, only allowed to exist in peripheral orbit, reeled in when needed, and then shuttled back off into space again.
In a 2018 study of personal relationships, 958 people who identified as queer, bi or nonbinary were asked if they would date a transgender woman. 85% of them said no. They actively excluded transgender people from their dating pursuits. 87% admitted they would never date someone who identified as transgender women. This study represents a microcosm of the reality transgender people face in the greater social spectrum and why, quite often, we date each other.
Of course, this is much in part to society relegating transgender women into the most shadowy, uninformed recesses of our global awareness. We are political topics where men running for office promise to stop letting us use bathrooms in public, ban us from serving in the military or from competing in sports. We are a people that the common individual on the path of least resistance read about in the headlines when one of us is murdered- even more likely if one of us commits a crime.
Our historical and perpetual politicization has robbed us of our humanity, almost to the effect of not being real to the disaffected layman. Transgender folks are an idea, a caricature. Sensationalist. A (Popular) pornhub category.
The greater culture is conditioned to our invisibility. There are no movies or television shows that depict a happy, healthy functioning trans person or couple where one might be trans without it focusing or exploiting trans trauma. We’re often represented as miserable individuals mulling over our self hatred and inability to conform. Often, we’re sick, angry at the world, fighting for our rights or drug addicts. Or, we’re portrayed through a hyper sexual lens, as prostitutes, mistresses of rich married men or simply included as a comedic subplot or shocking twist. Drag Queens have more positive media created that humanizes them than transgender people do. Gay people have entire films and television series devoted to their existence without centralizing the focus on their sexual interests or sex lives.
We are documentaries. Observed. Poked at by the curious or fascinated.
We are not knitted into the fabric of a healthy, functioning society yet. There is no casual exposure to the lives or loves of people who are trans unless they are trans first, being a human is secondary.
And that is how we are treated by potential love interests. Our trans identity usurps our humanity. We carry the weight of it because we are not allowed to unburden ourselves of the hate, ignorance and politicization long enough to be a writer, an actor, the best sales agent in the office; We’re “That trans lady who ________.”
We don’t belong in the shadows or assigned the nefarious role as someone’s dirty secret; The antagonist in their otherwise happy life story. We aren’t inconvenient or shameful to love as we are…
… for who we are.