The following piece is the seventh installment in “Dressing the Part,” a twelve-part series exploring cultural issues and the effects of social transition from the perspective of a femme-presenting trans guy.
“I’m not into male bodies. I wish I could change that, but I can’t.”
My fiancé of four months rests his chin on one hand and looks at me with big doe eyes. We’re sitting on the balcony of his school’s dining hall. Behind him, the sunset turns a row of canary palm trees into silhouettes against the pink and orange sky. It’s quite a romantic setting for such a conversation. I appreciate the irony, even as I feel the bottom drop out of my stomach.
We’ve been stuck on one topic recently: my dysphoria, how intense it is, and how unhappy I am getting misgendered left and right. I’ve just started a new job, and as much as I love my personal style, the lack of transgender awareness in my workplace makes me feel as though no one will ever look past how I present myself.
“Maybe, if I start taking testosterone, people will think of me as a guy in a dress instead of as a girl,” I’d said a few minutes ago. “It’s not something I’d do on my own, but I’m willing to consider it if it means getting society to see me for who I am.”
He was silent for a long moment. “I know that you’re getting top surgery,” he said at last, “and I completely support you in that decision, but I have to be honest. I’m unsure if I’ll still be attracted to you if you remove your breasts and start taking hormones.”
I know that my fiancé isn’t attracted to male bodies. He’s told me as much during our first date, and when I came out as a trans man, and when I started seriously looking into top surgery. He doesn’t mind that I’m a man — he never misgenders me even once; I can count on him to defend me to his conservative friends and family members — and that was all that mattered, at first. Now, as the idea of having a male body becomes more and more enticing, I find myself caught between two impossible choices.
Do I physically transition and lose my partner? Or do I stay in my relationship and give up a crucial part of my self-expression?
Before I meet this person, I am a Tinder-frequenting fuckboy with countless flings under my belt. I have lost track of how many hearts I’ve broken. In fact, I’m proud of this. I show people a good time and then I leave. Even if I say so, I have no real desire to stay with anybody. I have no desire to turn a good time into something more meaningful.
I am determined to subvert all of society’s invisible rules, especially when it comes to gender. “The story of women is the story of love, of foundering into another … the laughter, the beautiful reverberations … Oh, companionship. Oh, romance. Oh, completion … the way the old story goes, woman needs an other to complete her circuits, to flick her to fullest blazing,” writes Lauren Groff in Fates and Furies. I do not want someone to complete my circuits. I am already blazing at my fullest. I am an individual, a person in my own right, and I never want that to be taken away from me.
Then I come across a boy on Hinge. He comes over to my house in the middle of the night, and we stay up talking until the sun is high in the sky the next day.
“I like intimacy,” he tells me. He’s just moved here from Russia, where cultural expectations are drastically different. He is forthright, direct, and untainted from American ideas of love and dating. He has no problem telling me how he feels. For the first few months that we know each other, it’s as though I’ve fallen through a wormhole and landed in an alternate universe. When we hang out, he doesn’t touch his phone at all, listens intently when I speak, and gives his honest opinions about everything. It is refreshing and deeply unsettling all at once.
Those first few months are less a honeymoon period than an uncomfortable adjustment to one another. Layers and layers of my own toxic shit come tumbling out — my feelings about love, influenced by my parents, pop culture, and society at large, my inner conflict about my gender identity, the ways I’m beginning to understand how harmful the systems that dictate our lives are. He encourages me to look harder, think deeper, to ask more questions. Slowly, I replace my worldview with a new one that is more caring, fair, and selfless. The more we talk, the more I realize how much time I’ve wasted playing little games with people I had no intention of actually pursuing, and the more I feel free to be myself. I text back promptly. I jump at chances to meet up. We are not exclusive, but I start feeling off every time I get together with someone else.
I like this new reality, where I too am honest and straightforward. I like him as a person, too — I’m not seeing him just because he’s interested in me. Six months after our first date, I come out as a trans man. I start using he/him pronouns and a new name. He doesn’t slip up, not even once, in English or in Russian. He defends me to his conservative friends and family members.
“Society needs to change,” he explains. “I’m happy to do my part.”
For the first time, I understand what people are talking about when they talk about love. I don’t need him to flick me to my fullest anything, but life is simply more enjoyable when he’s around. I’m convinced that any future with this person by my side will be fun. We go to the Southern California desert to celebrate his twenty-third birthday. There, at sunset, I get down on one knee and ask him to marry me.
There are no rings. We are both sweaty and sunburnt. Our clothes are dusty from rolling around in the sand. And we’re not even exclusively dating to begin with.
He says yes.
“I’m not taking your last name, and I’ll be your husband, not your wife,” I inform him.
“Of course,” he says, smiling. “It’s not like I’m taking yours, either.”
Becoming exclusive after getting engaged is unusual, but it works for us. I feel a rush of anticipation whenever we make plans to meet. Every time I take the train down to his house, I feel butterflies in my stomach, as though I’m a middle schooler on a first date. The unsettling feeling disappears, replaced by a light, playful sensation.
But our love is not without its problems. Dysphoria is a bitch; having my identity is invalidated over and over through a thousand little slights at my new position starts to take its toll on me. And my partner’s ambivalence about physical transition makes me hesitate more than I’d like to admit.
Where is my selfish, individualistic self when I need it? As a teenager, I declared that I would forever and always come first. Fuck the feelings of whoever I was with — if they didn’t like a decision I made, they could find someone else. And honestly, if my partner were anyone else, I would probably leave him the moment he expressed hesitation about my impending top surgery. But he’s the one who turned me from an unfeeling, egotistical piece of shit into an actual human being. He’s the one who listened and consoled me when I started reconsidering my own values. He’s picked up all of my broken pieces. He tried for me. I will try for him, too.
My partner is a natural problem-solver, a master at finding his way out of tricky situations. I’ve seen him scale treacherous oceanside cliffs and sweet-talk himself out of dangerous circumstances with ease. Attraction, however, is a different story. Nearly a million people have tried — and failed — to change their sexual orientations through conversion therapy. As exceptional as he is, it seems that this is an issue with no solution.
I’m aware that I have a nice body by female standards; I know that my partner loves the parts that I pretend don’t exist. I’ve been pretending that his attraction to these parts doesn’t exist, either. My impending physical transition — that damn sword of Damocles — hangs over us, waiting. Neither of us are quite ready for it to drop.
The uncertainty takes its toll. Suddenly, it seems like I’m going to my fiancé’s house after work just to cry. Thoughts of gender and transition and rage towards society invade my mind until I no longer think — or talk — of anything else. The dark circles under my eyes refused to go away even under low lighting, even after I get nine, ten hours of sleep. One day, I zip up a dress that I frequently wore in college and am shocked to see that it now hangs off my body, an inch too wide on either side.
I am disappearing.
The more my partner tries to show me that he loves me, the less I believe him. A deadly little voice in my head tells me that he’s only with me because he agreed to my reckless proposal and he’s too stubborn to give it up. I feel like a ball and chain, a burden, a domesticated wife who can do nothing but cry and drag us both down.
“No!” he exclaims when I ask him if he’d want to break up after my transition. “I won’t leave you. If I am no longer attracted to you, I probably just won’t be physically intimate with you, that’s all.”
To me, he is proposing the literal definition of a relationship based on obligation — a passionless hell, both of us bound by duty. I get flashbacks of what my parents’ marriage was like before they ended it: a cold war of a partnership, marked by stony silences, strict avoidance, and mutual blame for the other’s life not turning out as well as they would’ve wanted. I can’t do that to him.
My partner, this beautiful boy with the bright future — am I ruining his life? Our shared future stretches ahead of me, a bleak abyss: him, youthful and ravishing; me, a weepy killjoy. I am a boulder and he is a ship, trying to get us across the storming ocean. Water comes at us from the sky and the waves, and I am only getting heavier. We’re sinking, sinking, sinking, and it’s all my fault.
He will leave anyway, I tell myself in my worst moments. Even he has a breaking point. I imagine him finding a cis woman who takes pride in being female, who never encumbers him with problems as existential as transition. I find myself irrationally envious of every cis woman I run into. They’re so satisfied with their womanhood, so congruent with others’ perceptions of who they are. Why can’t I be like them? Why do I have so much internal conflict? Why does my love have to come at the expense of my self-actualization?
In the end, I am the one who leaves. There are many unsolvable conflicts in the relationship that I can no longer tolerate. Gender-wise, I’m sick of floundering, sick of letting this conflict fester. I have nearly forgotten what it was like to be happy, and I’m no longer willing to be a boulder.
“I still love you,” I say, watching as his big brown eyes fill with tears. My vision blurs, too. The world is colder, something has broken inside me that will take a long time to heal. Under that sadness, I feel relief, as though I’d finally done the inevitable.
We walk around my frozen, misty neighborhood in the middle of the night. I keep his hand clasped firmly in mine; I know that this time, when I let go, it will be for good.
“I can’t wait to get top surgery,” I confess as we stop by a shop window under a lit awning. The reflection in the glass shows two dark-haired guys in winter jackets, hands joined together, eyes shining. I feel my future opening up again, unknown all the same, but no longer a bleak abyss. I feel free, free, free, like a bird out of hibernation on the first day of spring.
“Want to hang out?” my ex-fiancé asks a few weeks post-breakup. “I miss you, and it feels weird that we don’t talk.”
Against the advice of all relationship columnists everywhere, I accept. Suddenly, I’m once again taking the train down to his place every Friday. My dresses stay in his closet, his deodorant stays in my bathroom, and all the stress between us evaporates. We’re no longer in a relationship, so I no longer feel like a burden. Now, I feel as though we’re both meeting up due to choice, not a sense of duty.
When we were engaged, there was always a secret fear in the back of my mind: What if he’s only with me because he feels like he has to be? What if he’d rather be alone, or with a cis woman completely secure in her femininity? With this label-free arrangement, I know that he’s with me because he wants to be. This, in my opinion, is the best kind of relationship — the kind with no sense of obligation attached. It’s so easy, so nice, and I feel honored that my ex — my friend — wants to spend so much time with me.
In a few months, he will accompany me to South Florida, where he will act as my caretaker after I get my breasts permanently removed. There’s nobody I’d rather have by my side for this adventure. He’s been through it with me since I came out, and I’m excited to see how things will turn out after the procedure.
I hope that he will love my new body as much as I do … but if not, I have faith that I won’t lose the support, love, and mutual connection that we have. I now understand what he meant when he told me that he wouldn’t leave, even if the physical attraction is no longer there. He wasn’t telling me that he’d stay because he felt obligated to; he was saying that the parts of this relationship that were most important to him would never change. I know now that I was never dragging him down — he was continuing to choose me, even as I was going through the worst of my gender troubles.
I am glad to say that I feel the same way. No matter what happens to me, to us, I will continue to choose him, over and over and over again. ✦