“At least your Lindsey Lohan-Samantha Ronson phase is over,” my sister said half-jokingly to me when I revealed the news that I had broken up with my first boyfriend and first love. The boyfriend being discussed happened to be female to male transgender and despite the fact that I looked like the heart-eyed-emoji when I was around him and he drove me absolutely banana emojis, the amount of hate and transphobia that I had to deal with because of this relationship was more than I could’ve ever anticipated when falling in love for the first time.
I was 18, it was a beautiful summer night at this bongo-drum kava festival and after asking him “What’s your story, morning glory?” he explained to me that he was like an onion with many layers, and I was instantly sprung. He had these giant glasses, he wore suspenders and practically 3 or 4 t-shirts layered at once (like an onion, literally!). He was basically a young version of the Old man from Up and I wanted to give him a hundred balloons and my heart right then and there.
Talking to the friend that introduced us, I confided in her that I thought he was too cute and that he looks like he could be brothers with our mutual friend, she turns to me and says, “You know she’s a girl, right?” I was shocked, he looked like a boy and acted like a boy, how is he a girl? And if I think he’s this cute, does that mean that I’m a lesbian? These thoughts swarmed around my head like bees in a hive of confusion and self-doubt. I didn’t think I was attracted to the same sex.
After many text exchanges and one late night phone call, he revealed to me in secret that he is female to male pre-op transgender, which was an instant relief to me because before I found out, I kept accidentally referring to him with male pronouns, even though at the time everyone was still using female pronouns.
Gender identity, like falling in love, is a tricky and complicated matter that you really don’t have a lot of control over. From the time I was born until this present moment I’ve always identified as female, filling the preconceived, problematic gender-role-assignment of my birth quite well, adorning myself in pink dresses accessorized with manners and body image issues.
I was told there were boys and girls; boys were made from snips and snails and puppy dog tails, and girls– sugar spice and everything nice. I didn’t know much about the LGBTQIA community other than what Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and my sister’s theater friends taught me, but I knew that everyone around me generally supported lesbians and gays and that was that (which I realize made me incredibly lucky and that many others don’t have this experience). I didn’t think much else about it.
The only exposure I had to the transgender community had been the people featured on shows like Oprah and Tyra, whose stories were told very problematically in that they were interrogated and sensationalized . “COULD YOU EVER BELIEVE THIS HOT WOMAN WAS BORN A MAN!!! DUN DUN DUN” (this was before Laverene Cox’s days). Trans* people were paraded around the talk-show set like circus animals, their stories exploited with little to no empathy from the host. They were depicted as weirdos, and with the media constantly making jokes about the transgender community, I was led to believe that they weren’t “normal.”
However, once I met him, everything changed. I knew I liked him and I knew that I wanted to be with him, and the fact that he happened to be transgender was not an issue for me at all. For the first few weeks we were in this absolute love bubble full of flying kites, giant sandwiches, roof top dancing, inside jokes, long aimless drives and trips to the aquarium and parks. It was the first time I fell in love and I was like a puppy in the window, so eager, young, and excited to be loved in return. But with most things in life, reality eventually struck.
The amount of transphobia and ignorance I had to deal with on a daily basis, as a cisgender person dating him, was ridiculous. Obviously, due to my white-cis-hetero privilege, my experience is absolutely nothing compared to that of actual transgender people, LGBTQIA individuals, people of color, people who identify as gender queer, and their direct families members. However, this relationship was a significant part of my life, and I think it’s worth telling from my perspective.
It began with the hero worship, “OMG, you are SUCH a great person,” as if I was some sort of saint for dating a boy I really liked. When was the last time you were thanked for dating someone? This was transphobia disguised as support; it was weird and made me very uncomfortable because I didn’t think I was doing anything special or out of the ordinary, because I wasn’t. If anything, with the number of sweet things he did for me at the time, I should have been thanking him for dating ME! This proceeded throughout our entire relationship.
Then came the ignorant questions, “But does he have a penis?” “How do you guys have sex?” “Are you a lesbian?” “Do you guys have a strap-on?” “How will you have children?” “But like…is that weird for you?” Asking about sex and future children is awkward for even A-typical hetero-cis couple, why did people think it was okay just because we didn’t necessarily fall into cookie cutter gender role High School Musical-type relationship? Not to mention, this was my first real relationship and the first person I was sexual with, and I wouldn’t have been comfortable talking about that sort of thing under any circumstance at the time regardless.
It was always strangers and acquaintances that did not know me well enough to be prying so hard. I totally get human curiosity, but people had no filter and blurted out the first rude questions that came to mind. People loved to try and box me as a lesbian after that, and when I’d go into an explanation, I was instantly talked over with more rude questions. It was if in their robot-mind they thought just because I was dating him, I was instantly a lesbian or bisexual, and they didn’t understand that a woman dating a transgender man could be a heterosexual relationship.
Then came my family. Right here I want to mention that my family does not consist of ignorant people, but at the time people ignorant about transgender related issues as a whole, just as I was at the time. May I just say, telling my parents about him was the closest thing to a “coming out” experience a hetero-cis girl will probably ever have to go through. I give anyone under the LGBTQIA umbrella major credit because that was extremely difficult and scary, being uncertain about how your parents will react and having to explain ‘transgender’ to people in their late 50’s, was difficult to say the least. “Why don’t you just be friends?” my mother would ask, not in a desperate plea but in a sort of confused tone, clearly she didn’treally get it. Not to mention, using his proper pronouns was ALWAYS an issue.
My sisters, who I had assumed were young and hip, seemed slightly uncomfortable with the idea as well. It was weird, sometimes they did seem very supportive but other times a simple look would tell me otherwise. Saying crass things like “I could never imagine eating pussy – having my head between two legs like that sounds like that most disgusting thing ever” while I just sat in the passenger seat quietly. Clearly this was a passive aggressive jab at me disguised as a sexual afterthought.
After I was bombarded with ignorant questions, feeling uncomfortable and not quite sure what to say, my sister observed, “Well maybe you’re so uncomfortable talking about this sort of thing because you aren’t physically attracted to him.” Or you know, maybe it was because he was my first boyfriend and the first person I’d ever really gotten sexual with. I know that I’m their baby sister, but it felt to me that they weren’t uncomfortable just because I was having sex but because of the circumstance, and that really hurt my feelings and made me feel ashamed of my sexuality.
People on my side weren’t the only issue. He had not yet come out to his family, so we had to keep our relationship a secret, which was a terrible, anxiety-ridden experience in itself. Whenever I’d go over to his house, I had to use female pronouns, but at school I had to exclusively use male pronouns. If I was talking to a friend who knew him before he came out, I’d have to correct their pronouns, which led to me being constantly terrified that those people would use the wrong pronoun in front of someone who only knew the correct pronoun. It was a big ole mess. I’d have nightmares about my new friends finding out, not only for his sake because I didn’t want them to judge him or look at him differently, but also for my sake, because as a heterosexual female, I grew more and more frustrated with people assuming I was a lesbian and asking me all of those ignorant questions.
Since he was afraid of his relatives finding out, he was too scared to do any research because of his Internet history, so I quickly became the expert. Transition story after transition story, the Internet was probably the only place I felt comfortable talking about him and our relationship with other people because unlike everyone around me, they actually knew what I was going through.
These men and women, whether they had transitioned or their partners had, were supporting each other, and I felt great being part of that community. They understood what it was like to cheer someone up who was feeling particularly dysphoric that day, or they would provide different ideas for surgery fundraising. Just hearing about how couples got through transitions was really inspiring.
Meanwhile, people in my reality weren’t nearly as great. While many of them tried to be supportive, I will never forget the cruel little side comments people would make. I’ll never forget the one time my sister’s friend referred to the two of us as “ladies,” or the time I confided in one of my new college friends about his secret and she spread it around the dorm like wildfire. Or the time I was told that “I should really just try a penis” cause apparently I “wouldn’t go back.” It was just such a confusing time in my life and the ignorant comments people made really hurt me and made me really insecure.
Despite treating me as well as he did, writing songs for me, and surprising me with makeshift bouquets of flowers he’d gather on campus, I was tired of feeling anxious all the time from the lying and secret-keeping. I met a few new boys that seemed to come without the pronoun anxiety, and then personality flaws of his came to the surface; he lived far away, he was passive aggressive, never stood up for me to his annoying friends, and, he didn’t have his own place. You know, normal couple problems.
My peers’ poisonous words began to infiltrate my head, and in our culture full of transphobia and homophobia, I began to feel ashamed of my relationship, and myself, constantly repeating, “I’m not a lesbian, I’m not a lesbian” in my head while simultaneously picking fights with him for no reason.
I began to feel more pressure from him as well. I’m assuming because I was the first girl to really love and accept him for who he was, he put me on this pedestal where I was this perfect girl in his mind and I could do no wrong and we were gonna get married, and that pressure would be difficult for any person to feel– I’m only human! My peers’ words overcame me like a giant tsunami and I broke up with him because I just couldn’t take it or him or the pressure and anxiety from everyone anymore.
The aftermath was equally devastating and ignorant. The people who praised me for dating him began to vilify me for breaking up with him, how dare I do that to such a sweet person andin his “condition.” Many others breathed a sigh of relief that this was just a “phase.” Even Itried to convince myself of that. Lying about how much I actually cared and saying some pretty transphobic comments just so people would get off my back and know I was back to my “normal self” again, which till this day I still regret. I tried my hardest to shut him out because people convinced me that I should’ve been ashamed of myself for my actions and because it hurt really bad knowing that I had hurt him so badly.
During the three years after our actual relationship, we had made up, made out, distanced ourselves, dated other people, and almost dated each other again, in a weird, fucked-up, emotionally destructive carousel. And while I realize that by no means should we be together anymore based on reasons that have everything to do with the fact that we are simply incompatible, I wonder if our relationship would have lasted longer in the first place if it wasn’t plagued by transphobia and ignorance from the people in our lives.