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When I’m with my girlfriend, it isn’t scary being a trans woman. That might not sound like an astonishing concept to a cisgender person, or someone who identifies with the sex on their birth certificate. After all, isn’t the whole point of a relationship to be comfortable and secure with one’s partner? But when you are transgender, comfort and safety function differently.
Halfway through Trump’s first term as president, many Americans are familiar with the feeling that we are standing on the edge of a cliff. For trans people, the situation is even more perilous: We are dancing cliffside, swaying to a tune that grows ever more frenetic.
When I’m with my girlfriend, though, the frenzy slows to a measured waltz — a level of security in a relationship that seemed unattainable to me just a few years ago.
The Right Person, the Wrong Narrative
As a teenager, I was simultaneously cognizant of my gender dysphoria and determined to ignore it, and the future always felt sort of hazy. With all the bravado of adolescence, I would tell people that I didn’t plan to live past 40, and I meant it in the clearest and darkest way — a common sentiment among trans youth. (In a 2018 study, transgender teenagers reported having attempted suicide at rates at least double the general population.)
Growing up in an environment where your identity is unwelcome and willfully ignored is a crash course in untenability. Inflicted with a horrifying puberty that is not yours, you are expected to make life-altering decisions about a future which seems to grow dimmer all the time. I could never imagine a future as the man I was expected to be, and when facing the unthinkability of what I did want, the future itself became unthinkable.
Then entered a girl toward the end of my teenage years who, in spite of everything, gave me cause to imagine a future. We were friends for a long time first and were similar in a number of unremarkable ways, but what drew us into a relationship was an ineffable affinity for each other. There was a mutual sense that despite the stacked odds against us, we were better together — two instruments in the same tune.
From the start, however, an unnamable discontent permeated our relationship from both sides. We both felt pushed to fill roles neither of us had any interest in playing, and the mandates of the Catholic upbringing and education we’d both endured stifled us. Imagine trying to write an SAT essay using a novelty bendy pencil (with a dull tip, to boot) and you can get a sense of what it’s like to try to fulfill a role in a relationship you are not meant for, partner notwithstanding.
As a consequence of our boundless discomfort with the cis-het (or, cisgender, heterosexual-centric) culture into which we had been immersed, neither I nor my girlfriend had ever seriously dated anyone before we began our relationship. In some ways, we approached things with the hesitancy of a younger couple; we had a mutual discomfort with expressing basic intimacy, but we quickly became closely connected emotionally. It’s difficult to describe what it’s like to be in a relationship and feel very close to each other but disconnected from the relationship itself. Such is the untenability of a gay person trying to fit into a straight-seeming relationship.
During the first few years of our relationship, we both struggled to come to terms with the feeling of simultaneously wanting more and being sure there was nothing more. We wanted each other but we did not want our roles, because we knew, ultimately, that we could not fulfill them. We wanted to be with each other forever, while struggling to imagine what forever looked like within the bounds of our presumptively heteronormative relationship.