Through previous romantic relationships, AJ learns to be seen in their gender. But sometimes what it means to be a good or a bad partner isn’t so binary.
As a 12-year-old at the science center with my family, I heard two boys about my age say, “Who does she think she is, a boy?” I was in the midst of my tween-years of awkward gender signal mixing; I believe that particular day I was wearing a full set of Korean-war era fatigues, Converse All-Stars, giant earrings and fire-engine red nails (hopefully no pictures exist). Dubious fashion choices aside, their perception was something that made me ask myself, even as I roiled with shame, “wait, am I trying to be a boy?”
Several difficult years later, when I had almost given up on figuring out an answer to that question, I had a transformative relationship with a woman who was in theater. She had experienced the whole spectrum of gendered costuming, from corset-training her waist for a period role to full on drag. When we talked about wearing suits, she said, “When I do it, it’s dress-up. When you do it, it’s just you.” I was sort of thunderstruck by her observation, which in retrospect seems kind of, um… obvious. But at the time? The feeling of not only being seen but recognized, was amazing, undiscovered country, and I suddenly wanted to live there, all the time. And like Schrodinger’s cat, my gender identity morphed: just because someone was looking at it, not with derision, but with respect. And ok, hopefully a little lust.
Her gift to my life was that recognition, and the example she set of being amazingly, unashamedly, herself. At a time when gentle androgyny was de rigeur for young lesbians, she made garish pants out of curtains like Maria Von Trapp and wore work boots when she needed them and gold lame and glossy red lipstick when she damn well felt like it. It felt like we were making art just by stepping out into the world as a couple. Could I explain then how we were not butch-femme? Nope. Can’t truly explain it now, except to say that my take on masculinity is more James Bond than James Dean, so the word “butch” has never felt quite right for me.
Not long after, I met someone that seemed to actually be like me. He was queer, charming, and incredibly smart. Gender-wise… we didn’t have so many words to choose from then, but when I got rid of my girly earrings, he adopted most of them. He painted his toenails, kept his beautiful curls long, and walked tall, which still leaves me in awe of his personal fortitude. We didn’t have to discuss the in-between, we both lived it. He swiped his younger brother’s jacket for me, I bought lipstick for him. He held my hand like we were playing Red Rover, ready to resist all comers. I felt unassailable, like I was part of something, for the very first time.
Coming to understand myself as part of the in-between genders has been, for me, what medical doctors call a “diagnosis of exclusion”: more feminine than that person, more masculine than that one, a kind of complicated triangulation from the examples around me, in my family, my small communities in the midwest, and in my occasional visits to The Big City. I owe not my gender identity, but my understanding of that identity, in large part to friends and lovers, family and strangers.
Those two early relationships, though brief, taught me that it was possible for other people to see me. Like the reflector behind the flashlight bulb, they made my light stronger and more focused.
It’s been a long, strange trip from my original assignment as female to where I am now, and for a lot of it, I’ve had company in the form of my current romantic partner. At least, I call him my partner; he doesn’t like that term, because it “sounds like a corporate entity, not an intimate relationship”. We have been good-naturedly bickering about what our relationship should be called for more than 15 years.
He doesn’t know that I don’t consider myself female.
As a matter of principle, he has never believed that gender is more like a scatter chart than a salt-and-pepper shaker set. He thinks that’s newfangled nonsense, and name- and pronoun-changing (except in the case of binary trans folks) are just a hobby for the privileged with nothing left to rebel against. But philosophically, he’s pretty tolerant; he just figures there are a huge variety of acceptable ways to be a man or a woman.
At this point, it would be tempting to demonize him as an unsupportive partner. Bad SO, no cookie! But then there’s what he doesn’t do.
He doesn’t see me only in relation to a mythical female-shaped space around me. I am not constantly existing in comparison to some idealized, impossible female presence, one who’s feminine, malleable, smart (but not too smart), and sexy (but chaste). And probably taller than I am.
He does not care, even more than I don’t care, whether I hit the high points of conformation to femininity. He doesn’t care how long my hair is, anywhere on my body. He doesn’t care if I wear jewelry or don’t. When I bound my chest with Ace bandages because I didn’t know any better, he Did. Not. Care. Now, when I bind, or don’t, he doesn’t care.
He doesn’t care if I wear a suit instead of a dress, or rather, he does care: that I feel comfortable in what I wear, and stop obsessing about it so we can have a good time.
When I showed up for the first formal event we ever attended together in a tie and a too-big velvet blazer, probably looking like an underage Christina Ricci trying to channel Vincent Price, he didn’t bat an eye. His sole feedback on my unorthodox fashion choices over the years has been to point out that if you wear a black suit with a white shirt, you look like a waiter. Good point, sweetie.
It apparently doesn’t affect his own self-image to be seen with someone who’s “less” of a woman, which is so, so rare in a man. And he does appreciate who I am. He loves that I’m low maintenance, practical, and forthright, which others have characterized as frumpy, unimaginative, and tactless. My experience with him is less about being understood and more about being free to expand in whatever direction feels right.
So do I feel perfectly seen in my most intimate relationship? No. Do I still value many things about that relationship? Absolutely. We’ve both invested much of our lives in it. Our families consider us a unit. Our wills name each other. The sheer inertia of the status quo is incredible, especially when the issues are so distressingly intangible. A label. A pronoun. A promise never to refer to my body in certain ways.
A lot of the stories about partners (and even friends) to trans people are as polarized as the older trans narrative. A good partner is unwaveringly supportive and never has bad days. A bad partner is always mean and abusive. A good partner stays. A bad one leaves. I think just like our genders, most of our relationships are much more complicated than that.
I don’t know if we’ll ever discuss my identity, or if we should. I am not sure whether having a label for something that’s moderately obvious would make a difference – I trained him years ago not to call me a “girl” – but I’m thinking about it more and more, now that I’m starting to understand it better myself. Ultimately, I suspect that whether I’m in or out to him won’t be any more binary than the rest of me.