My biggest fear about transitioning wasn’t rejection from my friends or being fired from my job. I worried about the health risks of hormones, but I accepted them as a trade off for becoming myself. I knew transitioning would be painful, physically as I did treatments to remove my facial/body hair and emotionally as my brain rewired due to estrogen. The one fear of transitioning which kept me from beginning was romantic love, the terror of ending up alone as a trans woman.
I researched transitioning and trans girl life before I started. At my core, I’m a very analytical girl, versed in reading medical journals, academic theorizing , and feminist thought. I read hundreds of articles from trans women about their lives, everything from sexuality to workplace harassment. The articles about romance and relationships were the most compelling to me. There seemed to be two sides of the conversation, trans women who found romantic love and trans women who ended up alone sexually and romantically. It was a stark polarized dynamic with a wide middle ground of trans girls who found some romantic love but struggled to find long term partners.
I’ve always been a romantic at heart. I’m a poet, so desire and romantic attraction have always figured into my inner landscape. More influential to my development as a person, romantic comedies have been a cornerstone of my identity since I was kid. One of the only female gendered activities I was allowed to do as a kid was watch romantic comedies with my sisters and mother. We started with Doris Day and old Hollywood classic romances before moving onto to Sleepless in Seattle, My Best Friend’s Wedding, and my favorite, You’ve Got Mail. I no longer have any contact with my sisters or mother but I still watch those movies and feel connected to them through the screen.
There was also the reality of the abuse I grew up with. I used to dream of being saved and taken away from my childhood home. As I grew older, that desire became a romantic one. Some day, I’d find someone who loved me and I would build my own family. I’ve never lost that dream, despite the ways I’ve learned to question the romantic ideal in Western society. I think there is a contradiction in how women are punished for desiring romantic attachment and the message from media that romantic love is the only way we can measure our success. There are so many memes and social media posts about women loving themselves first and valuing our independence while we bombarded with commercials, films, and music about romantic coupling.
I remember one of my friends telling me not to talk about being single in public because it made me sound ‘desperate’. No one is attracted to desperation, they said, you have to look like you have everything together and aren’t looking for anything. The ideal girlfriend is a girlfriend who doesn’t want to be loved, who is seduced and drawn into romantic love by a persistent guy who tricks her into falling in love despite her resistance. Actively seeking love is shameful, vulgar, and the opposite of how a woman should be. Don’t be that vulnerable clingy girl. Be strong willed, indifferent to your desire and needs.
I was talking with a guy I was romantically involved with last summer about this contradiction. He said it was a turn off if a girl is into you, just wasn’t fun anymore if she wanted you. I think this is a form of violence and an extension of toxic masculinity. Women can only be desirable when we don’t want it. When we say no, it’s an exciting conquest but when we say yes, we’re whores and too easy. The excitement of male desire is in the chase. A willing victim isn’t a worthy one. As a woman, acknowledging your romantic desire is a sign of weakness to prospective male partners, a warning sign that you’ll want too much from them.
This push and pull of being public about desire is one of the many new dynamics I’ve learned since transitioning. I quickly realized there was an entirely different script around male and female relationships and sex. I stumbled into it when I started dating guys as woman. From who texts who and what you say back to guys, there’s an inherent power dynamic in male/female relationships which I never experienced in gay male relations. I had to learn new ways of responding, sexually and romantically, to my partners. If I responded as I would have before transitioning, guys freaked out because it violated invisible rules of being a woman.
It was liberating to step into female expectations at first. I realized my main job was to perform femininity for my partners, dress up and wear makeup. Look pretty, laugh at their jokes, make them comfortable, assuage their vulnerabilities. Be aloof, act as if I didn’t care, wait hours before messaging back, deny I wanted to be loved. I recognize that not all heterosexual relations are like this, but honestly, it’s a fairly common standard across all kinds of het guys. I hear about it from my cis girlfriends and my trans girlfriends. It’s the script of romantic love, injecting itself into our lives whether we believe in it or not.
As a trans woman, I also realized there were many other scripts I had to perform for men. One script was the ‘trap’ girl, look as feminine as possible and be the hyper-sexual trans girl who has the sex drive of a man but the body of a woman. Be an experiment for men, a dangerous desire leading them down a dark path. Another script was the gender outlaw, be a social justice warrior princess outside of the rules of society. Be radical, don’t want conventional relationships, and inspire men to transgress. The worst script, the one which dehumanized me the most, is the ‘not a real woman’ script.
I can sense when people are uncomfortable with me. It’s a survival technique most Queer and racialized people develop, a inherent sense of prejudice in others. With men, this has translated to me sensing when they see me as female or as some other thing. I often find men go between scripts with me, treating me as woman when they’re happy with me and treating me like a guy when they’re angry at me. I always knew trans women were seen as impostors by a silent cis majority, as gay men who were so feminine that we transitioned. Not a real woman, because of our bodies and our past as men. A part time girl.
My experience of this script has been the most painful part of my transition. Because I don’t just desire sex, because I am actively seeking romantic love, my relationships with men always place me in a vulnerable position. I find that many men, particularly Queer men and men from the political left, are supportive of trans women as a concept, but not as sexual or romantic partners. They support the idea of us existing, but don’t still don’t see us as women. They can never say this directly because they don’t want to be bigots, so they express it in a hundred indirect ways.
The challenge as a trans woman dating and seeking romantic love is you can’t tell if a guy sees trans women as women or if he’s acting out the part of a ‘good guy’. I discovered there is a group of men in Queer and feminist spaces who outwardly claim to be allies, but actually are just trying to sleep with/date Queer women (with vaginas only). They’re the kind of guys who say they’re not trans-phobic because they made out with a guy once or sucked a dick (actual conversation), but don’t see that defending their trans politics by telling you they’ve had same sex relations is inherently denying your womanhood. So you end up, as I have done several times now, getting romantically involved with guys who will never see you as a whole person and will never be comfortable with your body.
Because they’re playing out the role of being a ‘good guy’, they use the right pronouns but treat you as a second class girl. I spent a lot of time with one guy who was part of this ‘good guy, social justice, gender is a construct’ group of bros who said some of the most trans-phobic things to me. From ‘you don’t actually want to be a woman, do you?’ to ‘you’re asserting the identity of a woman’ to not speaking to me from 5 minutes when he saw without my clothes for the first time, every interaction with him made me feel like a fake woman. Even when I was on hormones and my body changed dramatically, he still didn’t see me as a woman. I remember talking to him about my breast growth (which has been very significant-pushing a B cup on a very petite frame). The look on his face was somewhere between disgust and disbelief, even though I was wearing a deep v shirt and my breasts were very visible.
I find the politics of being a trans woman and dating ‘straight’ men very complex. There is an inherent assumption that you’re still a man, acting out some form of identity politics and role-playing being a girl. Part of this is ignorance about hormones, the dramatic way which estrogen and the absence of testosterone rewrites your brain and desire. I’m not pretending to be a girl and my body/sexuality is not male. Trust me, I know what it was like to be a guy on T and I am as far away from that as I ever thought I would go. I’m also not role playing to be a girl. I wear makeup because I like it, I wear pink because I like it, I speak in a soft and high voice because that’s my voice. Nothing is fake here.
More complicated is the relationship between desire and body. Some guys may not be able to get over the fact that I don’t have a vagina. I think that’s inherently misogynist, as if the only part of a woman which matters is her genitals, but I also get that it’s a real biological sexual desire for guys. Vaginas are great, I get it. Some guys are weird about by anal sex and a lot of straight guys are super freaked about by what they perceive as a penis. So there is a portion of desirability where I am different from cis girls in a way which I recognize limits partners, which may not be inherently trans-phobic. I don’t think every guy has to desire me in order to prove they aren’t trans-phobic.
I do think that men should always treat me with respect, as they should treat any girl, cis or trans, in order to not be trans-phobic. As I mentioned before, I spent the better part of a year hanging out with a guy who I was romantically interested in. His position throughout our relationship was that he wasn’t sexually or romantically interested in me which became a very painful tension. We hung out all summer, outings which anyone who heard me describe immediately called dates. He wrote me a sexually explicit letter which he later claimed wasn’t sexual (‘I need your body’, actual line). We held hands, he cradled me to his chest for hours one night, we talked about sex constantly, and I always felt he was role playing being with a trans girl with me, going as far as he felt comfortable going.
I remember one night when we hung out. We went to dinner and afterwards he walked me home (a nice thing he did because he realized how much street harassment I get as a trans woman). As we were walking down Yonge street (I wasn’t passing at this point), he wrapped his arm around my shoulder and pulled me into his chest, the way I only ever see cis couples do in public. I went with it, but realized people were staring. I said to him, ‘are you sure you’re comfortable being seen in public with a trans girl?’. He said ‘oh I didn’t think of that’ and let go of me, one of those moments where I felt like I came close to being treated like any other girl and then was abandoned when my difference was seen.
There were so many moments like that, moments when he acted like my boyfriend in public but got upset when other people noticed and commented on it. He talked about not letting the girls he was chasing/dating in his life know about me, as if I was a dirty secret. Throughout it all, he acted as if we’re just friends and I was crazy for feeling any romantic attraction. He called our physical contact ‘platonic touching’, as if laying in each other’s arms for hours was something friends do. Maybe in his world, it is, I guess, but it never felt like a friendship. It felt like a form of love, one which I desperately wanted but was never allowed to feel with him.
It’s hard not to see that line between friends and lovers as a reflection of how he saw my womanhood, a reflection of my transness. I wrote about it in my poetry, how he chased cis women while still being connected to me. He read it and got angry with me, mostly because I called out the inherent trans phobia of his comments to me and his denial of my desirability. We hung out for the last time. He denied that my transness mattered, that I didn’t know his partners and couldn’t say he was trans phobic. He never addressed the comments he made about my femininity, when he said my body wasn’t a women’s body. I listened to him speak, heard the way my pronouns caught in his voice. When people say ‘she’ and ‘her’ but don’t believe it, you can hear it in their voice. It’s a forced word, a high pitched tone which reflects the amount of mental effort it takes for them to correctly gender you.
It’s one of those tells I’ve learned, a way to know when people are calling you ‘she’ in order to not be a bigot but don’t see you as a woman. There it was again, sitting across from me, in a boy who knows me more than anyone else in my life. If he doesn’t believe I’m a woman, will anyone? We parted on uncertain terms, not sure if we would go on hanging out or not. After a few days, he sent me a series of texts saying he didn’t love me and would never want a sexual relationship. He unfriended me on Instagram and Facebook. I realized later he actually went back through my Instagram and unliked all of the posts he’d liked since we started hanging out, a way of erasing his connection to me.
That what hurts me. The part of our relationship dynamic which I feel is directly related to me as a trans woman, his shame and need to deny any attraction or affection. Why did he not want anyone to look at my Instagram and see his likes? Why did he not want to even admit that we were connected ever? Why tell me that he doesn’t love me? I don’t know the answer exactly, but I feel it’s because I’m trans. I trust that instinct. Not wanting to fuck or date me is fine (stupid, but fine), but needing to erase me from your life? Needing to deny your transphobia before removing every record of our connection? That feels like violence, a violence related to my erasure as woman. I don’t think he would treat a cis girl like that.
I ran into him on the street yesterday. He was with a cis girl. He made eye contact with me and then walked past me without saying anything or acknowledging me. I accepted it and kept walking on as well, but in my heart, it was one of the most painful moments in my transition. I’m so stigmatized that I can’t be recognized in public. I’m so shameful that I have to be denied. Was it because of the cis girl? He didn’t want her to see his connection to me? Or because I’m crazy, because I wanted his love and challenged his biases? I’m punished as a trans girl for being trans, for daring to want love and not just sex, for asking to be seen as the woman I am.
Why am I talking about this moment in a long post about romantic love and being trans? Not because I want to call him out or get revenge for his cruelty, but because I think it’s one of the most compelling part of my transition. As a trans woman, you inherit and have to participate in the rituals of heterosexual love. You learn a new language of desire and gender and oppression. You also inherit the shame and erasure of being a trans woman, a persistent prejudice which defines the borders of what kind of love you can get. I have to balance both oppressions, as a woman with a male partner and as a transsexual in a world which only values cis bodies.
My perspective on gender has changed so much since I started transitioning. My relationship to men has never been more complicated. Yes, I want their love. No, that doesn’t make me desperate or a whore or a threat or weak. It makes me human. All of us, even men, want to be loved for who we are. I still have those romantic dreams in my head. I can’t kill them off even when they hurt me. I have always wanted to be that cis girl I saw with him yesterday, walking in sunlight without shame. One of the last things I texted him has stuck with me since I sent it. It was the line ‘I wish I could be pretty enough to matter’, a melodramatic line which manages to strike directly to the heart of the issues.
Being a woman in the script of heterosexual love is about being pretty. Yes, it’s about being low maintenance and up for kinky sex and not too smart or demanding, but it’s mostly about being pretty. Oh, and having a vagina. Being fuckable in a way which affirms your partner’s masculinity. Being a trans woman in the script of heterosexual love means being pretty enough to outweigh your limitations. Being pretty enough that no other straight guy would question why your guy is with you. Being pretty enough to pass, being pretty enough to be immediately and undeniably recognized as female. Your worth as a woman and your potential to be loved is determined by your face.
I’ll never be pretty enough to matter in a way which negates my transness. It’s hard to predict what I will look like as I’m on hormones longer, as my face has changed dramatically in the last 4 months, but I’ll probably always be visible as a trans woman. I may never fit into the script of heterosexual love, no matter how much I want to or change myself to accommodate it. I remember him talking to me about a cis girl he was dating towards the end of our relationship. He described her as being smart, but talking like a stupid valley girl and how charming he thought that was. I didn’t comment, but in my head, I thought ‘ah, she’s better at playing the script than I am’. He was valued her ability to conform to the script of being a girl, hiding her intelligence behind her body.
This tension speaks to the core of being a trans woman. You have to respond to the patriarchal oppression of being a woman without having time to learn the appropriate responses. Cis girls will always be better at navigating the script than me, because they’ve had their whole lives to practice it. You are denied as a woman while being expected to flawlessly be a woman, an impossible standard you can’t meet because you don’t know the rules you have to follow. When you fail the standards of femininity for men, it validates them seeing you as a fake woman. You can’t win, no matter how lovely of a human being you are.
Dismantling patriarchy and trans phobia in your dating life is a hard place. I find it hard to imagine that I could find a guy who was willing to do that work with me, that I could ever be pretty enough to be worth the social stigma of being with a trans girl. I may be one of those trans women I feared so much when I started transitioning, the desperately single kind. In some way, that fear of being single is a core fear for women, cis and trans. I talk about it with my cis girlfriends and many of them are in the same boat, navigating impossible standards of body and attractiveness while hiding their need for romantic love. I’m not sure what the answers is. I keep trying to find love, alternating between hating myself for wanting it and praying that it finds me.
This is what being a woman is to me in some sense. Fighting your natural desire and power in order to not threaten men. Pushing yourself to be smaller and smaller so they can expand infinitely around you. Believing you are crazy for expecting men to be accountable for their desires. Teaching yourself to want less and less so men don’t feel any pressure to perform. Shaming yourself for speaking back to men, hating yourself for being outspoken in the face of their violence. Asking your heart to survive on nothing, training your body to perform for male pleasure, becoming a open and empty vessel for them.
I won’t ever be that girl. I can’t be. My heart is wild. I want and want and want. I rush into the world. I am crazy. I need love. I push back, I stand up, I speak out. I write it down, I ask for accountability. Why do I do it even as I hate myself for it? I guess we have to decide what kind of woman we will be, loved or free. It doesn’t feel like we get to be both. If I have to pick, I can live without love (not well, but I can do it) but I don’t think I could live without being free. Wild, dangerous girl. Desperately single. Transsexual. Poet. The most terrifying girl you could be. Unlovable, undesirable, but yes, free.
If I could have said anything in the moment he walked past me, it would have been this: the only one who isn’t real is you. Your masculinity is the performance, the fraud in the room. Your desire and love is bound by a rule-book you refuse to name. I may be alone, ignored and denied as a woman, but I’m real. It doesn’t comfort me like I wish it could, but to see yourself as you are is is to a requirement for love.
In those romantic comedies I’ve love, there is always a moment when the two lovers look into each others eyes, the moment of recognition. The ‘Yes, this is you. Yes, this is me.’ script which he refused to play with me in front of a cis girl. He wasn’t scared of seeing me. He was scared of seeing himself, a boy with a trans woman in public. I can’t change that. I may never be pretty enough to cross that line to love. I’ll keep trying. I can’t believe that all men want to play their part in the script, just as I don’t want to play my role. Some of us, somewhere, must want to step out of the screen and into the world, connected through more than our genitals.
Decolonial love? Breaking the binary? I don’t know what to call it. Or just love, real love, honest love, human love. What we need, what we want. To be seen and to see back. To touch and touched. To trust and be trusted. To walk in light and light the walk. To be just a girl in front of just a boy, asking him to love her (Notting Hill reference). To be allowed to be human, to be forgiven for desiring, to be embraced for seeking love. To be more than our genitals, to be free and in love. To who I’ve always been. To matter, whether I’m pretty or not.