I dug this up today. It's over ten years since I wrote this piece and reading it again makes me realise how much things have changed for me in that time. I would perhaps not write the same piece now. Nonetheless, it belongs in this blog.
The thing I hate most about my ex’s new girlfriend is that I like her so much. It’s easier when you despise them. ‘She’s a loser,’ I secretly think. ‘It won’t work’.
That’s not what I say, though. When he took me out to dinner and announced, ‘Jennifer and I are together – we’re in a relationship,’ I said, ‘That’s great! What wonderful news! I’m so happy for you. Jennifer’s lovely. She’s perfect for you. You’ll be happy together.’ Because that’s what you’re supposed to say, after five years, when you’re over it. But a part of me didn’t mean it, because really it was not good news. Really, what you want is to know that your ex will never know happiness in their life without you. Because really, you’re not over it.
Yet I’m not a complete hypocrite. Another part of me did mean what I said. She is right for him: I couldn’t think of a better person for him to be with. She’s smart, she’s funny, she’s honest and she’s kind. In fact, she’s everything I look for in a woman except that she’s a bit older than me and I don’t go for older women.
He does. He always has. It was one of the reasons he went for me. Back when he was twenty and I was twenty-six. Back then, six years seemed like a big difference. I didn’t know he was barely out of high school, or I wouldn’t have been interested. I didn’t find out that until it had already started. He seemed serious and mature – I thought he must be at least 25. And God, how I loved him.
I say ‘him’ but, of course, it was ‘her’ back then. That’s one of the things I resent, actually: his goddamned pronoun. If I say, ‘my ex-boyfriend…’ then people might think I’m straight. At the very least, they think I’m too old to be a babydyke. And I don’t want them to think those things – well, not usually. Certainly not if I’m talking to some dyke I might be interested in. On the other hand, if I say, ‘my ex-girlfriend…’ – that’s not true either. It feels disloyal, to him and to all trans people. It also gets very awkward if they meet him, or if I forget and start mixing the pronouns. I invariably get into some hideous confession story about my Ex-Girlfriend the Transsexual. In that story I am cast as either the Unluckiest Girl in The World or as Queer As Fuck. How the story goes depends which way I play it. But maybe I don’t want to play it either way. Maybe I don’t want to play it at all. And maybe I don’t want his pronoun fucking with my life!
I’m getting way off the track, though, which was how we met. There are no surprises about that: we met in a bar. She wasn’t a total stranger – I’d already seen her around at work, and I was harbouring a secret crush. She was terribly handsome and butch. I didn’t realise it then, but I’m a sucker for butches. On that particular night, I had a few margaritas inside me. I was brave. I spoke to her and I found she wasn’t just handsome - she was clever and funny as well. Straight away, I knew I’d found something special.
So why did we break up? Is that what you’re asking? Was it because of the pronoun? Was it because ‘she’ changed into ‘he’?
No, it wasn’t like that. The truth is closer to the opposite. If anything, we broke up because she wouldn’t change sex. I wanted her to. I knew it was right for her. She couldn’t do it. She was unhappy. I was unhappy. We resented each other and we fought and we did stupid, hurtful things and we broke up.
Then she changed. After all those years of talking and processing and agonising and refusing to talk, she just changed. He turned up at my house to tell me, and brought a six pack of beer and a bag of weed to soften the blow. The blow! ‘Asshole!’ I thought. ‘Now you can be happy. Now - after we’ve broken up, and after everything you put me through.’ And he was happy. Why couldn’t he be happy when he was with me?
‘Because he wasn’t ready when he was with you,’ said my next trans lover. ‘It’s a decision that people make in their own time.’
‘I suppose so,’ I sighed. ‘But I knew he would. It’s frustrating.’
‘How could you know?’ he objected. ‘How can one person know what’s right for someone else? That’s arrogant. That’s ridiculous.’
‘I suppose so.’
But is it really so ridiculous, to think that I could have known? I lived with her. I slept with her, and woke up with her. I can remember waking up together, one Saturday morning, not long after we met. We lazed in bed and talked about clothes. I didn’t like to say it, but she was a nerd. I offered to take her shopping, buy her some new stuff.
She grunted at me. ‘I don’t like shopping.’
‘Everyone likes shopping. Maybe you just need to shop for something different.’
‘I don’t look good in anything.’
‘Oh, don’t be silly. You look great.’
She wavered. ‘What do you suggest?’
I thought for a moment. She was butch – she needed to show it off. ‘I think you’d look good in a tie.’
I got a shirt and tie from the cupboard and made her put them on. So shy and hesitant, she wouldn’t look at me. When she finished she looked up. Her face was bright and strong, glowing. A different person. ‘Uh,’ I stammered, ‘I think we’ve found your look.’
We did a lot of shopping after that. It was fun. She liked masculine things. Not just butch dyke things - no, she was looking for something different. It was a kind of Radclyffe Hall masculinity. You see it in the movies, when the men withdraw into the study after dinner to drink whisky and smoke cigars. I instinctively knew her taste and bought her straight pants and suspenders, a fob watch. We shopped for a tuxedo.
‘Have you ever worn a tux before?’ I asked idly, in the car.
‘Hmm, when I was a kid, I used to skip school and stay home and put on my father’s clothes.’
‘You did what?’
‘What?’ she grew self-conscious.
The lights turned red. I put my head in my hands. ‘Ok,’ I said, because I had a degree in Gender Studies and I thought I was pretty hip about things. ‘Let’s talk about gender.’
‘What about it?’
‘Well…..sweetheart…..let’s talk about your gender.’
She went silent.
‘This stuff…’ I went on. ‘This boy stuff that you’re into. It’s…it’s not normal. Would you prefer to be a boy?’
‘I think I was meant to be a boy.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Genetically, I think I’m meant to be a man.’
‘What makes you think that?’
‘It’s my acne.’ She explained. ‘I’m twenty and I’ve still got acne. And I’ve got such big feet.’
I couldn’t take any more - I cracked up laughing.
She looked at me with pain. ‘Why are you laughing?’
‘Pimples and big feet hardly make you a genetic male,’ I giggled.
‘Oh.’ She smiled then, seeing the absurdity of it.
‘There’s a word for people like you.’ I said. ‘It’s not butch. It’s transsexual.’
She thought it over. She didn’t like the idea. Her face was sad. ‘I’m weird.’ She said.
‘You’re not weird.’ I insisted, because I loved her. ‘You’re…you’re… special!’
She wasn’t convinced. She liked it, though. She bought books about transsexuals and we criticised them over dinner. When we moved in together, she turned the spare room into a study and filled it with her masculine trinkets. The Boy Room, we called it. She came up with a new name for herself: Mike. Michael. My Michael. She was too shy to ask people to use it, but she liked it when I did. I didn’t mind. Why would I? I had ideas I’d never thought about before, and I had the cutest girl/boy in town to fuck me senseless.
I adored her. I baked cookies for her while she built things in the garage. (Actually, I’m not too sure what she did in the garage, but it always seemed to be noisy, sweaty things that involved lots of power tools and dirt.) I got up early on Sunday mornings to go and watch her play soccer. In winter. Shivering on the sidelines and making small talk with the coach, a straight man. One day I watched while he tried to get her attention. From the far side of the field, she couldn’t hear him calling her name.
‘Try calling “Mike”,’ I suggested.
The coach looked at me like I was mad. ‘It’s her….nickname.’ I explained.
He shrugged, and bellowed, ‘Mike!’
Sure enough, in the crowd, a tousled head popped up.
A lot of people looked at me like I was mad, when I tried to talk about it. And I needed to talk – I was struggling with it. ‘My girlfriend has acne and she thinks she’s a man,’ I said. And they looked at me like I was mad.
And these people who looked at me like I was mad were not all straight men. They were my friends – dykes. Feminist dykes, because that was the community I’d come out in. Now, if you’ve hung around with women like this, you might have noticed that they love women. The emphasis is always on the last word: ‘I love women.’ They don’t emphasise the middle word: they never grin and say, ‘I love women!’
They loved women, and they hated transsexuals. Back then, these women talked a lot about Women’s Space. And they didn’t want transsexuals in Women’s Space. My girlfriend was kind-of transsexual, so I stuck up for her and people like her. We got into horrible arguments. They said awful, offensive things about transsexual people – mostly about MTFs. I don’t remember the subtleties of it now, but their logic went something like this: transsexuals are weird, transsexuals are different. They’re not real women and they’re trying to take over Women’s Space and it’s all a patriarchal plot.
A man having his dick cut off seems - to me - like a self-defeating way to enact a patriarchal conspiracy, and I said so. No matter. It’s about male privilege, they said. I thought of transsexuals feeling weird and frightened. I couldn’t see a lot of privilege in their lives, and I said that. No matter. MTFs had male energy, they said.
The funny thing is that I think MTFs are different, too. I’m no hero. I think they look different and they sound different to other women, and I haven’t liked most that I’ve met. Years later, an MTF friend who I do like very much asked, ‘So…would you have sex with an MTF?’ She had me, there. I like men and women and FTMs, but the thought of putting my mouth where a penis used to be….I don’t think so. I’m no hero – I lied to my friend. ‘It would depend on the person,’ I answered vaguely.
But human rights don’t depend on the person. They don’t depend on whether or not I want to sleep with someone. Every woman should be allowed to go to a women’s Rape Crisis Centre if she wants to – whatever her ‘energy’. Male energy? I saw more ‘male energy’ than I ever needed at Mike’s soccer presentation night, and there were no MTFs there. No, the room was full of Women-Born-Women-Who-Love-Women.
I said what I thought, and my friends didn’t like it. We went in circles. When it was over, I’d lost friends – women I’d known for years. They still liked Mike, though. FTM’s are different, they said. But they would have liked her anyway. Mike was quiet, diffident. She didn’t argue with people – she retreated into her Boy Room to read. She didn’t stick up for herself. She didn’t stick up for me. Bloody coward, I thought.
What Mike thought, I don’t know. She didn’t want to talk about it anymore. Once she appeared from the Boy Room and informed me that, according to statistics, she was probably the only FTM in town. I tried to tell her that she was special, but it didn’t help. She bought a crystal decanter and filled it with whiskey so that she could drink while she read.
I did some reading of my own, and didn’t enjoy it much. The people who wrote stories about FTMs wrote stories of triumph and liberation. Stories with happy endings. Their partners – mostly acquired after transition – sounded loving and supportive. They didn’t talk about drinking themselves into a stupour and passing out while their partner lay awake in tears. Pre-transition partners seemed to exit the stage gracefully. Nobody mentioned screaming rows about sex and slamming doors and icy silences and prescriptions for Prozac.
Mike wasn’t the only FTM in town, of course. After we’d broken up and he started to transition, he found others and they shared their experiences. I didn’t find any ex-partners, though. Maybe they’d left town. Maybe they decided to take a long holiday at the beach. Maybe, as I write, they are sitting under a palm tree with a good margarita, thinking, ‘I never want to hear the word “transsexual” again.’
I seemed to hear it more often than ever. It wasn’t a big town, and Michael and I still knew the same people. Some of them were taken completely by surprise.
‘Mike’s having a sex change!’ they gasped. ‘Did you know he was a transsexual?’
‘Er….he might have mentioned something about it.’
They were very curious. Their favourite questions seemed to be about a subject in which I had lost interest - Mike’s genitals.
‘Does he have….you know…a penis?’
They didn’t ask Mike these questions – no, that would have been rude. Instead, they asked me. I tried to answer them, and I tried to be patient and pc. I became a one-woman teacher of Transgender 101. When the lesson was over, I was too tired to talk about what I felt. I was too tired to talk about my own hurt and resentment and confusion.
I did talk to a few partners, of Mike’s new FTM friends. It was always a delicate conversation, seeing as they were still trying for a happy ending. The thing they didn’t like about being with an FTM was that it threatened their own sexuality. Let’s face it: if you’re a woman and you have a male partner, then people will think that you are straight. The women I talked to insisted on remaining stoutly lesbian. This did not seem, to me, like the path to a happy ending.
Not that I would know much about that. Being stoutly lesbian, I mean. This was the irony of it: I didn’t care if people thought I was straight or not. I like men – it was one of the reasons I liked Mike so much. But nobody ever thought I was straight. That was the difference between these women and myself – they were femmes. For femmes, lesbian identity is a hard-won thing, and they want to keep it.
But I’m butch. Sure, I was a femme when I was with Michael - I had no choice. I could never be as male as Michael: it would have been like playing chicken with the Terminator. So I played the girl. Luckily, I liked it. But when we broke up and I felt like shit and I needed to cheer myself up, I did what every sensible girl does: I went shopping. I came home with a new pair of Doc Martens, a bowling shirt, and a wallet chain. Straight home to my butch self, just like a bee to honey.
So I developed a theory about those ex-partners who are sitting on the beach somewhere drinking margaritas. I don’t know for sure, but I think they’re butches. Because if it’s hard for a femme who hooks up with a butch who turns out to be an FTM, then what about a butch who hooks up with a butch who turns out to be FTM? Forget it. It won’t work. You know why?
It took me a long time to work out why. When I was trying to work it out, I remembered the reactions of some of my dyke friends, as they heard about Mike’s transition. They threw their hands over their chests, in a kind of female castration anxiety. ‘I could never do that! I really like being a woman!’
After I’d seen this a few times, I became sceptical. I looked at some of the butch dykes who said it and I thought, ‘Yeah right, I bet you say your prayers every night. I bet you say: “thank you god, for making me a woman”’. Really, I don’t think they like being women much at all – and in this world, who could blame them? But you don’t have to like being a woman – you just have to accept it. That’s what socialisation is about – accepting your status as determined by that person who pulls you out of your mother’s body and looks between your legs.
FTMs don’t accept it. And that frightens the women who do, which is most of us. I used to listen to women proclaim how much they liked being a woman and think: ‘Why are you having such a major reaction? We aren’t talking about your gender.’ It took a long time to realise it but, of course, that’s exactly what we were talking about. Every transsexual is a challenge to our own gender. They look at Mike’s gender and they see a threat. So they respond by shoring up the borders, re-affirming their own gender.
Then they look at me. And they know I’m a dyke, because I’m butch. And I’m sticking up for him. So I must be…..? Well, I must be transgendered too!
So that’s why those butches had left town! Their partners’ transition didn’t threaten their sexuality. No, it was much more scary than that. It threatened their gender – and they didn’t like it.
It threatened my gender, too.
I didn’t like it, either.
Washed down with a few margaritas, my relationship with Mike started to look quite different. Of course I knew what he liked, what he wanted. It was what I liked and wanted. Of course I loved his gender – I was projecting my own desire.
I loved to talk about Mike’s gender, because it meant I didn’t have to talk about my own. I didn’t want to. Couldn’t handle any of those queasy, tricky questions about my own identity. The last thing I wanted was to imagine myself in Michael’s shoes. When I did, he looked very different. He looked like a brave man, a hero.
I couldn’t do what he has done. I don’t fancy the thought of chest surgery – especially after seeing Mike go through it. I’d love nothing more than a cock of my own to fuck someone with, but bottom surgery just sounds so gruesome that I can’t even stand to hear about it. Besides, I like being fucked too much to give it up. And I’m not even sure I’d like to live as a man. I don’t know that I’d like to be a man among other men, doing manly things. Michael loves that stuff – to me it seems foreign. I like being a girl among girls, or at least a butch among other butches.
Being a woman seems right for me. For now, anyway. I’m not sure what kind of woman I can be. I don’t know what the future holds. Maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll meet someone who’s smart and funny and honest and kind. That person might be a woman or a man or someone in between. I hope they like women and men and folks in between. And they will be perfect for me. And we’ll be happy.