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She, She: Navigating Fear, Femininity, and Queerness with a transgender partner

Illustration by Maura Callahan
(Illustration by Maura Callahan)

When my partner and I started dating in high school, she presented as male, for the most part. During our courtship—which then involved endless texting on our non-smart flip-phones—she talked openly about her then-genderqueer identity and even wrote a beautiful thinkpiece about going out in women's clothes for the first time in our school paper. But she used "he/him" pronouns and was, for all intents and purposes, my long-haired, sometimes skirt-wearing boyfriend. In Facebook photos from the three proms we attended together, she's wearing suits, and I'm wearing gowns. She's since untagged herself from those photos.

Now, we're in our mid-20s, and we share clothes when they're loose or stretchy enough to fit both my short, curvy frame and her lean fairy bod. My go-to line when people ask about how the transition has changed our relationship: "She's the same person; just happier and more fun to shop with."

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On the most recent Fourth of July, she's wearing her own clothes: new butt-flattering vintage shorts and a black-and-white button-up top—pieces in a fairly new wardrobe. Though trying on clothes made for bodies more like mine can at times bring her feelings of disappointment and dysphoria, and putting aside the (fortunately for us, mostly manageable) financial costs, developing that wardrobe has at other times been a joy for both of us. We're learning to embrace our femininity. For all feminine women (and men), this can be a challenge when our culture trivializes, sexualizes, even demonizes femininity; needless to say, there's added weight here for her. But when we push our anxieties away, the confidence boost is huge.

That boost is necessary today. To celebrate the anniversary of this country's Brexit, we're driving out to the county for my grandparents' big annual barbecue. Though clearly and understandably unsure of how to approach the news at first, my grandparents have treated her with the warmth they always have, only now calling her the correct (and now legal!) name and pronouns. So when we leave the house, we both seemed at ease. But that doesn't last.

"Uh oh…my nerves are kicking in," she says as we pull up to my grandparents' house. Mine are, too, though I don't say so—I just grip the steering wheel a little tighter. I just remembered other branches of the family that I realized probably didn't know about the transition and would be present at the party. Although I really should at this point, I don't have a casual, brief explanation of my partner's name change and physical transformation comprehensive enough for people who have no knowledge of transgender people beyond Caitlyn Jenner or "Silence of the Lambs," or none at all. It's hard to pack all that in over burgers, with give or take 50 other relatives buzzing around.

But they all know. And when they hug me, they whisper, "It's Jenn, right?" and then hug her. Relief. They ask how work's going. And then they see my new thigh tattoos, and they look slightly horrified. I've used this trick before: When there's news that might shock or disappoint my family, I keep any new body modifications visible to distract them from the more serious development. Though apparently not necessary here, the horror of my new ink amuses me and my partner, bringing more relief. So your boyfriend is your girlfriend, fine; but you actually had a wedge of cheese tattooed to your skin? Disgraceful.

And I feel guilty—I've underestimated my family. Even the most conservative Catholics here welcome her, ask how work's going, chat about the election. Same old.

Reflecting on the kindness of my family (and hers) I say on the drive home through the rain, "I sometimes wonder if we've had it too easy."

"I was just thinking that," she says.

All around, for both of us, the news of her transition has been met with loving support and respect at best, and awkward fumbles or invasive questions at worst.

We have not experienced the direct hatred that many if not most queer couples and trans and non-binary people encounter often on a daily basis. The only hatred we've met has been indirect: transphobic Facebook statuses, oppressive laws or the lack of protective ones, discovering that 49 members of the LGBTQ community were murdered in a nightclub. There's no way to express how painful these moments and patterns have been to us. But in our immediate encounters, we've experienced nothing but support or indifference, which is just as comforting when we live a culture where my partner's identity is deemed "not normal." And though she faces indirect threats of violence, she does not face them to the same degree as trans women of color, who make up the large majority of slain trans people. Speaking at Baltimore's vigil for the victims of the Orlando shooting, Bryanna Jenkins of the Baltimore Transgender Alliance said, weeping, that every day she leaves her house knowing that she could be murdered.

Our so-far smooth experiences bring not so much guilt, really, than a terrifying reminder that at some point, my partner's identity will be met with far worse than mildly uncomfortable exchanges. The gratitude for our friends' and families' support, and for just existing in a state that has banned anti-transgender discrimination, always follows with the fear that our good fortune will run out, that someone—or some institution—will hurt her. After all, we're only a year into this. We have many new people, workplaces, communities, and presidencies to encounter.

My partner jokes that I'm "appropriating queer culture" because when we started dating back when we were 17, I identified as straight. From the beginning, she assured me that if my sexuality prevented me from continuing the relationship, from loving a woman, it would not be my fault. Straight or gay, we can't change that. But it did change—sort of. Now, I loosely think of myself as something like "not straight." Although the timeline of my identity is blurry and though that shift was not unrelated to her acknowledgment of her identity as a woman, it did somewhat precede it. She began questioning her maleness at puberty, long before I met her. But before she began transitioning and coming out a year ago, I'd talked about not feeling so confident in calling myself straight anymore. When you've been in the same devoted, monogamous relationship since the age of 17 (and haven't experienced anything more than brief, mild attraction to other people), it's hard to think of yourself as attracted to anyone—or any gender—but that person, who is not simply their gender.

Illustration by Maura Callahan
(Illustration by Maura Callahan)

There are members of both the queer community and certain feminist circles that would say that my partner is "not really a woman" and therefore I am not really in a same-sex relationship. But I never saw her as a man, even when her pronouns and presentation were masculine. We met at a high school for artists; her flannel and denim ensembles weren't all that different from the girls'. She was the friend who made me feel like the most interesting person at the party, the one who decided on our first date that we should make mango crème brûlée. In college, she was the person who gave me a reason to take frequent 12-hour train rides through green, red, yellow, and eventually purple landscapes to Vermont.

I think most people like to think that identity exists independently of other identities—at least, when it isn't being restricted, violated, or silenced by hatred. We are who we are. So what does it mean that my identity changed with my partner's? Or, rather, why did my sexual identity change as hers became less inhibited? Maybe it didn't really change so much as it came into focus. Relationships can do that. They can also distort identity. Everyone has become an inauthentic version of themselves for the sake of a partner, or even a friend—changing wardrobes, music tastes, demeanor—but under better circumstances, relationships help you learn about yourself.

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In Maggie Nelson's "The Argonauts," a short memoir of sorts about the author becoming pregnant all while her partner undergoes hormone replacement therapy (it took me forever to get around to reading this, but I'm glad I did), she frequently cites and dissects the writing of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a controversial queer theorist who was married to a man throughout her life. Nelson writes that Sedgwick "wanted to make way for 'queer' to hold all kinds of resistances and fracturings and mismatches that have little or nothing to do with sexual orientation. 'Queer is a continuing moment, motive—recurrent, eddying, troublant,' [Sedgwick] wrote. 'Keenly, it is relational, and strange.' She wanted the term to be a perpetual excitement, a kind of placeholder, a nominative...willing to designate molten or shifting parts, a means of asserting while also giving the slip. That is what reclaimed terms do—they retain, they insist on retaining a sense of the fugitive."

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But then, Nelson notes, Sedgwick also asserted that "given the historical and contemporary force of the prohibitions against every same-sex sexual expression, for anyone to disavow those meanings, or to displace them from the term [queer]'s definitional center, would be to dematerialize any possibility of queerness itself."

"In other words, she wanted it both ways," Nelson writes. "There is much to be learned from wanting something both ways."

There is. I believe "queer" should maintain its roots in gender and sexual orientation, but there is something to be said for ceaseless fluidity, a certain kind of inclusiveness, an emphasis not on point A or point B but the fuzzy line in between. On that line and its many offshoots, curves, and perforations, there's greater opportunity for self-discovery.

I've learned more significant things about myself through this period in my life, I think, than just my queerness. My ability to adapt, to be strong but malleable, has been an empowering discovery. If I can deal with and love Jenn's transition, I'd like to think I—and people in general—can adapt to anything important enough. And she can, too, but I already knew that: Her resiliency through not only her identity troubles, but through tragedy in the family, has always inspired me. She hates being called "brave" because, she says, she's just living life. I think about this as we pull up to our house and she unhooks the straps on her sandals and runs inside to greet the hungry cat. On days like today, when so much could go wrong but doesn't, there's still a sense of accomplishment—if nothing else, we got through our nerves, back to the safety of our home.

If she's not brave, she's at least a warrior. Even when she feels her weakest, she is powerful—the kind of woman I want to be.

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