PART ONE: TRANSITIONS
I’ve been through a lot of weird life situations in the last few years. It’s hard to explain a lot of the changes, but they’re mostly good.
For instance, my girlfriend came out to me a little more than four years ago. Then she began therapy, and then she started transitioning to presenting full-time as a woman. She became much happier very quickly, and elements of her personality that had been repressed began to emerge.
I had a lot of feelings about it all: there was relief that I wasn’t The Source of The Wrong Thing in her life. There was shame that I hadn’t noticed what The Wrong Thing actually was. There was a bit of anger and resentment that she hadn’t mentioned this to me in 2002 when we first got together. There was fear when she began coming out to co-workers and friends and family. There was more relief when that all went all right for her. There has been sadness caused by people who misgendered her on the street, and frustration caused by administrative systems that are not equipped to cope with a gender transition.
Mostly I’ve felt a quiet sense of pride, which is the one thing you’re not really supposed to say. I’ve been so glad that Allison has been strong enough to make changes to her life that make her a happier person. I’ve been a little amazed at myself, from time to time, because I’ve found myself in situations where I’ve had to advocate for her. I’ve been surprised that I’m not always terrible at it.
I’ve been shocked by the circumstances under which it happens:
– When I’m confiding in an old mentor, the very first person I summon up the courage to tell, she gets up and leaves the table where we’re having lunch, is gone for twenty minutes, then asks the waiter for the check before she returns. I’m about to ask her for advice, but all she says is, “How thoroughly modern!” followed by, “Now, I must run and get a juice. My health declines if I don’t have one every day.”
– When I tell an old group of friends about Allison’s transition, only one of them even responds. She compares my girlfriend to “Jeffrey Tambor in a dress,” and I refrain from remarking on the fact that she has just compared a woman to a straight male comedian, thanking my lucky stars that at least in this day and age we’ve got “Transparent” instead of just “Tootsie”. The other women in my friend group — I never hear from any of them, ever again.
That’s not entirely true: the eldest of them already knew about the transition, and she wrote me privately to congratulate us both on our progress.
Change begets more change. Allison transitioned, and when she began taking hormones she started to smell like a girl. For her, this was a really good thing. Really, really good.
For me, it was … well. I lost someone. The person I thought existed had always been imaginary, but I still grieved. I still miss the scent of that imaginary person, though I would never suggest the real person who lives in her body stop taking her medication just so that I can get my Testosterone Smell Fix.
There weren’t many people to whom I could talk honestly about all of it. My friends didn’t understand why “Transparent” references were offensive to me — some of them still get mad at me for failing to watch the show. I try to explain that having a straight dude play a trans woman is not entirely unlike yellow face, but then I’m always told I’m wrong.
My mother would say things like, “Why do you have to go through this, too? You have already been through so much. This battle is not yours.”
Well, we don’t always choose our battles, but when Allison came out to me, I chose this one, and I picked a side, and I’ve stuck to it. And that’s where the little bit of pride comes in — it’s about the fact that I’m not going to stop caring about the person with whom I’ve spent fourteen years of my life just because she turned out to be a girl instead of a boy.
If we all behaved like that, Anne Shirley would be sent back to the orphanage every single time, and we’d be stripped of an entire series of stories about a beautiful, kind, imaginative, insightful, witty, nature-loving young woman.
PART TWO: DATING
Of course, there are some problems that cropped up eventually. Like my thing for Guy Smell. I really like it, a lot. In fact, it turns out that Guy Smell is what turns me on. Exclusively.
I am heterosexual. I’m sorry.
This isn’t revolutionary, but breaking up with your partner of fourteen years is kind of a big deal.
Still, it’s what we’ve done, quite slowly. First we talked about it, and then we had an open relationship for awhile, and then we did a seven-day candle ritual to break up, and now we’ve got separate beds and, as of this past weekend, I’ve got my own room.
I’m turning thirty-seven in two days, and I’m back to sleeping in a twin bed for the first time in a decade. It’s a little embarrassing, yes, but the truth is that I love my cozy little room.
There hasn’t really been anyone to confide in about this change, either. My friends, the ones who are still around, are pretty invested in me and Allison being A Unit. And the truth is, so are we. We’ve still got a shared household, and we still cook dinner together, and we still sit down and have a drink and download together at the end of every day. We still have two cats together, and we still love one another very, very much.
Allison is my closest family, my chosen family, and that is never going to change.
But when I told my mom, she said, “Is that what Allison wants? What are you going to do? Where are you going to live?”
I understand the panic. It’s scary, this change. It’s scary, and I don’t have a ton of options because I’m still a disabled childhood sexual abuse survivor with no way of providing for myself in a capitalist society.
I wrote a letter to the aforementioned group of lady friends. This time only the eldest of them responded, privately, and she didn’t say anything other than that she hoped it was for the best. No one else even acknowledged receipt of my email.
I unfriended them on social media eventually, not because I don’t like them any more, but because … well, they’re not really my friends, are they, if I’m writing this? People who are your friends acknowledge the big changes in your life, even if those changes are awkward and weird. I mean, I know their changes are much more normal: they get married and have babies and buy houses, or maybe they get dumped by a boyfriend, and those are problems we as a society already know how to address. It’s really easy to dash off a quick response to such things, “OMG congrats!!!” or “That sucks; let’s go out dancing next time you’re in town, to remind ourselves that we’re all magnificent women who deserve love.”
Honestly, though? If you don’t know what to say about my girlfriend being transgender, FUCKING GOOGLE IT. If you don’t know what to say about my breaking up with my partner of fourteen years, FUCKING GOOGLE IT.
Unless you don’t want to be my friend any more. In which case, ignoring the whole thing will definitely work in your favor. At least until I write a scathing blog post about you.
But then recently, I was dating this guy. I mean, I thought we were dating. He apparently just thought we had hooked up, even though before we got together I wrote him a whole letter in which I explained that since we already knew one another from our hometown, things might get pretty intense pretty quickly. In fact, I guaranteed it. But, I said, I was pretty sure it would be fine if he understood where we were going and that it was going to Get Weird.
He said he understood. He didn’t put on the brakes or anything. We proceeded.
I called one of my oldest friends, who was actually better acquainted with The Guy than I had ever been.
“Am I crazy?” I asked. “Is it too weird? Should I just … not?”
“It’s not crazy,” he said. “It’s a little weird, but he’s smart and funny and tall and a snappy dresser and quite a catch. You should go for it.”
Then he followed up with, “Just promise me that if he treats you badly, you’ll get mad. Promise me you’ll get mad at him.” I promised.
Things went poorly eventually. I should have seen it coming: first he shared private medical information about a stranger. Then he confided that a few years ago he’d been demoted from teaching in a pretty good school to teaching at a place he calls “The School for Broken Toys”. I hoped he was being ironic. I hoped he was being sarcastic. I hoped he wasn’t really saying that he thought some people were Broken.
It turned out he was serious.
He eventually wrote me to break things off.
“I need someone who comes from a nurturing environment,” he wrote.
That’s a direct quote.
He called me broken.
I called my friend, incensed. He said he was sorry The Guy was an asshole to me, but there was nothing to be done about it. I should note that this was participating in a kind of disrespect that women constantly face in the dating world: the habit we as a society have of letting men off the hook when they behave abominably, which is pretty much the definition of rape culture.
Then my friend went on social media and publicly “liked” a comment made by The Guy. He got really mad at me when I called him out for it, actually. He said he noticed I hadn’t unfollowed The Guy. He said it wasn’t fair for me to expect him to Take Sides. He said there was nothing to be done about it.
Why do we let people get away with being assholes? Why do we cozy up to Known Assholes?
At what point do we decide that a guy has actually done something that deserves consequences of any kind? At what point do we shun a dude who has literally called one of our friends broken?
Apparently, the point is somewhere much further down Brock Turner Lane. Further even than, you know, Brock Turner.
Point: Rape culture isn’t just about literal rape. It’s about Letting Dudes Get Away With It. It’s about not calling people out. It’s about not enforcing any kind of consequences for bad behavior.
Point: Bigotry isn’t just forbidding transgender people to use the appropriate (or any) restroom. It’s cracking jokes about men in dresses; it’s pretending your transgender acquaintances don’t exist; it’s ignoring the friend who is earnestly looking for a bit of support and maybe some good advice.
PART THREE: SUICIDE IS VERY PAINFUL
I’ve learned a lot, the last few months. And I’ve been expanding my own friend network a lot: I’ve met people online, and in the neighborhood, at the local coffee shop. I’ve met people who are into the esoteric/occult studies I’ve undertaken since October.
A new-ish friend of mine recently confided that he intended to take his own life.
I was pretty freaked out, so I called a suicide hotline. I was put on hold. “Please don’t hang up. Your call is very important to us,” the recording said. Three or four or a dozen times, until eventually I hung up because I was pretty sure this was a more urgent situation than that.
I called another hotline. Busy signal.
I called a third hotline. No answer.
Finally, I reached someone on a fourth hotline. “You should call 911,” said the counselor. I explained that I didn’t have my friend’s home address, only his phone number. She said 911 could triangulate.
So. I had no choice but to call 911. It made me feel like I was doing something wrong, something bad, something harmful.
But if I had let him tell me he was going to kill himself, and if I had let him act on that without trying to help him, I wouldn’t have been a decent person. I would have been part of the problem.
I did what I felt I had to do. (Also, btw, I’m not presently speaking with him, because he triggered me, and considering that I myself had been suicidal just a few days earlier, I knew my limits. I did what I could. It wasn’t enough; it didn’t work; he’s at least alive, but that’s the only positive thing I have to say about the situation right now.)
Speaking of which: I was suicidal about a week and a half ago. It was one day, one afternoon, and I got through it. I got through it thanks to: my ex-girlfriend, who is fucking amazing in case I haven’t mentioned it already; my college roommate, who called to chat me up on the phone; some various friends who sent emails and Twitter DMs and all kinds of messages checking up on me (thank you!) — these were the people in my world who witnessed my pain and felt able to step in and say something helpful.
One of my old friends, from that group of old friends, wrote a public message to me. She suggested that I call a suicide hotline. (May I just say that if a person is actively suicidal, telling them to call any hotline other than maybe the Samaritans is just plain bad advice? Nobody works at those hotlines any more. It’s all endless hold and busy signals.)
Point: Sometimes you can’t help a person, and you have to step away. If it causes you distress to see a person in that kind of pain, that’s okay. You don’t have to be the person who helps; there are other helpers in the world. But if you can’t be a helper, don’t be a dick. Remember that your suicidal friend will eventually come to her senses, if she lives past the incident. And when she does come to her senses, she won’t think very highly of the person who told her to call a hotline that would probably place her on hold for who knows how long.
Sometimes we can’t help. The main thing, I think, is to work hard to avoid devaluing or invalidating our friends or their feelings or their experiences or their needs.
There’s something in all this about whiteness and privilege, I think.
Neuro-typical folks might have a harder time figuring out what to say to a mental illness sufferer, or a harder time figuring out whether the person is in enough danger to justify calling 911. (Tip: Try “are you okay?” or “hey can I get the phone number of person-close-to-you-who-is-not-911?”)
Heterosexual cisgender folks might have a harder time figuring out what to say when someone comes out with news about a transitioning family member. (Tip: Try “congrats!!!” or “OMG that’s huge! Do you want to talk about it?”)
People who haven’t survived rape or sexual assault might have a harder time figuring out what to do when a guy is a Douchemonger Asshat to one of their friends. (Tip: CALL HIM OUT, or offer to.)
There’s one thing I know really well, one lesson I’ve had to learn in a way maybe most people haven’t: sometimes the only way out is through. You can’t break rape culture without confronting it. You can’t cope with mental illness unless you face it. You can’t keep your transgender friends unless you acknowledge and affirm their realities.
What I’ve realized is this: I can only talk to people, or keep them in my life, if they’re willing to go through with me. (That includes those of you I’ve called out right here.) Maybe that means I’m going to lose even more friends than I’ve already lost, but as a sexual abuse survivor with mental illness and a transgender family member, the only way I know of surviving this world is to ride the freakin’ wave.
Call me if you ever want to ride the wave with me, y’all. It’s not so bad once you get the hang of it.