That was what this post was supposed to be – that isn’t really what it turned into. What it turned into is a bit more intense, and makes me feel pretty damn uncomfortable, particularly in the world we’re living in right now. But as a person with a lot of privilege, I acknowledge I need to make myself uncomfortable in order to check myself. So here goes, what wasn’t necessarily supposed to be, but circumstances now determine is.
It feels a little dangerous, writing about my experience with a marginalized friend by saying that part of his identity made our relationship fraught. There are plenty of spaces in the world that are completely unfriendly to anyone on the margins of white, cis-het society — the last thing I want is my heart to be thought of as one of them.
In the weeks since George Floyd’s murder, I’ve taken a good hard look at my allyship as a person with white, cis-het (passing) privilege, and realized I am far from perfect. I’ve always been a feminist — I majored in Women’s Studies in college — but it’s become embarrassingly apparent my feminism has not always been intersectional. Reading Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy for the first time, I really thought it’d be a ‘refresher’ of my degree: these are the things that are wrong with the world, and I am complicit, but can do better. Spoiler: it was those things — it was also a very sobering realization that my anti-racism work is in its infancy, and I have a long, long way to go on this journey before I can really earn the title of ‘Ally’. This goes too with my allyship with the ‘T’ in LGBTQ+. I know I have a ways to go to be better, and I think the way to get there is probably to unpack why my first relationship with someone I knew to be trans left me with some baggage.
I met C (his actual first initial, but only that for his privacy) my sophomore year of college. He was sitting either directly in front of or behind me (it’s been fifteen years, I honestly don’t remember) in one of the dreaded 8am classes. It was apparent from the start we were a couple of the students who were going to be the actual contributors in class rather than the folks showing up just to get a grade. In the perceived ‘early morning’ of that first day, when most of our classmates were scurrying off to get back in bed for a few precious minutes before their next class, C and I stood outside in the morning sunshine and struck up a conversation over cigarettes and dregs of coffee. We became immediate friends.
At the time, C was in a sort of ambiguous state — he presented very masculine in dress and appearance, but was still using female pronouns and self-identifying as a lesbian. He’d left the Army a couple years before, and was presently trying to win visitation and eventually custody of his young daughter from his emotionally abusive ex-husband. I really felt for him: the way he’d speak about his daughter made me emotional, and irrationally angry at the justice system (that we were, ironically, studying in that 8am class) that somehow decided his ex was the better custodial parent than he was. While I was trying to get through the day-to-day minutia of college, C was fighting for his child, going to school, working two jobs, and balancing a long-distance relationship with K, his partner of about a year. I was in awe of him, and as we became closer and closer friends over the course of the semester, his opinion of me began to carry a lot of weight.
It was a combination of things, but in particular the weight of his opinion in my mind that ultimately broke our friendship. C, I would learn, was very, very opinionated.
I’d come to college pretty sure that I held an equal attraction to both men and women. These days, I’d say that my sexuality is maybe even a little bit more fluid than that, despite the fact that I’ve been married to a cis-heterosexual man for the last seven years, and we are exclusively monogamous. I do not believe that being married to a man invalidates my sexual preferences. My husband is exclusively attracted to women, I am attracted to people regardless of their gender identity, but we are attracted and committed to each other. It’s been a long time since C and I spoke, but knowing C as I did, this would have been a major source of contention for him and me. At the time I met C, I was still working through one of my first major crushes on another woman — I had it bad for her. The fact that she was dating someone else was a real sore spot for me, mostly because I wasn’t brave or confident enough to ever do anything about it. As soon as C found out about this crush, his opinion of my sexuality was resolute.
“You’re just so gay,” C told me one day.
To his point, while I was in college, I showed more interest in women than I did men. The only guy I was seriously attracted to at any point was a fellow exchange student my year in New Zealand, who C would never meet or even hear much about when I’d come home and recount my experiences abroad. I had two sexual relationships with women, and found out shortly after graduation that a friend I’d had a bit of a crush on had also had a crush on me, although neither of us ever ‘fessed up. At present, that friend identifies as non-binary, but in college identified as a lesbian woman, and while platonically, I’m still attracted to them, as I am to numerous other women, men, and people who fall outside the standard gender binary. My earlier point in regards to my present relationship with my husband stands, however: I am attracted to people regardless of gender, no matter who I’m presently fucking.
“You’re just so gay,” C said to me.
“I don’t think I am, though,” I said back.
Despite it being my sexual identity, I was wrong, and C was right. That was the sort of person C was — C always had to be right.
Where C and I clashed is where my past-acceptance of people who are gender non-conforming or transgender might get called into question. C might have been stubborn, but so was/am I. C was utterly convinced that I needed to define my sexuality on the binary of gay vs straight. So I, unwisely and unjustly as it will now sound, shot back that if I needed to define my sexuality, C should have to define his gender.
Please note: I’m really, really not proud of this.
Over the course of the three-ish years I knew him, C identified first as a lesbian woman, then as an a-gendered person, then finally as a transgender male. Knowing what I know now about transitioning, this is a totally normal and valid way for a trans person to come to terms with their identity. At the time (mid ‘00s), I was totally thrown by it. It constantly felt like C was “changing the rules”. Because of insurance coverage gaps, he wasn’t able to take testosterone consistently while I knew him, so his body and voice would change, then change back because of hormonal swings. His partner, K, who I adored and felt a lot of kinship with, also came out as trans while they dated, which very much surprised me as they’d always presented incredibly feminine in the time I knew them (I use gender-neutral pronouns for K because I don’t know how they might identify now, nearly fifteen years later). There were a lot of other factors that I never fully understood, but at some point, C and K’s relationship eventually became toxic and too much for each to handle. C took the breakup hard, as one could expect from such a blow. Around that same time, he’d also lost track of his ex and daughter, compounding a lot of mental anguish for him. It was important to me to try and be a supportive friend to him in that time — but when it all came down to it, C ended up being too much for me, too.
“He’s grieving these losses, which I feel really bad about,” I told another mutual friend of ours. “But he’s a yo-yo — I can’t keep up with his mood swings, I can’t deal with his intensity and his judgement. And goddamn it, I really hate that he keeps telling me I’m gay when I’m not.”
I don’t think you can accurately compare your sexuality being mislabeled to your gender being mislabeled. There’s a lot of baggage with each, but as I understand it, being misgendered is soul-crushing for trans people, and contributes greatly to their dysphoria. Being told I was a lesbian when I’m not was mostly just annoying. It’s easy, but not at all comfortable, to admit that I’m the bigger asshole here when it comes to the eventual disintegration of our friendship. C was a difficult person to be around, of that there is absolutely no doubt. But he was dealing with some heavy shit, so one could say he came by it honestly. I think in the end, I was too emotionally immature to deal with it.
I heard from C a few years later. I’d just broken up with a longtime boyfriend, and recently met the man who’d become my husband. The profile from which he messaged me declared his gender as Male, and his driver’s license no longer read his deadname.
He asked me what happened to our friendship.
“I’m pretty sure I was a shitty person to you at some point,” he said. “I remember you’d get really frustrated with some of the things I’d say. But I really loved you, and I hope you’re doing okay. And I hope this guy you’re with is treating you well.”
“I really loved you, too, C. I’m happy you’re happy. I’m sorry I couldn’t be a better friend, and I’m sorry if I didn’t support you like you needed me to. I learned a lot from you, and I really loved you, too.”
I didn’t hear from him again after that, and eventually, that social media profile of mine was lost to a forgotten, unsalvagable password. It’s unlikely I’ll ever hear from C again.
But he really did teach me a lot. I’d really like to think I’m a much better ally to transfolx now than I was to C back then. It wasn’t fair to him to be the one to redirect my course, but I’m appreciative he did. Wherever he is now, I hope he’s living his absolute best, authentic life. He deserves nothing less. If our paths do ever cross again, I will be better. Or at least, have the capacity to be better.
This very raw piece came into creation for something else, originally, but now exists on this blog space as part of my monthly blog hop contribution for the Illuminate writing group. The indomitable souls of Illuminate wrote the following pieces for their part of the blog hop on the subject of Identity:
Becoming Myself by Jacey Rogel | personas. by Eunice Brownlee | A Rose by Any Other Name Would Not Be Me by Mia Sutton | Shifting Identity by Sarah Hartley | Discovering Identity by Mala Kennedy |The Identity You’re Given by Liz Russell | What’s My Name Again? by Danni EverAfter | Dinosaurs and Unicorns by Jenn Norrell