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28 March 2011, 9:00 am 11 Comments

Dating and Relationships: Uncommon Ground

Submission by Katie Liederman, TNG reader & first-time contributor.

Katie Liederman has written for Nerve, GO, Curve, Rap-Up, Velvetpark, Penthouse Forum, V, V Man, Lumina, The Archive, and was a resident blogger on Showtime’s Ourchart.com. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from Cornell University and an M.F.A. in Nonfiction Writing from Sarah Lawrence College.


c. Calogero Sanfilippo

As we all know, it’s much cooler to have a boyfriend with a vagina than it is to have one with a penis. Perhaps this is why, as an out lesbian with no interest in labeling herself queer for fear of seeming too earnest, available, and/or political, and who instead opted to entrench herself in anything even remotely lesbian-themed, affiliated, oriented, ect. for close to a decade, it felt confusing when I started seriously dating a trans guy for the first time. He also wasn’t just any trans guy– I’m talking about someone who’s very public and active in the trans community as a performer and educator; a guy who one of my older, dorkier friends referred to as “king trans” when I revealed his name. Way to go in with a bang, I thought, as I tried to adjust to getting read as straight in the greater world. No longer was I half of the lesbian couple getting stared at on the street by people pretending they didn’t notice two women, hand-in-hand, meandering their way.

There were the obvious reactions– lesbian separatist friends who said things like, “Uh-oh. You’re 30. He’s gonna be the gateway drug back to non-trans men;” straight male friends who said things like, “Why don’t you just date a real guy?”; butch exes who said things like, “Whatever, I always knew you were straight,” and a hyper-straight sister who queried simply, “If he has no dick, what’s the point?” The list went on. Each and every one of these reactions was totally annoying and disheartening.

What’s even more annoying was my relentless need to out him to any non-hetero person I crossed paths with. “This is my new boyfriend,” I’d say, even to acquaintances I didn’t give a shit about. “He’s trans.” It took me a year to really understand how profoundly disrespectful, weird, and selfish this habit was. What was the intended subtext? I’m still a minority. I’m still “other.” My queer– yes, suddenly queer– identity could serve as evidence of my complexity, of hardship endured, of living against the grain, convincing myself and others that exploiting or advertising said otherness ensured a level of mystique and allure about me that in no way correlated to anything real or founded. People are mysterious and alluring not because of who they do or don’t sleep with and what body parts those people may or may not possess, but because of what they have to say, how nonchalant they appear whilst slouching against a bar wall texting, or how good their hair looks when messy.

This isn’t to say that queerness CAN’T be interesting. I’m just continually underwhelmed by how certain members in our community who operate under the assumption that their queerness alone renders them someone worth knowing– especially the femme contingent, who pretend that passing in the greater world is more of a burden than a privilege: no one sees the real me! Well, maybe. But unlike certain folks, you can also hail a cab and get any fancy corporate job you so desire, so there’s a give and take.

For fear of sounding cynical, this woe-is-me, I’m femme ailment is nothing that a haircut, less makeup and a pair of looser-fitting pants won’t fix, at least in part. Gender identity, after all, is about more than clothing or aesthetics– it’s also about energy, social cues, and the way you carry yourself in the world. Undoubtedly, in our hypercritical, combative community, where our myriad sub-divisions constantly pit themselves against each other, it’s always good to work to unify. However, the unification of queer sub-genres can seem near impossible at times. The butch-femme crowd that comprises most of my good friends is quietly anti-trans, and some other friends of mine in the trans community are quietly (or not-so-quietly) anti-lesbian (butch-femme specifically), scoffing at how inherently backwards and narrow-minded people are who identify as such– which begs the question, can’t lesbians claim ANYTHING that doesn’t allow space for male culture or expression— which, in turn, suggests that lesbian-identified persons and communities are indisputably bigoted because they don’t allow for community members whose gender identities are fluid or changing.

Ironically, such is the case with many butch-identified women who vacillate between swaggering around in soft packs, championing the integrity inherent in resolute butchness, and being visibly entrenched in envy and self-consciousness as they watch a newly-transitioned, rarely m’aam-ed friend shed their baby fat, bench-press more weight at the gym, or slip on a t-shirt sans bra, binder or tits, ready to go. That’s when the heaviness inherent in a butch identity seems to really get to them.

This is in no way meant to undermine the challenges of a trans male identity, or the way their identity can affect other people in their community. Trans men can be condescending towards butch women, and imply that their transition is somehow a manifestation of bravery, as if butches are simply too timid or fearful to take the surgical or hormonal leap. They’re also prone to jealousy, I’ve found, of the fact that their femme girlfriends sometimes miss having tits to grab besides the ones attached to their own bodies.

All that aside: these two genders– butch and trans, that is– remain two entirely different entities, ones difficult for their femme partner to navigate with any fluidity, particularly without resentment. A femme will forgive misogyny more readily with a butch, because, after all, she’s a girl too! A femme will forgive narcissism more readily with a trans guy, because, after all, he’s going through puberty, and should be allowed to revel in his new body! What is and isn’t permissible in the realm of being the less discriminated-against half of a queer or lesbian couple? I have no idea. What I do know is that people seem to skate around these issues and pretend they’re not there.

There is unspoken discomfort poking in from both ends—femmes’ closeted sadness surrounding the uncertainty of it all—our own (Is it okay for our own difficulties to be undercut by people who, unlike ourselves, are regularly gay or trans-bashed—those forced to avoid public restrooms at all costs?), and others’ (Are we really gay?). Blatant or underhanded disrespect can be woven into the thread of our most intimate romantic relationships, and sometimes it feels totally justified— we just need to learn to take it like a man. Like kids in a schoolyard, those bullied go and bully in other contexts, ones in which they wear the figurative pants. Reaping the undeniable benefits of passing, we feel bad standing up for ourselves. So we support some of the deadbeat butches or the self-obsessed trans men we grow to love—financially and otherwise, and spend more time working as trans male activists (somehow the relentlessly challenging plight of trans women is neglected in the mix) than we do living as feminists. The two can co-exist, it’s just hard finding the balance. And in the midst of all this, there’s the constant, nagging awareness that trans men and butch women have a hard time seeing eye to eye, and these are two contingents that we femmes know and love so fiercely.

Last Pride, I was in at the Lexington in SF with my trans boyfriend after the dyke march. We had just started making out when I heard someone shout over my shoulder, “UGH. THAT’S DISGUSTING. THERE ARE TONS OF STRAIGHT BARS IN THIS CITY FOR A REASON.”

I looked up, and the person who’d just bellowed this questionably astute statement was staring straight at us. At this point, my boyfriend took it upon himself to out himself. “I’m trans,” he said, in an attempt, it seemed, to justify our public display of affection in a mostly-lesbian space.

“What’s your point?” the old-school bull-dagger asked, accidentally touching on something way more provocative and rhetorical than she even intended.

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  • Levi said:

    The “boyfriend with a vagina” part made me cringe…
    If anyone were to refer to me as that, even in jest, it would be a dealbreaker.

  • Alex said:

    As a trans male who never identified as a lesbian, and who has never dated anyone with strong ties to the lesbian community, I have always found the interaction/juxtaposition of butch and trans/lesbian and trans identities interesting. Thank you for sharing this!

    (On a largely pointless tangent…) An acquaintance of mine once hypothesised that some trans/femme relationships may be partially predicated on the shared experience of passing privilege. While, as you stated, it is certainly a privilege, with far more benefits than downsides, it is (at least, it was for me) very curious to go from being visibly queer to being assumed to be cis and straight. I am keenly aware that accidents of biology and privileged access to other resources allow me to be much safer than some of my trans sisters and brothers, and I wonder how that kind of privilege dynamic plays out within the confines of a relationship.

  • Jake said:

    Thanks for writing this. There are lots of good points, and I’ve been waiting for someone to write a good article on this subject for a while.

    To touch on what Alex said, I too find the juxtaposition of the lesbian and trans male communities really interesting and confusing. You’d be a bit hard-pressed to find a gay guy who says he could easily picture himself dating a trans woman. But most lesbians I know have dated someone who identifies to some degree under the “trans” umbrella, granted that they have a vagina. Cynical moment; does it really all come down to plumbing?

  • Katie Liederman said:

    Just to clarify, different trans identified people have different relationships to their bodies and address it in various ways. Some trans men find the word “vagina” abhorrent in regards to their own bodies and can’t identify with it at all, while and others embrace it. The person to whom I was referring in the article belongs to the latter group.

    Thank you, Levi, for bringing that up. There are many men of trans experience who wouldn’t think to use such a word, and it’s important for the larger community to recognize that such a reference is not universally used by trans guys.

  • V. Bella said:

    Katie!!! I just wanna say I LOVE YOU for writing this. Some parts made me so emotional, realizing that I too, I guess subconsciously have the same thoughts or sometimes say things to try to “fit in” with my surrounding LGBT relationships. I dont like to think of my partnership with a Trans guy as difficult, but I guess I didnt realize how much it can be because of the way I feel my peers may judge me or trying to stand firm in my identity as a lesbian. Again, thank you so much, I will share amongst my peers! VERY well written

  • Em said:

    I appreciate the piece you’ve written here, but I felt compelled to respond to one of the issues that you raise, namely this: “especially the femme contingent, who pretend that passing in the greater world is more of a burden than a privilege: no one sees the real me! Well, maybe. But unlike certain folks, you can also hail a cab and get any fancy corporate job you so desire, so there’s a give and take.”

    . It is upsetting to me when our community plays oppression olympics thereby delegitimatizing the struggles of the other members. Just because a “femmier” looking dyke can hail a cab, does not mean that in a culture that is both misgynist and homophobic is somehow “luckier” than her butch counterparts and luckier than trans men. Oppression works in many, many ways and yes, some groups suffer from multiple “faces” of oppression (see Iris Marion Young’s 5 Faces), but that does not mean the other people do not suffer or should somehow “buck up” because their suffering is not as bad. This punishes people for being active, for using their voices, which women and people of color and all the “others” have been punished for all along. If we continue this cycle and say that trans men (for example, I totally know this is not the bulk of your argument) get claim to “the worst” of it, what does that say about how we value the experiences of everyone else who also suffers in this oppressive society. I urge you to accept that it is totally legit to struggle with a part of your identity being completely invisible, even though other people suffer too, even if you’ve never gotten beaten up for it. You are systemically discriminated against and devalued and wanting to be proud of yourself despite that is a beautiful thing, not something to feel ashamed of. Sure, finding a way to do that without outing your bf is also respectful, but value your experience too.

    Furthermore, it takes way, way more than looking straightish to get any fancy job you desire and oppression gets in the way of many other barriers; access to education, immigrant status, fluency in the language, cultural capital and more.

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