Dear Patrick: I am a trans woman who lives in a large west coast city. It has taken me years (decades) to win a degree of acceptance in the local lesbian community. While I know there is a certain generation of dykes who will never acknowledge or welcome me, I have my own friends, and they are very loving and supportive. We have parties, we go to events, and I have had many sexy and romantic relationships with amazing strong women.
My current girlfriend has been with me for about six months. We are discussing living together. I enjoy our sex life although she has a tendency to be a little too passive. I look butch-of-center, but I want a sexually equal relationship. I do not want to be “the top,” and I don’t want to be “stone butch.” Feminism is important to me, and this kind of relationship is consistent with my feminist beliefs.
Now she is talking to me about wanting to play with my genitals. By that, I mean the very large clitoris I was born with. I don’t usually talk about the fact that I never had genital surgery. I would rather most people not know because I don’t think they would understand that decision. First of all, there was never enough money for that. It has been really hard for me to have a steady job. If money did come in, it always seemed like there were bills that had to be paid that were more urgent. Besides, I saw what my trans girlfriends went through who had “the surgery,” and I wasn’t very happy about the results they obtained. I’ve held one of my friends after she tried for hours to have an orgasm with a vibrator and could never achieve climax. My genitals don’t thrill me to look at, I know I don’t look like most other women, but at least I can get off with my sweetheart.
So last night my honey got very forceful about wanting to put my clit in her mouth, so I let her do it. I never know if it will get hard or not. She was kind of frustrated when it would not get hard enough for penetration. She was trying to sit on top of me and ride me. Eventually I had to ask her to stop. I have toys we can use for penetration and so we switched to using dildos. Then this morning she asked me if I wanted to be able to fuck her. She was asking if maybe cutting back on my estrogen or testosterone blockers would allow me to get erect. But these chemicals allow me to present as female and they make me feel like I am sharing a feminine experience with other estrogen-based life forms. Without them I do not like how my skin and hair start to feel more coarse. I also feel like my whole temperament and spirituality are lost, I am aggressive and become a person I do not like at all.
I got really upset and started to cry. It made me feel that my girlfriend does not see me as another woman. If she wants to get fucked, I am always happy to fuck her. Why do I have to use this part of my body to penetrate her? I tried to ask her but she never answered the question. She said, “If you don’t want to use your dick why do you still have it?” I replied, “Don’t call it a dick. It’s not a dick. It’s my clit.” She has never used that language before. It was so disrespectful. Eventually she said she had to leave, and I have not called her. I don’t know if there is any way to resolve this.
I wish I could get both you and your girlfriend in the same room so I could ask both of you some questions. This whole thing may be a misunderstanding. I think she is having trouble communicating with you because she doesn’t necessarily understand her own desire well enough to explain it to you. She got ashamed of what she wanted, and she was so freaked out she had to leave. Her desire made you feel invalidated as a woman. And for good reason! But I don’t think that was her intention. In other words, I don’t think she wanted to hurt your feelings. Cis-gender people often have a difficult time understanding why their speech or actions hurt transgender people, even when it seems that it should be quite obvious.
Since I only have you here, let’s go through this whole situation and analyze it a bit. Maybe some ideas will come up that could help you in a future discussion. If you like, of course you can share the whole letter with her at some point. I hope this can be resolved so you don’t have to give up somebody who was a potential live-in lover. But, of course, you can’t be with someone who isn’t respectful of your body. As a woman and as a trans person, you have certain boundaries, and she needs to respect them even if she does not understand them.
The first problem here is the lack of understanding that cis-gender people often display toward a transgender person’s identity. We are expected to validate our identities by conforming to the gender markers that are familiar to cis-gender people. So if we want them to recognize us as “men” or “women,” we are supposed to bring our speech, movement, dress, facial expressions, beliefs, interests, and bodies into conformity with the way the larger culture has defined these qualities for each gender.
The fact is, however, that we often can’t do this or don’t want to. For example, I have many skills from the 40+ years I lived as a woman. I am not sorry I have those skills, and I don’t want to pretend I don’t have them. I continue to enjoy baking and sewing even though men are not supposed to know how to make cookies or corsets. These are skills I keep because I enjoy them (and because I kind of like messing with people’s stereotypes). Like you, I have chosen to spend money on things other than genital surgery. To some people, this means I can never be a man. If having a penis is not the only priority in my life, I can’t really be serious about having a male identity. To my way of thinking, I have other ways of doing all of the things that a penis is supposed to do, and they don’t involve giving a doctor a lot of money or getting my bits cut up. If the results were better or more affordable, I would rethink this decision. I also don’t have anything negative to say about trans people who want the surgery. If you are able to get it and you want it, that is a personal decision. I’m happy some of us are able to get genital surgery.
Gender, to me, falls within the purview of individual liberty. I don’t want to rearrange my identity just so I can make other people feel more comfortable. At the same time, I do want my friends and lovers to understand that I’m not 100% happy with my body and especially with my genitals. The fact that I’ve kept some of my factory-issued parts doesn’t mean I am “half female.” I cope with my genitals by using male language. I prefer it if sex partners refer to my private parts as a cock, and not as a pussy. I know these inconsistencies can be difficult for other people to manage, but they are even harder for me to cope with, so I need support around this, not an argument, and not more humiliation.
It seems like maybe your girlfriend did not realize that she was curious about penises until she was with you, and you made that experience seem more safe for her. Ironically, she was only able to touch your genitals and think about being penetrated by a penis because your genitals are not male. Let me try to say that another way. Because the dynamic she had with you was not a heterosexual dynamic, she could think about what kind of physical sensation she wanted, and separate that from the emotional consequences that would follow if she dated a man. She imagined that she might be able to have a certain kind of sex with you and avoid the aspects of heterosexuality that she dislikes. So she wasn’t invalidating your femininity or your womanhood as much as she was being post-modern about the whole thing and saying, “Hmm. If a woman can have one of those, I could enjoy that bit of biology without all of the demeaning and sexist crap that goes along with it when a M-A-N is involved. I wonder if that would be fun. Because I don’t think my girlfriend would treat me that way.”
Unfortunately, she did not continue with her line of reasoning long enough to realize that you might not be equally post-modern. How could you when this is your body we are discussing? You live inside of this flesh. It is not theoretical for you. There are certain things you need to be able to maintain a female identity. By making the request that she made (and by using male terminology for your genitals), she interfered with a process that you have used to construct and reinforce your identity. And so you could not sustain a safe place for her to be able to enjoy flesh-to-flesh penetration. That doesn’t mean it could not happen in the future. But I think it could only happen if she was also prepared to take certain steps to hold the truth of your womanhood in place for you.
I can think of many reasons why she might want to have sex with your flesh-and-blood body instead of with a toy. There is often a concern with toys that the pleasure is not mutual. If you feel that she is too passive, she might hope that during skin-to-skin contact, that would not be such an issue. If you could literally feel your own body while you were inside of her, maybe she could just relax and enjoy being penetrated without having to worry about making the sex more mutual. It may be that her nature/identity/personality is not toppy or egalitarian enough to satisfy your feminist ideals. Once more, too, she didn’t think this through enough to be able to empathize with how you would react to such an experience. For you, penetrating her with a part of your own body doesn’t feel equal or pleasurable; it only destroys your femininity—especially if it means you can’t take the hormones and other medications that keep you in touch with so many levels of female experience. Using toys validates you as a lesbian; using your own genitals reads as heterosexuality and maleness.
The two of you are stuck in a confrontation in which the same acts mean very different things to each of you. Both of you have the same goal—a satisfying, romantic and sexual lesbian relationship. I don’t think she wants to turn you into a man. But you probably need to ask her if that is what she wants. It is a remote possibility. Maybe through her relationship with you, she has discovered certain curiosities or fantasies that she needs to explore about having sex with men. That may hurt your feelings, and it may make you feel angry or invalidated. But it is her process, not yours. (And, p.s., you are the wrong person to ask along on that particular voyage.) She would eventually come to a place of realizing this about herself even if the two of you had never been lovers. Sexual truth has a way of rising to the surface like that. If it is true, I just hope she is brave enough to be honest about it rather than telling lies and wasting everybody’s time. It’s better to just get it out in the open and then figure out what to do about something like that than it is to say, “Oh, I can’t say that out loud, it’s too forbidden, it’s not acceptable, that can’t be true of me, I can’t accept that.” Behaving in a cowardly fashion will only mean more years spent in self-denial, hurting more people along the way while she vainly struggles to get her needs met in relationships that, by their very nature, can’t make her happy.
There’s nothing wrong with being hetero- or bisexual. It’s complicated, it can be hard to find male partners who won’t act like horse’s patooties, but since when is that the News of the Week? A woman who is willing to take on the social challenge of being a lesbian transwoman’s paramour is probably strong enough to deal.
There may be things that she wants to ask you that she feels are taboo topics. Some couples counseling might be helpful to bring these things out into the open. You may have imagined that she understood parts of your life or parts of the trans experience that she actually knows nothing about because she was afraid to hurt your feelings or look uncool by asking “dumb” questions. A relationship between someone who is a minority member and someone who is less so can be hard to keep in good working order because of these types of blocks. I am not sure why a lack of knowledge has been defined as oppression or discrimination. Not knowing something is just ignorance; it only becomes bias if people refuse to seek out more information. Punishing people who are trying to learn more will not make any of this easier, and it certainly won’t make the community a safer place for trans people.
I realize it can be hard to answer the same “Trans 101” questions over and over again. But this is where we are at this moment in history. It has to be done. The central trans experience of not belonging in the body one was given at birth is supremely difficult to communicate. Cis-gender people just never feel that way. They never have that crazy-making air of unreality where a trans person looks down at themselves and thinks/feels, “This is wrong. I can’t live this way. I should not be this way. I don’t think I can go on for one more day if this is how I am going to have to live. I don’t know how or why I am this way, but it’s wrong. My body should not look like this. I am wrong.”
And with that at the core of your life, what can ever be right? So if we seem a little cracked, unstable, weird, unpredictable, odd, eccentric, or just plain strange to the rest of you . . . well, yes, I will own that. We probably are.