Freaked Out, Literally

Friday, January 02, 2009

Question

A "girl" I was dating just told me that she was not born female. Apparently I have been going out with a boy who wants to be a girl. And did a really good job of pretending, I must say, because I was shocked. I dropped her, of course, but now I feel pretty sad and lonely. Did I do the right thing? I'm a straight man, or at least I thought I was. Sex with her was fantastic. She was a generous and knowledgeable lover. But now that I know she used to be a he, I'm not sure I could get it up anymore. I worry that I am somehow sending out signals that I want gay men to cruise me. Is that how she found me and realized I could be had? I am genuinely concerned that some of my friends might find out about her, because they would not understand, and they'd never let me hear the end of it. I really wish she had told me sooner before I had a chance to get attached to her. Now I miss her, but I am really angry at her, and I wonder sometimes if I hate her. I can't talk about this with anybody else. Do you have any advice or something to say to help me to calm down?

Answer

Take a few slow, deep breaths and sit down in a comfortable chair. We may be here for a while.Please try to put yourself in the position of having a secret that you don't want to share with the general public. This is something controversial about your private life that nobody else needs to know unless they are part of your inner circle. For you, what could that secret be? Maybe you have cancer. Or perhaps you once went bankrupt and are still repairing the damage from that. Whatever.

So, when do you tell somebody that you are dating about this? If you tell them on the first date, you risk causing a lot of irresponsible gossip. You don't really know that other person. You have no idea whether they are trustworthy or not, and no idea where the relationship (if any) is headed. Some transgendered people do disclose on the first date (or before that) because they want everything on the table from the very beginning. But they risk being rejected before the other person has a chance to get to know them. We often hope that if a date becomes a friend or a lover, they will care for us, and become accepting. They will see that we are the women or men we have changed our bodies and names and lifestyles to become.

Unfortunately, as your case demonstrates, there's no guarantee things will turn out that way. Sometimes it backfires. The longer you wait to tell somebody, the greater the risk that they'll be quite angry and feel betrayed or deceived. From their point of view, they were tricked into being vulnerable with somebody who wasn't what they seemed. The transgendered person has unfairly drawn them into a vulnerable state and taken advantage of them.

But this isn't necessarily true. Most transgendered people are ethical and honest. You sound like a decent guy, so I think I can safely ask you to please be compassionate here. Imagine how hard it would be for you to pick the right time to say, "I have leukemia" or some other secret that could dramatically alter how the other person sees you and upset her. Do you tell on the second date? Before you kiss? After you kiss? Before you meet family members? Before or after sex? When?!? Sadly, there is no such thing as a good time to do this. It's always going to be a rude awakening and initiate a new phase in the relationship. Without wanting to be dishonest, people get scared, and then they procrastinate. There's nothing sinister going on here, just a human desire to love and be loved, and avoid the agony of rejection.

Transmen and transwomen have gone through a lot in order to be allowed to live in a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. We've usually received medical treatment—taken hormones and had surgery—that are costly and painful. For a transperson, the gender of preference IS the true gender. If your lover does not question her own womanhood, she doesn't expect you to question it either. You are straight, you fell for her, you were attracted, you had no idea what her past was like. Isn't that enough proof that she is female? Your heterosexuality becomes validation for her womanhood.

You are acting like a dog who's digging up the garden. Nothing tasty or enlightening is buried there. So stop questioning your own sexual orientation or desires. If it weren't for society's condemnation of transsexuals, there would be no problem here at all. You wouldn't have to worry about how friends or family might react. You wouldn't be scared of her big secret. You'd just relax and enjoy her as an individual instead of being repelled by a threatening representative of a stigmatized minority group.

It isn't her fault that she is transsexual. She didn't ask for this. It's a condition that probably has a genetic origin. We don't know why some people are transgendered, but we do know that psychotherapy doesn't cure it. The only thing that works is to allow people to figure out what gender feels authentic to them and support them through the process of living as much as they can in that identity. You might as well be angry with her for her racial heritage or the shape of her nose. These were all things she was born with, just as you were born with a conviction you are male and an attraction to women. Imagine that you lived in a society where everybody was supposed to be gay. Could you become a fabulous drag queen and learn to have sex with men just so you could fit in? I doubt it. She can't change her gender or sexual orientation any more than you could change yours.

In an ideal world, that's what I would tell you to do. Evaluate how you feel about her regardless of other people's opinions. If you care about her and want to be with her, to hell with the world. Love isn't so easy to find that a person can afford to throw it away just because it comes in a form that we didn't expect. But if you are a coward—if you can't be her ally and friend—if you can't validate her and stand by her and understand how hard her life has been—leave her alone. She's better off without you. As much as this breakup probably made her want to die, she doesn't need a partner who is half-hearted and resentful or hateful. I'm sorry you got such a rude awakening. But you get to go on with your life, which is very privileged compared to hers. She has to digest one more rotten experience that made her feel like a freak—to use your term—and somehow find the strength to go on. I understand your upset and confusion, but of the two of you, I feel a lot more pity and concern for her.

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