Why you should care
Because saying “I do” can be terrifying regardless of gender.
Taylor O’Connell is a graduate student and aspiring author who lives in California. OZY has changed her name and that of her partner for safety reasons.
Alex, my partner of two-plus years, has always been a romantic — but in a closed-off, dorky way. So the flurry of texts in the middle of the night one night when I was lying in a bed in Shanghai, thousands of miles away from home … You could call that unexpected.
Maybe even more unexpected was what the notes said. Alex had had a profound emotional realization — also not really their thing — while on an overnight hiking trip with their best friend. When they emerged from the woods, my phone lit up: “I want to marry you.”
This was new. My first answer wasn’t yes or no. … It was why.
Alex said the heart-to-heart conversation with their best friend had worked wonders for both of them. “I honestly feel better about life. Like seriously. I felt like before I couldn’t imagine a future for myself. When I was younger, I could only think about myself dying from suicide, and I can’t really even convey how freeing it was thinking about our future together last night. It felt so fantastic to imagine our future together and think about how I wouldn’t rather spend my life with anyone else and wouldn’t want any other life.”
At one point, Alex quietly told me they would understand completely if I wanted to end the relationship.
My heart fluttered with confused happiness when I read the texts. But my transatlantic marriage proposal via smartphone was far from the biggest development in our relationship. Six weeks prior, my then-boyfriend came out to me as a trans woman.
Alex’s coming-out wasn’t a complete surprise. They dressed fairly androgynously when we first started dating, and the only stereotypical “masculine” trait they seemed to have was a love for beer. They occasionally painted their nails and started shaving their legs regularly after I first shaved them as a joke in Vegas last summer. Then they discovered how much they liked skirts when I jokingly lent them mine for Halloween last year. My partner’s lack of masculine features and behaviors didn’t bother me too much, since I had just gotten out of a relationship with a guy who was so anxious about his own masculinity that he refused to wear pink and bought a motorcycle just to prove he was manly.
Before dating Alex, I had exclusively dated men. Not because I exclusively liked them, but rather to repress the confusion I felt about my sexuality. I’d always felt attracted to both men and women, but the words my camp counselor screamed at me and my fellow 9-year-old Girl Scouts echoed in my head for years: “Girls aren’t supposed to do that! It’s not natural!” (That was making out in a closet.)
My sexual expression had always been shaped by what I feared others would think of me, and my initial reaction to Alex coming out was no different. When they first told me they were trans, we stayed up all night crying and hugging and telling the other how much we love them. We discussed the possibility of an open relationship in the event that they transitioned, but neither of us was too enthusiastic about the idea. At one point, Alex — the most brutally honest, pragmatic person I know — quietly told me they would understand completely if I wanted to end the relationship. Painful.
The coming months were a slow simmer of nerves. I worried and worried about “the gender stuff.” Alex had bought a couple skirts and dresses to wear around the house after coming out as genderqueer in January, and I’ll admit I wasn’t totally comfortable. I personally didn’t mind the feminine clothing, but my anxiety about what others might think of me — particularly my conservative family — skyrocketed in tandem with every new wardrobe addition. At times I let my worries about other people get in the way, and I was less than fully supportive.
But to leave the love of my life over this?
Both Alex and I struggled with depression in the months leading up to Alex’s coming-out as trans, but I was the one who cried and needed to talk things out. Meanwhile, Alex quietly bottled up their feelings and occasionally went to therapy.
Things came to a head during a weekend romantic getaway gone wrong — terribly wrong. Finally, I begged Alex to open up. Our relationship shifted into temporary limbo, brief but nerve-racking. Running through my head was one thing only: the scenarios with Alex as my partner, and the scenarios without them. Unlike in the movies, there was never a single, shining moment of realization. But I eventually arrived at the conclusion that my fears of familial rejection were nowhere near as scary as the thought of losing a singular love over something as stupid as gender.
One morning while Alex was sleeping, I wrote them a letter. Pouring out all those thoughts took hours.
I’m scared of social perception, I wrote. My family has strong beliefs about what makes a “man” and a “woman.” But they also want me to be happy. Staying with the sweetest, most supportive and loving person I’ve ever met would make me happy. Isn’t that what family members want for each other? Happiness?
When Alex woke up, they came out to the living room and hugged me, crying into my shoulder while trying to find words.
Alex had always been there for me: when I lost my job, when I lost my roommate and whenever my anxiety took the reins. Why would anyone throw away an amazing relationship just because their partner didn’t conform to some made-up, yet widespread societal standards?
Gender isn’t a problem for me, but the idea that there might be more than “men” and “women” makes a lot of people extremely uncomfortable. Random internet trolls and prominent politicians alike dismiss gender dysphoria as a mental illness. But the numbers tell a different story. The LGBT community in aggregate experiences significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety than the straight world, as well as workplace and school harassment, employment discrimination, reduced access to health care treatments and sexual violence. Furthermore, while 4.6 percent of the overall U.S. population reports a suicide attempt in their lifetime, transgender individuals attempt suicide at much higher rates — according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, the number is 41 percent among transgender and gender-nonconforming adults. Among trans women specifically, the rate of suicide attempt is 42 percent; it’s 46 percent among trans men. The Human Rights Campaign also recorded at least 21 murders of transgender individuals in 2016, as of December 1; the same group reports at least 21 deaths of transgender people “due to fatal violence” in 2015.
Who cares if your partner wears a dress or carries a purse when they’re the sweetest, most supportive person you have in your life?
These statistics are now so personal. The uproar over issues like basic access to bathrooms is so bad that trans women like Alex avoid drinking water and eating because they’re terrified of going to the bathroom and potentially facing harassment. It’s almost 2017, people. In a world of mass shootings, wars, violent racism, drunk driving and opioid epidemics, should we really be up in arms over the possibility that the person in the bathroom stall next door has different genitals than us?
The world can be a scary place if you’re not a straight white guy, and I fear for Alex’s safety whenever they dress femininely. But I also have hope.
In the months after coming out, Alex befriended a trans woman who told them that if we could survive this, then we were probably set for life. Many relationships fall apart when a partner comes out as trans, even if their sexual attraction to their cisgender partner is the same as ever. Like I told Alex shortly after deciding I wanted to be with them forever, “Loving the person you’re with matters most. My body won’t always be perfect, and neither will theirs,” but who cares if your partner wears a dress or carries a purse when they’re the sweetest, most supportive person you have in your life?”
Alex and I now live together, and we’re planning to get married soon. Neither of us will exchange last names — Alex doesn’t even know if they want to change their first name yet — and our wedding will be performed heteronormatively for the sake of our families. Given the current transphobic climate in this country — trans bathroom laws, trans woman murder rates, unemployment rates for transgender individuals — we strive to protect ourselves and be happy together, first and foremost.
That doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun, of course. At the end of our ceremony, we’ll play “Girls” by Slow Magic as a subversive way of celebrating a lesbian wedding without the audience even realizing it. Am I scared for the inevitable conversation we’ll have with our families afterward? Sure, but nothing compares to the horror of letting go of the love of your life.