I'm a queer woman partnered with a transgender man, but everyone assumes we're a heterosexual couple. On the surface, we’re the quintessential Brooklyn duo: We have tasteful tattoos and piercings, we shop at food co-ops, we attend spin class together, and we’re creative yet gainfully employed. But while this relationship afforded me the privilege of banal nonconformity, I lost a piece of myself when I got together with my once-gym buddy, Kelly. As our relationship deepened, my queerness became camouflaged to the outside world.
"Queer" is as an umbrella term for any gender or sexual expression outside of societal norms. For me, this umbrella extends to politics, subculture, and perspective. My queerness has been a continuous reexamining of myself, a process that began in my teens. I embraced the term way back then, because it encompassed far more than just attraction or gender.
Queerness is anti-classification by definition, so it looks different for everyone. Over time, my queerness has become emblematic of a host of characteristics other than my sexuality, like my affection for highly-dramatized solo musicians (think Morrissey and Dusty Springfield) and my lifestyle choices, like my disinterest in marriage or having children. Despite the term’s controversial origins in hate speech, for me, it’s been a proud way to claim outsider status.
But claiming outsider status is complicated these days. Having evolved past my "femme visibility" years of asymmetrical haircuts and vintage jumpers, I’ve grown into a long-haired, artsy looking woman whose queer experience is hidden to the untrained eye. And now, with Kelly, formerly risky endeavors, like kissing my partner in public, are cursory transactions. In my heart, I haven’t changed, but the way others see me has.
This has a profound affect on my everyday relationships. Passing as straight, but wanting to be out, transforms casual neighborhood chats into momentous opportunities to relate with authenticity or retract in isolation. In either situation, fumbling is guaranteed for all parties involved.With Kelly, formerly risky endeavors, like kissing my partner in public, are cursory transactions.
Last summer, Kelly and I adopted our Blue Heeler mix Wylie, and ever since, we’ve been alternating the daily morning trek to off-leash hours at our local park in Brooklyn. At least three times a week, I’m out the door at 7 a.m. to join other overachieving dog owners to talk public radio and share slow-cooker recipes.
Last week, I ran into Jen and her dog Milton, a floppy grey mini-Schnauzer. I don’t know Jen’s last name or what she does, but both Kelly and I see her at least a few times a week.
As we watched Wylie gave Milton a playful hip check, Jen mentioned that she was soliciting speakers for an event targeting minority women on how to get ahead in the workplace.
I felt my eyes light up as I considered volunteering. I’m trying to do more public speaking, particularly around topics like women’s leadership. Here was an easy opportunity, and a convenient entry point for telling Jen that Kelly and I are a trans family.
Jen went on to say that she had asked Gladys — a lawyer and Maltese owner from Guyana — to speak at her event. Before I could comment, she lowered her voice and asked if I knew of any other minority women in the area who might be a good fit.
Jen is white, and so am I, so I was mostly unsurprised by her ungainly manner. I felt myself starting to bristle. How should I respond? There was something so much easier about this when I could just offhandedly mention “my girlfriend.” It used to come in handy in those situations when someone was about to make an offensive joke — a quick “my girlfriend” would avoid an uncomfortable situation for both of us.
I may have unwittingly cast myself as a lesbian each time I used the term, but at least “my girlfriend” sent a simple broadcast about my distinction. No further conversation or puzzled looks necessary. Survey box checked.
To be precise, I’ve been with men and women, cisgender, and trans. With each new relationship came awkward explanations and the nagging temptation to draw conclusions about my sexuality.
Falling in love with my first live-in boyfriend had me thinking: Maybe I’m straight after all? But after the arguing started and the sex faded, I conceded: I guess I’ve been gay all along? Over time, I’ve realized that my partners’ genders and sexual identities indicate little about me, but for the rest of the world, it’s still a signpost. The more indistinct my queerness became, the more I relied on my partners as shorthand to tell that story.
My partners’ genders and sexual identities indicate little about me, but for the rest of the world, it’s still a signpost.
It wasn’t always this way. In my early years as a purple-haired, punky teenager, I wore my “weird girl” status on my sleeve. I colored my fingernails with black Sharpies and instigated debates in class. Inside, I struggled with repeated rejection, so embodying disruption was the easiest way to register complaints. Plus, it distracted from my loneliness.
As the school outcast, I had nothing to lose. Coming out (then, as bisexual) both confirmed and signified other elements of my misfit existence. I was "alternative," “marginalized,” and "liberal." My coming out sent the message that, despite my white middle-class background, I didn’t want to be typecast as mainstream.
It was only after finding other LBGTQs in college that I considered the possibility of living both with difference and without shame. In the queer community, I had permission to be loud and proud. I aligned myself with activists and others that could relate to the less visible aspects of my experience, like surviving abuse or dealing with depression.
Claiming queer identity gave voice to some of my more deeply hidden experiences. My queerness became emblematic of a larger personal history, and I wanted that to be seen by the outside world.
Of course, the option to “be seen” is a privilege within itself. I owe a lot to the generations before me who risked far more coming out of the closet, and others who don’t have the luxury of contemplating how they might share their identity. Part of the benefit of passing as straight is that I get to choose when I identify as queer, and to whom.
So along with that advantage, I’ve come to work with the unfortunate side effects. I’m sometimes distanced from close relationships, less recognizable to other LBGTQs, or less “real” with acquaintances. I’m a different kind of outsider, both within the queer community, and beyond.
These were just a few of the thoughts coursing through my brain when I caught a glance of Wylie and Milton’s chase, which had transitioned to a mostly friendly wrestling match. The dogs collided at Jen’s feet, then took off again, sideswiping my shins on the way. They are a good match, I thought. I hope they keep playing together.
I looked back at Jen and considered how to approach this conversation without seeming like a self-important tool.
I had a split second to weigh my options. Jen and I are essentially neighbors (at least by city common law), so I have some investment in the relationship. I want to connect with her authentically, but I already felt myself shrinking back.
If I came out as queer, that might raise questions about Kelly, and while neither of us are in the closet intentionally, I feel unsure about how Jen will receive intel on his gender identity. And how would Kelly feel about me breaking the news?
His story isn’t mine to tell. But he is a part of my story. And though my story continues to evolve, I committed a long time ago to keeping it loud and proud.
I drew a breath, and thought: Here goes…