Over the last five years, in which I transitioned from some version of maleness to living entirely as a woman, I have enjoyed identifying as both nebulously queer and aggressively homosexual. These are not contradictions. These are things I hold as coherent halves.
I’m still wondering out how being a lesbian figures into all this, though.
I was 18 in late 2004, and I mostly thought I was a boy. I had recently come out as a gay man, after a little lead-in period in which I identified as bisexual. This was a complicated proposition. About a year earlier, I was at a party in a miniskirt and a tiny little Belle and Sebastian T-shirt. Pointing to my clothes, someone asked me, “Is this a sometime thing, or an all-the-time thing?”
“A sometime thing I’d like to make an all-the-time thing,” I replied.
Whatever was actually going on with my gender I pretended away so that I could feel cleanly, simply gay. Anyway, I was 18 in late 2004, and I mostly thought I was a boy. I went to the year’s first University of Maryland Pride Alliance meeting, which was ostensibly about activism but was actually just a catalyst for hookups. Among a crowd of well-exfoliated boys—almost all with tight polo shirts opened all buttons down, revealing hairless or thoughtfully groomed chests, a uniform I didn’t know existed—there were only two boys who appealed to me: one who was wearing a nasty undershirt and another with dyed hair who seemed to share my set of geeky references.
One week later or so, the latter came to my dorm room. After about 15 minutes of “watching” the HBO version of Angels in America, I had my first make-outs with that boy, my first boy, all tentativeness, trembles, and a vibe that made me feel like all the bets I had made on my sexuality were exactly right.
Seven years passed. I started taking testosterone blockers and estrogen. One night in early biochemical lady times, I was sitting—wearing a dress around other people, something that was increasingly a regular thing—next to a friend who happened to be a woman. We made small talk. Something about it seemed flirty. I think I told her I felt a little nervous. She told me to just shut up and kiss her. I did. I felt tentativeness, trembles, and that vibe that told me something very correct was happening.
I was in a band that played a show every few weekends in Washington, D.C., and I wrote a song about transitioning. Trying to figure out the second verse, I scrawled:
I’ve told my friends most of my secrets
And there’s nothing to hide
I’ve come out as G, B, and T
And maybe an L in the future.
It was sort of a joke, but not really.
A year later, I was in San Francisco, interviewing for a scholarship that was only given to queer people. My interview was scheduled immediately after that of a fabulously butchy person who wore a tie like Daniel Craig’s James Bond and melded talk about data with empathy for the people it represented, in a combo of social science and humanity that I had always wanted to hear but hadn’t. I heard the interviewing panel give her a round of applause that translated roughly to “you got the scholarship.” I gave her a hug. We both held on like it was the last hug we would ever be allowed to give.
A little less than two years later, we got married.
I never had a particularly comfortable relationship with gay male culture, probably because I was never actually a gay man. I was grateful to absorb the history of trans activism, because that’s my actual lineage. I liked to describe myself as nebulously queer, since it covered all the genders I was attracted to and made people laugh. But even though I identified as a woman and was increasingly attracted to women, I didn’t quite know whether to identify as lesbian.
My spouse unquestionably identified as lesbian, and she taught me a little bit more about this culture I was marrying into. Sure, I knew the Indigo Girls existed before getting married, but now I name “Kid Fears” as my favorite of their songs. I knew Dykes to Watch Out For was a comic touchstone, but now I also honor Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist as a seminal work. Rubyfruit Jungle is still on the list of books I need to read, but I didn’t even know it existed until my spouse came along.
I am in a lesbian relationship, and I like learning about the things I should have learned in my teenage years had I been assigned female at birth, run on estrogen this whole time, and been socialized accordingly. I’m pretty sure I would have identified as a lesbian, given that my body is primarily attracted to other bodies that mostly run on whatever sex hormone I run on. Ergo the “aggressively homosexual” tag. I would have been attracted to all genders, but I’m confident that I would mostly have dated women.
But I’ve had this ambivalence about identifying as a lesbian. After my bandmates scattered to various parts of the country, I started playing solo shows. I still play the song I wrote about transitioning. But I changed that one lyric so now it comes out as, “I’ve come out as G, B, and T/ And now I’m a Q in the future.”
So why not identify as a lesbian? A reasonable starting point, lessons-learned-wise, is that period in college where I solely identified as gay. I did that thing where I tied my sexual orientation to my gender identity, which I pretended was boy, and then realized that both my gender and my sexuality were much more complicated. Queer, which allows my sexual orientation the space to be directed potentially at all genders, feels like a sensible home. (I know some people use pansexual to describe what I just attributed to queer, but I never quite felt comfortable pledging allegiance to pansexual, for reasons that probably require another essay.)
There’s internalized transphobia in my “avoiding lesbian” situation, too. I would never deny anyone their own self-definition, e.g., trans women who identify as lesbian, or trans men who identify as gay. But I feel uncomfortable fully taking on the mantle of lesbian when I only came to live as a woman over the last five years. The various things in our broader culture that deny trans women their full womanhood—laws that don’t allow trans people to use facilities that match their gender identities, trans-exclusionary radical feminists who refuse to acknowledge that trans women are women—do my head in. I live as a woman, I identify as a woman, but transphobia has wounded me and left me feeling a little less than woman.
Something tells me there’s also internalized misogyny at work, that women are so deeply devalued that some of us feel uncomfortable using what is a proudly female identity marker, even if that marker basically describes our sexual orientation.
Going through all this—thinking on it, writing it, putting it on the internet—leaves me feeling like lesbian has to be added to my list of identities. If I feel OK with nebulously queer and aggressively homosexual, why not just throw lesbian in there, too? Why give into talking points and trolls that deny me my womanhood, and thus my comfort, with a simple identity marker? Why force myself into a space where I don’t feel fully comfortable sharing the lesbian culture that shaped my spouse?
Maybe also because we’re living at a point in this country’s history where public misogyny has run onto the public stage like some enormous CGI beast from a big-budget action film, I have to take a stand with my womanhood, my relationship, and tie that all together with an act of defiance. I’m not giving up on the messiness of my identity thus far. Why not be the jumble of gender and sexualities and political implications and everything else that scares a handful of the new monsters in power and is at once totally coherent to the people who love me? I’ve come out as G, B, and T. I must be a Q and an L in this future.