Lesbians No Longer: A Transgender Trip into Heteronormality
On the roof deck of their Williamsburg apartment, discussing which herbs and vegetables to plant this year, and which of last year’s plants might be salvageable, Sadie sits cross-legged and sips a beer while Marco cleans and lights the grill. Sadie, wearing a short, fitted dress, asks,
“Honey, do we have enough coal?” in that singsong voice girlfriends sometimes use to cloak skepticism as supportiveness.
“I’ll figure it out,” Marco answers, speaking more to the small fire he is tending than to Sadie.
His hair is cropped short, and his voice has deepened from the hormone therapy.
The fire going, small but consistent, the chicken on the grill, Marco joins us at the table.
“Men get treated like shit,” he says. “I mean, I know women get treated like shit all the time. But like, when you’re a man, people just bump into you all over the place. You have to hold doors, but nobody says thank you. And you don’t get compliments, ever.”
“Yeah,” Sadie chimes in, “girls are always telling each other, ‘oh honey you look great! I love your dress! Did you cut your hair?’”
“Yeah,” says Marco, taking a sip of his beer. “None of that.”
“And the handshake really threw me at first,” he adds. “Women shake each other’s hands like this.”
He stands up to demonstrate and shakes my hand in a calm, casual manner.
“But men,” he continues, “do it like this.”
He grabs my hand, jerks it toward him and squeezes my fingers together with a crazed scowl on his face. We all laugh at the exaggeration that was, while a little ridiculous, not far from the truth.
It was the little things that tripped him up, he explains, but he is getting used to it. Sadie’s working on getting used to it, too.
Sadie calls herself a failed lesbian. She’s had sex with three women in her life, and all three of them are now in various stages of becoming men. This includes her partner of two and a half years. When Sadie fell in love with Marco, he was a woman named Erica.
Suddenly, at age 25, when Sadie thought she had a pretty good idea of who she was and had become comfortable identifying as a lesbian, she has found herself in a committed, heterosexual relationship with a man. And not just with any man, but one who wants to distance himself from any queer identity he once had, taking Sadie with him. She and Marco are in limbo between their two identities – not quite your average straight couple, but no longer a lesbian couple, either.
Sadie and Erica before.
“When I think about what I fell in love with about Erica, it wouldn’t really have made for a sustainable relationship.”
“She had that rock star vibe. She’d play the electric guitar in her underwear. She was hot,” Sadie says.
Erica was tough and rough around the edges. Sadie liked that about her at first. Now she realises that while she found Erica’s “bad boy” persona sexy and intriguing, it would have gotten old eventually.
After Erica started taking testosterone Sadie worried Erica would become more aggressive, a common side effect.
“As she became a man, she mellowed out.” Sadie speculated that a lot of Erica’s anger came from feeling that she was in the wrong body. As she transitioned, she felt more at peace, and became a more peaceful person.
As a child, Erica prayed that she could grow up to be a boy, but when she instead became an adolescent girl she grew depressed and angry. Girls at her New York City Catholic school picked on her for being a tomboy with short hair. Her experience was not unusual: 90 percent of transgender people report having been harassed and mistreated, according to a 2011 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE).
When Erica first brought up her confusion and the possibility of transitioning, she and Sadie had only been dating for a few months, but they had known each other for three years. Sadie said that, knowing Erica, she wasn’t that surprised by the news – she knew that Erica had felt conflicted for a long time and had been diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder as a child.
Before 1997, anyone who assumed the opposite gender was classified as a transvestite, which was listed as a “Sexual Dysfunction” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
In the third edition of the DSM, released in 1997, Transvestism was reclassified into three new subsections. The new diagnoses were Transexualism, Gender Identity Disorder of Childhood and Atypical Gender Identity Disorder. The classifications have been debated and revised with each new edition of the DSM, and will likely be overhauled in the upcoming DSM-V, according to Nicole Giordano, a Master’s in Mental Health Trainee who has done research on gender identity.
“To experience gender identity confusion or some form of gender variance is not in itself a mental illness,” Giordano said. “Instead, the violation of the social norm that has defined gender as binary and the accompanied social discrimination and ostracism is what creates distress, depression or anxiety.”
The 2011 NCTE study also shows that transgender people attempt suicide at 26 times the national average. The study also acknowledges that gathering accurate statistics about the transgender community is impossible, since stigma keeps many people quiet about their experiences.
The first step in Erica’s transition into Marco was to cut off all of her hair. This was a big deal.
“It was like taking off the mask I had been wearing for years,” Marco said. “I was finally naked, and I was getting bullied again for the first time since I was a child.”
Sadie and Marco both recall occasions when they were out together and a stranger would wonder aloud whether Marco was a man or a woman. That kind of gawking could ruin an evening.
“It was weird,” Sadie describes. “I had gotten comfortable being out in public as a lesbian couple, but I wasn’t comfortable being out in a visibly trans couple. People stared.”
But now, to look at Marco, you wouldn’t know that he had ever been a woman – he’s a little petite, but his shoulders and jaw are square, and his voice has lowered.
He had his breasts removed on May 2 of this year, the last outwardly visible sign of his past as Erica. The plan is to have bottom surgery – the final step – in May of 2013.
So far, at every step, from cutting his hair off, to the first shot of testosterone, to the legal name change, it was Marco who was nervous beforehand – afraid to take the plunge, while Sadie was calm and supportive. She would hold Marco’s hand, tell him that it was going to be all right, remind him that this is what he wanted and that he would be happy after doing it.
Then, once Marco had taken the leap and was exhilarated and relieved, it was Sadie’s turn to freak out.
“As he leveled out, I started acting out.” Now that Marco is more comfortable and confident that he’s done the right thing, Sadie is confronting her own emotions, seeing a therapist and acknowledging that the experience has been trying for her too.
Both Sadie and Marco mourn the loss of Erica as if she were another person who they both love and miss. Recently Marco’s sister came over to their apartment and showed them a video she had found of Erica and her mother singing a Frankie Valli song together.
“It was Erica as I first met her, really,” Sadie says, remembering how her reaction to the video caught her off guard. She had been used to hearing and telling stories about Erica and even to seeing pictures of her. While watching the video, though, it hit her that that person was gone forever. It was a lot to deal with.
Sadie and Marco after.
Sadie tried going to a support group for “trans partners” but was disappointed with the experience.
“I tried to remain open minded, but the conversation was so focused on the financial costs of surgery and the burden felt by our partners. Very little attention was placed on the burden felt by us as partners. The likeminded people I had been looking for were honestly nowhere to be found in this crowd.”
She gave up on organised support groups and reached out to individual people who were in similar situations, people she either knew personally or heard about through mutual friends.
“It was nice to hear that people had made it to the other side of what seemed at the time to be this impossible and endless journey.”
Over time, as Marco settled into being a man, Sadie settled into the idea of their semi-straight relationship.
“I can spend time with newer friends and talk about my ‘boyfriend’ without feeling like I’m telling some giant lie,” she said.
They both want kids, and imagine their perfect suburban future. They wonder out loud who they’ll tell and who they won’t, whether they’ll pretend to be a normal, nuclear family. Sadie feels that they’ll have to be open about it if they’re going to tell their kids, because she doesn’t want to tell her children to keep their father’s past a secret. It’s not something to be ashamed of.
“I never thought I’d have to explain to my kids that their dad was born a woman.” But they plan to be very open with their kids, and explain Marco’s past to them as clearly as they can.
“He wants to be in a heterosexual relationship, but I feel like presenting it that way is inauthentic. We’re not. We’re just not.”
They’re going through an unusual set of growing pains, trying to figure out where they fit in the world. But holding hands in their beautiful roof garden, they are more of a model couple than an anomaly.
“At the end of the day we’re better off than most couples I know,” says Sadie. “We’re happy, honest and in love.”