Lesbianism is a story about a woman loving another woman. Each telling of lesbianism belongs to a broader narrative tradition, a set of customs and beliefs the character can either embrace or reject: the lipstick femme who passes for straight, the futch bowtie dyke with the goofy smile, the stone butch who won’t look you in the eyes. My lesbianism was always a romance, each kiss miraculous, each union divine. It didn’t matter that I almost killed myself when I was still in the closet, or that my girlfriend cheated on me, or that the guy from the grocery store parking lot followed us home in his car. Maybe my life was a tragedy by some other standard, but lesbianism redeemed it. Lesbianism was the language by which I got what I wanted.
And I wanted women. Some women wanted a butch, some wanted a man, some “just wanted me,” whatever that meant. I grew greedy for the full scope of their desire, to know it from the perspective of every possible object, to change my look or body in whatever way necessary to become the pleasing, asked-for thing. It started with clothing—dresses, suits, corsets, lingerie, leather—but then I grew to regard my body this way. Facial hair or breasts, muscles or rolls of fat on my hips; none of it bothered me, none of it meant anything. They were just tools of my wanting, a way into people. It was wanting that got me out of bed in the morning, got me talking and fucking. In fact, without the animation of lust, I barely noticed my body at all.
I started taking hormones. I meant it as an addition. Testosterone made me feel fecund, lush with growth—not changing gender, increasing gender. Biceps ripened, hair sprouted overnight. A new paint job at most. It didn’t feel like loss.
Then, a door shut behind me.
I first realized it at the Dyke March. I still had my tits then and was wearing my tiny white tank top with the holes in it. I had decided to go braless, in case someone mistook me for a straight man. The Seattle Dyke March is a strange event on Saturday afternoon, a bent weed sprouting in the center of an otherwise aggressively male Pride weekend. It was hot. Non-profit dykes stood on the brick ledge in front of the community college and took turns talking into a microphone about the ACLU. A crowd of young queers clustered around the speakers and struggled to appear interested. That had been me my first March, a baby-dyke two years into college, burning pink beneath the sun. Now, as a trans, androgynous twenty-something, I knew real connection happened on the fringes. I walked past the programming on the ledge to get to the grass where the older dykes were sitting in groups of twos and threes under the splotches of shade from the pin oak trees. Where were these people the other three hundred and sixty-four days of the year? I thought to myself, beaming at the dykes around the park.
Eventually I caught the eye of one dyke with a mullet. She stared blankly, and I didn’t know what it meant, because I didn’t know which parts of me she could see, if I was still her potential sexual prospect or sister. Air moved around in my chest and I felt like a collection of parts, square jaw and wide hips and tits and chest hair. I turned my back, sweating, not from the heat. For the rest of the event I stood at the back edge of the grass, hunched over my tits and brooding, and bullied myself in my head: your lesbianism isn’t legible here.
At some point, new speakers stopped coming on stage. A band played, then somebody announced it was time for the Dykes on Bikes. Legs wrapped around thighs and assess and engines revving and so much leather, every year there was so much leather. I looked at one pair on a yellow Yamaha, a middle-aged leather butch with a curvy femme in a bra and jeans wrapped around her, eyes sharp with that victory lesbians own, of loving and getting the girl when you’re not supposed to. Suddenly a horn sounded, and the dykes roared away from me.
A few hours later, I saw this white, transmasculine person post a selfie on Facebook, a friend of a friend I had seen around some queer nightlife events. In the selfie they were wearing a shirt that read YOU BELONG EVERYWHERE. That’s what the picture caption said, too, in all caps. YOU BELONG EVERYWHERE. The selfie had three hundred or so likes. I peeled off my tank top and watched the count grow.
A year later, I went off hormones because I missed the old stillness, that feeling of life stopped, the way anyone or anything could fill me up. Or because I wanted to decide who to be: man or lesbian or neither. Or because I wanted to cry, because I had all but lost the ability to cry on testosterone. Estrogen would help me cry and feel my way to a new gender, the right gender. Estrogen would strip me back to the way I was before I had to be a person at all.
It felt good at first. Estrogen slows. I remember my partner Gabby sprawled on top of me in bed, in our old apartment, which was too hot, always too hot. We were both topless, as we often were that summer. On testosterone, when I’d lie underneath her this way, I’d claw at her back with want; with estrogen, I felt not even a prickle. Instead, a deep, sad affection washed through me, love ground into a blank calm. When we started kissing, want perked up, but soon grew blunted and heavy. I kept my back against the mattress. We fucked much longer than usual, and when I finally came, I cried.
Later, my sex drive evaporated and my period returned. Then the stillness crept back: the stillness of stomach cramps, the stillness of chronic fatigue, the stillness of staring at my body in the mirror until all of the meaning fell out. Mourning on the molecular level. But it wasn’t familiar. Through transition I had learned to function. There were vegetables in my fridge and flowers in my living room. Now when I suffered, it mattered.
As a teenager, lesbianism had seemed like the way out of womanhood, back when womanhood loomed over everything, monstrous and impossible. But for so many others, lesbianism was a place to land, a way into womanhood. For them, the word was more than a tool to dig themselves out; it meant something.
Spring turned summer; each month, in angst, I watched my dense, black-brown tampons unfurl brilliant red into the toilet. Why wasn’t my life like this, I thought to myself, as the blood flowered in the water. Why can’t I be this easy?
I woke from the stillness, as if from a dream, while looking at a picture. It was a recent photo of me after I had won a local comedy competition. Just days before, I’d stood onstage with the other performers, all of us in t-shirts and jeans. My face had rounded out again, my breasts pressed shyly forth. The stillness had blurred onto my body but the world around me continued to age, to groom itself, to get better. Next to the other comics, my body looked like it had when I was a child: crumpled, unsure, abandoned. I closed the browser and fished the large Ziploc bag of medical supplies out of my desk drawer, took out the bottle of testosterone, and filled a syringe.
In my reservations regarding top surgery, I knew I’d employed a flawed model; a lot of lesbians don’t have tits. But in my particular and highly masculinized case, tits felt like the last bargaining chip I could use to keep my lesbianism alive. I bound my tits every day, except for those afternoons at the Dyke March. There I left my tits sagging and on display. I convinced myself they were the price of admission, an offering to the community I had left behind.
Dysphoria felt like being a tourist in my own body. With vague curiosity I’d stare at the mirror. Such beautiful breasts those are! I mused to myself, as I wondered what it’s like to have them. How strange, how soft! I had great respect for the breasts of others, and breasts as a concept; it felt blasphemous to ignore a pair, even mine. In these sessions with the mirror, I often searched my body for feelings of self-actualization or alarm, but clarity never came. They were lifeless and remote. They were part of me, and I could not conceive of them.
Then, on an ordinary Sunday night, I spread out on the living room couch as Gabby sucked me off, and when she finished, I saw my clit, which was now unmistakably a dick, wet and pulsing. Gabby crawled towards me and curled into my chest. I held her, and for a few seconds, I felt like a man. Just like that. Then my mind broke it up.
Minutes later I sat down on the toilet, and my tits flopped against my chest. The sensation was intolerable. Suddenly, my tits were not just extraneous, but an obstacle.
A week before the procedure, I sat in my bedroom and held my tits in my hands, trying to commit the sensation to memory. Firm, almost bulky. I wrote. When I press my fingers into the tissue, not even or cohesive at all. Sacs of shit, rotten onion bulbs. My nipples are stiff and stick out, even when it’s warm outside, and they pucker in the center. The skin of my areolae feels most like my lips. What will they do with this skin? Removed or repositioned?
Now, months after the fact, I look at my new nipples, mine and not mine. It embarrassed me to realize that my flat chest did not make me feel any more or less lesbian, that it’s always been the testosterone that others me at the March. In fact, unless I am at the beach, my flat chest fails to communicate much of anything to other people. No one notices the difference. I am just lighter.
When I meet older lesbians and tell them I’m trans, I feel compelled to apologize, not only because manhood is both unsightly and irredeemable but because I didn’t mean to leave the community, and some deep secret part of me still craves to return. At the beginning of my transition, at age twenty-two, my goals for my gender reflected my youth: I wanted to perfect manhood, as only a woman could. Butch ethics that could go undetected except in my most intimate moments. My lesbianism made private, scaled down to whispers and knowing glances. And I was tired of the stares, the street harassment, the endless coming out and its attendant explanations, the world and its constant touching. Any pride in my physical form trickled out. I’d wanted to be with women, and I’d used my body to get there. Now, I use my body to be left alone.
Friends tell me I can still “identify” as a lesbian if I want to, that if I call myself a lesbian that’s what I am, but to what end? Now, if I want to be seen as a lesbian, I have to tell the story of how and of why. I might change my clothes or my body (again) to better reflect said-lesbian identity, to gain acceptance from the other lesbians, start branding myself a “storyteller.” Or, I could just fall into the familiar grooves of the detransition narrative, tell the press I made a mistake, that I didn’t know what I was getting into. Then again, does anyone who changes their body for gender know what lies on the other side of surgery? It is an unimaginable gift until you’ve done it, shaving off a self.
When I go to the Dyke March now, it’s as an ally. I cheer for the Dykes on Bikes and accept I can’t ever be one of them, because I’m not a lesbian anymore. When pressed, I tell people to refer to me as he or they. I changed my gender marker to male. I occasionally fuck men I meet on Grindr out of boredom. My tits are gone. When I kiss Gabby on the street, nobody blinks. I didn’t transition to embody some essential gender; I made a commitment, and there were unforeseen gifts and consequences, dreams realized, and potential lives shuttered. It’s a newer, more difficult to story that I rarely want to tell: we do not belong everywhere.
Rumpus original art by Richelle the King.