FALL­ING IN (AND OUT OF) LOVE IS COM­PLI­CATED WHEN YOU’RE TRANS­GEN­DER

Newsweek - - DOWNTIME -

The text was sent to 2.4 mil­lion peo­ple by fred­die Bologno: “I’ve texted for Dosome­thing as Alysha for 3yrs, but I’ve been strug­gling. Im trans, Im Fred­die!”

Bologno, 27, works at Do Some­thing, a dig­i­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion that helps young peo­ple push for so­cial change through so­cial media and text mes­sag­ing. For Bologno, the text was a way to both come out pub­licly and start a con­ver­sa­tion about be­ing young and trans­gen­der. But be­fore com­ing out to the world, Bologno had to talk to his girl­friend, Tile Wolfe. “I just started cry­ing,” says Wolfe, remembering the mo­ment Bologno said he wanted to start tak­ing hor­mones to tran­si­tion from fe­male to male. “Not be­cause I was sad, but be­cause this was sud­denly so real.”

Wolfe, 23, has lived in New York for five years and iden­ti­fied as a gay woman. She met Bologno four years ago while stand­ing in line for the bath­room at Metropoli­tan, a grimy gay bar in Brook­lyn. “I said some­thing like, ‘I hope to meet you again in a less gross place,’” Bologno re­calls. Wolfe re­mem­bers the mo­ment as “deeply corny.” They’ve been liv­ing to­gether for two years now, along­side Buddha, their chubby gray cat. “We’re so in love,” Wolfe says, blush­ing.

Like Wolfe and Bologno, there are hun­dreds of cou­ples across the coun­try with one or both mem­bers tran­si­tion­ing. And while trans­gen­der celebri­ties like Cait­lyn Jen­ner and Laverne Cox have of­fered pro­found in­sights into what a tran­si­tion­ing in­di­vid­ual goes through, there is lit­tle out there con­cern­ing what it’s like to tran­si­tion as a cou­ple, or even what it’s like to date as a trans­gen­der per­son or fall in love. “It’s quite com­mon for trans peo­ple to won­der, Will any­one love me?” says Wal­ter Bock­t­ing, a psy­chi­a­trist and co-di­rec­tor of the LGBT Health Ini­tia­tive at Columbia Univer­sity.

It’s an is­sue Bock­t­ing has de­voted two decades to try­ing to un­der­stand. He has spent so long study­ing the LGBT ex­pe­ri­ence be­cause, he says, there’s “hardly any re­search on un­der­stand­ing trans­gen­der peo­ple as so­cial be­ings in lov­ing re­la­tion­ships.”

To change this, Bock­t­ing started Af­firm, “a study that aims to learn more about the iden­tity de­vel­op­ment and health of peo­ple who iden­tify as trans­gen­der.” Wil­liam Mellman, one of Bock­t­ing’s PH.D. stu­dents and the co­or­di­na­tor of Af­firm, is spend­ing the next 12 months talk­ing with trans peo­ple and their part­ners in New York, San Fran­cisco and At­lanta—the first com­pre­hen­sive study of its kind.

For Basil Soper, 29, gen­der iden­tity had al­ways been an is­sue that was ei­ther dis­missed or sup­pressed—es­pe­cially when it came to con­fronting his fa­ther, who he says was "drunken and abu­sive.” Soper moved out at 16 and found a wel­com­ing LGBT scene in Asheville, North Carolina. Still, Soper was home­less for six months, strug­gling to find the emo­tional and fi­nan­cial sup­port nec­es­sary to start the tran­si­tion process. He says he looked for so­lace in “ex­ces­sive drink­ing and drug use.”

Sub­stance abuse is com­mon among trans peo­ple. The Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress es­ti­mates that up to 40 per­cent of U.S. home­less youth iden­tify as les­bian, gay, bi or trans­gen­der, com­pared with only 5 to 10 per­cent of youth over­all. The same study found that 62 per­cent of home­less LGBT youth ex­pe­ri­ence dis­crim­i­na­tion from their fam­i­lies, and they are also 8.4 times more likely to at­tempt sui­cide than their straight peers.

Those are sta­tis­tics Alana Feral, 32, un­der­stands well. She tried to talk to her fam­ily about com­ing to terms with her fe­male gen­der iden­tity sev­eral times, but soon re­al­ized that “no help was forth­com­ing.” With­out money or sup­port, Feral says tran­si­tion­ing didn’t seem like an op­tion. In­stead, she made the ex­treme choice to join the Army’s spe­cial oper­a­tions forces—an act she de­scribes as a “pas­sive form of sui­cide.” She served for six years, in­clud­ing a stint in Afghanistan as a med­i­cal sergeant. Though she still pub­licly iden­ti­fied as male, Feral says she ac­tively tried to com­pen­sate for her in­ner fem­i­nin­ity by “build­ing a char­ac­ter…a mix of the Ter­mi­na­tor, John Wayne and Wolver­ine.” But by the end of her tour, the pres­sure of main­tain­ing the fa­cade was too much: “I re­mem­ber sit­ting next to an open chop­per door and want­ing to jump out.”

Though Feral says she had been open with her then­girl­friend about her gen­der iden­tity ques­tions, when she got back to her home in Asheville, her “body is­sues and dyspho­ria made sex very dif­fi­cult.” Ul­ti­mately, her girl­friend saw through the mask. “She brought me a dozen red roses, told me she loved me,” Feral says, “and broke up with me be­cause she ‘didn’t want to be a les­bian.’”

Feral says the breakup was a kind of re­lief, be­cause it con­firmed that she could no longer hide her true self, even when she wanted to. It proved to be just the push she needed to start the long tran­si­tion process.

It’s a com­mon oc­cur­rence in trans­gen­der re­la­tion­ships: As trans peo­ple start to em­brace a new gen­der iden­tity, their part­ners of­ten must come to grips with their own sex­ual iden­tity. Of­ten this can end a re­la­tion­ship, but ac­cord­ing to Bock­t­ing it can also help both part­ners be­come more open­minded about their own sex­u­al­ity and the la­bels they put on it.

This is cer­tainly true for Wolfe, who has long iden­ti­fied as a gay woman but now finds her­self with the prospect of hav­ing a boyfriend. “I guess we’re just another straight white cou­ple now,” she says with a laugh, though she quickly af­firms that she and Bologno will “al­ways be a queer cou­ple.”

Soper’s cur­rent girl­friend, Jo­hanna Camp­bell Case, had to deal with sim­i­lar ques­tions when they started dat­ing. Camp­bell Case says she was very at­tracted to Soper but had never dated a trans per­son. “I al­ways felt like I was scratch­ing at the sur­face of my sex­u­al­ity, and with Soper

I feel like I’ve had this huge awak­en­ing. It’s the best re­la­tion­ship of my life.”

Camp­bell Case con­sid­ers Soper her boyfriend—a des­ig­na­tion that’s helped him feel more com­fort­able with his gen­der iden­tity. “It feels re­ally good to be seen as on par with other men,” says Soper. “I’m just like the other guys.”

For fam­i­lies of trans peo­ple too, see­ing their loved one with a part­ner can be in­cred­i­bly en­cour­ag­ing. One of the big­gest con­cerns from Bologno’s fam­ily was over whether any­one would be will­ing to en­ter a re­la­tion­ship with a trans man. Hav­ing Wolfe, he says, makes the an­swer pretty ob­vi­ous. As Bock­t­ing ex­plains, “When the fam­ily sees a per­son in love and in a re­la­tion­ship, they can no longer deny that this tran­si­tion is good for them.”

But ul­ti­mately, the im­por­tance of be­ing in a re­la­tion­ship as a trans per­son goes far be­yond just feel­ing more so­cially ac­cept­able. Tran­si­tion­ing is a long, com­plex and of­ten alien­at­ing process: With­out sup­port from fam­ily, friends or a sig­nif­i­cant other, it can seem im­pos­si­ble. “I know that this is who Fred­die is and al­ways has been,” Wolfe says of her part­ner. “But it takes feel­ing loved to do this.”

Credit: Basil Soper for Newsweek

Jo­hanna Camp­bell Case, right, con­sid­ers Basil Soper her boyfriend —a des­ig­na­tion that’s helped him feel more com­fort­able with his gen­der iden­tity. “It feels re­ally good to be seen as on par with other men,” says Soper. “I’m just like the other guys.”

Credit: Bill Rhodes

When Alana Feral's girl­friend broke up with her, be­cause she "didn't want to be a les­bian," Feral said it was a kind of re­lief be­cause it con­firmed that she could no longer hide her true self, even when she wanted to. It was the push she needed to start the long tran­si­tion process.

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