Being transgender is romantically isolating and lonely. In ways that I could not have predicted before my transition. In ways that I still don't understand or perhaps don't want to accept. Because accepting them feels terrible, but denying them feels like banging your head against the wall and pretending like it doesn't hurt. It hurts.
It's taken me a while to get to this topic because it's so personal. But it's on my mind a lot, and so I feel compelled to write about it. I also want to write about this because I often talk about this with people and get a sense that they don't quite understand it. Many think that I am blowing this problem out of proportion. That leaves me wondering if I am too cynical.
The first few years of a gender transition are logistically very demanding, and so there isn't much time to think about finding love. In many ways, I found it easier not to have a partner when dealing with so many challenges. I didn't think I'd be a good partner to anyone, and I didn't want them to deal with so much complexity in my life. I didn't think anyone would be interested in dating people during their transition, and I didn't think it would be fair to them. Despite the support of my family and friends, I felt lonely, but I told myself that I'd worry about it when the time comes. I wrongly assumed that cis-passing is going to make life easier, and therefore, it was better to focus on that goal instead.
Transitioning is like peeling an onion. There are so many layers, and you get to see the next one only after peeling the one before. Once I felt good about myself, I started putting myself out there in the world. I am a very outgoing person, and before my transition, I used to mingle with a lot of new people in every setting. The transition didn't change that for me, but I did notice that it got harder to spark a romantic connection. People would often praise me for my courage to transition, but I had a hard time moving from that to a plane of deep friendship and romance. The conversations these days revolve around my transition and my experience living life in a gender other than the one assigned at birth. Transgender people like me are intellectually very stimulating, and there is no shortage of people who find that exciting. There is nothing wrong with that. It, however, gets old very soon, and it's unsatisfying.
Dating, especially online dating, is hard for everyone. Am I just blowing this out of proportion? The truth is more uncomfortable - research suggests that the majority of people are unwilling to date transgender people. In my personal experience, people are ok with trans people going about their lives, but they want nothing to do with them romantically. We are welcome to do "our thing", as long as that thing is not seeking love from them. Several good cis-male friends of mine have told me that they admire transgender women but would never date one. They don't judge someone that dates us, but it's not for them. You may think that these people are transphobic, and perhaps in a way, you'd be right. However, labeling them (a person that accepts trans people as valid) transphobic does a disservice to them, and the complex social problem at hand. It's challenging to see how social forces have shaped what one considers acceptable and desirable. The truth is that trans people are pushing the envelope on what it means to be progressive. Unfortunately, the edge is a lonely place.
There are several reasons why people don't want to date trans people. They range from a fear of being judged for being with us to a lack of understanding of what it means to be transgender. On dating apps like Tinder, I match with plenty of men but get little interest once they read on my profile that I am transgender. Often they'll unmatch me without saying anything, but sometimes they'll tell me they aren't into men/trans (actual words of an Ivy-league graduate), or that it would be embarrassing to be seen with me. Thankfully it hasn't gotten meaner than that yet.
A lot of people today live a lonely life. I am well aware of the reality of modern life, yet I find myself in despair often. I believe the reason is that over the years, all these interactions have made me retreat into a shell. Putting myself out there, and having any hope often leads to crushing disappointment. Rejection is inevitable in dating. I get that. However, I am not rejected because of my personality or because of incompatibility. They reject me because I am transgender, something I can't change, ever.
I know of friends who don't disclose upfront that they are transgender. I have considered that as well, but I think it just delays the inevitable. I have sometimes met people in real life and gone out on a few dates before telling them that I am transgender. It's no fun to see the twinkle go out of their eyes when they hear that. Suddenly all my positive qualities of independence and enthusiasm for life morph into predictable attributes of someone that has been a man. I don't think that disclosing upfront is a morally superior choice. It's not. People don't disclose how much debt they have, or that they are divorced, or that they have a wife. These are things you don't talk about in the first few dates. It seems different when it comes to trans people, though. The world expects transgender women to disclose, and arguably it's better for our safety.
While there is a lack of people who'd want to love us for who we are, there are plenty of them who fetishize us and want to sleep with us for the thrill of it. It's better for us to be non-op or pre-op (penis intact) to be more attractive to these suitors.
I have often thought about why people tend to dismiss my struggle with loneliness when I mention it to them. Good intentioned people often think I am making this out to be a bigger problem than it needs to be. And I have come to believe it's probably one of these reasons
- They don't want you to feel bad and want to give you hope.
- It's difficult for people to wrap their heads around a reality in which there is so much discrimination that it affects your ability to find love and belonging. Accepting that is contrary to the worldview they want to hold - a world that is more or less fair.
- They often tend to compare it with the remarkable progress the world has made in terms of same-sex dating. Arguably, it's easier than ever to be gay and find a good partner. This doesn't seem to be the case when it comes to trans people.
Let's unpack that last point, and the advice I often get - "transgender people should date other transgender people." Why is this advice so prevalent? I believe that it stems from clubbing transgender people with other queer people in LGBTQ+. There tends to be a common misconception that in the queer community, just like lesbians date lesbians, and gay men date other gay men, transgender people should date transgender people. It stems from confusing gender with sexuality, and the grouping doesn't help.
Does this all mean that I will never find love? No, it doesn't imply that. You only need one person to see you for who you are, and it can happen to any of us. This reality, however, does take out some magic from life. The odds are so heavily against us, and so visibly and viscerally against us that it's hard to stay hopeful. And life without hope is a drag.