Dating a Trans Man: Negotiating Queerness & Privilege
“Such a Black man.”
It has become a catchphrase around my house. Guaranteed to elicit an amused (and possibly annoyed) eyeroll from my partner. An inside joke that might seem odd to someone who didn’t know us—a Black heterosexually-presenting couple. Those who do know us know there’s more to the story. I’m a queer Black femme prone to dating middle-aged divorced hippie White guys due in equal parts to my upbringing, my personality, and my personal baggage. He’s a Black man who has dated more than his share of middle-aged divorced hippie White lesbians. And (I guess this is the kicker) when we met in our staunchly Catholic high school over a decade ago, he was a girl. He was also my laid-back butch best friend I couldn’t stop thinking about when I kissed my boyfriend. We skipped after-school activities and hung out in the Village holding hands. We giddily queered-up our Drama Club performances to culturally-sheltered teenagers who wouldn’t recognize queer if the Gay Pride Parade marched in front of them. We identified with Willow and Tara, which I think says it all. Watching Pariah was like watching our relationship played back at us, only we were Annie On My Mind chaste.
Skip eleven years later, my Black butch Dawson Leery is now a man. A boxers-wearing, heavy-things-carrying, messy, shaving, will-you-buy-me-a-wave-brush-Honey Black man. When he made the physical transition, it was not all that surprising to me—he was never really comfortable in a woman’s body. And he had long been identifying as “genderqueer” in LGBTQ spaces. This seemed like the logical next step, and I was happy for him. But that’s easy to say because we weren’t in a monogamous domestic partnership (complete with the gentrified-Brooklyn condo and standard lesbian cats) back then. Even three years ago, it seemed like our story had forever to unfold. But once we were on the same wavelength, things moved quickly. My personal life sped up to where I thought it would slowly lead, and my mind was so wrapped-up in the practical questions (Where will we live? When will we go to graduate school? Who will do the cooking?), that it totally bypassed the more personal introspective question about how it would change my personal and relationship identity to be perceived as straight and be with a Black man.
Now some people will read that and take away that I have some kind of “issues” with brothers (or straight people). I admit to some personal baggage around cultural acceptance, but the straight Black men that helped raise me have been nothing but loving and supportive to me throughout my life. I’ll be the first to say I have some issues with Black hyper-masculinity and patriarchy overall, but I’m the last person you’ll even catch pointing the finger at Black men like they’re the boogie-man of the Black woman’s or queer person’s struggle. I don’t condone that. But nevertheless, the honest truth is that I never saw myself in a long-term relationship with a Black man. I dated Black men, but the more serious relationships have not been with them. I decided a long time ago that I was too opinionated, too queer, and too radically feminist to be appealing to the average straight man—Black or not. The guys I dated were as progressive as straight White guys get, and totally okay with casual dating and me being queer. This was exactly what I was looking for, because in my heart, I was waiting for my partner anyway.
So here I am, not-so-secretly examining his actions for degrees of Black Maleness vs. Butchness. He played Joni Mitchell while gardening with his students the other day—butch. He mentioned wanting to play basketball when we walked past the park on the way to pick up groceries—male. And when I do this, I always scold myself. Because, first of all—it’s stupid. And secondly, his identity and presentation is not about me. He’s the one who has to navigate a world where every once in a while strangers who hear his voice before seeing him still call him ‘ma’am’; where every public restroom experience is anxiety-ridden (and potentially dangerous); and where he has to decide at every point in a friendship if and when he outs himself. Hell, he lives in a world where, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, he could be Travyon Martin. And he carries through because who he is feels organic and right to him. And I love that (and him, obviously).
It would be hypocritical for me to love the fact that he stereotypically carries the heavy bags when we go shopping, but resent that he’s a know-it-all and attribute that trait to masculine sexism. Bullshit. It’s all him, and it always was. But knowing that is one thing; demonstrating that knowledge on a day-to-day basis is proving challenging. Author T Cooper told Out magazine that as a transman, husband, and father he was “exercising the shit out of [his] heterosexual privilege.” And why shouldn’t he?! Even I have to admit there’s a certain degree of satisfaction I feel knowing two queer folks can benefit from heterosexual privilege. After all, the best revolutions start inside the machine.
Yet still, there’s that little voice inside my head. It’s part that section of feminist lesbian culture that disapproves of transmen as traitors to the cause, who rob their partners of their queer identity; it’s part my own adolescent vision of the kind of person I thought I’d be with; and it’s part missing the face, the voice, and the smell of that butch girl I fell in love with when I was 15.
And needing desperately to see her under the scruff of this Black man.
- Aja Worthy-Davis
Aja Worthy-Davis is a queer-identified woman of primarily African descent and American heritage. She lives in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn — a few blocks away from the house she grew up in — with her wonderful partner, a transman named Will, and their two cats.