*Names changed to protect the amazing.
Over the course of my adult life — the part that includes paying rent, anyway — I’ve had the pleasure of rooming with two transwomen. And I don’t say pleasure because it’s a corny formality you toss into some text to gloss over a so-so experience. No. I genuinely mean that with the addition of those days, I have warm memories (and an arsenal of enlightenment) that have made my life richer.
The first was a month-long roomiedom with Allie*, a transchick who, at 26, was a social worker in SmallTown, Georgia. I’d known her a short while, having met her through a mutual friend, and always viewed her as something of an enigma. She was whip-smart, but reserved about it. She was serious about justice, but hated cops. She was riotously funny, but hardly ever laughed aloud. But for that month, while I was gaining my “sea legs” in SmallTown — and while my loft in her building was being finalized — she took me under her generous wing and showed me in a quiet way that there’s so much more to womanhood than gender. (I was young and had never met anyone who bucked their assignment so vehemently. It fit in perfectly with the “f*ck the system” mentality I was un-charmingly a part of back then.) She was a refined woman … a proper Southern lady, even, who taught me that you “neva chug red wine, swear without damn good reason, or let the cops anywhere near your stuff without a warrant.”
We’re friends to this day, more than fifteen years and many states later.
The second transchick roomie I had put up with my ass for two whole years, the poor thing. There was a sudden “omg, this breakup means I need a roommate fast!” situation in my life and Hannah* couldn’t have come at a better time. Combine a short interview with the spreading of her security deposit over the first three months and voila: I had a new roomie who was just as fresh off the strugglebus as I was. So at the very least, we had misery in common, which actually came in shorter and shorter supply the more we got to know one another. She was a piano and guitar player; I was a drummer. Once she got her rig set up next to my Ludwigs, it was musical bliss each night when we got home from work and popped a few bottle caps. We wrote music together, had the same macabre sense of humor, haunted the lesbian bar on the weekends, play-fought over Redbox selections, and generally just BFF-ed up and catapulted one another from a bleak terrain in our lives into a fulfilling and sunny territory. Hannah reinvigorated my sense of self. “You’re such a tomboy,” she’d say, summoning my ire. Then: “That’s not a bad thing, you know.” I guess not. She taught me that I should be proud of myself, and showed me how through living out loud. Seeing her throw her shoulders back and give the proverbial finger to the world gave me the dose of “yeah, me too!” that I needed. She was always encouraging and some of her positive observations on my life in general stay with me to this day.
As well, we are still friends … for the most part, anyway. We’re cordial, let’s say. Certain things transpired that may or may not have been my fault — we’ll go with the former, which is usually the case.
But in spite of their (seemingly) incessant optimism, there was an extremely dark side to both their lives. As strong as they were and as much fortitude as they wore on their properly pressed sleeves, time exposed a few chinks in their pastel armor that I respectfully pretended not to notice, but carried around like a wet blanket on my heart. What I learned goes a little somethin’ like this:
From drive-through windows to the waiting room of the ER, people would openly stare at my transpals in disgust. I’ve never seen anyone so in the spotlight of hatred everywhere she walked, never known such rampant contempt without provocation. It’s made me mindful of (and thankful for) my ability to engage the world in even the smallest of ways without inadvertently “inviting” loathsome eyes to loathe me for having the audacity to be alive. I learned respect of the highest order for the transwoman, for in our world, going from what the world perceives as male and “stepping down” into the female presentation subjects one to the most frenzied of irrational judgments by nearly everyone — regardless of race, gender, or orientation.
And then there was the darkness that showed up in our homes.
I learned the reason that the absurdly funny Allie didn’t laugh aloud was because she thought her particular variety of guffawing sounded manly … so she trained herself to keep the laughter close to the vest, and to stifle it in her hands if she absolutely had to let it out.
I learned that Hannah kept her unemployment from me after her boss became too uncomfortable with her handling the front desk “in women’s clothes.” I didn’t know it for months, but she was actually out looking for work, which explained all those days she came home sweaty and exhausted, her aura colored in a hue I couldn’t quite place and felt intrusive to even try.
I learned that Allie didn’t have “big cases to deal with” during the holidays; she was simply not welcome home after she transitioned. I also learned that cruelly, she was sent holiday cards with family portraits that discluded her … little portraits that she kept anyway, because those were people she
I learned that Hannah put the blame squarely on herself when we didn’t get the place we were so confident was ours before our relocation. I learned that she stopped going with me on house-hunts because she was “holding us back” from housing in the conservative Atlanta ’burbs. If I could hide her, our lives would be better off, she informed me.
I learned that Hannah cried each time the brand-new boyfriend tried to forcefully explore the parts of her that were still “male,” and that the awkward times he left in such a huff those weekday mornings weren’t because he was “upset about going in to work.”
I learned that Allie always rented those sappy movies because, for the first time in years, she was able to cry and it felt amazing to her. She confided in me that even at her mother’s funeral, she couldn’t cry in spite of wanting nothing more but to release the pain inside. She attributed the tears to the hormones and she loved it, therefore she never skipped an opportunity to get a good sob in … and I immediately stopped teasing her about it, humiliated by my unintentional callousness.
I learned that one roomie had “accidentally fallen in love” with me, and that I devastated her each time I entertained another woman at our place, which in turn devastated me when she divulged the truth about why she was being weird months later. I learned that, as open-minded as I liked to fashion myself, this would send me into a tailspin of emotions as I put off giving reasons I couldn’t return the sentiment. I became distant, unsure of the next move and afraid to send the wrong signals. ‘Am I being transphobic to say I don’t feel the same way?’ I asked myself, berating me throughout the process. ‘Does the fact that it’s not mutual stem from that awful place?’ It’s a question I still can’t answer to this day … and that’s another matter I welcome a conversation about. I almost need it, to be honest.
But above all the dark epiphanies, the lesson most learned is a beautiful one. I learned that the soul of womankind rests comfortably and confidently behind the eyes. Whereas the newness of trans territory, the very idea that gender identity was separate from anything physical threw me at first, I found myself unable to see anything but women as we grew into one another’s comfort. From where I began — a naive young thing who was admittedly confused by terms and ideas regularly — I transitioned into an enlightened and inspired woman with a perspective unlike that of many others who have lived longer and stranger lives. And I still stumble through terminology once in awhile … I still find lightbulbs going off above my head at points I’d never pondered here and there. There’s just so much to learn about everything in this life. But I’ve got a hell of a start, and I have their patience to thank, their friendship to brag about.