Just over a year ago, Michelle and Asher met at a Shabbat potluck, where they were co-leading the blessings over wine. They knew it was something special after spending the night talking about polyamory and the concept of “lashon hara” (evil tongue) and how it affects being in community. Asher is a 28-year-old queer trans Jew, originally from Wisconsin. He has been living in Jamaica Plain for the past five years and is a student at Simmons School of Social Work. Michelle is a 24-year-old queer cisgender Jewish woman from California, who has been living in Boston for six years. She works in communications at a nonprofit LGBT and HIV law firm.
When it came time to think of summer plans, Asher wanted to prioritize attending the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference because it’s one of the few places where transgender narratives, struggles and celebration are centered. The conference, now in its 13th year, offers a space for trans* people and allies, families and providers to come together to re-envision what health means for trans* people. Several weeks later, Asher and Michelle asked each other these questions to “We-brief” their experience.
Asher: Did anything surprise you? Did you have any new insights about our relationship?
Michelle: I’ve always felt seen and comfortable as a queer cis woman when we go out to events like Queeraoke or La Boum in Boston. There was one night in Philly when we wanted to go to a dance party hosted by Original Plumbing. As I got dressed I realized that even though I was wearing an outfit that I usually feel good about in Boston, I suddenly didn’t feel like I looked as cute. I started thinking of how you often say you don’t feel seen or validated when we go out to queer, mostly-women spaces in Boston, so I realized that night wasn’t as much about me being seen or cute, but was for you to feel that way.
Asher: When we talked about our clothing that night, I tried to say that the space wasn’t going to read you necessarily in the same way as you are used to being read in a queer women’s space. The fashion we choose is based on the community we’re in and the validation we get from others about our identities. Being in a space that isn’t centered on queer women is going to change what the aesthetic is. I’m wondering if a piece of you not being sure about what you were wearing is that you weren’t sure how it was going to be received. The aesthetic we choose reflects what we hope to get out of an experience. When you get excited about going to a party, your first question is often, “What do I get to wear?” In contrast, I get overwhelmed and think, “What can I wear that I will feel comfortable in, that will reflect what I want to reflect, and that will help me be validated in the way that I want to feel validated?” This has been a struggle for me in Boston. One time at Queeraoke, upon introducing myself, someone said she liked my name, so I should thank my parents for giving it to me. In that space, my hope is to get read as queer and recognized as being trans*; her comment told me immediately that I was being read as cisgender, not as trans*. In queer women’s spaces, I feel OK not being centered or necessarily engaged as someone for whom the space is meant to serve, but I also don’t want to get read as a cisgender—perhaps straight—guy. It just feels like there aren’t many spaces where I can be seen and celebrated while also feeling sexy.
Note: Coded dress can include anything from wearing hankies in back pockets to signal intentions for engaging in certain sexual acts to visible tattoos to the fashion choice of wearing flannel (often coded as “queer women’s dress”) to tight, brightly colored clothes, which are more likely read as queer on male/masculine-appearing people.
Michelle: What was challenging about being at the conference with your partner?
Asher: I felt like I was asking a lot of you, especially when times got hard and things felt overwhelming. This happened just about every time one session ended and another was about to begin. We would check in and I would have trouble deciding whether I could handle another session. Then I would consider if I wanted you to sit with me or if it was OK for you to attend another session while I spent time alone. Having you there meant opening myself up to someone else and allowing you to support me through sessions that were personally hard. Normally I do all of that work for myself. Even in the sessions that weren’t directly triggering for me, everything was addressing my own identity and health and was a lot for me to deal with. Having a partner there was really great, but I also felt bad for needing you so much. I struggled with allowing you to care for me and opening up my vulnerability to you. When I have something that has felt like an individualized thing, something I feel I need to be vigilant about and feeling that I need to take care of myself because no one else is going to take care of me, it’s risky to invite someone else into that. Some elements of being trans have put me in a self-preservation mindset. For instance, I’ve felt the need to know more than my doctors, teachers and family about bodily functions, gender identity and so many other aspects of my gender experience. What was that like for you?
Michelle: I went to the conference with two goals: to support you as your partner and to continue learning about the triumphs and struggles that come with transgender health and wellness in mind, body, spirit and community. This involved making sure I wasn’t taking up too much space as a cisgender person, checking in on you to make sure you were doing OK and, as the extrovert in our relationship, navigating social situations to meet both of our needs. I wanted to be everywhere at once, and you needed some intentional down time in smaller groups. After being in full-on support mode for the weekend, I realized I hadn’t asked myself how I was doing; I ended up feeling really burnt out by the end of the trip.
Asher: Were there any times during the conference when you noticed that you were thinking of things differently because you were there as the partner of a trans person?
Michelle: Being at the Alzheimer’s and dementia workshop with you felt extra real. I realized this could eventually be me; I could be in a caretaker position, and what would I do if you started forgetting your gender identity? They talked about making sure medical decisions were made by doctors and family who affirm a person’s identity and use the correct name and gender, making sure they are treated with the utmost dignity, and not making end-of-life decisions rooted in transphobia or homophobia. It made me wonder, what are other things that partners of trans people need to be extra vigilant about?