Love in a Time of Fear, part 2

Since attachment styles are formed early in childhood and continue to affect how we form relationships throughout our lives, the following writing builds upon a foundation described in Love in a Time of Fear, part 1.

This week I shaved my face. I dressed myself up like a woman, because my hair is long and I live in Arkansas where men ain’t looked upon favorably with long hair. These days I can pass myself off as cisgender better as a woman than as a man. The charade just to keep “Christians” from violently hating me and denying me my basic human rights because they hate me is exhausting. All gussied up and pretty, I went out onto a literal Civil War battlefield to fight for my freedom by asking folks to vote for Josh Moody for Washington County Judge and Chris Jones for Governor this November.

Two days later, I went walking with Josh on the Square of a rural Arkansas town where men sitting around the hardware store literally asked him to instate slavery through the county jail to address the worker shortage, talked about wanting to tie their neighbors up with rope hanging from a tree and torture them for days, and said with unapologetic casualness, “1818 was a good year.”

I knew what was expected of me, and what my safety depended on. I stood there like a good girl and kept my damn mouth shut while the men folk talked about important grown-up business.

Arkansas lately is making me feel like I’m back in my teenage home. Once more, I’m just considered a living, breathing piece of property forced into this world so religious white zealots could control me, not so I could be loved or wanted for real. My heart breaks for all the babies being brought into the world by forced birth now who will grow to feel the same way. I hope God will lead them to the survival guides left behind by the previous generations who know their struggle to be loved all too well. They deserve to be loved and wanted — not for what they can do for white men, but because they are divine beings with inherent, sacred worthiness.

As a white girl-child in the South, I learned that asking for love is an expression of vulnerability to be answered according to the interests of white men. Even in relationships with women, as was the case with my mother and grandmothers, vulnerability was a power lever to advance one’s standing in proximity to white men — fathers, grandfathers, boyfriends, bosses, police officers — who benefit from keeping us divided against one another like crabs in a bucket.

I learned to do mental gymnastics with older men as a child like they were my tumbling instructors, kneeling to offer the assurance that I won’t fall as long as I have the safety of their arms supporting me from behind, while I learned to flip myself upside down and around and ’round at their command. They taught me to be a good girl and keep my damn mouth shut while they talked about important grown-up business like slavery and rape.

In my 20’s, I rejected my role as their trophy, as their woman-prize, as their life raft to be clung to and climbed upon in a sea of responsibility these men had somehow convinced me they were keeping me from drowning in. I decided to become a man and find out what equality with them really felt like. For five years, I had that equality. It was bitter and poisonous, but I had it. It felt good. Like fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, knowing how it felt to walk through the world as a white man’s equal was delicious.

At 30, I retransitioned. I’d made myself sick on the wrong kind of power. I wasn’t who I’d intended to become. I’d become entitled, demanding, and had zero awareness of how much space I took up in conversations with women. I thought if someone just made me President, I’d wave a practical magic wand and fix all the problems that the Democrats ain’t got the guts to do anything about. I needed to lower my testosterone dose, among other things, and come back down to earth. So I did.

At 33, I began dating a white cisgender pansexual man in Arkansas. He’s frequently the only white person in the room, and he keeps getting invited back to the cookout. I could see this from his Facebook photos when I was considering whether or not to date him, and figured if Black folks could stand to be around him, maybe I could too. We’ve now been together for 7 months.

We spend one evening a week together. I yearn for a partner I can share my daily life, meals, and home with — but also a partner who doesn’t frighten or abuse me. There are plenty of available men who think casual rape jokes are cool, who give me no confidence that they respect my bodily autonomy. This one man I’ve found is less available than I’d like, but he doesn’t punch down at me, or at anyone, when he makes jokes. At present, I accept a one-day-a-week relationship as part of the price for being with someone I trust won’t rape me or make me question my sanity. He agrees with me that this is too low a bar, and I deserve better. I’m keeping my eyes open and looking for a better-suited partner, but I’m not going to end a decent relationship with someone I wholeheartedly love while I wait for a better and more consistent relationship to come along.

Expecting a partner to respect me as a full human with equal rights is really the bare minimum. It’s just a bare minimum most men in the United States don’t live up to.

The men when I was a teen were cops, lawyers, and rednecks who took advantage of my desperate yearning for someone, anyone, to please just love me. I was 12, 13, 14. They were 28, 44, 50. But thanks to this recent Evangelical power-grab across the whole damn government, I feel 12 again. I’m 34 years old, and I feel like a trapped child among merciless “Christian” savages in their quest for control over my body. I am the 10 year old girl in Ohio who had to go to Illinois for an abortion. I am the 11 year old child whose body can’t take the physical demands of pregnancy. I am a survivor of Focus on the Family which taught me in childhood to be a “good girl” for white men who don’t respect me as a human being. If I had never become a man myself, I don’t know that I would have gained enough perspective to hold real boundaries today against the white men who have always felt entitled to control my body.

Recently I talked with my partner about this. It’s a power dynamic threatening to knock our relationship out of sustainable balance. It’s a power dynamic knocking me out of sustainable balance. He didn’t understand, at first. He sees me as his equal. So when I described myself as “property,” and remarked how I appreciate that he “grants” me my full humanity in our relationship, he was appalled. He found it gross to think of my rights as his to grant or deny to me. As far as he’s concerned, he doesn’t have that kind of power over me.

He does have that kind of power though, and he can choose to wield it over me if ever he wants to. As much as I trust he won’t abuse that power, I cannot pretend he doesn’t have that power, any more than I can pretend a lion doesn’t have large teeth when I’m in his habitat. The lion and I may have an established, loving relationship that would make the cutest viral TikTok video ever — but if he ever has a Really Bad Day and decides to turn on me, I know who would win and who would lose that fight. I cannot pretend homicide isn’t the number one cause of death for pregnant people. I cannot pretend cops and judges don’t consistently side with abusive white men who argue in court that “she had it comin’.” I cannot pretend the law protects me as a transgender person even half as well as it fails to protect the cisgender women who still get killed, stalked, and discriminated against in this country every day. I cannot pretend I wasn’t raped just one year ago, by a man who used the Trans Panic Defense to (easily) convince management at our workplace that he was the one who’d been wronged because he’d allegedly thought I was a woman, and this alleged deception was a worse offense than the fact that I’d told him “no” more than a dozen times and repeatedly pushed him off me before he forced himself into my body. The patriarchal landscape in which my relationship with my partner exists puts a weight in my knapsack that I’m constantly carrying around. His participation in the oppression isn’t required for me to experience the weight of that oppression.

If you want me by your side in a relationship, I need you to acknowledge I’m carrying around the weight of how society gives you the option to abuse me, regardless of what you choose to do or not do with that power. If you want me to be your equal in a partnership, I need you to understand how unequal we are in the scope of social power systems. If you’re legally and socially empowered to harm me without consequence, what’s to keep you from abusing me and simply calling it by another name?

Since the government considers me less than a full human, to be owned or controlled by white men, what does it take to make me an equal in a relationship with a white cisgender man? Is equality in our current society even possible? What changes would that require? What Constitutional amendments would that require? What changes in manhood and the standards men set for themselves would our equality require?

Love in a time of fear is soul-crushing, like the full weight of unrelenting gravity trying to squash stars out of existence. I hear persistent messages from the government, from neighbors, from media, all basically saying I should just count my blessings every day I’m not beaten or shot to death. I should just be grateful I have a relationship with a man at all. I should be glad that when unwelcome men hit on me I can say, “I have a boyfriend,” persuading them to leave another man’s already-claimed property alone in peace. I should be grateful for that “protection” having a boyfriend adds to my life, as if simply saying “Please leave me alone” isn’t reason enough to respect my boundaries.

My partner doesn’t like that I see myself as property. I don’t know how to explain to him with words what it feels like to go from being a white woman, to being a white man, to not being a white man anymore. I don’t know how to say, “I believe that you see me as a full human, but I also know most people don’t see me that way, and it’s dangerous for me to pretend they do,” in a way he’ll fully comprehend.

This week I shaved my face. When date night rolled around, he looked at me and scrunched his nose with disapproval. I don’t look right without my beard, he says. I’m not “me”. He’s not wrong. But I survived the Old Boys’ banter in the hardware store about bringing back slavery and lynchings without being followed home or hurt, and I lived to show up for date night this week. If I’d been visibly transgender in that hardware store…. Well, being able to blend in as if I were cisgender helps keep me alive and safe around here. It’s humiliating and infuriating, but at least I’m alive to be mad about the injustice.

Love in a time of fear is also brilliant. We’re stars committed to shining amidst profoundly frigid darkness, resisting the gravity trying to squash us out of existence. I hear persistent messages from my lover, from friends, from Mother Earth, all basically saying they count their blessings every day I’m not beaten or shot to death. I am glad we create warmth for one another. I am grateful for our commitment to nurturing one another’s invaluable lives. I am delighted to cultivate a brighter future together than the darkness into which we’ve been delivered.

My partner holds space for me to breathe when we’re together. The nausea and headaches ease up in the wondrous force-field of his embrace. I do not pretend his individual white-cis-man-ness can singularly protect me from the big bad world, but he digs deep enough within himself and takes care not to replicate the cruelty most men casually take for granted as their right to inflict. He figures out how to make me laugh in spite of the fear. Those moments of laughter and joy, of warmth and embrace, of care and growth, of passion and devotion, are worth living for. Even in a world filled with hate, love is worth living for.

Even in a time of fear, love is worth living for.

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