Sex vs Gender: two sides of the same coin

So I know a lot of trainings, including many written by trans people, like to separate sex and gender into different concepts. But in my experience they aren’t all that different and are so integrally tied that you can’t actually separate the two. From an external perspective I think sex is what you are assigned at birth because doctors and parents make an assumption about a binary future for you based on your genitals (and sometimes force surgeries on intersex babies if they don’t match that vision because sexual characteristics aren’t binary either). Gender is what people assume about your genitals and often your behaviors and experiences based on visual cues later on. They are just two sides of the same coin. The only real difference is what external markers you are using. When I was born they assumed I was male based on my genitals and now people assume things about my genitals based on signs such as my beard and build.

Well this gets complicated of course when you are trans or nonbinary. You can do a lot to change your external appearance through clothing, hormones, and surgeries. And since sex isn’t actually based on chromosomes since most people have never been genotyped, I think those changes arguably change your sex tangibly as well. I don’t think I am a feminine person with a male sex. I now have breasts and an estrogen dominant body that is clearly and visibly nonbinary now. I would need to make major alterations at this point via surgery to go back to being a male.

So when I see forms that ask me what my sex is, I get annoyed. You can ask me what my sex assigned at birth was as a data point if you need. But my sex and my gender are the same thing viewed from different lenses.

Now internal gender is a lot harder to define but that’s a post for a future day.

Exploring surgery further

Content warning: I’m going to be talking about sex and genital surgery. Be forewarned.

Now that I have done some work in therapy to work through my fears about surgery, I am starting to explore my options in earnest.

For years I thought that I wouldn’t want to get surgery unless I found an option where they could add a vagina while keeping my penis intact. This was partly based on how I envisioned myself and those I was attracted to in my dreams as a teen. Before I knew that trans people existed, most of my imaginations centered around people who had both sets in tandem, sometimes with retractable phalluses and always with breasts. A year ago I tried to do some research to see if that was possible. At that time they had just successfully done the first neo-vagina made from peritoneum, the internal connective tissue in your abdomen. But everywhere I looked people either weren’t talking about that option or claimed that it was impossible to construct a vagina without damaging the penis.

So I had pretty much given up on that idea and gotten on board with a standard penile inversion vaginoplasty. But this time when I started doing research on surgeons I came across the website of Dr. Heidi Wittenberg who mentions that for gender nonconforming people she offers a penile preservation vaginoplasty. I can’t find many details online about the technique but apparently it involves using skin from another area such as doing a tummy tuck or a strip from the thigh. The scrotum is still used to build the labia and the phallus is left intact. And I hear from other trans people that she isn’t the only one. There are several surgeons who trained under Brownstein and Crane who can do this.

The odd thing is, now that I’ve finally found the thing that I always thought I wanted, I’m not sure that’s actually what I want. The more I think about it the happier I am with the idea of having a well constructed neo-vagina. I’ve seen the work that surgeons can do firsthand and it is incredible how hard it is to tell that it isn’t natal.

Luckily I don’t need to decide just yet. Next year is my jaw surgery (hopefully with some chin correction while I’m at it) and I know I can’t afford both in the same year so this will have to wait until at least late 2019 or probably 2020. My current plan is to go to both Gender Odyssey in Seattle and Philly Trans Wellness to learn more about the current techniques and hopefully catch Dr. Wittenberg’s presentation. I can get a consultation there and schedule something if I want. I do like the idea of having a surgery done with someone who recognizes transitions outside the binary and can talk me through the options. Not to mention that she specializes in Gynecologic urology exclusively for trans people and is considered an expert in neurology and minimally invasive surgery. Currently her waitlists appear to only be 3 months which is much better than most of the surgeons out there.

What I have noticed is that making up my mind that I do want surgery and giving myself permission to explore that in earnest has improved my sex life quite a bit. My libido has picked up and I find myself more ready to utilize my penis now that I know it is short term. It almost feels like I want to make good use of it while I have it as a way of wishing it goodbye. I have also noticed a difference in sensation as my brain rewires itself for estrogen. The head of the penis is more sensitive almost to the point that it already feels like I imagine a large clitoris must feel. And stimulation on the shaft somehow evokes the sensation of being penetrated. Not sure how to describe that and how much is me envisioning it in different ways but it does feel more and more like what I have right now is an inverted vagina, not the same penis I used to have.

That may be TMI but you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

Thoughts on surgery

My brain has been rather obsessed lately with thinking about if and what next steps I should take in my transition. So I’ve been trying to figure out what my options are around gender affirming treatments and beginning the very overwhelming task of delving into the surprisingly difficult question of what do I actually want.

Unfortunately I’ve found, with the help of therapy, that that question is very deeply tied to the related question of what do I actually believe I deserve. I didn’t realize I had so much around self worth entangled with my transition. While I 100% support my friends who pursue gender affirming surgeries, I have a hard time convincing myself that I am worth spending that much money on. I had the same issue with my upcoming jaw surgery to correct a crooked internal angle that prevents me from biting on one side. A lot of emotions came up as I went through the steps to book it and talked with my spouse about the money involved. I don’t know the full costs yet but so far we have shelled out $5,500 out of pocket for the braces and I have some significant guilt around needing her help to do that and taking away from money we could use on other things, especially in this political climate.

I firmly believe that while surgeries and treatments are definitely not required to be a valid trans person, they are medically necessary in various forms for many of us as important treatments for gender dysphoria. And I certainly have been having a lot of increased dysphoria lately. But when it comes to the next logical step of then believing that I deserve these treatments, I fall into the trap of hearing all the naysayers whispering in my ear about how trans people are too expensive and a burden and, and, and…

So I’m trying to work past that part of it. But there are also other fears to conquer. I realized I have a very deep fear that I will go through all these steps to try to get closer to the person I know I should be seeing in the mirror and still not feel like I can achieve it. I worry that being so close will just make the last little bits that I can’t change, things like not being able to be pregnant or have the kinds of sex I want, even more frustrating. That’s certainly the biggest thing holding me back from thinking about vaginoplasty.

I realized recently that vaginoplasty is covered by my insurance. Of course there are no surgeons in Western Washington and wait lists are a mile long but theoretically, this is one of the easier things to accomplish financially on my list of options. But that is also the one I was most unsure about. Mostly because I was afraid that I would have complications or worse, that I wouldn’t be able to orgasm afterwards. I don’t particularly like the equipment I have now but at least I know how it works and have figured out how to get it to do what I want, at least some of the time (though that is getting harder while my brain is undergoing estrogen rewiring projects). And is it worth the risk for the potential reward? And am I just caving to transmedicalists (aka truscum, people who think you need surgery to be trans) and societal pressure if I take a more linear transition path?

Arguably, the things that would make a much bigger impact on my dysphoria and certainly on my ability to function in the world are facial feminization surgery (FFS) and hair removal. Unfortunately those are the things that my insurance has classified as “cosmetic” and doesn’t cover. Hair removal is top of my priority list and as I discovered last time, is very expensive. So I am trying to call around and see if I can find a clinic that would work with me to fight insurance and advocate with my doctor for its medical necessity.

Facial feminization is a greater challenge. I’ve realized only recently that the main reason I keep my beard is because it hides my chin, which I can’t stand looking at in the mirror. I’ve obviously grown to love it as evidenced by the name of my blog and how much it has shaped my identity. But it’s also just a tool to reduce dysphoria which has the unfortunate side effect of making me hypervisible. And even in a city like Seattle, it’s no fun being able to be spotted as trans from 3 blocks away. Increasingly I’ve been realizing how much my beard shapes how exhausting daily life in public is for me. But I don’t think I can shave it off unless I at least have a plan for what to do about my chin.

My chin is rather prominent and cleft. In my head and when I look at photos of the few times I’ve shaved (only twice in 12 years), it looks like Gaston from the animated Beauty and the Beast – comically large and masculine. There is a possibility that with estrogen softening my facial features, I will end up liking my face without surgery. Or that after my jaw surgery I will like my look better. But I am honestly scared of having to shave next winter to do that.

Facial feminization is a very expensive proposition. I’ve heard estimates anywhere from $7k for just the chin to $30k. And the odds of me getting insurance to cover it seem pretty slim. I did take the step of emailing my jaw surgeon to see if there is any chance he can leave off the portion of my chin he was planning on rearranging in the surgery or if he would be willing to partner with a specialist to do the work while I am already in surgery. No word back yet though.

I have talked a lot with several trans women in my life over the past couple weeks as these thoughts have been distracting me which was very helpful. And the more I talk about it, the more I realize just how much I’ve been trying to ignore my dysphoria out of fear and shame. I desperately want to be the self confident, visible, bearded trans icon that people seem to think I am. But the reality is that I am having an increasingly hard time looking at and thinking about my face and genitals. When I shave my chest, stomach and legs, I can almost start to see something that looks attractive. And sometimes a good photo can make me feel ok about my face. But my crotch often feels like a black hole on my body, something that doesn’t exist. Or sometimes my genitals feels like a fake nose someone glued on my body when I look in the mirror. And it makes relationships a lot harder when you are moving farther along the asexuality spectrum.

I need more time to think about it but I wanted to get some of these thoughts down while they were still fresh. I don’t know what the answers are yet but I’m increasingly starting to think that the fact that I can’t stop thinking about these questions means that these are inevitable steps I have to figure out how to take.

On a lighter note, if I eventually get rid of my beard, what should I call my blog? The Artist Formerly Known as Genderbeard?

Increasing Dysphoria

Isn’t being on hormones supposed to help dysphoria? I mean it’s helping my confidence in my chest and overall shape but it’s definitely bringing up more feelings about my face in particular among other things. The biggest effect that estrogen has had so far other than breast growth is that it is making it harder to ignore things I’ve been burying and ignoring.

I often have days where I look in the mirror and literally see a blank where my face should be. My brain can’t handle the cognitive dissonance between my real appearance and my identity. And even more often I find myself avoiding mirrors or hyperfocusing on my hair to avoid looking at my facial features. And I can’t decide whether growing out my hair would help that or make it worse.

I’ve kept my beard thus far because it hides parts of my face that I can’t handle, especially my chin. But more and more I wonder if it is doing more harm than good. I get stares everywhere I go because people don’t know what to do with a bearded person in a dress. And it makes it so that I can be spotted blocks away as trans. I mean it’s not like I can hide easily with my height and tendency to wear bright colors, but maybe I don’t need to make myself that easy to spot. It also gives me a lot of “not queer enough” feels and makes me avoid spaces that are supposedly for femmes because I don’t think I would be accepted with my features.

But the thought of removing my beard and having to come to terms with the face underneath terrifies me even more. I am dreading what is going to happen when I’m forced to shave next winter for a long planned jaw surgery to correct my bite. But I also find myself wondering if there’s a way to capitalize on that to change my face. From what I remember of the consult, they are already going to need to make adjustments to my chin to make my face symmetrical and I wonder if I can talk the oral surgeon into taking some of it off permanently. Or if I could work with him to do a combo jaw surgery and facial feminization technique. The thought of cutting open my face twice doesn’t sound pleasant.

Then there’s the matter of my genitals. I’m feeling more disconnected from them recently which goes along with my feelings of asexuality. Most days I’d rather forget they are there and sometimes my brain does that for me. The other day I was on a date and I was trying to get myself in the mindset but everytime I thought about what was between my legs all I could picture was a black hole. I ended up not being able to do anything with my own body because I couldn’t reintegrate. Luckily queer sex doesn’t revolve around a penis or any specific kind of sex. But when I think about bottom surgery I’m still not sure whether having different genitals would help at all.

I’ve also realized that I only feel confident at all when my chest, stomach, and legs are shaved. Which even with the estrogen means trimming twice a week. I need to go back for more hair removal but I can’t decide between laser which requires $1,400 up front for 3 sessions (probably twice) or electrolysis which has more guarantee of permanency and I can break into smaller chunks but means more sessions.

Basically I’m feeling dysphoric most of the time now but I don’t know what to do about it and what interventions would help and how I would pay for those. So my brain gets overloaded with that background anxiety and I end up being less productive or mildly dissociating. I know I should try to do things that connect me with my body more instead of just escaping into video games. But I have a hard time figuring out how to do that in ways that a) don’t involve gendered locker rooms, b) don’t trigger my asthma (running is out of the question), and c) don’t make my back and neck pain worse.

There’s a little peek into what’s in the back of my brain most of the time these days. So when you ask how I’m doing and I say I’m fine, please know that there is a giant asterisk there.

Debunking “Biological Sex”

So this is probably an unpopular opinion but I think the term “biological sex” is meaningless, as is the distinction between sex and gender. While I continue to hear trans people use it and share it in various forms such as the problematic genderbread person, it is primarily used by cisgender people as a way of convincing themselves that the binary does exist in some form even if they support diverse gender identities. But as a biologist (by training) and a real life trans person™, I am here to tell you that it is just as much of a shared illusion as binary gender.

Hopefully by now you are aware of the existence of intersex people. According to the Intersex Society of North America, “intersex is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.” Without going into excruciating detail because you should hear it from intersex people themselves , both chromosomal sex and reproductive organ configuration exist in more than two options. There are 6 different ways that chromosomes can combine (X, XX, XXY, XY, XYY, and XXXY) that create various different kinds of humans and most people never have their chromosomes tested so using this as the basis for your gender is ridiculous. And various other changes in development mean that regardless of genetics, genital variation is nearly infinite.

But even putting intersex people aside for a moment, let’s talk about how useless the term biological sex is when you are dealing with reality. Many trans people such as myself have known from an early age that our brains are different. Long before I ever knew the term transgender or nonbinary, I thought that I didn’t fit in because I didn’t have a boys brain. And more and more evidence suggests that the brain can develop in utero in ways that more closely match the gender identity that child eventually expresses than the gender they are assumed to be based on external signs (although even that research is hopelessly binary). Though huge disclaimer here because there is no one way to be trans. Not everyone knew they were different from birth and not all trans people experience things like dysphoria.

Ok, so say you put aside natural variation in genitals AND you ignore differences in brains. Well I hate to break it to you folks, but the differences continue to be useless. Trans people do not all experience socialization the same way or come out at the same age so there is no point at which you can make a valid argument that we are somehow “essentially male” or some such bullshit. And there are MANY different kinds of gender confirmation surgeries that make trans bodies infinitely variable and often indistinguishable from their gender.

So what’s the point of this? It means that you should stop using terms like “female bodied” or lumping people together based on binary genital arrangements. And you should stop saying things like “all women are” and reducing your research to binary sex results. Yes, statistically there are vast swatches of people who never have cause to question their gender or assumed sex. And you could do your research based on those people and ignore the tails of those statistical curves. But you are missing out on some of the most amazing parts of human experience when you do so. I am here to tell you that the conversations that happen among trans and nonbinary people behind closed doors that cis people rarely get to experience would blow your mind! And because of constructs like “biological sex”, many of these people intentionally avoid revealing that complexity to cis people and often rule out dating or interacting with you altogether.

So if you want to benefit from what we could bring to the conversation, think deeply about how you can be more inclusive and the assumptions you make on a daily basis. We are here and we are so much more queer than you could possibly imagine.

Getting creative with sex

Content warning: Description of sex and genitalia

This is a first for me. I don’t usually write so publicly about the actual details of how I have sex. But I had a moment I am really proud of this weekend that I thought other people mind find helpful.

So here goes.

Are you ready?

Lately I have been having difficulty having sex that involves my penis. Partly it is dysphoria but mostly with the estrogen and the low libido it is causing I am just having a difficult time getting and staying hard. I’ve used generic viagra for awhile now for ED because I had so many issues around sex anxiety that I was working through because of how my ex messed me up. But before I started E I was using less and less. Now I need to take any time I want to use that part of my body.

But this weekend I had a date with my spouse and I was feeling more sexy than usually and decided to take the viagra. Predictably as we were getting ready to have PIV intercourse my dysphoria kicked in which usually would have put a quick end to it. As I touched myself to put lube on, it literally felt like my penis wasn’t my own and wasn’t part of my body. But this time I found a way to work with that feeling.

Without even thinking too hard about it my brain decided to make that a part of the sex. I conceptualized my penis as the best strap-on dildo ever. It was both attached to me and not part of me at the same time in a really hot way instead of a disturbing one. I could feel what was happening but it felt like I was feeling that through something else instead of directly. The part that I’m most proud of is that I was able to make that switch so smoothly that it didn’t interrupt the flow and we had great sex and I told my partner about how I had done it afterwards.

I’m not sure if I can always do that but hopefully the memory and success of that moment is transferable. How do you find ways to use your body through dysphoria?

Libido changes – HRT week 6

Content Warning: Discussion of sex ahead

I’m now past the 6 week mark of starting estrogen and the changes are coming quite quickly now. My breasts are continuing to grow noticeably every week and my nipples are at least 50% larger and much more prominent. Whereas before my nipples used to lay flat about half the time, now they are pretty much always erect which means I have to cover them when I go out. Yesterday I almost had a very embarrassing moment where I arrived a professional conference I was helping host only to realize I had forgotten my nipple covers. Luckily I always keep band aids in my bag so I had to go and strap them down.

Some of the other changes have been less pleasant. Last week I was extremely moody, irritable, and depressed. There were times I wanted to strangle people who annoyed me and moments where I wished I could not exist (not the same as suicidal but close). Luckily I have an amazing chosen family who talked me down during my emotional breakdown where I felt like life wasn’t worth living if I couldn’t make a difference in the fight against greed and evil. Right now I’m taking a break from the news and some of my social justice communities until I can better handle the demoralizing parts.

This week has been more stable in terms of mood but I am really becoming aware of just how much my libido has changed. I was never a “think about sex all the time” kind of person. But I did have an active sex drive and sex life. Now I’ve realized that I haven’t masturbated in weeks and don’t even really miss it. And I haven’t been able to have sex without viagra in a very long time either.

What I’m not sure of is if this is truly a drop in libido or just me not being used to how that looks different. I am still very interested in other people’s bodies but I have almost no interest or even enjoyment in using my own. And whereas before I use to have more bisexual interests, I am definitely becoming more and more focused on just queer women and nonbinary femmes. Some of this started before estrogen but has continued to be more pronounced.

So the short version is that I’m not sure what sex looks like right now or how to relate to it. I am extremely lucky to have people in my life who don’t have expectations of exactly what that looks like either and the benefit of being polyamorous is that nobody is relying solely on me to have their sexual needs met. Having that pressure taken off is a huge relief while I am in this phase where I am essentially becoming a demisexual or gray ace.

Right now it is mostly confusing for me as I try to navigate this new feeling (or rather lack of feeling) and it is a lot less frustrating than I expected. But I know I will be sad if my libido doesn’t come back so I’m hoping this isn’t permanent or that my relationship to sex improves as I adjust.

A cautionary tale

I’ve spent most of my life making decisions because I wanted to please others, make life easier for other people, or be likable. It’s been a consistent theme for me that has shaped so much of who I am, including why I am an administrative assistant today. My job is all about making someone else’s job easier. In the nonprofit world, that can be a good thing because I’m working for worthy causes and helping others use their talents. But in most areas of my life, it isn’t serving me well and ultimately it really isn’t helping other people in the way that I think it is.

I spent my childhood trying to live up to the standards of a fundamentalist form of Christianity.  It had very gendered expectations about my role as someone who was supposed to grow up to be the patriarch, decision maker, sole bread winner, and father. I tried so hard to live up to those images and in my various attempts I fell prey to some aspects of toxic masculinity. By the time I was 18, I was a poster child of obedience and conformity. I went off to college able to debate with the best of them on the apologetics of Calvinism and prepared with a stack of books about creation “science” to argue with my “liberal” Christian professors.

But I came to the realization at 18 that even within my closed circle of Evangelical friends, I was a real asshole and unpleasant to be around. In attempting to please my church and my parents, I had turned into a judgmental person stuck in black-and-white thinking. Because I wanted everyone else to like me, I resolved to change… or at least to be less vocal about my judgments and take more time to listen.

Luckily for me, my choice of an Evangelical liberal arts university gave me the opportunity to grow and change in a non-threatening environment. Within 2 years I had transformed into a liberal pacifist and thrown my conservative history behind me. But I hadn’t stopped trying to please other people. When my best friend expressed romantic interest in me, I ignored the warning flags about her personality and dove head first into an all-consuming relationship which found me married before my junior year at only 21.

I spent the next 7 years doing everything within my power to please her, bending over backwards and almost completely losing myself in the process. She was controlling, manipulative, gaslighting, and emotionally abusive. She used my self-abasing tendencies to her benefit and had me convinced that her opinions were right on everything. My feelings were unimportant. Under the guise of wanting me to “fulfill my true potential,” she molded me into the type of person that gave her the status of a successful married professional that she wanted to be in her life.

We had the beginnings of a sexual relationship when we first started dating but that all but ended once we got officially engaged. We didn’t have intercourse until 5 years into the marriage and she used that as a dangling carrot, always something in the future to be working towards if I did the things she wanted. The only reason we ever even tried it (very unsatisfactorily) was because she knew she was losing me. As a sexual person I was deeply unfulfilled in our relationship but whenever I would voice that it would become all about her.

Slowly she trained me to basically be her servant, fetching anything she wanted and meeting her every need. She demanded massages which began as an exchange but eventually became something I would just do for her. Even when I was working 10 hour days she would still expect me to come home and do all the cooking and household chores. I passed this off as a positive thing because we didn’t have gendered roles in our relationship, but really it was just abusive.

When I would try to talk about my needs and desires they were pushed aside in favor of her needs. If I used emotional content in a conversation my feelings were dismissed because she only believed in logic (until her repressed feelings would inconveniently bubble to the surface in which case I had to sooth her). I was always set up to fail when we argued because she had training as a debater. In public I was the dutiful husband and we were the “power couple” at our church, but in actuality, I had no power.

Despite all that, I didn’t talk about my problems to anyone else because I didn’t want to burden anyone. In my attempts to make others’ lives easier, I allowed mine to become a living hell of consuming depression. I would pathologically avoid being alone with my feelings because they would lead to very dark places. There were times I think that the only thing that kept me alive was that I didn’t want to die a “virgin.”

I tried so hard to volunteer and do good things during that time but I was unable to really be effective because I hadn’t taken care of myself first. And because daily life took so much work, I put my own self-discovery on the back burner. All my gender feels turned into a festering anxiety in the background.

After 5 years of a very unhappy marriage and couples therapy, it was so clear that things weren’t working that we were having serious conversations about divorce. But I was still so stuck in the model of meeting everyone else’s needs before my own, including not disappointing my parents who didn’t approve of divorce, that I agreed to stay. I did finally prioritize one thing though. It was important to me that I have a sexually fulfilling life which was never going to happen with my wife. She wanted any outside relationships to be a sex only arrangement but that’s not what fulfills me. So we compromised and I was “allowed” to pursue polyamorous relationships under some very strict rules and in secrecy.

Through reading resources on polyamory that focused on the importance of knowing your boundaries and finally seeing models for healthy relationships, I slowly began to come into my own and prioritize myself little by little. This resulted in a backlash at home as my wife could see her perfect arrangement slipping away.  But I was able to see the world outside the bubble I’d been isolated in for the first time and find people more like myself who were comfortable in their gender and sexuality.

When I finally came out as genderqueer and pansexual, she wanted me to keep it secret from all but a few confidants because she didn’t want to have to answer questions about my gender or her feelings about my sexuality. That was what finally started to break down my mental block around divorce and got me thinking about what it might look like to truly love my life and myself. Still, I was so afraid of being unloveable that I stayed in a marriage where love was conditional on my continued silence and suppression of my identity.

Polyamory isn’t easy, especially when you are starting out and have a lot of restrictions placed on you. My wife would yell at me if I was 3 minutes late coming home from a date and she wanted me to tell her everything that was wrong with the people I was dating and why she was better than them. But after a lot of dating attempts that never made it past the third date, I began dating a wonderful woman who encouraged me to voice my needs and set boundaries. It started out as a casual relationship with no expectations but within a couple months it was clear that I was in love.

That brought things to a breaking point in my marriage. I was starting to be happy and learning to say no to unreasonable requests and my wife couldn’t stand that. After 4 months in that relationship she changed tactics and was suddenly interested in sex. But it came with strings attached. She wanted me to choose between her (and a straight monogamous life) and polyamory.

Luckily by that point I had done enough self-work that I was able to connect with my feelings and consider what I actually wanted. My therapist asked me to focus on the sensations in my body as I imagined my future in both scenarios and immerse myself fully in the feelings of both options. It took an agonizing few weeks as I wrestled with that decision, getting pressure from my wife the whole time. I will forever be grateful to my girlfriend who stuck with me in a fairly new relationship through that uncertainty and allowed me to make that choice for myself.

In the end it was clear what I needed to do. As uncertain as my future was if I left, I knew that I would be forever unhappy if I continued to give so much of myself up to be in that marriage. Leaving was the hardest thing I’ve ever done but it was also the best decision I ever made. I moved in with my girlfriend, temporarily at first, but I took steps to make sure that I didn’t fall into old patterns of pleasing others at my own expense. 18 months later it still takes a lot of work to undo those old patterns, but with the memory of those experiences still fresh in my head, I keep at it.

My life now is radically different, not just because of my lifestyle, but because of how I am treated by my partners and how I treat myself. No longer do I accept relationships where there is an unsustainable imbalance of emotional energy or physical labor. All three of my long term romantic relationships require investment, commitment, and a good deal of energy. But because I know what my limits are, where my boundaries are, and how to say no, I have the ability to do far more for others than I ever was before. That means seeking out relationships with people who also value consent and prioritize their own self awareness. It also helps that none of us rely solely on one person to meet all of our needs. We each have other relationships, both romantic and platonic, that support our emotional and physical needs. We have all structured our lives together in supportive community where vulnerability is valued and intimacy is not feared.

Now my life is my own. No one owns me no matter what happens, no one can tell me what I feel or who I am. And that is why it is so important to me that my gender isn’t about who I’m in relationship with (and how they define their sexuality). I won’t let it be simplified or hidden to make things easier for other people to understand or be more comfortable with. My gender is complicated and it can feel like it makes things “difficult” for others (and for me) but not living as my fullest self causes far more harm to myself and ultimately to my ability to actually help others. The airline announcements are true – you do need to put on your own oxygen before helping the person next to you.