trans girl in love

By 
Gwen Benaway

There is a version of me who never met you. Sometimes when I can’t sleep at night, I imagine the other version of me. She looks the same as I do but she moves through the world like a sparrow on a June morning. She’s fearless, bright-eyed and chattering away. I imagine her lying in sunlight with her friends in Christie Pitts Park.

The other girl isn’t ashamed of anything. She sleeps through the night because her throat doesn’t remember your hands on it. She doesn’t know anything about Minnesota or Spain. Her body doesn’t flinch when other people touch it. She cums without being afraid.

She has never called an abused women’s crisis line. She doesn’t have a referral for a support group for survivors of sexual assault. She walks across campus without nervously looking for the shape of your body. She’s the same girl but everything is different.

It helps me sleep to remember there’s a version of me that you’ve never touched, a version of me that isn’t haunted by the taste of your mouth.

When you said you’d always be here with me, this isn’t what I thought you meant.

~

I started writing emails to my ex as a way to heal. Most self-help websites tell you to write letters you don’t intend to send as a way of finding closure. I wrote them but didn’t find any closure. I sent the emails as well, knowing that he had blocked me on every available platform. My emails go right into his spam folder alongside other emails from his other wounded lovers. I wonder if he scrolls through his spam folder, absently deleting our hurt out of his life and away into the digital ether.

Writing the emails was never about him anyway. It was an exercise in finally saying what I’d held back for two years. It was seeing me explain what happened, hearing the rough patches in my voice and listening to my body as I mapped out the words. It was admitting to the cold, clear pages that he raped me. It was facing his ghost, the haunting of my life.

Living inside an abusive relationship means losing grip on reality. He gaslit me in every conversation. Because he was ashamed of me as a trans woman, he kept me hidden. All of our experiences together are only known by the two of us. I never knew what to trust: my experiences and memories or what he would tell me. Writing about us is a way to finally claim what happened as my truth, a space which is mine, where he can’t tell me what to feel. A moment, two years too late, of recognition.

To say, without compromise or shame, I loved him. And he abused me. You don’t have to believe me. I don’t need him to read the emails. I just want to look in the mirror, see the girl staring back at me, and let her know that I’m sorry. 

~

I knew my relationship with my ex-partner was abusive. Despite all of my justifications and excuses for his behaviour, there was a constant ache inside my body saying “leave.” Underneath the ache saying “leave” was a stronger pain whispering “but he’s the only one who’ll ever love you.” I did leave, four times over two years, but I always came back to him.

A small part of why I returned was the inherently cyclical nature of abusive relationships. Our highs were as addictive as our lows. The intensity we felt for each other radiated through every text and email. We cried whenever we talked about breaking up. His touch felt like being pulled underwater by a current stronger than my body.

But if I’m being completely honest, the real reason I stayed was simply being a trans girl in love.

I’ve searched for resources for trans women in abusive relationships. There are almost none. Most accessible resources are targeted to cis women in heterosexual relationships with a few resources for queer women with same sex partners. Resources describing abusive dynamics in cis partnerships were useful in showing the common tactics of abusers, but they don’t understand that trans women can face specific forms of abuse rooted in our gender identities.

An important part of me finally leaving X was becoming aware of the ways he continually abused me through my gender identity. He became very skilled at leveraging his position as a cis man to undermine my womanhood, using transphobic statements to hurt me while simultaneously denying harm. As a trans woman struggling through my transition, I didn’t feel confident enough in my gender to avoid internalizing the messages he gave me and they created deep and lasting insecurities in my womanhood.

Being a trans woman often constitutes a profound vulnerability in the world. We face the highest rates of violence and discrimination of any demographic in almost every area of our lives. Often we are harmed by the men we love.

Sometimes they murder us, but sometimes they just destroy our will to live.

~

Abusive men rarely appear abusive. They are often extremely charming and intelligent. For most people in their lives, they usually appear as “good guys.” After leaving X, I had a conversation with one of his casual female partners. She said, “Whenever I would hear #yesallmen, I would think of [X] and think no, not all men.” It’s common for victims of abuse to be disbelieved simply because their abusers are so skilled at manipulating the story in order for them to appear as the victims.

Abusive men are often very reputation conscious and insecure, pathologically needing to be seen as harmless and good. While it’s complicated to generalize about abuse, abusive men often have a history of volatile relationships with women, deep insecurities, a history of depression and anxiety, and a tendency to use force during sexual intimacy. In retrospect, I see that X lined up with these characteristics exactly.

I met him at a poetry reading. We had an instant draw to each other but took three months to actualize our connection. He seemed like a sensitive and shy graduate student who was awkwardly exploring his sexual identity as Queer. The intensity of our interactions were addictive. Our free flowing conversations moved between sexuality, poetry, Queer culture, gender, and our shared intersections as kids who’d grown up attending evangelical Christian schools. I never imagined the harm that would come from our relationship, trusting in his soft blue eyes and the gentle way he held my hand.  

There were warning signs, as there are with many abusive men. No matter how charming or manipulative abusive men are, they often lack the impulse control to keep themselves from revealing their true intentions. X would lie constantly, but had trouble keeping his stories straight. I’d catch him slipping up between conversations, changing his stories or accidently letting me know what he really thought. When tired or frustrated with me on some small point, the mask would slip and he turned cruel and cold without warning. His unpredictability disoriented me and created a dynamic where I continually second-guessed myself and tried to predict his every need.

Many abusive men will speak negatively about past partners and other women in general. Every time X spoke of a women, it was a negative comment or an extreme idealization. Abusive men often create a fantasy image of women, imagining a perfect female partner who can provide the emotional comfort they crave along with dynamic sexual tension. From his mother to his graduate thesis supervisor, every woman in his life was withholding some kind of care or affection he felt he deserved.

I remember him casually saying on our first date that his thesis supervisor, a Queer South Asian professor, just needed to get “fucked” so she’d relax. According to him, his female housemates were sexually repressed, crazy, or both. Past female lovers were too needy or not sexually liberated enough. He recounted how women wanting him too much was a turn off. He wanted us distant and guarded with him, so that he could fuck us into the emotional vulnerability that he craved. 

Like many abusive men, X wanted a woman who embodied an ideal. Part therapist, part sex doll, he believed he was entitled to our bodies and inner worlds on the terms he demanded. Unfortunately for X and other abusive men, real women are not perfect. We have bad days, mood swings, insecurities, and an entire range of human experiences. We get sick or have needs which require our partners to care for us. Abusive men are rarely able to provide genuine care to others, but they often use their partner’s vulnerability to inflict subtle wounds and increase their partner’s reliance on them as a sole source of emotional support. As they spend more time with us, the perfect girl quickly becomes another disappointment.

~

Right before I left him for good, X fell in love with his ex-girlfriend. He had dated her for two months almost three years ago. They’d kept in touch but he hadn’t seen her since, until she came to visit him for a week in early spring. Beautiful with a soft butch vibe, she flew in from Milwaukee and set off a chain of events that finally freed me.

I met her a few days after she arrived in our city. She came with X to one of my poetry readings, a strange encounter made stranger by my instant affection for her. I wasn’t sure what X had told her about his relationship with me. Sometimes he told people the truth, but usually he preferred to hide in ambiguity, refusing to answer their questions or saying, “it’s complicated.”

We went out for drinks after the reading. He glibly joked about how he and I had reached the stage in our relationship where we needed to talk for hours before we made any decision. I was surprised but elated that he was being honest with other people. I relaxed, chatting with her and letting myself call him “babe” without editing.

I saw her once again before she left. I read her tarot cards in a downtown coffee shop while X silently watched. He took her out for ramen alone and I went home. Later in the week, he and I flew to Vancouver for a literary festival. It was supposed to be a chance for us to connect in a different city. I wanted to see the Pacific Ocean for the first time with him beside me.

On the last day of our trip, we went on a three-hour hike into Stanley Park. A rain storm broke around us. It was cold enough that I could see our breath in the air, but I followed him over logs and through muddy trails. Sometimes X and I could fall into a deep silence, communicating only through our bodies and eyes. We stepped into that silent trust until he ruptured our intimacy open like the rain clouds broke through the early morning sun.

He told me he was in love with her, his ex-girlfriend who lived in another city. He’d only seen her for a week in three years, but that was apparently enough for his desire to overtake him. They’d made out a little and slept in the same bed on her last night in town. He wanted to ask her to move to Toronto from her home city. She was perfect, he said, completely perfect.

He’d been going for long walks while we were in Vancouver and now I knew why. He was sitting in coffee shops, crying about her and setting up a phone call to tell her that he was in love with her. He told me that we needed to stop being physical intimate, try to be friends and keep our bodies separate. We sat on a park bench beside the ocean while I tried to process his words.

I told him that I loved him and couldn’t be anything but his lover. He told me that I only loved him because my father abused me as a child. I tried to explain how I felt again. He refused to listen to me, reverting to his stories about how much he loved this other woman he barely knew. I said I would have to leave him and that I didn’t want to be a second class girl in his life. I knew how this story would go, having lived it over and over again for the past two years. Our intimacies wouldn’t stop. He would keep me in his life but put her in the public spotlight. I’d counsel him through his pursuit of her, comforting him when he wanted and offering advice. He’d chase her down, make her fall in love with him, and then fall out of love with her as she began to trust him.

He told me I couldn’t leave him. We walked out of the park to take a bus back to our hotel. Before we boarded, he scooped me up in his arms and held me to his chest as tightly as he could. I hovered above the ground, my feet barely touching the sidewalk. We paused there in suspended animation for a few minutes. When we got back to the hotel, I lay on our bed, trying to make sense of the swirling emotions inside me while he showered.

He got out of the shower, dripping in warm water, and pounced on top of me. He pressed his body over mine, his hands on my waist, and asked me if I had warmed up yet. I started to cry. He got dressed and left me alone in the hotel room. Less than a day before, he and I had gotten drunk by the ocean at night, our bodies wrapped together next to the cold dark water. It was one of the happiest moments of my life, a night where I trusted him more than anyone else on the planet. Did he ever love me, I repeated in my mind as I lay in the empty hotel room, tears drying on my face. Was anything ever real?

After I left X, I talked to his ex-girlfriend on the phone. I found out she never wanted to date him. She identified as a lesbian and wasn’t going to move cities for him. “I’m just his friend,” she said. “Why would he say he’d fallen in love with me?” I didn’t know what to tell her. I warned her to be careful of him, to not believe anything he says or trust what he does. She sounded horrified by what I’d told her, in disbelief about the version of him she knew and the boy I’d been in love with for two years.

She was the perfect girl, the cis woman he wanted, just out of reach but close enough for him to lust for. I was the other girl, the trans girl with problems, in his arms but not an ideal worth crying over.

Ironic, isn’t it? In the end, I was too real of a woman for him to love.

~

For trans women, being the perfect girl is already a dangerous narrative. Society puts enormous pressure on trans women to be perfect models of femininity or risk losing our conditional status as “real.” With me and X, I was always in danger of failing his expectations while trying to meet the social pressures of being a trans women.

I never could be the perfect girl. As a trans girl, I faced constant discrimination and marginalization. My body changed with hormones, resulting in weight gain and mood swings. My genitals weren’t the ones he desired. Sex with me wasn’t ideal, but complex and filled with compromises. As much as I tried to meet his needs, I never could.

Loving him made it impossible for me to love myself. Perfection was a dream I chased, comparing myself to the cis women in his life on a daily basis. I always fell short. Being a trans girl in love is often a recipe for being used, not only because of our marginalization in society but because of the dreams we have for ourselves.

I’ve wanted to be the perfect girl for my entire life. I can never be her, no matter how many surgeries I have. I can only be myself.

~

There’s a part of me that doesn’t blame you. I never felt real as a woman, no matter what I was saying or doing in my life. Transitioning felt like an urgent pain inside me, but it also scared me. Every moment was laced with fear and doubt.

Whether it was asking you to use the proper pronouns or showing up to a date in a dress, I was always terrified of your reaction. The first time I let you touch me, I felt my consciousness leave my body. Trusting anyone after what I’d been through—the transphobic attacks in public and private—meant inhabiting a vulnerability I couldn’t bear.

You didn’t have to say anything to me. My mind filled in the details already: not passing, not pretty, not feminine enough, too ugly, too male, imperfect, flawed, worthless.

The everyday experience of being trans is a constant struggle to simply exist. When you hurt me or said something cruel, I struggled to remind myself that it wasn’t true. I struggled to remind myself that I was worth more than my body, my complicated femininity.

I remember when you came over to my apartment and I wore a wig in front of you for the first time. My hair was still too short to be anything but masculine. You stood beside me, your body leaning into mine. I held the wig in my hands, tracing the hair between my fingers, nervous. You asked to see me in it, so I let you lead and put it on. I felt more vulnerable with you than I have ever been with anyone else.

You said “aww” and tried to hug me. I almost cried and pulled away. It was more intimate than I expected. We didn’t talk about it, but it haunts me.  The sudden collapse of my body away from you, the overwhelming shame that welled up from my stomach, the feeling of breathlessness.

It’s not your fault that I was a tranny. Am a tranny. Who would love a girl like that? Who wouldn’t hide her away from everyone who matters? After all, I’d spent my whole life hiding from what I was.

How could I expect more from you? You were raised Christian in a conservative Midwestern family, taught to be ashamed of sex, bodies, and gender, but you wanted to be more. I was that more, that curious possibility.

I did expect more from you. You said you would be more, promised you were trying your hardest, but we never escaped our separate trajectories. Me, a girl trying to become real, and you, a boy trying to be better.

It’s not you I blame, but a society that makes it impossible for girls like me to be loved. A society that makes it possible for boys like you to never grow up.

~

Our first date was before I transitioned in earnest. I’d told everyone in my life about my desire to transition but I was still figuring out what that would look and feel like for me. We chatted over vegan cupcakes in Kensington Market, visible to the watching world as only two boys flirting. I’ve often wondered how different our relationship would have been if we’d met later in my transition.

I appeared to him as an effeminate gay boy on our first date and despite the many physical and emotional changes that followed, I don’t think he ever stopped seeing me as one. He used the right pronouns, but he showed me over and over again that he would never treat me as an equal to a cis woman.

The first year of transitioning is one of the most vulnerable and hardest moments in most trans women’s lives. Finally, after years of repression, I was able to begin discovering who I was as a woman. Like most relationships that happen during formative times in our lives, my relationship with X became a space to discover what kind of girl I was.

All of my “firsts” as a girl happened with him. He was the first boy to touch my newly budding breasts or feel my hips begin to widen. Most, if not all, of those first experiences were profoundly painful. The most extreme aspects of his transphobia surfaced during our intimacies.

Early in my transition, I was often read by the world as a man in a dress. He would walk me home after dates or escort me to poetry readings. With him and his six-foot, muscular frame protecting me, I could go almost anywhere in the city safely. I felt safe with him despite the ongoing abuse.

I hid my body in his body so many times it became second nature to curl into his chest whenever we stood beside each other. In every moment we were together, I leaned into him, trying to escape. He would rub my back and tell me it would be okay. If my mood shifted, no matter how subtly, he would notice and immediately ask if I was okay.

I mistook his attentiveness for safety. His presence became a blanket I wrapped around my body. We fell into a rhythm of rescue and release. He was a white knight and I was a trapped princess, locked away in a tower of social exclusion that only he could free me from.

What I didn’t let myself admit is that protecting a woman from the world is often the same as owning her.

~

I remember you in moments. Us, standing in your kitchen during your birthday party, interlacing our hands. You’ve always been drawn to my hands, commenting on how small and soft they are. Wrapped up in your oversized hands, they look tiny.

Once you said that when I held your hand, I was surrendering to you. Submitting to your care. I wasn’t. I was asking you to meet me as an equal.

The first time you held my hand was in a cemetery in October. A warm night beside the Don Valley Parkway. I lay in your arms underneath the sky beside a row of tombstones. You were already talking about loving another girl.

You used to map out my body with your hands. My legs to my hips to my collarbone to my throat to my ears to my lips. I would bite your fingers and smirk, daring you with my eyes. I was scared of making noise during because I was afraid my voice sounded like a man’s so I used our hands to voice consent.

Squeeze for yes, tighten for slower, let go for stop. Except you never stopped.

Once we danced in a jazz bar downtown. You spun me around in a room of cis people. One hand on my waist, the other hand guiding me forward. I slipped up and almost tripped, but you caught me and pulled me closer to your chest.

“Don’t worry,” you whispered in my ear. “Don’t worry—I got you”.

When I came home from surgery, my new vagina bled through my sweatpants. I fell asleep beside you, high on painkillers. You brushed my hair away from my eyes and squeezed my hand.

“I’ll be here, I promise,” you said. “I’ll always be here.”

In our last conversation, you tell me that you don’t want to hold my hand anymore. “It really fucks me up because I only hold hands with people I really love.”

You stare at me from across your bedroom floor in the darkened room. The light of a flickering tea candle makes your face seem grotesque, distorted by half shadow, half light.

“Like I mean, I always remember when I hold someone’s hand for the first time.”

I ask the question you want me to ask. “Do you remember the first time you held mine?”

You shake your head. The shadow and the light run across your mouth before you clear your throat and answer.

“No.”

~

I experienced the common forms of emotional abuse that many woman, cis and trans, can experience from male partners with X. I walked on eggshells for two years, shrinking smaller and smaller. There are thousands of stories from other women that describe what I lived through, accessible from a single Google search.

As far as I can find, there is the only one first person narrative essay about how cis men can abuse their trans feminine partners. Mine. The absence of our voices feels like a deliberate erasure. An extension of the abuse, another way to make us invisible. As trans girls in love, we’re vulnerable in so many ways that cis women aren’t.

The first time X saw me naked, his face fell and he left the room for five minutes. I never got over the look of sadness on his face as he stared at my body. Because I knew he was a cis man who’d been with many other women, his reaction destroyed my sense of my body’s worth. I tried to talk to him about this moment, but he made a variety of excuses, including that the lighting was bad.

He appraised my breasts as being “cute, but something doesn’t feel right.” He told me he was curious about what they felt like, a comment that reminded me how different my body was. In all of our intimacies, he reflected back to me that my body was lacking, inferior to cis women and shameful.

The cruelest thing he ever said to me became a weapon he used whenever he felt like he was losing control of me. During our first intimate encounter, he said, “Me fucking you validates you as a woman.” This message, inherently transphobic and misogynist, was a hammer he used to punish me as well as a knife to cut me.

He hid our relationship from everyone in his life. He lied to me, claiming he was polyamorous and his other female partners knew about me. They didn’t. They thought I was just a friend. While he wasn’t ashamed of being seen in public with me, it was only in spaces where no one knew us. There’s only three photographs of him and me together.

I was the trans girl ghost in his life. I read his poetry and academic writing. I listened to his problems and offered support, often responding to crisis text messages at all hours. When he wasn’t with his other partners, we went on dates, held hands during long walks, and fell deeper in love. Still, our intimacy was secret.

Being a secret isn’t sexy. It’s shameful. I felt a constant humiliation about my relationship with X. He would have me over for dinner with his other partners, a nervous adventure where I wouldn’t know if they knew about us and where he pulled me away for quick foreplay in side rooms. Often I rode the subway home crying.

As our physical intimacy grew alongside our emotional connection, his discomfort and transphobic reactions to my body grew. I felt physically sick after intimacy with him, as I pushed myself through hormones and body modifications. I was desperate to stop the abuse by becoming as “real” as I could.

He dangled the idea of being publicly loved in front of me. I gave up more and more of myself to his needs while constantly pushing myself to become more feminine. I got plastic surgery, fixing my nose because he said it was too big.

Eventually I had gender confirmation surgery, finally resolving my experiences of genital dysphoria. While I know that bottom surgery was the right decision for me, X played a role in how quickly I made my decision. I was terrified that the only reason I was getting surgery was because of his abuse. The first time I saw my vagina was the moment I knew that I was more than his violence had made me.

When he saw my vagina for the first time, his face fell again. He left the room. That evening, he yelled at me in a restaurant, claiming he didn’t want to see it and I “violated” his boundaries. The server came over to check if we were okay, his eyes meeting mine in an anxious searching. I left the table and cried alone in an alleyway beside the restaurant. Later X explained that he was upset because he didn’t want to do any “emotional labour” about my vagina with me.  

In all of our intimacies, my gender and womanhood became a battleground that I continually lost on. He would never let another person misgender me or discriminate against me in public. In fact, X was willing to advocate for me with medical professionals, airplane attendants, and servers. By all public appearances, he was not transphobic.

There were many times when he sent me texts saying that I was a beautiful woman. He would remind me when we were together that I was pretty or looked like a normal girl. When I was on his good side, performing my role perfectly, or he was feeling generous, I was a real woman.

When I upset or challenged him, I was a trick and fraud. For X, my womanhood was directly linked to how good I made him feel. Perhaps that’s true of all abusive men, regardless of whether you’re cis or trans, but his transphobia hurt me in ways I don’t know how to heal from.

I realize now that I was always a real woman. No matter how feminine I was, he still would have abused me. The way he treated me wasn’t about me or my femininity, but directly connected to his insecurity and fractured masculinity.

It was always about him. I was nothing but an object. 

~

Sometimes I feel guilty writing this essay. I feel guilty when I say your name or talk to someone who knows both of us. I want to meet you in a coffee shop and apologize for finally forcing you to confront the truth. I want to be sorry for ruining your life by telling your friends and other lovers. I miss you.

I don’t think you miss me. Or feel guilty. You wouldn’t say sorry to me if we met in public. I’ve heard from people about what you’ve said about me and our relationship. We were just close friends in your version of us, two people who cared a lot about each other but never fucked.

I wonder why this is the line you need to draw with other people. You could have said “I didn’t abuse her” or “I’ve always thought she’s a real woman” but you didn’t. You said “I didn’t fuck her” as if that mattered more than abusing me or being transphobic.

What guy wants to be known for fucking a tranny? Not you. Apparently it’s worse than being thought of as abuser or a transphobe. Or maybe you knew all along that denying our relationship in public hurt me most of all and this was simply a way to keep on hurting me.

Fucking me didn’t matter. It never did. If you only fucked me, I wouldn’t be writing this essay and it wouldn’t hurt so much. I’d brush you out of my mind like a hundred other guys, but you didn’t just fuck me. You loved me even while you were hurting me.

Maybe you still love me. I still love you. I remember scratching your head like you were a stray dog whenever you got sad. The smell of your shirts, thrift shop mixed with sweat, is embedded in my memory. How your Midwestern accent happened at odd moments or particular words. Your eyes sharp with anger, your mouth descending.

This is called after-shock. The echoes of a sudden collapse. Rupture in the body, absence suddenly appearing. Our bodies burning like the threads of a jean jacket accidently caught by a bonfire blaze, a cigarette butt igniting a garbage bin.

Your ghost lying beside in bed, turning over to squeeze my forearm. My hands, empty in the predawn light. These words between us, falling like snow over a deserted playground. 

We’ll never get this back, you know. Our love, this rare hurt. Your voice echoes in my head like the sound of a car door slamming in the distance.

Do I miss you or do I miss who I felt like with you? A lie is just the haunting of the truth against your skin, condensation on the window pane. Someday you’ll wake up and hear the sound of my laugh in the summer heat, remember the way I smile.

The last time we spoke, you told me that our relationship would never be over.

“Our dynamic is always happening, Gwen.” You sigh at me, your eyes guarded across the table. “It’s continuous, whether we speak or not.”

You’re right, of course. That’s what abuse is. A haunting, an exorcism that fails, a history you can’t escape. A noose, wrapped around my neck until the only thing I remember of us is how many times you tried to kill me. I’m not dead though, X. I’m not dead and neither are you. What we have to do now is harder than dying.

We have to live with what happened.

~

I did fight back. I left him repeatedly. I tried to have conversations with him about the abuse and the transphobia. He blamed the transphobia on me, saying that I pushed him into saying transphobic things. When X said that I coerced him into sexual intimacy, it physically hurt me.

I pushed back on his transphobia, reminding him of how trans women are often presented as sexual aggressors and “tricks.” He would apologize to me, acknowledging his transphobia and saying that he was ashamed of me because I was trans, but the transphobia and abuse never stopped.

When a trans woman is being abused by a cis man, he is able to attack her vulnerabilities as a woman in a way that he can’t with cis women. While many abusers often attack their cis female partners self-worth, they aren’t able to call into question their right to be women. A transphobic society surrounding the abuse reinforces these toxic messages.

 As a trans woman with dysphoria, my mental image of my body was already fraught with intense insecurities. I was uniquely vulnerable to X’s abuse because of my underlying anxiety about being a woman in a body that didn’t feel right to me. Throughout an endless series of conversations and intimacies, X repeated the message that I wasn’t as good as a cis woman over and over again.

Understanding why abusers abuse their victims is fundamentally simple. Abusers abuse others because abuse allows them to be profoundly selfish. Instead of managing their insecurities or learning to how to cope with their emotions, they externalize these emotions onto others. Intimate partners are care workers, therapists, sex toys, and props to boost their insecurities.

X was wracked by a profoundly fragile masculinity. His fear of being rejected was so strong that he was terrified of speaking in groups. Abusing me through my femininity reinforced his masculinity in ways which the cis women in his life couldn’t offer. My transness was a vulnerability tailored perfectly to his preferred forms of abuse, a constant weakness that my numerous achievements couldn’t overcome.

I tried to date other men while with X. At first, these other loves felt healing and transcendent because they offered me an access to abuse-free love. X would become intensely possessive and jealous. He would make me recount my sexual encounters with other men, getting hard over my descriptions of them fucking me, but he always find little ways to remind me that I wasn’t worth loving.

He’d tell me that being a trans girl meant no guy could ever love me. Sooner or later, he’d say, it’s going to be a problem. Of course, the politics of trans girl desirability and worth would prove him right and I’d go back to him again. It was a vicious rebound cycle. Each time I tried to leave, transphobia and romantic discrimination would keep me caught between X’s abuse and the prejudice of other men.

People kept telling me to leave him. Even now, hearing the stories, people demand to know why I didn’t leave sooner. The reality is I didn’t feel I had better options. I believed X when he said no one would love me like he did. I was caught in a violent epicentre of transphobia, misogyny, and marginalization that I couldn’t escape. X’s love seemed like a possible redemption, a way into the everyday joy I needed to stay alive.

X gave me enough love to keep me in his life but never enough love to let me feel secure. In exchange for his love, I suffered immense violence and harm.

~

Is my story different from the stories of other abused women? Yes and no. The abuse I experienced was unique to being a trans girl and specific to my wider oppression in society. But outside of my inherent vulnerability as a trans woman, the reasons for my abuse—X’s toxic masculinity and saturation in rape culture—are epidemic across all feminine and female bodies.

People forget that I wasn’t just a victim of abuse. I was a trans girl in love. Love is why I stayed as long as I did and why I kept hoping things would get better. It’s easy to step back from our relationship and list the reasons why I needed to leave. It’s much harder to convince someone who lives in a body that the world hates to surrender their hope of being loved for who they are.

Maybe I should have been stronger. Maybe my love was rooted in my own past as a survivor of childhood abuse, but maybe the question of why I stayed or if I really loved him is the wrong question to ask.

The right questions are easier to answer but harder to face. Why I did I believe I deserved to be abused and why did he think it was okay to abuse me? Why did no one help me?

I was a trans girl in love. Some bodies are worth more than others. You can pretend you don’t believe that statement, but it doesn’t matter what we pretend.

The truth is in the bruises.

~

A year into our relationship, X raped me. I didn’t tell anyone the truth for months. I didn’t admit it to myself, even though some part of me carried the truth like a germinating seed. It was complicated, one of those messy “grey” encounters that get dissected on the Internet and torn apart into tattered pieces. She said, he said.

We were mostly sober. I thought I wanted to have sex with him. I led him on in my waist-high jean booty shorts, my bare legs soft in the early summer light. I’d placed his hands on my thighs, ran my fingers through his hair, teased him in a low voice. I was wearing a tank top that showed all of my cleavage. My breasts were seconds away from exposure, tipping forward whenever I leaned towards him.

I was drinking PBR. The sun was setting outside my condo windows. He had me strip for him in the last traces of daylight. I slipped out of my clothes and posed my breasts for him, squeezing my arms underneath them to make them larger. He climbed on top of me, squeezing my breasts in his calloused hands. Something in his eyes sent fear coursing my body. I wanted to stop but the world kept moving.

I didn’t say anything. It hurt more than I want to remember. Should he have realized my numbness was my absence of consent? Or felt the ice suddenly spreading on my skin? The only sounds I made were ones of pain. Guys usually check in, so I guess I was waiting for him to ask so I could say no. He didn’t.

Afterwards, I lay beside him in the dark. My head was on his chest. He stroked my hair as I listened to his heart race. I remember a tuft of his chest hair curling against my mouth. He smelled like sweat and a salty sour masculine scent that I can only associate with him now. There’s a mole on his neck, just before his collarbone, and I ran my fingers over it. I didn’t realize how strong he was until that moment, but also how scrawny he was naked.

Like an illusion, all of his wide-shouldered masculinity fell away and there was a hairy adolescent boy underneath, taking whatever he wanted. He realized I was unhappy and decided to leave. I remember getting up from the bed to follow him to the door. I was starting to feel like vomiting, my body surging with panic.

“I don’t feel good, X,” I said to him, hysteria peaking in my voice. “I feel really awful right now.”

I don’t know why I wanted him to stay. Something told me that if he left, I’d have to feel what had happened. I’d have to shower and clean up. I’d have to wipe away the blood between my legs.

He kept telling me how tired he was, putting on his shoes as fast as he could. I made him hold me for a few minutes by the door, his arms stiffening around me. After he left, I sat on my floor and cried. I texted my friend and told her some of what happened. I left out the rape.

She sensed anyway and came over on her bike at three a.m. We ate potato chips in my living room. I fell asleep after she left, waking up suddenly at eight a.m. in a rush of terror. I texted X a long stream of messages, repeating how bad I felt. He waited for eight hours before texting me back that he loved me.

A week later, he called me and said we needed “space.” He didn’t want to see or talk to me until I settled down. I was being too intense. This was our second break up, though it should have been our last.

I never got over the rape. Not just the physical reality of it, the pain and fear in my body while he pressed over and over into me, but the emotional ache of his rejection afterwards. I just wanted him to stay and hold me, as if his love could make what happened okay.

I think that’s why I stayed so long. Why I loved him so much. If he stayed, if I loved him, if he loved me, it wasn’t really rape. It was something easier to live with—a bad fight or a misunderstanding. I didn’t transition to be the girl who got raped. I wanted to be the girl who was loved.

I was willing to suffer as much as I had to in order to feel like her.

~

In the three weeks before leaving X, I finally broke my silence and spoke to his friends about our relationship, the abuse, and why I was leaving. I picked the friends I wanted to stay in contact with and, in a series of extremely difficult conversations, I told the truth. Some of his friends believed me, having their own experiences with his cruelty or mistreatment of women. Other people decided it was complicated, choosing to claim they were supportive of both of us. Many decided I was lying, choosing to believe his version of us as simply “close friends.”

The same forces which made me so vulnerable to his abuse also complicated my leaving. People not only had to believe me that he was abusive, but that he had been dating me in the first place. More importantly, they had to acknowledge that a trans girl could be sexually and romantically desirable in order to acknowledge any of what I was saying.

I remember one of his friends telling me that she couldn’t reconcile what I’d shared with her about him with the person she knew, but she wanted to support me. She recounted her conversation with him about me, listing all of the positive things he’d said about me and the memories he’d shared. Unwittingly, she was enabling his abuse of me through long distance. It hurt to hear him say how much he loved me, reciting some of our closest memories, while denying our sexual and romantic relationship.

The idea of believing women is becoming part of popular culture, but there is no message around believing trans women. I had tried to confront X about the abuse and rape before I left. He blamed me for both things, saying that I provoked him into sexual intimacy and transphobia. Trans women exist in the cultural landscape as sexual predators, perverts hanging out in washrooms, and this narrative is often weaponized against us when we try to confront sexual violence. If our femininity is suspect, how can we be believed about something as important as rape?

After our last conversation, I messaged all of the women that I knew were still sleeping with X. I let them know about the abuse and violence. I encouraged them to seek help if they were ever harmed. For many of them, I think it was the first time that they knew about me or each other. One of the women immediately sent screenshots to X of the message. He began emailing everyone involved to tell his “side of the story.” In his emails to the other women, he called me a “person” and refused to use gendered pronouns, a small slight even in our disintegration.

I was judged in many ways as I came forward with my story. Other women who’d been harmed by X believed me, but also blamed me for what happened. I was told it was my fault for “aligning myself with whiteness,” a message from other Indigenous women who felt I got what I deserved for dating a white guy. People took my narratives about abuse and rape as attention-seeking or a way to bolster my sense of self-worth. No one seemed to consider the enormous emotional violence that I was living inside.

Being a woman who’s public about being raped or abused is not a glamorous road. It’s a shameful and painful truth to live. Having lived through it, I can’t imagine why any woman would lie about these experiences. There is nothing to gain but public humiliation. I messaged his other partners in hopes of protecting them from what I’d lived through, but I knew it was a wasted effort. He would lie his way out of this, like every other moment in his life.

I thought about charging him for the sexual assault. On desperate nights, I looked through the forms and the contact information for the police. As an Indigenous trans woman, I knew I could never go to the police or bring a case through the court system. Justice, if such a concept is useful in situations like this, is not available to most woman who have been abused or sexually assaulted. I don’t believe in the kinds of justice that the legal system offers survivors, even if I understand and support that sometimes it feels like the right choice for other women.

Nothing I say or do makes this feel better to me. Nothing that could happen to him would feel appropriate to me. There is no accountability here, no redemption for either one of us. Knowing him as well as I do, I know that he will never admit what he did to me was wrong or accept any story where I’m not a lying, crazy ex-girlfriend. Toxic masculinity ensures his safety, guarantees that his friends stand by him, and that the other women he fucks hate me for warning them about him.

~

I wrote an essay about you but it took me weeks to finish it. I tried to capture what it felt like: loving you, being hurt by you, leaving. I couldn’t compress us into words. It’s something you told me once, explaining what you said when people asked if you were fucking me. You said your answer was to tell them that we couldn’t be reduced to fucking. Our dynamic was more than our genitals. It’s complicated.

I know what your real answers were now. I’ve talked to your other lovers and friends. Most of the time, you refused to answer the question, avoiding it or shrugging it off as if it was something unpleasant you needed to forget. Of all the things I’ve learned about you in our relationship and since leaving, this revelation disturbs me more than any of the others. Why not lie? Or tell truth?

I remember the rare moments when you refused to answer me. Those moments only happened when the question was about something you didn’t know the answer to. In our last fight, you told me that everything between us was a lie. Every moment, every intimate touch, every love. You said you just went along with things, afraid I would leave you otherwise. You blamed my gender, claiming I only loved you for your dick because it made me a woman.

I don’t know if that was true or just something you came up with to hurt me. You followed this revelation by describing your recent bout of sex with another woman. I was in the bed you’d fucked her in, listening to Patsy Cline in the dark, gradually noticing the cloth restraints still on your headboard from when you tied her up. Something in my body burst. Before I left your apartment, you begged me to not leave you, repeating over and over “please say I’ll see you again” until I agreed.

I went home and tried to kill myself with painkillers from my gender reassignment surgery. I took OxyContins until I felt paralysed, frozen into a soft warmth that tipped me over into nothingness. I didn’t die, my body quietly metabolized the drug like I had metabolized your violence for two years. I woke up and decided to leave you. It didn’t feel like a choice.

It was leave you or let you kill me. Maybe you didn’t put the pills in my hand or tell me that I was worthless, but you made me feel worthless. You meant to make me feel worthless, every phrase and word calculated to kill the part of me that loved you. I suppose you didn’t realize that the part of me that loved you—the hopeful girl inside me who desperately wanted to go on adventures and slow dance with you in dark—was the part of me that kept the rest alive.  

The truth is I don’t know who I would be without you. You’re still inside me. I’ve heard cis people say that first loves are like that, intense, passionate bouts of insanity that don’t dim but flicker inside you for the rest of your life. Maybe that’s you for me. As if I swallowed a star when we kissed and it’s caught in the constellation of my skeleton, alternating between burning me and raising me back to life.

I think about cherry pies, holding your hand, and brushing burrs out of your curly hair. I think about you making fun of my fake Southern accent, calling me “girl” whenever I walked up, and sending me heart emojis whenever I felt sad. I think about shouting at you or crying on the phone. I think about tickling your bare feet, biting your fingers, and the glasses you only wear before bed. I think about you walking past with me with your new girlfriend, her smug eyes marking me as if I was garbage.

I used to feel guilty for loving you. I don’t anymore. The guilt was never mine. All of it—the guilt, the shame, the hurt—was yours.

~

I’m still a trans girl in love. A woman who survived and keeps surviving. The hardest part of leaving an abusive relationship is realizing that your priority is no longer caring for your abusive partner, but taking care of yourself. I remind myself every day that what matters is me. I try to be in love with my own possibility, the way I mess up and struggle, the wild hope I flower with.

I heal. I don’t get better. Some days, I feel free. Some days, I miss him so much that I can’t think of anything else. It ebbs and flows around me. The hollow inside me fills and drains. I see him around the city and it hurts. I don’t know what to do.

This is life after abuse, after rape. Forget #MeToo. Forget call outs and accountability. Forget being a feminist or a trans girl. Forget every promise he ever made to you.

All you have is your body. Your love. Your heart beating in the open street, the night rushing down around you, every moment pushing you towards yourself. This is the second birth of a life he won’t witness, the return of a living he can’t take.

Leave him every day, in every moment, in every sudden memory. Leave him until leaving him feels like instinct, like catching a tossed pillow or grabbing a wall when you get dizzy. Leave him until leaving is a river in your blood, until leaving is what the sky spells out in white clouds above your head, until leaving him becomes coming home to yourself through a dark corridor, ecstatic in drunken joy.

Leave him until you remember a trans girl in love is just a girl who deserves to be loved.

~

I want to tell you that in the end, after the violence and the memories, after the intense suffering and pain, after the work of naming and facing, after everything I’ve lived through with you since I transitioned, I return to a single memory of us.

We are sitting beside an ocean as the sun sets. You cry by the shoreline while I sit away from you on a pile of rocks. I’ve just offered tobacco to the ocean, greeting and thanking her for sustaining life. You come to join me by the rocks, roll me a cigarette and offer me a swing of the whiskey you’ve tucked into your coat. I take both gifts, rest my body against yours as the last traces of orange light dissolve into the skyline.

I offer you my hand. You take it into yours, the smallness of me wrapped in the largeness of you. It’s almost three months after my surgery. My vagina is still bleeding daily, slowly healing towards completeness, and I can feel it ache as I perch on the rocks beside you. You’ve watched me become myself more intimately than anyone else has. Despite our long history together, being wrapped in your arms by the water feels like the first moment we’re truly meeting. Finally, I’m whole with you.

The immenseness of the ocean meets the expanse of the darkened sky. Oil tankers slumber out in the bay. You squeeze my hand softly, drawing tiny whorls on the back of my palm with your thumb. We sit in silence, trading whiskey and nicotine before the cold overwhelms us. I’ll never forget this moment. Our intimacy, as deep as the waters of the harbour and as complicated. Your hand in mine, my head on your shoulder, the sound of you breathing and the scent of your skin as we lean into our past and futures.

You are my rapist and the boy I’ll always love. I hold both of these truths inside my heart like the ocean holds the sky. We don’t have to be victim and abuser, trans girl and cis boy, lovers and friends.

We can be more, but only—and this is important—if we choose to be.

~

postscript

My ex-partner once thanked me for being “your most constant and perfect witness.” This essay is my witnessing, reflected back to him through my body. I know he will see it as a betrayal of our trust, a harvesting of our intimacy in order to tell a story. I hope that one day he will see this essay for what it is: a final act of profound and sincere love.

I’ve spoken with his past lovers. There are other girls like me. Other women he’s hurt in complex and lasting ways. We’ve talked each other through the memories of his abuse. It’s hard for us to love anyone again because of what we endured from him. Many of us have similar experiences of sexual assault and non-consent with him. One of the reasons I face my ex-partner here is to honour to those other silent women who can’t speak back to him.

We’ve written him letters. We’ve had long conversations with him about the harm he’s caused in our lives. We’ve tried over and over again to help him unlearn these patterns, at great emotional cost to ourselves. He refuses to listen to us. He finds new partners who don’t know his past or are willing to gamble on him, trusting their outcomes will be different.

I don’t believe in punishment or exile. I long for a transformative justice that gives all of us, the abused and the abuser, a chance to find peace. I work towards that possibility in my intimacy because I believe that confronting misogyny and addressing rape culture requires both perpetuators and victims to participate. The research on men who abuse women suggests that transformation is not possible. He is very likely to repeat this behaviour over and over again, hurting and assaulting other women throughout his lifetime.

My love refuses reason. It hopes for his healing. I still want him to say “I’m sorry” to me even though I know it’s an impossible desire. This essay is not about him nor an attempt to push him towards healing. It’s an offering for other trans women like myself to see themselves inside stories of abuse and sexual assault. It’s a prayer for all women—cis and trans—to strengthen us as we face the underlying male violence and misogyny of our everyday lives.

I am not a perfect victim. I made mistakes with my ex-partner. I remember the many fights and angry texts I sent him, the times I yelled back at him in frustration or how I made him cry once with the bluntness of my words. I know I’ve hurt him as well. Nothing I did to him made his abuse of me acceptable and nothing I ever said justifies his actions.

Disagreeing with a man who’s harming you is not violence. Holding a man accountable for his actions is not harm. Being made uncomfortable is not the same as being unsafe. I spent a year being afraid he would rape me again, actual physical fear that he would hit, assault, or murder me. I lived in constant terror of his mood swings and sudden anger. I disappeared daily from his violence. When I left him, I spent weeks living in terror that he would show up at my apartment or my work to seek vengeance. This is what it means to actually be unsafe in the world.  

To resist, to question, to challenge, and to hold men accountable often goes against our instincts as women. We are trained by a patriarchal society to value a man’s happiness, pleasure, and comfort above our own. When we resist male violence, we stop performing the good “femininity” and become threats to masculinity and its privileges. I resist misogyny as a trans woman knowing that my claim to femininity is diminished by men because of my willingness to challenge them on their actions.

I wrote this essay for every survivor. For every woman who has been assaulted by a man she loved. For every girl in love. For every man who reads this essay and feels a deep sense of guilt over how they’ve treated women in their lives. For every man who sees himself in my ex-partner’s behaviour. For every man who thinks that he could never do what he did. For all of us, men and women, caught in this cruel cycle of violence that destroys our capacity for and belief in love.

We live in a time of #MeToo and increasing consequences for men who abuse women. As these conversations unfold, I believe it is important to centre healing and radical love at the heart of our notions of justice and accountability. Some of the people who read this essay will know who my ex-partner is. Despite my careful attempts to disguise his identity, I can’t hide the fact that he and I were known as a couple, and that rumours of our relationship persisted despite his attempts to deny me.

I do not want harm to come to him from this essay nor do I not want him to be punished on my behalf. I know that he will feel considerable discomfort, sadness, and hurt from the existence of this essay. He should feel something about what’s happened. If he doesn’t, there is no possibility of him ever learning how to honour and respect women. I hope that the people in his life who read this essay are able to hold him accountable for his actions.

The responsibility for addressing abuse, sexual assault, and misogyny is a communal one. We are all implicated in the conversation, whether we are men, women, or non-binary people. Each of us has a role to play in allowing for sexual violence and in addressing it. The people in his life who allowed him to harm women and who continue to support him in avoiding accountability have a responsibility to me and his other victims. This is not an individual problem, but one which intersects with all aspects of who we are as people.

I don’t know the “right” answers to the challenges we face in addressing sexual violence, abuse, and misogyny. There may be many “right answers,” each tailored to the circumstances in question. It starts with empowering women to speak openly and publicly about experiences. It includes space for men to work towards accountability safely and with appropriate supports. It requires a community to witness and hold each party to their accountabilities. Most critically, it requires us to care deeply for each other: abusers, abused, and bystanders.

This essay is my way of trying to show that care.

Gwen Benaway is a trans girl of Anishinaabe and Métis descent. She has published two collections of poetry, Ceremonies for the Dead and Passage, and her third collection, Holy Wild, is forthcoming from Book*hug in 2018. 

“It's Canadian, feminist, and one of my favourite things ever.”

—bucketofrhymes, "29 Amazing Literary Magazines You Need To Be Reading", Buzzfeed Books

Room relies on subscriptions from readers like you. Help us continue to promote and support diverse women and genderqueer authors and artists by subscribing today.

SUBSCRIBE

Currently on Newsstands

  • Room 41.4, Emergence
    Edited by Alissa McArthur

    In this issue:

    Tharuna Abbu, Farah Ali, Kristin Bjornerud, Michelle Chen, Nomi Chi, Morgan Christie, Kim Fu, Hannah Graff, nancy viva davis halifax, Ceilidh Isadore, Liz Kellebrew, Jo Lee, Kris Ly, Melanie Mah, Sara Mang, Katie McGarry, Estlin McPhee, Triin Paja, Loghan Paylor, Nagmeh Phelan, Oubah Osman, Lisa Rawn, Yvonne Robertson, Erika Thorkelson, Cara Waterfall

    .