A beautiful and complex love: The story of one couple's journey through transitioning gender
The future of human sexuality may have no labels
I met the future of human sexuality. Her name is Hannah and she is genuinely fluid.
Hannah is unusual in the best way possible. I met this 27 year old stylist in 2012 and was immediately fascinated by her uniqueness. She is covered in tattoos that range from whimsical to downright perplexing… like the one of a bread tag, completely nonsensical yet delightfully random. Fair skinned and freckled, from the neck up she reads like Anne of Green Gables all grown up, except this iteration moved to the big city at 20 and became super cool. She has a kind, soft energy and wicked intellect to match her sense of humour, as much a modern Torontonian as she is a girl who grew up in rural Sudbury, Ontario. If you are having trouble assigning a stereotype thus far it's probably intentional. Hannah hates labels.
The reason I decided to finally write about Hannah isn't because of her tattoos and defiance of categorization. It was because of the unique and rarely told narrative of her first relationship, which happened to be with a transgender person.
Transgender people are having a bit of a moment in the mainstream media. Gigi Gorgeous, Coronation Street, Caitlyn Jenner, the acclaimed hit show Transparent - all high profile examples of the transgender narrative stepping foot into the modern zeitgeist. We hear about how Caitlyn's transitions are affecting the Kardashians, how Gigi found her true self via internet stardom and how much Jeffrey Tambor loves winning Emmys.
We also hear about their rights being abused. Donald Trump sent shockwaves through the community and its supporters announcing he was banning transgender people from serving in the military. What we don't hear much about are their personal relationships in the real world and how their status as a trans person influences their most intimate human connections. Spoiler alert: they are just like your relationships. Hannah's description of her relationship with a trans man: "just two people."
Like I said, Hannah doesn't like labels. As I sit with her in a trendy coffee shop in Toronto's East end I get a predictable answer when I inquire about her sexuality:
"If people ask I say that I'm queer… but I don't use that as an identity. I don't feel the need to say that."
When we talk about who she most frequently dates…. "Humans." That's Hannah, living up to her palindromic name, come at it from either direction and you get the same answer.
Hannah has had encounters with both men and women but she rejects the label of "bisexual" and I get the sense she really means it. Sometimes in the gay community identifying as bisexual can be a transitional label, less threatening to those who are struggling to cope with internalized homophobia or uncomfortability with an eventual authentic self. I don't get this sense with Hannah. This isn't someone hiding behind the shame or social judgement that comes with labels like gay or lesbian I don't think she is bisexual either. She genuinely defies that kind of categorization and comes by the rejection of it honestly. Any human being has a chance at her heart. She is not limited by gender in any context.
Four years ago Hannah met Marvel (Marv for short) at a school for stylists in Toronto. She calls it her "first real relationship", adding that the attraction was immediate and it wasn't long before they fell in love. At the time Marvel, born "female", identified as such but early on Hannah had some idea Marvel was struggling with his assigned gender.
"I had a feeling. It wasn't something we discussed until around the year mark. He identified as female but was not upset when he got misgendered (mistaken for a male). But you could tell that he was struggling with 'the female thing' at that time."
This wasn't an issue for Hannah. In fact, androgyny is something she's most attracted to. So, she did what anyone in love would do… she supported her partner.
After a lot of conversation Hannah helped Marvel with a pivotal step in his transition… finding the right physician. That queer positive doctor just so happened to sit in her chair one day at the salon. Next, she says, came a series of meetings with multiple doctors including psychologists who essentially "validated" that this person needed to transition - a completely unnecessary step in her opinion.
"I think it was very frustrating for him because I think when he made that decision he wanted it to be immediate. I think he wanted to start taking hormones so he could feel like he was in the body he was meant to be in."
Feeling stuck in the wrong body is something the majority of humanity cannot even fathom and statistics support the transgender community's struggle. Egale Canada cites a 2010 study reporting in Ontario alone 47% of trans youth had thought about suicide and 19% had actually attempted suicide in the preceding year. Those staggering numbers speak to the necessity of achieving your authentic self and the pain that can come with achieving it. For Hannah and Marvel, the infatuation and love in the first year of their relationship softened the struggle.
"There was nothing negative about it. It was just what I was doing. It was just part of our relationship. I was just happy to see it happening."
Part of Hannah's supporting role was to ask Marvel a lot of questions all the time. To talk through it and be a safe place and a balanced sounding board through a stressful and sometimes confusing time. She helped him change the gender on his official documents, waited for phone calls and discussed the complex and evolving use of pronouns in between. At one point in my regular appointments with Hannah we would refer to Marvel as not "he" or "she" but "they". This may upset the grammar police but it's what felt right for Marvel at the time. Eventually Marvel felt comfortable with the pronoun "he" but one of the biggest difficulties in their relationship became misgendering or more accurately the prevention of misgendering. Marvel is rarely misgendered these days but early on Hannah felt a constant pressure to make sure everyone in the room knew how to address him properly. Marvel wasn't always open to announcing his transition and the stress of both protecting Marvel from society and society from Marvel could be trying.
"I think as soon as he started transitioning I pushed him to tell me how he wanted me to identify him because 'I talk about you. We are in a relationship together.'"
It was a stressful time for both Marvel and Hannah… but that stress and perseverance would come with eventual rewards… the biggest of them… testosterone.
"The first time he shaved was very exciting."
When I ask her if she realizes a majority in our current society would not have that reaction to their partner suddenly growing hair somewhere new her response is an enlightening reminder that most of the time love trumps our need for ordinary thinking.
"People are people. If you love someone, no matter what they go through, you are probably going to be ok with it."
Marvel's body changed. He lost his hips, his voice got deeper and his muscles became more defined. Increasingly, he became himself. I get no sense that Hannah's physical attraction to Marvel changed or wavered during this time. She describes his hormone therapy as "...actually a really cool thing. Even the way he thinks about things is so much more masculine now."
It's not just the body that changes, so does the mind. She describes how Marvel increasingly had less emotionality when it came to decision making, landing on decisions regarding wants and needs more immediately.
"I found progressively he just got more aggressive. In the way he presents himself, in the way he talks to people in the way his reactions come out sometimes."
I ask her if she ever felt like she was suddenly dating a different person. She says she's never thought about it that way.
"He really did change. He is a completely different person than when we first met. That has to do with hormones, yes, but also has to do with things that we have gone through together. Things that he has gone through. Things that I have gone through."
Marvel and Hannah are no longer together. But if you think it's because of Marvel's transition, think again.
"I think it was two people who were in love….then fell out of love."
Like most relationships they fought about mundane and ordinary things, it was just against a rare backdrop that most people would still likely find exotic or strange. Money, emotional inequality, socializing… the quarrels all probably sound very familiar but Hannah wants to make one thing very clear:
"His transition and the relationship as a relationship are separate things."
Remember. Hannah loves people before gender.
The reasons for this breakup were ordinary, it's the opportunity to experience love in this context that was not.
If people ask I say that I'm queer… but I don't use that as an identity. I don't feel the need to say that.- Hannah
Recently reading Canadian author Elan Mastai's romantic time travelling romp All Our Wrong Todays, I was struck by a specific passage. In the book, he describes a utopian society in an alternate future, where social acceptance and progress has sailed along at a vastly faster rate than our own. When the narrator, a member of that futuristic society, is suddenly thrust into an alternate reality, our world, he describes the gender dynamics he finds there in an illuminating comparison.
"Part of the problem is this world is basically a cesspool of misogyny, male entitlement, and deeply demented gender constructs accepted as causal fact by outrageously large swaths of the human population. Where I come from, gender equality is a given. I'm not talking about the absurdly fundamental things like pay equality. I mean that there is no essential difference in the way men and women are perceived in terms of politics or economics or culture. Your genitalia are considered no more pertinent to your status that the color of your eyes."
At the end of Hannah and Marvel's simple love story, one like many heteronormative couples have experienced, a question demands asking: How many trans people have lost out on love because of the rigid classifications and categorizations our society imposes? Imagine a place where love is love is love. Where your body doesn't limit possibility, where gender as a social construct ceases to exist. Open minds, open hearts. The idea may scare some people. There is comfort in familiarity. Our social constructs are familiar. They feel safe, logical and time honoured. That doesn't mean they are perfect or beyond revision.
Our definitions of love and gender are evolving. The laws governing who can love who are being rewritten. There is no telling where the next generation of open minds will take us but I'm glad Hannah gave me a glimpse of what that may look like. Real, confusing, sometimes messy but anchored in love without condition.
Ryan E. Thompson is a Toronto based television producer and writer specializing in LGBT issues and entertainment.