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I couldn't understand why she thought my decision whether to become sexual with her would depend on what was under her skirt.

But it did matter.

" ' least then', I think, 'they'll only rape her, not murder her.' What an expression of overwhelming violence and a single human's inability to stop it!

talking about the iSsues no onE's eXpressing:

telling it like it is in the world of bi-trans romance

P.K. Fili

by Heather Franek
art by Julia Keel

Near the end of a transphobia forum held last December in San Francisco, a petite trans-woman named Rachel stood up and raised her hand. Everything that had been said so far was important, she said, and she welcomed the speakers' and audience's commentary on the many issues that arose around transphobia in the bisexual community and gender oppression in the world at large. But what she really wanted to know, more than any of this, she said, was, "Is anyone at all interested in me romantically?"

No one answered her question. "I might be," I thought, "except that you look so much like Amy, the first woman I fell in love with, that it's traumatic even to watch you."

I figured this was hardly a productive answer, so I said nothing, but sadly no one else responded. Someone raised a point about how bisexuals could be allies to the transgender community, and the discussion went on in its highly intellectual vein.

Across the room stood Patricia Kevena Fili, local bi and trans activist and the organizer of the transphobia forum. Later she would tell me that her knees shook when she heard this question because more than any other comment, the issue of dating and romance struck at the core of what she felt was wrong with the queer activist attitude towards TS/TG issues: that transgender people were valued allies and interesting objects of intellectual analysis about gender and society, but that few of the folks writing about "gender fuck" were seriously willing to consider trans people as close friends or potential romantic partners. Unless, of course, you were talking kinky sex and gender exploration at a party or TS-friendly sex club.

But I would not hear this that night, because I was busy avoiding her -- I had had a crush on P.K. for nearly nine months, and being the recovering shy person that I am, had convinced myself that there was no way she could possibly be interested in me. I remember meeting her for the first time; I thought she was incredibly beautiful and it was all I could do not to stare into her eyes and fall speechless. But I was afraid she would think I was staring at her because she was TS, and I looked away after saying politely, "Nice to meet you."

Ever since that moment I had handled the situation like I do most of my serious crushes -- I avoided her like the plague, kept all conversation to intellectual or activism-related topics, and never, ever, gave her the impression I might actually be attracted to her, because I would hate to impose my sexuality on anyone else the way so many clueless people have imposed their sexuality psychically and physically on me.

Two days after the transphobia forum P.K. and I were standing in the middle of the kitchen at our semi-annual Anything That Moves staff retreat. In the midst of the conversation, as she was complimenting me on my outfit and thanking me for all the work I had done for ATM, she spontaneously reached up and tucked a fallen strand of my hair back behind my ear. I sucked in my breath and looked down, as it was all I could do not to grab her and kiss her right there in the middle of the kitchen floor. Moments later I suddenly had to go chop a vegetable. She of course thought she must have crossed a boundary, because she hadn't asked permission to touch my hair, or worse, that I was disgusted by having someone who was transsexual touch me in an intimate fashion. But it never occurred to me in that moment that she might think I was disgusted by her, only that I might somehow offend her if I in any way revealed that I was affected by her light, gentle touch.

"When she was naked, I was lost in the undefinable."

It is fascinating to me now that at the time, even in the wake of Rachel's question, it never occurred to me that P.K. might be worried about expressing her attraction to me. After all, she was beautiful, well-liked, passionate about her activism -- why would anyone not be interested in her? Undoubtedly, I believed naively, she would have all sorts of partners to choose from should she decide to move out of her apparent unattached status. If she was not expressing interest in me, it could only be because I was not interesting to her.

Part of my cluelessness lies in the fact that during my 10 years of bi activism so far, nearly all of my trans colleagues have had partners, often non-trans partners in long-term and/or committed relationships. It never occurred to me to think about the difficulties trans folk face in dating, because all of the trans folk I had close contact with were already "hitched." But part of it has to do with a deep naiveté, a deep lack of understanding that even those of us non-trans folks who are long-time queer activists have about what it's like to be a transgendered person interacting with a transphobic world.

The first night we actually got up the nerve to flirt with each other, P.K. told me at least three times that she was a pre-operative TS -- i.e., that while she was on estrogen, had breasts of her own, and had lived as a woman for some time, she still had her genetically given male-appearing genitalia. The night we had our first date, when we were telling each other Important Facts prior to "officially" getting sexual, she mentioned it again. I didn't understand. "Why does it matter that you're pre-operative?" I thought. "If someone knew they were attracted to you, why would it matter to them what genitalia you have? Isn't the point that they are attracted to you, not your genitalia?" I couldn't understand why she thought my decision whether to become sexual with her would depend on what was under her skirt.

But it did matter.

The first time I slept with P.K., I was delighted to finally be intimate with someone I had been attracted to for so long. At the same time, something deep and subconscious in me got confused at the sight of her fully-developed breasts coupled with her male-appearing genitalia. It's not that I wasn't prepared; I knew when she took off her dress there would be a penis and testicles there, I've seen Loren Cameron's famous photographs, and I've heard a decent amount of detail from TS activists about their hormonal transition processes and how being trans affects their lives. But still, when I saw P.K.'s penis, I wanted to call her "he"; naked, she no longer fit in the category that I know as female, even in my feminist, bi activist, trans-positive, gender-fucking community. I needed some other category, something that was neither male nor female, to soothe the confusion of my subconscious brain and somehow make everything right with the world. When she put her clothes back on, my brain went back to "she" and somehow everything was okay again. When she was naked, I was lost in the undefinable.

The realities of MTF biology only increased my deep confusion. P.K.'s penis, while it once made a fine showing as a representative of the spectrum of male human genitalia, no longer acts like a penis; it produces a very lightweight fluid continuously, does not ejaculate, and the fluid smells much more like vaginal fluid than any semen with which I personally have ever come into contact. It responds to touch more like a clitoris, and one day I affectionately named the whole ensemble a "clitina" when we could not figure out which aspects of its behavior were more like a vagina and which were more like a clitoris. Her breasts go through phases as they grow to their full size and shape. Her skin is growing softer and more sensitive, and she is sensitive all over in a way that she never was before she started estrogen. And even though her hormones are not cyclical, she has monthly "periods" which follow her lovers' schedules and in which she has migraines and severe abdominal cramps.

All of these bodily characteristics, however, are not nearly as difficult to absorb as the challenge of interacting with a woman who has been raised as and treated as a man for the first 45 years of her life, and who therefore has inherited a whole lot of the shit that this society bequeathes to men as it beats them up, teaches them to handle disagreements with egocentrism or violence, and asks them to never show vulnerability.

I am keenly aware, every day that I interact with P.K., that I am dating Patrick as much as I am dating Patricia; despite the fact that P.K. had a lifetime female gender identification, Patrick nevertheless inhabited her body for its first 45 years, and he still comes out to handle her affairs when she's stressed, angry, or being criticized or disagreed with. If I could not talk to P.K. about her "male shit", I could not date her; we have an ongoing conversation about her "boy side" and how this impacts our relationship. Regardless of what Patricia may try to hide, Patrick is not going away just because P.K. has taken charge of the rest of his development.

"Never...have I been as frightened as I was the first night I simply rode home with P.K. on the bus."

I could, of course, keep all of this secret and pretend that my subconscious has no problem interacting with someone who does not fit into culturally defined gender roles. This is what most non-trans folk in the bi world do, even some of those who are supposedly writing and theorizing about gender-crossing issues. But to do so is to be dishonest with myself, and to put P.K. in the difficult position of either dealing with my subconscious on an unspoken level, or confronting me on things I'm pretending don't exist. This self-denial among non-trans folks also leads to serious barriers in coalition-building and the potential for relationships between trans and non-trans people.

The issue of gendered upbringing, I think, is one of the most divisive barriers I have seen to open dialogue and coalition-building between trans and non-trans queer people. Many MTFs I have met have grown up with very male ideas about what makes a woman a woman, and adopt these ideals when they make their transitions. I have seen MTFs argue that biceps are not pretty, that any woman who does not like being whistled at on the street is just "uncomfortable with her sexuality," and that other transwomen are "boy-girls" or "she-males" because they don't bother to shave their legs or armpits. Does one have to get rid of one's arm hair and stop exercising in order to be feminine?

By the same token, I've seen FTMs argue that their abusive behavior towards others was an effect of testosterone injections which "cannot be controlled," even though millions of genetic men and adolescent boys manage to control their tempers every day. P.K. gets extreme disapproval in her MTF community for not being "woman enough" to satisfy the MTF Guardians of True Womanhood; for not passing well enough, for not making her voice high enough, for letting it show that she grew up as a man.

I am one of those feminists who at times has questioned whether MTFs should be allowed to participate in women-only events -- not because I have essentialist ideas about what constitutes a "woman," for I think of P.K. predominantly as a woman -- but because so many MTFs I know have not worked through their male shit enough to really understand what the world is like for genetic or female-reared women. No adult experience can convey what it's like to grow up as female in this society, constantly taught to suppress one's use of power, always compromise, and spend huge amounts of energy placating men whose feelings are hurt because they've been criticized or told no.

The original point of women-only meetings, in a male-dominated, misogynist society, was to bring together a group of people who shared a particular cultural background, to have time and space to grapple with this legacy and find ways to transform it so that we are finally free to be who we want to be and yet can still value where we came from. Many MTFs simply do not understand this cultural legacy -- they have not experienced it, even though they have always internally identified as female. And a few MTFs act outright like spoiled, adolescent males when they don't get what they want or someone says no to their vision of the way women should be or to their view of how the world should operate. I do not interact with P.K. the way I would with a woman raised-female. Nor do I particularly want to, because this is not who P.K. is.

Heather FranekThe issue of passing is vitally important, though, because only trans people who pass are safe from the incredible violence that this misogynist, homophobic, transphobic world directs at people who don't fit standard dualistic categories of gender and sexuality. I have been an anti-violence trainer for 10 years, and during that same time I have also been a low-paid social justice activist who, for economic and social reasons, has lived in neighborhoods afflicted with a lot of violence. I have worked in high security prisons and defended children against abusive parents; I have lived across the street from a house that ran an underground business in guns and ammunition in a neighborhood with a significant history of street warfare. Yet never, in all of my years of walking streets alone at night and handling difficult situations, have I been as frightened as I was the first night I simply rode home with P.K. on the bus.

And nothing even happened. We took BART to Oakland-12th Street, and stood around under a bank waiting for the #40. Some men stared at us, but then went back to their conversations. No one approached us or threatened to do violence. Yet as we stood there holding hands, I wondered despite my belief in being 'out' if holding her hand was putting her in danger, a danger which was certain and immediate and which I could not singlehandedly stop if it were to impose itself upon us. I have the names of trans-friendly people I know who are involved with emergency services and law enforcement memorized -- Mark Silver, Scott Cozza, CUAV and its 24-hour referral line. "Is it possible," I wonder while walking down the street late at night with P.K. -- a street I would not be afraid to walk down alone -- "to call 911 and ask for 'the ambulance with Mark Silver in it'?" And in perhaps the most telling self-revelation of all, I find myself hoping that P.K. will get her genital surgery soon -- because "at least then", I think, "they'll only rape her, not murder her." What an expression of overwhelming violence and a single human's inability to stop it -- "at least they'll only rape her."

In the meantime I go on happily dating my sweetie, arguing about what movie to see tonight and how much water should be used to properly cook al dente pasta. I still have not seen her watching a basketball game when her favorite team is losing, but she says, "It's not a pretty sight," and that "I may not want to know."

On a day-to-day basis, she's just P.K., a tall thin redheaded Irish ex-Catholic who likes movies, dancing, and snuggling in bed. It so happens that she's also MTF TS, and I still can't figure out whether my fundamentalist Christian sister is going to be disappointed I'm dating someone in a dress, or happy I'm dating someone with a penis.

Regardless of the end result, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Heather Franek is an anti-violence and diversity trainer and Minnesota chauvinist who also acts as the Business and Organizational Development Manager of Anything That Moves Bisexual Community Resources. She and P.K. Fili made it into bed on January 5, 1998, and are still there, thinking about what you're thinking as you read this article. All similarities to real persons or events implied in this article are purely and entirely intentional.

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