Images via The Gender Spectrum Collection.
It was the middle of summer and I was sprawled on a grey-green couch in Queens. My clothes lay in a heap near a glass table, my companion’s black bra and shorts by my feet. She lay on top of me, licking my breast, teeth pressing down every so often in a mixture of pleasure, pain, and some cool sensation between both. I kept apologizing as my nails dug into her back.
I felt amazed each time she applied pressure to my nipples. I’d had many sexual partners – most of them cisgender men – do things with my breasts, but never like this, even as the basic method seemed the same. The quiet shock-sync of enjoying each other, of wanting not just the contact of bodies but our bodies. To be sure, sex with someone you care for feels different, higher, more incandescent (and I already knew this was someone I liked as more than just a casual companion), but it seemed like something simpler, too: I was realizing my body was more capable of pleasure than I’d ever imagined. As a trans woman, this revelation was important.
I loved the idea of being desired by people, which made even crude behaviors like catcalling occasionally seem welcome early in my transition; for all their crassness, comments by men who found me attractive, or attractive enough, felt in weak moments like validation of my ‘passing’ as a woman.
For so long after coming out, I both expanded and contracted my corporeal and sexual horizons, experiencing new joys (like being fucked by men and sleeping with a woman while being perceived as a woman myself) and new pains (like my fear that my genitalia instantly made me less worthy of womanhood than a cis woman). I loved the idea of being desired by people, which made even crude behaviors like catcalling occasionally seem welcome early in my transition; for all their crassness, comments by men who found me attractive, or attractive enough, felt in weak moments like
One afternoon when I was in secondary school, I remember deciding to go down into a valley-like area in our yard where many of our most bounteous plants grew – breadfruit, grafted mango, lime, guava, pineapples, coconuts, and a much-maligned coffee plant whose products never pleased my mother and which confirmed her lifelong belief that Dominica’s coffee was not as good as coffee almost anywhere else in the world. I often explored the little valley with our German Shepherds, who loved nothing more than to chase terrified anoles and skinks through the large rotting breadfruit leaves and, with admirable effort and ingenuity, rip apart hard brown coconuts to get at what little meat and water might be left inside. The valley was a place to disappear for a bit, both from my parents and into my head.
I walked over the crisp browned breadfruit leaves lying on the grass like curled, withered things that had once been gargantuan bats, and I had a clear vision: I was a tall woman, hair wrapped in multicolor cloth. I thought of walking into Jolly’s Pharmacy in Roseau, our capital city, and buying one of the white tubes of generic lip balm (my mum forbade me from using lip balm for many years, as she thought it too effeminate) or one of the black pressed powder compacts or even just something mundanely unisex. I imagined doing the most humdrum things as a woman. Sometimes, I stood out in these visions; other times, I was an unremarkable girl lost in the tarp-flutter of a crowd.
I wanted to walk out the door and we would both be wearing the same jeans, hand in hand, hair flying in the breeze, t-shirts tight over our breasts.
But I was afraid that if I acted on my urges to live as a gender distinct from my sex, I would go to hell, as the priests declared in church on Sundays. I barely even understood what it meant to feel that I was a girl when everyone called me a boy; at times I imagined I might be hearing the seductive words of Satan in my ears. The music all my friends danced to reinforced the understanding that queerness of any kind was infernal – in particular the American hip-hop and Jamaican dancehall songs with lyrics that frequently alluded to beating the shit out of ‘faggots’ and ‘batty boys’ and ‘trannies.’ I feared someone would do the same if they so much as suspected I was queer.
So I tried to suppress my feelings. I dated girls as a teenager, but it never felt right. I didn’t want to act like ‘the man’ in our relationships, even as I postured as one on the surface as roughly as I could. I wanted, instead, to walk out the door and we would both be wearing the same jeans, hand in hand, hair flying in the breeze, t-shirts tight over our breasts. I never said any of this, so I just came across as awkward, made all the worse by my natural shyness. Unsurprisingly, my relationships didn’t usually last long.
Sex seemed a cloud-thing, there and yet distantly out of my reach. I wanted something that seemed impossible: to be the woman in my visions, my arms and legs entangled in another woman’s, or held by a man’s. When my libido dimmed, I still saw myself as the woman I envisioned, going out to a store to buy groceries and perfume, or venturing out to festivities with imaginary friends who, in this parallel universe in my head, had always known me as female; if anything, I wanted more to be this quotidian ghost, wanted to walk in her shoes every day, every moment.
I wondered why she resided in my skies. I wondered if it was some cruel temptation from a biblical devil or some curse for a crime I had not committed but was made to suffer for all the same, like original sin. I wondered if I was merely mad. Twice, the woman in me brought me near suicide: once, before coming out, when I was so unhappy being perceived as male; and a second time, when the weight of the new pain accrued after transitioning – my mother unable to accept me as her daughter rather than her son, my rejections by dates due to my body not being a cis woman’s, my loneliness – became too heavy to bear. Yet for all that, I would never want to live any other way than as the woman I am.
I have often wondered what my life would have been like if I had never been forced to go through male puberty. If, in some ineffable parallel universe where queer people were accepted, I could have been given puberty-blockers and hormone therapy (or had simply been born a cis girl) to let me go through my teenage years as a girl. My college years, the first half of my years in graduate school. I wonder, too, if I could be me at all, without the scars of all those years of depression and discombobulation. If I could be me at all, without having come so close, all those times, to self-annihilation.
Nothing taught me how many ways there are to tease pleasure out of my body, or how malleable, multifarious, and vast sex can be, better than transitioning.
To be with anyone before coming out is different from being with them after. Your body changes, both from hormone therapy and from you now being you, a place of new possibilities. Transitioning, after all, is never solely about the subtle changes it makes to our fat distribution, body hair, breast growth. If you’ve wanted to be seen as a woman all your life, having sex with someone who accepts – sees – you as one feels utterly remarkable, not simply on a physical level, but an existential one.
You feel right, suddenly – despite any lingering dysphoria. While I still struggle with whether or not I am comfortable being touched in the place where I wish a vagina was – a struggle that may never disappear so long as my genitalia remain what they are – I have accepted my womanhood in a deeper sense. Nothing taught me how many ways there are to tease pleasure out of my body, or how malleable, multifarious, and vast sex can be, better than transitioning.
When I lie again on that lovely couch in
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub. She grew up in the Commonwealth of Dominica. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Shondaland, Guernica, Slate, Tin House, The Paris Review Daily, The Los Angeles Review of Books, New York Magazine’s The Cut, VICE, The Normal School, Electric Literature, Lambda Literary, The Toast, TOR.com, Caribbean Review of Books, Small Axe, Autostraddle, the blogs of Prairie Schooner and The Missouri Review, and elsewhere. You can get in touch with her through her website and on Twitter.
This piece originally appeared in MAL, a literary journal themed around sexuality and erotics that publishes essays, fiction, and poetry, both in print and online.