Serenading Sera 0: a Prologue
I broke up with her before she was my girlfriend.
How exactly did a girl like me — born and raised in Kansas, inundated with Westboro Baptist Church hate speech throughout my formative years — wind up in a relationship with a transgender woman?
Have you heard of Boston marriages? I learned about them recently and was fascinated. A Boston marriage was two financially independent women living together in the late 19th and early 20th centuries which could include platonic, romantic or sexual relationships between women.
When I was 14, I fell in love for the first time. Totally unrequited as far as romance goes, though I was very lucky: Tina was a loving, open-minded platonic friend. So much so that, at 17 when I started very carefully testing the waters with my closest friends and family, she was the second person I told, and she has always had my back since.
The kind of romantic ideas I had about how our lives would play out together were very much like a Boston marriage. I thought growing old with one of my best friends sounded way better than this marriage and babies plan so many people had. And, because I hadn’t developed any particular sexual feelings yet, and had plenty of crushes on boys, I had no idea yet that I was Different(tm).
I think my mom knew long before I did. She sometimes grounded me from various platonic girlfriends of mine in high school because they were “acting too gay.” Me and those wonderful amazing friends of mine still laugh about the irony of it, as I was usually the queer one among us. My mom’s tolerance has evolved since those days.
My first sexual feelings for boys came somewhere in my early teens, and my first sexual feelings for girls came awhile later. These were really sweet innocent feelings: wanting to kiss or hold hands, for instance. I’m reluctant to even call them sexual, really. More like a prelude, a sign of things to come.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I even learned the word “bisexual.” It didn’t feel quite right, but it was the best word I had to describe that there were certain human qualities in people I was attracted to, and gender just wasn’t a filter I cared about. My first boyfriends were in middle school. My first girlfriends were in college. I learned some other words and phrases too, including some derogatory ones I encourage you not to use like BUG: Bisexual Until Graduation.
Most of my close family and friends know that I sometimes date men and sometimes date women. I’ve been completely out — if the topic comes up — since I moved to Seattle 15 years ago, but it’s really not a core part of my identity. I know that seems strange to say, but it’s not.
If you ask me what I am, I am going to tell you I’m an engineer because that information is way more useful to you in figuring out how to navigate my personality quirks. I am more likely to be analytical than emotional. I am mechanically inclined. I read a ton of hard science fiction. I love problem solving. I love puzzles. These things are core to my identity.
btw? I really like Brussels sprouts. If we’re not specifically talking about Brussels sprouts, there is a chance you may have never known this about me. So please don’t feel strange if you don’t know this about me. It’s never been that I’m hiding my love of Brussels sprouts; it just hasn’t come up.
The majority of my romantic adult relationships have been with men, so on the occasion that I have been visibly in a relationship, it’s extremely likely I was with a guy. Why? Well, I’m an engineer. I work with, like, almost all dudes. My friends are mostly guys. I am surrounded. So, this is going to sound kind of awful, but if I’m lazy, the law of large numbers applies: I mostly wind up dating guys. In Seattle, there are way more men trying to date than women, and I’m the token woman a lot of tech guys interact with daily … In dating situations, men are usually more aggressive than women, so smart, kind, funny, good-looking guys will often swoop in when I’m single long before I even meet any new women.
This last year, I made a commitment to date women again. I finally recognized I would have to make an active, concerted effort. It had been ages since I’d had the kind of giggly, soft, sweet romantic relationship women have with each other and I missed it. I set Tinder, a phone-based dating application, to look for women only and made plans to get back into the Seattle queer girl scene.
Around the same time, an absolutely heartbreaking number of transgender teen suicides started hitting national news. I’m so lucky to live in Seattle, where Cobain poignantly and unintentionally voiced our notable philosophy: Come as you are. In jeans to fancy restaurants. In sneakers and a prom dress. Face tattoos? Welcome to Seattle. Welcome home.
Given that, I was disturbed by the number of women who were specifically saying “No trans women.” I was astonished by the sheer percentage of queer women who were either outright transphobic or — and I can understand this if not empathize—unable to properly express that they were unwilling to deal with potential male anatomy in a dating context.
I mentioned this to one of my best friends who has several very close platonic transgender girlfriends. She told me stories about how heartbreaking dating has been for them. Too few people understand what transgender means. Never mind that trans women who are on Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) are going through that same intense hormone-shifted need for acceptance that us ciswomen went through during puberty. Do you remember how awful rejection was then? I do.
It suddenly struck me as almost surprising that I’d never dated a transgender person. I’d had a crush here and there, but I just hadn’t met the right human yet who, as a side note, happened to be transgendered. I’m a Kinsey 3; someone who shows almost no gender presentation preference. I just don’t care. I like people’s brains. I like people’s hearts. I’m a sucker for pretty eyes or flushy cheeks or asymmetric dimples or deep laughter or a witty sense of humor.
The day I decided I was going to bloody damn go on a date with any transwoman I encountered on Tinder because I was feeling deeply indignant about the injustice of transphobia was the day that Leelah Alcorn died.
If I had been a transgender girl in Leelah’s hyper-conservative family situation… The suicide note she left? I could’ve written it. She had a way of seeing things and writing that struck way too close to my bones. This incredible self-awareness and pragmatism about the reality she perceived. I can’t tell you how hard I cried or how angry I was that the reality of transgender women she was able to discover reflected what I’d heard from my friend: that some transgender women who transition after they go through male puberty are never accepted by the broader, uneducated public as “real women”, that dating is incredibly difficult. I get how she found perceptions of a possible future like that, being nowhere near Seattle. If she believed that was the only reality waiting for her, I understand why she would question the quality of that life. I wish we could’ve inspired her with success stories, with encouragement, with acceptance, with love.
Real women? Seriously? What on Earth does that even mean! I know a ton of ciswomen who question their “real woman”-ness because they don’t meet these ridiculous definitions. Women are nurturing. Really? Yeah, I can name ten women who aren’t, just like you can. Men are aggressive. Really? Yep, we know plenty of exceptions. Yet we spend an amazing amount of our early childhood development learning about the gender poles. Who wears pink? Don’t even get me started!
So, that is how I started dating Sera. Basically: righteous indignation. It’s a dubious motivator, I know, but whatever.
I met Sera through Tinder, which, by the way, is not a great mechanism for meeting queer women. This impossibly impish, gorgeous girl showed up as I was swiping through photos and she was holding a little sign with all of the precociousness and confidence in the world that said, “btw, I’m trans!”
We hit it off immediately, and soon I met her for our epic first date. There was Thai food and pinball and storytelling and a lot of giggling.
She’d never had to deal with the come-downs of the extreme endocrinology of a woman’s new love interest. I’d never had to be on the receiving end of that completely shattering level of emotional head noise. We were both awful. I accused her of being codependent, self-centered and needy. She used every trick she’d ever learned to try to get and keep my attention which made me even more skittish, introvert-exhausted and worried than my default.
A week later, we got back together and had a very long talk about my needs as an introvert, and how I would really like a manual called What To Expect From Hormone Replacement Therapy. I still felt skittish, but she did a lot to reassure my concerns. I also found that I was still thinking of her a lot because our first date really was awesome even if the aftermath was a train wreck.
A few days later, we had an epic second date, and then I turned the tables on her and had my own meltdown. I usually just suck it up and deal with insecurity internally and let the emotions pass before I try to do anything, so while I think of this as our second meltdown, she’s like, “What second meltdown?”
Somewhere in that mess between the first date and the second, I even told her I didn’t want to see her for at least two years. I admit that with some chagrin … like, why two years? That’s specific. So I broke up with her once before our relationship had even started.
Thankfully, I have some friends who know me really well, and know when to call me on it when I’m being impossible. They thought I wasn’t living up to the kind of patience and compassion I usually try to have, and they knew I was still thinking about her a lot.
The other night, an older couple was visiting Seattle from Mill Creek and eating at Cafe Flora for the first time. As they left, they stopped by our table with bright, beaming eyes to say how much it meant to them to see such a happy couple together enjoying each other’s company. We knew what they meant. We’re not just queer girls enjoying an abating stigma. Sera still gets misgendered sometimes because of where she’s at in her transition, and it matters that the husband addressed us as “you girls”.
This morning, a woman visiting from Montana made a point of saying, “You girls have a nice day!” as she and her family left the 5 Point Cafe. Guns N Roses was singing “Patience” in the background need a little patience, yeaaaah, just a little patience, yeaaaah, and it all seemed beautifully apropos.
To my life-long family and friends: thank you for your patience in a lifetime of loving me for being who I am. Thank you for your patience in reading this. I’m writing this for my family and friends who may not have realized that I love Brussels sprouts as a way to start swapping recipes (Dear hyper-literal friends, This is a metaphor. This is my way of saying if you need to ask me or Sera questions about sexual orientation or what it means to be transgender, you are safe to do so without judgment. But you can also send me your Brussels sprouts recipes.)
Us girls gave each other another chance, and I’m glad we did. Sera is amazing — and a completely challenging handful as that first impression of precociousness suggested — and I’m lucky to have met her and have her in my life.
She makes me tea when I’m sick. She plays her guitar and sings to me. I read her stories. We hold hands, and play pinball, and dance together. We cry together. We laugh together.
Sera smiles brightly at people who stare at her with tight-lipped judgment or confusion when we’re out in public together. She hands them her adorable “Hi! My name is Seranine Elliot, and I’m here so you can get to know a real live trans woman.” cards because she is determined to make the reality for transgender people an easier, kinder one through direct communication. Sometimes, I get to make things a little easier on her by loving her, or saying she or us girls or my girlfriend a little extra loud.