The bomb came at the end of an already emotion-laced conversation — two hours this time — in what had been a week-long series of up-and-down phone calls with “Rhonda,” with whom I was in a new intimate relationship.
“A group of my lesbian friends have invited me to dinner next month,” she announced. “I can bring a guest, but they’ve made it clear that the guest can’t be anyone who is transgender.” The words, along with the timing, thumped into my heart.
I mustered, “Wow,” and then went silent.
Quickly trying to regain territory, Rhonda shared that her friends were “feminists” who didn’t believe in giving significant emotional or personal space to people they don’t consider “true women.” She threw in, “I’m not like that, Ellie. After all, I’m seeing you.”
The explanation didn’t help one iota.
“Are you going to go? And bring someone other than me?” I had to ask.
Coming with measured tonality, I heard, “Tell me something. Do you think you completely understand what it means to be female?”
The deflection-turned-interrogation was obvious.
“Of course not,” I shot back. “There’s no way that I could fully understand what it means to grow up in a society where girls and women are constantly messaged that they’re second to men. Plus, I’ve never had a period or gone through childbirth — so there’s a lot I don’t know about being female emotionally or physically.”
With a hint of victory in her voice, Rhonda cut in, “I appreciate your honesty.”
Undeterred, I added, “But I’ve had all kinds of things happen since transitioning genders that I never could have fathomed as a man. I didn’t know what it felt like for men to talk down to or over me, or for a man to call me ‘ignorant’ in front of my peers. I’ve now experienced all of that. Even more, I now appreciate the fear that comes from walking on a city street late at night and encountering a man.”
“Are you going to go to the dinner?” Now this was my test. “Oh, Ellie. These people are my tribe. Yes, I’m going to join them for dinner.”
This was followed by why I shouldn’t be offended: the dinner was “no big deal,” Rhonda understands trans people whereas her friends don’t, and, most of all, feminist lesbians have historically been disadvantaged in a patriarchal society. “There are still vestiges of maleness with any transwoman,” she said.
“The way my friends think isn’t at all personal to you.”
Personal or not, hearing that I was persona non grata simply reinforced my “Otherness.”
“I feel lesser,” I said.
Minutes later, the call was over.
I’ve been presenting as female for nearly ten years. I didn’t transition genders until I was 52, giving me more than five decades of navigating the world as an ostensibly straight white male. For nearly four of those decades I experienced dysphoria — sometimes gravely — because my female brain didn’t match my male body. I later came to hate my maleness and desperately needed to live as the true me, a woman.
If the litmus test for womanhood is suffering because of society’s gender rules, then I think I earned my stripes.
Regardless of how we all got here, women should stick together. In my book, we all have a right to claim the same degree of dignity and respect and, certainly, there’s the hypocrisy of one marginalized group marginalizing another marginalized group.
Rhonda never answered my question about whether she planned to take someone else to the dinner party in my place.
Remembering that self-respect trumps all else, I ended my relationship with Rhonda the day after our phone call.
It was something quite personal.