When my girl and I walk down the street, people see a lesbian couple in love. A fairly standard one, as these things go, at least in the big city: I'm the tall one, with short spiky hair and a vaguely butchy wardrobe, my arm slung possessively her shoulder. She's six inches shorter than me and much more feminine. When she's not in workout gear she dresses like the quintessential power lesbian: impeccably tailored suits, dresses and shoes.
Each of us has things we dislike about our physique. I'm a solid 30 pounds overweight and have bad feet and the bad balance that comes with them. My left knee that reminds me its warranty has expired every time I climb stairs. I have squinty eyes and a snub nose and a canine permanently discoloured by a close encounter with a ship's anchor chain.
My girlfriend, despite her petite 5-foot-4 frame, has the physique of a swimmer. Her shoulders are broad and her arms well-muscled, as are her legs from her daily stint on the treadmill. She has strong hands with short fingers, and a strong chin that she hates. She dislikes her slender hips, always on the lookout for dresses that make her look curvier, She stresses about her high hairline and the near-invisible scar beneath her nose. She feels self-conscious about them all, considering them unfeminine.
Par for the course, right? If there's a woman outside of a Zen Buddhist monastery completely satisfied with how she looks, I've yet to meet her.
Fortunately, each of us appreciates the things that dissatisfy the other about themselves. She loves my height and curves and forgives the fact that I have no sense of direction or balance. I revel in her stunningly buff physique and her strength and grace and -- ahem -- well, her glorious posterior, among other things. I love the soft tumbleweed cloud of brown hair that tangles around her in the morning before she takes comb, straightener, and hair product to it, never noticing her somewhat higher-than-average hairline. I love the way that chin of hers juts out assertively when she's thinking hard about something.
And I love her hands. For years I've daydreamed about meeting the perfect woman. Her face was always vague, as was her personality; what I always pictured were her hands, strong and wiry and competent, perhaps veined and roughened with work.
Hands with a history and strength and confidence reflecting their owner's.
Hands that knew what they were doing.
When I first met Jessica, I offered to read her palm in a transparent gambit to get my hands on hers. As I traced her lifeline, I knew that this woman and her hands were going to send me head-over-heels. And she did, and still does.
That's what makes a relationship, I think: When two people not only appreciate those things in their lover which their lover esteems about themselves, but also appreciate those things their lover feels insecure about.
Those insecurities, though--there's more to them than meets the eye.
I've spent a life with the standard background misogynistic white noise telling me what I should like about myself and what I shouldn't. I ran out of fucks to give in my early teens, and have since dressed and behaved pretty much as I pleased, gravitating steadily toward the genderqueer end of the spectrum over the years. I've been called "sir" a couple of times, and gotten a few nasty looks from cashiers in the boondocks of Appalachia, but on the whole I can assume as much or as little femininity as I please without fear of losing my job or house, being beaten, or killed.
If I decide to splurge on that gorgeous pair of Johnston and Murphy two-tone wingtips in the shoe store, I don't consider what impression they'll make on people who see me wearing them, or question whether my addiction to high-end men's footwear makes me "less of a woman." I can stroll down a street in those wingtips, pants, men's shirt and tweed vest and fedora, confident that I'll be seen as the person I know myself to be. The things I dislike about myself? They may be informed by societal norms to some extent, but they're nothing that's out of the ordinary.
It wasn't until I started dating Jessica, who happens to be transgender, that I realized what an awesome gift and privilege it was to be seen as I see myself.
I never have to stare at the suit I plan to wear to work, knowing that some will consider it overfeminine and too sexy and someone else will consider it not feminine enough, and knowing that both of those opinions will affect how I'm judged as a woman. On a coworker, that same suit passes completely without notice. I never have to consider whether I'm wearing too much foundation or not enough. When I try on clothing, I don't immediately reject those that show off my broad shoulders and narrow hips, regardless of how much I may like the garment or how lovely it looks on me.
My wardrobe and personal style, my makeup and hair and the way I walk and gesture and present myself on the gender spectrum: All of these are the result solely of my desire to express myself and who I am. I don't need to evaluate every gesture, makeup, and wardrobe choice by how I think others will react to it, and whether it confirms or negates my essentially female nature.
I wish that Jessica didn't have to think of any of this. I wish that she could wear those sleeveless sheath dresses that show off her mouthwatering shoulders and arms without feeling self-conscious and dysphoric. I wish she felt comfortable in a frothy, bright, and flirty sundress, free from the niggling worry that she looks too over-the-top femme. I wish, now that she's finally free to embrace the person she knows herself to be, she wasn't immediately subject to an entirely new set of strictures that she felt she had to conform to, to survive and succeed.
When we walk down the street, no one notices any of these uncertainties. No one knows the fundamental differences that determine how we present ourselves to the world. No one knows that my girlfriend's chosen hairstyle and wardrobe were selected not merely for self-expression but also out of self-defense, and that she is so much more invisibly at the mercy of gender norms than I am.
To the world passing by we're simply two women walking hand in hand, two girls in love.
DREA LEED is a senior software architect whose interests include big data, search engine optimization, paleography, early music, tall ship sailing, and anything else that holds still long enough to be studied. She attended Mount Holyoke, Queen's University Belfast, and Indiana University, and has published a book and numerous articles on Renaissance costume and material culture. After a recent 13-month sabbatical sailing around the world, she is currently dividing her time between rural Ohio and Washington, D.C., and keeping an eye out for the next big adventure.