"He isn't a woman," I answer.

Ralph rolls his eyes. "At any rate, you like manly men. Testosterone is your Kryptonite."

He isn't wrong. The last man I'd been involved with was 6'4", another ex-boxer, who'd grown up on the South Side of Chicago and so reeked of conventional masculinity that he'd been cast as cops and toughs in major motion pictures.

"Plus," Ralph adds, looking pointedly down at his crotch, "there's this little issue."

"Your napkin?" I say, narrowing my eyes.

"More like what's under the napkin," he says drily.

And there it was. The first incidence of what I would soon learn to be the defining question about my relationship with a transman: What the hell, if anything, is under the napkin?

When you date a man who was not born male, people have questions. Most of these questions are about sexual relations. Some are astonishingly bold, like my good friend who requested I draw her a picture of what my boyfriend's privates looked like.

Then there was my mother, who, upon hearing that my online beau and I were officially an item, blurted out, "Does it even work?"

Transmen are used to these queries, invasive and inappropriate as they may be. This is still a man's world—men earn more, control more, are valued more—and what makes a man is nothing less than the key to the cultural castle. If the only true definition of manliness is "one who possesses a working penis," that poses an interesting dilemma for the guy who's suffered, say, an unfortunate lamb shearing accident. And what about men with negligible penises? Are they only 10 percent male? How about men who require pills to make their penises elevate? Are they men only when medicated?

"But Ali," my mother says, lowering her voice to a whisper, "you're not gay."

This rapidly-becoming-familiar conversation is happening at an old-fashioned tearoom in Florida. There are doilies on the tables, women with oxygen tanks wheezing nearby. I struggle to breathe myself, trying to explain how gender and sexuality are not the same thing, how someone can feel himself to be a boy, even if he was not born with the boy kit. How nothing is clear-cut, if you are honest about it. Girls play football, boys like to sew, everyone cries. How society has made the rules, issued the uniforms, the lists of approved activities, but where it counts, in your heart, in your head, the truth is always far blurrier.

My mother takes a long sip of iced tea.

"You mean he's like RuPaul?"

"RuPaul is gay, Mom. He's a drag queen, not transgender."

"Isn't your boy gay?"

I sigh.

"No. He is a heterosexual man. Like Dad."

"He is not like your father," she gasps, looking side to side. "Your father is normal."

Okay. Perhaps my boy is not a "normal" boy. This is true. But normal has always felt like a lie to me, a too-tight sweater we force ourselves to wear. Normal has never been too kind to women, to children, or people of color, people mired in poverty, anyone different in any way. Normal is good for no one, really. It is a lie we all decide to believe—after even the most cursory look, no one is actually normal; it is a plastic bag we wrap around our own heads.

Next: "I was unlocked, redefined, filled up in an instant with feelings hard to bury as elephants"
Photo: Mackenzie Stroh


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