This episode was originally aired on September 2, 2016.
The best way to begin to understand an experience very different from your own is to listen to the stories of others. This week, we read the letters of two transgender men who are struggling to find love and acceptance.
The Sugars discuss with Cooper Lee Bombardier, a visual artist, writer and transgender man.
I am a young guy in university undergoing a gender transition. Since coming out at the start of this academic year, I have never been so centered and calm, and I am happy with life. I have finally gotten to a point where I can allow myself to get into a serious relationship with someone who truly respects my identity and sees me as nothing but male.
The only issue I have is that my mum is in total denial. She has known now for two and a half years but will not respect my pronouns or my new name. I tried to bring her along the transition from the beginning, but after 2 years trying to convince her this is real, I couldn’t wait any longer, and I finally started hormones. All of our arguments center on her being uncomfortable with my transition. It’s framed as concern for me.
My mum has never been happy in her life, and I cannot allow her to pull me down with her. I struggle terribly knowing that I am betraying her perception of me, and taking away her little girl. But this is who I am, and I can’t do anything about it. The stuff she says is offensive and wrong, and try as I might to understand, I am losing respect for her.
I’m trying to be a good son, but I need to live my life. Please help.
At a Crossroads
Steve Almond: At a Crossroads, you’re doing great for your part of it. You’re not at a crossroads, you have found the right path. It’s your mom who, as you tell us, has never been happy in her life, and so maybe your happiness and contentment in some ways is kind of a betrayal of her unhappiness. But it’s also true that this is a huge and difficult thing for any parent.
Cooper Lee Bombardier: I started my transition 15 years ago — I was in my early 30’s — and I had so much fear about, ‘If I do this, am I going to lose everybody? Am I going to lose friends? Am I going to ever find love?” And at some point, I realized that my fear about what other people might do or say was kind of holding me back from going forward in my life.
Trans people wrestle with these feelings for so long, and by the time we articulate them to somebody, it’s like a bottle bursting open. And then we tell our parents, and we expect them to “get it” tomorrow, even though we’ve been struggling with it for years and years. I wonder how much the mom has any context for this experience. I wonder how much time they spend together. Has she been able to see her kid in his new identity? It’s really hard to be patient when we’ve waited so long to realize that this is what’s going on, but for those relationships we want to bring along with us, we do need to offer some patience.
Cheryl Strayed: I think anyone who grows up with a chronically unhappy parent gets kind of co-dependent about that, and I just want to unburden you from that, AAC. You’re not responsible for your mother’s happiness, and honestly, I think the thing that will ultimately make her the happiest is seeing you happy. And she might not be able to see that yet, but it’s true.
Steve: It might be necessary for a period of time for you, AAC, to find ballast in your life.
Cooper: When I went through a time where my relationship was not good with my folks, it was really important to keep that avenue open that it could transform at some point, but then I also did a lot of my own growing up during that time.
Cheryl: It’s not just his mother growing into this new knowledge and this new experience, but him as well. It’s the relationship evolving.
How do I get over the fear that I'll never find love? When I type that out, it seems absurd, even to me. I know many people feel the same way at times and that people who open themselves up to love are generally likely to find it, but I don't feel that to be true in my heart, and here's why: I'm a transgender man. I can't help but feel that being trans makes me an exception to the general rules about love. I know that I'm lovable and deserving of love, but I can't imagine that someone will get through the initial phases of attraction to learn what I have to offer. I have a lot of female friends who talk about wanting men who are well-endowed in height, in their wallet size, and in their pants. Obviously I'm out of luck on the last one, but I’m also out of luck on the others. I'm 5'2" because I went through female puberty, and I make social worker pay. I've internalized the message that no woman is going to be attracted to me as I am, so what good is my great personality?
I imagine women say these things partly to flip the typical narrative of men placing impossible standards on women, and I get it, but it KILLS my self-esteem. I've been in therapy before and throughout my transition, and so I have attempted to work on my self-esteem issues. But regardless of the progress I’m making, every failed attempt at courtship sets me back to hopelessness. If giving up on love were an option for me, I probably would have done it by now, but my big heart won't quit. I want to be a warrior for love, as Cheryl suggests, but right now I feel like I ran into battle without my armor. Can you help me figure out how to defeat the monster that is hopelessness?
Aspiring Warrior for Love
Cheryl: As the person who wrote that phrase, “Be a warrior for love,” AWFL, I want to say you are a warrior for love. The whole message is about running into battle without your armor. That’s what being a warrior for love is. It’s about being vulnerable, it’s about taking risks, it’s about being brave and emotionally intelligent and not trying to find adversaries. It’s trying to really open your heart, and you’ve done that beautifully.
Cooper: I think that it’s just part of the process that you go out there without your armor and you get squished, and sometimes I feel a little bit bummed about my failed relationships, but then I also think, “Well, where did it bring me in terms of my evolution as a human being and my ability to relate to others?” It might not have worked out, but it did push me along on my path of being able to do better. The willingness to just keep trying is the right thing. So many of us, we have our list of perceived inadequacies, and we think, “Oh, this isn’t going to work because I don’t have any money, because I’m too short, etc.” Spend less time listening to those messages. Spend time in places where people are exhibiting other values.
Cheryl: We answer this question over and over: Am I too fat to be loved? No. Am I too poor to be loved? No. Am I too fill-in-the-blank to be loved? No. I also think it’s true that some people are going to not want to date you, AWFL, because of your height. And what’s kind of cool and beautiful about that is, think of it like a winnowing process. You don’t want to date those people anyway, right?
Steve: Stop treating yourself as damaged goods and figured out that some beauty is out there waiting for you and wants what you have, which is knowing who you are, humility, and the strength to go through this transition.