I grew up believing in love stories. My parents celebrated 31 happy years together this past July, and my grandparents were together for more than 65. I knew what love looked and sounded like, and decided young that I would rather be alone than settle for anything less.
For years, I channeled my belief in love stories into writing them myself. One of my short stories was edited by a man who would later become the main character in my own romantic life. We talked about pacing and development in fictional friendships as our friendship grew steadily stronger. There was nothing but a six-year age gap and more than 800 kilometres between us — we had no way to know what was coming.
We were also both women at the time. That, too, would come as a bit of a surprise.
I probably met Rowan sometime around 2009, in that fleeting way you “meet” people on the internet — a few jokes, a username that grows familiar, and suddenly you can’t remember how long you’ve known someone, just that you do. We had similar tastes and interests. He edited short stories for me, we talked occasionally on Twitter and that’s about as far as it went. I was older and, at that point, our life experiences just didn’t align well.
But after the 2016 election, we started talking more regularly. He was a political journalist in New York City, and I had started buying men’s clothing in Cleveland for reasons I was determined not to examine too closely. It was nice, having someone to talk to. As the months wore on, the conversations became more frequent and more exciting. Twitter DMs turned into text messages turned into late night phone calls, and soon we were in constant conversation, a never-ending dialogue running in the background of our lives.
In March, he called me drunk from a cab to tell me about a friend of his proposing impromptu marriage, and I felt a spike of unfamiliar emotion — jealousy, fear, confusion. I knew then that I might be experiencing more than just the excitement of new friendship, and invited Rowan to come stay with me for a week at the end of May.
Love at first sight is a fairy tale.
For someone who believes in love stories, it’s something I’d never put any stock in. But when he stepped out of the airport that late May morning I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I was done — that whatever I’d believed before was wrong, because this person was the one for me, and there was no denying it.
For the six days he stayed, I took him everywhere. We went to my favorite sights, stores, restaurants, and on my favorite hikes. I didn’t dare confess my feelings, because we’d talked enough to know we’d both lived through rough relationships in the past.
I couldn’t risk putting him in the position of receiving unwelcome feelings in an unfamiliar city, with nowhere to go and no way to avoid me until his return flight. Instead I escorted him around, played him two dozen love songs on my car radio and bought a palette of mangos in a fit of romantic panic, to avoid an innocent question from a stranger about the nature of our relationship. It was neither a dignified nor subtle trip — especially since, as I would hear from everyone in my life over the subsequent weeks, everyone we met assumed we were already together.
He left on Saturday, the morning of my 28th birthday. That night, I sent him a drunken confession of my feelings, too overcome to hide them anymore. I said a lot of mushy maudlin things that boiled down to, “I think I’m in love with you,” and in the morning, upon waking, he said a lot of slightly more cautious things that boiled down to the same.
It was the single best hangover of my life.
We’ve been together ever since.
Rowan was still identifying as a woman then — we both were. What little we had discussed about gender let me know that there was something there on his end that he wasn’t touching, but I didn’t worry about it. I’d identified as bisexual for as long as I could remember and I knew it wouldn’t matter to me if his gender turned out to be something other than it was when we started. I wanted his perspective, his companionship, his brilliance — none of those things were likely to be altered if his gender were to change. More than anything, I wanted him to be happy and knew I would support any path he took to find it.
It was my own gender that took me by surprise, that shocked me with realization months after I’d cut off my hair, changed out my wardrobe and stopped wearing makeup entirely. The signs were all there — but the possibility had never once occurred to me until it hit me all at once. Rowan, who saw this coming a mile off, would later tell me that he’d been gently asking for months if I felt okay with the pronouns I was using. I remember this, of course, but never once did I put together why he was asking.
One night in November, I turned to Rowan under the florescent lights of the salon I was working in at the time. “I think I might be trans,” I said, hating the way it scraped out of my mouth, scared and uncertain, small. He said, “Yeah?” and smiled at me, and told me it was okay, and kept telling me it was okay as I hemmed and hawed and panicked, tried out different names and pronouns. He still tells me it’s okay, on days when I have trouble telling myself.
I’ve been Dylan for a year now and on Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) for six months. Without the love and support of my partner, I know it would have taken me years to get here, if I ever made it at all. I am happier than I have ever been, both in my relationship and in my skin, and have had the added bonus of having a partner right along side me on my transition. . . but that’s Rowan’s half of the story to tell.
When I started dating Dylan, I didn’t own any pairs of jeans. I had thrown them — and half of my wardrobe — out years earlier in a tough-love attempt to make myself dress more like the woman I thought I was.
I had an incredibly hard time talking about my own gender when we first began our respective self-examinations. I think I knew the answer, but was terrified to admit it: I had put so much effort into not thinking about the subject that I had molded my life to avoid the possibility of it coming up.
Dylan got to know me as somebody who wore only dresses and heels, who took an extra 15 minutes to put on makeup before heading out the door and who inevitably borrowed his clothes at the slightest excuse. During that first week we spent together, I don’t think I took off my heels once. As we got used to the back-and-forth of a long-distance relationship, though, a few of his shirts found their way into my closet. I became more and more comfortable packing a bag that included fewer dresses and more leggings as all my jeans were gone. I started to hate getting dressed for work, where I still wore designer dresses and heels on a daily basis.
When I first acknowledged that so much of that felt wrong — my body, my clothing, the way people perceived and addressed me, the persona that I wore around everybody else — I couldn’t imagine undoing all that compartmentalization, but I also couldn’t imagine going back.
It helped that I wasn’t alone. Though he was 800 kilometres away, Dylan and I talked every day.
One night I looked in my bathroom mirror in New York and something about my focus shifted.
My reflection hadn’t changed, but suddenly I could only see the ways in which my face was boyish. I called Dylan and told him about it.
“I can’t make it switch back,” I said. “Has this happened to you at all?”
I’m a very methodical person: I like to break a problem down to its component parts, make pro/con lists, draw diagrams, and otherwise defang it. But you can’t do that when you’re trying to figure out what gender feels right for you. There’s no online quiz or thinkpiece or secret omen that will instantly, 100 percent guaranteed, painlessly tell you what that is. You have to feel your way through.
But I didn’t know that at the time. I made a lot of lists and drew a lot of diagrams that, in retrospect, all pointed pretty clearly to the answer, but that didn’t feel like enough. I kept checking and rechecking my work, torn between not wanting to acknowledge that I was trans myself — I had a lot of internalized denial — and not wanting to get my hopes up only to find out that I was cis after all.
In retrospect, cisgender people probably don’t experience crushing despair at the thought of having their cisness confirmed, but I had talked myself in so many circles at that point that I would have believed anything. Also, what do I know about how cis people think and feel about gender?
It took me a week or two after Dylan told me that he thought he was trans to acknowledge out loud that I was, as well. After all, I didn’t want to say, “Thank you so much for telling me! That’s so important and I’m very proud of you and I love you very much. By the way, I’m having so many previously repressed emotions about this that I think I definitely am, too!”
By the time I was back in New York after visiting Dylan in November, heartsick from separation and exhausted from a four-hour flight, I was sure — or sure enough — that I was trans.
Mostly I was sure that I wanted to stop feeling so bad, and so misplaced in my own skin, and that I was willing to try anything in order to get there. But the thought of saying the actual words was terrifying to me. I was afraid that someone might jump through my window to yell, “No you aren’t!” What would I do then? At that point, being trans — accepting it and pursuing transition — felt like the only way I could live authentically.
I planned to tell Dylan the next time I visited him in Cleveland. That way, if the world ended because I said the words out loud, at least we’d be in the same place.
It was late November, cloudy and grey and chilly. I sat on the bus to the airport and wondered if I could do it, and then I sat in the airport and wondered if I should do it, and then I sat on the plane, where my anxiety was briefly, blissfully overtaken by my fear of falling out of the sky until we reached cruising altitude, and then my heart jumped back into my throat and all I could think was that I had to do it, so I’d better figure out how before we landed.
By the time I made it into Dylan’s car, I was shivering, and it took me ten minutes to make the words come out of my mouth.
“I think I’m trans, too,” I said, so quietly that he didn’t hear me the first time, and then a little louder.
“That’s okay,” he said, “I know.”
And the world didn’t end, after all.
I never believed that love stories were anything other than that: fiction.
The world is a big place, and I’m a strange person. I was sure that the odds of finding anybody whose personality fit mine, who would be patient and kind, who would love all of me, were basically zero.
But from that first day Dylan and I met in person, I’ve felt more comfortable as myself, and in my own skin, than ever before.
In March, Dylan flew to New York, helped me load my life into a moving truck, and drove it for 10 hours across the width of Pennsylvania. In May, he soothed my fears about starting HRT and in June, we celebrated one year of dating in the home that we share. It’s full of light and love and the 15 houseplants we’ve acquired.
Trying to think of an end for this story feels wrong, because every day with my partner feels like a new beginning. Getting to be with Dylan never gets old, and getting to be myself and share those discoveries and that journey with him is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done.
The world is a big place, and we found each other. So whatever comes next, I want to share it. Wherever we go, I want to go together. Whoever we become, I want to find out, because there’s no one else I’d rather spend my future with.