L.A. Affairs: Being a trans man means writing my own love language
For some, the days leading up to Valentine’s Day and after bring sadness, sometimes weeks of it, moods dampened by letdowns, broken promises and heartbreak. And these are just the people in good relationships. It’s the pressure: the belief that if you really know your significant other, finding the perfect gift should be easy. It’s not. You can live with a person for years, spend pretty much all your pandemic hours in their company and still be utterly bereft of ideas come February.
Unless, of course, that person tells you.
Rewind to a February several years ago, when I was driving on Venice Boulevard with my girlfriend past one of those stalls selling stuffed teddy bears wrapped in plastic. I joked about getting her one, knowing it’d be the absolute second-to-last thing she’d want — the last being the fake roses sold alongside it. But as the car moved past, leaving all those suffocating teddy bears behind, I thought: You know what? I’d like a stuffed bear.
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Why not? I have nothing to prove, masculinity-wise. I mean, let’s just say that I don’t. In actuality, as a trans man, I feel like I have spent every single day of my life trying to determine exactly how my masculinity fits into this world.
For most of my life, I just wanted to belong, but my body didn’t allow it. When I was in elementary school, teachers would call my mother and ask her why I didn’t play with the girls — “because they’re boring” was my response — and even though I don’t think women are boring now, it made sense back then, because I never felt like one of them.
I took the moment in the car to offer that teddy bears are equal-opportunity gifts: My girlfriend could always get me one.
That Valentine’s Day came and went, though, and then five more, and no bear. It became a running joke between us. Every February, I would wonder aloud where my stuffed bear was, and my girlfriend would conjure up an amusing excuse for its absence. “He got lost in the mail” or “He’s traveling again” or “He really wanted to be here, but…”
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Maybe we were both a little unsure. I didn’t know if I should want a stuffed bear, and she didn’t know if getting me one would emasculate me. I mean, are guys supposed to want a teddy bear? My 99% sure guess is no, and I have to guess a lot.
Growing up as an Italian American in New York, I had masculinity modeled for me in many ways, none of which involved receiving anything other than a gold chain or cologne for Valentine’s Day; however, when I tried to inhabit any of my masculinity earlier in my life, the world cast a reprimanding and often dangerous gaze. For decades, I didn’t think I could do a single thing about the disconnect between body and mind. I didn’t have a word for the war inside myself. Growing up, I watched from the sidelines, denied many of the experiences I wished I’d had. It was made more difficult watching my brother — not even a year younger — have them. I learned to shave from a YouTube video.
People have tried to define me my entire life. And for a good part of it, I let them. At some point, I had to grow up and be a man, which for me meant standing up for what I believe in, even or especially when it is hard to do so.
When I came out to my father, he cursed me. I considered his words as if they were a fortune teller’s: “Mijo, you’re going to have a very lonely life.”
It’s also meant speaking with a voice that is uniquely my own and gently correcting people when they don’t see, through accident, anger or volition, the me I know myself to be. I was with my current partner when I started my physical transition. Still, we don’t fit into traditional roles. I want to make sure I never invalidate my girlfriend’s queer identity as a bisexual woman, because when we appear together, it’s possible to miss that we’re a couple who’ve had to grow and define ourselves and our relationship in ways that most men and women do not.
Yet right along with everyone else, we live in a society whose ad cycles seem to tell us that Valentine’s Day involves just three things: lingerie, red roses and heart-shaped boxes of chocolate. These gifts are meant to go in one direction. Most men I know (myself included) do not want any of what the ads suggest, so why not a bear?
Actually, if you want a list of reasons, a Google search for “Am I manly enough” offers plenty of evidence that I’m not the only one with this dilemma.
So you can imagine my surprise when — on the day Cupid supposedly shoots arrows — the doorbell rang and there was a box. For me. Believe me when I say that the arrival of Bear — because what else is a guy who thinks window-washing is a great gift going to name him? — came just in the nick of time. While viruses were bouncing freely, physical goods were not: If Bear had still been globetrotting, he might have languished in container ships unknown, and we would be minus one very adorable addition to our apartment.
My boyfriend was sweet. My boyfriend was hysterical. My boyfriend always told me how much he loved me. When we would have sex, my whole body felt worshipped, cared for — nurtured, even.
Inside the box, he was encased in a plastic bag with small, evenly spaced holes; clearly, the packagers had already infused the bear with life. The black seam of his mouth, stitched into his white fur, was upturned in a smile. On cue, I smiled back, even without knowing that it was going to be the kind of year in which we’d all need a little extra kindness tossed our way.
Even today, I think about how much happiness that 15 ounces of fluff has brought us, the years-long inside joke of it, the socially disconnected holidays we’ve endured.
I’ve learned a lot about what’s important during that time. Even without the bear, I got lucky and found love in so many ways.
Maybe the moral is that holidays, even ones with questionable motives, are an opportunity to love a little harder and let the people in your life know that you see them, that you appreciate them and that you’re grateful for the time you get to spend with them. Because it’s way too short anyway.
My girlfriend makes me laugh every day, in so many ways. She is a walking testament to compassion and love, and now there is a Bear to sit there, without a judge-y thought in the world, and watch it all roll past.
What Bear teaches me, every time I look into his glassy yet impossibly thoughtful eyes, is that love is love. And the most important thing to do when faced with a dilemma of the heart — especially if it means people might devalue the you that you’ve worked so hard to share — is to do what outcasts have done for centuries: Write your own rule book.
The author is a Venice-based writer and director. His website is mikkidel.com and he is on social media @mikkidel
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