“I’ll be your mirror / reflect what you are / in case you don’t know,” Nico flatly croons on track number nine from 1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico. There’s a menace in her ambivalent delivery, a clinical remove that still feels feverish. Heroin (and second billing) will do that, but so will a sense of fractured femininity. Nico had all of them. Thankfully, I only possess what often feels like the latter: a womanhood trained to soothe, to mollify any mufflings of uncertainty. This woman brings a lover close to her bosom, the pulsing void of her heart chambers echoing the paramour’s forgetfulness of their own light. That echo ricochets through her, dissipates into her skin, assuages the lover’s self-doubt with a steady rhythm. Woman-as-mirror, an object of comfort, a source of knowledge for other selfhoods to emerge.
Mirrors are everywhere in depictions of trans femininity. Reflections are always shaking, shattered, or—as they’re employed most often—absolutely crystal clear. A truth that cannot be denied: You’re a transsexual. This strange duality is its own mirror to cis audiences’ outward liberal sympathies, which mask their collective internalized body horror. There’s Daniela Vega’s Marina standing before an undulating mirror in A Fantastic Woman; Isabel Sandoval’s Donna donning her sex worker alter ego Sofia before so many mirrors in Señorita; Lola Rodriguez’s Valeria in the bathroom confronting her pre-transition face in Veneno; and perhaps most famously, the honorable miss Buffalo Bill herself tucking her dick between her legs and murmuring, “I’d fuck me” in front of a camcorder as Q Lazzarus’s androgynous voice flatly croons in the background. (Poor tranny, the cis audience thinks, at least I’m not like that.)
These are just off the top of my head. The list goes on, an infinitely refracted framing of our existence that I loathe. But inside that fractal lies a photon of light—a tiny truth that haunts me.
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I Didn't Realize I Could Be Attracted to Women Until I Transitioned
Kids on the bus in middle school used to ask me if I was gay, to which I would respond a beat too late with a nervously trained affect of remove, “No, I’m bisexual.” It felt good on my tongue, something cool, slightly French, untouchably beyond the binary logic so many of my peers held. Even back then, as I turned away from their stifled giggles to face my reflection in the rattling window, I knew I could not—and would never—commit to being straight. I saw past its trappings into a void of possibility, one I lost sight of as my environment crushed me up into a kind of faggot abjection even I felt alienated from.
I’ve always loved women in a deep and sonorous way, but I never thought myself capable of fucking them or calling them my romantic partners. Yet during the earliest yawn of summer 2018, two years into my transition, I sat at a bar in Brooklyn with a friend, my knee wedged between her thighs and resting up against her pussy. There I felt my sapphic affections unfurl for the first time. No language needed on my tongue; I just knew. There’s that oft-volleyed lesbian saying that goes something like, Do I want to be like her? Or do I want to be with her? Did I want to be like her, newly crafted vagina a portal to my own future? Or did I want to be with her, one of the most dynamic, jubilant, and hard-to-pin-down people I’d ever met?
Just last week the two of us were texting and the exchange went as follows:
me: all the men who like me are 5’8” / time to find a 5’8” futch gf instead
her: i’d apply but i’m 5’9”
me: okay you get a special pass / also you give 6’0” energy
her: ugh i love these videos of men being towered over by women and i couldn’t find the one i *needed* / aren’t u 6 foot? :/
me: yes / i like that you don’t remember bc we mirrored each other so
Our own kind of lyrics, sung euphorically from deep beneath our breasts.
Today when I speak, “I’m bisexual” aloud, I often do so with a wink: I enjoy people like myself and not like myself—in the most literal sense. I conjure myself as Narcissus, staring into my own glorious image upon a mirror of shallow, still water. There I sigh and smile at myself until a suitor who mirrors my own impulses comes along, making ripples in my self-contained rapture. Artsy, stylish, electric trans women who wield words as their weapon of choice? Yes, please. I truly would fuck me, thank you very much. But what of those not like myself? How do I deal with them? The truth is, the pursuit of sex with men is easy. Capturing romance is something else, lost to me within that void of possibility I’ve been staring into since middle school.
In Satoshi Kon’s anime film, Paprika, the bad guys capture the titular heroine and plot to destroy her. Still, one of the men cannot contain his feelings for her, even as he obliterates her body. “I love you, Paprika. I love you,” he says, literally plunging his hand inside her and sliding upward toward her face. He knows Paprika is the alter ego of a real human being, Atsuko Chiba, underneath, yet refuses to allow her chosen persona to exist undisturbed. Paprika is laid out atop a large table, her enormous butterfly wings spread out and pinned across the woodgrain like a prized specimen.
“I love you just the way you are,” he flatly croons, lifting up his hand and ripping open her skin from crotch to forehead, revealing her human form within.
Do You Want Me, or Do You Want to Be Me?
The forced exposition of that “other”—perhaps to some more “real”—entity inside, is the ultimate gotcha moment. To have one’s physical form splayed out to be analyzed and admired, defiled and desired all at once. That pain is palpable. It is mirrored, refracted and amplified until it sears my flesh through the screen. I have the same response in Tinder conversations with men-who-might-not-be-men. I feel their hands slipping inside me when their bios read, “Just looking for someone to be sapphic with,” while they sport full beards and all the trappings of flailing commitment to an illusion of manhood.
I’ve been there before, though I hate to admit it. I thought of waxing my mustache like a debonair dandy before I made my way to the laser clinic, parlayed to me through the local trans whisper network, to have it zapped off. A sensitive abstract painter who admitted to me at the tail end of that same 2018 New York summer, “I’ve thought about being a woman every day for the past three years. I talk about it in therapy all the time.” Yet the beard still lingers today, at least from what I can see in the extremely rare selfie they post on their Instagram stories.
A former lover told me over the phone that they've finally begun to take estrogen, that I inspired them, years later, to finally be themselves. An almost-lover telling me the same thing in an Instagram DM. (The first and only date between the latter and myself partially centered around my outfit: short overalls with black tights and Doc Martens. It happened to be a very specific visual trigger of theirs, and I squirmed in my seat as they fawned over my look. I wonder if the sight of me was their own knee-against-pussy moment, a portal to their own self-realization.)
In almost every single one of these instances, these not-quite-men-not-yet-women tell me I’m the first person they’ve made their admission to. (Poor pupa, I often think to myself as I recoil, at least I’m not like that anymore.) But as their wings begin to beat of their own accord, they produce shockwaves that send me spiraling: Do my suitors see right through my inner flame of bisexual pride? Am I actually a lesbian whose sapphic lamplight glow attracts these transfeminine admirers, coaxes them out of their shells even long after I’ve left them? That thought pulls me asunder.
We both peer into each other toward deeper truths we refuse to speak into existence. For some of the dolls, being trans is about being gay, becoming a woman rightfully addicted to her own vibes (with the heady musk of heterosexual validation not far behind), and then being gay all over again in the other direction. Just ask Gigi Gorgeous, mother of all blonde trans women. Splashed across social media, she’s willingly shared with her audience of millions her very public journey from eyeliner-obsessed gay to high-octane hetero bimbo trans girl to lesbian trailblazer to pansexual wife of a transmasculine oil dynasty heir. Praise be unto our patron saint of any and all transitions, be they social or sexual. She’s on some messy and miraculous galaxy brain gender shit I could really learn from.
I'll Be Your Mirror
In the meantime, I am trying not to let my fear of the unknown turn into exhaustion or resentment. Rather, couldn’t it be fun to ride the razor’s edge of curiosity and possibility? For if I am to be a woman, I am to be a mirror. That’s what tethers us together as women, even if the rope burns our hands until they bleed. Why not invert woman-as-mirror into something more expansive? A mirror-mother-lover-leader who begets yet more women into infinity. As I open my arms to hold space for these soon-to-be-women, I can see the reflection of my own face, of my own past and future, in the mirrored edges of my fingertips. I do not know yet if “lesbian” is the right word to describe how I feel, but perhaps it’s not about feelings. It’s about action. It’s about doing what must be done to ensure I have enough room to fly free and make sense of it all later. Just ask Gigi.
“Let me stand to show that you are blind / please put down your hands / ‘cause I see you,” Nico sings again before the chorus hits, her delivery punctuated by the guitar’s staccato wink. An ethereal swirl of harmonized voices melds with hers, fading out together into the void as the song ends. Join me and sing along, won’t you?