When I came out to myself, my first thought was love.
Even then, the loneliness of trans women was one of the few things I knew about us. From TV interviews and the rare narrative show, I knew that when we came out our straight girlfriends and wives either left us or suffered. I didn’t want my girlfriend to suffer. But I didn’t want to suffer either.
I came out to her after accepting that risk, just like I came out to my parents imagining a similar one. If I’m going to do this, I have to be okay with abandonment, with isolation, with a total lack of romance.
I wasn’t abandoned — not in the literal sense I feared — but that narrative continued among people I encountered. They expressed concern for my ex even as she loved me — and herself — more than ever. And my parents, who’d always liked her, began to like her even more. They expressed gratitude to her — thank you for not leaving our son, thank you for letting her keep her one chance at love.
When I broke up with her, they were confused. Everyone was confused. How could I want to date as a trans woman? I’d already won the imagined contest. Why would I want to enter again?
Casey Plett’s short fiction collection A Dream of a Woman is a love story. It’s not girl-meets-boy-meets-happy-ending. It’s not even girl-meets-girl-meets-happy-ending. Instead, it’s a trans love story in the most literal sense — it’s about how we love and how we attempt to love.
These seven stories — split across twelve sections — go beyond the narratives I was told when first coming out. They confront the more nuanced challenges trans women face as we look for romance in others and each other. And they reveal the complicated ways we find love we never could have imagined. With Plett’s immersive prose, they sting and salve, then sting again.
Often I find myself pushing so hard against the image of trans loneliness that I don’t allow myself to acknowledge the truths that lie within. This book acknowledged them for me. It hurt. I’m grateful.
The first two-thirds of the book are consumed with one story. Split into five parts, “Obsolution” follows the years-long relationship between a trans woman named David then Vera and her cis girlfriend then ex-girlfriend Iris. It begins when David is just starting to experiment with gender presentation and concludes when Vera has long settled into her life.
Plett doesn’t introduce David as a soon-to-be trans woman. She introduces him with Iris. They meet at a party, and from the beginning David lets Iris take control. David isn’t really a drinker, but together they drink a lot. They drink so much that David doesn’t remember anything about the first time they have sex.
Finally, David decides he has to tell Iris his secret. “I’ll understand if this is a deal-breaker, and I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier,” he begins. He tells Iris he has issues with gender. He tells her that he sometimes wears women’s clothing. He’s so nervous. She doesn’t care. She says she doesn’t care. He’s relieved.
Looking at his life with a friend who does his makeup and a girlfriend who doesn’t care, David thinks, God I’m so lucky. And when he’s bothered by Iris making him wear masculine clothing around her parents, he thinks, Just like a fucking dude. Sure, everyone should just naaaaaaturally understand you. Dumbass. His expectations are so low. The pressure for gratitude is so high.
When David breaks up with Iris, people are baffled. When I broke up with my girlfriend, people were baffled. These baffled people assumed trans women would accept anything but solitude. It’s as if feeling understood by your partner is not a privilege we deserve. It’s as if we shouldn’t be granted the space to become the new versions of ourselves we need freedom to be.
These ideas leave us vulnerable. They place us in situations where we accept mistreatment and say, thank you. Because while David shared my reasons for being single, he had one more I did not have. When David tells Iris no, she does not listen. When she touches his penis and he gets hard she takes that as consent. “I mean, whatever,” David tells his friend. “I don’t consider myself a sexual assault victim or anything. But she did sexual things with me without my approval. That… seems like something to think about.”
My first year single as a trans woman, I was determined to prove people wrong. I needed evidence of my identity as a woman and a lesbian — as a desirable woman and lesbian. I broke up with my girlfriend so I could have wild queer experiences, and people looked at me with pity. I needed to fuck that pity away.
I feel the same urge as David to couch my experiences in excuses. At least with Iris, David tried to say no. I rarely did. I let people touch my body — use my body — in ways that upset me. And I said nothing. While writing essays about my newfound independence and the importance of being alone, I betrayed myself to avoid true solitude. The worst are the nights I barely remember — where alcohol and dissociation combine to supply mere flashes of things I wish hadn’t happened to me.
I tell myself my partners weren’t mind-readers. I accept responsibility for my role in these encounters. But I also know that if the roles were reversed, I never would have touched someone the way I was touched. I never would have taken cold silence as consent. I mean, whatever. Most people have experienced much worse. And I wanted to tell people I’d had sex that weekend — that I was a hot queer woman living a hot queer life. At least I got that.
I, like many, tire of chaser discourse. Sometimes it feels like we’ve internalized narratives around desirability to such an extent that we feel disbelief when met with contrary evidence. That’s not to say trans people are not objectified or dehumanized by some who want to fuck us — it’s just far more personal and complicated than “cishet men want to suck dick.”
“I like this new hybrid body,” Iris tells Vera. They start fucking again as an inevitability. Everything returns to the past. Except Vera is Vera, and she knows herself a little better. She can stick up for herself a little better. One night over Gchat, she cuts things off. She tells Iris they can’t have sex anymore because Iris doesn’t listen when she says no.
Iris doesn’t respond, but the next morning, she sends Vera an email that begins, “Sorry I couldn’t talk last night, but you accused me of the worst thing I could think of…”
Unlike David, my worst experiences were not with people who held any significant role in my life. I could simply stop texting them back, block them on Instagram, and move on. I never considered confronting them, because I had nothing to confront. Hey, next time you have sex with a trans woman who is new to sex and dating, maybe don’t touch her dick without permission. Conversations around consent are too fraught for that to be anything but a disaster.
The one time I decided to talk to someone — a friend — it wasn’t as much about physical betrayal as it was emotional betrayal. It felt important to say this hurt me before continuing a friendship. She expressed the same defensiveness as Iris, and I regret my attempt. The initial hurt was nothing compared to how quickly a cis woman will pull out society’s narratives about trans women to avoid being the bad guy.
And yet, when I look back on those early years and think of the people who loved me but didn’t understand me, who touched me but didn’t respect me, above all else I feel tenderness. “What Vera hoped? She hoped Iris was happy,” Plett writes in the story’s final section. I feel the same. I only lack forgiveness for a society that taught us all my worth. But I forgive the people who hurt me. And I hope, with time, I can forgive myself.
If “Obsolution” is a story of the ways we’re loved wrong, the story that follows is about the ways we’re loved right. “Enough Trouble” is another novella tucked into this collection, but Plett allows the four parts of this story to run consecutively. The breaks in “Obsolution” were a relief, an escape from Vera’s struggles and a pause to let her grow. The immediacy of “Enough Trouble” lets us live in its ever-fleeting moments, a week we never want to end.
The story is about Gemma, a trans woman with a Mennonite background who returns to her small hometown city in Manitoba for a girl. “Her friends had offered her many favors,” Plett writes. “And, as a result, Gemma now has very few friends.”
Gemma is an alcoholic who waxes poetically about her addiction as if she can intellectualize her way out of accountability. She’s a recognizable transsexual fuck up. She’s not like Ava, the girl she’s there to visit. With her nice apartment and professional job, Ava is a portrait of transfemine success. Her only baggage is her best friend/ex Olive who lives with her, but even this relationship just acts as a sign of Ava’s generous spirit.
Despite their differences, Gemma and Ava crackle with chemistry. Plett writes their interactions as sensual, sticky, romantic. We feel Gemma’s desire for Ava, to be a part of Ava’s life. We feel the desire so acutely it becomes our own.
As Gemma’s drinking interferes with her newfound romance, her past in this city and with her family keeps coming up. Ava’s other best friend Holly, a cis woman, also has a Mennonite background. And when Ava tells Gemma she has to leave, Gemma plans to cook a traditional Mennonite meal as a last goodbye. As they eat, Gemma gets drunker and talks more about her family. She keeps emphasizing how liberal they were compared to some Mennonites.
God I’m lucky, David thought. I mean, whatever, David said. It was liberal, comparatively, Gemma insisted. My partners weren’t mindreaders, I tell myself.
Plett’s own Mennonite background appears a lot in her work and during this section I thought again of “Obsolution.” Briefly mentioned in the story’s third part is the fact that Iris was raised Mennonite. She’s on the train with David on their way to New York and she begins teaching him a card game. Because of my own Canadian girlfriend with a Mennonite background, I know this game to be Dutch Blitz. Iris has the same upbringing as Gemma who has the same upbringing as a cis woman who makes me feel settled in my body in ways I’d only dreamed. The cultures that raise us and the stories they tell inform who we are — but they don’t have to decide who we become. They can provide explanations — even excuses — but they don’t have to determine our limits.
I started by saying this is a collection of love stories, but it’s also a collection of forgiveness stories. With just one novel and two short story collections, Casey Plett has become one of my favorite writers, but I find her work triggering in the most literal sense. I read “Enough Trouble” filled with dread, as this moment of escape for Gemma was soon to end. But then Plett surprised me. Ava forgives her. She asks her to stay. And Gemma decides to stay. And Gemma decides to maybe quit drinking. And Gemma decides to maybe forgive herself.
While they’re eating the traditional Mennonite meal, Gemma thinks of a story her grandmother often told. During the Russian revolution, Gemma’s great-great grandmother burned bugs off the coats of soldiers who were letting her starve. “But of her grandmother’s story,” Plett writes. “The point to Gemma was this: Once they were over here, kindly taking the soldiers coats were the tales her people chose to tell. They had a smorgasbord of narratives available. That was the one everyone wanted.”
I think of the stories we tell and the stories we want to tell. I think of my trans friends who let me cry on their shoulders as I feigned confidence to the rest of the world. I think of the trans lovers who touched me with patience, who made space for a clarity I struggled to provide. And I think of the trans people who hurt me most, who harmed me in ways I only expected from cis people. I think of the cis people who have loved me and understood me in ways I never thought possible.
I think about the stories those raised Mennonite were told about others and themselves. About gender, about sexuality. About how all people should be and about who deserves what. I think about those who were able to create new stories and those who could not. And I think about the stories I was told raised Jewish in American suburbia. About how similar those stories were even as they wrapped themself in subtlety. I think about how much I have left to unwrap — how much work I have left to let go.
We all carry our stories and histories. We carry them with us in our pursuits to love and be loved. We carry them into our love and hatred toward ourselves. Plett’s stories make me think of so many people I’ve loved and love. They introduce me to new people I can love. Sometimes it takes a story to replace a story. It’s fiction truer than the facts we’re told.
As I read the final words of the final story — one that fulfills Plett’s usual blend of melancholy and hope — I closed the book and instinctively kissed the front cover. Like it was the Bible or the Torah. Maybe it could be. Maybe it could be.
Slow Takes is a series of “belated” reviews by Drew Gregory of queer art released last year that Autostraddle didn’t cover.