The tequila-soaked air breezed through the dark expanse of the bar and past our sweating bodies. I held her gaze for a second, and extended a slightly damp bar napkin with my name and phone number written on it. She pulled out a battered phone, slowly entering my number and then texting me. Time felt sticky as the bar floor, the humid roll of conversation from the other patrons slowly encasing us. The seconds trickled by, and then I left. A week later, she invited me to our first and only date.
I wore a cropped plastic jacket hoping to look like leather. She wore the real thing and stood a full six inches above me in her boots. We strolled into the bar that was next door to where we met. The barbacks gave her the kind of affection one usually reserves for family. She told me about living abroad, squatting in beautifully rotting buildings, and doing sex work.
A sound, like a lightbulb’s fuse straining until it popped, went off in my head. She was the first trans sex worker I met, a dawning realization that I rolled around in my head and tried to stifle with bites of roti. And when I asked her if she missed Europe, she giggled like a schoolgirl, and confessed to the dilapidated decadence of her life there. I was disarmed by her candor, how easily she led me down the hallway of knowing her. My transness, my life in general, was something I kept in a cage close to my heart. Her openness, her gentle hand guiding me through our conversation, felt like such a seductive honesty.
I drove her home, to a gorgeous Victorian home in the Mission district of San Francisco. She said she would have invited me in, but her cousin was couch-surfing. We kissed in my car, our hands finding leverage and pulling each other closer. The liquor we drank still hid behind her teeth, and I greedily sought it out. I wanted to find out why she felt so untouchably real. How could her gender, in the way that trans women so deftly craft, teeter on the edge of act, advertisement, and personal amusement? And how could I ever attempt to balance all of that?
After our first date, I would intermittently text and wonder and wait, while weeks went by without a response. A few months later, I went on a date with someone else, who was also seeing her. They assured me that she lost her phone on a trip to Berlin and had no intention of ghosting me. I was devastated, in so many small ways. The minor tragedy of how first dates often are heartbreaking, the unspoken promise of a horizon never to materialize. But with her, the sensation of loss felt distinctive. It left the sour metallic taste of hangover in my mouth, even weeks later. Knowing her, even for that brief moment, felt like knowing a possible future.
I feel aglow in that same revelatory hum when I think of that date, the way kissing a girl with the tiniest amount of stubble cracked something open in me. Even the puffy perk of her breasts under a tank top felt like seeing my body from another angle. My body has, for as long as I can remember, felt like an abstract and oversexualized object.
Within the brief eternity of our car makeout, in touching her body, I felt my shame begin to melt. In desiring her emotionally and physically, I was able to desire my own openness.
I often think about desire as a mirror, a crucial tool for both acceptance and celebration of the self. And this act of desire, as both outward and inward work, has become profoundly more important for accepting my body while doing sex work. Being a trans woman who markets her body for sex has taught me so much about the political position of the reflected, about being that object of desire trapped in the mirror. The first images I was given of trans women’s bodies came associated with ridicule or horror or both. Hiding myself away felt less like an option and more like an expectation the world had for me—having partners who desired me only behind closed doors further confirmed this. When I posted a picture in lingerie, one of my first tentative steps towards being publicly desired, a high school classmate messaged me that I was “brave” for not hiding myself. But in excavating the shame that I have been taught to feel toward bodies like mine, I am leaving open space to better find joy in trans embodiment.
To see my body as something worthy of lavishing praise upon, to see my body as something desirable enough to charge for, I need to hold the joyous truth of my transsexual body close to my heart. That moonlit night in the Mission changed the depth of what I could feel for my own beautiful transness. Seeing a future that goes far beyond destigmatizing and actively acknowledges the powerful joy that beautiful and unruly bodies can provide, is one I am always moving toward.
That woman and I run into each other occasionally now: at all night raves in locations only searchable by map coordinates, at play parties while trusted friends joyously fuck each other, and at her bar job where we first met. Seeing her across a crowded patio, I still feel that same hum of fuses all lighting at once. And while we haven’t ever had that second date, what I was able to take from our time spent together has been invaluable.
Today, I am surrounded by a constellation of incredible trans workers, all of us standing in those double mirrors, desiring one another. The pandemic has only thrown the power of this communal desire into starker relief. Trans sex workers helped to show me that, rather than allowing the most readily present and dehumanizing narrative to consume us, we can celebrate the multitude of ways we experience our bodies being wanted as an ever-providing engine of self-love.