A Letter to My Ex on the Occasion of The Danish Girl’s 5th Anniversary

I still haven’t read The Argonauts. I’m not sure if you have. I make a lot of jokes about it, but the truth is I think I’d like it. People always want the partner’s experience of a transition, the parents’ experience of a transition, a casual acquaintance’s experience of a transition, so even the best version of that makes me uncomfortable. But it’s not the book’s fault. I’ll probably read it someday and think, Hey that was pretty good. Way to go, Maggie Nelson.

I’m writing to you, because this month marks two anniversaries — two anniversaries likely celebrated by no one but me. Five years ago you and I met and started dating. And five years ago Tom Hooper’s film The Danish Girl was released in theatres. It’s weird to celebrate an anniversary of a no longer existing relationship, but it’s probably even weirder to celebrate an anniversary of a film that is at best an already dated work of Oscar bait.

This movie and our relationship share more than the opening date. Both are about two artists — an outgoing woman frustrated with her success and a sensitive man quietly creating. In both cases the man turns out not to be a man, but a trans woman who after years of clues finally accepts herself. Both are about how the couple adjusts to this new reality.

Since before we broke up I’ve been thinking about this movie and this story and you and I and how people talked about you and I and this story. I’ve thought about writing different versions of this for years. My dream iteration came soon after we split — I imagined us as friends, watching the movie together, discussing it together, getting insight from both sides. Alas we are not friends and that’s not possible. I feel uncomfortable telling our story without you, but if Maggie Nelson can write about her trans partner, I guess I can write about my cis partner. I know you hate when I write about you. I wish I could say that I’ll stop. But you were with me when I transitioned and, well, people love a transition story.

When I first watched The Danish Girl, I was taken with Alicia Vikander’s portrayal of Gerda Wegener. I went into the film with low expectations — Hooper’s resume of The King’s Speech and Les Miserables didn’t exactly illicit excitement. I was also aware enough to know that casting Eddie Redmayne was wrong even if I didn’t understand all the reasons why. For me, it came down to the artistry. Even then I could tell Redmayne’s performance as Lili Elbe was an affected take on femininity and womanhood. Every single choice felt false, as if being a woman was holding your hand just so, as if being a woman meant no longer being a person.

But Gerda! Gerda was alive. She was an artist, desperate to be recognized for her talents. She was an extrovert, exuding sex towards her husband, her wife. The first half hour of the film enraptured me. I felt it poking something I was still trying so hard to leave unpoked. But then the film continued. By the end my review could be summed up with — bad movie, but Alicia Vikander is amazing. I think I want to marry her.

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Growing up I always had two types of celebrity crushes — people who I lusted after and people who I wanted to marry. I thought of marriage as the consumption of another person — a joining of bodies that went beyond the physical. I let our society’s conservative views of sex explain my gender. I didn’t feel lust, I didn’t want to admit envy, so I filled the gap by elevating these famous strangers to something like a soulmate. Of course you’re not horny for your soulmate, I told myself. That would be disrespectful.

These fantasy partners were always people who embodied a sort of casual hyperfemininity to me. People like Vikander. I don’t know if you remember, but when I was first parsing through my identity I made a list of the celebrity crushes I wanted to be with and another of the ones I wanted to be. I was finally acknowledging this separation and I wanted to better understand my desires. The Be list was filled with people like Audrey Hepburn; the Be With list people like Katharine Hepburn.

It’s funny looking over those lists now, because my current gender has nothing in common with Natalie Portman or Tavi Gevinson or all the other tiny cis white girls who I equated with womanhood. The list of people I wanted to be with is far more similar to me. You are far more similar to me.

My favorite parts of The Danish Girl are when Lili and Gerda are exploring. Lili is supposedly playing a character and Gerda is helping to teach her womanhood. Maybe this gives transphobes an easy talking point, but the truth is cis or trans we all have to learn. And the way Gerda pushes Lili to be her model, pushes her to play this character, pushes her towards her identity, all while providing herself as a template — she’s such a dream transition partner it’s almost a forced feminization fantasy.

I don’t think you ever worried about me stealing your womanhood. No, the hardest thing about my transition for you — and hopefully the best thing — is the way it forced you to come out yourself, to return to your sexuality, to consider your own gender or at least gender performance. You taught me how to dress and how to do make up all the while questioning the ways you dressed and why you wore make up. And that in itself was its own lesson. Through you, I found myself. Through you, I let go of my lifelong attachment to that limited idea of femininity. I’m not sure we ever embodied the simplistic joyful montage in the film, but in our own deeper way it felt like that sometimes.

When I think about that day at MOMA PS1 — the first day I went out dressed in women’s clothing — I feel heavy with happiness. It wasn’t even the clothes themselves — your blousey top, my shorts rolled up, your sunglasses and purse. It’s the way you looked at me. The way you photographed me. The way I felt desired. People were always so impressed that you didn’t leave me, but your gift wasn’t staying — it was seeing. Most people don’t get to transition under the pansexual gaze of someone who loves them the way you loved me.

The first time I heard about being trans was in 2005 when Jenny Boylan and her wife were interviewed by Oprah. At some point Oprah asked Jenny about bottom surgery and my mom turned the TV off in disgust. But before that Oprah asked what I would consider an even more personal question. She asked if they were still having sex. Jenny’s wife said no. “Because you’re not a lesbian,” Oprah offered as an explanation. Then she asked Jenny if she’s dating men. The assumption, of course, is that this cis woman is straight. The assumption,  of course, is that this trans woman is straight too. Everyone is straight. These people are partners and co-parents but not wives, certainly not lovers.

This is where The Danish Girl falters too. I can suffer through Redmayne’s awful performance and the flattening of Lili’s character and the emphasis on trauma and pain. But what upsets me most revisiting this movie is its heterosexuality — especially in the context of the real Gerda Wegener and Lili Elbe. In the film, they move to Paris against Lili’s wishes, because of Gerda’s art. But in real life they moved, because they thought Paris would be less transphobic. In the film, Gerda works towards accepting Lili — it’s the film’s central character arc. But in real life Gerda was Lili’s fiercest advocate from beginning to end. In the film, Gerda finds comfort in a manly man played by Matthias Schoenaerts. But in real life Gerda was rumored to be a lesbian or at least queer due to her frequent paintings of explicit lesbian sex. In the film, Gerda and Lili’s marriage is shown to be a chaste and passionless few years after Lili comes out. But in real life Lili and Gerda were together for nearly two more decades and there is nothing to imply their marriage didn’t remain romantic and sexual.

I don’t believe that films need to stay true to the stories they’re based on. But it’s a choice to make the changes they make here. Just like it was a choice for Oprah to ask Jenny Boylan those invasive questions. It’s a choice to frame trans women as heterosexual, to frame partners of closeted trans women as heterosexual, to frame these relationships as sexless. Ten years later Jenny went back on the show for a Where Are They Now special to basically say: Yes, I’m still married to my wife. Yes, we fuck now.

The film characterizes Lili as shy and always hiding. They can’t possibly imagine a Lili who feels confident going out. They can’t possibly imagine a Lili excited to dress up and attend her wife’s art show. No, she stays home. She fails to support her partner. Gerda storms off in the rain and arrives in their living room dripping wet, face stained with tears. Gerda tells Lili she should’ve been there and when Lili tries to explain, Gerda says, “Not everything is about you.”

Fictional Gerda is in the right here, of course. But what an assumption on the part of screenwriter Lucinda Coxon. It’s an assumption we both know well. Of course, the trans woman is portrayed as selfish. Because transitioning itself is seen as selfish. It’s putting your partner, your family, your friends, even strangers, through so much. Especially your partner. People would always tell me to be more thoughtful about you — to remember how much I was putting you through. What they were really saying is how hard it was for them. Because never for a moment did you accept this narrative. You fought against it with a greater fierceness than I did. You found it insulting. It is insulting. It wasn’t challenging to be with me. You were lucky to be with me. And I was lucky to be with you. We were so completely in love. And what a gift for us to both grow so much and change so much while in love.

When I look at Gerda’s paintings, I see your eyes on me. I see your love and our love. I see this feeling we had that after years of conforming we were getting to create our own world. I see us meeting other queer people with the nerves of a first date. I see us experimenting with our sex life to varying degrees of success. I see the boring moments and the exciting moments and the years and years of connection. I see us fighting and drifting apart. I see the limits of the gaze.

When we broke up, people assumed you’d finally had enough. I think that’s why in my writing I always clarified that I ended it even though I knew that hurt you. But it felt bigger than us — it felt essential to rewrite the false trans narrative that I could only be left, I could never leave. The reasons I’d give for ending it were wanting to date as a woman and date as a queer person and be independent in my new identity and all these things were true. But ultimately I think we broke up because we met when I was 21 and you were 25 and most people who meet when they are 21 or 25 eventually break up — most people in general break up. What a beautiful shred of normalcy.

There’s a cruel joke in that without your support and your love and your validation I’m not sure I would’ve become the kind of trans person who could leave. The narratives cis people obsess over can seep into us. We can believe we don’t deserve sex or excitement or to follow the same mid-20s whims as anyone else. But I knew I did. I knew I could. Some of that is my innate stubbornness, but a lot of it was getting to transition alongside you.

The film ends with Lili’s death from an ovary transplant — with Gerda and that manly man together in mourning. But I dream of a film that focuses on those in between years. Those years in Paris where Gerda was painting Lili and they went out as their full selves. A queer cis woman and a queer trans woman creating a world together outside of expectations. When I think of them I think of those years. When I think of you I think of those years too.

Our world is so binary. Man, woman. Straight, gay. Together, apart. But what a beautiful thing to have decades. What a beautiful thing to have just a few years. I wish we focused less on the death. Hell, I wish we focused less on the beginning. I want to live in the moments that just were. What an exciting time for Lili and Gerda and you and I. What an exciting time to be queer and free and hopeful and in love.

Those years live forever in me. I hold them close in this next story of mine. I’ll hold them close in the one after that. I am a trans woman living in the year 2020. I am alive. I am living so many stories. Lili lived so many stories. We all live so many stories.

I’ll love you forever in ways Maggie Nelson could never understand.

❤️ Drew

Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. Her writing can be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Thrillist, I Heart Female Directors, and, of course, Autostraddle. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about trans lesbians. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew has written 136 articles for us.

35 Comments

  1. Wow! Thanks for not only giving us an education on the real lives in The Danish Girl, but insight into a very personal experience and time in your life. Thank you so much for sharing this!

    Hugs,
    Em

  2. Drew, this is beautiful. Thank you.

    I am the cis partner of a trans woman, and the lines about how transitioning is seen as “putting your partner through so much” hit me particularly hard. Because while yes, I’m sure I will go through a lot for my partner over the course of our lives together, I’m equally sure that she will go through a lot for me. That’s what a life together is, sometimes; that’s why “for better or for worse” is part of so many marriage vows. I’m asking her to stick with me as I go through pregnancy, menopause, and growing old, with all the changes to my body and brain those things will entail. So the idea that she’s uniquely selfish (for what? for changing? for expecting my support when she does so?) is baffling and a little disgusting, and I’m glad to see it rejected so thoroughly.

  3. This is so beautiful, thank you Drew. As always, you’ve given such a beautiful, insightful, and generous perspective and I walk away from your essay feeling smarter.

    And on a much more superficial note, Alicia Vikander is freaking LUMINOUS in this movie.

    • In my read, her book is about lots of things from her life: being a woman, an artist, a queer, a mother, a person, a sexual person.

      Yes, she has a trans partner and she writes about it, but as it relates to her life. She centers herself, not her partner’s transness.

      I didn’t read it at all as a transploitation “I have a trans partner!!!111! and I am a martyr!!11!” piece.

  4. This whole piece is really lovely and beautifully written, but I have to say, I’m super uncomfortable with you continuing to write about your ex even though she hates it? It feels like crossing a boundary, and I feel a bit uncomfortable reading your pieces about her now, knowing she doesn’t support them. I had an A+ subscription but I think I’m gonna cancel it now.

    • I think an immense amount about the ethics of nonfiction writing. Every single aspect of every single piece I write is heavily considered, every anecdote and every detail is deliberate.

      Unless I am explicitly interviewing someone, I do not believe that it’s my right to write about anyone’s experiences except my own. But I think if you reread this piece you’ll find that’s stayed true here. There were a lot of details I eventually cut from this piece, because they felt too personal for my ex. I would never write about my ex’s family, I would never write about anything my ex told me in confidence, I would never even write about things I know simply due to the intimacy of our relationship. However, I am under no obligation to avoid mentioning her in my work in the context as my former partner.

      This piece, frankly, has nothing to do with her. The letter format is a device. I have no expectation that she will read this. This piece also has nothing to do with Maggie Nelson. They are both functioning as stand-ins for a much larger discussion about transitioning while in a relationship and the false ways cis people are often centered in those narratives.

      People are going to disagree about what is and is not ethical in nonfiction writing and you can disagree with me. But if everyone had to ask their ex for permission before mentioning them in their work the history of art would look a lot different.

      • Thank you for taking the time to reply! I agree with your final comment there, I think as far as the ethics of non-fiction go, I don’t actually agree with your assessment that you aren’t writing about your ex’s experiences here – you write quite a few things which feel like assumptions about your ex’s thoughts and experiences – “I don’t think you ever worried about me stealing your womanhood. No, the hardest thing about my transition for you — and hopefully the best thing — is the way it forced you to come out yourself” – which falls into the realm of uncomfortable for me.

        To give an AS example as comparison, it feels very different to something like the For Your Consideration series, which mentioned a situation with an ex as a sort of triggering event for the experiences the author was describing – the only feelings the author ever examined were her own. There were no sweeping assumptions about what the author’s ex was feeling or how she saw the situation. Whereas here, it feels like you’re writing your ex’s private personal feelings out for public consumption, without her input.

        Anyway, that’s just how I feel about it – grateful that you took the time to reply thoughtfully, and like you say, we are free to agree and disagree on ethics in nonfiction and here we’re just going to have to disagree. I’m grateful that other people commented on their discomfort here, because I think these are important things to talk about!

  5. To be crystal, I don’t talk to you *because* you insist on writing about me when you know I hate it. You have prioritized using me as a character over having me in your real life. I wish you would stop writing letters “to me” and acting like you wish we could be friends again. It’s hard to be a device and a friend.

    I wouldn’t normally comment something like this, but since I have been made into a character for public consumption it seems only appropriate to respond in public.

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