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A Response to My Spouse’s Hecklers photo

When Tyler and I first got together, we didn’t know that they were trans. But now we do, and so does the rest of the world. And the rest of the world has mixed feelings about it. “I kinda felt like I didn’t exist in that moment.” Their text pops up. Tyler, who is in my phone a “Tyler Bear Emoji,” continues: “Every school show there is always talk about what’s in my pants but this was next level.”

I’m in our one-bedroom north facing apartment, which overflows with plants and grow lights, but because we also have two chaotic cats, the plants and lights are placed high: on top of bookshelves, cabinets, and threaded along the ceiling with stick-on hooks. Our walls are crowded with colorful paintings by friends and family, and our couch is small, cat-scratched, and blue. One wedding photo—us kissing under the arches in Fort Tryon during our elopement—hangs over the printer.

The texts roll in, and I put my bag down, my stomach sinking. I’ve just come from teaching English Composition, and my mind reels as it switches gears from MLA citations to Tyler’s performance. The details arrive in little bubbles, stacking on my phone: today, their dance company performed a school show in New Jersey. The audience was full of freshman boys from a prep school. The heckling started before the lights even came up: growling, first, and then later, hissed questions about whether or not they had a dick in their pants or whether they wanted a dick in their pants. “They were super sexual and kept calling me animal names.” Tyler adjusted the choreography because they were scared to get close to the front row. They thought one of the kids would try to touch them. The teachers in the audience did not intervene. So, Tyler held the stage and performed for the boys.

When they get home, we go sit on a rock in High Bridge Park, eating brownies and trying to let the sunshine change our mood. A woman in tight brown leggings walks by us, a little furry black dog in her arms. “Don’t be ugly,” the woman tells her dog as it tries to wiggle away.

We sit and talk about freak shows and about bodies as exhibitions. We talk about anti-trans laws, and how they make these young white New Jersey men feel ownership of Tyler’s body.

Tyler tries to kill an ant on the rock, but I stop them, “No killing bugs outside,” I say. “This is their turf.”

“Right,” they agree, allowing the ant to scuttle by.  

I have a code of ethics about everything: when to kill bugs (only inside our apartment), when to eat meat (only when someone else prepares it), when to leave bad reviews (never unless it’s a safety issue). But I don’t have a rule to handle the harassment my spouse receives.

When Tyler and I first met in 2017, we were both what I call, “lowkey depressed.” I was working more than full time as a fitness instructor when I wanted to be a writer, and they were starting a contemporary dance career. This ambiguous feeling of sadness invaded our days the way the strange unappealing smells—of rot, of humanity, of urine—of New York City hit you on the street.

In those early days, I kept an imaginary notebook which I called “the complaint book.” Whenever either of us got too whiny, we would pretend to pull it out and record our grievances. I had a rat living under my sink in my apartment. Complaint book. Tyler asked for a raise and didn’t get it. Complaint book. My back hurt. Complaint book. We added to the pretend book on our dates, our commutes, nights when we couldn’t sleep and had to wake up early.

But the need for the complaint book fell away when Tyler came out as non-binary. We were living together at that time, in a studio apartment with a minifridge and a wall with a giant stain that spread like a rash, the paint blistering and peeling. It’s funny—when people ask how it was to transition, they imagine a great trauma. And even Tyler worried I would break up with them. But, despite my surprise, leaving didn’t cross my mind. I knew that they would change, but, for me, the change wasn’t a negative. Change is the only constant in life, so I would prefer a partner who seeks it rather than one who rigidly resists. Tyler is the absolute opposite of a stick in the mud.

In fact, the biggest change I noticed in them was that they got a silly sense of humor. It was as if, before, their humor was clogged with gender constraints, and after they began their transition, the laughter was able to flow. I was able to do little pranks—put food coloring in the toilet tank, play hide and seek in the grocery store.

But while transitioning has given them laughter, it’s also changed me: I’ve become more fearful than ever. True, I was a scaredy queer person when we were just “lesbians,” but now my fear is in hyperdrive. I grew up in rural Vermont in the early 2000s, when civil unions were legalized under then Governor Howard Dean. My neighbors were not fond of this trailblazing, and they began the “TAKE BACK VERMONT” campaign, sticking signs at the ends of their driveways or even painting the slogan on the side of their barns. Presumably, they were trying to take back the state from the grabby gays who moved there for rights. Luckily for me, I had long brown hair and sat somewhere along the spectrum of sexuality, so I could hide. And I did. But hiding and fear are positively correlated, and the longer I hid, the more I became afraid. It became my personality.

But fear is the worst thing you can give to a transperson. They have plenty—after all, they are the one moving through the world. I’m just the one standing on the sidelines, wringing my hands, spreading anxiety like a contagion. I get nervous to hold their hand in public, or to kiss them goodbye on the train when our commutes diverge. Fear can lead me to text responses like, “You should have stopped dancing”—which I don’t send, but I type. I cannot tell another person to become invisible, even if I only say it to keep them safe.

In the movie Inside Out, the characters’ brains are controlled by four primary emotions: anger, disgust, joy, and sadness. We always joke that the captain of Tyler’s emotions is sadness, and mine is fear. This is an insidious combination, and I sometimes wonder what their life would be like if they had married someone braver than I am. Someone who could be louder, angrier, or even more joyful.

For fun, we did a couple’s questionnaire at the bar the other night, and it asked us to describe our partner in three words. The first word that they picked for me was, “Considerate.” Which is a good thing, I think, but I extend consideration to too many people, people who wouldn’t necessarily do the same for me.

The first word I used to describe Tyler was “kind.” Kind and considerate, sadness and fear. I don’t think this is the power duo needed to take on the hecklers of the world. Especially when they are school children—people keep telling us that the next generation will be better. Why can’t we all just be better?

While I’m answering their texts, their distress streaming through the phone, I, with my teacher brain, begin to design an ethics class for high schoolers. In kindergarten, they teach the golden rule, but in high school, it would be even more useful. I wonder what it would be like for me to stand in front of a classroom of these prep school boys, and ask them what their stance is on human rights. Could I design and teach a class on being better? And if I could teach it to enough people, would I be able to protect Tyler?

And if I had been in the audience that day and heard those boys hissing, would I have stopped them? Or would I have been too worried about decorum, about being a considerate and compliant audience member?

I type a text that I delete—I was going to say that I wish we could go away to our own island so that we didn’t have to deal with people anymore because people are the worst. But that’s not true. Another of the “get to know your partner” questions we asked at the bar was, “If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?”

“Here,” we said at the same time, exploding into laughter over our drinks.

And what would we do? “The same thing, but more of it.” We agree. More dancing, more writing. And the final answer was implied: same place, doing the same thing, with the same person.

For all our flaws, we are still living the lives we want, pursuing our art and visibility despite the danger in being seen or heard. The last text I receive before they call me is this: “But everyone said my solo was the best it’s ever been.” Despite the harassment, Tyler performed. And when I think about our happiest moments, I remember when we went to the virtual Van Gogh exhibit in a warehouse on the east side. I got tickets for early in the morning, and we took a yoga class before the general, non-yoga, public entered. The projections of sunflowers—their favorite flower—and sky rolled over our bodies as we rolled around the floor. When the yoga class ended, we found an empty corner, and they danced. Other guests stopped to watch them, others filmed them on their phones, as I did, too. A mini audience gathered, and they spun and spun, their swirls mirroring Van Gogh’s brush strokes, the bright colorful projections concealing and enhancing us simultaneously.