The Answer is Neither

I walk onto stage in a long black robe and black high heels.

My chest is flat and visible under the robe that does not close entirely.

A bright light follows my silhouette as I make my way to the middle of the stage.

 

Unlike other people’s boobs, mine did not grow simultaneously with the nipples. Instead, the nipples became huge first, all by themselves. I can remember when they started to appear where there had been just a delicious flatness before. In response, I wore the tightest tank-tops to press them flat on my body. They did not behave. Instead, they became even more visible and pointed out into the world from under that coral-pink tee-shirt. They were omnipresent, exposed and exposing. The kids in my class laughed at them. I tried to hide them and myself behind my long blonde hair.

 

This was only the beginning of a relationship mostly defined by hide and seek. When fat and glands joined in, it became a more intense and confusing struggle. My boobs grew, but not quite as much as was expected of a young woman. My mother always said that I had my grandmother’s boobs. This confused me more. I was trapped between society’s beauty standards that told me boobs needed to be large, and my own desire to have none at all. 

 

By now, what I have in my hands will have become visible, recognizable. I am holding a silver tray; my boobs gently lie on top of it. I carry them carefully, my tears fall on them. I turn and walk towards the front of the stage and reach an already dug-out grave. I put down the tray and take the boobs in my hands, one by one, and lay them down into the hole.

 

Unfortunately, I ended up having bigger boobs than my grandmother. The tank-tops were later replaced by super heavy-duty sport bras under shirts and ties, my hair cut so short it barely covered my skull. Now I wear a binder almost every day. Binders make your chest look almost flat and breathing almost impossible. I like this because despite the discomfort, my boobs almost don’t exist.

 

*

 

Compared to getting a grip on my gender identity and finding myself as trans non-binary, figuring out my sexuality was much more straightforward. That’s not to say it was easier. From the age of five I would just fall in love with any 40- and 50-year-old woman around me. My feelings of attraction were sometimes so unbearable and strong that I had to leave whatever room or party I found myself in.

 

At 17, I was invited to a party in Brussels by a friend I had met in Hawaii a few months earlier. It was some kind of birthday or maybe a wedding; I really don’t remember. I’m from an upper-middle class family, and nevertheless I was a little bit dazed by the opulence of it all. They had rented a location that could easily fit 200 people, decorations, lots of food and drinks. Of these 200, almost all of them were family – and again, there was me, whose family really only consists of seven people.

 

Walking into the huge ballroom where the main party was taking place, I immediately spotted a person that turned out to be one of my friend’s aunts. She was so stunningly beautiful to me that I was unable to not be next to her. She was tall, elegant, and had salt and pepper hair. A sincere  yet serious expression, and when she smiled it was bright and warm. Her nose was kind of crooked, prominent. She had daughters my age and they were standing right there with us. I flirted with her shamelessly. This thing, this attraction, was so much stronger than me. I started to feel like a creep.

 

I tried to spend some time with others, dancing, smoking, having drinks and socializing with people my own age. A friend and I smoked a cigarette in the dark in some corner of the house. She started confessing she had doubts about her sexuality. At some point, I think, she tried to kiss me. It wasn’t exciting or interesting to me but at least it wasn’t awkward, I thought. Not as awkward as lusting over a grown-up mother of two.

 

Back at the party I was still unable to stop looking out for this woman. Eventually the judgmental voice in my head gave me such a hard time that my mood shifted. It no longer felt like fun or exciting. It felt like I was insane, or bordering on it. I wanted to go home and sleep the desperation off. I asked a friend to drive me.

 

Then I saw her in the doorway as we started to leave. It was my last night in Brussels. I didn’t have anything to lose. I stopped and told her softly, so no one else could hear, ‘I think you are beautiful.’

 

Her reaction showed me that I had crossed a line. I think she knew exactly how I had meant my words and she felt uncomfortable and flattered at the same time. Surprisingly, she said: “You’re very beautiful, too.” A short moment of pure bliss and then it was over; back to normal, back behind the line and tucking away desire. If I read her correctly, she knew what I was interested in and she let me know that she had picked up on a vibe between us. But she wasn’t going to go there, obviously.

 

I went to bed a little ashamed, a bit happy and slightly disappointed. Some part of me knew that what I had felt that night was going to be important for me in the future. It felt familiar. And somehow I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to connect to the people I desired. Exciting and desperate thoughts. 

 

*

 

Preferring middle-aged people is called mesophilia. Other age-related categories are gerontophilia, preferring elderly people, or paedophilia, the problematic preference for children that cannot consent to sexual acts. When I recently found out about me being a mesophile I was relieved. If there’s a name for it, I am not alone. Some partners of mine used to say that I would have found them more attractive when they were younger. Without wanting to disrespect the person’s insecurities triggered by ageism, I always laughed about that. Truth be told they would probably have been invisible to me. While society deems women after their forties uninteresting and beyond their best years, my gut tightens as soon as they leave 40 behind.

 

I used to think everyone felt like this about middle-aged women. We used to watch movies in class and my friends would always talk about the actors or younger actresses. One day we watched “The Kids Are Alright” in class and I was drooling over Julianne Moore like crazy, I couldn’t keep it to myself. I was about 15 years old then. Soon, I noticed that none of my friends or classmates seemed to have found her interesting, attractive, or worth talking about.

 

My current partner is 30 years older than me, and the partner before her was 33 years older. Friends and relatives are rarely surprised that I would end up with someone much older than myself. While growing up, adults often told me how mature I was for my age and how intelligent my questions were, that it indicated I was listening and understanding what I was told. Other children wanted to play with dolls, stuffed animals or who knows what while I would prefer to read or talk to adults. This is what my parents told me happened and I don’t remember it otherwise. I do remember being extremely bored by playing with fake, small animals and making up stories about them. Books had much better stories.

 

I found it insulting to be seated at the kid’s table at parties. Call it arrogance, but I hated not to be taken seriously and respected as a full person. The worst thing someone could say to me was “you’re too young to understand”, “wait a few years and you’ll see” or “when you’re older I’ll tell you”. It felt like being put on hold. I was impatient, and I felt clever enough to grasp adult thoughts. Maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t. Is this the reason why I’m into middle-aged women, though? Am I still proving to myself that I can have a relationship with someone in their 50s while I’m 19, 20, 21…? Am I defining myself through my desire for women who are wiser than me? Why do I even feel the need to find out where this desire comes from?

 

While most people I know are not surprised about my choices, there is still a tendency to pathologize them: a mother complex, the need for approval or for hierarchy and imbalance in relationships, the fear of intimacy with people my age or of planning a “stable life with a life-long partner”. I guess some of these outside perspectives have gotten to me. When I’ve had difficulties in past relationships my friends often blame it on the age gap, tell me to change my ways. But that feels like they’re telling me to give up my sexuality. As wrong as if they were telling me, ‘Why don’t you try out men for a change?’

 

*

 

It was one of these impulsive decisions. My insides were screaming at me. I had seen an article about low dosing testosterone and felt drawn to every single effect of the hormone described in that article. I wanted the muscle growth, the fat redistribution, the lower voice, the energy and libido. So, I decided to go to my doctor and start taking T.

 

The first months on a low dose I almost couldn’t feel it, only bad smell and hair growth. It wasn’t doing anything for me, so a few months later in January 2020 I decided to go on a full dose. Again, none of the things I really wanted were happening to me. I smelled even worse and even more hair kept coming in. Slowly though, my libido and energy levels got better. For the first time in my life, it felt to me as if that pleasure and desire to have sex came from different parts of my body, not my mind. I could locate the origin of desire very specifically and my body started to take over, blissfully leaving my mind behind.

 

Most amazingly, after a few weeks, my soprano voice dropped noticeably. Sometimes, I would wake up with a completely different voice than the one I had gone to bed with and be unable to recognize it as my own. It started cracking and I was unable to sing for a while. Now my voice is mainly operating in lower registers, but I can still use it for higher notes if I feel like it. My face has slightly changed and my jawline looks a bit sharper than it used to. My shoulders are wider, more muscular. I am satisfied with the changes that have happened so far and would like them to stop now. This has always been my problem with T: I want a flat chest, a low voice, the smoothest skin, toned muscles, my clitoris/penis, my waist, to be able to pass as a woman or as a man or neither if I feel like it. But you cannot choose what and where the hormone acts upon you.

 

*

 

Dreams are often shattered by the streets and trains.

 

A stranger comes up to me to comment on my body only to find that my voice is too low for a woman’s. Hearing this makes him shiver – has he just done something that would make him gay? I laugh but I am afraid. This situation is complex. Some people are so scared of being gay that they turn their internalised homophobia against the person they initially found attractive.

 

I am in danger because my body is desirable to him as a woman’s while my voice and sometimes my mannerisms do not fit that picture. On these occasions I sometimes wonder if I would rather have my higher voice back so I can get harassed as a woman. Or if I’d want a more masculine body in order to pass in that direction. The answer is neither. I resent that I am somehow doomed to be perceived either as an effeminate, probably gay man or as a butch woman because that’s all there is.

 

Is that really all there is? A little later, two men audibly discuss whether I am a woman at all. In other words, whether or not I am fuckable. Watching my mannerisms, staring at my chest. Finally, they decide that yes indeed I am, and they approach me. They start harassing me. I get off the bus, hoping they won’t follow me. I call my partner. I cry and want to punch everything and everyone.

 

A few days later I’m walking on the street and I speak up against a sexist comment made by a group of kids. ‘Faggot,’ they yell. This time I laugh out loud, even though I feel so angry. They have so successfully failed.

 

To be queer is not to be responsible for these situations but to always be exposed to them. To be queer seems to trigger hate in others. With the hate and violence directed against genderqueer folks it becomes hard to listen to your own voice and desires. A mastectomy will not only make my gender expression more androgynous, but my whole body less ‘readable’ in the binary sense. The ‘material’ I have been working with in order to appear androgynous – my actual body – will be altered profoundly and I may feel destabilised. Am I prepared for the hate, violence and reactions towards me? How will a mastectomy affect my life outside my home, my bed and the comfort of my lover’s arms?

 

*

 

Whenever I talk about chopping my boobs off, they burn and tingle as if they had a life of their own. My body is gripped by their fear of death, radiating into my stomach and throat. Or is it my own fear of not knowing what life is without them? I cannot recall a single day of appreciation of my boobs or even neutral feeling toward them, but still – a mastectomy seems like the scariest thing on earth. What comes after? Should I bury them in a jar? Donate them to a museum? Put them next to my mother’s ashes when she dies?

 

I probably will not feel the need to do any of these things. My boobs were never really a part of me, and I will not miss them once they are gone. So why even cry and give them a funeral? I might like it for the dramatic and macabre ritual of it all – burying a body part of mine that has made my life miserable at times. I just have so much grief in me: grief about not liking them in the first place, about having to live with this kind of discomfort. And grief about having to even think of going through surgery while fearing it so much just to feel good about my body. At the same time, I feel that this will be a life-affirming act. And as I must plan my mother’s funeral, I will hold on to these new possibilities that will arise, and I will welcome them: wearing open shirts, lingerie, blazers, and all the see-through things this world holds.

 

*

 

In two months, my boobs will no longer be among us. Their life has not been particularly good or exciting. I never let anybody touch, kiss, or admire them and they barely saw the light of day. My mother’s and sister’s advice, to moisturise and massage them so I could grow fond of them, was passionately ignored. Whenever they wanted to play, I made them sit and be quiet. Then I tried to make it up to them and bought them the nicest clothes. The lace, straps and colours made them happy which meant I was not. There is just no pleasing both of us.

 

Claude C. Kempen is a prospective academic and writer who holds a bachelor's degree in Islamic Studies from Freie Universität, Berlin. They are currently pursuing a master's degree in Gender Studies with special reference to the Middle East at SOAS, University of London. They have published on hijab- and refugee-pornography, and are interested in exploring queer-muslim solidarities, trans- and islamophobia, and queer visions.

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