“Are you trans, yet?” he asks, his semi-annual question, flung across six states from yet another new phone number. I haven’t seen him in four years now. I take a deep breath and sigh into the receiver.
He was my first bro, before I the words “trans” or “genderqueer” ever entered my innocent ears, before I bellowed the spit-fire anthems of Ani DiFranco, before I dog-eared the pages of Feinberg and Bornstein and Butler.
On a crumb-covered dorm room carpet, I sucked fumes from a stale bong and waded through the alcohol, taking in stories of his high school days- the concerts he’d been to, the many girls he’d loved, the mother he’d battled for years.
He knew everything before I did. Like a magician, constantly revealing the secrets of alter-sexuality, he pulled out the codes of handkerchiefs, the words of Michelle Tea, and every movie starring Janine Garofalo (he had a thing). In my own short life, I had been spoon-fed all of life’s great experiences- trips to Europe and Mexico, golf outings and ski adventures, tree houses and sail boats. But he had lived. And he was determined to show me how. I, in turn, shortened his name to neutralize its gendering, buzzed his hair off, and kept him in constant supply of popcorn and juice boxes. For this, he called me the truest kind of a friend.
He dragged me to my first campus queer event (a tragic lesbian flick where five queers spread out over four different couches), slid burned tracks of PJ Harvey under my door, and brought a real live tranny to his dorm room when I confessed I had never met one (insert the world’s most awkward introduction here).
Yeah, I was a late-bloomer, sprung into a world where hippies and trannies and sneaker-strutting Brooklyn-borns fumed critical theory by day and fought the crimes of capitalism by night. My expensive alternative college would teach me that a Midwestern upbringing had led to my overconsumption of Campbell’s soup and Western imperialism. But it was he who would teach me the wonders of hair dye and dental dams. He’d show me how to pack a bowl and turn a plastic egg into a vibrator.
For two semesters, we lived like dorm rogues- stoned and overfed and giddy on Erin McKeown tracks. He was my wingman at parties and my protector from the wrath of first-year lesbians. He was queerer than queer, queer before I had any idea that queer could be sexy and political and non-academic. And he was my bro, through and through.
By his second year of college, his name had changed into something that closer fit his gender and cultural identity. He was calling himself “trans.” He didn’t want to dance in the circles of dykedom anymore. When the college failed him financially after his second year, he left for the west coast, never to return. He called me the following semester to check-in. Things were a little rough for him, but he didn’t want to talk about that.
“Are you trans?” he asked me from a crackling phone. “I’ve been looking at pictures of you. Maybe you are starting to pass?”
I laughed nervously. “No, man. I’m not trans. I just like skinny ties.”
“Oh.” The disappointment hit my ear like a dull punch. I got the sense that he needed a trans brother, but it wasn’t going to be me.
We barely stayed in contact after that, speaking twice a year at most. He fell in and out of love, got jobs and lost them, got addictions and lost those, too. Every time he called me it was from a new number. Every time he called, he asked the same first question: “Are you trans, now?”
He called one morning in August, after months of silence. I was in a car on my way to Camp Trans. I couldn’t talk, I explained. But I would bring him something from camp. Was I trans? I was, um… me? I didn’t know. Could we catch up in a few days?
A few days became five months.
I made a few half-hearted attempts to reach him, but the number had been disconnected. So much had changed in my life. I wanted to tell him about the community I had built and the boy I loved, but his number was a dead-end. So, I waited. Until tonight.
My phone buzzes with an unfamiliar number. Across six states he explains that life has taken a few tough turns. He had been reluctant to call, but he wanted a familiar voice.
I tell him all about my life. I tell him about gender organizing in Chicago. I tell him about my parents. I tell him about people from college I still talk to. And I tell him about falling in love with a trans person.
And then I wait for it. I know that it might be another half year before I have the chance to answer.
“Are you trans, yet?” the question comes in near-exasperation. Maybe he has given up on me.
I take a deep breath and sigh into the receiver. I have been clambering after him for years.