When I was a teenage girl, I dated an extremely handsome and charming man named Diego. We met over the internet, and eventually would spend time together in his souped-up truck, talking and touching beneath the moonlight, under the loud boom of his sound system as his brand new rims glistened in the night. Eventually we graduated to the back seat, where we fucked all over that fresh interior until the sun began to rise. Slowly, as our relationship progressed, our tryst moved up to his apartment. That seemed like a big deal to me; we had never stepped foot onto the same concrete until that very moment.
The world wasn’t ready to see a man lusting over a trans woman, and so there was an unspoken agreement between us to never be seen together in public. Imagine what would happen, we thought, if strangers saw the look in our eyes as we sat across from one another at a dinner table. It was too much for us to even consider, so we chose to avoid public circumstances. There would be no holding hands on our way to brunch on a Sunday. No overnight stay, or sweet goodbyes in the a.m. as he scurried off to work, wondering if I was still in his bed, in his t-shirt—wondering if I was wondering about him. We knew we were safe in the dim light of his bachelor pad, hidden behind the fantasy and fallacy of it all. For what crooked smile could question the intent of star-crossed lovers if we never challenged their belief system? If we never even questioned the world around us and remain encapsulated in the callous act of limited love? Secrecy seemed like an easy solution.
This went on for a couple of years. The sex was exceptional and over time we became connected deeper on an emotional level—until one night it all came to a screeching halt. During one of our lengthy telephone conversations, he said, “Damn Nomi, if only things were different we would be in love,” and in that moment, the spell was broken. The magic had vanished, and I finally saw beneath it all.
I knew he was telling me he loved me while using a language that hurt me. I knew he was making an attempt to dedicate himself to me while asking for forgiveness. I was an outcast who taught myself that love was a weakness, but as I began to feel it for the first time I realized that love was like death, it was unavoidable and it was coming for all of us. In that moment of unveiling rage, I learned a lesson in both love and hate. Maybe over the course of our relationship I had silently accepted the barriers he built in his mind, but by no means had I ever given up on love. I was open to loving him even if it meant I was weak.
In that moment, however, I realized it would never be an option. It would never happen in this context because he was in possession of a dead end soul. He was ashamed of his desire for a trans woman and wouldn’t let our love to come to life. Not in public and definitely not in his heart.
I told him he was right, that if only things were different we could be together, but I wasn’t the one who needed to change; it was him and his closed mind.“You understand what I’m saying! You know how I feel,” he argued. “I love being with you. I don’t want this to end. If only things were different. If only things were real.”
I stood there, shocked by his delusion. “You are going to die old and lonely,” I responded, “looking back at life regretting never having given yourself the opportunity to live your truth.” I never spoke to him again. And almost a decade later, I was right. Although he’s not dead yet he is still chasing me, still chasing his truth.
Diego was one of many lovers who kept me in the dark. Many who I never met at a restaurant for dinner or at a bar for drinks. Never did we go to a theater to catch a movie or a walk through a park. No museum visits or romantic nights out on the town. It was door-to-door delivery service, like Seamless for lovers. It was easy. Why face the pressures of society? Why take the chance of someone realizing I was trans and giving us a hard time? Why take the chance of his friends and family finding out he preferred the company of me over a cis woman? Why put us through that shame?
My fear of judgement allowed me to accept this poor treatment. Even as I grew older, prouder and wiser, I felt as if I was never perfect enough to be on the arm of a man. As society began to accept me because I grew to be what it deemed beautiful, I still wondered, was I beautiful enough? Beautiful enough for love—beautiful enough to be loved in public? Why couldn’t we just live in a fantasy? Why couldn’t we hide from violence? Why did we have to prove anything to anyone?
It was all too much for my lovers and myself, so we never put ourselves in that position. We created safe spaces in the comfort of our homes, or whatever hotel room was available. Our intimacy only existed in these moments, and sometimes these romantic bubbles would become our primary relationships. Lighting and lingerie; our favorite wine and music. It was always the perfect setting with no pressure. We’d make love like beasts behind those closed doors, our sanctuary. We would speak about the possibilities of our future through weed smoke and locked lips. We’d discuss what the future held for us or would hold for us… if only things were “different.”
Once, a man imagined how I would be pregnant, and I had to listen to him describe what our child would look like, how we would live together in a one-bedroom in Spanish Harlem where we would have way too much sex for our own good. We became addicted to this standard of love. Addicted to pretending we didn’t want something more from our trysts and to pretending our trysts were actually something more. It was easy to fantasize while living in a dream, for fantasies are not frightful nor do they cause any pain. The reality of seeing them through was the nightmare.
To this day I’ve kept some of these lovers. Not because I keep my romantic life hidden behind closed doors anymore, but because these men are still addicted to these moments of fantasy. Addicted to the sex and safety of it all. And even though I live my life in reality now, it is still easy to dip back into that bubble. I mean, who doesn’t love a comfortable night of wining and dining and fucking ‘til the sun rises while Mobb Deep plays lightly in the background, right? But as I find myself owning my identity and stepping into womanhood with pride, realizing my worth and what I actually want out of an adult relationship I can’t help but wonder: Am I enabling these men?
Eventually, I met my first serious boyfriend. We were together for five years and had a fairly normal relationship. But one night while we were having an argument, he said, “You should be thankful for having a man like me who accepts you.” I told him, “This is not special. You are not rare. This is normal. And the same way you accept me, there are millions of other men out there just like you.”
Although I may not have fully believed myself as the words fell from my lips, I was right. Since then, there have been others. I’ve met some extraordinary men who are brave and who have allowed themselves to be present with me even in the face of society’s judgment, but it has definitely been a journey—and I’m only now realizing how I’ve carried so much trauma from my shameful past. It turns out those safe spaces I created for myself and my lovers were actually danger zones, and were extremely detrimental to my mental health. I let myself believe that I was not worthy of love or of being treated with the same respect as any other woman walking this earth. I love a good passionate, private night indoors, but not under the pretense of shame.
At one point I found myself involved in a terribly abusive relationship. I was so used to being shrouded in this constant shame that I found comfort in being trapped and controlled—comfort in what I believed to be a constant exhibition of pride and love through anger. He couldn’t live without me. He would show me off to the world and even challenged his parents when they threatened to withhold his inheritance because I was trans and couldn’t bear children. He was ignited by the anger in their eyes. It excited him. It made him feel alive. His revenge was a threat brought to life. He would die without me. He would kill for me, and even kill me, if I ever thought of leaving. In his own words, he would “dig my grave.”
My trauma had convinced me that this was love because it was out in the open. All his rebellion—in the face of a rich, traditional family and in the face of the society I had feared my whole life—became my revenge as well. Eventually, this sense of redemption became the misstep which left me open to receive even more trauma. I told myself how no one else could love him because I was the only one who understood his madness. I settled into the pain while giving him all my magic only to be handed back a diminished soul. “Forget about the bruises on your body babe,” he told me. “Imagine if they could see the bruises I put on your soul.” I allowed my character to be assassinated because I was high off his pride and, after years of building it up, had a high tolerance for pain—so high I didn’t even realize I was hurting.
Thankfully, it began to hurt too much. I never thought I would be thankful for pain but it saved me. It rose to the surface and finally became unbearable. I planned my escape.
When I left, not only did I take my belongings, I also brought with me a new set of traumas that still follow me as I navigate my way through life and love. I still have a lingering fear and anxiety about dating in public places, but once I push through I begin to realize it’s only in my head. Getting there is the hard part. Meeting men by chance while I’m already out in public is much easier for me—but I find myself surrounded by predatory men attracted to my past sexual, emotional and mental trauma. Sometimes I’d rather not deal with it at all. Being alone is so peaceful. Loneliness is my new safe space, but there are times when I let myself out of that cozy little bubble and I meet men who actually don’t give a fuck what anyone else has to say. I call them brave and they tell me, “This isn’t bravery, this is humanity.”
I still don’t understand all of this. I’m still learning. But I know the more I stand up for myself and refuse to settle for less, the stronger I’m becoming and the less my traumas seem to have a hold on me. Saying it out loud has been the first step for me. Talking about it with friends, admitting to them when they ask “How are you?’ that I’m actually not that great. You’d be surprised how many times they appear relieved and reply, “Me neither.” I’ve learned to love myself unconditionally and I hope someday that will be enough. As a good friend recently told me, “Eventually you’ve gotta just jump and figure out that you have a daughter on your hands and it’s yourself and you have take care of her.”
It’s difficult to admit that you will never be a part of the society you’ve grown to know. But what if that freed us? What if looking good on paper became poisonous? What if being that thing the world rejects made you feel sexy and you found power in that feeling? How powerful it could be to find confidence and love yourself in the face of such opposition. I hope being rejected makes others feel beautiful, powerful and unique—because rejection is only a violent form of jealousy. I especially wish this for young trans women who are navigating their way through womanhood. What a fragile device, to be frail in the eyes of the preying.
It’s only now that I see how much pain I caused myself. I look back and I feel so sorry for that poor, young girl who only wanted to love and be loved. To touch and be touched. To make love and build love and live in love. I hurt her, and it isn’t until now that I finally see it and I need to apologize. I’m sorry, Nomi, for causing you so much pain all those years. Sorry for poisoning your mind to believe that you are not worthy of love. You are worthy, you are love, and I know that now.
Nomi Ruiz is a New York singer-songwriter whose solo music as Jessica 6 and work with ANOHNI and Hercules & Love Affair is internationally acclaimed. She is currently a part of the Smirnoff Sound Collective, a program that aims to tackle dance music’s diversity problem by showing support for rising stars of all backgrounds, genders and identities.