I’ve just had surgery that, by all accounts, will change my entire life. It’s surgery that has masculinised my chest, a step forward to solidifying my identity in physical form. This surgery renders me cisgender to the unknowing public – I’m far more likely to take off my shirt than take off my pants – and whilst I’m beyond relieved to get that off my chest(!), there is a nagging concern that I haven’t had to think of in months.
Dating. It’s a minefield under the best circumstances, and, I fear, a snake pit of impending pain. Why? There’s my trans status and all the questions that will come along with it. Do I disclose this information immediately, and risk a violent response? Do I bring it up in casual conversation and have their interest suddenly die when their transphobia bubbles to the surface? Do I let this part of who I am define me entirely, just to weed out the people that won’t give me a chance?
Perhaps I’m being dramatic, but when you’re confined to bed rest, your mind has a funny way of honing in on all your insecurities and amplifying them. The odd thing is, my status as a trans male is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to my concerns for dating. I’m queer (does this limit or expand my dating possibilities?). I snore. I have an unhealthy obsession with peanut butter. And I find it impossible to be comfortable with my body; I’d go so far as to claim it’s my biggest insecurity. Dating is like a tailored torture for anyone with personal inhibitions, but lying there in my hospital gown with unwashed hair and drains sticking out of my armpits, it was all I was thinking about. Suddenly the physical barrier that was giving me pause in pursuing any personal relationship had literally been cut off my body. I was forced to think about why I wouldn’t ‘put myself out there’, even if that list of insecurities is enough reason to stick to the sidelines.
To my and everyone else’s horror, the all-natural meet-cute way of dating has been strangled in its sleep by the digital age. I’m talking about Tinder. Ok, so, I’ve been a naysayer since its conception. But with my body confined to bed rest, there is only so much I can do to entertain myself. Bed rest is both a limitation and an excuse to satiate my curiosity around Tinder; a peak into the dating pool with the option to leg it the instant I become uncomfortable.
I had heard that a recent Tinder update allows users to personalise their gender identity beyond cisgender profiles. This is something close to ‘revolutionary’, given the history of dating apps is rife with social exclusion, sometimes banning gender nonconformists entirely. For some reason, my version of the app left me with only the binary options. I was forced to consider whether to reveal my trans status from the beginning, and again, I had to wrestle with defining myself based on my gender. Writing the fact in my bio potentially opened me up to all kinds of abuse, but it also would allow me to weed out people who weren’t interested. Those who choose to date a transgender person are often as stigmatised as the trans individual themselves. This assumption hung on the idea that people would look at other’s bios (read: they don’t), but I decided to disclose the information nonetheless.
My first experience with Tinder was a brief stint that lasted all of thirty seconds. I hadn’t realised the full extent of the ‘Hot-or-Not’ system, and immediately began to consider how another person would judge me based purely on physical attraction. What made me feel worse was clicking on people’s profiles to find they hadn’t written anything in their bio. This forced me to swipe based entirely on appearances, which only served to solidify the idea that Tinder’s purpose is for shallow hook-ups alone. I made a few accidental super-likes, swiped right when I should have swiped left (and vice versa), and when I first matched with someone, I panicked and deleted my account entirely. If that isn’t a vivid microcosmic example of my dating life, I don’t know what is.
Eventually, though, I got the hang of Tinder. I found that every single guy I swiped right on I would match with. I wish that were an exaggeration. I very, very rarely matched with girls. A few times I encountered women from my ‘All-Girls’ Catholic High School and felt so surreal I was certain the scenario was part of some alternate reality. Needless to say, I swiped left. Of the people I matched with, however, I rarely started the conversations. Every time someone messaged me, all I could wonder is if they had read my profile. How ironic is that I wish to separate who am I from my trans identity, but ultimately have come to realise how important it is for a potential partner and I?
The most fulfilling conversation I’ve had thus far is with a twenty year old who took my ten-hour break from Tinder as a sign of disinterest and sent, “Nik, if we’re gonna make this last til our 2nd divorce, I expect some communication”. We spent the evening shooting back dark humoured one-liners.
“I’m sorry”, I replied. “I scheduled in a good 2 hour existential crisis, couldn’t cancel that one again.”
“Weak”, he says, “Should’ve stretched it to 4 with 20 minute intervals for water to rehydrate the tears.”
“Woah, you still cry? What’s that like?”
He understands my humour, sure, but friendly banter of this kind hardly constitutes the basis of a relationship. For me, there is an elephant in the room I’m not sure he’s aware of. I am too nervous to broach the topic. “Have you read my profile?” sounds too leading, “Do you know I’m trans?” too direct, and ultimately the whole ordeal is too inorganic and unnatural for me to feel comfortable actively participating in it. It makes me feel vulnerable, where my susceptibility is the identity that is at the centre of who I am.
It’s an uncomfortable conversation to have in person, and when it is set in the confines of a social phenomenon that at its core works by eliminating the natural process of organic meetings, it seems too forced to be a pleasant one. Not only that, but when every second person has at least one picture outlining their perfect physique, it’s enough to exemplify my biggest insecurity.
It is very likely that my experience is the result of my internalised fears about re-entering the dating pool post surgery. Almost every one of my qualms with the app seems to directly relate to one of my worries, and perhaps that’s enough to suggest I stay out of the game for a while longer. Still, navigating the world of relationships as a trans individual is no simple task, but maybe the fact not one person has brought up my trans status is a welcome sign.
One thing that rings clear through all of my worries is this: I wouldn’t care to date someone who had issues with transgender people anyway. It’s a loser’s game to think in any other way. I can’t compromise on who I am after fighting to get here, and no nihilistic Tinder stranger – no matter how charming – would ever be worth that. Dating whilst trans is hard, sure, but it would be even harder if I were trying to be someone I’m not.