Letter to an Unlikely Lover
Note by the author: This story is real. It has been published with the consent of everyone involved. All names except my own have been changed for privacy purposes.
Berlin, 11 December 2019
Dear Unlikely Lover,
This letter is an attempt to trace the story of our encounter. It is a gesture of appreciation towards little things that happened, seemingly insignificant. And yet, where else does life take place? My writing is also a reflection on what our meeting sparked off – thoughts and conversations about difference, recognition, social contracts, class, history, transgenderism, gay dating apps, new beginnings, the power of music, and more. Meeting you has shaped me, has made me think a lot. In some small way, without the experience I wouldn’t be who I am now. Some people would say it is personal memoir. Or not even that, it is just a letter for another person. Why share it? These people may put more value into academic papers that generalise, because it makes them think they can see more at once. However attractive and efficient this may sound, I think it is deceptive. When it comes to the point, it is usually only through some radical, unexpected detail that I really understand something. As Goethe observed, the whole can only be encountered through the parts (Bortoft, 1996). That is why I think it can be valuable to share what I noticed, not only for me and you, but also for others. Perhaps, in the thick description of our encounter, someone else will find something of interest to them. Maybe something will stay with them and they may learn a bit. For me, this is enough of a reason to share this account of experience.
This morning you kissed me goodbye on your way to work. We were standing just a meter away from where a wall once separated this city. For the limited time that this would be your home, you chose to live in a place that used to be the patrol area of border guards. Now, it is being taken over by new developments, fancy high-rise buildings in one of which you had your flat on the 7th floor. I loved standing on your balcony, smoking the cigarettes you hate so much. Every time I visited you, I took a picture of the view. A cityscape like you would see on posters in people’s living rooms, river to the right, sunrise behind the Mercedes tower. Today was the last time waking up in this apartment, since you are about to move on to find happiness elsewhere. I was tired after a night of not such good sleep. It was full moon and your room was hot. You were moving around a lot, making little sounds as though you were having nightmares. Why, if you’re so comfortable, I wonder – perhaps in the same way you wonder why your cat is dissatisfied with his life in captivity. In between reclaiming my part of the blanket and visitations by your feline friend I must have slept, because I remember that I dreamt about you. There was a birthday party in a place that looked like a ruin and a construction site at the same time. Your sister was there, too. She was making trouble. Strange, because during one of the first nights I spent with you, I had a similar dream.
You appeared in my life on the screen of my phone. On Grindr, a gay dating app. One of those few spaces in society where we get to meet people we may otherwise never have spoken to. People with different backgrounds, interests, and aspirations. In the two months that we’ve known each other, I’ve enjoyed catching little glimpses of your reality, even though it sometimes blows my mind. Your aim in life is to be hired by an international company and make enough money to live well in New York or Paris. You grew up rich and upper class, your family owns castles with many empty rooms. You write to me you have history (I think you mean History with a capital H), a set of exceptional people in your ascendency who achieved amazing things and were part of important moments in the becoming of the world as we know it now. They have their own Wikipedia articles.
I have history too. It’s not written into the making of states, but some of it can be traced in local records. We’re speaking about the men now. The women’s stories were passed on orally, if at all. In the generation of my great-grandparents, the men were skippers, seafarers, and farmers. The women were in charge of the households. During the wars, they ran the farms, making ends meet while their husbands were away. With peace came the desire for building financial security and social status, so my grandfathers moved into the realm of the middle-class by becoming a city planner and a chemist. They didn’t manage, however, to make this type of existence seem attractive to their own children, my parents. Incapable of handling the lack of poetry and deeper meaning in their homes, my mother and father chose to sign up to a different kind of story. They refuted capitalism and experimented living on alternative terms.
My father was an artist and art teacher. My mother’s aim in life has been to raise open-minded children. After my father passed away, she cleaned houses and distributed newspapers to afford the fees for the Montessori school that I attended in one of the Netherlands’ poshest neighbourhoods. I cycled there every day, a half an hour ride from the council estate where we were living at the time. It was one of those areas where boys with fancy scooters and shiny chains around their neck were dealing drugs. My friends’ parents preferred me coming to play at their villas rather than having their offspring be around my neighbourhood.
When I think about it, I guess my heritage is not so much linear as it is a mosaic of wildly different experiences of what life can be like, depending on the set of values one adopts. This, in turn, is determined by the circumstances one finds oneself in. Circumstances change, people respond in different ways, values are being passed on and sometimes rejected, to be replaced by other values. I am endlessly fascinated by the question how people become the way they are. That’s probably why I have turned into an artist-researcher who studies change as it happens against a background of unexplainable things.
This morning on our way out, we were chatting about our different histories and aspirations. Jokingly, I sang to you: money can’t buy you love. I unlocked my bright pink bicycle, which I got for free and learned how to repair myself. Parked in the neat gated courtyard of your building, it looked a bit out of place. An apt illustration of how our meeting happened on the brink between two worlds. Not only in terms of where we come from, but also in terms of our current realities. When I arrived in this city, I soon found a warm welcome in the queer community. Their culture and history became entwined with mine when I came out as a female-to-male gay trans person, only a few months ago. In contrast, your entry points to this place have been the corporate world and the masc-for-masc gay scene – environments that made you feel ill at ease. You will leave with the impression that this city is harsh and impersonal, a place where people are too rude for your taste. Not me, though. I put the polite conversation skills I’ve picked up during seven years in the UK to good use. I think they made you let me in, despite our differences. Created a space for a very human transaction to take place.
The set-up was simple and yet remarkable. The first time we met, we went to see a movie together. The next day, I wasn’t feeling well and wanted to hang out on the couch with someone. You invited me over and we both got a cold. Sharing an experience of illness over 72 hours was our second date. We gave each other comfort. I made us food. You let me share your bed – a form of recognition that only you as a gay cisman could give me. Being considered enough of an equal to qualify for such intimacy was a concern for me. As Aaron Raz Link writes in What Becomes You (2008, p.16), a memoir of his own female-to-male transition, “If you don’t listen to what anybody says about you, you’re free – as free as you can make yourself, in your room, alone.” The challenge is to be free in other people’s rooms, too. If, for whatever reason, you don’t recognise me as I am, I become limited to what you can bare seeing me as. To say it in the words of Paul B. Preciado (2013, p.10), another transman and gender hacker, “Now it’s you who must grant me the right to wear this mask.”. That’s why I specifically asked you during our first chat whether my as-of-yet unmodified body would be a problem for you. You replied: No, why have boxes? Working through that one hasn’t proven quite as easy. Yet, I am glad you were willing to give it a try. And so, our encounter became a first timer for both of us. The first time for you to date a person with a body that was assigned female at birth, the first time for me to date a gay man as a gay man.
What were the chances of our paths crossing? They wouldn’t have, if it wouldn’t have been for two friends talking me into installing Grindr one Sunday afternoon.
We are sitting in my kitchen. Davide, a soft-spoken gay anthropologist and composer from Mexico, is preparing batter for tortillas. Rich and I are watching him do the work. Rich is a filmmaker from the States, the gay transman who ripped me out of the closet – to put it in his own words. We are cramped in the corner, seated around a small, wobbly table. The surface is a round slab of marble, actual stone, too cold to rest your arms on. The kitchen window looks out on a big, grey wall, which is stained by the weather. I’ve spent a lot of time staring at this grim and dirty surface, until one day, the shapes began to form into a landscape. Ever since, I can’t help but see the bay of a large mountain lake when I look outside. Against the background of Davide’s rhythmical beating of the batter, Rich and I are discussing the party we went to together last night. It was at a club around the corner from where I live, bunker-like as many of these places seem to be, with several bars and dancefloors. They play pop and techno. Originally a queer establishment, the club’s fame now also attracts a straight audience. Another meeting of worlds that sometimes leads to confusing situations.
-- What did you talk about with that guy who didn’t want to give me a dick show?
-- He asked me if I wanted to do coke and go to the toilets with him. I said no. Also, he asked me if I had a boyfriend. I said no. He asked: Are you sure? I said yes. Why would I forget about my boyfriend?
-- See, I wasn’t sure whether he was actually gay, since he didn’t want to give me the dick show.
-- I wasn’t sure either. Also, I thought that he probably saw me as a woman.
-- I don’t know. Your face looks kind of androgynous. You could pass as a twink.
-- What is a twink?
-- A boyish gay type, someone with a slender build and a bit sporty, like you.
-- I see.
-- Also, what was that strange thing on Facebook yesterday? That person who was looking for a female, non-binary, or trans bassoon player. I recommended you and someone else, and then they said: These people won’t work! I think they probably thought you were a cis guy. So I clarified that you are not, but I also felt kind of bad outing you there.
-- It was strange. There is something weird about people looking for someone trans or queer to speak on a panel or do this job or whatever. I get it, but I can’t help feeling as though I’m now this exotic species and always potentially a representative.
-- Yeah, it’s good in a way that they promote diversity, but it is also weird.
We are listening to music on crappy speakers. Phone signals interfere and then they start producing rattling noises. Are they possessed? We unplug the speakers. Having studied sound technology next to your degree in marketing, you would have been appalled by the quality. Me and my friends also appreciate a high-quality listening experience, but we’re too poor to invest in better equipment. So we make do, as we continue our conversation.
-- You know I started making self-portraits recently. Here is one I made today after I woke up. I quite like it.
-- Oh wow, that is a good picture! You look like a guy in his thirties who parties a bit too much. This would make a great Grindr profile photo. It’s sexy! How is it going with Grindr? You started using it recently, didn’t you?
-- I uninstalled it after twelve hours. I wasn’t sure about it. I don’t even know how to describe myself! People use a lot of abbreviations on their Grindr profiles that I don’t understand. They have a whole own coded emoji language going on. Also, there are all these tribes to choose from, and I have no idea what they mean. It puts me off. I know that my picture makes me look like a guy, but I don’t want to give the wrong impression. It might raise expectations that I can’t fulfil, because I don’t happen to have a bio-penis. And really, who would be looking for someone like me on a gay dating platform? Everything seems to be so dick-focused…
-- People look for all kinds of things. You should really try it again. It is very confirming. You are doing practice-based research, right? Do it as research. Try out all these new possibilities that you have the opportunity to engage with now.
As I reconsider the pros and cons of using Grindr, Rich proposes to play a game. We are to describe an image to him, then he will pick a song that matches it. We plug the speakers back in and hope for the best.
-- The image I have in mind is of a big river flowing. The Mississippi. I’m standing at the bank and see this massive stretch of water, aware that it has crossed an entire continent. There are some waves and it’s windy.
-- I think I have the perfect album to go with this. [Puts on the soundtrack of Oh Brother Where Art Thou.] This also satisfies my interest in mythology!
-- Oh, I know this! I love how the narrative is a parallel to Homer’s Odyssey!
We are singing along to Down in the river to pray, a traditional Christian folk song that features in the movie. It seems a bit out of context, given the shared sodomy-positive frame of reference in the room. But never mind. I remember the scene that goes with the song. An otherworldly atmosphere. Three guys drive through the woods. They hear voices and decide to stop and find out what’s going on. Suddenly, people dressed in white robes appear between the trees, slowly walking towards the river as they sing in polyphony. They queue to have their sins washed away by a priest who dips them into the water. The guys have been involved in criminal activities. In the spur of the moment, one of them sees his chance to start with a clean slate and gets himself baptised there and then. If new beginnings could always be that easy!
Becoming a different person is a topic that features in many songs. As I’ve gone through quite a bit of change over the last year, I’ve put together playlists to fit the mood of the moment. The names I gave them: Freedom Songs, Sinking Ship, Emergence, Ecstasy. One of the songs I’ve been listening to over and over again is Queen’s Innuendo. A bit over the top – as Queen is – but it pushes me, energises me, feeds into the momentum that I sometimes need to get going. Incredible: a song, performed in a studio roughly around the time you and I were born, by people who are no longer all alive – and still, when I tap play on my music app and plug my phone into the better speakers in my room, we go again. Same effect, same ecstatic release, as I turn up the volume to listen to the guitar solo at 3 minutes 17 seconds. Then, at 3 minutes 54 seconds, Freddy Mercury bursts into:
You can be anything you want to be Just turn yourself into anything you think that you could ever be Be free with your tempo, be free, be free Surrender your ego be free, be free to yourself
Back to the kitchen. Davide has been getting on with the tortillas and is now also cooking a salsa with smoky chalapeño peppers. I can feel the spice in my nose. Rich sneezes. The image-song game is still going on, and it appears to be my turn again. However, I am distracted. I am reinstalling Grindr. This time, I want to do it properly. Get my profile right. See what happens. Shortly after, my self-portrait will appear on your screen and you will write me a message. From here, you know what happened.
From the moment you told me that you were about to leave this city, I’ve been aware of the limit to our time together. I’ve been wondering what we would make of it. You’ve been telling me to just enjoy the moment. And you’re right, it’s all we have. But life gets made in moments. So does history. For our own short story, it may not be finished yet. You give me the chance to experience myself in a new way. I learn from you, through you. Our differences get me thinking. From a bird’s eye’s perspective, this letter is an attempt to make sense of what happens when humans partake in each other’s becoming. But transformative processes always happen in concrete situations between real people. By zooming in on my experience of meeting you, I have been trying to trace some of this life unfolding – shaping it and being shaped by it through encounter, reflection, and dialogue. I want to do justice to the fact that it happened this way and not otherwise. It’s a case study of life. Two worlds meeting through two people. As Hermann Hesse wrote (2000, p. 1): “each person is not only himself, he is also the unique, very special point, important and noteworthy in every instance, where the phenomena of the world meet, once only and never again in the same way. And so every person’s story is important, eternal, divine; and so every person, to the extent that he lives and fulfils nature’s will, is wondrous and deserving of full attention.”
To close with William Burroughs (1992, p.7), I believe that “to live is to collaborate”. And so, I wonder, how has meeting me affected you? How would you write this short history?
Bortoft, H. (1996) The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science. Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press.
Burroughs, W. (1992) Nova express. New York, NY: Grove Press.
Hesse, H. (2000) Demian. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.
Preciado, P.B. (2013) Testo junkie: sex, drugs, and biopolitics in the pharmacopornographic era. New York, NY: The Feminist Press.
Raz Link, A. & Raz, H. (2008) What Becomes You. London, UK: University of Nebraska Press.
Coen, J. & Coen, E. (Directors) (2000) O Brother, Where Art Thou? [Motion picture]. Universal City, CA: Lost Highway/Mercury.
Down in the river to pray. Performed by Alison Krauss for the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). Available at https://youtu.be/ZCnmYSIzZBc
Innuendo. Song by Queen (1991). Available at https://youtu.be/g2N0TkfrQhY
Can’t buy me love. Song by The Beatles (1964) Available at https://youtu.be/srwxJUXPHvE