LOVING IN YOUR SLEEP

WRITTEN BY ZAITOUNA KUSTO
Zaitouna Kusto is a Palestinian-American trans woman living in San Diego, CA. Her writing has been featured on CSuiteMusic.com/politics and in the short film Life in a Box, which won Best Short at Film Fest Twain Harte 2014. Find her on Twitter @zaitounak or at the beach being very gay with her partner.
Loving In Your Sleep

This essay is part of our month exploring the theme of Intimacy. Be sure to check out Zaitouna’s other writing on being transgender.

Nothing fills me with more delight than talking to my partner while they sleep. Their cute, delirious grunts of agreement (and often disagreement) are as hilarious as they are sweet. It’s kind of a hard phenomenon to describe. Usually, when I come into bed, they are already long conked out. I snuggle up to them, gently press my breasts into their back, and kiss their neck.

“I love you so much bb,” I say, tracing my fingertips along their goosebumpy arm.

“I love you too,” they always respond—only, they aren’t really saying words. It’s more of a closed-mouth mumble-hum that melodically mimics the cadence and inflection they use while awake. And it’s so damn infectious. I can’t help but try to engage in further pillow talk. I ask them all sorts of ludicrous questions for a 1am chat. What’s your favorite river? What Star Trek race do you think I am? What are the top 5 bridges in the world?

They humor me. They humor me a lot in our relationship. I’m a pretty silly trans gal, and I like to goof off quite often. My quirks, little and big, have consistently ruined relationships and friendships in the past. For a long time in my life, I was not well liked. As a child, I was mercilessly bullied. I was beat up, ridiculed, and humiliated on a regular basis. I was a convenient dumping ground for prepubescent cruelty. It wasn’t only popular jock types either, it was often my own friends.

I learned at a young age to keep my sexual expressions under wraps out of fear of ridicule. Once, at a sleepover, I used a friend’s computer to log onto AIM for some cybersex like any good millennial. Unbeknownst to me, he had a key-logger on his computer and my whole dirty conversation was saved for posterity. If that wasn’t embarrassing enough, my best friend at the time got ahold of it, printed it out, and distributed copies at our Catholic school. Kids would walk down the halls quoting to me the filthy phraseology found on my logs. Admittedly, my sexual interests were a little… abnormal for a 15 year old, so it’s not hard to see why the guys at school found it so amusing. I even got called down to see the principle, who, like any good Catholic, was horrified by my “disturbing” adolescent mind, and gave me—not my friend who distributed it—a week of detention.

It would be misleading to blame all of this bullying on my inherent femininity as closeted trans girl. Although that certainly accounts for a lot of it. I was always thought of as “the gay kid”. Which, in retrospect, is funny because I am gay, just not in the way everybody all thought.

I CONSTANTLY WORRY THAT I’M ANNOYING THOSE AROUND ME, PERPETUALLY PARANOID THAT MY EXTREMES WILL EVENTUALLY DRIVE PEOPLE AWAY. YET NO MATTER THE UNFATHOMABLE REACHES OF MY PEAKS AND VALLEYS, MY PARTNER ALWAYS JUST SEEMS TO BE AMUSED BY MY ANTICS.

Beyond my clearly obvious queerness, I have always been loquacious, opinionated, arrogant, and hyper. As an adult, that translates to a charming and charismatic woman, but as a kid, it translated to a nuisance. Because of this, I tend to second guess myself a lot. I constantly worry that I’m annoying those around me, perpetually paranoid that my extremes will eventually drive people away. Yet no matter the unfathomable reaches of my peaks and valleys, my partner always just seems to be amused by my antics.

They never make me self-conscious. Which, as a trans girl, is an extremely uncommon thing. For people who aren't trans—or more particularly trans women—it can be hard to understand what girls like me wake up to each day. I belong to one of the most reviled and ridiculed populations in the world. We walk intersecting lines of being sensationalized, erased, degraded, dehumanized, and fetishized. It’s hard to not take the slanderous caricatures personally. You constantly second guess yourself and every micro-interaction you have. Did I make someone uncomfortable? Do I really belong in this space? Could they tell? There is a large contingency of people who think girls like me are faking it and sometimes being bombarded on all sides by this rhetoric can make you actually start to believe it. Being trans is like being ‘gaslit’ by the world.

Obviously, these reactionaries are wrong. Trans women are women and I am one of them. Why would we subject ourselves to this kind of systemic disenfranchisement and hatred for some sort of sexual fantasy? Losing your family, your job, and your prospects is an awful high price for a fetish. This isn’t even accounting for the tremendous amount of violence we face, both from the state and from people (mostly cis men, although the rhetoric of exclusionary cis women encourages their violence). The amount of trans women who are murdered by their partners is staggering and harrowing to the point where I have to avoid a lot of news. I can’t read even positive articles about my community because the comment sections are nearly always flooded with people telling us to kill ourselves. It is wholly depressing.

These factors make dating as a trans woman a precarious and scary thing. You don’t know how someone will react. You don’t know if they will really see you for you. You don't know if you will make them ashamed or uncomfortable. You don’t know if they will panic and kill you, which is a legal defense for murdering a trans person in 48 states.

I was slightly nervous about telling my partner, as I had some bad experiences in the past. The last person I dated before them ended up being a stalker who made my life miserable for a year. This was large in part due to me being trans—she was a “chaser” or a person who fetishizes trans women and specifically seeks them out for sex. Before that, I had a slew of partners who either ignored my identity or mocked me for it.

My partner doesn’t understand how lucky I am to have a person like them sharing my bed. I feel absolutely at ease around them and it’s been like that since the beginning. When we first started dating, I hadn’t transitioned. I told them when we first met that I was trans and they reacted in the most ideal way one could hope for. They treated me with the dignity and respect I deserved. They used the correct pronouns long before I started hormones and always saw me as a woman, even before I really saw myself.

MY PARTNER DID MORE THAN JUST ACCEPT ME—THEY CELEBRATED ME. THAT’S WHAT OUR RELATIONSHIP IS, REALLY. A CELEBRATION. WE CELEBRATE OUR LOVE, OUR RESILIENCE, OUR QUEERNESS.

Ultimately it was them who gave me the courage to transition. I’ve known I was a girl for a very long time, but I had basically resigned to the harrowing reality that, for a myriad of social and practical reasons, I would just never transition. My partner did more than just accept me—they celebrated me. That’s what our relationship is, really. A celebration. We celebrate our love, our resilience, our queerness.

We are queer and decidedly so. I guess I always have been, but it was something I kept relatively to myself until recently. What was the point before? Pride, as it were, meant nothing to me. I was riddled with shame for not just who I love, but for who I am. My partner changed all of that. They showed me it is okay to be visibly queer. It’s okay to take up space. Now, when we hold hands in public, it’s a quiet act of defiance and a reclamation of wasted years. Years that I spend in forced roles that made my skin crawl, holding hands while being perceived as a man and all the power imbalances and expectations that come with that.

Now I grin with excitement as we walk down the street. Sometimes I’m afraid, because many people are threatened by folks like us. I try to remember that our visibility is important. There is a common sentiment in our community that we should strive to be the queers in the world we wish we had seen when we were kids. That sentiment keeps me going through the terror most of the time.

Even the smoothest transition is still rocky and mine is no exception. There are so many variables, difficulties, and converging circumstances that can really throw your whole world out of whack. For me, that translated to losing the majority of my family. It was something I was prepared for, but the feeling of being unwanted still hurts, even when I tell myself I shouldn't care.

While I have been lucky in navigating the medical and legal aspects of my transition (which is an accomplishment, as there is a tremendous amount of red tape and gatekeeping around transitioning), I have certainly experienced employment discrimination and that also hurts, not just materially, but psychologically. It’s a major blow to anyone’s ego, especially a person as confident and sensitive as me. Despite all that, my partner has sailed every storm with me, at times even captaining my ship of self-actualization when I was unable. Their unyielding patience and encouragement has literally saved my sanity on more than one occasion and for that I will be eternally grateful.

DESPITE ALL THAT, MY PARTNER HAS SAILED EVERY STORM WITH ME, AT TIMES EVEN CAPTAINING MY SHIP OF SELF-ACTUALIZATION WHEN I WAS UNABLE.

I didn’t think this kind of love was real. Not for anyone and especially not for a schlub like me. I used to cynically mock the Hallmarkified romances we see on TV, but now I wake up every day, look over at my snoring sweetheart, and tears come to my eyes. The mutual care and support our relationship is built on fills me with so much gratitude sometimes I just get overwhelmed.

So I cry. And then I cry some more, because I’m grateful for this gift of being able to feel so deeply. When people ask me what has been best about my transition, this is what I tell them—the depth of feeling I am now afforded feels like a light has been turned on, illuminating up parts of my world I never had access to before.

We have a song. “Time In A Bottle” by Jim Croce. The profound lyrics jingle around in my brain constantly and I’ve yet to hear a better love song. This idea of loving someone so much that all the time in the universe isn't even enough to do everything you want to do with them so you bargain and beg to create more time and are ultimately left with the stark realization that time is finite and there’s really nothing you can do but cling to every single waking fraction of a second we are given and try to make something out of them? Damn. Thanks for the sucker punch, Jim.

This awareness of the diminishing nature of our shared time makes me appreciate and stretch the moments we have as much as possible because they’re so fleeting. There really is never enough once you’re in love. Which is precisely why no one can say “I love you” too many times. Trust me, we’re gay. We’ve broken all the “I love you” records at this point.

I reject the label of codependency. It implies there is some sort of toxicity in intimacy, and in my view, there is nothing toxic about equitably cohabitation with someone. I simply enjoy being with them more than not. And for some weird reason, they feel the same about me. They don’t tire of my shenanigans or saccharine sentiments. We crave each other with endless appetites. We are lucky.

I spent many years sleeping in an empty bed, learning how to keep myself company. Eventually, I learned to like it. I cherished my independence, my solitude. Now, the thought of sleeping alone sounds abysmal. I like the tiny sliver of bed my partner leaves available for me each night. Sacrificing my personal space isn't a sacrifice at all. Because I am not losing anything, really. Because this person is always there for me, even when they sleep. They demonstrate that every night with their somnolent “I love you too”s and precious attempts to placate my goofy ass. It’s touching and it’s cheesy and it’s all sorts of other clichés that I'm too stupidly smitten to care about.

I spent the majority of my life hiding who I was. Hiding away in those cold, lonely sheets, praying to a God I don’t believe in for someone to deliver me from my isolation. Letting out flashes and glimpses of the real me in the form of privately experimenting with lipstick or trying on a dress, hoping whatever person was keeping me company that night wouldn't abandon or ridicule me. Or worse.

I SPENT THE MAJORITY OF MY LIFE HIDING WHO I WAS. HIDING AWAY IN THOSE COLD, LONELY SHEETS, PRAYING TO A GOD I DON’T BELIEVE IN FOR SOMEONE TO DELIVER ME FROM MY ISOLATION.

There’s absolutely no way I’m returning to that hell again. My closet doors have been blown off and I survived the blast, clawing my way out of the rubble of my old life. I have fought to be here and be standing and I will not apologize for who I am or who I love. If people don't want to hear about how many times a day I kiss my partner’s elbow that’s fine, but don't expect me to shut up about it. I’m free and I’m loved and I’m going to celebrate that until my time in a bottle runs out.

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