On a hot evening last June, I found myself feeling like an awkward intruder at yet another party I didn’t really want to attend. A colleague had managed to convince me it would be a good opportunity to network with other people in the theatre industry, so I swallowed my inferiority complex, put on deodorant and trekked to an apartment nestled in the North Vancouver mountains, only to find myself alone in the kitchen.
Everyone there—aside from the odd boyfriend or girlfriend of an actor—was a national artist. I recognized many of them immediately. They were all the type who didn’t audition or apply for jobs anymore—work came looking for them. I, on the other hand, was a good ten years younger and had gotten my start in the industry via an arts program that donated theatre tickets to latchkey kids that grew up into poor young adults with promise. As a result, in my early twenties I had front-row seats to these very actors performing at Canada’s major playhouses opposite people like Jason Priestley. But even as I started to work in the industry myself, I still felt like I was on the outside of their world, looking in.
A few minutes into struggling to open the wine I’d brought, one of the actors—an out-of-towner visiting for the run of his play—came up behind me. I’d met Michael (not his real name) a handful of times before, always in professional settings. So I was more than a little shocked when after a few minutes of small talk he coyly told me he found me attractive. I barely knew him, but I did know he was married—to a woman. I’m genderqueer and had shown up to the party in baggy jeans and knockoff Jordans. All I could think of in response to his confusing advance was to reiterate my offer of a glass of wine. What else are you supposed to do when you’re a non-binary single weirdo, and supposedly-straight married Mr. Establishment comes on to you?
We both went back to the main room and other conversations, but I could feel where Michael was at all times in my spine. When he walked past me to have a cigarette alone on the balcony, I followed him. Over half a pack of Players we talked about our industry, the aspects of it we were and weren’t jaded about. We knew the same music, had the same politics, cared about the same activism. The most thrilling part was Michael didn’t look at me like I was a charity case, he talked to me like I was on his level. When his cab arrived, I invited myself along, and when Michael asked if I knew of a good bar where we could keep talking, I suggested his apartment.
At first, my affair made me feel like an equal
Although Michael and I didn’t have sex that night, we did sleep together, him in his boxers, me in mine and one of his huge T-shirts. I’m not OK with infidelity and never thought I’d find myself in the position of The Other Man, but Michael made me feel validated in a way I never knew I was seeking. As a person on the trans spectrum who grew up in poverty, I rarely feel equal to anybody. His interest in me made me feel like I had dignity by proxy.
Within days of that first night, Michael invited me to move into his sublet for the remainder of the time he’d be in town, just short of a month. When we started having sex, I told Michael that I was not going to be his secret. He agreed that when he got home he would tell his wife about me, and though he wouldn’t make any promises, we’d see what would happen thereafter. Michael biked home between play rehearsals, sometimes to cook us Hamburger Helper, sometimes to drink coffee with me in the sun, and sometimes to pick me up in his huge arms, lifting my hips to his face, so that he could go down on me while I was in the air, which was both strangely sensual and ridiculous. The sex was authentic: We both had deep orgasms without trying to perform for each other some idea of what an orgasm is supposed to look like.
When I told my friends, their reactions were not what I expected
A week into living together, Michael warned me we were falling in love with each other. Everything felt so natural, so easy, even strangely familiar. I started wanting it to be real. So I gathered my courage and started telling my friends about it.
“Is that what Michael does, he has affairs?” one of my queer guy friends responded. I didn’t have an answer—it wasn’t the reaction I had expected at all. Shock, yes. Disappointment, definitely. Anger toward me, sure. But this was… something else. It was like my friend couldn’t accept the possibility that Michael would choose a real relationship with me. Rather, he pegged him as a straight guy who had affairs with queer people on the side. It made me think about the standards of acknowledgement we queer people are accustomed to expecting: desired by straight people privately, while our lovers wear a different face publicly. I wondered to what extent I’d internalized that notion, and whether or not that was informing why I was willing to sacrifice my values to be in this affair.
“Have you seen what his wife looks like? She’s a very normatively beautiful woman,” other friends reminded me. I felt like that outsider again: I am neither normal, nor considered beautiful by most standards, and to my friends the fact that Michael, who has a conventionally beautiful wife, was interested in me was the most shocking thing about our affair.
As our relationship progressed, Michael and I started going out in public together in Vancouver. We didn’t hold hands, or kiss in front of people, but we weren’t exactly discreet about our bond, always finding excuses to be near each other or touch each other. I was surprized that none of our colleagues interrogated us—in fact, I was more rattled that they weren’t noticing the affair. Eventually, I started telling them, too.
“I don’t know what I’m looking at,” one of them said, when I held up a photo of Michael and I cuddling on the seawall in Olympic Village. I quickly realized we didn’t need to hide what was going on, because for so many people I didn’t even clock as a contender for Michael’s attention. They just couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that a man like him would be interested in me. And it made me realize that no matter how close Michael and I got, I’d never touch the dignity he had access to.
The end was my new beginning
When Michael left town and went back home, he dawdled about telling his wife for a month, leaving us both in limbo as to what would happen next. It wasn’t until I visited his city—where we had a date and, yes, had sex—that he kept his word. He drove home, told his wife and ended things with me.
I don’t have Michael on my mind much these days, but I’m able to name some things the affair taught me: mainly that I can’t trade sex for respect. I’m still waiting for the mainstream to acknowledge me as an equal, and even though I go to Pride festivals, I march in the Trans March and I shout the slogans with my cultural kin, the pride I express is still, in some ways, a performance of how I’d like to feel someday. I’m jealous of Michael and his life, not because I wish I were his husband but because I still feel like that kid with a charity ticket for a front-row seat to the world I’m not really part of.
Genderqueer and non-binary folks are fighting to be seen as humans who have always existed, and that includes being seen as desirable, sexual beings. As far as mainstream society is concerned, we’re still on the outside, but while the change is slow it’s inevitable. Eventually, we’ll be on the inside, and when that happens I know I’ll be figuring out how to love myself enough to feel like I deserve it, too.