When I was in high school, I watched the music video for “Feel Good Inc.” by Gorillaz over and over again.
It became something of an after-school ritual. I’d come home, eat a snack in the quiet of the empty house, and then curl up in front of the computer, waiting for the distinctive cackle of De La Soul to open the song. I’d glue my eyes to the screen, waiting for the animated band’s fictional lead singer, 2D, to appear.
I loved 2D. He was the perfect fake boyfriend. I loved that he was always so melancholy and beautiful. His hips were narrow the way I yearned for mine to be; his face was big-eyed and delicate yet angular. I wanted to look like him, to embody his perfect androgyny, but I knew I’d never be able to, so finding him attractive would have to be enough.
I also started consuming Gorillaz-based fan work on places like LiveJournal and DeviantArt. In those spaces, I found fan-made drawings of 2D cuddling with the band’s older male bassist, Murdoc. I read stories in which the characters fought and fucked and cradled one another. I stared at art depicting 2D lying in repose, his bony hips covered in Murdoc-made hickeys, and my heart raced.
I became very invested in the poisonous yet incredibly passionate affair fans had invented between these two fictional characters. Their bond was unhealthy and violent, but their closeness and addiction to one another pulled me in.
I didn’t know what to do with the intensity of what I felt. I wanted so badly to become enmeshed with these two characters. I wanted to be with them. I wanted to be them. I wanted the romanticized violence, the desire, the codependence, the hasty sloppy sex, the masculine beauty, all of it. But that was impossible. They weren’t real people. And I was a girl.
I connected to a lot of pretty-boy characters over the years and felt the same desperate desire for them that I felt for 2D and Murdoc.
Link from The Legend of Zelda was the very first. His creators had designed him to be gender-neutral, as easy for girls to identify with as boys. I worshipped his elfish androgyny and aspired to look just like him. I grew out my hair, lightened it to his shade of blonde, and started wearing a lot of green.
Trent Reznor of the band Nine Inch Nails was another focal point. At that point in his career, Reznor embodied the consumptive goth-boy stereotype — his epicene body and penchant for fishnets and latex drove me absolutely crazy.
In one of his music videos, Reznor plunges into a garden pool while wearing fitted black Victorian garb. He thrashes and screams in the water; his black hair sticks to his face, and his shirt falls open, revealing a flat, fuzzy chest drenched with cold water. Teenage me would replay that moment endlessly, arousal and longing rising inside me like tendrils of smoke.
To love a man was to try to become him.
I started dressing a lot more goth after discovering that video. I wanted to resemble Reznor just as much as I wanted to have sex with him. I wanted his style, his ageless boyishness; I wanted that body, with no curves and no softness. I did everything I could to get it. Including, unfortunately, starving myself.
That was always the way it went for me. To love a man was to try to become him.
My first boyfriend, Ryan, had 1990s-style hair curtains and did a ton of situps every morning. When we hooked up the first time, I was stunned by how rippled and firm his stomach was. After our relationship ended, I started doing crunches every night. I didn’t want Ryan back; I just wanted to be able to feel those ripples again — on myself.
Dan was a stand-up comedian and a smoker. I started smoking so I could taste him when he was away. I’d linger in the park by my house and light up, picturing him on the street outside of a comedy venue, getting his preshow nicotine fix.
In the early days of our relationship, my partner Nick would always show up to dates wearing a black T-shirt and skinny jeans. On the days after our dates, I’d find myself compelled to reach for my own version of the same outfit. It made me feel closer to him, but I was also ashamed of the habit. The act of imitation struck me as pathetic and creepy. I knew I wasn’t just a cute, sweet girl dreaming of her boyfriend. I was a parasite, trying to inhabit the form of the one I loved.
In her short story “Youth,” Casey Plett follows a withdrawn, self-loathing young man who is boundlessly devoted to Laura, his girlfriend. The highlight of the young man’s life is getting to spend a few moments cuddling with Laura in the morning. He watches her adoringly while she sleeps, wishing desperately he could take away every source of pain in her life. Laura is a painter, and the young man fantasizes about her doing a painting on his back, covering his “alien,” unwanted male body in the soft beauty that can only come from her hands.
“I think I would be content and peaceful for the rest of my life with her painting on me,” the young man says. “Like our bodies would be so connected that I would forget the sense of how I feel in my own.”
The young man, of course, is not a young man at all. He’s an egg — a closeted transgender woman who doesn’t yet realize she is trans. Her rampant disgust with her own body is a product of gender dysphoria. Her desperate desire to become fully enmeshed with the perfect-seeming Laura is not love — it’s a longing to transition.
The tragedy of Plett’s story is that the young “man” doesn’t ever figure this out. At the end of the story, she is just as filled with self-hatred as she was at the beginning. She is so focused on worshipping an idealized version of Laura that she cannot recognize that her misery and her obsessive love come from the same source. Isolated and confused, she falls deeper and deeper into the urge to erase and destroy herself. When Laura self-harms, she starts self-harming, too. When Laura is depressed, she also wants to die. Her own life means nothing to her, because it is the wrong life, in the wrong body and identity.
I used to get into very codependent, abusive relationships with men I admired. The fewer boundaries they had, the closer I could get to them — and the more I could erase who I was. This was intoxicating to me.
When it was at its very worst, being taken advantage of felt like an honor.
The worst relationship lasted for more than two years. I spent the entire time thinking only of him and his needs. I disappeared into his masculine beauty, his selfish personality, his ever-evolving problems I constantly had to fix. I found myself in an emergency room in the middle of the night, helping him nurse a split knuckle he’d given himself by punching a wall, and I felt only gratitude and love.
My academic work was his work, free for him to plagiarize as he saw fit. My money was his money, there whenever he forgot his wallet by accident or on purpose. My body was an extension of his body, an object that meant nothing to me, which he could use and harm how he wanted. When it was at its very worst, being taken advantage of felt like an honor. He was so perfect, and I was nothing. The more I blurred the line between us, the more I could be free of myself.
Eventually, I escaped that relationship and started dating someone with reasonable limits and boundaries. The logic of a healthy relationship did not compute. I was far too accustomed to giving my entire self to another person.
My new partner didn’t want to spend every waking moment together. He didn’t avail himself to every detail of my sexual history and didn’t behave like my body was his. When he was angry or sad, he wanted time to himself so he could process — he didn’t see me as a vessel made to hold all of his feelings.
In a sick way, this healthiness made me feel miserably lonely. I could love my partner deeply, but I could not use him as an emotional avatar. Loving him could not fill my days. I was forced, at last, to look within.
When my friend Sarah sent me Casey Plett’s short story, she knew I was struggling with my identity, feeling unmoored, and existentially lonesome despite being in a healthy relationship for perhaps the first time in my life. She suspected the story might help me, the way it had once helped her realize she was a trans woman.
As soon as I started reading Plett’s story, my tangled-up, tortured feelings started making a ton of sense. I sobbed and shuddered with self-recognition. I saw flashes of all the men I had tried to emulate over the years. I was exactly like Plett’s protagonist — covering up my own self-hatred with a toxic love for somebody else — but unlike her, I had been given the chance to realize it, and I could start taking steps to address it.
The shame I had harbored all my life began to drain out of me. I realized I had never been a creepy parasite. I wasn’t pathetic. I wasn’t to blame for my own past abuse. I was just a confused, dysphoric trans person, projecting my deepest wishes onto people who were living the way I wanted to live.
This sudden, revelatory burst of self-knowledge made my heart ache, but it also filled me with self-compassion. I experienced a kind of relief that felt almost like religious grace. I came out as trans to my family and friends shortly afterward.
I still have a weakness for cute, elfish men, but they don’t exert the all-powerful pull on me they once did. I still find 2D adorable and think 2D/Murdoc slash fiction is hot. I still find my partner incredibly attractive. I still look at pretty, androgynous men and admire the way they carry themselves and their sense of style.
However, these feelings don’t consume my every waking moment the way they once did. My attraction is self-contained, not desperate and grasping. I don’t want my own body to disappear into someone else’s. I don’t long to evacuate my own mind.
On good days, I can look in the mirror and see someone as adorable, lovable, and androgynous as any of the men I once looked up to. When that happens, I am gripped with immense gratitude for my younger, sadder self. I am so thankful that version of me kept going, even though they hated themselves. I’m so glad they persisted through abuse, confusion, and loneliness and finally discovered that the person they needed to love boundlessly was themselves.