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There Are No Angels
A powerful essay on the consequences and conditions of being a woman, written by Meredith Talusan.
I’ve been thinking about history and celebration as it pertains to women and what Women’s History Month is meant to achieve. I wanted to take what largely feels like an empty, federal gesture and turn it into a personal assignment with real meaning. For me, that meant reflecting and writing about the transformative power of being believed in by other women, specifically during a time of great creative risk and rejection in my life.
Part of celebrating our womanhood is by sharing all the ways in which it is represented, because I believe it is our differences that make us so powerful, not necessarily our similarities. Every woman in the U.S. (and in most of the world) has one, undeniable thing in common: they are considered to be second-class citizens to men. Or, as the French existential philosopher and writer Simone de Beauvoir put it, women are seen as the “second sex.” No one experiences this bias more than trans women, especially trans women of color. So this week, to continue our own celebration of Women’s History Month, I’m sharing an excerpt from one of my favorite essays from our book, Listening in the Dark: Women Reclaiming the Power of Intuition.
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Written by journalist and trans activist Meredith Talusan, “There Are No Angels” is a profoundly important work of writing on gendered emotional and psychological abuse and a reckoning with her pre- and post-transition life. This essay carries powerful, rarely-heard insight on what it’s like to have personal experience and history with two different genders: to have lived in one lifetime as both a man and then a woman and to uniquely know the bias against the latter because of the experience of living as the former. The duality of this lived experience gives her an incredible point of view about how the abuse of power by cisgendered men can and does take place.
Today, I’m sharing an excerpt from this vital essay on her own journey—a journey to womanhood, and how, in the end, she discovered that we’re all really just fighting for the same thing: equality and the end of abuses of power.
Note: The following excerpt depicts coercion and sexual abuse.
The following text has been excerpted from the essay “There Are No Angels” by Meredith Talusan which was originally published in Listening in the Dark: Women Reclaiming the Power of Intuition (Park Row Books, 2022). Reprinted with permission.
. . . Less than three months after medical transition, I was still in the early stages of being seen as desirable in my new gender, and I hadn’t yet experienced a man’s advances when he also had power over me. . . . When people look at you, they only see the person you are now, and I presented myself as a confident young woman, so that was how people saw me. What people didn’t see was the entire lifetime when I was raised as a boy and lived as a man, and I couldn’t just leave all those years of social conditioning behind overnight. . . . Being new to womanhood, I still didn’t know then how men could hurt me so deeply, even though they already had.
One of the men who answered my Craigslist ad for housing was named Joe. . . . He was a divorced Silicon Valley engineer with kids he saw on weekends who recently got licensed as a massage therapist while figuring out new business ideas. . . . He told me he could work with my budget, even though it was only a third of the rent. He took me upstairs to the sleeping area, which was just one large open space with a ledge overlooking the rest of the loft. He explained that he would put up a wall and door, and I could decide which room would be mine. I said okay. Frankly, I didn’t expect to find anything better as an openly trans woman with a cat and less than two weeks to move.
“We should get to know each other,” he said.
I was used to being around men; getting to know my future roommate made sense.
“Of course,” I replied.
When we got to the loft, Joe made some tea while we talked about a massage retreat he was planning to run in Hawaii with a friend. . . . I imagined Joe’s hands on my own shoulders. I felt a surge of attraction, the way I’d fantasized about straight boys in college, guys on the crew team, or that corn-silk-haired Mormon boy who told me he was like a painting in a museum: look but don’t touch. Except now the no-touch rule was not because of the person but the situation.
I didn’t really imagine being attracted to Joe as a problem, or maybe I did, but maybe it was a problem part of me wanted to have, having only seen messy romantic situations with roommates in Hollywood movies and not real life.
I took Joe up on his massage offer a week later, the night after we moved in my furniture. He set up his massage table in the living room of what I was beginning to think of as our loft, whose height stretched over two stories and was grand in a modern way I hadn’t experienced before. Because the space was entirely open, Joe went inside the bathroom as I undressed, and I set myself stomach-down under the sheets.
“Ready?” Joe asked, his voice muffled yet somehow also resonant in that cavernous space.
I heard the door latch click a split second before I said yes.
Joe’s hands were quickly upon me, and as soon as they were, I asked myself whether this was a good idea: maybe a massage implied an intimacy I shouldn’t have and didn’t want with my future roommate. Yet, he was a professional, certified, even dressed in the black shirt and loose pants that were the uniform of his trade. I relented and relaxed and only tensed when he brushed the side of my breast a bit too close, a part of my body I still wasn’t quite used to thinking of as my own. After a while, I gave in to the pleasure of his warm touch and his good hands and found it easy to ignore the small voice inside that wasn’t so sure.
It was in this state of enjoyment and relief that I felt the shock of Joe’s penis on my thigh, as he hovered over me to get to my back, and sensed both a persistent hardness and contact that lingered longer than it should have, even if the rest of him conducted business as usual like a masseur. I let the feeling pass, eager to dismiss it because this was a person I was now depending on for my housing.
“Do you want to try massaging me?” he asked after he was done. “I can guide you.”
Not really, I wanted to say. “Okay,” I said instead.
He went back to the bathroom while I dressed and took deep breaths, trying to push aside the thought that what had happened with my first roommate only two weeks before was happening again. I finished putting my blouse back on, my back turned away from the bathroom door instinctively for privacy; I wanted what was happening to feel like a normal massage. That was when I felt like someone was watching me, and when I turned around, I found Joe completely undressed, his penis erect.
“I don’t mind being naked,” he said. “I figure it would save us time.”
The room felt too bright all of a sudden, the dozen track lights above us that illuminated the room in overlapping pools doing too good of a job. My body felt locked in place and time, unable to fathom what to do next. This was a feeling unknown to me since I had transitioned, as someone who was raised to possess autonomy over my body at all times, before I began to find myself in situations that felt as if a man wanted to own that body. I didn’t yet know that Joe had made the massage coupon only for me, even though he made it seem like it was something he offered people all the time. I didn’t yet understand that this must have been his plan all along, maybe from the moment we met, to live with me and take me to bed and whatever else he thought would happen afterward.
I would have stood in place forever—or until he left the room—if he didn’t interpret my staying in place and lack of response as encouragement, and maybe that was what it became. I would have stood in place forever if he didn’t come over and carry me in his arms, if he didn’t take the cold metal stairs up to the bedroom where a wall had not been erected as promised, nor would it ever be. I would have stood in place forever if he had not deposited me softly into bed like a beloved pet, docile and unknowing, my systems only kicking in when he kissed me, because even though I knew so little about being a woman with a man, I knew even less what to do in a situation when a man appears before a woman naked without warning. Before my transition, I had never been put in situations like this, given favors with ulterior motives attached. I had never had to read between the lines of a man telling me that the two of us should get to know each other better. I had never had to question the intentions of a so-called roommate. When I was young, no one expected me to grow up a woman, so no one—neither parents nor siblings nor friends—taught me these lessons or warning signs. The one thing I did know was how to give a man pleasure, even if I didn’t yet know with my new body parts how to get pleasure in return.
Afterward, Joe and I lay in bed while he told me intimate details about his life. . . . This intimacy was more than I expected from someone who knew I was trans. My image of trans women in relationships up to that point, if they were in relationships at all, came from movies like The Crying Game, where the protagonist throws up after finding out his girlfriend is trans, or Paris Is Burning, where a trans woman is murdered after hiding her identity from her lover. That Joe got me into bed in circumstances I was ambivalent about, that he was clearly battling mental illness, did not ultimately prevent me from starting a relationship with him, because such a relationship was more than I felt like I should expect as a trans woman. . . .
My gut knows so much more now that it didn’t before. It knows the first man I was in a relationship with after transition took advantage of his power over me to get me into bed. This is no longer a question in my life that I have to ask myself; it is a clear answer. I thought I loved him, but my gut knows now that I was not in a place in my life to understand what love between a man and a woman was supposed to look like. My gut understands that it isn’t love if you have to be talked into it by your partner or your own thoughts. I likely would not have felt love for Joe if I’d had the tools to understand that staying with him after he lured me into sex was a way for me to unconsciously protect myself from the truth.
Since coming to terms with Joe’s role in my life, a lot has helped me to feel less alone. It has helped immensely that an entire culture’s focus has shifted to address systems of power that create pathways for men to get away with coercive behavior and is working to end it. I may not have known how to listen to my gut way back when I was in such a fragile and new place in my life as a young woman, but my intuition now—my knowing—about my past relationships and even my current ones, be they romantic or platonic, has grown and shifted because of all that I have been through.
The entire structure of our society is predicated on the power men have over women, and my story is only one of innumerable others. I understand this viscerally in large part because of my experience living across genders. I already knew this from books before #MeToo, but I now understand it not just in my mind but in my whole body. I also understand that it’s only in the telling of these stories that women and nonbinary people can continue to deepen our relationship to our intuition and shine a glaring light on how power is distributed among genders in society, especially given how so many men have been socialized to use their power to take advantage of women and how women have been conditioned to let it happen.
Seeing my story so clearly in the stories of other women who had also been coerced by powerful men made something very clear to me: it is through our collective storytelling as women and nonbinary people—the sharing of what we have intuited and learned—that we can break the cycle and pattern of abuse. Because the more we speak out about the times we couldn’t hear what our gut was telling us, the more we can teach others how to not be afraid to listen to their own.
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