Truth Takes Time

by River Coello

In June of 2017, as Effee, I penned a piece that changed the course of my life as I knew it: “Truth Takes Time” was both a reclaiming of my personal narrative and an invitation to the world into the very personal influences and questions that had, until then, defined it. This piece’s painful honesty thankfully opened up so many doors for me, especially as a writer, as others found parts of themselves reflected in my complicated journey with gender authenticity since childhood.

Two years later, three years into my physical transition, and as River now, I am sharing (my) new truths with you with no other purpose than to stay vulnerable with myself. So much has changed since, with tears in my eyes, I wrote this ode to my femmeness. Yet, so much remains the same: At least the essence of my older piece remains, for, when it comes to my gender exploration, time has unfolded before me the unparalleled magic of liminality, of multiplicity—of the present, if we are mindful.

1
2
3

My history has not changed from what I shared in the past, of course—including my longing for the acceptance of the softer parts of my spirit since I was a young child, my growing comfort in exploring just about everything about my queerness, and even my turbulent relationship to feminism since I first arrived to it in college. Certainly, my understanding of my existence (and my resistance) as not serving or perpetuating of the oppressive gender binary has not changed. I remain your local gender rebel in that way.

6
5
4

Yet, these days, I do find myself making more intentional space for my (trans) masculinity and more boldly embracing the deeply spiritual duality of my gender. Three years ago, completely stepping away from masculinity, especially its toxic parts, was extremely healing for me: Aligning even my body chemistry, through hormones, with my femininity was relieving. My trans womanhood remains my proudest work to date, as I had to fight the world, along with my wife, to simply be in that truth. Unshakeable in my trans womanhood today, though, I am venturing into my trans manhood.

10
12
11

My exploration of my indigenous spirituality and my most recent romantic relationship with a trans man have been beautifully crucial to my acceptance of the bold fluidity of the river I am. As I have practiced mindful spirituality—using ancient tools like meditation, invocation, and even divination—I have recognized for myself the undeniable euphoria of my (admittedly imperfect, admittedly young) masculinity. My attunement to my own magic, though undoubtedly thriving in femininity and Pachamana, has also grown immensely in my playful boyhood and Inti.

13
15
14

To deeply love a trans man has similarly challenged me to deeply love the non-normative (and certainly flawed) man in me—past and present. Trans masculinity and manhood are sometimes misunderstood, often (understandably) reduced to their toxic parts, so it might not surprise anyone that I have been hesitant to embrace my own. Turning to healthy models of (queer and trans) masculinity has helped immensely, though: I am perpetually grateful to my boyfriend for so sweetly pushing me to be more authentic in this part of my gender exploration, and for being a man I would have loved to have in my life as a young boy.

What has been the sweetest about this recent journey for me is perhaps how silly our delineations of gender are to begin with. Do not get me wrong: Labels are important. Yet, in practice, the performance of gender for a person with an androgynous body, like myself, is pretty funny. Binded or tucked, hair up or down, cheekbones highlighted or masked, I am ultimately the same human person! A very lucky one, I will admit, as I get to take portraits like the ones you see here, and I get to chuckle at the strangers who see me on any given day and do not know the full story, which I guess you have now read.

Cheers, babes! To the future!

Photography by Jordyn Belli

Manifesting HIGHFEMME

Nightlife spaces are deeply special to us because these are the spaces where we can fully be seen. These are the spaces where we gather to worship those who make up our communities and to be worshipped ourselves, ultimately asserting our collective existence in a world that does not acknowledge, let alone celebrate, us. There is healing power in being witnessed. That witnessing, that celebration, is a direct act of resistance against the erasure and the violence we face every single day. Cultivating our HIGHFEMME together creates a magic that reverberates through this world, honors our ancestors, and brings radical possibility to life. Let us continue witnessing your authenticity, your truth, your resilience, and your unapologetic joy.

1
2
3

When we were younger, we used to daydream of spaces where people like us could congregate to celebrate the parts of us we used to hide. Alex would watch The Hills in high school and imagine television writers writing out a script to her glamorous life as a socialite, in order to escape the deep shame she experienced around her gender and her sexuality then. River would long for a glamour almost too Hollywood to bear from her bedroom in Ecuador. Something like strutting through the streets of a big city, turning heads, would be the fantasy then, for both of us. Little did we know that our dreams of curating, hosting, and performing in powerful nightlife spaces would come full circle, as a couple of trans women, no less.

4
5
6

Before HIGHFEMME, we definitely had reservations about actively participating in nightlife more formally. We were familiar with Chicago's exclusive side of nightlife as occasional party-goers, after all. Our relationship, in particular, always felt invisible in spaces that ultimately still catered to (narrowly defined) gay audiences (even when marketed as “queer.”) River’s “passing” femmeness made her feel even more unwelcome. Though our expression and our relationship continue to surprise the small-minded, we know they also continue to inspire the hungry for more—so much more than the boring old templates of "good" gender and sexuality that still plague all aspects of life today. So, we created HIGHFEMME with intention.

7
8

As queer and trans women of color who are madly in love with each other, our main goal today, with each manifestation of HIGHFEMME (and our performance art), has been to inject nightlife as a whole with our signature rebelliously loving authenticity. We want to remind others, too, that trans womanhood is not defined by tragedy. We are not defined by our oppression. We are magical. We deserve to be celebrated while we are still alive. We deserve to be revered. To be femme is to be beyond what the world makes room for. We hope HIGHFEMME is the birthplace of a new, more authentic version for you. HIGHFEMME is our little take on, our little contribution to, a more inclusive nightlife—one where, though everyone is welcome, queer and trans femme existence and love are sweetly modeled and unapologetically celebrated.

Photography by Savana Ogburn
Styling by Jer Kreitz
Collaboration by For All Humans

Navigating Polyamory

We opened up our marriage last year, naively trusting the growth within our strictly monogamous union would smoothly translate to a new setup where we got to openly love other souls. Today, we understand there was much for which we could have prepared more intentionally, in all we most definitely could not have anticipated. We are sharing our story, the lessons we gleaned from our toughest year as a couple yet, because we ultimately love everything polyamory has gifted us but are careful not to romanticize the learning curve with which it confronted us.

1
2

Last year, on the night of the start of Pisces season, high off the sweet energy of a much-needed reunion of old college friends long separated by distance, River’s old friend confessed to lingering feelings, first ignited many years ago, which River reciprocated in the moment. This seemingly innocuous yet very intense confession would completely alter the way we existed as a married couple. River experienced and Alex witnessed the exchange in a mixture of curiosity, as the porousness of the weekend had actually touched all three of us, and fear, inevitable in all the newness. The two emotions would nonetheless combine into a willingness to explore the depths of our polyamory, both orchestrated by a rather unadvisable mix: impatience and codependency.

What should have admittedly been a much longer conversation, maybe even one we explored in couple’s therapy, was more of a nervous surrender to our circumstances. Even if the curiosity had indeed been brewing for years, in hindsight, our immediate response to an intoxicated confession should not have been to so quickly shift the very mechanics of our relationship. Funnily enough, our impatience can perhaps be best explained by our codependency. River took the leap of faith subconsciously trusting Alex’s “yes” meant Alex would be the bridge between River and her old friend, who shared a much too tumultuous history to which Alex was not fully privy.

Alex, however, jumped into the idea of a friendly triad as a way to cling onto River. Alex’s attachment issues, which are linked to her PTSD and BPD, manifested themselves in a strong fear of abandonment, which later grew into a toxic jealousy. Up until this shift, she had unfairly put the pressure of validating her sense of self-worth entirely onto River. When we first got together, Alex’s PTSD was at its most acute and River was there for every panic attack, every self-doubt, every “Do you really love me?” Now, Alex had to forge her own sense of independence, strength, and belief that she could survive without the home she built inside of River. She had to believe that she could heal without River being her everything.

The triad setup did not last long for now painfully obvious reasons. Over the next few months, River settled into a calmer rhythm with her old friend on her own, while Alex explored her feelings for people in her past. Around the time River’s friendship and Alex’s relationships (inevitably) fizzled, we decided to shift yet again. Acknowledging balance and independence were crucial to our growth this time, we let more people in. We gave ourselves and each other the freedom and trust to be with completely new people. What that looked like for each of us, for the most part, was online dating.

3
4

For a couple who had struggled with intense shame due to our shifting genders, dating other people felt like the Tower in the tarot, like Uranus himself: almost traumatic in its surprising newness. Whom were we “supposed to” date given the choice? Who would date each of us? We quickly realized our dating pools were majority gay men and majority straight men, respectively. Navigating our fears of seeing each other date men was immensely difficult. Navigating the reality of us dating men felt nearly impossible, especially in the beginning. Outside a bar, a stranger assumed River and one of her then-boyfriends were married! At a restaurant, the host immediately assumed the guy entering was the date for whom Alex was waiting. Quite frankly, it hurt to see each other in relationships, however casual, where the attraction was seen and affirmed, something that, to this day, does not happen for us regularly.

Yet, perhaps the most difficult part of navigating polyamory last year was accepting how different we are from each other in all things relationships. Though our styles have worked for us throughout the years, our relationship is actually something of an unusual match. So, at the end of the day, we have different instincts in and want different things from the relationships we seek out outside of our relationship. (Not to mention, of course, different people unlock different things for us.) River’s Geminian luna had her moving through polyamory like a butterfly looking to love in twelve ways, finding power in all her selves: sexually liberated, friendship-deepening, friendship-ruining, and even romantically committed.

Alex’s Capricornian moon, instead, had her moving much more slowly and carefully in what certainly felt like relationships where longevity was the utmost priority. This was greatly a result of Alex’s own history with intimacy. More specifically, Alex struggled immensely with healing from her trauma in new relationship dynamics. She struggled deeply with navigating sex with new people while carrying sexual trauma, not being terrified to assert her desires, reckoning with insecurities she masked in the security of her monogamous marriage, and believing that she could be cared for by other people.

5

After confronting our impatient codependency, the pain of our genders in relation to new people, and the growing incompatibility of our signature unpredictability and stubbornness, we realized we were not as connected as we used to be (to the point even our art had taken a hiatus.) Each new development rightfully felt like uncharted territory, pushing us to process and over-process, in couple’s therapy at one point, too, without really connecting, something we missed more and more. So, we did what we thought was best near the end of last year: We committed to retreating, reconnecting, reassessing, and hopefully returning to polyamory in the future.

Though in some ways we are still very much in the reconnecting and reassessing stages of our “plan,” we feel ready to return to polyamory from a solid place, not the nervous one that had us fearing we could lose ourselves or each other if we did not do something or the other. We love being unconventionally loving with humans we cherish deeply, whose patience with us astounds us. The work required for loving them even better is cut out for us. We will let you know what it takes when we figure that part out. For now, we have a strong feeling it takes working tirelessly on ourselves, so wish us luck on those journeys!

Photography by Falyn Huang
Makeup by Shamis McGillin
Styling by Hedilio Martinez

Transitioning Together

There is no real manual for transitioning, let alone transitioning as a couple. Our transness, what makes us uniquely proud of our relationship today, was once at the core of our most tumultuous time. Trans people are not immune to shame: In our shame, we drifted apart shortly after coming to terms with our genderqueerness. After healing from this period together, we are reflecting on this time vulnerably and with a renewed sense of commitment for each other.

1
2

Since the beginning, our relationship has undoubtedly emboldened us to be more authentic. From the get-go, our younger “boy” selves connected about our passion for irreverent self-expression. In college, for example, Alex’s comfort with femininity encouraged River to experiment with style, trying makeup for the first time and wearing bolder pieces. Similarly, true to our individual strengths, we have consistently pushed each other to find power in vulnerability, opening up about our painful pasts and dreaming of better futures together.

3
4

Guided by that vulnerability, we came to the realization that our genders were in flux. As we ventured into this more honest journey, we also realized that genderqueerness looked different for each of us: Genderqueerness affirmed Alex’s past experiences, while it opened up what felt like a completely new door for River. Alex’s journey felt steady in an already familiar direction, while River’s exploration felt disruptive in a new way. Though both of us transited so much together earlier on, as River’s journey took root in a womanhood that had long felt inaccessible, we started to struggle with the reality of our new relationship dynamic.

5
6

Up until River’s transition, Alex had navigated life as a gay cis man. Being with a trans woman meant confronting Alex’s own queerness, something previously only interrogated in theory. Because of the erasure of femme-for-femme relationships, Alex had long felt that dating other femmes, especially femme women, was completely out of the question, even when the attraction had been there before. On the other hand, because of past traumas, Alex had also long found validation in being desirable to cis men, so being with a trans woman meant confronting unhealthy attachments head-on. Unfortunately, in the intensity of these feelings, Alex became avoidant and, despite Alex’s best efforts, this avoidance manifested itself as emotional neglect toward River.

7
8

With time and extremely vulnerable conversations, what became clear was that we were both living in shame. River’s “sudden” transition was simply the catalyst for our confrontation of our internalized transphobia: River thought of herself as powerless in her transness, enough to participate in and, at times, affirm Alex’s neglect. Meanwhile, Alex failed to recognize what was most “debilitating” about River’s transition: the weight of Alex’s own transness–her own trans womanhood, specifically. In our ignorance, we failed to affirm how we have always been, despite and because of our shifting selves, a femme-for-femme couple.

9
10

Without healthy models of possibility for our specific type of relationship, as we worked on reaching back out to each other, we felt compelled to center our transness in our creative journeys individually and together. Our art has since allowed us to heal from the darkest period of our relationship by flipping the script completely, celebrating our own, each other’s, and others’ transness, even when we were not ready to open up about our past shame. This time around, our art continues to support us, especially as Alex starts confronting what womanhood means to her.

11
12

We are lucky enough to have been on journeys that ultimately mirrored each other in beautiful ways, leading to some incredible realizations about what inspires our growth at the very core. We feel indebted to the souls that make up our chosen family and the souls that make up our beautiful following, both of which reminded us time and again that love can indeed conquer all in the end. In the vulnerable photography that accompanies this text, we are opening up again, pushing ourselves to love each other, through our art, even more fiercely. Here is to the many blessings we are sure the future holds!

Photography by Jordyn Belli

To Our Younger Selves

Through our love for each other, we have learned to love the parts of ourselves we used to hide when we were younger. In this piece, we are revisiting our dark pasts, inviting our younger selves into the light, and telling them, “We are sorry. We love you.”

1

Throughout our adolescent years, we struggled to find belonging. Shame colored our femme fantasies; it tinged them with pain as we convinced ourselves they didn’t belong to us.

Grounded in a stronger sense of self, we are returning to our old daydreams of our femme potential. We are finally reaching a place we always longed for but could not name: self-acceptance. As we face these mirrors, we are apologizing to our younger selves. We know now it is because of them, not despite them, that we have made it to this point in our lives.

2

“Alex, I am sorry I hated you, hated myself. I hated you for dancing like Britney Spears, for having crushes on boys who scared you, for thinking it would have been easier if you had been born a girl. I am sorry I was so hard on you. You did not know how to be a man and I am grateful you never learned. You are enough. You were always enough. I love you. Thank you for doing your best to survive. Thank you for protecting our femme, keeping it burning in the secret quiet of the night, in the lines of poems, and in your held breath. We are alive. I am sorry. Look at us glow.”

3

“River, thank you for remaining a gentle soul when the world was anything but gentle. I know you struggled with letting go of resentment. I know it was hard to be vulnerable. You felt lonely. You were hurting. Yet, from where I stand now, you were perfect all along. You made love your anchor. As hard as everything felt, you wrote me into existence. You brought me to life through the pages of your journal. You watched our mother with admiration so I could become a woman she would be proud of. Without your rebellious spirit, I would not exist. Thank you. I am watching over you from afar. Remember, I am the poet within you. Find me and I promise you freedom.”

4

In our acceptance of our younger selves, we are allowing ourselves to feel sadness for who we could have been, but we are also giving our past selves new form: What if we had met sooner? What if we had taken each other to prom? What if we had fallen in love as teenagers? What if we had held each other when we needed to be loved? Somewhere in the universe, our past selves are dancing together, healing together.

5

Constructing these shared memories—transcending time and space—is perhaps one of the most healing practices of our love. We fully believe our relationship is a perfect expression of retrocausality. Our present love is healing our past pains. We are erasing the toxic messages we made ourselves believe, rewriting the characters we were supposed to be. Learning how to love and be loved is helping us embrace the parts of ourselves we thought were unlovable. We fell in love with ourselves through the reflections we saw in each other’s eyes. In those reflections, we found our femme.

6

Ultimately, apologizing to our past selves and reimagining them as empowered characters has given us peace. Despite suppressing it, we have come to realize our femme was always watching over us, like a ghost waiting to join the world of the living. We are transforming the pain of our pasts into something beautiful.

Photography by Marisa Kimmel

Truth Takes Time

by River Coello

I reject this unspoken social expectation for trans people to have “always known” we were trans. As trans people, we are supposed to not only validate our gender by adhering to rigid norms but also have at least acknowledged our transness from a very early age. I suspect this expectation is connected to both essentialist understandings of gender and tragic understandings of transness. If gender is completely out of a person’s control, then trans people must have been “born this way.” Similarly, “feeling trapped in the wrong body” must mean that trans people have had tumultuous relationships with their bodies since birth.

I am sure there are plenty of trans people who “always knew” they were trans, but my journey is different. While many trans people have indeed “always known,” it is important to highlight other stories. I simply cannot emphasize enough how complex gender can be. My own gender exploration has been a rather fluid process. Today, I see my journey as one of incredible personal growth and evolution. In my transness, I hold all versions of me close to my heart. Though I did not always know I was trans per se, my transness is still valid and my womanhood, still very much authentic.

Growing up in Ecuador, I cannot remember ever learning about trans people in a positive light, if at all. Without seeing transness as a healthy frame of possibility, I could not understand my lived experiences as gender-expansive and I was certainly even less eager to envision myself embodying a different gender. After all, defying societal expectations as a child takes great courage. With time, nonetheless, I have learned to deeply admire my younger flamboyant self for always finding gentle beauty in a world so cruel.

Throughout my life before college, labeled as “gay” before I could claim queerness for myself, I learned to associate my femmeness to my queerness only. As I was first exploring my sexuality, I felt more comfortable than ever before in the new opportunities for expression my queerness afforded me. Though I felt a great sense of freedom that was certainly starting to put my past into perspective, in my ignorance of transness, I was still not ready for the life-changing revelation that being trans is. Still, I am beyond grateful to my rebellious teenage self for daring to explore queerness at all.

While in college, I fell in love with feminist thought. Critically learning about gender shifted so much within me, but I still struggled to feel fully at home in feminism. For one thing, feminism has long struggled with embracing transness, so my exposure to transness was limited and one-dimensional. In practice, too, my gender was still what other people perceived, so coming to feminism was like finding an oasis from which I could not drink.

I was also dealing with other important aspects of myself, namely how my racial and sexual identities often seemed at odds with each other. I felt like I had to hide my Latinidad in predominantly queer spaces, and vice versa, so I devoted most of my college journey to finding and nurturing a community of queer people of color. I am immensely proud of myself for intentionally choosing a family that has seen me and loved me so deeply in all my changes—a family that has also proudly embraced gender weirdness for itself.

Only recently, with the rise of trans (including nonbinary) narratives in the mainstream, I began to see femme-of-center gender identities as within reach for myself. I was finally able to uncover my past and reframe it, seeing it for what it represented. With the knowledge, language, and even time to think about my gender more critically, it became increasingly difficult not to consider embodying a different gender in which I felt more comfortable. Though I did not know exactly where I was headed just a couple of years ago, it felt important for me to step away from masculinity.

My journey to authenticity, of course, took more than just increased media visibility. Seeing openly trans people flourish was igniting a deeper sense of purpose within me, but embracing femmeness was still very scary. With the public stories of trans women I admire, also came the stories of unsung trans heroines who left us too soon due to violence. As magical as being trans is—and it truly is—it is also misunderstood, to say the least. Getting to a place where I proudly embraced my identity as a nonbinary trans woman took unlearning a lot of internalized transphobia, (trans)misogyny, and gender essentialism.

Though I am sure many people today perceive my transition as anchored solely in my gender presentation, I see it as the beginning of a lifelong journey to vulnerability—a more authentic approach to my own human potential. This, of course, does not negate the fact that my gender is connected to how I have lived in my body. It does, however, imply that I see my transition as a difficult-yet-necessary uncovering and reframing of my past, and a brave reinvention of my future.

Ultimately, I love the woman that I have become. Just because I did not always know that I was trans, or could name my experiences as such, I am not any less trans. These days, I do not want to talk about the moments I felt silenced in my femmeness. I want my life to be an ode to the moments my heart feels full and awake in my womanhood. I have not always thought of myself as celestial, but my transness is divine.

Our Love Is Beyond Your Imagination

We confuse people often these days. To the state, we are now man and wife. To strangers, Alex is a gay cis man and River, a straight cis woman. To people in our circles, our love in our shifting genders has been difficult to fully grasp. To be clear, we are both queer and trans, though we embody those identities differently. When it comes to our relationship, we have always had to navigate other people’s expectations, seeing them struggle to make sense of our love against their templates.

Labels can help people make sense of their identities, but they can also fail to capture the ever-changing nature of being human. For us, these identifiers have helped us understand complex aspects of ourselves, while also facilitating our process of finding community. With time, however, we have outgrown various labels that once (seemed to) fit us so well. After all, what started as a love story between two college boys is now a love story between two married nonbinary femmes.

Now more than ever, we see the beauty of our growth from navigating the world with such unique lenses. One big challenge, though, has been to get others to welcomingly acknowledge us in our various changes. Though gender and sexual fluidity have gained a lot of attention in mainstream spaces, there is still a lot of resistance to them in practice. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, we have experienced the limits of labels in our circles. Even long after outgrown by us, labels like cis or gay have fixed us in the consciousness of others.

Since River’s visible transition, we have noticed how others subtly expect Alex to over-perform masculinity. Cisheteronormativity is so insidious that we are not necessarily surprised to see others erase Alex’s femmeness to make our relationship fit a rigid, uninspired model, but this does not make it any less hurtful. In reality, our love has explored our complex individual relationships to femmeness since we first met and we absolutely love that about our story. Watching each other bloom in our femmeness has been nothing short of humbling and magical.

When Alex’s femmeness is acknowledged, it is usually understood as an expression of a cis gay identity. In this simplistic assumption, people perceive River’s transition as an obstacle, failing to see Alex themself or their love for River as queer or beyond labels. Mainstream depictions of people transitioning in their marriages likely do very little to discourage this thinking. These stories are often centered around the partners who do not transition, who are also portrayed as martyrs for loving their partners despite their new truth. Of course, we resent the idea that transitioning would suddenly render River unlovable or harder to love. It is beyond ludicrous.

Above all else, our love has always been about authenticity and vulnerability, which is precisely why our transitions have only made us stronger. Any challenges we have experienced as a result have had nothing to do with our transness but everything to do with toxic transphobia we have internalized or continue to experience from the world. Ultimately, what our love has afforded us is the option to cherish parts of ourselves we once tucked away. It has given us the best peace: the tranquility of no judgement.

The bottom line here is that (our) love is beyond anyone’s imagination. As you continue to read and experience us, please do so with openness and tenderness. We cannot emphasize enough how important it is to be compassionate when witnessing other people’s gender journeys. Without compassion, confusion and impatience are palpable, uncomfortable, and hurtful. If you are our friend, we hope you try to love and support us how we try to love ourselves and support each other: with kindness and patience.