In a warm cottage at the end of a dirt road in Jacksonville, Vermont, Brianna Harris and Amy McNeil discuss the “creepy” side of their relationship.
The couple, a ski resort grounds keeper and an engineer who have been together for seven years, exchange knowing glances.
“It is very freaky at times,” says Harris, 55.
“I’ve gotten used to it,” says McNeil.
“Many, many, many times over through the years,” Harris goes on to explain, “I’ll have a thought and then I’ll pick up the phone to call Amy and there she is on the other line calling about the same thing.”
The two laugh at their kitchen table surrounded by windows full of glass butterflies.
“It’s one thing to finish each other’s sentence when they’re in the same room,” says McNeil, “but it’s a whole other thing to do it 40-50 miles apart. That’s —”
And to think the people in this psychically-connected couple had given up on love completely before they met six years ago.
Harris and McNeil are transwomen. They were both born with what Harris calls “genital defects” — penises — and then underwent physical and emotional changes to become the women they’ve always been on the inside on the outside, too.
Dating as a transwoman is dangerous, Harris notes. The majority of victims of hate violence homicides — 72 percent — were transgender women in 2013, the most recent information available, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, a NYC-based advocacy group founded in 1980. Transgender people face a high degree of prejudice and violence. One in two transgender individuals are sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lives, according to the U.S. Office for Victims of Crime. Harris says after she transitioned she just figured the romantic part of her life was over.
“I had accepted I would be alone with the rest of my life,” Harris says. “It’s extra difficult to meet people as a transwoman and not take your life into your hands — wind up in a casket.
“I probably would be done with [dating] and I was okay with that. I was me and that was good.”
Then fate — or more accurately, a school guidance counselor — intervened.
Harris and McNeil were both married with children when they decided they could no longer live their lives in bodies that didn’t feel right. After Harris came out to his wife, their relationship ended in divorce. Harris came out to her son, Aidan, who was in grade school at the time. Aidan, now 19, had questions, but took the news well, Harris says.
“First he said, ‘I’m going to miss my dad,’” Harris says, “and I told him I’ll always be your dad. I’m not going anywhere. He took it in stride. … A couple days later, I was mom and it’s been that way ever since.”
McNeil’s coming out story went a bit differently. At first, her wife supported her decision, but when McNeil wanted to make physical changes to her body the couple got a divorce. McNeil’s children, who are now ages 15 and 19, were slow to accept her change.
To help her children navigate the transition, McNeil reached out to the guidance counselor at her son’s school in Brattleboro. McNeil told the guidance counselor about her situation at home and how her children were struggling. She asked the counselor to keep an eye on him at school in case he needed help or someone to talk to. The counselor had a great idea, McNeil says, she wanted to put her son in touch with another boy at the school whose father was transitioning to female, Aidan.
Through the guidance counselor, Harris and McNeil tried for months to connect Aidan and McNeil’s son so the two could possibly talk about their shared experience, but McNeil’s ex-wife didn’t like the idea, McNeil says, and the boys never got together to chat. But McNeil and Harris did.
The first time the couple talked to each other on the phone, they had a two-and-a-half hour conversation, says McNeil who remembers the exact date of the conversation: Jan. 30, 2011.
Harris and McNeil struck up a quick and deep friendship bonding over being transwomen with children as well as their shared love of music, and “dark” sense of humor.
“We really, really like being together. We just blend and mesh really well,” Harris says.
There have been obstacles, of course, in the relationship as well. The women have different upbringings. For most of Harris’ life she acted like a “jock” to fool people into thinking she was a man. She had a big beard, did the whole “frat thing,” and played a lot of sports. McNeil is more of a “geek,” she says. She was into technology and electronics. Before transitioning, she presented herself as androgynous and spent her formative years doing lighting for large touring acts including Genesis. McNeil says she hid her real self away behind sex drugs and rock ‘n’ roll — with an emphasis on the “drugs” part.
“It was all to deal with my issues,” McNeil says. “Growing up in the 60s and 70s I didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about it and my mom’s the traditional church lady and my parents are from the Midwest.
Harris says, for her, she kept taking the next step in the “normal” chain of heterosexual life milestones hoping that her longing to feel and look like the woman she’s always been would subside.
“Trans people take steps throughout their lives to make the feeling go away or change,” Harris says. “I’ll get married, I’ll have kids, this feeling has got to go away.”
But the largest potential roadblock to the couple’s love was handled early on in the relationship.
“We had the skiing conversation in 2011,” says McNeil.
Harris laughs, “yes, that was a big one.”
Although Harris, put on the jock exterior to fool people into thinking she was a macho-macho-man, she really does enjoy sports, especially skiing. McNeil, on the other hand, considered winter to be the time of year when “Mother Nature is trying to kill your ass and all you have to do is make it to the spring.” She hadn’t skied since high school.
“Bre says, ‘You’re going skiing this winter, right?’ with a voice that said this is make or break,” McNeil says. “I had to think quick, how was I going to get out of this.
“I said okay, but I don’t have any winter gear. She got this grin on her face, almost feral — I love that grin — but I knew I was in for it.”
McNeil’s hopes of weaseling out of the commitment were quickly dashed. Being a greens keeper at a ski resort, Harris had been collecting items from the resort’s lost and found bin for years in an effort to outfit her son for the slopes. She took McNeil to one of her closets and started pulling out all kinds of skiing gear: helmets, pants, boots, gloves, polls, skis!
“I was committed, I had no choice,” McNeil says through a smile. “Every excuse I had she demolished in 20 minutes.”
So, they went skiing — and McNeil fell in love with the sport. Now, McNeil and Harris take every Wednesday off January through mid-March to go skiing together.
“I got super hooked,” McNeil says.
Harris and McNeil are in love and they realize it’s a powerful force, especially today when people on the LGBTQI spectrum are staring down a flare up in American hate stoked by the Trump administration and a gaggle of GOP politicians who keep themselves up at night worrying about the horrors Harris or McNeil using a women’s Walmart restroom will release on society.
The women are fiercely out of the closet.
“When I came out I decided not to go stealth,” Harris says. “I was going to be myself.”
“I’m not going to go from one closet to another,” McNeil says.
And they’re both incredibly open about their experiences. They each invite people in their lives and places of work to ask them any questions about their transitions or lives as transwomen. This has led Harris to field some strange questions.
Following a staff meeting in which Harris came out to her colleagues at work, a co-worker came up to her and confessed he had been carrying a “similar” secret: a fondness for S&M sex.
“So, I’m like okay, that’s not the same thing, but thanks for sharing,” Harris says. “People have asked me about my surgery. I tell them, it’s graphic, if you really want to know I’ll tell you and a couple people have wanted to whole story.”
Harris and McNeil do speaking engagements all over New England and organize an annual trans picnic at their home. They are active in Pioneer Valley UniTy, an established transgender support program, and reach out to young people in transition to offer support.
When love is a political act, says Harris, you need to spread it far and wide — with pride.
“We’re really lucky to have found each other to share this eclectic life with,” Harris says, giving McNeil a kiss.
And now that they’ve found love, they’re not going to lose it.
“When I woke up on Nov. 9, I decided as a result of the election, I would need to be there, much more out there and open,” says Harris. “No one is shoving me back in the closet.”
Contact Kristin Palpini at email@example.com.