“The line between friendship versus romantic attraction is very strange for me,” 24-year-old Mitchell Grauberger lamented. “I enjoy having, like, platonic cuddles with my friends. So where’s this line? Am I romantically attracted to you? Or am I just a friend?”
Last February, Mitch managed to maneuver this gray area with a friend he’d met four years ago in Iowa City, unceremoniously launching his first serious relationship.
“It took us so long to realize we were actually romantically attracted to each other,” Mitch said of his Cedar Falls-based partner. “I remember I was venting about how I wish we could just actually be a thing. And he’s like, ‘Well, I mean, I wouldn’t mind if you called me your boyfriend,’ and I’m like, ‘OK, I guess we’re boyfriends.”
About a month later, Mitch made another love connection with Ley, a friend from Rhode Island Mitch met in an online Nerdfighters fan group.
“We were flirting for a really long time before anything happened. Our partner calls us their lesbian sheep.” Mitch explained: “If you look at a flock of sheep, homosexuality turns up a lot more often, it seems, among male sheep. But that’s because they figured out that lesbian sheep just stand there too scared to do anything when they’re attracted to another sheep.”
In July, he became official with another partner, Aric, and another, Joel, in December, forming what some polyamorous folks like to call a “polycule.”
“If I were to draw it out, you’ve got me and my four partners,” Mitch said. “One of my partners has another partner, two of my partners are dating each other. One of them has another partner other than the two of us. One of them has two other partners.”
Mitch and his polycule are scattered across the country: Mitch moved to the Twin Cities this year to work in theater; one partner is still in Cedar Falls; two moved to Knoxville, Tennessee together; and the other lives in Grapevine, Texas. But even long-distance, even in a pandemic, Mitch said his partners — and his own adventures in gender expression — have been a beautiful source of comfort in an otherwise difficult year that included surgery, homelessness and an ongoing struggle with mental illness.
“There are always those posts that are like, ‘If you could say four words to yourself in seventh grade, what would they be?’ And I’m like, ‘You’re not a girl,’” Mitch said with a laugh. “I’d confuse myself a lot.”
Assigned female at birth, Mitch grew up in Marion, Iowa and graduated from Cedar Rapids Kennedy High School in 2014. He attended Cottey College, an all-women’s school in Nevada, Missouri, but dropped out just two months into the fall semester due to a mental health crisis. In the months following, he started to become more self-reflective, especially with regards to his sexuality and gender.
“With my mental health issues and my instability growing up, I didn’t really have time to sit down and think about who I was as a person,” Mitch reflected. “When I had that time and I was able to explore, it was very, very liberating.”
Mitch came out first as asexual and genderfluid, using they/them pronouns, and eventually as trans masculine genderqueer, adopting he/him pronouns (“I have a strong sense of gender that isn’t male or female,” Mitch said. “And that’s genderqueer.”) He connected with other LGBTQ people online.
“Growing up [in Iowa], I didn’t really have exposure to people who mess with gender norms. I grew up knowing and believing that trans people are OK and cool or whatever, but I didn’t really understand what that meant,” he said.
“I had medical providers and nurses, like when I went inpatient for psych a couple times, telling me, ‘Well, you can’t be trans.’ They thought that … I was just claiming these gender things because I was latching on to the friend group that was supporting me. That’s not what it is.”
In the fall of 2015, while he was living in Marshalltown, Iowa, Mitch began consulting with Dr. Katherine Imborek, an LGBTQ health specialist at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Mitch also tried on a chest binder for the first time.
“I never really experienced chest dysphoria until I experienced the euphoria of wearing a binder,” he said. “It was like a lightbulb … Once I experienced that and realized, oh my god, I can feel so much better, then I was dysphoric when I wasn’t wearing it.”
Mitch began binding his chest every day. He moved to Cedar Rapids to be closer to UIHC for his gender clinic appointments.
“I actually ended up in a shelter for a while — Catholic Worker House, which is a women’s shelter,” he said.
One in five transgender people in the U.S. experience homelessness, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. Already underfunded shelters are often ill-suited and even dangerous for trans folks, who are targets of discrimination. While Mitch identifies as trans masculine, he said he’s more comfortable in women’s shelters, which often provide better privacy than men’s shelters and are more likely to be staffed by people trained to support survivors of abuse and trauma.
“I don’t hide the fact that I’m gender nonconforming. And I refuse to hide it,” Mitch said. “And so if I were to ever end up in that situation again, I would not go to a men’s shelter.”
Meanwhile, Mitch started taking testosterone and discussing the prospect of a mastectomy, commonly called top surgery, with Dr. Imborek.
Trans and nonbinary people often spend months or years on a waitlist for top surgery, and many must crowdfund to afford it. But in 2016, with transgender healthcare access under threat from both the Trump administration and the Republican-dominated Iowa Legislature, Mitch said Dr. Imborek was determined to see that Medicaid patients like Mitch secured gender confirmation procedures in a timely fashion.
Mitch received his top surgery on Dec. 7, 2016, at the age of 20 — a major step in his gender journey that included physical changes as well as experimentation with style, labels and identity. He even spoke about his experience navigating mental illness as a trans person at the 2017 Cedar Rapids Pride Festival.
“I like to mess around with kind of society’s gender norms. I wear dresses and skirts and makeup all the time,” he said. “Giving myself time to explore [pronouns] and having a group of friends that I could be like, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about maybe wanting this name, could you try calling me this for the next day or so?’ and have the group do that is really amazing.”
Mitch said his sexuality can best be described as graysexual — he is somewhere near demisexual on the asexual spectrum, meaning he tends to feel more physically attracted to someone the closer they are emotionally. But unlike some asexual people, he is not sex-repulsed and has had his share of hook-ups.
“Sex feels good!” he said. “Figuring out your own lines and boundaries and comfort levels so that you can be transparent about it with people is big.”
2020 was a year of ups and downs for Mitch. Ups included his new relationships, the move to Minnesota and a stronger sense of self. Downs included the travel restrictions brought by COVID-19; the fact he spent three months homeless and living out of a motel in the Twin Cities; and a battle with pelvic inflammatory disease, an infection of the reproductive system.
After months of pain — and plenty of tests and treatments that provoked gender dysphoria — Mitch decided to undergo a uterus removal to eliminate the risk of future infection.
“Honestly, I have mixed feelings,” Mitch said of the procedure. “I’m very, very happy that I don’t have to live with the anxiety of the horrific experience [again]. But at the same time, I wanted to be what I call a seahorse and carry a pregnancy at some point.”
Mitch’s ovaries were not removed in the hysterectomy, however, and he is hopeful he might be able to contribute an egg to a biological child in the future.
It was when Mitch was recovering from this latest surgery that his romance with Joel bloomed. “He actually was messaging with me while I was in the ER after my surgery because I had some complications. And I was just absolutely miserable. And I remember he made some jokes about Florida Man.”
Mitch chuckled. “I find it really funny that we became official while he was making Florida Man jokes while I was laying in the ER bed. But it’s what I needed at that point.”
Each partner nurtures a different facet of Mitch’s life. For example, Joel is his go-to for geeking out over Dungeons and Dragons.
“Part of why polyamory is so beautiful in my eyes is if, say, one of my partners was low on emotional energy and I need somebody to support me through something, I have more than just the one partner to go to,” he explained.
The key to maintaining a healthy polycule is first having confidence in yourself.
“I think all forms of relationships require a pretty decent sense of self-worth. Because, like, if I were to just assume that my two partners who live together love each other more than they love me, that’s not trusting them to be honest with me,” Mitch said. “My relationship with my partner Ley is separate from my relationship with my partner Aric is separate from their relationship with each other.”
His partners share memes in their “Polycule” group chat, as well as host dates over Zoom. He’s pondered joining Ley and Aric in Tennessee, but Mitch is reluctant to leave the Twin Cities theater world behind.
“It’s jealousy, but it’s healthy jealousy. They get to snuggle on the couch, they get to see the dogs, they get to fall asleep together every night,” Mitch said of his cohabited partners. “I’m jealous, but I’m more happy. I love them both very, very, very much, and the fact that they get to be with each other makes me happy.”
Even from hundreds of miles away, Mitch’s partners have made his struggles with mental health less lonely.
“There’s been multiple times where I’ve had anxiety and trouble sleeping … I would fall asleep while on video calls with partners, and it was like I was falling asleep with them,” he said. “That really helped calm my insomnia and anxiety.”
Mitch said an 18-year-old version of himself would be mind-boggled to see where he is today, but if he could send any message back in time, he’d tell himself, “Hey, you are mentally ill and that’s OK, but there’s also so much more to you than just that.”
“I’m thriving,” he said. “I say things are going good in my life, but it’s not necessarily that I’m having a lot of good days; it’s that when I’m having bad days, I’m OK. And that’s huge.”
He’s disappointed to not be seeing his partners on Valentine’s Day, but looks forward to a virtual date night. As for any new prospects, well, Mitch said his dance card is full with four partners.
“I’m calling myself polysaturated at this point,” he said.
Emma McClatchey is a single Pringle. Also Little Village’s managing editor. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 290.