Ask A Trans Person: Questions About Partners
One of the things about being in a minority group that most people are either completely ignorant of or, at best, woefully undereducated on, is that you end up getting a lot of questions about it. Being a transgender person at a time when trans people are getting a lot of media attention (finally!) means that not only do I get more questions, but I also have started finding that people are increasingly aware that it’s often inappropriate to ask them. However, I’m a big believer in the idea that answering people’s questions can only help with increasing understanding, and yet I also understand that it can be uncomfortable to ask those questions in the first place. In that vein, I will be asking my friends on social media if they have any questions that they’ve been afraid to ask me, either about my own transition or about trans people as a whole (as much as any one trans person can speak about a group of millions), and I will be answering them here. I hope that at least some of my readers find them informative.
My friend AR asks:
How can the partner of a newly out trans person be supportive? And, I guess it goes the other way too - it can be hard for a partner to handle their feelings as someone transitions, so how can one bring up these thoughts and concerns and fears in a productive way? Like, what is fair to ask of a trans partner, and what difficulties can the other partner maybe anticipate?
Since this is actually several related questions (all good!), I’m going to break this down into the individual questions. If I don’t, I’ll be typing forever, as I have a lot to say about this matter.
“How can the partner of a newly out trans person be supportive?”
I’ll first mention what was helpful for me. During the early days of my transition, Marc was kind of the one stable point in my life, and I needed that. I also needed someone to talk me down from the proverbial cliffs of doubt. I to this day remember a conversation that we had, where I was worried that I was making a horrible decision that would cost me my relationship, my job, my friends, etc, and that transition might be a mistake. He looked at me and said “I’ll tell you what – we’re going to take this one week – one shot – at a time. Every week, you look at yourself and decide if you feel better or worse than you did before, and I’ll look at our relationship and see if I’m still happy with it. If either one of us decides it’s not working, we’ll talk, but until that time comes, we’re going to take things one week at a time.” It was very helpful to me to see that we were really in this together, and his perspective of the grander picture was insightful. I’ve found that in general, his help and emotional support has been the most useful, but there are little things too – like teaching me how to shave, overtly gendering me around new people when I’m too shy to speak up, etc. that are very appreciated.
In general, I’d say that letting your trans partner know that you’re there for them is the biggest thing. Even if you think you can’t be with them in a romantic sense, let them know that you intend to be there as a friend, and that you’ll work through it all together. Don’t freak out, don’t make any immediate, rash decisions. Marc thought he wouldn’t be able to stay in a relationship with me, and yet two and a half years later, here we are. We just have “state of the relationship” talks more than most couples do, and being polyamorous helps quite a bit as well. If it looks like your partner’s transition is going to be an insurmountable obstacle to your relationship, it’s important to address that with sensitivity and care, without playing the blame game.
“It can be hard for a partner to handle their feelings as someone transitions, so how can one bring up these thoughts and concerns and fears in a productive way?”
Some things are just never comfortable to discuss, and this is often one of them. But that’s why society gave us therapists! Seriously though – if you and your partner aren’t great in the communication department, this is a time when a relationship counselor can be invaluable. If that’s not an option (and I recognize that finding a trans-friendly therapist can be difficult), then I would advise a tactic that Marc and I have used to great effect in the past: write down your thoughts on paper, and then let your partner read them, and have your partner respond on paper in kind, and read their response. Once you’ve done that, then talk. This allows each person to make their feelings known without interruption or derailment, and without the risk of emotional outburst as a response. I find that the distance that paper as a medium provides is helpful and generally allows the writer to express themselves in a more well thought out way than each person likely would if the conversation were to happen verbally. Marc and I use a notebook, which we leave out for eachother in a noticeable place when we’ve written something we want the other to read.
“What is fair to ask of a trans partner, and what difficulties can the other partner maybe anticipate?”
It’s fair to ask a trans partner to try and understand where you’re coming from. To ask them to listen to you. To ask them to take your thoughts into consideration. It’s fair to ask them to come up with a transition plan with you, to have patience while you adjust to their new name and pronouns, to help you with your own transition within the relationship. It’s not fair to ask them to delay transition (unless it’s a short term delay for a major reason like a family issue), it’s not fair to ask them to keep presenting as their assigned gender in certain circumstances, and it’s not fair to ask them to hide who they are.
As the transitioning one in a relationship, there are some difficulties I anticipated, and some that I did not. Some things that I predicted would be issues were in fact minor speed bumps, while others have reared their ugly heads more often than I had assumed they would. Each relationship is different, but there are a few things you can expect your cisgender partner to struggle with as your transition progresses. They might struggle with your changing appearance, especially if you have previously presented yourself in a very typical way for your birth gender (meaning feminine if you were assigned female, masculine if you were assigned male). They might struggle with some of the more subtle changes in your body, such as your smell, your body hair, even changes in your sex drive. They will almost certainly struggle with your relationship being seen in a new light (straight if you were a same sex couple, gay if you were a hetero couple) – some people are really bothered by this, while for others it’s no big deal. They will likely struggle, at least at first, with a sense that they are losing the person they’ve been with all these years – with this last one, resist to urge to say “you’re not losing me!” because they are, in a sense, just as you are losing them, in a sense. Your relationship will change, and there’s potentially some grieving to be done on both sides about this, so be sure to give eachother room to do so, while simultaneously working to build something new. What Marc and I had before no longer really worked for us, so we kind of sat down, discussed what we each wanted out of our relationship, and started building something new from scratch. Our relationship isn’t what it was before, but it’s arguably even better now, albeit a bit different in its dynamic – our relationship is less physically close, but more emotionally close.
One final note:
One of the things that I’ve noticed in my own transition and that of others who transitioned while in a pre-existing relationship is that one of the first questions to come out of someone’s mouth, when you tell them about your transition (especially in the early stages) is “How does [your partner] feel about it?”
Don’t be that guy. Or girl. Seriously, just don’t.
I’m not saying that it’s not okay to ask that question, but you should ask it later on in the conversation, after you’ve talked a bit more about their transition. When you ask it straight off the bat, it sounds as if you care more about the person’s partner than them. It sounds like you’re saying “Your own life is important, trans person, but the feelings of your cis partner are totally more important!” I know that’s probably not how you meant it, but that’s how it comes off. I know you’re likely worried about their relationship, but that’s a private, personal matter. If it’s an issue they’re comfortable sharing with you, they’ll tell you. Otherwise, don’t bring it up.
If you have any questions that you’ve always wanted to ask of a trans person but were too anxious to ask, please let me know by leaving a comment and I’ll do my best to answer them. You can ask a question about my own transition, or about transgender people as a whole, but do remember that my answers aren’t the be-all, end-all of what transgender people think or feel, so make sure to keep in mind that my answers are based on my own interactions with the trans community and society as a whole.