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My Trans Boyfriend, My Transphobic Friends, and Me

When Gender and Sexual Identity Meets Desire

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Updated July 30, 2014

My Trans Boyfriend, My Transphobic Friends, and Me
Steven Taylor/The Image Bank/Getty Images

"I'm a formerly lesbian, currently queer cis-gender woman. For the last six months, I've been dating a wonderful trans* guy. What's not wonderful is the unexpected shit I'm getting from my community about dating a "he." And now, I catch myself avoiding pronouns altogether when talking about him with strangers because I don't want them to assume I'm straight. This would upset him, like a lot. I feel like I'm lying or hiding or something. But I'm also conflicted: I don't feel like myself when people talk to me like I'm a straight woman because they know I have a boyfriend and don't know he's trans. To be honest it's causing a bit of an identity crisis for me."

I had just finished writing a response to your question (which you can read below) when someone shared an excellent comic by Bill Roundy called Orientation Police in which the artist shares his experience as a gay man who is dating a trans man and had to take a lot of shit from friends. His story is his own, it may or may not resonate with you and it's certainly not meant to be generalized, but I highly recommend it.

I think you know this already, but I want to point out that there's a lot going on here. Because it's complicated and all tangled up, I want to list at least a few of the things I think are going on:

  1. You are being confronted by, and asked to respond to, people's expectations of not only who you are but also how the world works. They think of you as either this or that, and now your chosen partner isn't fitting into their expectations. This isn't just about you, it's also about how they think about the concepts of gender, sexual orientation, and sexuality.
  2. You are experiencing a change in what its like to move through the world. You are now a person with a partner who is a he (where it sounds like in the past you may have had she partners or maybe they partners). This is new, and different, and is causing some anxiety or distress for you.
  3. You are managing both your own sexual and gender identity AND that of your partner.
  4. You are experiencing the unexpected frailty of the categories of sexual orientation and gender which we are raised to believe are fixed and sturdy, but it turns out that when you start to really bounce up and down on them, they are surprisingly elastic, or maybe just crumbly. In other words, you're questioning the basis of all labels related to desire, gender, and sex.
  5. You are finding that these communities of yours, which at first seem to be all about including sexual difference, are now unwilling to include the kind of difference you are exploring.
And I probably missed a few dozen things! Sometimes I find it useful to make a list of what's going on as a reminder that this is a lot, more than anyone can juggle without feeling jarred. So I hope you can give yourself a break and a bit of breathing room by acknowledging that in what should be a simple act of finding someone you love (and/or lust after) and being with them, you are having to carry, navigate, and negotiate an awful lot.

 

Cut to the Chase
I want to start with a few bottom lines, in case you are so overwhelmed by other people's crap that you've forgotten them, or no one ever told you these to start with. There are all sorts of social and cultural rules and expectations about gender, sexual orientation, and identity, and many of those get codified as universal and scientific or biological, but when you take a historical and cross cultural view of them they are fleeting. You can call yourself whatever you want to call yourself, and you can love and lust after whoever you choose, and as long as they are on board, you can put that together however you like. If people have a problem with it, if they say you aren't playing by the rules, that is 100% their problem. Unfortunately, they make it your problem as well, so I don't mean to minimize how hard it is sometimes just to live in the world.

But don't lose sight of the fact that you're doing nothing wrong, your instincts and desires are good, and the only people who should get to make the rules of your relationship are the people in it. So if you're wondering whether or not you should call yourself something other than queer or whether or not you're allowed to call yourself X or Y, the answer is that it's up to you.

Also, while gender and sexuality and desire and identity are all connected, none of them are the same. People who expect these things to line up in some logical or linear way are fooling themselves. There's no evidence they ever have or ever will line up, despite a world that insists we pretend that they do.

Dealing with Other People's Expectations

Let's start with your friends and community. I imagine a few things are happening. Some people think you can't be a lesbian any more if you are in a relationship with a man. Some people probably think you are trying to "have it all" because they are making assumptions about who your boyfriend is based on him being trans*. And there are definitely people who are inappropriately curious about your sex life, and are asking all sorts of questions about his body when he isn't around. In some ways all these expectations can be tied to transphobia.

These attitudes and beliefs have always been in your community (and I say that with certainty not because I know your community, but because they are in all communities). It's just that you didn't notice because, until now, you were meeting people's expectations enough that they didn't question you. It's not like who you are has changed, and it's not like your desire has changed either. Maybe grown a bit, maybe you've discovered new things and new people that turn you on, but that capacity was always with you. Yet you're being confronted now because your friends feel as if their beliefs are being challenged.

Whether or not you choose to confront back (I share some tips on that at the end of this response) let's at least name what's happening as a reminder that this isn't something you need to carry alone.

Your Own Need for Identity and Meaning

But you also are clear that you're struggling in yourself. The example you give - avoiding talking about your partner as "him" with strangers so that people don't mistake you for straight - is one I hear a lot, and something I have found myself doing as well (although the circumstances are different). There are two questions that come to mind as being worth thinking about a little. First, in these moments, what is your responsibility? To the people you're talking to, to your partner, and to yourself. And second, what's the identity issue at the heart of the matter?

The first part is easier. I would say you are entitled to represent yourself and your relationship in a way that fits for you. If that means not using "he" when talking to someone who doesn't know your boyfriend, I think that's your right. If your boyfriend is around, and if his preferred pronoun is he, then you need to respect that. But there is always middle ground, and there are likely other ways that you can address what you're feeling. Another consideration is how he feels about you telling other people he's trans. That might be something you can negotiate, but it really needs to start with him and his needs, since the issue of disclosure carries greater risk for him, and probably more meaning and history as well. Not to say it doesn't come with risks and meaning for you, but this is a moment where I would argue that privilege (in this case the relative ease of moving through the world when you are cis-gender) means that his needs have a different weight than yours.

But either avoiding pronouns or using gender neutral pronouns is, in my opinion, fair game. In fact some people (I'm one of them) do this as a matter of course, just as a way of disrupting expectations in general. I like the opportunity to gently nudge people off course and make them think about something they usually take for granted.

Now I wanted to dig a bit deeper into something else you said, which is that people will think you are straight if they know you have a boyfriend and don't know he's trans. Are you assuming that if they know he's trans they won't think you're straight anymore? This isn't necessarily the case. Some people may not read your boyfriend as trans, in which case why wouldn't they assume you are straight (since, thanks to heterocentrism, that remains the default assumption for everyone)? And even if they know he is trans, if he identifies as a man (as opposed to identifying as genderqueer or in some other way clearly in the middle of things) then it seems a reasonable, if incorrect, assumption that you are straight. This probably connects to the questions your having about your identity, because this experience you're having is at the crux of what is problematic with thinking about both gender and desire as binary. I'll explain.

Currently most people think that gender is binary, meaning there are two options: male or female. Sexual orientation is also based on the idea of a gender binary, so if you are sexually oriented to people of the same gender you are gay or lesbian, and if you are oriented to people of the opposite gender (because there are only two genders in this model they talk of opposites) you are heterosexual. If you are oriented to both genders you are bisexual.

Using this model to describe yourself means contorting your desires to the binaries. Which don't exist. There are far more than two genders, far more than two or three orientations to others and the world, and more than two sexes for that matter. But in this model, which remains the dominant one, what is a woman who is in a relationship with a man to call themselves?

Some people use the word queer to address this. Some people call themselves queer as a way of explaining that their experience doesn't fit those binaries. That how and who they love and have sex with, and the nature of those relationships, simply don't fit the options available in the dominant culture. This may be how you use the word queer, I don't know. But of course I know that most people don't know about these options and as such, when they meet a woman who is dating a guy, they think straight.

I wonder if it would be helpful as you think through this to consider how your identity is impacted by the people around you. When we spend a lot of time thinking about our identity, and a lot of effort to assert an identity (like lesbian, or queer, or trans) that is marginalized, we can forget that even though our identity describes something core about who we are, we are always social beings. Being around straight people won't make you straight, but it has an impact on how you feel about yourself. And while you can never completely separate these things it can be helpful at times to try and pull out the parts of your feelings that are a response to others and the parts that have to do with the person you are and the person you want to be.

Below I'll offer some concrete ideas of where to take this, but for now I want to repeat that this stuff isn't easy and it is necessary. Since you have a partner who is trans you probably know about the space that is made for the idea of a gender journey or writing a narrative about ones transition. You are on a journey too, and you deserve (and need) space to process that.

Sometimes Identities Clash

I haven't talked much about your boyfriend yet, but assuming it's a good relationship you want to stay in, obviously he's part of this too. Depending on his experiences of people acknowledging (or not) his affirmed gender, he may have a really hard time with this topic. As you hinted at, it might be painful for him to know that you aren't using "he" when talking about him, or to know that you're uncomfortable with how the world treats you as a woman in a relationship with a man. Being acknowledged as a man may be something he's had to fight for, and for him it may feel like a beautiful and overdue thing. He may or may not be thinking about what it's like to live in the world as a woman, a world that is fundamentally misogynistic and frequently sexist too.

 

These things aren't superficial and they may feel tied to his identity. And so, in these moments, your identities may be clashing. It's easy to get defensive when this happens and both of you may dig your heels in, because, after all, this isn't just about a music preference or what movie to see, it's about who you are.

But it is absolutely possible to create a space where you can negotiate this stuff and where both of you can be who you are while respecting and supporting who the other is. This isn't a skill most of us are taught, and it may take time (and might require some counseling) but if you ever want to get into a long term relationship, learning to do this will serve you very well, I promise.

What Now?

It can be annoying to have to deal with all this stuff when it seems as if you're just trying to live your life. But no one said life was easy or annoyance-free. So if you are feeling overwhelmed, and aren't sure where to start, here are a few concrete things you may want to try.

 

For Your Friends
When it comes to dealing with your friends, the comic link I shared with you above is a great way to get some of your friends and community to reflect on how they are being with you. Share it in an email or on Facebook. Some might call this passive aggressive, but I'd prefer to think of it as more strategic and a gentler way of confronting people. It's not your job to be an ambassador of trans-ness or queerness or anything-ness. When you're up for doing it that's fine, but you have the right to deal with other people's expectations in a way that works for you.

Also know that you get to choose your friends and if it's time to move on from some, that's your choice. It's equally your choice to keep friends even if you don't share politics or values with them. There's a difference between ones attitudes/beliefs and ones behaviors. It's okay to say to someone "I don't want to have that conversation again" or "I'm not interested in being your trans 101 teacher". If they are willing to respect that, then it might be that you can find a way to enjoy their friendship (although in a more limited way). Understandably these may not be friends your boyfriend will want to hang out with, but presumably you each have your own friends and it's likely that you don't connect or agree with all of his friends positions either.

It can feel hard to start a conversation about this stuff, but putting it on the table with your boyfriend may bring a great deal of relief for both of you once it's been talked about.

For Your Boyfriend
It's a relatively new relationship, and you're already thinking deeply about issues that your boyfriend may or may not be ready for. So I would say a conversation is in order to check in about how much of this stuff he's up for processing. This is a conversation about your relationship and ways of being that is beyond the issue of gender and identity, but given where you're going with this it feels like you need to know if your boyfriend is going to be a partner in this new journey. If he's not up for it then you have a different sort of decision to make.

If he is, then it might be good to start by sharing some of your experience of being misread in public as straight. Focusing on you and your feelings, and less on him may help him be able to listen and support you without getting too much into his own feelings about it. Ultimately he's going to have a say in how you represent him and the two of you as a couple, but remember that you're on the same team here, and even though it can be tough to do, there is a way you can both take care of yourselves AND each other. Be prepared for this to be more than one conversation!

Another conversation you might start with is just to talk about how you each experience other people relating to you as a couple. You may have had this conversation before in terms of strangers who are reading you one way or another, but how about friends, or family? At first this can be a conversation that's about sharing what you've noticed, and then if it's feeling good and safe, it can also include talking about your emotional and political responses to how you're being read.

For Yourself
For starters, if you have even one person in your life who is supportive of this relationship AND comfortable with you as you are, be sure to check in with them often. Having that kind of easy acknowledgement, and feeling like you can just be, without having to manage your own, your boyfriend, and others expectations, is so important. It's a space to decompress or just relax. And it can give you the energy to get back out there and see how you can make things fit even better for you.

If you don't have anyone in your life like that right now, are there things you do that ground you and remind you that you are who you are, and who you are is just fine (even amazing)? Maybe that's time for reading, or yoga, or a bath. Maybe it's zoning out in some other may or lying in bed before any one is up and indulging in fantasies of when you rule the earth and how everything will work just so.

Ultimately you are the one that gets to say what your relationships and your desires mean. It's your story to write. Feeling invisible is lonely and painful and you shouldn't minimize what you're going through. It can feel like a fight, but it's a fight worth having. I don't know if this helps but I'll point out that the experience you're having, of being in public and feeling like there is no way you can be yourself, is likely a feeling your boyfriend can identify with all too well. The circumstances are different, and those differences matter, but if you're both able to see that there are points of connection AND points of difference, and you can make room for both, you might find you can be of greater support to each other than you imagine.

Thanks for sharing your experience around this. I hope some of this has been helpful, I wish you lots of strength and good luck as you muddle through, and feel free to be in touch if you want to update me or ask any other questions.

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