Neither pity nor a fetish
October 8, 2014 § 15 Comments
For a fair while I was pessimistic – running the gamut of ‘cis people confronted by trans object of desire’ will do that for you. The two main relationships of my life so far had broken down, in part, because the cis people I was with couldn’t hack the fact that their trans partner was, as stated before we even began dating, trans. I’d had chasers of all genders and orientations try it on, and a lot of ‘I’ve never been attracted to a [slur redacted] before, but you’re DIFFERENT’. And the inevitable ‘ask you out when they’re drunk, pretend it never happened when they’re sober’. I was sick and tired of it, and, while it saddened me to think of prejudging people, I could understand why some trans people decide to only date other trans people.
Fast forward a year and, as a few of you know, I find myself bashfully and unexpectedly happy with a wonderful person – who is, as it turns out, cis (for background on my use of cis and trans, please read). When it comes to sex, gender, sexuality, we’re reading from the same page – but the public perception of what our relationship must be is anything but egalitarian and empathetic. There only seem to be 5 boxes we could fit into, and we don’t fit into a single one. It’s okay though, because nobody fits into them – they’re just bullshit. To wit:
1. Straight cis man is with a straight trans woman because she ‘probably’ still has a penis and, therefore, ‘he’s probably actually gay’.
2. Straight cis man is with a straight trans woman AND HE IS DECEIVED.
3. Straight cis woman stays with her transitioning partner, is to be pitied.
4. Straight cis woman is with a straight trans man AND WHERE IS THE PENIS, WE MUST ASK WHERE THE PENIS IS, CAN YOU FIND IT FOR US?
5. Gay cis woman is with a straight trans man, and that’s okay, because we all knew that ‘he’ was actually a lesbian woman all along.
Even from supposedly alternative or progressive media sources, the message is often grim – trans people are some kind of homogenous other to be treated as a fetish by cis people. “I’m not objectifying you”, the cis writer of such pieces inevitably states – whilst painting their attraction to trans people (all trans people?) as an attraction to a specific subset of humans with supposedly specific bodies, supposed personality traits.
And yet – in trans circles, in activists circles, amongst my friendship groups – there are so many glorious relationships between people who are cis and trans – relationships that have pitfalls and problems, some specific, some general – but not the tropetastic ones the mainstream and indie media seem obsessed with.
It bothers me, that there’s not enough information – that there’s too much ignorance – that cis people are allowed to get away with being ignorant and rude, invasive and fetishistic – and that they can claim that ‘that’s just the way it is’. It’s not the way it is, not for many people – and it’s not the way it has to be.
SO. I asked several cis people who are partnered to trans people (my partner Sam included) if they’d care to talk about what it’s like for them, to be with a trans person in a transphobic society – and I’m very grateful that they agreed. Questions first – bios after. Fingers crossed this helps.
1. What kind of expectations/misapprehensions do you confront as the partner of a trans person?
Maeve: The most common for me is sheer invisibility. All the mainstream discussion about partners of trans people assumes that we are downtrodden straight cis women married to trans women. If, as the partner of someone undergoing a process of transition, you are looking for support or community, almost all the resources are aimed at this one small group of people. Just as trans men and non-binary people are often invisible in the popular understanding of trans people, so are partners who are non-straight, non-cis, non-married, and non-angsty!
Which leads on to the second major expectation, which is that transition is necessarily a negative thing for a relationship. Prior to my current relationship, I couldn’t understand or imagine a romantic relationship that could survive one partner transitioning. It seemed such a fundamental shift in what defines a person, how could they be the same person you fell in love with at the start? And the truth (from my limited experience of knowing various trans people and partners) is that they probably won’t be. At least, who you see on the outside is unlikely to be who you saw pre-transition, because that person was unable to fully express themself, hence the need for transition. But another thing I’ve learnt through spending time in spaces where gender is thoroughly scrutinised, is that it doesn’t have to be such a fundamental part of who we are, unless we choose to make it so. Being able to separate people from the gendered space they inhabit is something I am very grateful to be able to do now.
Sam: Living in London, one of the more cosmopolitan areas of the UK, means I don’t encounter too much in the way of expectation or misapprehension. When I worked up in the Midlands, though, it was a completely different story: the moment I mentioned ‘partner who is trans’ at work I was poked and prodded for all the info I could give. I feel that this is something trans people report a lot: that having non-normative ideas about gender suddenly opens you up for interrogation about stuff that it’s wholly inappropriate to ask anyone.
Mish: That I’m only with her because we share a mortgage (we bought the house before she began transitioning) and this usually leads on into the mis-apprehension that I’m no longer really ‘with’ her. Especially since we started out as an apparently heterosexual couple now we can’t possibly be an actual lesbian couple. (This is from straight people and a fucktonne of the QUILTBAG who I would expect to know better except I’ve been an out bisexual for the past eighteen years). My parents fall into this category and to be honest, I let them because it’s easier, my mother has a nice romantic fantasy that I fell in love with ‘him’ and that I’m somehow being generous or monogamous (neither of which I am) by staying with her. She storifies it because it can’t be ‘real’.
The notion that we don’t have sex because I’m cis and she’s trans is one I find particularly difficult to deal with – because we’re poly, her trans boyfriend is the one she’s accepted to be having sex with because they’re both trans. I clearly only have sex with my cis girlfriend or my genderfluid boyfriend because he mostly presents as a man. I cannot express how RAGE FILLED that one makes me. My Mum gets away with it because she calls her by her name and uses the correct pronouns and she’s 64. My Grandma also gets away with it through being slightly confused and 84.
Oh the other big one – that I’m going to leave her, and that’s not usually from straight people. That’s from the QUILTBAG in all its bitchy glory and especially from trans people, I’m apparently going to leave her because as I’m not trans I can’t understand what she’s going through. No I don’t fully understand, I get some bits, I don’t get others but the thing about loving someone is that you love them for who they are, not for only the things you have in common. I’m not about to walk away from an eleven year relationship with the woman I love because sudden lack of chest-hair.
Ingi: I’ve had to do another round of coming out as bisexual coz folk assume we’re going to end up in an incompatible relationship. In fact the assumption is that I would leave and when it’s apparent I’m not, then the perception that I’m a kind of ‘saintly fool’ for staying is just not who I am. Ask my OH – I’m no saint! And I happen to consider myself as wise for choosing such a wonderful person as my partner. Fielding questions about my own gender our our respective roles gets wearing quickly too – having to educate about gender politics/lgbt issues/transphobia happens all the time. Choosing your confidantes is important coz having to go through Trans101 before you can have your cry or share joy is miserable.
2. What would you want the world in general to know about being partnered to a trans person?
Ingi: We exist!
And by existing we can end up flying in the face of sexual politics. (Being a bisexual cis-woman married to a trans partner it can feel like I’m invalidating someone’s identity somewhere just by existing.) Being defined by your partner makes you invisible.
We love our partners and when you talk/print transphobic shit it hurts them, us, and everyone else that loves them.
Transitioning can be a positive experience. Watching your partner heal, become whole is gratifying. It’s not cancer – it’s a situation with a positive outcome where you are going to see your partner happy! If the narrative about partners’ experiences wasn’t so narrow maybe more relationships could survive.
We have no voice. You’re either taking up the space where a trans voice needs to be or you’re risking the safety of your partner. I’m beginning to think that a cis-partner’s place is always in the wrong. And yet we absolutely need the hear the voices of the partners of trans people to improve the outcomes for trans rights and trans/cis relationships. There is no safe platform for these voices.
It’s lonely – no one really understands except for other cis partners, and they are hard to find. Shared challenges aren’t always a sound basis for forming healthy friendships.
Maeve: That being trans can be a hugely positive thing. Yes, our culture treats trans people like shit most of the time, and navigating social and medical transition is often a horrible process; but for my personal experience, I am utterly blessed to be able to be in a relationship with someone who has the most profound self-knowledge as a result of getting through it. Together we can tear apart the patriarchy and the gender binary, coming from our different positions of oppression and power within them.
I would dearly love for the paternalistic ruling class to shut up about things they don’t understand. The spousal veto is a perfect example of how some ignorant civil servants conjured up a scenario based on the most tired tropes of who trans people are, and how much their poor partners must suffer, and concocted a horrendous legal clause that has the potential to cause real harm to trans people. I am not a child, and I do not need protecting from the decisions that my autonomous spouse may make about their own body and life.
Oh – and to friends: even if we spent all of our teens swapping every gory detail of our sexual encounters – it’s still rude to ask about a trans person’s genitals!
Sam: I find that opposition to anything non-normative is strongest, most devout, among particular age groups, and this is (in my experience) less likely to be so overwhelming in older folk. Couples who’ve been together for fifty, sixty, seventy years seem more able to apprehend the idea that two people could love one another without gender needing to be an influential factor in that relationship. I’d like more of the world to know this: that traditional cisgendered concepts of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in relationships seem to do very little to benefit either (or any) party involved in one. The same thing, I think, can be said for relationships with someone who is trans. I love my partner for being who they are, and being trans has influenced parts of that greater mélange. It is that whole person that I love, and reducing them to constituent parts – hair colour, eye colour, gender, height, body shape – only cuts me off from doing that.
TL;DR is that I’d like more of the world to recognise that we fall in love with people, not abstract bundles of traits. Being partnered to a trans person doesn’t somehow change the way I work in that respect.
Mish: It makes you incredibly aware of sexism in all its multi-faceted forms. You start thinking before using ANY pronoun about ANYONE, which is really funny when it’s your Dad (wait should I be using ‘he’ about my Dad?).
People who are questioning whether they’re trans or not will approach you before approaching your trans partner because you’re less scary. (The way I figure this is that out trans people are seen by unsure trans-maybe-people as having attained the holy grail, thus if they approach then they may not be deemed as ‘worthy’. The uncertains have not yet realised that trans-enlightenment is actually a life’s work and that communication with your Holy-Guardian-TransAngel takes forever, especially if the NHS is involved.) To this end make sure you have your partner’s recommended reading list to hand at all times.
3. Do you have any advice for cis peopl with a trans partner, or for a cis person who has feelings for a trans person?
Sam: Loads of listening. In my experience, a lot of trans people I have met have had a tough ride to get where they are, and that’s given them the ability to see beyond a lot of the inculturated stuff we’re force-fed from the second we hop out into the world. If you find yourself taking umbrage at unusual things your (wannabe-)partner is saying, step back for a moment and examine your own unexplored belief system, because that’s (probably) where the tension is arising. Other than that, maybe try to see that the greatest, most exciting, most passionate, and most deeply loving relationships are not about cis and trans, man and woman, black and white, but about two (or more) people joining in something that transcends these. Excuse me while I float away on a cloud of my own self-importance….
Maeve: Every person is different. It’s almost impossible to give any kind of generic advice, but I would just bear that in mind. A person is not their medical history, or their genitals, or their hormone balance. Don’t expect them to educate you. Be sensitive. Don’t be a dick, basically!
Ingi: I don’t think it’s trans stuff that does for trans/cis relationships, I think it’s the old baggage in the relationship that gets thrown into sharp relief – couple that with isolation and lack of supportive resources and I think that’s what breaks people up. Example – transitioning can put financial pressure on a couple and if historically you’ve found communication about money hard all along, it’s going to be tough.
You have to agree to set yourselves up to succeed by pooling your resources and making a plan for your lives together. The cis partner cannot be the martyr to their partner’s transition nor can the trans partner sacrifice their identity for their cis partner – you have to honour the needs of everyone.
The exception to this I’ve found is that once you board the ‘trans express’ the cis partner obviously has no control over what is happening and that’s scary. (I was surprised to how early my OH went on T-blockers and I was shocked and scared – hormones came second, I’d assumed it would have been the other way round)
Always being in place where all you can do is react can feel like you’re ‘betting the farm’ with the relationship. Communication skills are critical and getting a counsellor to help with those is a wise, wise move.
You spend a lot of time being the family diplomat, deflecting the crap away from your partner or educating them, making sure you back your partner up. When they get tired fighting, I try and step up. But you can both get tired really quick.
Mish: Don’t be weird about it. They’re a person that you fancy or they’re still the person that you fancied. It’s not the way you approach them , ‘So, you used to be a woman then?’, it’s not the topic of every conversation… actually, that’s not true if you’re partnered with a trans person then gender ends up being a massive part of every conversation. Tell them when you need a break from gender analysis and deconstruction!
Keep loving the person that you fell in love with, and yes sex is hard because suddenly bodies have become minefields but just go with what feels right and talk about everything.
4. Any further reading you think people should do?
Whatever your partner is reading because presumably you want to understand something about being trans and sometimes your partner may struggle to understand whats going on themselves. I like Kate Bornstein better than my girlfriend though.
Julia Serano’s “Whipping Girl” was just epic and eye opening
Ryka Aoki’s “Seasonal Velocities” is sort of interesting in its exploration of transness and various layers of in and out.
Ingi: Julia Serano’s In Defence of Partners blog post was a real shot in the arm. Keep thinking us trans-positive cis partners need to set up somewhere where we can we can all post. Says a lot that someone like me feels the need to define herself as trans-positive.
Maeve: Read anything you can find written by trans people. We’ve heard enough from cis folk (I am aware of the irony here!), and I learnt so much from reading as many different people as I could. Start here with CN and read everyone they link to!
I found this poem early on in my current relationship. While some of the language is not what I personally would choose, it really spoke to me, and is beautifully written: How to make love to a trans person.
Sam: Loads! Again, I can only speak for my own experience, but there’s a host of news and blog sites dedicated to discussing trans subjects, and the sheer variety of them is in itself a great introduction to anyone inclined to think of the trans community as homogenous or impermeable. A lot of trans people I know – including my partner – are academics and artists, so they tend to write pretty compelling and insightful stuff (several of these sites are linked from this one, which is in itself a great start). If you’re more into gender theory, these sorts of places can be great touchstones to get some ideas about what to read (and what to avoid). They’re also great launching points for study into the historical scientific treatment of gender and sex, which is a must for anyone still cleaving to notions of medical binaries and whatnot. Finally, seek out trans events to which cisgendered and non-trans people are welcome: almost every newcomer is struck by how remarkably ‘ordinary’ everyone tends to be. Please don’t invade trans-only spaces (physical or online), though: these are a vital part of any community. If you don’t get why they’re needed, get reading those blogs!
I’m Maeve, the cis female partner of a trans man. I’ve been with my partner for almost three years. He is active in the world of trans activism, both at grassroots and as a professional researcher, and I have been involved in some of his work. I have also been part of a regular group that meets in Edinburgh called “Me and T”; for partners, friends and family members of trans people. I recently trained as a peer supporter for people thinking about or just starting transition.
I used to be a creative director for a well-known international aid agency but changed direction to be an artist (painter-printmaker) and I run a holiday cottage. My OH is transitioning – I will use the pronouns they/them in this but my OH is still navigating the spectrum between non binary and female. Out of everything, the uncertainty of identity is the thing they and me both struggle with. We’ve been together 9 years, married for 6 and moved from the city to rural Wales about 4 years ago. While I’ve always known my OH prefered an androgynous presentation, if either of us had really understood transition was on the cards, I don’t think we’d have moved away from our support network although I’m trying to make a new one.