Published in partnership with Scarleteen
Sarah H. asks:
My boyfriend is transsexual and often likes to express it. I’m completely fine with this kind of lifestyle but I find myself becoming nervous/distant when he brings it up too much. How should I become more comfortable with it?
Heather Corinna replies:
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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I think the first thing we should do is a little terminology overview. I’m wondering if transsexual is what you really mean, since if it was, just like with your gender, it’d be something someone is constantly being and expressing, not just something someone brought up sometimes but not others. Whatever the right term here is, I also think making sure you grok some of the basic language about the gender spectrum is critical to identifying your discomforts, working through them, and being in a relationship with someone trans.
Not everyone uses these terms the exact same way—just like not everyone means the same thing when they say they’re a girl or say they’re hooking up—and over even just the last ten years, all of this language and how it’s used has been in a pretty constant state of development and flux. But the definitions I’m giving you below are what I’d say are the most common uses of the terms right now. However, just like with any self-identifying term, when someone is using one or more of these to identify themselves, the “right” use of the term is however they use it. In other words, a person using any of these terms for and about themselves will always trump mine or anyone else’s general definitions of the terms
(Also, I’m going to use gender-neutral pronouns for your boyfriend today because I don’t know if “he” reflects hir chosen identity or not, especially given the discomfort you’re talking about having.)
Transgender, trans gender, trans, or trans*: Terms for a gender identity—including how we think of ourselves in terms of our gender, how we outwardly present that gender, and how we want our gender to be identified—that doesn’t “match,” or which isn’t congruent with, the sex (male or female) a person was assigned at birth, and/or with the presentation, roles, or behaviors a given culture defines that sex or gender by. (For example, if a given culture says girls wear skirts, mother babies, and speak softly, while boys don’t do those things.) Some trans people identify as trans, some as trans men or trans women, and some just as women or as men. That version with the asterisk is newer terminology intended to widen the trans umbrella to include people who also identify outside the binary—the system of sex and gender that is only male/female or man/woman.
Cisgender: A term used to self-identify or identify someone whose gender identity is largely congruent, or a “match,” with the sex they were assigned at birth and the presentation, roles, and behaviors a given culture identifies that sex or gender with.
Transsexual: The way this is most commonly used, all people who are transsexual are trans gender, but not all people who are trans gender are transsexual. Usually someone who identifies as transsexual, specifically, has the intent to change, is in the process of changing, or already has changed their body in some way to better “match” their gender identity, such as through hormone therapy or physical surgeries. To what degree someone transsexual wants to, or has access to, change their body varies among people widely.
Transvestite or crossdresser: Usually, someone who identifies themselves as a transvestite or crossdresser, the latter of which is more commonly used to self-identify, identifies as one gender but dresses like what they or their culture considers to be another. For some people that’s full-time, while for others it’s more occasional or situational—for instance, someone who crossdresses only or mostly in sexual situations but dresses in a style congruent with their gender at school or work. To be clear, a trans woman who wears a culture’s “women’s” clothing isn’t crossdressing, she’s dressing in a way that reflects her gender: someone who identifies himself as a man but who wears that clothing is crossdressing. And this really is about gender. If a woman wears mens’ pants only because they fit better, rather than to express anything about her gender, that’s not the same as if she wears them to try and intentionally express a masculinity.
That one can be tricky, and I’m guessing it might be the one that applies to your boyfriend right now, based on the way you framed parts of your question, so we’ll add a definition from the University of California, Berkeley: “Individuals who regularly or occasionally wear the clothing socially assigned to a gender [or sex] not their own, but are usually comfortable with their anatomy and do not wish to change it. Cross-dresser is the preferred term for men who enjoy or prefer women’s clothing and social roles. Contrary to popular belief, the overwhelming majority of male cross-dressers identify as straight and often are married. Very few women call themselves cross-dressers.”
The terms gender-variant or gender non-conforming may be helpful to you too. They would include all of the terms above. They’re umbrella terms used to self-identify or describe a person whose gender identity or expression isn’t normatively (and normative isn’t universal, but culturally-specific) associated with their assigned sex. For example, someone gender-variant could be someone who had “female” written on their birth certificate at birth but who identitifies as male or agender, dresses in a way their culture would consider male dress, who just doesn’t feel like the roles associated with that sex or gender fit them, who doesn’t feel the binary system of gender works for them, or who thinks even the whole system of gender isn’t something they can relate to or is about who they are as a person. Other terms for gender identities, like genderqueer, agender, non-binary, or intersex, can sit under this umbrella.
I also want to talk about the word lifestyle used in this context, especially since I’m guessing you probably aren’t aware of how loaded that word is and what it’s loaded with. Oh, lifestyle. How slippery you are.
That’s a word the religious right and other groups or individuals who usually don’t accept gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, queer, and/or trans gender people often puts on us—one that originated from ideas or politics which misrepresent and malign LGBTQ people, based on agendas, fears, or stereotypes of those who are heterosexual and cisgender, not LGBTQ. In other words, “lifestyle” in this context is very, very rarely used by LGBTQ folks, and instead is usually used by people who aren’t LGBTQ about us, and generally to express ideas of us that aren’t based on our realities.
When people use that term about LGBTQ people, it’s generally used to suggest that those of us who aren’t heterosexual or cisgender have one universal way of living (and it also usually implies or includes things considered socially unacceptable, like having more sex than everyone else, partying all the time, or committing crimes). The word lifestyle, without any politics attached, means the way we live our whole lives, which encompasses a huge array of things, from the way we eat to where we live, the kinds of families and communities we choose (or don’t choose) to construct and nurture, what our jobs are, how we support ourselves or manage our finances, what our hobbies are, how we live in terms of our emotional coping skills, and so much more—every part of the way we choose to live our lives.
You say you’re fine with “that lifestyle,” but I have no idea what that means.
That’s because there is no trans lifestyle, just like there is no gay lifestyle, no heterosexual lifestyle, no men’s lifestyle, no white-people lifestyle, and no people-of-color lifestyle. None of these groups are monolithic; all of these groups are very diverse, full of all kinds of people who live their lives all kinds of different ways. There is no one way of life for all people of any gender or sexual identity. There isn’t such a thing as one kind of lifestyle for any large group of people.
So I don’t know the whole host of ways your boyfriend lives life and how gender identity or expression plays parts in all of that. The mere fact that ze‘s trans doesn’t tell me anything about how ze lives hir life, just like how you identify your gender doesn’t tell me that about you.
Which gets us to your discomfort, and your question about how to become more comfortable.
If we’re talking about your gender identity and expression here—and whichever of those terms is the right one, we are—I think it’s important to first look at what you might mean or feel when you say your boyfriend brings it up “too much.”
What’s too much? And is your issue that ze talks about or expresses hir gender “too much” in a way that anyone talking about things associated with their gender or gender presentation would be too much? For instance, would a cisgender friend of yours who’s a girl and who talks about lipstick and shoes and weddings to the same degree that your boyfriend talks about hir gender stuff also feel like “too much”? Or is it “too much” for you not because a lot of discussion about any gender or gender presentation in general makes you feel uncomfortable, but because hirs, specifically, does? Figuring out which of those things is causing your discomfort seems really important to me, because they’re very different things.
I don’t know anything about your history when it comes to gender or gender presentation. I also don’t know how you feel about those things about yourself—how you feel about your own gender identity and presentation. You may well feel uncomfortable with a lot of talk about gender because, for instance, you’re agender or conflicted about your own gender identity but aren’t dealing with that yet. Or you might feel uncomfortable when your boyfriend talks about hir gender stuff that’s outside the box in terms of how you identify your gender or how you, yourself, identify or want hir gender to be. But usually, when people get uncomfortable around someone else’s gender, someone who they’re intimate with, whatever that gender and expression might be, it tends to be because they feel that person’s gender or gender expression says something about them: like, they thought they were straight, but maybe they’re not now, or the way they’re women feels threatened because the way someone else is a woman isn’t the same or doesn’t include them.
Gender is a funny thing in the sense that so much of the time, the biggest reason anyone really gets reactive to it is because we can tend to use other people’s gender expression or identity as a mirror for our own. In other words, we get reactive to someone else’s gender stuff because of our own gender stuff.
Sometimes, too, discomfort around someone else’s gender identity or expression can come from a person stressing they’re going to have to do things they don’t want to do or don’t feel up to doing because of that person, like having a partner friends and family might not accept, or one where friends and family might think things about you you don’t like, like a partner’s gender identity or transition taking up more space in your life or relationship than you want.
Again, I’m not sure which of these terms is the one that best fits your boyfriend, nor which term ze himself uses. If we’re talking about cross-dressing, it might be something full-time or it might be something that is and can be part-time comfortably. For some people, for example, that’s only something they do for sexual play, and if that’s the case for your partner, then for sure, just like anything around your shared sexual life, you can create some boundaries around the where, when, and how much based on what works for you both.
But if you did in fact mean—or ze does use, or is transitioning into being, as happens sometimes with people who initially crossdress—transsexual or trans gender, then we’re talking about someone’s full-time gender identity, something someone can’t just turn on or off, and needs to be able to have accepted as an integral part of them by others, especially the people they’re closest to. In other words, that’s not something ze can express sometimes but not other times in the same way that your gender identity probably isn’t; it’s something your boyfriend should ideally be able to have people who love hir be as comfortable hearing hir talk about as people who love you are when you talk about your gender.
I think it’s important to be honest with yourself; start where you are, rather than where you wish you were. You say you’re completely fine, but also say you can feel uncomfortable, developing anxiousness and perhaps even getting to the point of emotionally shutting down around this.
I think it’s a good thing you want to get fine, but as of right now, you’re not completely fine. And it’s OK not to be (and hella problematic to try and convince yourself you are when you’re not). No one is a bad person for having discomfort with some things, some people, or some parts of people. We’re all comfortable with what we’re comfortable with, and uncomfortable with what we’re uncomfortable with. We can cultivate an awareness of that, and grow and change in those things, and sometimes it’d really benefit us to grow. I’d say that, for anyone and everyone, growth when it comes to being accepting of everyone’s gender expression benefits everybody, so becoming more comfortable would be a great thing for you and everyone else, even if this person isn’t always your boyfriend. So many of the biggest problems in our world have to do with limited and limiting frameworks of ideas and feelings about gender, whether we’re talking about people who try and take away women’s rights to their own bodies, people who deny that men can be and have been sexually abused, the extreme level of violence committed on trans people, or people just not connecting in healthy ways with each other because rigid gender constructs get in the way. In other words, when we can all get and do better about this, a whole lot can get better for all of us.
I think the first thing you need to know, and this is something to find out from your boyfriend, is which of those terms up top we are talking about, how big a part of hir this is, and how much space ze needs in order to be hirself, by hirself and with you. I think it would be helpful in this conversation for you to talk about the same things for yourself. In other words, for you to take a turn thinking and talking about how much you want and need to be able to express your gender identity, your gender presentation, and how much you need to be able to talk about that to be yourself, by yourself and with hir.
Now, you might not have a handle on that yet. If you’re a cisgender person, you probably talk about your gender and the way you present your gender all the time without even realizing it, because in our world, when cisgender people do that, no one bats an eye. Often, when cisgender people talk about their gender, it’s not even framed as talking about gender, it’s just considered talking about themselves. It’s usually only when someone has or expresses a gender identity that’s outside the “norm” that anyone pays any attention at all to talk about or expressions of gender or even considers gender-talk to be gender-talk. You also may not have ever really even thought about your gender identity and expression if you’re cisgender, because you really haven’t had to: that’s one of the luxuries (though it also can keep you from some big self-awareness, so it’s not all so awesome) of being the member of a privileged group.
Here’s a plan I’d suggest to start with. First, take some time to think deeply about your own gender identity and the ways you understand, express, and present it. Think about how you feel about all of that, how secure (or not) you feel in it, how much of a part of your life it is or isn’t, and what kind of acceptance you need and get around it. Since this can be an issue for a lot of people, especially people who aren’t bisexual or queer, you probably also want to think about how you feel your gender identity and your boyfriend’s relates to your sexual orientation. Some of your discomfort might be that your boyfriend’s gender expression has you questioning that. That makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable, confused, or disoriented, and it can even make some people feel all-out terrified.
Having some kind of handle on all of that is going to equip you better to have conversations with your boyfriend and also help you better identify what’s making you uncomfortable and how to get more comfortable.
It might help to do some reading about sex, gender, gender identities and gender non-conformity. Some good books to start with are:
- My Gender Workbook and Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, by Kate Bornstein
- Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine
- The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You by S. Bear Bergman
- Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity by Matt Bernstein Sycamore (Editor)
- Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano
- She’s Not the Man I Married: My Life with a Transgender Husband by Helen Boyd
Next, I’d recommend you have some talks with your boyfriend around all of this—honest talks, loving talks, talks where you both ask each other a lot of questions and try not to avoid the hard stuff. You both need to know how you really feel and what you really need, even if some of that information means you two might have to reconsider the kind of relationship you’re in right now for both of your needs to get met. The truth is your BFF; avoidance and pretending things are fine when they’re not are your frenemies.
I’d also say you need to really think and talk about if you’re someone, or in a place in your life, where you really are ready for an intimate relationships with a gendervariant person. To me, ready means that it is at least OK for this person to talk about hir gender identity and expression, that you’re okay with having your feelings and ideas about gender challenged, and those things can happen without you getting horribly anxious or shutting down. This stuff can be intense and challenging. It’s OK to feel uncomfortable, and working through that is part of getting to a different place with it. But if you shut down or freak out a lot, you can’t get to that place, and you also can’t really connect with your boyfriend, both of which would be no good for either of you. If this just isn’t something you think you can be capable of any time soon, then as tough and upsetting as it might be to talk about together—since that might mean a breakup or some time apart—I think you need to.
One other thing that can be part of these talks, especially if you are committed to working through this and staying together, and it sounds like you are, is sorting out what he feels is OK for you to ask for when it comes to more comfort, if this is something you can handle and want to, but need some help adjusting. You can throw some things out there, and he can tell you how he feels about those things. In figuring out what those things can be, things that don’t make either of feel too uncomfortable, I think a good yardstick to measure them by is to consider if anyone is being held to a double standard or is being asked to be someone who they are not in the kind of relationship where being able to be yourself is vital. If it’s no on both those fronts and both of you feel good about a given thing, then yay! If either or both of those things are going on, or one of you doesn’t feel OK about it, then that thing should be crossed off the list.
If you’re wondering, “What kinds of things?” here are a few examples: It might be that he finds someone besides you to talk about his gender with, or that you pick some folks not to talk about it around because you aren’t up to dealing with those folks’ reactions yet. Or you two put effort into finding some friends or community where everyone can pretty comfortable talk about gender. Or maybe one night a week you both agree to a night out without en masse gender-talk from either of you. Maybe the way one or both of you talk about gender identity could be finessed to help you be less twitchy. If you know there are certain situations or parts of your relationship where you get super-reactive—like sex, for example—you might want to talk about putting those on the shelf for a little while while you’re working more of this through. Be creative, and just throw ideas out there to see how each of you feels.
I’d strongly suggest, for both of you, seeing if there are any LGBTQ, and necessarily trans-inclusive or trans-specific, support groups or community resources local to you. I’m sure he could use extra support if he doesn’t have it already, and you could too. You’re certainly not anything close to the first couple who have struggled with this, so chances are good you might be able to connect with other people who’ve been where both of you are so this isn’t all as scary as it feels right now.
Lastly, I’ll leave you with some links and resources I think might help you. If you feel like it’d help to talk more of this through with us by yourself or as a couple, I’d be happy to have an ongoing conversation with one or both of you over on Scarleteen’s message boards. I’m hearing that what you’d really like is to grow in this, and learn to be more comfortable and accepting, and that’s awesome. If Scarleteen and I can help you any more with that beyond this, we’re glad to do it.
- Genderpalooza! A Sex & Gender Primer
- Q is for Questioning
- Love Letter
- Hello, Sailor! How to Build, Board and Navigate a Healthy Relationship
- On Identifying Identities
- How can I help my trans partner with a medical transition?
- Find-a-Doc (You can search for trans-friendly services and groups there)
- The Beauty In Us
- Lovers in Transition
- Trans 411