On Unsupportive Partners

I’ve been seeing a lot of posts lately on partners’ problems with transition. It’s hard to read about cisgender people who are possessive of their trans partners’ bodies, who politicize the choice to transition, who pressure their partners to stay in the closet.

Before I go any further, let me say that I mean no disrespect to these cis folks, their trans partners or to these relationships. Some of these couples have been together longer than I’ve been alive. I don’t know the first thing about that kind of love. I hope to someday. If you’re struggling with transition in your relationship, please share your thoughts–including if you think I’m full of shit!

Being trans is really goddamn hard. It bothers me when those closest to a person–parents, spouses, lifelong friends–make transition any harder than it already is. Our loved ones should support us.

It’s a blight on the face of justice that some people try to talk us out of transition in the name of feminism. Gender essentialism is not feminism. The idea that no one should transition, that trans people don’t actually exist, is plain old gender essentialism. What happened to “My body, my choice”?

Trans people are not traitors. Transition is not a political choice, except insofar as the choice to live is political. It is downright radical for trans people to assert our right to exist, to live fully and authentically, in a hostile world.

We should all do a better job of recognizing where we end and our partners begin. I think we can all agree that it would be sexist and unacceptable for me to, say, feel entitled to sex from my female partner, or to try to control how she dresses, who she talks to, or how she spends her time. So too is it cissexist and unacceptable for partners to feel entitled to our body parts, medical choices, wardrobes, and the words we use for ourselves. It’s an overreach, it’s controlling, and it’s disrespectful.

I’m not saying it’s wrong for people to feel overwhelmed, afraid, confused, sad and/or pissed off when a partner shares their wish to transition. What I am saying is that partners should own their feelings and respect others’ bodies and choices. It’s not okay to try to control your partner because you feel scared or lost. I feel like if you really love and respect your partner, you will want the best for them–even if that takes them away from you.

My views are colored by my own experience with an unsupportive girlfriend. She was my high school sweetheart. We were together about three years, living together for two of them. She liked my masculinity as long as it was labeled “butch,” but she was extremely dismissive of my desire to transition. She staged what I can only call temper tantrums about how my face would look different, how I’d never pass as a man, how she didn’t want me to have surgery, how I was robbing her of her “queer” identity card. She used my new name and pronouns grudgingly and behind my back told people to “humor” me by going along with it. I was undertaking the most difficult, important task in my life thus far–and she made it 100% about her.

We broke up when I found out she was cheating on me. I cried for one day and then was overcome by a wonderful feeling of euphoria and freedom. I made the appointment to start hormones that very week. I never knew getting cheated on could be so awesome!

I’m now with a woman who gets me and respects me. I think everybody deserves that.

Partners of trans people–please don’t make your partner’s journey about you.

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9 comments

  1. Tam

    Reblogged this on One HuMan's Journey and commented:
    Unsupportive partners and families – at the end of the day what do they hope to achieve? Putting us back in the closet in spite of that making is deeply unhappy? Having us choose not to live?

  2. Jamie Ray

    When you have built a life together, the prospect of major changes in a relationship are very threatening.

    Anything that affects the relationship (and one person transitioning or even shifting gender identity from butch to somewhere on the trans spectrum) is the business of both partners. How they choose to deal with it, and at what pace, is the issue.

    I think that both have to take each other’s concerns seriously and with empathy/compassion. Contempt kills relationships; trust saves them. Also both partners need to have some flexibility about it – the cis partner must be willing to confront their transphobia, to educate themselves, to meet other transpeople, to meet other partners. I think the transgender partner needs to be able to accept that the timeframe might be longer, that their partner is going to lag behind their thought process, and that their process (at least initially) may be a loss for their partner. Maintaining an emotional connection is what makes it possible for the cis partner to change (or so I hope since that is what I am planning on – meanwhile we talk and both of us try not to be overly rigid).
    It sounds like your old ex had a lot of contempt for you, and you definitely made the right choice to leave, and got then got lucky.

    • rimonim

      Jamie–Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I got amazingly lucky, and my ex was a bad partner to me for a lot of reasons, most of them entirely unrelated to transition! I appreciate your emphasis on compassion and flexibility from both parties in a relationship. You’re right about the profundity of any major change in a true life-partnership. I sense a zen-like strength and calm in your writing about your own process.

      I think the sticking point for me is partners who are transphobic and cruel–something that unfortunately happens pretty routinely (in my observation, anyway). However, I ought to remember that there can be a good deal struggling that does cross into that territory.

  3. Ezekiel

    I have transitioned within the context of a nearly 13 year relationship with 2 young children. I don’t think it’s not quite as simple as whether or not a partner is “supportive.” And when you’ve been together for years, even decades, in some ways, a partner’s transition *is* about you — transition impacts our partners in very deep and intense ways. I think it’s also important to remember that partners, particularly cis female partners (of both trans men and trans women) are under a lot of socialized pressure to stay in the relationship and to subvert/silence their own needs. Especially when transition is taking up a lot of space in a relationship (as it often does), it can be hard for partners to get their needs met and get real support. I say this not to disagree with you (I agree with most of what you write), but to add a layer a bit like what Jamie has above — it can be complicated, it’s not as simple as a “yes, I support you” on the part of our partners.

    In my case, my wife turned out to be pretty much as supportive as they come, and transition has felt like something happening within the context of our relationship — we have shifted together, and it has absolutely been a net positive for both of us, and I think even for our kids. I do not kid myself that this simply required good-will and “support” on her part — it required me being cognizant of where she was as much as I could be and really listening to what was going on with her. She had to seek support from other people when I couldn’t give it. She had to be amazingly flexible as my needs shifted, seemingly at lightning speed. She’s done a lot of work along the way to shift how she thinks of me in very deep ways. There was also no guarantee she would still find me attractive as my identity came to light and my appearance shifted (fortunately she does).

    I do not think this is necessarily possible for every couple, or every partner (and in your case, it sounds like a break up was exactly what needed to happen). When it is possible for a relationship to shift, the rewards can be great, for both parties, but I think we do both ourselves and our partners a disservice if we (as trans people) act like this is a simple thing we’re asking of our partners.

    • rimonim

      Ezekiel,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this difficult topic! You make a number of very important points. You’re completely right that it’s not actually the simple supportive/unsupportive dichotomy I set up in my post. A partner can be completely supportive, yet really struggle throughout transition, and we are asking for a lot more than just, “Do you support me? Check yes or no.” This thread is driving home for me that, as I half-suspected, I am projecting a lot of my own experiences onto other couples’ difficulties–sometimes obscuring what’s really going on.

      I also appreciate your point about (sometimes sexist) pressure on partners to ignore their own needs, and that transition can eclipse many other important things for a time. People have a tendency to become very self-absorbed for a while, especially in the early stages of transition, so we may not be the best partners ourselves in that time.

      As someone with divorced parents, I’d also like to say I think it’s wonderful for your family that you and your wife have been able to make things work.

  4. Lesboi

    You’re absolutely right that we deserve to be loved, respected and even honored through the transition process by our loved ones. Unfortunately we don’t always get what we deserve. In a just world this would be the norm but we live in an imperfect world. I think Jamie Ray hit the nail on the head when they said, “When you have built a life together, the prospect of major changes in a relationship are very threatening.” That is the problem. Our partners often feel threatened by the changes that we deeply desire. I think it’s human nature for us all to want to hang onto the things that make life make sense for us and the older we get the more important that becomes. It takes a really big person to be able to set aside their desires and dreams in order to support someone they love unconditionally through a radical change that scares the hell out of them. Most people are not capable of this. It’s been my fear throughout my transition process that my partner will damage our relationship beyond repair with her fear-based and transphobic comments and view points. It is hurtful to our core when the people we need and love the most don’t make a great effort to understand us and show us love in our most vulnerable moments. I try to give her room to digest and understand that she’s scared. This effects her life in many ways. I try to be respectful of that while at the same time honoring what it is that I need. It’s tough. I have had to make peace with the notion that we might not make it through this together. Many couples don’t. What I do know is that I can not let her fears stop me and I refuse to be in a relationship with someone who is ashamed of me. So for us to survive she will have to get over her shame and I can’t do that for her. Thank you for this thought provoking post and show of support.

    • rimonim

      Lesboi,

      Thanks for sharing your experience. I am sorry to hear about the struggles you’re having with your partner right now, but I am heartened by your courage and your uncompromising self-respect.

      What I do know is that I can not let her fears stop me and I refuse to be in a relationship with someone who is ashamed of me.

      Hell yes. Shame is toxic. You deserve to be seen, respected and loved.

      I hope your partner is able to get over her shame and fear be a real ally to you. Whatever happens, I think your resolve and sense of self-worth will serve you well.

  5. transofthought

    I try to remember that while I am the one transitioning, my transition affects more than just me. I know that my partner supports me, but I also expect a mourning period. If the mourning period continues for an extended period of time, then maybe the relationship will need to be reexamined. I would have transitioned long before this if even ONE of my previous partners had been even remotely supportive, but it was always “It’s ok for them, but not for me.” So while the supportive/unsupportive issue isn’t so black and white, support still needs to be at the foundation of the process.

  6. Pingback: When Someone Tells You Not To Transition | Today I Am A Man

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