Queer people seem to be laboring under less sexual shame than cis, straight people. Don’t get me wrong–I know plenty of very cool, sexually liberated cis, straight folks, and some queer people who are completely shut down around sexuality. But in my observation, the trend is stark and striking. The queer people I know just seem more relaxed, uninhibited, embodied, and joyful when it comes to sex and gender. Anyone who’s ever been to a Pride parade probably has some sense of what I mean.
Alma and I have recently been discussing this as a fascinating paradox of our cissexist, heterosexist culture. You’d think it would be the reverse: that since cis, straight people are constantly told their sexuality and gender are legitimate and good, they would be confident and happy and free. And at the same time, since queer people are constantly shamed and berated, especially as we’re growing up, you’d think we would be limping along, loathing ourselves, barely functional.
Yet almost the reverse seems to be true. So many cis, straight men and women are suffocating under extremely narrow ideas of what it means to be a man or woman, what it means to be a lover. So many people feel that if you need or want to discuss your sexual desires with a partner, you have already failed, for you should be able to read minds. So many people feel their bodies are broken and horrible because they don’t fit some absurd standard.
Meanwhile, queer folks, having already broken the mold, seem much more willing and able to figure out what works for us and ask for it. There is far less of a taboo within queer subcultures on stuff like using sex toys, doing kinky stuff, etc. I’m also thinking of trends like gay and lesbian couples having more equitable divisions of housework.
And so, ironically, being shamed and rejected actually offers a special path to freedom. We can never fit the boxes, so oftentimes, we simply quit trying. Gender roles can’t accommodate us, so we figure out what works in each relationship. The heteronormative script can never work for us, so we write our own.
We initially challenge the system as an act of pure survival. But pull one thread and the whole damn tapestry falls apart. Pretty soon we’re challenging the system just for fun.
Ah, romantic love, the source of so much joy and so much misery. For many trans people, seeking a partner isn’t just hard–it’s completely baffling. I see this confusion crop up over and over in our community. As a trans dude who lucked into a great relationship, I thought I’d offer a few pointers for trans people trying to figure out where to even start.
1. Safety first. Sadly, this needs to be said, as I’m sure you’re aware. Dating can be dangerous for trans people. Be choosy about the who, how and when of disclosing your trans status. You may want to gauge their views on trans people, like by mentioning a trans celebrity or TV character (something we can actually do now!). Tell loved ones where you are going and when you’ll be back. Trust your gut. It’s a good idea to disclose as early as possible in a new relationship. Choose a place where you know you’ll be safe, like in a restaurant or at your place when your roommates or family are in the next room.
2. Consider other trans people. The late, great Matt Kailey used to say this often in his advice column. Many trans people find love with another trans person. Obviously, other trans people are a lot more likely than the average to be informed about your identity and experiences, open-minded about your body, and willing to see you as more than your trans status. Given our glorious diversity, whatever you’re into, there are probably some trans people who’ve got it. And you’re guaranteed to have something in common.
3. Bi and queer folks may be your best bet. I’ve noticed that a lot of trans people find partners who identify as bi or queer, including yours truly. It’s no coincidence. Bi and queer people, both trans and cis, are generally open to a range of body types and gender expressions. They’re therefore less likely to see trans people as a threat to their own identities. I also think there’s something about the shared experience of being oft-ignored members of the LGBTQ+ community. Of course, there are plenty of gay, lesbian, straight and other people who are not transphobic and would be happy to date you. Nonetheless, bi and queer people can be a good place to start.
4. Love yourself. Ok, not to get super corny here, but it’s true–loving yourself is so important. As trans people, self-acceptance and love are often challenging. Whether you’re partnered or single, loving yourself is the foundation of bliss, in relationships and every other part of life. Some ways to get started with self-love include surrounding yourself with supportive people and doing one thing each day just to be kind to yourself. When you’re getting ready in the morning, you can look at yourself in the mirror, smile, and say “I love you.” You will feel really silly, but seriously, it helps. When you’re rooted in self-love, you can enjoy the single life, and you’ll be equipped to know a good thing when it comes. Plus, the confidence and positivity that come with self-love are extremely attractive.
5. Hold out for the real thing. Don’t spend years of your life with someone just because they show you a minimum of decency and are willing to use the right pronouns (and don’t even get me started on people who don’t meet that low bar). You deserve a great relationship with someone who shares your values and really gets you–a mutual partnership where you can love and be loved, challenge and be challenged. It’s the real deal when you feel deeply respected and the relationship helps both people to grow. Don’t settle for less. You’re worth it.
Readers–what advice do you have for trans people who are seeking that special someone? Please also feel free to ask questions and share stories about dating while trans.
Many have observed that men have a tendency towards social and emotional cluelessness. There are plenty of oblivious women and sensitive dudes out there, and nonbinary folks both unaware and keen. But overall, my own experience confirms the trend. In general, men are less perceptive and expressive when it comes to social cues and subtexts, emotions and relationships.
Why is this? Feminists often point to childhood socialization that emphasizes sociability and relationships in girls, while encouraging competition and toughness in boys. Other people believe that biology and human evolution explain the differences we observe. I’d like to point to a factor elided by these explanations. Quite simply, people just don’t tell guys very much.
I am the rare man who was raised as a girl. Like many trans people, I listened closely to the messages intended for my true (not assigned) gender, so I absorbed a lot of norms of masculinity. As a kid, I felt it was important not to cry and to fight with punches and kicks, not scratches. Still, I was encouraged to master the feminine art of relationships, and I had intensely expressive friendships with girls. I was just as perceptive, emotive, and socially astute as anyone else.
I have not become less open or perceptive since transition. Quite the opposite, actually. I find it much easier to cry and show other feelings, and I continue to enjoy deep, expressive conversations. I also find it easier to read and empathize with other people. I’m training to be a counselor right now–I am trying to talk about feelings and relationships all day long, for a living!
And yet, I find that I know far less about what friends and family members are feeling than I did before transition. Why is this? They don’t tell me. My own family members often communicate important feelings to me indirectly, by telling Alma. Nobody gossips to me, so I have no idea which of my friends are getting together and which are breaking up.
This was put into sharp relief by a recent conversation with Alma. She mentioned that she has a class with a friend’s roommate, let’s call him J. Alma said she was comfortable talking to him because she knows he has a girlfriend and is pretty serious about her. Here’s the thing: neither of us actually knows J. We’ve met him briefly and seen him at parties. Neither of us knows J’s girlfriend. But while I have nothing more than a vague image of J’s face, Alma knows his relationship status, the seriousness of said relationship, and even has a sense that he is a good boyfriend. How is this possible? Because our female friends told her. They know, because one of them knows the girlfriend, and she told them. It suddenly struck me what a massive quantity of social information is exchanged in all-female conversations. Meanwhile, when I talk with the guys in our social group, we talk about a lot of things…but we exchange almost zero of this type of information. J is a friend-of-a-friend to both of us, but while I’m not even completely sure I would recognize the dude, Alma knows a great deal about his life situation and his character.
This is just one example; the trend holds across many situations in our lives. This puts us at totally different starting places when it comes to social and emotional insight. Alma noted that when she interprets subtle social exchanges–like a glance or a tone–she is working from a lot of back-story, full of hints at what might be important and what that might mean.
Of course, this is very much connected to socialization and social norms. Friendships among men tend to look different from friendships among women. But I think it’s worth adding this into our analysis. It may not be so much a function of the perceptiveness, expressiveness and sociability of individual men, but rather of our social networks.
So you have a transgender friend or family member. What’s the best way to show respect for this person? How can you be encouraging without making them uncomfortable or calling too much attention to their trans status? Here are a few simple ways to support the trans person in your life.
1. Use the correct name and pronouns–even when they’re not around. You already know how important it is to use preferred gender pronouns. If your friend is open about their gender, take your allyship to the next level by always using the right words, even when they are out of earshot. It can be tempting to go along with the wrong name/pronouns when other people do it and your trans loved one isn’t there. This is can especially be a problem in families, where people are trying to change very old habits. By using the right name and pronouns even in private, you help cement the change in everybody’s minds, pave the way for respectful language next time your friend is around, and show other friends and relatives that you take this person’s identity seriously.
2. Ask them how you should talk about their trans status. You should never, ever disclose someone’s trans status without their permission–it’s disrespectful as well as dangerous. That said, each trans person is different, and sometimes it’s helpful to spread the word. Maybe your coworker who transitioned a decade ago doesn’t want you to say anything, while your newly-out cousin would really appreciate it if you filled in some other members of the family, and your nonbinary friend would have a better time at the party if you gave other guests a heads-up about their pronouns. Ask your trans loved one about their preferences.
3. Celebrate their gender. Affirm your trans friend’s gender, and avoid imposing rigid gender norms on them (and everybody else, for the matter). If you and your trans friend have a similar gender expression, perhaps you can enjoy sharing “girly” activities or doing “guy stuff,” as defined by your community. Some trans people have been routinely denied these simple pleasures, so it means a lot when someone wants to share them with us. You can also celebrate things they do that aren’t stereotypical for their gender, showing them it’s cool to be a guy who loves baking or a woman who kicks ass at videogames. If the trans person is your life is nonbinary, celebrate whatever gender expressions are right for them, and don’t pigeonhole them based on one or two aspects of their gender (again, this really goes for everybody).
4. Put gender on the back burner. There’s a time to talk about your trans relative’s identity and transition, and there’s a time to put gender aside and just focus on other things. It can be exhausting to think about gender all the time, especially if your friend is in the middle of transition. Be open to talking whenever the trans person in your life needs to; also be ready to let trans topics recede into the background. For example, while it’s good to be comfortable bringing up trans-related issues, you don’t have to inform them every single time you hear something about a transgender person. Sometimes trans people just want to eat lunch, go to the movies, or weigh in on current events–just like everybody else. By putting gender on the back burner sometimes, you can give your trans friend a break and show that you see them as a whole person.
5. Treat them like everybody else. Trans folks are regular people, just trying to get by in life like everyone is. When your trans friend has milestones in their transition, share their joy like you would for any happy occasion. When your trans friend faces challenges or has a bad experience, offer your sympathy like you would for any struggle. Are you someone who sends cards, makes care packages, takes people out for drinks, congratulates or commiserates on social media, delivers soup, makes mix CDs, gives hugs or high-fives? Your best guide for supporting your trans friend is however you already show people that you care. It’ll be the perfect thing, because it really comes from you.
Readers–what is one thing friends and family could do to support you? Feel free to share experiences, add suggestions to this list, discuss what not to do, etc.
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.
“He was always so… Manly.”
These were the words I’d been waiting to hear my whole life. Said by the person I’d always wanted to say them. Unfortunately, when my mother finally spoke those words, I wasn’t there to hear it. I was a hundred yards away and under general anesthesia.
My girlfriend, now fiancée, was the one who heard them. She told me later, back in our hotel room. While my chest was being reconstructed, the two women in my life had gotten to know each other better.
Alma and I had only been together for six months. It seemed perfectly natural she’d accompany us to Cleveland to help take care of me after my surgery. My mom cooked; Alma cleaned my drains full of blood and pus. Her tender care and steel stomach made quite an impression on both my mother and me.
While I was in surgery, Alma was overcome with worry. True to form, my mother tried to feed her. And she told her things about me–some she’d told me before, and some she never had.
Things I already knew: That there was always something different about me. That they’d been really worried about me and were relieved I was doing so well since starting transition.
Things I didn’t know: That she noticed I was masculine from the time I was a tiny child. That I always had a masculine look. Square jaw, muscular limbs, broad shoulders. She said I looked like a little linebacker. She said she knew there was something there, and it seems so obvious now–but at the time, she just didn’t connect the dots. Remorse ran off her voice, rainwater in a gutter.
It was a great gift to get this information, no matter how indirectly. Some thunderstorm in my heart finally went quiet, a temper tantrum I’d been waging for twenty years resolved at last. Like when the heater turns off and you’re suddenly aware it had been humming in your head for hours. Like the first day you wake up feeling better from the flu. You remember what it’s like to feel good.
Then I understood why she’d never told me. My parents bit their tongues on the very words I needed to hear the most. They thought those words would crush me. They thought they’d be calling me ugly. Now they know they were wrong.
They had probably never met a transgender person. They’d certainly never been parents before. This year I’ll be as old as my father was when I was born.
I forgive them.
Image: Caroline’s Cakes
I have great sex.
Sex can be fraught with negative emotions for many trans* people–and for many cis people, for that matter. It is difficult to find a person you really click with, and to create a space where both people can feel comfortable, be vulnerable, and enjoy themselves.
I struggled with this for many years. Pre-transition, I was never 100% comfortable and 100% naked at the same time. Sex often triggered dysphoria, anxiety and a sense of inadequacy. For the first few years I was sexually active, I never had sex sober.
Moving forward on my gender journey, sexuality has been an important area for healing. I am now able to enjoy sex in a close, happy relationship with my fiancee.
As a result of being trans and going through all those painful experiences, I learned to communicate directly about what feels good and what doesn’t. I learned to focus just on connecting with my partner, in one moment. Being trans forced me to become nonjudgmental about the human body, to directly state my preferences, and to ask my partner’s preferences, with little preconceived idea of how things will go. Turns out these things laid the foundation for a great sex life.
What are some good things about being trans*? Send your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org or submit anonymously.
In this series, I highlight individuals’ positive experiences. You probably won’t relate to every entry, but maybe some will resonate with you.