“’Is this the ‘New Normal?’ Suggestions for Coping with the Tough Parts of Your Partner’s Transition”
I’ve entitled this short piece ‘Is the New Normal,” because shit happens during transitions, and non-transitioning partners are often are wracked with anxiety and fear (in addition to the transguy, of course). Most of us, from what I’ve learned, want to do all we can to support the transition—even those who eventually break up. When scary and painful stuff happens, partners are often afraid that this is how things will be post-transition: ‘is this the ‘new normal’? Because if so, I can’t handle it.” Transitions are unmapped terrain for everybody. Normally, in a healthy relationship, when scary things happen, the partners can turn to each other for clarity and reassurance. But in a transition, the transguy often can’t meet those partner’s legitimate needs in this area: he’s often doesn’t know the answers to questions either, and is often overwhelmed himself, as he transitions into his new embodied self. He can shut down or act out, further freaking out the confused and anxious partner.
So this is a note to partners who connected with their transguy before his transition, who want to make it through, together, and who are in the first 1.5 years of the ‘transition,’ however you define it. Here is a list of five suggestions on how to deal with the difficult patches, drawn from 28 interviews thus far with partners of transguys.
1. Be patient. Whatever is painful and unacceptable probably won’t last past the initial 9-12 months. Mark your calendar if you have to, but don’t try to make any big decisions in the midst of the first year; in the vast majority of cases, whatever it is you’re experiencing is not usually the new normal, but it is just a phase as the transguy gets used to his new being. Some of the most difficult relationship developments that the partners have noted include: a breakdown in communication, as the transguy withdraws, intentionally or not, as a way to cope; emotional hardship, including depression, anger, anxiety, fear, frustration, arrogance, narcissism; sexual withdrawal, as in some cases the transguy’s libido seems to evaporate for a time, despite T; the emergence of the transguy’s interest in having sex with additional people, usually men; a pressing need to hang with other men, trans or otherwise, which may mark new patterns of socializing.
2. Don’t take it personally. It’s not usually about you, even though it might seem like it is at the time. See 1, above.
3. Pick a confidant, someone (besides your partner) to talk with regularly about the tough stuff, someone who has your back without judgment about what you and your partner are going though. If you’re lucky, maybe you live somewhere where this is a partners’ group, as we have in Toronto. Don’t expect your partner to meet many of your emotional, psychological, and (sometimes) sexual needs during this period, as most simply can’t, as much as they wish they could. Partners usually report isolation, as they often feel they don’t fit any of their former communities, and unfortunately the ‘trans community’ is often not welcoming of partners, and continues to define ‘trans’ narrowly, as specific only to the trans-identified person. So partners have to build their own support network, without violating the confidentiality needs of the transitioning partner.
4. De-center the transition. Be present for your partner in his needs around the transition, but try not to have it be the only things going on in your lives together. Make time for other things; talk about other topics; don’t bring up the transition unless he does; avoid interrogating him about every little nuance.
5. Take care of yourself, most important of all. If you are in one of the many situations I’ve come across, where you’re doing a lot of the care-taking work (emotional, financial, medical), ask for help from friends; don’t be a martyr and do it all yourself. You may later resent your partner for it later, especially if due to his own crisis he can’t see or appreciate your work in this area. Make sure you keep up your own interests outside of the relationship, including connecting with friends and family, exercising, eating well. This is especially important if your partner has had a major surgery, if he’s on medical disability, or is dealing with newly diagnosed depression or anxiety. You won’t be doing either one of you any favors if you get overwhelmed and consumed: avoid your own nervous collapsed in year 2 when your partner is out of the transition woods, so to speak, by taking care of yourself, too, in year 1.
I’m going through some recent interviews, and the topic of a partner being called ‘transphobic’ emerged (yet again). Here is an excerpt from a recent interview on the topic:
“I’ve been called transphobic so many times I can’t even count. I got in a giant fight with my ex, who’s a trans guy, because he was very identified with a certain kind of lesbian non-profit work before he transitioned and I said something like, “Don’t you ever miss being a lesbian.” He was so offended, he was like “I was never a lesbian”. But he said lesbian like it was just the vilest thing and I got really very annoyed and was like, “Well I was under the impression that you weren’t against lesbians,” when we were right in the middle of having sex (laughter). I’m a feminist and if a straight bio guy talked about lesbians that way I would never have anything to do with him, why should I accept that from trans guys? I mean you could be any kind of guy – you don’t have to be a homophobic, lesbian-phobic, sexist guy – and I don’t accept it. And that doesn’t make me transphobic, that makes me somebody who is taking you seriously as a trans guy who I expect to be a feminist if you want to have a friendship with me.”
I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries on transitioning recently, in preparation for a talk I am giving next week at Yale. Now that I have seen so many, I am struck by how formulaic almost all of them are. They construct the transition as a narrative of the hero’s journey, and like this mythic structure, everyone else (certainly everyone of a female persuasion) is marginalized. In contrast to this range of films, from You Don’t Know Dick (1997) through Becoming Chaz (2009) is a fantastic short documentary by Toronto’s Chase Ryan Joynt’s Everyday to Stay (2011). It is definitely the best thing I’ve seen on transitioning and on relationships. I really recommend it. If you’re interested in seeing Chase talk about his work, come see him at FAG on Saturday in Toronto.
I’ve finally had the time to look at this a bit more closely. It’s fantastic on the diversity within the trans community on families, especially in terms of race. And it’s nice to see Toronto’s Nik and Syrus here. On one issue, though, the issue seems very odd indeed. Is it just me? But it looks like the only way a and adult female (cis or trans) can be in a trans family is by being a transguy’s mother, or a transguy’s daughter. If you’re a partner, you’re SOL. Since this is my world, I had my hope up. But it 62 otherwise fantastic pages (and I mean that!), only one feature includes a person who is adult, in a relationship with a transguy, and who may or may not be cisgendered female.
I sort of think this is weird. Is it just me? The issue is not about transdads. The issue is about trans families. I don’t know about you, but I know a fair amount of cis-gendered female people who are partnered with transguys, many of whom have kids. Why aren’t we in this issue? What is going on? I could understand if the whole focus was on transguys, and there were no interviews with non-trans folks—eg, no interview with moms of transguys either. But there are SIX features of transguys and their moms. It almost seems like some sort of weird freak out about the adult, sexual, female person is enacted in this issue. I guess its safe if you’re the mom of a transguy but not safe if you’re the partner of a transguy? Or, transguy+female partner (cis or trans) does not equal “transfamily”?
What’s odd about this is that in the text of these interviews, it’s clear that the transguys really value the female partners in their life, but for some reason they are not being represented in this family issue of OP—it’s as if they are not considered part of the family. It’s as if you can only be in the issue if you’re a transguy’s MOTHER (six features) or someone’ daughter (three features).
I’ll ask the editors and get back to you on this. In the meantime, here is my analysis of the issue itself.
Original Plumbling Family Issue
1 feature where the editors’ two moms were featured both via text and photos (pg. 3).
1 feature where Thomas Beattie was interviewed, but not his partner. Full page picture of Thomas (pg. 10).
1 feature re: Ky and Sol (transdad and his son, pg. 14). Apparently Ky has a partner, whom he describes as a one of the two strongest women he knows, but she is not interviewed or photographed, even though there are two full page photographs for this feature. Until I read the piece, I assumed Ky was a single dad.
1 Feature on photo booth set up at the TransHealth conference in Philly. This includes:
—a feature on transguy Sylvan Oswald and his mom and dad, with a full photo; -a feature on genderqueer transguy D. Artemis Fuentes Lopes and his mom and dad, with full photo; —a feature on transguy Jacob and his mom, Peggy;—a feature on transyouth Riley and his mom, Jennifer;—a feature on transdad Satirius and his 10 year old daughter Diondra. Not clear if Diondra has another parent and who that might be.;—a feature on Syrus and Nik, two transdads (Syrus expecting; full portrait of both of them);—a feature on two trans/masculine-identified sibs of a chosen family, Enzi and Jay.;—a feature on Marshall and Keely, with child Kale. Marshall is pregnant with child no 2; Kelly have birth to Kale as a ‘single queer mama.’ Presumably at least one identifies as trans, but the interview doesn’t specify.
1 feature on two transdads who are friends, and who met when they were both queer, solo parents: Wyatt and Max. Wyatt later met his “wife,” who was also a queer single parent at the time. There is a nice picture of Wyatt, Christina (who appears to be cis-gendered female) and their two kids. Why in the world she’s not interviewed as well is beyond me. Is she not considered part of this family? On the other hand, Max’s current boyfriend, Morgan, is also not interviewed. But other transdads are interviewed in the issue overall.
This is a fragment of an interview I did in December 2011 with someone who is a partner of a transguy, who has long been active in peer support for partners of transmen and transwomen. ‘Jules’ is reflecting on the precariousness of an identity formation (‘partner’) that is based on the identity of someone else.
Respondent: It’s a complex and humbling situation to be in, to have part of your identity be dependent on someone else. But I’m not done sorting that out. It’s just bizarre to have something be so precarious because it’s dependent on someone else. And it’s not speaking to me anymore. That precariousness and that vicarious belonging is not speaking to me.
Interviewer: Yeah it’s a really delicate thing because it’s all relational. I think this is one of the issues that’s been really difficult for the lesbian and/or queer cisgendered partners that I’ve interviewed because before, both the partners were involved and could claim equal access to this identity as lesbians, queer people, dykes or whatever. But then post-transition, not only does the cisgender female partner kind of lose the status of lesbian – sometimes, not always – but then also, as you were saying, their relationship to the category of trans is a relational one too. They have this kind of removed status that makes it more precarious. That’s a great word that you’re using.
Respondent: And it’s really different too, so I don’t want to minimize for one second the impact. I know this is a really loaded statement and it’s very painful for many people, but I stand behind the fact that being close with someone during a transition is hard, and that their transphobia has devastating impacts that also touch cisgendered partners. I really stand behind that. I know it’s a really loaded statement that some people really take issue with, but there’s something very different about living it yourself and being there to support someone. I’ve had a few things happen to me directly but very, very few. Whereas my partner, it’s a daily… less now, but a daily, like a visceral, in-your-body experience of transphobia. And the discrimination I’ve experienced has really been minimal. I’m speaking directly.
There’s been indirect stuff because I’m close to him, but it’s different. I can walk away. I wouldn’t. I mean, I’m in love with him and I wouldn’t do that, but the reality that I could, that I’m cisgendered and I have those privileges, is always there. And I think what’s happened is sometimes partners talk in ways like they are transitioning. Their relationship might be, but the cisgendered partner isn’t.
Interviewer: That’s interesting, because some people have made that argument, including trans men like Aaron Devor in his writing, that basically the cisgendered person is undergoing transition. The kids and the family, if there are any, are transitioning as well. So that statement you would disagree with?
Respondent: Yeah. I would say those relationships are. No one in that family is changing their body, ripping their skin off, taking hormones, freaking the fuck out, changing their names. The relationship is doing those things but they aren’t and that is a huge difference. I think that is where in the past I’ve made mistakes and where I see some partners making mistakes – when they feel so confused about their own pain, about their partners transition, that they talk about it in ways that kind of convoluted. At the end of the day there needs to be room for the pain that cisgendered partners go through, but it needs to be recognized within a context of being cisgendered.
In this ongoing interviewing project having to do with the experiences of partners of transguys, I’ve been struck by the very inventive ways in which the partners (almost all of whom are cis-female) understand their own gender and sexual identities. For those who understood their sexuality as something different from straight, which is almost all of them (us) thus far, the existing categories of ‘lesbian’ never made sense for many of them. One person I interviewed saw herself as a ‘failed lesbian’ due to her chronic inability to perform what she understood was the required look: either the tough masculinity of the visible butches in her rural world, or the commodified ‘lipstick lesbians’ of the 1990s mainstream representation. She now describes herself as a ‘tomboy femme,’ very happily partnered with her princess transguy.
For people who came out in the 1980s and 1990s, they felt a pressure to come out as ‘lesbian’ even though it never made much sense, in many ways. They were attracted to masculinity on ‘female’ bodies, and at that time, that usually meant butches—another word that didn’t necessarily fit for those folks who might now, in 2011, identify as trans. Now, these women are partners with transguys, and even though there’s not much visibility or language to describe the fit between their sexuality and those of their transguy partners, there is a comfort there that makes sense for many of them, much more than the category ‘lesbian’ ever did. Butch/femme doesn’t fully translate here, either.
One person I interviewed recently said: “I think around 2001, 2002 was when I first had this odd experience of flirting with someone who identified as transgender butch. It threw me into an identity crisis because I had developed an understanding of what it meant to desire a butch as a femme. I [had] developed an understanding of that dynamic separate from heteronormative norms about sexuality. I was pretty much secretive about it amongst people because everyone tended to read butch and femme as a lesbian version of straight. I knew it wasn’t that. I knew that my identity as femme wasn’t about being girlish or feminine. I’ve always said I’m a non-feminine femme. It takes a while for people to start figuring out what that means. I’ve also always said that I’d never feel like a woman. The only time I’ve ever felt like a woman is in the arms of a butch, someone who’s got a kind of foot in the world of womanhood somehow or another at some point in their lives, but has a commitment to and a sense of self that is very masculine. There’s something about that, that makes me feel like being a woman is okay.”
Catching up on some reading for the trans partner project, and am reading Julia Serano’s 2009 keynote address for the 8th annual Trans-Health conference. She points out that many trans activists argue that aspects of the medical and psychological professions “pathologize” transpeople, a common word in the trans community. But she points out that we all agree to be pathologized, if you will, to access care; we get a diagnosis in order to get treated, from thyroid disorders to run of the mill therapy, and this doesn’t bother us. We agree that we might have a problem with x issue, and are happy to receive y treatment to deal with it. (Call is situational pathologizing?) She argues that the problem is one of invalidation, not pathologization. Trans people are invalidated by, for example, gender reparative therapy. She calls these daily erasures “trans-invalidations,” a useful term. Examples include everything from being called mentally ill and confused to being beaten up and killed.
An example of this daily invalidation is how cisgendered people will accidentally slip up and use the wrong pronouns with a transperson: this signfies how, at an unconscious level, even the most well-meaning of cis folks “see my gender identity as less authentic than the gender identities of cis people.” Actually, although I agree with much of this rather polemical address, I don’t necessarily agree with this point. I am sure that’s true for some people, but in my case my occasional slip-ups are because the pronoun change is new, even if the gender presentation isn’t. Plus I am queer, and am invested in queering the authentic, so authenticity is usually the last thing I’m interested in, unless it is something that the trans* person is seeking. But there is a way to validate a transguy’s masculinity without producing the normative discourse of ‘authenticity,’ in my view. Or perhaps producing a discourse of authenticity as a strategy in securing a new gender formation. I guess that’s my queerness at play; and I can see how this would represent a real challenge to certain normative versions of gender transition. I’m not saying there is a right way or wrong way to transition, of course; I am only suggesting that Serrano’s piece here seems to suggest a certain version of transnormativity that is predicated on the ‘authentic’ self, and while that might work for some people, I don’t see it works for all. In addition, I am not convinced that my occasional slip-up on the pronoun front, after 14 years of the other pronoun, is a form of invalidation that is part of the ‘straight line’ to Focus on the Family, which Serano argues is the case in this piece.
Serano’s argument also seems to draw a sharp line between the cisgendered and the transgendered. Which of course makes sense. However, many of her examples of cisgendered privilege don’t always pan out for me, yet I would be the last person to deny having cisgender privilege. Any low femme who identified as a tomboy as a child (such as myself) will understand what I’m getting at here. For example, take the pronouns issue. Serano argues that cisgendered people never (or extremely rarely) ever have this experience. Wrong. It happens to me, and has my whole life. It used to piss me off, but now I just usually tease the person who performed the gender policing. I somehow think this is not unusual for some non-trans identified, cis gender women. Later she writes that cis-gender people can have the luxury of thinking about whether transitioning should exist because “their life choices and identities are never on the line.” What? Of course they are, but perhaps not the same way a transperson’s is. I guess my point here is NOT that she’s wrong about transinvalidation, but that she’s describing cis-gender folks in such a normative way that by her definition I should be ‘trans.’ But that doesn’t make sense, since I do inhabit cisidentity, with its privileges. Yet it too is situational. And I am often policed for not performing my femaleness the way I ‘should’: this is the history of feminism, for example. I am NOT saying this is the same as being trans. But what I am saying is that Serano needs a more nuanced discussion of cisprivilege and transinvalidation to be persuasive to me.
I am working through the tiny bibliography of material I’ve been able to find on female partners of transmen. I just read a problematic (to put it mildly) psychological study from Belgium that helps explain why many people in the trans community refuse to participate in academic studies. This study as comparing relationship satisfaction and gender roles between so-called “’traditional’ heterosexual couples” and FTM/cis female couples. [why do so many people assume that a relationship between a transman and a cis-woman is ‘heterosexual’? Talk about a normalizing discourse…] The study is based on nine couples, and concludes that the trans-cis couples have actually adopted a more “pronounced sex-typed partner relationship” than the so-called ‘traditional’ non-trans couples. The authors argue that “we found that a relationship between a woman and a female-to-male transsexual is characterized as a stereotypical sex type partnership” (247). However, personally I find myself not persuaded by this research, based on the authors’ uninterrogated assumptions about gender and sexuality, as well as a seeming unfamiliarity with the complexities of trans identities. However if interested, please see: Evie Kins, Piet Hoebeke„ et al, “The Female-to-Male Transsexual and His Female Partner Versus the Traditional Couple: A Comparison,” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 34: 429-438, 2008. If this is what the shrinks are reading to understand trans relationality, we need even more help than I realized. [NB: this post supports an ongoing research interest in the female partners (cis or trans) of transmen who were partnered up both before, and during, some aspect of the transition.]