Q&A: Cisgender partners of transgender people

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon

My partner is transgender!

Congratulations on your relationship!  And on finding this article. You may have some questions about how to be a good partner, and what you need to know in order to have a healthy and happy sex life with your special person.  You’ve come to the right place.

Am I Cisgender?

You may have heard the term “transgender,” and know that it means someone whose gender identity (internal sense of their own gender) does not match with the gender assigned to them at birth (what the doctor said when they were born).  But what is “cisgender”?  In chemistry, the prefix “cis” means “on the same side,” while the prefix “trans” means “on the other/opposite side.”  So the term “transgender” suggests that a person’s gender is other than (different from) the gender they were originally identified as.  In the same way, the term “cisgender” suggests that a person’s gender is the same as the gender they were originally identified with.  When I was born, the doctor said “congratulations, it’s a girl!” and today, I still identify as a girl, or rather as a woman.  So I am cisgender.  Perhaps you are as well?

My partner has said they want to “transition.” What should I know in terms of our relationship?

If your partner comes out to you as transgender, you probably have a very special and trusted relationship with them. Whatever other feelings you’re having, I hope you can take a moment to feel honored by the risk they took to share this with you.  Many relationships survive the gender transition of a partner, although of course some don’t.  A good trans-affirming couple therapist can be very helpful through this process.

You should know, your partner’s desire to transition (live openly as a different gender) is not:

  • A sexual fetish (e.g. “crossdressing”)
  • A sign of mental illness or pathology
  • A risk to you or to children
  • Caused by trauma
  • Caused by an unhappy relationship with you or someone in their past

All of these are outdated stereotypes about transgender people. Our best understanding right now is that being transgender is a normal variation among human beings, just like being a twin or a redhead – unusual, but not a problem.

And, a person’s transition does not usually change who they are attracted to sexually and romantically.  It can change a person’s sexual orientation label:  for example, Eli used to call himself a lesbian, because he was perceived as female and attracted to women, but now he is living in his affirmed gender as a man and is still attracted to women, so he identifies as a straight man.

However, you may have to ask yourself “what gender(s) am I capable of being attracted to?” as your partner transitions. If you identify as straight or gay, resist the urge to declare “I am only attracted to [one gender]” and consider allowing yourself to see how you feel over time. You may learn more about your own desires as you learn about your partner and who they are becoming. “The Reflective Workbook for Partners of Transgender People” can be helpful as you work with your therapist or other supports, or for private reflection.

What should I do now?

First, ask your partner “How can I support you?” And then get support for yourself.  You may have a lot of feelings, worries, and questions, and it’s better to take them to an outside person than to your partner in the beginning. Make sure, though, that you respect your partner’s right to privacy. They may prefer that you wait to tell family or friends, and prefer that you talk to someone like a therapist or doctor who is required to keep your conversations confidential.

Now would be a good time to start looking into what trans people have to say about how to talk about and treat their bodies.  Resources like “The Trans Partner Handbook”, “Queer Sex,” the “Trans Sex Zine,” and “Fucking Trans Women” can help expand your knowledge.  The book “Drawn to Sex,” while intended as a “sex basics” book for people of any gender, can help you look at your assumptions about bodies and gender.

Once you’ve done some learning on your own, It’s time for a conversation with your partner about how they would like to relate sexually. Questions like “How would you like us to talk about your body?”, “How do you want me to touch your body,” and “Are there kinds of touch we’ve shared in the past that you feel differently about now?” can get the conversation going.

Another important area to learn about is the kinds of stigma, oppression, and harm that transgender people experience.  Terms like “cissexism,” “transphobia,” and “transmisogyny” may be new to you, but Julia Serano’s “Trans, Gender, Sexuality, and Activism Glossary” will help with short definitions and links to longer essays she’s written.  It’s important for you to learn to recognize situations and interactions that are potentially unfriendly or hostile to your partner, so you can be an ally to them.  Some trans people may want you to be ready to speak up on their behalf, and others may just want your quiet support and affirmation; either way, your involvement is important.

Finally, develop your awareness of how you can help the world feel safer for your partner, and opportunities to be an ally.  What places do you go that only offer M/F restrooms,? Do they support trans people using the restroom in which they’re most comfortable?  How does your local school district accommodate and affirm (or not) gender-creative and trans children?   What policies do your local and national politicians espouse and support?  And how can you take action on some of these issues?

Loving a transgender person can be wonderful, challenging, anxiety-provoking, and humbling. You have been given the gift of knowing your partner’s true self in a new way, and a corresponding opportunity to grow and stretch yourself.  Welcome to this journey!

Resources:

The Trans Partner Handbook – Jo Green

Trans Sex Zine volumes 1 & 2

Fucking Trans Women – Mira Bellwether

Queer Sex – Juno Roche

Drawn to Sex – Erica Moen

The Reflective Workbook for Partners of Transgender People – D. M. Maynard

Speak Your Mind

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