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{NOTE: We have closed comments on this post. We love that so many people are finding the information useful and speaking up to tell their stories, but we just can’t keep up with the moderation/approval. If you are seeking resources as the partner of a trans person, please check out the sidebar to the right!}

Since we are revamping this blog, I’ve had a chance to read over a number of posts that I wrote over the past 16 months or so. This gives me a window on my whole process, and I wanted to record some thoughts now for any partners who might be looking for support. You should keep in mind that I am a cis woman and my partner is a trans man. My experience may be very different from yours, particularly if your partner is a trans woman or if you are a man. Ezekiel and I have also been together for 12 years, so some of my thoughts are about adjusting in a long term relationship, and people in new relationships may have very different experiences. Other partners who are reading, I’d love it if you chimed in with your own thoughts in the comments! {Actually, we’ve now closed comments since we can’t keep up with moderation, but please do tell your story!}

No one knows what is going to happen

First, if you are a partner of a trans* person, or someone who is questioning their gender, you are probably already aware that there are not many resources for you. I have been collecting everything I know of  — see the “Resources for Trans* Partners” section on the sidebar. Check it out, and do let me know if you find something great that is not represented there because there’s not much!

I spent the first few month’s of Ezekiel’s gender questioning obsessively looking for videos or writing that might tell me what was going to happen. The trouble is that no one knew the answer to that question. The one person who might have known the answer was Ezekiel himself and he was still trying to figure things out. If you are partnered with a person who is beginning to unpack their gender, especially if they are talking to you early in their process, uncertainty is likely to happen, and it may drive you a little crazy.

One thing I will say is that I know of a number of trans* people who thought they knew the answers to these questions, about their identity and plans, and were ultimately wrong. My sense in observing Ezekiel, was that transition** can change a person as they live it. So your partner may say to you perfectly sincerely that they would never want to take hormones, but at a later date that may no longer be true. They weren’t trying to mislead you — rather their identity and their understanding of their needs may be a moving targets. Really that’s true for all of us — we all change all the time, and we’ve all found ourselves doing things that we once professed we would never do. It’s just that people who are transitioning are doing that on a wildly accelerated time scale.

One of the hardest things for me during early transition was keeping up with the roller-coaster. The constant mood and identity shifts were not always easy, as I discussed in a post last June. I particularly remember a time when Ezekiel was despondent, hurting, and feeling like transition was impossible after some interactions he had had out in the world. I tried to help, and he told me he was ready to throw in the towel and forget about it. I got very angry. I felt like I had been doing a lot of work and he was ready to throw that all away because of something someone said. That incident blew over, and things got better. The changes slowed down to a manageable pace eventually, and now we are almost never on that roller coaster.

Taking care of yourself

Like many partners, I struggled to focus on myself and my needs during transition. Supporting another person’s changing gender is actually hard work. Sometimes we partners feel guilty about our frustration and fatigue because we can see the gut-wrenching difficulty of the work our partners’ are doing. We can’t whine about how frustrating this whole thing is when we can see the person that we love engaged in a life-or-death battle, can we?

Yes, we can. If we don’t, we just get burned out and angry. When I get burned out and angry, I get mean. So it’s way better for me to take care of myself, even if it means saying, “I can’t talk with you any more about X, how about you call a friend or see if you can get an extra appointment with your therapist?”

I like viewing a lot of the work of transition through the concept of gender labor, which is “the work of bolstering someone’s gender authenticity, but it is also the work of co-producing someone’s gender irony, transgression, or exceptionality” (see this paper, p. 237). I did hours, days, weeks, and months of work helping Ezekiel to craft and inhabit the gender that he now lives. I still do that work each and every day. I lived between worlds with him, using two sets of names and pronouns for the months in which that was needed. I reinforced and bolstered his male identity when he felt it was weak or threatened. I talked him through dysphoria and despair.

All of this is real labor, and partners need support during that labor. Unfortunately our beloved partners may not be able to be that support, in part because of the heavy lifting they are doing. I am lucky in that Ezekiel and I came into this journey with years of good communication and close connection to fall back on. But even with that, at some low point during transition I felt alone, and wrote “I don’t think I knew how important Ezekiel’s support was for me in this process until I suddenly didn’t have access to him anymore.” (I got him back!) The other reason we partners need to find support outside of our partners is that we need to find places to express the doubt, grief, and despair that we move through ourselves during transition, and our partners are usually not the appropriate people to talk to about that stuff.

What about the kids?

I am planning on writing, with Ezekiel, a whole post that summarizes our thoughts on transition with young kids. In terms of what it is like as a partner and other parent, it definitely placed more pressure not just on Ezekiel, but also on me. For instance, the first place we changed name and pronouns for him was with very close friends and in our home. At home that meant I was changing name and pronouns for the whole family. At some point we let the kids know that I was going to be using the new name and male pronouns, although we didn’t yet expect them to do that. So I was holding onto that for all of us — I felt like it was important for the kids that I switch and that I do it as consistently as possible to make their own switch easier.

Honestly, I think the same thing applies to much of social transition. As a partner, I was one of the first people to use the new name and pronouns, and my use helped many other people get comfortable with them. That was hard work, and I did feel pressure to be “perfect” — not pressure from Ezekiel, but pressure from the world.

Identity shifts for partners

Dealing with my own identity has been a theme for me from the very beginning, and it is still challenging for me. Some of the difficulty has been internal, as I learn to better separate myself from my partner. Over the last several years, even before gender became an issue, Ezekiel and I were becoming more individual and less joined at the hip. That has intensified during transition, and I find that I am oddly happy to be able to do things with other women in which Ezekiel isn’t included. I like having my own people that aren’t his people.

The other part of the difficulty around my identity is shared by many women who start as lesbians and have to figure out how to understand themselves when they find they are partnered with a man coming out as trans. I have struggled with a future/present in which I am not automatically out as queer. I have also struggled with how I can continue to “queer” parenting and families and I go through this transition. Because my first response to any difficulty is to use theory and intellectualization to understand it, I wrote a lot on this early on (see here and here) about this.

I have chosen to actually change how I identify, and a lot of that has to do with my positive response to Ezekiel’s transition. While I identified as a lesbian for a little over 20 years, the identity of “queer” or even “bisexual” now fits me better, and that is true independently of Ezekiel’s status. That’s very convenient for the two of us, but many other partners are not so fortunate. What do you do when you still identify as a lesbian but find yourself in relationship with a trans man? Or when you identify as a heterosexual woman and find that you are married to another woman? (or any of the other possible combinations). Truthfully, I have no idea, and I suspect that the answer is different for everyone.

More narratives are needed

We all have to navigate these challenging waters in our own way. I haven’t found other people whose experience of transition is the same as my own, but I have learned a lot by listening to other partners of trans* people. But those narratives are hard to find, and the glimpses that we get of trans* partners are usually about the devastating nature of the experience. That is not my experience of transition. I see it as hard, but not harder than other challenges my spouse and I have faced. I see it as initially shocking, but also exciting and wonderful. That’s me, and it may not be you. I think we all need more narratives from partners so that we can start to see the real diversity of experiences that exists out there. We need to hear from people that have been with their partners briefly, for a few years, for 10 years, for 20 years. We need to hear from people who identify as straight, queer, bi, lesbian, gay, or asexual. We need to hear from people with kids and people without kids. We need to hear from people that are married and people that are not. We need to hear from those with happy experiences and painful experiences. I know that that hearing more voices would have made a huge difference to me a year and a half ago. I’ve collected what I can in the links on the sidebar — give me more links if you have them and get your own writing out there.

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(**) I refer to “transition” a lot in this post. I’m aware that not all trans* people consider themselves to have “transitioned,” they are not “changing” from one thing to another as the word implies, but rather being who they always were. I’m still going to use it, because “transition” is a word that Ezekiel himself uses to describe the experience, and it works well to describe the changes for our family over the last year and a half or so.

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