“So does that mean you’re a lesbian now?”
As A mentioned in her introductory post, she has been getting questions like this a lot lately. My own instinct, if asked this question, would be to fire back something like “What, I wasn’t before?” But that kind of response elides a lot of the complexity involved when one partner in a relationship is transitioning.
Let’s unpack this a bit. What the questioner really means is something like this: “Your relationship previously fit into a very neat little compartment in my brain. Now it doesn’t, and I’m confused. I thought you were straight, but if your partner is really a girl, does that make you a lesbian? And because you previously were straight, aren’t you upset now that you aren’t straight any longer? Which box am I supposed to put you into now? My neat little mental hierarchies and heuristics don’t work any more! Everything is broken!”
One of the challenges for both of us as we go through this transition is how to think about our relationship in these terms. As far as we ourselves go, we are accorded the luxury of not having to worry about it too hard. We’re committed to one another, I’ve been out to A pretty much since we met, and for both of us romantic attraction tends to be very strongly based on an individual person’s attributes rather than on how well we can fit them into some kind of compartment. The parallel question people have asked me has been “How does A feel about you transitioning? Is she okay with it?” And that answer is always very easy for me: “Yes.” Because that question isn’t about my sexual orientation, which hasn’t changed: I’m still perceived as gynephilic (i.e. attracted to women), which is kosher (usually). It’s A’s ostensible androphilia—attraction to men, to the exclusion of everything else—which has been called into question, and which becomes problematic when her partner changes her gender expression.
In the (unfortunately not too distant) past, the gatekeepers would not have let me transition on the grounds that my partner is a woman; they would have told me I had to end my relationship. This attitude came out of the (thinly veiled) notion that the process of transitioning was really all about protecting cis people from having their world outlooks challenged too much; this in turn was accomplished by allowing only the “acceptable” trans women through the gatekeeping process. If you weren’t passable, weren’t androphilic, weren’t explicitly femme, didn’t express any of a dozen other normatively feminine characteristics, then you were out. You’ll confuse the poor cis people. Thank goodness we’re more or less beyond that, that we seem to have acknowledged that gay women exist, and that some of us are also transgender (at least as far as the Standards of Care go—things can and do still get messy out there in the “real world”).
One answer A and I could give to this question is “mind your own business”, which is absolutely correct, but not terribly useful. Her answer of choice seems to essentially amount to “Honestly, it just doesn’t matter.” As we’ve both grown up, the idea of slapping a “gay” or “straight” or whatever label onto a relationship has gotten more and more silly. These labels are heuristics, enabling quick and dirty categorizations such as will make it “easier” for people to compartmentalize others, so they can figure out how they’re “supposed” to relate to them, or whatever. Now, it’s really easy to proclaim that we’re past these labels, but in reality, I don’t see what useful purpose they serve here. Are we a lesbian couple? Yeah, I guess so. But what does that really mean? How is that label useful, and what purpose is it serving?
There’s a significant privilege involved in appearing to be in a straight relationship, which we benefitted from for quite a long time. You appear “normal”. You can rest assured that the validity or reality of your relationship will not be questioned because of your apparent genders. You don’t have to out yourself to anyone you don’t wish to. There is wider tolerance for public displays of affection. You have a lower risk for harassment or any kind of social unpleasantness. If you live in a place where marriage is restricted to “opposite sex” couples, then your ability to file taxes jointly or have automatic hospital visitation rights or spousal immunity in court is not called into question. Giving up that privilege presents challenges, both to us as individuals, but also to us as a couple. And part of my job, in my capacity as a good partner, is to recognize how these challenges are affecting A and to do my best to adapt appropriately.
And like most things, this is a process. I haven’t got any—or even some—of all the answers yet. As A is trying to navigate the tricky waters of being in a relationship with a trans person, so am I trying to navigate the other half of that relationship.
So I try to begin and end every day with a little meditation: May I never take A for granted. May I give her the respect and love she is due. May I honor our relationship. May I avoid making my transition all about me. May I allow her to call me on my bullshit and to be the best partner she can be to me. May I be the best partner I can be to her.
It’s not much, but it’ll have to do for now…