To love and cherish — Partners of trans folk need air too
As both a trans person myself and having been the partner to multiple trans folk it is often dispiriting when partners are either cut out of the equation or emotionally side lined when discussing the impact that trans people have on the world. There are plenty of people in similar situations as me, and this article is very much written from my personal perspective in the hope that it will help enable others to have full and honest discussions about themselves and their loved ones. This article focuses on coming out and the initial phases of a relationship dealing with the revelation.
I appreciate that as a trans person using words like choice are conflicting and complicated, mainly because choice and making a choice are anathema to the very notion of a personal gender experience. Trans people often face the question of doing something about their gender or facing a lifetime of mental health issues that could potentially end in extreme measures. So, by framing decisions as choices it is more within a framework that we exist in within society. Every action we take with respects to our gender is a choice weighed up against the alternatives, and this is where being in a relationship complicates things.
One of the hardest things to appreciate when you are trans is that the transitioning process can be incredibly selfish, in as much that you devote a lot of personal energy getting through the initial stages and beyond. If you are in a relationship or marriage energy that could go on your partnership gets spent on dealing with personal issues, complicating and scrambling what had previously been a probably status quo. Obviously, transitioning is a rock upon which many relationships founder, and trans folk can face the possibility that if they transition it will be the death knell for their relationship. It can prove to be mountain over which they are not prepared to trek because they place more value in the relationship than their gender identity, and ultimately that is their choice to make.
And this is where the notion of choice becomes problematic, as the usual rhetoric around trans identities is that you must do something once you realise that your gender identity is anything other than cis. You must make a decision and stick with it, and you must do what is solely best for you in the moment. The trans narrative, especially amongst older transitioners, is that medical intervention and a fixed binary identity at the panacea for every woe, and that the world will be perfect once this happens. We are constantly told that there is a singular path once you know, that in reality there is no choice, that you must transition. It makes everything seem so black and white, that there is one side and then another, cis and trans. This decision is almost a blind leap of faith that you have to take solo, otherwise you are not being true to yourself. This is very much a libertarian way of seeing trans lives, and neglects that most trans people have a community within which they exist.
Hence why a lot of transitions can become wrapped up in secrecy, lies, and selfish behaviour that can wreck even the most solid of relationships. The choice to transition can only be made by the trans person themselves, and crossing the gender rubicon is both momentous and oddly easy in hindsight, if it is allowed to happen in the light. The needs of the individual collide with the communal space they exist in, and this is the fulcrum of why there are choices in coming out; how, where, when, and to whom. Then what are trans folk going to do about it. There are more options than a simply binary switch to a gender the trans person identities with (or into the non-binary spectrum should they desire); the journey of gender exploration is both intensely personal and is shared with those around them whose emotive reactions will be the catalyst for how any post-coming out works through to the long term.
And this is where the reality of coming out bites hard. Some trans folk face enormous pressure to exist within their pre-existing lives, due to family, work, community, that to come out as trans would destroy everything in their lives. This tyranny of choice is doubly complicated for partners, as they are often the ones upon which the burden lands and whose reaction can have the biggest impact on a trans person’s immediate future. It is not fair, plain and simple. Of course it is not fair, most partners did not sign up for their partner to transition from one gender into another (or none). It challenges the partner’s very core identity, the very notion of their own sexuality and potentially gender role. However, that is not to say that things cannot be worked and worked through. I know many couples who have stayed together, just as I know couples who have split up (as what happened when I transitioned). Each party in the relationship must make the best decision for themselves, while at the same time assessing if they can build a positive working relationship with their partner.
This is why we must give partners of trans folk the air to breath, to given them room to assess and understand themselves in the fullness of the revelation. Oft times it can feel biblical, world shattering, as if creation itself has crumbled away. Everything they took for granted, past, present, and future is washed away in an instant, with an expectation that they will be utterly supportive and will stand by their now trans partner regardless. Their upended lives are just as relevant to the conversation, their needs and desires must be considered. Relationships are built on trust, love, and commitment to each other, and after the initial glow of amour has worn off, it is the working relationship that matters. Partners needs to have a secure identity and sense of self within the relationship, and if they cannot find ease and comfort then they have the right to question whether they belong in the relationship.
Relationships are their own special blend of alchemy, with each being its own bottle of magic and poison. The poison can seep in or be poured on, and unless we actively work at being part of a relationship things can drift and break down. Communication is crucial to keeping the poison at bay, and the secrets and lies wrapped up in a lot of transitions can strain even the strongest relationship. Partners of trans folk, especially those who have cracked their eggs, need to be given the room to effectively communicate their issues and needs, as regardless of the outcome by being able to work through their emotions it can build a stronger bond in whatever form that may be. There is no one solution or answer as to what direction a relationship should take, and it should always be a two way communication to get there.
Partners, wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, all deserve to have their own space to breath and be themselves. Yes, things can get heated and things said in the moment. Yes, it may get acrimonious and contentious. Yes, bad things could happen. This is why it is crucial things are aired in the light of day, to minimise the carnage and find a solution that works for both parties. Sometimes relationship continue and a stronger bond is forged, other times it sunders and both parties walk away. There is no right or wrong, just what works for the people within the relationship. Everyone outside the relationship will offer advice and have opinions, but ultimately only those within its bounds know what is right for them in the present, and with communication will work through what is best for them on an ongoing basis. Just like any other relationship.
Perfection is overrated, for it sets everything up on too high a mountain. No, relationships are grounded in the practical reality of the lived experience, and those within need effective communication to build that working relationship. Yes, I have shorn away love, but ultimately love can only get you so far. You need to cherish, understand, appreciate, and respect your partner, be honest and kind, both to them and to yourself. Coming out puts all of that to the test, and by allowing each other dignity to be themselves, the best outcome can be achieved.