Tag Archives: Lesbian/ Transman Relationship

How am I different from you?

How am I different from you?

This is a question Robin, my transitioning partner, is asked over and over by lesbian friends who identify as women, but have some experiences that echo his own. It is also a question we ask of each other, as our lesbian and transgender experiences have sometimes merged, and sometimes diverged. The points of similarity make a mockery of any binary, either/or notions. He may be happier as a “he” whilst I balance precariously as a genderqueer “they”, but our experiences align way more than they diverge.

A lot of lesbians have some elements of gender dysphoria – “I thought I was a boy when I was a child”, “I feel sick at the idea of wearing a dress”, “I hate my breasts and if I had to have them removed I would be glad” . . . but often the conclusion to any of these statements is, “but I still consider myself to be a woman”.

Recently, we were faced with the challenge of exploring why Robin is “more of a man” than a butch identifying lesbian friend. The conclusion we came to is that Robin, who has never been particularly “butch” himself is not “more of a man”, or at least he is not more masculine than this particular friend; if you were to imagine an over-simplified, linear scale from masculine to feminine, Robin would be somewhere near the middle, a little to the masculine of centre, and this friend would happily admit to being all the way over on the male side. In fact, it was clear that the extent of this friend’s masculinity is such that she does not need to alter herself whatsoever to be read as male in the ways that count for her, no matter what pronouns she uses. Her lived reality is congruent and makes sense, and she does not experience that painful dissonance between how she feels and how she is experienced.

This friend has experienced what many would call gender dysphoria, and has found a way to manage it that works for her. Fortunately, this friend is still open-minded enough to admit that how she experiences herself is related to her gender and not her sexuality. She also says that had her body, face and voice been less androgynous, she might well have needed to transition.

The implication of this is not that Robin’s claim on the terms “man” or male” is tenuous, but that there are many, many people with an equally valid claim that will not need to transition. For some, the risks, stigma and isolation associated with transition might outweigh the benefits. For some, living as a lesbian is as much a matter of gender as it is of sexuality, and identifying as a lesbian is more comfortable and (sadly) more socially acceptable than identifying as transgender. Equally depressingly, some lesbians would even say that it is more morally acceptable to be a lesbian than to be transgender.

But what if it is ok to be either a lesbian or a trans man, or even to identify as lesbian and trans, and that the two things are connected, inter-related – not in a clunky “lesbians are confused trans men/ trans men are confused lesbians” way, but in a complex way, in that many lesbians are gender variant and gender dysphoric and for some this is so strong transitioning may be the most helpful thing to them in leading a fulfilled and happy life. Maybe some gender dysphoric lesbians have even found other ways of transitioning, keeping hold of their pronouns and their community, their medical needs perhaps not being quite as profound. And of course, there are also lesbians who take hormones and have surgery in secret, afraid of their community’s or society’s rejection.

What a different world it would be if we saw being transgender as a continuum rather than an either/or. Have we created another binary within a binary, where cis/trans has become as much of a dichotomy as man/woman? The reality is so much greyer than this, the borders we have created between man and woman, cis and trans, gay and straight are artificial, socially constructed barriers that many of us straddle in complicated ways. I sincerely believe the transgender community is a lot bigger than we realise, or at least that its boundaries are impossible to locate.

If transgender is what you are, rather than a process you go through, there are possibly many, many more transgender people in the world than will ever transition or identify as such. Medical transition may be a necessary and appropriate response to gender variance and dysphoria for some but not for others – but do we really need to argue about who is more valid, or could we not accept that people ultimately do what is right for them, and in doing what is right for them, their happiness will inflict less wounds on the people around them. In which case the act of transitioning or choosing not to transition does not mark us apart in any fundamental way, and we are all, perhaps, still members of the same community, with more in common than we have separating us.

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This is about authenticity, not privilege

In the past year both my partner and I came out as transgender. He is transitioning, I’m not, but we’re both not so very far from each other in the gender multiverse. Somewhere in the “in-between” leaning towards maleness, but not all the way over. Even if he’s a he and I’m a they, even if I keep bits he doesn’t want, even if he gets bits I don’t want, this relationship is still effectively homo. Despite this we can feel our community slipping away from us, as people assume we’ve become a straight couple because they only believe in binaries, or as folks simply back away in shear incomprehension or disbelief.

Don’t get me wrong, we have many amazing, supportive friends. But I’m talking now about the wider community and the mainstream attitudes and practices within that community. For ten years I silenced myself over gender because the dominant lesbian narrative carefully constructs gender variance as an aspect of sexual orientation, and characterises being openly transgender as some sort of deluded cop-out.

Sometimes I too have my moments of “hey, have we just lost our minds???” but if so, why, in the face of all opposition, do I feel so grounded and so clear, like the only person in the theatre who has seen through a magic trick?

For many folks, though, this is way out of their reckoning, and deeply suspect. They have their own answers to what’s going on, the main one being that after a combined 40ish years of being lesbians and feminists, we just couldn’t hack it and want to acquire hetero and male privilege.

I never had a problem being out as a lesbian, but when I felt I needed to out myself as trans* at work, I cried every night for a week, agonising over whether I really needed to tell them or whether I should stay in the closet. They already knew my partner was transgender because I couldn’t very well hide the change of pronouns, but me too? That doesn’t fit so neatly; sounds a bit far-fetched. I know nobody’s going to be getting my pronouns right, I know few people will understand, so why should I bother sharing this intimate detail with the world?

Well, because I’m a counsellor and a writer and who I am and what I do pretty much relies on me being congruent and authentic. I can’t hide a huge part of who I am without becoming incongruent and false; the very opposite of what I need to be to do my work well.

The tears, in the end, were the agony of silence. When it was all out in the open, I felt ok, even if I knew I wasn’t always being fully understood. And now I’m out I can state with absolute certainty that saying you’re a lesbian is easier in any scenario than saying you’re transgender. Lesbians are 1 in 20, transgender folk are more like 1 in 1000 – and people just don’t get it.

What doesn’t fit someone’s experience or knowledge still attracts confident conclusions – conclusions about your mental health, about your not coping with being a lesbian or never having been a proper one, about what your sexuality really is, about your wanting to appear more “normal” or normative; your trying to gain privilege. They decide you’re trying to escape something or making drama or simply hell-bent on misery. Anything other than the simple reality that you went deeper into yourself and came nearer to the truth.

And then there are the members of your community who are involved in such deeply transphobic campaigning that your hands start to shake at the mention of their name. Others politely try to see both sides and remain neutral. They don’t really get how much the campaigning hurts or the damage it does. Suddenly you’re afraid to go to parties and gatherings and you realise the transphobes are more welcome in what you considered your own community than you are.

I’ve discovered the hard way that what I thought was an inclusive community is often just a bunch of people who want to hang out with folks as similar to them as possible, and in that respect they are really no more enlightened than a bunch of cis-het white dudes. Their cool extra weapon for marginalisation is attaching spurious privilege to you in any way they can, so they can feel righteous rather than guilty about shunning you. Or they simply say you should go hang out with other people like you.

But there aren’t too many out people like me, although I’m touched by the number of lesbian friends who have affirmed how my story resonates with their experience. There are even fewer out transmen. It’s lonely here, because for all I have good friends I really do fear I’m losing my community. Permaculture tells us growth happens on the margins, but still the margins are a precarious place to be.

I’m not going to pretend to be what I’m not in order to fit the mainstream lesbian narrative. I’m strong enough to stand apart, and I am indeed privileged to have the inner resources and the circle of support to do this. But it does hurt to be in a “community” that goes to such great lengths to organise groups and events that only cater for the majority, and leaves trans* people (among others) uncertain of their welcome or certain of their exclusion.

In my head I’m still a lesbian

When my partner came out as a trans* man, I had not expected so many eyes to be on me and my identity. I want to support my partner, I believe in him and I accept who he is . . . but wait, does this mean I now have to be redefined myself? Because I’m not quite sure I want any man (sorry dearest) to define who I am. Not that he’s asking me to, but other eyes are on me for sure.

The thing people don’t seem to get is that he hasn’t really changed. He’s always been a man, so why do I have to change now, just because he’s acknowledging it more openly? The reality is, the lesbian community is full of all kinds of genderqueerness and trans-masculinity, and it always has been. That’s why I feel comfortable here, and lesbian has been the word I’ve used to describe myself, a word that more or less comfortably fits me. If I was looking for a partner tomorrow, I would be looking in the lesbian community, and I would be continuing to fight to make this, my community, more trans-inclusive, queer friendly and acknowledging of the complexity of gender. Maybe lesbian is not the right word for me, but it’s been around me for a long time, like my own name, and it fits me in ways that are sometimes obvious and sometimes less so; it speaks to the kind of person I am, not just my relationship choices.

When my partner came out, we had to lay a lot of stuff on the line. It was painful. I had to make it pretty clear what I am and am not up for – I’m not prepared to pretend to be part of a straightforward cis heterosexual couple; I cannot squash my own queerness to assist in his passing. Hard as it was, I had to say I could not live stealth, and that he would have to face the fact that my queer presence in his life was always going to make it more difficult for him to pass. He did not ask me to do any of those things, but knowing what was ahead of us, it needed to be spelled out.

Last week we went to a straight wedding, and my partner wore a suit and tie – he looked so beautiful, so very comfortable in this second skin. I had pangs of guilt – maybe if I’d worn a dress, rather than trousers, jacket and a shirt, we would not have drawn attention. But as it was, we only drew good attention; we stood out, but we’re so happy and comfortable in our queerness it did not seem to matter, and people accepted his pronouns without a blink.

Thank heaven my partner chooses me along with the complication that go with my own queerness. He was very clear that for himself being stealth is not the way he wants to go. He’s also never identified with a differentiated “butch/femme” dynamic in his relationships, so why would he suddenly start now? Like me, my partner has always been attracted to genderqueer people, and the reality is there is no huge gap between his identity and mine; it’s not a simple binary – him over there in the boy camp and me over here in the girl camp. Our relationship will continue to be more homo than hetero.

And I can say all this and still be sure he’s a man. It’s me that’s the ambiguous variable in this equation, and there are no easy labels for me anymore.

I’m changing too, and realising my queerness has more to do with gender than sexuality, but I still feel gay – sometimes I feel like a lesbian, sometimes I feel more like a gay man. I can’t tolerate my queerness being invisibilised by people who think I became straight overnight, such as the person who emailed me saying I need to leave a lesbian group because of my partner’s transition, or the others who are saying that my partner is transitioning in order to conform to heteronormativity. Just because he and I now express different gender identities, we did not overnight become some epitome of straightforward, binary categorisation.

I remain lesbian-identified; if others want to describe me as bisexual or pansexual, I don’t object to those labels but they are not labels I chose for myself. And I cannot accept anybody trying to police my identity, any more than I accept people policing trans* identities.

I do fully accept that I am in a relationship with a man. I will not do anything to undermine my partner’s identity or suggest he’s any less of a man than other men. We don’t define ourselves in relation to each other; our identities stand on their own.