Note: This essay deals heavily with my transphobia/-misogyny and how I projected it onto my girlfriend earlier in our relationship. As of March 2, 2019, a second part has been added.
When my girlfriend first came out to me, we’d been dating for over two and a half years. She didn’t sit me down and tell me she was a trans woman and a lesbian. Instead, we’d been dancing around these facets of her identity for almost a year and were, at that point, finally getting around to openly acknowledging them.
About a year earlier, I’d had my suspicions that perhaps she was trans, so I asked her as much, and while she didn’t come right out and say that yes, she was, she didn’t say no either — likely to protect herself from a potentially negative reaction from me. However, her failure to respond with a firm “no” was all I needed to reject the possibility. I was happy with our relationship, and I didn’t want to lose it.
More specifically, I suddenly begrudged the idea of letting go of the cisgender, heterosexual mode of existing I’d evidently become so attached to, however passively. I became immediately agitated and told her I hadn’t agreed to date a girl. My response, in turn, forced her to insist that she was not actually trans as I had suggested. I effectively ended up guilt-tripping her back into the closet for the next year.
The ensuing weeks were filled with narcissistic anxiety on my part: when I considered the stories of trans women who’d been killed or hurt simply for openly being themselves, the idea of her transitioning felt out of the question. Beyond that, I preoccupied myself with how this new reality would affect my life. I wasn’t worried about how it would impact my friendships or — of course — my career, but I stumbled over what my parents and extended family might think of her, and, by extension, of me.
I’m not sharing my experience so much to indict my own character. Rather, I mean to highlight my failure to examine the transphobic beliefs I held and the ways they informed how I treated others — and in particular, the person I claim to love most and least of all upon condition of her gender identity — despite the fact that I previously considered myself supportive of trans and gender nonconforming folks.
Over several months, I came to realize that there was a massive divide between a good deal of the ethics I purported to live by and my modes of practicing them. I wasn’t all that different from the mod-lib Baby Boomers or Gen X folks I so often smugly criticized for what I considered their hypocrisy — those who would vote to advance the rights of TGNC folks just before turning around and saying, Not in my house, upon learning of a loved one’s trans or gender nonconforming identity.
My father followed this formula to a T, scoffing judgmentally at Danica Roem’s naysayers upon her election to the Virginia House of Delegates, only to frantically claim that he needed to “get away” from our family once he found out my partner was trans. But I am the guiltiest of them all: I’m supposed to be her primary source of compassion and support. Instead, when she came to me for those things, I completely shut her down.
I don’t feel like I am above the judgments I may or do receive from folks who have suffered due to prejudices wielded by “allies” like me. My girlfriend is not my educator, but I have learned so much by listening, observing, and reading throughout her transition. And over time, I’ve learned how damaging the kind of performative support I was engaging in can truly be.
In this case, in addition to a sense of legitimate security, it cost my partner her right to freely claim her identity in her own relationship for a full year.
Looking back, I legitimately cringe at the idea that I considered myself in any way supportive of TGNC people when in reality, I behaved as something of a monster toward my girlfriend.
Now, I do my best to show her that I better understand support is not a phenomenon that can run merely on lip service. I find myself more regularly asking myself, If the personal is political, what are my politics?
When I first had the inkling that my girlfriend was trans, my mind immediately shot to my family: I was sure I would lose them if I continued my relationship with my girlfriend. I became scared, and in turn, I made it clear just how powerful my prejudices were — how strong my commitment to gendered conditioning was. For that, I was so, so wrong. And for far too long.
My family didn’t exactly exit my life in droves as a result of my partner and I sharing the fact of her gender identity with them. However, our relationship and life together today is very different from what it was before she came out. We no longer associate with family members and friends who couldn’t get past their hangups (some made more explicit than others).
While I struggled with what felt to me a completely newfound isolation (particularly for the first year and a half, during which we were undergoing some other contributing major life changes), I never regretted cutting ties with folks who refused to open their minds for a person they claimed to care for. Ultimately, I held fast to the reminder that the folks we’d chosen to keep in our lives were folks that truly loved us for us.
I won’t lie and say I would have ever achieved the same appreciation of what it means to be trans-supportive if I hadn’t ended up in this relationship (or in a non-cishet-normative relationship in general). Sometimes, I suspect that I wouldn’t have.
Today, I still think about some of my old friends, and in some ways, I regard it as evidence of this theory. Several of them, who are cis and gay, accepted my girlfriend’s gender identity immediately. However, I use the term “accept” here loosely, as they often otherwise revealed their analogous hostility towards trans and GNC people.
In the time that has passed since my girlfriend came out, I have come to understand that my former friends are not unique, even within the context of the larger LGBTQ community. To be trans and/or gender nonconforming, from what I’ve seen, seems to often go hand-in-hand with being misunderstood by narrow-minded cisgender folks.
After I chose to see my girlfriend’s trans identity clearly, interactions wherein my cis gay friends expressed their trans-skepticism became impossible to not notice: for me, they forced me to look both through a window into my recent (and relevant) past and a mirror that reminded me that I wasn’t above them.
However, in seeing my damaging behavior reflected in the words and attitudes of these friends and certain LGB communities, I’ve come to another, more broad (and quite obvious) realization: romantic and/or physical intimacy is not a prerequisite for authentically supporting trans and gender conforming folks.
I feel immensely guilty that my girlfriend gave me as much time to come around as she did — that I put her in a position where that was an option for her. But I am so, so grateful to her for giving me that chance. Although I believe that I’m a good partner in many ways, I know that my having discouraged her from coming out makes me undeserving.
In the time since she has come out (for real, because I came around), I have learned so much , and my attitude is, I hope, much better when it comes to TGNC people. These days, when I see my now-rehabilitated perceptions being espoused by folks around me, I do my best to address them. I am disturbed by the fact that not too long ago, I espoused them as well, and worst of all, to the serious detriment of the person I love most.
In addressing similarly close-minded folks, I don’t express that I’ve ever thought the same way, mainly because I don’t want to offer up that kind of dangerous and needless commiseration. Still, I think the fact that I have thought that way helps in reaching them — sort of like attacking from within the belly of the beast.
Regrettably, I’ve learned firsthand just how functionally useless arms-length “allyship” is to the people it purports to “help.”
Updated March 2, 2019
When I first published this essay back in 2018, I’d initially written a call to action into the second half; specifically, it was meant to be a call to action for cis folks whose support of TGNC folks is, as mine was for so long, performative.
While I won’t include it here, I feel it is important to emphasize just how open-minded I mistakenly believed I was before I learned my girlfriend was trans. Unaware that I already was in one at the time, I claimed on more than one occasion that I’d be interested in a queer relationship if I wasn’t in what I thought was a cishet one. However, I’d arrogantly excluded the possibility of a non-cisnormative one.
Over the last two years, I have encountered a good many well-meaning cis people (queer and non, online and not) comfortably claiming from within their cisnormative (that is, approved, normalized, and often praised by mainstream society) partnerships that they are open to dating folks of all gender identities. And that is a lovely way to be.
However, I have also noticed that very little about these folks’ lives, including their relationships, support this claim.
I don’t meant to imply that a cis person isn’t queer if they or their relationship are recognized by society as a whole as “normative.” Rather, I mean to say that some folks who have spent their lives coddled by cisnormativity — because they are considered cisnormative by societal standards — might not fully realize what it means to be rejected by cisnormative society. I certainly didn’t (of course, I still don’t, but I hope you understand my meaning), and I suspect I’m not the only one.
This is why cis folks who claim to reject cisnormativity may repeatedly gravitate toward cis white partners. Toward partners who are not considered fat by mainstream society. This is why one of my close cis gay friends rolled his eyes at Sam Smith’s identification as “as much woman” as he is man.
To be cisnormative means to not subvert gender stereotypes. Many of these stereotypes are racist, anti-fat, and ableist. To not subvert them is to not offend those who uphold them.
Last year, my girlfriend and I went to a local bar when a thin, white, blond-haired person our age asked us for a cigarette. As we chatted, the person, who was very peppy, mentioned a dive bar near my hometown and was adamant that my girlfriend and I visit it.
Although I have a deep affection for where I grew up, I absolutely would not consider it trans-friendly and so would not feel comfortable going there to get drunk with my girlfriend at night, especially because its location is rather secluded.
“We’re queer,” I said awkwardly. (Note: I’m not sure now how I identify.) “Oh, same,” the person replied immediately and matter-of-factly.
Of course, the way one “looks” does not dictate a person’s gender. However, ignoring the fact that how others perceive one’s gender presentation may dictate how they treat one (and, often, whether one is able to be safe within their relationships and in public) is, in my opinion, not the way to go.
At the bar, I could tell the other patron couldn’t (or, more specifically, willfully wouldn’t) observe the difference between their own appearance and ours, and how that might impact our relative abilities to be safe in the same settings. (For the record, I am very fair-skinned, thin, and non-disabled. In the last couple of years I have only been harassed in a threatening manner online or when I’ve been out in public with my partner.)
Now, I do my best to be mindful of the fact that there is space for everyone’s identities to be recognized as equally valid. However, in working to create that space, we needn’t paint all non-cisnormative experiences with a broad brush. In fact, fostering such recognition requires quite the opposite. Finally, I understand that fact a little bit better.
This essay was selected by Medium Staff as recommended reading in LGBTQIA and Equality in March 2019.