Jill Barkley is the former partner of an FTM, femme-identified, and the very cool person I got to co-host a ‘trans relationships’ forum with at TIC both last year and this. It’s a pleasure to get to post something written by her:
Chipped Red Nail Polish
I made plans for a manicure and femme processing session when my sleepy roommate stumbled into our living room and into my arms that morning as I was struggling to put on my coat to leave for work. I had returned very late the night before from Philadelphia, where I was a presenter at the Trans-Health Conference for two workshops â€“ one for partners of Transpeople and the other about Femme as a gender identity. The weekend before I had been at the Translating Identities Conference in Burlington doing much of the same work.
Looking at my hands as I drove across the bridge to work, I saw the remnants of stress in the chipping away of my red nail polish from each of my long fingernails. I felt the same stress in my shoulders, in the dull ache of my lower back and the pain shooting still through the balls of my feet as I climbed the stairs to my office.
My body looked and felt like I’d been climbing out of a cavern or scaling the side of a mountain or scrapping the colorful grips on the wall of a rock climbing gym.
This overall feeling of having pulled myself out of something is fitting for the last two weeks of intensity, overhaul and re-evaluation. I felt the opening of still recent wounds, the spreading out of bruises, the scars still pink and puffy. I had ended my relationship with my last partner, a Transman, in September, but decided to still attend these spring conferences and offer much needed partner and femme space to the other attendees through my workshops. As I sat at my desk, feeling the pain settle over my tired body, I wondered if it was all at my own expense.
On Friday after the partnerâ€™s workshop, I had let my body fall into a huge black cushioned chair, swinging my red high-heeled feet over the armrest. I was worn out from an hour and a half of similar stories, overlapping experiences, nods of understanding and sighs of shared hurts. These partner workshops always seemed like group therapy to me, similar to the support groups I ran for women surviving Domestic Violence in that everyone present always had an intense need for validation of their experiences, the desire to not feel so alone.
Iâ€™ve been asked countless times that if by holding these workshops or moderating my on-line community for partners of Trans-people Iâ€™m trying to suggest that relationships with someone who is Trans are somehow especially difficult. I think of the things that were most painful about my last relationship having little or nothing to do with the Trans-ness of my partner. However, the stories I’ll share and the experience I’ll reflect in my workshops is about his being Trans. I’ll talk about communication and preparing one’s heart for the changes to another’s body. Iâ€™ll speak to the importance of ‘securing your own oxygen mask before assisting others’ and finding partners who will let you safely vent without screaming accusations of Transphobia.
Any relationship is going to have its issues —not just relationships where one or both parties are Trans-identified. But there are definitely issues that are unique to a relationship of this kind and having a community of support is essential to working through the hard things and celebrating the common good.
When processing out loud about running partner’s workshops as someone who is no longer partnered with someone Trans, the words ‘I could be partnered to a Transman in the future’ slipped past my lips and anchored me in the truth of that statement.
Admittedly, I had joked that I might just walk into these workshops screaming ‘run’ to everyone seated in the circle. Looking at that sentence now, I know that isn’t funny and, actually, offensive. I think that unsolicited advice was coming from some kind of attempt at grounding myself in the reality of ‘what went wrong’ in my last relationship. Truthfully, what went wrong had nothing to do with gender identity, hormones or surgery.
I would have loved to have gone into things with my last partner a little more aware, much more supported and with somewhere to create some space for what I was going to experience in terms of being a non-Trans person partnered with someone Trans-identified.
When I had asked for advice about how to deal with any change on our horizon, I was given ways to support my partner and advice for how to prepare to do so. Looking back, there are ways I needed to be more prepared for how everything might affect me. Instead, I was encouraged to grab my pom-poms and become a â€˜perpetual cheerleaderâ€™, a â€˜super partnerâ€™, a brave smiling face. As if one could be so strong and unwavering at all times. There were things that were hard for me and too often, I felt like there was no space for my feelings in what was suddenly my new community.
Spending time with friends from Ann Arbor, Michigan at the conference made me long for having shared a town when we shared similar couplings. He is recently transitioning from F to M and she is a non-Trans woman. To have had someone close by to relate to around the issues I was encountering around my own partnerâ€™s transition would have felt so supportive. I would have loved to have someone else to talk to about feelings I didn’t necessarily need to go to my partner with first, a ‘pre-process’ if you will, to work out the delivery and shed light on the hopeful end result about bringing the given issue to the surface.
In my experience, I was almost six months into my relationship before I met other partners at a support group my partner and I attended. One sunny fall day, we drove in silence to the middle of Maine and walked toward people seated in chairs in a circle. When we broke off into a separate meeting for just partners, I remember sitting facing two lesbian identified women who were five and ten years, respectively, into their relationships with Transmen and still experiencing struggle from time to time. I talked for two hours non-stop that Sunday as they listened, nodded and even cried with me. I am still so grateful for the gift of understanding they offered me. I didnâ€™t know it could exist.
Since then, I’ve been in the trenches of all of this, struggling to understand, seeking validation, wanting desperately to feel not so alone. As I pull myself upward, I’m seeing the light above and trying to bring others along to bask in it.
Offering these workshops was cathartic – and not just for me, but for those who attended, I believe. It was good to be given gratitude and to feel it emitting right back at those who expressed it at the end of each session. I am convinced we all need that community â€“ for an hour and a half at a conference and continuing support once we find our way back home. It still remains invaluable to me and I donâ€™t see that changing anytime soon.
When asked if I would return to these conferences next spring, I easily answered yes. It is still work I want to do, still space I want to offer. Over the last two years, I have been lucky to have met so many strong partners who love fiercely and generously. I wish them the same love and loyalty in return.
Jill can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.