In honor of the publication of Transgress Press’ Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge, & Resistance, I’ve done a few interviews with partners whose words appear in this book.
The first of these is with Dan, whose wife transitioned to male.
1.What didn’t you write about in your narrative but wish you had?
I didn’t write about sex. Make that S-E-X sex. It is a hard subject for me and for most people, I suppose. I have learned that, despite the widely held view that transgender people are, by and large, some sort of sex pervert, it seems that transitioning and post-transition folks are often asexual. It is understandable in that for many trans people, their sex organs–and in the case of trans men, their breasts–are hated reminders of their lifelong “wrong body” predicament. Still, I was not at all prepared for my partner to tell me, shortly after beginning transition, that he had lost interest in sex.
I am 69 years old as of this writing and Rob is 13 years behind me. We’ve been together, sexually, for about 35 years. We had always had a very satisfying love life, and the loss-of-interest announcement came so closely on the heels of transition that I naturally think of the two incidents as being related. Rob had been peri-menopausal for a few years before starting on “T,” and that immediately cut off the supply of estrogen and brought on full-scale menopause. It is not unusual for women to find their sex drive diminishing with menopause, but this was an abrupt and dramatic change.
For the first few years I struggled hard with this. We didn’t talk much about it, partly because I didn’t want him to feel guilty or pressured or any such thing, but I am a sexual guy. I thought about raising the possibility of opening our relationship, but discarded that idea quickly. Early in our marriage we had some experiences with sharing a third-party lover, but we gave that up as something that was simply not our style. Of course, I considered the possibility of an affair, but we have a trust-based, monogamous relationship and I would never jeopardize that, nor do I think for a moment that Rob would ever tolerate that. Neither could I, for that matter.
A couple years ago, Rob indicated that he was interested in re-establishing our sex life, but by that time we also found that he had developed one of those other post-menopausal bugbears: dryness and some pretty serious pain with intercourse. At the same time, whatever prowess I might once of had was mostly in my memories. I had hip replacement surgery when I was 60 and again three years later. The pain and mobility problems leading up to and recovering from those certainly reduced my skills and stamina for being a very energetic lover. These days I think Robin is more ready and willing to get it on than I am, not because I don’t want to or don’t find him attractive, but largely because we’re just way out of practice and, truth be told, we’re just not as young as we were when this all started.
2.What is the biggest misunderstanding you confront as a partner to a trans person?
Probably the most common misunderstanding is that I am a gay man. That does not bother me in the slightest, but I think it does confuse some women when I (innocently) flirt with them or if they just pick up the sort of sex vibes that healthy people generate in appropriate company. What is more bothersome to me is that I think some people act as though they feel sorry for me, as though I have suffered a horrible twist of fate that I am dealing with bravely and with considerable forbearing. That is simply not the case, and it’s an ignorant affront to both my partner and myself. It is one that comes from the assumption that being trans is an illness or a perversion, and that no right-minded person would remain with a trans partner except through pity or weakness.
3.Where do you get your support?
I am fortunate in that I can usually talk freely about any gender-related issues with my spouse. Having a wonderful therapist was a also big help. That said, I depended early in the transition and pre-transition on online support groups for partners such as TransFamilySpouses and your own group EnGender Partners. I also joined the ElderTG (over 50) online group early on to find answers to questions about what we should expect as an aging trans couple. What, for instance, would should we expect from a trans man’s longterm use of testosterone treatments? As it happens, that group, which is mostly MtF trans people also welcomes SOs. It’s a good group of folks, and they listen to my perspectives and I have learned from theirs. I am now co-moderator of that list.
4.How has your experience been in bringing up your own difficulties with the trans person you’re partnered to?
From what I have learned listening to the stories of other partners is that I’ve been relatively lucky in that department. That is partly because Rob and I were already several years into couples’ counseling before the trans issue came up. We had already worked out many of the normal “bumps” that exist in a relationship. We had both come to understand how important honesty, open communication, and a lot of trust are in a marriage.
Still, we had some sticky situations. Like most trans folks I’ve met over these last eight or nine years, my sweetie seemed to think that gender- or sex-changing should not be a big deal. To Rob, it was simply like a change in hairstyle or clothing that should make no big difference. Why, then, I would ask, are so many trans folks so desperate to transition—often to the point of being suicidal—if that transition is really no big deal? It’s a bit of cognitive dissonance that I think trans folks are blind to, or more likely, in denial about.
Many trans people seem to think they will be the “same person” after transition as they were before. If that is so, then why bother? I do believe that the changes in my own spouse have been fairly minimal. There is no doubt that he is, at the core, the same person she was. But our interactions with our lovers are not all “at the core.” We relate daily to a person’s emotions, their modes of expression, their body language, their projected sense of self and whatever masks they place between that self and others. And in some aspects of our relationships, such as when we are alone and naked in bed, we are often interacting with much shallower portions of our being. Our bodies count as much as our souls. To paraphrase a favorite author of mine on the subject: he’s not the woman I married.
I feel we can talk now pretty freely about the impacts of transitioning, but I did not feel that way during the first couple of years after he came out to me. Some of that may have been my own fears or hangups, of course, but I strongly felt as though he just couldn’t hear me. Even today I think it gets on Rob’s nerves to think that I still participate in support groups. I think his response is that partners, and perhaps society at large, just make too big an issue out of if. Even so, Robin has always been willing to respect my feelings and to honor my needs in our relationship, and that is a big reason why we are still together.
5.Do you think you would partner with other kinds of trans people? That is, if you are partnered to someone feminine spectrum, would you date someone who is masculine spectrum? If they’re binary, someone genderqueer?
I have long thought of myself as gender fluid and bisexual, but clearly more readily attracted to women. What’s more, I have come to the conclusion that I could love and marry a man if he were the right man. I am attracted to manly women, men with a feminine side, and, especially, people who do not appear or act strongly gendered one way or another. Long before Rob’s transition became an issue, we often discussed our attractions to folks of either sex, and we understood that gender roles have very little role in our relationship.
6.Why do you think there are so few cis men partners of trans people, or who are willing to be partnered to someone trans, who are also willing to be public about it, AND who are willing to talk about their experiences?
Helen, boys will be boys, except in the cases of the people in our lives for whom, like Lola, “boys will be girls and girls will be boys” (or “bois,” or “guys,” or “trans-masculines”). In a word, it’s homophobia. Isn’t it bizarre that the public seems to have a view of trans women as all being sex workers catering to “straight” guys, but just try to find guys who want to date, court, or marry a trans woman. They exist, but, as you note, they are few and far between.
Finding cis-men partnered with trans men is even more rare. I have met or heard of only two besides myself. Trans men are nearly always seen as emerging from the lesbian community. Once upon a time, all trans women were viewed as gay men, and yet you know as well as I do that a very large proportion of trans women are primarily attracted to other women. Why would it be different for trans men? I do believe that men attracted to and partnered with other men is still so socially taboo that only out-of-the-closet gay and bi guys are willing to acknowledge, even to themselves, that they can love and make love with another man. That bias, that homophobia, effects trans men just as it does cis men. If we could wave a wand and remove millennia of hatred (and it is hatred, not a phobia) of men-loving-men, I believe we would suddenly find ourselves in a crowd of cis-men partnering up with trans men and trans women.