What is it like to be the partner of someone who is transgender?

GettyImages-530594532By Emma Young

The experiences of people who’ve been through a gender transition have been studied and analysed by psychologists – showing, for example, improved psychological wellbeing and self-esteem after hormone treatment. But when it comes to their partners, there’s been much less research. According to a new study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, though, they often go through a kind of life transition of their own, and while there are certainly challenges, there are often positive changes, too.

Lisa Platt at West Virginia University, US and Kayla Bolland at New Mexico State University conducted semi-structured interviews with 21 partners of transgender people – these partners were both female to male and male to female, plus there was a group that identified as gender neutral or fluid. The interviewees themselves were mostly not heterosexual, they lived in the US or Canada, and they included 13 cisgender women (women who’s gender identity matches their birth sex), 2 cisgender men, 4 transgender people, and 2 people with fluid or bi-gender identities.

Some of the interviewees had started their relationship after their transgender partner had transitioned; others were in their relationship before their partner had begun their transition process. Although there’s a common perception that relationships usually end when one member changes gender, this isn’t necessarily the case. For instance, in one recent study, about half of a group of transgender men who were in relationship before their transition kept up that relationship afterwards.

The interviews involved open-ended questions, such as “Discuss how your relationship has impacted your sexual orientation, if at all?”. Many of the participants reported practical safety concerns for their transgender partners, such as physical attacks from hostile members of the public. But there were concerns relating to their own psychological wellbeing, too. Most had previous connections in the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer) community, the researchers wrote, but as a partner of a transgender person, they felt excluded and marginalised.

For example, one woman whose partner had made a female to male transition (FTM) had previously identified as lesbian, but now identified as queer – a less-specific term for a non-straight sexual orientation. Many interviewees felt this better described their sexual orientation after their partner transitioned – they don’t feel straight, but not gay or lesbian any more, either. “Do we still fit in the lesbian community?” the woman asked, “it’s something we’re still trying to figure out.” Another interviewee, also a female partner of someone who had made the FTM  transition, said, “You do give up something as a partner because you’re all lesbians together and a lot of lesbians don’t like it when other lesbians transition. I don’t know why.”

One participant explained how she felt ignored. “Everything is always about trans people, trans people, trans people. And you know, partners are completely eclipsed – and our sexuality is completely eclipsed, and we have no voice in the community really.”

And yet, many reported undergoing major changes in their own lives. Physical changes to their partner meant changed sexual experiences, for example, and many reported questioning their own sexual orientation, or relabelling themselves (with the term queer, for instance). But some reported that this was a positive experience (“It’s definitely opened my eyes to helping me understand myself better and what I’m attracted to and not be putting myself in a box like I used to,” said one.) Some also talked about having a welcome, new understanding of the gender spectrum, and about how the need for more communication about what feels comfortable for both partners led to greater closeness and intimacy.

Overall, it’s important to remember, one interviewee stressed, “that as your partner transitions, what you’re going through is a transition of your own.”

Although this is a little-researched area, there are organisations that provide advice to partners of trans people:

Women of the Beaumont Society (WOBS), which supports female partners of trans people.

Relationship partners of transgender individuals, A qualitative exploration

Image:  A gender neutral sign is posted outside a bathroom at Oval Park Grill on May 11, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images).

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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