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13 December 2010, 1:00 pm 26 Comments

Terms and Conditions: When A Cis Woman Dates A Trans Man

This post was submitted by Rachel

A girlfriend in her natural habitat.

Maureen’s post about living a double life (queer by day, straight-assumed by night) and Sylvia Renee’s question “how have you navigated the minefield of interpersonal gender?” got me thinking about my own relationship with gender and the closet. Namely, I’m not in the closet and don’t want to be, but these days it’s oddly hard for me to avoid — not because I face bigoted parents or discrimination at work; nothing like that. The problem, such as it is, is that I’m a cisgender girl dating a transgender boy.

Clearly my problem is a rather minor one, particularly compared to those my person and other transpeople face daily. But it does present an awkward situation I haven’t yet untangled. It comes down to the intractable issue of Titles. What do we call each other? The paucity of terms is a problem lots of couples of all gender combinations face. An older unmarried straight couple I know lament that their options are limited to the sexless “partner” and the geriatric “companion.” But for queer people it can feel like a choice between being in the closet or out.

The gender-neutral options look bleak. Even if “partner” weren’t too marital for my taste, it calls to mind lawyers and business partners. (Google-image “partner” and you’ll find a slew of stock images of suit-jacketed arms shaking hands.) “Special friend” is too revolting to merit further discussion. “Significant other” isn’t the worst, but it doesn’t really have a place outside advice columns. It’s a little stilted for dropping into conversation: “Oh, I’m just having dinner with my significant other.”

Boyfriend and girlfriend would be simplest, of course, but neither of us is crazy about being a boyfriend or girlfriend, respectively. We’re both committed to having a queer relationship; that is, one we make from scratch, considering our individual desires and needs, rather than what I think of as ticky-tacky relationships: they all look just the same.

BF and GF (especially GF) feel, as my person points out, prescriptive. Visions of Rory Gilmore dance in my head. And with all gender-specific terms (beau? lover boy? gentleman caller?) there’s the invisibility problem. I casually mention my boyfriend and suddenly I’m straight. Is that so terrible? Well, it makes me feel like I’m hiding my queerness — like I’m retreating into the closet. Even someone who meets me in a queer context might well assume from that word that I’m in a straight relationship. The people I meet in the rest of my life almost certainly will. “Boyfriend” and its ilk also elide part of his identity. He wants people to respect his gender (by using the right pronouns and so forth), but his ultimate goal isn’t for everyone to think he’s a cis boy. For many of the same reasons I want to be recognized as queer, to know that my identity and experiences aren’t buried beneath a heap of assumptions, he usually wants to be recognized as genderqueer. But it feels absurd—and absurdly insistent on my queerness—to talk about “my trans boyfriend,” or “my boyfriend, who’s trans,” or whatever other cumbersome construction I could invent.

I find myself avoiding mentioning him to people who don’t know the whole story, simply because I don’t know what to call him. I speak cryptically to avoid choosing a title. Once I begged off drinks with my coworkers because I was “meeting someone.” It was fine the first time I said it, but it sounded more and more evasive as I had to repeat it. Who was this “someone,” my colleagues’ looks demanded, and why was I being so fishy about him or her?

Privately, as you’ve probably gathered, he’s my “person,” and I’m his. The word feels good—malleable, comfortable. I use it here because I have the rare opportunity to explain myself. Would it were so simple with the rest of the world. Think there’s a chance in hell I can introduce the term casually, like it’s already in circulation and you’re just not hip enough to have heard it yet? I fear this could only end like “fetch,” with Regina George screaming at me, “Stop trying to make ‘person’ happen! It’s not going to happen!”

So, what do you think?

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  • Erin said:

    I like “special friend” :)

  • Reader said:

    Hi Rachael,

    “But it feels absurd—and absurdly insistent on my queerness—to talk about “my trans boyfriend,” or “my boyfriend, who’s trans,” or whatever other cumbersome construction I could invent”.

    Get over yourself. If he [why say "he" if the goal is not to be identified through language] does not desire an identification as who, who is…then go there–for example, Hi. This is Y and X, my Z-friend. Say hi, Z!

    I am sure in this economy and Great Depression, your boss and co-workers are just going to enjoy the uncertainty factor going on here.

    Or, just say lover each time.

    Or…just get over yourself about it and enjoy the relating.

    p.s. Even you dump the wording BF/GF, your co-workers, friends will decide for you, even you do not desire them to do this. However, keeping them is up to you.

  • Mimi said:

    In my [queer] circles, the term “sweetie” is often used. Like, I’m meeting up for drinks with my sweetie. Another thing you can say is “date.” I’m meeting up for drinks with my date. Throwing the possessive “my” in there sends a message that it’s a little more serious than a first date or second date, but not as weighty as “partner” The combined “dating partner” is just a little to technical, I’m guessing, for your tastes.

    I really like the term “my person” and would encourage you to try using it in casual conversation, at least once, to see how it feels, and to see how the listener reacts.

    But all of these words are just ways to get around identifying a gender of your sweetie/ date/ person. What I’m hearing from you is a real tension around the question of what to say when you are mentioning your sweetie, and you want to show that you are queer.

    Here’s my question for you: Do you want to “out” your sweetie, or do you want to “out” yourself, or both? Because saying that you’re meeting up with your “trans boyfriend” most clearly outs your sweetie, but it does not as clearly out you, which seems like something you sometimes want to do. Can you find other ways to communicate to your friends and coworkers that you are queer, and that you are in a queer relationship? Are there things that you can share about yourself with them that help you to make yourself seen for who you are and where you’ve been?

    It’s certainly important to have that go-to word to drop when you want to tell a quick story about dinner last night with your steady date. And it’s also important to show that you are you, and that you don’t want people making assumptions about you based on what they think your relationship is. It seems to me that these two issues might be best addressed separately.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  • sarah said:

    Check out t-mates on youtube. It’s a great online community where people discuss this and many other issues about being a mate of a transperson. One of my very close friends had a personal identity crisis about this exact question. Tons of great resources out there. But as far as what to call each other, that’s up to you.
    good luck.

  • Spencer said:

    my comrades and I say “esso” like “ess-o” short for “significant other”

  • Warren said:

    I agree with Sarah– check out TMatesFTM on youtube.

    The problem you’re having is no different than what bisexuals experience when they date someone of the opposite sex. If your trans boyfriend was born with a penis, would that make your relationship any less queer? Many transguys are super heteronormative. Why you feel the need to let everybody know immediately that he has a vagina, is beyond me. If you want people to know you’re queer, talk about queer issues and how they relate to your life. If you’re SO really doesn’t like being called boyfriend, just call him by his name. I rarely refer to my husband or boyfriends by these words since the poly stuff confuses people. I use their names and the people around me gather other information via context. Have you seen Breakfast with Scot? A gay couple take in a 10 year old boy, Scot, and the school secretary wants to know who Sam is in relation to Eric and since his reply is “let’s just use his name” she ends up referring to them as “Your Sam” and “Your Eric.”

  • Another TransGuy said:

    Thanks for sharing your side of it. Don’t let people like “Reader” get to you. Trans-relationships are not as black and white as cis relationships, and not all transpeople are trying to fit into some cis mold of how it ‘should’ be.

    It’s extreeeeeeemely difficult to try to maintain your queer visibility in a trans, het, relationship. I applaud your efforts in trying!

    My girlfriend and I have had this conversation many many times. Thank you again for sharing your perspective.

  • Alex said:

    I’m in a 12 year relationship with a cisgendered female. Both of us identify as queer and I am pretty open about my history. I identify as a genderqueer transman. I’ve medically transitioned, but tend to be fluid in my gender expression. Even so, people don’t generally to know that I am trans unless I say something

    That said, titles are always an issue around people who don’t know us well. I tend to alternate between “partner” and “wife,” depending on who I’m talking to. If I am in a situation that feels safe to be out (or I am trying to out myself), I will use “partner.” People then assume my partner is male (they often assume I’m a gay man even before I say anything about a partner) and I say, “No, SHE….” In situations where it doesn’t feel safe to be out, I will just say wife and leave it at that. But those occasions are fairly rare.

    Language can be very limiting, sometimes. I often tell people that it’s easier for me to explain what I am *not* than what I *am.* But until “This is my non-heterosexual wife” makes sense, to people, I’ll keep switching it up :)

    Good luck!

  • LeAnn said:

    “Hi, I’m Rachel and I’m Queer. This is my spouse, Pat, and he/she is Queer, too.” Oh, wait, you’re just dating. That won’t work.

    I’ve read all of this twice, including the links and comments, this isn’t the first time I’ve read similar stuff, and I agree that the language doesn’t tell everything, no matter how you slice it.

    What often puzzles me is how much people want to tell me about their sex lives and gender history, when I haven’t asked. If they matter, we find out a good bit about each other as we go along, and if they don’t matter, that stuff, along with the rest of their lives, remains unknown to me.

    Unless you’re looking to hook up with other women in addition to your transman. But even then, it’s not that hard to get that across!

    “I prefer the company of other women” is about as far as I have to go, usually with men, before everything that’s important is clear. Not that all men take No for an answer, but they at least hear it.

    I know far more about my friends and their sex lives that I’d care to, and I’m really curious why people go to such lengths to make clear what they’re not — and that’s what you’re really doing, shaking off assumptions, isn’t it???

  • Levi said:

    To quote LeAnn:
    “What often puzzles me is how much people want to tell me about their sex lives and gender history, when I haven’t asked. If they matter, we find out a good bit about each other as we go along, and if they don’t matter, that stuff, along with the rest of their lives, remains unknown to me.”

    To quote Warren:
    “Why you feel the need to let everybody know immediately that he has a vagina, is beyond me. If you want people to know you’re queer, talk about queer issues and how they relate to your life.”

    Exactly. And have you even considered the fact that you’re basically trying to out him to everyone before they even get a chance to meet him just because you don’t want to be seen as a straight girl?
    Revealing someone to be trans isn’t exactly the same as revealing one’s sexual orientation.

  • Alex said:

    Um, since when is outing yourself as queer telling people about your sex life?

    “If you want people to know you’re queer, talk about queer issues and how they relate to your life.”

    Well, isn’t that exactly what visibly queer people do all the time? The catch is that they don’t need some disclaimer when referring to their partner/boyfriend/etc.

    If I didn’t want people to know I was trans, I wouldn’t be ok with my partner outing herself in that way. So I am assuming that Rachel and her partner/boyfriend/insert-label-here have discussed this visibility issue and are trying to figure out language that works for them.

    I’m wondering if many of the comments on this post are coming from people who are not trans/in a relationship with someone who is trans and do not identify as queer? Because I can tell you that being in queer space feels like a minefield sometimes. If my partner flat out says that I am trans, you’re wondering why the hell she’s telling you about her “sex life” or my “gender history” or that her partner “has a vagina.” (And yay for assuming that the transmasculine partner has a vagina.) If she doesn’t say anything, she gets comments like, “Is there a reason you can’t go to one of the bazillion straight bars in this city?”

    We shouldn’t need tattoos on our foreheads or to wear special tshirts declaring our gender/orientation/etc. to be in queer space, but that’s essentially what we’re asked to do.

  • LeAnn said:

    Not exactly, Alex.

    I wonder why people tell ME so much about themselves, including the above, when I haven’t asked. And I wonder why it’s so important to Rachel that everyone know she’s queer, whether that means she identifies as lesbian, bisexual, male, female — or doesn’t like any of the categories that those terms imply (or the cultural expectations that go with them).

    I know a bunch of trans and genderqueer people, and we get along fine, once everybody’s clear that the limits are linguistic, and not some biological essentialism.

    I have a very dear friend who identifies as neither male nor female, and we occasionally talk about terms like hir, and my problems even remembering them. But mostly we talk about our lives, our thoughts, our ideas, our dreams, things that friends discuss. And there was a time when I didn’t know that hir was not either/or, but we cleared that up when it became clear to both of us that we mattered to one another, and we went on from there.

    I really am wondering, and would like to know more. But the subject is not new to me, and I am not without some experience accepting people as they are, not necessarily as they present. And I don’t bite, at least not too hard.

    So, for Rachel and each of us, how much is a struggle with the limits of language, and what other factors are also in play here? I’m old, but not too old to learn a few tricks.

  • Sylvia Renee said:

    Like I said. Minefield. Person is pretty good though.

    I have always found it slightly unappealing that most words that convey adult relationships(that is at least outside of kink communities) can have connotations of ownership – my X. Even if they are not intended that way. Could just as well be saying my toaster or my sexbot. For the longest time in my relationships we would just use names, not knowing how to label ourselves. We even tried the whole ‘non-label’ label for a while but eventually social conventions demanded that there be a word for the blank.

    As others have pointed out, it is a uniquely U.S. thing to feel the need to apply so many labels to interactions. At the same time, it is also a very cultural condition to assume that those labels can just as easily be erased or ignored.

    Well that settles it. Tattoos for everyone.

  • LeAnn said:

    Sorry, but ix-nay on the tat-nay.

    My mom, my dad, my brother, my friend, my partner, my spouse, my daughter. All manage to convey that there is some relationship between me and another, without implying ownership, and in some cases they convey much more.

    Yes, there are some linguistic problems with habits of language that account only for males, females, and male-female pairs. But people have been working out the details of their own relationships thru personal interactions for a long time. And wondering what’s going on with other people, while they’re at it.

    Plato had a bunch to say about the necessity of categories (the Forms), but my grandmother had three words of advice for situations where others try to put me in a box that doesn’t fit. “Don’t let them!”

    Of course, she had an assertive nature, and an appreciation for individual differences that I have inherited, and sometimes expressed as “I like you, you’re weird.”

  • Elaine said:

    I’m still married to the woman I joined 29 years ago, and six years after I had SRS. I routinely refer to her as “my better half.”

  • Ms. Pants said:

    I am friends with a cis-gal who has been with her trans-man for years and years. I remember her going through the “what do I call him?” issues as well; I don’t think it’s an uncommon issue. I’d probably use “sweetie” or “better half” more often than not.

    I also like “my person” but why not just name your sweetums instead? Like, “this is My Chris” and “this is My Rachel.” That would get the point across, as far as I’m concerned.

  • LeAnn said:

    Is Rachel trying to find a way to avoid masculine pronouns and a find term something like “boyfriend” while simultaneously saying “…but he’s not a real man, just a transman, and I’m still a lesbian?”

    It’s an old problem: if I like Y, what does that make me? Does this mean I can no longer claim to belong to my L/Q group — do I have to scrap my identity, or assert it all the more, so that I can keep it?

  • Alyssa said:

    I am so happy for you, Rachel, and wish both of you all the help and joy you deserve.

    This is a much bigger issue than most of us can even look at. I am trans woman whose relationships are with women. I hate labels and love the words you are finding between each other. It’s lucky for me to love women, who are much less afraid to be found out queer in a relationship. For many of my trans women friends who like men, and particularly for those who will never be able to always “pass” (that is a dirty word to me) for who they are, it is almost impossible to find a man confident enough in himself to have a true and open relationship. It would be wonderful for the whole trans community to better be able to help these men, but we are too beleaguered on our own.

    I am gladdened to hear about how well you are working things out and all of my best wishes to you.

  • yeah no said:

    Yes, many queer women go through difficulties when they enter straight relationships. I’m sure you could find support with others in your situation.

    Your title doesn’t make any sense, though. “When a cis woman dates a trans man”, most of the time, it goes unnoticed because she’s dated men before.

  • Lily said:

    I am genderqueer but female-bodied and present as female most of the time out of convenience, and my two polyamorous partners are cis males, so we look really hetero but consider ourselves quite queer. We came up with the term “personfriend” to refer to me. I like being a personfriend, my partners find it easy to use, and everyone thinks it’s clear & cute… I’m glad someone else is using it, and here’s hoping it does “happen!”

  • Betsy said:

    I use person all the time! It’s particularly nice when talking about other people’s romantic situations, as it lacks assumptions and often makes people smile, and it’s sort of a subtle way of feeling like I’m keeping my queerness. I love it!

  • Michael said:

    I wrote a piece earlier about a similar quandary involving wedding rings, and whether I’ll lose part of my queer visibility if I start wearing one:


    The issues are the same: How, despite first appearances, can we maintain a strong queer identity in our hetero-normative relationships?

  • Kian said:

    I don’t understand why you have a problem with people thinking that you’re straight. You’re a cis woman dating a man – a hetero relationship. Sure, it doesn’t mean that you’re not queer, that’s not what I’m trying to say, but it sure sounds like even looking straight is a problem. Queer visibility is important, but it shouldn’t be the most important thing that queers can do politically.

    Just as there are many queers who pass for straight, there are many straights who get taken as queer. You can’t control how others see you most of the time, but you can be honest and open when someone asks about your life. The closet is for people who can’t be open and honest for myriad reasons. It doesn’t seem like you’re trying to hide who you are, so I’m pretty sure you aren’t going into the closet. It’s more like you’re having to adjust to how others see you now, and as a trans man myself, I have to say this is one of the most difficult parts of transitioning. So in a sense, you’re transitioning too. People start to treat you differently and it’s kind of a mind f**k. And especially since you’re going from appearing queer to appearing straight, you’re going to be treated better, much much better. I remember those moments when I realized how much more seriously I was being taken just because I was being seen as male – it blew my mind. There I was, saying the same things, being the same me, but the way people responded was drastically different. Anyway, just keep being yourself and being open – there’s no reason to feel guilty for not being so visibly queer, if that’s what you’re feeling.

    As for what to call each other, just call him by his name. If you keep talking about him all the time (which is going to happen because you are partnered with him and you’re open about it), I think people will pick up the hint. That said, I don’t think you need to explain yourself or your relationship to anyone or put a label on it.

  • aluminum said:

    spencer — “esso” sounds like it would be pronounced like “eso”, spanish for “that”, which … makes me want to adopt it, actually, i like the pun.

    OP — i have to admit i mostly wanted to comment because this made me think of an amanda palmer song (“‘significant other’?/just say we were lovers!”). now that i think about it, though, i can has similar pronoun game. (er. sorry to anyone here who a] doesn’t like lolspeak or b] doesn’t like lack of caps. at least i can blame the latter on that i’d normally adopt them for formal correspondence but it is midnight and my hands hurt, whee.)

    …this is going to need a flowchart, isn’t it…

    okay. i am a [insert term for when i actually figure it out, which is not so far. er. yeah. that's annoying. female-bodied, anyway] who has a girlfriend. “girlfriend” = result of sheepish question at the end of our “mutual declaration of thing” (“s-so can i call you my girlfriend?” “OF COURSE, YOU FOOL”, basically).

    said girlfriend is genderqueer, and i, as above, am oh-good-god-i-don’t-even, increasingly more so as i try to figure it out (whoo, teenagerdom!).

    mostly i only think about this at length when i’m being amused at the degree to which i can play pronoun games — seeing as the most common questions i get at my school fall into the simplistic twin categories of “do you have a boyfriend?” and then “are you a lesbian?”, so i can dodge both — but now i’m actually thinking about it.

    i have a feeling that as soon as i don’t have to actively hide that i’m in a relationship in the first place this is going to get complicated. so. er.

    i do like “my person”, though. would fit in with what i already have (habit of referring to a boy i am friends with as “my boy” or the group i am in in my school as “my boys”; parents and parental figures being “my grownups”; aforementioned girlfriend “my [eir name]” — can you tell i like possessive language?)…

    *yoinks term!*

  • Andrea said:

    As a transwoman, I would think that how you refer to your partner is up first of all to him, and then depends on what you are comfortable with as a couple.

    On the other hand, I can’t help myself but to be troubled by the author’s referral to some relationships as “ticky-tacky”. I can’t imagine that it would ever be my place to devalue another person’s relationship like that based solely on superficial externalities. Certainly, because I am trans and still with the person that I was with before I transitioned, my relationship has in many ways been built from scratch, and has been in some ways a long and difficult, and extremely wonderful road. On the outside, we probably appear quite normal (besides being a lesbian relationship). But struggling together to build something special is indicative of relationships in general, and not just of queer ones. I know that I would be deeply offended if anyone ever tried to place such judgments on me or my relationship.

  • Laura said:

    When I first read your blog, I was applauding you, but then I got to the comment that said “You’re basically trying to out him, so you don’t sound like a straight girl.” And I thought, well, what’s wrong with being a straight girl? Or more to the point, what’s wrong with people thinking you are a straight girl? Is that somehow too passe? Too boring? To conformative? Well that ain’t fair! Now you’re just reversing the discrimination! Why not just be who you are, which, it appears, is both cis and mostly hetero! And people who want to know you will find out the rest over time.
    For the record, I’m a cis straight girl, and proud of it. And I’m a supporter of LGBT rights, and of my own cis-sister and her trans-man husband, and their genetically complicated brood of kids!