Partner Needs Help

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Question

Dear Patrick: I am a young FTM (24) who has been on hormones for six months. I feel so lucky. Every day I notice changes that make me optimistic about being able to live the way that I really need to live. My parents are helping me to save money for top surgery. (I know, I am a very lucky guy!).

          Not only do I have a really cool “family of origin,” I also have a boyfriend I love a lot, who also loves me. But the situation is that he does not want to take hormones or get any surgery. On the outside, he looks like a very hot, young girl, so he is always getting approached by straight men who try to buy him gifts or drinks, spend money on him, etc., to get him into bed. He wants people to call him by his male name and use male pronouns, but he doesn't want to be seen as transgendered. As far as he is concerned, he was born male and is always male no matter what he looks like. So he doesn't want to explain this or answer any questions about it.

          When we are at home together, this works out just fine because I know what it is like to have your face or your body look different than your real self. The changes I am going through are making me really happy, but I feel like if I talk about this with my boyfriend, it upsets him. He often doesn't want to go out with me because he doesn't want to have to justify his identity. My friends understand (sort of), but some of them make pronoun mistakes and then my partner just wants to go home.

    What can I do to help him? I wish gender was not such a big deal but that's just not the world we live in. And the way that most people deal with gender is hurting him a lot. I sometimes feel frightened when I realize how sad and stressed out he is all of the time.--

Answer

While I applaud your altruism, you really need to be able to celebrate your own transition. You aren't doing anything wrong! Your partner has a right to make his own decisions about how to deal with his gender identity, but it isn't okay that you wind up feeling guilty about your own happiness. The stress you feel about his mental state is no picnic either. I hope you can find friends, support groups, or other resources where you can get positive reinforcement for going through transition. I think he needs a similar set of resources, albeit tailored to his own situation.

          I do understand that when you have an internal conviction of being male or female (or not having a gender), the way that you look in the mirror or the way that other people treat you are irrelevant. A person knows who they are. But gender is more than an individual experience. It is also a social one. The stupid general public will not reinforce an identity they cannot see. We are a visual species, for good or ill, so if we see certain cues like a body shape, facial contours, gestures, and the presence or absence of body hair, or if we hear the pitch of a voice, we draw a gender conclusion from that information. Your partner is not being realistic. In effect, he is saying, “I refuse to be happy until everybody else changes.” If your boyfriend continues to expect other people to automatically know he is male and ignore his female history, his social anxiety will only get worse.

          I have many friends who avoid medical interventions even though their gender identity does not agree with the sex they were assigned at birth. There are a lot of reasons for this. Some are afraid of side-effects such as cancer; others object to putting the medical establishment in charge of their personal lives. I hope that having a circle of friends who know who they are and reinforce that socially can keep them from being driven crazy by a world that repeatedly misunderstands their deepest truth. Your boyfriend needs more support than his partner, and this would take a lot of pressure off you, as well.

          Some readers may feel that your boyfriend should do other things to signal his maleness. If he doesn't want to take testosterone, for example, he could wear men's suits and shoes. Unfortunately, a masculine person who is also assumed to be female is most often identified as a lesbian. If you are not a butch lesbian, it's pretty painful to have people think this is who you are. There is also a threat of discrimination and even homophobic violence.

          The post-industrial West is in the throes of a gender revolution. More and more people are refusing to choose to be either male or female. Even more people who were assigned one sex at birth are realizing that they don't have to accept that designation if it makes them deeply unhappy because it is not authentic or truthful. Feminism has already radically altered the contours of what we understand to be male or manly and female or womanly. I hope we can continue to press for greater gender freedom, so that no one will presume to understand another person's identity or impose sanctions on them for not conforming to social standards we never agreed to follow.

          In the meantime, your boyfriend needs as much support as possible. And not all of that can come from you. A supportive partner is a wonderful thing. But it can be like your mom telling you that you are beautiful when you know you aren't meeting your peers' fashion standards. Is there any way to find some supportive counseling or peer reflection for him? Gently encourage him to do what he can to create such a network. Since he is an introvert, this work may have to proceed slowly, but that's okay. Finding just a couple of genuine friends can make the difference between feeling like a useless, crazy person and having a reason to go on living. There are probably support groups for FTMs and gender-queer people in your area. An introverted person can find encounters with strangers to be sheer torture, but it's the only way to meet new people. Once he finds a couple of friends, he can stop attending. Or he may realize that the only way to change a stranger into a friend is to repeatedly encounter that person and share experiences that help the two of you to bond.

          Unfortunately, being different does not automatically make you an activist. Many of us feel that we don't have the skills or the strength to advocate for sweeping social change. But the more we all do, the sooner we can live in a better world. Those who are already activists are usually eager to serve as mentors and share the work. I realized when I began to transition that if I didn't want to be defensive every time somebody made a mistake about pronouns or get pissed off every time I got asked a question that felt way too personal. I do remind people that they need to be polite and kind when they want to discuss this issue with me, but I also realize that there's very little good information available.

          If you have always been happy with the sex you were assigned at birth, how can you possibly empathize with or understand what it's like to know, with every atom of your being, that this label is wrong, and bad for you? I do get tired of answering some of the same questions over and over again, but I have to give people credit for caring enough to get educated. If I can smile, be courteous, and answer them with a little humor, maybe they will pass that information on to somebody else.

          Once I relaxed and accepted the fact that I was going to be a walking, talking encyclopedia of differently-gendered life, I no longer felt like I was walking around without a skin. The feeling of being raw and over-exposed disappeared. Now, it's just one of the things I feel I am on earth to do, like making sure near-sighted old ladies catch the right bus and my coffee shop lets homeless people use the bathroom. Bad days bother me less if I tell myself that perhaps the crap I put up with will mean less hassle for the wonderfully weird people who come after me.

          Suffering is a human problem. I meet very few people who are not unhappy about something. In the time it takes to snap my fingers, I can come up with a list of people who have problems that make mine look like a sunny walk along a lake free of alligators. It's easy for any of us to focus on the unfairness of our individual tribulations, and crank up the misery and injustice until we feel like the Royal Victim of the Universe. If you find yourself wearing that particular diadem, give back your tiara, Miss Thing, because it does not come with an armful of long-stemmed roses.