Before I tell you my story, I’d like to first thank all you wonderful readers for your comments on my “It Gets Better” piece. It was truly the single most difficult thing I’ve ever done online—aside from purchasing large-ticket items from possible scammers and clicking on iffy links that may put me at risk of contracting a virus. Your kind words are very much appreciated and certainly helped to calm my poor nerves that day. Thank you very much!
A couple of readers have asked me if I’m willing to share my breakup story. Presented as an aside, it was unclear how the breakup led to my depression. After giving it some consideration, I agreed, as my story did seem a bit incomplete without it.
My girlfriend and I had been together for a year and half, and everything was going great for us. She had just graduated and moved back home to Los Angeles. I went back to San Francisco for the summer. We were still very much in love and had plans to continue our long-distance relationship. Then, one day out of the blue, she told me that she wanted to talk. I remember joking with her, “What is it about? Did you cheat on me?” knowing full well that she isn’t the type. She said no, and she asked if I was alone. Then she told me that she felt like a man on the inside. Now, before anyone feels the need to yell at me for my use of the words “girlfriend,” “she,” or “her,” I want to point out that my girlfriend wanted me to continue addressing her using these descriptors and pronouns. I ended the relationship, not knowing what to say. Then, two days after she came out to me, I called and said, “I’m sorry for how I reacted. I love you. Can I have my boyfriend back?” She said no, and I felt devastated that I broke her heart.
I didn’t know how to express how devastated I felt about my breakup to my friends because 1) I didn’t want to out her, and 2) I didn’t feel that anyone would be able to understand what I was going through.
I pondered things like how to address or describe my significant other, how to define my relationship, how to define myself, how I would retell my history later in the future, etc. Does it mean that I am actually in a straight relationship as opposed to a lesbian relationship? Would I retell my dating history using the female or male pronouns?
I could try to be as politically correct as possible: I’m a bisexual cisgender (Was this even true? Eh, let’s just go with it for the time being.) female who is in a straight relationship with a pre-op transgender male who prefers that I continue to address her using female descriptors and pronouns. Wow, that was a mouthful.
I also didn’t want to out her by association. What if I put her life in danger? What if someone found out before she was ready to come out? I had so many “what if” questions and I didn’t like a lot of my answers to those questions.
Before that day, I hadn’t participated much in any LGBT-related activism or social events, and it wasn’t because I was still in the closet. I wasn’t; I’ve more or less been out since middle school. I participated in the Day of Silence. I stood up for LGBT rights. If anyone asked, I’d openly tell people that I identified as bisexual, so long as they weren’t related to me or knew people in my family. I just didn’t feel a need to find a community because I already had my social support network: a nice mix of straight and queer individuals from all walks of life.
When my girlfriend told me she identified as male, however, I suddenly felt the need to reach out for support. I had a feeling that no one in my existing network would even know how to give me the support that I needed. I no longer knew how to define my own sexual identity. Is my sexual identity contingent upon how my girlfriend identifies herself?
I may have long-identified as bisexual, but when I realized that I love a woman, it scared me a little. All of a sudden, the thought of settling down with a woman became very real to me. I realized that I’d eventually have to tell my parents and my family if we decided to be together for the long haul.
The other unfortunate thing about identifying as bisexual is that other people assumed my identity was a sort of transitional phase into a lesbian identity. For a year and half, other people labeled me a lesbian. It was a bit bothersome for me. Explaining bisexuality to other people was a frustrating ordeal. Yes, bisexuality exists. Yes, bisexuality is a legitimate sexual orientation. No, I am not identifying as bisexual because it’s a trendy or chic thing to do. No, it does not mean that I am promiscuous. No, I am not identifying as bisexual to get attention from men. No, it does not mean that I want to have two romantic and/or sexual relationships going on at the same time.
It was difficult enough trying to explain bisexuality in English, try explaining it in Chinese. In the end I told my parents that I am gay because bisexuality was too hard to explain. “爸媽，我是 (Dad, Mom, I am) gay.” Doing this, however, made accepting my girlfriend’s gender identity even more difficult.
I already had a difficult time telling my parents that I am gay. They were in denial about it for a long time. They continued to start conversations with me that began with, “One day, when you get married to a man and have children…” and I’d have to constantly remind them, no matter how painful it is for them to hear, that there’s a chance I may not ever get married or have children of my own.
When my girlfriend came out to me as male, I found myself struggling with my own sexual and gender identities. I no longer knew how I identified myself. Am I still bisexual if I don’t know whether I can continue to love her if she decides to undergo surgery to have a penis? Perhaps I am really a lesbian, I thought. On top of that, as a Buddhist, I just never even thought much about my gender. I am in a female body, yes, but I can come back as a human male my next life. (Buddhists believe in reincarnation.) When I told my girlfriend this, she told me that she would not be able to love me if I was in a man’s body. I felt heartbroken. “Why couldn’t you love me for me?” she had asked me when I broke off our relationship. Well, the same question applies: “Why couldn’t you love me for me?”
More importantly, what would I tell my parents if we stayed together? How would they react to the idea that this person was once my girlfriend and is now my boyfriend? Do I even present my significant other as the same person or an entirely different person altogether? The reason why bisexuality was so difficult to explain to my parents is that they’d ask me, “Why don’t you just date men then? Why date a woman if you know you are attracted to men as well? What’s the point?” Now, throw gender into the mix, and they’d be sure to question, “What would be the point of dating a woman who is going to become a man anyway? Why not just date a man?”
The simple answer? Because I love her.
At the time, however, it was very hard for me to love her. It was as though she dropped a grenade onto my lap and told me to just deal with it. I didn’t know how to deal with it. It was almost as if she expected me to hold all the answers just because I was studying gender and sexuality issues within social and developmental psychology. What I found was that life can be very isolating for partners of transgender people.
I had no one to talk to about this and I fell into depression because of it. I started going to my alma mater’s GLBTI resource center in hope of finding others like myself. I had read hundreds of academic papers on sexual and gender identities, but I came up with nothing related to partners of transgender people.
I started getting more and more involved with transgender activism, but other transgender activists would piss me off when they insisted on using masculine pronouns when talking about my girlfriend to me. They never voiced it, but their actions said, “You’re being disrespectful. He identifies as a male, so you must use masculine pronouns.” It was frustrating for me, and I wanted to yell, “But I asked her and this is what she prefers!” I felt silenced by the very community I thought was supposed to be accepting of diversity. I had no one to talk to for fear of outing my girlfriend, and even when I thought I could talk to other people in the LGBT community, I still felt like no one could understand my identity struggle as a partner of a transgender person.
It wasn’t until I saw a poster presentation by Michelle Mason on The Experience of Transition For Lesbian Partners of FTMs at the Association for Women in Psychology conference in 2007 that I didn’t feel so alone in all of this. A majority of the lesbian partners said they experienced a transition too—their partners’ transition led them to become aware of, and evaluate, and/or to question their sense of self. Each lesbian partner said that their partner’s transition influenced how they identify themselves, how they understand their own desires and priorities, and how others relate to them. Like the others, understanding that I would go through my own transition was comforting. It explained the intensity of the tumultuous experience. It was sort of like, “Hey, it’s normal for partners of transgender people to go through a transition of their own. It’s okay! I’ll be okay knowing that what I’m going through is not something out of the ordinary, and I’m not crazy.” I also learned that as partners of trans people, it’s normal for us to feel that our transitions are harder than our partners’ because while our partners are transitioning toward a certain goal, we didn’t know where we would end up. Mason’s poster presentation was fascinating to me both personally and professionally as a budding social developmental psychologist studying gender and sexuality. Up until that day, I knew nothing about how other partners of transgender people deal with their partners’ coming out of the gender closet. It was reassuring to know that other partners of trans people go through a period of questioning their gender and sexual identities, too.
Eventually, I came to identify as queer for two reasons:
1. It invites questions. People need to ask questions to find out what I mean by “queer.”
2. It is, or can be, all-encompassing. I use queer as an identifying label for my gender and sexual identities.
I am queer because I am attracted to people in general. The bisexuality label is too restricting, as it implies that there are only two sexes and two genders. I realized now that it wouldn’t matter to me even if my girlfriend is intersex; it only matters that it is her who I am in a relationship with.
I am also queer because I don’t identify with a gender. How I identify and how I choose to present myself can be two different things.
In the end, your comfort with yourself and your relationship with your partner is all that matters.
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JT is originally from San Francisco, CA. She graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in psychology, focusing primarily on gender and sexuality research. Seeking a change in 2008, she moved to Chicago, and what a change it has been! She can been seen walking and yelping about various Chicago neighborhoods. JT identifies as queer and bisexual, and she is currently dating a straight man. She has an unapologetic love for civil rights, whether it’d be for racial, gender, sexual, or political socioeconomic equality. Occasionally, she volunteers with Howard Brown Health Center to promote safer sex in Boystown.