Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

How Do I Support My Partner as They Transition?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: My husband and I were each other’s “first” and now we have 2 kids and 15 years together. Over the last several months he has started exploring a more androgynous gender presentation, and a few weeks ago we had a long heart-to-heart in which he told me he wants to see a therapist who could help him sort out how to possibly transition to living as a woman. I’m pansexual (although it’s always been a moot point until now) and I will love him no matter how he identifies or dresses. If it makes him happy, I’m all for it.

That’s the easy part. The hard part is that we live in a deeply conservative part of the US and I can predict with 99.9% certainty that transitioning here would/will SUCK. His parents won’t understand, he just started a new job at a place that’s almost entirely cishet white men with beards, our kids will have a harder time at school, etc. Obviously transitioning would/will be a huge step and not one we could come back from.

My question: what can I do to support him finding what he needs? I have no problem telling his dad where to shove his “jokes” and our immediate circle of friends would be fine, but every time I think about how much crap he would/will have to face, it makes me feel sick. He hasn’t decided yet how much he wants to change (clothes? body? pronouns?) but trans/nonbinary people are all but invisible around here. I’d be happy to go out guns a-blazing but obviously it’s not about me and I don’t know how to prepare to be the supportive partner he’ll need.

Support Class

DEAR SUPPORT CLASS: I want to preface this with an obvious fact: I’m a cisgendered man. I don’t have the perspective that a trans person would have on this matter, nor as the partner of a trans person. And while I have some thoughts on the subject, I think it would be far better to give space for trans and non-binary folx share their thoughts, experiences and suggestions on the matter. I put out the call for my trans and enbie readers to weigh in, and here’s some of what they had to say.

From Cliff Jerrison: I transitioned while in a relationship and my partner was GREAT about it, but the thing that really touched me was that he actually celebrated my transition milestones. He literally bought me a cake when I started hormones and came out to my family. And that was huge, because sometimes transness is framed as all tragedy–dysphoria is tragic, transphobia is tragic, transition is a grim necessity. Seeing my partner actively happy for me, treating my transition as a joyous time and not just a hard one, was wonderful. Oh, one more thing! Because I was transitioning to (approximately) the same gender as my partner, he’s been a resource for new skills like how to shave and men’s room etiquette, and that’s another way he’s supported me.

From @Klezmerstyle: I didn’t actually start to transition until after my divorce, but I talked about it some with my ex-wife and she wanted me to immediately start doing it or stop talking about it and it caused me to clam up and not talk about it for years. Support is good, pushing is bad. Also, it’s not always an entirely linear process, and if someone reverses things or goes back to presenting in older ways for a while it’s not because they’re being indecisive, it’s probably because they’re scared and grappling with things. They certainly aren’t lying to you.

From @Sophia_Pines: For the first years my partner didn’t believe I’m trans and was expecting me to detransition at some point, I wish sometime she showed that she loved me and not [deadname], I feel like I’m the consolation prize. Every time we spoke about gender confirmation surgery she put her annoyed face and voice. I was planning on having SRS this year but obviously it’s not going to happen, I just wish I can before we’re getting married (tentatively June next year) because I want to know if our relationship will implode or not.

From @BonkeyMoon: My partner was incredibly supportive, even though we were at a very low point in our relationship. I’d say be sympathetic to the dysphoria and anxiety that comes from transition. Learn and use their name and pronouns. In my case, accompanying me to public restrooms was very important.

From Branwyn: When I came out to my wife, she didn’t bat an eye, and soon after was giving me old clothes. It was years later before I could get myself together enough to transition, but when I did she accepted it fairly easily. There were bumps, but it’s been ok. Open communication is very helpful. Respect pronouns and names. Don’t talk a lot about it being hard to shift. We know, the effort is appreciated and being reminded how hard it is makes us feel like a burden (do everything you can to avoid that). Help them learn what you can, and be there to hold their hand when they do big steps.

Honestly, just be loving and cognizant of how hard this is for them and let them lead the way. And when they ask for input, be honest, but remember it’s their journey you’re coming along for. Also, not sure how they ID, but make sure they’re ok being referred to as “husband” and not “Partner” or “wife”.

From @Ghastronaut: Three main things I remember: Honesty and restraint. The partner needs to be honest with themselves and the person transitioning. If the partner isn’t normally attracted to their partner’s gender, that’s a conversation that needs to happen sooner rather than later. Second, and more importantly. This is something you’re going through together. However, you need to step back and let your trans partner take the lead. This is their journey first, even though it’s hard for you too. Absolutely *under no circumstances* out them without their *explicit* consent. Doesn’t matter to who. Doesn’t matter how supportive the person you’re telling will be. It isn’t your place and it will break their trust like nothing else.

From @Malamentary: My advice: GET A THERAPIST. My partner was committed to being supportive but that meant she never processed her grief at the shift of identity. Partners of transitioning people need to be supportive, yes, and they need to face their own s

t. We stayed together for several years after I transitioned, but when things started to unravel it became clear she had never truly come to terms with it. She lost her identity as a lesbian but was so committed to being seen as supportive that she never worked through that grief.

From Dana: I’m also in the very, very early stages of transitioning. The support I want and need is:

– Positive affirmations that my partner continues to love me, not just reassurances they won’t leave because of this change. Their support & encouragement is one of the only reasons I’ve been confident enough to start this journey.

– Even if I look like a toddler picked out my clothes and my makeup is a mess, tell me I look pretty. Help me to be prettier. This is all new to me and I’m learning in months what cis women learn over their whole childhoods. But please let me know when I’m dressing like a woman half my age!

– Call me on my bulls

t. I remember when my young feminine side reflected some cringey stereotypes. I hope another twenty years of life experience has made me a better woman. Engage me in dialog about the female experience when it’s clear I’ve missed the mark. It’s better it comes from them, who I trust and I know has my best interests at heart.

– Tell me what they need to be comfortable & happy with the new me. Should I keep wearing that old shirt I wore on our first date? Am I being too coy; should I make the first move more often? Am I transitioning too fast for them to process?

– If they can’t talk to me about something, please find a therapist who can help them put these things into words so we can grow together.

So there you have it, Support Class. It may also be worth reading some books by or for the partners of people who transitioned or are currently transitioning. These may help you either identify issues that may come up that you hadn’t thought of yet, or give you perspective from other folks who have been where you are. The only other thing I would say is remind and reaffirm to your partner how you love and care for them and that you want to support them often. This can be a complex and often confusing time, and knowing that you’ve got their back and that you’re still their number-one fan, cheerleader, provider of buffs and heals and overall emotional and social support is going to be huge.

Good luck.

Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, doc@doctornerdlove.com