Lesbians in relationships with trans people
- Published: 18 April 2010
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Trans people are increasingly part of the lesbian/queer community as our relationships and families expand. Katrina Fox talks to couples in which one partner is trans about their love and the special bonds they’ve forged, often as a result of facing adversity together.
When I met my partner, Tracie O’Keefe, 18 years ago I was in seventh heaven. Here was a self-assured, intelligent, glamorous woman with amazing cheekbones and a sense of camp to match my own. I had finally found my own personal Joan Collins.
When a friend insisted Tracie had “had a sex change” and was “born a man”, I couldn’t give two hoots. She was still the gorgeous, sultry goddess I had fallen for and her “history” made no difference to how I felt about her.
Over the years our love blossomed as we opened each other’s eyes and hearts: she introduced me to the concept of sex and gender diversity in the human race and I converted her from a bisexual carnivore to a lesbian vegan. It’s been an amazing journey.
Erica Zander, a 56-year-old trans lesbian from Sweden, and her partner Katarina Matson, 46, are at the start of their journey, having been together just 18 months.
“I found this club for ‘slightly older’ women, looked at the photos from their parties on their website and was totally transfixed by this blonde with a lovely smile,” Zander says. “When I eventually visited the club, she was there but I didn’t dare speak to her. I didn’t feel all that sure about my standing as a woman in the lesbian community.”
It took a year before the pair met again and became a couple and they are now more in love than ever.
But Zander’s point about feeling unsure of her status in the lesbian community is pertinent to many dykes in relationships with trans women. There are still pockets of separatists who refuse to accept trans women as women, accusing them of “violating” women’s space if they come to a lesbian event. Tracie and I have experienced it, as have Zander and Matson, as well as another couple: trans historian Susan Stryker, 48, and her partner Kim Klausner, 55, both based in San Francisco.
“I’ve lost a number of friends because of their prejudice,” says Klausner. “I tried to educate those people. Some didn’t want to change and I dropped them as friends. Others were a bit more open-minded and were willing to engage in dialogue, but it left a bad taste in my mouth and I was never as close with them after that.”
It’s a testament to their love and resilience that couples in this situation are able to withstand the slings and arrows shot at them from all directions, especially when the rejections and insults come from the queer community.
As well as dealing with hurtful comments, women in relationships with trans partners can also experience grief, loss and even betrayal—as Californian Sonya Bolus, 38, found out when her partner Marty Diaz, 45, transitioned to male.
“I knew that my partner identified as a transgendered butch,” she says. “He already used male pronouns except when he was around his family. When I first met him, he was certain he would not transition. He had decided that it would be too hard on his family and not in line with his woman-centered spiritual beliefs.”
So when Diaz did decide to transition, it had a big impact on the couple’s relationship. “It can be hard watching him change so dramatically,” Bolus says.
“Intellectually I’m comfortable and knowledgeable about trans issues, but when it is happening on a personal level I am just like anybody else: I fall apart emotionally because I feel loss, grief and even betrayal. I miss being with Marty the way he used to be … the female-bodied Marty. He had smooth skin and a softness about him that isn’t there anymore. He smells different. He has a lot of body hair. His curves are gone. I know these are superficial things, but they are also very intimate things, and when those intimate things change abruptly, it is very disorienting.”
As Bolus notes, there is no socially sanctioned room for grief or loss in these situations. “As the partner of someone who’s transitioning, you are supposed to be excited and happy about everything,” she says. “The trans guy is so thrilled with the changes that are happening and in many ways, so are you. But you are also losing something that you don’t want to lose. And it is very sudden, so there is not enough time to process it while it’s happening.”
In addition to these often painful emotions, a partner’s transition can also result in an identity crisis for the non-trans person.
“I often feel—abruptly and painfully —that I am the wife in a heterosexual relationship, something I did not bargain for as a queer-identified person,” says Bolus. “Sometimes, it is challenging to accept all the implications of spending the rest of my life with a man. I have also felt some pain when I have gone out into the world with Marty, and we haven’t been recognized as queer, either by other gay or lesbian folks or even by straight people. I feel a lot of pride in being gay. I like being queer and visible and I miss that.”
Tina Roberts, a 36-year-old New Yorker who has been with her husband Jess, 30, for five years, found herself going through something similar to Sonya. Only a few months ago, Jess began his transition to male, throwing Tina into a state of panic. “When I found out I felt like my life bottomed out,” she admits. “Up until a few months ago I was a femme lesbian. Now I guess I’m just queer. I felt like I was being forced to let go of a community that I am very much a part of.”
However, despite her initial reservations, Tina is “taking the changes as they come and learning to re-love the new pieces of Jess” all over again. “At least the heartbreak I felt has subsided and I can now feel curious and dare I say, excited, about the changes that are still to come,” she says.
While a non-trans partner can miss being identified as queer, for a trans person being ‘read’ as such can be devastating. This is not true for all trans people: some identify as genderqueer, androgynous and other sex and gender diverse labels.
But many trans people want to ‘pass’ as the gender they have transitioned to. So, if you do if you see someone you’re attracted to in a club and you’re not sure if they’re trans, should you ask them?
“I would say yes, the main reason being that a relationship must be founded in honesty,” says Zander. “But you should never ask a person this simply from curiosity. An example that would work for me is, “I like/am interested in/am attracted to you and I hope you’re ok with my asking if you’re a trans woman?’”
One of the questions people often ask those of us in a relationship with a trans person is whether the sex is any different. From my personal experience, the answer is no. Fingers, tongues, lube and toys are put to good use the same as with any female lover. And Tracie has one of the most beautiful bottoms ever. (I know, cheekbones and ass – I’m blessed!).
For some dykes, a pre-operative trans partner with male genitalia may pose issues, but these are things to be worked out together, just as you would consider with any partner with physical differences.
“We had good sex before and after Susan’s operation,” says Klausner. ”When we were talking about the possibility of having sex, I have to confess that I was a bit taken aback when she told me that she still had a penis. I guess I just assumed she didn’t. But it didn’t matter much to me one way or another.”
From Stryker’s perspective, she wants a partner who is eager to find out what feels good to Stryker and who is open to her pleasuring her back. “I think everybody has a difference sense of their own body, that all bodies are different from one another, and that pre/post op differences just fall somewhere in the general range of how bodies can be different, how they are unique,” she says.
“I don’t think it adds some special burden—we should all, always, be attentive to each other, and practice open, honest, effective communication. We have an emotionally close and physical relationship. I think the biggest issue, after 13 years of sex and two different experiences of ‘menopause’ is resisting Lesbian Bed Death.”
It’s true, though, that sex can change within an already existing relationship once a partner starts transition. Transition usually involves the person taking estrogen (female hormones) or testosterone (male hormone, also known as ‘T’). This results in physical changes as well as an increase or decrease in libido.
“Pre-transition, I was a very sexual being,” says Diaz. “I have always been told that I have a powerful sex drive. With the testosterone, it amped up about 60 to 70 percent. It is very different in that sex is always in the front of my mind. It’s more physiological than I even knew it would be. Because of T, my clitoris has grown into a small penis. I am aware of it constantly. I know that I am much faster to get to the actual physical act than I use to be. I used to pride myself on being a relaxed lover. I wanted to take my time so my partner and I could languish in each other. Now I am way more focused on the orgasm. Sometimes it feels like I am a teenager again and experiencing sex for the first time—every time.”
As with any partner, discussions around what parts are ok or not ok to touch are essential. For Jess, who has recently started on testosterone, there are no parts that are off limits for his wife, Tina. “Just because it isn’t the body I feel I should have, it doesn’t mean that I can’t at least experience pleasure,” he says. “All I ask of her is that she not feminize me. There are ways that my current body and parts can be touched that still make me feel masculine.”
At the end of the day, we are human beings, regardless of our sex or gender identity, and in any relationship there are challenges. Where one partner is trans, there can be additional barriers, as mentioned earlier, such as experiencing prejudice and discrimination from society in general and from the lesbian or queer community, as well as the loss of losing your lover as you once knew them.
But, as all the couples interviewed for this article have discovered (and I can attest to from personal experience), from all the soul-searching and analyzing can come the development of a closer bond and deeper understanding of each other.
For Matson, it’s Zander’s easy-going and straight-forward nature that appeals to her. “She hears what I say, we waste no time discussing our relationship and we never quarrel,” she asserts. “Of course we talk a lot about everything, but only to get to know each other better, to bond, but only rarely do we see any reason to talk about our relationship: we simply are here, now and together.”
For Bolus, it’s the “mix of gender” in Diaz that excites her. “There is also often a complexity of character that comes from intense self-examination and perhaps the will to survive against all odds that I find attractive,” she says.
Klausner is happy that being with Stryker has “opened my eyes to many things and people that I wouldn’t otherwise have seen”, while Tina Roberts says simply, “My assumption is that my love for Jess will conquer all.”
Depending on your perspective, these are exciting or challenging times for the lesbian community as it expands to include more sex and gender diverse people. Try to put aside any reservations you may have about trans people, open up your heart and mind and see what happens.
You never know, you could meet your own personal Brad Pitt. Or Joan Collins.
An edited version of this article appeared in the April 2010 issue of the US’s biggest-selling national lesbian magazine Curve under the heading 'Love is a many gendered thing'.
Katrina Fox is the co-editor of Trans People in Love (Routledge)