I think there are a fair amount of people who want to educate themselves on gender identity and transgender issues in particular but don’t know where to start. And while the internet and trans advocacy groups offer a wealth of information, they can feel impersonal, especially if you shape your worldview through your own personal experiences (and I think most people do). Here’s mine.
Back in early 2011 my knowledge basically consisted of “trans people exist” and then a whole lot of white noise. I started dating my current partner in January of that year while he was presenting as a gender-nonconforming woman. I don’t remember the exact timeline of things, but it was fairly gradual at first. I don’t know how much of that was his own uncertainty in defining himself and in figuring out how to move forward, and how much of that was me not listening or understanding as well as I should have.
His androgyny and his being gender-nonconforming was one of the reasons I was initially attracted to him, so it wasn’t something that was completely shocking or a deal-breaker for our relationship (obviously). And I’ve never been a person to fear change or to find change distasteful, but I have always been acutely aware of how difficult and painful the process of changing can often be.
Transitioning is a process, it’s not a switch that get’s flipped from male to female or vice versa. Gender is a social construct, it’s a spectrum, not a one-or-the-other deal. Most people already land somewhere in between what we recognize as male and female and the spectrum changes daily as various non-conforming things fall into and out of popularity. Transitioning can take years depending on the individual and how they define their gender identity. There’s counseling, hormone therapy, surgery, changes to legal documents, and the arduous process of helping friends and family to see you as you are, not as what they’ve known.
I was taken aback initially, not because I was worried about dating a man or being in a same-sex relationship, but because the process terrified me. I was afraid that it would be difficult, or that it wouldn’t be what he wanted or expected. I was selfishly fearful of how it would affect me and my investment in our relationship, his attractiveness to me, his desire to be with me, a lot of things that proved laughably superficial and unfounded.
We went to a workshop early on at RIT, I think run by Tangent, the school’s Trangender Network, where I did a whole lot of listening and not much talking. My biggest takeaway, and I think the biggest thing to remember, is that gender identity is defined differently by everyone based on their experiences, their transition, and a myriad of other factors. That’s why when social networking sites open up their gender options, the number of terms can be quite extensive, and while they often sound silly to those that have lived in a world they see as binary in terms of gender, none are any more or less valid than another. Gender-conforming individuals so often justify their choices with “it felt right,” but can’t understand why a person might want to be referred to as ‘ze’ because it feels right. That has to change.
There is no blueprint for understanding trans individuals just like there’s no blueprint for understanding anyone. There’s only listening to people’s experiences and (this is especially important for marginalized groups), believing them.