Dating and Gender Roles when One Partner is Trans

No matter your background, odds are you carry some ideas about gender⁠ and what roles people of each gender play in a relationship⁠ .

But what do you do when your gender identity⁠ , or the gender identity of your partner⁠ , complicates those assumptions?

That question is often one that crops up in relationships when one partner is transgender⁠ (trans) and the other is cisgender⁠ (cis). Trans folks tend to spend a lot of time thinking about gender, gender presentation, and gendered behavior, and often come to it with a more critical eye, or more of a personal stake, than their cis partners do. Of course cisgender folks can think critically about gender , and many do. But having a trans partner may mean they wind up thinking about it more, differently, or more personally than they did before. And if and when someone begins exploring their gender or the process of medical or social transition⁠ in an existing relationship, part of that process might involve changing gendered roles, behaviors and expectations to fit their understanding of their own gender better. This can cause confusion or conflict if the cis partner isn't expecting it, doesn't understand how important that shift is, or isn't as happy with the new dynamic.

This can be a great opportunity for partners to all dedicate some quality time to really thinking about what sort of dynamics or roles they prefer in a relationship, and why, and figuring out⁠ how to make those preferences work for everyone. If it's not something you've ever discussed with a partner, it might feel odd at first to talk about what can seem like minor details, or hard to know why you prefer things a certain way, but practice makes this easier.

We have an article on relationship models here, but while that discusses the larger framework of a relationship, gender roles often cover smaller day-to-day details and mannerisms that can have a large impact on how everyone in the relationship feels about themselves and the relationship. What attitudes or behaviors someone associates with a particular gender, or even perceives as gendered at all, aren't universal; you might have a case where one partner associates a behavior with femininity and the other associates it with masculinity, or where one person says "I always felt like date planning was something women were better at" and the other says "I never thought of that as gendered at all, I've always just let whoever had an idea make the plans that time!"

To give some examples of relationship dynamics that you may not realize are gendered until someone contradicts them, consider the following: who pays for dates? Who keeps track of and is the most emotionally invested in relationship milestones like anniversaries? Whose is expected to initiate sex⁠ ? Heck, you can even go into small details like who is the little spoon when you and your partner cuddle. Those may seem like silly questions, but if you have gendered expectations about the answers that are suddenly challenged, or experience gendered roles or expectations in those things that don't fit with your gender, it can lead to conflict.

Just as there's no one way for transgender people to act or identify, there's no one set of relationship dynamics that will work for everyone, either. It might depend on how someone sees their own gender, the gendered assumptions they have about particular roles, what their priority is in terms of prioritizing by comfort/preference or along gendered lines, or where they or their partner are in social/medical transition, among other reasons.

Some trans folks enjoy having a chance to pick and choose from every gendered role or behavior they can see, assembling a fantastic patchwork quilt of the ones that suit them the best. Others may relish the opportunity to take on roles they strongly identify with their gender and haven't had the chance to explore before. For instance, a transfeminine person may feel more free (or just more excited) to explore fashion, while a transmasculine person may take more of an interest in protective or assertive⁠ roles in a relationship or elsewhere. And other folks in the same gender-boat may not care at all for those things.

Don't forget that what qualifies as a feminine⁠ or masculine⁠ trait varies from person to person based on a variety of factors. No role or behavior is inherently gendered, but that doesn't keep some from having gendered connotations depending on cultural context. And those who are agender⁠ , genderqueer⁠ , genderfluid, or any other non- binary⁠ identity⁠ can have a tougher time picking out what roles or attributes will align with their gender; there's less of a cultural framework to build off of there.

An additional wrinkle is that trans people may want to take on specific performative gender roles out of a desire⁠ to be read as their correct gender by other people, for safety or comfort reasons. "Passing" is both a common term for this and a terrible one; it puts the burden of managing other people's reactions on the trans person's shoulders, when there's really no way they can control that, and it sets up "failing" as the natural opposite of passing⁠ successfully. It isn't always logical or predictable how people will interpret gendered cues, and there's only so much anyone can do to nudge friends and strangers towards making the right assumptions or using the correct language. That said, it's common for trans people to incorporate certain roles or mannerisms into their lives that they might otherwise feel negative or neutral about because they've found that they work as a gendered cue that helps others interpret their gender correctly. A transmasculine person with a femme⁠ -presenting partner may say, "if someone sees me pull out a chair for my partner and pay the bill in a restaurant, those behaviors might make them more likely to read my presentation correctly." Many people still assume heterosexuality in others by default, and this can potentially be helpful or harmful here, depending on the genders & presentations present in any particular relationship.

There can also be a strange reversal of this performative pattern where the cis partner helps tip people's perception of their trans partner by how they present.

For instance, if you're a cis woman dating a trans guy who is not always read as a guy, you may find yourself dressing or acting more stereotypically feminine because, when you do, you'll notice you and your partner become invisible. If you dress in a less binary way (which could be as simple as jeans and a sweatshirt instead of a skirt and a blouse), you may notice people looking at you and your partner trying to puzzle our what "type" of relationship it is and what gender your partner is. But if you, the cis person, have very obvious gender markers, it seems to flip a switch where bystanders go "ah, yes, a fine young heterosexual⁠ couple" and move on. There's a lot of not-so-good assumptions causing that pattern (ideas about what are "normal" ways for men and women to look, treating straight couples as the norm and gay⁠ or lesbian⁠ couples as objects of scrutiny) but it is a common phenomenon to be aware of. It can also be a pattern to exploit in instances where you want to have as many factors as you can to cue people to read the trans partner correctly.

Gender roles are where communication⁠ becomes particularly important; if you're hoping your partner can assume a particular role so that you or the relationship are seen a certain way, that needs to be something they're comfortable with and and don't feel forced into. If you're uncomfortable with assumed or established gender roles in your relationship, the best thing to do is to bring it up, preferably at a time that's not emotionally charged. Topics to discuss might include: why are things this way now? Did you slide into that role through inertia or habit or was it intentional? If one person likes it, what do they get out of it? Can they get this through something else you can both agree on?

When you're considering the gender roles in your relationship, remember that someone's preferred gender roles are not a referendum on their "real" gender. If a trans woman enjoys having a "masculine" role, that does not invalidate her womanhood. Consider that even for cis folks there's a wide range of gendered behaviors people can pick and choose from, both for themselves and what they prefer from their partners. The roles you prefer, the activities you enjoy, and the way you choose to dress do not invalidate or disprove your gender identity.

It's also important to touch on how gender and gender roles interact with sexual orientation⁠ in trans/cis relationships. The truth is that gender identity, gender roles, and sexual orientation are often independent categories. Identifying a certain way in one area does not automatically mean identifying a certain way in another (e.g. not all cis women are straight). However, many people believe that there is a connection between those three categories, so they end up making assumptions about all of them based upon only knowing one of them.

If you're cis and your partner's trans identity is known by some people, brace yourself for some very personal questions coming your way about your identity. Keep in mind, those questions are likely a small fraction of what your partner faces, but they can still blindside you if you're not prepared for them. Often, these questions will focus on your sexual orientation, and whether or not dating a trans person invalidates that orientation (hint: it does not). Those questions seem to pop up no matter what your orientation is. Straight? Dating a trans guy must make you lesbian! Lesbian? Dating a trans woman must mean you're actually straight or bi. These assumptions may be both rude and inaccurate, but are sadly also quite common.

It's up to you how you respond to these questions. If you're feeling patient and accommodating, or the person asking does so in a way that feels polite to you, you can use it as a chance to do a little education about gender identity, roles, and sexual orientation. If the person asking is rude, or you don't feel like doing Trans issues 101 just then, it is perfectly alright to say, "That is not something I feel like discussing with you. Please don't ask again." And keep in mind, too, that if you're cis, unless your trans partner has specifically said it's okay in certain cases, it's not okay to out them, either directly or indirectly, in conversation with others, no matter how well-intentioned you may be. Sometimes it's helpful to discuss in advance how to handle situations where issues of disclosure might come up.

Ultimately, navigating any changes to established roles or identities is best achieved by open and respectful communication with your partner. As you talk through these issues together, it's good to keep in mind that "figuring things out" is often more of a process than a destination. People's opinions, needs, and identities aren't necessarily fixed points, and how you and a partner adapt to each other can change based on any of those factors. In the end, navigating a trans/cis relationship comes with a unique set of challenges. But if you take some time to think about your own feelings around gender roles and expectations, and work to foster open and honest communication with your partner, you'll find those challenges are a small part of having a kick-butt relationship.

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  • Lisa Laman

If I could pull a “Letter to Me”… what would I communicate to teenage Lisa? What important thoughts about dating, relationships, life, and anything else would I say to my younger self in a letter?