My advice for someone whose girlfriend wants to transition. Why ‘what they should do’ might not be the best question to ask and how they might handle what happens next.
“I’m a lesbian and have been in a relationship with my girlfriend for quite some time now. However, she’s told me that she wants to transition to a non-binary, maybe trans masc, identity. My friends are telling me to break up with her. Should I break up with her? I don’t know what to do?*“
*(I’ve paraphrased this as it was asked of me in person)
Great question, thanks for asking me. What does it say about you that even though you are struggling with a tricky relationship dilemma that you are able to ask for help about it. Maybe that you’re resourceful, thoughtful, kind… what else? Write down 10 things.
‘Common sense’ might dictate that if you are lesbian, you fancy / romantically attracted to women. So if your girlfriend is going to shift their gender identity then you might not be attracted to them. You might not, in which case you might want to think about breaking up. Fair enough.
But ‘common sense’ is something which we are taught to think, so we should be critical about this. Of course, your question raises the question ‘am I really a lesbian if I’m attracted to someone who is not a woman’? But it might raise other, much more interesting questions too. Like, what are your attractions? What made your sexuality become? Did this relationship help you to understand that you’re a lesbian? Or did you being a lesbian help you to understand you are attracted to your girlfriend? In what ways are this relationship helping you to become you / your sexuality?
You won’t have easy or clear answers to these questions. But the key to having any sense of who we are sexually (posh term for this is sexual subjectivity) is to ask ourselves really interesting and useful questions.
I’ve written an article about how to think about your sexuality which might help you do some of this. You might also be interested in my Teach Yourself Sex Ed course on here if you want to learn how to be critical of ‘common sense’.
You might not need to do anything about this right now, but instead try to notice some of the changes that happen. We’re all changing all of the time, and if we don’t recognise that then we aren’t giving ourselves the right kind of attention.
The kinds of gender changes that you are talking about might be quite big. Your girlfriend might start looking and behaving like quite a different person. But you are changing too, and not just in how you look or sound.
Every day, there are (seemingly tiny) ways for you to become an other ‘you’. New haircuts, different glasses, a nice new pair of boots, a band you’ve got super excited about, a philosophy, how your life is affected by government, how various parts of your body change, a new friend you’ve made, a brand new hobby, what’s going on at home, that really great joke you told, the way you supported __________ that time, different responsibilities, how well you do at school, a deep and meaningful conversation.
Because all of the things that might change are in relation to everything else, the potential for change is massive. Everything just moving around in this ever changing casserole of ‘things that are you.’ This might be scary and troubling though. And I’m not saying that having a sense of who you are and your identity isn’t important. It’s good to have a sense of self, because we do need to think about boundaries, our agency, and our clout. But it’s a good idea to use a pencil, or playdough, to draw and redraw ourselves, in various ways.
Hold it gently
I don’t get a sense that you are not wanting your girlfriend to change. She’s felt able to tell you about this, which means that you have the kind of relationship where big things can be said. There may well be a bit of a struggle ahead, quite a lot of work involved, and also some heartbreak. But for now, try to hold the relationship gently.
Relationships and love don’t just happen, they aren’t magical, and there isn’t a life force that keeps people together. Relationships and love come about from the everyday micro processes of love, care, affection, space, time, trust, and connection. Texts, pats, snogs, check-ins, hand holds, hangs, compliments, dates, options, choices, time. Just day to day, committing and recommitting to each other. What are the kinds of things that you have done to commit and recommit to each other in the relationship?
As you keep doing this micro processes of love, can you give you and your GF the same kinds of opportunities to do this for yourself too. In what ways does your relationship enable you to have a relationship with yourself? How about your friends? As you do this, you might start to notice that there are different micro processes that you might want to start doing (or paying attention to).
For many reasons (mostly the cultural output of 20th century multimedia industry) we often put friendships below romantic relationships. We’re team Mates Before Dates here at BISH. Because of this, you might be tempted to just not hear it from your mates. I always advise against that.
If mates are telling us to break up with someone, there might well be an incredibly good reason. Mates love us in ways that might feel different to romantic love, but still in a really valuable way. It’s also really hard for a mate to tell you that they are not that keen on your partner.
It doesn’t sound to me like your mates are saying ‘well you’re a lesbian and if your girlfriend wants to become your themfriend then you should dump them.’ (like crabs in a crab bucket). Perhaps they’re just taking this opportunity of a disturbance in your relationship to tell you something else.
Now, this is hard to listen to. You might feel affected by this (ie your body might respond in some way). So don’t just immediately put up a barrier, or throwaway their concern. If you feel yourself reacting, can you just catch yourself? Ask your friends to slow it down, or to be a bit quieter, or arrange a time when you can really take it in. Remember, there might be something really useful in this. we could employ 2 people full time).
As part of all of this, you may experience some kind of ending, possibly the end of your relationship. One way of thinking about endings is that there never are endings, just different kinds of change at a molecular level. That is true and probably quite a useful idea. At the same time, I think it’s also useful to think of endings being much bigger.
In this article about No I talk about how saying a no to them is a yes to you. The action of ending something gives you the opportunity to begin something too. It’s not that one door closes and another opens, it’s that the same door that opens one room, closes the other. (Like this one, by Marcel Duchamp). Endings also give you the opportunity to see things clearly, to reassess ‘you’, and to allow yourself to be in relation to other things.
To address endings we need to also deal with feelings (and to address feelings we also need to address endings). I’ve been writing about feelings here. They’re important. To experience a feeling, with a beginning, middle, and end, helps us to grow, to see ourselves, and gives us capacity to have more feelings. Being able to feel a feeling can connect us with other people too. If we can learn to do it (and are lucky enough / have taken the deliberate steps to) and surround ourselves with people who can help us, it just makes us better humans. It just does. It’s good to be afraid, but try not to be afraid about being afraid. It’s not easy, but none of this is. We can find ways to make ‘sex, love, and you’ easier, but it will never be easy.
Hope that helps!
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health.