A partner’s transition may prompt a person to reflect on their own sexual orientation. Photo for illustrative purposes only. Photo: Delia Giandeini, Unsplash
Over the course of any relationship, partners discover new things about each other. Sometimes they’re minor changes in one’s habits, but other times they’re life-defining decisions. Decisions like coming out as trans. Sexual orientation is defined as the part of someone’s identity that includes their sexual and emotional attraction to other people. Gender identity, meanwhile, is a person's internal, deeply held sense of their gender. Trans people could be straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer. For example, a person who transitions from male to female and is attracted solely to men can identify as a straight woman.This means that some couples begin to re-examine their attraction to each other when one of them transitions. A gay man might find that he’s no longer attracted to a boyfriend who begins to realize her identity as a woman. The partner who transitions may also have a change in attraction. Many couples, however, choose to stay together even when one of them transitions. This often prompts the partner not transitioning to reflect on their own sexual orientation. They may realize that their sexual orientation is more flexible than they initially thought, or that the sexual orientation that once felt like the best fit doesn’t quite work anymore. For some couples, one partner’s transition leads to the other coming to terms with their own identity. Paula from South Carolina said she identified as “straight, but questioning” when she first started dating her partner Alex, who presented as male when they met and has since realized her identity as a trans woman. Paula requested the use of pseudonyms for her and her partner to prevent possible repercussions in their professional lives. Alex first came out to Paula as non-binary two years into their relationship, then came out to her as trans five years after that. The first time Alex came out as non-binary, Paula was shocked. “She called and said she didn’t feel like she was in the right body, that she felt the need to be more feminine-presenting. I was shaken and it caused me to have some really hard talks with myself,” said Paula.They decided to stay together, though they were also in a long-distance relationship at that point. That gave them time to think, Paula said, and it gave Alex the opportunity to explore her identity and expression without having to think about Paula’s immediate reactions—which was a good thing, Paula said. “I didn’t want to accidentally stifle her because of a quick reaction of mine.”When Alex later came out as trans, Paula wasn’t sure she’d be attracted to her in the same way.“I was honest in telling my partner that I don’t know if I’m attracted to women romantically, but we agreed to take it slow and see what happened. Personally, when she fully started identifying as female, I was nervous about the change in features, since the more masculine ones attracted me the most. But with some honest self-examination, I realized I had been attracted to her personality and that she has always been a woman, and that’s actually what made her stand out from the crowd for me,” Paula said. She added that Alex is not an “exception” to her attraction. Instead, Alex’s transitioning “actually made me more safe and comfortable venturing into that part of me that I basically was repressing.” Paula now identifies as bisexual.
Juniper, a 25-year-old from Maine, was just beginning to explore her attraction to people who weren’t men when she started dating Islay, who presented as male when they started dating. Juniper and Islay preferred to only go by their first names to protect their privacy.“It was a little difficult for me to put my newfound queerness on the back-burner while we were together,” Juniper said. She said that while she was in a relationship with Islay, she noticed her attraction to men begin to dwindle, and found it strange that Islay seemed to be an exception to that dwindling. “Before they came out, I found myself mostly attracted to their feminine qualities, but I still wanted to affirm their masculinity,” she said.A year and a half into their relationship, Islay came out as trans—something that made Juniper feel “overjoyed” both because it meant Islay would live their life as their “authentic self” but also because it helped clarify some of the dissonance Juniper was feeling about her own attractions.“Once they came out, I was finally able to let go of my lingering attraction to men and fully embrace my own sexuality,” she said. “I’ve identified my sexuality as queer the whole time I’ve known Islay, but I feel more aligned with a different and more authentic dimension of that queerness.” Before she met Islay, Juniper said she thought she was mostly into men and possibly into women and non-binary people. Now she feels that she’s mostly into women and non-binary people, and might make an exception for certain men.“I feel lucky that my partner’s gender identity has never really been outside of my sexuality… For circumstances in which that might not be the case, I think it’s important to stay focused on your partner as the person you fell in love with, and keep communicating. A lot of people stay together even if their partner is no longer under the umbrella of their sexuality, as long as there’s good communication and trust,” said Juniper, who added that it’s also important for people to be honest about whether they’re attracted to their partner’s identity after their partner transitions. This is, she said, a form of respect for one’s own sexual orientation. May, a 37-year-old from Minneapolis, said she has identified as bisexual since college, but always felt conflicted about her sexual orientation because her attraction was never an even split between two sexes, and because she had never been in a relationship with a woman. May requested the use of a pseudonym for her and her partner because the latter is choosing to keep their transition private, for now.“I often felt distressed and worried that I wasn’t queer enough, because I felt bisexual but all my relationships were straight,” said May. When May met her partner Taylor, the latter identified as genderqueer, used he/him pronouns, and seemed confident in their identity as a man, albeit a feminine one. “So it was a surprise to me when they told me that they wanted to begin feminizing hormones [three years into our relationship],” May said.She added that she also felt guilty for not seeing it coming—“had I not been listening?”—as well as humbled, because she realized how much she hadn’t understood about Taylor’s gender identity.“After the initial shock wore off and I had voiced all the safety concerns that were rolling around in my brain, I was excited for [Taylor],” said May. “I was concerned about how it would affect our relationship, but I felt confident that I would continue to love them no matter what, and that if this transition meant we were ultimately incompatible for some reason, I would be able to accept those consequences. It was worth the risk of us having to go our separate ways for them to live as their authentic self.” Taylor has since begun gender-affirming care, and May said this has helped make her feel closer to them than ever. Part of it is because they talk more, about the changes Taylor is going through, which brings a deeper intimacy and understanding into their relationship.“But for me, something else I have noticed is that as my partner has leaned into their femininity, I have felt very validated in my bisexual identity,” May said. “I am more aware than ever that I am attracted to women. Women come in all shapes and sizes and presentations, and while I’m not attracted to all of them, I am definitely attracted to some of them, like my partner.”
“A lot of people stay together even if their partner is no longer under the umbrella of their sexuality, as long as there’s good communication and trust.”
May now also feels more connected to the queer community, as she begins to have a greater appreciation of the experiences of lesbians and other bisexual women.Her partner’s coming out as trans may have helped May validate her own identity as a bisexual woman, but she said she ultimately would still be bisexual whether or not her partner transitioned. “None of us need to be validated by our relationship status or history. I was always queer, and would continue to be, even if my partner hadn’t ever decided to transition,” May said. “This experience has helped me to understand my queerness better, but it is only affirming what was already there.” Follow Romano Santos on Instagram.
“None of us need to be validated by our relationship status or history. I was always queer, and would continue to be, even if my partner hadn’t ever decided to transition.”