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For the most part, dating a transgender person is no different from dating a cisgender person (someone who identifies with the gender assigned to them at birth). But if you are a cis person dating a trans person, there are some things you should keep in mind that may not have come up in your previous relationships with other cis people.
I am a polyamorous queer cisgender woman, and nearly half of all the lovers I’ve had have been transgender. I take this as a compliment: like everyone I make mistakes, but I figure I’m doing something right if so many trans* people have chosen to welcome me into their hearts. Keeping in mind that I’ve by no means covered every topic, here’s what I’ve learned about being a good cis partner to trans people I date.
1. Recognize that your partner’s identity may change over time
This is important to keep in mind even if you’re dating a cis person, because anyone can discover something new about their gender identity. I’m dating a cis woman whose partner of nearly a year identified as a cis man for most of their relationship. Recently, though, they have started to identify as transgender. My girlfriend has struggled to adapt – in fact, I have been more consistent about her partner’s preferred gender-neutral pronouns than she has, because I met them after they came out as trans, while my girlfriend has known them as male for the majority of their relationship. But respecting your partner’s changing identity is key to maintaining a healthy relationship, and my girlfriend has been learning to embrace her partner’s feminine identity as it develops alongside their masculine identity.
2. Correct people who misgender your partner
I run into this issue a lot, because my partner uses they/their/them pronouns, and many people are not familiar with using the singular they as a gender-neutral pronoun for people they know. It can be awkward sometimes. I talk about my partner with the correct pronouns, but most everyone knows I’m queer and automatically uses “she” to refer to them because they think I only date female-identified people. Sometimes this happens with people I’ve only just met. Even so, no matter how awkward I feel, I always step up and tell people to use the correct pronouns to talk about them. If it’s awkward for me, I imagine how much worse it is for my partner to have to correct people about themself. As someone with the protection of cisgender privilege, it is my responsibility to help my partner be respected as the gender they are.
It’s important to ask your partner, though, whether there are any situations in which you shouldn’t correct misgendering. If your partner hasn’t come out at work, for example, or if their family relations are so fraught they’d rather just let the misgendering slide, you should follow your partner’s lead on how to proceed.
3. Don’t ask about surgery or sex organs unless things are clearly going in a sexy direction
Your partner’s body parts are none of your business unless you are going to touch them (with their permission). Period. Unless your partner tells you first that you are allowed to ask questions about their body, do not ask. Ask yourself: if my partner were cis, would I be comfortable asking them whether their dick is circumcised, or whether their nipples are sensitive? If your answer is no, then you shouldn’t ask your trans partner about their sexy parts either.
If you are about to have sex, then it can be acceptable to ask about genitals and other sexy bits. However, rather than saying, “So, what do you have in your pants?” you can say something like, “So, what parts of your body make you feel sexual, and how can I touch them in a way that will make you feel good?” That way, your partner can describe their sexy parts in a way that feels natural to them, and you can learn what kinds of things they like in bed. Two birds with one stone!
4. Understand your partner’s body image
Your partner might use different words to describe their sexy parts than what you’d see in an anatomy textbook or hear in a porno. Just because a trans guy’s dick is smaller and differently shaped from your average cis guy’s dick doesn’t mean you shouldn’t call it a dick if he asks you to. Make sure you ask what terms your partner prefers.
There may also be parts of your partner’s body that cause them dysphoria and that you should not touch. Make sure to ask if there are any off-limits areas before you get intimate. This can be true for cis people with body image issues or who have survived sexual assault, so it’s a good idea to ask cis partners about this as well.
5. Be mindful of you and your partner’s particular sexual safety needs
If your partner is trans, it may not be obvious whether you can impregnate your partner or if your partner can impregnate you. A trans woman on hormone replacement therapy who hasn’t had gender confirmation surgery, for example, may still be able to impregnate you if you have fertile ovaries and she penetrates you. Ask questions before you engage in potentially reproductive sex and take appropriate precautions.
Your trans partner may also have different needs when it comes to barriers for preventing STIs. For example, trans women on hormone therapy who haven’t had genital surgery may not be able to have erections, so you may need to use a dental dam as a barrier for oral sex rather than a condom. Trans men’s erections, on the other hand, are too small for typical condoms; cutting the thumb off a latex or nitrile glove can serve as a good alternative.
6. Acknowledge and correct your own mistakes
If you’re with your trans partner for long enough, sooner or later, you’re probably going to mess up. If you do, correct your mistake swiftly and apologize sincerely. It doesn’t have to be a grand drama. The more quickly and honestly you respond, the better.
On our second date, I accidentally misgendered my partner. I didn’t even notice I did it, but when it was pointed out to me, I immediately said, “I’m very sorry. I meant ‘they,’ not ‘she.’” We moved on, and I changed my behavior in response; I haven’t misgendered them since.
Your partner may lose trust in you if you do something like this. The only thing you can do is earn it back through good behavior. Saying sorry is important, but you have to back that apology with swift and appropriate action.
7. Ask your partner what you can do to validate their gender identity.
My partner doesn’t like it when I call myself a lesbian (though that fits me better than most other labels) because they’re not a woman and they feel it invalidates their gender identity. One of my transgender lovers feels validated when I call them “girl” in casual conversation and in bed. Many non-binary trans people want to be called a partner rather than a boyfriend or girlfriend. You are in a unique position to be a support system for your partner and affirm their gender identity in ways our society will not. Ask your partner how you can show them how much you recognize and respect who they truly are.
To finish up, I’d like to say that you can learn a hell of a lot about sex, gender, and politics from dating a trans person. Obviously, trans people are much more than learning experiences for cis people. But you should be thankful for everything your trans partner brings into your life that you might not have known about otherwise. I know that I am.