This is a guest post by Marie Richards.
When we met, Alex was 20, and I was 19. We had known each other as acquaintances in High School, but reconnected through mutual friends while I was finishing my first year of University. We’ve been together for two years now, and I couldn’t be happier. I am a firm believer that there are things that Alex and I have been through together that bond a couple like nothing else.
One of the biggest, hardest changes for both of us happened about six months ago when Alex told me that they were genderfluid. Although it was a huge challenge to accept at first, it has really strengthened our relationship. They (I’m using they for the sake of clarity; Alex isn’t fussy about pronouns) told me this after what felt like an eternity of fighting, and we had had strap-on sex for the first time. I should have known when I felt so connected to Alex in a way that I had never felt before that our strap-on was more than just a strap-on. They told me that thanks to a couple of Women’s Studies classes that I had taken and shared the contents of, they had come to think of themselves over the past few months in a way that finally fit, in a way that being a girl never had. They had come to the realization that they were not, in fact, a cisgender woman, like we had all thought, but a genderfluid person.
For anyone who isn’t familiar with this term, genderfluid describes someone who’s gender identity changes between two or more gender identities including male, female, agender, androgyne, genderqueer, bigender, and many others. This can change from day to day, week to week, or even within a matter of a couple of hours. I should also mention that the term ‘genderfluid’ fits under the umbrella term ‘trans*,’ (not short for transgender) which basically includes anyone whose gender does not match the one that they were assigned at birth. This can include people who are genderfluid, transgender, and other terms.
Someone who is transgender identifies with the gender opposite to the one that they were assigned at birth. This is not the same thing as being genderfluid because someone who is genderfluid will feel their gender move between male, female, and other combinations, whereas someone who is transgender doesn’t usually experience changes that go back and forth.
Sometimes I have to explicitly ask which gender Alex feels like, even though I know them well. There are many days where they still have to present as a woman, even when they feel like a man, because they have not told many people about their gender identity. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to figure out which gender, if any, Alex is every morning. Unfortunately, there are certain habits, stereotypes and expectations that our society has of men and women. These affect the things that Alex wants to do every day, what they want to wear, etc. I wouldn’t try to fondle their breasts on a day when they feel like a man, and I wouldn’t tell a female Alex that they’re handsome, or that they are tough. Confirming Alex’s gender identity in ways that happen to confirm patriarchal stereotypes makes them feel better. In my opinion, the problem with a patriarchal society is that people are forced to blindly follow norms. What makes our relationship, and this confirmation of Alex’s gender identity okay even though it supports gender stereotypes, is that Alex and I both have a choice. We aren’t letting gender norms control us, but we are using words to describe Alex as a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ to confirm their gender identity. The key to overcoming patriarchy, if you ask me, is not letting it control you. Even if you confirm it, as long as it’s your choice, it’s no one’s business to judge you.
Passing (being seen as the gender that you want to be seen as) is as important to a genderfluid person as it is to someone who is transgender. I actually exclaimed with joy the other day when we went to the movies and women in the washroom gave Alex looks that suggested they were in the wrong washroom. We have talked about binders (to secure Alex’s breasts), packers (a soft silicone penis that goes in the front of their pants to simulate the bulge that comes from an actual penis), dildos (that look like a real penis), and even hormones and biologically female to biologically male transition surgeries (to remove or reduce the size of breasts, and to change Alex’s vulva into a penis and testicles). Although we are pretty sure that Alex does not want to completely transition to having a penis and testicles all of the time, on the “male days”, we have discussed having their breasts removed, because they cause the most dysphoria (a feeling of unease that Alex or other trans* people might have, particularly in regards to gender or sexual organs). On the female days, they are okay with having to pad their breasts to make them look larger.
Although all these changes- even the ones that don’t involve surgery or hormones- mean that our sex life is substantially different from what it was in the beginning of our relationship, they are okay with me, whether Alex decides to go through with them or not, because I know that sexual intimacy is really about two people coming together to make each other feel good- and in our case, to love each other. I can’t make Alex feel good if they are not completely comfortable with their body. I have also come to understand that part of being intimate with someone has less to do with our bodies, and more to do with the ways our minds connect. Discovering new things, and in mine and Alex’s case, new body parts, is as intimate as any other sexual act.
I was the first person Alex ever told about being genderfluid. Even in the beginning, I tried to be really positive about it because I knew that in some way this probably felt like coming out as a lesbian all over again. I had done that, and I knew it was hard. I needed to be supportive, because I loved Alex.
Inside though, I was in pieces. As a cisgender woman, I could only understand Alex’s situation with their gender based on what they told me, and I felt like this was a lot of pressure. I had come out about three years before this, and had come to accept my identity as a lesbian as a crucial part of who I was. I loved being in a relationship with a woman: Alex was a soft, gentle person who really understood me, which were things I thought only a woman could be or do. Putting aside the fact that I am genuinely attracted to women, not men (Alex being the only exception), I am also a survivor of childhood sexual assault. Certain habits that many men have set me off for no reason; being with a woman was actually a very convenient way to avoid that. It’s not the only explanation for my lesbian identity, but it was a big part of why the thought of Alex being a man bothered me. I had also watched very traditional male-female relationships in my childhood where the woman blindly followed the man, and this had me convinced that, at least for me, I could never be in an equal partnership unless my partner was of the same gender as me. Most of all, I had never related well to men, and so I grew up thinking that my best friend would always be a woman. I felt cheated when Alex first came out, because I feared that I would lose my best friend, not just the love of my life.
But through all this, I never doubted the way we felt about each other. I loved Alex too much to let even this drive me away.
At first, it was a complete whirlwind. For the first little while, Alex presented as a man when we were at home alone, mostly because they had never had that chance before. I felt like I was mourning for the female Alex that I had fallen in love with. I went to a therapist at school, I wrote about it constantly, and I questioned Alex about every single little detail of their gender identity. We discovered Alex’s gender identity together, because I would come up with these questions so fast that Alex had not considered them yet. I fell in love with a woman, and suddenly, this woman told me that she was in fact, sometimes a he.
Eventually, I realized that Alex had not changed, only that they had become more honest with me. The person that I fell in love with was still there: I still felt safe in their arms, I still wanted to marry them, and they were still my best friend. But they were a much happier, freer version of the Alex I had met on our first date.
Better still, all of the things that I thought our relationship would no longer have were still there, and were much stronger. Alex and I were able to confide in each other so much more now, and with greater confidence than before. All of the fear that comes with laying your secrets bare for someone was not eliminated, but lessened, because Alex had told me one of the most shocking things you could tell someone. All the concern I had about us being in a relationship of equals dissipated. If anything, our relationship is more equal now. My panic attacks that stemmed from my history with sexual abuse were actually easier to handle; Alex was more sympathetic, especially on the days when they were a man, because they were extra sensitive to things that might scare me off.
When I realized this, I fell in love with Alex all over again, and harder than before.
I’m not saying that every relationship could benefit from one partner coming out as transgender or genderfluid, of course, or that our relationship is perfect. But for us, Alex coming out could not have come a moment too soon. Being honest with each other, as hard as it was to accept at first, was the best thing we did for us as a couple.