Eight months ago I pulled a bra out of the washing machine for the first time since breaking up with my college girlfriend and loudly coming out of the closet as a gay man a decade earlier. This bra belonged to someone I would have called my boyfriend a week earlier, before she came out to me as a transgender woman. Bras were just the start of things to which I'd need to adjust.
To the rest of the world, we're a couple of gay guys. Only she and I (and a team of medical professionals) know that that's not the case. While she's not currently out to anyone else and lives her everyday life passing as a man, she's medically transitioning so that her body will match her gender identity. Eventually she'll live her everyday life as a woman.
After she came out, I scoured the Internet for stories of experiences like mine. What I found was an alarming void. Are you a cisgender woman whose husband has come out as a trans* woman? A cis woman whose heretofore female partner has come out as a trans* man? A cis man who has struck up a relationship with a trans* woman? A child of a parent who's come out as trans*? If so, Google will serve you well. But stories like mine, stories of cis gay men whose heretofore male partners come out as trans* women? Not so common. When all I wanted was to find solace in an account of a successful relationship that resembled mine, this was incredibly disheartening. But I suppose there are worse things than being a torchbearer.
When you find out that the person you love is of a different gender than you'd thought, you end up with a lot of questions. Amidst the cacophony of questions I had about her, her experience, her thoughts, the vocabulary, the pronouns, the medical information, the surgical plans and all the other minutiae, the one thing I kept circling back to had nothing to do with her. It was about me:
I'm a self-identified gay man whose partner is a woman, so what does that make me?
A fear that seems relatively universal among monosexual-identified cis people whose partners come out as trans* is that the relationship might backslide into something platonic. Among the straight-cis-woman-married-to-a-trans*-woman set, the fear is usually that the relationship could turn into more of a sisterly bond after the transition.
I think we're both afraid of this to a certain extent. She's voiced fears that I might be disgusted by her breasts and not want to interact with them. I've expressed fears that her sexual orientation might fluctuate more toward women as she transitions (she's always identified as pansexual), or that I may not be sexually attracted to a female body.
When she initially started the coming-out discussion, she phrased things in terms that were somewhat more genderqueer or gender-fluid. In reassuring her that I understood and supported her, I recall saying, "You could be full-on trans* and I'd be OK with that."
Her immediate reaction was, "Yeah, but you're gay."
"So?" I asked.
It's an unusual scenario in which to find oneself. After I discussed the circumstances with my therapist, she asked me how I identify. I gave her my new answer: "Up until now, gay."
"OK, so what about now?" she asked.
I kept looking up labels and definitions of sexual identities on the queer spectrum, and none of them felt quite right. I didn't feel comfortable claiming a gay identity any longer, because my partner isn't a man. I don't view her as such, and I'm not going to try to cheat the system with a creepy "she's a man where it counts!" viewpoint. She's a woman, plain and simple. And I still find her just as attractive as I always did, if not more so thanks to the huge interpersonal strides we've taken since she came out. But no other sexual identity quite fit, either. I felt like I was slipping on a costume for a brief moment when I tried out labels like "queer" and "pansexual." I just couldn't quite connect to them internally.
I realize that labels aren't crucial. Who cares what I am as long as I'm happy, right? Why does it need a name? Well, it's a struggle to be free-floating out in this ether of the unknown. With all the changes, variables and grey area heading our way, stripping myself of my sexual identity feels like ripping away yet another anchor. I've always found comfort in labels and definitions -- a natural byproduct of being a bit of a vocabulary nerd, I think -- so it's a scary prospect to lose an anchor like that without a replacement.
In lieu of a proper term, I'm choosing to focus on what I know to be true. I know my partner is a woman. I know I'm emotionally and physically attracted to her (even now that her breasts have started to grow and her body becomes ever more feminine). I know we're more in love than we ever have been. I guess that's good enough for me.