Shannon T.L. Kearns
Shannon T.L. Kearns
Cisgender Partners Of Transgender People (A Story)
Shannon T.L. Kearns > Cisgender Partners Of Transgender People (A Story)
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We were at a summer festival, a Pride fest, setting up a table for her work. I was there to keep her company for the day. I was also there hoping to find community, to feel a little less alone. It was my first Pride since coming out as trans. I still hadn’t begun my medical transition. I had purchased a binder and was wearing a prosthetic, but other than that nothing about my appearance had changed much. I had changed my pronouns amongst my closest friends but folks were still about 50/50 on getting them right. My partner at the time was still maybe 25/75 on getting them right.

I believed that she was trying. I believed that she supported me. But every time she got it wrong it stung. I was already feeling invisible in the world, so to feel invisible with her? Torture.

As we were setting up for this event we were wrangling an awkward folding table. At some point while maneuvering the table it bumped into my groin region. You know, the type of thing that happens when you are moving a table. My partner kind of chuckled. And then pushed the table at me again with a smile on her face.

I remember, at the time, feeling ashamed but I couldn’t really articulate why. I was embarrassed. I felt stupid for being embarrassed. I was annoyed at her. And then, of course, she got mad at me for being annoyed. Because that was how it worked with her. She would do something hurtful, I would get hurt, and then she would get angry at me for being hurt.

Later on in the day I walked around the festival and there wasn’t a single trans table. Here I was, supposedly in a place that was my community, and I felt completely invisible. There was no one like me around. 

And I felt stupid for being upset with my partner. It was just a joke. It was no big deal. Why was I so upset? She was supporting me after all.

But looking back on this incident I realize that I was right to be upset. I couldn’t name it then but now I understand what was happening. In that moment with the table something really important was transpiring between my partner and I. In that moment, the table hit my groin. One of the places on my body that I was most self-conscious about. For a cis guy it would have been a painful hit. It would have been the kind of hit that they reacted to. But it wasn’t a painful hit for me and I was self-conscious about it not being a painful hit for me. And when my partner pushed that table back at me she was saying, I know what’s in your pants. I know you can’t feel this. I know this doesn’t hurt you. I know you’re not really a dude. It was a micro-aggression maybe, but it didn’t feel so micro to me. I felt completely humiliated.

And this was someone who was liberal. Who claimed to support trans people. Who claimed to support me.

I’m sure if she were to read this story she wouldn’t even remember this incident. Or she would have said she was just joking, just trying to be funny. Or that I was being too sensitive or serious. Or that no one else would have noticed what was happening so what was the big deal?

And yet it is almost ten years later and I still remember how small I felt in that moment. How invisible and invalidated. How belittled. I remember how much I felt that I wasn’t real. That I had no right to demand that she respect my identity. That I had no right to demand that she respect my body.

That same day she struggled with how to introduce me. Because what she was worried about was feeling like she didn’t belong. She claimed that it was about how I didn’t really look male yet. And I told her that it was her job to correct people if they got my pronouns wrong. But she didn’t want that job. Her real worry was that if people saw me as male that she wouldn’t be seen as a lesbian. And I get it; to be seen as someone you are not is painful. To feel invisible is one of the worst feelings in the world. But with her it was always a zero sum game. There was always a winner and a loser. She couldn’t…wouldn’t let me be who I was because her own identity mattered more than mine.

And so she would consistently out me. And in the rare moments she didn’t out me she would talk about how hard it was for her. It didn’t matter to her that I didn’t want to be out. It didn’t matter to her that I felt unsafe when she outed me. It didn’t matter to her that sometimes I was literally unsafe when she outed me.

This story isn’t really about her. Because this pattern of behavior is something I’ve encountered over and over again even from people who claim to be allies. They are allies only as long as it is convenient for them. But when it starts to cost them something they turn and run the other way. They stop being supportive. They stop being in solidarity.

Sure I’m an ally but I’ll out you if it means that I can claim your identity as a credit to me. Or if your identity makes me feel less visible. Sure I’ll get your pronouns right, but only when it works for me. Sure I’ll say that I respect your body but I’ll make sure to remind you that you are less than if your body and my body are somehow at odds with one another.

This is why I get so angry when all of the narratives about trans and cis couples talk about how hard it is for the cisgender person. How much they have to give up. How much it costs them.

Because no one ever talks about how hurtful it is when the cis partner says shitty stuff. No one ever talks about how harmful it is when the cis partner tells you that you are unnattractive. No one ever talks about how hurtful it is when the person who is supposed to be the most in your corner treats you like shit or calls you by the wrong name or outs you to a stranger or gets your pronoun wrong. No one talks about how demoralizing it is when everyone rallies around your partners bad behavior and tells you you need to be more patient/understanding/kind/nice because it’s just so hard to love a trans person and that you should be thankful that your partner even deigned to stay with you.

Because transgender people with transgender bodies are seen as less than. As freaks. As undesirable. We’re seen as disposable. As charity cases. And our cisgender partners are seen as heroes for staying with people like us. But as maybe flawed heroes because after all if they were real heroes they could get someone better.

It’s really hard not to internalize these messages (both large and small) about the worthiness of my identity and the worthiness of my body. And for every micro-agression and every just flat out aggression that I endure it gets harder. Because the message is the same every time: you are less than. You matter less than, you look less than, you are less than.

But I know that I am not less than. I am not a second rate man. I am not misshaped or malformed. My body is not disgusting or flawed or lacking. I am not lacking.

And anyone who can’t see that doesn’t get to be a part of my life. And frankly? They are missing out.

That ex-partner tried to put me in my place that day but what she really did was show the limits of her own solidarity. She is not an ally to trans people. Not in the ways that really matter and count. And when the rubber hits the road she will choose herself over the concerns of someone more marginalized.

It took years to realize that my worth wasn’t bound up in her approval of me. That I didn’t need her to sign off on my identity for it to be valid and treasured. Instead I had to value my identity myself. I had to be secure in myself.

And thanks be to God, these days I am.

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Photo Credit: duncan Flickr via Compfight cc