Op-ed: Being Married to a Lesbian Doesn’t Make Me Less of a Man
Recently trans guy Brayden Taylor stirred up a flurry of comments on Facebook by stating unequivocally that a lesbian cannot be a lesbian and date a trans man. Soon afterward he deleted his post, replacing it with the following statement:
“I'm deleting my last status do [sic] to the fact that its blowing up my phone ... I personally would NEVER be with someone who said they were a lesbian. Sorry if I offended anyone. I personally just don't understand how that works when in today's society, [a] ‘lesbian’ is a woman who dates women. I feel like when she does that and keeps the label she is telling society that she sees her partner as a woman. I do not know ANY women in my life that would be okay marrying a man or dating a man that tells everyone he is gay.”
Just as the Supreme Court’s decisions that a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional and Proposition 8 should be struck down are celebrated by thousands with the widely repeated phrase “Love Is Love;” Taylor’s post is a stark reminder that even within the LGBT community, many people do not truly believe that all love is equal.
Taylor isn’t the first person to express this idea, nor is he the only trans person to believe it. In fact, for many trans men, the love of a lesbian is suspect compared to the love of a straight woman or a gay man. Likewise for many trans women, the love of a straight woman is suspect compared to the love of a straight man or a lesbian. And for many trans people of any gender or sexual orientation, the love of a bisexual (man or woman) is also suspect.
This is because trans people worry about being seen for who they are and being seen as “real.” They fear that some attractions and some love can only happen if the other person isn’t seeing them authentically. In other words, in the view of trans men like Taylor, a lesbian-identified woman would not be with a trans man if she actually saw him as a man.
As someone who has been in a relationship with the same woman for the last 22 years, this certainly is a question I have heard before. After all, my wife, Diane, not only continued to identify as a lesbian after my transition eight years ago, she continued to run the world’s largest lesbian publication for half a dozen years after I became a man.
While some lesbians certainly questioned her right to maintain her lesbian credentials and represent the lesbian community in the media, I fielded far more questions from other trans folk about Diane’s capacity to see and love me as a “real” man.
And over the years more trans people than cisgender people have questioned whether Diane’s insistence upon retaining her own identity is a slight to my manhood.
The questions I throw back at them are many: Is the partner of someone who goes through a gender transition required to alter their own self-identification? Is your sexual orientation truly determined by the shape of your partner’s genitalia? If so, where does that leave partners of trans people who haven’t undergone genital surgery? Or maybe it’s your partner’s gender identity or gender expression that determines how you should identify? What makes our right as trans people to self-identify sacrosanct, while our partners must have their identities determined for them based on particular attributes not about themselves, but about us?
If a straight woman is married to a man and that man transitions to a woman, then we seem to want to force them into a gay relationship and require them to identify as lesbians. Likewise, when — after nearly 15 years as part of a lesbian couple — I transitioned, people seemed to believe that Diane wass required to alter her identity, because, the theory goes, she could not remain a lesbian while continuing to be with me.
I find it almost offensive that this line of argument originates so frequently from trans individuals.
Trans people have often argued, almost vehemently, that it doesn’t matter what we look like physically, it doesn’t matter what other people think, it doesn’t matter what style of clothing we wear, it doesn’t matter if our voices have changed or if we’ve undergone surgery or if we started hormone treatment — the only thing that matters is how we identify.
Once I verbalize my gender identity, I expect to be taken at my word. If I say I’m a man, I expect you to accept that I am a man. I could be wearing a dress, I could look like Miss America, and if I say I’m really a man, then you are supposed to accept that I am.
So it’s almost incomprehensible to me that we as a community or that individuals who identify as trans would not use the same logic when it comes to other people’s identities. It is not our place to identify someone else as a lesbian or as a straight person or as a bisexual person. It is completely up to them to decide and verbalize what their sexual orientation is.
This double standard is offensive. We can’t demand the freedom of self-identification for ourselves and then not allow other people that same right.
Like everyone else, Diane has the right to choose her own identities and to proclaim, “This is who I am,” and be taken at her word.
I dislike when members of any minority take it upon themselves to police their communities and determine who has the right to belong. When I first came out as trans, I was offended by a listserv moderator who suggested that some people weren’t really trans men because they were too feminine. I’ve seen this kind of policing everywhere I’ve lived and especially on the Internet, where people are more unabashed in sharing their feelings.
So it would be bad enough if the lesbian community insisted upon strict qualifications for a lesbian identity. But when someone outside that community suggests that they have a better idea of what components are essential to that identity, it is even more offensive.
Speaking of identity and being kicked out of your identity for particular behaviors, I have to ask, Since when does dating a lesbian make you less of a man? Straight men love lesbians. They find lesbianism a huge turn-on. And pop-cultural depictions would have us believe that it actually makes someone more, not less, of a man if he can “turn” a lesbian. Indeed, such men are often glorified in popular culture for their masculinity as though somehow they must be even manlier to get a girl to switch teams. But apparently, if you’re trans man and you get a lesbian to switch teams, it simply confirms the artificiality of your manhood.
For many trans men, it is a particular turn-on to be found attractive by straight women or gay men; it somehow validates their masculinity, somehow validates their self-image as a man. But it also suggests that only straight women and gay men have the visual acuity to see and correctly identify maleness in the world. Conversely, this would seem to indicate that only straight men and lesbians can correctly identify women and femaleness in the world. I just don’t believe that there is anything to confirm or validate this kind of assumption.
The question of realness and whether I’m seen or not seen by my partner is also at the heart of my response to another query that I frequently receive when someone first discovers that I didn’t transition until I was almost 40 years old.
People want to know why it took me so long to come out as transgender. Personally, I think one of the major reasons that I didn’t feel it necessary to declare my trans gender earlier was because of Diane. I feel like my wife has always seen the “real me.”
Maybe she and I didn’t start out with the understanding that those aspects of the “real me” demonstrated that I was more appropriately identified as a trans man then as a lesbian, but she always saw my true essence. Whether you want to call it a soul or something else, Diane saw the real me and she recognized and validated my masculinity in a way that allowed me to exist in the world in a female body without going crazy.
While I never felt entirely comfortable in my skin, with Diane I had long periods of time where I could forget that my external self didn’t reflect my internal truth — until I passed a mirror or had some other reminder of my female-bodiedness.
I felt seen and validated and loved by Diane even when my body was misrepresenting me and rendering me invisible to the rest of the world. So why should I now think that Diane has become blind to my truth, post-transition? Why would I think that now that my maleness is visible to the rest of world she would suddenly see femaleness instead?
This doesn’t mean that our transition as a couple was never a struggle. Of course it was. But the truth is that part of that struggle comes not from the inherent issues that arise in such a life-changing event. Part of it comes from the fact that other people project their concerns, prejudices, and issues upon transitioning couples.
When we first announced my new trans identity and told others I’d be transitioning from female to male, a surprising number of our closest friends and family members expressed their utter certainty that we would not survive as a couple because “Diane is a lesbian.”
One of the milestones about achieving true marriage equality will be in gaining validation of same-sex relationships on par with their straight counterparts. Because the truth is that even our own community hasn’t always done a great job of supporting, validating, and helping to maintain long-term LGBT relationships. This is changing dramatically of course, at least for same-sex couples.
But for many trans people, coming out still carries at the very least the fear that their relationship will end. There is an expectation that the relationship will end. That expectation emanates from societal forces. It seems present whether you’re coming from a queer or straight relationship. Some part of it is internalized but other people make it very clear that they expect you will break up because one of you is transitioning.
No one tells you at that point that “Love Is Love.”
So as we celebrate the Supreme Court victories and herald in an age of marriage equality, let us not forget that some relationships in our community are still fighting for validation. In addition to trans people, I’d say that many bisexuals are also still fighting for the greater society, and the LGBT community specifically, to recognize their relationships as having the same validity and value as anyone else’s.
Although I believe wholeheartedly that Diane has seen the real me throughout our relationship. I also acknowledge that I have become a different person because of hormone therapy, testosterone has made me into a different person and this naturally puts unusual stresses on our relationship.
For example, testosterone literally thickens your skin, and it seems to have a similar effect on emotions. My emotions are now muted, as though there is now a barrier between me and them or between me and the rest the world. My emotions are cushioned, less battered by external forces. Diane has had to adjust to these differences, to the way testosterone has altered my personality and my communication styles, but I still believe that she sees the “real me.”
In fact, I know she now truly sees me as a man, in a way she did not before my transition.
I know this not because she tells me, but because she demonstrates it, dozens of times throughout the day. Sometimes it is in very subtle, nearly imperceptible cues. And other times in ways that are blatant (and often unintendedly hilarious) in demonstrating just how far the belief in my manhood has penetrated into her subconscious.
One night we were watching television and a commercial came on, revealing dire statistics about the number of men who die each year, basically because they are too embarrassed to get a prostate exam.
Diane turned to me with utter seriousness and concern and asked, “Have you had a prostate exam?”
I shook my head.
“Oh, my God,” she said. “You’re over 40 and need to have one, right away.”
I started laughing.
“What?” she asked. “It isn’t funny!”
But it was. Because, as someone who was born female-bodied, I don’t even have a prostate.
Diane knows this.
But she has so accepted my maleness that she forgot I was different from other men. She has accepted this not just in principle but in the deepest parts of her subconscious mind. She has accepted my maleness not as something artificial or created but as utterly natural and all-encompassing.
So I know that Diane sees me as a man. If she can continue to see herself as a lesbian, even though she is married to a man, who am I to dissuade her? After all, I continue to see myself as part of the LGBT community even though I’m a man in a relationship with a woman. Diane continues to identify as queer, as a lesbian, sometimes clarifying it by saying perhaps she’s a bisexual-identified lesbian or as a lesbian-identified bisexual. Either way, together, we continue to identify as a queer couple. And none of this makes me any less of a man.
JACOB ANDERSON-MINSHALL is an author and journalist. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Advocate editor at large Diane Anderson-Minshall.