If you’re a straight person in a relationship, there are templates for you to follow.
There are movies about straight relationships, books, songs, and a horde of people with experience in straight relationships willing and able to dole out advice on them.
If you’re in a gay relationship, you might find yourself with fewer resources at your disposal. As gay and lesbian couples have faced judgement and discrimination for so long (and still do), the number of resources available for are much lower.
However, if you’re in a relationship where one partner identifies as neither a man or woman, the usefulness of existing relationship advice might not apply in the same way.
Absent the traditional gender roles, what do relationships look like? And how do you handle the unique and often novel hurdles of a kind of relationship you probably weren’t prepared for by your upbringing?
In order to get a better sense of how relationships with non-binary, gender fluid, or genderqueer individuals work, AskMen spoke with a handful of dating experts, as well three members of such couples. Here’s what they had to say:
What Is a Non-Cisgender Relationship?
If you’re not familiar with the terminology already, it’s worth breaking down what exactly everything means in the sense of non-cisgender relationships.
“Cis,” short for “cisgender,” is a term created to exemplify the opposite of “trans” or “transgender.” The same way “heterosexual” and “homosexual” were framed as two opposite possibilities for sexual desire, “cis” and “trans” exemplify two possibilities for gender identity.
If you feel comfortable with the gender you were assigned at birth — typically the gender associated with your physical sex — you’re cis. After for those who consider themselves to be trans, it has come to exemplify and stand for many different approaches to gender. The most commonly understood ones are typically when people transition from male to female or vice-versa.
That said, not everyone who identifies as trans believes it to be that straightforward. Some people feel more comfortable in the middle, either associating with both male and female, or associating with neither, and some people feel most comfortable passing back and forth between the two.
This plurality of approaches to gender has given us terms like “non-binary,” “genderqueer,” and “genderfluid,” among others. As for what they mean, let’s dig a little deeper.
“Non-binary (slang: enby) means that you don’t identify with the gender binary which is based on one’s sex assigned at birth (male or female),” says Jor-El Caraballo, relationship therapist and co-creator of Viva Wellness. “Instead of gender being either-or, it exists on a continuum ranging from stereotypically masculine to feminine. Non-binary folks don’t necessarily subscribe to the ideas of fixed gender and often find themselves floating in their identity and/or expression. This could mean expressing gender through changes in name, pronouns used, clothing, hairstyles, etc.”
Looking at those who identify as genderfluid, sex and relationship therapist Shadeen Francis notes that they’re “often communicating that their relationship to their personal gender identity is open to change.”
Genderqueer, meanwhile, often means someon’s approach to gender involves a certain playfulness, a willing to experiment, and a fearlessness when it comes to mixing and matching various gender signifiers — someone whose gender expression leaps out rather than expressing a kind of quiet androgyny.
All of these terms fall under “gender non-conforming,” a subset of trans that specifically refers to those not gravitating towards either male or female.
“Identifying as gender non-conforming is a label that essentially says, ‘I don’t participate in stereotyped conceptions of gender,’” says Francis. “Gender is a social construct, and so while it is ‘real’ in the sense that much of society uses it to relate to one another, it is also very limiting.”
What Are Non-Cisgender Relationships Like?
What is it like to explore and develop relationships when your relationship to gender doesn’t match up with being straight or gay? For starters, it can hinge on what your partner (or prospective partner) thinks and feels about gender and sexuality in a big way.
“I only came out as non-binary about a year and a half after I was married, and by then I had already been with my partner for eight years,” says Jess, 30, a non-binary person. “My gender was a much larger deal when I first came out — the stakes were high! My gender essentially makes my spouse ‘not straight,’ and that could have been a big deal. It mainly comes down to discussions about transition steps from time to time, and emotional support through transphobia and frustrating situations.”
For couples where coming out is a bit easier — for instance, if your partner already identifies as queer — it can be less of a bumpy road internally. That’s not to say it’ll all be straightforward, but if you’re confident your partner won’t freak out about it, you can approach your trials and learning experiences together as a team.
On the other hand, if you’re not especially knowledgable when it comes to these matters, dating a non-binary, genderfluid, or genderqueer person can be an incredible learning experience when it comes to what gender is, how it works, and how we can all work to free ourselves from the very limiting ways it imposes itself on us.
In Jess’s marriage, the intimacy and intensity of the dialogue around gender was something that spilled over into other aspects of the relationship.
“As an added bonus to having to navigate potentially difficult conversations about gender and my transition together, our ability to communicate with each other about difficult topics is even stronger than it otherwise would be,” they noted.
Struggles People in Non-Cis Relationships Face
Part of being in a minority is experiencing struggles that most people have no idea about, and this is certainly true of gender non-conforming people and their romantic partners. When one (or both of you) are outside of the traditional gender boundaries, it can make for awkward encounters with society at large.
“We’ve encountered a lot of confusion from folks, including other queer folks, when they find out that we’re in a relationship,” says Erin, 28, a non-binary person. “Part of that is, I think, the word ‘partner’ being equated with same-sex relationships, but another big part is people having a hard time understanding that Patrick is not a gay man and I’m not a butch lesbian. It can feel really alienating when your community doesn’t see your relationship as valid or possible, or when people insist on viewing gender as binary and don’t understand how a cis person and a non-binary person could be together.”
Erin notes how frustrating it can be when people think they and partner Patrick, 27, a pansexual man, are “just a cis, straight couple, because we are so deeply gay and I am so incredibly not cis.”
“I’m not going to be mad if some random person we pass on the street thinks that, but it’s so aggravating to feel like you have to prove yourself over and over again to your own community,” they add. “Cis folks don’t have that pressure put on them, so that’s a big difference to me.”
Supporting Non-Cisgender Partners
If you really like someone, their gender can feel like an afterthought. But whether it’s important to you or not, it’s definitely important to them, and that means it’s worth putting in the effort to figure out how to be a good partner when it comes to this part of their identity.
So what can a cisgender person do to support a non-cisgender partner?
For starters, it’s important to recognize that the person you’re into faces difficult situations in their day-to-day because of the way many people see gender. They’re likely to feel anxious, scared, insecure, lonely, left out, or hurt on a fairly regular basis because of their experiences with people who don’t treat them the way they’d like to be treated.
You can make a big difference by being conscious of that, helping to push back against it.
“Stand up for us when people get our pronouns wrong, field the weird questions from family members who ask what your future children are going to call your trans partner, help us put an end to intrusive lines of questioning that we’re too scared/polite to shut down, and be respectful of the fact that we may not be out to everyone yet,” says Erin.
Patrick, Erin’s partner, says they’re “happy to field awkward questions, explain things to ignorant folks and do that work, because it’s a lot easier to explain a concept or identity that is important to you, but not your own, to ignorant people, rather than asking your trans partner to explain their existence to someone.”
For Jess, that support is likely to be different for each gender non-conforming person, so the most important thing to do is keep your ears open.
“Take the time to really listen to how they want you to support them,” they suggest. “Do they want you to help correct their pronouns when other people make mistakes? Would it be easier for you to explain to your family that they’re trans so that they don’t have to? Ask them what they need from you and then do your best to do it. Listen to them about their experiences, too.”
If you’re in a relationship with someone who’s not cis, good on you for doing some preliminary research by reading this article!
That said, there’s more to this stuff than can be covered here, so it’s worth looking into other sources of information to help ground your understanding of and approach to these matters.
One suggestion? Checking out the Gender Reveal podcast, particularly the Gender 101 series.
“Any episode is good, but if you’re just dipping your toe into the gender exploration waters, I’d recommend starting with those specific episodes,” suggests Erin. “It’s a podcast focused specifically on gender, and the host, Tuck Woodstock, interviews a bunch of different folks in different disciplines and from different backgrounds.”
You can also talk to people who understand these issues a little better.
“My spouse suggested trans friends who you trust and who consent to answering questions for you,” notes Jess.
Alternately, talking to a professional isn’t a terrible idea, particularly if you’re feeling like your world is being rocked by your partner’s coming out.
“Navigating relationships can be challenging, especially now for those in relationships with someone one who identifies as non-binary/gender non-conforming partners and cis people,” says sexologist Tanya Bass. “Great resources include a few of my favorite sex therapists like Dr. Lexx James, Dr. Donna Oriowo, Sankofa Sex Therapy, or Dr. Tom Murray, all valuable resources for managing relationships, many offering telehealth services.”
This Article was published in Askman.com