My SO Transitioned While We Were Dating

Editor’s note: The use of both male and female pronouns throughout this piece represents the author’s stylistic choice. When writing about the transgender community, it is ideal to use a person’s current pronouns, and not pronouns referring to that person’s birth sex.

We were laying in bed one afternoon—post-coitus—my head on his chest as he ran his fingers through my hair. The blissful moment was unceremoniously interrupted when my boyfriend said to me abruptly, "I have to tell you something."

Immediately, my stomach dropped. I started to run through everything I knew about him, digging through the depths of my mind to figure out what his big secret was. He's a male, straight women's studies PhD student. Yeah. Yeah. My dream guy. And rare. Like not-chipping-your-nail-polish-during-the-first-week rare (or is that just me?). Avoiding-everyone-you-know-at-the-grocery-store-when-you-look-terrible rare. Or, well, male-straight-women's-studies-PhD-student rare. And not only was he smart and successful (not to brag, but he has a prestigious fellowship from the best program in the country), he was also handsome, sweet, funny, and of course, a feminist. So, I guess it shouldn't have come as a huge surprise to me when my Mr. Perfect had to tell me something.

"What is it?" I asked, not knowing that I was really prepared to hear the answer.

"I want you to guess," he told me.

Guess? Was this some sort of game to him? Some kind of cruel game? He wanted me to guess, so he didn't have to tell me. It had to be something bad. Really bad.

I began running through details in my head once again. He was 25, three years my senior. I met him when he was the teacher's assistant for my women's studies class. He introduced himself by citing a love for Arrested Development and chicken tikka masala. He was my favorite kind of charming: nerdy and a little socially awkward, but still adorable. 

So naturally, I assessed his sexuality. Well, can you blame me? A tall, skinny, socially awkward male women's studies PhD student. You can't say it wouldn't cross your mind. Either way, I came back with the assessment of "straight" after a series of flirtatious interactions—including one where I went to his office hours to discuss the readings for the next class (riiiiiiight)—and his style was a little… clueless? But now, in bed together months later, my mind drifted back to that initial insecurity.

"Are you, um, bisexual?" I asked. As a godless, feminist liberal (and proud!), I'm totally cool with bisexuality. But how did I feel about my boyfriend being bisexual? Was I cool with it when it was a part of my own relationship? I didn't find out. Because no, he said, he was straight.

My mind again returned to the progression of our relationship. After weeks of mutual flirtation and a revelatory Valentine's Day, he stopped being my TA, and I stopped having to just fantasize about him. He told his mom that I "hunted him down like a wild animal" (mildly accurate), and I told him that I had found the only male, straight women's studies PhD student in existence, and he was delusional if he thought I was ever going to let him go.

His dissertation and research focused on fetishism. Kinky, right? Then he told me about the paper he recently wrote about bodily release fetishes. You know—sneezing, vomiting and the like. So, not the Cosmo kind of kinky (Use furry pink handcuffs! Use his tie as a blindfold! Leave the light on tonight!). My next question followed this line of thinking.

"Do you have some kind of fetish I don't know about?"

"Yes. Well, yes."

When she started transitioning, there was no question in my mind that we would stay together. I loved her, regardless of her gender. I reasoned that it wasn’t as if she was becoming a different person; just a different gender. And I knew she needed me there. Every single, small interaction was now a struggle. She worried about passing, meaning she worried that others would be able to tell she was transgender. Her voice. Her Adam’s apple. Her height. I got hushed, frantic phone calls from the Panera parking lot where she sat, frozen in her car, terrified to go in and order a sandwich. I was angry that we lived in a society where she was forced to have this fear. I comforted her, told her she was beautiful, and hung up.

To build her confidence, she became active on social media, cultivating an online presence that she had never cared about before. She became an advocate for transgender rights, and I was proud. It felt amazing to have her on my arm. She was first prize, and I was the winner.

It felt like her transition was something we did together. I chose her name. I picked out her clothes. I did her make up and her hair. I joked that she was my life-size Barbie doll. In the beginning, I was constantly nervous that I would slip up and use the wrong pronouns, and using the wrong pronouns with someone who is transitioning his or her gender is a deeply hurtful thing to do. Slowly, I truly saw her as my girlfriend—even without her wig or breast forms or make-up—and it was natural. Our sex life oddly didn’t change much. Our dirty talk did. She liked to feel pretty. She liked to feel delicate. And she liked to pretend she had a vagina. But it was the same naked body I was used to, so it didn’t feel like such a big change. Mentally, maybe, but not physically.

So, I was dating a woman. This meant wolf whistles when we kissed on a street corner and lying about her gender to my elderly grandmother. During part of our relationship, I was a teacher at a high school in Florida. One day, she called me when I was helping out at a speech and debate meeting. One of my students asked who was calling. I lied.

It feels terrible to lie about someone you love. It felt dirty. It felt wrong. But I wasn’t ready to come out at work, especially at a school in a state where you can be fired for being gay (fun fact: there are still 29 states where you can be fired for being gay and 32 states where you can be fired for being transgender. America!). This caused tension in our relationship. She thought I was ashamed of her; I assured her that wasn’t the case. I was being honest, but it wasn’t good enough.

When I graduated from college, logistics were not on our side. After fruitless months of job searching in Atlanta, where she lives, I ended up taking a position in Washington, D.C. Our relationship had been far from squeaky clean before this point—she was still close with her ex-girlfriend and had repeatedly lied to me about the nature of their relationship over the course of ours. There were trust issues. She gave me an ultimatum: either we lived in the same city, or we were engaged. That wasn’t going to work. This move was the final nail in the coffin.

She was supportive at first, but I knew she didn’t like the idea of living apart with no definitive end date. I drew up scenarios of her moving to the District with me, but I could tell she wasn’t into it, which made me feel like I wasn’t a priority to her. I realized she wasn’t the same person I had met in my women’s studies class. She liked the newfound attention she got from online admirers. She didn’t support me. She held me back. She was selfish. And maybe she had to be. After all, she never before had experienced being a young woman. She needed to focus on herself. It was hard to feel like I had helped her through such a difficult part of her transition—telling her employers, telling her devout Mormon family, coming out to her friends—and then was dumped when she had enough confidence to go on without me. I’d spent more than a year putting her first, and it was time to be my own number one. Though the break-up was nasty, I learned a lot from our relationship: about the transgender community and about my own sexuality. I’ve become a more open-minded person, and I’m grateful for that.

Now, I’m in an amazing relationship with a straight, male feminist (no women’s studies PhD, but hey, nobody’s perfect). The greatest difference is that I’ve found someone who loves me unconditionally and wants the best for me, and I couldn’t be happier.

For more information about the transgender community, visit the National Center for Transgender Equality or GLAAD.

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