When I first started dating my partner–a trans man–I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I had long-since identified as a pansexual and had lots of transgender friends, but entering a sexual relationship with a trans person was new territory for me. I had a lot of questions and I wasn’t sure how to approach them all. Thankfully, my partner was really receptive to my ignorance in those areas and we established an open line of communication early on. For those of you who may be entering relationships with a transgender partner, here are some guidelines to make it easier for you both.
Strap in for your “Trans Terminology 101” course because there’s a lot to get through. LGBT people often use labels to identify ourselves that people outside the community (straight, cisgender folks) may not be familiar with. There are terms for gender and terms for sexuality, which are independent identities that don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other.
Transgender: Someone who does not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. “Trans” is a shortened adjective (not all transgender people shorten it, so be aware of that preference) and describes a person. For example, a man who is transgender is usually a “trans man” or “transman.” Some transgender folks may simply say “man” or “woman” and don’t use “trans” as an adjective when telling people their gender.
Cisgender: Someone who identifies with the sex they were assigned at birth. “Cis” is an adjective from a Latin root which describes a person. For example, a woman who is cisgender is a “cis woman.”
MTF/FTM: A term some people use to describe themselves as transitioning from “male to female” or “female to male.” The use of this term is personal and not all trans people will use it to identify themselves.
AFAB/AMAB: A term meaning “assigned female at birth” or “assigned male at birth,” which some people use to describe themselves based on their assigned sex, which they may or may not agree with. The use of this term is personal and not all trans people will use it to identify themselves.
HRT: “Hormone replacement therapy,” a process that some trans people go through where hormones are prescribed to change their physical appearance and/or voice. HRT has a number of effects on people that might differ based on the person’s body and progress in their transition. Not all trans people choose to go through HRT.
Transexual: A generally outdated term to describe someone who has had sex reassignment surgery. This term can be very offensive to some people, though a few older trans folks still use it to identify themselves. Do not use this term to describe someone without their explicit permission.
Genderqueer: A description for someone who identifies somewhere on the gender spectrum but usually not as a binary man or woman.
Genderfluid: A description for someone whose gender fluctuates on the spectrum and may change day to day or in specific situations.
Agender: A description for someone who does not identify with any gender.
Demigirl: A description for someone who partially, but not fully, identifies as a girl, regardless of their assigned sex at birth.
Demiboy: A description for someone who partially, but not fully, identifies as a boy, regardless of their assigned sex at birth.
Dysphoria: A state of feeling uneasy or unhappy with one’s body or gender. This is usually associated with anxiety or depression-like symptoms in trans people and can be triggered by certain situations, such as being misgendered. Not every trans person experiences dysphoria, but it is a very common experience.
More specific gender terms exist beyond this list. If your partner has identified themselves as something not listed here, you can research their specific term by doing an online search or asking them directly. So long as you approach the question with respect, most people are willing to explain what their identity means to them.
Pronouns and Visibility Status
Depending on the person, your partner may or may not be out to everyone. They may not be out to anyone, only be out to some people (such as close friends or family), or be entirely out as transgender. An important thing to know aside from how they identify is who else knows they’re trans. This is also known as their visibility status.
Some people have to keep their gender a secret for one reason or another. This can be due to family expectations, avoiding issues in the workplace, safety reasons, or personal comfort. Some people may have to suppress their true gender and stay closeted while others may openly identify and “pass” as their true gender, but not disclose the fact that they are transgender. In either case, it’s important to know what their visibility status is so you don’t accidentally put them in danger.
Ask your partner if they are out to immediate family, extended family, friends, coworkers, bosses, and the general public. This will help keep them safe and comfortable in situations where you are around people in their life who may or may not know about their gender. Be sure to use their correct pronouns in the appropriate situations. Commonly, they will only go by one set of pronouns and one name. However, if your partner isn’t out to their super conservative family and asks you to refer to them by other names or pronouns, respect that request for their safety. Ask them how they’d like to be introduced to your friends and family.
If your partner is fully transitioned (a point which may differ for everyone) and living as their true gender, you may never hear their birth name. Birth names are a deeply personal subject for some trans people. A tran’s person’s birth name that is no longer used is referred to as someone’s dead name and is completely unnecessary for anyone else to know. If you do know their dead name, do not share it with others without expressed consent from your partner. It usually isn’t anyone else’s business, regardless of the legal status of your partner’s name.
Let’s Talk About Sex
If you are going to have sex with a trans person for the first time, you should have a discussion to make sure everyone’s on the same page beforehand. Sex can be a sensitive subject to some people, but a totally natural one to others. Trans people may take more time or trust in order to engage in sex with someone due to body image issues or dysphoria, but this obviously isn’t the case for all trans people.
Before sexual contact, I recommend that you have a discussion about your partner’s specific terminology about their body. This can be a little awkward to talk about, but really reduces issues in the future. Ask them what you should call their genitals during sex or dirty talk. Some folks will use anatomical terms for their genitals (penis, vulva, clitoris), some will use adaptive language (girl dick, bonus hole), and others will refer to their genitals as what they’d like them to be (even if pre-HRT or surgery). People will have their specific preferences, and having that information outright will make it easier to respect their wishes rather than learn from mistakes.
Another important conversation before sex is your partner’s specific triggers for dysphoria, if any. This can be a tough conversation for some people and I absolutely don’t suggest you push this topic, but sometimes it’s better to have an open discussion about the things that upset your partner so you don’t make the mistake of doing them. Sometimes specific sex acts or language during sex can trigger dysphoria in a trans person so it’s good to be aware if they know of any cases where this happens. It’s also important not to push the question of “why is XYZ a trigger for you?” All you need to know is what things your partner would like you to avoid doing if they get triggered by things.
Do some research about trans-specific sex toys and tricks. Did you know trans women can experience a sensation much like fingering through a sex act called muffing? You can also try using p-spot toys to give them more intense orgasms or using a vibrator wand on their genitals. For transmasculine people you can use an ejaculating dildo, a mastubation sleeve specifically for trans men, a dildo specifically for blowjobs, or masculine boxer harnesses. Toys can be a really fun addition to sex and may also help with dysphoria.
Be aware of transgender fetishization when you’re dating someone who is trans. It’s important to show your partner that you respect them as a person and take their identity seriously and not as a sexual fetish. There are lots of kinks that involve bending the expectations of sex and gender but you need to be aware of what your partner is okay with before you involve them in specific kinks. Some people like to focus on their gender through kinks and others will be triggered by any kind of fetishization. Support ethical queer/trans porn that doesn’t involve offensive language or non-consensual objectification.
Supportive to Change
Being supportive to change is really important–especially if you’re dating someone who is early into their transition. Depending on what steps they take to transition, you may need to prepare for things to rapidly change for a bit.
With HRT, a person’s body can change a lot. Knowing some of the things that might happen may help you and your partner prepare for these changes. Do some research, talk to their doctor (with permission, of course), or talk to other trans folks to figure out what kinds of things to expect. It’s not uncommon to see some of the following happen during HRT:
- Weight changes
- Changes in voice pitch
- Redistribution of fat/body shape
- Body and facial hair changes
- Development of breasts or shape/size of genitals
- Changes in sex drive
- Changes in skin type (testosterone may make skin more oily, estrogen may make skin softer)
- Mood changes
- Those on testosterone may stop menstruating and go through menopause-like symptoms
In addition to these (and other) possible changes due to HRT, your trans partner may also consider surgery at some point in their life. While surgery is not something that all trans people will get or even want, it’s something you should be aware of. There are a number of surgeries that transgender people may consider at some point.
- Top surgery: For transmasculine folks, this is usually a bilateral mastectomy. For transfeminine folks, this can include getting breast implants.
- Bottom surgery: For trans men, this can mean phalloplasty or metaoidioplasty. For trans women, this can mean orchiectomy, penectomy, or complete penile inversion vaginoplasty.
- Hysterectomies are common for transmasculine people to avoid menstruation or pregnancy.
- Trans women may undergo electrolysis and/or various facial feminization surgeries to combat dysphoria.
It’s also important to remember that for some people, gender is very fluid and may change rapidly. This is especially true for folks who are non-binary, genderfluid, genderqueer, and demiboys/demigirls. Your partner may change up their gender presentation or pronouns at certain times. It’s important to remember that gender isn’t always a fixed look or identity and that gender expectations can be very harmful–especially to folks combating dysphoria. Trans folks are just as free to break the gender binaries as cis folks. Your trans girlfriend may not always wear makeup or shave and your transmasculine partner might want to wear a dress and lipstick on a special occasion (or any occasion!) and that’s all valid. Remember to keep your gender policing in check by respecting that trans people do not have to adhere to a specific look to “prove” they are trans.
In order to be best prepared to help your partner, you should be aware of resources available to them. You can use the list below as a guide or research local organizations or medical professionals if your partner is dealing with mental health problems, legal issues, or is trying to medically transition.
- Trans Lifeline is an important resource for trans folks struggling with mental health issues or issues regarding their gender. US: (877) 565-8860, CANADA: (877) 330-6366.
- National Center for Transgender Equality is the nation’s leading social justice advocacy organization making life-saving changes for transgender people. NCTE was founded in 2003 by transgender activists who recognized the urgent need for policy change to advance transgender equality. With a committed board of directors, a volunteer staff of one, and donated office space, they set out to provide a powerful transgender advocacy presence in Washington, D.C.
- Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund is committed to ending discrimination based upon gender identity and expression and to achieving equality for transgender people through public education, test-case litigation, direct legal services, and public policy efforts.
- Transgender Law Center is the largest national trans-led organization advocating self-determination for all people. Grounded in legal expertise and committed to racial justice, TLC employs a variety of community-driven strategies to keep transgender and gender nonconforming people alive, thriving, and fighting for liberation.
- The Trevor Project was founded in 1998 by the creators of the Academy Award-winning short film TREVOR. The Trevor Project is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people under 25.
- Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience
- The Trans Partner Handbook: A Guide for When Your Partner Transitions
- She’s Not the Man I Married: My Life with a Transgender Husband
- Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation
- Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource for the Transgender Community
- Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue
- Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More
- Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity
Doing research on local resources is a great idea, as well. Reach out to LGBT centers or LGBT-friendly professionals if you or your partner are facing issues you’re struggling with. However, the most important resource for your partner’s benefit is your partner. An open line of communication between you and your partner is so important and will make any issues that may arise much easier to deal with. Be respectful, supportive, and understanding of the difficulties your partner may be facing on a daily basis. Educate yourself on transgender issues. Listen to them when they need to talk and be there for them when they need help. Do whatever it takes to be the best partner you can be!