About an hour into an informational meeting on becoming foster parents, the woman giving our talk got to the slide on LGBTQ acceptance. With hesitation in her voice she asked my wife and I how we would feel about accepting a child with the “difference” of being LGBTQ into our home. “That would be ideal!” my wife responded, with palpable enthusiasm. I could tell she wanted to say more, to let the woman know that we were not the heterosexual married couple she’d mistaken us for. I hesitated, considered coming out as a transgender man, and then I nodded, saying nothing at all.
For most of the first thirty years of my life I maintained a grudging relationship with the knowledge that when people saw me, they saw a queer, butch woman. It never felt quite right to me, but it felt even less right to make myself feminine to pass as straight, and so I accepted being recognizably queer as a fact of life. Transitioning has changed all that—for the first time in my life I can be an unremarkable man instead of an odd-looking woman. By an odd coincidence, my wife is my mirror opposite—she’s commonly perceived as straight, but feels invisible and awkward when people around her don’t realize that she’s queer. She comes out as a lesbian early and often to the people around her, or at least she did, until my transition made things much more complicated. Nowadays, she can’t come out as queer without also outing me as trans—and I can’t pass as a cis male without dragging her into the closet.
It should probably go without saying that I am broadly in favor of being visible and out. I write about LGBTQ issues for a living. My former name is in my author bio. Anyone with access to a search engine can easily figure out I’m trans, if I haven’t told them already—and most of the time if we’ve gotten to know each other at all, I have. I know that the most powerful thing I can do to help the people overcome their fear and prejudice towards trans people is to be an out trans person who other people can get to know.
Still, if feels like there’s a difference in being out as trans versus being out as lesbian, bisexual, or gay. When someone learns that a person has a same-sex partner, they’re learning something authentic about that person. When someone learns that I’m a trans man, unfortunately they often interpret that as meaning that I’m somewhat, partially, a woman. They may start to scrutinize my voice or my face or my body for tells that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. They may struggle to use male pronouns when they refer to me when moments before they were using them without thinking. Instead of being better understood and known by them, I’ll be suddenly and irrevocably misunderstood. This is not an affirming or enjoyable experience for me.
But neither is being mistaken for straight an enjoyable or affirming experience for my wife. Straight people talk to other straight people differently than they talk to people who are lesbian or gay. They start conversations based on the assumption of prior heterosexual dating experiences, or on the premise that one might find a member of the opposite sex attractive. They take it as a given that one’s marriage includes some element of normative gender roles. In the case of the woman introducing us to potential foster parenting, she assumed my wife and I might not be accepting of a gay, lesbian, or transgender child. In other circumstances, that same assumption might mean that someone could trot out a tasteless homophobic comment or joke, thinking that there was no one to offend.
My wife doesn’t want me to have my gender identity undermined any more than I want her to have her sexuality erased, but unfortunately the two are often in tension in our everyday lives. If we lived in a less homophobic and transphobic world it would be less of an issue, but in such a world a trans man wouldn’t have lived for decades as a lesbian and married a lesbian in the first place—our conflict is an artifact of this place and time.
Awkwardly, we feel our way through situations where we might or might not disclose. My preferences pull her towards less disclosure than she’d do in a vacuum; hers pull me towards more. In a way, we’re not quite on the same team anymore, like we were when our queerness was unambiguously signaled because of the way I looked. Now, when it becomes clear that someone doesn’t know, we exchange glances, we hesitate, and sometimes one of us accommodates the other’s preferences and sometimes we don’t and sometimes we just sort of freeze. It’s uneasy and complex and weird, but we love each other, and so we do the best we can.