In my time as a transgender activist and sexuality educator I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some great folks. One of my favorites is my friend, Helen Boyd. Helen is the author of “My Husband Betty: Love, Sex, and Life with a Crossdresser”, “She’s Not the Man I Married: My Life with a Transgender Husband” as well as being an avid blogger and a professor of gender studies at Lawrence College in Appleton, WI. We’ve known each other for a several years now and often discuss what it means to be in a relationship with a transgender person, from both the transgender perspective and as the cis partner. We decided to share a little of what we’ve discussed over the years.
Ashley: What do you wish trans partners knew more regarding their cisgendered partners?
Helen: That we feel all the stigma, too, and feel personally at risk as a result of being with someone trans. My sense is that they, in some ways, are understood – they are fixing a thing that is wrong, being their true selves, however you want to put it, while we’re just being dragged along for the ride. That is, we’re stigmatized for choosing to be with you. Mostly, though, I’d want them to know we’re often doing our best, and we don’t get a lot of compassion, and we can’t really complain to friends because of the stigma against trans people, so we tend to bottle things up, often to explode later.
Which I think is something trans partners and trans people have in common, yes?
Ashley: I’ll be the first to admit that being transgender can easily become a navel-gazing endeavor, especially early on in one’s transition. When you’re dealing with all the emotions that go along with gender dysphoria, trying to assert your gender identity to yourself and others, having new experiences… it’s easy to lose focus of any stigmas that your partner might be going through as well (not that that is an excuse). Since both of us are coming at this from a “male-to-female” transition perspective, I’m curious how true this is for those dealing with “female-to-male” transitions in their relationship.
What do you wish partners of newly transitioning trans/cross-dressing folks knew?
Helen: That some of them will need to go. And that blaming the gender stuff for everything is a mistake. Some people aren’t good partners or are, but neither has anything to do with their genders. Try to make that distinction: what are the issues that concern gender, and which aren’t?
What about you?
Ashley: Coming out to your partner might be the one of the most difficult and terrifying things about being transgender. The fear of rejection from someone you are emotionally invested in is real. I ended several good relationships, prior to meeting my wife, because I was afraid of telling my partner I was transgender. I would remind partners to keep this in mind when their partners come out to them. A partner transitioning doesn’t necessarily mean the relationship has to be over, but I’ll agree that both parties need to realize that some relationships won’t last transition and that ultimately, that’s okay.
The trans community has really come more into the political, social and cultural forefront in the last few years with celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner & Laverne Cox, Bathroom Bills, and most recently with the Justice Department standing up for trans folks. What has most surprised you? What do you see as being “next” for trans folks?
Helen: As I wrote during some of the bathroom bill madness – I think what’s next is a sense of relief, that so many of these attacks have been fought back, that an upcoming generation is fine with it, that you are the gender you say you are. Honestly. What’s next moreso is not about transitioners, per se – it’s about the genderqueer, GNC people, all of those who are even less understood than those who transition from one binary gender to the other. But I also think we have not yet even begun to address intersectional issues.
Is there anything that was very surprising for you? Any victories or losses that particularly made you happy or upset you? Moreso, what is the connection between your personal issues and these ‘writ large’ versions? Where does the personal and political meet for you?
Ashley: What’s intrigued me most the way a “trans-narrative” is starting to be presented as trans folks gain more attention and recognition. This idea that trans people know from a young age that they weren’t the gender that society assigned them at birth certainly wasn’t my story. I identified as a guy for nearly twenty years, before coming out as transgender. Making room for all trans, GNC, genderqueer folks will be vital as our community moves forward. Remembering that there are just as many different types of trans identities as there are those claiming those identities is crucial. There are still a lot of basic rights like, employment & housing protections, and access to reliable appropriate healthcare that need to be established for transgender individuals, but I’m hoping society can also recognize that we aren’t all Jazz Jennings, Caitlyn Jenner or Chaz Bono.
If you had to describe the focus of your new book, what would you say?
Helen: I’m honestly taking a step back from writing about trans issues. I think when I came along – which is more than a decade ago now – it was important for a cis, liminally trans person to make the arguments, especially feminist ones, for trans inclusion, rights, and power. But now, trans people have that well in hand. I will still be writing about gender, and about bullying, and all sorts of related issues, but in different ways that the previous books. One of these days, though, I’d still like a grant to do follow-up research on the last generation of crossdressers who were closeted. They still fascinate me the most, to be honest, because they’re so misunderstood even within trans community. I have often been encouraged to write about what it’s been like to be a cis person doing trans work, to write a bit more about being an ally, but often when I think about it, all I come up with is “shut up, do the work, try not to be a dick, expect to be a dick, and apologize when you’re called out.” Not much book there, is there? But mostly it makes me uncomfortable to claim allyship, and while I’m very thankful many trans people seem to think I don’t suck, I know my very presence upsets others. & Often I’m just too tired, and trying to just do the work, to get into the arguments, and I’ve lost any urge to defend what I do or why I do it. So gaining a bunch of visibility for a new book on trans issues is exhausting to even think about.
And your next project?
Ashley: Honestly, I am trying to figure that out for myself right now. I am about 70% through production on my documentary “Making the Cut”, which I’ve been working on since 2008. This is my first attempt at a documentary and a feature film and it has been a learning process. I’m working with a new producer and hopefully they will give me the push I’ve needed to get this project done. I’m also working full time as a sexuality educator and hoping to create an online transition guide for male-to-female trans folks. I’m working on some writing projects for www.tallladypictures.com and I’m playing in a band again called The Glacial Speed. We’re releasing a digital album later this fall. My wife and I just bought a house this summer and tying to have a baby so, you know, there’s plenty to keep me busy for quite a while.