Should I Tell My Partner About My Gender Dysphoria?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

I need some friendly feedback with a problem I am stuck with. I am a 60-year-old male who was diagnosed 23 years ago with gender dysphoria. I have just “dealt” with it by staying in the closet, seeing a therapist as needed, and basically choosing not to entertain the idea of transition for family concerns. I am now single again, have met a nice cis woman, and would like to get serious—but I am unsure if I should be totally open about this part of me. I have always been a person of integrity, honest and truthful, which sometimes hurts others but it’s who I am.

When I shared this with a woman once before, it ruined a chance for marriage. She was unable to even talk about it and chose to walk away. I never transitioned even partially or lived as the opposite gender. Is it important that I mention this now?

I realize society is more supportive than ever before, but there are still plenty of folks in the world who abhor anything that does not fit into the male-female binary. I have read numerous accounts where other men in a similar situation never said anything, got married, then out of the blue would share this part of them or would start cross-dressing again and naturally the wife was taken by surprise, shocked, and confused. Usually, the marriage ends and everyone is hurt.

I haven’t cross-dressed in 20 years and have no plans to start up again, but this doesn’t ease my fear at what might happen if I come clean with my new partner and prospective wife. What to do? —Questioning

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Dear Questioning,

Thank you so much for writing in with this topic.

When I first sat down to reply, my inclination was to offer what I hope will be received as comfort: reassurance that you have multiple choices regarding your own communication. You are under no moral obligation to disclose any idea about gender (or anything else) to another person if you don’t want to. Your gender is your truth, and your gender does not make up the entirety of who you are.

But I imagine you are writing to a therapy website for a reason. If you were okay continuing to do what you’ve already done in relationships (after at least one very powerful, very negative experience disclosing in the past), I don’t think you would have taken the time to construct this letter.

I would like to gently challenge the narrative you have about your disclosure “ruining a chance for marriage,” shifting the blame away from you individually. Was it not your partner’s rigidity about sex and gender that pushed you away? Can we think about this as a paradigm incompatibility rather than a mistake you yourself made?

In general, if someone is looking for a “serious” relationship (as you say you are now), a critical part of the early stages is getting to know the other person and collecting evidence for whether you will be compatible long-term, is it not? It sounds like some of the anxiety you are experiencing is the normal anxiety of any person in a new relationship—“Will this person turn and run if I share what I really feel inside? Is it safe to trust this person?” Of course, in your case, some of the baggage also carries a gendered focus you have been painfully discouraged from sharing in the past. So far, though, you’ve only alluded to a sharing of ideas, which I hope any partner would remain available for.

I think deconstructing and delineating gender roles is helpful in any relationship, not just in a relationship where one partner is transgender or gender dysphoric. It sounds like you may not decide to “medically” transition in a surgical or hormonal sense, but wouldn’t it be nice to break out of the confines of masculinity as they may be prescribed upon you?

I imagine you have witnessed a great deal of social change regarding gender roles across your lifespan. From this, and from other life experiences, what have you come you expect from yourself, and what do you need in order to feel supported, affirmed, and loved in your relationships? If this includes permission to be fluid and expansive in your expressions of gender, then that is something you are entitled to pursue. If this includes simply the space to air what you’re thinking, free of judgment, that is also completely reasonable. If the relationship is healthy, your partner should not attempt to serve as some sort of mind police for which thoughts are and aren’t okay for you to have and for you to explore. In my experience, our identities, thoughts, and desires are not very good at obediently conforming to socially-sanctioned categories.

When I am working with someone who has come to therapy to explore their sense of gender identity, one of my subgoals is to help them seek out affirming community outside of the therapy room. Whether you decide to formally “transition” or not, having folks around who will appreciate your honesty and not force you to adapt to rigid and even false categories will help you feel more liberated in all of your relationships.

You don’t mention what region you live in, but I will acknowledge that certainly some places are friendlier than others toward those who don’t fit into a simple male-female binary where biological sex and expressed gender align. I also won’t pretend that my own age bracket (I’m 29) isn’t generally more accepting of gender expansion than your generation in many cases. But that doesn’t mean the resources for support and understanding aren’t out there. To find in-person support, PFLAG, a wide-ranging national organization, should be able to connect you to affirming transgender resources within an hour’s travel or so of where you are living if you are living in the States. I’ve also listed some other online communities in the Resources section at the end of this article.

It is nice to have the freedom to speak difficult and complicated truths within our partnerships. But it’s not just nice: this freedom also forms the foundation of safety and trust.

I have found that establishing a social support net that can “catch” you when the going gets tough—whether this support comes remotely or in-person—can, in a sense, lower the stakes of a relationship. You have reinforcement. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a specially-reserved form of terror for our most intimate partnerships, particularly if we have experienced abandonment following the decision to open up in the past.

In 2007, I gave a report on what was then referred to as Gender Identity Disorder, which included a description of the legal entitlements of spouses to recipients of this diagnosis. If individuals were married, spouses used to be required to sign off on a medical decision if their partner was seeking sexual reassignment surgery. Remembering this report has me thinking now: what are the functions of disclosing gender dysphoria to one’s partner? Is it to clear the air, or is it maybe to help them plan for some sort of action? It summons the idea that our identities are most often formed in relation to others, and that to have a partner who challenges gender might mean we challenge our own identities, too. Marriage and intimate partnership can create a sort of collaborative identity formation, but this doesn’t mean you should sacrifice that which is precious to you.

Are you interested in wearing differently-gendered clothing in the presence of your partner or in trying out different kinds of sex other than p-i-v intercourse? These are behaviors of interest to a broad range of people, including those who do not identify as trans. I do not ask these things to suggest that gender dysphoria is the same as having a cross-dressing kink, or is a kink at all. I ask because my ideas about communication on the topic of gender dysphoria are informed by the same kind of openness and honesty I encourage when working with sexual minorities and kinksters.

My concern for you continuing to maintain the status quo of past relationships is that our unrealized desires so often have a way of breeding resentment if pushed away or neglected for too long, either by ourselves or by our partners. It seems you have more than two decades of experience with this.

It is nice to have the freedom to speak difficult and complicated truths within our partnerships. But it’s not just nice: this freedom also forms the foundation of safety and trust. I am admittedly biased; as a relational therapist, I have a strong leaning to encourage others to put all their cards on the table and to keep the lines of communication open. But I’m not alone. For example, in his “sexpert” blog, Reid Mihalko claims that it’s what we’re NOT saying that’s damaging our relationships. He makes the following case for transparency:

“If you share the things you think might end the relationship and the relationship doesn’t end, now you’re having a Relationship with a Capital R! Sure it’s scary to say the scary things, and it’s bound to kick up a lot of emotional flotsam at times, but what if you and your partners could work through it? What if letting the “cat out of the bag” built more trust and a deeper sense of security and intimacy than wondering if your partner is withholding important things from you?

When you say what is not being said, especially the big, bad, hairy, scary stuff, you model for your loved ones that they can share all the things they’re not saying, too. Over time, you get to know your partners more as they get to know you more, and you’ll realize that they’re choosing to be in a relationship with the real you, not some façade of who you think they need you to be.”

I will admit that we do not live in a universally gender-progressive utopia, and it is certainly not often safe—emotionally or physically—to disclose our grapplings with traditional gender roles. As an example of complex intersectional identities, Asiel Adan Sanchez shares a complex narrative about how their relationship to a Mexican cultural identity complicates their gender identity narrative and how the traditional notion of coming out can lead to cultural and ethnic erasure. I won’t pretend these categories are simple. I also don’t know your cultural context, your given family history, or how long your previous relationships lasted: certainly these factors can reasonably affect your choices about how you experience and express gender. Since you are the only one who has to live your life, only you can know what decisions are best for your specific context.

Your letter brings to the surface so many ethical quandaries we all wrestle with regarding intimate disclosure! To what extent are our partners entitled to the regulation of our minds and of our bodies? No matter how you answer these questions for yourself and your new relationship, I sincerely hope you find a safe, affirming, and healthy way to explore feelings, roles, and identities—not just in a confidential therapy room or anonymous online forum, but in the safety of romantic partnership as well. I wish you the best!

Warmly,

Sharon Glassburn, LMFT

References:

  1. Adan Sanchez, A. (2017, July 7). The whiteness of ‘coming out’: culture and identity in the disclosure narrative. Archer Magazine. Retrieved from http://archermagazine.com.au/2017/07/culture-coming-out
  2. Mihalko, R. (2012, March 20). Say what’s not being said: Reid’s formula for difficult conversations. Reid About Sex. Retrieved from http://reidaboutsex.com/difficult-conversation-formula

Resources:

Sharon Glassburn
Sharon Glassburn, LMFT, works individually and relationally with people ages 11 and up. She has worked with a broad range of individuals, families, and partnerships, but feels especially called to sexual minority and transgender advocacy and inclusion. She launched her Chicago-based private practice, Curiosity Counseling, in January 2017. Before private practice, Sharon worked in a family counseling agency, a walk-in LGBT peer counseling center, and schools. In addition to her role as a therapist, she has served as a professional/academic writing consultant, diversity educator, and creative writing instructor.
  • 3 comments
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  • Hanna

    Hanna

    October 9th, 2017 at 11:43 AM

    I hope that whatever happens to and for you in your life you are able to find a way to be free to express yourself in the way that feels comfortable to you. If this is the right person then he or she will understand what you have lived with and will be there to support you, not to intentionally tear you down. I wish you nothing but the finding of peace and love in your life, no matter how you choose to live out that life,

  • IRIS M

    IRIS M

    June 23rd, 2018 at 1:13 PM

    I am angry and,hurt feel betrayed. By my partner .I showed who I was in the relationship I am sorry but I do not agree with your advice . All relationships have to start with trust regardless. You may be highly recognized doctor in your field. Tell those families that have been broken up in pain and children that didn’t deserve because somebody decided to come out what’s the sense of responsibility for those families safety in society torn up because of it. I don’t know about everyone here but will not pretend that we live in a,world that is still fighting for our own freedom that people and children do get hurt .
    Iris M

  • Tracey

    Tracey

    October 10th, 2017 at 8:57 AM

    If this is someone that you are very close to then I think that you at least owe them a little bit of honesty.

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