Dear MKE SEX,
My spouse recently confided in me that he was questioning his gender, and had taken steps to explore this while I was not at home. He tried on a few of my dresses and bought some of his own clothes, and he discussed this with a few select friends. We have purchased some gender expression items together, and he’s also exploring this at home. I am having difficulty finding pertinent resources on how to be supportive of a questioning or transitioning spouse (or family member, for that matter). Everything I’ve seen in some way boils down to the other party feeling deceived or wronged in some way. I do not feel this way, and want him (or whomever he figures out he is) to be a happy and productive person (and he’s already happier!). How can I be supportive without him feeling like I’m being too supportive? Is there a good way to converse about our future as a family when, moment to moment, he is working to figure out who he may be and the focus of the conversation drifts around an evolving identity?
P.S. Not that it matters, but I’m a cis woman.
Dear Supportive Spouse,
When a person has a shift in gender identity, it impacts the whole family, even if everyone is supportive. For instance, instead of having a husband, maybe now you have a wife. The kids (if you have them) now have two moms, two dads, or another combination of parental roles and titles. All of this can take time to figure out and adjust to, and it doesn’t always fall neatly into static and binary categories.
The period when a person is figuring out issues of identity is known as questioning, and it’s an incredibly sensitive time. Mental health professionals believe that in the questioning stage, people are the most vulnerable to potential physical or emotional harm from others and even from themselves. Many people report higher than typical rates of depression, anxiety, and thoughts of self-harm when they feel unsure about their gender identity. As a partner or spouse, you can be watchful for these things. Reassure your partner that there’s no hurry to proclaim a new gender identity (or resume an old one either). Encourage them to embrace “questioning” as an identity until they’ve had all the time they need to know what comes next.
It’s also important to follow your partner’s lead as they navigate this. If they introduce themselves with female pronouns (she/her/hers), remember to use those pronouns in this setting and with those people. If they use male pronouns (he/him/his), do the same. Remember that for many people, gender is fluid even from moment to moment. Experiencing one identity now doesn’t negate other identities in the past or the future.
While your partner is working through this process, it can be helpful to receive support from other people who have gone through similar things. In Milwaukee, there’s a great local group called FORGE with support groups and information about supportive therapists and doctors. Therapy can be really helpful for people who are transitioning and considering transition. It can also be helpful for the whole family as you all are working through the best ways to move forward together.
If your partner decides to change their legal name or change their sex marker on their birth certificate or other legal documents, it can be helpful for both of you to be aware of how these processes work ahead of time. Do some research on the requirements and steps involved with these changes, so that you’re able to be supportive. Each step can be pretty daunting from a bureaucratic standpoint, and emotionally exhausting to boot.
It is wonderful that you are supportive of your partner and that you are both open to sharing this exploration together. Ask them what they need from you to feel loved and safe, and do what you can to provide it. Be honest with them about your own experience, too. I think it’s important to keep in mind that the word “ally” is a tactical term. It means that you’d go into battle alongside your partner. You don’t want to infantilize your partner by speaking for them when they’re capable of doing for it themselves. But you need to be ready stand shoulder to shoulder and amplify their voice when needed. If family members, friends, or co-workers aren’t supportive, your partner will need the loving shelter of your home and relationship even more.
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