I think most queer folk can remember before they came out somebody making it very clearthat they would be totally ok (or not) if any relative (hint hint) were to come out of the closet. Years before I thought of coming out to anyone, even myself, all sorts of people just knew I was gay, and they told me in the most ambiguous and polite ways possible about their support or disapproval for my identity-to-be. What none of them knew, though, was that for much of the time that I realized I was “different,” I wasn’t struggling to come out as gay. I was struggling to synthesize my masculine and feminine and non-gendered selves, the difficulty I had with both male and female peers, the warm tingly feelings the girl sitting next to me gave me, and the (lower school version of) lust I had for my former best male friend in second grade (who “dumped” me for a “real boy” in the 3rd grade). They all assumed I was gay, and their quasi-insistence that I be a homosexual made my journey to self-fulfillment and understanding all the more difficult to live and understand, because I never once, even for the short time I very publicly identified as gay, felt any connection with that term.
Your partner (who I’ll refer to with he/him, as was given) might be trying to understand and synthesize parts of his life he’s never dealt with before. He may have wanted to explore these aspects of his life for a while, but never felt he had the access to do so socially, economically, time-wise, relationship-wise, etc. Maybe these are new feelings, and he wants to incorporate new ways of being into his life. Or maybe there is something else that’s going on that neither you nor I can imagine.
My point is that we can never truly know what a person is feeling or dealing with, and how they’re trying to explore or express themselves given the complexity of their many social and personal circles.
Going back to your question I think the crux of how you can be most supportive to him is by making any potential exploration, discovery and expression, or whatever it is he’s looking for, accessible, comfortably visible and less daunting.
By accessible, I mean that he needs to feel that he’s able to try or think about new things, even if just within the confines of his or your private space. I think first, you should figure out a way to make it clear that you are open to helping and want to support him in any way he might need. If I were you (and mind you, I’m really blunt and loud-spoken), I would say something along the lines of, “Hey, I want to tell you something. I noticed you’ve talked about how you feel a bit confined by gender roles. And I’ve also noticed that you’ve said you’ve felt guilty about that. I want you to know that I love you, and I want to support you in any way I can. If you want, I’ll never mention this again. I just want you to be happy and fulfilled, and to know that I’ll support you, no matter what.”
If you’d prefer a less direct way to make things more accessible for him, there are other ways you can break down potential barriers without having to explicitly broach the topic of gender and gender identity. If you’re a sexual couple, maybe broach the conversation of bucking tradition in bed and switching things up, if you haven’t already. Trust me, the Good Vibrations (my personal favorite sex shop) website has AMAZING things for all different kinds of sexual relationships, and could lend a helping hand if y’all are interested in trying that. You could also change up chores, so you’re doing the more stereotypically masculine ones, and he’s doing the more stereotypically feminine ones. More generally though, try to take initiative and, with his thought and consent, examine any gendered things y’all do together, to give him a space to try out anything other-than-masculine he might want to try out.
An important thing to consider is the fine line between visibility and invisibility when it comes to your support and him transitioning. You don’t want him to feel like he needs to hide himself, but he shouldn’t feel the need to be open to or in front of anyone he doesn’t want to, including you. This can be tricky. If he says he wants to continue exploring in private, partially or totally, let him. It’s not that he thinks you won’t understand or accept him, or that you haven’t been supportive. There’s only so much you can do. If he’s not ready, he’s not ready. But intentionally giving him that space could mean a lot to him, and could ultimately help him on his journey.
I would also try and find ways to make any exploration seem less daunting for him. Your support could help make making changes less scary. If he gets to a point where you two can talk about this more openly, I might try and help him think about small steps you can take together. Maybe trying new name(s) out, and a week later trying different pronouns out, and after that trying on some of your make up, or other things, stereotypically feminine or not, that he might want to try. However, he might want to change everything as soon as possible, if and when he reaches a point where he can talk about it. Either way, understand that there will be times when he will be overwhelmed. And that’s ok.
Another thing that can make this less daunting for him is de-emphasizing the importance of identifying as something, as well as the “coming out” process. I think that our current emphasis on labels and having a public “coming out” moment, is an impediment to true self-fulfillment, and social acceptance. By not pressuring him to identify as anything, privately or publically, and not placing importance on him coming out as an identity, you could provide him a lot of freedom and relief.
The last thing I want to talk about is good self-care. If he wants to transition, or make any type of less formal change, you need to make sure that you are taking good care of yourself. Yes, this process is about him, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t factor into the equation. This doesn’t mean you should ask him not to make a change, or to abide by a different time table than the one he wants, but part of being supportive is making sure you are also taken care of. If there’s something you want to try out, related to gender or otherwise, you should also feel free to bring that up. I’d also suggest seeking a therapist, even if just to meet with once every few months, just to have a neutral, non-biased person whom you can take with about these changes. Ultimately, that will make you better able to support him.
Long story short, you seem to be a really awesome partner, especially in how much concern you show for him. Whatever happens, I know he’ll appreciate you.
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