When cis people partner with trans people of the opposite gender, the world sees their relationship as heterosexual. That doesn't make either party or the relationship any less queer, though. Here's what that's like.
As a femme-presenting woman who is assumed straight by anyone I meet, the inherent invisibility of my sexuality has always been a huge part of my life. I’d love not to care what people think—but, as humans, the instinct to feel understood lives deep inside us. I relied on my same-gender relationships to grant my queerness visibility. Then, I partnered with a trans man.
We got together when he was early in his transition, and strangers regularly misgendered him. Each time it happened, I witnessed how painful, invalidating, and harmful it was to be perceived incorrectly. Over the last three years, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing this change for him. This has been a relief and joy for him. And as someone who loves him, it has been a relief and joy for me, too. It’s been at least a year since he was misgendered by a stranger.
The exception to his increased visibility is our relationship is no longer easily identifiable as queer. His public perception is now validating, while mine feels less so. I dropped the "lesbian" label before embarking on this relationship. Yet, somehow I hadn’t prepared myself for how hard I’d be hit by reading as straight to the outside world.
I don't want any element of my identity to be reliant on other people—but I have been forced to reckon with this feeling nonetheless. Decades ago, I covered myself in rainbow tattoos, shaved my head, and sported "boyish" clothes, perhaps to override the lingering needs I felt to feel seen by strangers. We have a strict, binary ideology in our society, one that leads to snap judgments on how we view one another. And that seeps into our consciousness whether we want it to or not.
I don't want any element of my identity to be reliant on other people—but I have been forced to reckon with this feeling nonetheless.
It’s a given one’s sexual orientation and identity aren’t contingent upon their current relationship. This is most commonly represented in our society by bisexual and pansexual women who partner with straight, cis men. The women in those relationships have every right to continue identifying as they are because their current partners don't define their sexuality. So while my partner and I are both confident in our own queerness, I’ve had to reckon with what exactly defines a queer relationship. I’ve grappled with the roles our queerness plays in our relationship, particularly because our relationship itself feels just as queer to both of us now as it did back when strangers misgendered him.
It’s a tricky balance to avoid the assumption I'm straight while honoring that my partner is, indeed, a man. Adding to the confusion, the assumption of heterosexuality also offers us privilege visibly queer couples don’t have, like avoiding discrimination in public (this is new for both of us).
Luckily, we agree that queerness in a relationship is multifaceted. For both of us, it's about everything from personal expression to politics to sex. It represents an embracing of uniqueness and progressiveness. I know I’m more label-focused and label-dependent than my partner, but queer culture is a place where I feel at home, even if my housemates don’t recognize me. Even just using the word as your identifying label signals a number of things—from not subscribing to terms like gay or lesbian to not needing to distill down your sexuality and/or gender identity into a more descriptive, exclusive word.
Our relationship itself feels just as queer to both of us now as it did back when strangers misgendered him.
It’s taken me time to let go of my rigidity, which in retrospect was rooted in biphobia and how femme women are judged in society. The misperception of my relationship has led me to develop empathy that I should have had, but didn’t, for queer cis women in heterosexual partnerships.
The judgment cast around queer spaces about who belongs in them is something else we’ve had to reckon with. In addition to the ways we’ve had to reckon with what a queer relationship means to us, our outward appearance as a straight, cis couple has made us both rethink the ways we’ve passed judgments on other people and couples in the past. Both of us acknowledge that at times, we have been judgmental—internally if not vocally—when we’ve seen what we assumed to be straight, cis couples at queer clubs or events. We assumed they were taking up that small amount of space that belonged to the queer community, and we may have been wrong that those couples were different than we are. You never know how someone identifies before asking them, and we both acknowledge that we have probably assumed other straight, cis appearing couples to be so when they may actually not have been. It’s taught me a lot about those snap judgments everyone makes about strangers, and how inaccurate they tend to be.
The misperception of my relationship has led me to develop empathy that I should have had, but didn’t, for queer cis women in heterosexual partnerships.
Having my relationship read as a heterosexual one is a complex experience for me, but it has helped me understand how little impact the visibility I’d previously thought was so important actually has on my life. How the world sees our relationship doesn’t change the deep sense of peace I get cuddled in his arms, the challenges we face in communicating through tough topics, or our chances of a future together. In fact, how little impact the outside world has on a relationship’s core dynamic is both one of the most beautiful and one of the most difficult elements in any relationship. You’re in something together that is larger than the sum of you both, and you can’t rely on anyone but yourselves to keep that something alive, healthy, and happy. Ultimately, who you are and how you love are all that matter.