This is a piece I posted over at Everyday Feminism that I wanted to cross-post here. This advice, while geared towards romantic partners, can more generally be applied to anyone who has a gender non-binary person in their life.
I still remember the moment I came out as genderqueer to my then-partner. I was finally sharing a deep and important truth about myself: I was ready to transition and was overjoyed at the prospect of having my partner by my side.
But for him, my transition was threatening.
“I just wouldn’t find you attractive anymore,” he told me.
That was all he would say about the matter. My heart broke that day.
While his sexual preferences are his prerogative, he had failed to be supportive. That made me afraid to transition. I was afraid of being abandoned, afraid that I could not be loved as I was.
I never brought it up again and delayed my transition until our eventual breakup a year later.
Partners can have a big impact on our transitions, for better or for worse. A partner’s reaction to our coming out can devastate us – as in my case. My partner’s reaction made me fearful that transitioning would ultimately result in tragedy.
I thought that it was better to live a lie than live without the person I loved, and that was not only unfair, but it was also untrue. It wasn’t my transition that was the problem – it was my partner’s lack of understanding and empathy for what I was going through.
Rejecting our transition is rejecting who we are on a deep and essential level, and the pain that comes with that can be agonizing.
But when our partners support us through this experience, it can make all the difference. It can make what can be a frightening beginning evolve into a beautiful journey.
This is why it’s so important to learn how to best support your non-binary partners.
If you are a cisgender partner looking to be supportive of your non-binary partner, you’ve already taken the first step. Making a commitment to being there for the person you love can make all the difference.
With that in mind, here are seven ways that you can support your non-binary partner:
1. Do Listen to Your Partner – Don’t Invalidate Their Experiences
If your partner has trusted you enough to talk about their gender and their experiences as non-binary, it is important not to break that trust.
If you aren’t non-binary, or even if you are, you may not relate to or understand everything your partner is saying. That understanding will come with time. Your job, for now, is to listen and validate those experiences.
Remember: This is your partner’s lived experience. And living as non-binary and coming out are often difficult experiences.
So telling your partner that their gender isn’t real, that it sounds absurd, or that you don’t believe what they’re saying are all offensive and awful responses. Your partner’s gender identity is for them to declare – and not for you to interrogate.
If your partner is coming out, believe them. If they are sharing something they have lived through, believe them.
A supportive partner is a partner that doesn’t undermine, talk over, or insult their non-binary partner. A supportive partner will do exactly that – support them.
Simply validating your non-binary partner’s experiences can go a long way.
2. Do Be Honest About Your Feelings – Don’t Prioritize Your Feelings Over Your Partner’s
You are allowed to be afraid. You are allowed to be confused. You are allowed to be sad.
Your partner’s identity can have an impact on your relationship, and that can bring about a lot of changes that are intimidating and even scary.
You should be honest about how you feel and talk about your feelings. However, it’s important that when you do disclose how you feel, you are doing it at the right time and aren’t prioritizing your feelings over your partner’s.
For example, when I came out to my ex, he didn’t offer his support or engage with what I had said.
Instead, he prioritized his feelings over mine. He de-centered a conversation about my identity, and instead, refocused it on himself, without indicating that he had heard what I said or cared.
Instead, think of phrasing it this way: “Thank you for trusting me with this. I am completely supportive of your transition and believe you should do what you need to do to be happy. I have some fears, but we can talk about that whenever you’re ready.”
When you’re discussing your partner’s gender identity, whether they’ve just come out or it’s years after the fact, it’s important to give your non-binary partner the space to talk about their identity without worrying that you will take it as an opportunity to talk about you and your feelings instead.
Be honest about how you feel, but discuss those feelings in a way that is respectful of your partner and allows them to feel heard.
3. Do Educate Yourself About Non-Binary People – Don’t Expect Your Partner to Teach You
If you want your non-binary partner to love you forever, doing some research on your own time is the way to their heart, I promise.
While it’s great to ask questions and be curious, your partner wants to be your partner – not your educator. The role of an educator can be stressful, tedious, and tiring. It’s also unfair to expect your partner to teach you everything there is to know.
There are great resources around the net. Everyday Feminism actually has a whole guide to non-binary gender. Reading about some myths regarding non-binary folks is always a good idea, and brushing up on your terminology never hurts.
Read about non-binary people and their experiences. I’ve got a pretty interesting blog if I do say so myself, and Neutrois Nonsense is another one of my personal favorites. If you’re on Twitter, I am a big fan of Charlie (@cutequeer96) who always keeps it real.
Tumblr has an abundance of resources. One of the particularly awesome ones, Ask a Non-Binary, allows users to anonymously ask questions about non-binary identities. They have tags where you can read up on previously asked questions as well.
Non-binary people can sometimes feel like mythical creatures if we don’t know where to look. But the Internet is a magical place, my friend, so use it!
4. Do Be Mindful of the Language That You Use – Don’t Forget to Use That Language at All Times
This is a given, but using your partner’s pronouns is not optional – it’s mandatory.
This also means the language you use to describe your partner may have to change.
Ask your partner if they are comfortable being referred to as a “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” or if a neutral term like “partner” is what they prefer. Be sure to check in about nicknames you’ve given each other, too; your pet names might need an update as well.
If friends or family are using the wrong pronouns, educate them and remind them of your partner’s pronouns.
Don’t expect your partner to do all the work. Be an ally, and call out incorrect language usage when you see it, so that your partner doesn’t have to shoulder the burden alone.
Finally, use the correct terminology at all times, unless they’ve stated otherwise. Don’t use their pronouns in front of them, but use the incorrect pronouns behind their back.
Yes, you might trip up sometimes. But as long as you’re putting in a sincere effort, your partner will definitely appreciate it.
5. Do Offer to Help in Whatever Ways You Can – Don’t Assume You Know What’s Best for Them
Your non-binary partner may need your help from time to time, as being non-binary isn’t always easy.
Dysphoria, for example, is a very real part of my life. I often feel depression and panic in relation to certain gendered parts of my body, like my chest, and need my partners to be patient when I’m having a difficult time.
I also feel particularly distressed after family gatherings, where I am misgendered or criticized for my gender presentation. My partners know that after such get-togethers, I may need extra support and care.
Ask your partner how you can help.
Do they need you to accompany them to a hormone therapy appointment? Do they want a chest binder for their birthday? Do they want you to accompany them when they go dress shopping? Do they need a nice, home-cooked meal on days when their dysphoria keeps them in bed?
Don’t assume that you know what they need or what their triggers are. Instead, let them teach you about their needs. You may be surprised.
6. Do Have Conversations About Boundaries – Don’t Push Those Boundaries
This article on having sex with trans folks is required reading if, at some point in the future, you and your partner plan on becoming intimate or if you’re already doing the deed.
Boundaries are an important thing to keep in mind with your partner, especially since you may be unfamiliar with what kinds of boundaries your non-binary partner has or what could trigger dysphoria.
Having conversations about what parts of the body are okay to touch, what kinds of sexual acts your partner is comfortable with, and what your partner needs during a sexual encounter are all important things to talk about before getting busy – not after something has gone wrong.
It’s important to have this conversation even if you don’t plan on having sex or if your partner identifies as asexual.
Physical boundaries exist in contexts beyond sex. For example, your partner may not be comfortable with PDA, or might find it triggering to be pulled in for a hug by their hips.
Talk about touch – what to touch, what not to touch, and where the boundaries are. And respect those boundaries, always.
7. Do Be Supportive Without Conditions – Don’t Discourage Your Partner from Transitioning
Regardless of how you feel about your partner’s identity, transition, or body, you should be unconditionally loving and supportive.
If your partner wants to bind their breasts, it’s their right to. If your partner wants to start wearing dresses, it’s their choice. If your partner is going to grow a beard, power to them.
Being supportive means respecting the choices your non-binary partner makes about their body and their gender expression, regardless of what your feelings about it may be.
There are no ifs, ands, or buts. No “if you don’t cut your hair,” no “and I can’t call you by that name,” no “but your pronouns are so confusing.”
If you can’t love your partner for who they really are, in whatever gendered or non-gendered form that takes, you need to ask yourself if this relationship is right for you both.
A transition could be a deal-breaker for you. And you need to be honest if that’s the case.
Today, I am happily engaged to my biggest supporter — one who helped me through every step of my transition. They helped me squeeze into my first chest binder, they were the first to try out my masculine pronouns, and they taught me how to tie a tie.
On more than one occasion, they left work early when my dysphoria had me hiding beneath the covers. Without a complaint, they crawled into bed with me where we watched home renovation programs and chatted about dream apartments and hardwood floors and termites until we fell asleep.
Having someone by my side through it all helped me to realize how much of a difference a compassionate partner can make.
At the end of the day, the best way to support a non-binary partner is to give them the love, encouragement, and room they need to grow.
Not only do they need that from you, they deserve it, too.
I would add for the partners to try not to be a “victim” but if they do feel betrayed, unsettled, or upset, that is normal. However, they need to find other people to talk to about it in a supportive setting, i.e. to go get assistance. My partner went to the LGBT Center (NYC) wellness group for partners of trans people. We also got into couples therapy with someone who is trans friendly (ok, a lesbian who is not transphobic, but that she was a lesbian therapist made my partner feel comfortable). We are still together after the name change and top surgery, and that is a small miracle.
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As someone who has been on the other side of this situation, I think it’s important for people to realize that both parties need to extend patience and understanding to each other. It’s new territory and it’s hard to navigate. In my case, I absolutely loved my partner but I identified as a lesbian and being told that my partner was going to transition was the equivalent of being told I was going to have to become straight for the relationship to work. It was essentially a choice between invalidating my sexual orientation or invalidating my partner’s gender identity. I supported them in their transition, but they had to be willing to support my identity as well, which meant we could not continue as a couple. That’s not a wrong choice on either of our parts.
Well said! The introduction is very true as well. What stopped me from coming out about 6 years ago was my then partner’s incredibly negative reactions to even the smallest hints. Even me putting on nail varnish made her upset and look at me with incredible disappointment, I never even got close to properly telling her. It really just set me back.
But having a supportive partner now has been amazing and really helped me come to terms with this. I would never have gotten things moving again if I hadn’t found support in her.
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Hi. I’m 52, non-binary, AFAB. I love the way my body is, hence I decided not to change it. For me, my transition has been mostly a process of revamping my clothing and the occasional use of makeup, I rarely wear trousers or any item of clothing clearly labelled as masculine. I’ve read your story but I still don’t understand why you choose the pronoun he/him if you feel a nonbinary person. Just that, and please don’t feel offended, it just puzzles me 🙂 x
Step one, let them bite your face