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How do I fix things with my partner after saying something that hurt him?

Q: ive been dating this trans guy for almost a year now. when we met, i identified as a lesbian. we fell in love and i gave up the label. the other night he asked if i'd go back to being a lesbian if we break up, and i said probably. this hurt him really bad, he thinks i dont see him as a man. this is not true, ive known he was a man since the day i met him and ive never seen him as anything else. ive tried talking to him but nothing i say helps. my heart is breaking because i love him more than anything and i just want to validate his gender but i feel like i cant do that no matter how hard i try. how can i make this better? SOS

K: So, three things to start. 1. defining lesbian as an identity label, 2. context matters, and 3. centering your partner So, first, this is hard to get into a little because I don't know how you personally define "lesbian" as an orientation or label. Do you define being a lesbian as being exclusively attracted to women? To all non-men? To all non-cis men? Historical definitions of lesbian do make space for people who had similar lived experiences to trans men (whether or not it would be anachronistic to identify them that way today). I know some lesbians, cis and non-binary, who are in relationships with trans men. I also know some trans men who still identify a lot with lesbian culture even if that is no longer their identity label. As S and I have said previously, orientation is personal and doesn't necessarily have to do with who you are dating. A straight man isn't automatically queer just because he dates a non-binary person, for example. Language is imperfect and identity labels don't have as rigid of boundaries as we commonly imagine. Sexual orientation is sometimes more about how you experience attraction the majority of the time. The label might not perfectly fit, but it might be close enough to being true that it's the most useful term to use, or maybe it just feels the best.

Keeping that all in mind, I can still imagine it being very hard for a trans man to feel comfortable dating someone who has an orientation that, at it's most expansive, tends to mean "attraction to anyone besides a cis man." I'm not even a trans man and I have never been comfortable dating lesbians. Just like I'm not comfortable dating straight men. Even though I know they, theoretically, can still be attracted to me without reducing me to my agab in their head, I feel like I'll never know for sure, and I've had enough bad experiences that I'd like to avoid the issue. So, even if your definition of lesbian does include him, and even if some other trans men have no issue dating lesbians, that doesn't mean your boyfriend has to be comfortable with it.

As far as the original context of no longer identifying as a lesbian, how did that happen? The answer doesn't change things too much, but it could impact how surprised or hurt he might have been to hear you say you'd go back to identifying as a lesbian. For example, if you chose to stop calling yourself a lesbian when you started seeing him and it wasn't an issue he raised, he might have thought you realized you were not a lesbian because of your attraction to him. This issue is made far worse if what you both meant by the question and answer is that you would go back to only dating women if y'all broke up. It also really matters what led to him bringing up the question in the first place. Do you know why he asked? Okay, onto point 3: I don't know how you've gone about discussing this with your boyfriend, but you need to center his feelings and perspective. You might feel you truly see him as his gender, but that might not be the message he's receiving. I've dated people who claimed they truly saw me as non-binary, but it was still obvious to me that they viewed me as loosely affiliated with women in some way. When your boyfriend is ready to talk, listen to him about how he feels about what you said, ask him if you ever make him feel like you don't see him as a man (and, not just a trans man, but a man full stop). Work on whatever issues he raises. Unpack what you meant when you said you'd go back to identifying as a lesbian if y'all broke up.

S: Agreed with the above. We really don't have enough context to give concrete advice; you're welcome to write back if you want to provide more, but for now I'll respond based on what we know.

You definitely need to consider what K covered above, regarding your partner's gender and how you may or may not be validating that. "Would you go back to identifying as a lesbian if we broke up" doesn't come out of nowhere. To be clear, you may be doing (almost) everything right! This question could be coming from your partner's own insecurity with his gender or how other people are treating him, rather than from anything you are doing. But do seriously think about it. I'd honestly recommend asking outright if there is anything you are doing that he'd like you to change, or if you can start doing particular things that would validate his gender more. Again, this may not be that you're doing anything actively wrong, but there are a lot of anti-trans messages in the world right now and he might need extra support from you.

You also need to be open to the possibility that you are accidentally doing or saying things that end up invalidating his gender. For most people, it takes a huge amount of work to recognize and unlearn the anti-trans assumptions we've been taught (regardless of our own gender--trans and gender diverse people need to do this work too). So when you ask if there is anything you could change that would help, it's not just checking a box...and he might also not feel comfortable telling you at first, because so many people react badly when told that they aren't as supportive as they thought. Don't be one of those people.

That "(almost)" is because you did say something that was clearly deeply hurtful and invalidating to your partner, even if you didn't intend it that way. Again, I don't have the details to understand the context of your conversation, but I can easily see how it would feel horrible for a trans man to hear that. So the second thing I suggest you think about is what you meant, and more broadly how you see your own orientation. (This message was titled "Trans4trans relationship" but since you haven't mentioned your own gender, we're not touching on that--write back if you'd like to offer more information on how that factors into this situation.) I don't know what you meant by saying you'd go back to being a lesbian, or how you see your own identity, or why you stopped using that label for yourself, but all that is something to reflect on. Maybe you're a lesbian who dates people of a variety of genders sometimes. Maybe you stopped using the label specifically because this person asked you to, or you felt like you should, but that's still your identity (in which case you should probably have that conversation so you can be yourself in this relationship, though it's also reasonable for your partner to decide that your orientation makes them uncomfortable being with you--neither of you is wrong, but you might just not work together). Maybe your orientation includes exclusively women and you do somehow see your partner as one on a fundamental level, which as K said above isn't unusual and is really harmful for trans and gender diverse people even if you don't mean to be doing it. I don't know! But there is clearly something that doesn't align between how you and your partner understand your various identities, and that needs to be resolved one way or another.

So in terms of actual advice, after doing the reflection above, you need to talk to each other. Since you want to validate him and that isn't coming through right now, ask directly how you can, and listen to the response. That doesn't mean you have to do it; he doesn't get to define your identity any more than you get to define his. So if you have reflected and concluded that you're a lesbian by a definition that includes him, asking you not to identify that way isn't okay. The point of the conversation(s) isn't to make the relationship work at all costs; it's to get you both on the same page so you can work out where to go from there, in ways where both of your identities can truly coexist. Maybe that means you further explain your understanding of your own orientation and he realizes that he's comfortable with how that applies to him and your relationship, or maybe you explain and he confirms that he's not. Maybe it means you conclude that the label you were identifying with before doesn't fit you at this point (in which case I'm not sure why you assume you'd go back to it outside of this relationship). You might both conclude that your identities and how you see them aren't compatible. Whatever the result, you've both got to work out what you need from a partner in order for your identities to be properly supported, and decide whether you can happily do that for one another.

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