"Yeah, he’s a guy and he’s my boyfriend."
When Krystle Chester’s partner changed gender, she went through a period of denial.
“It wasn’t just that she was changing gender, but it seemed like she was becoming a different person and I was losing the person I married.”
In 2011, her male partner told her they were genderqueer. Two years later she came out as transgender and a woman.
Krystle did her best to be supportive.
“It’s not just emotional support but little things, like my partner asking my opinion on what clothes she should wear, how should she act and what should she change her name to.”
I didn't feel comfortable speaking about it much with others because of the stigma.
The process made her question her own sexual identity. “I wondered, ‘Maybe I’m not so straight’.”
There was also a persistent fear about the way people would treat her due to the phobia and mistreatment of transgender people in New Zealand.
“It’s still such a big problem, not just for people transitioning but their partners too. I didn't feel comfortable speaking about it much with others because of the stigma. I felt like it somehow reflected on me because we were so intimate.”
In some ways, Krystle also felt alone. She didn’t tell her family as she felt they weren’t open-minded. “It’s also difficult to talk to others if the person doesn’t want to be outed.”
‘YOU DON’T SEE IT MUCH IN MOVIES’
Krystle’s experience and feelings of isolation prompted her to undertake first-of-its-kind research in New Zealand.
She spoke to six partners of people who have, or are going through, a gender transition process and documented their experiences. All but one are in their twenties.
The people she spoke to had some positive experiences. They all began making changes to their language use such as gender appropriate pronouns, while some also renamed their partners’ body parts.
They all respected their partners’ decision to transition and supported them as best they could.
But they still felt lost at times, and unsure of the right things to say and how to act. They didn’t know what to expect and became frustrated with their own, often negative, reactions.
“There aren’t established social conventions or information about transgender people. You don’t see it much in movies or television, although that is improving,” says Krystle.
She found just how important partners of people transitioning can be and how little there is in the way of support.
Many questioned their own gender and sexual identity. The research shows how fluid these things are.
Her research, overseen by Massey University, was published in the international journal Culture, Health and Sexuality earlier this month.
‘DO YOU NOT LIKE ME?’
There was a part of Alice, who had always identified as a lesbian, that already knew her partner wasn’t comfortable in their own skin. She felt confused by their behaviour and sensed something was wrong, but didn’t know what.
The Master’s student felt discomfort around their sexual intimacy, which didn’t fit with her experiences of same-sex relationships.
“For me it was just like, ‘What’s going on? Do you not like me? What am I doing wrong?’”
It became very much like what it means to have sex like a male in a heterosexual relationship.
She helped her partner come to the realisation that he identified as a man. He began behaving in stereotypically gendered ways. He changed his name, hairstyle, clothing and began using chest binders and strap-ons.
Their sex changed to the point where, for her, it was no longer about pleasure but a way for him to express his masculinity in a dominant role.
“Ah, the power play of being a male, therefore being dominating, therefore being the top - I didn’t like that at all. It became very much like what it means to have sex like a male in a heterosexual relationship.”
Their relationship, which could be interpreted as heterosexual, impacted on how Alice perceived herself. Neither hetero nor lesbian were terms that reflected who she was. Instead, identifying as queer proved liberating and helped her understand herself.
Being queer did not restrict her to a set of rules. It covered a range of sexual identities and experiences.
“It allowed for an easier understanding of myself. It allowed me to work out [who I was] without breaking the rules of what it means to be this label of, ‘You’re a lesbian and you sleep with a man, then you are a has-bian’.”
‘YOU SMELL DIFFERENT’
Lisa, who is also a student and a community worker, was in her early-twenties when her partner began identifying as a man.
She too previously identified as a lesbian, before preferring the term queer.
“I did need a way for myself, [but] more for the rest of the world and my peers, to be able to explain, ‘Yeah, he’s a guy and he’s my boyfriend’. So I guess that word [queer] glued it all together so it could make sense.”
Like Alice, Lisa and her partner explored and learned about different gender identities together. It was through this process that he initially began identifying as genderqueer, and later as a trans man.
“We spent a lot of time at the lesbian library and we had been getting out heaps of cool books about butch-femme stuff, and then we started to find other stuff about masculinities and genders which we’d never seen before, and [my partner] was like, ‘Maybe I’m genderqueer?’”
A couple of months later her partner visited a friend who talked about what it is to be trans.
“They came back and said, ‘I think I’m your boyfriend now. I think I need to be your boyfriend’.”
Again, like Alice, Lisa supported her partner during his transition - he changed his name and clothes and began using chest binders and taking testosterone - but their relationship deteriorated.
“His whole communication just totally changed. We couldn’t fight like we used to, which was a real barrier to resolving a lot of our problems.”
She felt her partner’s testosterone blockers were a source of the problem.
She also felt like she was losing a girlfriend, rather than gaining a boyfriend.
You’re not my person!
“I was so gutted, even though I could’ve maybe seen it coming with the whole genderqueer exploration. And I didn’t let on, but I was just so upset … I had just got this awesome girlfriend.”
Lisa didn’t expect her partner to change so dramatically, both psychologically and physically, during his transition.
“He was taking testosterone and nothing happened for ages … actually that’s not true - the first time he had any testosterone, suddenly he smelled different and I couldn’t kiss him.
“I was totally freaked out because it was like, ‘Who are you? You smell different. You’re not my person!’ and that was really, really upsetting for him.”
Her partner grew hair where there was none and his body shape changed. “Yeah, his genitals changed, his voice changed, everything.”
He had different interests and a different attention span.
“It was like having someone who is totally on your wavelength and then they just turned into a teenage boy who’s apparently your partner. I didn’t expect that.”
She found him impulsive, angry, irritable and jumpy. “He would make just stupid, annoying jokes all the time and we suddenly couldn’t communicate.”
Both Lisa and Alice were with their partners for about three years before separating.
‘THIS IS YOU’
Less than a year ago, Amanda separated from her partner of 13 years. They have three kids together.
She remembers first feeling uncomfortable at the beginning of their relationship. Something was different or missing, sexually.
“[He] wasn’t like other guys that I’ve been with, it was quite different … initially when we were first together I always thought, 'Oh, she’s just a bit nervous, she’ll get over it. Or, she grew up Irish Catholic - I thought it might have been a Catholic guilt thing or something’.”
She eventually initiated a discussion with her partner, which prompted them to tell her they were a cross-dresser. Years later, Amanda’s own research led her to conclude they may be trans.
She says she was reluctant to tell her partner out of fear it was the truth.
For me, it kind of confirmed my sexuality.
“I said, ‘This is you’.”
As hormonal treatment progressed, Amanda became less attracted to her partner, particularly as they lost their masculine scent. She has had sexual experiences with women in the past, but always identified as predominantly hetero.
“I’ve never fallen in love with a woman … and then after my partner started taking oestrogen, it confirmed to me that I’m definitely heterosexual.”
Of the six people Krystle Chester spoke to, two remain with their partners - Sonja, 23, and Emily, 28.
When Sonja’s partner told her they were gender neutral, the most she expected to happen was a haircut. But her partner has taken on a stereotypically masculine role within the relationship, such as paying for her meals, which she dislikes.
They remain together, but Sonja, who has always identified as gay, finds it difficult accepting she’s not in a relationship with another woman.
Emily, on the other hand, identifies as pansexual. Her partner, who she has been with for almost four years, is now a trans man.
Sexual intimacy has stopped, but she expects that to return as her partner becomes more masculine and comfortable in his own body. She says he is much happier now and their relationship is better for it.
The sixth person Krystle spoke to was Dean, a 21-year-old student. Dean also identifies as pansexual and wanted to remain with his partner, who now identifies as female, but she left him.
A LONG WAIT
Krystle may no longer be in a relationship with her partner, but they remain close friends. She finds it much easier to support her.
They have seen firsthand the difficulties that come with being transgender.
There hasn't been a sex change surgeon in New Zealand since 2014 and each District Health Board is responsible for finding overseas specialists.
As of last month, there are 90 people on a waiting list for trans surgeries. The current rate is three surgeries every two years. The Ministry of Health estimates the wait for just the 19th person on the list is 38 years. The process costs upwards of $20,000.
Surgery can be viewed by some as unimportant, but for many, having their body match their gender identity is everything.
Figures from the University of Auckland show one in 25 students are either transgender or unsure of their gender - they are also five times more likely to face frequent bullying than their cisgender peers. About 40 percent of transgender students have significant depressive symptoms, and nearly 50 percent have self-harmed in the past 12 months.
When Sonja tries to talk to people about her and her partner’s experiences she struggles because she feels her friends don’t understand.
“If I talk about the challenges that I find with going out with a non-cisgender person, so many people think of it as if I was going out with someone who’s just got heaps of unresolved mental health issues or something.”
Krystle believes sharing people’s experiences will help break down the stigmas around trans issues. If she could convey one message, it would be, “You are not alone”.
And for her, and the six people she spoke to, just talking about it helps.
LOOKING FOR SUPPORT?
Tranzform - http://www.tranzform.org.nz/home
A support group for youth who identify as transgender, fa'afafine, whakawahine, tangata ira tane, intersex, two-spirit, genderqueer, non-gendered and questioning.
Evolve - http://evolveyouth.org.nz/
A health and social support centre for youth.
Naming NZ - http://www.naming.nz/
An organisation to help transgender, gender diverse and intersex youth with updating their identity documents to correctly reflect their sex and gender.