Gender is a part of everyone’s lives, and although we’re almost always engaging with it in some way, we rarely intentionally talk about our experiences of gender.
Since gender isn’t a conversation topic we’re taught how to navigate, many of us feel pretty clumsy initiating conversations about gender — even if it’s something we personally spend a lot of time thinking about!
Every person, whether they’re cisgender or transgender, can benefit from open conversations about gender. Those conversations can take infinite forms and happen in so many different contexts, from the workplace to the living room to the bedroom, and each conversation and context will be different.
This guide is about how to talk with your partners (romantic or sexual) about your gender. To be clear, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all script for having these conversations. They’ll be as unique as you, your history, and your relationship. So use this guide as a loose outline and go from there!
A quick note to cisgender partners: Remember that if your partner is coming to talk to you about gender, it’s because they trust you enough to be vulnerable and honest with you. You might have some big, valid feelings as you navigate through this conversation, and it’s completely fine to take some time to process those on your own or with a therapist! But in the meantime, thank your partner for their vulnerability and for trusting you, and let them know that you’re there for them. You don’t have to get everything perfectly “right” immediately, but making a sincere effort to affirm and uplift the person you care about goes a long way.
And to folks who want to initiate conversations about their gender, remember that there’s no right or wrong way to talk to someone about this, so if you’re feeling pressure to have the “perfect” conversation, take some time to give yourself some compassion.
You’re allowed to say “I don’t know”, “I haven’t thought about that yet”, and “I need some time to process that” in these conversations. Gender is a lifelong learning experience, so remind yourself that you don’t have to have all of the answers right now.
Know Your Worth
In the United States, we’re raised with a pretty binary way of thinking — right or wrong, young or old, man or woman. Our realities are way more complex than that, but we might have moments of judging ourselves against those false binaries.
In those moments, we might feel like we aren’t ______ enough to talk about gender, or like we need to be more certain before we initiate that conversation with our partners.
Here’s the deal: Whether you are in the earliest moments of questioning your gender or you’re just now putting into words something you’ve known for a lifetime, you deserve to be seen, validated, and supported for who you are and who you are working to become.
I spoke with Sam Goldon, one-half of @WanderfulWives, the queer, outdoorsy travel couple who documents their love and adventures on their Instagram, about how they have navigated conversations about gender within their relationship. Sam shared that,
“Most of us adults were raised in a very binary society, and there's a lot of things we all have to learn and unlearn to fully embrace the full possibilities of gender. I know I was lucky to have a partner who already identified as pansexual, which made my coming out and the conversations that followed relatively easy. But we would be lying if we said Justine didn't have her own processing to go through — and, I, my own concerns with what the impact on our relationship would be.”
As you begin having conversations about your gender, remember that people will have their own reactions, but no matter what, your worth as a person never changes. You have the right to explore and express your gender in the ways that feel right to you.
In How to Understand Your Gender, authors Alex Iantaffi and Meg-John Barker share that “while it’s important to recognize that our gender can have an impact on the people in our lives, it’s never okay for somebody else to determine how you can or can’t identify or express yourself, or to have control over your body.”
In short, make room for people to process their emotions and reactions, but remember to care for yourself, too.
Plan For More Than One Conversation
Gender is an ever-evolving journey, and it’s something that affects many different parts of our lives and relationships. That’s especially true when someone is beginning to shift areas of their life to better reflect their gender.
As Sam put it, “When someone transitions it's not one big shift, but a lot of little changes that you'll both be noticing, so talk about it!”
So, don’t put pressure on yourself to cover all of your bases in one conversation. Instead, make space for gender talk to become a regular part of your relationship check-ins, and take breaks from the conversation anytime you or your partners need a breather.
You also don’t need to know everything just yet. I surveyed my Instagram followers about their advice for talking with your partners about your gender, and one respondent named Caleb shared the always-relevant reminder to “try not to have a destination mindset. Let the not-knowing be okay.”
Consider Your Medium
Verbal communication is great, but speaking out loud isn’t the only way to have a conversation — and it isn’t the best method for everyone.
Think about how you prefer to communicate when you feel anxious or overwhelmed. Do you like to write in your journal? Send text messages? Go for a walk and talk aloud? Sit and talk face-to-face? Some combination of all of the above?
No method is inherently better or worse than another, but one might be more effective in different contexts. For example, if you’re an avid texter, then you might prefer to have a gender conversation via text — but you should still set up a texting “date” with your partner first.
You could send a text like, “I’d like to talk about some gender things I’ve been thinking about lately. Can we text about it later? Let me know some times that work for you; I want to make sure we both can be present and available :)”
If you’re planning on having a big conversation about your gender, then knowing your preferred medium of communication can help you get your point across more clearly. Remember, your preferred method of communication might not be the same as your partners’, so you might need to come up with a combination of styles in order to have an engaged conversation.
Be Prepared for Questions
Depending on the specific topic that you’re bringing up, your partners may have some questions for you. For example, if you’re asking them to use a new set of pronouns for you, they might ask you things like…
- “Do you want me to use these pronouns all the time, just when we’re in private, or in certain social situations?”
- “Are there other gendered words that you would like me to use (or avoid) along with these pronouns?”
- “Is there anyone you don’t want me to use these pronouns around for now?”
These are examples of supportive questions that are being asked to help ensure that your needs are being met and that your boundaries are being respected.
But your partner might ask curiosity-focused questions, too — and you don’t have to answer them if you don’t want to. Some examples of curiosity-focused questions are…
- “How long have you been thinking about this?”
- “Is there someone else you’ve talked to about this?”
- “Does this mean that you identify as ______ now?”
Curiosity-focused questions don’t inherently come from a bad place.
Sometimes, they come from a place of anxiety, where someone is worried that they’ve been a bad partner and have missed out on some subtext they should have picked up on. Other times, curiosity questions are about trying to have all of the answers at once. And sometimes, they’re just because we don’t know how to respond, and so we fall back on curiosity.
Ultimately, you don’t have to answer curiosity questions if you don’t want to, and you may not even know the answers to them yourself! You get to decide what you’re ready to talk about and when. It also isn’t all on you to teach your partner about gender — you each can spend some time exploring, researching, and learning more about what you don’t know.
As Sam shared, “A big helpful thing for us was visibility. We both had a lot of learning to do about gender and what life could look like outside the binary, and we turned to social media to see examples of people living their truth out loud to be an educational resource, beacon of hope, and somewhat of a compass for where we were headed.”
So, when questions arise, remember that it’s okay to take some time to reflect, set some boundaries, and even outsource your responses.
Cultivate Shared Vulnerability
When trans folks start talking to their cisgender partners about gender, the conversations can sometimes feel incredibly one-sided, with all of the gender-talk onus placed on the trans partner.
That one-sidedness can make it seem like being cis is more “normal” than being trans, which isn’t true — it’s just more statistically common.
So, when it's appropriate, let the conversation be reciprocal. For example, if you’re having a conversation about gender and your sex life, you might make it reciprocal by asking questions like…
Making the conversation reciprocal helps remind us that everyone engages with gender in some way, and we all have feelings about it. It also helps to create shared vulnerability, allowing all partners to talk more openly about their desires, boundaries, feelings, and identities.
That reciprocity may also mean that your partner might be the person who initiates a conversation about your gender. For Sam and Justine, that was the case.
“[Justine] saw in me what I wasn't able to accept yet. But once she learned what non-binary was, she thought, 'huh, that seems like Sam.' In that same conversation, she came out to me as pansexual (which was another new thing for me at the time), and in doing so she really opened the door for me to step into my truest self with no fear of rejection.”
You might not be ready to respond if your partner asks about your gender, and that’s okay! It may serve as an opportunity to reflect on who you are and how you move through the world.
And as Iantaffi and Barker note in How to Understand Your Gender, “Friends, partners, and lovers can bring out aspects to us that we hadn’t even realized were there, and it can be amazing — if sometimes rather terrifying — if we have those sides validated and affirmed by them.”
That’s true for all of us, because we all learn new things about ourselves when we’re in different contexts and relationships! So, embrace the opportunity for shared vulnerability and mutual exploration and go from there.
Know What Is an “Us” Question vs. a “Me” Question
As we begin to talk about gender — particularly changes in gender — within our relationships, it often brings up questions about changing sexual identity. While gender and sexual orientation are two distinct things, they often interact with each other, informing how we understand ourselves in the world.
On Instagram, Caleb noted that no matter what, you don’t owe your partner a firm gender identity around which to base their sexual orientation. Your sexual orientation is your own — and if your partner comes out as a different gender, you may find yourself questioning how that affects your own sexual orientation label.
Sam echoed Caleb’s response, noting that “Your gender doesn't have to affect [your partner’s] sexuality and vice versa [...] labels are just words, holding only the power we let them. Everyone is capable of growing and learning and it is possible to do that together.”
This is just one example of an “us vs me” question, but you might also find yourself wondering about parenting dynamics, your roles in the home, and more.
Ultimately, there are no easy answers here. Instead of seeking out permanent self-definitions and quick answers, make room to learn more about yourself, your partner, and your relationship, and see where you go from there. These questions pose a great opportunity to begin individual or couples therapy, too!
Remember That Change Is OK
Change is a natural part of the process once we start talking with our partners about our gender.
There are so many reasons why relationships might change as we start talking about gender, but none of them are because you are unworthy of love or a fulfilling relationship. Relationships, and the people within them, change over time. That can be painful, confusing, challenging, motivating, inspirational, hopeful — and any combination of these feelings and more.
Ultimately, change is normal.
As Sam shared, “Things happen, people change, feelings evolve, decisions get made...but communication is key. Vulnerable, tender, leading-with-love communication. Lean on each other, be empathetic, and always choose happiness, whatever that looks like for you — both of you.”