Shame Game: New Study Shows Stigma Sours Trans Relationships

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To say that dating a trans woman is stigmatized is kind of like saying the Grand Canyon is a ditch in Arizona — an absurd understatement. That stigma can take a pretty serious toll on our emotional health and common sense says it takes a toll on our partners and our relationships, too. In a paper published this month in the Journal of Family Psychology, researchers from several New England universities, and LGBT health research consortium The Fenway Institute, make the first preliminary confirmation that the prejudices and discrimination faced by trans women, something psychology researchers term “minority stress,” causes significant damage to not just the quality of the romantic relationships we are in, but also on the emotional well-being of our partners.

This particular study focuses on transgender women who are partnered with cisgender men in the San Francisco Bay Area. The authors interviewed 191 couples who had been together for at least three months, recruited from a variety of locations around the region. The study population was very racially diverse, with more than 80% of the participants self-identifying as a racial minority. During the interviews, each member of the couple was given a battery of standardized psychology surveys designed to put numerical values to key traits and experiences. These included things socioeconomic data (such as income, race, and HIV status), their depressive symptoms, the quality of their relationship (measured through questions like “Do you confide in your mate?” and “How often do you and your partner quarrel?), discrimination they experience (measured through questions about how often certain kinds of discrimination occurred), and the “relationship stigma” they endure (measured with questions like “How often do you feel uncomfortable going out with your partner in public?”.) The analysis of the data focused on model called “dyadic stress,” a psychological model where the stress experienced by one partner is believed to affect the emotional and psychological state of the other partner.

Overall, large portions of this sample population reported high levels of economic hardship, depressive symptoms, discrimination, and stigma, though the ranges of responses on all measures were quite wide. Not surprisingly, the researchers found a very significant correlation between the discrimination experienced and the severity of depressive symptoms reported, both in the cis and trans members of the couple, meaning that the cisgender male partners of trans women also tend to take hits to their psychological health for the harassment they receive for having a trans partner. As well, the trans women in this study tended to report poorer relationship satisfaction when they reported higher levels of perceived stigma attached to their relationship. More tellingly, however, was the so-called “dyadic” interaction on those scores. Trans women tended to report significantly lower relationship satisfaction scores when their partner indicated higher levels of perceived stigma in their relationship, and the same held true for cisgender male partners when trans women reported high levels of relationship stigma. So, as much as we’d like to think that a relationship is only about the two people in it, the way in which the world around us treats that relationship can also have a significant impact on quality and health of our relationships. The authors of this study conclude:

“…our findings point to the importance of conceptualizing health problems among transgender women within the context of intimate relationships and social contexts. The persistent prejudice and discrimination surrounding transgender individuals remains a significant societal challenge. Relationship stigma—conceptualized as the internalization of negative messages about relational affiliation with transgender individuals — may pose a particularly devastating threat to couples’ well-being.”

These results aren’t likely to be ground-shaking within the LGBT community. Similar studies have been completed on lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in recent years, with similar results, but this is first time any such research has been attempted on a transgender population. A 2006 study showed that, in gay and lesbian couples, experiencing social stigma for one’s relationship tended to lower the perceptions of the relationship quality. A 2009 study showed internalized homophobia also tended to have detrimental effects on the health of relationships among lesbian, gay, and bisexual people.

It’s important to keep in mind the limitations of this early study, as it only addresses one small subgroup of the transgender population, and trans women in relationships with cisgender women or other trans people may have widely different experiences. The authors themselves acknowledge a number of the limitations of their analysis, stating:

“Gender affirmation processes, including “passing” may moderate the relation between gender minority stressors, such as transgender discrimination and relationship stigma, and outcomes such as clinically significant depressive distress. … transgender women have diverse sexual orientations and can be attracted to males, females, and other transgender people. …this study recruited and enrolled transgender women in a relationship with a male partner, thus findings cannot be generalized to transgender women with partners who identify of other genders, or to transgender people of other gender identities (i.e., transgender men, genderqueer people).”

Perhaps one of the concerning aspects of this particular study is that it was conducted in the Bay Area, perhaps one of the most accepting areas in the US for transgender people. And yet, even there, discrimination and stigma remain a rather significant problem, to the detriment of the emotional and relationship health of trans folks and their partners. Shaming cisgender men who date trans women remains a pervasive problem, as demonstrated by the numerous “scandals” of celebrities “caught” with trans women, and the non-stop barrage of sitcom jokes about how gross it is to date trans people. As Janet Mock wrote in a 2013 essay on the subject:

“The shame that society attaches to these men, specifically attacking their sexuality and shaming their attraction, directly affects trans women. It affects the way we look at ourselves. It amplifies our body-image issues, our self-esteem, our sense of possibility, of daring for greatness, of aiming for something or somewhere greater.”

Dating and finding a romantic partner are already hard enough for many trans people, so it’s disappointing and frustrating to know that, even once we find a partner, the transphobia and stigma threatens to erode and destroy our relationships. For the friends (and mental health professionals) of trans people, the take-home message of this study should be fairly clear: the romantic relationships of trans people are under unique strains, and more effort is needed to support and strengthen them against the transphobic prejudices of the world.

Mari is a queer lady scientist and educator from Detroit, who skillfully avoids working on her genetics dissertation by writing about queer and trans life, nerd culture, feminism, and science. You can frequently find her running around at science-fiction conventions giving panels on consent culture and LGBT topics or DJing at fantastically strange parties. She is a contributing writer for TransAdvocate, maintains a personal blog at TransNerdFeminist, and can frequently be found stirring up trouble (and posting selfies) on Twitter.

Mari has written 36 articles for us.

18 Comments

  1. I am only attracted to lesbians, but I read in Dr. Judith Butler’s book of an incident where a male was perceived as “walking like a girl” in his town and subsequently was thrown off a bridge by a group of males … and died. ….. Because he walked like a girl. This is the male mentality that males face from peers if they form relationships with transfemales!
    For those like me, who want female lesbian love, we face the disbelief or misunderstanding or denial of our emotional selves by cis- lesbians. Well, at least they don’t throw us off at bridge….yet! hehe. But we still love all of you smarties.

    • “this study recruited and enrolled transgender women in a relationship with a male partner, thus findings cannot be generalized to transgender women with partners who identify of other genders, or to transgender people of other gender identities (i.e., transgender men, genderqueer people).””

      The researchers acknowledged that their results cannot be projected on relationships that trans women have with other gendered partners.

    • According to the article, they focused solely on trans women dating cis men. So that leaves out trans men, genderqueer people, anyone not in a straight relationship, and two trans people dating each other. They didn’t mention whether they took into account whether a given relationship involved a cis man who is in love with a woman who happens to be trans, or a cis man who has an objectifying fetish for trans women. Those are two quite different things, and I would imagine would deeply affect how satisfied the woman was with the relationship.

    • Doesn’t look like it.

      Anecdotally, I can definitely state that my (dfab) genderqueer partner has mentioned getting harsher treatment / more disgusted looks in public when I’m with them. Can’t say how much of that is from us generally being read as a lesbian couple, from my presence bringing hypervisibility and thus drawing more attention to their own gender variance, and from people judging them for being with a trans woman specifically; I mean, those are usually all at play at once.

    • Unfortunately there is not much out there on trans women who partner with women and their relationships, which is why I completed my dissertation study on that very population. In short, no matter if we come from queer world or straight world, going through transition is hard, emotional, and lonely but so worth it in the end. Also cis/trans lesbian couples uniformly talked about struggling to find supportive community that accepted them.

      I think both cis het and queer het cultures still struggle with the idea of trans people who are queer. Astraddle is a big exception, but there is still a lot of gender essentialism out there and people still think of trans people as icky and other. It sucks.

  2. “the romantic relationships of trans people are under unique strains, and more effort is needed to support and strengthen them against the transphobic prejudices of the world.”

    I’m not at all surprised by these findings but really what effort and support can couples get or do to strengthen their relationship?

  3. Being a trans woman who is hetero my response to the study is “duh.” And the stigma multiplies exponentially if the trans woman is at all “visibly trans” (whatever that means… has some kind of visible trans past). The reason I think such a study is valuable is because trans women/cis men remains by far the most stigmatized relationship coupling, and the one which produces the most violence. The vast majority of men getting intimate with trans women know they’re trans… there is no “surprise reveal” contrary to what media loves to imagine. But the issue is, most men who are attracted to trans women are so conflicted about it and what it says about their own sexuality (and let’s be honest, both straight and queer people read a LOT of assumptions into these relationships, no matter how queer cool they want to come off) that it’s very hard for the relationship to thrive. I’ve cut off several such relationships because the men I was involved with (both had been in a prior relationship with a trans woman) kept needing to process “what our relationship meant on a queer-straight spectrum.” I like to process too, but there’s a point where I’m just not interesting in that question and it’s a total turn off.

    On the other side of the coin, a former therapist of mine in San Francisco who also did couple’s counseling (including long experience counseling many trans/cis couples) said most of these relationships fell apart due to the extremely low self-esteem and insecurity shown by the trans women more so than what was coming from the cis men. That the trans women were constantly second-guessing the intentions of their partner and found it hard to accept love (not to mention their extreme body issues). I totally believe her.

    • “The reason I think such a study is valuable is because trans women/cis men remains by far the most stigmatized relationship coupling”

      ~Oh wow, that’s why I experienced such extreme social pressure to date/fuck men, cause compulsory heterosexuality doesn’t exist or anything. That’s why it took me years to admit that I wasn’t attracted to men at all, that I wasn’t actually bi. Good thing a hetero woman is here to show me the light.~

      Dismissing and denying lesbophobia and biphobia is not actually a required part of talking about your experiences! Wow!

      • Impish, you want to show me how many trans women have been murdered as part of a same sex women couples? Almost all trans-related murders are a result of trans women/cis men contact. My statement did not deny lesbophobia or biphobia, but if you’re claiming that those impact trans women to the same degree trans women’s interactions with cis men do is just putting your head in the sand.

        • ..that’s overwhelmingly BY the cis male partner IN the relationship.

          There’s, in general, more violence and murder within M/F relationships than F/F relationships; that doesn’t mean M/F relationships are “more stigmatized” than F/F relationships, and yes, to claim so is denying lesbophobia.

          And are you kidding me? You’re straight! Of course you don’t think lesbophobia and biphobia have a big impact, you *benefit from them*! For fuck’s sake. It also, by the way, affects every single one of my interactions with (all) men. Who do you think the most virulent lesbophobes are? Not wanting to date any of them doesn’t, unfortunately, mean living in a universe without them.

          Don’t fucking pretend you know anything about our experiences.

        • Gina. . .trans women can be murdered by cis men regardless of whether they dating those cis men or not. In fact, a murdered trans woman is generally NOT dating the dude who murders her (although obviously there are some well-known exceptions to this). So I really don’t understand why you are bringing up trans women being murdered as evidence that straight relationships for trans women are stigmatized.

        • I think trans women are the most stigmatized group FOR A CIS GUY to date. That’s because of our low status in society. . .a cis guy should be able to do better (or so people think). But I think for a trans woman, dating a cis guy is actually the MOST socially rewarded thing. As recently as a couple decades ago, trans women weren’t even allowed to transition unless they swore they would only date cis dudes post-op. Mainstream society still assumes that all trans women are solely attracted to dudes. . .in accordance with their belief that we are like a really extreme version of gay men. And if you are a trans woman looking to date guys. . .there are thousands of guys literally chomping at the bit to be with you. There are whole websites dedicated to them. Most of them will probably fetishize you and treat you like shit, of course, but the point is they are still out there. But good luck finding a cis woman to date if you are a trans woman. . .the only really saving grace for predominately women-attracted trans ladies is that we can always just fuck each other. But of course, trans woman on trans woman, unfortunately, is actually the MOST stigmatized grouping of all. People may not be shocked that you are doing it. . .after all, you are a pair of freaks who are perfectly suited for each other. But good luck avoiding being harassed, assaulted, and worse when you are walking around the world with another (probably) freaky-looking person just like you. There’s a saying that the more trans woman are in a group, the harder it is for us to blend in. Two trans women being together in public–ESPECIALLY displaying affection in public–is like a giant neon sign for bigots asking them to turn your day to shit. There’s just no way you’d be more stigmatized for being with a cis dude. If you were a cis dude, people would be more likely to think you’ve done really well for yourself–after all, it looks like the whole turning yourself into woman thing is actually working out!

        • Would you care to come up with one example of a trans woman who identified as a lesbian who was murdered by a cis man? I follow these crimes very carefully and, honestly, I’m not aware of one. I bring up murder because loss of life is the ultimate negative impact of stigmatization.

          In point of fact, there are many trans women (yes, even those who were “passable”) who have been murdered by cis men they were involved with. And, obviously many more trans women murdered by cis men they were intimate with. You seem to want to push this reality aside as though I said it means you’re less overall less marginalized than straight trans women… and I never said that. But in terms of how society, law enforcement and media judges and reports on cis male/trans women intimacies there is no comparison. Maybe you feel your relationships are made invisible, or are minimized? That’s very true. But look at any situation where a cis male is potentially found even in the company of a trans woman and the mere appearance is of them being intimate, it will be all over the press and pretty much stigmatize him forever (not to even mention the trans woman). You’re welcome to write about your own stigmas and marginalizations, which is not what this study is about.

          And Rebecca, I truly think your fantasy about how trans women involved with cis men are congratulated or are somehow more accepted is a fantasy not supported by reality. Yes, any flavor of queer women’s relationships (including those involving trans women) are oppressed and marginalized by society, but there is nothing like the level of violence or sensationalizing them and violence stats and any scan of the media bare that out.

  4. I can’t help but feel a little bitter about the publication of this study outside of any critical analysis of it’s methodology or what have you. Just feels like one more reminder that everyone considers us undesirable.

    “Watch out, everyone, dating trans girls is hard work, might want to steer clear out there!”
    Bluh.

  5. dating a second transsexual woman…

    [i generally date geek and alternative electronica & goth type women, nearly all my relationship record of 8 is that – and this is where you come across an increased number of transsexual lesbians feeling more or less safe. This is why i in my scene have taken active steps to oppose the merging of gamer & goth cultures with your favourite system of political faith&activism. Because goths/trad punks/alt ravers have a far better record of ‘live and let live’ than feminist spaces and have nothing to learn – and gamers are generally equal opportunity arsebigots with no focus and no organised interest in bringing anyone down. That’s more than most can say.]

    …is hands down the biggest fuck you to your species and your world i have presented to date.

  6. I think it’s important to remember that, in research like this, focusing on one group is not a judgement about the validity of groups or research on them. Science is a step-by-step process, and is generally published in tiny chunks like this to maximize publications.

  7. Thank you for an excellent article Mari!

    As woman who is trans and in the dating pool, as well as being part of several other intersections of the human experience, there are a number of additional stresses and situations which would not be present in many other relationships.

    I felt that your article touched upon a number of important topics which face us in the relationship sense.

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