Feature image via Shutterstock
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.