You Need Help: Your Girlfriend Says Offensive Stuff and You Aren’t Sure How to Deal

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Dearest Autostraddle,

I’ve been dating my (amazing, sexy, opinionated) girlfriend for about six months now. We have a lot in common in terms of values, but there are some major sticking points that I think stem from our respective educational backgrounds and what they mean for our queerness(es). I went to a hippy-dippy liberal arts school where I “came out” by starting to make out with girls on the dance floor one night and no one really asked questions. I also had the benefit of a supportive infrastructure — there were at least three LGBTQ groups on campus at any given time. My honey, on the other hand, went to a super preppy, conservative college and was one of the few gay people on campus when she finally did come out. While I identify fairly closely with the queer community, I don’t think she feels that way (which isn’t necessarily bad!)

Because she didn’t have the same opportunities to be exposed to and learn about queer culture the way I did, she often expresses some opinions I find offensive and ignorant. For example, she finds effeminate gay men annoying and has characterized trans people in reductive ways. When she expresses those opinions, I get offended, though I also try to explain my reaction. However, she maintains that she wants to be able to share those feelings with me and I don’t want to make her shut down. That being said, how do I tell her that some of the things she says (though, granted, she wouldn’t say them in front of anyone else) are just WRONG? I want to be a resource but I don’t want to be offended all the time or get pigeon-holed as the non-feeling educator.


Before I get started, I’m going to clarify that because of the way you frame your letter, I am assuming you and your girlfriend are both cis women, and I’ll be answering this question from that perspective. If I’m wrong, let me know in the comments, and we’ll take it from there.

Sometimes we love people who don’t share our same value systems or knowledge sets. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love them, but it can mean we need to work hard to make sure we aren’t compromising our own values just to placate them.

To sum up what I got from your letter: You think your girlfriend (I’m going to call her Amanda) is the bee’s knees. She thinks you’re the bomb. Amanda has opinions about trans and queer people that you find offensive, sometimes flat-out wrong. She only shares these opinions with you, but when you speak up and say you take offense, she is dismissive. You don’t want to stop speaking up, but it sounds like you’re concerned about how this will affect your relationship.

There are two things going on here: one is about your relationship with Amanda, and the other is about your desire to be an ally to your queer community. I’m going to address these things separately a little bit, but mostly together because they’re really completely intertwined. Being an ally is about building and maintaining relationships over time, both with people we share identities with, and people we don’t.

First, with regards to your relationship: it sounds like Amanda trusts you, and sees you as someone who can make her feel heard and respected. This is great! But you deserve to be heard and respected, too. It’s important that she be able to confide in you, yes, but there’s a difference between being a confidante and being a carte blanche receptacle for her opinions, especially if they hurt you. That’s not how it works. You actually don’t owe her that.

When it comes to allyship: it’s really important for cis people to educate other cis people about gender and trans issues. I’d go so far as to say it’s our responsibility to do it patiently, clearly and persistently, because it helps create a world in which trans people don’t have to shoulder the entire burden of raising awareness about trans issues. An important way for cis people to be allies to trans people is to be allies even when trans people aren’t in the room. Trust your gut when it tells you that you don’t want to let what Amanda says off the hook.

So now let’s look at how your relationship and your allyship intertwine.

I think it’s interesting that you say Amanda wouldn’t say these things to anyone else. Whether she’s told you this outright or if it’s just something you’ve intuited, I’m not sure. But I think it’s important you ask yourself why you are the only one who hears her say these things. I don’t know what the answer is. You said she doesn’t have strong connections to a queer community, so it’s entirely possible these things just don’t come up with anyone else. But I also wonder if she thinks it’s fine because you give her a free pass when you don’t want to upset her or disrupt your relationship equilibrium.

I hear you in your concern that you don’t want to be pigeonholed as the educator. It can be really hard and exhausting to take on this role for people who you love (or just really really like). But would it help if I told you it’s ok if you don’t transform Amanda overnight? Because it’s not something that can happen instantly. She isn’t going to learn everything you want her to know immediately, or maybe ever. If you want to maintain your relationship with her while also helping her be a better ally or more informed, I think it’s entirely possible, but it’s going to take time, and it’s going to take work, because allyship is about building and maintaining relationships, not about achieving a particular status or getting all the cookies. It’s impossible for her — or for you — to be right every time.

One thing I do want to push back against is your sense that you need to be a “non-feeling” educator. It doesn’t sound like you are educating without feeling. It sounds like you feel this is important to you. But something I’ve noticed is that you’re framing your queerness entirely within the context of your college environment. Though it’s hard to know for sure from your letter, I wonder if this is part of why you haven’t had much success talking with Amanda about this so far. Remember, that academia often (and let’s be real – ESPECIALLY with stuff about identity, gender, and sexuality) utilizes inaccessible language to describe situations that affect people’s lives in really REALLY real ways. As a person who also went to a hippy-dippy liberal arts school, there have definitely been times when I have put my “academic” hat on to explain why someone is being offensive about gender stuff. With people who aren’t super familiar with that vocabulary or context, it’s never been particularly successful. I’ve been much more effective when I’ve put my “empathetic human” hat on to describe why something is offensive or incorrect.

If you’re having trouble parsing out the difference between those hats, I’d recommend you take some time to make a list of all the reasons why it’s important to you (to YOU — not your professors or favorite queer theorists or even your favorite Tumblr-ists) for your girlfriend to be on the same page as you. Do you have close friends or family members who would be hurt by your girlfriends’ opinions? Are there things she says that hurt you personally? See if you can shift from “non-feeling” educator to “feeling” educator. Then when this comes up again, frame your offense in terms of “I statements.” It might be easier for Amanda to connect with what you’re trying to communicate if she sees how it affects you on an emotional level, not just an intellectual one.

Ultimately, the decision to change comes down to her. You can try to shift your strategies based on what I’ve said here, and maybe one of them will make things click for her. But you also have to be ready for the possibility that you just might not be able to get through. In the end, all you can really do is trust yourself, trust what you want from the situation, and trust that you deserve to be heard by your girlfriend.


Send your questions to youneedhelp [at] autostraddle [dot] com or submit a question via the ASK link on autostraddle.tumblr.com. Please keep your questions to around, at most, 100 words. Due to the high volume of questions and feelings, not every question or feeling will be answered or published on Autostraddle. We hope you know that we love you regardless.

Autostraddle staff writer. Copy editor. Fledgling English muffin maker. Temporary turtle parent. Zine creator. Swings enthusiast. Political human who cares a lot about healthcare and queer anti-carceral feminisms. I asked my friend to help me write this bio and they said, "Good-natured. Friend. Earth tones." Another friend said, "Flannel babe. Vacuum lover. Kind." So. Find me on Twitter or my website.

Maddie has written 100 articles for us.

25 Comments

  1. I think this is a really great answer. It can be hard to recognize whether your partner is giving you the respect that they should when you are focused on how your partner is being disrespectful towards other people (to whom you are trying to be a good ally).

  2. Very good point about the hats. Informing someone of how your privilege enlightened you can quite often just be an efficient way to sound condescending – and weaken your chances of changing the other person’s mind.

    • Different hats for different occasions! You probably wouldn’t wear a winter hat on a ninety degree day. Know what hats you have in your closet and try to pick the right one for each occasion.

      (…I didn’t know how far I’d take the hat metaphor but there you go)

  3. Oh man OP, I feel you! Luckily my girlfriend is amazing, but I’ve moved for law school and ended up with a new friend group that is completely cis-het, with my closest friend describing her political ideology as ‘centrist’. Trying to engage with them in a way that doesn’t compromise my ideals, but is also accessible, is SO TIRING.

    But I guess I’m almost glad I’ve had to justify my opinions? They’re now a lot more fleshed out and strong. Living in an idea echo chamber is comfortable, but doesn’t make you grow. And it’s taught me to be WAY more calm when talking to people I strongly disagree with, because I’ve been able to change minds when I do.

    This might not work on Amanda(and definitely won’t on irrational bigots), but I’ve found the most successful method for me is leading a person down a rhetorical path by saying things I know they agree with, before getting to the main point I’m trying to make. This works especially well when I’m able to relate the little points to a personal experience the person has had. Also not arguing a point to death after talking about it for a few minutes. I’ve thought I didn’t get through to someone based on how the conversation ended, but then later in a different context they’ve repeated my point as if it was there own. I’m guessing because they didn’t have to admit they were wrong, even though they agreed.

    There are definitely days that I can’t even and I just remove myself from the problematic conversation, or try to change the subject. And this situation is definitely not the one I want to be in, believe me. But as I am in it I may as well make the best of it, and try to make the world a slightly less terrible place.

    Good luck OP!

  4. I hope that the OP checks the comments:

    As a psych major and women’s studies minor, I tend to combat an issue from all aspects, so within the framework of being an advocate and ally, while also expressing your opinion/feelings from a personal perspective (the “I statements” Maddie suggested, so important!), I would also challenge her perspective on the topics at hand:

    “Why do you feel this way?”
    “What shaped your opinion of this?”
    “Can you explain what bothers you about this?”

    When you challenge people to be introspective about their thought processes, sometimes they can see the flaw in the logic or why it seems so offensive. I have a partner who is the same way, and when I challenge them to see things from a different angle, it goes leaps and bounds further than just countering their opinion or stating my own. I hope that makes sense.

    Having the answers to those types of questions also gives you the point of reference you need for figuring out exactly where you need to come from on it. Don’t always chalk up her feelings to ignorance or needing to have “yet another lesson on gender.” There could be other factors at work here, and you can address those issues before addressing the offensive comment. Sometimes THAT is more important than the issue in and of itself.

    Since I’m always interested in motivations, I would want to know why she’s asking the questions. Is she seeking an answer? Is she dealing with some internalized patriarchal views that are changing and she’s not sure why? Is she questioning her belief system and these opinions are based on her old belief system, but she doesn’t know any other way to believe about these topics? Especially since she trusts you enough to speak so freely, she may be looking for an ally herself.

    Personally, I went through a really radical change in identity and social views over the past 5 years. It’s hard to know how to even know where to start that journey.

    But I agree with everything else Maddie advised! You deserve to be heard and be respected for your views. My guess is that she already values your opinion. Otherwise, she would probably leave or not express hers to you. Good luck, OP!

  5. Reading between the lines, it seems like OP is from a more educated, privileged background than Amanda, and this is playing into the issue. Amanda doesn’t know the proper terminology and the background to a lot of trans and queer issues that are so pervasive in a liberal arts school environment. Obviously I don’t know for sure without confirmation from OP, but it sounds to me like class issues might be in play here too… Which is why I think the use of the term “educator” here so troubling. This shouldn’t be a place where she “educates” Amanda, it should be a conversation. Amanda won’t change if she feels like she’s being lectured at. And I’m willing to bet a lot of money that Amanda has probably heard some things that OP said that she found offensive, maybe about their different educational backgrounds. OP needs to think of herself as a partner, not a “resource” or “educator.” You can only fix this if you’re both coming at it as equals.

    By the way, my gf and I have huge political, social, and philosophical disagreements. We grew up different races, religions, and in different regions of the country. We’ve inadvertently offended each other a million times. It makes the relationship way more interesting and strong. Don’t overthink these kinds of differences–the similarities in your values that brought you two together in the first place are more important.

  6. “Remember, that academia often (and let’s be real – ESPECIALLY with stuff about identity, gender, and sexuality) utilizes inaccessible language to describe situations that affect people’s lives in really REALLY real ways.”

    !!!!!! I go to a pretty middle of the road college (conservative admin, liberal student body) so i tend not to run into super dense academic jargon re gender bc most of the conversation on it is run by students.
    I also think it can be pretty alienating when someone comes at me with their academic jargon relating to gender and queerness bc I sometimes feel like they are trying to invalidate my lived experiences? Like just because some old white lady on the east coast said this about queer theory does not mean it’s true for me.

  7. I don’t think you have to be the only educator/education that your partner gets either. Like, talking to people helped me realize a lot of things, but what REALLY REALLY helped me was Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl. And a plethora of other novels and books. And movies. And drag shows. And queer theater. And going out and just meeting people. Maybe conversations can happen after a book reading or a play or something else.

    • This is a great idea! What I will say though is that I think there needs to be at least some “buy-in” before giving someone books or even an article to read. Otherwise you might find the strategy backfiring because you’re giving “assignments” and actually reemphasizing your role as educator.

  8. What might help Amanda the most is if they actually make an effort to go to queer spaces or events and she has the opportunity to talk to someone who is trans. It can be hard to be respectful of a minority group you haven’t been exposed to without meeting or talking to a member of that group. Actually knowing a trans person might help her understand them a little better.

  9. Thanks! I really needed this! My gf is similar to Amanda in this story where maybe she isn’t the best at referring to trans and queer people in a 110% respective way. Because I to tons of reading to educate myself (and with tons of help from autostraddle) I am a lot more understanding and respectful (I try at least) of fellow queers. She never will say anything to anyone in person, but will make remarks to me in private about trans men who ‘used to be girls’ etc. maybe it’s because she is older and needs to be around more inclusive spaces or that she isn’t educated about different groups of people. This post will def help me help her and myself!

    • “Heads up, a lot of trans men don’t like it when you say they ‘used to be girls,’ because most trans men feel like they were always men, even before they did anything about it, or even became aware of it. Did you ever think you were straight before you realized you were [your girlfriend’s orientation]? And looking back, you probably wouldn’t say you were actually straight back then, right? Even if you really believed you were straight, and presented yourself as straight to other people, were you really, truly the same as a straight person, or was your [orientation] always a part of you that you just weren’t aware of at the time? That’s how a lot of trans men feel about being trans men. And most people agree that orientations apart from heterosexuality are real things that exist, but a lot of people don’t really believe that someone who was born with certain parts and was raised as a girl actually could ever be anything but a girl. I know you don’t say that stuff to anyone’s face, but it makes me feel really uncomfortable when you say stuff to me that would be really hurtful if the person you were talking about could hear. So could you please not do that anymore?”

      Connecting it to something the person already strongly understands (your girlfriend’s orientation, here) can be really helpful for making people empathize, even if it really isn’t exactly the same thing.

  10. I’m dating a homophobe and a misandrist… So maybe I know how she feels? It’s something I endured for most of our relationship until she said she would abandoned her child in the hospital if she gave birth to a male child. I snapped then, there was a big fight. Then I sent some links to articles about how being gay was nbd (you would think she knew this since she’s gay herself) and explained that male children and female children were equally horrible (sorry, I dislike kids) then we kissed and made up. I’m not naive enough to think this is the end of it… But stripping oneself of preconceived notions is a gradual process… I think

  11. This whole letter is like, “how do I change my girlfriend to be the kind of person I want her to be?” and politics aside, can we take a moment to realize that trying to make your partners more like you want them to be is a terrible idea? It doesn’t work, and it’s kind of a dick move.

    To be honest, it really sounds like you feel like you’re above Amanda – that you’ve had the right experiences, and she’s had the wrong experiences, and any time she isn’t what you want, it’s because of her wrong experiences. You don’t need to justify her. You don’t need to give her permission to be different from you. Like, seriously, it isn’t just “not necessarily bad” to not identify closely with the queer community. Would you describe something else that’s entirely value-neutral as “not necessarily bad”? “She likes knitting, which isn’t necessarily bad!” No one would ever talk that way about something they actually perceived as a neutral thing. You do not actually sound open-minded when you talk like that, you sound like someone who can’t understand why anyone would want to do things differently than you do.

    Look. Queer community spaces are not the only way to be LGBTQ, or even to have a community of LGBTQ people. For better or for worse, they’re strongly associated with certain activities and interests, and if those don’t fit you, you’re SOL. It sounds like you’ve been fortunate enough to find a space that fits both your LGBTQ identity and your rest of you, and that’s great, but it’s also not available to everybody. Offensive stuff aside, her experience of her LGBTQ identity and her modes of socializing are just as valid as yours. If you can’t accept that as true, you won’t be able to change her mind about the offensive stuff, and you really shouldn’t be dating her.

    (I do kind of wonder if there’s a class difference involved, like Lisa said…)

    Now, the offensive stuff. Drop the ignorant enlightened scale. It doesn’t do any good apart from giving the more enlightened person an excuse to feel smug. Instead: consider if an opinion is harmful to other people. If it is, then being a good ally to those people means speaking up on their behalf. Don’t make it about moral/political purity. Don’t make it about following the enlightened queer party line. Don’t make it about changing your girlfriend to be more respectable to you – and no, telling yourself ‘I’m definitely not doing that!’ doesn’t protect you from doing that. Everyone has the responsibility to be a good ally to other groups under the LGBTQ umbrella, but apart from that, her opinions aren’t yours to police. If it gets to the point where you don’t like being around her anymore, you don’t have to keep being around her, but it’s better to call it quits when you’re not having fun than to remake her in your own image.

    As for how to deal with this without being a dick and with a good chance of results, I’d personally go with asking her to explain why she thinks that way when she says something harmful, and then talking through it with facts and evidence. It’s hard to respond to “effeminate gay men are annoying”, because it’s so subjective! But if the next time she says it, you ask why and it turns out she believes they adopt those mannerisms on purpose because that’s how they think gay people are supposed to be, you can talk about how most of them were gender-nonconforming since way before they knew they were gay, and how people naturally pick up accents and mannerisms when moving between cultures, and how we look at conforming to a minority vs conforming to a majority… Don’t tell her how to feel, just look for where she’s factually wrong, and let her know the truth.

    And be open to learning things from her, too – her different experiences are valuable, and it sounds like you could stand to learn a few things as well.

  12. I can think of quite a few examples of when my politics were less lefty than I’d like to admit now, and people (partners, friends, interwebs articles and queer thought) have educated me further and changed how I see the world.

    It is possible, that your gf will gradually change over time- by absorbing some more of the outside world. I kind of think you can be a catalyst for that but in the end it’s only gonna happen if she is open to it you know?

  13. Hey y’all – OP chiming in here. I did not anticipate this actually getting posted, much less how much it would make me want to engage in a dialogue about this rather than just get advice.

    First off, major props to Maddie for hitting the nail on the head in a lot of places. Coming at this from a perspective of why I’m offended or my experiences might do the conversation some good, though I also wonder if “Amanda” will just accuse me of “not letting her” have her opinions by having feelings about them.

    I also wanted to address some of the commentary. It’s interesting to me that class came up, since “Amanda” is the more privileged of the two of us in some ways (granted, I’m more privileged in others. Intersectionality!). Part of the reason I couched this question so much in an educational sphere was because there are a lot of background issues that could play into these differences (nationality, class, politics – she’s outright conservative, I’m not) BUT I don’t think any of these are the real root of the problem. Nor, for the record, are these differences problematic to me. (Bipartisan relationships FTW)

    I’m kind of surprised no one brought this up, but does anyone have any thoughts about or experience with dating people that have internalized homophobia or misogyny? I feel like this might part of the issue and the line between “I think you’re wrong to say XYZ” and “I want to change the way you think/feel about XYZ and/or who you are” feels very thin sometimes.

    • Hey Ricky/OP! Thanks for stopping in to talk with us here. I’m really glad you found what I said useful. I hope Amanda isn’t dismissive of your feelings, and I want to reiterate that your feelings about her opinions are valid and ok to have.

      I’d also love people’s input or experience dealing with their partners’ internalized homophobia or misogyny (or other forms of oppression). Your initial letter didn’t send up any red flags for me about it, but it certainly could be in play here. I think internalizing oppression is something we all deal with to some degree, living in the world we live in, and it can be really hard to deal with, especially when it affects how your partner thinks about themselves or your relationship.

  14. i feel this so hard- i’m agender/trans/nb/genderqueer as well as poly/bi/pan sexual and have been talking to the same girl for the past few months and the other day while we were talking on the phone she said a lot of trans and bi/poly phobic things (she literally kept referring to gay girls who aren’t lesbians as ‘display’ and then called me loyal and said that she only likes girls who are either “loyal or lesbians”).
    This conversation made it nearly impossible for me to even consider coming out to her as trans, but she goes to a very different college where even though she’s the most educated of people she knows, she’s still barely educated at all. AND I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT TO DO ABOUT ANY OF THIS!
    i haven’t talked to her since that phone call because i feel uncomfortable telling her how uncomfortable i felt, but she just added ALL of my irl friends on Facebook without having met a lot of them so it seems like she’s trying to push this fast and far.
    okay so that wasn’t exactly the same as what anon said, but i’m pretty stressed so whatever.

  15. honestly i think its condescending to pretend this person’s shitty opinions are the result of her class background. I think they should break up because the liberal rich girlfriend is condescending and the other girlfriend is a bigot.

    • if you wouldn’t date a rich person who had these opinions dont date a working class person who has them. tons of working class queers who never went to college at all are not bigots when it comes to trans people or “effeminate” men. TBH i wonder if the author is femme? because people who hold such negative view of effeminacy in men are often not to fond of it in women either beyond, possibly, sex.

  16. Feel this so hard. I’m dating a conservative woman, and I’m pretty much anarchist, genderqueer, dabbled in polyamory, staunch feminist… They grew up in a certain conservative environment (as did I!) which they always refer to. “I was brought up to think…” “It’s just the way I was brought up…”
    She has internalised homophobia and huge trans issues and it’s made me break down crying many times. Our occasional discussions are somewhere between educational and always empathic and heartfelt because it hits home for me a lot of the time. How should I navigate this?

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