When my partner asked me if I wanted to read an academic paper that they had written for a sociology class, I agreed immediately.
“Of course I want to read your writing!” We went out to brunch, and I brought the paper with me to read. When they excused themselves to go to the restroom, I decided to start.
As I was reading, I came across a self-definition they had written: “Although I may pass as a cis-het man, I am pansexual and I dress as a woman. I use the pronouns she/her, they/them, or he/him.”
I re-read the sentence over and over again. When they came back from the bathroom, all I could muster was, “You’ve never told me this?” Tears flooded my vision as they asked if we should go out to the car.
I proceeded to spend the next hour crying, feeling so confused: How could I not have known my own partner’s gender and sexual orientation? Why would they tell me in this way? It struck me as an insensitive way to tell me, and I also judged my own reaction: I am a liberal and open and accepting person! Why can’t I just embrace this knowledge—them—as who they are? They aren’t obliged to tell me their gender and sexuality, and ultimately, those are relatively superficial identities anyhow! Am I a bad person?
My thoughts pinballed as I tried to intellectualize myself out of feeling hurt and confused, which ultimately made me feel more dissonance. My reaction and the entire situation felt sticky and confusing and messy when all I wanted was clarity, for my intellectual rationalization to envelope my emotions and disappear them.
It was the first time I had ever been confronted with a situation like this, and I spent a lot of the next weeks texting my friends, asking, “Mm I crazy for being upset?” No matter their response, I didn’t feel appeased at all. I felt awful, especially at the thought of potentially making my partner feel uncomfortable or ashamed.
It took weeks, perhaps months, to uncoil and explore my reaction. I felt inexorably uncomfortable not being able to pinpoint or verbalize why I had reacted so strongly, but my therapist urged me: “Honor your own reaction. Take care of yourself.”
It was not a question of loving my partner; I loved them very deeply, and wanted with all my heart to embrace this transition and understand my reaction. My intentions were good, and so perhaps the best thing I could do for myself was to explore my reaction nonjudgmentally to the best of my abilities.
I was able to unpack my reaction through various entry points.
First, I grew up in a highly cisnormative, heteronormative society, meaning one that sees people on a gender binary (man or woman) and assumes that everyone is attracted to the opposite sex. It is not surprising, although I have unlearned many harmful notions surrounding what it means to be “male,” that I would still have lingering rigid notions of gender and sexuality. That doesn’t at all make it okay, but for me, it was a good learning moment. It’s a reminder that there is still work to do here. I want to continuously rework my ideas of gender and sexuality to be fluid, open, and accepting.
The idea of them exploring their sexuality without me, or desiring an experience that I could fundamentally not give them, really dragged on my ego, and brought up feelings of jealousy, hurt, and pain.
I also was at a particularly fragile mental health state when this happened. I was going through a huge life transition, and everything already felt in-flux. Having this person whom I saw as so steady and still “suddenly change” (air quotes because it was not they who changed but my perception of them) contributed to the feeling that my foundation in my life was crumbling.
Next, I thought, if they had come to me and told me themselves that they were genderqueer/pansexual, I wouldn’t have reacted nearly as strongly. Something about reading these statements in an academic paper felt so impersonal.
No matter how I could justify my reaction, the facts remained: I reacted in the way I did, and no amount of apologies to my partner could change that. The best thing for me to do is to remain curious and explorative regarding my reaction; judgment will do nothing to change the way that I think about things. Judgment shuts down my ability to learn and grow as a human. My partner’s dad once said, “Don’t be so hard on yourself—you won’t learn as much.”
If I were to give any advice on sharing sensitive information amongst partner(s), it would be to do so in a way that feels safe to both parties. Even though we might not want it to be, this kind of information can be hard for a partner to immediately absorb. This doesn’t mean that they don’t love you fully and want to embrace you fully. Listen to your partner, and what they want to tell you. Respect your partner’s boundaries, especially if this self-identity is new and they are still navigating it.
Ultimately, it is about emphasizing open communication, safety, love, and respect, and being always open to growing, learning, and unlearning.