Realizing you're trans or non-binary can be both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. These feelings can be amplified depending on what kind of support system — chosen family, therapist or spiritual mentor, and partner — you have by your side. Telling your partner you’re changing your pronouns can feel scary or risky, but before you catastrophize, remember this: It's possible that, instead of driving a wedge between you and your partner, disclosing your new pronouns can actually bring you closer together.
Right now, as you're shedding the vocabulary of the gender you were assigned at birth, you're probably realizing just how important language really is. You probably feel in your bones how great it would be if your partner could use empowering terms for your body, call you by a more masculine or feminine name, or simply use pronouns that make you feel good in your skin. You may be yearning for their support when you get misgendered or dead-named, and for them to stick up for you without shame. Here's what to keep in mind when informing your partner about your gender identity and pronouns, because you deserve to be with someone who's a part of your trans-inclusive support system.
Of course, this conversation may be easier if your partner identifies as bisexual, pansexual, or queer in any way because you may already have a somewhat shared experience, Peterkin says. "However, that does not mean that a cisgender, heterosexual (cis het) partner can't be supportive," she adds. She recommends learning more about how they feel about the LGBTQ+ community — especially if you haven't spoken about it before.
"This can be done by observing how they speak about the community, paying attention to what policies they support, being mindful of what shows they watch, and watching who they surround themselves with," Peterkin says. TL;DR, if your cis het partner is an LGBTQ+ ally, you might feel more comfortable opening up.
However, keep in mind that some individuals in the LGBTQ+ community can still be transphobic, Peterkin says. So in the same vein of vetting a cis het partner for queer allyship, look for clues that they're also an ally to trans people.
No matter what your partner's views on the LGBTQ+ community are (but especially if they're negative), make a safety plan for your conversation about pronouns. Have a designated point person you can reach out to immediately, like a parent or a best friend who can give you a ride home, provide a place to stay, or just generally be there for you no matter what.
"This may be a friend, someone from a local LGBTQ center, a therapist, or a hotline," Peterkin says. "Your support system can help you process the experience, help you through the difficult emotions, and if needed, protect you."
Don't know where to start? You can find local resources via CenterLink's national LGBTQ center directory and map. GLAAD also has meaty list of transgender resources that can point you in the right direction.
When you're ready to talk to your partner, a good way to frame this conversation is to ask them for support. "If you are early in the exploration process, you may say, 'So, I’m starting to question my gender and here are the reasons why. [Insert reasons here.] I would appreciate your support in this journey and it will mean the world to me if you refer to me as [insert pronouns here],'" Peterkin explains. "'Or stop referring to me as [insert old pronouns here].'"
If you're more certain about your identity, she recommends saying something along the lines of, "I'd like to share something important but difficult with you. I identify as [insert label you feel comfortable with here] and not [gender assigned at birth]. I would love it if you referred to me with [insert pronouns here]." Either way, Peterkin says, "It may be helpful to invite your partner to ask any appropriate questions and set boundaries you may have to maintain feelings of safety for yourself."
Even if the conversation goes well, remember you're on a journey, and acceptance and inclusion don't happen overnight. There can be slip-ups, but there can also be successes. Peterkin recommends exploring what you need to feel supported privately and publicly, and then having a conversation with your partner about that. "Do you want them to read more, listen more, or speak up more? Do you want them to advocate for you with friends, family, strangers, and doctors?" Peterkin asks. How do you want them to check their biases, and challenge their homophobia or transphobia? Do you want them to join you at protests or work to influence trans-inclusive policy?
"Activism is a love language," Peterkin says. But ultimately, how your partner proceeds should depend on what you need. The whole point of on-boarding your partner to your gender journey is to have someone at your side through triumphs and challenges, and for some, this process starts with disclosing pronouns.
Ultimately, if you find your partner is unsupportive and makes you feel emotionally or physically unsafe throughout this process, consider thinking long and hard about your relationship. "It's worth exploring if this a partner you can see yourself being your authentic self with," Peterkin says. "We all deserve partners who root for us."
Akeera Peterkin, LSCW, Amani Nia Therapeutic Services
If you or someone you know is seeking help for LGBTQ+ mental health concerns or safety concerns, call The Trevor Project's 24/7/365 Lifeline at 866-4-U-TREVOR (866-488-7386). You can also reach out for instant message support via TrevorChat, or for text message support via TrevorText. For additional resources, call the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860. In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.