To the new friends, they were just Andy and Kate — a man dating a woman. And that was just how Andy liked it. But to Kate, “it felt like a lie,” she said. She wanted to express her queer identity, she said, but how could she do that without making Andy uncomfortable?
For the couple, who are now engaged to be married, “there are no clear answers to this,” Andy said.
“No matter how much I want to separate my trans identity from who I am, I can’t. I can’t separate it from my relationship with Kate because she is a queer woman,” Andy said. “It’s a daily dance that we navigate.”
This tension is a daily reality for many queer couples who feel that the way others perceive them is at odds with who they really are.
Their experiences call to mind the phenomenon of “passing,” a fraught term that has historically been used in conversations about race to refer to someone who is able to escape discrimination and assume the privileges of a white identity based on appearance.
But the term is problematic when applied to gender identity.
First of all, many LGBTQ people are open about their identities and do not intend to deceive others. Rather, it’s a matter of others’ misperceptions based on the human tendency to sort others easily into groups by making snap judgments about them, based on factors such as how they look or whom they choose to date, according to Carla A. Pfeffer, a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina. Pfeffer wrote a book about partnerships between transgender men and women who are cisgender, which means their gender identity matches the sex on their birth certificate.
(That tendency to sort others based on quick judgments is not without a purpose. In an evolutionary sense, such sorting has allowed people to use their brains more efficiently, without having to ponder each decision individually.)
Secondly, for many transgender men and women, being able to “pass” as a man or a woman is about more than just a way to attain privilege, safety or comfort. It can also be an affirmation of their identity, of how they truly feel inside.
“I want to be seen as a … man. I don’t want to have any sort of mark on me … that says, ‘I am trans,’ ” Andy said. “I think if I were more inclined to do that, Kate and I would probably have an easier time. Some people do feel like, ‘I need to represent … the group I’m a part of.’ But not me — I just want to blend.”
Many Americans still have a hard time grasping the fact that gender and sexual orientation are independent from each other — a person’s gender identity does not determine whom they will be attracted to or who will be attracted to them.
Transgender and non-binary people identify as genders different from those on their birth certificates. But, for example, a transgender man might be attracted only to women, or only to men, or both. It depends entirely on the person.
And when a person transitions while in a relationship, it doesn’t necessarily change their partner’s sexual orientation. Just because Kate is no longer dating a woman doesn’t mean she is no longer queer.
Distinguishing between identities in the LGBTQ community has become increasingly complex as more categories for gender identities and sexual orientations have emerged, many of them breaking with traditional binary notions. More and more people now identify as non-binary, meaning they do not identify as exclusively male or female. Terms such as “pansexual” have emerged to describe people who are attracted to a full spectrum of gender identities.
“Now it’s a lot more difficult to know, or assume to know, what category [people] belong to,” Pfeffer said. “People are feeling more like they have a right to their identity … and to be recognized in accordance with their identity.”
A double-edged sword
Kate and Andy’s struggle is one that, in some ways, echoes the experiences of bisexual people in relationships perceived as straight. “Suddenly, that sexuality is just entirely erased — they’re seen as heterosexual people unremarkably in the world,” Pfeffer said.
About 4 in 10 LGBT adults in the United States identify as bisexual. And among bisexual people with partners, almost 9 in 10 are married or in a relationship with someone of the opposite sex, according to a Pew Research Center analysis in June of survey data from Stanford University.
For Deidre Pilcher, a mother of three in Frederick, Md., being married to a man has provided a sort of safety net in her conservative Mormon extended family. (Her husband is a cisgender man.)
“I don’t have to be ostracized by my community, and sometimes I feel a little guilty about that, that I can sort of hide,” Pilcher, 40, said. “I don’t have to pay a social price. My kids don’t have to pay a price.”
But “passing” has been a double-edged sword for Pilcher in recent years, as she’s become more comfortable being open about her sexual identity. Whether at a Pride parade or at classes for her graduate program in marriage and family therapy, she gets frustrated when people assume she is straight. It’s become increasingly important for her to be open about her true self around her friends.
“It’s kind of constant mental gymnastics. I definitely acknowledge my privilege and I try to speak out and support the LGBT community wherever I can, but it seems like it would be helpful if I felt like they let me in,” Pilcher said. “We love people to just cleanly fit into groups. . . . But people just aren’t that simple.”
Kate Murray presents “very feminine” in her clothing and appearance, she said. Over the years, she has made her sexual orientation clear to the outside world through her romantic relationships with women. Now that she’s no longer dating a woman, it bothers her when she “passes” as straight.
When Kate went to a lesbian bar in the District for her birthday recently, wearing a hot pink dress and a birthday tiara, “it was very clear to everyone in my friend group that the bartender thought that I was a straight girl celebrating my birthday at a gay bar,” Kate said. It wasn’t obvious, based on her appearance and whom she was with, that she was queer.
Kate’s queer identity has always been a central part of her life. Her two mothers, who both worked at Wellesley College, used a sperm donor to conceive her; Kate was one of the first children born to lesbians at Wellesley, she said. “It was a huge deal.”
But Kate said she felt that her mothers hoped she might end up marrying a man — perhaps because they both came from conservative families and had endured the challenges of coming out in a time that was far less accepting of gay couples.
In some ways, when Andy came out as transgender, Kate felt her parents were relieved. When Andy and Kate went to visit some of her conservative relatives in rural Illinois last year, she said one of her moms told her: “This is a thousand times easier for them than if you had brought a woman here.”
Kate’s mothers recently hosted two wedding showers — one for her and one that focused more on Andy. At Andy’s party, all of the decorations were rainbow-themed. The cookies had rainbow sprinkles. The plates were adorned with the words “love is love.” But Kate’s party felt more like a traditional, feminine bridal shower. Everything was pink. While the couple appreciated both parties, they felt taken aback by the decorations.
The parties left Kate with the impression that her parents consider Andy’s transgender identity “one of his defining features,” she said.
“But they never talk about my queerness,” Kate said.
“We want to be treated like a man and a woman like everybody else, but we also want our underlying identities to be acknowledged in some way,” she added. “My queerness can exist in my attraction to Andy, and his transness can exist. I think that kind of fluidity is hard to grasp.”
At their wedding in October, at a hotel in the District, there will be no rainbows, Kate said. But they hope to gesture their individual identities in small ways.
Andy is Jewish, so the couple knew they wanted to include the traditional stomping of a glass at their wedding. But instead of having the man, Andy, step on the glass, “we’re going to step on it together,” Kate said.