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Research Blog: How does trans-based discrimination affect romantic relationships?

By Bianca Valle

Growing up in a strict latinx household, romantic relationships with boys and talks of sexuality were a bit of a taboo. To this day I’m afraid to have the sex talk with my mother, and still tiptoe around the fact that I have a boyfriend. But because I am a cisgender woman, my experiences are very much different from those of my transgender peers. I have to worry about whether my parents approve of me having a boyfriend or not and I stay away from sexual topics; this seems pretty minor compared to the danger that some of my transgender friends have experienced in navigating their romantic relationships. My heterosexual involvements do not subject me to possible public harassment or family rejection.

I have come to realized this more over time as my friends and I have dished over our “boy issues.” My friends, who identify as trans and I, have a lot of similar experiences: “dating but not dating,” how we feel about our latest hook-up, or dishing on amazing first dates. But there are also differences: it’s hard for me to imagine not being seen as the gender I identify with as I move through the world with my partner; or liking someone and having them like me back but wanting our relationship to be kept a secret out of shame, let alone, fear of verbal and physical violence.

This year, the Human Rights Council released a study highlighting the various obstacles faced by the trans community. Since 2013, 128 transgender people have died as victims of transgender based violence. For those who wonder by trans people don’t turn to the police for help, it turns out that police officers are also perpetrators in violence against the trans community. They also face systemic issues such as lower access to healthcare services, and higher rates of poverty, especially for trans people of color. Openly identifying as transgender, can put people in danger[1]. This is a lot to deal with, and this fear and danger is part of my friends’ experiences in their romantic relationships.

I wanted to better understand my friends’ struggles and the possible effects for their relationships, so I did some research. I came across a study conducted by Kristi Gamarel, Jean-Philippe Laurenceau, Sari Reisner, Tooru Nemoto, and Don Operario in the Journal of Family Psychology.[2] These researchers wanted to find out how external stressors can then lead to internal stressors, which affected romantic couples of trans women with cis men.

To find out, they conducted a large study on 191 couples involving transgender women and their respective cisgender male partners. The average length of the relationship was about 38 months, with the average age of the participants being about 38 years. It’s also important to mention that 79.1% of the people in their sample were racial and ethnic minorities, which is important because race and racism are always intertwined with gender and sexuality.

Gamarel and her colleagues measured the couples’ external stressors (unfair treatment or harassment from others, financial hardships, and relationship stigma) and its impact on internal stressors- such as mental health issues, like depression- and the quality of their romantic relationships. These factors were measured in what’s referred to as a dyadic analysis, where the researchers were able to analyze both partners at once.

It turns out that financial struggles, experiences of trans discrimination, and the fear of being socially rejected for their relationship, were all factors in the couples’ relationship quality. Financial hardships were associated with a lower relationship quality for both partners; which makes sense when you consider the quality of life one lives when dealing with financial obstacles. Experiencing relationship stigma was also related to both trans women and their partners reporting lower relationship quality.

Discrimination on the personal level and in the systemic sphere – through a lack of access to jobs and proper pay, which worsens depending on race – already creates a harsh environment for trans people to exist in. The various forms of discrimination that transgender people face is crucial in understanding the connection between relationship stigma status and relationship quality. When you have people outside of your relationship trying to dictate what’s normal and what’s not, and clearly labeling your relationship as abnormal, it’s not easy for those within the relationship. It creates an internal conflict which, as those who’ve been in a relationships know, can manifest itself in the relationship. Evidently, the social stigma on transgender individuals, and the fear of being rejected by those outside of their relationship, impacted the relationship quality of the couples; these factors, along with financial issues, resulted in a tough environment for relationships to flourish in.

Trans people are already subject to mental health issues that rise from discrimination. When trying to form a relationship, the discrimination is then felt on a mutual level. As Gamarel and her peers have determined in their study, transgender-related discrimination was associated with more depression for both transgender women and their partners. As both the trans individual and the cis individual struggle to deal with the negative stigmas associated with the transgender community, it makes it difficult for them to enjoy the ups and downs of their relationship.

Being a part of a gender minority group alone is already a major cause of stress for trans-individuals; research has found that the trans community has to deal with the fear of losing their life or being systematically deprived of their rights for being who they are. But having to navigate the realm of romance in a world that is unaccepting of trans relationships, has been found to create more stress. As a cis-gender, heterosexual female I haven’t had to face structural issues as a part of my relationship problems. All couples should feel comfortable enough to thrive and love in a safe environment, without the fear of violence and/or feeling shame. I recognize my privilege in being able to go out and hold hands with my partner, it’s time that this form of affection is not reacted to with violence or hatred for our transgender friends either.

[1] Human Rights Campaign (2019). Understanding the Transgender Community [Web post]. Retrieved March 2019, from https://www.hrc.org/resources/understanding-the-transgender-community

[2] Gamarel, K. E., Reisner, S. L., Laurenceau, J. P., Nemoto, T., & Operario, D. (2014). Gender minority stress, mental health, and relationship quality: A dyadic investigation of transgender women and their cisgender male partners. Journal of Family Psychology, 28(4), 437-447.

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