When Emily Prince was considering coming out as transgender, the first person she told was her girlfriend. It did not go well.
"She basically shoved me back in the closet," said Prince, who is now 31 and living in Alexandria, Virginia. "It left some lasting emotional damage that still manifests itself to this day — and that relationship ended back in 2008."
For others, coming out to a partner is much more positive. Ramona P., a 40-year-old trans woman in Columbus, Ohio, said her girlfriend was one of the major forces in pushing her to present herself as a woman. "In July 2012, I started hormones again," she said. "One of the big catalysts for that was my girlfriend at the time, whom I'm still with, was incredibly supportive and incredibly good at expressing the idea and making me feel comfortable about it."
For transgender people, whose gender identity doesn't match the sex assigned to them at birth, the first test of whether they'll be accepted in the world is often coming out to a romantic partner — and the experience is different for everyone. In talking with trans people for a recent series of interviews, I heard about reactions from partners that ranged from full support to hesitation to outright abuse.
Romantic partners gave a range of reactions
Prince's story was one of the more dire stories I heard. As Prince described it, her ex-girlfriend insisted that she was a cross-dresser, not trans — and tried to convince Prince of this through "a pattern of emotional abuse" that left long-term emotional scars.
"[My ex-girlfriend] did everything she could to convince me I wasn't [trans], that being trans would be impossible and I would be miserable," Prince said.
Other times, partners weren't outwardly rejecting, but they were hesitant. This hesitation was sometimes enough to keep someone — like Katherine, a 34-year-old trans woman from Charlotte, North Carolina — from going forward with a transition.
"My ex-wife knew about me being trans before we got married. But she just didn't want me to transition," Katherine said. "I thought I could cope with it."
"[My ex-girlfriend] did everything she could to convince me I would be miserable"
But Katherine couldn't handle it. She eventually decided that she would transition, which she characterized as a decision to be "done being miserable." "It was more than depression," Katherine said. "It was more about having to fake who I was for so long. But once I started transitioning in 2012, I haven't had any depression of any kind." She would, however, later divorce her wife.
Others said the fear of rejection kept them from transitioning. Ramona said she kept her identity secret in part out of fear that her wife and family would reject her, even though her wife ended up showing no signs of disapproval. Ramona described herself as "deeply, deeply unhappy" prior to transitioning, and it led her to act out in ways that hurt both her wife and herself.
"It led to other problems in my life," Ramona said. "I had a period in which I was absolutely lost in internet porn. It's not something that's fun to talk about, but it's one of the ways my feelings presented themselves. That led to problems in my marriage, and I was unfaithful in my marriage. All of these things came from this problem of having this hole really deep within myself that I didn't know how to fill."
Ramona would eventually begin living full-time as a woman in December 2013, but only after the end of her marriage — for which she blames herself — and support from a new girlfriend.
Rejection leads to much worse outcomes for trans people
The 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS), the most comprehensive look at trans Americans to date, found that 45 percent of trans and gender nonconforming people who came out to partners had their relationships end. About 29 percent of those with children experienced an ex-partner limiting their contact with their children. Trans women reported generally worse outcomes, with 57 percent seeing their relationships end and 34 percent having their relationships with their children limited or stopped.
Many of the respondents to the survey — and some people I talked to for this story — reported loving, caring family relationships that continued after their transitions. But it was also the case that partners could act as obstacles instead of the support people needed at defining moments in their lives.
Family rejection can lead to deeply disturbing outcomes among trans people. About 57 percent of trans and gender nonconforming people told the NTDS that they experienced significant family rejection. This rejection had precipitous effects: trans and gender nonconforming people who are rejected by their families are nearly three times as likely to experience homelessness, 73 percent more likely to be incarcerated, and 59 percent more likely to attempt suicide, according to the survey.
"Don't be afraid of wanting to be yourself. That was a fear that was shoved on me when I was younger."
Still, as awful as it sounds, trans people said family rejection and the fear of it shouldn't deter people from coming out and leading the lives they want to lead.
Not transitioning can harm a trans person's health. Some — but not all — trans people experience gender dysphoria, a state of emotional distress caused by the gender someone was designated at birth and how it conflicts with their gender identity. Dysphoria can lead to severe depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. This can be treated if a person transitions, whether by coming out to others or by going through medical procedures. But trans people can't go through the transition if they feel forced to stay in hiding.
Once the trans people I spoke with decided to transition, they said their lives, moods, and relationships drastically improved. "Over the past four months, I've been dating this woman who's been very open and great," Katherine said. "It's been a totally different relationship than I had with anyone before — on a very positive level."
This better post-transition life convinced Katherine to encourage people to come out despite opposition or rejection along the way.
"Don't be afraid of wanting to be yourself. That was a fear that was shoved on me when I was younger whenever I showed any sign of being feminine," Katherine said. "Even if you have friends or family that push you away, there are always going to be people who love and care about you in more ways than you can realize."
Watch: Life as a transgender woman