Ali Sands: Finding Myself Through My Partner’s Journey

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Ali Sands and her partner Rhys Preston at the Japanese Gardens near their home (photo by Sarah Whiting)

As the queer-identified female partner of a person who transitioned from female to male during our relationship, I am continually reflecting on how our partners impact our own identities.

It was about three years into our time as a couple when my partner told me his truth: identifying as a man.

To process my feelings, I began writing in a journal every day. I asked my partner if he was interested in hearing my thoughts. Almost always he showed up as a rapt listener. In retrospect, my journal became a lifeline of communication between us that allowed him to stay aware of my process as his partner.

The journal encompasses the first three years of my partner’s transition, and chronicles my own struggle for identity as a newly-out queer woman. I had so many questions. Who are we if our partner changes during our relationship? Is identity internal or external? Can I still identify as an outspoken queer- femme if my partner is now male? My confusion kept me writing, and through that self-exploration I found answers.

My book, “I Know Who You Are, But What Am I?,” has created a flood of opportunities for me to have conversations with others in similar positions. Unknowingly, I had written something that resonates with many people in relationships. It also speaks to the resilience that so many of us in long-term relationships must have every day.

I have been asked numerous times, “If your partner is now a man, what does that make you?”My response is always the same; it does not “make” me anything. My identity is based on my own expression and experiences, and that autonomy has kept our love strong.

Resilience in my own 18-year relationship is what has allowed me to love my partner.

I fell in love with her, but I grew in love with him. This is resilience.

Ali Sands (she/her) was a speaker at TedX. Her memoir is now in its second edition. She is available to participate in forums about identity and transformational journeys.

EXCERPT, “I Know Who You Are, But What Am I?”

I ran into an old friend. She asked how this whole “situation” is going for me. I assumed correctly that she was speaking of Rhys’ transition and my relationship with him. Specifically, she wanted to know, “Were you a heterosexual, then a homosexual, and now a heterosexual again?”

Questions about my sexual preference are so difficult for me to answer.  Sometimes I don’t  answer,  but when I do     I find myself inventing a new response for each and every one. I feel I have to first consider the source and determine my reply accordingly. Is this person educated? Religious? An ally of human rights? Do they believe in equality? Are they judgmental? Homophobic? If they’re homophobic or judgmental, I choose not to go there.

Quickly, I put together a reply that requires no personal labels, and at the same time respects and protects my relationship with Rhys. I responded by telling my friend that  I no longer use sexual stereotypes to describe myself.

Personally, I don’t feel that I was ever “exclusively heterosexual,” even though physically I lived in a monogamous relationship with a non-trans male for over 20 years. “Homosexual” would also be a stretch for me. By literal terms, that would put me as a woman who is exclusively attracted to other women. Not a fit either. I guess that I would self-identify as “queer.”

Other words for “queer” are found in the thesaurus. They include: bizarre, unusual, peculiar, weird, freakish, unnatural, puzzling, perplexing, eerie, spooky. Choose a word, any word, but don’t expect that because it fits your definition of my sexual identity it will do the same for me. We are multidimensional beings, linguistically indefinable in our magnitude. The human language isn’t adequate to describe the intangible, and my sexuality is just that: Intangible. But I choose to keep the majority of this vulnerable information to myself and reply to questions of a sexual nature as vaguely as possible.

Through the experience of being repeatedly quizzed about my sexual identity, I now clarify my response: I do not qualify my sexual identity based on who I am partnered with. What is me is me, and being with Rhys doesn’t change that fact.

I do not believe that the majority of people have been educated or gifted with the knowledge of gender fluidity. Most have not begun to venture to that place within themselves to explore the basis of their sexual attractions and desires.

Our culture, being steeped in religious belief and tradition, does not allow a great amount of variance from the heterosexual-binary. Anyone bold enough to search, who discovers that they don’t fit within traditional norms, is immediately set apart.

I am from suburban and conservative America where this kind of individuality can get you ostracized. I had to choose between my true self or keeping my family of origin. At this point, I refuse to diminish myself as anything other than what comes from within me.

June 8: “Breaking the Binary”

Minnesota Women’s Press hosts a Facebook Live event with Magers & Quinn bookstore for Pride Month.

Ellie Krug, Ali Sands, and Erin Maye Quade of Gender Justice will participate in a moderated discussion with editor Mikki Morrissette on June 8, 5pm. Learn more here.



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