Sexuality and relationships

Young people described their experiences of diverse sexualities in different ways. Those with experiences of sex and relationships shared what sexuality and gender identity meant to them. Stonewall (2021) defines gender identity as “a person’s innate sense of their own gender, whether male, female or something else (non-binary), which may or may not correspond to the sex assigned at birth”. Whereas sexuality/sexual orientation is defined a “a person’s sexual attraction to other people, or lack thereof. Along with romantic orientation.” You can find more about the concepts of sex and gender identity, sexuality, and a glossary of sexuality and gender terms on from Stonewall here [link to resources].

Participants talked about sexuality and relationships in the following ways:

  • Sexualities and gender identities
    • Lesbian and gay identities
    • Bisexual and pansexual identities
    • Asexuality
    • Identifying as straight
    • Questioning
  • Being queer and resisting labels
  • Intimacy, relationships and dating
  • Experiences of fetishisation
  • Support, consent and pleasure in relationships

Sexualities and gender identities

For many, negotiating their sexuality alongside their gender identity was a complex process. People had different understandings about how sexuality and gender identity related to each other – for some they were linked, but for others this was not the case. Jack said, ‘My sexuality and my gender identity are linked… I am not just a trans man, I’m a gay trans man.… they kind of feedback to each other in the way I want to present and the way I want to look and act and be viewed by the world’.

Some young people wanted to clarify the difference between gender identity as being ‘who you sense yourself to be’ and sexuality as being ‘who you are attracted to’ (Genderbread, 2021). Loges said, ‘A lot of people think that sexuality and gender are the same which is not [the case] at all, they’re very different.’ Jay said, ‘I think I’ve always seen [gender and sexuality] as separate things not really related at all’.

Bay talks about understanding their sexuality and gender identity.

Age at interview 28

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For many of the young people, understanding their sexuality was a changing process that was shaped by their transition. Sally said, ‘As I’ve got deeper into my transition, I’ve become more comfortable being sexual and I guess I think about it more.’ Declan described how, since transitioning, ‘I have thought about my sexuality as being more fluid rather than a rigid thing.’ Loges said, ‘I just think that through my transition it’s changed quite a lot, I’ve learnt more about myself as I’ve become more comfortable with myself.’ He said ‘as I started my transition and got more comfortable with being male, I’m more comfortable with liking different people.

Whereas some young people negotiated their sexuality alongside their gender identity, a few described wanting to take it a step at a time. Eel said, ‘I figured out my gender [first] and then sexuality took a back seat because I wasn’t actively seeking any relationships.’

Describing their sexuality, Rahul says it seems strange for me that you could limit yourself to just one gender.

Age at interview 25

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Patrick describes his sexuality a little bit as like a coat that you can put on and you can take off.

Age at interview 20

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Lesbian and gay identities

Some of the trans and gender diverse young people we spoke to talked about their experiences of identifying as lesbian [refers to women who have a romantic and/or sexual orientation towards women*] and gay [refers to men who have a romantic and/or sexual orientation towards men*]. Reuben said, ‘I’ve always had a weird relationship with my sexuality’. He said, ‘I’ve always felt like I’m definitely not straight… because I wasn’t that attracted to women… now I would probably identify as a gay man which sounds mad to a lot of cis people, they don’t really get it’.

A said, ‘I think I’d describe myself as a non-binary lesbian. I’m not a woman, but I still feel connected with femininity in a way and… it’s the way I feel attraction.’ They added ‘I’d also say I’m somewhere on the asexual spectrum, probably greysexual is the best term to describe it’.

June describes being a trans man and identifying as a fag. He says we can be Trans men and we can also be femme and not have to [subscribe] to masculinity.

Age at interview 29

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Patrick describes his sexuality I am a masculine presenting person who is attracted to masculine presenting people.

Age at interview 20

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A few of our transmasculine participants talked about how their gay identities related to their sense of masculinity. Eel felt ‘for me… being a gay trans guy… is kind of a difficult and weird identity because as a trans guy, I want to be really masculine and there’s a certain male goal or archetype that I want to be’. However, he said ‘as a gay male, there’s so many different roles, body types and ideas that you have to fit into.’ Jack said, ‘being gay does inform my masculinity and my maleness and my identity itself’.

Bisexual and pansexual identities

Some of the young people described how they identified as bisexual [romantic and/or sexual orientation towards more than one gender*] and pansexual [romantic and/or sexual attraction towards others not limited by sex or gender*] and what this meant to them. Evelyn said, ‘I identify as bisexual… it has developed because at first I thought I just liked boys or girls and switched between being a lesbian and straight, and then I kind of realised I’m actually bi’.

Erion described himself as a ‘massively chaotic bisexual.’ He said, ‘it’s a very weird position to be in because you kind of end up having had experiences of both sides of the coin’. He added ‘you can be bisexual and also that still includes trans people because that’s trans men and that’s trans women [and] also includes non-binary people’.

Bee talks about being pansexual and others assuming they are straight because of assumptions about gender and sexuality.

Age at interview 31

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Many participants talked about how their sexuality changed and opened up during transition. Alistair said, ‘I think now my sexuality is completely different to what it was pre-transition’. He said, ‘I just see people as people and it doesn’t really matter what they’ve got, if I like their mind and they’re funny or whatever then that’s like fine’.

Noelle said, ‘It was only after I’d been on hormones for a while and been through my transition’ that her sexuality started to change. She said that, before transitioning, ‘I couldn’t imagine myself with a guy, [it] just didn’t do anything for me. But then re-evaluating that [and] viewing myself as a woman, [it] suddenly made sense. I started experiencing that attraction.’

Jacob describes his struggles with sexuality such as masculine and feminine roles in relationships and how that changed.

Age at interview 17

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Asexuality

A few young people talked about identifying as asexual [a variation in levels of romantic and/or sexual attraction, including a lack of attraction*] and what this meant to them. Ari said ‘I’m asexual. I knew I was asexual before I knew I was non-binary. …I don’t find that my asexuality is because of any dysphoria that I have.’ They added ‘I’m quite lucky in that my partner is also asexual so that there’s no weird tensions going on there.’ Tyra said, ‘I’d say I’m more labelled as an asexual person… I just don’t have interest in humans at all’. She added ‘it’s still something I’m coming to terms with myself’.

Cas describes asexuality as a whole spectrum’ and shares his experience of being quoisexual’ and the discrimination that exists.

Age at interview 16

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Identifying as straight

Some of the young people we spoke to described being trans and straight [a man who has a romantic and/or sexual orientation towards women, or a woman who has a romantic and/or sexual orientation towards men*] and their feelings about this. For some this felt like a progression along with their trans identity. Sally said, ‘I think [gender identity] can change your sexuality, and the way you relate to your sexuality a lot’. She described her sexuality as a ‘natural progression, overcoming that pressure to conform and just realising that actually I wasn’t that attracted to women, I just wanted to be one.’

A few participants were uncomfortable with the label of heterosexuality and what it meant to them personally. Henry felt ‘being trans has completely opened my world view in terms of what sexuality means, and what attraction to women as a statement means’. He said, ‘I don’t think [the term] ‘heterosexual’ encapsulates actually what human sexuality is about’. Max said, ‘It’s weird, ‘cos technically I would be straight. But at the same time… it kind of feels wrong saying it… because I [got] kicked out of home for being too masculine and coming out as gay, at first… all that struggle that I went through for my sexuality now saying I am straight.’

Questioning

A few young people described wanting to understand their sexuality over a period of time and some wanted to wait for their transition. One person felt unsure about how she would feel about sex and sexual attraction until she transitioned. She said, ‘I’ve no idea what it will be like when I’ve got a vagina… I just don’t know how the dynamic is gonna work’. Another participant shared, ‘I still don’t know like what sex with me would look like. I haven’t had any partners since I came out and I don’t know what it would even look like.’

Being queer and resisting labels

Many of the trans and gender diverse young people we spoke to identified as queer*2. For participants, being queer meant resisting labels and definitions. Charke said, ‘I think when I accepted yeah I’m trans, I sort of ditched hope of labelling my sexuality at that point because it just felt, not just confusing but unnecessary really. I just felt like, you know what, I’ll find someone that I like and I guess I’ll [just] like who I like really’.

Ari said, ‘I tend to identify as queer, because I don’t feel like kind of anything else is a decent enough label, because things like bi [bisexual], pan [pansexual] they can and do encompass non-binary identities… but I like the fact that just like non-binary doesn’t fit neatly into a box, queer doesn’t either’. For them it is about ‘not fitting into that box, but also rejecting it’.

Sophie talks about the meaning of being queer to her it symbolises fluidity.

Age at interview 21

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Some participants felt that their sexuality would remain open to changing over time. PJ said, ‘for trans people in my experience, sexuality is very interchangeable with how you feel about yourself.’ He said, ‘I’ve been several sexualities… I don’t know if that will change in the future. But I can’t really pinpoint what I am really. I’m on all of the spectrum.’

Summer said, ‘I have been like discovering my own sexuality a lot since I’ve been transitioning.’ She said, ‘I never really allowed myself to identify with queerness. I was very like repressed… it was like this local internalised queerphobia… it’s all nonsense. [I’ve] been discovering a lot of myself and a lot of my sexuality… and now I have no better way to describe it than just I am queer’.

M says that their queer identity has been more affirmed through transitioning and I care a lot less about gender.

Age at interview 25

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For some participants, being queer was a meaningful way to express love and affection towards multiple genders. Jaz said, ‘I always identified as lesbian or queer, since I was a teenager’. She felt it made sense as ‘a communal identity’ and ‘in relation to being attracted to people of diverse genders’. M said, ‘I identify as queer… it’s been more affirmed through transitioning. I think I care a lot less about gender… with regards to who I find attractive or like relationships and that kind of stuff.’ They added, ‘through transitioning… I just feel free and able to like have attraction to whoever I feel it towards’.

Finn talks about the problems he has with labelling sexuality I don’t wanna be labelled. I want to label myself.

Age at interview 16

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Beth says queer works because it is so broad and it basically just means I’m not straight, and I also use it to mean I’m not cis [gender].

Age at interview 23

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Intimacy, relationships and dating

Some young people talked about their experiences of intimacy, relationships and dating. How participants felt about these topics often depended on how they felt about their bodies.

For some trans people, their bodies made them uncomfortable and unhappy in intimate relationships. One female participant said, ‘for a long time it was something I didn’t think about, I found having sex really difficult with a penis so I didn’t really want anybody to acknowledge its existence, and that was difficult.’ She said, ‘I really struggle to sometimes accept that men like me as a woman, and they’re not liking me as sort of like very chasery [fetishized*3], sort of like weird… desire thing, or as a man.’

Tori talks about negotiating conversations about her body in new relationships and online dating.

Age at interview 34

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Another female participant said, ‘when I’m not feeling sad about it, I could acknowledge the irony that the thing for which I’m most fantasised [for] about my body is probably [the] bit I want the least amount of interest and attention [paid to]… when I’m having sex which is my genitals’.

In contrast, some of our AMAB transfeminine and non-binary participants talked about accepting and embracing their bodies in sexual experiences. Cassie shared ‘I know some trans women who are comfortable topping*3 like you know, fuck it, why not?’ One participant shared ‘I don’t have bottom dysphoria, I like my penis… I think I wanna keep that.’ When it comes to sexuality, intimacy and dating, Tori said, ‘We’re not defined by our body parts’.

Interview 28 talks about the relationship between her sexuality and her body and how it has changed during her transition.

G talks about how they relate to their body and negotiate the power dynamics in sexual relationships.

Age at interview 23

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Some people we spoke to talked about how their experience of hormone therapy impacted their sexuality. Jack said, ‘Before I started testosterone… I would have identified as bisexual and… didn’t particularly have a preference to people that are male or female, non-binary masculine and feminine’. However, ‘since taking testosterone… I’m much more attracted generally to men or masculinity… I noticed that changing’. Shash said, ‘I feel what counts as intimacy has changed… because I’ve started feeling more like myself, I feel like the bar for what I feel as intimacy goes higher because I feel like I value myself more, and I want my partner to value me more as well’.

Shash talks about how her attraction and libido has changed as she has gone through her transition.

Age at interview 23

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Interview 7 talks candidly about how attraction can change while on hormone therapy.

A difficult experience that participants highlighted was the impact of loneliness. Jaz talked about ‘trans women and non-binary trans fems who didn’t date for large parts of their life… having to reconcile [a] period of loneliness’. She said ‘it sometimes does feel like it’s easy to be the one in the corner of the bar who doesn’t get any attention’. Cassie mentioned that ‘trans youth are vulnerable, isolated, lonely, [with] low self-esteem and can often be confused’. She warned that these things can put them at risk in sexual experiences.

Experiences of fetishisation

Discussions of sexuality and relationships also included the difficult experiences that trans people can encounter, including being fetishised*4 by others. Participants talked about the representations of trans people that can impact how they are treated by others. One participant said, ‘my first exposure to a trans identity or a very reductive, harmful one was through pornography.’ She said… I think that was very harmful to me, because…I [thought] that’s what being a trans girl was… objectified [and] fetishised… rather than just being a girl in her own right.’

Some participants talked about their experiences of being fetishised and objectified by cisgender men. Cassie shared ‘I had a very good quote… which is, certain cis men will treat trans women in public how they wish they could treat cis women in private’. Begam said, ‘When I’ve gone to the gay scene there’s a lot of straight men there, these are married men… like on these platforms… who just want to have sex or whatever and we just don’t want to know.’

Summer talks about her experience of dating as a trans women and using dating apps.

Age at interview 25

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Safia talks about their experiences navigating relationships with cisgender and trans people.

Age at interview 27

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Experiences of fetishisation in sex work came up in the research interviews. Tyra said, ‘There’s a lot of trans people unfortunately that do get into sex work and it’s a topic that definitely needs to be touched on’. She said, ‘unfortunately it’s a bit fetishised.’ She added ‘if you are putting yourself in the situation where you’re a sex worker, to access services or surgery and stuff, you shouldn’t feel ashamed about it’. Anderson valued connecting with people who ‘are survivors or who are sex workers or have a different relationship to sex and relationships than most people.’ They appreciated ‘hearing their narratives and being able to communicate with them on issues that they faced… how other people interact with them [in] navigating that space’.

June talks about his experiences of fetishisation in the gay community.

Age at interview 29

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Tori talks about her experiences of the fetishisation and objectification of trans women.

Age at interview 34

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Interview 10 talks about being a trans woman in sex work it’s dangerous people just treat you like shit because they feel like they can.

Support, consent and pleasure in relationships

Trans and gender diverse people we spoke to wanted to share their positive experiences of intimate relationships. A few mentioned finding warmth and connection in relationships with other trans people. Summer said it’s ‘sweet… when you get trans couples who support each other’. Cassie said, ‘I know lots of trans people who tend towards relationships with other trans people because they feel like they [will] actually be accepted for who they are in a way that they wouldn’t be with cis people.’ Jessica said her girlfriend has ‘been a very, very constant support for me throughout [this] period of change.’

One person we spoke to said ‘there is this energy that exists between trans people …that all gets incorporated into the sexuality, the body parts you have and what you can do, but maybe what you can’t do in regards to dysphoria’. They continued, ‘there’s this whole other level of communication’.

June describes trans sexuality you write your own rules and that feels really beautiful, liberatingspiritual, educational and empowering.

Age at interview 29

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Some people we spoke to valued belonging to different communities that helped them build positive relationships. Kat said, ‘I ended up joining a lot of… online communities mostly on Reddit which… had partnerships with the trans space I’m in for lesbians’. She said ‘everyone there’s just been really nice and I empathise with them a lot which has been good’. She added ‘these spaces are just really accepting’. Jessica found support with her sexuality ‘through the help of people online and [trans] communities’.

One person we spoke to shared his experiences of connecting with the BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sadomasochism) community*5. He described it as something that gave him ‘body autonomy, unpacking [the] scripts that we learn in sex’. He viewed BDSM ‘as another way of learning informed consent and building the capability to consent to things’.

Jessica describes how her attitude towards sexuality and relationships changed with the help of her partner.

Age at interview 17

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A few people talked about the importance of self-acceptance, loving yourself and the body you have. Jaz said, ‘[the better] you feel about your own body, the better your sexuality and sex life is going to be.’ Charke shared how they struggled with ‘thinking no-one will ever love me, I’m just a freak’. However, they said ‘you have to get over it and accept that’s not true, there are so many people out there who really don’t care… about sexuality or [gender]. You can still find people to love’.

Summer talks about getting into relationships with other trans people there’s this energy that exists between trans people.

Age at interview 25

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See also:

Trans and gender diverse young people’s experiences of sexual health, fertility and pregnancy 

Trans and gender diverse young people’s experiences of hormones

Journeys to identifying as trans and gender diverse

* Stonewall. 2021. Glossary of terms. [link to resources] https://www.stonewall.org.uk/help-advice/faqs-and-glossary/glossary-terms

*2 Stonewall (2021) describe queer as “a term used by those wanting to reject specific labels of romantic orientation, sexual orientation and/or gender identity. It can also be a way of rejecting the perceived norms of the LGBT community (racism, sizeism, ableism etc). Although some LGBT people view the word as a slur, it was reclaimed in the late 80s by the queer community who have embraced it”.

You can also read more about queer history and queer theory here:

Barker, M.J., 2016. Quee A graphic history. Icon Books.

Jagose, A., 1996. Queer theory: An introduction. NYU Press.

*3 Refers to sexual position taken during sex (top, bottom, versatile). ‘Topping’ would usually describes taking a penetrative role in sex. ‘Bottoming would describe taking a receptive role during penetrative sex. Versatile would describe taking both a penetrative and receptive role in sex. These roles can, but not always, relate more broadly to dominance and submissive roles in sex.

See also

Kuwabara S. (2019). The Ins and Outs of Topping as a Trans Girl. Vice. [link to resources] https://www.vice.com/en/article/kzd8yx/how-transgender-women-top-during-sex

*4 Fetishisation can be described as “a form of sexual objectification (or sexualisation) of transgender identities” (Anzani et al. 2021, p.).

Flores et al (2018) state that “examples of sexual objectification include sexualized comments and media images, inappropriate sexual touch, and in its more extreme form, sexual assault” (p.313). Fetishisation and sexual objectification has a particular history in the oppression and discrimination of people of colour. Findings show that it is a key feature of the experiences of trans people of colour (Flores et al. 2018).

Anzani, A., Lindley, L., Tognasso, G., Galupo, M.P. and Prunas, A., 2021. “Being Talked to Like I Was a Sex Toy, Like Being Transgender Was Simply for the Enjoyment of Someone Else”: Fetishization and Sexualization of Transgender and Nonbinary Individuals. Archives of Sexual Behavior, pp.1-15.

Flores, M.J., Watson, L.B., Allen, L.R., Ford, M., Serpe, C.R., Choo, P.Y. and Farrell, M., 2018. Transgender people of color’s experiences of sexual objectification: Locating sexual objectification within a matrix of domination. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 65(3), p.308.

Serano, J., 2016. Whipping girl: A transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity. Hachette UK.

Ussher, J.M., Hawkey, A., Perz, J., Liamputtong, P., Sekar, J., Marjadi, B., Schmied, V., Dune, T. and Brook, E., 2020. Crossing boundaries and fetishization: experiences of sexual violence for trans women of color. Journal of interpersonal violence, p.088626052094

*5 BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sadomasochism), sometimes also known as kink (Barker, 2014).

Barker, M.J., 2014. Dominant and submissive relationships. Rewriting the rules. Accessed at: https://www.rewriting-the-rules.com/sex/dominant-and-submissive-relationships/

Barker, M.J., 2019. The consent check list. Accessed at: www.rewriting-the-rules.com [link ro resources]

www.rewriting-the-rules.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Consent-Checklist-1.pdf

Sexual health, fertility and pregnancy

Young people spoke about their experiences of accessing sexual health services. Sexual health services on the NHS provide free sexual health screening (tests), treatment, contraception...