Kate Murray and Andy Arnold relax at home in the District. Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount.

Washington - When Kate Murray and Andy Arnold first started dating in their early twenties, they were part of a tightknit group of lesbian friends in Washington DC. 

The couple and their friends hung out almost every weekend, organising potluck dinners and frequenting ladies' nights at local gay bars.

Then, about two years ago, Andy came out as a transgender man. And as he transitioned, with Kate's support, the couple suddenly felt they no longer belonged in the "women-centric" spaces they were used to. They tried testing out a new group of friends - a "blank slate," a group in which Andy wouldn't have to talk about his trans identity, he said. He could just "blend in" as a man.

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 discriminationand assume the privileges of a white identity based on appearance.

But the term is problematic when applied to gender identity.

First of all, on the part of many LGBTQ people who are open about their identities, there is no intent to deceive. 

Rather it's a matter of others' misperceptions based on the human tendency to sort others easily into groups by making snap judgments about people based on how they look or who they choose to date, according to Carla Pfeffer, a sociology professor at the University of South Carolina who wrote a book about partnerships between transgender men and cisgender women. (That tendency 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 a person's identity, of how he or she truly feels 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 who the person will be attracted to or who will be attracted to that person.

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 the 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 recognised in accordance with their identity."

The Washington Post