Dear Patrick: I have been married for eight years. My marriage was, I thought, a solid and loving one, even if it wasn’t very passionate. My husband was a good provider and supported me in my personal and professional goals. For a long time, I was sad about not having children, but now I am glad I do not have to explain my situation to a little one.
My husband has come to me and told me that he is a she. Apparently these feelings of being a woman are very strong, even though I never saw anything feminine about him. He has already made an appointment to see a doctor about beginning hormonal “treatment.” I did get invited to go and support him, which doesn’t make me feel better at all. I don’t understand why he has to go so fast.
When I try to see him as a woman, I can’t conjure up an image that isn’t, to be frank, freakish. He was a Marine, for heaven’s sake! I’m angry that I wasn’t told about these feelings before we got married. I am not sure that I can stay with someone who is making this kind of radical and selfish change.
My religious belief in the sanctity of marriage is very strong. I never thought I would be one of those women who got a divorce. My parents will be so ashamed of me. But if my husband is going to start wearing a dress around town, I don’t see any way to avoid hurting them. I also have no idea how we are going to live if he gets fired from his job. We are both employed, but being a social worker doesn’t pay as much as being an engineer.
Is there any kind of therapy that would help my husband to conquer this obsession with becoming a woman? Any way to make him see that he is risking everything he has? This would protect the happiness of so many people.—Sad Wife, Sad Life
Dear Sad Wife: I don’t know if your marriage will survive either. If your attitude stays where it is right now, I wouldn’t even recommend that the two of you stay together. I know it is hard to put such strong feelings aside, but if you can, read your letter as if it was something you found in a library book—written by a stranger. Would you think that the author of the letter actually hated her husband? It kinda sounds like it, sad to say.
Marriages end when people are unable to tolerate the changes that their spouse has naturally gone through over the course of an entire lifetime. The process of getting to know someone lasts as long as they are breathing. You can be with your spouse for 40 years and still be surprised by them. The only partners who don’t encounter big shifts in personality, health, sexuality, spirituality, etc. are those who never bothered to experience real intimacy. If you keep your distance and ignore your partner, it’s easy to pretend nothing has changed and nothing ever will.
I want to give you some information about gender identity concerns, and also list some resources for women in your situation. I know you are being asked to understand a part of human experience that seems very strange. But the truth is, no matter how gender roles are defined in any given society, all human cultures have included people who are unable to live in the gender that was assigned to them at birth. Transgenderism or transsexuality, androgyny, or a refusal to live as a man or a woman—all of these things have been around for millennia, and will probably always be part of the continuum of how people see themselves or create intimate connections. Your mate is not outrageous. She is just unfortunate enough to be coming out into a society that hates transgender people and tries to keep us invisible.
It sounds like your spouse has strong feelings about being a woman, even though they look like a man and were identified as male at birth. Most trans people began having those feelings when they were very young. But as a four-year-old child, it is very difficult to understand what is going on or tell adults about it. Parents don’t approve, and neither do peers. Children who rebel against the gender they were assigned at birth find that they are harassed, ridiculed, threatened with damnation, and sometimes physically punished. It becomes clear to a child in this situation that their survival is at issue. It is usually easier to push all these feelings down, out of conscious thought, and try to live the way others expect you to live. It may be that it was repression rather than dishonesty that kept your mate from disclosing these feelings before marriage.
It’s very common for trans women to have very masculine occupations or hobbies. The search for a way to feel at home in one’s birth-body and social role can lead the trans individual into some choices that later may seem at odds with their preferred identity. I know trans women who were Green Berets, skyscraper construction workers, outlaw bikers, military helicopter pilots, firefighters, etc. Of course, this doesn’t apply to everybody. But it’s not a good reason to deny the truth of your mate’s feelings about who they are. Do you remember any time in your life when you tried to fit in, against all the odds?
The best researchers now believe that gender identity is established at a very young age. For reasons we don’t understand, that identity doesn’t have to be consistent with one’s genitals. There are physically male children who know, with every fiber of their being, that they are girls and were meant to live adult lives as women. The same thing, in reverse, can be true for children who are physically female. The letter on the birth certificate doesn’t matter. This core gender identity cannot be changed by social disapproval, punishment, neglect, ridicule, religious conversion, therapy, or abandonment. It constitutes one of the most important things a person can know about themselves, along with age, height, hair color, etc. You can lie about it or hide it, but you can’t make it go away. And why should you? Transgender people have a lot to contribute to the societies they live in and to their loved ones, if they are permitted to be part of those worlds.
Can you imagine what it would be like to go to bed with a person who expected you to behave as a man? This sexual partner has no idea who you really are. But they know that they want someone who is shaped like a man, smells like a man, talks and behaves the way men behave, and functions during sex in a traditionally masculine fashion. Would you be able to just ignore your physical and emotional reality and act the way they want you to perform in bed? Or would you feel embarrassed, awkward, ignored, frustrated, afraid, etc.? There’s no difference between these feelings, for you, and how it is for your mate to be treated in this relationship. You are married to a woman. She is just stuck with a body that looks male—for now.
Hormone treatment and surgery can do a lot to help a masculinized body come close to a womanly ideal. There are processes to remove body hair and even reshape the face and hairline. Being able to “pass” as a woman is not important to all trans people. If people who are differently-gendered were not harassed, discriminated against, and even attacked, passing would be even less of an issue for us. Mostly we want to be left alone so we can pursue whatever happiness is available to us.
The process of physical transition takes a long time. It isn’t accurate to think of it as “a man putting on a dress.” Most trans women wait to wear feminine clothing until they feel ready to do so. In the meantime, they can opt for a more androgynous appearance. For all of us, the most dangerous time in our lives is those months and years when we look as if we could be men or women, both or neither. I don’t know why this enrages some people, but I can attest to the fact that it really does. Your partner needs someone to understand and to be compassionate and emotionally available during this time.
Many companies have policies that forbid discrimination based on gender identity. There are several consultants available to help workplaces that have trans employees to create good policies so that everyone is comfortable and well-informed. There is also a ton of literature out there to help married couples. You just have to look for the resources to find them.
I understand that you feel as if your old life is falling apart. That’s valid. It is. You have been handed a piece of very unwelcome news. But think about how you would feel if you were suddenly told you would have to be a man for the rest of your life. Wouldn’t you hate it? If you love your mate, surely you don’t want them to endure a hell like that. I always tell the families who come to me because a child, parent, grandparent, or other kin is trans that it’s easy to cut that person out of your life. But if you stay connected, you get to witness the amazing process of an unhappy person becoming more authentic and joyous. You get to have a relationship with who they really are. How often do we ever have a friendship or a love connection that is so honest and real?
Here are some organizations that have useful information or resources.
The National LGBTQ Task Force works to support the civil rights of sex and gender minorities. They have some research papers on their web site that might be of interest. You can find them on-line at www.thetaskforce.org. The Human Rights Campaign, www.hrc.org, has even more articles that explain the basics. Go to their website and then search for “transgender.” There are several articles by a woman in your situation who decided to stay with their spouses. You can see one of them at: http://transgenderuniverse.com/2017/02/15/soyoure-married-to-a-transgender-woman/. I also recommend you read this: http://www.xojane.com/it-happened-to-me/my-husband-came-out-as-transgender. I am not highlighting articles by women who left their transgender mates because there are so many of them. I think it is the minority point of view that needs to be pointed out. There really are women who have been in your situation who are happy they became supportive allies.
There is an on-line support group for women partnered with trans folk. All points of view are represented. Check it out at: https://www.dailystrength.org/group/spouses-of-transgender?page=1#discussion-3637589. And there is a group formed to support couples who want to stay together through a gender transition. You can find out more about them at: www.couplesintransition.org.
I recommend a book called Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, by Laura Erickson-Schroth. I also recommend the writings of Kate Bornstein, Riki Wilchins, and Julia Serano. Just be aware, if you search for resources on sites like amazon.com, that there is a lot of pornography that features transgender characters. Since you are looking for information rather than entertainment, ignore those books or videos and focus on non-fiction.
There are even more resources, but this seems like enough to start.
In closing, I want to validate your right to say, “I can’t do this,” even if that means getting a divorce. It makes me sad, but I understand it. I think it would be better for your spouse to get treatment for their gender issues without perpetual resentment or shaming and criticism. Just don’t make your presence or absence a bargaining chip. You might be able to blackmail your mate into shutting up about her need to be perceived as a woman. But you won’t be able to make it go away. You will always know that this issue has not been resolved. That doesn’t sound fair to either one of you, and I don’t think it will restore a contented tone to your home.
The process of sex reassignment or sex confirmation takes years. That gives you a lot of time to learn about it, adapt, and pursue your own course of deeper self-knowledge. If you feel that you need to write to me again, please do. I don’t usually offer to send people private replies, but in your case, I will do so if you would rather have a confidential dialogue.