Soon to Be Female

Friday, July 20, 2012

Question

I am married to a woman and told her three months ago that I can no longer be her husband. I need to see a doctor so I can become the woman that I have always secretly been. She says that if I do that, she will divorce me. She is not religious so I asked her why she would object to me “changing my sex.” (I don't know why people say this, by the way, because as far as I am concerned, I have always been and always will be a woman, no matter what I look like. I am not trying to change who I am, I am hoping to make that truth more visible so that other people can't lie to themselves about who I am.)

She told me that her objections are not religious. They are personal. First, she hopes to have children with me even though I told her when we got married that I never wanted to raise a family. Second, she doesn't want other people to think she is a lesbian. She has no sexual interest in other women and believes she will have no sexual interest in me. By the way, we rarely have intercourse. She finds that painful and not very satisfying. So most of our sex life would be quite easy to continue after I transition. I don't care if she doesn't want to touch me, but I don't want to lose the experience of being close to her and offering her sexual release.

She replied that even if I am not using my penis, it is important to her that there be one penis and one vagina in the bed, not two vaginas. She is adamant that she does not want to tell her family about me because they won't understand, and she can't get them to accept it since she does not accept it herself.

I don't want to go through this alone. Am I selfish to expect the woman who married me “for better or worse” to continue to stay with me? I told her I don't expect her to call herself a lesbian. She can call herself anything she wants as long as we are still together. She says if I really loved her, I would not do this to her, that I am being selfish and self-centered. She also says I am rushing her into this. But I have waited so long I don't see how I am rushing anything.

Answer

Transsexuals and their partners and other family members or friends often have radical disagreements about the pace of transition. For the person who needs to change their sex, the process cannot begin too soon. It feels to them as if they have already waited far too long to make this happen. Their happiness—even their survival—seems to depend on making it happen as quickly as possible.

But most family members and friends are shocked when they learn that a loved one has a gender issue. Transsexuality or transgenderism are still very new topics. The idea of taking hormones scares people who are happy to live in the gender that was assigned to them at birth. They interpret this act according to how they would experience it if a doctor gave them those medications. Surgery is even more frightening, especially since it means any change will be permanent. So they urge their loved one to wait, to slow down—and this can be absolutely maddening to the transgendered person who believes that until they change their sex, they cannot be genuine, their life cannot truly begin, and they cannot be whole.

I don't know why it is so difficult for non-trans people to empathize, since it is clear that this issue causes genuine pain. I wonder sometimes if supposedly normal people are not angry when others are different because we refuse to make certain sacrifices to preserve the status quo. Are these “normal” people actually making huge sacrifices that they refuse to discuss? What differences of their own are they hiding? If we could get the truth of this out onto the table, I doubt the notion of normalcy would survive. There would be fireworks and exclamations and a brave new world would rise from the ashes.

Sorry. People my age just grew up expecting to be part of a revolution. You can't blame a guy for hoping that it's still on the way, it's just taken a little longer to achieve than we all hoped when we dropped acid in 1968.

Sadly, changing gender means that other things in your life will change as well. And many of those changes will be beyond your control. One of the hardest things to manage is the fact that an event that makes you very happy is upsetting others. Close relationships and employment are two of the primary danger zones. This is why I encourage everyone who is transgendered to seek counseling. You may have no issues at all with making the decision to change, but you are probably going to need someone in your corner to help you anticipate and cope with other people's fear, loathing, and anger.

I understand why you and your wife have different perspectives on what it means to be married. You have carried the reality of being differently-gendered your whole life. It must seem strange to you that other people don't know something about you that is so important and all-engrossing. But they don't. They don't know because they are part of a culture that perpetually censors this issue and removes it from the public discourse. Transsexuals are not ordinary people that anyone could meet. They are rare freaks of nature who appear only in documentaries or the kind of movies that get shown and gay film festivals. (As if.) When your wife uttered her wedding vows, it never occurred to her that the phrase “for better or worse” included someday having a wife instead of a husband. As far as she is concerned, she never promised you to stay together while you took estrogen, got breast implants, or had genital surgery to construct a vagina.

By now, you must feel that you are struggling to stand up in the face of a tropical storm of disapproval. You need to find support. You need to locate members of the trans community, either locally or on-line or both. You need a kind, skilled doctor who is experienced with taking care of people through all the steps of transition. And you need to create a safe situation in your life so you can make that change. That includes figuring out how you are going to support yourself. Unless you are independently wealthy, this question probably takes precedence over the issue of whether you can stay married or not. A therapist can help you to think about what results you can expect from the medical process of gender transition. You will probably not look like the movie star of your dreams. (None of us do.) Are you willing to be a woman if you can't be a youthful or extraordinarily hot and sexy woman? Does the prospect of being an ordinary, middle-aged woman sound attractive to you? Do you understand what it is like to live on the salary that the typical single woman makes? Can you survive on that reduced income? What if you never have a partner who will support you financially or help you? Is it still worth it to transition then?

I'm not trying to talk you out of doing this, but I am trying to bring you down to earth a bit. You need a lot of patience and realism to survive this experience. Being weak or unrealistic will not serve you well. The worlds of men and women are deliberately kept apart from one another. So it's possible for a transgendered woman to know that she is female, but not know a lot about how other women survive. Transmen go through a similar process in learning how to adapt to society's expectations of them as men. I've spoken with transwomen who believe they don't have to deal with employment discrimination because they will quickly find a well-to-do man who will let them be housewives. This is a story that rarely came true even at its peak of popularity in 1954. Transmen who think they will have a submissive wife who does all the housework are similarly misinformed. We have this little thing called feminism now. It's actually more exciting to think about understanding all the details of your new gender. There's a whole world of information for you to discover and celebrate. Thanks to the Western ideal of individuality, there are many ways to be a “real woman” or a “real man” (if reality interests you). We get to create new selves that match our deepest sense of authenticity. That goes way, way beyond deciding what color dress to pick out (although that is part of the fun).

As I said earlier, an experienced therapist can help to identify what potential problems may trouble you, and assist you in creating solutions. I understand that you feel enormous pressure to move forward. But you do not sound ready, to me, to transition, because you are not being realistic about how much this will change your life. Arguing with your wife will not make her want to stay with you. The issue about her identity that she raises is 100% valid. If there is no flexibility in her sexual orientation, she is not going to want a relationship with another woman. Period. And she has a right to make that decision.

Of course, it is a sad decision to make, because when two people love each other, the hope is that they can continue to support each other through whatever challenges life might bring. If love is genuine, it may change from romance to friendship, but it ought to survive that sea change. There are many transwomen who remain friends with their wives. But such a friendship is only possible if the trans partner realizes how stressful this is for her mate, and creates space for both points of view to be heard. It is very painful to hear another person talk about their negative reaction to you, but she has to do this before she can educate herself and get to a more supportive or positive space. Try to argue less and listen more. This seems right and natural to you, but that is only because it is part of your life experience. She has no such experience to guide her reactions.

If she shows no interest at all in educating herself and has no capacity to empathize with you, then, of course, you can't continue to wait for her to catch up. She may never give you permission to act on your true identity. Couples counseling is often helpful to clarify whether a marriage can endure or not. But I do strongly recommend that you find a counselor who will be impartial. Someone who knows nothing about transgendered people will not be able to devote equal clinical skills and attention to both of you.

I hope that you will be able to keep your priorities intact, and do what is best for you in the long run, even if it involves major changes in the near future. You aren't doing anything bad, wrong, or illegal. Transgendered identities come from the same place that other gender identities come from—the biology of your mind and body. We may not know, yet, what causes some of us to be born with a conviction that we are not who our bodies say we are. But your conviction of being female is every bit as strong and legitimate as your wife's. I hope in the course of serious discussion, she can get some more information and become an ally instead of an enemy. This has nothing to do with whether you love her or not. Telling you to prove that you love her by ignoring your gender issues is mean and selfish. I doubt she's ready to hear that, but it's true. Her desire to preserve the status quo is self-serving. If she really loved you, she would want you to be happy, even if that meant becoming a very different person. And if she doesn't really love you, Dear Reader, you ought not to be with her, though it makes me sad to write it down.