Trans Couples Talk

Posted by – May 2, 2009

This is the text of the talk I gave at the Liberty Conference on May 2nd, 2009:

How We Love You: Let Us Count the Ways

There are partners who are male, female, and trans; there are partners who met their trans person before the trans person knew what was going on; there are partners who married crossdressers who had sworn off crossdressing who purged and then dressed and then purged and then dressed again; there are partners who met their husbands crossdressed; there are partners who met their trans person during transition; there are partners who met their trans person long after transition; there are partners who didn’t know their trans person was trans when they met.

You, the individuals who are in love, were in love, who are seeking companionship and partnership and occasionally a good spanking, are said to be like snowflakes. Flawless Mother Sabrina told me that one night at the now defunct Ina’s Silver Swan, and she was right. Each of your stories is unique, even when there are similarities; each of you realizes your transness, as I like to call it, in a different way: some crossdress, others do drag, others transition. Some do all three, and others – none of these, but you express your genders in some other way. But you have your stories, your characters in movies, even if and when they are comically or tragically or unfairly drawn, but those you love have – well, we’ve got a machete and a spot on the edge of the wood we mean to get through.

When Betty and I first began this business of being a publicly visible trans couple, there weren’t very many stories, and even those were rarely told. There was Peggy Rudd, and her partner Melanie; there was Dottie and Allison Laing, Cynthia and Linda Phillips; Marilyn and Linda Frank. There were people – for me, most importantly – heterosexual women – who had made it through the wood. And while none of them are necessarily like me, they were there at a time when I didn’t know what was possible, or what a relationship with someone who did drag might look like.

And sometimes that is all there needs to be. So many of the people who join my online trans partners group or our community forums are looking for someone to say “it’s been done.” Sometimes all it takes is the suggestion that it may  be possible for a person to put on her seatbelt and get ready to ride the roller coaster that is being partnered to someone who is trans. We take this on with the same tentative bet that you do.

Because you know it’s not a safe bet. There are a lot of things that can cause relationships to fail; in the time Betty and I have been together – 11 years now – we have seen so many couples split up. The good news, if it’s good news, is that plenty of those couples were not trans. I’ve always found it some consolation that no one’s relationship is easy, no matter how gender normative, no matter how much money or how little, whether they have kids or don’t. On the days that are full of doubt for the future of a relationship, sometimes it’s good to know that your odds are no better, but no worse, than anyone else’s. I mean that. Trans doesn’t make it less likely – just trickier.

The odd thing about being me these days is that so many kinds of partners find me and tell me their stories. One straight male partner of a trans guy tells me what it took to swallow his fear of being seen as a gay man in this world so that he could husband his wife into becoming the man she is now. The husband of one post-stealth trans woman wrote to me when he realized his partner had been born male, and told me how surprised he was when he realized it didn’t make a difference to him.

There was a lesbian in the support group I co-moderated at the Gay Center in New York who told me how hard it was to first fear losing, and then mourn the loss of – the support that came from a tight-knit lesbian community they had both come from, but which he felt the need to leave when he decided to live stealth. She couldn’t figure out how to keep being her, and queer, when she looked like a straight woman to everyone else. There was one genderqueer, self-identified dyke who had stopped going out with her trans guy and his trans friends because when she did, the guys all got called “ladies” and had started to resent her presence.

There is not one but many wives of crossdressers who are very, very tired of being told “it’s ONLY crossdressing, after all, he’s not transitioning, so what’s the problem?”even by other partners, or by therapists, or by their own husbands, while they are worried sick about their husbands’ safety and what to tell the kids and what if his boss finds out. (And can I ask, by the way, how it is that Virginia Prince could come out as a transvestite in the 1950s, and the drag queens throw the first shoe at Stonewall, and yet these so-called part-timers still face the greatest risks of not being covered by non-discrimination laws and who are scoffed at as the lowest rungs of the trans hierarchy, and even still their partners, gay men and heterosexual wives, get told crossdressing or drag is no big deal?!)

There is one thing I have learned: being out, if you can afford it, is easier than stealth, and being queer, if you can manage it, is easier than holding onto your heterosexuality. I’m lazy and I can’t be bothered to remember what I’ve told one person that I haven’t told another, so Betty – stalwart spouse that she is – has had to put up with being both out AND queer. People say “you’re so brave” and really? We’re mostly lazy, and can’t be bothered to hide all the evidence of our history when people come to visit. Have we foreclosed on certain careers as a result? Probably. But they probably wouldn’t have been a good fit, anyway. Besides, we dream one day of being an unknown lesbian couple in some quiet corner of academia someday. But do watch that step, because the cliff that straight is perched on top of is a steep one.

I haven’t forgotten the wives of the transitioning trans women. I can’t forget them, since I’m one of them now. As many of you probably know, and as some of you don’t, Betty has finally, at long last, started taking the steps to live fulltime, legally, as her female self.  Just as I dragged her out crossdressed the first times and put her private self on the cover of a book, I was the one who had to shove her off the fence she’d been straddling because she knew – oh, did she know – how hard this was for me. One of the advantages of being Betty isn’t – contrary to popular opinion – being partnered to me. It’s in hearing all the stories of all of your partners though me: the grief, the anger, the love. She’s heard the panic in the voice of the wife who has young children and a husband who has just told her he needs to transition. She’s heard the anger in the voice of the wife whose husband has just cleared out their 401k to pay for transition. She’s heard the frustration in the voice of the wife whose trans partner lost her job. Since she knew so much, she was reluctant to forge forward, and I was reduced to putting estrogen in her orange juice… oh wait, that’s the Fictionmania story I was working on. Shoot. Where was I?

Some of those wives who I hear from go their own way eventually, and Betty knew that. She also knew that the best case scenario can be a friendship after the marriage is over if the breakup hasn’t gone too badly. Because she knows, too, that sometimes a spouse just has to go because there are too many other things going on in her life and in the marriage; she knows that sometimes watching someone you love unpack 30+ years of repression and shame is more than a person can take, and when you’re also unpacking anger, and substance abuse, and lies and kinks and changes in sexual orientation… well, that’s a helluva lot to ask anyone to manage through.

Hesitant maybe isn’t the word for her then. Gunshy? Terrified? Smart. “You know what a cautious guy I am,” Indiana Jones once intoned, and us wives, we’re a little like Marcus, jittery and all too aware that the world is full of snakes. So Betty hung around for a while, too feminine to pass as male anymore but still legally male, until one day she nearly wasn’t let on a plane with her current ID and I said “enough already” and then later “isn’t it time for you to transition, doll?” and while she had socially transitioned already, her ID was starting to look like some guy’s she no longer bore any resemblance to. It was only then that we realized the binary would have its way with us, and so we’re doing the least possible to make her life on paper look a little more like her life in the flesh. As Indiana Jones also intoned: “Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?’

Because it does. A wife I’ve become friends with over the years asked her husband recently, “why is there always one more thing? Why, after helping you pick out a wig and doing your nails is there some other request? Why, when I’ve gotten used to his crossdressing, does he have to ask for something else? Why do I always get the feeling that he’s got a checklist somewhere and that as soon as we cross off one he’s got another to take care of?”

I didn’t have an answer. Neither did her husband. Betty didn’t push me. But having gone from a supportive but cranky girlfriend of a straight drag queen – which is how Betty identified when we first met – to the morose, sometimes angry wife of a transgender person who was terrified to tell me she needed to transition, to the happily out and queer identified partner I am today, it’s very clear that what we often need is some time to adjust. Being with someone who is trans can feel a lot like being a lowlander moving to the Himalayas: we’ve got to prepare for the reality of the trans equivalent of altitude sickness. We need to stand on plateaus whenever we can find them for long enough to get our breath back before we can start to climb again.  What we all need is a good Sherpa, but what we have in the meantime is each other. I’ve got to see when she’s making nutty decisions because there isn’t enough oxygen going to her brain, and she’s got to see when I’m about to pass out from exhaustion.

Adventure metaphors aside, being the partner of a person undergoing transition – and I use that word in the way Reid Vanderbergh does, to mean any gender transition, from man to crossdresser or from crossdresser to transsexual or from transsexual to woman, or from boy to man or M2M or genderqueeer to man – often requires a complete transformation of self, and with it, a complete change of expectations, gender roles, romantic roles. Sometimes even our friends have to change, and sometimes we have to create family because the ones we were born into don’t accept the trans. In other words, we make all the same changes you do, except backwards and in more comfortable shoes. Don’t get me started on the shoe selections, ladies.

And while we’re all going to brace ourselves for the stories of the relationships that went south, of the wife who used the transness as a bludgeon during the divorce or the custody trial, of the people who transition so fast they don’t even know what the hell they were thinking and only years later realize how hard it must have been for their loves ones to see their beloved husband / father / brother / best friend change genders, we can try to encourage the media to put the couples who’ve made it into the public eye. And while that may often mean cleaning the rotten tomatoes out of your hair afterwards, and sharing the spotlight with even weirder, rarer species than trans couples – (aside to Jenny Boylan): Who were you on Oprah with this time around, Jenny, a juggling bear? – We’ll get to the point where our families and relationships won’t be so rare that our phones won’t ring the month before sweeps weeks. Or at least I hope they won’t, because goddamned if I’m going to be on a show with that skateboarding dog.

Thank you.

5 Comments on Trans Couples Talk

  1. genderkid says:

    Thank you — this inspires me for the future. And it made me think about all the people in my life who deserve my patience while I transition.

  2. Donna says:

    A truly wonderful speech, Helen. I’m so glad that you posted it.

    Donna

  3. elainezfw says:

    The passage about Betty being nearly unable to board a plane reminded me of the day I knew it was time to transition. We’d just bought a piece of wooded property, and had spent a day working on the clear cutting necessary to build our house. At the end of the day, we entered a convenience store to buy a soda. I took our purchases to the counter and handed over the money. Then as I stood there, sweaty, dirty, hair askew, with a three day growth of stubble, pending a forthcoming visit to the electrologist, actively doing _nothing_ in an attempt to pass, the cashier returned my change with a cheery “Have a nice day, ma’am!”

    I floated out of that store.

  4. Diane Frank says:

    May you find that quiet corner of academia

  5. Véronique says:

    Thank you, Helen. Great read! I wish I’d been there to hear it.

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