Why Trans Partners Should Tell Their Stories

The other day I published a brief interview with Christine Benvenuto, who wrote a book about her marriage to and divorce from a trans woman.

I blurbed her book, let me admit up front.

I blurbed it because despite some transphobic tendencies (not respecting her ex’s change to feminine pronouns, most notably), I think it’s important that partners get their stories out there – as important as it is for trans people to do so. I’ve been enabling the latter for a long time, and I’m proud to have done so. But I see so often that partners who are having a hard time or who are bitter about a divorce or angry about transition are told – in trans community spaces – to STFU, pretty much. And that really sucks, a lot.

The thing is, nothing about her memoir struck me as patently false. I’ve known a lot of trans women and a lot of wives of trans women over the past 13 years. A LOT. And Benvenuto’s story, just as she told it, is pretty goddamned typical. I have seen behavior by trans women that is sexist, misogynist bullshit. I have seen trans women spend their kids’ college money on transition. I have seen 401Ks emptied. I have seen all of that, and more.

I have also seen the wives of transitioning women take out all their rage on their trans spouse – financially, emotionally, even physically. I have seen rage that I didn’t even know was possible in the wives of trans women. And I have seen them be unwilling to let it go.

That is, I have seen a lot of awful behavior on both sides of this coin. Trans people are not excused because they’re trans just as women are not excused because they’re women. We are all faced with loss and betrayal and heartbreak and all of the emotions that accompany those things. How you choose to express them is entirely up to you.

I can buy the argument that now is not the best time to be airing our dirty laundry in public. Maybe it is. Maybe right now is the “let’s put a good face on it so the public grants us our rights” period for trans issues. But I don’t think there ever is that time, to be honest. I think that’s the kind of thinking that results in shaming some members of a community over other members of that community.

Because, I would argue, the crap behavior of some trans women who come from lives of male privilege – & here I’m specifically talking about certain kinds of later transitioning trans women – is a fact. It’s not made up. I can promise you that. And what we want, as a community, is for trans people to be happy. For them to have people to love and who love them. For them to be accepted and loved by their families.

And transition after 20 years of marriage is very, very rarely going to make that happen. It just isn’t.

So if we as a community want trans people to be happy, people need to know what kind of devastation a late transition can cause on families and wives and communities and of course on the trans people themselves. There is so, so much pain, on everyone’s part. People need to know it. People need to transition younger so that some of this can be prevented.

That said: partners deserve to tell their stories because they’re their stories. There are other reasons, but really, that’s the nut of it. There is no saying who is “right” when it comes to he said/she said. There never is. But as far as I could tell, Sex Changes felt real. It felt hard to write. There were parts that made me cry to finally see things I’d felt in print.

So no, it’s not a perfect story. It could have been kinder, but my gut still says it was honest and that is worth having in the world. Honesty can only shed light in dark corners, and transition-fueled divorce is one of the darkest corners I know of.

13 Replies to “Why Trans Partners Should Tell Their Stories”

  1. Because, I would argue, the crap behavior of some trans women who come from lives of male privilege – & here I’m specifically talking about certain kinds of later transitioning trans women – is a fact. It’s not made up. I can promise you that.

    Thank you for making this distinction. I’m one of those younger transitioners who made the switch right after college. I have a lot of trouble understanding male privilege in the adult world; beyond a single year as a teacher my entire adult life has been lived as female. My twenties were shaped by my experiences as a young, professional, trans woman.

    I feel like the experience of transition is radically different depending on the age one makes the change. Older transitioners have the added stress of marriages, available assets, kids, and careers to think about, not to mention half a life’s worth of socialization in male privilege. Younger transitioners, however, have varying amounts of assigned-gender socialization that are quickly swallowed by lived experiences.

    I read the quips form the above book and feel like it’s an entirely different world from what I’ve experienced; beyond sharing the same medical procedure our stories exist in two different worlds. I couldn’t imagine having to go through that sort of reconfiguration of the relationship with a partner.

    So tl:dr your stories need to be told right alongside your trans partners and the “next generation” of younger transitioners, if for no other reason than to make sure folks realize that a plethora of narratives exist within this community.

  2. I was sent this note from a reader who wishes to remain anon but who gave me permission to reprint here:

    I just read today’s post ‘Why Trans Partners Should Tell Their Stories’ and wanted to give some feedback that I can’t really put online as I am someone who has not publicly acknowledged being transgender for all the reasons we are talking about here.

    I have read Christine’s various articles about what she experienced as a SO for a transitioning MTF, and those are exactly the reactions that I recognize my wife would have even after 23 years together, and her general awareness of my less than male aspects. I value and need that relationship, so I have remained closeted. Oddly, while I don’t really “like” what Christine has to say, it is exactly what I need to hear as a transdender married person. I need to know what the credible and likely reactions are from my own wife if I am to make good decisions about my own alternatives.

    Being closeted and growing older is a really tough place to be. What I think is so desperately lacking here is some type of consistent counseling that helps everyone involved, the TG individual, and the SO, to navigate to solutions that will work for them. Everybody’s choices are unique, but for myself, it is very isolating to not be able to talk about what I experience for fear of losing my spouse. It is hard enough to be TG, but it is almost unbearble to be TG and unable to confide in your closest friend – my spouse is and has always been, my best friend. I have a secret that I can’t talk to my only real friend about for fear of their reaction.

    Regardless of how reprehensible a TG might seem to the SO, there has to be something at the heart of the relationship that would help them put that aside at least to the point that meaningful conversations can take place about the right things to do. At present, it seems that for every married TG person, the people involved are left to handle the situation without any support or assistance. I have to believe that is why so many transitions result in divorce. I also think that we seem to see a binary solution set for the TG person to either transition and face the loss of relationships, or keep their mouth shut and suffer in silence. I’d wager that there are other alternatives that we aren’t discussing.

    We have to find a way to preserve as much of our families as we can without having to suffer in silence. I have stayed in the closet to protect the family I love and need and of course. to prevent a rejection from my most beloved person, but it is at a very great personal cost – the intensity of that personal cost feels larger the longer that I do it. I understand the kid in the candy shop appearance when someone transitions, and I think that is yet another aspect that well educated professionals could help the TG keep in check. Is it really all or nothing? I have to think that it shouldn’t need to be that way if we really love each other as deeply as we think that we do. I know my own fear of opening a door that I could never close again (the door to my closet) if I opened it is also part of why I stay in the closet. All of this has a tremendous emotional and psychological cost no matter what we do – stay in the closet or come out. The price is too much for many of us to stand, and hence the high rate of suicide. Sadly, I can fully understand that suicide seems the only real option available.

    Transgender people, while a small percentage of the population, are still a large number of living, breathing people. Our mindset of who we are might be set for us at birth, but how we deal with who we are can be altered and improved by decision-making about how to navigate through life. Not all spouses can accept or even find a new place to love their TG spouse once they know, but I think that with good counseling, more SO’s could find a way to lessen the pain for theirselves, their children, and the TG spouse.

    I am very troubled by the lack of what I’ll call healthy support alternatives. I have received support from other TG folks, but that comes with a bias that I have to recognize when I hear their advice. We all want to be free to be who we see ourselves to be, but most of us have created lives of some sort and relationships by trying to live in our genetic sex role. When I receive advice from another TG individual, I have to recognize that we want to be living in the gender we are most comfortable with in our binary society, not the one that we look like we belong to. It is natural to suggest to each other that this is the path to comfort. My own gender counselor, of course is quick to warn me of the dangers of thinking that transition solves everything. I get that only too well, and her words ring in my head every waking minute of the day. Those words not only resonate, but they also freeze me in place.

    I guess that what I’m trying to get at here is that everyday, science seems to advance and help identify the “whys” of the reasons that TG people feel that they are miscast in their genetic sex. Treatment has at least gotten to the point that no one seems to believe that you can reroute our brains back to our genetically assigned sex. But the truth is, I simply don’t see anything in “treatment” that is helping us to find a path in the binary world that we don’t feel like we belong to. I love my wife and I love my family. There has to be some type of counseling to help the “responsible” TG family person and their families move to a place of less discomfort, less of the all or nothing options that seem are there for us today. Solid and consistent counseling to help us is desperately needed. It seems as though so few of us ever find peace with who we are, and to be pushed to choices that are also quite binary (closet or transitioned) seems ludicrous to me.

    Thanks so much for all that you do for the broad community of LGBT, but in particular, for what you have found in your heart to do for the Transgendered community. You found a way to peace in your own heart, and your work to help others is very appreciated by myself, and I would hope, by others in my situation.

  3. “I feel like the experience of transition is radically different depending on the age one makes the change. Older transitioners have the added stress of marriages, available assets, kids, and careers to think about, not to mention half a life’s worth of socialization in male privilege. Younger transitioners, however, have varying amounts of assigned-gender socialization that are quickly swallowed by lived experiences.”

    Yes, it absolutely can be that way. Radically different is a good way of putting it. But it isn’t always that way. Please don’t make the mistake of over-generalizing, and retreating to the too-popular traditional paradigm, with all its loaded implications, of “younger” vs. “older,” “early” vs. “late,” “primary vs. “secondary,” “true” vs. “?” Binary classifications can be inaccurate in all sorts of ways.

  4. Good point, as always, Donna. There are a variety of factors bearing on the satisfaction of transition, and they don’t necessarily correlate with age.

    There are some details that we might quibble over with this anonymous commenter, but overall I quite agree, and I was glad to hear that I wasn’t alone in being disturbed by the idea that the only solution was “transition earlier.” I was particularly heartened by the call for better counseling for non-transitioners, and I wrote a response on my blog.

  5. Helen didn’t say the *only* solution would be for people to transition earlier. But, if more people who are ultimately going to transition do it sooner, before getting married, absolutely it will help. Not everybody can tell what they’ll ultimately need when they’re young, but everybody should view their cross-gender thoughts very seriously and not build their relationships on the assumption that they’ll be able to resist forever what they can resist today – especially not as an *unstated* assumption.

    It’s unpleasant advice because no individual is capable of going back in time. But as a community it’s absolutely going to help.

    Most of the reason that it takes us so long to figure out what we need to do is because there’s so much fear and repression slathered on top. That fear must and will decline and young people will get better at making these decisions.

    In the past, society told us to keep it repressed forever, and most of us either did so or quietly died trying, and most people didn’t see any problem. In the future, society won’t tell us to repress it at all, and we will rarely get ourselves into these messes. But in the present, we have enough repression to keep us under wraps until we’ve got families, but not enough to keep us under wraps all the way to the grave. This period of – ha – societal transition is inevitable but it’s what sets up situations like Christine Benvenuto’s and makes many of our spouses end up wishing that total repression would come back.

    And I’m saying this as a non-transitioner, fwiw.

  6. I couldn’t agree more about some transwomen acting badly, but why is using money for surgeries and other transition costs any different that couples using college or retirement funds to start a business which often fails, or they decide to use it for retirement (eg. land/home, travel, RV), or for one of them to have necessary treatment or surgeries not covered by health insurance, or one of them uses it for costmetic surgeries? There’s no difference when the funds are still drained or gone.

    There is a partial solution is geting health insurance companies to cover transition costs, which is happening, albeit too slowly for many who’s insurance prohibits it. The alternative was mentioned, simply not transitioning until you can save the money, if that money isn’t used elsewhere because of the economy today, but this leaves a deep rift in the relationship when the transwoman has to put their needs aside for the partner and the relationship for decades.

    The sad reality to me is that airing the “dirty laundry” about this issue doesn’t help many of the others since most people will remember the worst than the best and it takes a lot of good examples to overcome one bad one in the public’s mind. That’s not helpful when talking to people to be asked about their transition finances on top of the other unnecessary questions.

  7. I think airing the dirty laundry will do everyone good. There is a potent mix of misogyny, privilege, self hatred and delusion at work for many transgender people. It allows abuse of self and family, appropriation of the experiences of transsexual people, fetishising of transsexual people, the list goes on.

    Shining a light on that is a healthy thing, IMO.

  8. I am a “late transitioner” and it is a fraught title to bear. A lot of younger folks misunderstand why people “of an age” waited so long. It’s hard for them to see that there just was no good information available 30 years ago. I tried to transition just over 15 years ago and even then it was a hard path with fewer supportive loving peers. The trans women that I met who had transitioned years before often tended to seem pretty bitter and angry. So I purged, re-stifled, denied and suppressed. It was very painful, but it was what I needed to do to heal and grow. I created a lot of damage when I tried (and yes “failed”) the first time and I paid for that emotionally for many many years.

    But it didn’t go away…

    Now I have finally transitioned while in a loving relationship and inside a community of friends who support me and are proud of me. So I am brought to passionate tears when I talk to my younger trans “nieces and nephews” and tell them that it’s a blessing to be able to deal with it now. Their peers and their parents and families can be incredibly hard to deal with. But they are so much freer now BECAUSE OF THE PEOPLE BRAVER THAN ME WHO WENT BEFORE! Each of us push and pull society along so that it’s a little easier for each person who comes along. I go to sleep each night Thanking my predecessors and the activists and the visible trans people who have helped raise awareness.

    Now, does this persistent and vitriolic issue help? Yes it does. It helps because it at least shows people trying to cope and trying to make sense of something that is hard to understand. It shows raw feelings and lets people think, “Wait, what the heck would I do?” By and large, the couples who transition and stay together, young and “less young,” try very hard to just slide into obscurity. I know we are. We just want to be those charming perhaps lesbian gals who take their dogs to the dog park and go camping in their little trailer. So if (when?) people figure out one of us has an interesting past then they can think, “Oh, so not everyone has a fractured life because of this.” They can see that there is some beauty and nobility in being who you need to be, and there is pain in loosing someone you knew. Sometimes they come together.

  9. Transition is so hard on SO’s and children; it’s not exactly fun for the transitioner either. After months of therapy and years of unhappiness, I decided to initiate hormone therapy with a mind to possibly transition in 12 to 18 months; it was my acid-test. I was served divorce papers three weeks later. The day after our 20th anniversary.

    I had the horrible task of telling my three beloved children last week that the stability of the marriage that they had grown up in had now abruptly ended. I hadn’t cleared out savings accounts; although far from the ideal mate, I love my spouse and children and acutely feel the damage done to them. I just can’t go on. I’m desperate for them and want to heal them, not run away.

    A lack of education, fear and total lack of support prevented me from transitioning decades earlier; knowing that dysphoria wouldn’t abate with time would also have colored my decisions and probably prevented me from committing to marriage ”till death us do part”. My only consolation is that if I had transitioned sooner, I wouldn’t *have* children; better to have and hurt than never have at all?

    Early transition is an ideal, but not all TS’s are ready to face who they are at an early age and social stigma may keep many in denial. I can’t see a painless path to transition. The cost of transition rises over time with increased investment in a mis-gendered life (even as a baby, parents have dreams invested in their child?), as does the concomitant pain of living that life as well as the wherewithal to successfully navigate a transition; at some point the equation balances … and then tips: transition at some point may become the more viable option and we have a late-transition.

  10. I am responding after some time of being away from the message board. The reason- our family is in the tumult of transition. After 30 + years of what I felt to be a good marriage- I learned that my husband and always wanted to be a woman. We are still married. Daily I pray, adjust and readjust my thinking- my feeling- on how to navigate this very unexpected life occurence. All I have learned is that there really is no way. It is what it is and each day begins another day to adjust. Our children have reacted in many different ways– mostly a head in the sand– maybe it will go away.Anger for some- total fracture of the father child relationship. Time may heal- but it can never bring back the nievete that was ours for some time. I miss our initimacy- and that is quite a loss. I am still struggling with being so loved and yet not quite enough to heal the brokenness of my husband. I continue to seek a miracle– uncertain as to what that may be– his desire to physically remain “he” or my ability- and theability of our children to embrace this need for him to be “her”….. There does not seem to be the support for the family left behind when the MTF liberates the self—– It is not fair– for anyone.

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