My friend the filmmaker Ashley Altadonna and I recently decided to interview each other; we’ve had an ongoing conversation about the nature of relationships vis a vis transness for years now, and every time I talk to her I discover new things about how I feel being the cis wife of a trans woman; she, on the other hand, always provides me with new insights about what it’s like to be on my wife’s side of the equation. So we put this interview, or conversation, together, in order to share some of the dialogue we’ve had, and we hope you find something maybe affirming but otherwise interesting in the mix.
Ashley: You’ve been involved with the trans/cross dressing community for a while now. Before you met Betty, how much did you know about trans folks and cross-dressers?
Helen: Not much, to be honest. I knew one person who had transitioned and one who was considering it when we met. But crossdressing… well, I always had myself, and was always aware of gender. The 80s were a safe place for that in some corners, after all, and I am a kid of the 80s.
How much did you know before you started transition?
Ashley: That depends on what you consider the beginning of my transition. When I was 13 and sneaking into my mother’s closet to try on her clothes and putting on her makeup, I knew nothing. I’d seen transsexuals and cross-dressers on daytime T.V. shows like Jerry Springer, but I’d never met anyone who had transitioned. Dressing was a compulsion for me. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I even remember reading the word ‘transgender’ and saying, “Oh that’s what I am!” Even then, I wasn’t 100% sure what being transgender meant. It just felt like the label that fit me best.
You’ve said Betty’s transition made you question your own femininity in ways you hadn’t felt was necessary before. How so? What did you do about this?
Helen: I have never felt feminine in any organic way – that is, in any way that was natural to me. There are things about me that you might deem feminine – I’m soft spoken, for instance – but most of my feminine presentation was learned. Again, in the 80s, even makeup was gender neutral. So the way Betty had such enjoyment in feminine expression was troublesome to me as a feminist and as a person. Her ease with it underlined what I thought of as my own failure to be that. So in some ways, her gender stuff exaggerated my own struggles, made me go back to the drawing board, as I’d accepted being gender neutral, or a tomboy, or whatever you want to call it, when we met. And suddenly I felt like a failure at it again. I saw nothing to celebrate about femininity, to be honest, and it’s still something I struggle with.
I’m curious if trans women ever realize how many cis women have to learn gender, if that’s something that could maybe create solidarity instead of animosity. Your thoughts?
Ashley: Prior to transitioning, I don’t think the idea of either gender having to “learn gender” ever occurred to me. I remember feeling as if everyone else inherently knew how to perform their gender, and I was somehow the weirdo who didn’t get the memo on how to act “like a man”, or at the very least enjoy it. After transitioning, and talking to other women (both cis and trans) I’ve heard countless times, that they never felt comfortable doing whatever supposed universal feminine cliché. The reality is that we all have to learn gender or even unlearn gender to varying degrees. I think if people recognized that gender is something everyone might struggle with from time to time, it would go a long way towards how we understand one another whether trans, cis or otherwise.
Did you feel like your identity changed as a result of being with Betty? If so, how?
Helen: I wouldn’t say it changed: what I’d say is that she was the first person I dated where I didn’t feel a need to put on an act, to be more of a “regular” woman. She liked that I felt powerful and sexy – and maybe even feminine – in trousers and a fedora. The troublesome part was that she gendered these clothes – where for me, they were just what I wore. They were my clothes, not men’s clothes. Being involved in trans community forced me to think about some things as gendered that I had ceased gendering. And it made me kind of nuts, to be self examining every move, from whether I kept my wallet in my back pocket or in a bag. But that made me sympathetic to trans experience in a deeply personal way, too – seeing how engrained these things are, how hard it is to break out of habits.
Was there anything in particular that you think of as masculine that you kept doing, despite transition?
Ashley: It’s funny, every time I try to classify something as either masculine or feminine I can usually find an exception that disproves the rule. There are things that certainly ‘felt’ more like masculine activities – playing in a band for instance. Shortly after I transitioned, I tried starting a new band but nothing ended up coming from it. I took a break from songwriting and focused on filmmaking instead, which also traditionally has been seen as a masculine endeavor. Despite countless female musicians and filmmakers, those are two areas that have traditionally been male-dominated. Transition showed me that an activity isn’t necessarily gendered just because we as a society deem it to be. About two years ago I started a new band, and in many ways it’s been better now, but I think that has more to do with age than with what gender I identify as.
I think a lot of people think once your partner comes out to you as transgender it’s a death sentence for your marriage, but both of us have been with our partners for what I would certainly call a decent amount of time. What do you account for your relationship’s longevity?
Helen: We are equally weird, equally difficult, and equally stubborn. We are both, also, deeply loyal human beings. Did I mention stubborn? And once we were confronting transition, we decided we’d do best if we focused on being each other’s best friends, and not so much each other’s spouses – especially because those roles are gendered, and have so many expectations built on gender. I realized, as anyone’s good friend, I’d be the one who dragged someone to the doctor or therapist and helped with their transition, and if I couldn’t do that for her, then I wasn’t exactly being her best friend. Likewise for her in listening to me and being compassionate about what I was losing in the process – also as a friend and not as a spouse, per se. It was an important distinction for us.
What about you guys? What was the most challenging piece, do you think? (Also, my readers knowabout our relationship, so I’d love to hear more about who you both are, how you identify, etc.)
Ashley: The most difficult thing for us has been me dealing with my own insecurities regarding my transition. Despite the fact that I’ve been fulltime as female for over a decade, had surgery, and am now legally female, I’ll still ask my wife if, she thinks I’m feminine enough. It’s embarrassing for me to admit that, and I try not to be obnoxious about it. Hopefully she feels I’ve gotten better as the years have gone on. There was also a period where I was really questioning my sexual orientation after transitioning, which I wrote about in Morty Diamond’s anthology “Trans/Love : Radical Sex, Love & Relationships Beyond the Gender Binary”. Feeling attracted to men was a new sensation for me, and I wasn’t sure what it meant for our relationship. The idea of being in a heterosexual relationship would’ve make it clearer what my expected gender rolesin the relationship were, was somewhat appealing but I also didn’t think I could live up to those preconceived expectations. I also was already in love with Maria and didn’t want to end our relationship. I ultimately chose her and ended up identify as a bi-curious monogamous lesbian.
Do you consider your marriage/relationship (successful/happy/fulfilling)?
Helen: Ha! What a question. Some days. We’ve been together 18 years now, so sometimes I’m not sure if how our marriage has become is about the time together or about the transition or about both. I do know that we continue to be each other’s greatest support and we have a deep, deep understanding of each other. That said, our relationship is not what I expected marriage to be, but I am also pretty sure a lot of people who have been together as long as we have feel that way. That said, why I don’t feel fulfilled had little to do with her transition but had everything to do with her realizing she was somewhere in the ace spectrum. That has become a way bigger issue than her gender ever was, to be honest, because sex is vital for me and it’s not for her.
How long have you two been together? I really think there are certain periods that are difficult for couples, depending on what the deep issues are. If you don’t mind answering, what are yours?
Ashley: We just celebrated our five-year wedding anniversary, but we’ve been together for over 12 years at this point. We have our issues like any married couple. I feel like we’ve been fairly lucky with our relationship. I can’t recall ever having an extended period of being upset with each other that lasted more than a few days. Having to deal with my transition so early in our relationship probably helped us to be a better couple. It forced us to both consciously try to work on is our communication with each other. We constantly ‘check in’ with each other on how each of us is doing. Sex is somewhat an issue with us. My sex drive definitely went down quite a bit after estrogen, but now our drives are slightly more matched so, in some ways, it’s sort of worked for us.
(Stay tuned. We’ll post the 2nd half on Tuesday.)