Lesbian and Gay Parenting Questions & Answers Column With Arlene Istar LevDear Ari

A column by Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

Married and Trans

Posted By on August 30, 2010

Dear Ari:

I am a M to F trans person, currently married, and I hear a lot of people tell me that the odds against staying in a relationship with a family is so small it isn’t worth pursuing. Is this true, or is there hope we can manage to stay a family? And do you have any advice?
—Laurel in New Jersey

Dear Laurel:

Yes, Laurel, I do have advice, a whole barrelful of advice!! I think that one of the great lies about transitioning is that there is no hope for long-term marriages and commitments. The sad thing about this lie is that it has been perpetuated– in part — by the therapeutic community that has viewed transsexual actualization and family commitment as mutually exclusive life journeys. As you may be aware, many gender clinics have routinely insisted that transsexuals divorce their spouses in order to receive medical treatment. It is my experience that concern for, and fear of losing, their loved ones — parents, partners, spouses, children — is one of the most pressing issues for most transgender people. And it is one of the least addressed issues within a clinical context. Why should people have to choose between living authentically and having loved ones and a family?

It is my belief that many marriages can survive transitioning. I am not saying that this is a simple process, and will take great work on the part of both partners. In my own therapy practice I work with many long-term married couples who have survived transitioning intact and in love. When wives discover that a husband is transsexual, it is often a great surprise. She feels shocked, bewildered, and betrayed. As we all know, for most people the idea of “changing sex” is as bizarre as someone announcing that they are changing race, or changing age. Sex and gender are viewed as immutable, unchanging, and at first it is as if someone is defying the basic laws of science and insisting that the earth is really flat. In other words, she is likely to think you’ve gone batty. Additionally, after all these years of knowing you, there is the reality that perhaps she doesn’t know you that well at all. It is not only her marriage that is being questioned but also her very sanity; suddenly the foundation of her beliefs is resting on unsteady ground. It is a heady and frightening time for spouses.

Sadly, it is also a time when most transsexuals are rushing full speed ahead in their own emergence. Liberated emotionally for the first time in their lives, the possibility of living full time is exhilarating. Exploring gender, on-line, as well as in the real world, spending money on clothing, reading books, attending clubs and conferences and events are time consuming, expensive, and incredibly self-involving. Few trans people have the ability during this time to slooooow down enough to be supportive to their spouse. And perhaps that is part of the dilemma. From the perspective of the transitioning partner, they are the ones needing support; indeed they are coming out hoping to receive the support they are so desperately craving. They don’t think of it as a time to GIVE support, but that is exactly what the spouse is needing—emotional, caring and loving support.

Just as transgendered and transsexual people move through a developmental process of what I call Emergence, of coming-out and coming into their authentic selves, the family members of gender variant people also experience developmental processes. Family emergence involves a complex, adaptive process, one where family members are often unwilling participants, and in which they may feel somewhat like hostages on another person’s journey. Being involved with a transsexual can cause tremendous interpersonal and marital problems and even shift the meaning of one’s own sexual orientation. There is a not-so-subtle homophobia that underlies the assumption that families and marriages cannot survive gender transition, especially among heterosexual couples, since marriages (until recently) have been based on a belief in paired opposites.

One thing to thing about is: How long did it take YOU to come to terms with your gender issues, and make a proactive decision to do something about, and reach out for support, and begin to move ahead medically? How long have you given your spouse to move through this process?

Marriages can survive transition. But it requires tremendous patience, communication, and time. You need to give your wife the time she needs to “catch-up.” She may need to be denial for a while, and then to read and study, and slowly begin to talk with other people. Just like you needed these things. The difference is that for you there is an inner PULL to make these changes; for her she is being swept along on a journey that she never wanted, never anticipated, and doesn’t understand. Transsexualism was generally not one the things most wives imagined when they said their vows “for better or worse, in sickness or health.”

Some advice for coming out and transition together as a family:

  1. I cannot emphasize this enough. Do not let yourself be found out. Take charge of your coming-out. As the need to come out increases, we often start leaving subtle hints… perhaps we do not even do this consciously. We are not quite as careful putting out stuff away, or hiding a magazine. We leave our lipstick in our pockets or Internet sites left open. Wives are very intelligent, and these breadcrumbs are easily followed.
  2. Do not surprise the person. Do not show up cross dressed (surprise!). Do not hand them a picture and say, “Guess who?” Do not confess in the middle of a fight, or use it as an excuse to become cold and withdrawn and then pounce it on them as an excuse to leave the relationship.
  3. When you disclose do it cautiously, carefully, and intimately. Do it when you have time (vacation, dinner, long weekend). Expect that the person will react, perhaps intensely.
  4. Do not use words like “transsexual,” “sexual reassignment surgery,” or “I always was a woman.” This will, I guarantee you, freak them out and convince them that you are having a mental breakdown. Do not use words like “birth defect,” “medical problem,” or worse “mental disorder.” I will leave the discussion about whether or not GID should be in the DSM for another time, but for our purposes here, suffice it to say that convincing your loved ones that you are in any way mentally deficit, physically deformed, or “sick” will not, in the end, help them to see your transgenderism as a healthy, functioning part of who you are.
  5. At this stage of disclosure, do not talk with them about transitioning, only about sharing your important and vulnerable secret. Get them on your team, so to speak. Use words like “confusion about my gender,” even if you are not really confused any more at all. Once upon a time you were, and it is best to let your spouse digest this information slowly. Educate them, through web sites or books, and give them time to internalize the information. Let them lead the process with their questions.
  6. Allow them to be upset, devastated, angry, and vindictive. Expect them to vacillate their moods, thoughts, and emotions. They will go from buying you clothes one day to filing for divorce the next. EXPECT this. Do not expect any one experience (support or fury) to be the be all or end all of their reaction. They will, and should, have many reactions.
  7. Continue to remind them that you love them and want the marriage to work. Be fierce and unwavering in your love and commitment. For better or worse, transsexualism is one of the many human experiences that can “happen” in marriages.  Many wives have come to learn that although transition is initially mind-blowing, far worse things can happen to the person you love than their coming home to themselves.