By Sally Molay, Guest Blogger
Different but the same
Where I stumble across the surprise of my life
"He is no different than he was yesterday. He is straight and he loves me."
These were the first thoughts I put on paper after I found out that my husband, Jack, is transgender, a woman in a man's body.
I was literally dizzy for days, and very frightened. But I was also eager to find the truth about the man I loved and I was overwhelmed thinking about how lonely he must be carrying this huge secret, scary on his own, how frustrated and sad. My heart was breaking for him. (Pronouns are difficult in this case. I use the ones Jack use.)
This is how I found out: I stumbled across his pseudonymous twitter account, which linked to a blog authored by the same pseudonym, a person living as a man, but perceiving himself as a woman. Some days later, I gathered the courage to read more and learned that, in his own words, he was attracted to women and happily married. Knowing this gave me a measure of security.
But so much remained unresolved: If I confronted him, would he freak out? Would I freak out? Would I still be attracted to him, knowing there was a female identity inside the body of the man I loved? The blog went back seven years. Could I live with the fact that he had kept this from me all that time? Could we make it work?
I knew I wanted to. We have no kids, so this was entirely between the two of us. I also knew it would be a lot of work and that I had no clue how to proceed. For more than half my life Jack had been the most important person in my life and even though we certainly have had our ups and downs, most of the time I felt that I knew what I was doing, knew where we were going as a couple and what to expect from him. Now it seemed like all bets were off.
I felt helpless and desperately needed someone to talk to, but I knew he definitely wouldn't want me to discuss this with anyone else. And he didn't want to talk. He wouldn't even admit the blog was his.
Sleepless nights, endless days
Where I try to ignore the whole thing and don't succeed
I know, I know. I should have reacted immediately, but I was walking on eggshells, had been for years. Jack was so miserable--anxious and depressed--and I wanted so much to make him feel better. One of my strategies was not rocking the boat.
Keeping to this strategy and used by now to handling relationship issues by trying--mistakenly and unsuccessfully--to be a "bridge over troubled waters", absorbing what I could of the whatever stuff the two of us were going through. So I thought that I ought to make sense of this new knowledge on my own. I told myself that by not pushing the issue, I was giving him what he wanted, and hoped that he would come around when the time was right.
In the meantime I wasn't sleeping, I couldn't concentrate and I was basically going out of my mind. My safe place, my home, didn't feel so safe any more: I had assumed I knew Jack really well and discovered I didn't. He had been keeping this very important information secret from me for years, and now I had stumbled on what seemed to be a strange, parallel dimension--like Alice falling down the rabbit hole.
On Tuesday, a couple of days after I found the blog, I went to a conference in another city. I thought that maybe three nights apart would provide me with some perspective and calm me down, but it didn't. I tried to focus on the conference and it did me no good. I still couldn't sleep and in the middle of the night, I started exploring his blog, trying to get a grasp of the situation. Then I really freaked out. I had hoped to gain some understanding. In stead I found words like gender dysphoria, transgender, autogynephilia, and other concepts I had little or no knowledge of and I was very confused. To get some perspective, I started writing: "He is no different than he was yesterday. He is straight and he loves me."
Writing on, I realized that I was scared and bewildered, but not really surprised. I had known for a long time that he was unhappy. Now I knew why. Another reason was that I had seen the books he was reading: Biographies and autobiographies, novels and poems, dissertations and papers about the sociology, psychology, history, and biology of gender and sexuality in general and transgender and trans sexuality in particular.
Living with secrets
Where I find some answers and more questions
Why didn't I guess earlier? I knew that something was up with Jack and I had an idea it was sexual in nature. I had felt his discomfort and seen the books. Once I even found a comic strip about a transsexual on our computer. When I asked him about it, he claimed to have no idea about it and I let it go. Why?
Here are three reasons I have found: First, there is a huge taboo on issues like this and I didn't want to pry. Second, I knew that if he didn't want to talk, he wouldn't, being more than a little stubborn. Finally, I had no idea about how to handle this, so letting it go and forgetting about it was surprisingly easy. After all, this was dark and uncharted territory, where in the old maps it used to say "here be monsters". I had no idea what to expect and no one to ask for advice.
Why wasn't I angry when I found out? After all, he had lied to me for years about something essential both to him and to us. Most of all because I had seen his anguish and tried every way I could to help, but without success. Now that I knew why he was so unhappy, I saw a chance for relief for him and a new start for us. Over a period of several years we had drifted apart. We were still very close friends and occasionally lovers, but we rarely shared hopes and dreams, fears and sorrows. If we were going to survive this revelation as a couple, we would have to make a new start. I knew we needed that.
Reading more of his blog, I learned that he had considered seeking medical help in order to get gender reassignment, in other words to become a woman. This was what he longed to be, but for reasons that were not yet clear to me he didn't consider it an option.
Even though I now had more information, I still couldn't sleep. Using the hours on the train home Friday evening to reflect on this new knowledge about my life partner of so many years, I decided if I was going on in our marriage, I needed us to go on together, in honesty.
An easy difficult conversation
Where we finally talk and it feels quite good
When I arrived back home, the first thing I did after taking off my shoes and jacket was to go for it: "I have read more of that blog and I know it's yours," I said and continued: "I don't know how to deal with this and I need you to be honest with me."
I watched his expression changing as he mentally searched for ways out and found none. He looked desperate. "It's really late and this is a difficult issue," I said. "Let's talk in the morning." Quietly, he said "Yes" and we went to bed. Needless to say I didn't sleep any better that night.
The next morning we decided to talk after breakfast. It had been a week since the discovery. Over breakfast I found myself studying him when he wasn't looking, trying to get a glimpse of the woman within. I wanted to recognize and honor his inner self that had been unseen for so long. I was probably projecting, but I found features like his kind eyes, his full, soft lips and his long, slender legs to which I could anchor my perception of this other side of my spouse and best friend.
After breakfast I braced myself and told him: "I need to know everything." He told me I could ask him anything. So I started asking and learned that there are trans people-- probably a lot of them--who show no outward sign of it. This is called presenting, so Jack is presenting as a man even though he perceives himself as a woman. Many of these people, like Jack, are not crossdressers either. Rather, they are crossdreamers. Their true gender, their true identity is being relegated to the world of dreams and fantasies.
He told me that he had probably always known deep inside, but hadn't known how to handle it. Growing up in a conservative family in a provincial, puritan town, it's no wonder. So as a child he repressed his true self by unconsciously separating from his feminine identity and placing her deep inside, so deep that she only surfaced in dreams and fantasies. Many of these fantasies were sexual in nature and for most of his life this is the only way he got to experience his inner woman.
In his 40's he was desperately unhappy and decided his only chance at a better life was to find out how deep these fantasies went and what they really meant. So he read and read and read some more and admitted to himself that he was transgender. Then he started the blog and found out there were others like him--a lot of them, both men and women--struggling to express their true self, longing for what most of us take for granted: respect and recognition.
Many of these people are not only struggling with the taboo our society has placed on these issues, but with a deep seated discomfort: gender dysphoria. You can think of dysphoria as the opposite of euphoria. Wikipedia defines it as "a feeling of emotional and mental discomfort, symptom of discontentment, restlessness, dissatisfaction, malaise, depression, anxiety or indifference." In other words, the disparity between the inner, true gender and the presenting gender they don't identify with, causes sadness, depression, desperation and often even physical discomfort
Our breakfast conversation went smoothly. I asked the questions I had been carrying for a week and Jack answered at length. He told me that the dysphoria has many aspects. Most fundamental is the sorrow of being in the wrong body. You don't have to know this by experience to understand how fundamental and inescapable this and how shattering.
Then there is the continuous stress of being condemned by society. Sitcoms regularly use feminine men or men in woman's clothing as comical relief and crossdressers are often made out to be perverts. It wasn't hard for me to see that in a society where both gender and sexuality are such important factors in TV, movies, advertising, popular music and music videos, the taboo and the ridicule must really hurt.
Another aspect of the dysphoria is the loneliness. Due to the taboo, many, probably most, transgender people choose to hide their real selves. This moves me deeply. Imagine going through life unable to show your real self, your true beauty, your innermost dreams.
This leads to another factor of dysphoria: Many crossdreamers have sexual desires that are never met. A woman presenting as a man, like Jack, often dream about having sex as a woman and if you don't want to transition, to have hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery, then this will never happen.
The uncomfortable truth
Where I face some major challenges
During the first weeks of conversations we were getting to know each other all over again. It was scary, exhilarating and exhausting. I was sad to know that he had lied to me about something so important. I could understand why, but I was still sad and hurt. I had always imagined that we were closer to each other than most couples and could be truthful with each other.
Before we met, I was raped, but told no one. I repressed the whole experience. Years later, I trusted Jack with the hurt, shame, depression and anxiety that was a result of this horrible experience and I am forever grateful for the comfort and understanding he gave me. His acceptance of my deep truth and his empathy made a huge difference to me. Now I was disappointed that he didn't trust me enough to share his secret with me.
My home country prides itself on the level of equality achieved for women, for gays and lesbians. Still, trans issues are hardly ever mentioned and in general people know nothing about them--as was the case with me until recently. Conchita Wurst, a trans person from Austria, had just won the Eurovision Song Contest. Some of my friends thought this was "about time", "really cool" or "good for her", some of my friends found her disturbing or declared that they were sorry to say they still harbored prejudice. I got to feel the taboo for myself.
I realized that when a truth so major, so essential was revealed, there was going to be some major changes in our life together. It was far too early to guess what kind of changes, but the truth is, I'm not really good with changes. I crave security and get easily rattled. I was thoroughly rattled by this experience and we were just starting to figure things out.
Even though I was certain we both wanted to work things out, I couldn't be sure we would succeed. There were the secrets, the dysphoria and the big question: would he remain a crossdreamer or would he eventually want to transition? Transition is never easy and it is probably harder the older you get. Also, Jack is a quiet person, almost timid. Coming out as a transsexual would be very hard on him.
Part of me wanted him the way he was, the way I had always known him, but I knew that was literally only skin deep and that I had to let go of that. I also knew now that his depression and desperation were caused by the gender dysphoria. He declared emphatically that he didn't feel transition was an option, yet I couldn't help wondering if he would change his mind, especially now that we were in it together.
Love, sweet love
Where we finally have some good luck
The more I saw of Jack's true self, the more I wanted us to make this work and, knowing us, I knew we could do it. You may ask if this is not overly optimistic in this predicament, but I trusted our love for one another. In fact, I was falling in love all over again. Despite the previous distrust, it did feel like a gift to get to know this whole new side of him, even though I now often found myself thinking of him as her.
When I was away at the conference trying to forget about the whole thing, I was wondering if I would still be attracted to him, knowing he felt himself to be a woman. Now I found my body responding spontaneously to the new situation. I was curious and excited to find out what it would be like to touch the lady in him and luckily, amazingly, it turned us both on. A lot.
I was happy about this, but also surprised. I have never been attracted to women. I didn't even have what the movies make out to be the mandatory lesbian experience in college. So when I got turned on by Jack's inner woman, I don't think it was because I had discovered latent lesbian tendencies. If you knew me, you would know that what I fall for in a person is not usually the handsome face, the strong body and the brave exploits. What turns me on are the kind heart, the wise soul and the messy sum of life experiences.
Considering this, it is no wonder that I was turned on by getting to know the hidden, vulnerable and virtually unexplored side of Jack. And so we found our sex life refreshed and renewed, a welcome bonus after 25 years together.
I am a bird now
Where I dream of a new and better life for the both of us
There is still much I for me to learn and for us to figure out, but I have gained some perspective and this is the essence of it: Our love is as strong as I hoped it was. Jack is working hard to unveil his inner lady and involve me in her life. I am up to this.
I want so much to reach out to the hidden side of my spouse, to put an end to the loneliness and maybe to combat the dysphoria. I find myself thinking about the artist Anthony Hegarty. He is a singer, a sculptor and a trans person. With his band, Anthony and the Johnsons, he made an album called I Am a Bird Now, with a song called "Bird Gehrl":
I am a bird girl now
I've got my heart
Here in my hands now
I've been searching
For my wings some time
I'm gonna be born
Into soon the sky
'Cause I'm a bird girl
And the bird girls go to heaven
I'm a bird girl
And the bird girls can fly
Bird girls can fly
If Anthony can be a bird girl, Jack being a regular girl seemed easy in comparison. Like Jack, Anthony is not a exactly crossdresser and he is not a transsexual. He is a woman--and a bird--living in a man's body.
Continuing in this vein, my brain fills with ideas for situations where Jack's inner woman could spread her wings, so to speak. Because the more we talk and the more I read, the more certain I am that this is what it takes to get to grips with the dysphoria. And that is what I want for my darling. This is the next part. Something we haven't done before, something that makes us both insecure, where we can't rely on experience.
We will start with having a look at the dysphoria together. It was his secret for so long. Now he can allow himself to feel it fully and I will be there to hold him, to comfort him. I don't know what to expect and it could be anything. These feelings have been hidden away for so long, they might come to the surface in a jumble. We'll see. Once there is a space for the dysphoria, it can be examined. When we know what triggers it and what eases it, hopefully we can formulate a strategy.
Making a new start, we need new words and new habits. Knowing that he was uncomfortable with his body, I used to let him know when he looked especially good, complementing him on everything from his nice ass to his sophisticated wardrobe. Now I know that this was in reality counter productive, emphasizing the masculinity he didn't identify with. Instead, I need to find other things to focus my positive attention on. I am learning to observe and appreciate his feminine side and to allow it room to be expressed.
We are already discussing shared projects. He has the blog where he writes about crossdreaming and has invited me to participate, possibly as a guest writer, possibly as a co-editor. This way I can continue to learn about Jack and more about the world of trans and in the process.
Crossdressing and roleplaying works for a lot of crossdreamers. It doesn't for Jack and I'm realizing this is a disappointment to me. I know it would be challenging and that I don't fully know what I am talking about, but it would be a way for the feminine side to express itself and provide release for the dysphoria.
However, we do have our recently re-discovered sex life and I know he has lots of fantasies. He is, after all, a crossdreamer. Maybe some of them are of a nature that makes it possible for us to share them? Would he want that?
Three weeks have passed and we are up to the moment of writing. Now that the shock is behind me, I am gathering my strength, courage and creativity. I know we can do this and I know it will be hard work, but I am looking forward to finding out what the future brings us.
See my list of articles, sites, books and resources for spouses of trans people.