Parts of this article first appeared in the essay “Transitions,” in War Baby: Talking About My Generation by L. Daniel Mouer, Createspace 2011. The present version has been updated for inclusion in Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resistance , edited by Jordon Johnson and Becky Garrison, Transgress Press.
“Dan does the cooking and I fix the toilet when it breaks. It’s a good thing we found each other, otherwise, we both would have had to go get a ‘sex change’.” That’s what my wife, Robin, used to tell folks. The truth is I have never thought about getting a sex change. I’m not shy about allowing my “feminine side” to show, but I am quite happy with the body in which I was born, and I cannot imagine wanting to trade in my “parts” for a woman’s, nor have I ever felt tempted to dress in women’s clothes. The day I first asked her to think about moving in with me, she glared at me accusingly and said, “I hope you don’t think I would strap on an apron and turn into Suzie Homemaker!” To that I quickly responded that I hoped she didn’t think I was offering her free range in my kitchen!
Rob and I have been married for 33 years. I’m sure that one of the things that attracted us to each other is that neither of us are entirely conforming to anyone’s notions of gender norms. I first met her in 1978. We were married four years later. We worked together in the same profession, watched our son grow up and give us grandchildren. Twenty seven years after our first meeting, my wife confessed to me that she is and always has been a guy, and that it was her wish to alter her body, with hormones and surgery, to look more appropriately masculine. My wife wanted a “sex change.” Unless you are someone who has heard something similar from your spouse, that must sound like the punch line to a very bad joke.
Many years ago Rob and I each took an online quiz that had been generated by one of the big English universities. The goal was to identify if one’s brain is more “masculine” or “feminine.” Well, I used to joke that Robin probably had more testosterone in her veins than I did, so I had little doubt that she would score more manly than I would be on that test. I was right. Her score put her in the “very masculine” category, while I landed smack in the middle: equally masculine and feminine in the views of then-contemporary brain science.
As a child I had felt restricted and oppressed by traditional gender norms. They never made sense to me. There were things I enjoyed doing that were “girly” things, and others that were “masculine.” I was never very interested in sports, at least not until my senior year in high school, and that, alone, is enough to make your masculinity suspect when you grow up in a sports-obsessed town like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Robin has always been “one of the guys:” no dresses, no make-up, never even close to being “girly.” I am quite happy with our flexible and often-reversed gender roles, and I never found Robin to be less attractive for being butch. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m attracted to strong, capable, straightforward women. Similarly, I find men more likable if they also have a “softer” side: guys who aren’t afraid of being emotionally vulnerable. Gender extremes, in either direction, are a turn-off for me.
I was stunned nonetheless when Robin finally sat me down and informed me that he is transgender, that he sees himself as a man and has never been comfortable when others view him as a woman. What’s more, he wanted to have surgery and to take hormones to physically change his appearance from female to male. (In this paragraph, my “wife” becomes my “partner,” “husband,” or “spouse,” and “she” becomes “he,” for that is the way I now know him.) This announcement came sometime in 2004. My initial reaction was predictable. My brain screamed out “No! No! Hell no! This cannot be real!” But, at the same time, I had come to know Robin well enough over the previous 25 years that I knew he was telling me the truth. This was not a whim, fantasy, or delusion. And at that realization, I began to catch up on my inadequate understanding of the mysterious world of gender identity
Over the next many months, I read every book and article I could find on the subject of transgender. I joined online support and information networks. I am a scholar by profession, and I knew I would not be able to relax with this idea until I had learned enough to consider myself a minor expert on the subject. Of course it was not an entirely new subject to me. As an anthropologist I had been teaching students for years about the cultural relativism of gender norms, and the ways various cultures deal with non-conforming gender behavior or with individuals and groups who blend or border-cross gender categories.
Robin and I frequently discussed the implications for our relationship, both between ourselves alone, and with a couple’s counselor. I could not promise Robin I would find him attractive as a lover. I have no prejudices against homosexuality; I think of myself as being at least capable of being bisexual, but I was facing the reality of becoming half of a same-sex couple, socially as well as sexually, and that is just not how I have ever seen myself. We live in (and were married in) a state that had passed a constitutional amendment banning anything that even smells like same-sex partnership, let alone marriage.
For nearly a year I learned, listened, talked, cried, thought, felt and imagined myself living not with Robin, my wife, but with a guy with whiskers, a flat chest, and a deep voice. No matter how strange it felt, I simply kept coming back to the same answer. I know this person, I love this person, and we had come through way too many serious difficulties to allow a “sex change” to put an end to a good thing. We decided to go ahead with this transition and to tell the world: “We are now husband and husband, partners, two guys who are in love and we are married.”
Rob and I are equestrians. We spend a few days a week out in the country where we board our horses and where, over the years, we have made many strong friendships. We worried the most about coming out to the barn gang. We were afraid they might not be quite as open to the changes we were about to announce as our academic friends back in the city might be. The year was 2005. Brokeback Mountain had just been released and talk of gay cowboys was in the air. That day Robin and I showed up at the barn, and the first person we told was our dear friend Susan. She’s a deeply religious “country girl,” with good old-time values, and we were really worried this just might not go too well. Robin was very direct. He explained that he feels like a man and he was going to go through the process of changing his body and his persona to reflect his proper gender. I mentioned that we would now be a same-sex couple. I was standing behind Robin and wearing a wide-brim straw cowboy hat that day. Susan seemed a little flustered. At first she just muttered that it really wasn’t any of her business, but then curiosity overcame her and she asked, “But why?” I couldn’t resist. I said that now that I had seen Brokeback Mountain, I really wanted to be a gay cowboy, and now I was going to be just that!
Susan looked at me oddly, trying to understand what I had just said, and then she started laughing. It was a nervous laugh, but she laughed. By our next trip out to the barn two or three days later, everyone knew that we were undergoing a transition. The gang had decided on their own that Robin would, from that point on, be “Rob,” and to this day it remains so. We needn’t have worried about losing friends, because they are, truly, good friends and good people. So Rob started on hormone treatments and we went off to San Francisco for three weeks to have his body altered. We tend to think of it now not as changing sex, but more as a “gender correction.”
Over the years since Rob first came out to me, I have come to know—online or in person—many dozens of transmen and transwomen. It is statistically rare for a person to be so transgender that they seek to undergo the transition across the sexes, but it isn’t as rare as most people might imagine. My transgender friends are a cross section of the North American population (with a sprinkling of Europeans and Aussies for spice). There are elders and juniors, war heroes, artists, construction workers, teachers, and engineers. Among them there are a few who have serious emotional or psychological problems that have been brought on by, or aggravated by being “trans,” but most of them are as sane and levelheaded and “normal” as all the rest of the folks I know in this life.
I have become an advocate for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) people, and my passion for the cause has helped keep me active in these years of my retirement. Much of GLBT activism these days revolves around the right of same-sex marriage. That is one cause I feel I must support, if for no other reason than because my own marriage was threatened by the hateful public backlash stirred up by religious zealots and political reactionaries. However, my main focus is on doing whatever can be done to stop the emotional and physical violence that comes down on GLBT people from the time they are young children. Every year this world loses good folks to ignorant violence and to the suicide that many people choose as an alternative to their own persecution and social isolation.
I’ve become proud to think of myself as a member of the GLBT community, but it took me a while to get here. Early in this transition, when Rob and I were in San Francisco for his surgery, another friend who was married to a trans person took us one evening to an event at the large community “gay center” in the Castro District—arguably the “capital” of gay America. There, for the first time, I heard Robin and I being introduced to strangers as each other’s “husband.” It sounded odd, but it was also liberating: a way of chipping away at the tyranny of gender roles in personal relationships. When we were back home in Virginia, one old friend asked me if I now feel like I am gay. My response came quickly. “I don’t know about me,” I said, “but I’m sure glad that my husband is gay!”
Making the actual transition was nowhere near as difficult for us as I had feared it might be. Friends and family have mostly been respectful and accepting. If not, they have kept their reservations to themselves. There are personality changes that go along with transitioning. Some of those are no doubt due to hormonal effects, but others are simply the result of the trans person allowing their “true self” to emerge in ways they could not do in the past. Because Rob was never a girly-girl, those changes have been minimal for us.
For some folks the thing that kills a relationship in which one partner is transitioning is s-e-x. I admit that I preferred Rob’s former body style, but we have also found ways to enjoy learning some new tricks. Folks who are very strictly heterosexual may find transitioning to be a game killer, so if you are facing a relationship with a trans person, it’s good for each partner to be very clear with themselves and with each other about what lines can and cannot be crossed. It helps to keep in mind that all of us experience changes in our own sexuality, our attractions and preferences, and in what we can or are willing to offer our partners when it comes to sex. Any long-lasting relationship faces challenges from aging, injuries, and illnesses, among other things. A partner’s “sex change” may not be the greatest challenge any of us face in our love lives
I have learned that in many cases, a transgender person is often in a very big hurry to go through a full transition once they have admitted their condition to themselves and have kicked down the closet door and informed family and friends. The problem is this: The trans person has at least had clues about their gender issues since they were young, but for we partners, friends, and family, this is a revelation that takes time and patience to adapt to. I find myself cautioning trans friends to slow down and give their loved ones time to catch up to this runaway freight train. Rob was willing and able to do that. He was able to say that transitioning was extremely important to him, but so was my love, our relationship, and our sex life. So he was able to give me the time I needed no only to learn what I needed to learn, but to imagine my own changes and to even come to look forward to them.
Now, after living nine years as the partner of another man, I think about what has been the most significant change in our relationship. From the moment we made the decision to transition, it seemed as though a huge weight had melted away from Robin’s shoulders. Rob shed a lifetime of pent-up anger and frustration. There are problems, to be sure, but they are no worse than, and little different from, the problems that any couple faces after thirty-three years of marriage. So far, they seem insignificant in the face of three decades of mutual trust and love.