Every January, my spouse of seven years and I make separate lists of our previous year's accomplishments and joys, our disappointments and sorrows. We have to force ourselves to sit down in our living room in Durham and put thoughts to paper, but once we get going, the reflection invigorates us. The positive items are like little gifts to ourselves, and the others we try to learn from.
A year ago, my good stuff from 2010 took up an entire page, as it usually does, but one sorrow loomed large. I noted it as "Lost Wessel." This year I was relieved to head my list with this 2011 joy: "Embraced Lina."
The two are intricately connected. Wessel and Lina are the same, yet different. Fourteen months ago, my husband became my wife.
People have asked why I've stayed in a marriage so radically altered. (She's 48, I'm 54, and we're childless.) While the path has been complicated, the reasons are simple. Love, happiness, comfort. And because the things I admired in Wessel are what I still love about Lina, and, yes, in a romantic way. She is big-hearted, intelligent, emotionally mature, athletic and adventurous. She has great legs.
We had been together for almost two years, but married for only two months (we met on Valentine's Day 2003), when Wessel confided that he wanted to be my wife, not my husband. He had come to this realization with a sense of clarity and joy. I reacted with confusion and despair.
Had there been signs? Yes and no.
I knew he had questioned society's rigid gender lines, but, as a longtime feminist, so had I. I knew he sometimes liked to dress in women's clothing, but advice columnists and psychologists will tell you that doesn't necessarily mean a man wants to be a woman. We had talked about it a lot, and he assured me he did not want to change genders. He wasn't lying, but he was in deep denial.
In what felt like a cruel compliment at the time, he told me, in 2005, that it was my love and acceptance that gave him the strength to become on the outside who he was on the inside: a woman.
I detached emotionally and physically. I cried often. I wondered what else he hadn't revealed. I feared something was wrong with me to attract this kind of mate. I was angry and ashamed.
Gradually, with communication and affection, I opened my heart. Ultimately, the hardest part was the easiest. I loved him. But could I love her? As it turned out, yes, but only after grieving him. It was a process as complex as it sounds.
Crossing a line
I share our story not necessarily to advocate that couples like us stay together - people should do what is right for them - but to encourage more acceptance of people who don't conform to the male-female gender binary.
Throughout our journey, I've heard too many heartbreaking stories, including that of a woman in Cary whose once-close neighbors refused to acknowledge her after her gender transition, or the woman in Raleigh whose adult children banished her and whose decades-long membership in a community club was abruptly canceled. Other people we know have lost jobs, friends, and even parents after they changed genders or showed any signs of blurring the boundaries.
I do understand the impulse. I had it, until I finally felt - truly felt - my husband's anguish.
"What I fear the most," he said early on, his shoulders shaking with each sob, "is that you'll see me as a monster or some kind of a freak. That everyone will, but mostly you."
I told him I didn't, but I realized in some ways I had. Society's opinion had scrambled my own. Our relationship turned a corner that day.
Still, we had a lot of work to do, separately and together.
I found a therapist and went to a transgender support group held by the Triangle chapter of PFLAG (Parent, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), where I connected with other family members struggling with some of the same issues: confusion, fear, shame.
Lina turned to Kimball Jane Sargent, a therapist in Raleigh who has assisted hundreds of gender-nonconforming North Carolinians over the years. Sargent also introduced us to local couples like us, to whom we turned for support and advice. Having them as role models made all the difference. While no statistics tell how many marriages remain intact after a gender change, anecdotal evidence suggests the numbers are extremely low. Lina also joined the Durham Gender Alliance, a support group.
Later, we went together to psychologist Lori Oshrain in Efland, who, like Sargent, has become known for her work with individuals and couples regarding gender issues.
Through these experiences, we realized we were far from alone, and that many trails had been blazed for us. These people were our first circle of support, and gave us the strength to move forward.
Our first transgender event was in 2005, a party Sargent held in a downtown Raleigh hotel. Dozens of transgender people attended, a couple of spouses, local hair removal specialists (big in the male-to-female community) and even a trans-friendly endocrinologist.
Breaking the news
Telling close friends and family, in 2010, was terrifying, especially Lina's parents. We had no clue how they would react. The first thing they said was, "You are our child and we love you." We sobbed with relief.
Later that year, we were ready for the public transition. Like many male-to-female transsexuals who can afford it, Lina opted for what's called facial feminization surgery, in which a surgeon carves out a more femininely proportioned version of a male face. For this we chose Raleigh plastic surgeon Keelee MacPhee, who treats her growing number of transgender patients with respect and care.
After several consults, Lina opted for higher eyebrows, a smaller nose, and a more pronounced chin. Estrogen supplements and testosterone blockers she had been taking for three years had narrowed and softened her face, and the alterations would be slight.
Before the surgery, we told more friends, a few neighbors, and our minister at Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Durham. People were shocked but incredibly kind. Lina also told her supervisors and colleagues at the medical diagnostics company where she works. Not only were they supportive, they set a welcoming tone.
On Nov. 16, 2010, I drove my husband to Rex Hospital in Raleigh for the facial surgery. Twelve hours later, I brought my wife home.
A few days later I sent an e-mail about Lina to dozens of friends and acquaintances. After I pressed "send," I crumpled over my keyboard and wailed, grieving my former "normal" life. Within minutes, responses flooded in, all of them cheering us on. Since then, the telling has become smoother, but it will never be easy and it will never stop.
Going public is frightening, but it allows others to see us, and those like us, as real people going through something rare but nonetheless part of the human experience. I've felt fortunate to be a voice for others in similar situations, many desperate for understanding and acceptance. And although violence against transgender people is a horrifying reality, Lina and I haven't faced it. If people have reacted negatively toward us at all, they've kept it to themselves. We have, however, felt our place in society change as a same-sex couple. For instance, holding hands now feels like an act of rebellion instead of a natural gesture.
What it means now
Many people ask about our legal union. Although we're basically the same people, our still-intact marriage could be challenged. So far it has not been.
Sometimes I get hung up on what other people are thinking about us, or, more specifically, about me. For my part, I am now perceived as a lesbian, which doesn't offend me, but it sure is different. (I did have a relationship with a woman in my early 20s, but I consider myself straight.) I'm partnered with a 6-foot 1-inch woman with size 12 feet and a male voice that she's working on feminizing with tips from a voice coach (hormones don't help in this regard).
When I'm feeling content and secure, all these things roll off my back. On darker days, when being different is a burden, I want to hide from the world. That's when I turn to the other big "joy" from my 2011 list, a lesson I learned because it happened over and over. If I risk being vulnerable and honest, I will almost always be rewarded with kindness, respect, and even love. To the many bearers of that gift, Lina and I give our profound gratitude.