It’s 2:00am, and I only came to bed a few hours ago, but I have to be up for work soon. I’m lying in bed, trying to get more comfortable, trying to sleep. Beside me, my wife is tossing and turning. Her heartbeat starts to race for a minute or two, settles for another minute, then begins to race again. Same pattern, on repeat, for maybe 10 minutes straight. I can tell she’s upset or worried about something. I can tell she’ll probably want to talk about it… But I just want to sleep. (I’m a jerk, I know.) Her heartbeat races again, right in my ear, pounding against my cheek.
I sit straight up in bed, startling her. She sits up too.
“Oh my God, what is it?” I grumble.
“I have something important to tell you,” she says. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and sometimes isn’t enough… I’m transgender.”
“Oh. I know,” I mutter, still annoyed. I think to myself, That’s it? That’s what you woke me up for?
I can see the relief on her face, which snaps me out of my grumpiness. We talk about it late into the night. (I call in sick to work the next day.)
I’d always known, on some level, even before I had the language to describe it. We met in college, and I didn’t think twice about dating someone who had a stash of skirts and dresses in her dorm room closet, hidden under the pile of band T-shirts, plaid button-downs, and baggy jeans. I loved seeing her in dresses. I loved how happy and comfortable she looked in them, even though she’d bought them on the internet and didn’t always guess the sizes correctly. I encouraged her to wear them, not just in the bedroom, not just with a few, close friends, but out in public too.
But as time wore on, the “dressing up” happened less frequently, as we grew up and became something akin to responsible adults. We were surrounded by media making jokes or dead sex workers out of trans women, and my wife was neither. So we packed her female clothes deeper and deeper into the closet every time we moved.
So when, several years and deep bouts of depression later, she pulled out those clothes, bought an IPL machine to battle her body hair, and started wearing makeup to work, of course I knew what was going on. She’d insisted she’d be dressing up again “just sometimes.” But we both knew, and were just waiting for her to say, as she did, that sometimes wouldn’t be enough.
Dear Reader, I wonder if at this point you’re waiting for the shock and horror part of my piece. Where is the hand-wringing, the soul-searching, the terror that suddenly being married to a woman would change everything? Why haven’t I started talking about how this was the hardest experience of my life, or that it shook our marriage to the core?
The truth is, it wasn’t that hard. I wasn’t suddenly and unexpectedly married to a woman. I was married to someone who had always been a woman, and was finally allowing herself to fully be herself. I was married to someone who recognized what she needed to be happy, and decided to follow through.
For us, the biggest challenge centered around fertility and having children. We were living in Miami for a year while I finished my post-doctoral training and fretted about finding a job in my field. I wanted to have children, but not yet. I worried about the cost and efficacy of banking sperm for later. In that process, I lied to myself and to my wife, saying that I’d probably be ready to get pregnant within the next few months, certainly as soon as I secured a full-time job. So I asked my wife to hold off on HRT, which could make her infertile.
Ultimately, I wasn’t ready to have children that year, and I knew I couldn’t ask my wife to delay HRT indefinitely. I recognized that she’d already been waiting too long. So we banked her sperm and agreed that the cost of artificial insemination was trivial compared to her happiness (and my fear of having children too soon). In truth, I regret asking her to wait as long as she did, and I’m glad that she forgives me for it.
Marriage is about watching your partner grow and change. It’s about enthusiastically supporting them when possible, and seeking compromise as necessary. These aren’t just platitudes. These are the vows we take when we get married.
I would be remiss if I didn’t explain some things we had going in our favor. I happen to be bisexual, so I didn’t have to examine my sexuality on any deep level when my wife came out. When I see cis wives writing about how “everything in the marriage had to change,” I have a feeling that what they really mean is, “I had to change my perspective about myself and my sexuality.”
My own struggle to recognize that I was bisexual began well before marriage. For a while, I was happy to agree with my parents that it was “just a phase,” something I’d experimented with in college, that would fade with time. And yet, I married the most feminine male-presenting person I could find. Looking back, I realize that what I loved about my wife was how different she was from men, and how much she distanced herself from toxic masculinity. I wouldn’t dream of saying that every cis wife of a trans woman is “secretly” queer, but maybe some are. And maybe some of the struggle and the challenge of choosing to stay with a trans wife is a battle against internalized homophobia and misogyny.
If you’ve been taught all your life that women’s bodies are disgusting, or at least that they have to fit a very narrow (mostly impossible) standard to be attractive, of course it becomes challenging to accept and love a trans woman’s body. If you, like many women, spend much of your time criticizing your hair, your skin, your body fat, etc., and modifying yourself in order to fit that impossible standard, what chance do you have of finding your trans wife’s body beautiful? There’s a lot of internal work to be done here. For me, anyway, it was clear that what had to change in our marriage wasn’t everything; it was myself. And that was okay by me, because being critical of women’s bodies wasn’t an aspect of my character I wanted to keep.
Another thing that is (sometimes) in our favor is that I’m a psychologist. I’d had some training on LGBT issues, and I knew how to do my research to learn more. I also knew where and how to get help, and the importance of social support. I knew that the key factor for mental health (and also, incidentally, physical health) is support from friends and family. We needed people in our lives who loved us, respected us, were willing to listen, and who used correct pronouns without difficulty.
I’m not saying that her transition was easy. It wasn’t. Gender dysphoria is powerful and painful. Bigotry is alive and well and omnipresent. Losing straight privilege was unpleasant for me. I had to adjust to people assuming we were sisters when we went out together. Or asking if we wanted to split the check. Or hitting on either of us (or both of us!), since there was no longer a “man” around to claim ownership. But that’s been the worst of it so far, given all of the other privileges I hold, so I can certainly manage it just fine.
My wife’s transition wasn’t earth-shattering. It wasn’t particularly frightening. It made her a happier person, and our marriage was better for it. When she tells the story of her transition, I don’t want to be part of the mountain of challenges she had to overcome before she could be happy. I want to stand right there beside her with pride.