They Found Love, Then They Found Gender

A Texas love story.

On a Sunday in Grand Prairie, a working class suburb of Dallas, not so many years ago, Jeannot Jonte hurried from a pew to the glass cry box at the back of a church, cradling baby Toby, who was wailing into Jeannot’s chest. Standing there in that box — surrounded by anxious mothers straining to coo, kiss, and jostle their babies into a burbling submission — Jeannot became fixated on the idea of an open marriage.

If anyone in the church that day had turned from their pew and peered through the finger-smudged glass into that cry box, their eyes would have been drawn to the devout blond with round cheekbones, plump lips, and a celebrity’s unflappable smile — a broad shield of straight square teeth. From Jeannot’s fortitude, even during this crisis of faith, you might gather that Jeannot was confident to a fault — effusive, demonstrative, warm. Radiating but directed. Intentional. A person whose attention animated anything it hovered over.

Jeannot’s husband knew that Jeannot had been in anguish for a long time. The request for an open marriage, however, was unexpected. Afraid of losing his spouse, he agreed.

Cell phone-less and car-less, Jeannot had spent many hours scouring Facebook for friendship and freedom (Jeannot was a master of the Facebook message to a stranger), and it was there, on a fall day in 2012, that Jeannot spotted a posting for a “queerlesque” — or LGBT burlesque — performance, at Dallas’s famous lesbian bar, Sue Ellen’s. On the Friday of the event, Jeannot drove alone to Dallas’s neon-lit gayborhood.

And that’s where Jeannot first laid eyes on Ashley Boucher, standing more than 7 feet tall in 6-inch platform fetish boots, a corset, teased hair, and dark twenties-style makeup. Approaching the mike, she began to sing a catchy piano bar tune — a rhyming mix of painful truths and humorous exaggerations about being a trans woman — called “Here’s to Me”:

Here’s to kneeling and praying
For years without saying
A word about what I believed.
Here’s to answering questions with constant denial,
But wearing my thoughts on my sleeve.
Here’s my church and my steeple.
Here’s to eye-fucking people,
From the back pew on Sundays as well.
Here’s to seeing you all down in hell.
Here’s to me.

Here’s to sitting and crying alone in the hall
Over really not filling that dress out at all.
Here’s to raising my wrists,
Having never been kissed.
Here’s to being 11 feet tall.

With open green eyes, cupid’s bow lips, and a dark brown pin-wave bob, Ashley was otherworldly — her delicate features rendered on a powerful scale. Her lyrics, confessional but comic, lonesome but frank, resonated deeply with Jeannot, giving voice to feelings Jeannot hadn’t been able to articulate — and still wouldn’t be able to articulate for some time.

Jeannot had long felt uncomfortable presenting femininely, chalking it up to not having found the right “look.” Jeannot had tried dressing “more earthy and artsy” and then more “vintage.” “People kept saying I was a person of metamorphosis,” Jeannot told me. But listening to Ashley’s lyrics, Jeannot realized, “I had been trying to find a place to hang my hat… a place where I could come out of my box of dysphoria.”

“I am not a very mystical person,” Jeannot said, “but I truly experienced love at first sight. Or at least after the song was over, I knew that I was in love with this person and I needed to know them in whatever capacity they would allow me.”

“Here,” Jeannot thought, standing mesmerized in the back, “was the root to all my longing.”

Jeannot grew up in pre-gentrification Oak Cliff, before the onslaught of succulent shops and small-batch chocolatiers; Jeannot’s parents, community activists, were the very people who paved the way for those developments. Jeannot had a long habit of falling in love with friends — in elementary school, in high school, in college. Sometimes Jeannot tried to cut friendships short to steel against unrequited love. Some of Jeannot’s friends recognized Jeannot’s affections and didn’t care. Some may have even liked Jeannot back. Before attending the University of Dallas, “the Catholic university for independent thinkers,” Jeannot converted to Catholicism. “I don’t do things halfway,” Jeannot told me. “I’m zealous to a fault.”

While working toward a degree in elementary education, Jeannot developed a deep intellectual connection with a mutual friend. It wasn’t long before he converted to Catholicism at Jeannot’s request, so that they could be married in the church. (He declined to be interviewed.) Shortly after, the couple moved into the four-bedroom Grand Prairie home. And five months later, during Jeannot’s final year of college, the couple had their first son, Toby. Jeannot settled into life as a stay-at-home parent, giving birth to a second boy not too long after.

At home, Jeannot studied parenting, reading Mothering magazine cover to cover. After sending Mothering a fan note, the editor recommended an anthology she had edited called Dear John, I Love Jane, which was a collection of essays about women who leave men for women. To read it was to understand one’s needs for the first time. Jeannot needed a relationship with a woman; it was either open the marriage or leave. Jeannot researched polyamory and read books like The Ethical Slut and Opening Up. Jeannot also scrolled Netflix, looking for a representation of LGBT relationships, and found one to crush over in the 1999 German drama Aimée & Jaguar, about the wife of a Nazi who falls in love with a Jewish housewife. But while it was fun to dress like Aimée, in forties-style clothes and hairstyles, that didn’t quell Jeannot’s existential unease about how to be a female.

Then Jeannot laid eyes on Ashley — or Jaguar incarnate.

Jeannot attended Ashley’s next show, a couple weeks later, and marched up to the stage after Ashley’s set. “Will you date me?” Jeannot asked. Ashley looked down at the bold 25-year-old; it was the directness and the confidence of Jeannot’s question that made Ashley, who had been celibate for 12 years, say, yes.

Ashley met Jeannot at the Dallas Arboretum rose garden for their first date. Jeannot had asked Ashley to bring her favorite book and so the two read from Through the Looking Glass and talked about their lives. Ashley explained how she spent the last 12 years essentially in isolation, many of them holed up in her Deep Ellum loft, mastering a dozen instruments, scribbling song lyrics in a Moleskin knockoff, and streaming movies from the Gay and Lesbian section of Netflix. Ashley had worked two chef jobs in order to save enough money for her gender-confirming surgery a year earlier. She also explained why she had written off relationships — the chances of finding a lesbian who was comfortable with her genitalia, who also shared her interests in music and film, were slim to none.

The pair talked about Jeannot’s children, Jeannot’s life as a teacher, and how Jeannot didn’t feel particularly close to either gender. (Prior to their date, Jeannot had confided in Ashley over Facebook, telling her something not even Jeannot’s husband knew: I’m genderqueer, too.) Neither noticed the roses. After several hours, Jeannot asked if they might touch cheeks. A current shot through them as their skin grazed. Walking back to their cars that evening, Jeannot thanked Ashley for the experience; Jeannot would always enjoy this date for what it was, even if they never saw each other again.

But they did see one another again. And on New Year’s Eve, while Jeannot’s husband and two sons were asleep in the house, Jeannot sat on the living room couch with Ashley and nervously asked for her hand. Jeannot had no intention of getting a divorce and had no idea what form their marriage might take — Jeannot just knew that they needed to build a life with Ashley. The proposal formalized an intention, and Ashley accepted it. In March, Ashley officially moved into Jeannot’s house in Grand Prairie with the rest of the family.

Jeannot didn’t have the words for it exactly, but Ashley understood Jeannot in a way that no one else had before. Jeannot’s mind often returned to a moment just two weeks into their romance. Ashley had left a stand up bass at Jeannot’s house after spending the night, and had swung by the house to pick it up. As Ashley was preparing to leave, Jeannot’s husband turned to Jeannot. “C’mon, doll up,” he said, “it’s time to go.” It was time for their date, and Jeannot’s husband had specified that Ashley wasn’t to come by that evening. “Okay, sweetheart,” Jeannot said, before disappearing into the bedroom. Ashley followed. “I remember watching Jeannot try not to cry as Jeannot found more fem makeup and a skirt,” Ashley said. “This is not just about you being irritated about not wanting to put on extra makeup,” Ashley thought to herself. “This is more than that.” For the first time, Ashley saw that Jeannot was, as Jeannot had once confided, genderqueer. Ashley put her hand on Jeannot’s shoulder. “I know what you’re feeling,” she said. “You don’t have to do this.”

As Jeannot and Ashley fell deeper in love, Jeannot began dressing more masculine, wearing sleek-cut men’s shirts and slacks. “Your weekends are full of polo shirts and binding,” Ashley wrote in one of her songs. “Polo shirts,” Jeannot told me, “are the gateway drug to men’s clothing.” But as Jeannot began to pursue a more masculine presentation, Jeannot’s husband began to distance himself. Six weeks after Ashley moved into their house, he announced he would be moving out.

Jeannot hadn’t anticipated how still the home would be without Juni and Toby. “I had been accepting of the fact that my husband has to leave if I was going to transition and have Ashley in my life,” Jeannot told me, “but I didn’t even realize I would have to give up the children for half the time, too.” Once the school year let out, Jeannot sank into long hours of depressive sleep. In late June, in a fit of sorrow, Jeannot drove to the apartment where Jeannot’s husband had moved, desperately hoping to bring their family back together. Jeannot told the boys to put on their socks and shoes and pleaded for everyone to come back home — but Jeannot’s husband asked Jeannot to leave and so Jeannot returned to the Grand Prairie house alone.

Though enormously distressing, the space afforded by partial custody gave Jeannot some time to explore the masculine flourishes that had driven Jeannot’s husband away.

A very short haircut made Jeannot feel more true to self. When a group of Catholic school girls mistook Jeannot for a cute boy, Jeannot grinned. Occasionally, a barista would address Jeannot with “sir” or “mister,” and Jeannot would feel giddy and wonder how to incite another such moment.

Another performer who burlesqued at Sue Ellen’s told Jeannot that he wanted to go out not with Jeannot, but with Johnny — a nickname Jeannot used when presenting more masculine. Johnny, he said, was happier. “So many of those moments came together,” Jeannot told me, “like clicking a selfie from a different angle and seeing an angle where you look more boyish and getting really excited that maybe you could look a different way… and maybe others really could truly interpret you differently.”

Gender identity typically develops between the ages of two and four, and sexuality emerges between ages eight and 10. “But if you’re not allowed to explore gender and sexuality and yours happens to be different than what’s culturally expected,” Dr. Colt Keo-Meier, a trans man clinical psychologist practicing in Houston told me, “yours will be delayed, which is why you see people transitioning at 30, at 55.” In Texas, he said, this is particularly true, thanks to the state’s stifling religious, cultural, and conservative forces.

Ashley only realized that she was a woman after making a number of medical decisions, without acknowledging where they were leading: first she started self-medicating with anti-androgens (to block her testosterone). Then she saved up money for electrolysis treatments to remove the hair from her face. The Lidocaine shot was the most painful thing she’d ever experienced. When she found herself in her car the next day willingly driving toward the clinic for a second treatment, her face bruised, swollen, and throbbing, she realized this procedure was more than something she wanted; it was something she needed. She was transgender.

Jeannot’s gender identity wasn’t as simple — it fluctuated. “I swing either direction,” Jeannot explained to me. “I land wherever I land on the spectrum that day. Some days I’m more feminine, some days I’m more masculine, usually I’m smack in the middle somewhere.” Jeannot, like a growing number of people across the country, identifies as genderqueer, a category or anticategory not recognized by the U.S. and certainly not accommodated by the ma’ams and sirs bred into most Southerners. People who identify as genderqueer — or gender non-conforming, non-binary, or gender fluid — don’t fall into the male and female binaries; rather, their gender varies across the spectrum and may shift over time.

“Different people wear genderqueer differently,” Ashley explained to me. For some, “the extent of it is clothing choices or playing with pronouns; for some people it’s just, this is my name, this is how I want you to refer to me.” For Jeannot, gender was dynamic and for this reason, pronouns were especially tricky. “For a while she was okay,” Ashley recounted. “And then they was preferred. And then I was like, ‘How are you feeling about they?’” They it was — and when asked their gender, Jeannot wrote down “boi.”

Over the years, the gender non-conforming population has grown more visible with celebrities like rapper/singer Angel Haze, Australian model Ruby Rose, and even pop star Miley Cyrus loudly renouncing gender binaries. But it’s difficult to estimate the number of genderqueer folks as no census asks about gender identity. Even if one did, the counts would be estimates at best. Many transgender Texans are not “out” because they do not feel safe or protected. Others, like Jeannot, who technically considers themselves “genderqueer of trans experience,” wouldn’t fit into boxes even if the number of boxes doubled to include trans women and trans men.

To pull Jeannot out of their malaise in the months after Jeannot’s husband left, Ashley encouraged Jeannot to perform with her at her queerlesque show. There, in the midst of Dallas’s queer community — which included everyone from gay cowboys to butch lesbians to provocative trans women — Jeannot felt a chest-warming sense of belonging.

Confident, extroverted, and nurturing by nature, Jeannot began inviting the Dallas area queer community over for Sunday brunch. Attendees, ranging from eight months to 60 years, came from all over the Metroplex to Grand Prairie, excited to have a safe space to chill, make new friends, and learn about queer issues without having to pay what Jeannot referred to as an “alcohol tax.” The brunches became a sort of “salon” for the queer community, according to Oliver Blumer, a frequent attendee and advisor to the Transgender Education Network of Texas. Meantime, as the new school year approached, Jeannot threw themselves into pedagogy, vowing to become the best teacher possible, and then applied those teaching skills toward the greater good of the queer community, offering educational seminars on topics like safe sex for gender variant bodies at their home.

“Are you familiar with the theological concept of the fortunate fall?” Jeannot asked me recently. “If Adam and Eve would have never eaten the apple, the idea is that Christ would have never redeemed all of humanity. Along those same lines, if I had never divorced and I had never had 50 percent custody, I may never have found myself.”

Initially, Jeannot’s genderqueer presentation went unremarked upon at the underperforming west Oak Cliff school where they worked. They had taken care to often “wear hair” (a wig) when teaching because appearing more feminine made interactions with the parents and administration smoother. Still, the parents didn’t look kindly upon Jeannot’s rainbow bumper sticker or queer-looking embellished cowboy shirts and slacks. But Jeannot’s identity wasn’t a real issue until that winter, when Ashley drove to George Peabody Elementary, in the parched bit of west Oak Cliff that was not yet gentrified, and surprised Jeannot with sandwiches.

Overjoyed, Jeannot asked Ashley to stay to read the children their after-lunch story.

“Why are you so BIG?” Jeannot’s five-year-old students asked when they saw Ashley. “Why is your voice so deep?”

The only kids Ashley had really spent much time around were Jeannot’s two boys, so she looked at the kids with almost as much curiosity as they looked at her.

“Class?” Jeannot said. Typically, the kids would all respond, “yes,” in a chorus, which meant that they were sitting nicely on the floor, cross-legged. But on this afternoon, one kid with a big curly mop of hair darted his hand in the air, his whole body desperate to ask a question. “Are you gonna marry her?” he blurted. A pair of twins joined in, “Yeah, are you?”

Jeannot had the feeling that any answer might backfire. “Maybe I will. Who knows!” Jeannot flashed their unflappable smile.

The next week, Jeannot was called over the PA system into the principal’s office. A parent of one of the kids had complained.

“Who are you married to?” asked the principal (who could not be reached for comment) from across her imposingly large desk. Jeannot, worried that their job was on the line, answered, “I was married to a man.” That much was true. But they had officially filed for divorce a couple months ago. After nearly an hour of unsolicited, well-meaning advice, Jeannot was dismissed. Leaving the principal’s office, Jeannot decided two things: 1) they would have to leave their beloved students and find another teaching job at a more liberal school, and 2) at that new school, Jeannot would identify and present strictly as a man.

“I really feel in between or both,” Jeannot told me. “People don’t understand that. I’m interacting with the public, so I had to put my foot firmly on one side or the other.” If Jeannot’s job depended on adhering to a binary interpretation of gender, then Jeannot would sub the “i” for a “y,” and “boy” it would be. Jeannot would use the pronoun “he” at work and the name Johnny (the name we’ll adopt for the rest of this article; “Jeannot” is their gender-neutral chosen name, not their birth name).

But before Johnny would start taking testosterone, they wanted to secure their partnership with Ashley legally, so that they could say “we are a legitimate family, in case that ever came into question,” Johnny explained. “If you’re trans in the state of Texas, you are literally risking everything just to be who you are — your job, your family, your life,” Katie Sprinkle, Dallas’s leading gender marker attorney and a trans woman herself, told me. “The only protections we have here are those that come from the federal government.” A recent case in neighboring Collin County had especially frightened Johnny and Ashley. There, an ex-husband had sued for full custody of his children, objecting to the fact that his ex-wife lived with her female partner. A Republican judge had essentially ruled in his favor, citing a morality clause and requiring the partner to not be present in the house with the children past 9 p.m. Marriage, Ashley told me, is “the best thing I can do for my kids.”

The day that Johnny’s divorce from their husband officially went through, in January 2014, Johnny and Ashley began approaching clerks and judges about a marriage license. They went through more than 15 before a clerk in Irving issued them a license.

On Valentine’s Day morning of 2014, nearly a year and a half before the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, some hundred folks from Dallas’s diverse queer community, as well as friends from as far away as Arkansas and Louisiana, flooded the county courthouse. “It was like seeing all the people in heaven after you’ve died,” Johnny said.

Johnny and Ashley wanted a judge to preside over their wedding, so that no one would question its legality, and Judge Carl Ginsberg, a fourth generation Texan, had agreed. When he called the couple to the stand, Johnny, dressed in a long white gown with a sweetheart neckline and a veil, grasped Ashley’s manicured hand. In a long black dress with a fur stole and a feather headdress, Ashley looked even more stunning than the first time Johnny had seen her.

The judge began to read the script used in countless other marriages, except it sounded slightly different; Johnny and Ashley had asked him to avoid gendered pronouns. Agreeing, the judge had cut pronouns out completely. Approaching the script’s end, he paused, glanced at the room. “I now pronounce you legally married!” Johnny and Ashley kissed, and the crowd erupted in cheers.

That evening the Dallas/Fort Worth CBS station ran a segment titled “First Legal Gay Marriage in Texas?” and Johnny and Ashley made headlines in the New York Daily News shortly after. Johnny and Ashley pored over the comments, delighted by an accusation that they had personally put the nail in the coffin of traditional marriage.

In a way, they had: neither Johnny nor Ashley had corrected their gender markers on their driver’s licenses. Yes, it was frustrating for Johnny to put their name on the wife line, and for Ashley to put her name on the husband line — these were roles they didn’t believe in, regardless of gender. But it was worth it. They believed they had set a precedent for trans people to marry whichever gender they wanted.

The following month Johnny began taking testosterone as a medical step towards masculinization. As Johnny cut their hair even shorter and began to look more masculine, the kindergartners in their west Oak Cliff class said what was on their mind. “You used to look like a princess,” one squealed. “Now you look like a cowboy!” The kids switched pronouns without thinking. It was only natural. Johnny’s sons also appeared to absorb the change. Johnny had a conversation with them, mostly so that they would know how to describe the situation to their friends: now they had two daddies.

Ashley was supportive of Johnny’s decision, but it wasn’t easy to watch them transition. She would miss Johnny’s beautiful, feminine face, and she would have to reassess her own identity as a lesbian. “I still hesitate to tell people I have a husband,” Ashley explained to me. “It just feels like not my identity… but at the same time, I can’t tell them that I have a wife.” Ashley was also worried that testosterone might make Johnny a different person, a person who was no longer attracted to her. Ashley’s greatest fear, though, was, “If I were now a woman and Johnny was now a man, does that make us straight? Because if there’s anything we don’t want to be, it’s straight. It totally erases any of our experience in the gay community and as trans people. I had suffered so much from being gay and being trans and I wasn’t going to think it was fair if all of the sudden I was rolled into everyone.” Would the queer community that she had found turn its back on them? “Those people are your family,” Ashley explained to me. “If you don’t belong there anymore, then where do you belong?”

Johnny and Ashley also began attending a monthly support group for trans men, which raised even more tensions for the couple. Johnny wore whatever suited how they were feeling — sometimes masculine clothes, other times more feminine clothing, like a flowy shirt, which drew ire from some in the group. “Johnny is more about presenting what they’re authentically feeling,” Terry Alan, a trans man who founded the group, told me. “It’s incongruent for guys that have had to live in female regalia. For them, female regalia is the worst thing in the world, and so they can’t conceive of wanting to put on makeup.” When these guys saw a picture of Johnny in a dress, a blond wig, and lipstick on Facebook, “it was unnerving for them,” Alan said. “They told me, ‘If he ever came to our meeting like that, you would tell him to leave, right?’”

Several months later, Johnny snagged an enviable teaching job at Mata Montessori in a more affluent neighborhood. With its focus on independence and peace and cosmic education, the school attracted parents and administrators who thought it was hip that Johnny was some kind of queer. Johnny informed human resources that they were going to be transitioning. The human resources contact “was so affirming,” Johnny said. “She was just like, ‘Sweetheart, you could totally pass as a woman. Just put in a month of effort.’ And I was like, is that a compliment? Because you read me the other way already?”

Johnny continues to use Facebook, maybe even more frequently than before, often posting two or three times in a single day, sharing moments from their journey and testing out new looks and ideas. They use it to seek connection, affirmation, and to build community. “The validations that cis people experience,” said Terry Alan, “trans people don’t.” Many trans and genderqueer people, Oliver Blumer told me, “need a sense of validation. They need to know that someone else is going through the things that they are.” “Community is a privilege,” Ashley explained — one that she didn’t enjoy until she met Johnny.

On a recent day at the end of summer, Johnny took to Facebook to invite the community over for queer Sunday brunch. A week later, more than 50 friends passed through Johnny and Ashley’s white plastic picket fence, lured by the promise of Ashley’s French toast, a sort of siren song of the suburbs.

The folks in attendance — a mix that included burlesque performers, a pastor, a nurse, computer programmers, and at least three veterans — weren’t just a support network, they were a resource. Where should I go for hormones? Who offers the best legal assistance for name and gender marker corrections? Which top surgeons take insurance? And where can patients get post-operative care? (One answer: Johnny and Ashley’s house.)

“I don’t see people get along in other places the way they get along here,” Adrien Grimm, a 21-year-old who identifies as non-binary androgynous, explained, sinking into the plush red corduroy couch after a long night of Ubering. “When I was in Seattle, [the trans community] was very cliquish.” He had moved to Dallas two years ago from the East Texas city of Longview, where he experienced “intense amounts of transphobia” and had even received death threats on his car. “But here,” he said, “there’s this awesome community… it’s like a different country almost.” Adrien’s queer friends recently threw him a surprise party to celebrate his second year on hormones — his second “maniversary,” so to speak.

Sitting by the window, Jabriel Williamson, a 40-year-old black trans man veteran and non-denominational minister of a radically inclusive church, sipped coffee from Johnny’s grandmother’s porcelain. He went to the Dallas Veterans Affairs for hormones and their support group for trans men. Wulff, an engineer working at Lockheed Martin, passed out his business cards, looking to score a few shows for his band, the Transcontinentals. Across from the kitchen, Johnny’s boys, Toby and Juni, scalped strawberries as a topping for the French toast.

After the last stragglers left around 5:30 p.m., Johnny and Ashley gazed at each other, content with the life they had created. Now that there is marriage equality, they want to get married again, with a license that better reflects who they are — not husband and wife — but partner and partner. “When you give sexual consent, you cannot give a blanket consent at the beginning of an evening or for the rest of your life,” Johnny explains. “And we feel the same way about marriage.” So they continue to propose to one another nearly every day. Once Johnny fingered the question into the soot on Ashley’s back windshield. Just last month, Johnny wrote, “Will you marry me?” “Yes” and “No” in backwards cursive in different places on their body so that Ashley could snuggle up to her answer, letting it legibly transfer onto her skin. They write it in each other’s notebooks and songbooks to discover who knows how long later. With each proposal, they affirm their love and devotion to their partner in their current identity. For they know more than anyone else how fluid one’s identity can be.

This story was written by Francesca Mari. It was edited by Madison Kahn and Sandra Upson, fact-checked by Hilary Elkins, and copy-edited by Rachel Glickhouse. Meredith Talusan acted as an editorial advisor. Photographs by Rhys Harper.

Note: One paragraph from this story was redacted after publication due to unanticipated privacy concerns. Additionally, the Mothering magazine editor mentioned was not, in fact, the magazine’s editor-in-chief.