In April of 2014 I had a dream that my husband of over 30 years was putting on make-up. It didn’t come out of nowhere. Over twenty years earlier my husband had started to dress more effeminately and shaved his facial hair. I liked more masculine looking men, which was how he looked when I met/married him, and so I hated his new look. I didn’t understand why he was making these changes. Eventually, after being in therapy, he told me he thought he was transsexual.
I had heard the term but really didn’t know what it meant. “A woman trapped in a man’s body,” was a phrase I could recall having heard. There was no one I could ask about it and in 1988 there was no Google. No internet. AOL didn’t even exist. In fact, most people didn’t have a PC yet. A phone answering machine was still a big deal to me. My husband clarified that he felt like he was a lesbian and that he wished I were also. That meant he was still attracted to me. But I was not a lesbian. What I was, was shocked. And horrified. And terrified that my marriage was over.
We went into therapy and ultimately my husband chose not to do anything about his feelings. There were many reasons for his decision, among them: our marriage and family were more important to him. I was relieved but very unsure that we should stay together. I knew nothing about transsexuality. My only frame of reference at that time were my gay friends, and I knew for sure that they would always be gay. What if my husband regretted his decision? What if, when we were older, he would feel a need to “come out?” He could not guarantee that he wouldn’t.
My need for normalcy is almost as powerful as my need for food, and so it prevailed. Added to that was the fear of my life turning out like my mom’s had; divorced, poor, with three kids, living in roach infested apartments on highways. I could not imagine going back to that. And I could not imagine how I could avoid that if I left my husband. Besides, he was still my best friend and father of my son. And so we stayed together. And never spoke about it again.
My husband kept up the “male drag” routine for over twenty years. (His words.) He groomed and (mostly) dressed himself to my liking. Occasionally I would find women’s clothing and make-up among his things and feel my heart speed up. When he went overboard for Halloween (shaving his facial hair and dressing as a woman) I felt threatened. There was a ghost persona living with us. It felt to me like it was trying to appear, to materialize. Maybe it was just a matter of time before it would? I often felt like I had made a demand of my husband that I should not have made. And yet he was an equal partner in that decision/demand. It was what we both wanted, wasn’t it?
For years and years it was not “an issue.” Until it was.
In the eighties the gay rights movement gained momentum, but even in the gay community trans people were still outliers, freaks. When did that start to change? I can’t say I know. I wasn’t exactly paying attention. But certainly the internet had something to do with it. An old high school acquaintance of my husband’s contacted him on Facebook around 2013. At first my husband didn’t know who it was because she was a woman, but he soon realized this person used to be male. Soon enough my husband realized this person was (unapologetically) trans. There is no such thing as distance in time or space anymore. “The past is not dead, it’s not even the past.” (Faulkner) . And then, seemingly overnight, a tipping point was reached. The DSM no longer classified transsexuality as mental illness.
Soon my husband was wearing colorful shirts and carrying something that looked like a pocketbook. Then there was clear nail polish. Then came Halloween and he shaved off his facial hair. This time he didn’t let it grow back. Then there was clear nail polish with glitter in it. Then there was some effeminate costume jewelry. All the while he said nothing. Unlike back in ’88 when he told me what he was feeling, this time it was as if nothing was changing. And maybe it wasn’t. I had no idea. If there had been no history maybe I would not have felt so anxious. But there was history. It was twenty-five years old by now, but the past is always with us. And it always catches up with us.
And so while Bruce Jenner was just about the only news available for weeks at a time, my husband also seemed to be “transitioning.” The timing was entirely coincidental and completely surreal. When asked how I was doing I joked, darkly, “Any day that my husband is not on the cover of Vanity Fair is a good day.”
My husband’s silence was puzzling. In 1988 he openly discussed it with me at a time when no one else was talking about it. In 2014, when everyone seemed to be talking about being transgender, he said not a word to me. Then I had my dream that he was putting on make-up. When I awoke my heart was pounding: I knew for sure that I had to discuss this with him.
I had lunch soon after with a very dear old friend who advised me to talk to my husband. He felt that we could probably work it out. “It’s tough to grow old alone,” he said. (I was 59 by then.) I knew he was right. My husband was my best friend. We had our problems but we were family. The fact that he wasn’t talking to me about the changes I was seeing was upsetting, but if I brought it up, maybe we could find a way.
I finally got up the courage to ask him where he thought these changes were leading? He claimed not to know. Not to even see the changes as a big deal at all. It was all “just some minor clothing changes.” And he was angry at me and felt like I was giving him an ultimatum. Whatever changes he was experiencing he did not see them as “linear,” or as “leading to” anything. It was all just a “process.”
After that talk we became instantly alienated from each other. Instead of leading to a productive discussion it lead to animosity. He felt judged and rejected. I felt the same. I felt alone and misunderstood, he felt the same. I questioned whether I was, in fact, making too much of the changes I was seeing. Was I letting the past rule my present life? Maybe the changes I was witnessing were “as far as” he would go. Maybe he just needed to be able to express himself more authentically. I didn’t know what the truth was.
We agreed to go into therapy together. Finding the right therapist was the trick. I wanted someone who was knowledgeable about gender identity and would not dismiss it as mental illness or think my husband a freak. It took some time but I found someone and he turned out to be brilliant, compassionate, and tough all at the same time. I felt we had picked the right person. But the sessions themselves were emotionally brutal for me. Instead of feeling more hope for us, I felt less. Instead of feeling like I understood my husband more, I understood less. Instead of feeling like he understood me more, I felt he understood me less.
The gut wrenching pain of these sessions was almost unbearable. There was hardly even language adequate to express what my husband was feeling. “Trans” sexual or “trans” gender didn’t make sense because it meant someone was biologically different from their gender identity. But that still meant a person had to choose which gender they identified with. What if you felt more like a combination of male and female? What if some days you felt more “butch” and some days more “femme?” Somedays you wore a skirt and heels and other days you wore a suit and tie?
The word “fluid” somehow appeared one day and that seemed to fit much better. Gender, like personality and maybe even race, seems to make more sense when seen as being on a spectrum.
Maybe in this digital age everything human is really analog?