Transition Deconstructed

Jan 12, 2013 | Updated Feb 02, 2016
Brynn Tannehill

Recently I read pieces on The Huffington Post that gave the viewpoints of two people: One is transgender and transitioned after getting married, and the other is her former spouse. Many of the themes were very familiar to me because of my own recent history. Married for almost 13 years. Three children. Feelings of hurt, anger and betrayal. Almost everyone who knew me was shocked when I came out, because of the extremely masculine persona I had carefully cultivated since I joined the Navy in 1993.

The comments section below the HuffPost piece about Chiristine Benvenuto is very long, with more than 750 comments. A number of themes in the comments section kept jumping out at me, over and over again. Many people observed that each piece only represented one side of the story, and that it was difficult to discern what really happened. As someone who has remained married through transition, I saw an opportunity for us to give a more unified perspective. After I drafted this article, Janis, my spouse, edited and added to what I wrote. She made sure it reflected her viewpoint accurately when answering the most frequent themes, questions and opinions expressed in the comments.

"Does the spouse/partner have a right to be angry?"

Yes. She is grieving for all the dreams of a future she once had. She is grieving for a person who no longer exists, or perhaps never did at all. She is grieving for the loss of a marriage, of a husband, of a father, and all the possibilities that went with it. Simple things are lost, too. Holding hands in public went from being a harmless sign of affection to an act of societal defiance. All this is a normal part of the grieving process, as are bargaining, denial and, hopefully in the end, acceptance.

Janis admitted that her two initial feelings when I came out were, "You lied to me, you bastard," and, "How could I be so stupid that I didn't see this?" She is still working through the process of grieving. In the end we're both in a position where we are better off with each other, though. We worked hard to build a life together, and we were not going to give up on it.

"Transitioning is selfish."

Transition is an inherently selfish process. It only directly benefits the one who is transitioning. Others who benefit from it in some way do so as a secondary effect. For instance, transitioning allowed me to be a more empathetic and involved parent. This has benefited my children, but it was not the point of my transition.

Still, it must be noted that transitioning has the potential to be better for all parties involved than not transitioning. A miserable spouse, a divorce, single parenthood and diminished quality of life for all concerned were the likely outcomes if I failed to transition.

"It was selfish to wait X years before telling your spouse/partner."

Imagine growing up with terrible secret. Imagine growing up Mormon and expecting your parents to send you to a reparative therapy camp or cast you into the streets if you told them. Imagine that if you held on to the secret, you would have a chance at a career you always wanted, a spouse you always dreamed of and children you both hoped for. Now imagine that giving up this secret would likely cost you everything: career, family, children, even your own dignity as a human being.

In the 1990s, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, many people were willing to excuse President Clinton for lying about an affair, because they understood that it was an embarrassing secret. Then why is it so hard to understand lying to yourself, and to others, about a secret that is far more terrifying?

Put simply, coming out as transgender can feel like playing Russian roulette with five chambers loaded and only one empty. Is it any wonder that we don't want to pull the trigger?

As it happened, coming out to my spouse was wrenching for both of us, and it took the better part of six months for each of us to convince the other that we didn't want to leave. We were going to give it our best shot, whatever came. Still, neither of us has ever seen a statistic on how often spouses stay together through transition, but we know the number isn't high.

"How is a spouse/partner supposed to react?"

The short answer is that both the trans person and their partner need to give each other time and space to explore what they are feeling. There is no right and wrong, although feelings associated with the grieving process seem to be normal.

It is unreasonable to expect most marriages to survive such an upheaval. Many transgender people seem to have unrealistic expectations of how much their partner can accept, and how quickly. Many partners have a similarly unrealistic expectation that a trans person can just bottle it up and pretend that the dysphoria is not there indefinitely.

In the end the right thing to do for both parties is to communicate effectively and work together to minimize harm to each other and the children. Often the best place to do this is in the presence of a therapist. However, there aren't any manuals on how to get through this, and we usually felt like we were picking a direction and hoping for the best.

"Why would a spouse/partner stick around?"

There are a lot of reasons that we are still together. Most of them revolve around Janis' ability to frame the issue in a way that she could understand as a person with a background in biology and psychology. It helped her to learn about the issue based on current scientific thinking, and to frame it as a medical issue rather than a psychiatric or moral one, the same way the APA and the AMA do. When she approached it from this perspective, as most of the medical and psychiatric community does, she was able to see it as helping a family member through a medical problem. Though gender dysphoria wasn't part of the bargain when we got married, "in sickness and in health" was.

Neither of us is particularly religious, so it helped that we were not predisposed to seeing this in terms of theology or dogma.

She also looked at it from a practical standpoint. Leaving me would not improve the situation for anyone, including the kids. It also didn't seem "right" to bail out on me just when I was getting my act together as a human being.

Still, having a spouse who approaches the issue this way is unusual. I cannot say that the reason that we are still together has much to do with anything I did; it is much more a result of Janis' ability to break down problems in a rational way.

"Couldn't you have waited until the children grew up?"

Who can forget Zach Wahls telling the Iowa House of Representatives about growing up with two moms? He turned out well in a nontraditional family. Jennifer Boylan transitioned when her boys were younger, and they have become exemplary young men, as well. I have also personally met the children of people who transitioned when their children were younger, and these children were not having adjustment issues. However, when I was working with my wife and my therapist, trying to figure out the right thing to do, I couldn't forget other articles written by adults whose parents transitioned later in life. It seemed like these adults were having a very hard time adapting to their parent's transition.

In the end we all agreed that waiting would only make it harder on the children in the long run. The more time they spent getting used to me as a male, the worse it would be when I shifted. However, growing up in a family that appeared to be lesbian would be less traumatic, especially for the younger ones, who would remember very little (if any) about the time prior to transition.

"What about the children? Didn't you think of them?"

This is hard. We did think of the kids constantly. We have three, and they were 9, 6 and 2 when I transitioned. They were always a huge part of the equation. There were no cut and dried answers. No how-to books. No perfect solutions. This was a difficult situation no matter how you looked at it. What we could do, as adults, as parents who love our kids, was work together to find a path that minimized harm. Both Janis and I do think about the things our children have lost: about not having a father to walk our daughters down the aisle, about the loss of a male role model (however poor he was), about the loss of being perceived as living in a "normal" house.

Still, while we now form a nontraditional family, the girls are thriving. Our middle child is the kind of kid every teacher dreams about, and our oldest is coping with the changes in a thoughtful, earnest manner. Though some might see transition in a completely negative light where the children are concerned, we can't help but see it having some value as a life lesson in love, diversity, tolerance and the importance of being yourself.

"Didn't you think of what this would do to your partner/spouse and children?"

Of all the guilt and angst I felt about being trans, one of the hardest things for me to deal with was all the unknowns of how my spouse and children would suffer as a result of what I did because of factors beyond all our control. Would people pull their girls out of Janis' Girl Scout troops? Would teachers discriminate against our two oldest children? Would Janis' hard-won friends in the community still want anything to do with her? Would she still be allowed to participate in the community? Would the kids be treated the way they should be at school and in their activities?

We didn't know the answers to any of these things, and we went as far as to make some contingency plans to pull up stakes and move down the road to a very liberal community about 10 miles away if things went badly.

Thankfully, libertarian Midwestern values won out. The Girl Scout troops are growing. Janis' friends have stuck with her. She was asked to be treasurer of the local PTO. The girls' teachers have treated them, and our nontraditional little family, with dignity and respect. Our middle child is almost a prodigy and is flourishing in school.

Still, prior to transition, this was something I worried about constantly, but Janis and I came to realize that we could not control the actions of others.

"Why did you rush into it?"

It seems like a rush to everyone on the outside looking in. Coming out as transgender catches most people very much off guard when you lead a very masculine life up until that point. It leads people to ask whether we have thought this through, whether we have considered the consequences. To others it seems like a whim rather than something we wrestled with for decades.

What people didn't see behind the scenes was the years of therapy, the agonizing conversations and confessions with Janis and the constant lurching from one desperate gamble to the next as we tried to navigate our way through one of the most difficult situations imaginable for a couple. Every step was a risk that I dithered over, worrying relentlessly what the result would be.

A friend once told me that when you transition, everyone else transitions with you. When possible, I tried to give people time to adjust. Unfortunately, this past spring, I simply ran out of time and had to make things happen more quickly that I had intended. Despite the seeming suddenness of it all, there were a number of times Janis confessed that she wished I would just hurry up and get it all over with. Still, most of our friends and family have stuck with us through everything.

"Couldn't you have just kept doing what you were doing?"

By the time most trans people come out, they have been hanging on by their fingernails for years. When they come out to their spouses as trans, they have reached the end of their rope. Whatever coping mechanisms they had in the past are no longer working. In my case these coping methods were leading me down the path toward divorce. If there was another way, we would have found it.

The perception that there is a certain amount of "gleefulness" as people begin transition has some truth to it. Imagine being in prison for a couple of decades and suddenly dealing with the seemingly endless possibilities of being on the outside. The highly regimented life at the Naval Academy is a good analogy, too. After years of living in a highly regimented atmosphere, after graduation I saw a lot of people around me reveling in their newfound freedom. Sometimes that revelry wasn't particularly constructive or well thought-out, but it was natural and understandable.

"Seriously, you're going out wearing that?"

A lesbian friend once joked with me, "Everything I know about fashion I learned from my adopted gay family. My people aren't exactly known for their fashion sense."

"No worries," I replied. "Neither are mine."

There's more than a grain of truth to the latter part. Trans people have to find their style, and themselves, to some degree, much later in life. We never had a time in our lives when experimentation was possible or mistakes could be made without some sort of permanent harm being done to our images. Think of it this way: Who out there doesn't have a picture of themselves when they were 14 that they don't hate? Big hair, big '80s glasses, wearing way too much black during an emo or goth stage, too much flannel during the early '90s or skinny jeans that would make Olivia Newton-John wince?

Trans folk don't have the luxury of being 14 years old when they make their fashion mistakes. While it is natural that they make them, the piece of advice I would give (and was given) is that trans people should learn to dress and present themselves appropriately from non-trans people of a similar age and profession, not from each other. Unfortunately, most trans people make rookie mistakes as they learn, but at this stage in their lives, the stakes are a lot higher than just an old picture that they would rather never saw the light of day. Or Facebook.

"Couldn't you just take antidepressants and be happy being a [birth-assigned gender]?

If antidepressants cured gender dysphoria, don't you think most trans people would happily take the blue pill? No electrolysis, no surgery, no hormones, no social stigma, just... normalcy? If it worked that way the APA, the AMA, the World Professional Association of Transgender Health (WPATH) and other organizations would certainly make antidepressants the standard course of treatment, because it would be the path of least harm.

Simply put, just like being gay, there is no "cure" that will "fix" a transgender person. Reparative therapies don't work, and the only thing that seems to treat it effectively is working to align people's physical selves with their own mental self-image.

It isn't for lack of trying. Every kind of behavioral, aversive, therapeutic and pharmacological treatment you can imagine has been tried in the past as a cure for gender dysphoria. In the end none of them worked.

"Couldn't you just buy a sports car like everyone else having a midlife crisis?"

A midlife crisis is something that springs up quickly out of nowhere, something that wasn't there 10 years ago, much less two or three. Being trans isn't a midlife crisis; it is something we have been dealing with in quiet desperation for decades.

Plus, buying a car won't help. I had the muscle car in my college days. No cure there.

"You'll never really be a woman/man."

In the sense that I have XY chromosomes, broad shoulders and narrow hips, and in the sense that I never had and never will have a uterus and ovaries, I am not physically female.

But in the sense that I always saw myself as a woman and always had to fight to hide traits that would generally be considered more feminine than masculine, I am female. Therein lies the difference between sex and gender. One is defined by anatomy; the other is based on what's between your ears.

Almost everyone gets the concept of "woman's brain in a man's body." Those who do not understand seem to fall back on the mental disorder argument, which is not supported by experts in the field. Some people argue that being trans is a choice. This isn't supported, either, given the fact that there isn't a reparative therapy cure for gender dysphoria.

Still, am I female if I am seen as such by myself, others and the law? Would you treat someone differently if you learned they are transgender? Is that fair?

If all else fails, I would urge people to remember the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. How much effort does it take to treat people as the gender they wish to be treated as, when you would ask the same in return?

Also on The Huffington Post:

48 Transgender Pioneers