Transgender people are finally getting a level of recognition that allows Jared Leto to win an Oscar for playing one, but not enough to pee safely. Issues of gender and sexuality are always complicated, and when you factor in human relationships, it's like identity calculus. To help us better understand, we spoke to "Charlotte," who thought she'd married a man until, five years and three kids later, her husband came out as a woman. She told us ...
In the movies, when a person comes out as transgender, the family immediately realizes that all the signs were there: Why, that's why they were walking around in high heels and loved fashion so very dearly. But for Charlotte:
"There was simply nothing to put on my radar that she wasn't the man she appeared to be, if that makes sense."
It might be distressing to catch your husband trying on heels, but at least then you know something's up.
Perhaps that was due to the area they lived in, or the upbringing they had -- both of which were so conservative that "gay" was only an insult on a middle school playground. At the time, neither Charlotte nor her spouse even knew about transgender people:
"My ex, 'Jenna,' was raised in a very conservative family and culture, so isolated that until her late 20s, she had no idea that there were other people like her," Charlotte says. "She just knew she was miserable in her (assigned male at birth) body ... I'd never known a trans person and didn't really have a good idea myself of their existence. It had never occurred to me."
That's because, as Charlotte explained, "many trans people who come out as adults have spent years creating a persona to go with their assigned gender that isn't them at all ... As a man, my husband was quiet and steady, thoughtful, levelheaded, and patient. I wouldn't say hyper-masculine, but definitely a nice Type-B guy with a decent range of typically masculine interests and skills -- could fix a car, etc. Almost always had a beard."
That's right: No one can question your man-cred if you're rocking a solid face bush. Even if you're not a man inside. Don't question it: It is beard law.
If you do, a tiny hand holding a beard-badge will pop out of there.
Most of us can't successfully pretend to be someone we're not for the duration of a Halloween party, so Jenna eventually reached a breaking point.
"I think at some point she just realized none of it was working," Charlotte says. "In the year leading up to her coming out, we changed churches, started a new business, bought a new house. And she just kept getting more and more depressed. It was hard to watch, as a wife, because I didn't know what was going on. Until I did, and then a lot of her actions made more sense."
Jenna was also, thanks to the internet ("yay internet! You did one thing right!"), "really [becoming] aware for the first time of the existence of other people who felt like her."
Reminder: Trying to learn about it without the internet was hard as shit.
She knew what she had to do.
And it went as well as you'd expect.
"Friends and family turned on us," Charlotte says. It was assumed that they would divorce, given that "not my preferred gender" is usually a dealbreaker, but Charlotte stood by her ... person. "From the beginning, I was supportive of Jenna's transition. How could I be otherwise? I loved my husband, and if (s)he was truly a woman, then who was I to stand in the way of her happiness?"
Hostile surprise quickly gave way to confusion.
Being in a part of the country where "So who's the guy?"
is seen as an acceptable question couldn't have helped.
"My dad was worried that I was becoming a lesbian (spoiler: I wasn't)."
Identity Calc 101!
Somehow people decided it was Charlotte's fault -- that she'd somehow turned her husband into a woman, possibly through a combination of emasculation and voodoo.
"Basically, the idea that was being tossed around (as conveyed to me later by my mom) was that if I'd been a better wife, my husband would have felt more masculine," she says. "It's a weird conservative thing, I think, sort of an extreme idea of gender roles."
"If only I hadn't nagged about leaving the seat up!"
They were so confident in their deduction, in fact, that they showed up to her goddamn house to tell her so.
"Jenna was good about protecting me from people who showed up ... thankfully, no one confronted me directly ... I stopped reading messages on Facebook, and unfriended tons of people."
If only there were a special, larger button to unfriend somebody harder.
Between the unwanted visitors, increasingly troubling threats, and people "asking our parents if they would try to get custody of our kids" -- seriously! -- Charlotte and Jenna decided moving was probably a good idea. Remember: They had just bought a house. They had just started a business. They just finished an impressive babymaking streak of three in four years.
Because three toddlers is exactly what you need when your life gets turned upside down.
"Our whole life was uprooted," Charlotte says. "We had to start over, thousands of miles away. We are both still economically struggling because of it ... It was really the worst year of my life. I had a six-month-old baby, postpartum depression, and suddenly a nonexistent support system. And my husband/wife was falling apart."
It wasn't easy for either of them, but Charlotte couldn't help noticing it was a tiny bit easier, at least in some ways, for one of them. While Charlotte's family and friends had abandoned her, and she tried to make a life for herself in a strange new town, "on the other side, your partner has (hopefully) discovered a whole new world of support and camaraderie with other trans people. And there you are, and always will be, an outsider. Trans people have been ostracized for so long that they have an understandable suspicion of cisgender (comfortable in your assigned gender) folks. You aren't one of them."
If you've ever lost part of your partner to another world -- like, say, one of Warcraft -- it's ... uh ... it's nothing like that. Sorry.
No one is going to give you shit if you switch to playing as a gnome instead the elf you started with.
Having been wearing a Ron Swanson costume for most of her life, Jenna was naturally psyched to start transitioning. But hormone therapy is an emotional roller coaster at best, and an emotional 17-car pile-up on the regular. Charlotte was just along for the ride.
"Most of us went through puberty as teens, when we were expected to be dippy, distracted, self-absorbed, and lacking in forethought," she says. "But when your spouse goes on hormones, it's like waking up one morning married to a teenager, and I promise you do not expect that from your life partner ... It doesn't matter what direction the transition is going."
"My friends with Female-to-Male partners complain about their other half going from a rainbow spectrum of emotions to a blocky four or five (Happy. Sad. Angry. Sleepy. Horny.) when starting testosterone. And when you add estrogen to an unsuspecting body and stir, you get a person with issues you'd associate with a high school drama queen. 'I look so UGLY!! Nobody LIKES me!! How does this look on me? You hesitated! I'm changing! I DON'T HAVE ANYTHING TO WEAR!!!' No disrespect to trans women; we've all been there, just usually when we were 13 and Lisa Frank was an acceptable decorating style. Having your once-staid spouse go through it is all kinds of shocking, though. The other thing about the hormones is that they'll uncover all the barely-hiding problems in your relationship: Emotions are running high, change is constant, and all your cracks show through. On both sides."
Their marriage, which was already being held together with Scotch tape and hope, started to unravel.
Charlotte had a period of struggling with her own sexuality:
"I was reasonably attracted to my husband, and when my husband became my wife, that attraction didn't go away overnight," she says. "I thought to myself, 'Hey! Maybe I'm bisexual; wouldn't that be convenient?'"
It would! But she wasn't.
At least it didn't kick off another round of "Shouldn't someone take their kids away?" conversations.
"The longer Jenna presented as female, the less attracted I was, until that part of our marriage was completely gone."
And that was actually kind of ... fine?
"I would probably have stayed in a marriage with little-to-no sexual attraction indefinitely (because let's be honest, how much sex are you having with three young children around anyway?) if I hadn't realized one day that I was married to a person I didn't like, and who didn't like me."
Remember, the person Charlotte married was a fictional character, invented and assumed as a means of survival. Once Jenna became Jenna, she and Charlotte discovered they were totally incompatible.
"I can deal with the breasts, but if you could at least act like my spouse, that'd be a plus."
"Jenna the woman is a very fashion-conscious, fun-loving person -- great to go shopping with, but not terribly down-to-earth," Charlotte says. "I'm massively intellectual and practical. Because in our conservative circles, men were supposed to be smarter, and she had more experience than I did, running her own business while I stayed home, her male persona created the illusion of intellect -- but the reality is, she's just not there ... Jenna is great and all, we are still friends, work together to raise our kids, etc. but I'd never even consider going on a date with her as her true self even if she still happened to be a man. And I can't speak for her, but let's just say it takes a special kind of person to see past my slovenly ways and appreciate my keen wit ... So in addition to losing my husband, I was losing the person I'd fallen in love with, one artificial characteristic at a time."
Charlotte went through a legitimate grieving period, "because it really is like someone died," she says. "Or a better way to explain it: It's like a strange woman just up and murdered your husband one night, then moved in and expected you to not only be in love with them, but also celebrate the death of your spouse with them."
Great pitch for a Lifetime movie; less fun to live through.
"Remember, this is the happiest, bravest, most authentic thing they've ever done. All they are losing is a stupid shell that was keeping them imprisoned. It's understandable that they forget, on occasion, that you're losing a whole lot more."
"I stayed in my marriage for two years after Jenna came out, and during that time I went through stages of grieving her and our relationship. So when my therapist suggested I start dating a few months into our separation, it didn't feel too soon at all."
But when you have kids, you're never completely done with a relationship:
"At the doctor's office, I always get to tell the whole story. Jenna being the children's mother is very important, but Jenna being the children's biological father is medically relevant. I figure if you're a medical professional and you can't handle that, you have bigger problems."
We've talked to people who work in hospitals.
There's no way a trans parent should even register as difficult to grasp.
"We live in a very liberal area now, where no one blinks at a kid having two moms -- but people still feel free to ask which of us is their 'real' mom," Charlotte says. "That puts me in a position where I have to a) out Jenna, b) imply that she's not related to the kids, c) pretend I'm not related to the kids, or d) tell someone to go mind their own business."
You can only get away with abruptly shouting "Oh my god, is that Michael Fassbender streaking through the courtyard?" and running away so many times.
Ian Gavan/Getty Images
"I'm pretty sure that's just a squirr- Oh wait, yeah: Michael Fassbender. I've got to come to this park more often."
As for the kids themselves, they're pliable little suckers: "The kids were three-and-a-half, two, and six months when [Jenna] came out," Charlotte says. "The younger two have no memory of Jenna as a man, although they do know she's trans -- she's never tried to hide that."
That doesn't mean there weren't bumps in the road.
"Our oldest has a few vague memories. He was concerned about losing his daddy when Jenna first came out, because they did stuff together and he was at that age where kids really latch on to their same-gender parent as they figure out their own identity. But we were able to allay his fears at the time; Jenna has always been a very involved parent, and that helped. Of course, it's something I worry about as a parent, just like I worry about the divorce affecting them negatively, and the world I'm raising them in and, to be honest, pretty much everything else. But at the end of the day, I have to believe that the best thing for my kids is to have authentic, happy parents who love them and are there for them."
And at least one parent who can explain peplum skirts.
Manna has a Twitter or something.p>For more insider perspectives, read 7 Realities Of Being Trans Back Before You Knew We Existed and I Was Transgender And Didn't Know It: 6 Weird Realities.
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