Op-ed: Accepting My Partner's Gender Transformation
Back before the Internet was in wide use, I posted a personal ad in the San Francisco Bay Times, my local LGBT newspaper. It read in part, "I Like Fun. Seeking brainy brawny girls to frolic with." Having gone in with low expectations, imagine my surprise that 19 years later, I am happily partnered with the person who answered my ad: someone else who "liked fun."
From our first phone call on the morning of January 1, 1995, there was an intellectual and emotional crackling that has always made our pairing both challenging and exciting. Back then, Willy was a butch lesbian who identified as transgender, and I was a person who articulated an interest in dating a man in a woman's body. What I meant by that was I wanted someone who would open my doors, thrill me with their chivalry, buy me pretty things, and let me be the girl. But as a self-identified lesbian who preferred dating butch women, I was not seeking to partner myself with a man.
Then my butch began transitioning to a male identity, and I was faced with a choice. I want to tell you why this lesbian chose to stay.
From the start, I knew medical transition was within the realm of possibilities for Willy, but somehow it seemed very far away. I appreciated his masculinity within our butch/femme context. Finding my gender opposite and being appreciated for my womanliness felt like a soothing elixir and, at the same time, a thrill ride.
Not that there weren't difficult aspects in our relationship. Willy placed restrictions on touching some parts of his body; there were rules that protected his soul, but made mine lonely. And over the years, he did begin considering transition. The idea of it scared me, to be completely honest. I was resistant.
I liked things the way they were. I had the masculine woman I wanted. I had been a lesbian since coming out at 16, and I didn't know how to be the partner of a transgender man. I worried how it would affect my identity. I knew that being perceived by others as a heteronormative couple would afford me some legal, social, and safety privileges that I didn't yet have — but I deserved those already. I resented that I could only get them if I was with a man.
Willy and I had had a big (non-legally binding) wedding at the Oakland Rose Garden back in 1998; in 2004 we were married again (legally, this time) when then-mayor Gavin Newsom opened the door to same-sex marriages in San Francisco. And after that marriage was voided by the courts, we became registered domestic partners before the birth of our first child in 2006. We had two more children, in 2009 and 2012.
We lived through struggles with illness, finances, and the misery of the Proposition 8 campaign, when our neighbors pointed their "No Gay Marriage Allowed" signs at our house and organized street protests in our neighborhood, yelling their hateful rhetoric at us as we drove our son to preschool. As the same time, Willy and I had the American Dream: a home and a family. Our everyday lives, like so many people's, were a treadmill of drudgery, yet so sweet and lovely.
Then, as I was waiting to find out if I was pregnant with our third child, Willy came to me. "Well, I've decided," he said. "I'm transitioning." Even after 17 years together, I wasn't ready.
I was still so resistant to being seen as heterosexual. Coming from a traditional Greek immigrant family, I had fought long and hard for the right to be myself: a lesbian. And I worried that he would change and become someone else once he transitioned. Yet, at the same time, I did not want to be an unsupportive partner, and I was afraid of being judged by the transgender community for my feelings. His decision ultimately forced my hand, as it has for many partners of transgender people.
I finally had to ask myself: If Willy becomes a man, will I really break up my family? Leave the person I love? In response, I kept coming back to the things I love most about him: his passion, his loyalty, his wicked sense of humor, his intellect, his love for me and our kids. Life without him was unimaginable. So I told him I'd made a decision too.
Whatever Willy's form, I choose him. I choose to stay.
I told him I couldn't make any promises that I would easily adjust or even know how I'd react to his changing body, but I would respect his choice. And I hoped he could respect me and allow space for my feelings as I explored what this means for me and my identity.
Two months later, as he underwent chest reconstruction surgery, I grieved this change to his body, and yet over time I've found the unanticipated benefit: There are no longer any restrictions on touching his chest. This area that had been banned for so many years was suddenly open territory. Even though the form had changed, the new freedom it allowed me lifted my heart. Moreover, Willy was happy. More at peace than I had ever experienced him. More than anything else, this has made it easier for me to change as he changed.
Still, there are awkward questions I struggle with. If I make a new friend, when or how or why do I tell them that I am a lesbian and that Willy is transgender? If he goes through so much to actualize his physical reality, what is the purpose of telling? And yet, if I don't tell, I feel somehow incomplete in the representation of my own experiences: All my queer struggles are erased. I know that as the partner of a transgender person, I am living my life as an ally — but it is still my life, and I am the central character. So I seek to honor and accept my feelings, whatever they are. I let them exist and I let them pass.
In the end, Willy is my partner. We swim side-by-side through these waters. We seek to arrive at the same destination, though the strokes we choose to get there with may differ. But that is OK with me. As long as we get there together.
GEORGIA KOLIAS is an Oakland, Calif.-based writer currently shopping her novel, The Feasting Virgin. She holds an MFA in creative writing and seeks to cultivate the intersections of food, fertility, and culture through the written word. You can find her at GeorgiaKolias.com and on Twitter @georgiakolias.