Yesterday was transgender day of visibility, my fifth since starting transition back in 2017. Over the years I’ve tried to be open and thoughtful about what my experience of transition has been. I changed so obviously and so completely that my transition could not be anything but public, and I’ve been fortunate to be supported by a lot of people who have treated me with kindness through one of the most difficult experiences of my life.
My partner was not so fortunate, nor treated so kindly.
Until now I’ve not written anything about her experiences – she deserves her privacy! – but there’s a lot that goes unacknowledged about what the partners of transitioners experience, and with her permission I’ll talk about some of them here.
We met in Ohio in 2002 where we both working in the Quantitative area of the Psychology Department. I still remember our first kiss just after thanksgiving, in the snow outside a dive bar near campus. One of the most memorable and significant moments in my life. Eventually we ended up married, bought a run down house that we renovated together, had two kids, and were the closest of friends for 15 years. It was almost cloyingly sweet, really, given how unromantic the both of us are.
Then I started transitioning, and things changed. We started losing each other, despite our best efforts. The effect that had on me was so very visible. Everyone could see it. My friends offered support, and it really helped hold me together through a dark time.
But nobody noticed her pain. No-one reached out to her. Her partner was slowly disappearing, right in front of her eyes. The man she had loved was turning into a stranger, a woman she didn’t know at all. She knew it and I knew it. In a very real sense her partner died a long drawn-out death, but because everyone else was so focused on supporting my transition, her pain and her grief were completely invisible. And let’s face it, I wasn’t much help to her. I knew she was suffering, but I was the cause of that suffering (albeit unintentionally) and nothing I could say or do made anything easier on her. Her grief and her loss went entirely unnoticed.
I don’t know how else to put it into words. Her partner died slowly over several years, right in front of her eyes, and nobody in her world noticed. Nobody reached out to her. Nobody marked her loss. Nobody comforted her even after he died.
Actually, it’s worse than that. Because nobody wants to be seen as transphobic or unsupportive of trans people, she was expected to be the person supporting me. If she gave even the slightest hint of how much pain she was in, people would immediately dismiss it. They’d say (about me) “oh, but she’s still the same person on the inside!” leaving my partner stuck in this bind: if she disagrees in any way she comes across as superficial or transphobic, but if she accepts it then she is forced to disown her own pain.
This pattern was so pronounced, so universal, that it ended up working as a form of gaslighting. It made her wonder if she really was superficial or unsupportive of me, when – and I speak with considerable authority here – nothing could be further from the truth. Though we were, in the end, unable to make our relationship work after my transition, we are still friends and I respect her more than anyone else in the world.
Why do relationships suffer when one partner transitions? Sometimes, sadly, the answer really is transphobia. But that’s not what happened with us, and my guess is that’s not even the most common explanation.
Transition is not a simple thing. When I transitioned I didn’t just change my name and put on a dress. The hormones changed my body drastically, the social expectations of my adoptive gender forced my behaviour to change, and over time my whole personality became very different. This matters, in a fundamental way. As I started to pass as a woman, the world started perceiving us as a gay couple. I’m bisexual so it really doesn’t make a different to me, but she is straight. To be seen as something you’re not is a difficult thing for anyone to live with (ask me how I know!) and it hurt her to feel like she was losing her identity.
Worse yet, the more my physical appearance changed as a consequence of the hormones, that’s what it felt like at home too. Sexual orientation is a fundamental part of a person’s sense of self, and hers was being taken away from her. It took me a while to notice (being bisexual, it’s one of my blind spots) but once I did, I started to understand how much pain she was in.
She’d gone from being married to a man she loved, to being married to a woman she barely knew. Of course that matters: how could it not? None of this was what she had signed up for, none of these changes were fair on her. She was pulled into the culture wars around trans people without warning. She never had any reason to think this would be a part of her life. And, unlike me, she had no agency in the process.
All these things are deeply, unbearably painful. And yet no-one else noticed. She was alone.
There isn’t really a neat way to wrap up this story, to be honest. It’s not a story where there are good people and bad people. It’s not a story where there’s a simple moral, or any simple answers. But it’s one that deserves to be told, and one that deserves to be understood. What my partner went through during my transition was heartbreaking, and her loss went entirely unnoticed. Her pain is still there. Her grief is still real.
She deserved better then. She deserves better now.