Truth, Consequences and Gender Transition

Let me introduce myself: I was a loving husband and father over a quarter-century of marriage to a woman I met in my first semester in college. I remained loving and faithful through an excruciating divorce, impoverishing myself to maintain my ex's and our children's standard of living, and commuting to a job 150 miles away so that I could live near my children and be involved in their lives. Now, five years after I moved out, I continue to support my ex and children, whom I see several times a week despite working out-of-state.

Like many divorced couples, my ex and I tell very different stories of our break-up. Unlike many divorced former couples, both of us have published accounts of our divorce. (Huffington Post published my version last year.) Neither of our versions accuses the other of lying, but as you can see from the comments after my account, many people insist that I lied throughout my relationship -- because I'm transgender. Some say that I lied by living as a man, then broke my marital vows which, according to them, included the promise that I would live as a man for the rest of my life. Others say I lie by living as a woman when I was born and lived for 45 years as a man, and by portraying myself as loving and faithful to my family despite what they suffered as a result of my gender transition.

My ex and children did suffer as a result of my gender transition. My ex lost the man she had loved since college. My children suffered much more from the divorce than from my transition, but though I remain their loving parent, they mourned the loss of the father they had known. My ex has eloquently described her experience of my transition, which to her felt like watching her husband die.

Of course, as my children know, I didn't die, but my ex's account is true to her feelings. As she had warned me since I first came out to her as trans in college, she couldn't love me once I stopped looking like a man, so for her my transition was pure loss. But my ex's sense that she was watching me die is also true in another way: as I told her at the time, living as a man was literally killing me. My body and the male persona that I had created to go with it -- the male persona she loved, and which I had endured for decades -- had become living hells. I couldn't eat, couldn't sleep, couldn't feel anything but pain. My male persona was dying, and I, the invisible person who had always hid within that persona, was dying inside it, before her eyes.

I will never know my ex's anguish during that time, but I know that she, like me, was in anguish. It wasn't her fault that she couldn't love me once I could no longer live as a man, and it wasn't my fault that I couldn't keep living as a stranger in my own body. We were both being true to ourselves, to our deepest feelings. And as awful as our break-up was, we were both true to one another: we told each other the truth about who we were, how we felt, what we needed to survive. Neither of us lied.

Some long-term relationships survive gender transition, but most don't. Frankly, I wouldn't want my ex to stay with me when she didn't want to -- and I wouldn't want to live with anyone who didn't want to live with me. My ex had told me that any change in my gender was a deal-breaker when I first told her I was trans -- a conversation that took place long before marriage or children, when we were sophomores in college. She didn't mind how I felt inside, but she could only be with me as long as I presented myself as a man. We replayed versions of that conversation many times over the next couple of decades; when we decided to have children, I warned my ex that people like me often find their gender anguish intolerable as they grow older. She wasn't afraid, she said: "You'll see how happy you will be."

Most of the time, I kept my gender anguish to myself. My ex could tell when it was bad and would murmur sympathetically, but when I tried to talk about it, she couldn't. Like many marriages, ours was partly held together by denial -- our denial of how hard it was for me to live as a man, of the fear that one day it would become too painful for me to keep it up.

In my mid-forties, I realized that my gender anguish was growing, and getting harder to deal with. I was still in denial -- I still believed that I could find a way to keep living as a man -- but I knew my wife and I needed to talk. Over the next nine months, I tried, but she couldn't. Finally, my pain became unlivable. I took out additional life insurance to provide for my family after I was dead, and insisted that my wife listen to how much pain I was in. As we had feared, our relationship immediately began to fall apart once we acknowledged the anguish we had worked so hard to ignore, but we continued to live and parent together, and we kept talking, night after night, week after week. Our conversations were painful, often angry -- but they were honest.

I never lied to my ex, and she never lied to me, though in our denial, we both lied to ourselves. Our divorce wasn't a crime of deception; it was a tragedy that resulted when we faced the truth: I can't live as a man, because I know that isn't who I am; she can't stay married to anyone who isn't a man, because that isn't who she is.

Our children still, with my permission, call me "Daddy." Our love has survived transition and divorce, but we still talk about how hard it's been for them. "You know I'll always be angry with you about your transition," my youngest says from time to time, and when I agree she continues, "and I know that you had to do it to be alive."