I had the pleasure of first meeting Ryan Sallans through a mutual friend and colleague of ours several years ago. Rosy, our mutual friend, knew and worked with us both via her role as producer for the Larry King Live Show. Rosy asked me if I would be willing to write a quote for Ryan's new book, Second Son, which explored both his physical and psychological journey: born female and transitioning into a male. After reading Second Son, which I couldn't put down, by the way, I jumped at the chance to share my glowing thoughts about the book with Ryan and his future audience.
Second Son was such a powerful and engaging book, I must confess, I was a little sad when it ended. I wanted to hear more about Ryan's remarkable story. The book ended on such a positive and hopeful note, I felt the need to follow up with him to find out what happened next.
What happened after he met the love of his life and got engaged? Fortunately, Ryan, agreed to indulge my inquisitiveness and answer some of the questions I had about his life, his marriage and being a husband, as a transgender man. Here is the unedited version of our interview:
Ryan: At first, I thought that being married would connect me to another person and solidify a long-term relationship. But after four years of being together, I realize that I never fully understood what family feels like, until I married my wife. When we first started dating I was worried about coming out as transgender to her family. How would they take the news? Would they see me as a man? Would they support our relationship and treat us like anyone else? I thought back to when I came out to my own parents and siblings and how I was, at first, disowned by my dad, misunderstood by my mom, ignored by my sister, and received expressed concern from my brother. Although my family has grown tremendously over the past decade, if they at first felt and reacted this way, how would my wife's family respond? What I experienced from them was life-changing; they all proudly opened their arms to me, no judgment and no questions. Marriage didn't just join me with my wife, it joined me with people who have shown me unconditional love.
Dr. Robi: Did you always want to get married? And if so, was this something you thought about as a child and young adult?
Ryan: It's difficult to think back to my childhood and my feelings around marriage, mainly, because I felt very confused by what marriage would look for me, especially since I didn't feel like a girl. I grew up in the 80's in a rural Nebraska community. Back then, people didn't talk about being transgender, and any comments about being lesbian or gay were followed by shame or disgust. I had fantasies as a child of marrying both men and women, but both fantasies brought confused emotions for me. Marrying a boy would mean that I would be the one in the dress, I would be female, which didn't feel right. Marrying a girl meant I was a lesbian, it reminded me that I was not the boy, which also made me feel uncomfortable. When I was a teenager, I had pushed down my feelings around being a boy and focused on my female identity. This identity was very uncomfortable for me and made me feel like I didn't belong in any group no matter what clothes I wore, what hairstyle I chose, or what boy I dated. In my relationships with boys, we would talk about marriage, but it was hard for me to see the actual wedding because I didn't want to wear a dress and I didn't want to become pregnant. My dad would always joke that if I got married, I would most likely be wearing my basketball outfit and high tops underneath the wedding dress. We all would laugh while I secretly fantasized about just ditching the dress all together. As I moved into college, I began dating a guy that I would have married (even though, in the end, I realized he wasn't that into me). When I fantasized about our wedding, I saw us both in jeans and hiking boots on top of a mountain. The interesting thing with this fantasy is that I could see my clothes, but I couldn't see or feel me as a person. I felt completely detached and also disgusted by my body and female identity. But, I truly believed that if I married him, then all of these feelings would go away because marriage would mean that someone did love me and also show my community that I was a "normal" person. After that relationship abruptly ended, I became undone and even more disgusted by my body, which unfortunately led me to unhealthy behaviors that quickly morphed into anorexia nervosa. My eating disorder ended all of my relationships: dating, family, friends and with myself. As anorexia took over my life, the thought of marriage also ended, until four years later when I began exploring and fantasizing more and more about being in a relationship with another woman.
Dr. Robi: When you thought about marriage, did your image or fantasies about it change when you transitioned from Kimberly into Ryan?
Ryan: After six years into recovery from anorexia, I came out as lesbian and started dating my first girlfriend. I wanted to marry her within the first few months. I wasn't interested in dating around because I believed that I was unattractive, so no one else would want to date me. When my girlfriend and I talked about marriage, we both fantasized about having a beach wedding, being barefoot, and both being dressed in linen pants and shirts. I wasn't out to my family as a lesbian at this time, and I also still felt uncomfortable in my female body, so it was difficult for me to fully get excited by the idea of having a wedding. I also live in a state that still doesn't recognize marriage equality, so when we talked about a wedding, a part of me felt disappointed since it "wouldn't count" or be recognized. After eight months of dating my girlfriend, I came out as transgender, and then five months later I began my transition. I still wanted to marry her after my transition, and knew this time it would be recognized at the state and federal level since I was now recognized as a man. My girlfriend, however, went the opposite direction, and became scared of our relationship and hesitant about moving forward. As we struggled in our relationship I again felt the reoccurring theme and belief surface within me; I believed I wasn't lovable, no matter how much I changed.
Dr. Robi: What's the most interesting thing you've learned about yourself, as a result of being married?
Ryan: All of my life I wanted to get married to prove to people that I was lovable, now I realize that the most important thing in life is loving yourself first. This is something I still struggle with, but being married, I realize that when I am not kind to myself, it impacts my partner/spouse. The good news for my relationship is that I live with a hot-blooded Italian who is also a psychotherapist, so when I am being passive or holding in emotions, she doesn't let it last too long before she starts to push me into bringing out my thoughts and feelings. Another interesting thing I am still learning is how to define myself as a man, and how that plays into my role in our relationship. My wife is the main breadwinner in our household, so our roles are oftentimes opposite from what I grew up observing between my parents. I work out of a home office, and a lot of the work I do is seasonal, which means I do more cleaning, tend to our children (we have four fur babies), and attempt to prep dinner at night (she is a much better cook than I am). We have found a nice balance in our relationship's roles; our financial security is dependent on her, while our home security is dependent on me. I am also a pretty good carpenter, and I have remodeled the majority of our house, along with building some of our furniture . . . which I guess kind of allows me to keep my stereotypical man card.
Dr. Robi: Do you feel that there are misconceptions about marriage amongst the transgendered community? And if so, what are they?
Ryan: When it comes to marriage I think EVERYONE, no matter how you identify, has one big misconception, which is that you marry the person you love, and those feelings you had on your wedding day will be with you the rest of your life. Marriage is HARD and requires a lot of communication, compromise, and selflessness to survive. Some misconceptions that can be unique among relationships where one (or both) people are transgender is that if you were dating before the transition, then you'll automatically break up after the transition. While some relationships do end, not all come to a demise. Another misconception is that if you transition, then you become a traitor to the lesbian, gay and bisexual community. I know that when I first started my transition, my former girlfriend struggled with how my physical appearance would impact her social identity as a lesbian, as well as her physical and emotional attraction to me. Going from an outwardly perceived lesbian relationship to a heterosexual relationship was difficult for her on all fronts. For me it was difficult because it made my LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender) identity invisible to my LGBT community, so in a way, I felt like an outsider in these spaces. I also became very aware that we would now be afforded heterosexual privileges, including the right to legally marry because my driver's license had a "M" on it instead of a "F". Being transgender is not easy, transitioning is not easy, and relationships are not easy, but receiving certain privileges just because your gender marker changes causes a lot of guilt among folks in the transgender community and anger from the LGB (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual) community. As a side note, it will be interesting to see how some feelings shift after all marriage bans end in the United States.
Dr. Robi: Do you feel modern culture has become more accepting of transgender marriages? If not, what do you think needs to change in order for this to happen?
Ryan: I don't think modern culture is even aware of "transgender" marriages. For example, when I am out on the town with my wife, they just see a guy with a gal; there is nothing out of the ordinary in the appearance of our relationship. For people's whose gender expression (the way they communicate their gender) is outside of what we deem as "traditional" there may be more misconceptions about who they are and what that person's relationship is like. This is one of the reasons why I am a HUGE advocate and supporter of marriage equality. If all of us have the right to marry, it symbolically takes the power away from heterosexual relationships. Stigma and discrimination will still exist, but hopefully with time this will also change. While different people in the LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender) community have different views on marriage; the symbolism along with the 1,138 state and federal rights and protections that come with it are important to many. Along with marriage equality other issues that impact the physical health and well-being of folks in the LGBT community, as well as their relationships, include: employment and housing protections, immigration policies, correctional facilities and police harassment, hate crimes, access to medical and mental healthcare, health insurance coverage, adoption/foster parenting rights, racism and family acceptance. Which means we have a lot of work to do.
Dr. Robi: As a transgender individual, what do you think is important for others to know about marriage? Do you feel you face challenges within the relationship that are unique or different from "traditional" marital relationships? What would you like people to know?
Ryan: There are some challenges I face in my relationship that can be the same for folks who are not transgender, one thing that may be similar is reproduction and fertility. Starting a family would take a lot more work for me and my wife since I do not have sperm, much like it would for a heterosexual couple where one person is sterile. Fortunately for us, we have decided we do not want children (traveling and wine bars are too much fun), but if that were to change, we would have to look into different fertility options, including: in vitro-fertilization, surrogacy, finding a sperm donor and attempting impregnation at home, or adoption. Adoption or fostering a child may not be a possibility for us since we live in a state that can deny adoption or fostering to LGBT couples. I mentioned before how questions arose around whether my wife's family would accept me and our relationship since I am transgender, while they did fully accept me, I know some people who choose not to disclose their transgender identity to their spouses family out of fear of how they will be treated and if their relationship will be supported. Some people will also hide old photo albums or avoid any conversations around their childhood out of either feeling uncomfortable about their past or again fearful of how people will react. When you have a body that doesn't exactly fit the range of what is normally seen for that gender other issues can arise. For the transgender person, feelings around their sexual bodies may be a challenge. For the spouse, there is fear and questions around what will happen if my transgender partner is in an accident and admitted to a hospital? How will they be treated? How much will the doctors know about transgender bodies and how to treat them? These fears bring up the issue too of finding providers, in general, that one can trust. I know that I aggravate and stress out my wife because I am fearful of medical providers, so I just don't go to the doctor, even when I am sick.
Dr. Robi: What's your advice to achieve a happy, healthy marital relationship? Is your advice the same for people who are transgender and married as it is for other marriages?
Ryan: For any of us, falling in love is easy, but staying together and supporting each other after the euphoria of new love burns off is a difficult thing to do, especially the longer you are with a person. For any marriage or long-term relationship to succeed I feel some of the most important things one can do is have open communication, flexibility and comfort in the unknown with their partner or spouse. When I first began my transition I decided to get a tattoo on my back that says "Life is Ever Changing." I did this as a reminder that nothing will ever stay constant, life is always in flux, including our relationships. Being able to support each other when one or both are going through a hard or difficult time is a great test to see if a relationship will last. My wife and I have gone through some difficult times together, but we have a saying that helps us get through the rockiness - "This too shall pass." Another big issue that I haven't mentioned yet is sex. Sex and the intimacy that comes with it can be difficult for people who are victims of sexual assault. It can also be difficult for people who are transgender, especially if they feel that their physical sexual body does not align with their internal identity. This isn't the case for everyone in the trans community, but I know for me, it has always been an issue. I feel that my own feelings of insecurity or discontent with my body affects my relationship and our intimacy, but being able to talk about it and negotiate what is allowed and what is not has helped.
Dr. Robi: What do you think people would find surprising about your marriage, or you as a husband?
Ryan: First, if people didn't know who I was, they would probably find it surprising that I was born assigned female. Then they would probably be curious about how myself and my wife identify our sexual orientation. But if they were to look inside our home and see our life, they would see our marriage is like many marriages, we get up in the morning, drink our coffee and cuddle with our kids on the couch, then say good-bye to each other and go to work. Something that is unique for us is that due to my national and international speaking, we travel . . . a lot. As a husband who is also transgender, I always joke that I am a catch for any female; I can understand and empathize with female menstrual cycles and the emotions that go along with it, I can relate to what it feels like to be cat called, but then I can go out and do the things that my wife is not interested in doing like the yard work, building fences or installing windows (my wife has to shoo away the garter snakes in the yard though, I am pretty terrified of them). When I return indoors I do one of my favorite things -- vacuuming and using a steam cleaner.
Dr. Robi: Do your attractions to other men or women cause jealousy within your relationship?
Ryan: My wife often jokes that she is not worried about me cheating on her with another woman, but she does worry about me cheating on her with another man because I am more physically attracted to men than women. Whereas I am jealous if anyone flirts with my wife, a man or a woman. I think A LITTLE jealousy is a normal and healthy thing to have in a relationship. I say A LITTLE, and want to emphasis that taking jealousy to extremes like invading your partner or spouse's privacy, controlling or manipulating them, creating scenarios in your head and getting mad at the other person, or lashing out at them, are NOT healthy. I find though, when either one of us gets jealous, it reminds us that we are attached to each other and that we don't want to lose what we have. It also reminds us not to take our relationship, or each other, for granted, and that even though we live with each other, we may not know everything the other person is feeling.
Now that we are married, I feel that my wife is always with me, even when we are apart. When I am flying on an airplane or going in to do either an interview or presentation, I roll my ring around my finger and think back to our wedding day, as well as all that we have been through so far in life. She is my home. We could lose everything in life, but having each other makes me feel secure and grounded to this earth.
Ryan felt it was important to emphasize that marriage and what makes a family, looks different for every couple, and that the answers he gave came from his own personal experiences and do not represent all couples who are transgender and married.
People can read more about Ryan Sallan's relationship in his memoir, Second Son: Transitioning Toward My Destiny, Life and Love -- http://www.ryansallans.com