Every good story begins with a dream. Rocky wanted to be a boxer, Luke wanted to be a Jedi, Dorothy wanted to get back to Kansas. And me? I wanted to be a girl.
But every good story also includes a conflict. To achieve their dream, the protagonist must rise to meet their challenges and overcome them in true heroic fashion. For me, that meant telling my wife I was trans. I’d already tried to come out to her four years earlier, in 2010, and completely bungled the moment; I lacked the vocabulary to be clear with her about what I wanted to say. I was determined to be successful in my second attempt to explain to her who I was and what I needed to do. This time had to stick.
After I told her, we sat for a moment in silence, with tears in our eyes, wondering what was going to happen next. Would we stay together? Could we even be friends from this point forward? What would the future hold for our 1-year-old son? Would I transition surgically, or socially, or at all? These questions posed a profound threat to everything that she and I had built as a couple. If we were going to stay together, it would be the hardest thing the two of us had ever done.
What do you do when you’ve just told your wife that you’re a woman? You live your life day-to-day and you try to laugh. You cry together, and more than anything, you hope.
We decided that if we intended to stay together, we would have to stop worrying about what might happen in the future, and take things one day at a time. There were enough new challenges to get through on a daily basis. Every new day was like riding a dune buggy through an emotional desert—bounding upward on feelings of joy that my wife was still with me, and then screaming downhill on feelings of guilt and shame.
If my transition was difficult, though, Amanda’s was in some ways harder. I’d known for a long time that I was a woman, but she was unprepared. Suddenly and unexpectedly she had to reflect on the kind of person she was: her identity as a wife and a parent, and her sexuality as a straight woman. Something that had been taken for granted before now had to be revisited. Being married to another girl wasn’t exactly a part of the game plan for her when we took our vows. To say that she hadn’t planned a contingency for this would be a massive understatement.
My wife is a stubborn woman. She doesn’t let anything or anyone dictate to her how she is going to live and manage her life. She’s also a voracious reader, and she had immediately picked up a collection of literature to help her understand the situation we were now facing.
In particular, she found the “seven stages of grief” to be helpful for understanding her emotions—after all, though she still had her relationship, she was grieving her husband.
Of these stages, anger and denial were the most challenging for us. These stages brought up feelings that were uncomfortable for us both: I wasn’t really trans, it had to be something else. It would blow over. Why had I waited so long to tell her? Why couldn’t I have moved on with transition before our son was born? Worst of all, why was I so convinced I was trans anyway? Knowing that these emotions were part of her grief helped us to weather them, and to put them in a larger context, but they were uncomfortable for us both: for Amanda, because she was mired in anger and denial, and for me, because what she was denying and angry at was my attempt to live an authentic life.
For a while, we were stuck in the “bargaining” stage: Maybe this was a problem that could be dealt with by “partially transitioning,” living as my true self only part-time—maybe half the time, or maybe only a third. I tried living in this no-man’s-land between masculinity and femininity for a numb period of time I call “the gray space.” The slow understanding that this way of living was untenable caused an onset of depression for both of us.
Then one day I found a handwritten letter in an envelope inside the bag that I take to work. “I’m facing facts,” the note said, “You most likely will not be happy until you’re living full-time as a woman. As crazy as it seems even to me now sitting here writing this, I’m ready for this.” She had reached acceptance and she had arrived there before even I did.
“We might not be the ‘perfect’ American family anymore, but what we have and what we are is perfect enough for me. I love you. -Amanda.”
Before this note, I had been standing precariously on the edge of a terrifying abyss staring into the disorienting fear and mystery of what was to come. With this simple letter, Amanda had reached out to take my hand and together we jumped into the unknown.
Even though I had solved one major obstacle, I was still plagued by the guilt I felt for my son’s loss, which persisted even after Amanda pledged to stay with me. My wife had come to terms with losing her husband, but my son was also losing his father figure. Would he have the same opportunity to thrive when his parents were both women? Of course he would, I found—if not more. As Quentin’s daddy I had been depressed and irritable, but as time went on I became less so. I was adapting to an identity that required less mental and emotional exertion to maintain.
Being in the closet, for me, meant an incessant level of discomfort that never went away. It became the only thing I could think about. It was a distraction from all of the most important things in my life, like giving the best part of myself to my child. Transitioning gave me the emotional availability to provide for my son in ways I never could have otherwise.
As my transition continued, people who knew the changes taking place behind the scenes commented on positive changes in my mood. I became more outgoing. I found a confidence in myself that I didn’t know existed. I was focused on improving myself now in a way that I had never been focused before.
I would still be able to build Lego sets with my son and teach him to be a better man than I could have ever been. I can give him everything I could have given him before, and then some. Our family just wouldn’t look exactly the same as every other family out there.
By June of 2015, the struggle Amanda and I had endured through heartache and uncertainty had reached catharsis. In my journal on June 12th, 2015 I wrote, “PHASE II: ‘I live, I die, I live again.’” The entry continues, “I have realized that my time as living life as a man is limited. This transition is imminent.”
Not all good stories have a happy ending, but this one does. Rocky always had what it took to be a boxer, It was Luke’s destiny to be a Jedi, and Dorothy was home the whole time. I, too, felt destined to become the best version of myself. I have always been Emily; letting others see that was as unavoidable as gravity.
Despite all of the hard work it took for us both to understand who we are as individuals and improve the strength of our bond, I am fantastically lucky to have someone like Amanda in my life. We are lucky to have persevered when so many other families don’t. Today we are a happy family who can adapt to anything life has to throw at us. You probably wouldn’t even pick us out of a crowd. Our story is extraordinary, but ordinary too: a story of conflict and change, of love conquering all.
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