Elizabeth Miller sat in her living room with her wedding album in her lap. It had been a long while since she’d brought it up from the basement, and the brown leather cover was worn, the pages slightly yellowed. From under their plastic covering, the pictures show pink linen tablecloths and taffeta gowns and Elizabeth in a dainty white Laura Ashley dress and a flower crown, peering up at the camera with that expectant newlywed’s look — heaps of bliss, a dash of terror. Next to her in the pictures, wearing a gray morning coat, owlish glasses, and a thick beard, is her groom, Dan, who is now her wife, Diana.
“Seems like a very long time ago, which it was,” Diana says quietly, looking down at how she appeared before her transition. “I mean, I know I was there, but it’s very hard for me to identify with that person. It’s very hard for that to be me.”
It’s not that there’s no continuity between that bookish man and the boho-chic woman Diana is now, sitting on a sun-dappled burgundy sofa, thigh to thigh with her wife of almost 33 years; it’s that the continuity is uncomfortable, painful even: She’s glad beyond measure that she married Elizabeth that day, but she wishes Dan never did. In many ways, she wishes Dan had never existed at all.
As Diana talks about her response to these images, Elizabeth stays silent. Despite the years, she looks remarkably similar to that pretty young bride, but in her mind, her transformation has been just as dramatic.
When Elizabeth, who chose not to use her real name in the story, met Dan in the early 1980s, she was in her 30s, successful and self-sufficient. They got to know each other at work after she hired him. The first time he asked her out, she turned him down. The second time, they went to dinner and a movie, and she invited him up to her Manhattan apartment to spend the night. Things unfolded quickly from there. Dan was bright, politically liberal, agnostic — all traits Elizabeth sought.
She had admired Dan’s gender politics, too. “Her consciousness was very raised, and that was important to me,” Elizabeth says, “to be with someone who saw women as equal.” Still, it was Dan’s kindness that ultimately won her over. They’d been dating only a few months when he offered to paint her apartment. “It started to get dark out,” Elizabeth explains. “And she’s holding a lamp up to the ceiling to make sure there were no streaks and her glasses were all dotted with paint, and I thought to myself, I think only my father would do this for me. It was just like that, an epiphany, and that was the moment I knew we’d get married.”
They agreed that they should spend their lives together while walking home from dinner in the West Village one night. “We just decided there in the middle of the sidewalk,” Diana says. Elizabeth laughs. “Yeah, we were both a little drunk, too, as I recall.”
Six weeks later, they were driving around looking for wedding venues when Dan pulled the car over and said he had something he needed to tell Elizabeth. He wasn’t, he explained, actually the age he’d told her he was when he’d been trying to get hired; he was four years younger. Elizabeth was surprised by this revelation, but if that was the secret Dan had been hiding, she could live with it. She quickly got over the fact that he’d lied.
Dan never even considered telling Elizabeth his other secret, that for years he’d worn women’s clothing when he was alone at home. He’d shared this with a girlfriend once, and within a week the woman had insisted he move out. He wasn’t willing to risk that with Elizabeth, nor did he think it necessary. He hadn’t felt the urge to cross-dress in a long time. “I thought that all I needed was somebody to love me, that nobody had ever really loved me before, and Elizabeth did, and that was it, I was cured. I thought, I’m not ever going to do this again.”
And so there they are in the photos, posing with family. There they are, cutting the cake. “Well, it was a happy day, a happy day,” Elizabeth says quietly. She closes the album and sighs. “Anyway.”
A transitioning person’s path is certainly not easy, but at least there are clear mile markers along the way. For the person who has created a life, a home, and even children with a trans partner, however, the course of action is murkier, and there are few cultural examples of those who have gone before. The Amazon series Transparent is about just that: having a trans parent; by the time the show starts, the marriage that produced those offspring is long over. In an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Bruce Jenner’s conversation with his ex-wife Kris about his imminent transition is one of the few moments that don’t seem measured and affirming. It’s actually kind of hard to watch. And though Sophia — Laverne Cox’s trans character on Orange Is the New Black — is married (unlike the actress, who is also trans), it’s clear that her relationship with her wife would be on the rocks even if she weren’t in prison.
There are some signs that the new awareness of the trans experience is helping families avoid estrangement. A 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that 43 percent of respondents “maintained most of their family bonds, while 57 percent experienced significant family rejection,” numbers the surveyors say indicate that “families were more likely to remain together … than stereotypes suggest.”
But even if a spouse doesn’t reject a partner’s transition, most are, according to therapists and trans experts, unlikely to remain in the marriage. Anecdotally, this seems especially true when the transgender person’s partner is male. “In my experience providing support for partners of people in transition, the majority are women,” says Helen Boyd, a gender-studies professor at Lawrence University whose writing about her own husband’s transition has become required reading for those dealing with this issue. “Men either don’t stay or don’t seek support.”
When wives do stay with their transitioning husbands, they experience their own radical transition, one with its own particular challenges. “The trans woman has an exciting new life to look forward to,” says Margaret Nichols, a sex therapist and expert on sexual minorities. “They have all kinds of guilt and shame, but once they get past that, they’re thrilled, just thrilled to finally be able to be their authentic selves. But the wife is just alone. Honestly, I always wind up feeling like she’s got a tougher time.”
The experience can be especially challenging for straight women. For lesbians with transitioning partners, their place in the LGBT community can be somewhat preserved. But a woman whose relationship was ostensibly heterosexual must face questions related to her own identity. Milena Wood, who met her trans wife, Shannon, when they were both in the military, says she doesn’t necessarily mind being mistaken for half of a lesbian couple now that Shannon’s transition is under way, but she still doesn’t think of herself as gay, which makes it hard to know where to fit in. “I don’t know how comfortable I would feel in a group of lesbians,” she tells me. “Because here I am doing the very thing that they’re trying to prove is not possible” — change the gender to which she is attracted. “Shannon doesn’t have to change anything about how she feels about me, because I haven’t changed,” Wood says. “But I have to change everything about how I feel about her: how I see relationships, how I see sex, how I see a whole bunch of things.”
Seven or eight years into their marriage, Diana found herself looking through a rack of clothes in the attic of their New Jersey home. Tucked between other outcasts was a black velvet skirt with an elastic waistband and a white Irish-knit sweater of Elizabeth’s, oversize clothes from the ’80s with big, broad shoulders. “That was the start of it all being back. I would dress off and on for the next 15 years,” she says.
The secrecy took its toll. In the summer of 2008, Diana was on Interstate 84 when she noticed that she’d been studying the overpasses, trying to figure out which one could be driven into fast enough to kill herself. “I realized it was the guilt,” she says. “There was this secret that was so fundamental to who I was that I never told her. I then spent the next three or four months trying to find a way.” Finally, on Halloween, while Elizabeth was huddled on the sofa in their TV room, wrapped in blankets and fighting a cold, Diana told her they had to talk.
Even now, Elizabeth begins to tear up at the mention of this conversation. “The first thing that came into my mind was an affair or that she lost her job,” she says. “I mean, this” — indicating Diana’s transness — “wasn’t even on my radar. It wasn’t anything I ever thought about.” In fact, transsexualism wasn’t even discussed that night; at that point, Diana wouldn’t necessarily have thought of herself that way. “I’m a transvestite,” she told Elizabeth. “I wear women’s clothing sometimes.”
“What do you mean?” Elizabeth asked, stunned. The image of Dan in a dress simply did not compute. “I don’t understand. When do you do this? How do you do it?” Diana tried to walk her through the details: the clothes in the attic, the fact that she’d sometimes put on Elizabeth’s makeup. For three hours, Elizabeth sat on the sofa, sobbing, while Diana tried to reassure her.
“She kept saying, ‘Why are you crying? It’s just clothes. It’s just clothes. It’s just the outside, the inside is still the same.’ And I would say, ‘Yeah, but the packaging matters.’ ”
Diana looks at her lap. “One thing I remember her saying is ‘You ruined my life.’ ”
Elizabeth says that it didn’t really enter her mind that night that Diana’s cross-dressing might ultimately end their marriage. She saw it as something to fix, a problem that they would work through. She told Diana she wanted her to find a therapist. “At that point,” says Diana, “I was just so thankful that I still had a roof over my head; she could have asked for anything and I would have said yes.”
Over the next few months, Diana started therapy and Elizabeth tried to deal with her own anger. “There’s that betrayal, you know? ‘How could I not know this? How could this be who you are? You withheld this from me.’ Oh, I was angry for a long time.” There were times when she wished that Diana had told her that she was gay, moments when she thought that such a revelation would have been easier to handle. She would have been wrong about who her husband wanted; she would not have been as wrong about who her husband actually was.
Helen Boyd’s three books — two published, the third forthcoming — provide a sort of triptych of the spouse’s immersion in their partner’s transness: My Husband Betty is about Boyd’s husband’s cross-dressing; She’s Not the Man I Married is about coming to terms with her husband’s transsexualism; and the third book, which has the working title Ever After, is about having a husband who has now become a wife. As Boyd tried to grasp each new stage, “the deal that we made was that she would go as slow as she could, and I would go as fast as I could,” she tells me. “Basically, the idea was that we would somehow try to keep up with each other so that we could stay on the same page.”
But when gender identity goes head to head with sexual identity within a marriage, the deepest wants of two people who have generally had each other’s best interests at heart become mutually exclusive. Is the wife supposed to give up her hetero identity so that her husband can achieve his feminine one or vice versa? When Boyd first faced the concept that her husband might transition, she saw it as an opportunity to discover which parts of gender and sexuality could be deconstructed and shucked away. As a feminist, she was surprised, even a bit disappointed, at how tightly her wifely identity clung to her, at how many of her expectations of how she should be treated by a partner just would not go away.
“Confronting our own genders and what it means to all of a sudden not be ‘the woman’ in a relationship, for a lot of heterosexual women, that’s devastating,” she says, going on to explain that “heteronormativity is awesome for the shorthands. You know your role, you know the rules, you know who brings the chocolates on Valentine’s Day. It’s all scripted. So even though intellectually you know better, you don’t realize how much of this stuff is, I like to say, caveman brain.” That presents not just an emotional barrier but also a psychological one for partners who want to stay together.
In the midst of this turmoil, wives are often left feeling like they can’t voice any disapproval without coming across as transphobic. “If you say, ‘Hey, what are the kids going to think?,’ is that transphobia?” asks Laura Jacobs, a transgender psychotherapist who specializes in work with gender nonconformity. “Or is that because you’re really concerned about the kids? Because you don’t know what else to say? Because the kids really are transphobic and you’re being protective of your spouse? The dynamics of that kind of a situation are so complex, but the struggles of the partners are invisible.”
Also frustrating in this new era of trans acceptance is the message that spouses should be celebratory and helpful. “Like, really?” Boyd asks. “ ‘This person I’ve known as a guy for our entire married lives and fathered however many kids with is a woman?’ And wives are supposed to go, ‘Okay, let me help’? I mean, that’s the model, I hate to say, that comes out of the trans community.” She remembers one wife who reported that the message from her therapist, a person who purported to have experience helping couples with this issue, was “either get divorced or get onboard.”
Boyd, whose website myhusbandbetty.com is a gathering ground for spouses seeking support, says that the resources available for spouses are painfully lacking. “I feel like there’s a tension. Well-meaning feminists, organizations, and people are interested in trans women and validate trans women an awful lot now, but they still don’t care about the wives. It’s still this feeling of trying not to get dragged behind the cart.”
Two months into therapy, Diana realized that she fit the classic profile of a transsexual, but internally she was still fighting that classification. “Elizabeth had said that she could maybe tolerate me cross-dressing every so often as long as she didn’t have to see it and the kids would never know, but anything beyond that was the end of the story, and I knew that. I was still convinced that I wasn’t going to transition.” But Elizabeth says, “I could tell from our conversations, the way things were going, that was not going to hold.” One night in April 2009, lying next to her husband in bed, she asked the question she most dreaded: “You’re going to transition, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Diana answered tentatively.
“Okay,” Elizabeth replied. Then she turned out the light, rolled over on her side, away from her husband, and tried to keep her sobs from growing too loud. The first time Diana reached over to hold her, she pushed her away. But the second time, she allowed herself to be cradled by the person who had promised to always comfort and protect her.
On August 9, 2009, Diana took her first injection of hormones in a hotel room in Europe. Though her two kids, who were 19 and 24 at the time, didn’t know it, the vacation was meant to be the last they would take as a family, a final roundup of beautiful memories before Diana’s transition began in earnest and Elizabeth filed for divorce. Because Diana had started taking testosterone blockers a few months before, she was already developing subtle breasts. But Elizabeth had not expected Diana to bring the hormones along on their vacation. She was furious. “Each one of those steps was another stab in the heart, because then I knew this was really happening, that my life as I knew it was over, and my life as I had hoped it would be was over.”
If the reasons for leaving a trans spouse are clear and understandable, the reasons for staying are as varied and particular as the marriages themselves. Sometimes couples stay together for the kids. Sometimes spouses find they’re actually open to embracing their marriage’s newfound ambiguity. Sometimes one partner has latent bisexual tendencies that allow a healthy sexual relationship to continue, or sometimes sex doesn’t matter much to either partner as long as the emotional intimacy can be maintained. Some simply can’t imagine being with anyone else, even if their partner is, in a certain sense, becoming a stranger.
Sometimes, the spouse can handle certain stages of transition but not others. Sharla DeLawter and her cross-dressing husband, Cynthia/George, run a support group for transgender men and women and their partners in the suburban New Jersey church where Cynthia’s father was once a pastor. Recently, Sharla realized that she wouldn’t mind if George wanted to start living as Cynthia full time, but she’s quick to add that she has the luxury of knowing that her husband would never transition physically: Even if Cynthia wanted to, they could never pay for the surgeries, which can cost more than $100,000. Because of that, Sharla has latitude to be magnanimous. “I think even if Cynthia was 24/7, I wouldn’t see myself in a lesbian relationship. Since the male genitalia is there, I would still think ‘male’ in that regard.”
For spouses who don’t have that certainty, life can feel like a sort of limbo. “If you don’t know what your partner is ultimately going to do, you can’t decide how you’re going to deal with it,” Nichols, the sex therapist, points out. “If you know, then you can say, ‘Well, what can I deal with? Let me come to terms with it,’ as opposed to, ‘Gee, do I want to hang around for the next 10 or 15 years and find out when I’m 55 that he’s going to transition?’ ”
During this year’s New York City Pride parade, I meet Juliette and Sara Peterson in a cavernous Chelsea bar. Sara asks to go by her female pronoun but is in male mode: a blue button-down over khaki pants, close-cropped hair, and a short beard. Besides a stylist and a feminine-image consultant whom Sara hired some months back (and who put us in touch), Juliette and I are currently the only people in the world who know that Sara is trans, and for that reason, Juliette asked that I not use her real name. Probably no one else would know still, if, slightly more than a year ago, Juliette hadn’t sat on their unmade bed and felt something hard under the rumpled sheets. When she pulled them back, there was a dildo, a black bra, and a pair of lacy black underwear that were definitely not her own. She was stunned for all the obvious reasons, but also because in the year since she and Sara had gotten married and moved to Paris, her husband’s low libido had been a near-constant source of conflict. She went into the living room and confronted Sara, who told her immediately that the underwear “were his, that he liked to wear them and feel feminine, and that turned him on,” Juliette explains.
“I definitely couldn’t pretend it was anything other than what it obviously was,” Sara adds.
Juliette looks over at Sara, who takes her hand. “We were both pretty scared. I remember I was trembling, but I was never like, ‘Oh my God!’ I was just like, ‘Okay, let me gather all the information and all the data and start processing it.’ ” Juliette considers for a moment. “I think my real feeling was relief,” she says in a measured tone. “Because I knew that something was going on, and there it was. He was finally telling me. My partner, this guy I love, is telling me that this is what gets him turned on and excited. I’ve been in a relationship that’s not very sexual for a long time, where I felt like my husband was never turned on. And now he’s openly telling me there is a thing that will get him turned on. It didn’t really matter what the ‘what’ was. I was like, ‘I want that now.’ ”
A few nights later, Juliette and Sara met for a date along the Seine, and then returned home, where, as planned, Juliette was to meet Sara for the first time. Sara put on lacy underthings, thigh-high tights, heels, and lipstick, then got under the covers and called Juliette in from the other room. She approached Sara gently, thinking about doing the things that would feel good to her. She fondled Sara’s nipples, kissed her way up Sara’s thigh. It was clear that Sara was responding. They both got off that night.
Suddenly, Paris was every bit as romantic as Juliette had imagined, and Sara was showing up every night in their bed. “I would come home and make our dinner, then he’d get into lingerie, and it’d be sexy time. We were having sex more than once a day,” says Juliette, smiling broadly. When she was at work, Sara would text her pictures of herself en femme and descriptions of what they’d do when she got home. They’d never felt so close. “It went from being my secret to our secret,” Sara says. Sometimes the sexual energy was so charged that they’d hesitate to squeeze into the pocket-size Parisian elevators, knowing that in that tight space, it’s likely their bodies would touch.
The sex was so good, in fact, that it took Juliette a while to come to terms with the idea that what she viewed as fantasy play in the bedroom might not always stay there. “In the moment, we were so sexual about it that I kept thinking of it as sexual. But then in the back of my head would be this question, like, Is this going to move forward in a different direction? You know, I was still having sex with my husband — beard, hair, penis — I just got to like the taste of lipstick.” But as Sara began spending more and more time at home en femme, Juliette began wondering if she would start to miss her husband, and if he would ever go entirely away. “I’d think, What if this is real? Is this fantasy with Sara? Is this something we’re going to do tomorrow? Or in two years?” Compounding matters, she had no one she could talk to about it — not without outing Sara.
At the same time, Sara was exploring her own thoughts on transitioning physically and realizing that it was probably inevitable, even if she wasn’t sure when. They both know that if Sara does transition, they’d want to try to make their marriage work. “But I think that’s naïve to think that that’s a given,” Juliette says. Suddenly, she’s wiping tears from her eyes. “I don’t want to even think about not being with this person I’ve built a life with. I love him.”
“Them,” Sara softly reminds her.
“I love him and her so much. But I’ve known him for almost a decade and Sara for a year and change. I still have mostly him, so I’m not sure what it would be like to have mostly her.”
At the very least, she’s hoping Sara will hold off on transitioning until they have children. “I would have children yesterday if I could,” she says. “But is that something we can still do together, or is transitioning going to take precedence over that?” If Sara can’t delay her transition, would she be willing to bank her sperm? They’ve only just begun to broach these issues. “There’s a lot of unknown there.” For now, Juliette is willing to wait it out, in the hopes that whatever may happen, it can happen with some version of the person, or persons, she loves.
“There is something star-crossed about trans couples sometimes,” Boyd says when I meet up with her a few days later. “I was very much in love with my husband, and I will always miss being married to that person. The thing that helped me around it a little bit was realizing I was never married to him, I was married to somebody who looked like him and who I could project all that himness onto, but when I go back and look at our wedding photos, it’s like, ‘She was making such a valiant effort to look like a man, like a groom.’ I never married a guy, I married a woman.”
When Diana and Elizabeth returned from Europe, Elizabeth went to see a divorce lawyer, but she never actually filed. Nor did she ask Diana to move out. “I just kept moving the red line. I kept saying, ‘If you do that, that’s it, I’m done.’ ” But when each new forbidden thing happened, she’d rethink her boundaries. Finally, she told Diana that she would stay with her through the surgeries. She couldn’t stand to think of her going through them alone.
Before her physical transition, Diana wrote a letter to their children explaining her situation — “really geared to reassure them” — and gave it to them when they were home for the holidays. Elizabeth sat with them in the living room while they read the letter, and then Diana came back in the room to answer questions. Their daughter cried. Their son told Diana, “No matter what, I’ll always love you.” They asked what they should call her, and she said it was up to them. They decided to continue to call her “Dad.”
Elizabeth never let on to her children how hard the transition was for her, though even now she has trouble articulating why she stayed once the surgeries were over. “I guess the bottom line was I never wanted us to split up. That’s the only answer I can come up with.” She pauses, looking off to the side and clutching a Kleenex. “But I’m not going to lie: We are great companions for each other, but this is not what I envisioned my later years to be. I don’t look forward. I assume we’ll retire somewhere, but I really don’t have much of a picture of what’s ahead.”
On some things, Elizabeth will not budge. She has not come out as the wife of a trans woman to people at work. She’s wanted to keep that part of her life untouched by the upheaval (“When I’m at work, nothing’s different”). She reserves Mother’s Day as her day alone (“You didn’t give birth to them, and they still think of you as their father”). And she will not have sex or tolerate sex outside the marriage, much to Diana’s chagrin. “I will admit that I am intensely curious about what it would be like to have sex as a woman,” Diana says, “but at this point it doesn’t look like I’ll ever know.” In fact, Diana doesn’t even know if she’d want to be with men or women now, though what she misses most is physical contact of any kind. Fairly early into her transition, she started sleeping in her daughter’s empty bedroom.
Still, Diana realizes that these things pale in comparison to the compromises Elizabeth has had to make. “I don’t regret having transitioned,” Diana says. “I regret what it’s done to Elizabeth, how it’s devastated her view of the future.” If Elizabeth had known how things would turn out on that West Village sidewalk so many years ago, she says that she probably wouldn’t have gotten married; but then again, it’s difficult to unwish so many joyful things — their children, their milestones, their memories.
By now, night has fallen, and Elizabeth stretches her feet across the sofa, tucking them under Diana’s leg. “I think I’m still in love with her,” she says, halting.
Diana draws a ragged breath. “I mean, I know I’m still in love with you, but I wasn’t sure you were still in love with me.”
Elizabeth looks at her wife as if from a distance. “I don’t think I could still be here if I weren’t. To me, it’s inconceivable not having my family. And this? This is my family.”
*This article appears in the September 21, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.