When her partner came out as a transgender man, Whitney Smith was pissed.
“I was like, ‘I don’t want to be any more different than we are. We’re this lesbian couple, we’re adopting two kids, we’ve had a lot of other difficult things happen in our lives—traumatic, hard, challenging things,” says Smith, 44, who has been out in Santa Cruz for years. “What I quickly realized was that for his coming out process, I was going to have to do a lot of coming out as well. I was going to have to become the perfect trans spokesperson.”
While coming out is always primarily about the individual, it’s rarely a process that affects them alone, says Smith.
“I describe it as a grieving and transition process. I think it’s a pretty apt framework, because one of the stages of grief is denial,” says Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) Deb Abbott, who leads a local support group for partners of transgender people called TransLove.
At the time that he first brought up the prospect of transitioning, Smith and her husband were in the middle of adopting two children.
“All I said to him was, ‘I cannot deal with this right now, this has to go on a goddamn shelf for a while,’” says Smith, speaking candidly over the phone. “He very generously agreed, which now looking back I realize was probably excruciating, because I didn’t understand that once somebody comes out and owns their identity as a trans person there’s a real level of like ‘I want to get the hell out of my body and into my right body.’ He did that out of love for us.”
Four years into her husband’s transition, some things are still sinking in and evolving, with new challenges at every turn, says Smith. With three kids and 11 years of marriage between them, she says she has never considered leaving.
“Most married people get to the point in their marriage where they’re like ‘OK, yeah, I don’t like you sometimes, but I love you. Are there more good days than bad days?’ We had that,” says Smith. “Initially, I thought I was getting a hairier wife, but what I actually got was a husband.”
“One of our friends said it best: ‘I was not expecting a penis in my relationship,’” says Logan McCann, 52. Most same-sex female couples wouldn’t. But Logan came out to his wife, Chrissann, 45, as a transgender man two years ago—incrementally, and rather reluctantly.
“I was terrified. Emotionally, I’m exposed,” remembers Logan. “I’m basically opening up, exposing myself and taking the chance that my partner might tell me ‘F-you,’ and leave.”
Sitting next to Logan, one hand on his knee, occasionally smoothing her long, lightly white-flecked ponytail, Chrissann smiles, remembering the wait.
“The first time I brought up ‘you know sometimes it sounds like you identify more as male,’ he was like ‘I have never said that, what are you talking about?’” Chrissann says, raising her voice in mock anger. “As we started to get more comfortable, more familiar, I could see Logan windowshopping.”
He inched his way toward the conversation, suggesting a preliminary conversation about having his daughter not call him “mom,” says Chrissann, and planning what days they’d talk about transition, in between vet visits for their cat, paying taxes, going to work and daily life. Chrissann just had to wait, she says, because while she felt she knew what her partner wanted to say, she knew that Logan was on a journey that requires an “egocentric time,” as she calls it.
When he finally did announce his plans to transition, he threw it “out against the wall and let her sit with it,” he says. Chrissann was bursting at the seams: “It was killing me because inside I was like ‘Way to go!’” says Chrissann, eyes smiling. Chrissann identifies as a cisgender bisexual woman.
“I did have some resistance to some of the concepts at first because I have some resentment about gender in the world—that it’s so forced on people and there’s all these expectations about what it means, and I felt like, ‘Fine, you identify as a male, does that mean you need different things as a male?’” says Chrissann, who is co-facilitator of the TransLove group with Abbott. “But I realized that for Logan, gender means a very different thing than it does for me.”
EVERYTHING’S CHANGED—AND NOTHING
When Smith realized that in order to support her husband she would have to be the one to contact her children’s friends, parents and teachers, she worried.
She didn’t have to, says Smith, especially about how their three children would react.
“They actually showed me how to be OK faster than I got to be OK myself,” says Smith. “As a family, it’s such an important conversation to normalise.”
Kids are adaptable, says Abbott, but having a supportive family and community is critical from the very beginning.
“In Santa Cruz, we’re a progressive community. The Diversity Center has a trans girls group, trans teen group, trans family group—there’s so much support. We have the fabulous Dr. Jennifer Hastings training people locally and around the country,” says Abbott. “But when kids have an early awareness and don’t have the support, it can be profoundly damaging.”
“Initially, I thought I was getting a hairier wife, but what I actually got was a husband.” — Whitney Smith
For a family in transition, there can be a whole new territory of pronouns, names, surgeries, pills, hormones and more. Although prior to her partner’s transition, Smith had often joked that she was married to a man—there were areas of uncharted territory then, too.
Until her partner’s transition, Smith says she thought that male gender expression had more to do with nurture than nature—that if you raised a boy and a girl the same way, they’d turn out the same.
“I look back and I’m like ‘How dumb could I have been?’ Testosterone is such a powerful hormone that it shows up energetically everywhere. I was talking to my straight guy friend and he looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, conscious men are just holding it together by a thread,’” remembers Smith, chuckling. “Testosterone has a power that I didn’t understand until it lived in my bathroom cabinet in a vial.”
She is aware of the change in his brain chemistry—the way he’s less communicative, more physical—but while it’s a new sensation, she says, it hasn’t driven them apart.
“I’m actually more attracted to my husband than I’ve ever been. Our attraction, our love for each other, is deeper than it’s ever been,” says Smith. “That has wholly to do with him being who he is meant to be. He shows up so vibrant, so happy, so full.”
Smith identifies as more on the bisexual side of the spectrum, but since she’d been with women for a majority of her adult life, navigating the bedroom presented a challenge—initially.
“Even if you’re bisexual and you’ve slept with men your whole life, that’s going to be an adjustment, so I would say that’s where that shows up for us,” says Smith. “But the idea of penetration is not a straight paradigm. I think when people have a healthy relationship with their sexuality and when you’ve reached a level of sexual self-mastery and confidence, it just doesn’t matter.”
In the case of a same-sex relationship where the partner strongly identifies as lesbian or gay and their spouse transitions to the opposite gender, that could be a far greater hurdle, says Smith.
QUEER OR NOT?
Within the LGBTQ community, identifying as gay or lesbian can be a bold, brave thing, a source of hard-won pride. A partner coming out as transgender can leave the cisgender partner questioning how they identify, says Abbott.
“I wasn’t ready to leave my marriage. These things don’t just happen overnight, we still loved each other and are good friends.” — Jan H.
“You’re not saying ‘I’m leaving you,’ you’re saying ‘I’m transitioning and if we’re perceived as lesbians and I’m transitioning, I’ll be perceived as a man, as my true gender, then we will be perceived as a hetero couple,” says Abbott. “There’s a grief sometimes of the loss of the queer identity or lesbian or gay identity.”
As members of the queer community and organizers of the last 11 pride events in town, it’s something that Logan and Chrissann have experienced firsthand.
“Basically I feel like I’ve been thrown out of one house and into a new house, but I haven’t been accepted by this new house yet,” says Logan with a guffaw. “So I’m like fine, I’ll go find my own house!”
It’s the kind of division that exists because of the enormous battles that lesbian women have had to fight to get to where they are today, and their connection to the feminist movement, says Abbott.
But the conversation has changed. Now the term “queer,” which was once used as a vicious derogatory term, has been reclaimed as an umbrella term by many younger members of the LGBTQ community. The terms pansexual, bisexual, demisexual, genderqueer, genderfluid and others have gained footholds in queer discourse in order to demonstrate that when it comes to sexuality and gender, it’s very rarely only gay or straight, male or female.
WEDDED WIFE VS. LESBIAN LIFE
Coming out is not the same for everyone, nor is it the same for people who come out as gay when compared to someone who comes out as a transgender man; or as a lesbian compared to someone who comes out as a transgender woman.
What they do often have in common, however, is the risk. Depending on where the individual lives, the realities of coming out can be dangerously different.
When Abbott moved to Santa Cruz to attend UCSC in the early ’70s, it took her many years to discover her sexuality, though she always found herself very close with women. Abbott didn’t fully come out as lesbian until after her marriage with a man ended, as she describes in her book From Wedded Wife to Lesbian Life, a collection of stories by women who were in heterosexual relationships before coming out.
After the book was published in 1995, Abbott received letters from women all over the country and realized that not only were there far more women experiencing the same journey of discovery, but they also needed a place to talk and learn from one another. She founded a support group in 1997 and ran it for roughly 12 years.
In that time, the struggles that women faced were often of a very traditional nature, says Abbott.
“Women were also very much more financially dependent than in the reverse case, where a gay or bi man realizes he wants to leave his marriage. One of the challenges for middle-aged folks is that you’ve got friends that have been in your life for decades,” says Abbott, adding that the film Carol showed one of the most heartbreaking risks: “You not only risk losing this best-friend-husband of yours, [you] maybe even [risk] being alienated from your kids.”
There are now far more women in the workforce, with more autonomy and a greater level of consciousness, so at least in the Bay Area, it’s not as difficult to come out as it used to be, says Abbott.
For a couple that cares deeply about one another, in which one comes out as gay or lesbian, Abbott encourages them to forget what society expects of marriage and divorce, and focus on what would work for them.
“I encouraged women to go to therapy with spouses, work on arrangements and how to talk with the kids together. Work with the goal,” says Abbott. “You have to have buy-in from both partners, work on the redefining family and work on your relationships.”
For Jan H., 62, that’s exactly what she did. After reading Abbott’s book in the late ’90s, Jan realized that she was a lesbian woman in a heterosexual marriage.
“I wasn’t ready to leave my marriage,” says Jan. “These things don’t just happen overnight, we still loved each other and are good friends.”
Jan was open with her husband, but they still happily stayed together until January 2015, after being married for 25 years.
Even after Jan came to the understanding that she was a lesbian, the closeness in her marriage did not dissipate.
“The strongest part of our relationship was always our friendship, it wasn’t like we weren’t physically attracted to each other—we were always affectionate. I would say the sexual attraction was never really one of the strongest things. That definitely went away as time went on,” says Jan, adding that in her case, sexuality was fluid. “It’s not like we never held hands or put our arms around one another, we continued that even after I was officially saying I am a lesbian.”
Now that Jan is newly single and retired, she says she feels incredibly lucky to have had a long and loving partnership with her husband. Even though she did feel closeted, says Jan, it gave her the space and time to discover herself. For her it wasn’t about intentionally renegotiating what marriage meant, as she and her husband remained exclusive and slept in the same bed until they separated—being together meant being a family.
When asked if her ex-husband ever expressed feelings of betrayal or anger, Jan admits that he did. In some ways, she speculates, he was probably in denial.
There’s a lot of fear around the coming out process, for all parties involved: fear of being rejected, fear of being alone, fear of being misunderstood, fear of being taken out of one box and put into another, and fear of being unsafe.
For Smith, there’s a host of new fears: her husband’s impending surgery, the health risks, even his using the restroom in towns less progressive than Santa Cruz.
Just like Chrissann, who now mourns the loss of her “bathroom buddy,” Smith says something as simple as going to the restroom has brought up new anxiety. For one, says Smith, there is far less privacy in a men’s restroom, so deviating from the standard “stand and deliver” urinal method gets noticed.
“If you walk into a restroom and there’s four, five other dudes, and you do something that’s not in line with the normal rules, you could easily be a target for a lot of reasons,” says Smith. “That doesn’t mean you should have a penis, because some trans people don’t want a penis and that’s OK. [But] it feels very nerve-wracking.”
Navigating these unforeseen hurdles alone is a near-impossible task, says Abbott, which is why having access to support groups like TransLove is so important.
“One of the strong motivators for TransLove was to provide a space to have all of that huge range of feelings and reactions separate from their partner, because many haven’t told friends and have their own coming out process,” says Abbott. “It gives them a space to be mad, to be sad, to go through all of their stages of grief and then hopefully stay in their relationship with the new set of identity labels.”
Finding people who really get it is an invaluable resource, says Logan.
“Having met other trans people and trans men has really helped, because suddenly I know I can reach out—there’s support, they’re friends. There are various people further along in the process and there are people behind me in the process,” says Logan. “It’s not going to be a simple two-years-to-transition, it’s a lifetime commitment. I’m doing it for the rest of my life. I’m lucky that my wife is there to give me the shots because I’m terrified of needles.”
“That didn’t change with the transition,” interjects Chrissann, her eyes crinkling in a grin. “I’m not going anywhere.”
SANTA CRUZ PRIDE
Santa Cruz’s 42nd annual Pride events kick off at 11 a.m. on Sunday, June 5 with the parade at at Pacific Avenue and Church Street. The parade will pay homage to this year’s Grand Marshals, local out singer-guitarist Patti Maxine and Delta High School student Adrian Viloria, founder of Santa Cruz Youth Radio. Following the parade, the 2016 festival will take place on the grounds between Cathcart, Cedar and Lincoln streets with vendors, food trucks, music, kids’ activities, spoken word artists and performers on two stages in honor of Marsha P. Johnson and Harvey Milk. Performers include Aerial Arts, Anita Tiara Drag, Cheer SF, Do-Rights Burlesque, among others, and an open mic and a dance party to close out the day.