Transition and Divorce

by Kristina-Maia DeMott

According to numerous self-revelatory accounts by male-to-female TGs and significant others, a high proportion of born males that have reached beyond sporadic “hobby”-level cross-dressing behavior have also soon divorced. In most cases, the gender shifting process is cited or “blamed” (depending on which partner is doing the dishing) as the primary cause of the rift. The situation takes on relationship-threatening dimensions at different points: usually when increased time and resources are spent en femme, or when the TG person begins to talk about transitioning to full-time womanhood.

Whether the person ever goes full-time or not doesn’t appear to be the main issue in most accounts. The fact that they were seriously considering it throws a monkey wrench into domestic bliss. It also isn’t a matter of reaction to dramatic changes; the seeds of most of the splits I have heard of or read about were sown long before the transgender or transsexual person began dressing daily, started hormone therapy, or had surgery of any kind. Some of these folks relate that they have now found relationships with more understanding partners. The matter remains; the process of discovering the inner woman led to separation and irretrievably broke the original marriage.

This brings up philosophical questions and uncovers a puzzling (for the TG at least) self-centeredness on the part of the SO. The most common Genetic Girls’ reactions, a la the archives of S.P.I.C.E., writings by members of online support groups, and as related in venues such as the Tri-Ess Mirror, is to dump the radioactive relationship fallout squarely onto any married male cross-dresser who takes the activity ‘too seriously.’ Recalcitrant trannies are often chastised by henpecking-style rhetoric disguised as counselor-talk. They are stamped with the rubric of ‘selfish' or 'insensitive' “man" (pronouns, pronouns!) who refuses to live up to marital expectations, including regular and conventional sex. Moreover, the assumption is that these are simply understood to be major failings. The critics apparently find reassurance in making continual reference to some phantom Rules of Order, as if there were a common and accepted thread of appropriate behavior running through the crazy-quilt of life in modern society.

We hear, 'Hey, the poor wife didn't expect it! She has a right to continue in a relationship with 'the same person she knew before,' etc. etc. It is, in fact, a good exercise to try to imagine the shoe being on the other foot. Imagine the husband attempting to adapt while his wife of 12 years has begun to realize her inner man, wears boxer shorts, quits shaving her legs and underarms, and is seriously considering a mustache transplant. This comparison, however, is a bit far-fetched. As a trannie once jokingly quipped, “What? Why would anyone ever want to be a man?” The incidence of female-to-male transgendering within marriage is tiny in comparison with the TG rate among genetic males. Except as a lark or in theatre, few non-lesbian women ever intentionally masculinize their appearance at home – fewer still have a hankering to do so in public. To state the obvious, “cross-dressing” is largely a non-issue for women in any case. Nearly all types of once-male attire are readily available, and completely acceptable as women’s wear. The only exceptions seem to be structured 3-piece suits and jock straps. The new Brooks Brothers ad campaign essentially puts the first item up for grabs as well, and from a previously hard-line “Boys Only” source.

From the other side we hear things such as ‘I had to leave her out of respect for the marriage, I did the right thing for my family.’ Anecdotally, however, the born woman has usually already insisted that behavior change back to the norm “or else.” The TG in such cases may be simply rationalizing the break as a personal decision.

On a scientific level, the cited rationale behind this high level of rejection by SOs is inconsistent with current medical thinking. The newest HBIGDA or “Benjamin” medical treatment standards state clearly that physicians should recognize by now that “gender dysphoria” is a true medical condition, not merely a social choice. This counters one marital objection, since late-onset diabetes, atherosclerosis, prostate infections, and other conditions are a greater threat to health. The disease and necessary medications often affect sexual performance more deeply than the changes that may accompany a TG’s exploration of femininity.

A friend once remarked that there are probably very few “trans” in POW camps or in communities where everyone is scrabbling for the essentials of life. This observation, however, only holds true where the strictest punitive regimentation is imposed. Particularly impressive, to name only one instance, is the almost universal appearance of female-inhabited men in archetypal hunting and gathering societies, for instance those who took the role of Shaman in certain Native American tribes. Several of these Shamans appear in images by the 19th Century western photographer Edward Curtis. Additionally, a facet of current outreach initiatives is targeted on deeply impoverished transgender street youth and other poor transgender people in the inner cities – a population that has been “beneath the radar” for decades and is only now receiving attention from diversity advocates.

Most TGs seem to stick by a blanket assertion that we are claiming a basic human right to express our inner nature. For others, to admit that these qualities are embedded implies helplessness or a lack of choice. They would rather view cross-dressing as a hobby or chosen pastime. The latter certainly comes closer to satisfying the mandates of conventional marriage. No matter, in a setting where born women are present, attempts to defend the married TG on issues of overindulgence usually lead to accusations of selfishness, “gender euphoria,” or at least to raised eyebrows and tut-tut admonitions, even from transgender "men" (!) in the group. I write “men”(!) again here, because it seems strange how often John Wayne-style protectiveness toward GGs asserts itself out of habit in such situations. To paraphrase Walt Kelley—We have met the enemy, and she is us!

Generalizations flourish. The Christian Right is especially fond of pointing the bad finger at all non-standard social behaviors. GLB&T lifestyles in particular are singled out as antithetical to the Judaeo-Christian traditions on which many (erroneously) believe Western civilization was founded.
Yet, despite the squeaky wheels crying out that the country is going to hell in a hand basket, the truth is that society-at-large has moved beyond this kind of dogmatic attitude in most arenas. Apparently, we are looking at special attitudes when it comes to gender shifting, even among liberal thinkers. We found out he’s queer? Fine, elect the person anyway; he’s a good attorney. “He” wears high heels? Uh-oh … get back, dear voters. Exceptional personalities such as Rudolph Giuliani get away with occasional transvestitism, but only in drag-style theatrical guise.

With this kind of entrenched double standards at work, it’s no wonder so many TGs are in marriages that appear to be loaded down with 19th-century moral baggage. Perhaps we are trapped by genetically wired expectations that rule marriage or long-term relationships; maybe these factors defy all efforts at finding alternatives. Conversely, is it possible that many married women are simply too fixated on continued validation of social position, or so compliant with outside-family expectations that they can't allow for experimentation within their prime relationship? If the former is true, then so be it – until evolution finally reveals a solution. If it is the latter (and I suspect that in most cases, it plays the major role in the short term), the outlook is so blankly bourgeois, so socially Darwinist, that it doesn't speak very well for born women in general, or for the deeper understandings that one assumes underlie a good marriage.

For example, in the scenario of gender shifting, where do concepts like "true love" fall? Where are the deep empathy and the other properties so often represented as iconic, almost sacred, to the feminine paradigm within our societal mythology? After all, men are constantly being upbraided for giving mere lip service to matters of compassion that born women, especially those who deem themselves feminists of some flavor, seem to believe they have cornered the market on. Have they forgotten the lessons of their own past? When these same women are faced with TG issues within marriage, suddenly we aren't encouraged quite so vehemently to look beneath the surface for the “real person”—to value nurturing—to “be there” for someone, no matter what. Substitute your own pop-psychology phrases.

What, then, constitutes the deepest of feminine attitudes toward someone who is truly loved? This matter deserves full consideration between partners facing a breakup situation involving transgender behaviors.

The issue of continued conventional satisfaction by the previously all-male partner gets high billing too. While many GGs occasionally enjoy a little kinky frolic, over the long term they don’t look forward to accepting their partner as a “girlfriend” too. When pressed for explanations, or expressing their mad/sad feelings, many SOs speak directly to the issue that they don't want to be (or never expected to be) drawn into the role of being a “lesbian” partner. This is obviously a serious problem of role shifting that the current social constructs are not adequate to handle. Given the high incidence of divorce and separation under the circumstances, we must consider that there are hard limits to adaptability, even in a society that has supposedly moved beyond the model of gender roles cast in concrete.

To tentatively characterize it, what appears in even the most accepting GG attitudes is also an attempt to cope with irrational (in the strictest sense of having no specific logical basis) feelings of disenfranchisement and rejection. We may be dealing with a gut reaction, to what the proto-anthropologists labeled "taboo" behavior. TGs are asking for an adaptation that challenges taboo: one that goes beyond the simple grace of allowing someone to wear gender-opposite clothing and adornments in the shared abode.

On the other hand, we have (at least) 4000 years of romantic tradition that rejects the mere externals, enshrines loyalty to the essence of the love-partner's true being. Why not just become a figurative 'lesbian,' if, in fact, one truly loved the other person's essential qualities in the first place? Such adaptations should present no problem, given the expectation of unshaken loyalty implicit in even in the most mundane of civil marriage vows. “In sickness and in health”—well, isn’t gender dysphoria a medically describable condition? Many physicians say so, and enlightened psychiatric professionals are increasingly prone to move transgendering out of the “abnormal psychology” realm. Moreover, the transgender individual really is, after all, “the same person” at base. If we take the opinions of post-operation transsexuals at face value, they have simply become the person they always knew they were, or have come to understand they always were.

Are there easy solutions? No, since two powerful trends arise here. One of them is not so exotic in its implications. The other, however, is unthinkable—if you are one of those who accepts the current trend in psychology that offers trivial, sexually based explanations of what the rapid increase in transgender yearnings represents.
There is a much larger picture. The shifting process that began with the growth in feminist perceptions two centuries ago has since widened to include marginal societal acceptance of diverse sexual orientations. If we attempt as social creatures to incorporate this ever-broadening behavioral continuum, while at the same time attempting to restrict our definition of the urge for gender shifting to mere sociological terms, then we must at the very least reach toward a durable societal redefinition of core gender roles.

But that’s not all. We aren’t dreaming. Perceptions of a broadening in the spectrum of human gender differentiation on a worldwide scale are also very real. Humanity is changing through interaction with advanced technology, population pressures, and other grand-scale factors. Obviously, we already require a third gender definition, probably even a fourth. The concept is not a new one; researchers turn up handfuls of examples by merely scratching the surface of anthropological studies. More importantly, in order to survive we must develop effective mechanisms to quell the deep and inchoate fear in the minds of those who would attempt to hold back this essentially unstoppable tide—those who feel it carries a challenge to species preservation, which it does not. On the contrary: we must either evolve to embrace such change or face the very extinction they fear.