Identity Shift: When Your Spouse Changes Gender

By | September 22, 2015

Originally published in print:
Gay Weddings & Marriage Magazine
2015 Fall Edition

Identity Shift: When Your Spouse Changes Gender

Copyright © 2015 Michael Eric Brown

You fell in love with your spouse. They fell in love with you. Marriage was the natural thing to do to celebrate your love for each other. Time goes by, and one day you discover your spouse really wasn’t exactly what he or she had portrayed to you in the beginning. They’ve just announced to you that they’re transgender, and will be pursuing gender transition.

Suddenly, you’re presented with an internal dilemma – questions about your own identity surface; you thought you were in a gay or lesbian relationship, and suddenly your spouse says they’re a different gender!

It’s not uncommon for couples who began their marriages as two lesbians, gay men, or as a man and a woman to experience a “shift” in the identity realm. The following stories are about real people sharing how their transition affected their marriages.

You’ve been lying to me all these years

Linda and Diane were a typical lesbian couple. Together for 6 years, joint home owners, and both active in the LGBT community. On the surface, everything about them seems right. But there’s something brewing inside of Diane, something she has known since she was much younger but chose to ignore it in hopes it would “go away”.

Diane always knew she was different than other girls. She was a tomboy, and preferred masculine toys, sports, clothing, and she liked other girls. As she got older, she found the LGBT community and realized her inner masculinity was an indication she was a lesbian, so she identified as one from that point on.

She met Linda, and life went on for the two of them, only Diane’s sense of self-identity was “off”. She realized she still didn’t feel right about herself. She didn’t really “feel” like a lesbian, she felt more like a man. It didn’t take long for her to put a name to this feeling. She knew she was a transgender man, but wasn’t sure how to tell Linda about it.

Finally, Diane found the courage to talk to Linda. Linda was shocked. “What do you mean you’re a man? You’re a lesbian!” Diane tried to explain that “lesbian” was a term she had identified with until she found the more appropriate term for her identity. She tried to explain that the term “lesbian” was a sexual identity, but because she was really a transgender man, she could not be a lesbian.

But that makes me a…a…straight woman?” exclaimed Linda, then states emphatically, “No! I’m a lesbian and I married a lesbian. I like women, not men! Now I find out you’ve been lying to me all these years.”

Over the next few weeks, Diane began using the name David and using male pronouns. Most of the couple’s lesbian friends immediately came to Linda’s defense, and ceased communication with David after his announcement. They, too, felt betrayed by someone they thought was “one of their own”. 

My Marriage Was a Sham

Erin’s (not her real name) life changed dramatically when she transitioned from male to female (MTF). “It has cost me my relationship with my father and brother, (my mother is deceased). I have lost a lot of friends at home”, she explains. She has lost the closeness she once had with her three grown children, all young men. Her marriage suffered irreparably when she came out to her spouse of many years.

Her wife is unable to accept Erin’s new gender identity, nor will she use the new pronouns of “she” and “hers”, when she states,

“I consider my marriage to have been a sham…I felt like I had been punched in the face [when he told me]. I felt betrayed. My whole marriage to this person was a lie…I have always felt and been straight…he moved to another bedroom, I simply couldn’t stand to be in the same bed with him anymore.”

Erin and her wife are now physically separated, and are seeking permanent legal separation.

Our relationship actually grew stronger

Not all relationships end because one spouse transitions. For instance, one FTM (female-to-male) whom I’ll call “G” says about his gender transition, “So far I have had nothing but support from all of my family and friends…One big positive change I have noticed since I began my transition is I feel a lot better about myself … I have confidence where I had none before.” His wife talks about her own identity in the marriage “I have been married to a man, and I have had relationships with women, so being with a man is not foreign to me.   I also have a daughter. I have decided I am how I am, I appreciate both sexes, and I am attracted to both.”

“G” says about their currently relationship of eight years Our relationship actually grew stronger because she knew that I was finally getting what I had always wanted.  She was happy for me.” His wife adds “Things are mostly the same, we have had some issues with anger due to the hormones, and I don’t like man rage.  We are working through it as best we can, knowing in the end it will be worth it.

The Identity Shift

An announcement by your loved one that he or she is transgender will likely cause you to look within yourself and question your own identity. “Am I a heterosexual now?” “Am I no longer gay because my husband is now my wife?”

Try to remember that your spouse has come to terms with their identity over time, likely even over years. You, on the other hand, have just had this put in front of you. Let’s face it. You’re likely experiencing a myriad of emotions ranging from shock to anger to emptiness and loss. Go ahead and give yourself permission to feel everything you’re feeling.

Realize that there are no easy answers to your questions of self-reflection, but there are ways to frame this newest “hiccup” in your marriage, and for those who are experiencing emotional mayhem about personal identity due to a spouse’s gender transition, consider the following words of support:

  1. Just because your spouse transitions, it doesn’t change who you are. You’re still the same person you’ve always been. Whether you consider yourself a lesbian, or gay man, or a straight person – you still are! Unless, that is, you choose to alter the label you’ve defined yourself as being. Remember, it’s okay to say “I’m a lesbian who’s in love with a man.”
  2. You don’t have to change your sexual attractions. Likely, you’ll have to modify things a bit in your sexual life together, but remember that any physical changes your partner goes through doesn’t change the inner person, the person you’re in love with. They’re simply outer physical changes. Be open to adapting and exploring these changes, and you might just find your attractions evolving
  3. Don’t feel guilty about having your feelings – explore them, be aware of them, be honest about them, and most of all, communicate them to your loved one.

It’s your choice

More often than not, it’s the non-transitioning spouse who makes the final decision on whether the marriage survives or not. Remember and respect that your transgender partner has loved you and entrusted you with their innermost conflicts and truth, because you are the most important person in their life. As you sort through your own identity fears, share these concerns with them as you would any about any other matters of importance in your life.

Many marriages can, and do, survive through this difficult period. Keep communicating, and don’t turn your back on your loved one, or on the time you’ve spent together. Be true to yourselves – together. The identity shifts you both experience can be stepping stones to a stronger, happier marriage.

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