Someone to Talk to (Part 3)

Diana Aitchison WOBS

Women of the Beaumont Society Helpline

Issue 5
February 1999

"I've known about my husband's dressing up for years and won't let him do it in front of me. I think it is terrible that he does that, but now he says he wants to do it all the time and have an operation to become a woman. That has got to be abnormal surely; no one in their right mind would do something like that. I'll have to divorce him won't I?"

The concept of changing ones sexual identity is one which fills most people with horror It is a possible eventuality which many wives of crossdressers are aware of but most wives do not give much thought to. Gender reassignment, although more easily available now than in previous decades, is still very rare when compared to the number of men who crossdress. Neither is it an automatic option; most crossdressers do not consider themselves to be transsexual and most transsexuals state emphatically that they have never identified themselves as transvestite. There is however an understanding that there are two types of transsexual, the primary and the secondary. Primary transsexuals are those people who know from an early age that they cannot usefully live their lives in their biological gender identity and who will, by the time the are in their late teens or early twenties, be seeking gender reassignment. They do not usually attempt to form intimate relationships or marry as they know that they are `living a lie'

Coming out as transsexual at an early age enables them to face the difficulties of changing without the added pressure of causing distress to a wife and children. With only a short history of their original gender identity behind them, they can adjust more easily to their new, true gender identity and make long term plans for the pattern which the rest of their life may take. They often risk rejection and ostracism by their close family members and their pathway to the truth may be a long and lonely one. However, they realise that this must be done before they can continue with their lives.

Secondary transsexuals are those who have felt that although their need to be of the opposite gender has been a persistent feature of their growing up, they are still not convinced that it is right for them. They may be under pressure from their parents to conform; they may believe that by doing so the feelings of gender dysphoria (dissatisfaction) will cease. They often express the desire to be `normal'; they long for a loving relationship and a family of their own. Some will admit that they weren't ready to face the difficulties of transsexualism as young adults and truthfully believed that they could settle for being transvestite. Consequently, some may adopt particularly macho male behaviours in order to suppress their feelings of 'femaleness'. Most are heterosexual and desire women sexually although they may have a lower sex-drive when compared to the non-gender dysphoric male. They will view themselves as 'probably just transvestite' and in order to 'prove' their maleness adopt professions which require a uniform and where male dominant behaviour is exhibited and encouraged, i.e., the Armed Forces or the Prison Service. They do not have the same sense of certainty about their gender dysphoria that primary transsexuals have.

For both primary and secondary transsexuals, the major confusion which they face is that their feelings about their gender identity do not match the body which they have. To them it is their body which is abnormal, not their mind, and strongly come to believe that gender reassignment surgery will make them `normal'; their mental picture of themselves will match their physical appearance and they will then be like everyone else. Current examples of primary transsexuals are Hayley, a fictional character in 'Coronation Street' and Jackie, a real life transsexual in BBC 1 's docusoap `Paddington Green'.

The commonest gender dysphoric group are men who identify as women; male-to-female. Women who identify as men have not presented to the medical profession in the numbers which their male counterparts have, probably because women have long been socially accepted wearing the clothes traditionally ascribed to men, albeit after a long fight. They enjoy a greater acceptance amongst lesbian women with whom many identify.

Crossdressed men are not usually accepted by gay men, particularly as sexual contacts. Gay men love other gay men; they are attracted to men who look like men. All gender dysphoric people long to be accepted and loved for themselves as they truly are but many fear rejection should the truth come out. If they have entered a relationship while maintaining a secret then they know that they have not been totally frank about themselves, but hope that they can keep the behaviour separate from their domestic life. They usually believe that if they declare themselves at the beginning of a relationship they will be rejected anyway. By marrying first they can hope for unconditional love from their partner who will love them enough to put up with anything.

The major difficulty which all transgendered people face is the lack of transgendered role models. Western culture offers only two genders, man or woman. Gender dysphoric people who desire release from their birth gender only have one other place to go; the opposite gender. Marriage offers a confused person an opposite role model whom they can observe in their natural surroundings and who they believe will help them with perfecting their new persona. Many women will be unaware that this is happening and many gender dysphoric people may model subconsciously, still in denial of their true intent. This aspect is demonstrated almost totally by men on women. Female to male subjects rarely marry. There is a move by some transsexuals to identify as transspersons, rather than to attribute their gender identity to either determinant, thus reducing the impact which transsexualism is often perceived as having on the traditional models.

This new identity parallels that of the 'Third Gender' system still observed in many non-Western cultures where an intermediate gender status is accommodated socially and culturally, although the Western version carries a more sophisticated understanding of what transsexualism means. The usefulness of the Third Gender is most apparent when applied against the limited choices for transgendered people in a two gender system. Marriage is not such a compelling requirement if other attractive courses are available, particularly if a transgendered person may marry in their new identity - something the current UK law does not allow. It is little wonder that some gender dysphoric people are reduced to what appears to be deviant behaviour in order to function in a socially acceptable way even though their wives and children are faced ultimately with the results of their duplicity

Many women find the concept of living with a transgendered spouse too much to cope with and relationships, even long standing ones usually break down. However, some women have decided to remain in their marriages and try to make it work. There are no rights or wrongs, whatever decision is made; each woman is an individual with her own personal characteristics, beliefs and emotions.

Historically, transgendered people were required to divorce their partners before they could be considered for surgery, but times have changed, and it is no longer an automatic requirement. Wives will be required to sign a form acknowledging that they fully understand the outcome of reassignment surgery when applied to their spouse and that they agree with it. If they refuse, (as many do), divorce is inevitable.

However, some wives will sign out of sympathy in order to facilitate their spouses early treatment but will eventually leave the marriage after helping their spouse through the most difficult times which may include nursing them for a short time post-operatively.

Many couples remain friends and more children are being allowed access to their transgendered parent, although this is still a novel strategy. For most wives, the usual reaction is one of intense anger and rebuff, and where children are denied all knowledge of their fathers new identity, even to the extent of being told that their father is dead.

This short term answer to a complex problem serves only to store up further difficulties for the future. Adolescents and above are already calling the Helpline to find out why they were not told about their father, having found out about him through friends or relations or simply street gossip. They are usually extremely angry that they were lied to and find the concept that it was `for their own good', condescending. Adult offspring who are denied all access to their father from a young age feel compelled to find their parent in the same way that adopted children often need to research their roots. This turn of events has prompted the Helpline to investigate further the wisdom of denying children information about their parent, particularly when the children themselves view the situation differently.

One cannot overlook the very real effects which partners of transpeople often report. Women particularly describe a loss of self-esteem and confidence in themselves as women as a side effect of being intimately involved with a transsexual. Most declare a need to be free of any contact with any transgendered person in the future, viewing them not unnaturally as an `enemy' of women. It is understandable that they would wish their children to see this betrayer of women in a negative light and expect them to be unswervingly loyal to their mother, the 'betrayed'. It is worth noting that the future may contain a different view of the events of the late twentieth century concerning the position of transpeople. Retrospection cannot remove the events which led to each individual woman's trauma but history may show that the situation did not continue; strategies which were satisfactory both to transpeople and non-transpeople were successfully applied and the unhappiness which was specific to this period of adjustment became just a bad memory.

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