When Wessel and I became members of the Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Durham, North Carolina, in 2006, people naturally asked what had brought us there.
“We wanted to grow spiritually and were drawn to the church’s lack of dogma,” I’d say.
“We were married by a UU minister in Florida and appreciate the way the church promotes equality in relationships,” Wessel might answer.
“We’ve been searching for a community of progressive people interested in social justice,” I’d add.
All those explanations were true. But the reason we did not reveal was: “When the time comes, we know we’ll be safe here.” We were certain of that because every service starts with a reminder that Eno River is a Welcoming Congregation, emphasizing its inclusion of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people. This was of utmost importance to us because of the secret we shared: Wessel was planning to change genders. My husband would become my wife.
Wessel and I had been together for almost two years, but married for only two months, when he shared his news on Christmas Eve 2004. It was a gift I would have returned if I could have.
Wessel had reached his realization with a sense of clarity and joy. I reacted with confusion and despair. Had there been signs? Yes and no. I knew he had questioned society’s rigid gender lines, but, as a longtime feminist, so had I. I knew he sometimes liked to dress in women’s clothing, but advice columnists and psychologists will tell you that doesn’t necessarily mean a man wants to be a woman. We had talked about it a lot, and he assured me he did not want to change genders. He wasn’t lying, but he was in deep denial.
In what felt like a cruel compliment at the time, he told me it was my love and acceptance that gave him the strength to become on the outside who he was on the inside: a woman.
I detached emotionally and physically. I cried often. I wondered what else he hadn’t revealed. I feared something was wrong with me to attract this kind of mate. I was angry and ashamed—until we had a conversation that opened my eyes and my heart.
“What I fear the most,” he said, his shoulders shaking with each sob, “is that you’ll see me as a monster or some kind of a freak. That everyone will, but mostly you.” I told him I didn’t, but I realized in some ways I had. Society’s opinion had scrambled my own.
Ultimately, the hardest part was the easiest. I loved him. But could I love her? As it turned out, yes—but only after grieving him. It was a process as complex as it sounds.
We reached out to support groups, therapists, and other couples like us. While we didn’t feel the need to discuss the situation with our minister at the time, we were comforted by knowing the church wouldn’t reject us. We didn’t have the same guarantee anywhere else in our lives.
I often feared the worst based on the many heartbreaking stories we’d heard. One friend’s once-close neighbors refused to acknowledge her after her gender transition. Another was banished by her adult children, and her decades-long membership in a community club was abruptly canceled. Other friends lost jobs, siblings, and even parents after they changed genders or showed any signs of blurring the boundaries.
We have no children, but telling our family and close friends, in 2010, was terrifying, especially Wessel’s parents. We had no clue how they would react. The first thing they said was, “You are our child and we love you.” We sobbed with relief.
Later that year, we were ready for the public transition. Like many male-to-female transsexuals who can afford it, Wessel opted for what’s called facial feminization surgery, in which a surgeon carves a more femininely proportioned version of a male face. The estrogen supplements and testosterone blockers he had been taking for three years had narrowed and softened his face, and the alterations would be slight.
Before the surgery, we told more friends, a few neighbors, Wessel’s supervisors and colleagues (who welcomed the “new” member of their team), and our minister at Eno River, the Rev. Deborah Cayer. “Your story is the expression of love,” she said, as her eyes moistened. “I’m overwhelmed by the bigness of it.” Then we all shared tears.
Another circle of support came from my four-year-running Eno River covenant group, which lived up to its name “Open Hearts, Open Minds.” My heart pounded as I shared the news with the seven other members. I could see the shock on their faces, and then the empathy and affection.
On November 16, 2010, I drove my husband, Wessel, to the hospital for the facial surgery. Twelve hours later, I brought my wife, Lina, home. Like Wessel, she is big-hearted, intelligent, emotionally mature, athletic, and adventurous. She has great legs. And we are still very much in love.
A few days after Lina’s arrival, I sent an email to dozens more friends and acquaintances. After I pressed “send,” I crumpled over my keyboard and wailed, grieving my former “normal” life, at least on the outside. Within minutes responses flooded in, all of them cheering us on. Since then, the telling has become smoother, but it will never be easy, and it will never stop.
Going public is frightening, but it allows others to see us, and those like us, as real people going through something rare but nonetheless part of the human experience. I’ve written about our experience in several newspapers and feel fortunate to be a voice for others in similar situations, many desperate for understanding and acceptance. And although violence against transgender people is a horrifying reality, Lina and I haven’t faced it. If people have reacted negatively toward us at all, they’ve kept it to themselves. We have, however, felt our place in society change as a same-sex couple. For instance, holding hands now feels like an act of rebellion instead of a natural gesture. We don’t do it much in public anymore.
Many people ask about our legal union, as North Carolina doesn’t allow same-sex marriage. Although we’re basically the same people, our still-intact marriage could be challenged. So far it has not been. I am convinced that, in part with the help of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Standing on the Side of Love campaign, one day we won’t have any of these worries.
Sometimes I get hung up on what other people are thinking about us or, more specifically, about me. For my part, I am now perceived as a lesbian, which doesn’t offend me, but it sure is different. (I did have a relationship with a woman in my early twenties, but I consider myself straight.) I’m partnered with a 6-foot-1-inch woman with size 12 feet and a male voice that she’s working on feminizing with tips from a voice coach. (Hormones don’t help in this regard.)
When I’m feeling content and secure, all these things roll off my back. On darker days, when being different is a burden, I want to hide from the world. But I try to remember the biggest lesson I’ve learned, because it happened over and over. If I risk being vulnerable and honest, I will almost always be rewarded with kindness, respect, and even love. Truth is a powerful force for good.
Lina and I plan to have a recommitment ceremony some day, an idea that was in part inspired by the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, the minister of the Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater, Florida, and the spiritual guide and officiant at our wedding in 2004. I shared the news about Lina with him in an email before we visited his church five weeks after the transition. “I am so happy for you and Lina and wish you continued joy, fulfillment, and peace,” he wrote. His warm embrace after the Christmas Eve service blanketed us with comfort and love during a time when we still felt awkward and anxious.
While many things in our lives have changed since my husband became my wife, others have not.
At our fellowship, we still sit in the same spot, side by side, shoulders and knees touching, holding hands. We still sing “Go Now in Peace,” to the children heading off to religious education classes; only now the words resonate deeper because we’ve experienced their power. “May the spirit of love surround you. Everywhere, everywhere you may go.”
Photo above: Lina and Diane Daniel (Travis Dove).
- Transgender 101: Transgender Identity, Welcome, and Resources. Compiled by the Unitarian Universalist Association. (UUA.org)
- Affirming Transgender Members: Creating Celebratory Ceremonies. Blog post by Alex Kapitan. (Standing on the Side of Love, Apr. 21, 2012)
- She Was the Man of My Dreams. Blog by Diane Daniels about her marriage's transformation as her husband transitioned from male to female. (shewasthemanofmydreams.com)