When My Husband Became a Woman, I Realized I Was a Sexist
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It's been a surprise to find out what a sexist I really am. I've been calling myself a feminist for two decades, and surely was one for the two decades before that.
I'm a woman who found myself with a female husband – the man I married is trans and currently transitioning to living as female in the world. She has been doing so socially for some time and only now has decided to make it official with a name change and all the legal ballyhoo. I've been surprised by a lot of aspects of this process, not least of which is our relationship surviving it.
People can't and don't just change their sexual orientation because they want or need to, and partners of transgender people are no exception. I can't magically become a lesbian, no matter how useful that would be. I am seen as one by most other people when I am holding my female spouse's hand.
If I were categorically heterosexual I wouldn't have managed this transition at all, which is one of many reasons I think of myself as simply queer.
I never played a heterosexual woman very convincingly, but I tried. That's one of the reasons I didn't expect any sexism in my own attitudes about gender in relationships. I was a tomboy growing up. As an adult, I was always a little too forthright and ungiggly for most straight guys. I preferred buying my own dinner and drinks in order to avoid any expectations later in the evening. I didn't play along, reflecting them at twice their natural size, as Virginia Woolf once so famously put it in A Room of One's Own. That said, as the woman in a straight relationship, you're assumed to be the more feminine of the two of you – even if you aren't.
What has surprised me the most are the expectations I had first of a male husband – and what the loss of “him" meant – as well as my more recent expectations of having a female wife. I use both husband and wife because both are true: legally, she is my husband, but socially, people see her as my wife. It is one thing for someone to become “not man," which is more like subtracting visible markers of masculinity, both physical and social. And it is quite different for someone to become a “woman" – which involves something far trickier.
When it came down to it, I feared my partner's transition because I expected her to become a woman, but what I didn't expect was how differently I would see certain things she did.
It wasn't about her femininity. As I noted, she was always more feminine than me, even when she lived in the world as male. My own gender, and our relationship, makes a lot more sense to people – what the gender theorist Judith Butler would call "cultural intelligibility" – now that we live in the world as a lesbian couple. Because I'm a tomboy, mentioning a boyfriend meant conversations would grind to a halt while I waited for people to make sense of what I'd just said. Now, when I mention a female partner, people just keep on talking, underwhelmed by the detail.
I'm sure that there are plenty of women like me, who are regularly surprised by the subtle ways our culture has of telling women to take it down a notch. A friend of mine had someone chide her about how openly she tells her husband how much money he can spend on drinks when they're out. A few years ago a bunch of college guys said they didn't want to marry women who had more money or more impressive jobs than they did, and women who make a lot of money or who have a lot of authority in the world have found that being in relationships with men who don't wear the pants in the relationship still want to be treated as if they do, as Carrie Fisher once pointed out to Maureen Dowd.