I've never questioned my sexuality, my desire to be with a man. Still, when I first encountered the person who would become my husband, he was wearing makeup and a purple dress. We met at a gathering hosted by a mutual friend, a psychotherapist and expert on transgenderism. David, the man in the dress, was a 38-year-old surgeon and a cross-dresser. He — she in that moment — was intriguing. I saw beyond the external and was drawn in by David's essence — his courage, his honesty, his authenticity.
We've now been married for 23 years and I'm still in love. But since David became Deborah full-time three years ago, I'm now in love with her. As my husband became a woman, I endured a transition of my own.
We married in 1991, in our early 40s, with six children between us from previous marriages. For 20 years, we thought David's transgender expression would always be limited to occasional dressing as a woman. He became Deborah for brief outings and intermittent weekends away with cross-dressers and other transgender folks, reveling in these opportunities to dress "en femme." They were fun for me too, but I always welcomed my spouse's return to the masculine role. David, however, did not.
For years, I witnessed David's immense sadness when returning from his feminine expression. I held him as he wept. This tension also extended to our sex life. While my comfort with fantasy enabled me to support Deb's presence in our bedroom, I sometimes longed for a scenario other than pretending we were both women during love-making.
Eventually, it became obvious that David never had been role-playing a feminine character. Rather, he had been falsely portraying a male all his life. In 2009, in response to yet another bout of David's depression, I said, "I don't think another therapist or a different antidepressant will work. It's time to talk to an endocrinologist."
I didn't know what it would mean for our marriage and told him so, many times. But remaining married to a miserable man was no longer viable for me. Transitioning to female was necessary for my husband, possibly a life-saving solution to six decades of angst, self-loathing and shame. David began consuming hormones that year.
Neither my master's degree in social work nor being a couples' therapist had prepared me for this. There weren't enough pages in my journals to resolve all the anxiety, confusion and anger that arose. We went to numerous workshops, seminars and therapists. I leaned on a broad support system of people and activities: a spiritual guide, a life coach, wonderful friends, meditation and plenty of exercise and travel. Still, my emotions churned. One moment I would be a loving supportive wife; the next I would storm out of our bedroom in tears. I was grieving the loss of my husband as his face softened, his breasts developed and his stubble disappeared. I grew weary of his daily progression toward feminization and his extreme enthusiasm for the change.
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My husband's transition forced me to make emotional and sexual transitions of my own. As his breasts developed, I didn't want to touch my partner's chest anymore and the female hormones destroyed his libido. There was no denying I was a "hopeless heterosexual," as my lesbian sister once teased me. The sexual side of our relationship faded; I was losing my lover.
For more than two years, I was unable to commit to staying in our marriage. I grappled with the paradox of encouraging David's transition to Deborah while relinquishing my husband. When I was struggling, he was invariably caring and compassionate toward me and my process. He frequently told me, "I'll stop immediately if transitioning means losing you." But I knew that encouraging David to be true to himself, to become "her," was in keeping with the care and support we had always provided to each other.
Unwilling to sacrifice my own happiness, I'd have left if I had become too uncomfortable with Deborah as my spouse. But that didn't happen. On the contrary, this experience has brought me closer to my partner. We had created a relationship vision of 19 affirmations, including: We're each other's best friend; we support and encourage each other's growth; and we are open to change. Ultimately, that foundation saved my husband's health and our marriage.
While sex was a major part of our early relationship, we now rely on deeper forms of intimacy. We connect through deep discussions, mutual discovery and respect, caring and generosity. We focus on non-sexual ways of expressing love — cuddling, gentle caresses, holding hands. These interactions became more critical to our relationship than frequent sexual expression.
From the moment I met David — as Deborah — it was his essence that drew me in, and that has not changed. Now, nearly three years after Deborah's coming-out in our New England community, staying married to her is without question. Our relationship is different, yes; but the love we have for one another has only deepened because of what we've endured and survived together. I still have a spouse with whom I am free to discuss anything, regardless of how difficult or hurtful it may be. We are each true to ourselves, and I've never seen my mate so happy. And this makes me happy, too.
Leslie Hilburn Fabian, author of My Husband's a Woman Now, is a licensed independent clinical social worker and psychotherapist.