My Husband Became a Woman—and It Saved Our Marriage

Over 50 years, Jonni and Angela Pettit's relationship has weathered a war, cancer, the loss of a child—and gender reassignment.

In 1965, a young Air Force second lieutenant, *David Pettit, reported for nuclear ordinance training at a base in Roswell, New Mexico. One day, his commanding officer showed David a picture of his daughter, Jonni, who was also new in town, and encouraged him to ask her out.

They hit it off. On an early date at their favorite restaurant, Jonni opened to a fortune cookie that read, You and your wife will be very happy. They still have the paper, says Jonni, 68. "It foretold what was in our future without us ever knowing."

"He was starting a career, and I knew what being an Air Force wife was like. I thought it was a great life. And David, he was still David at that time, I just thought he was perfect. He looked nice in his uniform, was funny and intelligent—and hey, he was a good kisser!"

Six months after they met, the two were married. But starting in 1969, David was sent on multiple six-month deployments to Guam, Japan, and Thailand. He flew over 260 B-52 bomber missions over Vietnam—and eventually received 13 air medals and a distinguished flying cross.

When the couple's daughter Audra was born in 1970 and David returned to where he was stationed in Guam, Jonni made a radical choice: She and Audra joined David there for the rest of his deployment. "I didn't want that to be what Audra knew of him, to grow up without her dad seeing her first steps, her first words, and all that."

It didn't take long before Jonni realized she made the right decision. "During one of his missions when we were over there, his airplane didn't come back," Jonni recalls. "I stood at the runway and waited for him, and he didn't show up for three days. For me, that was the moment when I really knew I couldn't live without him. It could all be taken away in an instant. If he came home, nothing was going to separate us."

Bridal clothing, Dress, Cake, Photograph, Dessert, Bridal veil, Bride, Wedding dress, Gown, Formal wear,

(Image credit: Archieves)

The Road to Honesty

After the war, the family returned to the U.S. and that's when Jonni says she first started to seeing changes in David. "PTSD wasn't a big deal at that time. But he started being closed off, uncommunicative, and very compulsive about the house. We used to go out, have fun, and laugh together. All that had disappeared. I loved my husband and we had a great sex life. I just couldn't drag him out of the house. It was difficult, and I didn't know what was going on."

When David retired as an Air Force major in 1984, they moved from Texas to a sailboat in the Bahamas. One night after dinner, in tears, he finally blurted out a secret he'd been carrying for years. Since he was 3, David felt different from other boys his age.

Related: I Lost a Son and Gained a Daughter

"This was the late 1940s, early 1950s. Transgender wasn't a part of the language," explains Angela, who has since legally changed her name from David. "So I went along, thinking, Well I like girls. I've always liked girls. But I don't feel like the typical, conquest-ing male. That wasn't me. I really felt good when I wore women's clothing, though as a teenager that opportunity didn't exist much."

"I've always liked girls. But I don't feel like the typical, conquest-ing male. That wasn't me."

But after years of keeping that part of his life hidden, David confessed everything to his wife that night on the sailboat. "I just finally came out with it and said, 'I have to wear women's clothing every once in awhile. I can't keep this up,'" says Angela, 72. "That was the first time I told her."

Jonni was stunned at first. But eventually, it was her love for David that gave her the resolve to figure out how to make their marriage work. "In that moment, I flashed back over our life: I remembered when Audra was born. I remembered when we lost a little boy to miscarriage. I remembered standing at the end of that runway, thinking, I can't live without him. So I didn't understand what this all meant, but it was easy to say, 'OK, what do we do now?'"

Hearing her husband's secret also gave her insight into what may have been troubling David all these years. "I'd been trying to put together what had happened to our absolutely wonderful marriage. Now, I finally understood. He was projecting this need to be a woman and trying to be a macho man, like wearing a mask. To have to do that your entire life boggled my mind."

The next day, they went to a department store and bought David some women's clothes to wear. "Angela could be herself—even though we were still calling her David at the time—and she was quickly back to being the kind of person that David had been when we first married," says Jonni.

After Audra finished high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, they settled in Fresno, California. There, they encountered other cross-dressing couples for the first time. "We thought that we were the only ones in the world who had this issue," said Jonni. "But when we discovered this cross-dressing group, we started going out with them socially. We had the best time together."

In 1997, the couple started meeting with a therapist. One of the issues they had to work through, Jonni explains, was her anger. But it wasn't about her spouse's transition: Jonni, who worked in advertising for a local newspaper and coached gymnastics on the side, wore tailored clothed and stayed fit and active. But David wanted her to dress differently.

"When David was in his compulsive stage, we never fought about money or raising our daughter, but we fought a lot about what I looked like. He wanted me to dress more frilly and girly. I took it as criticism. But through therapy, we finally realized that he was projecting what he would have worn had he been the woman."

Related: I Was the Other Woman—but Now I'm the Wife

For David, therapy also gave him permission to be his true self—sometimes. "I would get up in the morning, put on women's clothing, get the paper, eat my breakfast, brush my teeth," she says. "And then I'd change into my male clothing and go teach high school. As soon as I got home, I'd change back into female clothing. Living as a male during the day was like acting a part that wasn't natural to me."

"Living as a male during the day was like acting a part that wasn't natural to me."

By 1999, David had chosen the name Angela and, under the supervision of their doctor, started taking female hormones. "As we came to understand that David really needed to be a woman, I really felt we should move forward, because I was thrilled to death to have the person that I love back," says Jonni. With the hormones, Jonni says, her spouse was "back to himself, full of laughter, and ready to be a part of the world again."

In the year that followed, David's transition brought many adjustments to the couple's life, including the fact that his hormone changes meant that Jonni had "a 57-year-old teenager on my hands, going through puberty."

Other "changes" included "the taste of her kiss and the smell of her skin," recalls Jonni. "One night I woke up from a dead sleep with a start, thinking there was somebody new on the bed. Those little tiny cues that you learn, this is a familiar person, weren't there. But we laughed about those things."

For Angela's last school year before retiring in the summer of 2000, Angela bound her growing breasts and continued to dress as a man at work. But in the evenings and socially, she was finally free to experiment with new hairstyles, lots of perfume, and "outlandish clothes," jokes Jonni. "I'm one of the very few women who can say to their husbands, you're not going out like that. You can't dress like a teenager at our age."

Finally, they needed to tell their families before Angela had gender-reassignment surgery. They emailed their daughter first, and then mailed letters to their parents, just as they had done each week since their honeymoon—only this time with some of the biggest news of their lives.

"I was a little apprehensive about how they would take it," says Angela. "But I had determined I needed to live my life the way I had to live it, and let the cards fall where they may."

Related: Why One Mother Gave Back Her Adopted Son

Their daughter Audra's first thoughts were that her dad was like one of the people on Jerry Springer, says Jonni. "But a couple weeks later, we went to visit her, and Audra opened the door, looked at her dad dressed as a woman, and said. 'Well, you pass fine. C'mon in.' She was fine with it from that point on."

And though both of their families had questions, they eventually came around. "I think people around us saw that we were sure of our love for each other and that this was the right way to go," says Jonni. "We were really blessed, because so many trans lose their entire family, but from then on, it was acceptance all the way."

Life as Two Women

Hair, Face, Head, Human, Blue, Smile, Mouth, People, Eye, Christmas decoration,

(Image credit: Archeives)

Shortly thereafter, in January 2001, Angela had complete gender reassignment surgery. And it's often been an adjustment, Jonni admits. "I actually had more trouble with her breasts than I did when she had genital surgery," she reveals. "I was used to laying my head on her shoulder when we slept, all snuggled together. That was my place, and now there were boobs there."

"But we had so much fun learning new things sexually. We did more laughing than we did crying."

The pair even joke around about whether they're now lesbians. "I have never felt like a lesbian," says Angela, who feels the term diminishes the 57 years she spent as a man. "We started out together as man and wife. Although I'm a woman now and very happy, somehow I don't feel right saying I'm a lesbian."

"I tell people I'm a 'straight lesbian,'" says Jonni. "I married straight, but I'm married to a woman now, so of course I'm a lesbian. I haven't changed—I still love the same person."

Their journey has also faced legal hurdles—like how to handle David's military pension at a time when the Air Force did not give benefits to the spouses of transgender people. (Pentagon rules still recommend discharging transgender troops, usually for medical reasons.) "I changed my name but I left my sex as male," Angela explains. "Otherwise, Jonni would have lost her medical benefits. I didn't really care as long as she's OK."

They leaned on each other even more when Jonni was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2009 and had surgery, followed by Chemotherapy and radiation. Angela drove her to every appointment, and sat by her side during the long, monotonous hours of chemo. "Angela was a sweetheart about my many naps, 'chemo brain' episodes, and nursing and supporting me," says Jonni. "It would have been much harder without her, her great sense of humor, and her steadfast love."

Angela provided solidarity in other ways, too: "As a bald male, I had been wearing a wig since my transition—so when Jonni's hair started to fall out, we enjoyed shopping for them together. Occasionally, she even took my advice," says Angela, who would gently rub her scalp at night. "I learned that Jonni is a lot stronger, psychologically, than most people. She is a fighter."

As they celebrate 49 years of marriage in July—on a two-month RV trip through Alaska and Canada—the pair recognize they're a rarity in the transgender and transsexual community, where the vast majority of marriages end in divorce.

"Many women feel deceived or resentful, or that they have lost their husbands," says Jonni. "I gained. I'm tickled to be Angela's wife, because I got that person I've always loved back. We're blessed in more ways than we can count."

Angela adds: "We're still together, take good care of each other, and still love each other. There's a feeling of contentment, comfort, and joy."

*Angela is referred to throughout the article in the gender or name that the couple used at the time.

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