Mary (a pseudonym), 35, has been married for more than 10 years. When they met online, unbeknownst to Mary, her future spouse struggled with being male. Several years into their marriage, her spouse came out as transgender, which helped explain some of the issues the two of them had had in the bedroom. Today, Mary's spouse identifies as a genderfluid femme, a more feminine gender identity that's not quite female. Mary's spouse uses the pronouns "they" and "them." Their relationship, sexual and otherwise, has changed for the better, according to Mary.
I was raised in an evangelical Christian church and had been intentionally celibate for four years when I met my partner.
Before my spouse's transition, we were having sex once every other week, and I would have liked three times a week. I tried to make things work for a long time. I'd been given this narrative that men want to have sex all the time, that that's all they can think about, and here my "husband" didn't seem to have a drive at all.
I had a lot of funny ideas about sex and relationships that I'd gotten from the church. I was of the mindset that physical satisfaction was not supposed be the priority for a woman, so at the time, it was more about being desired. I thought that I wasn't hot enough or successful enough, that I wasn't doing something right, in terms of my partner wanting to have sex with me more often. I didn't talk to anyone except my partner about it.
I was always the pursuer. It messed with me because, being a godly woman, you have to be demure and not aggressive. I tried verbally instigating sex, I tried surprise lingerie, I tried sexy text messages—everything I could think of.
I felt a lot of shame around my body image. I started using sex toys, and while that was physically more satisfying there was something more that was missing,
The third year of our marriage, my spouse sat me down and tried to tell me "they" were trans, and not straight. All I knew was my "husband" liked to wear dresses. Initially, I was in denial, blaming this on their mother, not even hearing them. I felt lied to. I couldn't wrap my head around the idea that this had nothing to do with me, really.
Over time, we tried to figure out what this would mean for us. At first, I assumed we'd be getting a divorce. However, that wasn't what either of us wanted. I had lots of questions about transitioning. They taught me about hormones and the dangers of surgery. To date, my spouse has not taken any medical interventions to transition. They're simply living a double life, changing out of the khakis into a skirt at the end of the day.
Initially, I felt like I'd made a bad choice, like I was a bad judge of character and this meant we had to get divorced. I thought that would be it for our sex life. That's what I saw on 20/20 and Dateline. I didn't know anyone personally in that situation.
There were a few years after my spouse came out where I tried to push them away. I acted out in unhealthy ways that I'm not proud of. I had multiple affairs. I wound up hurting myself as much as my spouse, who never wavered. They hurt too, but even as our friends talked behind my back, they never disrespected me. I realized this person stood by me even at my worst, and wasn't going to leave or let me pick this fight. Eventually, it came to a point where I wanted to know why. I wanted to learn more about what it really means to be trans. Deep down, I have always loved my spouse as a human, and I didn't want to hurt them anymore. I wanted to be supportive. My love hadn't changed. I already identified as bisexual, but had pushed that down for many years, so maybe there was a part of me that could understand a little.
I started studying gender by reading blogs and articles. The more I did, the more I felt like I had been lied to by the church about what a man is and what a woman is and what sex is and what marriage is. I watched a National Geographic episode on one culture in Indonesia that has five different genders. I learned there's a third gender in many Indian cultures and several others around the world, so if there's more than two genders in other cultures, doesn't that give credence to the idea that gender is more of a social phenomenon? It gave me more perspective and more facts. After all, I majored in biology in college, and had studied intersex conditions extensively in endocrinology classes. I was presented with overwhelming evidence that gender roles are not innate.
Things began to change in our sex life. I realized that sex doesn't have to be just one way, just penis in vagina; you can make it an art form really. There was only one or two traditional positions that really felt good but they was nothing compared to orgasms from oral sex. Sometimes I missed missionary position sex not because of the physical sensations, but because of what it represented in my mind: connection, love, and desire. I had to slowly let go of that, especially because, for my spouse, it wasn't having the same effect at all. They experienced dysphoria, or distress with their assigned sex and the role their genitals played in penetrative sex.
Now I'm in a queer relationship, and I get to have queer sex, which is more creative. I'm not looking for that same kind of validation I was before, and I'm not as hurt if my partner doesn't want sex exactly when I do. I'm open to the idea that we may not do exactly what I want to do, that I may do something else, either on my own or we may do something physically different than what I was envisioning, but that's okay. My value and desirability are not about how hot I am to my partner. I have been able to cultivate that from within myself.
Now I feel comfortable saying, "I'm feeling kind of horny, do you want to do something tonight? " or "I'd really like to do something with you soon." The biggest difference is that we are more connected and intimate through the planning process of what we do in bed. There's no set expectation of how it's going to go. When you're stuck doing it one single way, as we were most of the time before, you're very aware of where those lines are and you try so hard to stay in them that sometimes it sucks the fun out of it.
Before, there was a lot of silence; there were unspoken expectations and I wouldn't say anything I wanted out loud, I would just go to the bed feeling deflated and unwanted. Now I'm open to "no" being an answer, but also "yes" meaning I get to be open about my own pleasure.
My sense of empowerment has extended beyond the bedroom as well. Before, I was absolved of the responsibility for making a lot of financial decisions. I used to think, I'm supposed to vacuum and you're supposed to take out the trash, because I'm a woman and you're a man. Now, we both cook dinner, sometimes together, I often take out the trash, and we both knock things off the "honey do" list. I learned I'm not as dangerous with a hammer as I used to think, and where neither of us wants to touch a job, we hire someone. I used to think mechanics were only for single women and major transmission issues. We don't have the same gendered assumptions about our roles, in the bedroom or out of it.
My partner still has to present as male at work, but at home we share makeup and deodorant. They wear skirts and cute flip flops. We go for pedicures together. My spouse is far more "girly" than I am, and I'm okay with that. Most of our friends know, but they still ask me invasive questions or assume the transition has to be completely physical, in terms of hormone replacement therapy and surgery.
Sometimes I have fleeting thoughts of, I wish that we could be normal, I wish we didn't have to deal with harassment, which they've faced running errands. But we're far more in love today than we've ever been. When we got married I was desperate for this Prince Charming to come and sweep me off my feet and I had no idea it would be Princess Charming. For us, love transcends gender.
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