A transgender marriage? What’s the big deal?

On one hand:

What’s the big deal? We’re just a normal married couple leading a typical life.

On the other:

Yes, it’s a BIG DEAL! We went through a gender transition and it was traumatic and I want to keep talking about it so others going through it will know they’re not crazy or alone. And so the rest of the world might be a little more understanding and empathetic.

Therein lies the duality of I’m guessing anyone who has suffered anything traumatic but ultimately positive. You want to talk about it, you want to explain and share and hopefully help others going through the same thing. But you also want to live a normal life and be treated normally because the truth is, you FEEL normal. (Putting aside the esoteric “what is normal” question.) In a way, maybe it’s like “I can talk mean about my family, but don’t YOU dare!”

There’s also the issue at the core of transgender rights – most transgender people don’t want to be “out” any more than someone with something they’re hiding and have dealt with wants to share that – be it a scar, missing limb or hidden past. What has helped the gay rights movement is to be OUT, to show everyone that they know someone who is gay. That’s a lot tougher in the trans world. So, it’s why I do what I do, but I don’t always want to do it. For instance, in my hometown and around most new people I meet, it’s not something I reveal.

Because, like I said, it’s a BIG DEAL. I mean, what’s the big deal, right?

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Posted in Coping, Family, Friends, Marriage, Out and about, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

‘The Ties That Bind’ an unflinching look at family

About a decade ago, while living in Durham, NC, I met Diana Newton through PFLAG Triangle. She was just starting to work on a documentary film about her former brother now sister, Christine, with a focus on examining how her Southern family reacted to the news and to one another. I was working on a writing project, and we got to together regularly to give feedback, trade ideas and mostly cheer each other on.

Fast forward: I’m cheering WILDLY for my friend, whose film – “The Ties That Bind” – came out this year! It’s now on the festival circuit, even winning the “best documentary” award at the Marquee on Main Film Festival sponsored by Arts of the Pamlico in NC.

I’m thrilled to include the film in my resources list here. It’s  especially great for families because it’s a deep, honest and hopeful look at how a regular family with a mix of ages and conservative and liberal views grapples with a transgender transition – and, most importantly – with one another. Because as we alumni know, when one person transitions, everyone around us does too.

Diana, often with Christine, has attended screenings and answered questions afterward. I’m so proud of and grateful to both of them for sharing their stories, not only about the effects of transitioning, but the ways we all struggle in our families to remain empathetic, loving and respectful. Everyone can all relate to that, whatever the circumstances.

You can view a trailer here, which also includes information on streaming or purchasing the film. I hope you’ll check it out!

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A great new book for the “wife of” and those transitioning

Despite the forces gathering against us in the White House and beyond, people still live their lives and struggle to be themselves. For those who are transitioning, and their loved ones, it’s a little scarier out there now. But usually the most frightening place is inside the home.

A wonderful new book – a very welcome addition to the “wife of” collection – gives us a look at how home life (with two children!) after a transition can ultimately be uplifting and compassionate. In “Housewife: Home Re-Making in a Transgender Marriage,” Oregon resident Kristin K. Collier shares the story of her marriage to Fred, who become Seda.

As I wrote in the blurb for her book, my own experience as the “wife of” was quite different from hers, yet totally the same. I have little in common with Kristin, yet so very much. All of us with transitioning partners will come undone in many of the same ways Kristin did, then we’ll find our paths back to the places that speak to us. If you’re a transitioning person in devoted to one, you’ll find much common territory here.

Make sure to watch the lovely video Kristin made to get a capsule view of the book (which is also quite well written). She gives a quick outline of her marriage and where it is today, saying: “the one thing that remained constant was our commitment to compassion for ourselves and each other.”

What I most applaud Kristin for, beyond her bold truth-telling, is exactly that — her willingness to keep an open mind and an open heart, to remain empathetic toward her spouse, and, most of all, to herself. That is what you call a happy ending.

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‘The Pearl of Africa’: A story with heart

I’ve just watched “The Pearl of Africa,” a lovely, intimate documentary by Swedish filmmaker Johnny von Wallström about a transgender woman who left Uganda for her safety after being outed in a national newspaper. (A free web series is here.) The backdrop of this is the Anti-Homosexuality Bill signed by President Museveni, which called for severe punishment and even death to gay people. It was later overturned, in part because of the negative international reaction it attracted, but homosexual acts remain illegal and LGBT people are still hugely stigmatized. Meanwhile, activists have rallied and there is, at least, a supportive community.

But this isn’t a film about activism. It’s a love story about Cleopatra Kambugu and her boyfriend, Nelson. Cleo and Nellie’s chemistry will stir your soul and melt your heart. They were in their 20s when this was filmed. The scenes of them tending to each other, flirting, and idly chatting are so tender and romantic – they captivated me. Nellie accompanies Cleo to Thailand to have gender reassignment surgery, and they’re now living in Kenya. Seeing them together will make you happy. That’s a crucial way to build allies.

And, yet… I’ve read interviews with the filmmaker (my favorite is here) and he notes various criticisms and why he wanted to focus on Cleo and Nellie’s relationship. I understand that and it’s his choice.

But I’m sorry he didn’t include two important questions.

Q1: How did Cleo afford the surgery? For that matter, the couple doesn’t seem to have an income, which I wondered about throughout the film.

Q2: How did they end up together? In my experience and from everything I’ve read, most (not all!) transwomen identify as lesbians and those who don’t often have a difficult time finding men to be with. Nothing right or wrong with that, just is.

So to me, an above-average-invested viewer, those omissions were glaring. But beyond that, for the regular viewer, I think the background would have informed and illuminated. Here are the answers.

A1: Cleo’s surgery was financed via crowd-funding initiated by the director. I think this should have been disclosed, both for ethical reasons and because individuals’ donating is evidence that Cleo had supporters.

A2: Nellie is attracted to transgender women. In this awesome and open interview with Cleo, she says Nellie struggled with that, wondering what it was all about. With this knowledge, viewers would have seen a deeper version of Nellie and learned a bit along the way.

As a journalist, I definitely lean toward disclosure. As a writer, I know that when creating work, it’s as much about what you leave out as what you include. Those personal decisions create the body of work.

Overall, this is a beautiful film. Viewers will want to sign up as members of the Cleo and Nellie fan club early on. I hope the light continues to shine on them and that one day Uganda will embrace all their humans and Cleo and Nellie can return home. (If you want to learn more about the situation in Uganda, visit Sexual Minorities Uganda, a rights group there.)

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‘From This Day Forward’ moves families forward

Selina and I recently watched “From This Day Forward,” a lovely documentary by Sharon Shattuck about growing up in a small town in northern Michigan and having her father come out to the family as a transgender woman named Trisha when Sharon and her sister were young.

The film, inspired by Sharon’s wedding, delved into the family’s past and present and included the drama of what Trisha would wear to Sharon’s wedding.

One of the things I loved about Trisha is that she’s not girly. Almost every transwoman in the media and many in real life are ultra-feminine. So it’s refreshing to see a transwoman being a tomboy, or just not super feminine dressing.

Her wife Marcia initially planned to divorce Trisha, but then said she couldn’t leave. While this was nice in many ways – her love for Trisha stayed strong – it also made me sad because it seemed in the film that neither one was living the life they fully wanted to lead. I say this because Trisha ended up not wearing a dress to Sharon’s wedding, while earlier she had said it was the one thing she wanted. She did, however, say the wedding was the happiest day of her life, but still, I was fixated on her not feeling able to wear a dress. But, seriously, who am I to judge?

For Sharon’s part, I wish she could have embraced Trisha fully, but I totally understand and empathize with why that’s difficult. Her reactions are so realistic. Yes, she’s an intelligent, liberal, independent woman, but it’s still difficult. She misses her father, she cares about what other people think, she feels a little bit weird. (I also really enjoyed reading this Q&A with Sharon, which delves into a little more of her thinking.)

I’ll admit that my initial takeaway after watching this was sadness that Trisha didn’t seem to allow herself or be allowed to fully be Trisha. Selina had the same reaction. But then the more I thought about the love and compassion and empathy that all family members shared, I realized it was my own biases talking, and really this film underscores everything I believe about families in transition (which is why it’s now included in my resources).

When people ask me for guidance, I always say, whatever you choose to do, please stay respectful, loving and open-hearted. And that’s exactly what this family did. They’re wonderful role models and I’m grateful they opened up their lives in such an intimate and vulnerable way.

And here’s a cool postscript. Read this update from 2016, which includes Sharon talking about a screening they did in her hometown. “It was like we spent my entire childhood bottled up, no one acknowledging the elephant in the room, that we were a transgender family, and once people in my hometown knew that it was okay to ask us about it, they couldn’t stop! I just felt an overwhelming sense of support, of love from the community, and that was very encouraging.”

Thanks to Sharon for making this film and to PBS/POV for featuring it on TV. There is tons of info on both Sharon’s site and the POV site on how you can view it.

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Every coming out is a new challenge

I wrote the below “letter to the editor”at the News & Observer, the paper based in Raleigh, North Carolina, home of the legislature that passed the onerous anti-LGBT law, called HB2.  I just 30 minutes ago read how PayPal has announced plans to not build a 400-person expansion facility in Charlotte, NC. Let’s see what the happens next. I’ll let more politically in-the-know people hash this out. Meanwhile, I’m going to get personal. This letter wasn’t difficult to write. I’ve been in the media many times before. What was difficult was posting a link to it from my personal Facebook page. Every time I do that, it scares me. There are people where we live now who don’t know or rather I don’t know what they know, and so each “coming out” is difficult, no matter what.

The people who love Lina and me, and thank goodness there are enough to make us feel very safe and secure and cared for, think we are just people they love. They forget, for the most part, about any weirdness. But it’s the people  who don’t “know” us that it’s more difficult with. It’s not a huge deal, or I wouldn’t have posted, but it’s still a “deal.”  People who say “I don’t care what anyone thinks of me” are people who I don’t believe are being honest wtih themselves. I say: It’s OK (and normal!!) to care what people think of you, but not healthy if that controls your life. That’s my take, anyway!
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
MARCH 25, 2016
Diane Daniel: Strange bathroom fellows

My wife and I left Durham to live in her homeland, the Netherlands, in 2014. Because she is transgender, having once been my husband, some people assumed we moved because the Dutch are more liberal and that we had been discriminated against in North Carolina. Quite the contrary.

We were accepted, embraced and treated like we had been before the big change. Even after I wrote about her transition in The News & Observer back in 2012, nobody showed us any malice, though my car mechanic did stop flirting with me, which I didn’t mind.

Things sure look different today, with the law Gov. Pat McCrory signed. If I have this straight, no pun intended, my wife, who is a woman and who looks very much like a woman, is supposed to now use a bathroom designated for men because she was born a man? And, for that matter, the transgender men I know, the ones with the deep voices and beards, should now share space with me in the women’s restroom?

Of course, we all know that bathrooms aren’t the real issue, or the only one. But until this is sorted out, can you hand me some toilet paper, Ralph?

DIANE DANIEL, VELDHOVEN, THE NETHERLANDS

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The power of ‘renaming ceremonies’

I enjoyed this article just out in the New York Times on “renaming ceremonies” for trans people – a time to state, “this is my new name and my new presence.” It’s a recognition and a validation. It’s especially meaningful for those who don’t have reason to make a big announcement to work, family, etc. In general, rituals of all kinds can be very important and add depth to events that can otherwise get lost in the shuffle of life. Of course rituals forced on us can also work in the opposite direction, but let’s focus on the positive!

Selina and I made our big announcement in a coming-out later. I’m not sure she would have wanted a renaming ceremony. I do think that if the transitioning person is married, a renaming ceremony could be a difficult event for the spouse. As I’d mentioned several times, there is an agonizing period during a couple’s transition where the “spouse of” is grieving their partner and the person transitioning is celebrating a long-awaited wholeness. Both reactions are normal and valid and the only “solution” I see is empathy and time. So I do hope that those with partners (not the majority, admittedly) will consider all sides.

Other rituals can be planned as well. For instance, Selina and I did talk about perhaps renewing our marriage vows as wife and wife, but clearly it’s not so important to us, because we’ve done nothing about it. While writing this, I realized that Selina’s rebirthday is coming up soon, on Nov. 16. I think I might have forgotten it – and so would she, I’m guessing. She’ll be five! I guess we’re not so big on ritual ourselves!

Posted in Family, Friends, Marriage, Out and about, Transgender | Tagged | 2 Comments