Was advice columnist right to tell woman to divorce transgender husband?

It’s an interesting question.  And since yesterday was the Transgender Day of Remembrance, I think this is an interesting way to broach the topic.

What do you tell a woman who asks if she should leave her husband who is becoming a woman?

First, what advice columnist “Dear Prudence” recommended:

Q. Transgendered Husband: I believe transgendered people should be treated with the same respect and imbued with the same rights as cisgendered people. I have always felt this way, and I have several transgendered friends. Then my husband, whom I love very much, told me he wants to become a woman—or, she has always felt like a woman trapped in a man’s body, and if she doesn’t begin transitioning, she will be emotionally crippled. Initially, I promised to remain married to her during her transition and for some time afterward, to give our marriage a chance to adjust to her transition and sex change. It has been three months, and as much as I love my husband, I am miserable. To a certain extent, my love for my husband is rooted in his manhood. The more my husband transitions into becoming a woman, the less romantic love I feel for her. I just don’t think I can remain her wife. I am heartbroken and feel as though I am a widow, which sounds so dramatic. My husband is emotionally fragile right now, because she’s lost some important people to her because of her transition. Everyone commends me for supporting her and sticking with our marriage, so I feel like a fraud now too. She loves me so much; I cannot imagine how to tell her I want a divorce, that she has lost me because she is transgendered. Or is it better to be a bad person and leave? And yes, I am seeing a counselor.

A: Of course people change and grow during the course of a marriage. Marriage would be stiflingly dull if that wasn’t the case. But if your husband confesses to you he plans to start growing breasts, he has so materially changed the contract of your marriage that I completely understand that you feel the husband you knew has died. In a way, he has and is being reborn as someone new, and you are not obligated to stay in the marriage under those circumstances. People would not expect you to stay (and you probably wouldn’t) if he said he realized he was gay, or he wanted to enter into a polygamous relationship. This feeling he is a woman trapped in a man’s body is not a new discovery for him, and he withheld absolutely crucial information from you prior to your marriage. It’s great that you still love him and want to be an emotional support for him. But you must be emotionally fragile too, and there is nothing wrong with your realizing your husband’s change of life requires you to make your own.


Chaz Bono and then-fiancée Jennifer Elia.
Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com

It’s a complicated question that I don’t think Prudence handles terribly well in its entirety.  I think her overall point, that the marriage has materially changed, is true.  The question is whether you leave.

First off, I don’t buy the “he withheld absolutely crucial information from you prior to your marriage.” It’s not entirely clear that the husband knew he was trans – fully knew – before the marriage.  Did he have feeling, a sense about it – seemingly, from the wife’s description. But I’m not sure that qualifies as the husband knowing that some day he’s going to transition, and not telling the wife before marriage.

This reminds me of gay people coming out.  Even though I’m less sympathetic than some to the argument that trans = gay, like all things in life, there are similarities, especially in “coming out.”  In some ways, for me at least, coming out as gay paralleled Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief (though I’m told they may have been debunked, it’s still an interesting model). They are:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

I can’t speak for trans people, but I definitely went through all five of those stages when it came to coming to terms with being gay.  And if you’re not up to stage four, you haven’t quite fully accepted who  you are.  And if you haven’t accepted who you are, why would you tell someone else, even your spouse – you can’t tell them what you don’t know?  But would you tell them what you suspect, what you fear, what you have an inkling of?

In think more generally, there’s a snarky-ness, or bitterness, to Prudence’s answer that is inappropriate.  These are complicated situations, and emotions.  This is way beyond, and far more complicated than, a man simply “hiding” something from his wife.

I am intrigued by her comparison of a husband becoming a woman to a husband coming out as gay. I do think that if your husband come out as gay, the marriage might very well be over (it would be for me, if I were dating someone and they went straight).  Then again, I suppose it depends what you base your marriage on.

We’ve discussed before what it means to be gay, and what it means when some people say they’ve “changed” their sexual orientation.  What it means, and what they mean, but often iterate in a less-than-precise manner, is that either their sexual orientation itself has been somewhat fluid (altering over the years), through no choice of their own, or they’re in essence bisesexual (or perhaps 60-40, or 30-70, rather than 50-50 straight to gay) and finally met someone who pushed their buttons.

Some argued that romantic relationships are about more than sex, and sometimes grow beyond sex.  So in that case, you can settle down with someone who isn’t your sexual match, be it in terms of their orientation, or in this case, their gender, or gender orientation.  And in that case, it depends on the person.  I could not marry someone who wasn’t my same gender.  To me, “man” is a flavor, “woman” is not.  So I was surprised when Chaz Bono (former Chastity Bono) transitioned from woman to man and her girlfriend stuck with him (they’ve since split up).  I couldn’t do it.  But obviously some can, and do.  It would have been interesting to read more about Jennifer Elia, the girlfriend, and how she was handling the transition.

In the end, I’d have liked Prudence to at least have acknowledged the fact that some people do stick with their partner/spouse after the person comes out as trans.

What do you think?  Would it be a deal breaker for you if your spouse came out as gay or trans, and/or if they transitioned to another gender (or physical manifestation of that gender)?  Is it perhaps easier for women than men to deal with a partner who has “changed”?


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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