Volume 6, Number 4, 2002
What I Did For Love: Temporary Returns to the Male Gender Role
Stephen B. Levine, M.D. and Laura Davis
Levine, Stephen B. M.D.
A person who has happily lived as a woman for 12 years and her therapist of five years discuss the situation that led to a series of returns to the male gender role. In 1991, when the patient informed his wife that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her as a woman, she gracefully accommodated him. Years later, the patient presented himself as a male when his wife’s career required this. In doing so, the patient was able to more deeply understand the meaning and the mutual obligations of love. By thinking of it as a gift of love, the impossible was accomplished with ease and pride. The patient and wife are once again living full time as women.
Keywords: transgender marriage, love, cross-gender adaptation, aging, long-term adjustment
Dr. Stephen B. Levine:
While every person’s life experience is unique, the initial stories of our patients came to sound remarkably similar to us. Numerous professionals have well described these stories as they unfolded in medical settings . Transgendered authors have also skillfully described their own stories for decades as well. These stories tend to be about the experiences of transgendered people while they undertake crucial decisions about their lives prior to sex reassignment surgery. They are not typically about what happens to a transgendered person years after she has settled into a stable adaptation.
Occasionally, I encounter a story that I believe should be told, not because it is unique, but because it is part of the transsexual experience that is not usually told. When the person who tells me the story is a particularly articulate person, I prefer that the person tell the story in her own way rather than a clinical case study. I believe that this collaborative method adds to the story’s accuracy, believability, and power to enter into the sensibilities of its readers.
Most married men with Gender Identity Disorder eventually face an excruciating choice between their intense and recurrent need to directly express their femininity and their need to honor their obligations to their wives, children, and families. They are caught in the dilemma between their wish to feel better and their wish not to upset family. When family members first learn of their relative’s subjective gender identity, many are embarrassed and react with anger and shame. Almost every married father who decides to live as a woman precipitates a period of family turmoil and risks permanent alienation from his wife, children, and extended family.
Over the years, I have witnessed a range of solutions to this dilemma . Some chose to directly express their femininity without pause and alienated themselves from their family members. This inevitably led to divorce and subsequent withdrawal from the ex-wife and children. Others chose to keep it "under wraps a bit longer" until a parent died, a child graduated, or a wife had more time to think about it. Some intensify their suppression, thinking that their wish to be a female was simply unrealistic or too difficult. They continue to cross dress in private. Others have gone to their families and found a genuine and lasting acceptance. Their families understood the duration of the problem and its consequences for their loved one. The family then learns a great deal about gender and comes to know other families with transgendered husbands. Lasting support of each family member may be too much to ask for; we have witnessed the erosion of initial supportive responses of some spouses, children, siblings, and parents over time.
The process of solving this dilemma provides many transgendered people with the opportunity to come to grips with the fact that their Gender Identity Disorder has great meaning to other people. Dealing with wives, children, siblings, parents, aunts and uncles is an emotionally evocative process. The transgendered person comes to learn that her life is situated within the web of family relationships. Depending on how she presents her subjective life to her family and how the family responds over time, the transgendered person may be forced to choose between self-expression as a woman with the consequence of family repudiation and more time in their painful hidden life with disingenuous family relationships. Many gender patients become symptomatic with anxiety and depression as this process comes into focus.
The co-author of this paper, Laura Davis (a pseudonym), chose to permanently express herself as a woman in 1991. She successfully carried it off with her wife of ten years. She had been far less successful with her adult children and ex-wife. The children’s anger at their father seemed to be based on their embarrassment and shame that they felt about his insistence in living as a woman; his limited involvement as a father when he was workaholic; his decision to divorce when their mother became absolutely intolerant of his feminine aspirations. When Laura, at the age of 60, decided that she had to express herself more honestly for the rest of her life, she did not foresee that living "permanently" as a woman might not actually mean forever. Considering the decades of passionate ambition and personally suffering that drove her decision to finally live as a woman, Laura was surprised at how relatively easily she resolved her conflicts about reverting to a male presentation under some circumstances. This resolution has led her to realize that her inner femininity is actually more secure than ever. It is this new security that enables her to play the part of a male when it is necessary for her wife’s vocational and familial requirements.
Laura is now a long retired 73-year-old married hormonally feminized woman with male genitalia who eradicated her chronic depression and her rages by the decision to prepare her second wife about Laura’s ambition to live with her as a woman. After several months of intense stress for both of them, Judy was able to accept Laura’s need to express her femaleness every day in every activity. Since I have seen her, Laura has been a bright, engaging, realistic, athletic, energetic capable person. She has been able to perceive mental health professionals as part of her support system. Three therapists over the last twenty-five years have provided a forum in which she thought out the pros and cons of many major decisions – including sharing her inner world with wife and grown children and deciding to not undergo genital surgery. In 1977, Laura began a seven-year therapy during which she fell in love with her second wife and separated from her family. Laura appeared to her psychologist as an intensely symptomatic chronically enraged man with limited interpersonal skills. At this time, Laura avoided her family and behaved badly towards co-workers. Her anxiety, depression, guilt, and indecision were overwhelming for her. Several times, Laura decided to give up her feminine aspirations and thought herself cured of her "gender problems". These cures proved to be fleeting. Laura was initially viewed by her therapist as an aging transvestite.
Laura has been my patient since 1998. She saw me only on an episodic basis when a decision about a particular issue was looming. She typically arrived with a specific concern; we would discuss it for one to three sessions until she decided what to do, and we parted for a while. I think of Laura as a healthy person; this is quite remarkable because, in the years of her involvement with our gender team, clinical and psychometric findings indicated otherwise. Her character traits are quickly revealed in her account of her love for Judy and its obligations, so I will let them speak for themselves. Being a psychologically healthy person means to me that she has evolved ways of dealing with her social problems honestly, efficiently, and without generating lasting symptoms.
I was a bit suspicious about Dr. Levine’s motives. Did he want me to write for others as he said or was this his way of suggesting I look in on myself? It could well be a combination of both motives. However, a personal appraisal of myself can always be of benefit. In a nutshell, at age 73, my life is full of fun and vibrant excitement. I have a fantastic warm and loving wife/partner. My health is superb; I have a reasonable income and savings account. There are exciting and wonderful things to learn. What more could anyone want? I am in the autumn of my life but autumns can be ablaze with color and the wonder of nature. There! In five lines I have said it all and yet I fear that Dr. Levine wants more than this.
For me, life is exciting almost all the time. Meet me in the morning and I will respond with "Top of the morning to you!" When we part, I will say, "Have a great day," not a good day but a great one. Our world is full of magic. Look at a painting, let’s say one by Georges Seurat, and wonder, "What did his mind see? Why was he so fascinated by light?" If you don’t know who Seurat is (and I didn’t), mosey over to the library and borrow a book or video. After an hour of reading or watching, you will have visited his life and his work. Will you completely understand it? Of course not. The limits to our knowledge are much greater than we admit. We can look at things, frequently measure them, but understand them? Not much! Roy Jones (1992: 7) is right when he writes about light (which I expand to many other aspects of our world):
It’s true for Seurat and it’s true for transsexualism.
Am I always wide-eyed, bubbling with enthusiasm? No, about once a month I can go into a funk. I know it averages about every five weeks because when I go down in morale, I put a red line on my calendar. If it occurs more often or a particular problem seems unsolvable, I head over to Levine and ask for help. On funky days I sit down with my wife and talk things out. Writing this paper caused such a bad day but I’ll talk about that later. First, meet my Judy.
We met 25 years ago. I had gone back to school at the age of 48 to study for my undergraduate degree when I heard about this woman at work who also was going back to school for her degree. We have now been married 22 years. The most accurate description of our relationship is that we are deliciously, superbly happy with each other. My Judy is the kindest, gentlest person I have ever met. She is shy like me but also a hard worker. When she teaches a class or meets a group of new people, she quickly remembers names and begins discovering relationships, even to the seventh degree of separation. (I am lucky to remember my own name!)
I have thought a lot about love. So have a lot of others like Paul Tillich, Martin Luther King, Jr., Martha Nussbaum, and Robert Solomon. I am especially comfortable with the description that Robert Solomon (1981: 314) depicts about a love like mine:
There is a need for a refuge where a being can pause, rest, and be sure that the body, mind, and spirit remain in balance. Such a refuge can be found in a marriage that is fused with love, the "feeling of two people apart from the world and securely located … in the loveworld," (Broyard, 1981).
What might make our relationship unique is that I am a male-to-female transsexual while my Judy is a consistent heterosexual female. I don’t consider myself a transsexual any more. I have moved beyond that to a peaceful existence with an interior essence of female. While I know that my cells contain an XY chromosome, most others have no need to know.
My transsexual orientation was mild until my early twenties. I was pleased at age eight when dressed as a girl for Halloween; a passerby remarked how cute I was. When Christine Jorgensen burst onto the scene in 1953, my mild urges became an obsession that I battled by working 70-hour weeks and foregoing vacations. Fortunately, I went to a Gender Clinic where a psychologist helped me learn to enjoy life. It took five years of weekly therapy until I then felt comfortable enough in my male gender role to marry for a second time. Through habit and a low self-esteem, I continued to work 70-hour or more weeks until I was abruptly fired in 1989 for loudly protesting a corporate decision regarding the environment. The trauma of being fired caused me to "kill" my male gender; I became female in 1990. Never can it be an easy decision for a wife to accept her partner as a transsexual. Many wives cannot. Our marriage was rocky for a year until Judy decided she would continue her life with me. She reasoned that if I had lost a leg, become paralyzed, or was victimized by any of the many ills that humans are subjected to; she would not have even considered leaving me. Gender dysphoria was just another health calamity. Since then our love has continued to blossom.
I need to discuss why I am thinking about returning to a male gender role. Judy’s final course of seminary studies consists of leading adults in spiritual and scriptural studies in a local church. The congregational response to her efforts has been heart-warming. Over 20 per cent of the adults in the church participate in weekly spiritual study. Some come to Judy with specific personal problems including one older gentleman who was livid about the church’s acceptance of homosexuals in its membership. He thundered, "The Bible absolutely insists that homosexuality is a grave sin!" Judy demonstrated that this is not at all true but I doubt that she changed his mind. I am unbelievably proud and supportive of Judy. Public knowledge that she was married to a "trannie" would be disastrous for her ministry. For some in the church, our relationship would be nauseating and unacceptable making her unfit to be a leader. My proposed solution was that I revert to a male role.
Living in a female identity has taken from Judy my title as "husband" and replaced it with that of "partner". Judy is proud of her wedding ring and yet struggles with what to say if anyone asks her about her husband. I tend to stay away from her family gatherings and all but the smallest of her church activities, even though I adopt a temporary male identity for these events. We have been extremely happy together for the past ten years. The finest gift I can give to her would be to assume a consistent public male identity for a time.
When Dr. Levine and I have discussed this in the past, he asked me to think about O. Henry’s masterpiece The Gift of the Maji. In this story, Della sells her hair to buy a watch chain while her Jim sells his treasured watch to buy a set of combs for Della’s hair. O. Henry concludes, "of all who give gifts these two were the wisest." (Henry, 1906: 25). But were they? Wouldn’t they have been better off if they had discussed their problem of money, kept their treasured possessions, and celebrated Christmas "apart from the world and securely located … in their loveworld," (Broyard, 1981).
It has now been two months since I met with Dr. Levine and decided to return to a consistent male role. I quickly discovered talk is cheap; it is the action that is difficult. As usual for me, I started with a bang. Plenty of new male clothes and I began attending social activities with my wife. At first, it was easy. I initially strutted in my new role but quickly became uneasy. I felt that I, a female, was cross-dressing into a male role. Another six months like this would be acceptable but for the rest of my life? And so the funky day developed. Judy and I sat down and talked and agreed I would keep a low profile until Judy graduates, participating in her activities in a male identity only when absolutely needed. She has always felt that I was at ease only in a female role and as such was a calmer, a much more likable person. Our decision was that I would normally dress androgynously until she graduates next June and then we will move on.
Funk is not a commonly used word, and is defined as a state of paralyzing fear. It normally is triggered by problems in my relationship with Judy but in this case it was initiated by a realization that being at peace with a permanent male identity could only be accomplished by major psychological therapy and even that might not be successful. I listed some of the possible causes for such a conclusion. Was it because of my negative image of males, years of visualizing myself as female, the biological effects of estrogen, years of peace and contentment as female, a lack of flexibility on my part? I could not come up with countermeasures for such possibilities and so I sat down and talked with Judy and we came to the conclusions listed in the previous paragraph.
This trigger for a funk was unusual. Normally, they occur whenever I raise my voice or become brusque with Judy. I always apologize immediately but my morale plummets and I wonder how could I behave like this with the one I love, who has given so much to me. While writing this, I realize that such an abnormal reaction is stupid. Solomon’s (1981) definition of love is an abstract distillation of the idea of love and a momentary lapse of annoyance does not mean my special loveworld is deteriorating. It will be interesting to see how long it will be before my calendar is red-lined again.
I hope this begins to explain why I am at peace with myself. I feel as if I am a normal well-adjusted woman. I know that the path for the next seven months will involve a male gender role but my essence is female. When the internship is over, I will revert totally to my female gender role except when meeting family members, which usually occurs about once every four months. We plan to move next year to a different state where I will be able to leave many traces of a male role behind.
The primary focus discussing what I did for love has been on gender but it is also very important for me to continue to develop as a well-balanced human being. According to Erikson’s Life Cycle (1993: 274), at 73 I am in the older age category (no surprise there) with the developmental challenge of integrity versus despair and wisdom as the acquired ideal trait. I can manage to construct an image of my past life of integrity by focusing on the major accomplishments and smiling at my mistakes. Humor is a powerful tool. The point of this paragraph is that my focus has moved beyond gender to embrace the normal developmental problems of life.
Dr. Levine refers to me as a well-adjusted transsexual but I am unsure whether that is possible. As a transsexual I may well be adjusted but as a person, to be a transsexual is a drastic defense mechanism. The hurt to my family has been very intense. I have two sons and one daughter from my first marriage. Their anger and frustration with me stems both from the divorce and my female sexual identity. One son has returned to a modestly close relationship; my other two children do not speak to me although I have reached out toward them repeatedly. It hurts but I have come to accept that this is their choice.
I have used Premarin and testosterone blockers for over ten years. I am aware that long-term studies of the safety of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) have raised serious scientific questions and I am fortunate in having an endocrinologist monitor my health every six months. I am willing to take these risks to insure that I am a well-adjusted, happy, and content female but I do so carefully and thoughtfully.
I can do now for love what would have been impossible ten years ago. My gender essence has consolidated to that of female but the public presentation of a female identity is less important than my love for my Judy. As needed to not hinder my wife’s ministry, I have and will continue to gladly adopt a male identity temporarily. Like Jim, I can pawn my watch for my beloved.
Dr. Stephen B. Levine:
Laura reminds me of this. I feel indebted to her for sharing her struggle, in her own voice, with whether she should or could revert to her old false male self in order to make Judy’s life easier. Laura’s account of this process did not describe the extent of her reversion to male clothing and public social role. In the first eight years of her self-presentation as a woman, she appeared as a man twice a year at Judy’s family gatherings. Over the next five years, as Judy’s graduate training occurred Laura appeared six times at her graduate school as Judy’s husband. Judy and her "husband" met Judy’s family about four times a year. Since Laura’s son was expressing interest in reconciliation but could not tolerate seeing his father as a woman, Laura donned male clothes and met him a half dozen times. The reason for this paper, however, was Laura’s frequent reversions during 18 months of 2001–2003. Judy’s internship placement in a fundamentalist church required Laura’s presence as a man so as not to jeopardize her standing. Laura’s son’s continuing need to be with his father as he fought through alcoholism and a paranoid illness motivated the reappearance of male presentation. A growing contact with Judy’s family increased considerably the holidays and special occasions when Laura disappeared and the husband appeared.
Judy did not make these demands for reversion. Laura asked them of herself when she understood their circumstances and ambitions. Laura came to more profoundly appreciate what Judy went through in her marriage as she learned of the depth of her husband’s tortured soul. In 1991–92, Judy decided that she loved the person of her husband – his essence and that his maleness was not that essence. This not only enabled Judy’s husband’s transition to female expression but also her husband’s dramatic emotional recovery in the female role.
Judy made a painful decision for love. She has borne its consequences without complaint. They have continued to have an affectionate physical, though not genital relationship. When it unexpectedly came Laura’s turn for making a comparable personal sacrifice for Judy, Laura however conflicted, was pleased to be able to rise to the occasion. This was not easy for her either – she had her funks – but there has been a pride in having given up something of immense personal value for the comfort and pleasure of another.
Now that internship is over and the couple has decided to move to a new state, Judy made it clear that there is no need to present themselves as husband and wife simply because Judy’s partner is clearly more at peace as a woman. Laura, however, is ready to don male attire again when work and family make it necessary. It no longer is the major undertaking it was two years ago.
To me this is a wonderful story of two human beings. It is a love story. It is a gender story. It is a human story. Laura, Judy, and I hope it will help others.
Broyard, A. (1981) Review of Love: Emotion, Myth and Metaphor by Robert Solomon, The New York Times, September 19, 1981.
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Levine, S. B. (1989). Gender identity disorders. In B. Sadock and H. Kaplan (Eds.), 1061–1069. Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, Baltimore: William and Wilkins.
Levine, S. B., and Lothstein, L. M. (1982). Transsexualism or the gender dysphoria syndrome. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 7: 85–113.
Levine, S. B. and Shumaker, R. (1983). Increasingly Ruth: Towards understanding sex reassignment surgery. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 12: 247–261.
Lothstein, L. M., and Levine, S. B. (1981). Expressive psychotherapy with gender dysphoria patients. Archives of General Psychiatry, 38: 924–929.
Henry, O. (1906) The Four Million. New York: Burt.Solomon, R. B. (1981) Love: Emotion, Myth And Metaphor. Garden City: Doubleday.
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