This post is going to break every rule I’ve ever been taught on blog post length, sentence length, SEO, and images. Word limits be damned: I need to break the rules to tell this story.
Carrie and I celebrated our 10th anniversary while at the Woodhull #SFS15. I walked into that hotel room with my husband, excited for the transformational seminars and workshops, time with friends, and marital revelry without the burden of parenting. We had no idea it would change our lives.
During BedPost Confession night, there was a confession from someone that they used to be a guns & Jesus-chicken conservative. In most of America, that’s no big deal, but in the sex positive community we know what that means. It means someone used to be the enemy. It means someone used to be homophobic, transphobic, probably white supremacist, sex negative, and all for “traditional” marriage. It’s a deep dark secret someone feared would be uncovered.
That confession was mine.
I need to give you some background. Please bear with me as I bare my soul.
When Carrie and I first met, I was in a very religious phase of my life, having returned like a prodigal daughter. I’d walked away in my teens only to get hurt by drug addiction and abusive relationships. As the fold welcomed me back with open arms, they never let me forget that my story was one of redemption and triumph. My single mother status was lifted on some sort of pedestal, both a symbol that all are welcome and a stigmata to remind me wolves were outside those doors.
I’ll let you use your imagination on what they taught about sex & gender. Let’s just say we allied ourselves with the worst in programs, camps, “porn addiction” confessions, and clinic protests.
This didn’t seem extreme to me – it was how I was raised. When I was growing up, feminists were the extremists. No one told me there was research that challenged biological determinism. No one believed me when my cousin molested me. The gays were going to give us all AIDS and take our guns.
I hope you’re laughing, but these are things people in my circles said. These are things I said. These are things I’d heard since childhood. Pat Robertson wasn’t just a television staple, he was supposedly an intelligent leader we should listen to.
Assuming the Worst
The best advice our premarital counselor gave us was prophetic: let go of expectations. Of course, we were then instructed on gendered treatment of one another, but at its core, that advice was solid, and would carry us through the darkest parts of our marriage, and the most difficult transformation I’ve experienced.
One night, about 3 years into our marriage, Carrie sat me down for a talk. My husband dreamed of wearing women’s clothing, and found men just as attractive as women. I tried to swallow the enormity of what I assumed this meant. It felt like the floor was falling from beneath me. This white knight was supposed to come rescue me from the shame of single motherhood, be the breadwinner while I home schooled our many children, and teach my son how to be a man.
We did not have the words for pansexual or gender fluid back then. I assumed my husband was actually gay and only saying “bi” to make it easier, to keep our family together while looking for a male lover to run off with. I thought I was going to be abandoned again, like my father and so many others before.
I also felt sorry for this poor soul that couldn’t realize that being bi was just an excuse. Hadn’t I used it to get the attention of men in my teens? Wasn’t it a lie constructed by the media? Wasn’t my attraction to women psychosocialized infiltration of the liberal agenda that worships the devil?
The Darkness Within
I was scared. I loved the person I thought I married, and I feared that person didn’t really exist after all. My world began to crumble. Add my then undiagnosed illness on top, and I endured the longest mania I’ve ever experienced. Mania, of course, does not excuse my choices or my actions. It simply provided an avenue to justify them to myself.
We all want to be the hero of our own story, to be the good person. Good and evil are yet another false dichotomy, I think.
When I speak of good and evil and morality today, I think in terms of a spectrum involving making the world a better place versus reducing others to objects. I speak of good as providing the love and belonging people need, and evil as the over-the-top narcissistic selfishness that deprives another of some core need. We are all capable of both. We are all capable of abuse when we reduce people to things.
I saw “husband” as that which abandons in the first place, so I reduced Carrie to this.
Descent Into Chaos
I did some pretty awful things to push Carrie away. I don’t want to share too much, for a variety of reasons. I’m ashamed. I want to respect Carrie’s feelings. I also think some stories aren’t ready to be told.
Initially, I tried to fake it and rush to acceptance, but I cringed. The first time Carrie left the house in a skirt, wig, and full makeup to go to a therapy session, my body physically recoiled. I cheated. I encouraged us to open our marriage without any intention of respecting Carrie’s boundaries. I encouraged Carrie to do some really risky things, resulting in a sexual assault I never knew about until years later. I forced my husband into situations that weren’t just uncomfortable – they were dangerous, damaging, and soul-crushing.
During all this, I started selling sex toys at home parties. I had been the go-to girl for sex questions from my friends. I was anticipating a divorce and I needed the extra money.
Always the intellectual, I wanted to really know what I was talking about. I started studying sex as a science and reading sex toy review blogs. I binge watched sex educators on YouTube. I followed discussions on Twitter. I walked into this “sex positive” space where asexuality exists, consent is constant, and gender is socially constructed and separate from one’s chromosomes. I felt twinges of offense and discomfort, but I kept researching, kept focusing on the data, looking for discrepancies. The data didn’t support the narrative I was raised with. I felt like I’d stumbled onto something big. I began to build relationships with bloggers and educators. I felt like part of something bigger than myself. Then it hit me.
We didn’t have to divorce.
When the dust settled, Carrie insisted on living as the “he” I thought I needed. By the time we decided to attend Woodhull, we had embraced the gender fluid descriptor, and had become the most functional married couple I know. We decided just not to do drama or disrespect, to ask for what we need, to be fully and completely vulnerable. We became whole.
I’d been far more comfortable with accepting that Carrie is pansexual than addressing the gender issue. Deep down, I knew how much the cis mask hurt.
We decided that for the conference, Carrie would express gender in any way that was comfortable. My husband packed twice as many clothes as I did. Officially assigning “they/them” pronouns on Carrie’s badge for the weekend, we missed the opening session to dye their silver hair a bright pink that faded to purple over the weekend.
Sharing clothes & doing makeup wasn’t quite as fun as you might think. Understanding the hair and makeup thing was hard to wrap my head around. I am a cis woman, but you will never see me in a dress or skirt. Since I quit my full-time job I’ve eschewed beauty standards and dress for comfort. One morning, Carrie stressed over eye makeup. It was first thing in the morning, and I was annoyed.
“Why do you even need to do your makeup?” I asked. I railed on the oppression of beauty standards and assigning somethings as feminine and others as masculine, and how much a half hour of extra sleep was worth more than this.
“STOP,” Carrie said. “You don’t understand my intersection, and you’re being an asshole.”
My husband isn’t the type to self-advocate. Carrie was right, and to be fair, I did ask to be told when I’m being an asshole. I apologized, and that was that. It doesn’t feel good to be called out, but it’s necessary. It’s important to recognize that when you are called out, the impact of what you’re doing. Understanding came in doses that weekend.
We listened to Metis Black recount the beginnings of Tantus, Lilly refuse to back down or take a shrug of the shoulders from the industry for an answer on sex toy materials, and Jennifer Pritchett describe how she runs an ethical business while paying her employees full benefits – with dental. We learned how common sex toy chemical burns still are, how the industry is only making changes because of EU environmental water regulations, not consumer demand.
We listened to Dr. Stephen Biggs describe JoEllen Notte‘s sex and depression work as so well-done, others have received PhD’s for lesser work. We learned how doctors just won’t talk to patients about their sex lives. We sobbed as Crista Anne held the Tsunami high over her head as she thanked Metis for the first honest-to-goodness orgasm since she started #OrgasmQuest.
Charlie Glickman talked shame and how it shuts down the arousal process. Shame for feeling or being exposed to shame happens. Sometimes, Carrie and I would feed off each others’ shame. That’s something that we didn’t realize was being destructive underneath our otherwise healthy exterior.
We tackled problematic language, and learned some powerful things about how we feel about words. I associated “faggot” with violence, while my husband felt it could be reclaimed by those who self described themselves that way.
Carrie attended the gender inclusivity seminar while I attended the fat-positivity workshop, and kindly briefed me on later. It was more affirmation that we needed to really talk about this.
Your sexual orientation has nothing to do with the sex or gender of your partner, but this still messes with people. At Sexual Shame, Stigma, and Silence, this was painfully illustrated by a lesbian woman who loved to have sex with men and women. She struggled with not using birth control because of the belief that lesbians don’t need it. She struggled with not wanting the label “bisexual” because she didn’t feel it fit. “Lesbians are my people,” she said.
I think that’s when it finally closed the loop for me. How you identify is not defined by who your partners are. It’s who your people are. A book is coming out soon on men who identify as straight that give each other “bro jobs” and I read an article recently on women who identify as straight but have sex with their friends. While there’s more going on with that, I can see why, beyond the privilege, they identify as straight. It’s about who your people are, not the sex or gender of your partners.
We partied late into the night with our people on Saturday night.
On Sunday night, we decided to hit the hotel bar for a date. The question started to leave my lips before I could catch myself, surprising even me:
“Would you wear shorts this time?” My eyes quickly burned with tears. I couldn’t take it back.
The entire weekend, Carrie had been in a dress or skirt. I was afraid I’d irreparably hurt my husband of 10 years. We really needed to talk. I really needed my husband to present as male so I could bear some of the deepest, darkest parts of my soul, to try to wrap my brain around this, to acknowledge the shame I felt for the shame I felt. I was asking for emotional labor I quite honestly didn’t deserve.
“I understand,” Carrie answered.
We talked at length over our 10 years together, about shame, gender, ancient history, and what the future held for us. We came back to our room and for the first time in a year or so, we had PiV intercourse. It would be the last time I’d do so with my husband. The weekend had changed us. What we learned at the conference redefined our relationship.
The next morning, we packed up our room, aware that nothing would be the same.
I left my husband in that hotel room. Oddly enough, I prayed silently as I let him go. He knew it was coming, and just a matter of time. He didn’t need a kiss goodbye. It didn’t need to be a big production. I like to think I let him down gently, but in the end it doesn’t matter. We have to do what’s right for us and those around us. We have to live our truth, and I could no longer call Carrie my husband with a good conscience.
I took a deep breath.
I looked the room over once more, and shut the door on the word “husband” as I joined my spouse on the elevator.
We’ve taken home Carrie’s new they/them pronouns. The kids and I catch each other misgendering them. “Daddy” stays because it’s a parental identity, not a gender definition. Daddy just wears earrings and skirts now. Daddy takes Youngest for mani-pedis. Daddy risks their life going to the grocery store with toenail polish. Is it worth it? Whether it is or isn’t, we’re changing the world and fighting for human rights. We’re building a better future for others like us.
Accepting and truly loving your non-binary or trans* partner is a process. There’s nothing to really prepare you for what that’s like. You will long for the familiarity. You will mourn your expectations and the mask they wore while dying inside to make you happy. You will fear abandonment. You will fear for your partner’s safety. You will screw up and misgender them from time to time. I want you to know that that’s okay. You’re not perfect. No one is perfect. You have the opportunity to love one another beyond the physical realm, to truly love someone for what’s in their soul. And if your relationship can reach that point, there’s nothing you can’t get through together.