Every time Caitlyn Jenner makes headlines, I can't help but think of Kris, her ex-wife. Kris may put on a smile and say how lovely Caitlyn looks, how brave she is, how well things are going for her, but Kris has revealed some less charitable thoughts too. I'd bet she is actually raw and angry and sad. I'd put money on it because I too am the ex-wife of a trans woman.
"I feel like it didn't exist," Kris says in a video you can find online. Her mascara runs. She's crying about the life she lived with Caitlyn nee Bruce. I said much the same thing, but the words I used were "negated" and "erased." If my husband was really always a she, then were we ever really an us?
Maura — I call her my wasband — still doesn't understand how I can question the reality of the 13 years we were married before her big reveal, any more than I understand how she subjugated her feelings of gender dysphoria all that time. In 2008, when I found out that, all in all, he'd rather be a she, I would have killed to know there were others out there like me, who had gone through this experience and survived. I went looking. I asked contacts from my ever-widening circle in the trans community. Did they know anyone who might talk to me? Nothing. No one.
That was eight years ago, when trans issues were not often discussed except in purely salacious terms. People gawked at our situation like it was an accident on the side of the road. The spotlight wasn't on the wife or family but the trans person him or herself: the pregnant man or Chaz Bono. I looked for peer-reviewed academic articles on how healthcare professionals could help the families of trans people through their own transitions. I couldn't find any; I still can't.
I started out confused, and so did my son. Were the things he thought he knew about his dad true? Yes, mostly. M, as he calls her, is the same parent as Dad was, with the same expectations. Were the things his dad had told him over the years valid? Yes to that too, because gender identity was nothing they had ever discussed. What would happen at school? He and I brainstormed responses, just in case. "Yes my dad's a girl, and so…?" "What's it matter to you?" We practiced saying them. The taunts didn't come, but it helped to have a ready comeback. It still does.
The other day I looked at my son's hands, which are nothing like mine. He has her hands: long delicate fingers that gesture like the man I married. When he was a toddler, my boy sat up in bed and scratched his chest just like his father. I laughed at the idea that my husband, when he was old, would share this gesture with his middle-aged son, and maybe with his son. Only now there will be no old husband, and here I am again with a lump in my throat.
The weirdness of my situation doesn't dissipate, and it seems to give people permission to ask questions they would never dare ask a more prosaic divorcee. Getting a new phone on our still-to-be-sorted family plan a few weeks ago, the salesman called me Maura. "Oh no, that's the wasband," I said, giving a bare rundown of the story. "Did you have any idea before he told you?" he asked. A stranger behind a counter felt entitled to details.
To me the questions feel like blame — for marrying someone I shouldn't have, for not seeing something I should have noticed, for pushing him to a point that he needed to leave his masculinity behind. The last may seem ridiculous, but my ex has a relative who puts the transformation firmly on me.
One of my trans friends once said it takes about two years post-surgery for the new person to truly settle into herself. It's proved true in my experience. But it was an arduous journey. While I was grieving, Maura was celebrating.
She joyfully shared every increase in bra cup size, every time the electrolysis lady reached another milestone and every time there was another step toward legal or physical womanhood. And while that happy dance happened to the right of me, on the left side, my heart ached, and she was oblivious to the pain. I found out on a summer night, a Thursday, that my husband was gone, but he actually disappeared over and over in painful little moments for months.
Now Kris Jenner and her children have joined the club: those who have lost husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers in a way that can only compare to death but isn't. All we can do is manage the pain, ignore the wide-eyed stares and inconsiderate comments, and hope for grace and serenity. We are forced to applaud with so many others what it takes to come out as trans, to live an authentic life. But only we know the courage it takes to redraw what gets erased.
Seattle writer Lisa Jaffe Hubbell specializes in covering health and healthcare.