When gender reassignment changes the happy ending

(Naftali Beder / For the Times)

“This might be a crazy question, today of all days,” read the text that arrived one Monday in July. “But do you have any interest in going to see ‘Despicable Me 2' at the Marina Pacifica this evening?”

That day, of all days, it was a crazy question. It was the first anniversary of our decision to get divorced — and, had we stayed married, it also would have been our fifth anniversary.

One year earlier, my dear wife had taken my hands in hers and tearfully confirmed for me that she was really a he and wanted to undergo gender reassignment surgery in order to become her authentic self.

Prior to this, I had said very few things would compel me to leave our marriage: violence, abuse, heroin addiction. Those were about it. I had not counted on my wife becoming my husband.


The theme of “Despicable Me 2,” for those who don’t know, is transformation: The sinister pointy-nosed villain from the first film has changed his evil ways, and instead of plotting to take over the world, he, as a single dad raising three girls, is attempting to find a market for his artisanal jams and jellies. But he soon tires of his dull domestic life and relishes the opportunity to save the planet from another villain, El Macho. With the support of his purple army, El Macho (along with Dr. Nefario) believes he can rule the world. I won’t spoil the ending. But it does involve a wedding.

I suppose one could say that transformation was the reason my ex and I were sitting in a dark theater in Long Beach watching “Despicable Me 2" on that summer night. Certainly during the course of our marriage, as in most marriages, we had undergone some changes and experienced our share of challenges.

We went from a religion-free household to a life of church services, committee meetings and choir rehearsals, all in the service of the local Unitarian Universalist Church.

Money was sometimes an issue. We didn’t save it very well, and occasionally our expenditures seemed, at least to me, to have been made a tad too impetuously: the dance floor we installed in the garage (and used only a few times before the novelty wore off), or the overpriced and uncomfortable Mission-style couch that I inherited and still hate. I’m guessing she would add to her list the fence in the frontyard and the automatic gate.


We were able to make our union legal at the county courthouse in Norwalk during the short window in summer 2008, before the passage of Proposition 8. But our real — if not legally sanctioned — wedding was in July 2007, and we had agreed, after much debate, to count that as our official anniversary.

For the most part, we had a harmonious and loving marriage. We were committed long term — that is, until the day, seated on that stiff and hostile couch, my wife confirmed that she wished to begin hormone treatment.

For months we had wrestled with this possibility. Mostly we were both heavily steeped in denial. She wanted me to stay. She had even considered “butching up” as an alternative to hormones and surgery. But I think we both knew on some level that simply switching to the men’s department at Lands’ End, cutting her hair a little shorter and assuming a decidedly more masculine appearance would not be enough for her.

I had read of other couples who had faced this dilemma and managed to stay together post-transition, and I wished with all of my heart that I could be like those people to save my marriage. After all, I tried to convince myself, what difference did gender make, really? Wasn’t she going to be the same person on the inside? And hadn’t I made a solemn promise — twice! — to honor our marriage vows for better or worse? Sadly, though, no matter how I rationalized it, I couldn’t deny my own truth: I hadn’t married a man. I didn’t want to be with a man. I hadn’t signed on for this.


So we retained a lawyer, and I filed for divorce. Irreconcilable differences. We split everything evenly: I got the evil couch; he got the leather love seat. We sold our sweet Belmont Heights Craftsman bungalow. The lawyer said ours was the most amicable divorce he had ever worked on. We even had a little divorce ceremony to which we invited a few of our closest friends.

But nothing could have prepared me for the emotional devastation of the past year. Our mutual friends tried their best not to take sides, and most were supportive, but it was an awkward and lonely time. The invitations to dinners and parties came less frequently, at least at first. I guess they didn’t know which one of us to invite. At least that’s what I told myself.

But Friday nights — date nights during my married life — were the worst. Most Fridays would have found us at our favorite taco joint on 2nd Street and then lined up for a 7 o’clock movie, a ritual we both cherished. For most of last year, however, I spent Friday nights alone.

Even though we had rented apartments within walking distance, my ex and I saw very little of each other for the first few months of our separation. It was just too painful. Eventually, though, as the pain became less acute, we began to see each other: a walk around the neighborhood, coffee. And that evolved into lengthy phone calls, dinners, church functions — and the occasional movie.


Being able to watch “Despicable Me 2" together wasn’t exactly cause for celebration, but somehow plunking down $12 apiece to watch a kiddie flick with a bunch of tittering toddlers seemed like the antidote for the sadness that had been weighing oppressively on our hearts all day.

A year had passed, the divorce had been finalized. We have started to move on with our lives. It took a while, but my former wife has become one of my BMFs (best male friends), someone with whom I can share a bag of popcorn and laugh at silly movies. For that transformation, I am grateful.

Cynthia Case is a high school English teacher who wants to be a writer. She lives in Long Beach.

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