“I can’t do it anymore,” Fred said. “I’ve tried being a man. I’ve been everything on my list that would make me one. I’ve been a soldier, a firefighter, a rancher, a fisherman, a husband, and a father. And still, I’m not me. I need to be true to who I am,” he said.
Kristin K. Collier’s husband Fred says these words in Housewife: Home-Remaking in a Transgender Marriage. In this beautifully written memoir, Collier tells her story from the beginning, starting at the peak of the couple’s domestic tranquility. Or, as close as one can get to tranquility in any domestic partnership. Collier was comfortable in her role as homemaker, caring for her two young sons–whom she homeschools–and dedicated to living sustainably. She is an avid gardener who grows everything and is invested in leaving a small carbon footprint. She’s secure in her gender role and very happily married to a kind, thoughtful, and most importantly, loving husband.
Until it happens.
In 2005, her husband Fred was diagnosed with gender dysphoria. People who have gender dysphoria feel strongly that they are not the gender they physically appear to be. Slowly, as a couple and as a family, their journey towards understanding the new Fred and forming a different relationship as husband and wife begins as Fred starts to transition to living the rest of his life as a woman.
What makes this memoir so unique is the relationship between these two.
Theirs is a love story, like so many marriages, a story about two people coming together because they fit. They are good for each other. Their relationship is like watching professional tango dancers, totally in sync with themselves, at ease. They share a loving partnership based on mutual trust and respect, which is probably why when Fred drops the emotional bomb, Collier’s reaction was a thoughtful response.
This does not mean it was easy, by no means, but hers was as graceful a reaction as any man who suddenly wants to be a woman would get from their wife.
Collier, despite being very open-minded, still had an incredibly difficult time watching her husband transform. Fred’s transition was a sucker punch to the marital gut. At the beginning of his transition, she couldn’t bear to see him in women’s clothes and felt sick about her “man” turning into a “woman.” Collier is as crunchy-granola as they come–and I mean that in the most flattering of ways. She is ecologically aware, into organic gardening that incorporates permaculture principles, supports the use of natural products and health foods and also subscribes to the kind of liberal political views–which I share–that state that all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, should be able to enjoy their human rights.
It’s the author’s brutal honesty that makes the memoir so compelling. While a growing body of literature on transgender men’s experiences has come to the forefront, relatively little exists to document the experiences of their partners. Collier is to be commended for a memoir that gives great insight into how modern partnerships of cisgender (a term for people whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth) women and transgender men are working to build identities, communities, partnerships, and families.
Kristin, thank you so much for being with Book Club Babble today.
Maribel Garcia: I love that the traditional, stereotypical notion of the American Family is changing. Your memoir not only reflects this shift but adds to the many ways that family gets defined. What is your definition of family?
Kristin K. Collier: Family knows and loves you well. Some of us are fortunate to grow up in families where this happens naturally. Others find and commit themselves to family-like friendships that serve them over the course of their lives. My grandmother died recently, and one of my best friends said, “I will be there for the Celebration of Life on Saturday. What can I bring?” She had learned from her family of origin the habits of healthy family relations. Tears sprang to my eyes. I felt cradled in her care, and in the example of her embrace, I learned what I need to do to support others that I consider my extended family.
I married my husband at the ripe old age of eighteen. In many ways, we healed each other from the rocky emergence we’d made from our families of origin. We committed ourselves to never saying unkind or blaming words to one another, and we always treated each other with respect. We were well matched, so that was easy, but my husband’s gender transition several years into the marriage posed a challenge for us both. Now we’ve opened our family to include my lover and his son with that same total commitment, and there is space for Seda [the author’s husband] to have a partner as well.
We can never assume that family will always be there, but if anyone is likely to be, the people we call family are the ones. How we define family is up to each and every one of us. And we all have the opportunity to deepen ties by spending time together and becoming more aware of one another’s needs.
MG: How have readers responded to your book, other families going through the same thing, in particular?
KKC: Other partners of transpeople have thus far expressed to me that they recognize themselves in much of my story. The feelings I’ve felt, the thoughts I’ve had, the path I’ve walked in my heart has resonated with them even if our outside circumstances were different. I’m not surprised. One of the reasons I was so transparent with my inner journey in Housewife was to offer companionship to those coping with such a surprising transformation in a life partner. I find myself in their stories as well.
Interestingly, I’ve had several transpeople share with me that they found solace and healing in my story when they reflected on the paths their partners had walked, understanding better what it was like for them in the telling of a third party’s story. They also see their transition from my lens, which has much love in it, and they feel relieved to have been held with such care if they were so fortunate.
Readers who are learning about the transgender experience for the first time are moved too, because we all encounter a major hurdle in our relationships at some point, and they see themselves in the grieving, adjustment, and pilgrimage toward courage.
MG: Your story begins with a life-altering house fire, just six weeks after the birth of your second son. It was in the aftermath of the fire that your husband admits that he can no longer live his life as a man. Many people would find news like that, in times of major crisis, demoralizing, but you have a very grateful perspective on life, which made the reading so uplifting, by the way. Some say that in the face of crisis, gratitude has the power to heal and bring hope. I know that gratitude does not come easily or naturally in a crisis, but it looks like this attitude, on your part, made it so you were not you were not overwhelmed by temporary circumstances. Where did you find the strength to find gratitude when making such a difficult transition?
KKC: You have two options when you find yourself at the bottom of the pit -you can be grateful that you likely have resources to climb out or you can wallow in the belief that it’s not possible. Life contains pitfalls. That’s not negotiable. It is up to us to determine how to meet them.
It is easier to meet such a challenge if you have cultivated the habits of a healthy relationship: awareness, attention to one another’s needs as well as your own, and joy and gratitude for what is working well. These can be developed before we meet pitfalls, and such habits combined with the relationships they have created will direct us to look up from the bottom of the pit rather than down.
MG: Anthony D’Avries wrote:
“There is a ripple effect each time a memoir is published, and while the memoirist cannot fully prepare for it, he or she should expect it.” ~ Anthony D’Aries in Writing Lessons: Memoir’s Truth and Consequences
Did you worry about this? Is there something that you expected to happen after the memoir was published that didn’t happen?
KKC: These ripple effects can take time. Housewife was published just last month, and the stories are only beginning to come in. I am looking for a tipping point in the sharing of this story and in the sharing of all transgender stories. This will happen after enough people have encouraged others to read my memoir and like stories (which are few and far between, though I hope more are in the make) and the idea of meeting gender transition with an open heart catches fire. People will then see that such transition is an opportunity to open their hearts, grow, and accept others as they are, which is always the best way to build community.
MG: There are many transpeople and transfamilies in the world who are not safe. Your incredible story of navigating your husband’s transgender transition has a fairly happy ending. How does your family react to people who do not accept families like yours? How do you deal with those who still respond from a place of fear and confusion?
KKC: We do things for and with them, setting aside our differences. In the end, we are respected and valued for our humanity in this equation, and that returns us all to the point of the matter: we are here to love and serve. Let me give you an example. When Seda came out at work, there were only a few people in her large work group who showed any obvious disgruntlement. Her team had been prepped with an informational training about transgender people and how to best support them. Education is important because it helps people understand that gender dysphoria is not a choice or passing fancy. Seda returned to work to a wave of cards, invitations to lunch, and gifts of clothes and jewelry. She was overwhelmed by the kindness.
There were a few people who would not meet her eye after the transition, too, and one who scowled at her every time he met her in the hall. This was uncomfortable for Seda, but she did not see him often, so she was able to go on and focus on her work because she had the empathy and support of so many, including us at home. Those in her work group who felt uncomfortable about her path have since expressed surprise that she is “just a person and a helpful one at that” and have since accepted her identity as a woman.
The one fellow who scowled took longer. It’s been almost a decade now, and recently she did some work that crossed his desk. He was moved by the respect she paid him in his role, and not for the first time. She had made some great headway with their client using arguments he would have made himself. Seeing this, her former adversary beamed at her when he saw her next. He told her how impressed he was with her work and shook her hand appreciatively. She accepted his warmth with grace, having known he had it in him all along.
Seda had never accepted her co-worker as an enemy but kept seeing the good in him and networking with that good. In the end, her invitation to partnership and respect proved irresistible to her doubting colleague, and the most sustainable change is just that irresistible. We must love and listen until others adjust and come back to work beside us toward our common goals.
The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “Faith is the bird that feels the light,/and sings when the dawn is still dark.” Our work is to have faith in the good of others. Time helps. The support of others helps. And most of all, we must commit ourselves to focusing on love rather than living in fear.
MG: You mention Helen Boyd’s books, My Husband Betty and She’s Not the Man I Married, in your memoir. In her books, she also asked similar questions, “Would she love and desire her partner the same way? What would it mean if her husband were actually to become a woman -socially, legally, and medically?” Do you know if she has read your memoir? What do you think that your memoir adds to the conversation that Boyd began?
KKC: Helen Boyd rocks. Not only has she written a couple of powerful memoirs, but she has gathered and shared a plethora of resources for those of us who are faced with such a transition in our relationship. I have been in touch with her on and off, grateful for every moment of attention and encouragement she has shared, but she is very busy, and I haven’t heard that she has yet looked at the story in its entirety.
I think that Housewife adds a raw emotional account to the field of literature about partners of transgender people, and it’s from the perspective of a mother who was open to the outcome of this challenge. My work with NVC helped me to experience and track my emotions closely, and I shared that experience with readers. Not everyone is comfortable with big emotions, but we all have them.
My book offers one example of what can be done with big emotions while still maintaining connection in difficult relationships. It also shares how one woman, a stay-at-home mom, navigates making a home while living with the awareness that the foundation of it is likely imploding. This book is about remaking a concept of home as much as it is about remaking family. The experience of transition stripped our home and family down to love alone and came to know that love was the most powerful experience I’ve ever known.
MG: Over the course of several years, Fred has become Seda. This memoir has addressed your life as a couple before, during and even after the transition, but will there be a follow-up?
KKC: Yes and no. There’s not much drama going on here at the moment, so the story would likely be less captivating. I notice that people are curious about where we are now, but I think that what we have learned in the course of what I wrote about in Housewife (with a little blind luck) has contributed to creating a communal lifestyle that serves our entire family rather seamlessly. I would love to write about that, but doubtless, it would inhabit a series of essays that offer perspectives of living outside of the box rather than a singular story of transformation.
But who knows? I haven’t really lived enough of part two to be an expert on it yet!
MG: Kristin, thank you so much for being with us today.
KKC: Thank you so much for having me, Maribel! These are great questions.
Kristin K. Collier is an educator and writer from Eugene, OR. Her words have appeared in The Sun magazine, and her poetry is a frontispiece for Michael and Kathleen O’Neal Gear’s People of the Sea. She has been teaching Compassionate Communication since 2004. Collier and her spouse were featured on NPR’s program, Snap Judgment, in their Valentine’s edition, 2012. Click on her book title if you would like to buy her book: Housewife: Home-Remaking in a Transgender Marriage. Home Re-Making in a Transgender Marriage here and feel free to check out her fabulous website.