Photo:Danielle Donders Mothership Photography
I consider myself a lucky woman: I got to marry the same amazing person twice—the first time they wore a tux, and the second time, they wore a wedding gown.
For nearly eighteen years of marriage, I knew my spouse as a man. When we got married first time around, we were new parents to an infant son. We couldn’t afford a photographer or a honeymoon. We both rented our wedding apparel, and we bought our rings second-hand at a pawn shop.
But while funds were scarce, love was abundant. That love has carried us through not only one, but two gender transitions in our family. My spouse coming out as a woman was not the first shift inside the walls of our sleepy suburban home. All of it began with a cry for help from a very brave child.
If you had asked me to describe my family a few years ago, I would have told you we were a mother, father and three sons. The vanilla latte of families. And I like vanilla lattes, thank you very much. They’re simple and predictable.
We might have looked the part of a perfect family, but there were issues beneath the surface. A veil of unhappiness hung over our household. Both my spouse and our middle child were sullen, withdrawn and often angry. They seemed to want to hide from the world rather than be engaged in it. We rarely got together with others or went out as a family of five. Social activities were too stressful for all of us with two unwilling participants. I longed for a family that had fun together. For many years, we were not that family.
But on a frigid February night in 2014, an email arrived from our 11-year-old, who we knew then as our middle son. “Please try to understand,” the message read. “I am a girl trapped in a boy’s body. More than anything, I need to be a girl. Please help me.”
A wave of feelings rose up and caught in my throat. For years, this child had been struggling with anxiety and depression so severe that we had spent hours in therapists’ chairs, doctors’ offices and emergency rooms. Despite everyone’s best efforts, we could find no reason or solution. I would lie awake at night, desperately hoping for answers.
Now we had an answer, but it was one that frightened me. I knew very little about transgender issues, and even less about transgender children. How did we miss this? What do we do? I sat staring at the screen in utter disbelief, my body going cold from shock. But it didn’t take long before unconditional love—a force I’ve come to realize is greater than anything else—ushered me down the hall and to my child’s bedroom. It was there my spouse and I found our kid, tearfully hiding under the blankets and awaiting the worst. We crawled in, one on each side.
“We love you,” we took turns saying. “We’re here for you no matter what.”
From that moment on, I knew Alexis only as my daughter.
Within hours, I was on the phone and emailing with experts from around the country, inhaling information on how to best help her. This was the start of a journey of growth and change. Each step of the way, her smile and confidence grew. The shine returned to her eyes.
Making things right for our kid was an instinctive thing for me. Transgender youth who are not supported by their parents have one of the highest suicide rates of any marginalized group in the world. With good support, however, the risk of self-harm drops dramatically.
While the goal of supporting Alexis came easily, the learning curve was admittedly steep. I had grown up with plenty of misconceptions about the trans community that needed dismantling. The movies and TV shows I had watched in my youth depicted trans people as unstable, confused, and often conniving. But knowing my child meant knowing none of these things were true. We lost friends who refused to learn along with us. Setting up school and medical supports took a great deal of advocacy and education on my part.
Throughout it all, I also had to say goodbye to the son I thought I had so I could wholly embrace my daughter. I had to let go of the idea of our vanilla-latte family and accept that life was sometimes complex. But after a few months, we began to settle into our new normal.
I didn’t realize that this new normal would save my marriage.
Truth be told, while my spouse and I loved each other, there were many problems over the years. I would watch the person I knew as my husband come home from work, shoulders down, head hung low with a proverbial rain cloud over it. We hardly went out together and had few couple friends. “I don’t want to hang out with your friends’ husbands,” I would be told. “I don’t need friends.” The discontent spilled into all parts of our lives, from socializing to parenting. This isn’t surprising; When you can’t be yourself, how can you be happy?
Then Alexis came out. Here, in our own family, was an example of someone thriving as her true self. Our daughter became the catalyst my then-husband needed to crack open the closet door just enough to let me in.
In July of 2015, we were on our way home from a date night gone wrong. We had dinner at a nice restaurant, then went to a local coffee shop to talk and hold hands across the table like we used to. I had insisted we go out to lighten the mood, reconnect and laugh together. None of those things happened. Instead, my partner was withdrawn and moody all evening. I felt tired, resentful, and desperate for a relationship in which I didn’t have to try so hard. That night, I decided it was time to get to the bottom of things.
“I wish you would tell me what’s wrong,” I implored as we drove through the rain. “We’ve been living like this for too long.” I began asking direct questions I had always been afraid to hear the answers to: Are you unhappy being married and raising a family?
No, it was not about me and the kids.
"Are you gay?"
“Are you a woman?”
The answer came in the form of silence, followed by a quiet, “I can’t talk about this.”
Another shift, another cold wash of shock. In that moment, I found out I’d never had a husband. I had someone painfully playing the role of one, trying hard to be a man and a father when nothing could be further from the reality. It explained all the misery, but it was a crushing realization. The world can be cruel to trans people, and now we both knew our family had two of them. The silence was so profound you could almost hear our hearts breaking.
Having a partner transition is very different from having a child do so. Thanks to Alexis, I knew what being transgender meant, but I didn’t know how it would affect an intimate relationship. Could I support my spouse in transition as well as I had our daughter? Would I still be attracted to her? Would she be accepted at work, or find herself without a job? Would our loved ones be supportive of another big change in our family? Many couples don’t make it through transition. Even if we did, would we finally have happiness waiting for us on the other side, or simply a new set of complications and a new pile of misery?
We told our children a few weeks after my partner came out to me. I saw the same expression pass across our sons’ faces: Shock, fear, and heartbreak. At 18 and 8, they had already lived through a similar change when their sister came out. But this was different.
“You mean, I don’t have a dad?” Jackson, our youngest, asked, tears filling his eyes and spilling down his face.
“No,” I said, wiping a tear from his cheek. “But you have two moms who love you very much.”
Alexis was the only one shedding tears of pure joy. “I’m just so happy for you,” she said. “I know exactly how you’re feeling.” They have each other to lean on in this journey of becoming their true selves. In our family of five, only they know what it’s like to finally be seen for who they really are, to choose a name that fits, and to be called by the right pronouns. It’s a beautiful bond.
My wife chose the name Zoe. The kids decided to call her, “Mama.”
“You know, after The Fosters,” Alexis said. It’s one of their favourite shows about an unconventional family with two mothers at the helm.
They made the switch easily. Any feelings of loss over a paternal figure were short-lived. Zoe is a far more engaged and connected mother than she ever was in the ill-fitting dad role. She spends more time with them, is more involved in every way, and loves going out as a family unit.
It didn’t take long before all three were embracing having same-sex parents. When I asked if they were having any issues with other kids at school, our youngest said, “No, it’s the complete opposite. Having two moms is cool now!” Who knew?
Meanwhile, Zoe and I worked hard on our relationship. We had one powerful tool on our side: Love. Our family has always had a lot of that. So, despite a tumultuous first few months, we stayed and held each other through the storm. We talked things through. We respected and honoured each other’s feelings. We made space for saying goodbye to the old and welcoming in the new.
What I discovered in that time surprised me. I learned how deeply I love my wife as my wife. Her transition was a spousal upgrade in every way. She’s happier, of course, but also funnier, sexier, and more social. Zoe is now often the one dragging me out of the house. She makes friends easily and is always planning the next get-together or celebration. Her smile can brighten the whole room, and her fashion sense is enviable. She has gone from merely existing to thriving, and I love being able to witness it all.
Zoe has had an exceptionally positive transition. Our families and close social circle have embraced her. Our neighbourhood and city have been incredibly kind. Her work has been so supportive that they threw her a coming-out party, a story that garnered worldwide attention.
My attraction for Zoe grew to a whole new level, and I admitted to myself a same-sex marriage was a better fit for me– something I had known for a lifetime, but had been keeping buried. Closets seem to run in the family. Zoe is beautiful, both inside and out. Everything about her shines in a way it never had before. She’s kind, soft, and affectionate. She’s everything I always wanted in a partner, and I find it impossible not to love her.
Just over two years after that miserable date night, Zoe and I stood under a blue country sky and recited new vows to one another. We promised to always be one another’s best friend, to always hold on through any storms that may come, and to grow old wearing yoga pants and watching TV together, like the pair of suburban moms we are. Our dads walked us down the aisle. Our moms gave speeches that moved us all to tears. Our kids all took part, too. Fourteen-year-old Alexis was our DJ, ten-year-old Jackson was our ring bearer, and twenty-year-old Aerik, who was a baby at our first wedding, officiated this one. We celebrated the night away with the many family members and friends who have stood by us through it all.
And yes, we finally had a photographer to capture that perfect day.
We then took the kids on a family honeymoon out West. Zoe and I walked mountain trails and city streets hand in hand—as wife and wife—grateful to have come out the other side closer and more connected. Renewing our vows was the symbolic start of a new, more authentic life.
If you were to ask me to describe my family today, I would tell you we are two moms, two boys, and a girl who changed all our lives for the better. Some names and pronouns have changed, but the love has stayed the same.
We’re the vanilla latte of families—with rainbow sprinkles on top.
This article was originally published online in September 2017.