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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

NY Times: Is My Marriage Gay?

Note: I'll start with a confession: The journey of recovery from my own sexism has taken longer than the healing of my internalized homophobia. I continue to work on my own gender-bias, which is much harder work because the prejudices are so subtle.

The courageous work being done by the transsexual community has really forced me to confront my own 'stuff' about gender - in some positive and some negative ways. For example, I still find myself getting really angry at many 'drag queens' - who mock society's image of women even as they embrace it for themselves - and then, in the light of day, can and do invoke all the rights and benefits of male privilege.

I suspect this is why transsexuals, as a group, continue to be maligned among some LGBT people as well as the heterosexual community. They make us uncomfortable. They challenge us to change traditional understandings of gender, relationships, why, even marriage! To wit:

May 12, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor
Is My Marriage Gay?

Belgrade Lakes, Me.

AS many Americans know, last week Gov. John Baldacci of Maine signed a law that made this state the fifth in the nation to legalize gay marriage. It’s worth pointing out, however, that there were some legal same-sex marriages in Maine already, just as there probably are in all 50 states. These are marriages in which at least one member of the couple has changed genders since the wedding.

I’m in such a marriage myself and, quite frankly, my spouse and I forget most of the time that there is anything particularly unique about our family, even if we are — what is the phrase? — “differently married.”

Deirdre Finney and I were wed in 1988 at the National Cathedral in Washington. In 2000, I started the long and complex process of changing from male to female. Deedie stood by me, deciding that her life was better with me than without me. Maybe she was crazy for doing so; lots of people have generously offered her this unsolicited opinion over the years. But what she would tell you, were you to ask, is that the things that she loved in me have mostly remained the same, and that our marriage, in the end, is about a lot more than what genders we are, or were.

Deirdre is far from the only spouse to find herself in this situation; each week we hear from wives and husbands going through similar experiences together. Reliable statistics on transgendered people always prove elusive, but just judging from my e-mail, it seems as if there are a whole lot more transsexuals — and people who love them — in New England than say, Republicans. Or Yankees fans.

I’ve been legally female since 2002, although the definition of what makes someone “legally” male or female is part of what makes this issue so unwieldy. How do we define legal gender? By chromosomes? By genitalia? By spirit? By whether one asks directions when lost?

We accept as a basic truth the idea that everyone has the right to marry somebody. Just as fundamental is the belief that no couple should be divorced against their will.

For our part, Deirdre and I remain legally married, even though we’re both legally female. If we had divorced last month, before Governor Baldacci’s signature, I would have been allowed on the following day to marry a man only. There are states, however, that do not recognize sex changes. If I were to attempt to remarry in Ohio, for instance, I would be allowed to wed a woman only.

Gender involves a lot of gray area. And efforts to legislate a binary truth upon the wide spectrum of gender have proven only how elusive sexual identity can be. The case of J’noel Gardiner, in Kansas, provides a telling example. Ms. Gardiner, a postoperative transsexual woman, married her husband, Marshall Gardiner, in 1998. When he died in 1999, she was denied her half of his $2.5 million estate by the Kansas Supreme Court on the ground that her marriage was invalid. Thus in Kansas, any transgendered person who is anatomically female is now allowed to marry only another woman.

Similar rulings have left couples in similar situations in Florida, Ohio and Texas. A 1999 ruling in San Antonio, in Littleton v. Prange, determined that marriage could be only between people with different chromosomes. The result, of course, was that lesbian couples in that jurisdiction were then allowed to wed as long as one member of the couple had a Y chromosome, which is the case with both transgendered male-to-females and people born with conditions like androgen insensitivity syndrome. This ruling made Texas, paradoxically, one of the first states in which gay marriage was legal.

A lawyer for the transgendered plaintiff in the Littleton case noted the absurdity of the country’s gender laws as they pertain to marriage: “Taking this situation to its logical conclusion, Mrs. Littleton, while in San Antonio, Tex., is a male and has a void marriage; as she travels to Houston, Tex., and enters federal property, she is female and a widow; upon traveling to Kentucky she is female and a widow; but, upon entering Ohio, she is once again male and prohibited from marriage; entering Connecticut, she is again female and may marry; if her travel takes her north to Vermont, she is male and may marry a female; if instead she travels south to New Jersey, she may marry a male.”

Legal scholars can (and have) devoted themselves to the ultimately frustrating task of defining “male” and “female” as entities fixed and unmoving. A better use of their time, however, might be to focus on accepting the elusiveness of gender — and to celebrate it. Whether a marriage like mine is a same-sex marriage or some other kind is hardly the point. What matters is that my spouse and I love each other, and that our legal union has been a good thing — for us, for our children and for our community.

It’s my hope that people who are reluctant to embrace same-sex marriage will see that it has been with us, albeit in this one unusual circumstance, for years. Can we have a future in which we are more concerned with the love a family has than with the sometimes unanswerable questions of gender and identity? As of last week, it no longer seems so unthinkable. As we say in Maine, you can get there from here.

Jennifer Finney Boylan is a professor of English at Colby College and the author of the memoir “I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted.”


Mary said...

Thanks for posting this article. I have a very dear friend who is transsexual; in fact, I served on s/his discernment committee for ordination long before the issue of s/his gender dysphoria emerged. S/he (I'm deliberately being ambiguous as to which way the reassignment took place) was - both before and after - an incredibly pastoral person. Also, and this may surprise some people, a very stable person with a gift for working for some of the most abused and neglected members of society.

All that said, the news of this person's gender dysphoria and subsequent reassignment was very difficult for our community to face. Some friends are still in denial. Added to that, I think it's tempting for "good" liberals to pretend more sophistication than they actually feel. There are some human conditions that force us to sit with our discomfort and find a way to respond in compassion. Perhaps the pain of feeling in that we are in the wrong body is so difficult that we don't even want to imagine it.

Christian said...

I read this article too, and it is an aspect of marriage laws that I suspect legislators have not adequately considered. Knowing such a family personally has made it very real.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post. I have quoted you in my own post at

Muthah+ said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. I have a transsexual couple in my congregation. This post is a wonderful way of helping everyone look at the situation and be supportive.

Muthah+ said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. I have a transsexual couple in my congregation. This post is a wonderful way of helping everyone look at the situation and be supportive.

David said...

God bless Jennfer and Dierdre
and let the people of God say Amen.


Priscilla said...

Thank you, Elizabeth, for your honesty. As a former "drag queen" (in my much-younger days) I would take slight issue with your belief that queens enjoy the full benefits of the male world. There is a great danger for any man who willingly, let alone unwillingly, takes on the "feminine" characteristics of women in pubic and many impersonators are very effeminate as males.

There is much violence perpetrated against gender variant people; men who aren't comfortable in their own maleness will throw the first punch or shoot the first bullet, often after engaging in flirtatious or sexual activity with the target of their hatred. Families often throw them out of the home forever. Outside of a few "safe" professions, they often can't find decent day work and resort to becoming sex workers.

It is not a safe, pretty, or privileged life walking the world between male and female and I have lost many, many friends who embraced it to violence, AIDS, drug abuse, and suicide and I have nursed many, many friends through violent attacks that scar inside as well as outside. They may make a caricature out of feminine characteristics but they pay a heavy price for it too.

I too am working on my own issues of sexism and I truly appreciate your point of view here. And God bless Jennifer and Deidre.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for stopping by, Priscilla. I hope you understand that I am speaking only from my experience with regards to some of the 'drag' entertainers I've known who caricature women by night and by day enjoy male privilege. It is not an uncommon thing, at least, in my experience.

I'm sorry, but it still makes me very angry - but I'm probably my own worst enemy on this. My assumption is that those who 'play' women by night would have an increased understanding or at least a heightened sensitivity to the struggle women face in our society.

I have also known men who pay dearly for their gender expressions, who understand clearly what it is like to walk down a street and fear rape or mugging.

I continue to work through my own gender bias, as well as my internalized sexism and heterosexism. None of it is easy. I appreciate your gentle spirit and your solidarity in the struggle.

Anonymous said...

thanks, very good =)