A Gender Dilemma

Published in: July-August 2007 issue.


She's Not the Man I MarriedShe’s Not the Man I Married: My Life with a Transgender Husband
by Helen Boyd
Seal Press (Avalon).  290 pages, $15.95 (paper)


ASK ANY EAGER MOTHER- or father-to-be about the gender of the new baby, and you can nearly guarantee that their eyes will light up. Ask what they “want” the baby to be, and you might hear that they want a boy or they may want a girl, or they might tell you that it doesn’t matter, as long as the baby is healthy.

But what is gender? Can we be entirely male or female, or is there a middle ground where gender isn’t based on physical characteristics? What happens when physical appearance belies the man or woman inside the body? Author Helen Boyd tackles these questions in her new memoir, She’s Not the Man I Married. Growing up, Boyd tells us, she was always a tomboy. She blithely did everything the neighborhood boys did, playing the same games and riding her bike at breakneck speed. Outwardly, she was a little girl, albeit with a no-fuss short haircut, but other kids noticed her gender idiosyncrasies. She vividly remembers the day a little boy called her a “dyke.”

As a teenager, Boyd dressed in Goth style and shaved her head. She lived with male roommates and felt most comfortable with gay men and men in general. Her friends’ gender was never much of an issue for her. She was at ease with people in the GLBT community and she happily embraced androgynous 80’s culture. Even then, however, she was aware that others assumed, wrongly, that she was a lesbian.

Today, Boyd is married to Betty, who is a trans person—not a transsexual or transvestite, not a cross-dresser or drag queen. “Just trans,” Betty insists. Back when they met, Boyd was delighted to find a handsome man who complemented her personality. Betty didn’t seem bothered by Boyd’s feminine masculinity, and she embraced his soft, feminine side. The conversations were easy and they had much in common. The tomboy girl fell in love with the girly boy. On the fifth or sixth date, Betty told Boyd that he loved to dress in women’s clothing. Boyd said it was no big deal to her.

And it never was a big deal—until, years later, when Betty started to contemplate taking the next step, surgery to change her physical gender. This decision has caused Boyd great pain, because she is not sexually attracted to women. Even though she loves Betty deeply—as a man who is also a woman (the latter more often than not), she wonders whether she’ll still be attracted to Betty as a physiological woman. And will she still be the same Betty in other respects?

She’s Not the Man I Married is both heartbreaking and, alas, rather tedious. On the one hand, it’s obvious that Boyd doesn’t want her husband to take the next step, but she loves him deeply and wonders if she can support him enough if he decides to become a “full-time woman.” Her confusion, pain, and outrage simmer just beneath every heartfelt sentence in this book. On the other hand, she repeats herself way too much, and this book wallows in the author’s own confusion. She admits in the foreword that the language of the world of trans—CDs, FTMs, and MTFs—lacks clarity, but does little to help the reader make sense of this world. She offers much food for thought but often sounds like she’s thinking out loud rather than following a logical train of thought; indeed, her rants on gender tend to run in circles.

Thus this book is not the breezy, anecdotal memoir that some readers may expect based on its somewhat misleading title. Instead, it’s an earnest book that might appeal to those questioning the nature of gender identity, marriage, and social attitudes about both.

Terri Schlichenmeyer is a syndicated columnist based in Wisconsin.