Does a sex change mean the end of the relationship?
October 14, 2001
By Sara Corbett
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
This is the story of Debbie and Chris. Chris loves Debbie and Debbie loves Chris. They have been a couple for nearly 10 years. After all this time, Chris still lights up, describing the moment he first laid eyes on Debbie, in a crowded bar in Providence, R.I., where they both were with other partners. "I thought, my God, that's the most beautiful woman I've ever seen," Chris says, slapping a palm exuberantly to his knee. Debbie, a willowy woman with lively brown eyes and full lips, was not instantly in love with Chris. She is, by nature, the more cautious of the two. Where Chris is an optimist, Debbie is a worrier. Where Chris's love is sometimes blindly romantic, Debbie's is more analytical, more brooding, though no less strong. After all this time, Debbie still laughs wildly at Chris's jokes. And Chris likes to stroke Debbie's arm when she's talking, as if to show how carefully he's listening.
Chris and Debbie live in western Massachusetts, in a rambling Victorian fixer‑upper that's filled with mismatched antiques and the artwork of their 4‑year‑old daughter, Hannah. Also in residence are two cats and an aging lab‑shepherd mutt named Lucy. In the yard, there are blueberry bushes, flower beds and a tire swing hanging from an old maple tree. When I arrive at the couple's house on a humid summer evening, Debbie, seven months pregnant with a second child, is at her prenatal yoga class. In the meantime, Hannah, who has her mother's olive skin and unruly brown hair, is putting on a dance performance, wearing a crown made of construction paper and a pair of wooden clogs. On the couch nearby, Chris, a sleepy‑eyed man with a Nordic complexion and a blond buzz cut, plays a set of bongos, stopping every so often to clap appreciatively as the young girl flits and spins.
An ordinary family with extraordinary origins.
If you didn't know anything about Debbie and Chris, you might mistake them for an ordinary couple ‑ as several of the people in their neighborhood have done since they moved to Massachusetts from North Carolina just over two years ago. Most recently, an older woman walking her dog happened upon Chris and Hannah raking the front yard. When the woman leaned toward Hannah and asked the kind of simple‑minded rhetorical question adults so often put to children ‑ "Are you raking leaves with your daddy?" ‑ she got the kind of you‑asked‑for‑it wallop of truth only a child can deliver: "He's not my daddy!" Hannah said brightly. "He was born a woman!"
Chris laughs, recalling the story for me. He is accustomed to unnerving people, though he doesn't particularly enjoy it. "The woman actually continued to be pleasant," he says, "but you could tell she just wanted to get the hell out of there."
Chris is a transgendered person ‑ in this instance, someone born in a female body but whose internal wiring, even as a child, seemed to be more typically male. "From my earliest memories, I pictured myself in a male role," he explains. "I was the boy in all my plays, the husband in all the house scenarios." As an adult woman, Chris ‑ whose birth name is Christina ‑ was "miserably uncomfortable" with the contradiction between how she felt and how she appeared. She hid her body beneath baggy clothes, identified as a lesbian and was often perceived by strangers to be an adolescent boy. Store clerks would uneasily switch between sir and ma'am when speaking to Chris. ("This was North Carolina," Chris reminds, "where everyone's either a sir or a ma'am.") In women's restrooms, Chris was treated scornfully, with women saying, "Can't you read the sign?"
The memory still galls him. "If they actually thought I was a man," says Chris, "they'd never say those things. They probably would just run ." For the most part, she simply kept herself dehydrated, avoiding public bathrooms altogether. "When your gender is ambiguous, people feel enormous license to make really inappropriate comments. I felt like I was a piece of educational material."
Chris had one particularly important ally in the world, however, and that was Debbie. Debbie is a lesbian who has been out since the age of 15. She is not bisexual. She has never been seriously attracted to men. What she loved about Chris as a woman were her inherent contradictions, what Debbie calls her "gender transgressiveness" ‑ the masculinity cloaked in a female body, the combination of toughness and vulnerability that Chris seemed to embody; in lesbian circles, Chris was identified as butch. In their early years together, Chris took Debbie for long motorcycle rides around the countryside. Living in separate states for a while, the two exchanged hundreds of pages of love letters. Eventually, they moved together to North Carolina so Debbie could attend graduate school. They bought rings to symbolize their commitment. They enjoyed a wide circle of mostly lesbian friends. And in 1996, with the help of an anonymous sperm donor, Debbie became pregnant.
As Chris and Debbie navigated life as a couple ‑ weathering everything from the stresses of a colicky baby to a suicide in Debbie's family ‑ one issue never seemed fully resolved. "The gender thing kept rearing its ugly head," Chris says. "I kept trying to push it down and push it down, to distract myself with everyday life, but it never went away. I never felt at peace." Even as Debbie frequently cried over the indignities that Chris suffered as someone who seemed neither fully female nor male, even as Chris struggled with depression and a growing sense of alienation, neither one viewed a sex change as a remedy ‑ at least not initially. "I had all kinds of preconceived notions about what weirdos transsexuals were," says Chris. "I thought, those people are on the fringe, they're very underworldish." Yet attending the annual National Gay and Lesbian Task Force conference one year, they happened to sit in on a panel discussion between male‑to‑female transsexuals. Debbie hardly remembers the experience, but hearing the transsexuals' stories, Chris felt something stir. "I suddenly felt like crying and jumping in their laps," he says now. "Like, hold me, hold me."
Over the next four years, Debbie tried in earnest to dissuade Chris from the idea of having a sex change, mostly because she thought it would be the death knell for their relationship. Life with a man, after all, wasn't exactly what she had signed on for. "I couldn't picture what she'd be like as a man," Debbie says now. "I'd been a lesbian for 18 years at that point. There was just no way my partner was going through a sex change and I was going to stay with her." But in time, Chris confided her yearning to transition ‑ as the slide from one gender to another is often called ‑ to a handful of female‑to‑male transsexuals she met at another conference. "I told them I was really scared because I had this baby at home and a partner who was really resistant," says Chris. He remembers the group's response as uncategorical: " 'Dump her!' they said. 'If she can't come along, dump her!'"
In the end, however, Chris and Debbie made a move that would ultimately save their relationship: they compromised. Chris waited another year to begin transitioning, giving Debbie some more time to mull things over, and to connect via an e‑mail list with other people who'd seen their partners through a sex change. "I poured my heart out," says Debbie. "I was so full of fear and worry." In the meantime, Chris began meeting weekly with a psychologist who formally diagnosed in her a gender‑identity disorder. With Debbie's blessing and financial help, Chris began testosterone therapy in the fall of 1998, and several months later underwent a radical mastectomy and chest reconstruction, choosing, however, to forgo genital modification ‑phalloplasty ‑ which can cost more than $50,000 with mixed aesthetic results. ("We've got college tuitions to pay someday," Chris says lightly. "I'm not that interested in a penis.") In 1999, armed with a doctor's letter stating she'd undergone sexual reassignment, Chris was able to legally change her sex to male.
Debbie says her decision to stay with Chris as she became a man was tenuous at best. "It was a total leap of faith," she tells me as we sit drinking tea in their living room, long after Hannah has gone to bed. A chorus of crickets sings outside the window. Debbie is curled on the couch, her feet resting in Chris's lap, her pregnant belly between them. "There was no way to know what Chris was going to look like, what our dynamics were going to be. But just realizing I had to be with her ‑ with him, with this person ‑ was a big turning point. I needed to at least give it a try."
These days, there is little trace of the woman whose contradictions Debbie once loved. Chris is now 36 years old and walking testament to the power of testosterone, 200 milligrams of which he injects every two weeks. He has broad, triangulated shoulders, a square jaw and a voice that's midrange bass and continuing to drop. "My shirt size has gone up, my waist size has gone down, my hairline has moved back probably an inch and a half," he says, still somewhat incredulous. "My nose is bigger, my eyebrows are heavier, my shoe size is up." Chris lathers up and shaves every day, and just recently he sprouted his first chest hairs. His arms and legs, tanned and muscular from his work as a historic carpenter, look entirely male. Despite the fact that he is only 5 foot 8 inches tall, he is never, under any circumstances, he says, mistaken for a woman. Clearly, though, there's more to this than hormonal alchemy. Chris says he is finally happy, and it shows. While as a woman he was reserved and sometimes came across as sullen in public, Chris is now, in Debbie's words, "flowery and talkative." He credits the sex change for bringing about this happiness, and Debbie for bringing about the sex change.
"She empowered me to do it,” he says.
"Which is ironic," adds Debbie, "since I supported him in figuring out who he was, and yet it was something l really didn't want."
Two years after Chris's transition, Debbie still struggles with what it all means. As Chris has quietly delighted in his body's changes, Debbie has grieved the loss of her female partner ‑ and with it, her own identity as a lesbian. "The higher he got, the lower I felt," says Debbie. "There were nights when I'd see Chris coming to bed wearing boxer shorts and with a flat chest, and I'd just cry. I really questioned who I was, suddenly, this lifelong lesbian living with a man." Out in the world, it's Debbie who now deals almost daily with contradictions. "I'll either go through a 10‑minute conversation without once using a pronoun to describe Chris," she says, "or I'll do this massive overshare, explaining the whole story to a virtual stranger." Either way, she says, it can be exhausting. Laughing, she adds, " I swear, sometimes I wish I had a shirt that reads, 'I'm gay and he used to be a she.'"
Chris and Debbie realize that their story is unusual. Reliable statistics on the number of transgendered people in this country are unavailable, in part due to a paucity of research on the subject and because, by nature, transgendered people ‑ whether they've undergone a sex change or not- tend to resist easy categorization. What is well documented, however, is the violence often used against them. The 1999 movie "Boys Don't Cry," depicting the murder of Brandon Teena, a transgendered teen from Nebraska, may have raised mainstream awareness of the issue, but the stigma surrounding people who express gender ambiguity still runs deep. In an eerie mirror to the Teena story in June of this year, a 16‑year‑old boy named Fred C. Martinez Jr., identified as transgendered and as gay, was bludgeoned to death near Cortez, Colo.
"The freak factor is just too high for some people," says Chris, who feels vulnerable discussing his situation with strangers, particularly a reporter. (At his request, I have agreed not to use surnames in this article.) Indeed, there is something inherently invasive in the process, in wanting ‑ somehow needing ‑ to situate Chris at either end of a gender axis. Does he have a penis? How does he have sex? Would the answers to these questions help us understand someone like Chris, or would they marginalize him further? "I wish that people didn't find it so personally threatening," he says, sighing. "They don't need to participate or understand or sympathize, but why does it need to be so threatening?" It was partly fear that led Chris to reveal his past earlier this year to the all‑male renovation crew on which he works ‑ eight months after beginning the job. Worried about the possibility of a work‑related accident sending him to the emergency room without Debbie by his side, he felt it was important for his co‑workers to know his situation. "The fellas," as Chris calls them, received his news sensitively and continue to treat him with respect. Living in a man's body, Chris has learned some interesting lessons about the male world. His ability to do his work is seldom questioned, he says, whereas when he was a woman, "people always wanted references." He has adjusted his body language and become more adept at "guy talk," though he has also occasionally slipped up. He once, for example, unwittingly called a former neighbor who was also a state trooper "honey." "I thought, oops, working‑class guys don't do that," says Chris, laughing. "I wanted to say: 'Oh, sorry, sorry, sorry! I've only been doing this a few months."' The sex change has wrought emotional consequences as well. Chris was surprised to discover after starting on testosterone that he no longer had an easy time crying. "It has always been a point of pride for me to be emotionally accessible. But sometimes the tears get stuck right here," he says, touching his chest. "They just won't come."
For Debbie, who is also 36 and who works as a health and social services researcher, the changes have been no less profound. She says that she misses the more emotionally accessible version of Chris. She misses the concrete parameters of what was once her own rock‑solid sexual identity.
Though she insists that her sexual orientation has not changed ‑ "I don't want people to take my story to mean you 'fix' gay people," she says ‑ she has, over time, developed an appreciation for Chris's male body. "My attraction is very specific to Chris," Debbie says. "It doesn't translate to other men. And it was a year and a half before I felt it at all. It must have been terribly difficult for Chris, being with someone who didn't find him desirable." .
Chris agrees. "I challenge anyone to look at their partner and think about what it would be like if he were a she, or she was a he," he says. "It's an enormous thing to even consider."
Yet after all this time, after all this change, Debbie still loves Chris and Chris still loves Debbie -an accomplishment by anyone's standards. As a male‑female couple, they are legally permitted to marry, but they remain resistant to the idea since they feel it undermines the rights of gay people. Instead, they are thinking about having a ceremony of some sort, or maybe a big party to celebrate their 10th anniversary as a couple. "We have a very deep sense of inner strength as a couple now," says Debbie. 'We've each learned what it really means to be patient with somebody, what it really, means to be selfless. I'm proud of us and I want to celebrate."
If Debbie and Chris have discovered anything from their love for each other, it's that gender does not need always to govern supreme. It's a sensibility they have worked to instill in Hannah, and one they intend to pass on to the son they're expecting in December. Hannah, for her part, lovingly refers to Chris as "B‑da," (an amalgam of "butch dad") and has no problem beginning a sentence with “When B‑da was a woman…” At the age of 4, she is far more concerned with finger‑painting and dancing and watching a spider build its web beneath her family's porch than she is with gender issues ‑ or anything beyond the fact that she has an intact and loving family. Early one morning, I join Chris and Debbie on their drive through rolling, green farmland to Hannah's day‑care center. In the back of their Subaru, I sit next to Hannah as she chatters happily to herself. A sticker on her lunchbox reads "Hate Is Not a Family Value." From the front seat, Debbie is explaining that she and Chris will often switch the genders of the characters in Hannah's children's books to keep things more fluid, more equitable ‑ and as they like to see it, more true to life. When Chris reads "Make Way for Ducklings," for example, he tells the story of Mrs. Mallard and Mrs. Mallard.
'We try to make some of the he characters into she characters, and vice versa," says Debbie."And sometimes we just call them 'human beings,'" says Chris.
Sara Corbett is a contributing writer for the magazine. Her last article was about the abortion‑rights advocate Rebecca Gomperts.