Beyond Kris Jenner: The wife of a trans woman opens up on sex, transitioning together and losing straight privilege

The topic of transitioning is making headlines, but it isn't news to Helen Boyd: Her "husband" became her wife

Published May 9, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

Bruce Jenner, Kris Jenner          (AP/Mark Von Holden/Reuters/Jonathan Alcorn)
Bruce Jenner, Kris Jenner (AP/Mark Von Holden/Reuters/Jonathan Alcorn)

"I have these memories of this life, and I feel sometimes like it didn’t exist."

Those are some of the very first words we've heard from Kris Jenner in reaction to estranged spouse Bruce Jenner's transition to female. This teensy tiny little sound bite comes by way of a preview clip for an upcoming episode of "Keeping Up With the Kardashians," and we'll have to wait another week before tuning in on May 17 to hear the rest. Beyond just general obsession with all things Kardashian, the feverish curiosity about Kris' reaction is fundamentally about what it's like to have a partner transition to female, and luckily there are many more women in the world who can answer that question without first teasing us with paltry preview clips.

Helen Boyd is one of them. In fact, she wrote two books, "My Husband Betty: Love, Sex, and Life with a Crossdresser" and "She's Not the Man I Married: My Life With a Transgender Husband," about her journey with her partner -- and that's really how she describes it: a mutual journey through the transition. While Boyd decided to stay in her relationship after the revelation that her husband wanted to do more than just occasionally dress in feminine clothing, she did consider leaving. It's worked out beautifully for her, but she admires partners who are able to recognize that they can't handle the transitioning process -- it doesn't work for everyone, she says. Boyd runs support groups for partners of trans people and sees all sorts of relationship outcomes. It used to be that most couples split, but increasingly, they are staying together.

We talked by phone about Jenner's questioning of the past, the looks she and her wife get in public and how she sometimes misses the besuited partner in her wedding photos.

In the wake of Bruce Jenner's coming out, Kris Jenner has expressed that she has these memories of a life together that, as she puts it, “I feel sometimes like it didn’t exist.” Do you relate to that sentiment?

Oh gosh yes. It's a really surreal experience in a lot of ways. I look back at our wedding photos -- we were legally heterosexually married back in 2001 -- and when I go back to the photos it's like, there's still that guy out there somewhere, who I just don't know anymore. I tried a lot of creative ways of getting my head around that idea, because I certainly miss that person. I have a hard time not seeing my wife, even in those wedding photos, where she very much looks like a guy and is in a tux. It does absolutely sometimes feel like it didn't happen. I think that's very consistent for a lot of partners. You have this memory of the person you knew and they don't exist anymore, but it's not like the person is dead, they're just gone.

So how was your husband a different person from your wife then?

It's not so much that the people are different. My wife has been really amazing in a lot of ways in that she always considered her transition our transition. Her goal was very much about making sure she moved slowly enough that I could keep up, which is very atypical and frankly she gets some criticism for even asserting that, but that is what she did. She's really tried to bring a lot of her male self forward. Our experiences have changed as a result. We went to see the Replacements, which is a band we both love. I thought, if I was here with my husband, she could sing along in her gorgeous male voice and we could be a couple and she could put her arms around me -- or he could, I guess, I'll put that in giant scare-quotes -- and we could just be there and be a couple enjoying the band that we both love since the '80s. Instead we have to be really careful. She can't let her voice drop too low or people notice. She passes generally, but if she does something like that then people around you start to notice and we can't really be as affectionate. You don't know who's around or if you're safe. I think the difference in our experience is that we live as a lesbian couple. We face all of the same issues that most lesbians do in public.

Losing heterosexual privilege has been very eye-opening. I was always an LGBT ally, I was the girl who all the gay boys came out to in high school, and I consider myself pan or bi, but it really didn't occur to me until I was actually living with a woman and out in public -- especially having had the exact same person be my husband, where if we showed affection in public, it didn't put us at risk and we didn't get comments. Now we have to deal with all of that. I had no idea how bad it was.

So do you get comments out in public?

We do. I'm not gonna complain, because my wife is a gorgeous person, but it does mean that when we're out together, a simple public display of affection, it gets too much attention -- like any lipstick lesbians. Not just the weird prurient interest, but how safe do you feel.

You mentioned that you consider yourself pan or bi. Did your partner's transitioning change how you viewed your own sexuality?

Well, what's interesting is that I've never identified as a lesbian. Being bi, I probably accentuate it a little more than I did before, but I really thought of myself as heteroflexible when I was younger. I mean, I happily married a man who cross-dressed, so whatever category that puts me in. There's not really a word for my sexual orientation, that's why I use "queer" and "pan." The whole heteronormative model seems very far away.

So you knew that in getting married that she cross-dressed?

Yeah, I probably knew that three weeks into our relationship. She doesn't think of it as cross-dressing anymore, in fact she really hates that word, but then she certainly did feminine gender presentation -- and yes, I knew that beforehand, but I just didn't know it was going to become transitioning, because there are lots of women married to men who cross-dress occasionally and never transition.

We had been kind of intense when we first met. We had three weeks before she went away to act for an entire summer. So we kind of made up our minds that we were dating and exclusive kind of because we had to, because we were going to be apart for three months. She didn't want me to make a commitment until I knew that there were gender issues. That she "occasionally" cross-dressed was probably the biggest understatement in the history of relationship disclosures, but I did certainly know that there was gender stuff. I really felt like I'd met my opposite in a certain way, because I'd always been a little bit more masculine than the average girls. It was tomboy meets cross-dresser, it's perfect. Then over time, obviously her gender stuff was more chronic and acute than mine was.

How did that develop?

Not unlike Bruce Jenner and other people who transition older, she didn't really leap into it. She was kind of an unwilling transitioner. She's an actor and she played a lot of awesome male leads and she didn't really want to give up acting. So she didn't really want to transition. At first, there was this duality of the male person and the person who went out with me on weekends who was usually presenting as female. And then it's called "gender leaking" often, but her gender started seeming more feminine in general. She started getting clocked as a gay man and then she ended up at a place where she was androgynous and people couldn't tell what her gender was, and as gender queer person will tell you, that's a difficult thing. She was so tired of getting, "Sir, ma'am, I mean sir, ma'am," and she's like, "I just want a slice of pizza, can you try not to worry about my gender for a minute?" She finally decided on doing the legal stuff because she was trying to take a flight and had someone in the TSA almost not let her get on the plane because she didn't look enough like her male ID. That's when we realized that this was becoming too complicated.

What was that gradual process like for you?

Well, like I said, she was always pretty considerate, but it was certainly difficult. I didn't want to deal with it. It's terrifying. There is no road map. Trans people have a little bit of a guide at this point, but partners often feel like they're being dragged behind the horse. You're just trying to keep up all the time. It's a very intense, self-searching process, so you're kind of living with a temporary narcissist. That's true of any kind of major life change, whether it's change of job, loss of a parent or whatever -- but it was kind of one-sided because it was her thing and I was sort of just watching it and trying to keep myself sane at the same time.

Did you ever consider leaving?

Of course. I'd say most trans partners do. There was a study done recently showing that trans people's partners deal with about the same level of anxiety about dealing with transphobia that trans people do. It was often assumed that I was some kind of doormat because of course I should want to leave. So it was a lot of that, the judgments of, "Well, you like men, why don't you just go." And I was like, "That's kind of simplistic. I have a person in my life who adores me and who I love." It wasn't quite as simple as people seem to think it is. But, yeah, it's a difficult life and the person changes in ways that are sometimes impossible to keep up with. And I respect and admire partners who realize that they can't do it. There's a lot of people who try to hold on and that can be in some ways an uglier process. It's very easy to become resentful and angry, because you're always sort of second. I always joke that our awesome liberal friends will try to affirm her femininity so they'll give her compliments all the time and I'm like, "Hi, still a woman! You could tell me I look nice too."

What do you think determines whether or not a partner will stay after the announcement of a transition?

On my wife's part, she really decided that transition was not as important as our relationship, and she made me part of the decision-making process. A lot of trans people will criticize her for that, but I think in a lot of ways she really tried to keep the trans-ness in perspective. When you're undergoing that kind of significant thing, so many people wait for so long and it's such a difficult process, it's easy to forget everything else in your life. She really refused to do that, for which I'm very grateful.

Otherwise, a lot of us that stay are either bi or pan to start. We can be a little sexually adventurous perhaps. Sometimes it's because we've been together a long time and you have so much history together. I've been running support groups for partners for a very long time and I can't say there's any one thing -- I've known very conservative people who have stayed. The statistics are starting to change, more of us stay than go, and that was definitely not true when I started out.

You mentioned that you run these support groups. What are common issues that come up for partners?

The partners would be mad at me if I didn't say sex straight up. That's a big deal. In the trans community, nobody wants to talk about the surgery or the genitals, but if you're actually sleeping with a trans person, that's really kind of important. A lot of trans people often question their sexuality when they're transitioning, which can make things even more complicated. I feel very lucky that I joke that my wife is a gold star lesbian. She only likes women. Plenty of trans women have moments where all of a sudden they notice men and it doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to become heterosexual post-transition. Sometimes there's a period where sexuality seems not important because the transition takes up so much room. But after that, at least for me, it was coming back into a sexual relationship with someone with an entirely different body than the person I'd met.

How did the transition affect your personal sex life?

Our situation is a little bit different in that my wife never had a whoppingly strong libido to start with. With all of the other stuff, it's become less and less important to her, so we've got a different conflict to work out. Our libidos became very mismatched post-transition, but I feel like it's not really based on the trans-ness, it's the kind of thing that could have happened for a lot of different reasons. That's not everybody's case, it's not typical to the trans experience.

What advice would you give to wives with a transitioning partner?

It's entirely possible to stay and have a fulfilling relationship, but it's very, very dependent on your circumstances and your goals and your priorities and the way you think of your relationship. Transition is not for the faint-hearted. I think a lot more people can do it than can imagine that they can.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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