I wrote this letter to Kris Jenner one Sunday night after seeing her crying on a promo for her show. Mascara running, she was saying it was like she didn't exist. My heart just stopped, because I had been in that same spot, felt those same things. I never thought I'd have any empathy for Kris Jenner. I sat down at my computer and typed this. I actually tried to get this to her through a contact, but that failed. So I ended up posting it here. I didn't think she'd see it here, but I felt better publishing it anyway. And it ended up spawning an essay in the LA Times. So maybe she'll get some of the advice anyway.
Every time I see a picture of Caitlyn Jenner in a magazine or online, or see a clip of her on television, I think of you, of the twinge of pain and grief you must be feeling. You might deny it to others – put on a smile and say how lovely she looks, how brave. Inside you might be thinking something more snide -- that just about anyone looks great with a glam squad and professional photographer -- because you are still raw and angry and sad. I know this because I, too, am the wife of a trans woman.
A few weeks ago, flipping through the channels one evening, I saw a clip of you saying something like, “I feel like I didn’t exist.” That phrase stopped me in my tracks. The words I said to my Wasband – that’s how I refer to the person who was my husband and is now a woman who isn’t my wife but will someday soon be my ex – were that I felt negated, erased. If he really was always a she, then were we ever really an us? She still doesn’t really understand how I can question the reality of the 13 years we were married before her big reveal, any more than I understand how she subjugated her feelings of gender dysphoria for the greater part of those 13 years.
When my Wasband announced in 2008 that all in all, he’d rather be a she, I would have killed to know there were others out there like me, who had gone through this experience and come out the other end whole. I went looking. I asked people I met through an ever-widening circle of contacts in the trans community if they know of spouses or exes of trans men and women who might talk to me. While I found a few kids of transgendered men and women who would talk to me, there were no spouses who wanted to chat.
Even as recently as 2008, trans issues were not often discussed, and when they were, it was with a salacious tone. People gawked like it was an accident on the side of the road. And the topic discussed wasn’t the wife or family of the trans person, but the trans person him or herself. The headline was of the pregnant man, or Chaz Bono, or the second time that man got pregnant. I found no peer reviewed academic literature on how healthcare professionals could help the spouses and children of trans people through their own transitions. I can still find none.
So here I am, Kris, ready to share with you some things I wish I had known.
First, I want to tell you it’s going to be okay. There is a way through the anger and sorrow and grief back to joy and happiness. Maybe you’d tell me you’re over it already, that the things I see on TV are months old, that the Vanity Fair shoot was a while back, that this is all old news for you. But there will be times even years from now when you will be beset with sadness. You will see something in your youngest daughter that reminds you of Bruce; you will wander into a room you seldom use and see that picture of some beach vacation you took together; or you’ll pick up a book and see an inscription from him to you. Something will trigger your sadness anew. The other day I looked at my son’s hands which are nothing like my hands. My son has my Wasband’s hands: long delicate fingers, thin hands. They are hands that have gestures just like the man I married. When he was a toddler, my boy would sit up in bed every morning and scratch his little chest just like his father, and I would laugh at the idea that my husband, when he was an old man, would share this gesture with his son in middle age, and maybe with his son. Only there is no old husband, and here I am typing this with a lump in my throat again, so many years after the loss of that particular happily ever after. Sometimes I still feel erased.
Find someone who you have known since creation, a childhood friend, a high school bestie. There may be more than one person, but don’t choose more than two or three. Whoever it is, it cannot be anyone who is beholden to you in any way: no one in your pay or whose relative you employ, no one who just hangs out with you at clubs or calls to see if you have tickets to some concert. It needs to be someone who knew you pre-fame, the kind of person who -- if you suddenly found yourself without wealth, having to shop at Value Village and working at a fast food restaurant that leaves your “vintage” clothing smelling of French fries -- would still hang out with you. A sibling will do. Under no circumstances can it be one of your children. It is to this person that you direct every snide comment you want to make about your marriage and Caitlyn that you cannot swallow into submission. It has to be someone you trust not to repeat what you say no matter how much cash is waved before her by a tabloid, who will nod and smile when you say something awful about your ex, and will agree when you are warm and loving toward her, as well.
Because, yes, you will want to be nice about her again. More often than you may believe right now, and not just for the press. People who swore they loved your husband to death will suddenly be willing to speak only evil about Caitlyn and you will find yourself defensive about this person who you know, but you don’t know. Give in and say nice things. And remind people that once upon a time, this was your handsome prince. You were writing a fairy tale ending together and you don’t need to hear them speak ill of your decision making skills then or now. Those things you loved about Bruce? Well they are still there in Caitlyn. The things you hated about him are in her, too. Same person. Different gender. You’ll find that surprising. You’ll expect Caitlyn to be very different somehow – if he was angry before, you may think that being the true woman she was meant to be would reduce that anger. But no. Angry Husband begets Angry Wasband. Chill Husband begets Chill Wasband.
You know that talking smack about your ex to your kids is bad. This is like that only magnified. Whether you want to be or not, you have become an ally and advocate for the trans community. You can brook no one trashing Caitlyn, not only in your presence when you are with your children, but even in your presence alone. Why? Because there are people who will say awful things to and are willing to do physical harm to Caitlyn because of her transition, and they are just as willing to let you and your children know exactly what they want to say and do to her. Your job is to shut it down. “You’re talking about my children’s other parent.” “Wouldn’t your parents be proud of your behavior!” “Did you grow up wanting to be so unkind?” I could come up with dozens of comebacks. “Stop being a bully!” usually works in a pinch, too.
You also can’t accept nasty words from your children about their other parent. Whether step- or blood relative, their anger and sadness and confusion is real, and they, too, should have a designated person to complain to. But you are NOT that person. If they speak ill of Caitlyn – and they may -- you need to put a quick stop to it. How? Here are a couple ideas: “You are talking about the man I married, the man I loved, the man I wanted to spend my life with.” “That’s your parent, who loves you and to whom you owe a measure of respect. Do not speak of her in that manner in my presence.” I have more if you need them. They, too, are now allies and advocates. If you want to hear awful things said about Caitlyn, there are plenty of people willing to voice them. You don’t need to get it from each other.
My son was worried about what his peers would say, whether even at the small choice school he went to, he would be bullied. We brainstormed responses to “Is your dad a girl?” the most likely comment he thought they would toss at him. We came up with these responses: “What does it matter to you?” “Is that a question or a statement?” “Why are you interested?” “Yes, and….?” You’ll quickly figure out what the difficult people in your life will have to say. Come up with good responses and practice them. Even you and your family, who live in the spotlight, could benefit from having some ready answers on the tip of your tongue.
People will feel they have a right to all sorts of information they wouldn’t dare ask if you had a typical split: when did you know, what did he tell you, what kind of sex life did you have, what kind of genitalia is there now and what does it look like. You don’t have to tell anyone anything. Stop it like this: “Wow! I can’t believe you asked that!” “That’s really not your business.” “Why would you want to know that?” Just because you have a show on television doesn’t mean you have to share everything, or anything.
I always felt those questions were a way of looking to blame me – for marrying someone I shouldn’t have, for not seeing something I ought to have noticed, for pushing him to a point that he needed to leave his masculinity behind. It seems ridiculous to write that last phrase, but she has a relative who broke contact post transition who put the blame for it firmly on me. Apparently, I’m emasculating to the point that I cause men to have their penises turned inside out and made into vaginas.
In the end, what happened before doesn’t matter. What I knew, when I knew it, and how the gender dysphoria made its presence known has no impact on my life going forward, so why does it matter to anyone now? The before is only of interest to others in the way a plane crash is: it’s an oddity, it’s not me, let me see the wreckage up close.
You will have to learn to live with the happy happy joy joy that Caitlyn is experiencing while you are in the middle of your grief cycle. Our Wasbands are like teenagers when they start their hormones during transition. One of my trans friends says it takes about two years post-surgery for the new person to truly become settled in herself. It’s been two and a half years since my Wasband had her surgery and I’d say has proved true. But getting there was a journey. She would come over and joyfully announce every increase in bra cup size, every time the electrolysis lady reached another milestone – done with all the white hairs, done with the neck, done with the chin – and every time there was another step towards legal or physical womanhood – scheduled the surgery, got the birth certificate that says “Female”. And while that happy dance happened to the right of me, on the left side, my heart ached, and she was oblivious to the pain. The announcement of my husband’s death happened one Thursday night late in June, but the actual death occurred in little moments over the course of a few months.
You have lost your husband in a way can only compare to death. You will see Caitlyn in the future and catch a glimpse of the man you fell in love with in the woman she has become and there will be a catch in your throat when you realize that man is gone forever. And you will wonder again if he was ever there at all, and if he wasn’t, if he was always she, did you ever have the marriage you thought you had? Your children, regardless of their age or maturity, will be confused and wonder if the things they thought they knew about their dad were true and if they weren’t, then were the things he said before he was she true? And you will shepherd them through it, and you will pray that you do it with a modicum of grace and serenity. And you will all come out the other side and be happy and whole again. It will be different. You will forever be associated with this thing Bruce Jenner the Olympian did late in his life. You will forever have to admit that it was a brave thing he did in becoming Caitlyn, that it was a hard life he had to live before her transition because that is truth. You will forever be an ally and advocate because that is the right thing to do for your children. And in a way, that sucks, because it ignores your truth – the loss you experienced, the anger and grief you are entitled to feel but have to hide from most people because of that bravery and because of the children. But you, too, have a chance to remake your life. And it’s going to be okay.
All the best to you and yours,