My Wife Didn’t Know I Was a Woman Until Over a Decade Into Our Relationship

By Galen Mitchel

I met my wife at the beginning of college. We were both part of the incoming class of 2009 at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota. It was late summer. The heat was inescapable.

Having grown up in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado, I had become accustomed to a certain sort of heat. The heat in Colorado was almost always the sort of dry heat where you turn a fan on, sit in the shade, and things mostly resolve themselves. I had been trying that strategy in my fourth floor brick and concrete dorm room for a few days, and it wasn’t working.

As it so happens, I was using a similar strategy regarding what I thought of as my inescapable desire to be a girl. I told myself I’d go to college, make friends, have sex, and things would mostly resolve themselves. I had only been trying the strategy for a few days, but it was working.

Everything was so new, and I was so busy that it was hard to get too wrapped up in what I had come to believe was simply a burden I would always have to bear. After all, that’s what allowed me to escape back into the closet after coming out to my mom at seventeen. It wouldn’t last.

But the heat, that was inescapable. I spent those first few nights before classes started sweating on top of my sheets, mopping sweat off my face, complaining about the heat to others etc.

When I went off to college I had a lot of complaints.

My college admissions essay was basically one long complaint. In it, I railed against people that never lived their lives, never challenged themselves, never pushed themselves, and never tried to find their own happiness. I believed that almost every adult I knew had settled for a sort of half-life. A life where the expectations of others and society added up until they were trapped in the suburbs with spouses they hated. Their trips to big box stores with overflowing shelves were then meant to serve as a counterpoint to their empty hearts and minds. I thought they were all phonies. I wasn’t going to be a phony.

Reader, I was Holden fucking Caulfield.

When I met my future wife at lunch one day, I didn’t notice her. I was too wrapped up in acting out this process of defining myself in opposition to “the man” — and the negation of the woman I was — to notice her.

Luckily, Laura noticed me because I was wearing a Straylight Run t-shirt. Straylight Run was an emo band I liked. Hell, I still like them. As it turned out, Laura liked Straylight Run too, and thought I might be worth talking to. That I was wearing that shirt on that day, and that it caught Laura’s attention is a bright spot of serendipity in my rather unlucky existence. I still have the shirt sitting in a box somewhere. Best. Shirt. Ever.

Anyway, after I failed to notice her and continued going about my day trying to be cool and stick it to the man, she messaged me on Facebook. Facebook was new and exciting back then, and not a terrifying all-knowing consumer surveillance tool. She asked me if I wanted to go on a walk in the arboretum sometime. I said yes, and then promptly tried to figure out who she was, and how she knew who I was.

A day later I met her outside her dorm. My hair was short and spiked in the front. I had a button up shirt from American Eagle on, and some cargo shorts to match. I was wearing what I now think of as a “bro” necklace. You know the kind — with the tan and brown “natural” beads etc. Topping it all off I had just applied a liberal coating of Axe body spray. I was everything I thought an 18 year old male college student was supposed to be. You would be forgiven, had you seen me that night, for thinking I was a guy.

would be forgiven, had you seen me that night, for thinking I was a guy.

Laura walked out of her dorm with a tan newsboy cap perched on top of her shoulder-length brown hair. She had a band t-shirt and corduroys on, along with a pair of faded Chuck Taylors. You would be forgiven, had you seen her that night, for thinking she was out of my league.

As we walked through the arboretum, she talked about somewhat ironically and somewhat seriously watching the reality show R U the Girl with T-Boz and Chilli. Over the next half an hour, I heard all about the antics of T-Boz and Chilli and the girls that were competing to be “part of” TLC. I thought Laura was weird. Meanwhile, I talked to her about Scrubs, and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. She thought I was weird.

By the end of our walk in the arboretum, we were assured of our mutual weirdness, but we weren’t ready to stop talking. So, we started walking around campus. Eventually, we stopped and sat on a bench to talk. Three hours later, well after the sun had set, we knew more about each other than anyone else on campus. She did not know that I had a girl crush on her, though I can’t say I did either.

A couple weeks later, after hanging out a few more times, I asked if I could kiss her. She said yes, but only on the cheek. A couple days later, I asked again and got a “real” kiss. A couple weeks after that, on October 1st, 2005, an annoyingly direct suite-mate of hers asked if we were dating and after a quick side conversation, we reluctantly admitted we were officially together.

We were both painfully aware that romantic relationships when you’re 18 are highly unlikely to survive. People change, after all, and neither of us knew what we’d be doing once we left Gustavus. So we knew that the chances were pretty high that our relationship wouldn’t last long enough for us to have that conversation. But, we kept hanging out together, and we kept talking. Talking is what we did best.

Over the following years, long, honest conversations covering all sorts of topics became the hallmark of our relationship.

I like to say that the night we walked in the arboretum at Gustavus Adolphus College we started a conversation that we’ve never quite finished.

By spring, we said we loved each other. At that point, our conversations had already covered topics that many couples take years to get to. They had even grown to include occasional discussions about gender and sexuality.

As a result, by the end of the year Laura would have been able to articulate, if asked, that I wasn’t happy being a “man” and that I sometimes wished I had been assigned female at birth (though that terminology was years away still). Laura also would have been able to tell you that I was jealous of women and that I thought of myself as a sort of pervert — because I was both attracted to women, and wanted to be one myself.

In less than a year of knowing me, she knew that I didn’t like being categorized as a “boy” or “man.” However, she did not know I was trans. How could she know something I refused outside of my darkest moments to admit to myself?

For my part, at the end of that first year I would have been able to tell you that Laura was not 100% heterosexual. This fact was somehow very pleasing to me. It was comforting in a strange way that I couldn’t quite put

my finger on. Part of me even wished she was gay. I wonder why.

Our conversations about gender occurred regularly, about every six months or so, generally corresponding with my more dysphoric phases. Looking back, they were a sort of pressure release that let me express some of my feelings while denying others.

I always approached these conversations furtively. I was aware that at any moment, I might say something that would turn the woman I loved into the woman who wanted nothing to do with me. Even still, I was always honest — not necessarily with myself, but certainly with her. I typically approached my more direct statements with reference to the idea that I couldn’t understand what it would be like to be trans — it was hard enough being a guy who didn’t feel like he fit in, after all.

I wasn’t a trans woman. No sir. I was just this poor chap who had always wished he was female, hated being thought of as a “man,” and who would have gladly traded his maleness for femaleness if it was possible. Not trans. Nope.

This was not a lie, and it was not deception. I honestly believed I was not trans, and I did not hide my feelings about my sex and gender. I couldn’t. I felt a compulsive need to share them with Laura. I understood, on some level, that my desire to be a woman was a big fucking deal, and she needed to know about it — and so she did, inasmuch as I did.

months together.

Unlike many couples that “grow up” together, we never really felt a strong need to change each other.

Laura was never a super feminine person, and while this occasionally bugged me —mostly when I was dysphoric— it only ever resulted in gentle prodding that Laura looked nice in feminine clothing and that she should grow her hair out.

Looking back on it, these comments were more about me than they were about her. It was mind-boggling to me that someone who had the ability to do those things would choose not to do them. In her shoes, I would have worn more feminine clothing and I would have had long, flowing hair. It was like I wanted to live vicariously through her.

To her credit, Laura has always known herself far too well to let anyone prod her into doing something she didn’t want to do. It’s one of the things I admire about her. She knows who she is, and what she wants to do. At the time, I most certainly didn’t know who I was, or what I wanted to do.

For her part, the only thing Laura ever wanted me to be was healthy and happy. She knew I struggled with depression, and that my main coping strategy was eating — a lot. She knew that food that was fried, topped with cheese, or slathered in ranch dressing would make me temporarily happy. Food that was all three of those things made me temporarily ecstatic.

But Laura didn’t want me to be temporarily happy. She wanted me to be legitimately happy. So, she always tried to push me to do things that would get me off the couch. I resented her a bit for that, but knew it came from a place of love.

By the time we graduated, it had become a matter of when we would get married, not if. We loved each other too much to imagine not being together.

Over the following years, our conversations continued on as always, occasionally referencing gender, as we started to build our careers. I continued to struggle with depression and dysphoria, but I was high functioning. I used that fact to avoid seeking help. I referred to the negative feelings I was experiencing as a “general malaise” and rarely made the connection between my depression and dysphoria.

We finally got married in July of 2011. It was a wonderful day. I only experienced one minor blip in my uncharacteristically good mood. When Laura was posing for pictures with her bridesmaids, I realized — just for a moment — that I was jealous of her. She was a bride. She looked so beautiful and happy. I was happy too, sure. If nothing else, I was happy to be with her. However, she was happier than I was capable of being.

As much as I thought I’d gotten used to being jealous of the women in my life, and that I could manage it, I couldn’t. It was always there, ready to pop up.

It was the middle of summer in Minnesota. The heat was inescapable. I still thought I could escape my dysphoria. I still couldn’t.

As another couple years passed, we talked frequently about how we felt like we had become one person split into two different bodies. We were so close that it was sometimes hard to tell where one person’s thoughts and emotions stopped and the other’s began. The only exception to this sharing of thoughts and emotions was my growing dysphoria.

I had started, privately, to come up with elaborate theories and thought experiments that I now know were designed to keep me from ever doing anything about my feelings. Many of them revolved around the idea that gender didn’t actually exist, that “man” and “woman” were just stereotypes etc. It was getting harder to explain away my desire to be a woman. It wasn’t going away. My theories and thought experiments were intended to serve as an antidote to what I considered at the time to be poisonous and intrusive thoughts.

After a couple years, these theories and thought experiments weren’t enough to make me feel better. So, I shared them with Laura in an attempt to get validation from her that I was right. I needed someone else to tell me that I was right, because I had started to feel like I was dead wrong. Maybe if someone else believed me, I would believe me. It worked, for a while.

When Laura and I started trying to conceive our first child, my theories and thought experiments were on their last legs. The realization that my wife was about to be a mother made it impossible for my desires to be quelled by mere logic. My feelings were much too visceral for that.

I didn’t know what the problem was at first. I blamed it on the stress of my job, the knowledge that I was about to lose a significant degree of freedom etc. I stopped talking with Laura as much, and started to withdraw into myself in a way that I hadn’t in the past. She noticed the change and confronted me about it, but I couldn’t admit what was going on — to myself, or to her.

I was often lost in thought thinking about growing older, and what it meant to be someone’s “father.”

I started to feel like I was one of those people I had railed against in my college admissions essay.

I worried that I had never lived my life, never challenged myself, never pushed myself, and never tried to find my own happiness. I felt like I was living someone else’s life.

When my wife did get me to talk, I told her some of these things, and I told her about my jealousy that she was getting to be a mother. I reiterated things I had said over the years about envying the closeness that mothers had to their children through breastfeeding etc. I told her I didn’t want to be like other “fathers.” What I realized when I said this, was that I didn’t want to be a father at all. I was excited to be a parent. I was not excited to be a father.

By the end of December, 2015, my dysphoria had continued to get worse and I had finally pieced it together. I was unhappy because I was a fucking phony, I was trying to be something I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to be a man. I didn’t want to be a father. I wanted to be a woman. I wanted to be a mother.

These thoughts percolated for a few days as I tried to figure out how to talk to Laura about it. How does anyone possibly communicate feelings like those?

“Hi honey, I think I’ve got the trans. Real bad.”

“Ok, so… long story short, you married a lesbian.”

“Yo, Laura, I’m really happy for you — and I’ma let you finish — but I want to be one of the best mothers of all time. One of the best mothers of all time!”

I didn’t want to scare Laura, because while I knew what I wanted, I didn’t know that I wanted to actually do anything about it. So, the first time I tried to come out to Laura, I said something like “I’m having a hard time with gender stuff.” She responded like a pro. She asked me what I wanted to do about it, whether I needed to talk to anyone etc. I told her that I didn’t know how that would help me any. We agreed to check back in about it later. I wasn’t able to actually advocate for myself yet. Years of denial and repression made admitting what was going on, even when I wanted to, incredibly difficult.

The second time I came out to her, on New Year’s eve 2015 — ten and a half years into our relationship — I was more direct. “I think I need to talk to someone about my gender stuff. I think I might be trans.”

Even after years of telling her about my struggles with gender, my belief that I would have been happier as a woman etc., the shock and concern on her face was evident.

This was different. I had given my feelings a name — one that typically ends a relationship.

But again, she handled things really well. She asked me what I wanted to do about things, whether I was going to want to go on hormones or have surgeries etc. I told her I didn’t know, which wasn’t so much a lie as it was a convenient way of denying my own feelings until I talked to someone and until Laura had a chance to wrap her mind around it.

I did make one thing abundantly clear: I would not do anything that she was uncomfortable with and that if my doing something meant that we would not be together, then I would not do it. I told her it was more important for me to be with her than it was to figure out my gender stuff. She said she wanted me to be happy, and that we would figure it out together.

Had Laura pushed back hard, or had a very strong negative reaction, I might never have done anything. As it happened, she didn’t have a super strong negative reaction, and she agreed that I should talk to a therapist. So that’s what I did.

Over the following months, we relied on our predilection for long, honest conversations. We negotiated every step of the way, and talked about pros and cons of every decision. Within a couple months, the issue had become more about how others would react to the news than about us. It was us versus the world.

Outside of a complicated Mother’s Day after our son was born, things were smooth sailing between us.

When I first started presenting female in public, Laura was incredibly protective of me. Any weird looks from others were met by her glare. And over time, the stress we experienced came mostly from the difficulties involved in my staying in the closet. We just wanted to rip the band-aid off. We finally did at the end of October, 2016 when I got a new job and went full time.

Today, we still talk about gender. In fact, there’s rarely a day that goes by when we don’t touch on it. However, those conversations aren’t about desire or pain anymore — they’re about how happy we are, and how we have grown and changed as people in such a positive way. We often look back on who we were and what our life was like before and talk about how glad we are that we made it here.

Today, almost twelve years to the day after we met, we went on a long walk around our neighborhood with our son in a stroller. The heat was inescapable — but my dysphoria wasn’t.