A Family Affair: The man I married has become a woman

This week, a couple talk about how the husband confessed to his wife that he was transsexual
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The Independent Culture
CLAIRE ASHTON, 47, used to be Tony Ashton. He joined the West Mercian Police Force after the Army and became a pistol-shooting champion. He met his wife Barbara while working as a mountain climbing instructor in North Wales. After Claire (then Tony) told her employers that she was a transsexual, she was retired from active service and has since lost her job in the communications department; her case is going to tribunal. She lives in Shropshire with Barbara, 63, a retired primary school teacher.

Claire

From an early age I never felt that I fitted in - I knew something was wrong. But I fell in love with Barbara when I was 27 years old and we got married two years later. I was dressing up then and hiding women's clothes in the attict. I only started talking about it three years ago. I became expert at hiding my feelings. You feel that you're the only person in the world who could feel like this - it takes years to realise that you're not.

I think it's important to realise the difference between a transvestite and a transsexual: a transvestite is someone who dresses up in women's clothes but, if asked, would still consider himself a man. Transsexuals feel they are women, and the clothing isn't so important. I don't need dresses to make me feel anything - I don't wear "women's clothes", I wear my own clothes - that's who I am from first thing in the morning to last thing at night. It's your life, not a role.

Before I told Barbara, I reached the state where I was considering suicide because I was bottling everything up so much. The only solution was to tell someone; one day I was in the kitchen with her and I said, "would you like to sit down, I've got something to tell you." I didn't speak for what seemed like ages then I remember saying, "I know I told you I went to a gun show in Birmingham this afternoon, but I didn't. I went to buy a new blouse." It was the only way I could think of broaching the subject. Barbara's response was, "Oh, is that all." She thought I'd been having an affair. But it was only some months later that I told her I was a transsexual.

Barbara was very supportive from the beginning. At first I'd find it so hard to talk about, I'd be in floods of tears. Soon afterwards I began to feel guilty because I felt I was misleading Barbara; in effect, she married a man and then lost a man. I think she has felt very much as if it's been a bereavement. Now we're both women living together as friends; I'm quite happy with that.

It was a test when I first dressed up in front of Barbara. I don't think she was too keen, and I didn't know what sort of response to expect. But she didn't faint. I'd had lots of practice at that time; I became an expert at making up in a car mirror in motorway lay-bys. What probably made things easier was once I went full-time - appearing as I am all day.

In terms of my relationship with Barbara, it's not like starting again, more like putting everything into a shaker and seeing it come out a different way. One of the hardest things for me is to realise what a change it's been for other people. When I look through my eyes it's the same scene it's always been, whereas other people see me as a different person. But when you love someone, you love the person, not the exterior imagel.

I had the operation in April and I've been on hormones for over two years. Now it horrifies me to think that people thought I was the same as men; I find them rather strange creatures. Now that ache and the feeling of longing I've had for most of my life has gone away and I'm at peace with myself.

Barbara

I can remember the moment Claire told me she'd been cross-dressing. It took her about 20 minutes to confess and I thought she was trying to own up to an affair. It did make me question what had happened in the past 16 years. For a long time I asked myself where I'd gone wrong, why I hadn't noticed anything. Later I found out that transsexuals are often in denial and try to be more male than normal.

Virtually the day she told me physical relations ceased; I saw it as one of those things I had to accept if I was to stay with her. I never thought of leaving her when she told me - there was a sense of commitment and loyalty. I also wanted to see what was going to happen. It was damned uncomfortable, but interesting. Also I'd have felt a bit like a rat leaving a sinking ship - she did need my support.

It wasn't until we'd been together to see a psychologist that it suddenly hit me that this was for real. I felt a tremendous mix of emotions. I felt I was facing a bereavement; that I was going to lose my male partner. I was worried about losing my status, living in a community that would know about it. At my age, most people have experienced death, divorce or serious illness. Nothing had prepared me for this.

I went through about two months of real hell. I'd think, "This isn't happening", then realise, "Yes, it is." I was very tearful a lot of the time. I never blamed Claire for the condition - I always accepted it was a medical condition. But at some points I did blame her for the effects her condition was having on me. I had to make far bigger adjustments; her adjustments were made when she was trying to live as a male.

When Claire first dressed up in front of me I was surprised how feminine she looked.I'd have thought I'd feel amused or offended. I was just surprised at what an attractive-looking woman she was. When she grew her nails and got her ears pierced, I started to accept the fact that I was sharing a house with another woman.

At the end of the day, Claire is very different to the man I married. I doubt if I will ever completely come to terms with that. I have had to get used to small, unexpected changes. For instance she always used to read what I'd call men writing for men. Now she reads romantic fiction. But I think it may take years for her to be conditioned as female. Getting her to do the housework isn't any easier, although she is a good cook.

Our relationship is still developing; it's only been two or three years. It's not really a case of starting anew; the solid centre remains the same but we're exploring different avenues.

I think it will probably be easier to go into old age with another woman rather than a man. I'm comfortable with the situation now, and see no reason to rock the boat.

Interviews by Emma Cook

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