Ronald, most often called Ron, had been known as Rhonda for the first eighteen years of his life. At that point, in response to my question about why the change happened when it did, he said, “I wanted people to know who I was, not who I seemed to be.”
Ron—with his high cheek bones, olive complexion, full mouth, green hazel eyes and a build that could have been useful in advertising the benefits of membership at the no-frills gym on Seventh Avenue and 17th Street—towered over his partner, Patricia’s, sleek, cat-like, diminutive frame.
Patricia explained, “He gives me something, because he is who he is, that I never had before. The way he listens makes me feel understood in a way I never knew was possible. It’s because he doesn’t judge me, or at least I feel that way. Maybe he lets me feel what it would be like if I wasn’t judging myself—something I do a lot. It’s more than a feeling if there is such a thing as feeling something more than a feeling. I don’t know if that makes sense to you?” she said, looking directly at me as she asked the question.
Ron reached over took Patricia’s hand.
Patricia two years older than Ron at 29 had considered herself bisexual from high school through her undergraduate days. By the time she graduated from college she had re-defined herself as lesbian.
She said, “I can’t tell you how or why we met and fell in love when we did because at the time, I was looking for a woman who wanted a woman. I couldn’t have predicted my reaction to Ron. Somehow he helped me open a space that enabled me to think and feel outside of categories. I had just completed the Women’s Study program at Boston College and thinking about gender and identity and women’s power was very alive for me. Ron and his transition thrilled. I felt like we, together, could defy gravity, we could undo feeling hemmed in or weighted down.” She laughed out loud saying this and lifted his hand with her own and then released it. Their loosely connected fingers seemed to float weightlessly to the couch.
She continued, “Of the labels out there now, I think of us as a genderqueer. That’s the box we’re in and I love that it’s a sensibility, a box-free box, an anti-box. No traditional words can capture it.”
They were presenting themselves to me and I wanted them to feel free to lay it out the way they wanted to. I wondered, “Things seemed so good with them, what were they looking for in couple counseling? What could I offer them?” I figured they were working their way around to answering that question and that it was my job to be patient.
Ron confided that as early as nursery school he had sensed something different about himself. Lining up with the girls, he said, “Was a wrong fit. It was like I had been handed a scratchy shirt and told to put it on and get used to it. I itched and squirmed and tried to get out of it. I had to struggle with it every day. I sensed I’d get out. I knew it was a matter of time but I didn’t know what would happen when that time came.”
He continued, “As I waited for that time, doubts accumulated. I had thoughts like, ‘Maybe something is too wrong with me? Maybe I’m broken?’ As a teenager I’d say to myself, ‘Maybe I am not meant to be happy?’ A lot of ‘Maybe’s’ were haunting me.”
Ron’s parents were unsympathetic to his gender dysphoria. When he revealed misgivings about having and wearing girls’ clothes his parents rebuked him. They brought him to the minister of the conservative congregation that they were affiliated with in the small Floridian town where Ron was born and raised. They appointed the man of the cloth responsibility for putting their Rhonda back on the straight and narrow. They learned that Rhonda was not theirs to put where they saw fit.
Her father stated that he “had no interest in learning from her who she was. I’m your daddy and I’ll be the one to tell you what you need to know about who you are.” He accused Ron of siding with Satan against the family. At that point, Rhonda departed and Ron made a definitive entrance. He labeled Ron’s expressions of body dysmorphia as “just plain crazy talk.” It has been a decade since they have had a conversation that was anything more than an exchange of mono-syllables.
Ron’s brother and only sibling, Aiden, three years his junior, has stayed in contact with him, writing and visiting. Aiden has expressed the wish to follow Ron to New York City.
Ron’s mother feels caught between loyalty binds to her husband and concern for Ron. She has written him to express love but their contact has been minimal.
Patricia described her family as ‘typical WASP’s’ who have, in her words, “sworn off emotion like some teetotalers swear off alcohol.” Because she has been lauded for her academic and professional work they have expressed approval of those efforts but have shunned Ron and minimized contact with Patricia.
“When I came out to them in high school,” Patricia says, “They splashed disapproval all over me. It wasn’t so much what they said as with what they didn’t. II told them that I was attracted to girls not boys and it was as if I had told them I had elected to take French instead of Spanish.
My mother later told me that my father predicted that I would grow out of it. In the meantime, he said he didn’t want to waste time talking about something that wasn’t important. If you met them, you’d think they were very different than Ron’s parents but actually, when it comes to homophobia, they are very similar.”
It was clear to me that Ron and Patricia offered one another a refuge from the multiple traumas of parental rejection and shaming. Working out ordinary challenges in communication, maintaining trust in conversation where differences were exposed would likely trigger associations to previous times in which the acknowledgement of difference signaled relational estrangement, potential hostilities and emotional abandonment.
Each identified strongly with having their feelings dismissed or diminished by those whom they looked to for support. I validated their need to heal from chronic disappointments and disconnections while underscoring that their resolve to improve their ability to work through differences boded well for them as a couple. I suggested that this might be a good part of what we could focus on and work through together.
This is what they wanted to learn and take with them into their marriage. I let them know that I was committed to moving forward with them if they felt comfortable working with me. That is what we are doing.
Although each expressed passionate attraction for the other, sex had become less frequent over the past months and they wanted to work through issues involving their ability and comfort level in speaking openly about their preferences and fantasies, satisfactions and difficulties. They expressed the desire to get better at voicing feelings about emotional and sexual intimacy. Ron said, “I want to work on that but not right away. I think we need to tackle some of the other stuff first.”
What are your thoughts about this couple and their situation? Don’t hesitate to comment here or ask questions. I would love to hear from you.
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