Queer Issue 2012
Brad Anderson married his wife in a big church wedding while his conservative family looked on from the pews. By age 33, he was living in the suburbs of Seattle and had three children of his own—ages 6 to 9. Then his wife announced she was a lesbian. She was sure that it would cause a huge rift between them, but Brad extended his understanding: "I said, 'I totally get that. Wow. Let me tell you something I've never told you. I've always thought of myself as—and wanted to be—a woman.'"
Specifically, Brad always wanted to be a lesbian, too.
But without the surgery. "At the age of 33, I thought it was past the time," Brad recalls. "I also can't be a transsexual because I am attracted to women. I was a proud person, and I didn't want to be an object of derision." But at his wife's encouragement, Brad eventually decided to transition to womanhood, and they vowed to make their marriage work. "It was 1991 when we said, 'Let's do this.' So I shaved off my beard, figuratively and literally, and I finished my transition by the middle of 1993."
Even though they were both women—Brad was now Breanna, with blond locks and a wardrobe of dresses—they were still legally married in Washington State. They had become one of thousands of same-sex couples in the United States to achieve full marriage equality due to this unusual loophole that involves switching genders.
Then Breanna's mother-in-law filed a lawsuit asking the state to mandate grandparent visitation rights to the children and to nullify their marriage. After all, they couldn't have gotten married as two women, so how could they stay married as two women? A judge threw out the lawsuit, thankfully, so their matrimony was still legal. But for various reasons, their marriage fell apart within a couple years, and they divorced.
In 1995, while surfing a chatroom called "lesbos," Breanna met a woman named Ryan Blackhawke. "It was all lesbians," remembers Ryan, who was on the other end of the chat channel in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "We started talking more and more." They made plans for Ryan to meet Breanna on a visit to Seattle. "It wasn't going to be serious. Well, that lasted for about a week before Breanna asked me to move in."
Breanna and Ryan dated for a dozen years. They couldn't marry, of course, since they were both women, but they had a life that looked a lot like marriage. They shared a split-level house in Kirkland. Ryan worked at Starbucks, and Breanna worked in tech. They acquired a cat, a Ford Explorer, and a Prius. They would welcome Breanna's three kids from the previous marriage to dinner like any other family. "We are very middle class," Breanna says. "We have a mortgage and three kids," Ryan says.
This domestic normalcy made them the ideal candidates to register as domestic partners in 2007, taking advantage of the new state law that extended many of the same rights as marriage (such as hospital visitation, sharing health insurance, rights to make funeral arrangements, and other romantic stuff). On the first day that couples were allowed to file their paperwork in Olympia, Breanna and Ryan stood in line to make history.
Breanna being a transgender woman, they were also active in the transgender community, and they were planning to attend a trans conference in town called Gender Odyssey. (It's an annual conference; the next one is August 2–5.) But Ryan was protesting going. Her objections grew irrationally, Ryan admits, until Breanna confronted her. Ryan remembers Breanna saying, "'Is there something else going on—do you think you might be trans?' I just lost it and said, 'I really think I am.' We talked about it every day for two weeks. Then we retreated into our corners to discuss what this meant for our relationship. It wasn't until 2008 that I said, 'Cowabunga, let's do this.' Even my boss was all excited and explained that Starbucks has a policy for this and began looking it up."
Once on testosterone, Ryan presented very much as a man, with a masculine swagger and a coarse black beard. Even before undergoing surgery, he says, "Emotionally, I felt accepted as a male in society."
He also retained the name Ryan—because why not?
In a strange inversion of Breanna's previous marriage to a lesbian, Breanna and Ryan were still registered with the state as domestic partners, as two women. They felt no particular need to change that status by signing a marriage certificate. However, they were eyeing the IRS's Flexible Spending Account program, which allows workers to set aside certain funds, tax-free, and essentially borrow from themselves. Specifically, they wanted to use the program to pay for Ryan's medical expenses. But due to the Defense of Marriage Act, which is federal law, same-sex couples in states that have domestic partnership laws or even same-sex-marriage laws still can't receive those federal benefits.
So Ryan and Breanna did what millions of committed, opposite-sex couples do: They got married.
"All it took was going into the Department of Licensing to change one letter on my driver's license," says Ryan. "Then all of a sudden, we can have all these rights that we didn't have before, while our friends are still locked out."
All this goes to point out the arbitrary nature of legal marriage, filled with so many loopholes that Breanna describes the law as "Swiss cheese." Transgender marriage, she points out, "underscores the completely subjective, irrational structures around marriage. The fact is, some people do change their gender in their lives, making us fall in and out of these legal classifications that have been fabricated."
At this point, Ryan and Breanna had been together for 15 years—first as girlfriends, then as legally partnered women, and now as man and wife. Their love even has the federal government's blessing.
Still, they aren't exactly embraced by everyone.
"We don't have real chummy relationships with our neighbors," Breanna says. "But then again, we haven't been firebombed, either."
The only obvious giveaway that their chromosomes don't reflect their gender is that Breanna is taller than most women and much taller than her husband.
"I don't think I normally have any problems," Breanna says. "I don't have some kind of illusion that my gender change is undetectable. And I didn't have facial feminization surgery." But sometimes people think Breanna is a man when she talks to them on the phone, she says. "And when people see me, they say, 'Sorry, ma'am.'"
They continue to live an intensely suburban life. "I know the cadence of life as a straight person because I was one," says Breanna. "We complete each other's sentences, he drops me off at work every morning, he ruins my lingerie."
That's right: Ryan, the man of the house, has a track record of destroying Breanna's bras in the dryer, even though Ryan used to be a woman. "I don't get to touch those anymore," he says.