'My husband transitioned when our son was a baby'

Alexandra Heminsley
·8-min read
Photo credit: Alexandra Heminsley
Photo credit: Alexandra Heminsley

Today is Transgender Day of Visibility, a day where communities come together to honour and celebrate the accomplishments of transgender and gender non-conforming people.

Alexandra Heminsley’s husband started to transition when their son was just six months old. But while it ended their marriage, it was the start of an LGBT+ family they’re both proud of. Here, she shares her experience...

There is a bench on the Brighton seafront, facing the iconic pistachio green railings, where I sat for hours, waiting for my contractions to start. Six months later, I sat there again with my longed-for baby and sobbed into the hood of his winter coat.That evening, I went home to have the conversation that had been looming since almost the moment he was born: my then-husband was going to transition.

For months I had known that something was very wrong between us, but it was a battle to understand what. We were still close, there was no shortage of love and we both adored the baby who was the result of two painful rounds of IVF and several embryos. But that love we’d always had was changing shape like a phantom I couldn’t grasp.

Each time I reached out, it slipped away. Eye contact was avoided, then physical contact, yet kindness remained. We should have been so happy, but I seemed to be sharing a home with someone consumed by sadness. It felt like living in a hall of mirrors: nothing was real, but nothing was quite a lie.

Meanwhile, all the baby books, blogs and the endless Insta-mum posts said the same: early motherhood can be very disorientating, lack of sleep can knock your judgement, becoming a parent requires a little recalibration around who you were and your place in the world now. Plus, an unfortunate series of events that took place in the months preceding our son’s birth, made it particularly hard for me to understand these strange currents disrupting my marriage.

First, I was given incorrect test results when I was a few weeks’ pregnant, which meant that I did not know if the baby was mine for some of the pregnancy. Then, weeks before I gave birth, I was sexually assaulted on a train and, when the case got to court, the man was found not guilty as the magistrate said I may have made a mistake in remembering what happened and been highly emotional due to my pregnancy. This wasn’t the case, but it gives a context to the feelings I was also having about my then-husband.

I thought that perhaps I was overreacting to the distance I felt between us. After all, we had always been so close, agreed on so much; not least on how to parent. Maybe I should stop pressing the issue, and let time pass, let us settle into new parenthood. But still, it felt as if a glass wall had grown between us – things looked almost the same, but undeniably less clear than before.

In the end, I kept asking, and although it brought my world crashing down, I am now proud of what I did. Proud that we reached a point, when our son was a few months old, that we could have that conversation.

There was no malice, no desertion, no affair. There was just the all-pervasive sense that someone I cared about was deeply distressed. That what I saw as a cheap laugh on Saturday night TV could actually be happening to me, to us. And that I knew nothing about how to handle it or who to talk to.

Photo credit: Emma Croman
Photo credit: Emma Croman

When the person closest to me in the world was able to finally articulate their need to transition, it felt like a sort of terrible freedom. I was facing losing my husband, but I was also finally gaining a sense of solid ground beneath my feet. At last, I was dealing with a situation rather than a feeling. In turn, my husband was facing losing me – but given the state of so many people’s attitudes towards trans people, he was also facing losing friends, family, status, work prospects and more.

However, it turned out that we did not lose each other. Sure, we are no longer a couple. Our marriage was unsustainable and we both accepted that. There were equal measures of grief and acceptance on both sides. I could not demand that my husband not be trans any more than she could demand I become lesbian. Friends and family were desperately worried about me, but what took me a long time to articulate was how much easier it was to deal with the finality of knowing, compared with the surreal months that had preceded it.

Until I knew the truth, I felt that so many choices about my life, my body and my sense of myself as a woman had been taken away. IVF had left me passive for such a huge life stage – semi-conscious yet yearning to be a mother, to achieve what society still so often wants from a ‘proper’ woman. So when I realised that the problem in my own home had never been me, there was just as much relief as there was rage. Yes, there was rage at myself for not having asked more questions sooner; at my ex for not having told me sooner; and at society in general for making such conversations so painful, the relentless punchline to so many jokes, the twist in so many second-rate novels.

But a lot of that passed. Seeing my ex have the courage to be true to herself gave me the freedom to get my own voice back. Because while choice after choice had felt snatched from me, I still had a card to play: how I responded. And I decided that my response would be my story. I could see a very clear line from the historic treatment of trans people in this country to the fact that my ex had felt it necessary to push any truths about who she was to the furthest part of her mind for so long.

And I had a son to care for, who was now part of an LGBT+ family, and would be for the rest of his life. For some, who are gay when they go into parenthood, this sense of being ‘not an average family’, is something they are somewhat prepared for. For me, it was like falling through a trapdoor into another world.

Families that looked like ours were not on TV, in children’s books, or even in the other faces at the baby classes we went to. My learning curve was steep, but I felt immense kinship with other parents trying to hunt out those books, those classes, those cafes where we would feel safe, accepted, wanted.

For all Brighton’s posturing as an open-minded city, it was sometimes just skin-deep. I decided that being upfront was the only manageable path forward. On my son’s first birthday, I wrote an Instagram post to my 10,000 followers describing my new family set-up. Being honest was the first step to living an open life, a step towards freedom. And that was the only sort of life that I could imagine would not ultimately harm my son. He needs to know, every day, that we are proud of both who he is and who we are, and of the marriage we once had.

Yes, he has witnessed verbal abuse to his parent on the street; yes, he has already had to deal with teenagers sneeringly kicking sand at him while he plays with my ex, and yes, he’s heard me checking with the nursery that they have a wide enough range of representative books. But he is also aware of the incredibly supportive network of friends and family we all have around us, and that our life is valid.

I have been through pain I certainly never imagined for myself. But what it taught me was how much good I do have in my life, and how much I have left to give. By being open and a testament to the fact that my ex is a wonderful person, an exceptional parent – and a woman – I hope that I am part of creating a society where fewer people feel compelled to hide their truths for so long. That, in turn, will mean fewer women will find themselves in the murky loneliness where I once felt so stuck.

Our son will start school this year, and sometimes I reel at how much his early years have held. At times I have felt utterly unmoored by what life has thrown at us, but at others, I know that it has been the making of me. I went back to that bench last week, three years since I sat on it weeping.

This time, my son was trying to climb the railings, waving at seagulls, as happy as I could ever have dreamed he would be. We made it.

Some Body To Love: A Family Story (Chatto & Windus) by Alexandra Heminsley is out now.

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