Domestic abuse suffered by the wives of late-transitioners is being swept under the rug in favour of the interests of their husbands.
I remember one night shaking and sobbing, snot and drool running down my face, telling him that he was snuffing out the tiny flame that was left of me, to please stop, he was killing me and the kids needed me.-Philomena, trans widow
After much feminist pressure, coercive control is recognised as a form of domestic abuse and psychological violence in U.K. law: ‘Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 created a new offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship’. What could be more coercive than repeatedly claiming your partner’s sense of reality, understanding of science and anatomy (that humans cannot change sex), was wrong? That what these women see, what these women feel, what these women know, is untrue because he says so? The Government definition outlines that: “Controlling behaviour is a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.”
Trans widows’ stories certainly fit this definition and what we understand is domestic abuse. The term ‘trans widows’ was coined by partners of ‘transitioning’ males to express how it felt like the death of the man they fell in love with. The blogger Naefearty describes her experience:
I used to have an online friend (also a partner of a man who thought he was a woman) who likened the experience of being partnered to a transgender to the frog who is put into the pot of water and the heat gradually turned up till cooked—a deliberate programme of de-sensitisation as each limit is compromised or ignored, and each line in the sand crossed by these men in their “journey.”
Many trans widows accounts include stories of bullying, isolation and escalation. As we know from domestic violence, many women will cover the bruises, stand next to their partner and say everything is fine, adding that “he loves me.” It is important that we are alert to the common patterns of behaviour. From a legal perspective we must not allow coercive control to be undermined with arguments that sometimes It doesn’t apply, sometimes the situation is special. Domestic abuse is domestic abuse. We must centre the psychological well-being of the women whose lives are being up-ended for a male sexual thrill.
Refuge defines domestic abuse as “a pattern of behaviour on the part of the abuser designed to control his partner.” That women’s groups, doctors, friends champion autogynephilia (AGP) men as stunning and brave deprives the abused partners of a means for independence, resistance and escape. Ariel Levy, writing on the topic of gaslighting, asserts that “The erasure of the abuse was worse than the abuse.” I think of the erasure of abuse when I see married or now divorced late-transitioning AGP males celebrated. One trans widow named Karen relates how “it is very difficult to find peer support, as partners who do not accept transition and do not stay in the relationship, tend to hide in isolation for fear of criticism or being labelled transphobic.” Similarly, Naefearty claims: “I know from bitter experience of reaching out, that the primary concern is for the welfare of the trans partner, who must never be questioned as the most oppressed creature to walk this planet”. She refers to the “double whammy to those women experiencing abuse, intensive gaslighting, and erasure of their right to name their reality and to set boundaries. There is no such thing as a line in the sand when it comes to trans desire. He gota have what he gota have.” The narrative was set globally with Caitlyn (nee Bruce) Jenner’s ‘transition’ being celebrated on the cover of Vanity Fair to I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here with no concern for his daughters or wife, Kris.
Before the second wave of feminism and consciousness-raising, many women abused by their husband/partners were similarly isolated in fear and shame and let down by institutions. Feminists set up refuges and support groups, they developed analyses of the problem. It took a long time for various abuses to be recognised as a crime against the woman: from rape in marriage, to the “behind closed doors” attitude towards violence against wives and partners, to getting coercive control acknowledged as a form of domestic abuse. It is overdue that we listen to the women on the front line with these men, the trans widows.
Wives and girlfriends of late-transitioning AGP husbands and partners began talking to each other on Mumsnet where one woman describes her experiences:
I’m still in it. H is on a purge phase after a really horrible binge period. We have been together nearly 20 years, married. I found out about the crossdressing 2 years ago. I am not yet 40 and have been really defeated by this, only just beginning to get my mojo back. He has crippled my confidence, classic abuser stuff of encouraging my isolation, I don’t have a proper job and we have two kids.
One of the things that really makes me angry is that he has defamed me, told folk I was crazy, I had trust issues when I found condoms, that I was sexually deficient or having an affair… At the moment he wants to pretend nothing has ever happened, but wants nothing to do with me sexually, and still guards his phone… At his worst he was trying to bully me into sleeping with randoms on the internet or from his approved list, so that he could dress up as a maid and serve us tea. When I told him no he threatened to kill himself. Right now he appears normal, for want of a better word, but he is on an aggressive PR campaign to tie our friends to him, (and it is working) he is passive aggressively point scoring with the kids. I am just exhausted by his behaviour being on my mind all the time.
This woman’s story shares common themes with the stories told by women who have survived violent husbands. It is all there—deliberate isolation, jealousy, gaslighting, discrediting victim, coercion, attempted sexual abuse, emotional blackmail, psychological oppression—except now women are told to celebrate it. Another woman describes how she became an object, a sexual plaything for her partner:
An argument that nearly led to him chucking me out was when I shouted how I was just a prop with no more importance than a plastic dildo or silk knickers to him. No affection or connection just an actor in his sex fantasy. Led to him having, what I consider, a narcissistic rage attack. Somehow he made me feel that I was being abusive still not sure how.
Experts like Evan Stark liken coercive control to being taken hostage. As he says: “the victim becomes captive in an unreal world created by the abuser, entrapped in a world of confusion, contradiction and fear.” The claim that humans, indeed the male you married, can and have changed sex is the unreal world, it will lead to confusion and fear as your reality is overruled. When society is saying this is brave and stunning, that one is a bigot if one doesn’t accept this new reality, would you not become trapped? Your needs and desires are subordinated to the “transitioning” partner’s, your emotional and financial resources are used for the “transitioning” partner’s gain, your resistance is worn down and denied.
In 1998, Diana Aitchison remarks about women who called the Women of the Beaumont Society helpline after discovering their husband’s cross dressing/transsexuality that “in some cases…the wife is already too tired and weary to fight back, especially when there are young children to consider. Some are calling from phone boxes so that their spouses do not discover that they have made a cry for help.” Naefearty notes, “I felt I was being driven insane” noting that her “sense of self” and ability to set limits “came to dominate and shape every corner of [her] life.” She adds, “I never knew where or when the next assault to my psyche was going to come, and so I existed for a long time in a state of hyper vigilance. That is, until such time as my ability to dissociate kicked in.” These do not sound like women in happy, non-abusive relationships.
In a speech entitled “The Psychological Effect on Wives and Partners of Transsexuals,” Aitchison, the co-ordinator of Women of the Beaumont Society, informed the Gendys Conference in 1998 of the hard facts behind this growing phenomenon:
It is estimated that some 100 hundred women per year are delivered into psychiatric care as a direct result of their experiences [of being wives or partners of transsexuals]. Many remain silent, too traumatised to describe what has happened to them. It is my intention to try to describe hitherto unrecognised mechanisms at work within a relationship where Gender Dysphoria is present, which reinforce female disempowerment and which can ultimately destroy their psychological well being.
Aitchison also detailed specific cases at this conference:
One wife described to me that, just prior to her breakdown, she discovered her husband lying on her side of the bed, dressed in her nightie having adopted what she instinctively recognised as her own sleeping position. “He had stripped from me the last of my exclusivity,” she declared. “I had turned a blind eye to many of his mannerisms although they irritated me to distraction sometimes. If I complained he sulked and ignored me, sometimes for days. I found that it was better to say nothing, just put up with it.”
These women ended up fully dehumanised and possessed by these men as they recount being slowly manipulated to accept ever-increasing violations of their personal boundaries. Farah relates her experiences of guilt and shame surrounding her experiences:
If I had stayed with him, there is no question that I would have had a complete nervous breakdown. As it was, it took 4 years of counselling to come to terms with what had happened, and many more years before I felt it no longer defined me. I chose to be secretive about it because I was humiliated that I found myself in that position; I did not want people to gossip about me behind my back, I didn’t want to be seen as somebody who had been so misguided to have married a man who wanted to become a woman – or worse, that I had driven him to it. Today, I still have those feelings of guilt and shame.
These women are internalising the message that it—be it their partner’s “transition” or the relationship breakdown—is their fault. It isn’t. One woman describes how “It felt like a battlefield: you would make decisions that affected us both and lob them at me like grenades, unspoken ultimatums that told me I needed to shut up, or leave.” That is the clinical definition of controlling behaviour, that fits the legal definition of domestic abuse.
Discussing coercive control, Gemma Halliwell, points out how much work is still to be done in countering the media’s narrative surrounding abusive behaviours. Halliwell argues that “wider social messages that practitioners felt normalised certain aspects of psychological abuse in the media as “romantic” and emphasised that domestic abuse is only synonymous with cuts and bruises.” She continues, “When we asked practitioners where the gaps are in providing support to survivors, they told us that above all we need to increase awareness of non-physical forms of abuse within society and across professional agencies.” I think trans widows also fit into this paradigm. The media, therapists and even women’s organisations are pushing a story of the loyal, loving wife standing by her “transitioning” partner without concern for what these women are experiencing. Mary Joan relates her experiences: “[P]eople [were] telling me ‘how beautiful’ it was that I was supporting my spouse in transition, while inside I felt like I was dying from it all.” She points to how she was only viewed as an appendage to her husband’s identity: “I as the wife didn’t matter in those groups, other than as a politically-correct favoured ornament on my spouse’s arm. It was all and only ever about the transgender person and them doing whatever they wanted.” Feminism must create a space for these women and an analysis of what is being done to them. As one trans widow asks, “Imagine a woman’s liberation movement so concerned with being seen to not be bigoted that they would choose him over me. When you clapped [at] his speech, would you wonder if there was a wife at home, looking after the children and putting on a brave face to the world?”
We have to challenge the narrative being constructed by the media and these men that in this instance our knowledge of patterns of domestic violence and the law doesn’t apply. We need to recognise the severe impact of a partner’s late transition on the psychological wellness of the women in their lives.