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I came out as transgender to my wife

By Hoe I Yune, Apr 16, 2020

For most of us, we believe we know and understand the person whom we are about to marry, down to the little quirks like how does he like his eggs or what is her favourite way to spend the weekend. But what happens if one spouse comes out as transgender during the course of a marriage?

It’s a situation that Hans (who now goes by Elle, and which is what we will call her for the rest of the story) and her wife Melissa have been navigating ever since she came out as transgender two years ago. 

For years, Elle quietly wrestled with what it meant to be a man. For most of her life, she struggled to pinpoint what exactly it was, but being a man didn’t quite sit right with her. Then she familiaried herself with transgender experiences and realised that she identified as a woman in a man’s body.

Now 36 and going by female pronouns, Elle is still coming to terms with what being transgender means for her, and also for her marriage. The situation remains tricky, especially in Singapore where same-sex marriages are not recognised and changing your sex on legal documents might result in the marriage being annulled. If there’s one thing that Elle knows, it’s that she doesn’t want her relationship with her wife to change. 

* * * *

Two years ago, my wife Mel and I were getting ready for bed when I summoned the courage to say, “I feel like a girl”. We first started dating seven years ago and have been married for almost four years. 

To say it out loud was a foreign out of body experience. I did not have a clear script in mind and just spoke from the heart, and deep down I knew that this was what coming out feels like. 

I still wasn’t sure about taking drastic steps like gender reassignment surgery but I was sure that I didn’t feel like I identified as a man and I wanted my wife to know this. 

At first, I was embarrassed to talk about it because whenever I gave it any thought, wanting to break away from traditional gender roles overwhelmed me with shame and guilt. Growing up, I’ve always believed that being labelled male at birth meant that I needed to behave a particular way when it comes to the way that I look, the way that I style my hair, everyday salutations, and being in a heteronormative relationship. 

I had to psych myself to come out — I wanted to be true to myself and honest with my wife about who I am. 

I started to rethink the gender identity I was assigned at birth a few months after founding YouYou. It’s a peer support group for interfaith and non-binary individuals.

While pursuing a degree in philosophy in Australia, I grew more socially and politically aware and got involved in LGBTQIA activism. It opened my eyes to the injustices faced by the community. As someone who believes that everyone deserves a fair shot in life, I considered myself a straight heterosexual male who’s an ally to the LGBTQIA community. 

When I returned to Singapore, I wanted to learn more about the local issues so I joined a few organisations. There are many associations for gay men in Singapore and lesbian groups, but when it comes to the non-binary and the asexual, these people tend to be quite underrepresented, which is why I founded YouYou. 

Lawmakers tend to do things from top-down, trying to appeal to the masses, but I wanted to do things at a grassroot level, talking to people on-ground to address cases of bullying and discrimination. I wanted to create a group where people could come together for support and comfort.

During YouYou sessions, members would share what it was like for them to come out. Their stories resonated with me in an unexpected way. They made me reflect on the way that I reacted and responded to things growing up. I remembered how I would daydream about cross-dressing when I was younger.

Going through puberty, femininity was highly attractive to me and was something I wanted to incorporate into my own identity.

I attended an all-boys school and would wear a rather girly vest. I was always trying to look a little more kawaii (Japanese for cute), and made skirts out of my own shirts. I personally found macho-ness too crass and vulgar for me.

Even though I didn’t think there was anything appealing about being a guy, it was easy enough for me to blend in as one. I suppressed a lot of my inner desires because being raised by conservative Chinese parents and educated in an evangelical Christian environment, I knew that my true behaviour would not have been accepted by many people. Honestly, even now, I am still trying to internally unpack my thoughts and history because the embarrassment still creeps up sometimes. I think it stems from the reinforced gender concepts instilled in me when I was younger.

I used to think that to be transgender was deviant, but reading and speaking more with YouYou members have made me realise that being transgender doesn’t mean I cannot continue being a good child to my parents or a good partner to my wife. 

When I was younger, it was also confusing because it never occurred to me to see gender and sexual identity as two separate things. 

I’ve always liked girls (and later women), and thinking that they liked manly guys, especially in high school, I thought I had to behave a certain way in order to be attractive to them. I never thought it was attractive to be caring. I also thought that being sexually attracted to women meant that I surely identify as a man.

Before coming out to Mel, my biggest fear was that she would outright reject my real self that I was beginning to discover and become. A part of me was nervous that she would insist that she only married me for the man I was, yet a bigger part of me wanted her to know the truth. 

What encouraged me to go through with coming out was having heard stories of other people from my support group who came out before me. Keeping those thoughts at the back of my mind, I knew that what she deserved and I needed was to have an open conversation together. Knowing that, I tried to do it as honestly and lovingly as I could.

Before speaking, I mentally prepared myself that if she rejects me and insists that nothing must change, then I would remain in the closet and forget about transitioning altogether.  

After I said my piece, Mel was surprised. It was of course, not something that she could’ve predicted. However I am thankful that she approached it with openness, wanting to hear and understand me more. 

It turned out that Mel’s biggest fear was that I would stop loving her. I might have been rediscovering my gender identity but my sexual orientation has always been that I am attracted to women. And there is no one I would want to be with but Mel. I reassured her that my romantic attraction for her would never change. 

For her to know the truth felt like a load was lifted up my chest. I think I suppressed my feelings for a long time, but when I was finally honest with myself and learned that Mel could accept me as I am, I was able to accept myself for who I am. 

One of the things that I admire about Mel is that she keeps an open mind and is always willing to listen. Even if we disagree and our arguments grow intense, we do not intentionally hurt each other and there is always this willingness to hear the other person out. 

We first met as online friends then started dating each other in 2012, after I returned from Australia to Singapore. To pinpoint what it is that I love about Mel is difficult. At first, it might have been one or two things, but now it is like 10,000 things. It is in her smile, her look, her personality, and how we are both constantly willing to invest in each other. 

Mel and I got married in 2016. It was a little after I asked her to join my family business as an optician, just as my dad asked my mum in the past.

Mel and I got married in 2016. It was a little after I asked her to join my family business as an optician, just as my dad asked my mum in the past.

Transitioning while staying married has been an ongoing discussion for Mel and I. What matters the most to me is that she is comfortable with the next steps that I take.

So far, I’ve been growing out my hair into a bob and got my ear pierced. My friends have been incredibly supportive however I’m not sure I’ll ever fully transition and I’m okay with that. Mel and I are still discussing what we’re both comfortable with and the two of us aside, my parents still remain in the dark. 

I want my parents to be happy and am afraid that they won’t be should they learn the truth. Slowly, I’ve been testing the waters by telling them that I attend LGBTQIA groups. I’ve also switched my gender pronoun on Facebook from male to female and once wrote about being mistaken as a female. My mum rang me when she logged on to Facebook and noticed the posts, but I hesitated telling her the truth and chose to laugh things off instead. Since my parents believe in Buddhism, which sees our bodies as non-permanent, I’m hoping that they will be able to see past conventional gender roles. But I’m still trying to figure out the best way to tell them the truth without hurting them. 

Something else Mel and I will need to consider is how in Singapore, if I were to change my gender marker to “female”, the status of our HDB flat and marriage might be jeopardised as Singapore does not recognise same-sex marriage. Other couples we know are waiting for marriage equality to happen in Singapore before taking drastic steps such as undergoing gender reassignment surgery. 

I think society has preconceived definitions of gender and that can be restrictive on individuals. I know of cisgender men who are constantly trying to prove that they are manly because this is what society expects of them. During moments of insecurity, they wonder if they are less of a man because they are in touch with their emotions. Many transgender people feel this too, except in our case, society tends to assume that we are neither male or female enough. 

Because I don’t conform to traditional definitions, I have to constantly remind myself that no matter what society says, I am a woman. I don’t need their validation, and only need to be sure of my own feelings. What matters is knowing who I am inside and being able to affirm my own self-identity. 

I am not disheartened for I believe that Singapore is progressing quickly as a nation and Singaporeans have the ability to think for themselves. A recently amended religious harmony law prevents religion from being used as a basis to attack groups such as the LGBTQIA community and it is encouraging how the government is implementing new initiatives to get the concerning parties not to sling mud at each other. I see anti-discrimination as something that we should all learn as people and if I could, I would love to talk to those who misunderstand us without fearing judgment or that my safety would be in jeopardy. Hopefully one day, everyone will be able to co-exist — whether it is transgender couples or parents with transgender children. 

Deep down, I know what matters the most to me is that Mel is on my life journey with me. It’s why I’m so grateful that through it all, she has been my number one supporter. I have seen other couples struggle after one party comes out as transgender and I don’t want that for us. We are still trying to figure out our options — whether we will ever consider hormone replacement therapy and cosmetic changes — but whatever steps towards the female gender that I wish to take in the future, I want her onboard with it. 

Pictures were provided by Elle and Melissa.

Melissa’s perspective will be shared tomorrow. Stay tuned.

My name is I Yune, and you can find me at @i_yune on the Dayre app. Whether it's overcoming a semi-heartbreak, navigating jealousy or being in love, I chronicle the things that preoccupy way more space on my brain than I like to admit.

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