On a sunny autumn day in 1978, my then-husband, wearing his investment-banker suit, walked in the front door of our two-story stucco home on Summit Hill and changed both of our lives. “I’m going to go out into the world as a woman,” he said. “Yvonne will go with me. I want to experience the world as a woman.”
We had been in joint therapy for four years, and Yvonne was one of our therapists. My husband had previously been a public figure in Saint Paul and was sure to be recognized, sooner or later. I was terrified for him, and for myself, but I respected his decision. I didn’t yet grasp its import for our lives. But I knew that I had a decision to make, too.
I turned, walked up the stairs to the bedroom we’d shared until recently and sat down on the bed. Sun streamed through sheer olive curtains I’d sewn, landing on the blue shag carpet my husband had installed. I couldn’t yet picture when or how the story would become public, but I knew it would. Did I want to be around for that? I had to decide what mattered: the probability of being entangled in public shock and scandal, or the deeper reality of what was going on for me, for my husband, and between us.
I imagined the worst. There would be headlines. Could he be arrested? Both of us might be shunned, even threatened. I let the possible scorn and rejection seep into my bones.
Surprisingly, as I immersed myself in the potential of a high-profile scandal, I knew with no doubt that I could handle it. The realities of my husband’s inner life and of my inner life were more important than any public scandal. In that moment, I realized that my husband was helping me, as I was helping him. We were both on journeys to find ourselves. We were helping each other. People could think what they wanted.
When I made that choice to trust myself and to honor what was real in my life, I started to reclaim a part of myself that I had unknowingly disempowered long before. I stood up, straightened my shoulders. My husband was going out to experience the world as a woman. Winter was coming and “she” had no coat. The next day, I went downtown to Dayton’s and purchased a belted coat in a subtle plaid I thought she would like. She did.
Four years earlier, I had decided to seek a therapist in order to finish therapeutic work I knew I hadn’t completed earlier in my life. My husband insisted on going with me, so we ended up in joint therapy for seven years. At the first session, I turned to him and said, “My issues aren’t as glamorous as yours, but they are just as important.” I, too, was seeking my authentic self. In that way, my former husband’s story and mine aren’t so different. Being in the world as who we really are is a challenge we all face.
Some years later, after my husband and I had divorced and she had transitioned, I attended a workshop on community building in a suburb of Chicago and faced that challenge head-on. Thirty people from throughout the Midwest sat in a circle with two facilitators. The rules were that, one, you identified yourself when you spoke and, two, no one could be interrupted. The first day was painful, full of posturing and no community building at all.
On the second day I woke determined to be real in the workshop. I went to a nearby pond to meditate before breakfast. As we gathered to convene for the day, I raised my hand.
“My name is Mae. Pass the tissues because I’m going to cry,” I said.
I didn’t know what I was going to talk about; I only knew there was a story in me that wanted to be told. I began. “In 1972, I married a man who would become a public figure…” I told the story of my marriage and my loss and for the first time, I grieved that loss. I talked and cried and cried and talked until my story was told and my tears were spent. When the news of my former husband’s transition had broken, I’d made myself visible and strong, feeling that my acceptance could help the community accept and support the woman who had been my prominent husband. There with strangers. I didn’t have to be strong. I could grieve.
When I finished, the room was silent for several minutes. Then, an attorney who sat opposite me in the circle began to speak. He’d had an extra-marital affair and the woman he’d loved had been killed in a terrible accident. He took her picture out of his wallet and sent it around the room. He shed no tears, but his pain was palpable. For the remainder of our time together, people shared their truths and we listened to each other. A sense of community came upon us.
The next morning as the workshop concluded, the tall attorney came and stooped to hug me. “I don’t know where you found the courage,” he said, “but I’m glad you did.” How strange, I thought, that we’ve made a world in which it takes courage to own ourselves with others.
How does an 82-year-old woman who grew up on a small dairy farm in southwest Wisconsin end up writing in Saint Paul, Minnesota? MAE SEELY SYLVESTER followed a passion that persisted while she pursued a career of teaching, counseling, selling, being a governmental appointee, being an entrepreneur, and finally being a medical school education coordinator.