President Barack Obama directed U.S. public schools Friday to allow transgender students access to bathrooms that match their chosen gender identity. Transgender issues have become the latest battleground over lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) rights. The following is the first in a three-part series exploring transgender issues in America.
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA—William Tegard has had a lot of identities in his 61 years: Marine, addict, pastor, husband, father. But for as long as he can remember, he was also something else, something he says existed only as a “feeling deep in my inner being.” Secretly, William felt he was a woman.
William kept his secret for decades, refusing to listen to what he called the “feminine voice” in his head. He kept it throughout his six years in the Marines, where he was a tough-talking drill instructor who bullied young recruits. He kept it throughout his 16 years as an ordained minister in the conservative Assemblies of God denomination. He kept it throughout almost all of his 29 years of marriage to his wife, Andrea.
Only when William became confident he would have Andrea’s support, and their marriage would stay intact, did he begin to listen to his feminine voice.
Three years into the transition, William is now Marsha.
“This is who I feel like I am,” she says, her wife by her side after a church service near their home in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Marsha, who publicly began identifying as a woman about six months ago, is wearing a black V-neck blouse and a leopard print skirt. Her silver-blonde hair, her “most feminine feature,” is cut into an attractive, chin-length bob.
“Without Andrea, I wouldn’t be doing this,” Marsha says, fighting back tears.
Andrea, who speaks with a soft, Southern drawl, repeatedly insists it wasn’t difficult to deal with her husband becoming her wife.
“It was confusing, but you don’t just stop loving the person you’ve been married to for almost 30 years. You just work through it. And (it’s) not even just work,” Andrea interrupts herself, leaning in to give Marsha a reassuring kiss. “I love this person, whether it’s a husband or a new wife.”
Their story illustrates the complexities facing not only the estimated 700,000 transgender people in the United States, but also the unique challenges facing their straight spouses and families.
Transgender issues have come to the forefront in recent years, in part thanks to high-profile celebrities such as Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner, now Caitlin, who in 2015 came out as transgender.
President Barack Obama’s recent directive that transgender students must be allowed access to the bathrooms matching their gender identity is the latest in a series of legal steps on the issue.
The issue is particularly close to the Tegards, who live in North Carolina, which requires trans people to use the restroom corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificates.
Supporters of the legislation, currently the focus of rival state and federal lawsuits, argue it will protect women and children from sex offenders. Marsha believes that rationale is rooted in ignorance and prejudice.
“You may as well call the police now, because I’m going to the women’s room,” says Marsha with a still-masculine laugh.
Andrea sometimes accompanies her spouse to the women’s room, as an act of solidarity and to “make sure it’s above reproach.”
But she says she doesn’t care about public perception. “If they judge you, what’s it matter? All that matters is us,” she says.
Choosing to stay married
While some may find it unusual the Tegards decided to stay married, such relationships are maintained at a “much higher rate than some might expect,” according to a 2011 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Fifty-five percent of transgender or gender-nonconforming people either stayed in their relationships or split up for reasons unrelated to their coming out, according to the survey.
The spouse often goes through “a kind of a grieving of who they married, and getting used to the new person,” says Janet McMonagle of the Chicago-based Straight Spouse Network, which provides support for those with gay, lesbian, or transgender partners.
McMonagle says her organization has seen an uptick over the past year in the number of people who are looking for support after their spouses come out as transgender. “A lot of people, I think, have delayed that experience (of coming out),” she says, “And now they feel like they’re able to do it,” particularly since Jenner’s vanguard public transformation.
Gradually becoming female
Marsha’s transformation has been much less glamorous than Jenner’s — but it’s not because of a lack of desire.
“I have a champagne taste with a beer pocketbook,” explains Marsha, laughing as she sips a glass of cheap white wine on the living room couch beneath pictures of her children, Rachel and Josh.
The Tegards are on a tight budget. Marsha is a nursing assistant at a local hospital. Andrea works in the drive-thru window at a Chick-fil-A fast food restaurant.
They, along with their children and Andrea’s elderly mother, live outside Charlotte in a simple, three-bedroom house that is well-kept, but crowded; Rachel sleeps in what was the dining room.
“We don’t have a lot of money to put towards my transition,” says Marsha, whose tiny bedroom closet is filled with women’s clothes purchased mostly from secondhand stores, as well as suits, cowboy boots and other men’s clothes she’s hung on to.
Like Marsha’s wardrobe, her transition from male to female evolved gradually. There was no tearful confession or earth-shattering revelation. In fact, Andrea can’t even remember the first time the subject came up.
“It happened over time, so it wasn’t that shocking,” Andrea says. “It was just something that evolved.”
More than women’s clothes
Much of it evolved in the bedroom, where about three years ago, Marsha says she occasionally began dressing in women’s clothes. Andrea is straight, but says she didn’t mind the cross-dressing and was happy to please her spouse.
In time, Marsha realized her feminine identity was about more than just occasionally putting on women’s clothes. It got to the point where she could no longer live as a woman in the bedroom with Andrea and a male everywhere else. “(I realized) I really can’t turn this off and on anymore. I either have to go one way or the other,” Marsha says.
Together, they agreed that William would begin privately transitioning to become female.
The transition process looks different for each transgender person. Some choose to go through gender reassignment surgery. Marsha did not, in part because she is still attracted only to females.
“Oh Lord, no,” was Marsha’s response to the doctor who asked if she wanted her male genitalia removed, she says.
Marsha has now undergone three years of hormone replacement therapy. She’s now “a lot nicer of a person,” in her own words, although she occasionally becomes emotional and says she cries more often than before.
The hormone treatment has also slightly softened some of her masculine facial features. Other signs of her former life remain, including her broad shoulders and lean, muscular arms. On her left bicep are the names of Andrea and the children; on the right is a tattoo inspired by her time in the Marines.
Marsha recalls early struggles with her gender around the age of 7 or 8, when her mother scolded the young boy for playing dress-up with her clothes and painting his fingernails.
As William got older, he continued to repress his feminine identity.
“I felt like a sissy. And I couldn’t be a sissy,” Marsha says. So instead, William began to take on a persona that, looking back, was almost comically masculine.
After high school, he joined the Marines, working first as a gunsmith and later as a drill instructor at Parris Island in South Carolina. Marsha laughs when she remembers how William would rough up the young recruits. “I was sort of the guy who was the dick,” she says with a shy grin.
After the Marines, while working as a banquet server at a North Carolina hotel, William met a coworker. Both were dating other people at the time, but Andrea quickly felt chemistry between them.
They moved to Miami for work when the city was a gateway for cocaine from Latin America. William soon fell victim to its temptations, in part, Marsha says, because he was unhappy and wanted to “escape reality.”
“I could spend every dime I had on cocaine, but I couldn’t afford a pair of shoes,” she remembers.
Help soon came in the form of religion — specifically, conservative evangelical Christians, who invited William to church.
“We went to this little Cuban church, and I didn’t understand a word the pastor said. And even when I did understand, I was so spaced out,” Marsha says.
Regardless, William went forward after the service and “prayed the sinner’s prayer, and asked Jesus to come into my heart.”
Parishioners watched over William constantly for weeks to ensure he wouldn’t relapse. He didn’t.
Andrea stayed by William throughout the addiction and the two married.
Gender and faith
While the cocaine went away, the religion stuck. The newlywed couple moved back to Charlotte, where William became an ordained minister for the Assemblies of God, a denomination known for its strict, fundamentalist doctrines.
The feminine voice inside continued to talk to him, but he told no one about it. “As a pastor, I repressed all those feelings,” Marsha says.
Eventually, he began questioning the doctrines of his church, which does not marry or ordain openly LGBTQ individuals, or even allow them to be church members.
After 16 years as a pastor, when it came time for William to send the Assemblies of God the annual $380 fee to renew his ordination, he realized he couldn’t do it. So he left the church.
But he didn’t leave the faith. Marsha is still an observant Christian; she and Andrea attend a church in Charlotte that embraces LGBTQ people.
Coming out to the kids
Josh, 26, and Rachel, 22, admit Marsha's transition was hard to get used to at first.
Josh says he sometimes uses the wrong pronouns for Marsha. “I still like to say ‘dad,’ so that’s what makes it hard,” he says.
But after he found out that the transition did not mean his parents would get divorced, he was very supportive.
“I was just more concerned with the family sticking together and everyone being happy,” says Josh, who teaches at a local elementary school. “That’s all that matters, whether she wants to be a man or a woman or identify with no gender.”
Other people in Marsha’s life were also more supportive than she initially imagined. Except for the occasional disapproving glance from a stranger, and the judgments of some of her siblings who are still conservative religious Christians, there have been relatively few problems.
For now, Marsha is just focused on finishing the legal process necessary to change her name. Once that happens, she says she feels her transformation will be complete, and that she’ll no longer look in the mirror and see “William in a skirt.”
“Once Marsha’s here legally, there’s no more William in my mind,” Marsha says.
As for Andrea, she acknowledges that others in her situation would have left. “It’s 29 years,” she says. “You don’t just throw that away.”
This story was written by reporter William Gallo, with video photography by Tina Trinh