Daily Hampshire Gazette - Established 1786
Cloudy
53°
Cloudy
Hi 56° | Lo 38°

Pain of sex change: Dissolving of a family in Shutesbury 

  • Christine Benvenuto in her Shutesbury home Tuesday. Benvenuto, a freelance writer, recently finished a memoir entitled "Sex Changes," chronicling her experiences with an ex-husband who underwent gender reassignment surgery.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS<br/>

    Christine Benvenuto in her Shutesbury home Tuesday. Benvenuto, a freelance writer, recently finished a memoir entitled "Sex Changes," chronicling her experiences with an ex-husband who underwent gender reassignment surgery.
    JOSH KUCKENS
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • <br/>


    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Christine Benvenuto in her Shutesbury home Tuesday. Benvenuto, a freelance writer, recently finished a memoir entitled "Sex Changes," chronicling her experiences with an ex-husband who underwent gender reassignment surgery.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS<br/>

    Christine Benvenuto in her Shutesbury home Tuesday. Benvenuto, a freelance writer, recently finished a memoir entitled "Sex Changes," chronicling her experiences with an ex-husband who underwent gender reassignment surgery.
    JOSH KUCKENS
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Christine Benvenuto in her Shutesbury home Tuesday. Benvenuto, a freelance writer, recently finished a memoir entitled "Sex Changes," chronicling her experiences with an ex-husband who underwent gender reassignment surgery.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS<br/>

    Christine Benvenuto in her Shutesbury home Tuesday. Benvenuto, a freelance writer, recently finished a memoir entitled "Sex Changes," chronicling her experiences with an ex-husband who underwent gender reassignment surgery.
    JOSH KUCKENS
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Purchase photo reprints »

  • Purchase photo reprints »

  • Christine Benvenuto in her Shutesbury home Tuesday. Benvenuto, a freelance writer, recently finished a memoir entitled "Sex Changes," chronicling her experiences with an ex-husband who underwent gender reassignment surgery.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS<br/>
  • <br/>
  • Christine Benvenuto in her Shutesbury home Tuesday. Benvenuto, a freelance writer, recently finished a memoir entitled "Sex Changes," chronicling her experiences with an ex-husband who underwent gender reassignment surgery.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS<br/>
  • Christine Benvenuto in her Shutesbury home Tuesday. Benvenuto, a freelance writer, recently finished a memoir entitled "Sex Changes," chronicling her experiences with an ex-husband who underwent gender reassignment surgery.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS<br/>

The marriage dissolved not because her husband left to be with another woman. He had begun the process of becoming one, from growing his hair to ingesting female hormones.

“For two years I watched my husband die,” she said.

Benvenuto, who lives in Shutesbury, eventually came to terms with the circumstances. She gradually confided in friends, came to understand her ex’s situation better and met another man. And now, she has detailed the experience in the book “Sex Changes: A Memoir of Marriage, Gender and Moving On,” recently published by St. Martin’s Press.

The book takes the reader through grief, anger, bewilderment and self-recrimination — as well as some dark humor — as Benvenuto confronts the end of her marriage and the steady disappearance of the man she fell in love with as a college student. She becomes a single mother to three active children and finds herself worn to a frazzle.

Benvenuto said her story can help families in which a member has gender issues, but not everyone agrees. The book sparked a local protest that included Margaret Cerullo, a Hampshire College professor of sociology, who admited she hasn’t read the book, but nevertheless called it hurtful, containing negative stereotypes about transgender people based on excerpts she read online.

“These kind of portrayals are very damaging, especially for young trans people, who are already struggling with self-image,” Cerullo said in a phone interview. “It seemed unnecessarily cruel.”

Last month Cerullo, a group of Hampshire students and others — including friends of Benvenuto’s ex-husband — showed up at Benvenuto’s reading at Amherst Books to voice their objections, an episode that ended with police being called. Cerullo said the group was attempting to have “a dialogue” with Benvenuto. Benvenuto, however, said the protesters shouted obscenities, even though children were present at the bookstore, and seemed to be seeking “a violent encounter.”

She insisted her book is not a statement about or portrayal of transgender people as a group. “I completely support their rights,” she said. “This book is my story. It’s about my very particular experience.”

A mistake, then hope

Benvenuto and her ex remained together for two years after he told her he felt like an alien as a man and began taking steps to change his gender. In retrospect, that was a mistake, Benvenuto said, as it bewildered and angered her children — then 12, 8 and 2 years old — while creating insurmountable tension between the couple.

Of the night her husband broke the news seven years ago, she wrote: “From that evening on, there would never be another easy moment between us.”

Yet today, Benvenuto, who declined to give her age, said she has softened, even though her children’s relationships with their other parent are still evolving. That was part of her impetus in writing her book, she said: “I did end up feeling pretty good about my life, that it didn’t just come to an end, and I wanted to give hope to people. I believe families need to be supported in supporting their kids ... because this is a difficult and painful thing for families. It’s not going to be a good outcome to tell your kids that everything’s going to be fine.”

A freelance writer and editor who has written fiction and feature articles for various publications over the years, Benvenuto does not identify her ex-husband in her memoir, referring to him as Tracey. According to past newspaper stories, however, her ex-husband was Jay Ladin, a writer and poet who at one time taught English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Ladin made national and even international news about four years ago when, after teaching literature at Yeshiva University in New York City for a number of years, he returned to campus as a transgender woman, Joy Ladin. Officials at the Orthodox Jewish school at first put Ladin on administrative leave but then allowed her to teach again.

Joy Ladin published her own memoir this year, “Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders,” in which she detailed her struggle to live as the “wrong” gender and the steps she took to become a woman. She also offered a frank appraisal of what her transition cost others: “My gender identity crisis had destroyed my marriage, shattered my family, and turned me into an unwelcome stranger in my own home.”

“My children were grief stricken, angry and baffled by the double blow of losing their happy family and the strange transformation of the father they loved,” Ladin added.

Road to realization

Benvenuto said her ex-husband went from being “a wonderful father” and her closest confidant to a detached, secretive and sometimes belligerent stranger, completely consumed with changing his gender and angry that neither she nor their children seemed to be happy for him. She in turn increasingly saw him as a narcissist who was willing to throw four lives overboard to meet his own needs.

She recalled one conversation in which she asked, “What if you knew doing this would destroy one or all of the children?” She wrote that her ex-husband, “ice cold,” responded, “I would do it anyway.”

In an email to Gazette, Ladin denied that charge and said she stayed in the marriage as long as she did because both parents wanted to preserve an unbroken home for their children as long as possible. More importantly, she said, she had discussed her transgender identity with Benvenuto at numerous points during their relationship.

“(Benvenuto) decided to marry a transsexual and have children with a transsexual,” Ladin wrote. “When transition became a matter of life and death for me, I listened to her feelings about it for hours, and slowed the process in ways that were for me excruciating.”

Looking back, Benvenuto said she did not understand the depths of her ex-husband’s misery, feeling he was trapped in the wrong gender. As she sees it, there had been incidents in their past that touched on the issue — her ex had once told her he wished he’d been born a girl — but Benvenuto said she attributed much of that to his difficult childhood and strained relationship with his father.

“I was certain that Tracey had made peace with himself,” she wrote.

“I thought (gender confusion) was a psychological problem,” Benvenuto said in an interview. “I still don’t completely or really understand this issue, but I know that it’s not as if you can get over it with the right therapy. If a person is saying, ‘I have gender issues,’ then they do.”

Sensing insensitivity

But at the time, she was overwhelmed with confusion, fear and rejection, and not just because of her ex. Some friends and acquaintances were sympathetic to her, she said, but others in what she sarcastically calls “The Valley of the Politically Correct” seemed more interested in the symbolism of her ex-husband’s change.

“I do think there was a strong element of ‘We have to embrace this, we have to celebrate this, and we can’t stop and say, wow, this is really hard for you, this is really hard for your kids,’ ” Benvenuto said.

“I would be waylaid at grocery stores or on the street or at school events with the most intimate questions,” she added. “Sometimes it was people who maybe wouldn’t have spoken to me before but would say, ‘How exciting this is! Has your husband had surgery yet?’ ”

She was also disturbed by what she called “an anti-feminist element” among some people, primarily women, whose attitude appeared to be “we’re going to support your husband — you’re the wife and you’ve got to shut up and back him and sacrifice, and if your kids aren’t on board with this, get them on board.”

As one woman said to her, “Look, he’s a transsexual. Whatever he does is what he needs to do.”

Benvenuto would eventually leave the Jewish Community of Amherst synagogue, which she and her family had attended for years, because she felt she wasn’t getting support from some members. “Ultimately it was too hard to be there,” she said.

Her grief was compounded by shyness and reticence. It took her months to tell friends her marriage was on the rocks, and months more to say why it was failing. Her own upbringing, Benvenuto added, made it painful to see her ex-husband feminizing himself, and she was horrified to discover he was playing dress-up games with her older daughter, then about 9.

As she wrote in her book, “It is inescapable: For me there is something slightly creepy and more than slightly sad about a man in women’s clothes.” These “admittedly terrible” feelings, she noted, mark her as “hopelessly retrograde. Hopelessly, viscerally outside the pale of political correctness.”

Ladin, though, in her email, said she kept her transition out of sight from their children as long as possible — and that Benvenuto’s comments about transgender behavior being creepy are “transphobic.”

That said, Benvenuto said she has told her ex-husband she wishes she could have been more supportive of his change. “It would have involved letting go of the marriage much more quickly, saying, ‘We’re on separate paths but I can be supportive of you on your path,’ ” she said. Instead, for nearly two years, the couple tried to keep up the appearance that things were normal.

Benvenuto, whose previous book is “Shiksa,” about the experiences of gentile women married to Jewish men, said she’s searching for her next writing project. She added that she hopes “Sex Changes” is read “more as a story about divorce and midlife crisis and how a lot of things happen, but you pick yourself up and go on. The specifics of my story are a little unusual, but the theme is more universal.”

“I clung to stasis like a fraying lifeline, kicking and screaming as it slipped through my fingers,” she wrote in her book. “But against my will and finally because of it, my life changed, and changed me with it.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Legacy Comments2

It is unfortunate to see such an insulting article be put on the front page of the Gazette. the Reporters perpetual use of degrading and insulting language only furthers to push this article as one that would be described as "hate speech" please reconsider what type of articles you publish and the affects it has on others.

I was shocked to see this article—and its title—on the front page of the Gazette. The controversial book by local author Christine Benvenuto contains much more than Benvenuto's personal story; it contains a ruthless disparagement of her ex-husband (also a local resident), an indictment of a local Jewish community and its leadership, and a truly stunning display of narcissism (for an example, see her description of the work done by her synagogue to become trans-inclusive—an effort with which my partner and I were personally involved—and her perception that it was an attack on her and her family). This article, however, compounds the damage by failing to respect the gender identity of Benvenuto's ex, Joy Ladin, using terms like "gender confusion" and alternately using male and female pronouns. There is nothing "confused" about a transgender person's identity, though others may be confused in trying to understand it (in which case, the gender confusion is Ms. Benvenuto's not Ms. Ladin's). As for pronoun confusion: the AP Stylebook and GLAAD's Reference Guide for media professionals are very clear about this. When referring to a transgender person—or any person—the gender pronoun used should be the one the individual prefers and/or the one matching his/her presentation. By either standard, the correct pronoun for Ms. Ladin is "she." The correct terminology is easy to find—and, in this community with its active trans population, it should be standard knowledge for any reporters and editors covering the community. (To read the pertinent GLAAD reference page, visit http://www.glaad.org/reference/transgender.) To add insult, the article notes allegations that Benvenuto's statements are transphobic—and puts the word in quotations, as if it were in doubt. Frankly, Benvenuto is quite frank about her transphobia, stating that she views "a man in women's clothes" as "creepy" and "sad." If viewing trans people as "creepy" and "sad" isn't transphobic, I wonder what, exactly, *would* qualify for that label.

Post a Comment

You must be registered to comment on stories. Click here to register.