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Transition and Apostasy: A Wife’s Perspective

The wife of a biologically male transsexual explains how she helped her gender dysphoric spouse look beyond the simplistic slogans offered by online activists.

· 9 min read
Stephanie Hayton and her spouse, now named Debbie, photographed in 1995 during a visit to a relative’s home in York.
Stephanie Hayton and her spouse, now named Debbie, photographed in 1995 during a visit to a relative’s home in York.

Earlier this year, Bristol, UK-based teacher, writer, and trade unionist Debbie Hayton released Transsexual Apostate: My Journey Back to Reality, a book that candidly describes the biologically male author’s struggle with autogynephilia, transition to a female gender identification, and growing estrangement from the mainstream orthodoxies of transgender activism. The essay that follows is adapted from the book’s epilogue, in which the author’s spouse, Stephanie Hayton, provides her own perspective on the events and issues described in the book.

Our thirtieth wedding anniversary was in 2023: Debbie and I have known each other for most of our lives. We are friends, with a shared history and children whom we both love, but I am not romantically attracted to someone who looks like a woman. Nevertheless, we have come a long way since 2011, when Debbie first told me that the only way forward was to transition. 

Initially, Debbie feared the potential devastation that transition might cause to our marriage and family. However, she joined various online trans chat groups, and the messages were the same: only trans people can choose; your wife will never understand because she is “cis”; if your wife loves you, then she will affirm you. The message from the counsellor was similar: maybe Stephanie can take you shopping for female clothing?

This type of “gender-affirming care” is not affirming when it imposes demands on existing relationships and people. It easily destroys the supportive networks that the trans person has with the wider world. “Gender affirmation” draws people into a community that considers outsiders to be the enemy: Debbie was told repeatedly that I had no say in our marriage or future.

Proponents of ‘gender affirmation’ often cast outsiders as the enemy: My transitioning spouse was told repeatedly that I had no say in our marriage or our future.

Debbie and I talked as I tried to understand. What did she and the trans community mean by “a woman born in a man’s body”? I usually wear trousers; I am a physicist; I rarely wear make-up; but this does not make me a “man.”

Debbie could not answer. However, she repeatedly used the image of a roundabout with many exits: She thought she was still deciding which exit to choose, but it felt as if she had chosen, and was careering down the road at 70 mph while I struggled to catch up. Debbie could see no other way out, even if it cost us our marriage. Eventually, we agreed that Debbie would start social transitioning in December 2012.

This was carefully choreographed with the children in mind: Their teachers, family members, and other groups were told so that they could offer support.

By April 2013, I had endured enough. It was like having two teenage girls at home: One was my fifteen-year-old daughter, but the other was aged forty-four and unmanageable. I told Debbie that our marriage could not continue because Debbie’s world revolved solely around Debbie. This was the lowest point for me, but the first significant turning point back to reality for Debbie.

She realized that she would lose all of us unless she started listening and allowing us to have a voice. Later, Debbie waited for my agreement before having surgery. Although I could tell that Debbie wanted to rush ahead, she was willing to wait when I said that neither I nor the children were ready.

I May Have Gender Dysphoria. But I Still Prefer to Base My Life on Biology, Not Fantasy
For the rest of society to acquiesce to this lie is not only a betrayal of science, but of democracy.

We started to discuss other trans issues. When the government looked at the so-called “spousal veto,” Debbie initially repeated the trans-activist mantra that no “cis” (i.e., non-trans) person could stop a trans person from living as his or her true self. I questioned why the partner should have no say: a marriage is an agreement between two people, so why should the trans person have all the power? Surely, there was a way forward that respected the rights of both people in a difficult situation? Debbie started to see another perspective.

Through this time, we were adjusting as a family. The children reacted differently to their dad’s transition, but it was another significant milestone when each child told a friend. In the public arena, I tended to act as a single parent, attending school events and parents’ evenings by myself. This way, the children did not have to answer difficult questions from classmates. 

Church was different. It was a place that we continued to attend as a family. I am a lay Reader (Licensed Lay Minister) in the Church of England, and juggled multiple roles. Since I was a leader, some congregation members freely shared their opinions with me. One informed me that God would not speak to me again until I was divorced. Another shared her happiness that Debbie felt able to transition. Both were equally unhelpful.

Most people were confused but wanted to be kind and supportive. I was surprised how many people knew someone who knew a trans person. Even in 2012, trans people were around, fitting into society, holding down jobs, living in families, and most people accepted them.

Around this time, I attended an LGBT event. The transwomen were easy to spot because they were naturally tall and yet most still wore three-inch heels. Meanwhile, the women were smaller, and wore flat shoes. Women know from personal experience that our naturally higher voices are less well-heard, and that deep voices carry better. If a transwoman’s deep voice is used to dominate a conversation, particularly to speak over other women, then the transwoman is not interacting as a typical woman.

Yet I’ve learned that there are many other transwomen who do not try to dominate, and do not insist on extra attention or special rights for being trans. They have transitioned, sometimes many decades ago, and have families and jobs. The voices of this moderate trans constituency has been drowned out by activist demands that trans people should be actively celebrated.

The voices of this moderate trans constituency has been drowned out by activist demands that trans people should be actively celebrated. 

During this period, supporting the children was my priority. Although Debbie had postponed surgery, she was still on the medical waiting list. In November 2014, we both attended the Charing Cross Gender Clinic in London. The waiting room seemed full of very tall people with large hands, short skirts, and anxious faces, plus Debbie and myself and two hassled receptionists.

The psychiatrist was direct and fair: “Gender surgery affects the spouses more than the children,” he said. “Social transition affects children, but they are not interested in their parents’ genitals.”

In fact, the children were adjusting to the situation. It wasn’t easy, but they loved their dad. I was the one who has to juggle, adapt, manage, and intervene. On one occasion, the children and I were in a local store choosing a new kitchen. The children offered their opinions on cupboards, sinks, and stoves, so we sat down with a sales assistant to purchase our desired items.

She was helpful and courteous. We seemed a normal family—a mother and three children choosing a new kitchen. Very stereotypical. Then Debbie joined us and handed over a credit card. There was a shift in the atmosphere. Not homophobia or transphobia; the sales assistant continued to be helpful and courteous, but we no longer fitted the stereotype. I felt like telling her, “I am not gay,” but I could only do so by outing Debbie.

On another occasion, I was at a training course with one of Debbie’s colleagues. As we finished, Debbie arrived to collect me, and the colleague was surprised to see her. When Debbie pointed out that we were married, the colleague said to me, “Oh, you look heterosexual!” Although the comment amused me, I wondered whether a similar comment—“You look gay”—would be seen as acceptable, or what it meant to “look heterosexual.”

Being heterosexual in a world that assumes I am gay is a learning experience. I am learning that I can only be myself: how other people react to me often says more about them than about me. I have had to draw deeply on my faith and the sense that God had a purpose in all of this, even if I did not understand it or particularly want it. 

Debbie’s activism and public appearances grew. In retrospect, the idea of “not outing” Debbie now seems laughable. We tried to keep her activism separate from home and family so that the children could live a relatively normal life. At one point, however, one son referred to himself as a “fifteen-year-old cisgender white heterosexual male,” which horrified me. At that age, they should be learning about their uniqueness, not immersed in identity language. 

However, as the children got older, they needed less protection. In 2018, a journalist wanted to interview Debbie for a television documentary and asked whether I could be involved. I was reluctant: this would “out” me as a trans spouse. Nevertheless, we spoke on the phone, and she told me that she wanted the spouse’s voice to be heard in the documentary. Since the spouse is often ignored, I took part.

Stephanie and Debbie Hayton, photographed at their Bristol home in 2022.

The filming took place in our dining room but, unknown to viewers, two of our children were standing behind the cameraman, listening carefully to all that was said. The broadcast clip was only a few minutes within an hour-long program, but it opened doors to other interviews.

By this time, LGBT issues were already a growing cause of division for the Church of England. As part of a process called Living in Love and Faith (LLF), Bishops were asked to recommend individuals who could tell their stories, so as to inform the ongoing debate, and Debbie and I were interviewed, along with many others.

Sixteen short “story films” were made, and one focused on us. This was a big step for me. Suddenly, my faith, my decisions, and my marriage were exposed to possible critics. Friends, strangers, and enemies could all hear part of my journey. I felt vulnerable, but also that, somehow, this was part of my calling.

My identity is rooted in my experiences, choices, imperfections, and faith, which tells me that God calls us to be truthful, to care, to love others as well as ourselves, and to trust Him for the future. My trust was tested when there was a call to remove “our” story film from the LLF collection, since some trans people were upset at seeing Debbie, whose views on trans issues were seen as off-message from activist dogma. I was very grateful that the Church kept the film, while offering appropriate counselling to those who were upset. Removing it would have removed the voice of a trans spouse and a lay Reader. 

In 2019, I attended a course where another attendee was a transman. After a lecture on death and dying, the transman told me that trans people did not die natural deaths because they were usually murdered. I quickly googled the statistics and pointed out that very few trans people are murdered in the UK. In fact, trans people are proportionately less likely to be murdered than women in this country. However, the transman did not believe me, and repeated the assertion to the group. Everyone nodded politely, and I wondered what effect this morbid lie was having on the mental health of individual trans people.

In public, people will sometimes rush up and thank Debbie for her work. This can happen anywhere—on holiday, the local store, a special church service. I stand to one side and prefer to remain anonymous. However, even now, I sometimes miss my husband. Few of us predict how our lives will go, but this is far outside any imagined prediction. By staying together, we are friends and support one another—and I have learned more than I ever expected about human sexuality and LGBT issues. In return, I have helped Debbie stay rooted in the real world rather than the mantras of the online trans community.

In the real world, most people want to be kind and do not care whether someone is male or female; gay, trans, or straight; old or young. Most people need to eat and sleep, and to have friends and a sense of purpose. Most people want (and many have) some self-acceptance. These are found in relationships, in communities of diverse people, and in truth.

I am grateful for those friends, teachers and relatives who have offered support over the years to us or our children by just showing acceptance. I have work that I enjoy—and my colleagues and I usually have far more pressing matters to talk about than trans issues. As our children grow into young adults, I appreciate moving into a new stage of life with Debbie, where we learn to live once again as a couple without children at home. Life has been unexpected; life has its challenges; but life also offers goodness. We have come a long way—together.

Adapted, with permission, from Transsexual Apostate: My Journey Back to Reality, by Debbie Hayton. Published by Forum Press. Epilogue: © Stephanie Hayton.

Stephanie Hayton

Stephanie Hayton is a former physics teacher who now works for the Church of England as a Diocesan Advisor for Lay Ministry.

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