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Once a Man, Never a Woman

In an extraordinary new book, Shannon Thrace describes her disintegrating marriage to a man consumed by narcissism and gender dysphoria.

· 10 min read
Once a Man, Never a Woman
Cover of 18 Months: A Memoir of a Marriage Lost to Gender Identity, by Shannon Thrace, Firebush Books (October 12, 2022)

I’ve never been big on personal memoirs, let alone memoirs about intimate relationships. And so 18 Months: A Memoir of a Marriage Lost to Gender Identity isn’t a book I expected to like. But the author sent me a personalized review copy last month, and then nudged me a few times by email to check if I’d read it. Feeling duty-bound to get through at least a chapter or two, I cracked the cover on Thursday night. By Friday afternoon, I’d torn through the whole thing.

To sum up the story—and yes, this whole article will be full of spoilers—author Shannon Thrace and her spouse Jamie (both pseudonyms) enter the narrative as a loving couple, inhabiting a rural hipster idyll outside of Indianapolis. Husband and wife are software experts in their early 40s, with no kids, a great sex life, and lots of time for antiquing, gardening, and esoteric art-house interests such as kintsugi (look it up). Dinners consist largely of vegetables hand-picked from their own garden. They’ve been together for 14 years, yet sprinkle their playful conversations with ambitious literary allusions, like young lovebirds still trying to impress one another.

I mentioned the great sex, yes? Because that’s the pleasure perch from which the relationship begins its fatal nosedive. Shannon is on her computer, cycling through some of Jamie’s favourite porn genres as they get prepped for yet another satisfying bout of coitus. Jamie wants to see something new, he says—images of fully intact (and aroused) men wearing women’s underwear. Shannon, a former drag-bar worker who’d gone through a polyam lesbian period in her 20s, is the furthest thing from a prude. So she duly loads up the “tranny” videos (as Jamie calls them), and the evening comes alive with porn-fuelled sex.

As the story proceeds, Shannon serves up flashback sequences that take readers through her childhood, and on into the early years of her relationship with Jamie. She’s always been something of a lonely soul, we learn, sporadically preyed upon by older boys and men. As a young adult, she fled her Christian roots in Bluegrass country, only to replicate the same climate of fear and dysfunction with seedy jobs, deadbeat friends, and adulterous sex.

Jamie is an affable, attention-seeking man-child who plays guitar at parties and picks dorm-room-style arguments about religion and philosophy. When the couple flees the city, Jamie tells Shannon he’ll take on the role of domestic house-husband while she works an office job. We only have Shannon’s side of the story. But if her account is to be believed, Jamie never delivered: She ended up making six figures while he couldn’t even be counted on to do the laundry or cut up a melon. (I know that last detail sounds oddly specific, but that fruit makes a memorable appearance in an important scene.)

Like pretty much everyone else in their lives, Shannon and Jamie conceive of themselves as committed social progressives. And so right from the beginning, Jamie’s cross-dressing takes on activist overtones, including through a personal blog that he dedicates to breaking down the “gender binary.” He creates an author account for Shannon, too, so they can present a united blogging front against all those bigots eager to denigrate Jamie’s blossoming new gender-bending identity. In the end, the bigots never really show up—though Jamie doesn’t let that stop him from steadily taking on a victim mindset.

The trans community is diverse, especially when it comes to attitudes toward sex. As writer Angus Fox noted in a seven-part Quillette series, When Sons Become Daughters, some biologically male trans-identified teenagers live a sexless existence; and are drawn to puberty blockers and androgynous aesthetics precisely because they seem to offer safe harbour from male sexual development. In the case of middle-aged men who abruptly adopt a trans identity later in life, on the other hand, it can be the opposite: the presentation is often hyper-sexualized.

Such sexual inclinations can manifest as autogynephilia—arousal at the thought or image of oneself as a woman. This term doesn’t appear in 18 Months. But much of what Shannon writes about Jamie is consistent with the subcategory. When it comes to sex, she reports, he starts becoming excited by hard-core female-themed role-play involving a strap-on dildo. Shannon tries to be a good soldier, but plainly finds these new fetishes to be off-putting. Moreover, the intimacy of sex evaporates: Jamie is so deeply absorbed in his cosplay fantasies that her presence in the room barely registers. “Your hang-ups aren’t the kind most people have—the kind that lead to interesting, if controversial, sex,” Shannon writes. “You have the kind that kill sex. Making love to transgender Jamie turns out to be like making dinner for an anorexic.”

Shannon also becomes concerned by the increasingly extreme measures Jamie takes to present as feminine. These include not only expensive hair-removal treatments, but also painful cinches and body clamps. He obsesses endlessly over clothing, makeup, and hair, collapsing into tears if Shannon doesn’t repeatedly affirm that he looks like a “real woman”—which, of course, he doesn’t. It’s only a matter of months before Jamie announces that he’s no longer merely a cross-dresser—as he’d formerly described himself—but is now unambiguously transgender. He also wants to be addressed with female pronouns. (While Shannon honoured this request at the time, I’ve decided to refer to Jamie according to his male biological identity, for reasons explained in the last paragraph.)

Eventually, Jamie abandons both his household responsibilities (such as they were) and his part-time job teaching high-school computer science, so that he can dedicate himself to feminizing his appearance and writing social-media posts about his gender-related epiphanies. He also spends a lot of time patrolling discussion groups, heaping abuse on anyone he deems inadequately trans-supportive. As the months pass, Shannon notices, the sloganeering activist idiom he uses online begins to creep into personal conversation. So a simple request that Jamie not blow their mortgage money on beauty products is thrown back in Shannon’s face as a bigoted attack on Jamie’s very “existence.”

One reason Shannon’s narrative feels reliable is that she sometimes takes pains to argue points in Jamie’s favour, which isn’t something you’d expect if this book were written as a dedicated hit job on a despised ex. She notes, for instance, that Jamie still remained something of a free thinker and feminist during the initial stages of his transformation. At one point, he admits plainly that he’s a cross-dressing man with male privilege. And he tells Shannon that he won’t use women’s public bathrooms at the mall because he doesn’t want to cause anxiety for any women he might encounter therein.

Over time, however, Jamie becomes radicalized in his outlook, and these concessions to reality are retracted. In one especially shocking episode that took place just before the marriage collapses, Shannon catches Jamie joining a vicious online pile-on—which includes rape and death threats—targeting a female sexual-assault survivor who’d expressed anxiety about using the bathroom alongside trans women.

One gets the sense that Shannon might still be with Jamie to this day, trying desperately to make the relationship work, if she truly believed that transition was making her husband happy. But it’s the opposite: His inability to look like a real woman becomes a subject of inexhaustible emotional agony, causing him to lapse into crying jags whenever some anonymous waiter or clerk seems confused about his gender presentation. Many of the other trans women that Shannon meets at local support-group meetups also seem sad. In their canned rhetoric and online pronouncements, they channel the language of joy, liberation, and solidarity, all the while exalting their internally felt sense of gender identity. But in truth, what they really seek is the fleeting external validation that’s transmitted through the gaze of credulous onlookers.

In many cases, Shannon states bluntly, their elaborate faux-feminine get-ups look clownish. But no one is allowed to say so out loud, especially their partners. And much of this book consists of Shannon giving vent to such long-bottled up truths:

Your corset, your razor, your gaff: They whittle away your waist, your beard, the bulge between your legs. They make you less of who you are. But they can’t make you more … Shaving has laid bare your timeworn skin, not made it tighter nor brought back its flush. Tucking and compressing has squashed what makes you vibrant. You’re polished like a doll, now veiled like a widow, perfumed like a corpse.

Eventually, Jamie remakes not only his appearance, but also his past. He announces that he’d known he was female-spirited since the age of four. An oft-told story about a childhood brush with an abusive Boy Scout field-trip chaperone is rewritten to the effect that “it happened because I was seen as a girl.” Following an airport security search that’s conducted respectfully by well-trained staff, Jamie starts claiming he was transphobically harassed.

Jamie also rewrites his sex life, now claiming that his gender identity has nothing to do with sexual appetites. Unable to bite her tongue at this whopper, Shannon reminds Jamie of his requests to be demeaned as a “tranny” during sex, his inability to perform sexually unless he presents as a woman with a vagina while Shannon pretends to be a man with a penis, and, especially, his penchant for trans-themed porn—to which Jamie replies, without a hint of irony, “I was trying to find people like myself represented in the media.”

Lies, distortions, and selective memory are features of many disintegrating relationships, of course. But the style of conflict that Shannon describes seems uniquely toxic, since gender theory allows Jamie to cynically escalate even the most mundane disagreement into preposterous accusations of transphobic bigotry. And if that trick doesn’t work, he simply flees Shannon’s company altogether in a great flourish of tears, on the claim that her words are making him feel “unsafe.” As anyone who’s followed this issue on Twitter might have predicted, Jamie sometimes plays the suicidal-ideation card as well.

All of this gaslighting works on Shannon—at least for a while—because she has no one to talk with candidly about her pain. “You tell me you’re sad. I tell you I’m sad, too,” she writes (using “you” as a stand-in for Jamie). “[But] everyone considers your sadness an important civil rights issue, [while] no one gives a shit about mine.”

At one point, Shannon and Jamie go to therapy. In the first session, “Dr. Doris” tells Jamie that she can’t wait to begin the “fun part” of the therapeutic process—i.e., helping him transition. In the same breath, Dr. Doris urges Shannon to go get another therapist for herself, since Shannon’s insufficiently supportive attitudes toward Jamie’s feminine nature present a “conflict of interest.”

Nor does Shannon find allies among the friends who populate Jamie’s social orbit and enable his narcissism. For the most part, these are childless, underemployed, superannuated adolescents who spend a lot of time in imaginary realms created through video games, Dungeons & Dragons, science fiction, and live storytelling shows. When it comes to the younger set, Shannon describes “a penchant for undercuts, often dyed blue, [with] names that evoke Victorian toddlers: Larkin, Duncan. Two Quinns. Two Flynns.” At an older trans couple’s home, she observes:

tall stacks of comic books teeter[ing] alongside fantasy novels and the complete Twilight series on DVD. The bookshelves are dotted with superhero figurines, a bendable Grey alien and a Starship Enterprise model. Under the large-screen TV, a PlayStation sits wedged between an old-school Atari, a Dr. Who Lego game and a Magic: The Gathering card deck.

What truly drives the relationship to its breaking point is Shannon’s eventual realization that, with his slinky dresses and high-heel boots, Jamie isn’t a wannabe woman so much as an amateurish imposter. What he imagines to be womanhood is in fact a male masturbation fantasy that presents women as endlessly parked in front of boudoir mirrors, staring dreamily at their own decolletage as they mist themselves with bulbed perfume bottles. As Shannon writes, real women are more likely to spend their lives fleeing such male-imposed expectations:

‘Why can’t I get this right?’ you [Jamie] ask, moving toward the mirror in the foyer. You look at yourself from the side, from the back, desperate to understand where you’ve fallen short. But you are not made of ruffles and pink; a rejection of them is not a rejection of you. And I have earned my opinion. I learned at a young age that dressing sexy was my job. That in pants, I was too shapeless; without makeup, too blotchy and plain. I stopped shelling pistachios to preserve my manicure. I stopped climbing trees to wear heels. I learned to express my opinion less and smile more. Then, a little too late in adolescence, I realized that shit was holding me back … So these fabrics and pigments don’t hold the magic for me that they hold for you. They bore me, at best. At worst, they mean submission to the male gaze and life unlived. I don’t owe a reverence for femininity to conservative geezers who wish I’d ‘put in a little effort.’ And I don’t owe it to you.

Many of the activists who advocate for trans rights do so in the name of what they call “intersectional feminism,” which means, according to one doctrinaire formulation: “When we say women, that word always includes trans women … A woman’s gender identity is her innermost concept of being female. A trans woman’s gender identity doesn’t define or caveat her womanhood, it simply describes her journey to womanhood.” It’s a fashionable idea that everyone is supposed to endorse for public consumption, but which, as Shannon is brave enough to point out, very few people truly believe.

The experience of reading 18 Months strengthens my view that feminism will indeed be revolutionized by gender ideology—but not in the way activists imagine. Thanks to the overreaching of trans-rights fundamentalists, a whole generation of “gender-critical” women is now being forced to go through the bonding exercise of explicitly articulating what is unique about the experience of being biologically female. Though much maligned by doctrinaire progressives, this group has already become a real force, especially in the UK and the United States.

This book is an important part of that movement. Shannon’s understanding of womanhood isn’t the abstract, bloodless verbiage of a gender-studies treatise or woke Twitter thread. It’s the gritty, everyday stuff of heated, face-to-face discourse—the things she often didn’t say in the moment, but should have, to the man who shared her bed for 14 years:

I had sex with you. Sex in which you penetrated me, as men do to women. Sex that left semen in me and on me. I slept in the wet spot. I endured migraines and the birth control regime that caused them. When I missed a pill, I unrolled a condom onto your penis. When I missed a period, I took a pregnancy test. It was I who dealt with these women’s issues, not you.

As a general rule, I do my best to avoid misgendering people, even if words such as “she” and “her” don’t accurately describe biologically male individuals. But some situations invite exceptions to that polite rule, and a discussion of 18 Months strikes me as one of them. When I began reading this book, I still imagined that to call someone like Jamie a woman was merely to bend the truth in the service of courtesy. By the time I got through Shannon’s account of what she’d endured at Jamie’s hands, I realized that it’s nothing more than an ordinary lie.

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