en English

 

On this episode of the GenderGP podcast, we hear from counsellor Jackie Swarbrick, who talks very openly to GenderGP Therapist Marianne Oakes, about her experiences as the partner of first a trans and then a bi-gender person.

As a partner, Jackie found she struggled to find the support she needed. Her experiences eventually led her to setting up Safe Haven, a support group for gender diverse people and their loved ones, located in Cornwall.

 

If you are affected by any of the topics discussed and would like to get in touch please visit our Help Centre. You can also contact us on social media where you will find us at @GenderGP on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We are always happy to accept ideas for future shows, so if there is something in particular you would like us to discuss or a specific guest you would love to hear from, let us know. Your feedback is really important to us so if you could take a minute or two to leave us an honest review and rating for the podcast on iTunes it will help others to discover us.

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Show notes
For further information about Safe Haven visit: http://www.safehaven.org.uk

 

 

The GenderGP Podcast

A Partner’s Perspective

 

Hello, this is Dr Helen Webberley. Welcome to our Gender GP Podcast, where we will be discussing some of the issues affecting the trans and non-binary community in the world today, together with my co-host Marianne Oakes, a trans woman herself, and our head of therapy.

 

Marianne Oakes:
Hi, it’s just me and Jackie Swarbrick today talking. Helen left us to have this conversation as she felt it would be more powerful just the two of us. Jackie is the partner of a trans person, I’m going to say because I’m going to let Jackie introduce herself shortly. But we thought it would be a good idea just to get the other side of the story, as we might say. Welcome, Jackie.

Jackie Swarbrick:
Hi, my name is Jackie Swarbrick. I am married to Paul or Paula, who is bigender. Between us, we run an organisation that is called Safe Haven, which is for transgender people and their partners and family members. And I am a counsellor. My introduction to transgender was with my brother, who has now transitioned.

Marianne Oakes:
How long were you married?

Jackie Swarbrick:
We were together for five years. We met in 2009.

Marianne Oakes:
Did the relationship end because of the transition, if you don’t mind me asking?

Jackie Swarbrick:
Yes. She needed to find herself. She needed to be herself. And that didn’t being married to a woman.

Marianne Oakes:
How long were you aware of her feelings?

Jackie Swarbrick:
I knew there was a problem because she had anger. Sometimes, she’d just get – well he, obviously, would just be really angry and I could never work out why. And with my counsellor’s head on, I started to dig around. I realised that he had a real bully for a dad. I thought that was what it was. I thought that was where the anger came from – the bullying dad. But the more unpeeling the onion we did, the more it became apparent that wasn’t it. Initially, he told me that when he was a child, he used to cross-dress with his sister. And he thought he should be a girl when he was little, and his mum told him, no, he has to be a boy. So he just sort of got on with being a boy and dressed when he could. Then he heard his dad beating up his gay brother when he was 12, and he thought, oh, this is dangerous. So he hid it, he hid it completely and joined the army as soon as he could to learn how to be a bloke. He kind of hoped that that would have squashed it and that it would be gone away, which is really common as we know. That seems to happen a lot. When I met him in 2009, he was a total alpha male, ex-army biker. The thought of him being trans never even entered my head. Trans wasn’t in my bubble, really.

Marianne Oakes:
Everything you said there in itself is a powerful story of any individual, and you said peel back the onion, and I’m just wondering what that experience – obviously, looking back now as a counsellor, what was that experience like for you to peel back that onion with somebody that you loved and cared for?

Jackie Swarbrick:
It was really hard because I really thought I knew what was at the centre of this onion. Because I worked with social services and I worked with really difficult young people, and I dealt with a lot of people who had really abusive and really bullying parents. So I thought I know where this anger is coming from his directing his anger, you know because he couldn’t direct the person you wanted to direct it to. But it became apparent that that wasn’t it because his anger was always directed at me. And I did a bit of delving around because he’d been married twice before, and they were both – it was the same thing. He’d target all his anger at his wife or female partner. I think just. I couldn’t work it out. And then we went to a party, and he dragged up, and he was really really happy dragged up. Looking back now, you see indicators. I see indicators that I didn’t see at the time because I wasn’t looking for them. That he would be happy just as a woman. I remember once we were out in a market and we were looking over these dresses, and he put this dress off the rack, and I went, “You’re not going to see me in that.” And he said, “No, it’s for me.” But it was still another year before I got him to actually tell me what was going on. And I think because of my counselling background and because my brother was gay, and I’ve always been in this sort of scene, I’m very accepting, very tolerant. And it just slowly came out and initially said I think I’m a cross-dresser. I felt, “Okay, do your research, find out what that is.” And then a bit later on, “I think I’m probably a transvestite.” I thought that was about the same as the cross-dressing. And then it took him a while to actually say no, and tell me the story of when he was dressing, and he was little. And that was really tough because you’re looking at this real alpha male who was all leather jackets and motorbikes. And I’m I’m looking at him, and I can’t see him as a woman. It just didn’t. It didn’t figure. And I was very isolated because who on earth do you talk to? I couldn’t talk to my girlfriends because they wouldn’t get it, and I couldn’t talk to my daughters because they wouldn’t have got it. And I just didn’t have anywhere to go with it, and I looked online, and there were no support groups for partners. There’s loads of stuff for trans people. But there was nothing for partners, and it’s like this is crazy because I couldn’t talk to anybody who had the faintest idea how it felt to be where I was. I didn’t know.

Marianne Oakes:
I mean there’s something you said there, Jackie. Sorry to interrupt but on the one hand you’re telling me you were quite immersed. I don’t know if you’d agree, but within the queer community in some shape or form with your brother and your counselling background, and what you said to me was that actually, you had to go look you know what even cross-dresser was. What went through my mind was my god, somebody who’s immersed in at least a diverse relationship to any form, that this was still a big thing to you – how would it be to someone who wasn’t connected at all?

Jackie Swarbrick:
Oh, I had no idea. I mean, growing up, we had two trans women in (unclear 6:45) where I live, where I come from. And everybody knew them, and nobody really made a big deal about it. Everybody knew them. And it was sort of okay because everybody knew them. I’m a bit funny. My brother died of HIV. And when he told me he had a diagnosis of HIV, I had to go and find out every possible permutation of what could happen, because, for me, knowledge is power. I need to know. I need to know the ins and outs of everything. So I researched everything possible. And when Scott came out as a cross-dresser, then it emerged he is transgender. I had to find out everything. So I googled the Internet. I used to go to the Laurels. That was back when you’ve got an appointment in – we saw somebody in September. And he was at the Laurels in January. So he had a four-month wait. It’s 33 months now, but we won’t go there. And I went to the Laurels, and I questioned the Laurels. I wanted to understand that processes and procedures and how they –  because the more I understood, the more I could help Stella as she became. But it’s hard because you’re helping the person you’re more married to, the person you love, become somebody else. And that was really really hard because I was grieving the person I was married to but really happy that she was so much happier in herself. So it was a very very odd place to be.

Marianne Oakes:
How did Stella respond to your needs?

Jackie Swarbrick:
Stella understood how difficult I found it. But Stella was in that gender euphoria that all of a sudden it’s I liken it to when you got a rosebush in your watering it, and you got these buds growing, and suddenly the buds go like, “Hey, we’re here.” It wasn’t was all sweetness and light. Initially, I made her move out. She went and stayed with a friend of ours. And I said, “You’re going to have to give me a little bit time to get right on this because. I wasn’t expecting this at all. I didn’t have a choice in this, and you’ve thrust this at me, and I don’t quite know what to do with it. So just move out, just give me some time to see where I am with this and get my head straight.” And after a month she moved back. I missed her. And I didn’t like her being right where she was. She couldn’t be herself. She couldn’t dress where she was she couldn’t just be her. So she came back, and we got a relationship that was more like sisters. I had to learn to love her and care for her differently. It was really hard. That was hard because you’re angry. And also we lived in a little town, which made it hard because everybody knew me. I could go to Tesco’s, and people that I knew vaguely, not even close friends, would come up and ask me the most impertinent questions. You’d be astounded at the things they asked. Like relative strangers about what was going on with the person who was married. They didn’t ask Stella.

Marianne Oakes:
Yes. You became the voice for Stella.

Jackie Swarbrick:
Absolutely. I’m just saying you’re almost a walking Jeremy Kyle. They can come out. Is this right? Your old man is turning into a woman? Oh my God, that must be weird. Thank you for that. Yeah, that helps. So it was enough.

Marianne Oakes:
I think it’s very interesting how people were drawn to you because it’s almost like it was fascinated by you as they are by the person that’s transitioning. would that be fair to say?

Jackie Swarbrick:
And they didn’t want to say the wrong thing to upset Stella. That was what they say. I didn’t wasn’t to ask him, her, there, you see, I’d get it wrong. People are frightened of the wrong thing. But nobody was right to say the wrong thing to me. I describe it when I’m working with transgender people and partners of transgender people. I tend to describe it like the transgender person the actual coming out as transgender is like a rock has been thrown into a pond and the rock sinks to the bottom and sits there, and it’s all the reports that go out from that rock that everybody else gets caught up in. And I was like ripple number one. People will use me as at that point of contact. Some it was just curious isle nosiness. Others genuinely wanted to understand. But I felt so isolated. It got to the point I wouldn’t leave my house on my own. Because if I was with somebody else, people wouldn’t approach me. But if I was on my own, it was fair game. It was horrible. And you know I felt like I had a big neon sign over my head that said I am the woman whose man is turning into a lady. I which was tough. Finding people who got it was tough. And people were angry on my behalf. That was what I found quite hard to deal with because when I did start to tell people, they – society doesn’t have a pattern for how to behave. If your husband has an affair, there’s a fairly established pattern. Friends will hate the other woman. I mean all the anger is thrown at the other woman, which is great. They will be very cross and really let the husband know what they think. But they will look after the wife. They will rally round they’ll make sure you’re okay. They’ll pop in with cake, and they’ll tell you how dreadful their husband is and what an absolute witch the other woman is and everything will be alright. When your partner dies, there is a set pattern for society. People know how to behave because all your memories are set in concrete then everything that happened can’t be changed. And there’s a protocol for that. There’s no protocol for this. People just don’t know how to behave.

Marianne Oakes:
I agree, and I say there’s no etiquette actually to what is the best way to come out. What’s the best way? I think that’s what you’re saying. Well, I suppose people can have an empathy for all the other stuff, can’t they? You know people that are in relationships can imagine if they haven’t had a partner that’s had an affair, they can imagine how we would feel. But actually this is really out there on its own, isn’t it?

Jackie Swarbrick:
Very much so, very much so. And people are very well-meaning. But sometimes they go off on a tangent that you’re not on. I’d got rid of the anger in the beginning that I don’t do anger very well. I tend to turn that around and use it more constructively. So I turn my own mind as a right. I’ve got to learn about this, I’ve got to understand this because if I can understand it, then I can help. I can help Stella. And we got to a point where we were just like best friends, and we got on great. And she’s now full time, and she’s doing great. And the lovely thing was when I was with Stella. One night we went to a social. I met Paula. And Paula and I got on very well. I met Paula three times before I actually met Paul because Paul is bigender. And I met Paul initially; I didn’t like him. Because Paula was a damn sight more fun than Paul. Paula was was a much lighter version if that makes sense. And then when I got to know Paul, I realised that Paul has Asperger’s and that explains why he comes across as quite blunt sometimes. But Paula and I really hit it off, and I married Paul. And that takes some navigation as well because again people don’t quite know how to deal with it. And when I came to Cornwall, when we moved to Cornwall to Paul’s house, we started Safe Haven. It’s an organisation that we work purely with transgender and non-binary people, but also their families and their partners. Because I remembered very very clearly the isolation of being in this place where nobody understood what to say what to do how to act. So we’ve got a support group here. That support group is for partners and parents and grandparents and siblings of trans and non-binary people.

Marianne Oakes:
Can I ask you, Jackie, there’s a few things there, but you’ve just moved on to that support group for partners and basically the loved ones of trans people. I can only share my experiences that I’ve found that it was very difficult to get partners to be involved in any kind of group. I used to go to events, and you know the wives would be there, but they wouldn’t kind of mix with each other. Does that make sense? There was no common support for each other. And I’m just wondering do you find that in the environment you’ve created that partners will talk to each other?

Jackie Swarbrick:
Oh, very much so, yeah. Because it’s only partners and there’s no trans people there. So all the loved ones are there; it’s just the wives the partners the husbands the boyfriends the mums grandmothers. We’ve had grandmothers here. And you can talk very honestly, and I think the problem is that very often things that we won’t talk about the things we want to get off your chest, you don’t want to say in front of your loved one. Because you don’t want to hurt their feelings, you don’t want them to know what that you’re struggling with. It’s not always easy. And sometimes you just need a safe space to say, “Oh God, I’ve got to take it.” Because it can be challenging in a way. You find yourselves in peculiar situations. When people contact me, wives contact me because their husband’s just come out. And they’re in that rabbit in the headlights place where I remember how that felt. They just need to be able to talk to somebody who gets it. And you know, it’s a tough place to be, and everybody reacts differently. But just knowing that there are people who get it helps.

Marianne Oakes:
So if a wife or partner is coming out talking to you about their partner coming out and they’re opening up to are you able to stay separate or do you find you get drawn in and it taps into your emotions as well?

Jackie Swarbrick:
It depends which setting it said in. If it’s in a counselling environment, then that’s very different. Whatever’s going on with me, that door gets shut, I’m alone. I’m focusing completely on where my client is in the journey my client’s taking. In the support group, it’s slightly different because that’s more of an open forum where we’ll sit and talk. You know they’ll say, “Hey, do you deal when people are doing the second look thing?” And I say, “Well, it really depends where we are.” So I have a radar when where I’m looking for people giving us funny looks. Paul, it doesn’t give a monkey’s, she really doesn’t care if anybody looks at all. She just smiles and waves and you know relaxed about it when she’s out and about. But I’m quite conscious of it. And so if I am somewhere where people are looking, doing the double take, or if I even think anybody’s doing the nudge look at that over there. I’ll fix them with a Paddington hard stare.

Marianne Oakes:
So you become the protector, basically.

Jackie Swarbrick:
I’m very, very protective. I’m very protective of people who come to Safe Haven. They call me Mama Bear. I’m terrible. I keep an eye. And you know when that when the support groups are running, and we have weekend events here which are just magical because people come here and they’ve got the whole weekend to be themselves. Which is just wonderful for them, you know, especially in a place like Cornwall which is very rural very traditional. Our local MP came along, and he described our area as gritty, which I thought was pretty out. And there’s not many places you can go. We don’t even have a gay pub in.

Marianne Oakes:
In Cornwall?

Jackie Swarbrick:
There’s not a single gay pub in Cornwall.

Marianne Oakes:
I want to go back to when you talked about what you did with your anger, and you focused it, and you went out and learned. One of the things I found when I work with partners is that they need to be angry. It’s a little bit like the grieving process. If we restrict the grieving process, then we don’t get through it. Were you able to vent your anger at the right times in and in the right direction?

Jackie Swarbrick:
Yeah yeah. But I learned. For me, when I was younger, my anger used to persist. We used to have a scrap yard, and that was back in the days when you could go to a scrap yard, and I got scraps with a lump hammer, and I beat the living daylights out of scrap cars which is really therapeutic. What I tend to do now when I’m angry is I can say that made me angry. But if it’s a heat of the moment thing, oh I can do a screaming hooley like you would not believe. But it has to be aimed and focused at the right thing. Because no point being angry at the world because you’re not angry at the world, you’re angry at the situation you’re in, the situation you find yourself in that you didn’t buy into in the first place. That you had absolutely no idea was coming, and you know it’s something to say to partners. Good, you should be angry. Definitely be angry. It’s natural. If this has been thrust on you and you had no idea it was coming. And you’re grieving the future you’ve thought you had, and you question everything you’ve had before because then you’re wondering well was that authentic. Did they not? Was that genuine? Is it me? Oh my God, did he marry me because he wanted to be like me?

Marianne Oakes:
I think partners grieve the loss of identity. I think sometimes we don’t realise how much our identity is shaped by our relationship. So when that relationship changes and I think that’s kind of what people are really trying to get out of you when they come and talk to you and provoke you to speak and tell them what they want to hear.

Jackie Swarbrick:
What does that mean you’re a lesbian? Are you lesbian?

(unclear 22:38)

Marianne Oakes:
The obsession with sexuality is terrible.

Jackie Swarbrick:
Yeah, it’s huge. And it’s a little bit irritating, really. I find it quite insulting because it is none of their business. What’s that got to do with you? I used get to a point where I say, “Ask Stella.” Oh, I don’t want to say the wrong thing. Oh, that’s right. Say the wrong thing to me.

Marianne Oakes:
Some people equate it to when somebody’s got cancer, and you don’t know what to say to them, so they’ll go to their partner. And I think that maybe it is just a natural human response to go to where we feel more comfortable.

Jackie Swarbrick:
And I get it as well. When we arrive, when Paul and I, (unclear 23:40) Paul is a man and a woman, and I sort of go through explaining the gender spectrum, and bigender in a little potted lesson, and I say. So that means you’re married to a woman on a man then? And I wait to see where they’re going with it, and you can see what they want to ask. You can see it, you know. And depending on how well they know, does that mean you’re a lesbian? Does he go off with men? Does Paula go off with men? And the Paddington hard stare comes again. We’re married, and that’s our business not yours was, and our sexuality, unless we’re intending to involve you in it, has very little to do with you. Right. But no, it’s not. It’s that juicy Jeremy Kyle thing that people get gripped with, you know. But we get asked all the time. You are actually a couple then? Oh, well, you must be gay. And Paul just looks at me, because he’s not quite as subtle as me. He’s a bit blunt.

Marianne Oakes:
It’s a difficult one because I know exactly what you mean. I mean I get asked if I’ve got a vagina, and I say yeah, I keep it in my handbag. Well, you know the truth of the matter is humans, and we’re all guilty of this I believe, that we are curious, but it’s actually about the boundaries that we cross, and I think if I’m understanding you correctly, Jackie, is that you don’t mind people coming to talk because it’s learning. But it’s actually the boundaries that they cross, that they feel it’s okay to ask you about your sex life, yet you wouldn’t go and talk to someone on the street about their sex life, you know what I mean?

Jackie Swarbrick:
We love people coming talking to us. Paul is very, I mean he mooches around (unclear 25:41) shopping – Paula is everywhere. Nothing fazes her. She’s quite thick skinned anyway. Nothing phases her. I mean, she was in the army for 24 years. And then she was bailiff for ten years, so she’s got quite a thick skin anyway.

Marianne Oakes:
Did I hear that right, that Paula was in the army as well?

Jackie Swarbrick:
Paula did 25 years in the army.

Marianne Oakes:
Yeah. It’s interesting that both your partners had different backgrounds but similar backgrounds if that makes sense.

Jackie Swarbrick:
Yeah, but poor Paula. Well, when I first got to know Paula, I interrogated her for weeks before I agreed to go out with her. I said, “you’re not going to transition, are you? We’re not going down that road, are we?” And she said, “no, because I’d be in the wrong body half the time. It wouldn’t work.”

Marianne Oakes:
You were married to Stella, I’m assuming.

Jackie Swarbrick:
Yes.

Marianne Oakes:
So that ended because Stella transitioned. Did it end because you couldn’t stay in the relationship, or she couldn’t, or were you both saying this is not going to work for us anymore?

Jackie Swarbrick:
At the time, Stella felt she needed to find out who she was. And she decided that she was attracted to men and me. And I wasn’t entirely sure whether to be flattered or offended by that, but it was a funny one. I I think the way Stella was progressing I couldn’t see where I fitted in that picture. And while we said, you know I’m always there, and I’ll support you, and I help you and pick up the phone sort thing, she needed to find who she was, and she needed to become herself. And that didn’t involve being married to me. And I sort of got that. I couldn’t see how we were going to move forward as a couple with her needing to discover herself.

Marianne Oakes:
Yes, where it was going to lead.

Jackie Swarbrick:
I didn’t know where it was going. I couldn’t see a way forward with it. And she couldn’t see a way forward with it. So it was a sort of mutual agreement. We’ll get divorced because then Stella can become Stella, and I can rediscover me. And like I say, I met Paula in 2014, and we became an item. It was really funny because people said, oh my god I thought you were going the other way, screaming from another trans. It’s definitely got its benefits. I think it’s negative. There are not no benefits. I love Paul to bits. He’s a wonderful human being. And he’s allowed me to use all the knowledge, and all the learning, and all the compassion, and all the everything else. And between us, we own Safe Haven which is just amazing for the people who come in. It’s an absolute lifeline. Brilliant.

Marianne Oakes:
Again I’m just gonna take you back a little bit because you said when you met Paul, it was very important to you, or it seemed very important to that Paul wasn’t going to transition. You needed that information.

Jackie Swarbrick:
Yes, because I’d been through that once, and I ended up – I know the winner takes all really – I ended up suddenly finding myself in a situation I never envisaged. And watching the person that I was married to become somebody, I didn’t recognise, and that wasn’t my husband, you know. And it’s really painful. It’s ridiculously painful. And then when I met Paula, and Paula said I’m on bigender, and you know half the time I’m one and half the time I’m the other, and his brain flips over like a switch. You can never tell what I’m coming home to, which is quite exciting. I don’t think that’s because I would have not gone out with him and not married him and everything else. But at least I’d have known from the start. I needed to know what I was going into because I’d already done it once, not knowing. And I’d rather know. It’s just how I am. I like to know what I’m dealing with. I don’t deal well with surprises.

Marianne Oakes:
I’m conscious of the time, Jackie. This is a massive subject, and with the best will in the world, I’m sure we could talk for two for a day and still not cover everything. I just wondered if a partner was listening to this now, what would be your best advice?

Jackie Swarbrick:
Be kind to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up for how you’re feeling, because everything you’re feeling is completely relevant to you. And give yourself time. Don’t try not to make rash decisions. Try not to say no; this is never going to happen. That’s not what I married into. What about the neighbours, what about my parents, what about the kids. Because partners think about everybody else. They think how it’s going to impact the children, the family, the parents, the woman down the road, the people they work for. They’re always like, “Oh my God, what will people think?” Don’t worry about that right now. Worry about where you are with it. Look at where you are with it and communicate. That’s huge. Keep the roads to communication open. You know if you can, find someone. If you live in Cornwall, walk down here. But if you can try and find someone that understands, and can empathise with the situation, you’re in, because it’s a really funny place to be. And it does get better. You know, I know couples stay together, and they’re still together like you are. I know couples that are separated, and that worked. I know partners who’ve gone completely berserk, and everything had just gone completely out the window within the first week. And there’s no set pattern. There’s no right or wrong. It’s what’s right or wrong for you.

Marianne Oakes:
I think there is always a sense of sadness because actually whether the relationship is going to come to an end or not, nobody’s done anything wrong. When I work with couples, Jackie, one of the things I try to encourage, and I don’t know whether you’d agree with me on this. So I’m saying this tends to play well. I try to encourage each of them to own their own feelings. In other words, what’s happening with that with the trans partner isn’t a reflection on the wife or husband. It’s about them. And actually what the other person is going through isn’t a direct reflection of the other person. if I’m angry about this it’s I’m not angry at you. We’re going to have to just start bringing it to a close there. Jackie, it’s been fantastic. I have to say.

Jackie Swarbrick:
thank you. I’m hoping that the people who listen to this podcast can learn something from it. And I am sure on another series we’ll talk some more about this. I’d really like to say thank you for joining us at the GenderGP podcast.

Marianne Oakes:
You’re welcome. Thank you.

 

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