“Honey, I’m transgender.”
Sydney Shackelford and Leah O’Shell had been together for 17 years when Sydney made this announcement. At the time she was still presenting as a male, but had recently come to the realisation she wanted to transition.
When Sydney told her wife in the car one day, Leah asked her to pull over.
“We sat there and looked at each other for a few minutes and then she started talking. I think it was an avalanche that started very slowly, and I believe we’d made a really safe space for each other to communicate,” Leah recalls in an interview with Cosmopolitan magazine.
Sydney admits she was nervous to tell Leah how she felt, but ultimately knew she had to be true to herself. “We’d made a pact a long time ago that if either one of us was ever unhappy in the relationship, we’d end it, so I was worried that if I told her she’d be unhappy and want to leave,” she says.
Happily, Sydney’s transition didn’t cost the couple their marriage — but it did change many aspects of it significantly.
Watch: Australian transgender icon Penny Clifford discusses the process of undergoing a sex change. (Post continues after video.)
Until her late thirties Leah had only been attracted to and dated men — and had “a very slight” attraction to women — so she struggled with the idea of letting go of the “perfect man” she’d been with since 1995.
“When Sydney would tell me how worried she was about losing me, I tried to be very careful not to say, ‘No, stay straight and don’t become a woman because I need to have a heterosexual marriage,’ even though a big part of me enjoyed that aspect of our relationship,” she recalls.
“But I also remember not wanting to be selfish… even though I was scared, I wanted to try to be there for her.”
As Sydney’s transition progressed, Leah says it was both interesting and challenging to watch the physical changes unfold. “I actually cried a lot because it was like the person that I married was gone, but also still there. It kind of felt like my partner was dying in front of me, but also she wasn’t going anywhere because she was becoming a new person,” she admits.
Sydney and Leah’s sex life is one part of their relationship that has changed “tremendously” post-transition.
“I love penetrated sex. It’s my favourite thing and even though we can still have it in a different way, it’s still not exactly the same. Having that emotional closeness isn’t as easy with a dildo and missing that closeness doesn’t really ever go away for me,” Leah tells Cosmopolitan.
Sydney adds they made a clone of her penis before she transitioned. “Sometimes I use it on myself so it’s like having sex with myself,” she explains.
The changes haven’t been just physical. Unsure of how Sydney’s transition would affect their marriage, the couple initially chose to “put everything on pause” and open up the option of seeing other people — but neither party took up that option. (Post continues after gallery.)
“Instead, we just kinda started dating again. And then once we’d been dating again for a while, we just realised, ‘This is working. We should be together’,” Sydney recalls.
Fortunately, the couple’s friends and family were generally positive and accepting of Sydney’s transition — though Leah’s family had some initial concerns.
“I had never discussed any feelings of bisexuality with my family, so it was a tough conversation to have with them because I kind of had to come out … they actually thought that Sydney was forcing me to become a lesbian,” Leah says.
“I just said, ‘You guys raised me to be an independent thinker. Do you really think that someone could force me to be anything that I didn’t want to be?'”
Ultimately, Sydney and Leah believe their experience has made their bond stronger. “Our sexuality and gender and the way we present ourselves to the world doesn’t really make a difference,” Leah explains.
Has there been an event that’s changed your relationship or marriage?
You can read the interview with Sydney and Leah in full at Cosmopolitan.com