They settled in a northwest Chicago suburban Lake Zurich tri-level, the wife taking on most of the homemaking, the husband working as a construction project manager. On Jan. 12, 2006, while cleaning up after dinner, the wife offhandedly asked what kind of gift her husband would like for an upcoming birthday.
“A little black dress and pumps,” the husband responded.
The wife laughed. Her spouse did not.
The husband came out as transgender that evening, explaining that her name was actually Erica and that she had felt like a woman for as long as she could remember. The revelation shocked her wife, Ellen Maurizio, who had known her spouse as a man since they were high school sweethearts.
But the Maurizios stayed together, despite the shift in gender in their partnership, and plan to celebrate their 40th anniversary in May.
“In a sense, I transitioned, too,” said Ellen Maurizio, 62. “We transitioned together. You have to work together.”
While sustaining a marriage through a gender transition might sound implausible to many, the Maurizios aren’t alone in their nontraditional union. Although 45 percent of transgender or gender nonconforming people said coming out ended their marriage or partnership, the other 55 percent either stayed together or broke up for unrelated reasons, according to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National LGBTQ Task Force.
“These data indicate that relationships are maintained at a much higher rate than some might expect,” the survey report said.
The Maurizios say almost all the marriages they know of in which a spouse came out as transgender dissolved. They decided to share their story in part to help others who face the same quandary.
Erica Maurizio initially offered to let her wife leave.
“If you want to divorce me … take it all,” she recalled saying the night she came out. “Being myself is more important than all the worldly possessions around me. If you want to divorce me, I said, I wouldn’t blame you, because I married you under false pretenses. I knew who I was when I stood at the altar.”
“Slow down there,” Ellen Maurizio remembered responding.
Though caught off guard, she said she never felt intentionally deceived and didn’t want to separate. The spouses stayed at the kitchen table until 3 a.m., learning together who Erica Maurizio was and what that meant for their life together.
“Can you imagine being the opposite gender than you have in your body?” Ellen Maurizio thought to herself. “Can you imagine? I had so much more compassion when I thought of it that way.”
A little over a month later, she was ready to give Erica Maurizio the gift she had longed for.
“Do you know what she got for Valentine’s Day?” Ellen Maurizio said. “That little black dress.”
“And the patent leather pumps,” added Erica Maurizio, 61, smiling at the memory of opening a shoe box.
The Maurizios fell in love the summer after they graduated from suburban Palatine High School.
Ellen Maurizio was immediately attracted to the alpha-male football player. She remembers spilling a strawberry milkshake in the prized 1972 gold glow Ford Mustang of her date, who fumed internally but didn’t let on in front of the cute brunette in the passenger seat.
Living room wedding photos show Ellen Maurizio in a long-sleeved bridal gown and lacy veil, Erica Maurizio in a white tuxedo. Decades later, Ellen Maurizio would learn that her spouse had chosen white because she secretly wished it were a wedding dress, that she could have been the bride, too.
Erica Maurizio was determined that no one but God would know she felt she was female, sensations that for much of her life she couldn’t name or understand. As they shared their first dance to “We’ve Only Just Begun” by the Carpenters, she believed she could keep those yearnings at bay.
“You’d get these feelings of frustration, despair, depression,” she said. “And as I got older they became more and more frequent. It became a tsunami and threatened to drown me.”
Her mental state alarmed Ellen Maurizio until she was finally told of the cause. She knew nothing of transexuality and had so many questions.
The first was if Erica Maurizio had ever been unfaithful. She said no.
The second question was if she was attracted to men. The answer, again, was no: Her love for her wife was authentic and unchanged.
“She’s my spouse, she’s my best friend, she’s my lover,” Erica Maurizio said. “I knew there was someone else in this world who accepted me for me and loved me just for the person I was.”
Washington psychologist Virginia Erhardt said she has counseled more than 100 couples in which one partner was transgender or gender nonconforming and still finds it profound that marriages can survive through gender transitions.
In Erhardt’s book “Head over Heels: Wives Who Stay with Cross-Dressers and Transsexuals,” the partners of transgender women relay experiences of loss, renewal and acceptance.
“Feeling that my husband looked at me as I dressed or put on makeup with envy rather than admiration did not exactly bolster my ego,” one wife said in “Head Over Heels.” “I resented having an unwanted secret and its results, such as not being able to welcome our children to jump into bed with us on a Saturday morning because Daddy was wearing a nighty.”
“Remarkably, all this has strengthened our relationship,” another wife said in the book. “I always thought there was an inaccessible part of Nathaniel that couldn’t be revealed, for whatever reason. Now I think Natalie is letting me see all aspects of herself.”
“It took a lot of grieving for me to give up the beautiful fantasy I had of our marriage and of growing old together as man and wife, walking off hand in hand into the sunset,” a third wife recounted.
Ellen Maurizio said her biggest hurdle was fear of the unknown.
“Once I got over the fear, I flew,” she said.
There was a time when Ellen Maurizio habitually peeked through the living room drapes, waiting for the sun to go down so she and her spouse could leave their home without the neighbors seeing.
The summer after Erica Maurizio came out, she was dressing as a man during the work week but on weekends would slip into nylons and a skirt and head to a trans-friendly club with her wife.
Neither had been to any kind of a nightclub before. Their first outing, it was Ellen Maurizio who stumbled in her high heels.
“You know, you’ve had a lot more practice walking in these,” Erica Maurizio teased.
They became regulars, dancing and playing pool until the early morning. Ellen Maurizio was a little protective the first time a man hit on her spouse, whispering in her ear that she was beautiful, but Erica Maurizio assured her that she’s attracted to women. They say that while showing affection in public is still awkward, at home they hold hands, cuddle and share a bed.
Although heterosexual, Ellen Maurizio calls herself a situational lesbian.
When the changes felt too all-encompassing, she declared Thursdays “transition-free,” a one-day-a-week moratorium on talk of all things transgender.
“I told her I will have meltdowns and you will let me have meltdowns,” she said. “Because I’m entitled to it.”
Hormone replacement therapy began to soften Erica Maurizio’s face and add curves to her body. She came out at work. She had 2,500 hairs transplanted to her hairline but passed on full facial reconstruction at her spouse’s request.
“I just didn’t want to lose everything,” Ellen Maurizio said.
They traveled together to Colorado for Erica Maurizio’s Sept. 19, 2008, sex reassignment surgery and amended the sex designation on her birth certificate. Her wife gave Erica Maurizio a new, more feminine wedding ring with diamonds lacing the band.
Because same-sex marriage wasn’t legal in Illinois yet, the Maurizios also consulted an attorney to ensure their union would still be considered binding post-transition.
There have been historical cases in which marriages weren’t acknowledged because one spouse was transgender. A Texas court in 1999 refused to recognize a transgender woman as female when she filed a wrongful death suit after her husband’s death; since same-sex couples could not wed in Texas at the time, the court found the marriage to be invalid. And in 2002 the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that a marriage between a postoperative transgender woman and a man was void.
Predicaments like those were resolved in June with the Supreme Court decision declaring same-sex marriage legal in all states, said Camilla Taylor, a Chicago-based attorney with the national LGBT civil rights nonprofit Lambda Legal.
“This particular form of discrimination can’t be leveled against transgender people anymore,” Taylor said. “It simply doesn’t matter what sex you are or what your gender identity is.”
It took Ellen Maurizio about 18 months to truly accept the changes in her spouse and marriage. They were both coming out to more relatives and friends, whose reactions ranged from incredulity to rejection to support. Ellen Maurizio was surprised to find that the process deepened her own sense of self as she learned to stop caring so much about what others thought.
“I like myself a lot better now,” she said. “I stand up for myself a lot more. I’m a lot more empowered.”
She has also come to like her spouse better as a woman, the same person she married but happier without the strain of preserving a masculine facade.
She said Erica Maurizio is a better partner and friend — and she’s a better dad.
Something seemed a bit off to Rob Maurizio when his father picked him up from the airport the summer after his sophomore year in college in 2006.
His dad’s hair was a little longer. The nails were still short but manicured. As they shook hands, the son noticed the father’s grip had lost some muscle tone.
Then his parents sat him down at that same kitchen table and explained everything together.
“What I’m going to tell you is going to change the way you look at me for the rest of your life,” he recalled his father telling him.
The parents say his older brother, 33-year-old Anthony Maurizio, who has special needs, began using female pronouns early on. Rob Maurizio wasn’t ready right away. He felt his male role model slipping away.
“I didn’t want to see it at first,” he said. “I was just trying to preserve the memory of this person. In some ways, I was ritualistically mourning.”
His conservative church at the time rejected transexuality, so he feared for his father’s soul. But dogma began to seem more like bigotry when his old circle of friends encouraged him to leave home and cut ties with his parent.
And Rob Maurizio worried that a lack of acceptance could erode his relationship with his dad, who after coming out became estranged from her own parents and only sibling. Ellen Maurizio said it took her relatives years to include Erica Maurizio in family events post-transition.
“After a while, I came to the conclusion that this was really disrespectful of me,” said Rob Maurizio, now 29. “That it was mean to deny this person the ground to stand on who they are. That it was stripping away authenticity.”
He once questioned why his mother would stay.
“The one thing in the weeks afterward that she told me was that she loves the person, not the man,” he said. “To this day, it’s still one of the most powerful things I’ve ever heard anyone say, because it’s real. There’s nothing more genuine than that.”
The family spent a recent Saturday afternoon apple picking at an orchard in far northwest suburban Woodstock. Erica Maurizio wiped a red Empire with her long pink-polished fingernails, turned and put the fruit to her spouse’s lips for a quick bite as Anthony and Rob reached for apples among the highest branches nearby.
The sons now know and love their father as a woman. They call her Erica in public to avoid confusing others.
At home, they still call her dad.
“Because that’s the relationship,” Ellen Maurizio said. “That doesn’t change.”
©2015 Chicago Tribune
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