FARGO - I've come to terms with many unfamiliar phrases - first with gender neutral-pronouns, then with gendered phrases, through conversations with transgender women. This month, I spoke with two North Dakotan couples who shared their own "coming to terms" story.
Although each relationship is different, these two couples have several things in common. Both met each other in high school while one partner was presenting as male; both are married and celebrate double-digit anniversaries this year; and both stayed together while one partner transitioned from male to female.
These two transgender women and their spouses talked about their unique love stories and how a spouse's gender dysphoria - a condition of feeling one's emotional and psychological identity as male or female to be opposite of one's biological sex - redefined the terms of their relationship, but not the nature of their love.
Rachael and Vyla Grindberg
Married July 7, 2006
Vyla presented as a male in high school and remembers accidently ditching the girl she asked to prom to hang out with Rachael before they officially started dating. Shortly after high school, Vyla traveled to Minot, N.D., to propose to Rachael in 2004. Looking back now, 35-year-old Vyla said the proposal was anything but romantic.
"I had planned to propose that night, but I was feeling crappy so I was just lying in bed and Rachael was being extremely helpful and sweet," she said. "So I just rolled over and pulled this ring out to ask her to marry me."
Rachael, now 34, remembers saying yes, but she couldn't imagine the challenges their relationship would face. Vyla said she tried to be as open as she could be about her gender expression and struggles to accept her gender identity from the beginning. She even discussed it with Rachael within the first couple months of dating.
"At the time, I identified mostly as a cross-dresser because I didn't know of any other terms," Vyla said. "I didn't know how to determine how I was feeling."
Vyla said during the early 2000s, she didn't hear or see applicable verbiage in her community or the media. (Today, the Media Reference Guide on glaad.org emphasizes that "transgender women are not cross-dressers or drag queens. Drag queens are men, typically gay men, who dress like women for the purpose of entertainment.")
Throughout her early adult life, she tried to bury her gender dysphoria by busying herself with traditional male roles. She even considered joining the military.
"I would probably say it was closer to six years ago or seven years ago when I displayed myself as a woman fully to Rachael... that didn't really have the greatest reaction," Vyla said.
When Vyla and Rachael began to consider Vyla's transition, Rachael initially didn't know how to respond.
"One of the biggest questions that Rachael had was, 'Are you planning on transitioning fully?' At that point in time, about five years ago, I had no answer," Vyla said. "I wasn't trying to transition at that point, but after so many years of thinking, 'How could I get rid of this?' or 'Hopefully it's a temporary thing,' I didn't think I would get to a point where I would realize this is not going to go away."
For years, Vyla identified as nonbinary - meaning her gender identity or expression was outside the categories of man or woman. Rachael would ask, "Did you lie to me?" and wonder about their relationship.
But because Vyla changed slowly over time and took baby steps with Rachael, she said they were able to understand each other's fears and feelings. They also decided to be open from the beginning with their two children and extended family. Today, Vyla's children call her "FaMa" because Rachael said she earned the "Mom" title.
Nine months ago, Rachael and Vyla decided to make the transition permanent.
"It was really hard at first because I thought that she was my husband... and I'm not a lesbian," Rachael said. "It was really hard and sometimes I would be okay with it, but other times I would get upset again. It took time, but eventually I did realize that she is the same person no matter what gender she is."
Rachael said she can't see herself with any other person, but admitted the circumstances could have been different.
"If Vyla would have transitioned before we were dating, we would have been friends but I don't think we would have dated," Rachael said.
This month, Rachael and Vyla celebrated their relationship and renewed their vows with family and friends in Moorhead.
Andrea Mueller and Omni Rogers-Mueller
Married July 8, 2000
Andrea and Omni first met when they worked together at a fast-food restaurant in Wahpeton, N.D., when Omni was 16 and Andrea - who presented as male at that time - was 18. They both said they had a quick but traditional courtship.
"My dad would hang out with my boyfriend more than me," Omni said.
Andrea agreed. "I was like the son (Omni's father) never had," Andrea said.
They dated for two years before Andrea proposed, and they married a year later.
Andrea said she didn't fully understand her struggle with gender identity back then.
"I tried to do as masculine type of things as I could - that's why I went to college to become an auto mechanic," Andrea said. "I thought if I kept myself busy, then I didn't have time to think about anything."
Now looking back, Andrea said she has known since she was 5.
"I dreamed about what it was like to be a girl, but then I would shut it down right away because I thought, 'I shouldn't be thinking about this,'" Andrea said. "I kept busy throughout college and while I was dating Omni. But after we were married and our daughter was born, it kept getting worse and worse."
Andrea and Omni said this struggle almost destroyed their relationship. They considered divorce, and Andrea left to work in Florida for a couple years.
"While in Florida, I met someone who knew other trans people so I was able to start to put two and two together," Andrea said.
Back in Wahpeton, Omni wasn't aware of her spouse's gender dysphoria.
"While Andrea was in Florida, she would make passing comments like, 'Oh, you've got it so good because you're a girl. I wish I was a girl so I could have things easy too.' But I never thought anything of it," Omni said.
In 2005, Andrea came back to North Dakota and was able to come to terms that she may need to consider transitioning or living as a transgender woman.
"This information threw me for a loop.... a huge one," Omni said.
Both needed time to understand how Andrea's gender identity could affect their relationship. Due to unwanted attention from neighbors after Andrea started presenting as a woman in the couple's apartment, they decided to take their daughter and move to Fargo to seek new opportunities.
"It wasn't until 2009 when I was graduating from MSUM with a bachelor's degree that the gender dysphoria came back," Andrea said. "I decided to go see a specialist."
Andrea and Omni said despite desiring help, the specialist required certain steps before Andrea could get hormone therapy.
"You had to have a psych eval and live as 'yourself' for a year without any help or medication," Andrea said. "At that time, the standards of care required you to jump through hoops, and it really overwhelmed me."
Even with the lack of care, Andrea accepted her gender identity and started to live as a woman.
"After a while, I felt like I just couldn't live as a man," Andrea said. "But what happens for a lot of transgender people is that they go through a binge and purge where they accept it and then become scared and get rid of everything. This happened to me too, so I would come out to my family and then take it back later."
Six years passed before Andrea and Omni finally reached their breaking point.
"Omni said you have to make a decision, I can't keep doing this back and forth," Andrea said. "So I scheduled a therapy appointment."
Omni went to a gender identity therapist with Andrea in 2016.
"I wanted to hold her hand and say, 'Yes, we are still together and we are still going to be together,'" Omni said.
Andrea credits Omni's support for her ability to find a new therapist and endocrinologist who prescribed hormones.
Omni and Andrea said they were both happy after coming to terms with Andrea's transition, but it wasn't - and still isn't - easy.
"It was scary and difficult because we had to consider things like insurance or if our marriage would still be valid if Andrea transitioned," Omni said.
At the time, gay marriage wasn't legal in every state, but they were married in Minnesota, a state that was an early adopter of marriage equality, so they felt comfortable continuing Andrea's transition.
Omni said communication is key and the fact that Andrea was able to transition slowly helped them to repair and maintain their relationship.
"It's hard work for you both," Omni said. "I just wish the spouses of transgender women had more support to talk about some of the intimate or unexpected changes."
Andrea agreed, but both are grateful that help is more accessible than in the past.
"Now we are learning how to live with each other," Andrea said. "Some of the worst problems now is that we wear the same thing too often."
Editor's note: This is the final article in Forum News Service's three-part series about issues affecting transgender people. "More than 'he' or 'she': How pronouns are becoming gender inclusive" was published April 6, and "Everyday transgender: The challenges you don't see" was published April 13.