Seasons of Love
by JOEL BARRETT
The romance began unexpectedly four years ago for Suzanne Wheeler and Marsha Riley. It wasn’t love at first sight, but both sensed an instant bond—like a meeting of kindred spirits. Neither had envisioned themselves with a woman. It took the nudging of a mutual friend for them to realize they were falling in love. It is a new season of life for the pair, but their engagement in 2016 demonstrates that they intend to face it together as wife and wife.
Less than a decade ago, life looked very different for Wheeler and Riley. By all outward appearances they lived the quintessential American dream of a spouse, children, comfortable home and successful career. But both cautiously hid beneath the binary facade of the cis-gender, straight male stereotype that society had assigned them at birth. They knew what it was like to be a man’s man in a man’s world, but their true female identities remained a secret.
The details and circumstances of their stories are their own, but many transgender people can identify with the common themes and challenges.
Riley grew up in an all-white, rural town in Iowa. “I always knew I was different, but it was the ’50s and ’60s, and I had never even met another gay person,” she said. She did what many trans people do: “You push it into a jar and put it away. You fight your way through until you can no longer fight your way through.”
Following the cisgender, male path expected of her, she pursued degrees in forestry and industrial engineering. Upon retirement, she was a senior vice president for the world’s largest utilities contractor, overseeing nearly 1,000 employees across the Midwest.
Wheeler’s story is similar. “I had an innate desire to be a woman my entire life,” she said. Yet she spent 32 years in the ultimate male career: the U.S. Military. Growing up in Kansas, she joined the Army fresh out of high school and worked her way through the ranks to become a decorated Army Colonel who served in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Korea. She commanded tanks, combat formations and supervised the training of soldiers while managing the entire budget for the Kansas National Guard.
Coming out after retirement might have seemed like the easier way, but neither woman shied away from a challenge. They chose authenticity over the path of least resistance, but not without first hitting rock bottom.
Their stories begin at an ending: suicide.
“I wrote the suicide note when I realized I just couldn’t go on,” Riley recalls. “I had two choices: Either transition, or end it.” Ultimately she chose to live. “When I started my transition, it was out of necessity, because you can’t continue in that position,” she said.
Riley began the process in 2012 and came out to her wife, which ended her marriage. Simultaneously, she began preparing to come out at work. She obtained a copy of all management policies concerning her rights, discrimination and benefits and had them reviewed by local trans attorney Madeline Johnson. Once she knew her rights, she came out at work to a less-than-understanding senior management team. She was immediately put on paid administrative leave until her retirement began.
Meanwhile, in Kansas, Wheeler was sitting in her basement with a gun to her head, ready to end her life. “I just wanted to flip off the switch and be cisgender and be happy being cis,” she said. “I loved my kids, loved my wife, loved where I was. I didn’t want to do anything to damage it. I mistakenly thought I would cause less damage by ending my life.”
Multiple therapists each gave her the same dreaded diagnosis: gender dysphoria. She pleaded to each of them, “I want to get rid of that feeling,” but the response was always the same: “There is no way to get rid of the feelings. You have to figure out how you’re going to live with those feelings.” Wheeler could not envision a way to live with them. She hung plastic in the basement, knelt down in the center and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. The empty click of the loaded gun was her wake-up call. Collapsing to the floor, she realized that her life was meant to be lived.
Over the next year, Wheeler began slowly transitioning and coming out to select family and friends. It was her daughter, also in the military, who encouraged her to come out before retirement. “You’ve got to do it Dad,” she said. “Do it for all the other trans people in the military who are afraid to come out.” Wheeler took her daughter’s words to heart.
“Over 300 people attended my retirement ceremony,” Wheeler said. “Some chose to stay away. Some thought I should have been discharged. But the support was overwhelming.” Wheeler’s military ID, official documents and retirement certificate were all changed at her retirement to reflect her correct gender and new name. At that ceremony, Wheeler proudly introduced the world to her partner Riley for the first time.
Seeing their vibrant smiles and feeling their positive energy today, it is difficult to imagine them as depressed, suicidal men.
Both women are active and involved in the Kansas City LGBTQ community. Riley serves on the board for the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project and for the Mid-America Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. Wheeler is involved in trans advocacy and is employed as a volunteer and outreach coordinator for a local nonprofit which provides healthcare to both cis and trans women across the region.
Since transitioning, both have become more aware of the challenges presented to marginalized people, especially trans women of color. Riley is involved in the organization of both the Trans Day of Visibility and the Trans Day of Remembrance. “I’m tired of reading 300 names,” she said, referring to the annual list of deceased trans people, the majority of which are women of color who are victims of murder or suicide. “My desire is to promote help, acceptance, and understanding for trans people—especially those who are disadvantaged.”
Wheeler is struck by the contrast between her past life and her new reality. “Now I realize that just saying you’re accepting and treating people nice isn’t enough,” she said. “It takes more than that. There are so many structures in place that benefit the white, hetero, cis male. Most don’t even notice them because they are there supporting you and pushing down almost everyone else in the population. Every day I understand a little bit more about that structural racism.”
Wheeler and Riley are a loving team boldly facing their new world with a passion to make a difference in the community. A wedding date hasn’t been set yet, but both are enjoying this season of love as they move forward together. With a smile in her voice, Wheeler says, “It sounds cliché, but we complete each other. We are opposites in the right spots. She thinks in details, I am clouds and arrows. She is the planner, I am the impetuous one. But we both have the same warped sense of snarky humor,” she pauses. “And what is not to love about her beauty inside and out?”
Riley interjects, “What do I love about Suzanne? Her soul. Her internal light. She is a good, loving soul.”
Wheeler concludes, “We are not only lovers. We are best friends and true partners in life.”
Joel Barrett of JoelSpeaksOut.com is an LGBTQ writer, speaker, and gatherer. He is a former conservative Baptist pastor who shares his colorful, inspirational story of surviving ex-gay therapy with audiences everywhere to encourage living an authentic life not controlled by fear. Watch for the release of his book “Godly, But Gay.”