CASPER, Wyo. - Kathryn Lenth sat at her kitchen table, tickling her 2-year-old son as he played in her lap. She smiled as the boy giggled and squirmed. She watched as he repeatedly knocked over a sippy cup with his head, his curly dark blonde hair — the same color as Kathryn’s — bouncing with each hit.
Kathryn and her wife, Kristen, were entertaining a visitor, and when the conversation drifted away from the boy, he pulled back his parents’ attention by mimicking them.
“Hey,” he said, eliciting another round of laughter.
Kathryn, 35, didn’t laugh much when she was a father. She would change her son’s diapers, feed him when he was hungry and rock him to sleep. But it felt more like a job; the joy that comes with being a new parent was often missing.
She’d felt anxious and depressed before Wesley was born, but those emotions intensified after her son arrived. Back then, she was still living as Kevin, a computer science instructor at Casper College.
“I still don’t fully understand it, but I think it really was just that this was going to lock me in to ‘Dad,’ and to ‘he’ and to Kevin forever,” Kathryn said.
Then one night, just after Wesley had celebrated his first birthday, Kristen woke to Kevin sobbing in their bed.
“What’s wrong?” she asked him.
He told her to go back to sleep, that they would talk about it in the morning. Kristen pressed him. Kevin told her that he had for years tried to ignore a realization that was inside him, that he was transgender.
That was Nov. 13, 2015, the day Kathryn began the transition from man to woman, from Kevin to Kathryn.
“I couldn’t deal with being a father, with being in that role for the rest of my life,” Kathryn recalled. “I just felt horribly trapped.”
Kevin was in his mid-20s when he learned the word for what he’d always felt. But he had no resources as a cash-strapped graduate student when he first identified as transgender.
“So it kind of got put on the back burner,” Kathryn remembered. “And my mom convinced me that I needed love, not transition.”
So Kevin signed up for the eHarmony dating website and met Kristen.
For their first date, they ate at a restaurant in Laramie, where he was finishing his doctorate degree in math at University of Wyoming. They instantly connected. They talked about books they liked, science fiction for Kevin and murder mysteries for Kristen. They also shared a love for music, cats and the television show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
That night, they sat down at his apartment. There’s something she needs to know, he’d told her.
He once wanted to become a woman.
“OK,” she said. “Tell me more about that.”
Forthrightness was something Kristen appreciated as someone dating at age 30. Kristen divulged that she was bisexual, though she’d never been in a relationship with a woman.
They continued to date and were married after a year and a half. Kevin joined Kristen in Casper six months later, after graduation. He landed a job teaching computer science at Casper College, where Kristen also teaches vocal music.
The subject of gender identity continued to surface on occasion. So it wasn’t a total shock for Kristen when Kevin woke that night in 2015 and decided he needed to transition.
“I was glad I had known about it up front,” Kristen said. “I think when the spouse doesn’t have that going in, that can make it a lot more complicated.”
Questions and answers
At first, there were many questions.
Would they still be attracted to each other? What if Kathryn discovered was no longer attracted to women? Sometimes hormone therapy leads to a switch in sexual orientation, Kathryn said.
They knew one thing: they’d stay together, whatever happened. That hadn’t changed.
“We feel like we are meant for each other,” Kristen said. “We’ve always been able to talk to each other, and we just started there.”
Kathryn started dressing femininely at home and shaving her legs. She realized she’d need to change physically, too, and started hormone therapy in January 2016.
Life changed fast during those first two months.
College administrators were supportive and eager to help as spring semester approached. Everyone developed a plan for her to start the spring semester as Kevin. She’d tell her classes about her transition and over time present as a female — maybe starting with clothing, then hair, Kathryn said.
“That turned out to be a horrible idea.” Kathryn said. “The effect of that was that they didn’t know me at all for the first week and a half. And then there was this adjustment they had to deal with.”
They’d planned for this outward change to last two weeks, but she didn’t make it that long.
“I felt angry all the time. I felt disconnected from myself,” Kathryn said. “I felt like I had used to feel — totally un-confident and awkward and hating of myself.”
Coming out was scary and awkward, but it felt amazing, too, Kathryn said.
“It felt like having had this fantasy for my entire life, that I never thought would actually happen, and then it’s happening all of the sudden.”
Her health improved, too. Under far less stress, she lost 45 pounds in two months without dieting.
Kathryn and Kristen were prepared for negative reactions, and there were some. A few students dropped her classes. Some family members did not accept Kathryn as a woman. While the couple ate at a restaurant in Evansville, a woman glared at Kathryn for 45 minutes.
But the couple has found much acceptance. Kristen jokes that Kathryn receives the most compliments about her clothing, hair and purses.
“Casper has been a wonderful place to transition, far better than I expected,” Kathryn said. “Most people here, you know, they may not approve or understand, but most people think that as long as I’m not messing with them, then it doesn’t really matter what I do. And that’s great.”
Kathryn’s transition spurred changes in Kristen as well. She had to adjust to the curious looks and confront her tendency to worry about what other people think.
“I’m not used to attracting a lot of attention when we go places,” Kristen said. “So it felt a little bit like being on display. But I hardly even notice it anymore.”
The 36-year-old worked on building her self-esteem. Not everyone is going to like or respect them, and that’s OK, she said.
Kristen has also learned to embrace her own sexuality instead of hiding it. She’s more open with people now. Kristen couldn’t have imagined a year ago she’d stand in front of strangers talking about her personal life. On Wednesday, she’ll discuss it at the Casper College Humanities Festival. The talk is titled, “Trans Wife: My First Year as the Wife of a Trans Woman.”
“Kathryn’s journey is mostly on the outside, where everyone can see it.” Kristen said. “Mine is on the inside, but I think I’ve changed nearly as much as she has. She’s shown me that you can’t really be happy until you love and accept yourself as you truly are.”
At home, the changes have been almost entirely good, she said. It feels more like when they were first together. Kristen doesn’t have to cajole Kathryn to leave the house anymore. Sometimes Kathryn is the one dragging her out. They enjoy going out to movies, dinner and family outings to the pool or parks.
“It’s been nice, because we’re spouses, and we’re lovers and best friends, but we’re also girlfriends,” Kathryn said. “I really feel bad for all those straight couples that don’t have that.”
As for the physical transition, it’s also been a success, Kathryn said. The hormone therapy involves estrogen and an anti-androgen to fight the effects of her body’s testosterone. The latter won’t be necessary after genital reconstruction surgery, which is scheduled for the summer of 2018.
One of the best parts of life now is experiencing emotions, Kathryn said. As Kevin, she didn’t experience many feelings, or at least they felt blocked. Now, she can cry when a student brings her a chocolate rose, when her son calls her mom or when she looks back in gratitude over the past year.
There are difficult things about being transgender, mainly from the outside world, she said. Bathroom legislation is frustrating, for instance.
“From the perspective of the trans person, a bathroom bill is them saying specifically, ‘I don’t accept that you are a woman or a man.’” Kathryn said. “And for those of us who have spent three-plus decades forced to live under that label and finally having been able to transcend it, at least in our own heads, that’s really hurtful.”
“Speaking of crying,” she said, as her eyes teared.
But what matters most is not the world outside their door, but the one they inhabit as family. The joy that was once absent now fills their home, where they often spend hours talking, joking, playing with Wesley, reading him books, assembling puzzles and repeatedly watching the same two episodes of the boy’s favorite cartoon.
“I’m much more comfortable with myself, and that makes it easier to express love,” Kathryn said. “That’s been really good.”
Kathryn’s connection with Wesley is dramatically better. As the parents talked around the kitchen table, the boy hopped from Kathryn’s lap to the floor, then to Kristen’s lap, then back to Kathryn. Occasionally he’d run away laughing when Kathryn tickled his ribs. Then he’d walk back, grinning all the way.