All in the family but with a new twist, as in T

By Kate Walter

I remember the first time I got an inkling that something was going on with my first cousin Ellen and Jim, her husband of two decades. I had taken the train to the Jersey Shore where the Irish side of my family was gathering at a waterside restaurant for a surprise party to celebrate Aunt Celia’s 70th birthday.

The day before, as I relaxed on the beach, catching up on news, my mother informed me that Ellen and Jim’s marriage was over, but no one had a clue.

Of course, I was curious what had happened. Ellen was a year younger than

me, much closer in age than my two siblings. On my bulletin board in Manhattan,

I have a black-and-white photo of us as kids — 5 and 6 years old — on the same beach where I was now sunning. My mother and I wondered if Ellen or Jim would show up.

Not only did Ellen arrive at the restaurant, but she came with Jim. I sat across from them and we chatted as if everything was normal. Ellen is a brilliant psychologist and flaming liberal who hates Bush even more than I do. So we talked about the upcoming election. Her husband is a businessman — a big hulky guy, built like a football player. They never had kids and traveled the globe on work-related jaunts. They both liked to eat, drink and smoke, so I always thought they seemed compatible.

I didn’t know Jim that well. We met at weddings and wakes and I usually saw

him dressed in a suit. Something about his appearance seemed “off” that day, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I remember saying to my brother that Jim’s hair — all poofy and curly — looked “weird” and his American flag sports shirt was too loud.

Monday morning, as my mother drove me to the train station, she decided Jim

attended because he’d been part of our clan for years and wanted to honor Celia on her milestone birthday. That made sense. I noted how he and Ellen seemed to be on good terms. I went back to the city wondering what was the real story.

Ellen and I had renewed our friendship since the invention of e-mail, and we had

gotten closer after 9/11. As a resident of Lower Manhattan who saw the towers burn and fall, I was glad to have a shrink cousin who helped me process my fear and grief. Since then, we e-mailed regularly. During a funny venting session about the Republican Convention resembling a revival meeting, she slipped in a sentence that she and Jim were active in Dignity and their local L.G.B.T. community. Maybe I’m dense, but I did not get it. She was not a lesbian, like me, and he certainly did not look like a gay man.

I did not put the pieces together until my partner and I received their Christmas card. It was signed, Love, Ellen and Jim “a.k.a. Jacinda.” Now I got it! How did I miss this? My gaydar had not broken down, but my transdar was nonexistent. What else could it be? Jim was becoming Jacinda! Now it all made sense.

Not sure how to respond, I sent Ellen a Happy New Year e-mail, gently probing, asking if Jim was going through some radical changes. She never replied to my inquiries but did not refute them either. I wanted to be supportive but figured she’d fill me in when she was ready. I decided not to mention this startling news to other relatives. My mother can’t keep a secret. If I was stunned, a rainbow flag-waving dyke, I could only imagine how they’d react.

Not long after I’d figured this out, my partner and I were having dinner in the Paris Commune restaurant with my mother and sister, who were visiting for my birthday. I started fishing for information, asking if anyone had heard from Ellen.

“It’s a weird one,” said my 83-year-old mother. “But I guess it’s O.K. to discuss

this since Ellen says you already know. Her husband wants to be a woman.”

After Ellen dropped hints about the L.G.B.T. community, she told our cousin Maura, who told her mother, Aunt Celia, who told my mother who told my sister. My sister-in-law found out because she joined Ellen and Maura during that fateful cigarette break at a baby shower. My sister-in-law told my brother. It was obvious that Ellen had been coming out, so to speak, over the past few months. No one knew who knew, so we all kept quiet.

I could not imagine what this upheaval must have been like for my cousin. While I gave Jim credit for taking a giant step, this had to be really hard for Ellen, who lost her husband. This transition had been going for two years before the extended family found out.

As we sat in the Paris Commune with my conservative Catholic mother and sister, surrounded by gay male couples at the next tables, I realized that my being a lesbian in a long-term relationship was now boring, mainstream, not upsetting anymore. Not like when I came out to my parents over 25 years ago and my father was furious and my mother cried.

“What I don’t get is why he waited so long,” mused my sister.

“Maybe he waited until both his parents were gone,” my partner suggested.

“Well, thank God, Aunt Ellen and Uncle Mike are dead,” I blurted out, referring to my cousin’s parents and her notoriously hot-tempered father who kicked his foot through the televison set when the Brooklyn Dodgers lost the World Series.

“Good thing,” said my sister. “Uncle Mike would have gotten a gun and shot him.”

I saw Jim for the last time at that party two years ago. I’m sorry I missed the family event this spring where Ellen arrived with Jacinda. They are friends and still share their house. I look forward to meeting Jacinda at the next big bash.