WISE COUNTY, Va. – Remaining married for 35-years is no small feat for any couple. That is especially true when one spouse embarks on a change of gender.
That is exactly what happened to Barbara and Jean Ehrgott about 18-months-ago when Barbara decided that remaining male had become too painful to continue.
Meeting in Philadelphia , Penn. , in 1969, the couple became friends when Barbara (then Earl) was known as "Wild Bill" on the professional roller derby circuit. It took Barbara two years to convince Jean to go out with the bad boy on skates, but she finally relented.
Their first child was born in 1972. The second and third children were born in 1985 and 1986, respectively.
With this much history, the news that her husband wanted to transition to female was quite a shock to Jean.
"I had an idea about all this before she told me," Jean says . "But I’ll tell you right now that I like Barbara much better than Earl."
The two agree that the unhappy person who was married to Jean for 33-years had many issues to resolve surrounding gender. Finally getting the diagnosis of gender identity disorder and subsequently making changes that would make Barbara’s external gender presentation match her internal gender identity have worked to resolve many of those issues.
Even before age six when she coveted her sister’s pink and white frock, Barbara was aware of herself as female. Her interest in activities traditionally labeled girl’s play persisted throughout her childhood spent in Illinois and California , culminating in an all-out battle with her father after his discovery of her cross-dressing weekends routinely spent at a friend’s home.
The abuse continued and later landed the 10-year-old in the hospital for two weeks receiving medical care for two cardiac arrests.
After a move to the San Francisco Bay area, Barbara took the track many transwomen take in trying to avoid gender issues. She became hypermasculine, beginning as a freshman in high school. Her position as wide receiver and defensive back on the football team served as reinforcement to hold the psychological issues at bay. The 22 football games played in her senior year served as diversion from most anything else as the team romped to victory as the unofficial California-state high school football champions in 1953.
"I didn’t have a girlfriend until my senior year in high school," Barbara says .
Continuing to play football in her community college and college days, Barbara also developed an avid interest in motorcycles that included some time spent as a Hell’s Angel. She was part of the Oakland group renowned for their violent, cross-country misdeeds.
In line with the hypermasculine pursuits that she fervently hoped would mask her secret, she built an auto repair business whose customers included the Alameda County Sheriff’s fleet and the Oakland Police Department. She abandoned the business after discovering her first wife in bed with another man. Despondent and distraught by the betrayal, she left the area and eventually wound up in Pennsylvania where she met Jean.
Throughout their marriage, Jean and Barbara agree that the road was rather rocky up until Barbara finally disclosed her transsexualism and began the transition process in 2003.
"I was somewhat of an informed listener because I had a transsexual student in my class in 2000," says Jean, who works as a special education teacher.
The couple began to go to Asheville , N.C. , to attend meetings of the Phoenix support group there. Headed up by co-founders Holly Boswell and Jessica Britain, the group has offered support and information to transfolks for more than 20-years.
"I was the first person to have a gender-related name change in the entire history of Wise County , Virginia ," Barbara says, beaming.
In fact, the smiles come often and the laughter is frequent throughout a conversation with this couple whose long history has cemented their bond as partners regardless of any changes in outward appearance. Their love is obvious and a joy to behold.