As the Collier family gets ready to dig into a weeknight dinner, they each hold hands around the table.
“Beauty,” they say, continuing their tradition of a one-word blessing they change from meal to meal.
Soon, they’re enjoying marinated chicken with a Gorgonzola cream sauce and equally gourmet-sounding side dishes.
“This is a huge piece for us,” says Kristin Collier. “We gather around the table, and we take it very seriously to connect.”
Collier is part of a family that started out in a rather average way with a wife, a husband and then, eventually, two little boys.
Since then, many years have passed and much has changed, but what hasn’t is the family’s resolve to stay together.
Today, the household is home to five people. There are the two boys, Trinidad and Sam Collier, now teenagers; Kristin; her romantic partner, Richard Bartlett; and Seda Collier.
Now, Seda Collier is a woman, after an emotional and medical transition that led the family to figure out how to go through such a major change and love each other through it.
Kristin Collier wrote about her unique family and their experience with transgender transition in a memoir published in November, called “Housewife: Home-remaking in a Transgender Marriage.”
“Initially, I wrote it because during those struggling times when I felt so alone, I wished that there was some road map,” Kristin Collier said. “And not that it’s a map like somebody else should do this, more like what I would love for people to do would be to see the challenges in their relationship as an opportunity rather than as a disaster.”
The early years
The Colliers, who’ve lived in Eugene since the early 1990s, were married for several years before their son Trinidad, now 16, was born. Then, 13 years ago, he was joined by his brother, Sam. The boys are now students in Eugene schools.
Kristin Collier, 44, is a social group coordinator who works with children diagnosed with autism at Bridgeway House. She also teaches the SHAPE program, which stands for Sexuality, Health and Personal Exploration for students on the autism spectrum.
She still is legally married to Seda Collier, an arrangement that kept them from having to separate finances and health care. They are parenting partners, though not romantic partners.
Seda Collier, 56, who was raised on a Wyoming ranch, is a residential plans reviewer for the city of Eugene. She has worked for the city for 10 years.
Richard Bartlett, 49, moved to Eugene from California four years ago. He has lived with the Collier family for almost two years and has been dating Kristin Collier for about 2½. Bartlett is a chef by trade — and chief cook in the household. He works at Al Taglio in Eugene. He also is the father of a 17-year-old son who lives in Northern California.
It was 13 years ago, shortly after Sam was born, that the person who would become Seda told Kristin of the need to wear women’s clothing. They had been married for about 11 years.
Seda, who as a man served time in the U.S. Marine Corps and worked as a fisherman in Alaska, did not always know that she was meant to be a woman, but she did know that she was different and “I didn’t have a language to understand why I was different.”
They lived harmoniously as a married couple, Kristin said, and though there may have been signs of what was to come, she still did not add up the pieces during those years.
“That is why I now have a lot of compassion for people who go through denial because I get it now. It seems impossible that I would not have put two and two together, but I didn’t,” Kristin said.
After Seda’s announcement, they began counseling.
“In that three years of therapy, we didn’t know what was going to happen with our relationship,” Kristin added. “I could have turned tail and run right then, but frankly that wasn’t economically feasible either. We had two kids and we had one income and I was really trying to live a really natural parenting lifestyle, gardening and I was home. It didn’t fit.”
Within a year of her husband’s announcement, she stumbled into non-violent communication and started teaching it. That may have helped their communication skills along the way.
After Kristin and the boys went away to a weeklong family camp for a parent peer leadership project she was involved with, her husband again had something to share with her. This was about three years after the earlier announcement.
They met at a park as she returned to town. He told her he needed to live his life as a woman.
“For me, Kristin was an enormous support. The unconditional love that I got from her stabilized me to the point that I could function for the most part,” Seda said. “When she left, I didn’t have that stability. Without that, I don’t know that ‘easier’ is the right term. The term is more like it became impossible to suppress. When she was gone, I couldn’t hold it back.”
Building a different life
They worked to find direction, researching books and discovering an online group for transgender families. The information at that time was slim.
Kristin, who is heterosexual, said it was clear at a certain point that they were romantically separating, but they weren’t sure what that meant for their household.
They decided that they still could live together, each be who they were, have romantic involvements with other people and still raise their sons in one household.
“That was when we decided to build a wing for Seda,” Kristin said.
The house had been 750 square feet with two bedrooms. Now, it is about 1,100 square feet, and Seda’s wing includes a bedroom, office and bathroom. The family shares the common spaces. Kristin and Richard make use of the garage as an art studio for him and book-selling storage space for her.
When the Colliers told the boys about their dad’s change, it was late 2005-early 2006, when the kids were about 3 and 6 years old.
Sam was too young to think anything of it. Trinidad was concerned that he wouldn’t get to wrestle with his dad anymore and wouldn’t recognize him when he became her.
They reassured him, and the boys started calling Seda “Maddy.”
Seda changed her name and her gender marker, followed by laser treatments and electrolysis for facial hair, hormones, testosterone blockers and, finally, surgery in 2013.
It was like a weight lifted, with each step, she said.
Trinidad said he doesn’t experience issues at school or with friends having to do with Seda’s transition.
“Almost everyone just understands it,” Trinidad said.
He feels positive about the family’s unique living situation, with his mom, his “maddy” and his mom’s partner.
“We have one person who cooks. And that’s awesome and (Richard) is just around all the time and that’s great. And I love her (Seda) because she’s one of my parents and she’s been with me for my entire life and she’s a great person and same with her (Kristin),” Trinidad said. “Best of all worlds.”
For Sam, it’s “pretty much the same as my brother. … It’s usually not much of an issue. I can explain it to people if they ask. It just takes a few more minutes than it would (for other living situations).”
Richard and Kristin met through a personal ad on Craiglist.
They live in very communal way, Kristin said. They go together to watch the boys play soccer. They eat dinner together many nights a week. Kristin and Richard go on date nights together while Seda stays home with the boys. And Seda goes out on her own.
It’s not like there are never conflicts, but they’re very honest about it and deal with things right when they come up, Kristin said. That’s the best way to stay connected.
There is no jealousy between the ex-spouses and Richard.
“It’s been amazing,” Richard said. “I feel supported by Seda as much as anybody I’ve ever been supported by in my life. I feel part of the family.”
When they were going public with Seda’s transition, Kristin remembers walking through the neighborhood to tell their neighbors.
“That was really terrifying. As much as I thought they were really groovy. I was just afraid that we were going to lose our community,” Kristin said.
For the most part, they didn’t. During the years, they’ve gained confidence in who they are and in their willingness to share that.
For her part, Seda wants people to know that transgenderism is a medical condition and the feelings of dysphoria — the feeling that identity is different than one’s biological gender — can be overwhelming.
One of most difficult things for her was knowing that her transition would cause her family to transition, too.
“I didn’t want to hurt them,” Seda said. “That was extremely difficult,”
Kristin’s book addresses their family circumstances, the challenges, what that meant for each of them and provides something for others who may also be experiencing this.
We all go through a major shift in our relationships at some point, with the difference being exactly what causes that shift, Kristin said.
“It’s not so much what happens as how we deal with it, and that we have an opportunity to grow our resilience and our compassion,” Kristin said. “And that’s something that will serve us for the rest of our lives.”
Cara Roberts Murez is a freelance writer who lives in Eugene. She has worked as a writer in Oregon for the past 18 years.
Get the book: Available at local independent bookstores, online and at www.kristinkcollier.com
TRANSGENDER ORGANIZATION: TransPonder: Seda Collier serves on the board of directors for TransPonder, a nonprofit organization that provides transgender and gender diverse education, advocacy and support. Find TransPonder on Facebook or email email@example.com