FAMILY LIFE: Living the power of love

HAPPY COUPLE | Josie, left, and Constance Siegel got off to a rough start, but a few years later, they were happily married. (Dakota S. Byrd/ Dallas Voice)

Life as a lesbian couple where one partner is trans can be tough, but Constance and Josie Siegel, and their children, prove that love makes a family

DAKOTA SHAIN BYRD | Contributing Writer
editor@dallasvoice.com

Constance and Josie Siegel first met in March 2007, when Jo, a transgender woman, was performing in a production of The Vagina Monologues. The two were introduced by Jo’s then-wife, an old high school classmate of Constance.

But as soon as Constance and Jo were introduced, they turned their noses up at each other and promptly walked in opposite directions.

For Constance, the problem was twofold: Jo is transgender and for one thing, Constance explains now, she previously had “less than stellar interactions with the trans community.” And to top it off, Constance didn’t think that trans women should be performing in The Vagina Monologues.

And after that first meeting, Constance spent the next year traveling around the country, speaking against the trans community. It was, she says now, “where I was at the time.”

The two women say it “took a couple of years” for them to move from that first meeting to where they are now — a committed couple raising a family together.

Constance says that at the time, she had been married for 22 years and it was “a very turbulent relationship. … a very emotionally and financially abusive relationship.”
Jo was still married, too.

Two years later, when Constance and Jo were both in the midst of divorcing their spouses, the two met again, at another production of The Vagina Monologues.

Both were going through divorces. They had both auditioned for parts in the production, although at different times, and had both won roles in the show.

When they saw each other again at rehearsals, Constance remembered Jo, but Jo didn’t remember Constance. “That’s how much of an impression we made on each other,” they joke now.

Jo wanted to be friends with Constance, so she kept sitting next to her in rehearsals. When Constance would change seats, Jo would follow. It was a pattern that persisted throughout the run of the show.

Jo thought Constance was flirting. But, Constance says now, “I was just being nice, because you gotta be nice.”

ALL FOR ONE | Hadassah, Seth and Chavah say they are always ready to defend their family to those who might disparage it.

Still, the two made a connection. “I guess Jo’s winning and warm personality won me over,” Constance says.

Jo laughs. “Come on now, tell the truth,” she says. “Constance was being nice and I was too dumb to realize it. So I was persistent.”

Then, during a “Vagina Monologues Day” event at Casa Mañana, Jo signed up to take a class on Native American Talking Sticks, not realizing that Constance was the teacher. When she got to the class, she says, she happened to sit next to Constance’s best friend, a woman “who doesn’t like trans [people], mind you.”

As the class proceeded, the participants passed around the talking stick, taking turns expressing themselves to the class. When the stick came to Jo, she talked about the hurt and pain of her divorce.

Constance’s best friend then took her turn with the stick, speaking about her experience being widowed.

After the class, the three women went to lunch together, and things seemed to go well, the couple recalled, even after Constance’s friend realized that Jo is transgender. Then they returned to the Casa Mañana event and walked around together for a while before Constance told Jo, rather bluntly, “Don’t you have somewhere else to be? Isn’t your daughter around here? You need to go find your daughter. You need to go do some other stuff.”

A few hours later they ran into each other again, but after talking for a few minutes, Constance shooed Jo off again. But as performers in the show, Constance and Jo were sharing a dressing room — with 15 other women — and that’s where Jo met Constance’s oldest daughter, Channah.

As it turned out, Jo’s three daughters were also at the performance, along with their dates, and after the performance the whole group ended up going to out for a late dinner together. As they talked, the time passed, and before they knew it, it was 2:30 in the morning.

Jo and Constance exchanged numbers, just on a “just friends” basis.

Jo went home that morning and called her brother, who worked nights. When she told him where she had been and about Constance, he asked, “Why couldn’t this be more than a friendship?” Jo asked herself the same question.

But it was still a complicated situation for Constance. She was dating a teacher who insisted on staying deeply closeted, something that eventually ended the relationship.

Jo and Constance continued to talk to each other through texts, but Constance still kept her new friend at arm’s length.

Finally, Jo invited Constance and her daughters to dinner at Jo’s home. Constance declined, saying she wasn’t ready to “bring [her daughters] into this just yet.”

But Jo was as persistent as ever, saying, “Okay. Well, what about you?” Constance, with a sigh of resignation, agreed.

Then comes marriage

Josie Siegel was born Jewish, and Constance had been practicing Judaism for several years. So when they decided to get married Constance decided to formally convert.

Converting meant having to sit before a board of three rabbis. One of the three was the rabbi at Congregation Beth El where Constance and Jo attended; another was the rabbi of a nearby Conservative congregation from whom Constance had previously taken a class.

The rabbi from Constance and Jo’s synagogue didn’t mince words in introducing her to the other rabbis: “Constance is about to enter into a relationship with another woman, marrying another woman of my congregation,” he said.

When the Conservative rabbi asked why Constance hadn’t come to his synagogue, she explained that she and her partner had ruled out that choice because his synagogue was conservative. She was worried what he might say in response.

He asked her, “You’re marrying a woman?” She replied, “Yes, rabbi.”

At this point, her rabbi, hoping to soften his colleague’s stance, interjected, “But she’s already been married, and already had children, and fulfilled all the Jewish requirements that you’ve got to fulfill.”

The Conservative rabbi shushed him, then turned to Constance, saying, “I remember you, and I remember you well. I knew something was wrong. I have one question for you: Are you happy?”

Constance answered, “Rabbi, I’m deliriously happy. I have never been this happy.”

The rabbi’s response touched her heart.

“It’s taken a long time for me to get here,” he told her. “Our community is struggling with this right now. But we have come to realize that not all marriages last. …

The most important thing is to be happy. God did not put us here to be miserable, but to be happy. And if you are honest to yourself, and you are happy with whom you’re with, then you have my blessing.”

Not only did the Conservative rabbi approve Constance’s conversion and her decision to marry Josie, her gave her his own personal blessing.

Even now, more than a year later, Constance cries tears of gratitude and appreciation as she remembers.

Constance and Josie were married on March 21, 2010, in a formal Jewish ceremony at their synagogue. The youngest three of their combined brood of children live with them, and the two women were worried when they first started dating about how they would explain their situation, and Josie’s transgender status, to the children.

As it turned out, Constance said, it was “truly a nonevent. We told them, and the 14-year-old, our boy, said, ‘Duh.’”

When the children asked how someone could change from being a man to being a woman, Josie explained with, “Well, you take some medicine and then there’s a surgery or two that you have to undergo.”

Constance says, “After that they were like, ‘Okay. So can we go play Skee-ball now?’”

Then she continues, “It was a nonevent, until the next day when our youngest girl ran out onto the playground and said, ‘Hey! Did you know that boys can become girls, and girls can become boys?’ I found this out when I went to pick the kids up from school that day and the teacher told me what happened. I braced myself and asked what happened next. She told me, ‘They [the other children] asked how, and then were like, ‘Cool, okay!’ and went right back on to playing.’”

And when asked their opinion, the three children confirm, in a respectful and courteous way, that it’s not that big of a deal to have two moms.

“I like it,” says Seth, the oldest of the three. “My two moms are more accepting of who I am than a straight family would be if I were gay.”

Chavah, 10, responds with a simple, “Pretty awesome,” while Hadassah, also 10, explains, “There is nothing different than having a mom and a dad, except for waking up and saying ‘Hi, Ema, and Hi, Mom.’”

(“Ema” is Hebrew for “mom,” and it’s what the children call Josie.)

Having gay parents, the children all say, doesn’t make their family really all that different from any other family?

“Just because our parents are gay, they still love us. They are not rude or mean and they do have fun with us. And even though they are lesbians, they are not that different from everyone else,” Hadassah says.

Chavah adds, “I have a good family. My moms are fun. My brother’s funny, and my sister is cool. My older siblings are grown up.”

Seth keeps his assessment short and sweet: “We are a wonderful family, and I love being in it.”

But what happens if the children are confronted with someone who might disparage their family?

Seth offers a diplomatic answer. “[It] depends on if they are saying it in a positive or negative way,” he says. “I make sure that what they are saying is meant to be negative before I respond. If it is, then I confront them and ask them, ‘What if your little sister turned out to be gay; would you say the same thing?’”

The two girls say they would be a bit more straightforward and frank.

“Excuse me, that was kinda rude,” Hadassah says she would tell the offender. “Why do you say something like that? There is nothing wrong with being LGBT.”

Chavah, too, says she would keep it short and to the point, telling the person, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but that is a mean thing to say. I have two moms.”

Constance and Josie, who say they are proud of their children for being so vocal, opinionated and honest, add that as parents, they were worried not just about facing discrimination because they are lesbian, but also because Josie is transgender.

Instead, they say, they have encountered more discrimination based on their religion than anything else. Still, the women say, they feel a calling to educate people on issues surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity. To that end, Constance founded DFW Eclectic Women’s Services and DFW Eclectic Women’s Services Too.

The couple have spoken at Texas Christian University, Wesleyan College and, most recently, at the University of Texas at Arlington.

They say they talk to many people about being out and about coming to terms with yourself or with somebody else who is LGBTQ. They believe such efforts are vital because so much discrimination still exists and because so many people — even those who are targets of discrimination — don’t really know how pervasive it is.

Constance says, “My favorite story is about Martin Luther King Jr. when he was in the jail in Montgomery. He wrote a letter that said, ‘The nations of the world are racing to rocket speed towards equality, and we’re moving at horse and buggy speed to get a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.’

“Most people don’t realize that today we are fighting for our cup of coffee at a lunch counter,” she continued. “They don’t realize that we can still be denied that cup of coffee at a lunch counter, and it happens regularly. We can be denied that job, that house, that raise — based on our sexual orientation. That’s why it’s important for this nation to stop passing judgment on other nations until we have no more discrimination in our own nation. That’s why we must educate people.”

It’s not just about educating the non-LGBT community, either. Constance and Josie also have a message for other LGBT people.

“We need to show them that being gay is more than a gay Pride parade, or [hanging out in] the gayborhood,” Constance declares. “If that’s all society thinks of when they think about the LGBTQ community, then it’s no wonder we won’t be taken seriously. That’s why we need to educate not only the straight community, but also ourselves, the gay community, about all of this.

“It’s important for them to see us as normal, to see us at the PTA meetings, at soccer meets, at the mall shopping with our kids and in the grocery line,” she says.

“They need to see that we’re normal, that we are families with love. This is slowly beginning to happen, and the more people see this, the closer we’ll be to ending discrimination in America, or at least stopping the illegal discrimination that goes on.”

And Constance and Josie hope their family is helping lead the way.

For information on having Constance and Josie Siegel speak for a group or at an event, contact them via email at dfweclecticone2@yahoo.com, or go online to their Yahoo Group page at, Groups.Yahoo.com/Group/DFWEclecticWomensServices/.

—  John Wright