- Associated Press - Saturday, May 28, 2016

NICEVILLE, Fla. (AP) - Carol Boughton sits on the sofa in the house she shared with her late spouse, sorting through photos and wiping away tears.

Like many widows, Carol isn’t sure how she’s going to get along without the person she loved for four decades.

This story of a lost loved one is more complicated than that, however.

In 1976, Carol married a man named Grant. On May 1, 2016, she said goodbye to a woman named Shirley.

During the years in between, Carol stood by her spouse as Grant Boughton made the rocky journey to Shirley Boughton, both mentally and physically. She realizes some people won’t understand her choice, but she can’t imagine any other course.

“Shirley was my best friend, my soulmate, the love of my life,” Carol said. “I just wanted us to be together.”

Shirley Boughton’s life wasn’t conventional.

The retired Air Force Reserve colonel’s 71 years were filled with contradictions: great joy and great heartbreak; professional achievement and public scandal; a long, intimate marital relationship and a profound sense of isolation.

Born Grant Shirley Boughton in 1944, he grew up in Sudbury, Massachusetts, during the 1950s. As a child, he achieved many of the goals young men are encouraged to obtain, including the rank of Eagle Scout, and an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy.

Life was never easy, though. Sometimes, in fact, it was “horrible.”

Shirley Boughton described an incident as a child where he wanted to dress up as Mary for the Nativity, and his parents wouldn’t allow it. In grade school, he was rejected by boys and girls, some of whom labeled him a “faggot.”

West Point wasn’t a good fit, either, so Grant transferred to the University of New Hampshire, earning a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1966. By the time he met Carol Hartwell in Athens, Greece, in 1974, the young Air Force officer’s wife had left him, and he was a single parent to three small children.

The couple dated for about a year and a half. At some point before proposing, Grant confessed to having confusing feelings about his gender identity. He had been reading “Conundrum,” a novel by Jan Morris a Welsh transgender woman, and researching Christine Jorgensen, the first widely-known transgender woman in America. He had even visited psychologists in Europe, who dismissed his feelings as Freudian.

“I was like, ‘This is me,’” Shirley Boughton said before she died.

A year into their marriage the couple said Grant went into denial about his true identity. Only later would he discover his feelings were “something you couldn’t cure.”

After deciding to leave the active duty Air Force, Grant joined the Reserve and went to work for the civil service at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. It was there that something happened that would have a wide-reaching impact on the couple’s future.

“We had been invited to go to a Halloween party,” Carol recalled. “We were looking for costumes, and I suggested Grant wear this French maid costume I had, just as a joke. He wore it to the party and was just exhilarated.

“I still had no idea what was going on, but it scared me. It made me angry.”

After moving to Florida in 1979, Carol and Grant immersed themselves in family life. Outwardly, Grant continued to live as a man.

Inside, however, he was drawn to the idea of life as a woman.

Carol said she was “scared to death” every time she’d go out with Grant dressed in women’s clothing. In 1988, she discovered a new reason to be afraid.

“That’s when we got the HIV diagnosis,” Carol said, her voice quivering. “I was furious and I was terrified.”

At first, Grant said he’d contracted the disease during a brief affair with another woman, but then confessed that during a TDY (temporary duty) in 1983, he’d had an encounter with another man, Carol said.

The couple weathered the storm. They found support and resources within the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, including Okaloosa AIDS Support and Information Services (OASIS).

“I’d had no experience with any of this,” Carol said. “But I met many experts and other people who understood what I was going through.”

Crisis came calling again in 1999, when Grant was arrested for possession of child pornography.

Adjudication was withheld in the case, but Grant would later insist it was all a misunderstanding. While in an internet chat room, Grant said he was sent an email with an attachment.

Grant said he opened the attachment, which turned out to be child porn. Not long afterward, the computer died and Grant took it to a repair shop. Employees discovered the porn and turned Grant into the police.

As part of a plea bargain, Grant was required to register as a sexual offender. Other consequences included the loss of his job as a high-ranking program manager at Eglin Air Force Base, and his position as an ordained Roman Catholic deacon.

For a while, Grant considered suicide.

“I would not be alive if it wasn’t for Carol,” Shirley Boughton said. “You feel worthless. I felt there was no point of living.”

In June 2005, Grant and Carol traveled to Bangkok, Thailand, for gender reassignment surgery.

“I really embraced who I was,” Shirley said.

But coming out proved detrimental to some relationships in her life. She became estranged from neighbors, friends and even family.

“There were times when I felt angry and betrayed,” Carol said. “But my biggest fear was that we wouldn’t be together.”

Despite all the pain and anguish she and Shirley endured together, Carol said it never once crossed her mind to leave the marriage.

“It used to be the standard of care that the transgender person got divorced and started a new life,” Carol said. “I told Shirley that if that’s what she needed to do, I’d be heartbroken, but I’d understand. But we chose to stay together. We loved each other.”

___

Information from: Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.), https://www.nwfdailynews.com

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