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Suddenly, my childhood is trendy. My childhood won a Golden Globe Award. ABC Family is making a reality show about it. But I really knew that my time had come when the Kardashians got in on the action.
Back when it was still indie, back when prejudice was cooler than tolerance, back when the term “cis gender” didn’t even exist, I had a transgender parent. That gives me street cred in the alternative family scene. I can roll my eyes at the fictional, entitled, awful hipsters on Transparent and tell them that freaking out because your father is transitioning in 2015, when you’re adults, is pathetic.
My father transitioned when I was just four years old. I have a few vague, half-formed images of a man with a beard, but no real recollections of the person my mother thought she married, a person who, according to current gender theory, never really existed. That man was just a façade.
I remember that one day my mother told me that my father liked to play dress up, just like I did and that she had started wearing women’s clothes. It made sense to me. Dressing up was fun and boys were yucky, so of course my dad would rather be a girl. The fairytales we read to little girls are stories of transformation: a prince who is trapped in a frog’s body, a pumpkin that turns into a coach. A man becoming a woman struck me as far more plausible.
Eventually, she moved out and my parents got divorced. That was it. There were no family therapy sessions or dramatic confrontations. My mother has always prided herself on being progressive and open-minded. I think she felt that if she allowed herself to express any anger or sadness at the end of her marriage, she would be a bigot. So she took the attitude that it was no big deal. I took my cues from her.
In retrospect, she was too busy trying to pay the bills to dwell on her emotional state. For non-celebrities, transitioning has economic consequences. My father was starting out in academia, which today is one of the most transgender friendly workplaces, but back then, it was career suicide. All of her research appeared to be written by somebody else.
My mother had been out of the workforce since I was born, and had difficulty finding work. We fell out of the middle class temporarily. She hustled multiple part-time jobs until she finally found a full-time position in her field right before I started high school.
There was no vocabulary in existence to describe my relationship with my father. I called her by her first name, which sidestepped the issue of exactly who she was to me. In my mind, she was my father and she was a woman, and those two facts were in no way contradictory.
Other than her gender, she was like a lot of my friends’ fathers in that she was someone who I occasionally saw on the weekends and gave my mother a small check every month. I didn’t particularly enjoy her company, which had little to do with her being trans and a lot to do with her having a lousy personality. She was cold, intellectual, and humorless. She was one of life’s little annoyances, like having to wear complicated orthodontic appliances.
But as I grew older, I transformed from a happy, overachieving kid to a mopey, insecure, overachieving teen. I began to feel self-conscious about my family. I thought I was the only person on earth with a transgender parent. It was about five minutes before the Internet went mainstream, and with a couple of keystrokes, you could discover a subreddit full of people who shared the very thing you thought made you unique.
On the rare occasions that gay people were on TV, they were either dying tragically of AIDS in a very special episode or on daytime talk shows where they were pitted against evangelical Christians who thought they were going to burn in hell. Transgender people were considered outright freaks, if their existence was even acknowledged. I realized that, in the eyes of most of society, I was a freak too.
I felt terrible about the fact that it bothered me, because I didn’t want to be prejudiced. I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. I was certain my loving but pragmatic and unemotional mother would consider it yet another case of me being a melodramatic drama queen.
In fact, when, as an adult, I told her that I thought maybe my relationship with my father had some sort of lasting psychological impact on me, she was genuinely perplexed. She said, “Why? It was a little weird, but it wasn’t like anyone hit you.”
If I could have watched a reality show about the sort of pretty, vapid, mean girls that I outwardly despised but secretly envied who had a transgender father, it would have made me feel so much better.
I wish I could say that eventually I forged a close relationship with my father. The opposite is true. After I graduated high school and was accepted into the fancy schmancy east coast college of my dreams, we had lunch. She told me that she had deliberately kept her distance from me as a child because she didn’t feel comfortable around children, but now that I was older and smart enough to get into a prestigious school, she wanted to get to know me better.
I was less than excited about the prospect.
In my freshman year, she wrote me a letter berating me for not sending her a thank you note for the $20 she sent me for my birthday. She informed me that since she was paying a portion of my tuition, I owed her regular reports on my life.
She was right. I was a thoughtless, self-absorbed college student. But I had decided that college was the time to reinvent myself. I was going to give up both red meat and my father. I wrote an angry letter back telling her to get out of my life. Half the people I know had similar fights with their families in college and made up a couple months later, but this one stuck.
We never contacted each other again, other than a bizarre incident years later when she wrote a letter to my boss requesting she send her, a complete stranger, an essay about my life. That solidified my belief that severing ties with her was the right decision. But I felt a lot of guilt and shame that maybe I wouldn’t have cut off a cis-gendered relative for inappropriate behavior that impacted my career.
Whenever the subject of my father came up, I just said that my parents were divorced and my mother raised me on my own.
The world has changed so much so fast. The president acknowledged transgender people in his State of the Union address. When he was running for president, he didn’t even support gay marriage. Laverne Cox is a fashion icon. Beneath the sensationalist headlines, most of the coverage of Bruce Jenner’s possible transition has been respectful.
And then there’s Transparent. I could write a separate essay about what a mindfuck it was to watch that show. Suffice it to say that it’s brilliant and that there are eerie superficial similarities between my family and the Pfeffermans. However, the show’s conceit that the children of a transgender woman all have their own gender and sexual issues is so far from my experience that it inspired me to share my story to provide a counterpoint.
Having a transgender parent made me aware at a very early age that there is a wide variety of sexual and gender identities. I knew that I wouldn’t be disowned no matter what mine turned out to be. As it turned out, I could not be more boring.
I am straight and cis gender. I am downright girly. I love getting manicures. I’d dress like Taylor Swift leaving the gym all the time if I had the money. I don’t even have any fetishes. I have never had a moment of doubt about my sexual orientation, nor do I think that my fondness for lipstick and high heels is in any way a reaction to having a transgender parent.
Sometimes I wonder if the reason why I haven’t had many longterm relationships is because of some deep-seated childhood issues. It’s possible. It’s equally likely that I’m single because the dating scene is horrible in L.A.
I do credit my father for a lot of my positive traits. She gave me the gifts of resilience and self-reliance. She taught me not to make assumptions about people based on their outward appearance. Most importantly, she taught me that I could transform myself into whoever I wanted to be. That gave me the courage to conquer my shyness and pursue my most grandiose dreams.
Writing this has been scary. I’m worried that my friends will think I’m a liar and a coward for hiding this aspect of my life for so long. I’m worried that I’ll be branded transphobic by the Internet for saying that my individual experience with my specific parent was not as wonderful as a basket of puppies sitting under a rainbow, or that I’ll be accused of mis-pronouning for using the phrase “my father.”
I’m concerned that potential dates will google me and be scared off. Based on past experience, the quickest way to get rid of a guy is to tell him. My theory is that it touches on every man’s fear of something happening to his penis.
But I hate the idea that a deliberately awful fictional family is going to be the image that most Americans have of the children of trans parents. I also realize that my fears are largely irrational and that keeping this one part of my life secret has, in a very Oprah way, kept me from being my authentic self.