“We’ll have to start introducing you as his daughter now, won’t we?” My stepmother kindly says to me at her dinner table this last Christmas.
“One thing at a time,” I blurt. She nods. I stammer, “Just, one thing at a time, y’know?” She nods. My eyes flit to my father. He is fifty-one, a tall man with a swarm of salt-and-pepper hair and a thick, leathery face, contrasting the prettiness of his bright blue eyes. I see he’s chatting with my uncle and hasn’t heard our conversation.
While my dad’s always been the most fully-voiced supporter of my transition in my family, I get jittery thinking of him hearing my stepmother say “his daughter.” It’s not that the environment is unsupportive—my family and my gender have a complicated history not easily put into “Yay trans” or “Boo trans,” but everyone at this table is on-board at this point—nor have I never thought about assuming the mantle of daughterhood before. Rather, I’ve thought about it rarely, and not enough, and I’m not ready for it, because while I’ve never liked being a boy, I’ve always loved being a son.
I came out to my father four years ago, on a day that began with him stomping around a truck stop off I-84, looking for 5-hour energy shots. He found two and picked up a water.
“You need a soda or something?” he muttered.
“I’m actually okay, thanks.”
We walked out and the wind from the Columbia River Gorge rippled our clothes. “Holy shit!” he said. “I’d be scared to get blown into the water if I wasn’t so fucking fat!” A month earlier, he had hit 250 pounds, tough for a man who had once been 160. (“I’m a statistically significant portion of a ton, Casey,” he’d moped to me earlier.) We were driving from Portland to where he lived in the Canadian Rockies, where I’d be working for the summer.
“Hahaha!” I laughed excessively, and drank his 5-hour energy shot without expressed skepticism (they work, by the way), and though I might’ve drank it and laughed anyways, I did it with extra gusto that day. I didn’t know how he would take this whole “wanting to be a girl” business, but I didn’t think it would go well. My father said things like “I love you, boy,” and greeted me with “Hello, son!” and gave me unprompted and gender-role-laden love advice beginning with, "Well, let me tell you something about how women are… " He loved to tell the story about when I was four and he learned that my mother was training me to sit down when I peed (they had just been divorced). He once told this story to a family friend when we were out on the front porch of the house in the mountains, drinking beer on a summer afternoon. I was fifteen.
“Yeah, his mother was teaching him to sit down to piss. I had to put a stop to that.”
“Damn right you did,” the friend said, “A guy sits down to take a leak, it’s like, when you getting your sex change operation?”
I drank my beer and laughed, comforted by my father’s pride, not mentioning that I did still sit down to pee, about half the time, if I felt like it, it depended on my mood, really.
My mother is a tough and practical woman, and the bathroom directive arose out of messes. If she ever placed value on “boy things and girl things” as I was growing up, I don’t remember hearing it; my childhood with her was blessedly not a gendered one. My father was the only one with an interest in gender roles, but, in the strange way that gender roles work, they came from a place of compassion, at least it seemed to me. He loved telling the story, too, of replacing my toiletry bag in middle school—a sturdy canvas flower-print thing handed down from my mom—and buying me a black leather shaving kit, because “Casey was using his mother’s fuckin’ hand-me-down makeup bag, and you know, he’s just at the age where he needs something a little more masculine.” He drew out the word “little” when he told this story. Liiiiiittle. I didn’t mind at the time, because I knew it was how he showed he cared about me.
“You are my son!” He said more than once, beaming, eyes crinkling, and so I laughed my head off on this drive to the mountains because I was about to tell him I was thinking of giving that up and before I did I wanted so badly for him to feel how much I loved him.
Somewhere in the forests of southeastern British Columbia, I said, “Dad, I’ve been having problems with my gender identity.” (Such a clinical term. I wish we had a cooler one.)
“Okay.” He mulled this over. “Really.”
Trees flew by. “So you feel like you’re a woman trapped in a man’s body.”
“But you don’t feel like a man?”
His phone rang. “Casey, I’m sorry, I have to take this.”
My father chronically took phone calls in the middle of conversations. Whatever his business—he’d started a few over the years—it was always flexible enough to allow him to do things like drive around the country with me, but as long as he had reception he was never truly gone. I usually understood, but sometimes it bothered me, like now. I brooded and stared ahead at forested hills. He jabbered for ten minutes and hung up.
“I’m sorry,” he said gently, “I know you were in the middle of telling me something important about your sexuality. And I want to hear about it.”
I told him, about the cross-dressing, about the wish to be seen as a woman.
“Well,” he said, thinking it over, “I don’t really understand that, I admit. But I support you. And I love you.”
“… thank you, Dad. Thank you, really.”
“Pff, of course. So you wear women’s clothes a lot in Portland then?”
“Okay, but let me try to understand this, so you don’t really want to be a woman? You just want to look like one? That’s what’s going on?”
“Well, sort of, I really don’t know. I’m trying to figure that out. There are so many days I really, really want to look like a woman and be perceived as female, but not all the time. Like some days I really enjoy being masculine, and some days I don’t. I don’t know what that means.”
“Huh. Well, that’s interesting. Kinda weird, I can’t lie, but interesting.”
Two and a half years later, he was visiting me in New York and we were eating overly sugary Chinese food when I told him I was seriously considering transitioning.
“Hmm,” he mused. “Well, I’d advise against the operation, it’s just so permanent.”
“That’s not really on my radar screen at the moment. I’d be taking hormones if I were to start.”
“Well that’s the thing,” he said, looking thoughtful and a little sad, “Everyone has a different hormonal soup, right? Maybe you’re the way you are because of your precise hormonal soup, I dunno if you should fuck with that.”
“I just don’t know, Dad…”
“Look,” he looked at me. “I want to support you. You wanna dress girly, you like lipstick, who gives a shit? Just keep me in the loop, that’s all I ask.”
Part of an e-mail I wrote to my parents, a few weeks later:
I’ve never told you how much I’m scared really plays into the issue. I said I was scared of a lot, of safety, health problems, etc, but also that I was scared of my relationship with them suffering.
And If I wasn’t scared of all those things, I would start transitioning tomorrow. In a heartbeat. I think I would be making a call to the endocrinologist tomorrow. That’s one of the most honest things I know how to say.
He wrote back:
Just fuckin’ do it.
I think that all of the things that you’re scared of make a lot of sense, but one thing that you should NEVER be scared of is that I will always love you and find a way to be supportive, even if it means that I have to take some time to “transition” myself, at least in my thinking.
I know that you tried to talk to me about it when I was in NYC, and I tried to listen. Look, there’s a big part of me that still is baffled by the whole thing. And there’s a part of me that wants to try to dissuade you from this.
Believe it or not it’s not because you’re my “boy” or anything remotely macho. It’s probably more in line with the same kind of fears that you yourself have … But Casey, I’ll love you to bits if you’re a woman.
I don’t mean to imply it’s been easy for him. (“I won’t tell you what to do, but I’d probably prefer it if you didn’t make the change,” he said to me, months later). But the way my father has shifted to champion my femaleness and my femininity has been one of the most beautiful gifts I’ve ever received. And yet I’m the one, it seems, who can’t let go of being his son, of all those stupid lovely memories of learning to ride a bike, or unload the U-Haul, or walk to kindergarten in raging Canadian blizzards when he didn’t have a car, before the businesses took off, or the time a truck driver tried to run us off the road on the highway and my father swore to beat him up and raised his fists at him and he told me if that shithead had a second guy in the cab than I’d need to take him. (My father leapt out onto the pavement with his fists raised, the truck sailed on past, and I crumpled in relief, because though I was thirteen and not a fighter, I was still ready to follow him.) Those memories held the few parts of being male I ever felt at home with, in a way that didn’t seem fake like it did when I put on men’s clothes or played games at recess or hung out with a bunch of wise-ass dudes cracking jokes.
Objectively, cosmically, none of this has anything to do with being a son as opposed to a daughter, I know, anymore it does thinking of my mother and I shooting pool in a little town in a video store that’s boarded up now, or watching movies together in my bed on a TV that went in the dumpster only a couple of years ago. But right now, all of this is what being a son meant to me, because the only time feeling at home in my male body ever seemed to work out for me, in the irrational, individual way that gender does, was when I was with my family.
I’ve only recently started to accept that transitioning doesn’t mean the compromising of one’s masculinity or femininity (in some ways, becoming female has made me more in tune with both of those things) but yet, there’s also no denying that some of it’s lost, my father will still drink beer and tell dick jokes, but replacing a canvas flower-print toiletry bag wouldn’t be funny anymore, and that’s somehow both a good thing, and a little sad.
I try to think of my transition as just another shift, a big shift sure, but still just a shift, like the moves and marriages and divorces of years past that everybody in our family went through. I think of this partly out of hope and faith that my family and I will emerge from my transition as tight as we ever were, but I also tell it to myself to get over it, to break the link that stubbornly ties me to boyhood; a tiny part of me still doesn’t want to let it go. But I will.
It’s early evening, a day after my stepmother asks me, this last Christmas, about daughterhood. My father and I are drinking wine. I am on a couch and he is on a stool. “So are you thinking about getting the operation now?” My father, like many people, asks a lot about “the operation,” but unlike the others, I don’t mind the inquiry from him.
“I don’t know if I will, really.” I say, turning a glass of wine around in my hands. “Though… well, hey, have you read my columns?”
“Yes, I have! I’ve read ‘em all, and I love them. I’m proud of you, you know.” (That he says this kind of thing so regularly is why I’ll never mind when he asks about the operation.)
“Well, thank you. It’s really, really nice to hear that. You know how the last one was about surgery, right?”
“No. Hmm, maybe I didn’t read that one.”
“You should read it!” I say exuberantly.
“Okay, I will.”
A day later, after he’s read about my ambivalence.
“Wait, do you think maybe you could get a vagina but keep your dick?” He is drunk and so am I.
“It doesn’t really work that way, Dad.”
“Oh there’s gotta be a way, I bet they could do it. Do you know for sure?”
“I mean, no—”
“Well, there you go!” I still haven’t checked into it (and to clarify, I’m, uh, not interested) but I’m pretty sure I’m right.
The next time I see my dad is the beginning of March, as he’s coming through New York on business. “You’re starting to look just like your mother,” he says to me soon after meeting.
“Watch it,” I say.
He grins. “I call ’em like I see ’em.”
I sigh. “… and you’re right.” (He is.)
Later, over a glass of wine, a thought occurs to him. “I guess I’m going to have to start calling you my daughter soon, won’t I?” He says it pleasantly.
“You will,” I say, somewhat tonelessly, sounding the ambivalence.
“Okay then!” He says. We both smile, and change the topic, and it gets a little easier.
Writing this, weeks later, I text him:
Me: Hey Dad, I’m writing about you for my next column. I always check with people I’m close to before I write about them. Your name’s not in it, but I wanted to ask anyway.
Him: You have my complete blessing as long as you mention my enormous penis and my unerring ability to please women.
Me: Can do! Thanks Dad!
… and a little easier.