Transitioning from one gender to another is a hugely emotional process. It has its ups and downs, its gloriously beautiful moments, and its crushing, terrifying moments. But I’m not just talking about what the transitioning person is dealing with: this is what the person’s family is going through, too.
Discovering that a close family member is transgendered is kind of a big deal. When it’s a cousin or distant aunt, it can be confusing, infuriating, or a non-event, depending on the family. When it’s a beloved parent or spouse, it can be world-shaking. In our culture, gender identity of any part of the spectrum is such a part of who we are, of who people perceive us to be, that seeing it seem to change can be a confusing, frustrating, even heartbreaking experience. The gut reaction is often to see this as a huge change to who a person is at the most fundamental level. When someone seems to change that much, when they seem to be changing such an integral part of who they are, is the person you’ve always loved going to disappear? Is this a stranger forcing their way into your life while your loved one transitions? Are you about to lose this person you love so much?
The simple answer: No! No, no, a thousand times no.
The not-so-simple answer: It’s complicated.
What many families don’t understand when they first find out is that it isn’t a complete change of gender identity. A man transitioning to become a woman has often been a woman inside for a very long time; the transition is to create a body that matches the internal gender identity. He didn’t decide to become a woman, he realized that he already was a woman, but had been born with a man’s body.
This is the emotional minefield my family is navigating. We had to accept that although we always believed that my father was a man, he* has always been a woman. Even when he was in the armed forces, he was a woman. Even as he placed the ring on my mother’s finger and said the vows, he was a woman. Even as he helped conceive my sister and me, the good ol‘ fashioned way, he was a woman. Even in his work at our church, he was a woman. Even as he gives me away at my wedding, he will be a woman. He has always been a woman, so nothing about who he is will really change with the transition.
My mother had the hardest time of it when my father came out to her. She had been raised in a deeply religious Christian household, and had not left the religion of her childhood as so many do. However, unlike many devout Christians, she had not been raised to believe that homosexuality was an evil sin. She and her family believed that love is love, which is a gift of god regardless of your gender orientation.
It’s one thing to love your gay and lesbian friends else without judgment. It’s quite another to be suddenly faced with the fact that your long, loving marriage will become a lesbian relationship should you decide to stay.
I don’t know what went through my mother’s head in those first few months. I know she didn’t kick my dad out like he feared. I know that she decided to stay together, because she loved him more than anyone else in the world. I know she went to therapy for months to come to terms with the changes her husband was going through.
I also know that they still have a very happy, enthusiastic sex life. That does not involve a penis. I asked no more questions about this, because there are some things a girl just doesn’t need to know about her parents sex lives.
In the months since I found out, my mom has also used me as a sounding board, talking things through when she couldn’t see her therapist. We spent hours talking about how to tell my dad that things were moving to fast for her at one point. They had had a long conversation about how fast things were going to progress months before. Then, at the suggestion of this doctor, they had doubled his hormone dose, speeding up the hormonal part of the transition. This was presented to my mother as fait accompli, which made her angry and upset: things were moving too fast, and she felt like he was creeping around behind her back to do this, since they hadn’t discussed it first. I had to remind her that her husband couldn’t read minds, so if she didn’t talk to him about this he wouldn’t know why she was upset. A week later it had been smoothed out, and the transition continued.
Because of this incident and others like it, I have been told by some members of the transgendered community that my mother is selfish, and is holding my father back. I’ve been told that my dad should ditch her, that she isn’t good for him, that he needs to have only encouragement around him at this time in his life.
I say to these people that they are missing the point. My parents love each other deeply. My dad has told me flat out that his wife’s happiness means more to him even than his chance to transition; if finishing the transition would be too much for her, he would willingly drop it forever. It’s never come to that, and hopefully it never will, but unexpected changes have occasionally strained their relationship. When you remember that, for both of them, their love comes first, then slowing down and making sure they’re both comfortable with what’s happening becomes an act of love on both sides. She doesn’t want to hurt him, so she doesn’t stop him completely, and he doesn’t want to hurt her, so he doesn’t simply plow ahead over her objections and questions.
As I said before, it’s an emotional mine-field.
While I had an easier time coming to terms with the change than my mom, I still had some hang-ups of my own to work through. I was lucky: I already knew what transgendered meant, what transitioning was. I didn’t know what exactly my dad wanted, a hormonal transition or a full surgical transition, but I knew the spectrum. I made the conversation when I found out easier.
The whole thing was very calm, almost surreal. The only part that felt real was the hugs. My parents were surprised with how well I took it. I didn’t freak out. I didn’t get upset. I didn’t look at him like he was weird. I didn’t even appear off-balance or confused during the whole conversation. It spooked my parents, how calmly I took the whole thing.
When I went to bed that night, I cried for almost an hour. I was scared I was going to lose my Daddy. I’d heard and read some of the stories of trans-women whose personalities had radically changed during the transition, as they tried to distance themselves as far as they could from their hated lives as men. I didn’t want a stranger living in my house, married to my mother. The person I knew as Dad, but in a woman’s body? That I could deal with. But not losing him. Her. Whatever I was supposed to call the parent who’d contributed so much more to who I am than just a sperm.
It turned out that my fears were unfounded. My dad’s proved again and again that he’s still the same wonderful person he’s always been. He just has boobs, and wears earrings and mascara.
My little sister had the easiest time of it. It was almost a non-event when we told her. Our mother and I took her aside to tell her, explaining what it meant to be transgendered. We laid out what Dad had gone through, how he had been this way since he was a child. We gently explained that he had already begun transitioning, and would sometimes be wearing women’s clothing and jewelry around the house. She nodded calmly as we spoke, quietly listening. Finally, we asked her if she had any questions, if everything was alright. We reminded her that Dad still loves us, that he’s still the same person even as he becomes a woman. Her response was pure, loving, and full of the eloquence of childhood:
“It’s just who he is. Of course we still love him!”
Leave it to a child to distill it down, stripped of all of our worries and insecurities and hang-ups and doubts. Regardless of what is going on, of the changes he’s going through, of our worries, it’s just who he is. It’s who he’s always been. We loved him when we didn’t know, so why should we stop loving him now that we do?
Living with and loving a transitioning parent isn’t easy. The worries and questions never seem to end, and the biggest ones keep coming back to haunt us.
Is the person I love even there anymore?
Yes. You just have to learn to love them around their new boobs or balls.
*(At his request, I will be mainly referring to my father by male pronouns for now, both in writing and in life.)