On Tuesday of this week, Salon.com published a piece by Danielle Brown, a writer with a degree in psychology, working on a book about her relationship with her transsexual father. It's well-written, but I have problems with it.
Here's the headline and tag: "When my father became a woman: After Dad had gender reassignment surgery, he promised he'd be the same person. Then why do I miss him so much?
I respect the writer's opinion -- there's no question that parents' lives affect children, often for the worse. At the same time, I can't help but recoil from the seemingly harsh and dismissive tone.
"My father's extensive collection of jewelry and her outfits still startle me. Everything is so form-fitting! It is cheating, I think, to wear women's jeans and not have hips. 'It's not fair,' I told her once. 'You get all the perks of being a woman but none of the pain. You don't have to get a period every month.'"
Thus are we introduced to this promise-breaking, indulgently bejewelled and bedecked, cheating father -- a father, moreover, who unfairly became a "woman."
I have my sympathies for Ms. Brown's account, and she's still young and filtering her experiences through the difficult "who am I?" twenties, but her apparent hatred of her father's transition makes it difficult.
Helen Boyd, posting on enGender, kind of blames the dad, too:
Please, lovely trans folks, STOP saying this to your loved ones. It's not true. The whole point of transition is to become a different person.
That doesn't mean you won't carry plenty of your personality over with you - you will & you should. But you will not be the same person.
If gender matters, gender matters. You wouldn't need to transition if it didn't, so be surprised when your loved ones miss your 1.0 self.
My dear Helen, given that Ms. Brown, the author of the Salon.com piece, was an adolescent at the time of her father's transition, I'm not at all sure that it would be inappropriate to reassure her by noting that you're not going away, that you'll still be there for them, and there won't be another, unfamiliar stranger taking your place. I myself told my son when I transitioned that I would always be his father, and love him, and be there for him. I don't think I said I'd be the "same person." There was probably too much of the lawyer in me, even in that time of towering stress and pain, to make any such guarantees.
The truth is, none of us are the "same person" we were ten years ago. Identity is constantly shifting slowly, like moving tectonic plates, unseen at the surface, but producing surprising changes over time. But I did not subscribe to my ex's theory that "Todd" was dead, and that a completely new person, "Jillian", suddenly sprang, fully-formed, into existence. I recoiled from that description, and made sure it was not repeated to our son.
I do agree that "gender matters," as Helen so aptly put it. Yes it does. If it didn't, I could have simply existed as an androgynous man. But I couldn't. It was not an option, not after the suicidal thoughts began. The internal drive was as inexorable as turning the wheel on a ship and lashing it tight. And I agree - don't sign a contract guaranteeing you'll be the "same person." Perhaps that was an inapt phrase. But give the woman a break.
Ms. Brown discusses the change: "My father had gender reassignment surgery four years ago at a hospital in Arizona while I was taking final exams at the end of my freshman year of college." Ah, I see. While she was slaving away at college, working hard, her frivolous dad was off getting a bit of nip and tuck.
"No one told me that when my father changed her identity - her name, her lifestyle, her body - that my father would change, too. That the role of father would blur. That our father-daughter routine would seem sacrificed to the gender gods, something lost in the transition into my father's new life."
Yes, no one told you. There are a lot of things we aren't told in our twenties. The life I thought I would lead when I was in my twenties, that I had carefully charted -- it was a disaster, though I thought that I had planned it with great forethought. While I was taking my final exams in my sophomore year of law school, my father had the poor judgment to die, and my mother a year later. My marriage and my early career -- what poor choices in hindsight, and how perfect-seeming at the time.
What Ms. Brown is talking about here is not the consequences of her father's transition, but the consequences of life, of changing roles of parents and children in their twenties, of coming of age and realizing your parents are gods with feet of clay, of coming into your own and seeking your own, independent life, of losing the parent-child routine that characterizes childhood. "Sacrifice to the gender gods" makes it sounds as if her story were the story of the Biblical Isaac, sacrificed on the altar to the bizarre Jehovah-god that Abraham heard in his head, but with no convenient ram caught in a bush nearby to save the child.
Yes, I understand that this was a significant event in Ms. Brown's life, and she is entitled to her feelings, but let me suggest that had her father gotten a red Ferrari and a new girlfriend, we might be reading the same basic story about the same main characters. Yes, by all means, write a story about how your father's transition affected you, but be aware that suggesting to an already-always transphobic public that your father did something bad to his little girl is a dangerous meme.
I am sympathetic to Ms. Brown's descriptions of the jarring effects of memory upon seeing familiar pieces of furniture from the vantage point of her childhood memories, and the desire to "wreak havoc" by reminding her father's girlfriend of where it came from. And yet, there is this:
"There is more than one kind of death.
With my father it was a death without a funeral, a death without a body, without casket or burial or sermon or church, without fellow mourners to hold my hands. This was a death with the deceased still breathing, still putting her arms around me and speaking to me in the voice I've always known."
Actually, your father is not dead. Speaking of him that way suggests that a transsexual is dead. I assure you I am not dead, despite my gender transition, nor am I dead to my relatives, my ex-wife or my son. Yes, I realize this is a metaphor, that for Ms. Brown it occurred as a kind of death-like experience. Her writing skills are superb. But, gosh, it's cold. Chilly. This dead person masquerading as her father. Perfect for Halloween season, and I can't shake this "Shauna-of-the-dead" feeling about her father.
And yet, I was moved by her ending, missing the comfort of having her father re-enact her childhood memories that gave her solace as a young girl, describing the fatherly reaction to her new boyfriend.
"It rolled over me in waves, this quiet gratefulness, to have my father again in a way I could understand. In a way that felt as ordinary as the wristwatch he used to wear, the shoes he kicked off at night, and the black leather sofa in our living room."
And yet, what she describes is missing the comfort of having no one ever change, of never growing up and realizing things about your parents, that they are meek doormats or emotional terrorists, afraid of life or foolish gamblers. It's a well-written piece. But I'm not sure whether it exposes the full truth of Ms. Brown's experience, or, perhaps, her desire for a lost land of remembered childhood from which we are all exiled by time.