My Transsexual Father
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I find myself charting unknown territory. In the burgeoning market of self-help books I have yet to see one that provides a guiding hand through the oceans of uncertainty generated by one's parent coming out as a transsexual. Even my most articulate friends struck dumb by my casual admission of having a transsexual father: 'Yeah, he is a she now'. One friend was at my house one day when my dad, now Ruth, phoned up. 'Oh, you must be Stephen's dad, uh, I mean mum, uh, I mean parent, uh, uh, oh dear, I'm so sorry'; a deathly silence on the other end and then Ruth gave a nervous little laugh, 'that's all right dear'.
There are a hundred and one humourous aspects to the whole situation; in fact the entire thing is so hard to digest at times that humour is the only way I can make some sense of what has happened. I mean, its not the kind of thing you would expect a staunch fundamentalist Christian, patriarchal 65 year old to do, totally out of the blue. When I first received the 40 page letter in which he broke the news to me, I thought, 'Well I've been through many adventures in life, and this is just one more'.
However, as he started openly cross dressing -- something he claimed to have done all his life, including in high secrecy during our childhood -- the reality of it all sunk in. When he started talking about 'the op', and seriously planning it, I felt a new dimension of intensity. He started having umpteen minor operations - to raise the voice, reduce the nose, remove all unwanted facial hair. My well known and beloved father was disappearing, and in his place was a person I knew less and less. Whilst accepting his decision, I nevertheless tried to dialogue: why not try therapy; what if you regret this; look at the other transsexuals. But, his mind was made up, and this was his path to freedom.
His friends dropped away one by one, until only a few remained. He moved from the conservative Tasmanian community which he had so loved for 25 years to the more cosmopolitan Melbourne. Each step involved incredible courage, and this I respected greatly. However I was losing a father, and gaining -- I was not sure what. He became more and more insistent at expunging his past, sending me back every memory he had, all the letters and photos and documents. He didn't want reminders of who he had been, and this is probably part of the reason he, now she, started becoming hostile towards me. Not overtly hostile, but palpable to others around me as well; perhaps my existence serves as a painful reminder of the years he spent in self-denial, living a dual life.
I felt, and still feel, a great deal of mixed emotion. I am happy that my father, this person, followed his own truth, and admire his courage. I am very very sad at losing a father, and a pretty good relationship at that. Yet entirely confused because although there is no longer anything of the father I knew, there is still the person/spirit/body there. A new personality inhabits that frame, that dramatically altered frame. She carries a female passport, she has constructed for herself a female past. She spends hours each day on her makeup, and works as a child-care worker (whereas my father had zero interest in small children). My father the intellectual giant, the knowledgeable scientist has gone. Ruth professes and exhibits limited intellectual ability, tending to be scatterbrained and more inclined towards light gossip. She tries hard -- oh so hard -- to be female, spending hours talking about her idea of 'womanly things' such as clothes, makeup, and how terrible men are.
I am a very flexible, broad-minded person. But all my tolerance and intellectual acceptance does not help me come to terms with the intense emotional experience I have. Sadness, confusion, hurt, and -- I have very painfully had to admit to myself -- dislike. I don't like what my father has become, not primarily because of the new person there, or even of the different gender, but because of her barely masked anger at me as a reminder of the years she was suppressed as a shadow of my father.
I could imagine my father dead, and try to mourn, yet although this is the case, it is somehow hard to do without the death of the body. And there remains the Pandora's box of unanswered questions for me: how did this affect my growing up, how did it affect my sense of myself as a male, to what degree did it contribute to the difficult dynamics between my parents (who remained together up until my mother's death 15 years ago). Ruth claims that my father was just the mask she was wearing, nothing but a cover-up persona which hid the real person. That leaves me in a difficult position. Was I raised by a mask? Did I love a mask?
I live with many suspended questions, figuring that over time I will be able to slowly work my way through them. Or not. At times I look at it this way: I am grateful that my father brought me into the world, and acknowledge he did his duty, provided for me, and raised me as best he could. Now he has moved on to another life of which I am not a part.
I would love to ask Ruth a lot about the past -- to know a lot of detail, to try to grasp what this strange thing is about. But such conversation is strained and often cut short by her. She certainly retains one characteristic of my father: a lack of interest in personal details from the past; she prefers instead to speak in large brush-strokes.
Transsexuals are generally the object of lurid fascination, or total repulsion, or extreme discomfort, or overt hostility. Even psychiatry has placed the subject in the too-hard basket. They have of course a label for it, but absolutely no idea of what causes it or what the remedy might be -- apart, that is, from the final solution: the operation. Whenever I mention my situation there is usually a mixture of intense interest, sympathy, and incredulousness. Almost like I was fathered by a Martian. A part of me cowers in fear at the way others might react, although in fact I always find great support and warmth in response. A slightly devilish part of me delights in watching the effect on people. There is no familiar niche to place this piece of information, no set response, no social context.
My kids have taken it all in their stride. Grandpa is now Auntie. Ruth comes up once a year or so, and is far more into spending time with them than my dad ever was. And although they think her a bit strange, they don't mind her, and enjoy having more undivided adult attention than their parents are generally able to provide. My wife has been very tolerant of Ruth, and supportive for me. She has gradually been turned off by Ruth's bitterness, and although Ruth claims she is for the most part happy in her life, it appears she finds it hard to keep friends. Whether it is due to prejudice, her rather adolescent way of interacting with the world, or an undercurrent of anger, is hard to say. She usually attributes all rejection to the first reason, and it must indeed be difficult to fit into the ladies auxiliaries she attends with her 6 feet plus height, large hands, and strange manner. Nevertheless, she has found great joy in her child-care work, and it is undoubtedly due to the ability of kids to be unconditionally accepting.
This story is of course not fixed for all time. New events occur which change my perception and experience of the whole thing. Recently I had a phone conversation with Ruth which restored some hope in me for the possibility of a relationship which contains both honesty and respect. I was more forthright with my feelings, she was more willing to talk about the past.
I have yet to meet someone in the same boat. There are some books by transsexuals, a few radio programs, and one or two movies. But I have seen nothing by or about the children of transsexuals. I have made a point of talking about this unique situation with friends as I figure that it is nothing to be ashamed of; it is a part of the reality of me, so I don't see any point hiding it. People often don't know how to respond. Neither do I.
Stephen Gunther is a psychotherapist in private practice in Lismore, Australia.