Not Woke: My Experience as the Child of a Trans Individual
Before I begin, I’d just like to say I’ve never heard of any other stories exactly like mine. I don’t know whether the behavior I’m going to detail is typical. I’m not commenting on all trans individuals; I couldn’t possibly. These vignettes of my dad’s behavior during this time are all on the theme of his transition, but they don’t define him entirely, nor do they define anyone else. They define my experience with his transition.
My father came out as transgender the summer before I started 8th grade, and I found it traumatizing. This was the year 2000 when Eddie Izzard’s transvestite stand-up comedy was edgy in the extreme. My developing adolescent brain had no idea how to interact with a parent who wasn’t willing to be identified as my father anymore. None of my peers had an opinion or support to offer. Every time I shared my experience with a friend, they always seemed kind of stunned, sometimes disgusted. It was a different time. No one was “woke”.
Though I loved my father with a devotion bordering on idolatry, I felt traumatized by the process of his transition. Some children of trans parents express having “known” what was coming when their parents came out, but I had no idea what was coming. My dad’s news was a shock. My father was a 6-foot-tall, stoic, hyper-intellectual black belt in karate. My dad was manly. “Becoming a woman” seemed like the last thing he was ever likely to do, but he announced his intention to do just that one evening in late summer. Shortly after that, his behavior started to change drastically, and it was this new behavior more than the transition itself that I found traumatizing. It started small.
He asked me not to call him “Daddy” for the first time while we were in a Target. We were shopping, and I called to him something like “Daddy, come look at this,” but he was already presenting as a woman in public and was mortified. To his credit, I now understand being embarrassed by your kids in public and saying potentially hurtful things without thinking. No one is perfect. But I was still traumatized. I felt betrayed. I was very much in denial about my pain.
During that school year, I tried to commit suicide by taking 11 ibuprofen at once. The bottle said not to take more than 10 at once, so I took 11. It’s a little absurd I now realize, but I was a naive girl who had had a happy childhood in a loving home until that point, and so I really thought ibuprofen would end my life.
In the intervening years, my experience as the teenage child of a transgender person continued to be traumatizing. His inappropriate behavior regarding his sexual identity intensified. My dad openly discussed graphic and minute details about his hormone therapy, breast development, and surgeries with me; at one point he offered to let me see the finished work of the reassignment surgery while it was “still a surgical site.” After his surgery, my dad practiced using dilation tools with the door open. He had previously shown me the tools: acrylic phalluses used to maintain the newly created orifice. He referred to the largest one as “the tin can.” He was covered with a blanket while using them, but I knew what he was doing and why.
He told me stories about his adventures interacting with the world as a woman- stories about flirting with men or having slumber parties with the members of his trans support group. There were stories about telling women he met that he didn’t have children because he knew he couldn’t discuss pregnancy and birth with them from a woman’s perspective. He told strangers he didn’t have kids because he didn’t want to be outed. Then he told me about it.
I attempted suicide again when I was 16. I used pills once more, but this time it was a mix of all the pills I could find in the house: both prescription and over-the-counter because I meant business. As before, I wanted to end my life because I felt so emotionally and psychologically maxed out by everything that attended my dad’s transition that any little extra difficulty pushed me over the edge of anxiety and despair. I also felt a powerful need to protect my dad from my pain. To this day, I’m not even sure he knows about this second attempt.
After he met a man and they started a serious relationship, he asked me to lie to this man at our family’s Christmas party and tell him I was a niece. He asked me to pretend to be an orphan in my own family for the sake of keeping his secret. Our relationship became increasingly strained. A year later I was at the hospital for another suicide attempt.
When I became engaged, my dad refused to walk me down the aisle at my wedding because he didn’t want to be recognized as my father by my guests. Eventually, I asked him not to contact me anymore. It has been 5 years since we have spoken.
I’m not insensible to the fact that the above actions don’t represent a complete picture of my father’s character. I’m not insensible to the fact that all of my own unkind and selfish actions listed out in this manner would seem damning. I’m only trying to give a clear picture of my own experience as the child of a transgender person. I found it traumatizing, and it was a time in the world when no one thought about things like this. I was on my own for dealing with it, so to speak. It is my experience that it was something that had to be dealt with.
I wasn’t “woke” then, and I’m not “woke” now. The trauma I felt in connection with my dad’s transition has been deep and long lasting. Just this week, I woke up from a sound sleep in a cold sweat because a memory of my father describing his first “female orgasms” to me when I was 15 bubbled to the surface of my subconscious.
Trans issues are something of a trigger for me. My personal experience makes it difficult for me to feel compassion for trans people in their current attempts to be seen. You’ll notice my continued use of male pronouns, the term “reassignment surgery” instead of “affirmation surgery.” I know that it’s not very tolerant and it’s certainly not progressive, maybe even tone-deaf, but it is the product of my experience.
Trans people aren’t bad people, but my experience with the trans individual I know best was akin to child abuse. I don’t know how else to describe my exposure to such graphic sexual issues so early and often. In addition to the sexual content, the feelings of betrayal and abandonment I associate with my father’s behavior as he navigated his transition leave me feeling jumpy and twitchy every time trans issues come up.
There is no hate here, no agenda. There is only pain, a lot of prayer, and the fervent hope that this pain will one day become something good.