For distraction, I have been watching the Netflix series Away. It is about a crew of astronauts who embark on a 3-year trip to Mars. The commander is played by Hillary Swank, who I first fell in love with in the movie Boys Don’t Cry, which came out in 1999 about the time I was coming out.
The episode I watched tonight was the “Christmas” episode. I have to admit I cried through much of it. There is so much loss by the crew and their families. But I was struck most by Swank’s character and also by Misha, the Russian cosmonaut who lost his relationship with his daughter because he felt compelled to prioritize “space” over her. And Swank is feeling great angst about the effect the long absence will have on her young teenage daughter during some critical years. And all the crew realize that there is a chance they will never return to Earth and their families.
I cried because I can see myself and my daughter reflected in Hillary and Misha and their daughters. No matter how much Misha tries to bridge the gap between himself and his daughter, she will not totally forgive him for leaving her for space. And Swank is thinking much the same: did her zeal for space result in a permanent barrier between her and her daughter.
Now I am no astronaut. But I made a decision 20-something years ago to leave my old life in search of one I thought I should have, regardless of the impact on my family. In many ways, that was selfish.
Today, I am not at peace with that decision. I and my family lost a lot because of it. Though I do feel that time has sanded away some of the rough edges with our relationship, I feel so very much alone. In all these 20+ years, I have never felt any attraction to anyone, nothing approaching what I felt for my Ex. Until I moved south to be closer to my daughter, I could count on my hands the number of hugs I had in those 20 years.
I don’t know if Swank will be able to return to her family or not. But I do know I feel I am lost in space. I unhooked my tether and I have floated away.
When your family rejects you because you are trans, is it possible to replace them with a new family of friends and supporters who accept you for who you are?
My sense is an emphatic no. no matter how connected you become to the new family, the pain of not being accepted and included by your birth family never goes away. I firmly believe that those who claim you can replace your birth family are rationalizing and failing to admit that the pain is still there.
I knew I was “different” from the time I was a small child. But I learned that being different growing up in the early 50’s resulted in a lot of pain, physical and emotional pain. So, I learned to sublimate my true self and get on with life.
And I was successful if you gauge success by being able to fit in and do quite well on most metrics. I had a good job, was successful professionally, had a great traditional family, at least until I could no longer deny who I really was.
Then, all that disappeared very quickly. When I came out to my wife in the late 1990’s, there was no successful role model I could show her to try to convince her to stick with our marriage. So, it collapsed and that led to my career collapsing as well.
There is no doubt, the loss of my job and financial stability hurt my wife and daughter immensely. Still, I had been the primary provider for much of our marriage and our lifestyle was considered lower upper class at the worse.
After our marriage ended, my ex became extremely angry toward me and that resulted in my relationship with my daughter degrading quickly. For the 20 years since our divorce, my ex has effectively blocked me from having a meaningful relationship with my daughter. And now with my granddaughter as well. I will not bore you with the details, but I can count the number of times I have been with my granddaughter on my fingers. And the number of times I have been physically near my daughter these twenty years averages less than twice per year.
Last year, my daughter and son-in-law broke up and divorced. Because my son-in-law has been the bridge between my daughter and myself, I was shaken severely. I thought I would lose all connection with my daughter and granddaughter. So I decided to move down to Florida to get closer in the hope that I would be fortunate enough to be “available” when an opportunity arose.
Sadly, it is not working out that way. In the two months I have been living just a few miles away, I have seen my daughter exactly twice. I have not seen my granddaughter at all, save on Facebook.
But I see on Facebook that my ex and her husband are often with them, especially for those important childhood events.
Because my ex still has so much hate for me, I will never be able to develop a true relationship with my granddaughter at long as my ex is in the picture. And I do hope she is around a long time for my daughter’s sake.
So, I wonder what I accomplished by moving to a place where I know no one. Instead of lessening the pain of not being included, being physically close has eliminated my ability to rationalize and excuse because I was “so far away.”
Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way
But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all
Moons and Junes and ferries wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way
But now it’s just another show
You leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away
I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know love at all
Tears and fears and feeling proud,
To say “I love you” right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I’ve looked at life that way
But now old friends they’re acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day.
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all
Songwriters: Joni Mitchell
Both Sides Now lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Crazy Crow Music / Siquomb Music Publishing
When you make your decision to transition
Twenty-two years ago, over Easter weekend, I came out to my daughter as a transwoman. It was 1997 and she was in graduate school at Auburn University. She was a “traditional” student, meaning she had begun her college career right after high school, so she was just 22 years old. And we had always had a good relationship – father/daughter, not as close as she was with her mother, of course, but very close I felt.
Image: Shiva Smyth/Pexels [https://www.pexels.com/photo/closeup-photography-of-stacked-stones-1051449/
So, I was optimistic that she would handle the news well. She was studying fashion merchandising which is not the most conservative major. And, at first, things went well. She quickly blurted out that two of her classmates wore women’s clothes and she was OK with that.
I let that pass, thinking there would be time later to help her understand the difference between transwomen and crossdressers/drag queens. We had walked away from her apartment where her mother waited, a mother not at all happy her husband of almost 30 years was changing. On the stroll back, my daughter laughed, a bit nervously, but she continued an upbeat chatter, as she was wont to do, all the way back to her apartment.
Where the shit hit the fan.
Mother was not happy that daughter was not upset with father. She felt daughter should be angry with father. Very angry. So my ex began the effort that continues to this day some 22 years later to drive and keep a wedge between father and daughter.
And that effort has been successful if you gauge it by family Christmases. I soon learned that mother and daughter were going to Atlanta for that Christmas, where my wife’s family lived. And I was not invited to come along.
At first, the pain of no family Christmas was not bad. I had friends and my therapist in New Orleans, so I quickly made reservations at the Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter and succeeded in distracting myself that Christmas. My therapist had arranged a Christmas Eve party at the home of one of her trans clients, telling me “Remember, a family does not have to be blood.”
And so that first Christmas as an out transwoman. I was able to present myself as my true self to accepting friends. I actually enjoyed myself, thinking as I drank several glasses of wine that I did not have to put up with my pompous brother-in-law for the first time in many years.
But the witching hour arrived, and I returned to the hotel room alone, where I struggled to get to sleep, and awoke not the least bit refreshed.
Just as I am now this Christmas evening. Alone. My 22nd Christmas without my daughter.
Yes, I tried mightily to build a new family composed of just the folks who loved me the way I felt I needed to be. And some years, I was able to have a Christmas where I felt loved and accepted for the person I am.
But these “families” could never replace my own family. My daughter, especially, and now her daughter, my granddaughter, I miss terribly during the holidays. And as I get older and begin to sense the end of my life approaching, the pain of not being with them gets worse each year. In part, that may be because my daughter and I have worked hard to reconcile, and I do get to spend time with her during the year. For too many years, I had little contact with her. I am so very grateful for the time I do get with her.
Still, I know now that holidays, particularly Christmas, I will spend away from her. My ex, who I will always love, still has too much hate and anger toward me to allow me to share in any family holidays. Because I do not want to put any more pressure on my daughter, I rarely, if ever mention the holidays to her. I know her mother would make her life miserable if my daughter tried to include me. So, I try to steel myself and divert my attention by traveling during the holidays to the extent my budget allows.
I am sharing these thoughts now because I want folks who are considering transitioning to be aware that this pain of losing your family during the holidays may never go away. No matter how hard you try, if you have love for your ex, your child, their children, the holidays will likely be painful.
Yes, spend time with people who love you the way you are meant to be. But, please do not convince yourself that you can totally erase the pain by being with a new family, no matter what your therapist or LGBTQ+ friends tell you.
Make the decision to transition fully knowing the benefits and the downside. Things are better for non-traditional folks these days, but many transfolk still lose their families when they transition. And some, perhaps many, still lose their careers, financial stability, and friends.
Especially as I get older, I wonder if I made the right decision. At first, the tradeoff seemed fair, though I immediately lost the many tailwinds I had unknowingly benefited from my whole life. I was alive and surviving, and eventually clawed my way back to some semblance of “normal” life.
But now, the balance between 22 years of lost family holidays on top of the other losses, against my gains from transitioning, is in question. Knowing now the pain of the last 22 years of Christmas without my family, I am not sure I would make the same decision.
I failed another test today. A test of conscience.
As I parked my car outside my condo after walking at the park, I saw my downstairs neighbor getting in his car. He drives for Uber and Lyft to supplement his income, so he comes and goes a lot. I walked over and told him about my car getting “robbed” the night before. When I got in my car that morning, I found my glove box open and everything in it on the floor. The box in the center console was also open and the old wallet I keep in there for change for tolls and visits to the fast food joints was gone, as were my iPhone earphones and charging cable. I told him my son-in-law’s car had been robbed in our lot as well a few months ago. In both cases, we had forgotten to lock our doors.
My neighbor’s reaction was immediate. “It’s those folks in Knollwood Apartments down the street,” he said. “Are you sure,” I asked. “I lived in Knollwood for a couple of years and it seems like a nice place.”
‘Not anymore.” He said. “It’s gone Section 8!”
My neighbor is a middle-aged white man from Louisiana. I knew immediately he meant the problem was the “blacks” living on government assistance. I wanted to say something to show I did not agree with him that black folks were necessarily the robbers. That needing government housing assistance did not equate with being black. Or being a criminal.
But I said nothing, not wanting to create a problem with my neighbor. A neighbor who seems to accept me for who I am, even though I do not exactly pass very well anymore. I am androgynous at best on a good day.
But I, too, am an older white person. I have no doubt he would not be so accepting if I were not white.
And so, I am afraid of rocking the boat, here in deep red Alabama. I need to find my voice again.
[For a worthwhile read about why “Section 8” came to be a racially-charged label, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/06/15/how-section-8-became-a-racial-slur/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.11930ad53bb1]
“YOU’RE THE MAN DAWN!! LETS GOOO!! YOU DON’T KNOW HOW LONG I’VE BEEN TRYING TO FIGURE THIS OUT! THANKS FOR THE DETAILED INSTRUCTIONS DUDE!!”
That is a recent comment on one of the how-to videos I make for my students. Although my name is Dawn and I have a photo of myself on my YouTube channel, my masculine voice tips the male-female basket of gender sticks to the blue side every time.
My sense of gender performance is that we all are a mix of traditional male and female attributes – my basket of gender sticks. The metaphor is of a basket containing sticks, some pink and some blue with others of indeterminate color. If you have enough pinkish sticks, the basket tips toward the feminine side and you are perceived as a woman. If there are too many blue sticks, you are perceived as a man.
This is a potentially life-altering balance for trans folk, particularly for transwomen like myself.
When I was first trying to accept my real self, I felt compelled to have as many pink sticks as possible so that I was “read” as a woman and not a man.
My problem is that I was given a traditional male body – 6 feet tall, broad shoulders, large feet and hands, balding scalp, and a masculine voice.
With a lot of effort and good help, I was able to address most of these fairly successfully, and my basket began to reliably tip toward the female side.
But I was not so lucky with my voice. Although I spent many hours with professional voice coaches, I was never able to get a feminine voice. No matter how hard I tried, I am invariably read as male over the phone and at drive-throughs.
But not so when I am face-to-face with most people. My voice is noticed, but I have enough pink sticks to tip my basket to “woman.”
I have lived in Mobile, Alabama, for about 40 years. My favorite department store before I transitioned is Dillard’s, and it is still where I prefer to shop for my clothes. Soon after I transitioned, I met a sales clerk in the women’s area named Dorothy and we became friendly. Whenever I was in Dillard’s, I looked for Dorothy to help me and ring up my purchases. When she was working with me, I never had any problems.
About 10 years ago, I came in one day when Dorothy was off, though I didn’t know it at first. I found some clothes I wanted to try on and just walked to the dressing rooms by her station, found an empty room, and closed the door. The replacement clerk evidently saw me enter and came over to “claim” me so she would get the sale. She knocked on my door and asked if someone was helping me. I was startled not to hear Dorothy and answered, “Dorothy normally helps me.”
Immediately, I heard a raised voice, “You are in the women’s dressing room and you must leave now!” I panicked and did not respond while I rapidly tried to get my own clothes on. Before I could get completely dressed, I heard a male voice say, “Get this door open or I will force my way in!”
I opened the door and there was a uniformed policeman there. He looked at me, stammered, and said, “I’m sorry, Ma’am, I was told a man was in this dressing room.” He backed off and the sales lady began to apologize as well and saying she would be glad to assist me. But I was too unnerved, and I rushed out of the store to my car and drove home.
After a few months, I finally found my way back to Dillard’s, found Dorothy, and continued to shop there. But a few years ago, Dorothy retired, and I did not go back.
Last year, I was awarded the Distinguished Faculty award by my school. I was asked to come up to Albany to accept the award at graduation and I needed some clothes. With some apprehension, I went back to Dillard’s, given that nice clothes shopping options are relatively few in Mobile. Trump had been elected, North Carolina’s Bathroom Bill had been passed, and awareness of trans women was heightened, especially in the South.
Compounding the problem, Dillard’s had cut back on staffing and there were very few sales clerks on duty on the floor I needed. I found some clothes I wanted to try on, but could not find a salesperson to help me, so I ventured into the dressing area. Sitting outside the door, was an older white male, glaring at me as I walked by. I presumed his wife was in one of the dressing rooms, and I almost did not go in, as he made me feel uncomfortable. But I needed the clothes.
And within minutes, there was a replay of the scene from 10 years back. A knock at my door asking if I needed help, my answering I had found some things I wanted to buy, and a shrill voice: “Get out of here, freak! I have called security!”
I scramble to get dressed and just made it as a heavy male voice demanded I open the door. I opened the door and the policeman asked for my identification. I gave him my driver’s license, which thankfully has an “F” and he studied it for a minute or so. Then, he apologized, “Sorry, Ma’am, the fellow outside thought you were a crossdresser or something, and he didn’t want to have his wife attacked.”
I nodded and didn’t say anything. I just walked out of the store as quickly as I could, shaken and determined to leave Mobile and this awful red state as soon as I could.
Somehow a Tweet about Wigwam Villages showed up in my feed today. I have no idea why. For those of you who are too young or not lucky enough to live in Birmingham back in the 50’s, you may have no clue what I am talking about.
After we got our first car in 1949, my parents liked to go on Sunday drives around Birmingham. Because we lived in the west end of town, West End, to be exact, we were closer to downtown Bessemer than we were to downtown Birmingham. So, many of our Sunday drives took us that way. We would pile in the car – Momma drove since my dad did not know how – Dean and I in the back seat. We drove over to Lomb Avenue and followed it Southeast until we hit Highway 11. Bessemer Road as it was known then, a main drag if there ever was one. We would drive south past the coke plants and steel mills that so stunk up our air, through Bessemer toward Tuscaloosa, though I cannot remember ever going all the way there.
There was a restaurant downtown Bessemer owned by a friend of my father. We did not eat out often and when we did it would be a restaurant where we could get family-style meals at a cheap price. I cannot recall the name of that restaurant now, and I am sure it ceased to exist long ago.
But the highlight of the trip for Dean and I was the Wigwam motor hotel just about midway between the Alabama Fairgrounds and downtown Bessemer. You could not miss it. 15 silver teepees surrounding an even larger central teepee containing the restaurant. The Wigwam Village, as it was called, opened in 1940, the fifth of seven eventually built across the country. My understanding is it was torn down in 1964 when I was in my first year at the Academy.
Dean and I loved to argue with my father about the name. You see, Dean and I watched Hop-along Cassidy on our new TV and we knew that the “wigwams” were really teepees. Wigwams, we tried to convince my father, were short and squatty, not tall and pointed. But he never listened to us and just said, “Then why did the rich man who built Wigwam Village call them wigwams?”
Unfortunately, our arguing with him meant he would never agree to stop the car and let us explore them. So, we drove by, always missing our chance to go in a real teepee.
That is until one cold December day in 1951. My birthday fell on a Sunday that year and I guess my father decided to give in to our pleas because of that when we drove by the teepees on the way to Bessemer. Mother pulled into the gravel parking lot and parked by the big restaurant teepee.
“How would you like to eat dinner here?” he said. We were ecstatic and could not wait to get out of the car and run inside. I honestly cannot remember what we had to eat. More than likely, we had vegetable plates because they were usually the cheapest dinners on the menu. We gobbled our food down and ran around the restaurant looking at the sloping walls. Mom talked to the manager and he let us into one of the wigwam cabins. I cannot remember much about the inside – just a bed and a bathroom. But you could look up at the top of the teepee and see out because there was a window up there, just down a bit from the peak.
The photo below was taken Dec 6, 1951, just four days after we were there.
I know it is a trite phrase – unconditional love. So easy to throw into a conversation and everyone’s head nods to say they agree with how important it is.
But I think sometimes we do not realize just how much our family and friends depend on that unconditional love.
I think everyone, at least most of us, has days or times when we doubt our self-worth. Family stresses, job stresses, worry about the future can sneak in and undermine our feeling of being worthy of love.
I have been somewhat on the fringe of my daughter’s life these last 20 years, but my love for her has never wavered. Even during the darkest times when I felt my X had so wedged her hate between my daughter and me that we went far too long without communicating or seeing one another, I never stopped loving my daughter.
During those 20 years, my daughter has matured, married a wonderful person, grown in so many ways and now become a mother to a beautiful girl. Along the way, she has grown her professional life and is the primary “breadwinner” in her family. I know that my son-in-law stepped up and became the primary caregiver to my granddaughter, something that many men are reluctant to do. He grew into a great father and my daughter into a great mother. And I know that the situation that developed has put stressors on both my daughter and son-in-law as well as my granddaughter. But they do what they have to do, and I do not doubt their love for each other.
I still stand at the fringe, looking in as much as I can from 500 miles away.
I wish my own situation were such that I could lavish money on them and make it possible for them to not have financial pressures impinging on the way they live. But that is not to be.
So, all I can do is to try to communicate my unconditional love for them all. No matter what happens. No matter if changes occur which upend their lives due to things beyond their control. No matter if the changes come because they must initiate them to move toward new goals and be who they need to be, as I had to do 20 years ago.
I love them all unconditionally. My daughter, my son-in-law, my granddaughter. They are all intricately woven into my being. No matter what happens, I will love them unconditionally until my last breath.
I am still in shock over the presidential election, as I know many are. One of the things I cannot forgive our new president is his unwillingness to serve our country in uniform during the Vietnam War. Last year, I wrote a post about six of my Academy roommates and friends who were lost in that war [here]. Previously, I had written about my first Academy roommate, Jim Steadman, [here]. As a result of writing that post about Jim, I found Jim’s place on the Virtual Vietnam Memorial wall [here] and ‘placed’ that photo of Jim and I studying as lower classmen at the Academy on the virtual wall. To my surprise, I received an email from his daughter, Karin Mae, asking if I were the daughter or sister of Don, because as everyone knows, girls were not allowed at the Academy back in the ’60s. I summoned some courage and simply told Karin the truth, expecting to be rejected by her as I have been by most of my former classmates over my being trans. But that was not the case with Karin. She welcomed me into her story and updated me on the continuing search for Jim, including providing me links to the Owl 08 sites where the search continues today. The image below (borrowed from OWL 08) is of Jim’s grandson, Steady, finding Jim’s name on the real Wall.
This is what service to your country looks like, Mr. President-elect.
Golden Boys forever, Jim.
I have been very down these last 12 months. I really did not see much point in “keeping on keeping on.” But like so many of us, I am deeply troubled by the results of yesterday’s election. I worry about my daughter’s family – what does their future look like now? And I am especially worried about my granddaughter, Ellie, who is just 27 months old. So I am going to reinvigorate myself and rededicate myself to not leave this world until I do something positive to make the world a bit better for my little Ellie. I don’t know exactly what I will or can do. But I think I begin with a realistic assessment of what we have to deal with because of the president-elect.
An American Tragedy – The New Yorker