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.