I've always felt awkward with my dad. I wasn't like other sons; I was feminine, introverted, and often stumbled in my relationships with men. It was easy for me to get along with him when I was little, but as I grew older, it felt more laborious for us to connect as father and son.
When I was in fifth grade, kids at school started calling me a faggot. I asked my brother what it meant, and that's when I learned that I was gay. My peers knew before I did, because my way of walking, talking, and dressing gave me away. It was at this point in my childhood that I began to change from a generally happy person to an adolescent struggling with bullying and a deepening sense of depression.
I kept everything to myself because I was ashamed, but my parents didn't balk when I told them I had joined our school's Gay Straight Alliance, and they were happy to let me go to my first Gay Pride parade when I was 13. I never came out to them officially, but they clearly accepted me.
My dad wasn't ashamed to go to the mall with me to see a movie during the holidays—even though I was wearing high-heeled boots and a floor-length, vintage fur coat. (My brother had bought it for me for Christmas.) I was a teenage cross dresser, and the men in my family defended me and offered me unconditional acceptance. The outside world, however, was less generous. One interaction stands out in my mind: When I was 14, a little girl asked me whether I was a boy or a girl. Without thinking, I responded that I was a girl. She shouted, "No you're not!" and ran away. Instances like that were commonplace, but their frequency didn't diminish their cruelty.
When I was a junior in high school, I dropped out. I moved away from home as soon as I could; I lived on my own in the town where I grew up when I was 17. It wasn't to get away from my family—I just needed to be on my own. A year later, I packed my life into my mother's SUV, and she drove me to New York City. I remember standing nervously in the kitchen, back at our family home, telling my father that I was going to move to New York. I was scared, uncertain of whether or not he would be angry; I didn't have any money and, although I'd gotten my GED, I didn't have any plans to pursue higher education.
But my dad hugged me, and he told me that he supported me—in fact, he said he found my self-certainty inspiring. Maybe he didn't love the idea of his young son heading off to the largest metropolis in the US, but I guess he knew I had to go. I'd been dreaming of the city since I was little, instinctively understanding that I belonged there.
He told me that he loved me.
As soon as I left home, I became increasingly distant with my family. In New York, I could disappear every night; I vanished in bars, at parties, and in my dark apartment. I tried to numb myself in different ways, and I never shared anything about my psychological health with my family.
When I was 22 years old I had lived in New York for four years—all of my adult life. I came home a few times: for Christmas, and for my brother's wedding. But other than that, I was far away from my family, and I was far away from myself. After years of denial and self-medicating the psychological problems that I was suffering with, my high-octane coming of age came to an abrupt, brutal stop.
I spent years denying who I really am. During that time, I tried to become the image of what I believed a man should be. I worked out to make my body muscular, I tried to deepen my flamboyant voice, and I shamefully collected, then discarded, women's clothing. I had forgotten about that cross-dressing teenager who knew herself so well.
But after some of my friends helped me to start living a healthier life, I started being more honest with myself, and gentler. I slowly stopped forcing myself to try and be a man. At 22, I finally understood that I am transgender. All of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in my life miraculously collapsed like dominoes, and I gained a level of clarity that I hadn't had since I was a kid. It had taken a decade, but I was finally ready to face myself.
I called my mom and my siblings. They were immensely supportive and encouraging, and that gave me confidence, but I was still scared to call my dad. Of course, I knew he would accept me; he always had. But I was his son, and I was embarrassed by myself. I couldn't predict what his reaction would be. He answered the phone and I told him: I'm transgender. I explained that I was going to transition, to live my life as a woman.
He told me that he loved me and then he said something that I will never forget: "I have no expectations for the person that you are supposed to be." I started to cry, but I don't know if he could tell. Those words have stayed with me, and I return to them often, whenever I feel old wounds opening again. I had tried to be a man my entire life, and knowing that my dad didn't expect that of me—that he loved me no matter what—made me feel confident in myself, and helped me realize I had absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. LGBT kids need parents like him. Without that, we're so much more likely to suffer in life.
I see my dad once or twice a year, and I try to call, but I'm not great at keeping in touch. There are so many memories that I have of our earlier relationship. I remember watching Star Wars with him night after night—it's his favorite film saga. I can still hear him singing Bob Dylan on Saturday mornings when I was young, strumming on his acoustic guitar. Our lives have changed, my whole family has moved apart, but we're still together.
I could recall countless moments with my dad that gave me confidence in myself, or describe our relationship. But one memory stands out as especially significant for both of us: One day, about six months after I transitioned, I got a letter from him in the mail. It was addressed to Diana. He told me he was proud of me, but I'd heard that before. However, for the first time in my life, my dad was calling me his daughter.