A Void Wider Than Gender
Here's what my life has been like since my father came out as trans.
"For all intents and purposes, Cait, I identify as a woman."
We were sitting around the barbecue on old flimsy lawn chairs perched on the blacktop of my long driveway, the one my grandpa poured with my dad when they built this house in the mid 90s. I was home from Brooklyn, visiting my parents in the sleepy wine-country town in Oregon where I grew up. I had been fired the week before and hoped home would be a solace. I wasn't even in Oregon to visit my parents—I'd come back for the wedding of my high school best friend. I'd come to my hometown for one day so my parents could meet my new boyfriend, the first serious one I'd had. They'd taken us from winery to winery, eager to impress my guest. He was there, inside, passed out on the couch from too much wine. I had drunk enough to be nearly blacked out myself.
My mother and sister already knew. My dad hadn't told me or my brothers yet since we lived farther away on the East Coast and were rarely home. We'd spent the evening barbecuing, like we always did, when my dad came out to me as transgender. It was the worst moment of my life so far.
I've been winding my anger up inside like an old pocket watch ever since. I was angry that in 25 years I'd never known the true self of someone I loved so much. I was angry, too, that my dad wasn't him, my father, but a specter; an idea of a man, a summation of guesses, an empty mask. I refused to fully accept the assertion, even as "This is why" tiles began falling into place in my memory, spelling out the truth like a demented Scrabble game. "This is why dad cries all the time." "This is why dad is suicidal and constantly depressed." "This is why dad has disordered eating." "This is why my expectations about men are always tragically off." A woman for a father? The irony of it is almost Shakespearean: the hyper-conservative man of the church, secretly wrestling with fluidity of gender, a truth that flew in the face of those beliefs. What kind of person can make a whole self up? What was it like to feel like you had to?
My father is a former Christian preacher, worship leader, and staunchly conservative blog reader. Especially after 9/11, my dad would come straight home from work and read political updates on conservative sites until my bedtime. My parents' beat-up van still has a Bush/Cheney bumper sticker on it. The man who raised me was abusive, manipulative, and selfish, plagued by rampant insecurities and narcissism. There was no disagreeing with my father's political or religious views. Ever. There was no sparing of the proverbial rod of punishment in our house either. Actually, belts were more common than rods. As an adult, when I make a mistake my first reaction is still a rush of fear that I will be punished somehow. My father's punishments were physically abusive, but I think the emotional abuse hurt much more. I struggle daily with fear that I will be belittled or mocked for my opinions, especially dissenting ones. But I love my dad so much. I did whatever I could to never disappoint my father. Anything that fell outside of the ridiculously narrow spectrum of appropriate sexuality was a sin, so I dutifully attended purity retreats as a pre-teen. I remember meekly signing my commitment to abstain from sex of any kind until marriage. I didn't think I even had a choice, really.
After college, I finally began to think for myself about many of the beliefs my parents held, but it's hard to shake the commandments of childhood. My gut instinct when it comes to expressing my sexuality, or even supporting liberal political views, is still guilt. Sometimes, I get jealous of my friends who grew up with the freedom to explore their own beliefs. I was denied that. I felt a hyper-specific, steely anger that my dad had been grappling internally with aspects of these doctrines all along, even while foisting them on me and my siblings. Even while I felt I could never tell my dad any of my own real feelings about issues like this. I already supported LGBT people before my dad came out. (Currently, my parents attend a church that supports the LGBT community. Many factions of Christianity, too, are self-correcting to embrace all gender identities.)
Though it's been almost two years since that night, I often still feel trapped there. No, I'm not OK, but thank you for asking. It will not be fine. The formative man in my life was, in actuality, a woman. My dad isn't here anymore. I miss that man so much sometimes I don't want to be here either. I wonder what she will be like, even as she emerges. You're losing someone. You're gaining someone. It's messy. There's no right or wrong way to feel. Supporters of the transgender community, very well-meaning allies, will tell me I'm misgendering my father—the most fundamental masculine figure in my life for nearly 30 years—if I slip and say he instead of she. I have the right to take time, to hurt, and work through this. Sometimes I still say he. It will never be hateful; it's only habit. There's a difference between swapping out pronouns for trans public figures and grappling with the gender-flipped identity of your most prominent male figure. I say she whenever I remember to. I forget most often when I'm talking to my siblings. We have a shared memory of the man who raised us.
I support transgender rights. I miss my dad. I still feel angry.
I support my father's transition, but I am still grieving. Not only do I not have a dad now, in reality, I never had one. Though I am peripheral to the transgender identity, I'm not peripheral to the consequences of being raised by someone who hates themselves. I grew up thinking it was normal to despise your own body. I was not immune to the intense dysphoria that was passed down, imbued in me by a person trapped between two genders. What I cannot get back is the chance to grow up without a suicidal streak that suggested this life was not enough—nothing would ever be enough. That void is deep and wide, wider than gender. I am not ready for this strange woman to come into my heart and replace my dad. I am not ready to admit that they are one and the same.
There's no road map for what I should do next. Mostly, I feel alone. I grieve. I am questioning nearly 30 years of memories. Are those years lost or just murky? Why didn't I figure it out? This endless parsing of the past is its own kind of grief. I thought if I tried hard enough I could write or say something that would make this anger go away. I thought if I went through enough drafts of my story I'd land on the one that paints me as the Ideal Daughter struggling with this awkward, bungled burden. No one in this essay is a hero. It's just me in my weird universe, watching my father slip away, a strange woman looming on the horizon.
There's a difference between endorsing something in an abstract sense and having it presented to you unflinchingly. And as much as you want the people you love the most to be happy, it doesn't make it easier to reconcile. I support transgender rights. I miss my dad. I still feel angry. Those are the three things I feel deepest on most days, and they're not contradictory. This essay is only one moment, a Polaroid maybe, but I desperately need this snapshot to make it through. Maybe you need it too.
"You still have two parents who love you; you should feel lucky."
I kept the knowledge secret for months, even from my own brothers, as I was requested to do. My father couldn't bear to tell his sons, thinking their devastation would stem from another place more directly related to their conceptions of manhood. I still urged their inclusion. How could our family move on and accept this new gender identity without full disclosure? Splintering us into factions felt unfair. Later, over Christmas, they learned of the situation in calm, quiet, and sober family conversations. I envied them for this.
After they knew, I finally told a friend. Then, emboldened, I told another. The second one was the doozy. I fell to pieces at how others knowing made it real—my life reflected in empathetic eyes that actually understood the cost of this.
Since I know you'll ask, my mother is staying. People seem to think that is a noble deed. There's no essay on how much I want my mother to leave. I wish so much that she'd go discover what kind of life she might really like to have, like my father finally will. If you asked a different question, I could tell you how I feel this decision to be her final prison: another sacrifice she's made in a long line of things given up to make her husband happy, to make us kids happy. She'd always put herself last while fielding my dad's mood swings, raising four kids, and working night jobs so we could pay our mortgage. Is she doing this out of duty, or is it what she really wants? I'm not sure she's even asked herself that.
It is a grief too big to be private, but that does not make it feel public.
I want to tell you about my father getting her ID checked at the store by bitter, leering clerks. I want to tell you about my dad claiming to understand the crushing weight of the patriarchy, something this person had previously enforced in my life for decades. I'm just not sure that's true. Her understanding of those gendered forces will always be different from mine. For instance, I do not understand the vitriol she will face for the rest of her life. I do not know the full scope of the dysphoria she was born with and bore for 50 years. But I watched my dad relegate me, my sister, and my mother to strictly traditional gender roles for my entire life. We did the dishes while the boys watched sports. We weren't allowed to date, but my brothers could. Could she ever understand the contradictions that she dictated? I thought it was a man I resented all along. Imagine my surprise.
No one really wants to cope with the tangled web of pronouns, psychology, and taboo that a transgender father brings along with it. It's hard work. It's cumbersome. Even if they do care, there's no script for their terrified sympathy. They especially do not want to hear me describe how I felt that first night (not again) sobbing in my car, my body wracked with tears until I puked, gazing up at the looming mess of this. Of all the things I'd believed and supported because my father wanted me to, this was the one that felt like too much. A final straw. It felt like the one thing that all those other convictions had been a distraction from or a cover for.
My father's transition took a toll on my relationship too. The night my dad came out, I dragged my boyfriend to the car and drove him down the deserted back road where I'd always taken my small-town pain. I couldn't stop crying as I told him the news. He sat bleary-eyed and drunk beside me, already backing away: I should reach out to my siblings instead of him, he said. I remember weeks down the line, realizing he had no real grasp of the fundamental nature of the transgender experience. Still, it's not like he didn't try. I remember the nights when he'd wake up to my crying and comfort me, hold me until he fell back asleep. I would not fall asleep. I would watch him and think about how much I loved him, how very unlikely it was that our fledgling relationship could stand all this. We started drifting. I was unable to be any sort of partner to him. I was a walking wound. He began spending more time at the office, at the bar, anywhere but with me, perpetually at home, glued to my mascara-blackened pillow. I still blame my dad for thrusting a psychological earthquake into my relationship. I saw it as another casualty of my father's war with herself. I will never get my first love back: an exacting price from an exacting process.
While my world unspooled and the cornerstone of my family unit disintegrated, my friends defected, too. They opted for the less emotional—less dramatic, they'll say—choice in the breakup. I didn't know how to deal with losing my first love, not on top of coping with my dad's transition, but mostly because of it. I still don't. You could say it is going poorly. People began lying so they didn't have to deal with me. The ultimate, deafening conclusion is that my pain doesn't matter. Not to the people I thought loved me, and certainly not to society. Former friends still insist on greeting me cheerily when I see them at social functions, but months ago, when I was barely holding on, they denied my desperate requests for a drink, a hug, a text. Eventually, I learned to stop asking. Small pockets of people knowing about the situation had other consequences. My boundaries were often violated. Most hurtful was the uninvited confidant who pretended I shared the situation with them when I hadn't. Probably a well-intentioned effort at empathy, but loaded with the unsettling, disorienting tell that those who do know discussed this behind your back with third parties. Of course they did. It is a grief too big to be private, but that does not make it feel public.
This is an issue people don't want to be involved in, not really. People don't know how to respond because the emphasis in these situations is never on the family as a whole but on the individual, the "hero." I must be a relentless ally, simply because everyone else, detached from nearly three decades of family dynamics, perceives that to be the only proper response. Do I want my father to be happy? You're goddamn right I do. The slightest smirk, slur, or sideways glance toward anyone in any stage of transition induces a hurricane of rage in the very center of my body. When it recedes, I am still there, in the center of what remains a lonely and devastated place.
We are in the midst of a breakthrough moment for transgender identity. In 2013, Laverne Cox portrayed a transgender woman on the incredibly popular show Orange Is the New Black. It was one of the show's major plot lines for the first season. It was also the first time I had really considered the trans identity. Cox is a beautiful and strong trans woman whom I admire for her intersectionality and capacity for love. She was on the cover of Time magazine at the end of last year, keeping her chin up. She is a force of good in the world. Chelsea Manning is a US soldier who entered the public eye for disclosing military secrets, and after these charges revealed her gender identity as a woman, her experience shed light on the difficult, tenuous relationship trans and LGBT people have with our military community. Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! publicly transitioned and then wrote a powerful album about it with the no-holds-barred title Transgender Dysphoria Blues. You have no idea how many enthusiastic straight people and trans allies have asked me if I've watched Transparent yet. For the record, I have not. I'm proud that a daughter shared her story, but why cast a cis man to portray a trans woman? Difficult plot lines usually aren't as moving or poignant if you're currently living them.
Last fall, the suicide of a young trans teen named Leelah Alcorn became a flashpoint for religious disavowal of transgender existence. Leelah's suicide note is heartbreaking, but what's worse, it's merely one life we've lost to the insidious force of suicide that claims countless trans lives every year. We lose an actual countless number of trans and gender-nonconforming lives because so many of their deaths go unreported. Many are homeless. Many are teens. Few are as beautiful as Laverne Cox or Caitlyn Jenner. We have a long way to go.
Jenner's Vanity Fair cover story was, in its own way, a triumph. I applaud her. Many people are happy to send a few positive tweets when someone with every resource imaginable comes out in a glamorous cover shoot. But the transition process is not all "be free now pretty bird" tweets, though the strength it took for Kendall Jenner to write that floors me. Transitioning does not occur in the space of two-hour interviews or a smoldering magazine cover. That is what no one gets. No one seems to really consider the toll that hiding your true identity might take on the individual.
Gender dysphoria manifests itself in certain ways long before a person begins their transition. My father was not well. Her suicidal thoughts, blue-black depression, and eating disorders haunted my childhood. There is no space on a Vanity Fair cover for my abuse. Do you know how hard it is to even admit the word abuse? The shame it carries is outweighed only by my fear of how deeply that word will cut. There's no easy way to explain how much more I need to say this then, to voice what I endured at the hands of this secret. I do not need you to tell me how you are awed by Caitlyn's beauty. I do not find your memes funny. So many of these "advocates" would probably laugh and squirm if they saw me standing on the street next to my father. Is there room anywhere in the world for my disgust at your flimsy, myopic support?
Personally, watching the spectacle of Caitlyn's Jenner's transition while still privately coping with my own father's process is the hardest thing yet. My name itself is caught up in the relentless Kardashian current. Jenner and I now share a name—I'm Caitlin with an "i," she's Caitlyn with a "y." Someone else cheerily wrote about sharing this name for the New York Times, but it has been a hard coincidence for me. Worse than what feels like disingenuous support is the certain subset of people who won't stop hacking Caitlyn's Vanity Fair cover to bits, sneering and simpering even if no hate speech is technically uttered. As they say her name it rings in my ears as mine. It rings in my ears as hate speech against my father. I left work early the day the cover broke in a state of near-collapse. Thankfully, I have sensitive and caring bosses who support me. I am one of the lucky ones. Learn. Be kind. That is how you support transgender people and those of us who love them, who are hurt by careless, smirking asides and salacious gossip. Their surgeries are not headlines. Their bodies are not punchlines.
Now that my name is caught up in part of the Kardashian's narrative, it gets harder to distinguish between me and them. That Kim, Khloé, and Kourtney—and Kylie and Kendall, especially—might feel this same anger, hurt, and confusion is comforting. That they broadcasted none of it was helpful for everyone but me and other children of transgender parents. God fucking bless Khloé for being the only one who was honest about her anger when Caitlyn wasn't candid with them about the pace or nature of her transition. That is the only thing I saw in those episodes that I identified with. Maybe that, and a shot of Kendall curled up on the couch, her face an impassive mask, looking slowly and quietly around the room at her father and her sisters.
Peripherally, that Kanye West is one of Caitlyn's strongest proponents in this narrative is incredibly comforting. He is my favorite creative being on the planet. That Kanye has pondered the same situation I am facing and come down firmly in absolute support of Caitlyn is a soothing joy, unlike anything I've felt thus far. If Kanye loves Caitlyn, he would love my dad. This love is a counterweight to the hate and fear my father will face for the rest of her life. This is how your support for transgender people matters; it expands outward in waves.
"What if you allow yourself to call it abuse, then what? It doesn't change anything, it doesn't undo anything, doesn't make you a better or worse person, nor dad."
What will happen if I speak? Will my anger and grief be my sin? I have every right to love this person and grieve my father's vaporization at the same time. I can challenge the abuse I faced without vilifying a new woman, wobbly-kneed in identity. There are layers of hurt here the Jenner-Kardashian saga makes no attempt to capture. Then again, that anyone should begrudge the Jenner children their privacy on this matter infuriates me. There is no winning. Perhaps my grief is not in the best interest of the cause. Some days I am too exhausted to care about the cause.
I need a venue for telling my father I love her, but things have to change beyond gender for this relationship to be repaired. It's not all different immediately. She has a new name, different hair, but the same patterns exist even under those new clothes. The removal of a mask also lets me finally see the mask and the psyche behind it.
My father is transitioning, and I am trying to grasp the decades of emotional and physical abuse that stemmed from her severe depression and buried dysphoria. This is the part that is much harder to cope with than any concept of gender. Her abusive patterns developed long before I was born, when her own mother belittled and destroyed her emotional health, grieving the loss of an infant son born before this child. It is OK that I am struggling to accept my father's new identity, especially since her fight against it has been hurting me my whole life.
Throughout it all, there were bursts of the human she wished to be—pure, sensitive, even understanding—but only within certain parameters. Her imagination is endless, her joy can be infectious, and sometimes I'm overwhelmed by her compassion for others. But it can all turn to anger and hatefulness so quickly. It's hard to feel safe around a person like that. It's hard to heal around a person like that. We haven't spoken in months, but that does not mean I don't love my father. Transgender people are not making a choice. I have watched this person struggle for decades to be happy. I have seen her balk at her failure to do so, one part bewildered and one part simply wearied of the attempts. Now, finally, I see her. She seems happy.
Supporting the transgender people in your life does not mean pretending they are perfect, flawless beings.
My mom asked me to write this essay anonymously or not at all. But I am not anonymous. I am Caitlin. I have lived with anonymous pain and grief for two years. She said she does not think it is anyone's business. That cannot be the case as we move through the current political climate and this volatile revolution in the way transgender people are represented in society. Today, I am coming out too: My father is living openly as a transgender woman. I want to live openly as her daughter. This is not something I am ashamed of or a secret I have to keep hidden away. I am tired of listening to people's disrespectful, ignorant opinions and saying nothing. I want people to know why this issue carries specific urgency for me. I am proud to be part of the greater trans community of supporters and allies, even as I continue to struggle with how those things might manifest themselves. If no one speaks about this experience, whether it is transgender people themselves or their families, how will others learn? It is everyone's business to educate themselves and to make this conversation happen at a national and global level.
Supporting the transgender people in your life does not mean pretending they are perfect, flawless beings. They are not heroes or angels. They are humans. The utter loss of experience—a childhood, an entire life as their affirmed gender identity—is heartbreaking for transgender people. Many try to deny them their true existence or any existence at all. They are crushed and coerced into fragile shells of experience they do not wish to embody. No one understands what it feels like to be so hurt by this person, to be devastated by your own grief, and still wish you had the capability to give them everything they want. I see now that most of my father's decisions as a parent were guided by fear. Now that I know the root of that terror was to be discovered or found out, I don't feel as betrayed by it. I can redirect some of my anger toward the world that made her feel the need to stay hidden. I see stories of five-year-old children allowed to embrace their true gender identities, and I mourn for the little girl my father never got to be.
I cry for all the dresses and makeup and jewelry my dad lost in that first half a century on earth. Then I cry because I realize I'll never see my dad again in any of the slacks and dress shirts I so carefully helped pick out at Nordstrom. And then, sometimes, I find a way to ruefully laugh at how much my dad always loved shopping more than anyone else in our family besides me. If you can't find the humor in a situation like this, you won't be able to survive it. The moments when I can laugh at the absurdity of gender as a concept at all are the best—the moments when I wish I could throw her a coming-out party instead of dwelling in grief. These moments are few and far between in the darkness of my grief—desolate stars—but they are there. They exist. This is exactly how grief works. This is exactly how healing works and life works. Everything is dark, and then a tiny happiness emerges out of nowhere when you thought it never possibly could.
I am writing this because I found nothing like it. I am writing something that didn't exist for me. It is the hardest thing I have ever written. For those reading this who are in similar circumstances, know this: Even if it seems like no one stands by you, reaches out, or wants to hear you as a valid and unique human, you can make it through. At least I have to keep believing you can. Even if it means you lose people you love along the way. This is an essay to say that your weird, horrible, secret life is good and worth having. This is an essay for the ones who convinced me of that fact—the ones who refused to stop loving me no matter how far toward dark and destructive my grief took me. Here's an essay to thank the one who held me while I sobbed over a man who wouldn't—or wasn't big enough—to hold me through this. For the one who looked me dead in the eye and told me to stop being a slob and get my apartment together for my own good. Or the one who made me dinner once a week and listened to me leech pain when I couldn't bear to hold it all alone. This is for my friend who made me feel brave and supported enough to publish my thoughts somewhere besides Tumblr. For my sister, who carried my father's secret and supported her many months before I knew and is the strongest woman I know. For my brother, who proves that good men do exist. And ever for her, my dad, whom I love despite, because, and through it all—even if we are never perfect.
If you feel like there is no one else, that is not true. Those who don't support you through transition or gender exploration or abuse recovery or therapy are the only thing not worth having in your life. Your life is worth having. Your life is precious and rare. This experience has taught you deep things about the world others will never know—that is where beauty lives. You don't have to hide. Even when you face negativity and hate, your freedom will make you feel more powerful than any persecution. You can stay standing. I will stand next to you. Compassion will find you; maybe we will find it together. Keep going. Gender is a social construct, and social constructs fade. They always have. Your happiness will not. In all your various states and non-gorgeous attempts at happiness, you are beautiful to me. It took my everything to write this. Take your everything and write more.
If my voice exists, then so does yours.
Caitlin White is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter.
Thanks to Natalie, Zach, Alex and Tyler, Mary von Aue, Claire Lobenfeld, Lauren Nostro, Andriana Albert, Flora Theden, Nitsuh Abebe, Deanie Mapel, Eric Ditzian, Dan Montalto, Jia Tolentino, Scott Lapatine, Michael Nelson, Gabriela Tully Claymore, Mom and Dad, and Drew Millard.
[Correction: An earlier version of this article used the term "dysmorphia," rather than "dysphoria." We regret the error.]