Being the child of a transgender parent

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Being the child of a transgender parent

Shannon Lundgren and her father take a farewell photos at the end of one of their infrequent visits in August 1991.

Shannon Lundgren and her father take a farewell photos at the end of one of their infrequent visits in August 1991.

Shannon Lundgren

Shannon Lundgren and her father take a farewell photos at the end of one of their infrequent visits in August 1991.

Shannon Lundgren

Shannon Lundgren

Shannon Lundgren and her father take a farewell photos at the end of one of their infrequent visits in August 1991.

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From an early age, I knew that my parents were keeping a secret from me. Even though I was too young to understand the full context of their words, I understood the tense conversations that stopped as soon as I toddled into a room. I certainly understood the loud voices that came later, hurling abuse at each other, even if I didn’t quite grasp the meaning of the words. The exact words are blessedly lost to the fog of time.

When I was three years old, my parents informed me that while they both loved me very much, they no longer loved each other. As such, they were getting a divorce. The news upset me for reasons even I couldn’t name or comprehend.

Toddlers have notoriously short memory spans, however. They wake up, they live lives segmented by little rituals: meal time, snack time, nap time, story time, television time. Bedtime was the reset button that erased most of the previous day’s memories away. I was no different in this regard. My father faded from my life and I barely noticed. Every once in a while – days, weeks or months, I’ll never know – my father would pop back into my life and whisk me off for a magical time.

The visits grew further and further apart. Eventually, my visitation settled into an rotation of two to three days approximately every six months. My mother made it clear that she had full custody of me and that these visits were at her pleasure. I didn’t think to ask why she had full custody of me, or what the options to full custody were.

Around the age of seven or eight, I began to ask about my father sometimes. I don’t remember the questions or the answers, but I remember getting the sense that I wasn’t being told the full truth. Unsatisfied with the answers, I grimly resolved to gather information by any means necessary.

At my mother’s family get-togethers, they would eventually send me, the only child in the family, to bed or out to play so they could have adult conversation.

I became adept at creeping into the hallway to sit at the top of the stairs and listening to the conversation going on downstairs. Their conversations filtered up the wooden stairs like an echo chamber. Over time, I learned which spots in the floor creaked. I learned to sit perfectly still and take tiny, even, shallow breaths, because the stairwell echo chamber worked both ways.

My persistence paid off, and finally I began to hear snippets of conversation directly relevant to my interests. I overheard a conversation about the time my father got drunk and passed out in the bathtub wearing a face full of my mother’s makeup. Another time, I overheard a conversation about the time my father got drunk and passed out wearing my mother’s clothes.

The news didn’t really surprise me. Substance abuse issues ran in my mother’s family, so even as a small child, I understood that being drunk made adults do stupid things. Besides, I was raised on late 80’s feminism.

“You’re a girl and you can do anything a boy can do and do it better,” my mother told me determinedly one day.

It had never crossed my mind that wasn’t the case, but I accepted this universal truth for no other reason than the fact that my mother imparted it to me.

But, if girls could do anything boys could do, didn’t that mean that boys could do anything a girl could do? Clearly, that meant that boys could also wear dresses and makeup. It’s not like wearing makeup or dresses hurt anyone.

I began to fish for information from family members on both sides of the family by dropping hints about things I overheard. At first, no one would confirm or deny the rumors. I asked deliberately incendiary questions designed to provoke a reaction or to try to trick them into giving me more information. But, I was a child and the adults were able to deftly sidestep my ploys.

Through the course of my childhood, several events which seemed unrelated to me at the time occurred. My mother, on the other hand, surely must have correlated these events and jumped to some conclusions which likely terrified her.

First, after my first day of kindergarten, I refused to wear dresses ever again. Initially, this was because I slid down the playground’s metal slide on a hot summer’s day. I was traumatized by the feel of the scorching metal on my tender back side. My mother refused to accept my new style and coerced me into wearing dresses on a few memorable occasions. I double-downed on my refusal to wear dresses, but she ultimately prevailed. Our relationship was irreparably harmed.

Second, at some point in the second or third grade, I decided that I was tired of wearing pink. One day, I looked at every stitch of clothing I had and couldn’t find anything that didn’t have pink on it somewhere. My room was pink. Nearly every accessory I had was pink. I craved variety and begged my mother to stop buying me pink things. She continued to buy me pink items until I asked my beloved stepfather to intercede on my behalf. My mother compromised by buying fewer pink clothes. I felt ignored.

Third, in the mid 90’s, when the Atlanta Braves were routinely making it to playoffs and the World Series, I became enchanted with baseball. I watched every game. David Justice, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Chipper Jones were my heroes. I repeatedly begged my mother to let me put a Braves poster in my room.

“You’re a girl, Shannon!” my mother yelled at me in frustration during one fight. “Be a girl!”

I stared at her in bewilderment and broke down into tears. If girls and boys could all do the same things, why was it a problem if I loved the Braves? Several months later, for Christmas, my mother hung a framed poster featuring my heroes in my room. I still remember her tentative, nervous smile. It didn’t make sense to me, but I didn’t care. I won one battle.

At the time, I never understood why any of these things were a big deal.

As I grew up, I continued to make many choices that could be interpreted as gender-nonconforming to people who put stock in such things. I took jobs in male-dominated career fields; the military, emergency medicine, forklift operator and truck driver. I also continued to hear whispered allegations regarding my father’s fashion choices.

My relationship with my father was never great, his absenteeism being only one reason. I was very angry for a long time about my father not being around. My father eventually remarried, had my halfsister, then divorced. My half-sister was the only reason I stayed in touch with my father.

During one visit, shortly after my father and stepmother divorced, my father came out to me as transgender over beers one night. I took the news with aplomb. It wasn’t a shock to me. In a lot of ways, I felt like I had been waiting my entire life to hear this news. I felt vindicated. The truth was finally in the open.

I peppered my father with questions. Was he transsexual? No, my father preferred the term transperson. Did my father have a name for his female identity? Yes. Did this make my dad gay? No, my father insisted, he still liked women. Many years later, my father revised that statement, deciding to identify as gay. How did my dad know he was a she?

“My first memory is of having my hair cut and it just felt wrong,” my father said to me.

My father had two questions for me. First, she asked me whether or not I was okay with her trans-ness. I was.

The second question my dad asked me was if I too, was struggling with my gender identity.

“I thought about it once or twice, but no,” I said.

“Oh,” my dad said. “You always kind of seemed butch.”

I shrugged and we ended the conversation on that note.

After the visit ended, my father emailed me with a few book recommendations about coming to terms with having a transgender parent. I never read a single one. I didn’t need to. The great question from my childhood – what was everyone hiding from me – was finally answered. I came to terms with having a transgender parent a solid decade before anyone ever told me I had one.

Many times through the years, my dad continued to ask me if I was ok with her being transgender. I tried to reassure my father every way I could imagine. Finally, one day, I gave up in exasperation.

“Do you want me to not be ok with it?” I demanded. “I don’t know what you want from me. I can be not ok with it if that’s what you want.”

My father lapsed into silence and never asked that question again.

I was ok with my father’s transness because on some level, I always knew it. This was compounded by the fact that I rarely saw my father as a child and we didn’t have much of a relationship. Since I never got to know my father while she was living as a man, I never mourned the passing of my father’s male identity.

However, I can’t help but wonder what toll my father’s trans-ness took on my relationship with my mother. As I look back, I recall all of the fights about the color pink, dresses and my interests and question whether or not my relationship with my mother would have been less tumultuous if she weren’t constantly trying to force me into a gender identity I neither wanted nor needed. She lacked the vocabulary to talk to me about transgender issues. Surely, she feared that being transgender was a genetic issue. I suppose all she could do was stand by and try to berate me into making different decisions. For this and many other reasons, I was estranged from my mother when she died, so I will never know.

I will always wonder.

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