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OutServe Magazine | April 17, 2014

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TransParent: Families, Gender, and Transition

TransParent: Families, Gender, and Transition
Brynn Tannehill

By Brynn Tannehill

During the election cycle it was alleged that Mitt Romney, while governor of Massachusetts, told a lesbian couple with kids, “I didn’t know you people had families.” Yes, everyone who doesn’t live under a rock these days knows that LGB people have families. They can marry in some states. They sometimes have their own biological kids. They sometimes have foster kids… or adopted ones.

Sometimes though, I still get the feeling that most people look at trans folks and their children and think, “Wow, I didn’t know those people had families.” And while there may have been some truth to this in the past, today, this understanding couldn’t be further from reality.

Through the 1980’s, the medical community’s standard recommendation was for transitioning people to just disappear. Leave their families, their children and move away to become a new person and never see them again. It was judged to be less traumatic for everyone this way. Sometimes treatment would even be withheld if the transitioner didn’t comply. Transsexuals were expected to “go stealth,” abandoning their past, whether they wanted to or not. It usually wouldn’t have mattered if they tried to stay: very few spouses or partners would choose to stay in a relationship whose dynamics were being changed so dramatically without their consent.

When I was forced to confront my gender dysphoria in 2010, Jennifer Boylan was the only well known role model for intact families with a transgender parent. While studies about LGB parents seem to be more and more common (and contentious), I have never seen a study on how the children of intact families with a transgender parent fare.

Not a lot to go on.

As I branched out and met more people, I began to notice a pattern. Increasingly, transgender people no longer have to give up their families, spouses and children. Instead, they, together, navigate the transition and the challenges that come with it. The younger the generation, the more common this seems. It isn’t just true for trans women; I have met trans men who have navigated gender dysphoria, transition, spouses and children.

All of this left me grappling with my own questions. Most of them still don’t have any clear answers. Did my children lose a father? Was I ever a father to begin with, or just someone trying to play the role of a hyper-masculinized stereotype? Does being the biological father count? Does knowing how zone defense technicals are called in the NBA, how to throw a spiral, and the drop parameters of a Mk. 50 ASW torpedo make you a male role model?

Then again, did they gain a female role model in their lives? Janis, my spouse, rightly points out that my daughters have far more practice at being female in society than I do. I also can’t personally relate in terms of some biological functions, such as menstruation.

What did they get back in return, though? I would like to think they received better parent than they lost, albeit one who cannot teach them all about being a particular gender. Logically, my children lost a father figure, and got back a parent who doesn’t fit either gender role in a stereotypical way.

“Ethan” is a female-to-male trans friend of mine who is just now leaving the military after many years of service. He has twin six year old daughters who are biologically his. Ethan started transition when they were only three. His daughters have been calling him Dad ever since his voice began to change. He has had work his family around his military career, though, given he has always had a female partner, and was thus seen by society at large as a lesbian. Before the end of DADT he couldn’t take his partner to military functions or introduce her. Now, even after DADT is gone, Ethan still feels he has to be wary. He doesn’t take his children anywhere near his work, colleagues, or the commissary, for fear of being outed if they call him “Daddy.”

I talked with another, younger, female-to-male trans friend who recently left the military. Certain that he wants to have a family someday, he worries about how you deal with issues surrounding children, spouses. He even wonders whether it is a good idea for trans people to have kids. “I’m terrified about having my family someday and never having the answers. Taking my son to the locker room. Changing to go swimming. Explaining to my kids that I’m a special kind of boy. What if they tell their friends? What if their friends’ parents find out and I hurt their social life?” he asked me.

I don’t know. Science and research don’t help us here, unless you make the (probably faulty) assumption that the effects of having same sex parents are exactly the same as having a trans parent and a cis parent. There are so few role models. There certainly isn’t a “For Dummies” book on the topic. All I could tell him was that there are no right and wrong answers. Just your own.

I can’t know that my children would be better off with a “normal” family, or even a single parent family. There isn’t real research either way. I continually work on being a better parent, listen to Janis’ feedback, and work with her as a team. In the end though, that is true for every parent. We don’t know what we’re doing when we start; there is no one size fits all solution to parenting or marriage. All any of us can do is our best, and hope for the same.