Out of the Ordinary: Essays on Growing Up with Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Parents, edited by Noelle Howey and Ellen Samuels. St. Martin’s Press, ISBN 0-31224489-4 (paper).
First published in Triple Echo v. 3 no. 2, 2002
This collection of essays written by children of gay, lesbian and trans parents often reads like a collection of short stories upon a similar theme. It’s interesting reading because it demonstrates the diversity of queer families; and yet, despite this diversity, it is soon obvious that there are certain invariables in most if not all the stories. These invariables read like a list of symptoms passed on from their parents: secrecy, guilt, deception, feeling alone, and difficulty understanding their parents’ identities. The children of transsexuals also speak often of loss and of a yearning for the way the parent used to be.
Unfortunately, knowing that these reactions are typical does not make them any easier to address. Each parent and each child has a different personality and how they resolve this issue of being different in a world with little sympathy for difference flows directly from the type of person they are. Not all the stories end up with happy endings, but the reason for that is not what one might expect. It’s clear that how the parent views him or herself makes a significant difference upon the child. It strikes me as rather sad that, say, a trans person who is not strong enough to feel good about him or herself would pass this disease onto their children. “The sins of the father…” as the old saying goes.
Still, the emotional depth of some of these stories suggests that the child can rise above the unwelcome situation in which they find themselves. Stefan Lynch, who grew up with a lesbian mother and a gay father, was burdened by the fear of violence and rejection while growing up in Toronto in the early 1970s. His solution, like that of pretty well all the children of queer parents, was to keep quiet about his family. And yet, “the years I’ve spent living with my very-closeted mother have taught me that the shame of the closet is much worse than the openness of my dad’s life, even if the act of being honest made us vulnerable to violence.” It’s unfortunate that his mother couldn’t embrace this lesson, but growing up in an even more repressive era she had internalized her oppression so deeply that it was no easy matter overcoming it. As one of the other contributors wrote about his lesbian mother, “her ability to provide emotional reassurance to me was limited.”
Not all of the children were so sympathetic to their mothers’ or fathers’ plight. Laurie Cicotello, whose father Dana became a woman through surgery, punished her father for the changes she was putting her through. One of the innovations trans people have introduced to society is the pairing of pronouns with words that don’t normally go together. The title of Laurie’s story is “She’ll Always Be My Daddy”.
In public we became adept at blowing pronouns. Today I still slip up sometimes and call Dana “he” or “him”; but back then we did it on purpose, to show Dana that we still thought of her as a man, a husband, and a father, not this strange new woman who wore frilly, fancy sweatsuits and pink lipstick and who spoke in an artificial-sounding falsetto.
If Laurie sounds a little cruel, you might spare a little sympathy for her. When the entire family went to see a therapist, the therapist explained to her that her father was going through a form of puberty much like her own, “except that it was more important for his mental health than it was for mine.” Insensitive stuff like that is bound to cause resentment. Some of the other advice the therapist gave them suggests perhaps she was a little under qualified for this type of therapy. She “believed that families shouldn’t stay together when one partner comes out as transsexual” and yet not only did they stay together, they flourished. Laurie’s story ends with the entire family up on the podium of the 1997 Denver PrideFest Rally, Dana holding her wife and Laurie by the hand, and “telling the cheering crowd: ‘Colorado Springs, I’ve got your family values, right here.'”
Ultimately, despite the hard feelings and the resentment over their changed circumstances, the children with strong personalities prevail and learn to reconfigure their attachment to their mother or father. Since strength of character often comes with maturity, it is not surprising that adolescents often have the greatest difficulties adjusting. There is an essay by Morgan Green, fifteen year old daughter of trans activist James Green, that is superficially accepting of her dad’s male identity, but which suggests a continuing unease with his life (James Green was living in a lesbian relationship with Morgan’s mother.)
I usually refuse to go to these events because, in all honesty, I’m really pretty bored with transsexual things. In addition, I often feel uncomfortable when my dad gets publicity because I don’t feel like he is treated with enough respect from the media…. Dad seems to be proud of the articles written about him, or any transsexual for that matter, but I think most of them are sensationalistic, using his life for shock value. At times, I really can’t understand why my dad is so obsessed with his own transsexuality.
Morgan’s opinion of the. media is undoubtedly correct, but that’s the unfortunate lot of all trans people. Her greatest difficulty now, it seems, is that she has not yet overcome the thin skin so typical of adolescence.
Of the twenty-one essays, only five are about having a trans parent. Nevertheless, it’s a worthwhile collection for the trans library. One of the best essays, in fact, is “Smile and Say Nothing”, about having a lesbian mother. It captures with aching familiarity the isolation of growing up with a queer parent, the fear of violence and rejection, and the pervasiveness of the rule of gender conformity. Yet it is also filled with the wisdom gained from being an outsider.
But the constant awareness that the world outside was our enemy took its toll. My mother clearly suffered stress from keeping her identity secret. She could sometimes be harsh, cold, and impatient, as could Veronica, engaged in similar struggles. There’s no way to prevent the anxiety of deception from seeping into a family’s daily life.
As for me, I suffered knowing that I was considered somehow different and wrong, though I had done nothing to merit this. I became depressed, angry, and frustrated. I saw how other children seemed to live by the exclamation point – “Give me!” “I want!” – while I lived by the question mark- “Why don’t people like me?” “What have I done?”
Out of the Ordinary was a 2001 finalist for the Lamda Literary Awards, Transgender Category. Considering that over eleven of the essays are about having a lesbian mother, this seems not just puzzling, but a little patronizing. Still, a trans parent trying to reach his or her children would be wise to put it on his or her reading list.