I received this email invitation in my Facebook account the other day, and was reminded of a couple of previous incidents, one with Mara Keisling and one with my local newspaper. I think things are different now, but despite the benefits to the trans*community, I still think family has to come first. Selfish? Overly protective? Maybe.

Hi Joyce,

I’m working for a production company that is producing a documentary for PBS about being an out LGBTQ person in America. It’s going to be a 1-hour national PBS documentary event that will share a layered collection of powerful, compelling and poignant stories of LGBTQ Americans and their families. We’ll be interviewing some celebrities along with typical (and not so typical) Americans who fall along the spectrum. Your story came to mind and I was wondering whether you were interested or comfortable with sharing your story?

The production team has done Emmy Award winning work: check out the link below to learn more about their films and the team I’m working with.

Looking forward to hearing back from you.

My response:

I’m going to have to think about this and confer with my wife. What do you think the odds are of getting any air-time? How specific would the documentary be regarding my workplace, etc? I ask not because of myself, but because Mary Jo and I agreed we’d keep the trans* stuff low-key for a few years for the sake of the kids, who are in Junior High right now. Once they’re out of high school in 5 years, then publicity would be much less of an issue.

Her response:

I think the odds are high for on-air time if you agree to being interviewed and are comfortable sharing your story. I completely understand the decision to be low-key, but we are definitely looking to profile a handful of dynamic individuals who are living extraordinary lives. We’re looking for people who are comfortable discussing their experiences, so again, the chances are high that we’d be looking to discuss workplace/family issues. Up to you, really, and again, completely understandable if this type of thing is a little to “close to home” as far as your desire to maintain the privacy of your family, etc. Not sure when we’ll actually begin filming, but PBS has rolled out a bit of funding and we’re in development right now — I honestly think that you represent ad really key and interesting part of the LGBT community and so you immediately popped into mind when I thought about people I’d like to see represented in this piece. Think about it, and if you’d like to speak further to one of our Senior Producers about further details and possibility of involvement, you can email the producer at xxxx@xxx.xx.

My response:

As much as I’d love to do this, and as much as I agree with you about being a good example of a successful transsexual with a healthy job and family and social life, my hunch is that it’s simply not the right thing to do for my family at this time. I feel a bit selfish as I write this — I realize that I have all sorts of privilege that allows me to say no to you and to put on blinders regarding other trans people who might benefit from seeing the documentary, but I have to go with my gut feeling that it’s unwise to introduce media into a family that has worked through a lot of issues, but that still has far to go, including two boys entering puberty.

I remain happy to help your production company with background material and with other interesting ideas. For example, my local PFLAG chapter has a very progressive approach to trans people in addition to its historically activist stance around parents and friends of lesbian and gay family members. If you ever do a documentary about PFLAG or about supporting diversity in the Bible Belt, our chapter would be a great place to start.

In any event, please accept my apologies and convey my regrets to your producer.

Joyce

Only a few minutes ago, our two kids, Lane (13) and Ezra (11) were at each other’s throats on the first day of Christmas vacation, swinging pecan branches at each other and calling each other retard, stupid, and idiot. After breaking them up and asking them to help me with something, they settled down to their tasks. As I was getting dressed in my room, I heard the sound of playing, of make-believe. Lego spaceships and cries of “oh no, I’m hit” and “check out this cannon” filled the house, and it reminded me of earlier times with smaller kids, maybe toddlers, laughing and singing.

It was a wonderful moment listening to the kids. One of them had on a Halloween wig with tight curls designed to turn you into Napoleon Dynamite, and he took it off to make the other brother wear it, saying, “You wear it — it’s too hot.” And the other boy, not missing a beat, said, “Now you know how Joyce feels.”

They continued playing with Legos, happy, oblivious, just kids, leaving me with a host of swirling feelings.

Nothing is straightforward for me, and the joy I felt at their childhood, their clear empathy with me and my wig, and their total easiness about me and my transition and my name — all of this joy was mixed with a sense of melancholy. I recalled a house filled with small children, a house with a mother who was a woman and a father who was a man, a house populated with normal, ostensibly happy people, and I felt for the thousandth time the sense of guilt I have at having derailed this image, this story, this normalcy, even as I feel a new story being created around a new family. I feel a sadness at becoming “Joyce” more and more and “Dad” less and less, even as I rejoice that the kids have adapted so well, have accepted me as I am.

You will recall the great compromise we hammered out called the “Just Joyce” plan. It has worked so well that I sometimes fear erasure as the cost of family success. It’s a life I can live with, but it also involves negotiating among my past, present, and future selves without emplotting my life as a tragedy, a comedy, a thriller, or any other prefabricated genre, and that’s something I continue trying to figure out.

We went to our friends Andrea and Byron’s house the other night for smoked meats and conversation, and the hosts have 3 kids, ages 9, 4, and 1. The little girl (the 4-year old) had been suspicious of me the past few times we had visited, eying me from behind a pillar, her mother’s legs, or from behind the couch.

This night, however, she and I were best buddies. We talked about dolls, dogs, forts, her baby brother, and the fact that I used to be a boy, but now am a girl. She explained this fact to me multiple times during the night and repeated her observations to her mother (Andrea), to Mary Jo, and to the other guests.

She asked her mother if I could have babies, and her mother answered that I turned into a girl, but didn’t have the necessary girl parts to have a baby.

She came up to me and explained, “This is my dog Maddy — she likes you — but she didn’t like you when you were a boy.”

She asked Mary Jo, “Is Joyce still Lane and Ezra’s daddy? Is she still your husband?” And Mary Jo and Andrea explained, “That’s right, she’s a daddy who’s a girl and a husband who’s a girl.” Further, even though I’m a girl daddy, that doesn’t make me the mom.

At one point in the evening, she summed everything up beautifully and insightfully: “You were a boy and turned into a girl, but I’m just a girl. I didn’t turn into one.” Yes, I told her, most people are like that — they’re simply created as who they are. That’s the story of my life, isn’t it?

The little girl was fine with me and with all of her conclusions. And I think that these observations reveal a process that she must have been undertaking in her mind as she worked to make sense of a daddy who’s now a girl, a process of calling up an image or a statement, and revisiting it until it becomes familiar. I can’t tell what was in her head, of course, but this repetition was evident in her actions and words the other night, deliberate and ritualistic and catechismic and cathartic for both of us. For her, the repetition has apparently made my existence real and valid; for me, her validation, even as it comes from a 4-year-old, signifies to me that my life will eventually balance out and settle down.

Her words illustrate the power of language and the power of repetition, and upon reflection, this process is not unlike what I found myself saying a year ago, initially in disbelief and increasingly with conviction: I’m a transsexual. I’m going to transition. And I distinctly remember how utterly terrifying it was to form those thoughts and the words that accompanied those thoughts the very first time: boiling in my stomach, pounding in my heart, sadness in my head. But over time, I began to realize that the ideas and words weren’t going to kill me, that my situation and its therapy and its consequences had names that I could say, slowly bringing them into possibility while also de-fanging them of their horror.

A few nights ago, the boys began disclosing their anxiety about starting school with a transsexual father; specifically, what will their friends think if/when they find out? Ezra (10) thinks full honesty is the best policy, and is eager to tell everyone that his father changed sex. His argument is that once everything’s open, there are no secrets and there’s no ammo for potential bullies or teasers. If there is no secret, then you don’t have to lie, and all you have to do is be proud. In contrast, Lane (11) wants absolutely no disclosure at all — why upset the balance of things when it’s not necessary, he says.

In order to break the impasse, we talked about specifics of when we all might be called upon to explain our story. In one scenario, I take them to school (or I come to school to bring a forgotten book, or I come for some other normal reason), and upon leaving, someone asks, “who was that?” Ezra said the right answer is, “That’s my dad, Joyce,” and Lane really didn’t even want to consider the possibility of having to explain.

I told them that I’d do whatever they wanted because they’ve been so supportive and loving during my hard times. If I need to be Aunt Joyce for a while, that’s all right with me, I told them. Ezra would have absolutely none of it: “But that’s a lie, Dad — you’re not our aunt.”

“Couldn’t we just pretend for a while,” asked Lane, and Ezra replied with an emphatic NO.

We talked about the range of truth and lies — after all, on the completely honest end of the spectrum, one might answer, “That’s my dad, Joyce, who used to be a man, but changed into a woman.” And on the lying end of the spectrum is “That’s just our van driver, Joyce.” We talked about ways that all four of us could tell the truth without embarrassing anyone, such as my being simply “Joyce” for a while, requiring no further clarification. It’s true, but it withholds the bigger, more embarrassing story for later.

As a way of dealing with two questions at once (“where’s your dad?” and “who’s that?”), we even toyed with “Dad went away and Joyce came to live with us,” but we felt like it would open up more questions than it would answer.

Like “who’s Joyce?”
Babysitter?
Aunt?
Former father?
Cleaning lady?
Random visitor?

Or “Where’s your dad?”
He’s gone
Joyce took over my dad’s body
He’s a woman now
One day, my dad just started turning into Joyce
Dad was abducted by transsexual aliens
Dad turned into Joyce after working with agricultural chemicals
Global warming turned my father into a woman

A principle we agreed on early was that we needed a family plan so that one boy doesn’t feel the other one has torpedoed his social life — and we vowed as a family to stick to the plan for as long as possible so that we’d be on the same team. Otherwise, Lane will feel that Ezra is trying to ruin his social life and Ezra will feel Lane is going to try to make him lie.

We also talked about another scenario in which the boys have to draw a family tree or tell what their father does or something similar. We agreed that they don’t have to disclose the whole truth during these assignments and that we’d talk to the teachers so they’d know what was going on if they assigned such work.

At one point during this big family planning session, I asked them how much they know about their friends’ parents, and they both said they didn’t know anything. “Don’t you think that that’s a pretty typical attitude among your friends, and maybe they won’t know or care about me?”

“Yeah, but this is different.”

“Do you even know that the men and women who pick up your friends at school are actually their moms and dads?”

No, and they admitted they had no idea how many of their friends had lost a parent, how many had same-sex parents, how many parents were abusive or alcoholic or even transsexual, for that matter, but for Lane, this line of logic runs counter to his fear of being made fun of.

Ezra is hugely insightful, and he offered the observation that the kids probably won’t care, but some of their parents might, and we’d learn when we hold birthday parties or sleepovers because we probably have to tell invitees and their parents about me, especially if they know us from before.

If they don’t know us from before, what do we do? What do we do when they ask questions like, “Are you Ezra’s mother?” I’ve learned from wise people on various online discussion boards that you can answer this question without lying, employing something like this: “Ezra is my son,” or “I’m here for Ezra,” and let people think what they think.

What I can’t do is say I’m their mom because a) they have a mom and b) they don’t want me to portray myself as their mother.

They met with their therapist a couple of days ago and were able to work out a compromise, which is, if asked, I’m just Joyce, not “my dad, Joyce”, or “Joyce, who used to be a man,” but Joyce. This is a compromise that’s acceptable to both boys, and it lasts for one year, after which the younger one can clarify that Joyce is his dad.

The boys now feel as if they’re in control of the situation, and this compromise has allowed them to bury their anxiety for a while. Whether this plan will work or not is secondary to the bonding we’ve had in hammering out a compromise and the communication we have had to employ to get our fears out on the table.

The older one is clearly afraid. He thinks his classmates are too immature to get it. I understand the shame and embarrassment, and I’m happy to go along with the plan, but I also asked both boys to consider the possibility that word will get out, so plan B needs to be how are you going to deal with it.

I said they could employ techniques from Kung Fu and just redirect negative energy away from them, saying something like, “Yes, my father changed sex, and I think it’s the coolest thing in the entire world,” which would take a lot of power away from someone, but they don’t really believe it would work. So for now, we’re assuming the plan will work and they will both escape the teasing and shame they assume will follow when their friends learn about my history.

How do I feel? When the boys were crying about having to lie or having to suffer the shame and embarrassment at the hands of their classmates, I felt horribly guilty for having brought this situation into our home, and it’s a guilt that reappears from time to time. There is a line of compromise that maintains my integrity and my family’s health and happiness that’s hard to find sometimes, and in this case, I’m willing to be relatively invisible for a while or to pretend I’m a two-dimensional character in my children’s lives — all for the sake of helping them make it through. I held them when they were born, and have played with them and protected them and taught them what I know about how the world works, and it utterly kills me to feel as if I’m harming them. If I need to lie low for a while or to omit the word “dad” from our public presentation to protect my children, how can I not?

We all know that I’m their father, but for now, the answer to the question of “Who am I?” — the answer that both solves a thorny problem and also catches a little in my throat — is “Just Joyce.”

For much of the spring, I had one particular coming-out event lurking in the back of my mind as something that was important not only to me but also to my kids. Living out in the country as we do, it’s important for our children to have their nearby friends. Only a few hundred yards away is the lively household of Tomás and Blanca Rapido, our neighbors with 6 children (2 older girls, 2 boys the same ages as our boys, and 2 little girls). For the past couple of years, there has been a steady flow of kids from one house to the other, sometimes all of them over here in our swimming pool or jumping on our trampoline, sometimes everyone over at the Rapido house. It has been a wonderfully free situation.

When it came time to tell the neighbors about what was shortly to be completely evident (dress, makeup, and so on, things the Rapido children would no doubt notice), I wrote them a letter, enclosed a copy of She’s Not There, and put the package in their mailbox so as to give them time to think things over. The summer break had just begun and everyone was going here and there, but I learned from my children that Mrs. Rapido wanted Mr. Rapido to speak to me about this issue.

OK, thought I — it’s not a write-off, and it holds the promise of communication and understanding. While we were waiting for Tomás to come back from a business trip, Lane and Ezra called the Rapido’s a couple of times to invite them over to jump on the trampoline or to go swimming, but they always said they couldn’t. When Tomás got home, he came over and we spoke for a couple of hours, during which time he explained that they didn’t have any framework for understanding my situation, and that they didn’t want to expose their children to the harsh realities of the world. They had spoken to them about my situation, so it wasn’t that the fact of my situation was abhorrent, but rather the exposure to it was troubling. He said several times that they just didn’t know anything about this condition, but that they would try to learn, which is promising.

“I understand,” I explained. “You’ve got to do what’s best for your children, and I respect your choices that you make for your own children. What I’m worried about, however, is the subtle, unspoken message that my own children will receive, slowly, inexorably, as they visit your house freely, but realize that your children can’t visit our house because their father is a monster.”

He assured me that they were being very respectful of my situation and that they would never even suggest such a thing, which I believe completely, but the very visible fact of the matter is that the flow of children between neighboring houses has been altered, and my children know that it means something.

I’m in no position to dictate to other parents how they should raise their children or what they should think about me — I believe they have every right to find me monstrous or abhorrent and to curse my name under their breaths if they so choose. But because my children enjoy their company (and for the record, I have always enjoyed the Rapido children’s company, so playful and fun and respectful), I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. I can’t demand acceptance and I can’t demand that their kids come over and play at our house unless I promise to hide or leave town. I don’t want to slink away because this is my house and my life and I’m proud of what I’ve done, but I don’t want to harm my children’s relationships with their friends.

So for the moment, the only workable situation is for me to watch my children daily run over to play at the Rapido household while I clean the pool for swimmers who no longer visit and pace the empty house wondering if I’ve lost my children to more wholesome people than I. Picture of Mister RogersThe veneer of reality is almost the same as it used to be — happy children running around in the country, carefree and playful — but the sadness and distress that lies just below that veneer bleeds through and creates big, ugly stains that I imagine growing to touch on all aspects of my children’s lives — especially their relationships with their friends (not only the Rapido’s, but all their other friends) in the coming school year.

Patience, I tell myself. Patience and prudence are much better than impulsiveness and rashness. Deep breaths and positive images of love and acceptance and a fruitful future.

Lane and Ezra went to their first session with their therapist, Cheryl Oates. I did not go, but Mary Jo did, and it was predictably slow getting started. The boys aren’t sure they need to talk to anyone about their feelings and have no reason to trust Cheryl. However, Mary Jo and I have told them that there may be times when it’ll be really good to be able to tell someone something that’s bothering them and know that it’s going to remain just between them and Cheryl.

We were debriefing afterwards over Mexican food, and Ezra said, “Well, I did have something I needed to tell the therapist.” Pause, while we waited for deep thoughts. “I told her that Joyce farts a lot more than George.” Roaring laughter, and apparently the therapy session also laughed at this, which broke the tension.

[We won't get into the factual issues around gas, but suffice to say that I believe I am just the same as I always was in this regard.]

The boys reported that Cheryl did get them to admit that the whole situation is pretty weird, and we talked about what to call me (they still want to use “dad,” but are aware of the possible need for something more discreet in the event they don’t want to explain my situation to their friends, and are thinking that “Aunt Joyce” might work).

My children may be new to the trans* business, but they have the typical children’s ability to cut directly to the heart of things when they ask questions. A couple of days ago, during a family meeting, Ezra cleared his throat and said, “It seems to me that there’s only one thing that really matters in all of this.” We paused and waited for his 10-year-old wisdom. “Dad? Are you happier now?”

Yes, I said. Happier and more whole and more excited about my life than ever before.

“There you have it,” he said to the table, looking around like a defense attorney who’s just plunged a knife into the DA’s case with a secret witness. “That’s all that matters.”

It was Lane’s turn next, and he asked, “How do you know you need to do this? I mean, what if it’s just a phase? Or what if it’s just gas?” (We have a lot of gas jokes at this age.) I used the occasion to explain that this wasn’t something that just came to me recently, that I’ve known ever since I was their age and younger, that the feelings gradually got stronger and stronger. “There’s no test, though, if that’s what you’re asking,” I told him. “If someone feels strongly like this, then they’re probably transgendered.”

Seizing on a logical opening, Ezra then ended the family meeting with this question, harder than “why is the sky blue?” and “what’s sex?” He asked, “If you knew all your life, why did you wait so long to do something about it?” I explained that it’s really embarrassing to feel like this sometimes (especially before you come to terms with it) and many people like me hope and pray that it goes away. And sometimes it does … for a while. But it never, ever, goes away.

“OK,” he cross-examined, “Then if it was inevitable, why didn’t you tell us earlier?” I looked at them both, and at Mary Jo sitting at the table and told them the truth:

“I was afraid you’d quit loving me.”

Hugs all around and reassurances on both sides of the issue. Promises to keep communication going. I love this family.

These questions, these answers — they are core to this process, and as long as the boys continue to ask probing and thoughtful questions like these, and as long as I answer honestly (even if it feels awfully vulnerable), I feel very positive about this transition and this family.

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