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.”