One of the first emails I received when I launched this site included a recommendation for Christine Benvenuto’s ‘Sex Changes’. It’s wonderful, and definitely recommended for children of transitioners. It’s a biographical account of Benvenuto’s experience of being a happy married woman with children whose husband one day, out of the blue, announces that he wants to change his gender. She captures powerfully the sense of bewilderment and grief felt not just by herself but also by her children. For daughters of male transitioners, there are passages about when ‘Tracey’ the father starts involving his daughter in his crossdressing – sharing clothes and make up in a way that makes her feel both excited and somehow violated – that may strike a chord.
It certainly made me reflect upon how my own development as a woman was affected by my father’s crossdressing. As an adult I feel as if I’ve missed something. I have never had a very good dress sense and feel very ambiguous about clothing. I have never really seen the importance of clothes and it really wasn’t until the 2000s, when a friend took me aside and threw out half my wardrobe and very kindly gave me some advice, that I started to wear anything that suited me. Some of that was about my eating disorder and an ambivalence towards my own body. Part of that also seems to be the importance of femininity in my father’s life. I resist the costume, I suppose, and instead clomp about in sensible shoes and comfortable tops. I would be interested to hear if any other daughters of transitioners have felt their father’s influence on their relationship with clothes, their body, and their own femininity.
At one point in the book, a teacher at a parent’s evening at one of Benevenuto’s schools says she admires her because she chooses to get up in the morning and go through the business of raising children. Lots of people choose not to cope, to just give up. Later, Benvenuto is in her car and has an epiphany: she has to choose to live. This is more than waking up, showering, making breakfast, etc. This is an explicit decision to pursue joy, to have a life, rather than simply an existence.
Growing up with a narcissistic father, I understand that you can live with the idea that this is a good enough life. That you live to fulfil the needs of the narcissist. That this is the best that you can hope for or that you deserve. I put up with a lot of bad friendships and bad jobs because of that idea! For me, the epiphany came from a cancer diagnosis in 2015. Suddenly, my trajectory of work and career etc. came to a crashing halt as I was diagnosed with Stage 3c womb cancer. Surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy followed. As treatment ground on, day after day, and I dealt with sickness and weakness, I realised too that you have to do more than wake up every day. You have to choose to live and find the blessing and joy in every day you are alive. Looking back, I understand now the strength I had as a 16-year-old to get up and face the world every day. How my eating disorder was part of my survival and resistance. In defiance of my father’s desire to control me I carved out something that was just mine.
My trans father, needless to say, barely speaks to me these days, and has not once asked how I am, even though he knows I have had cancer. If anything, I am resigned to it. Being what he is, how could my father behave in any other way? If a narcissist suddenly showed empathy and caring, you would wonder what they wanted. In Benevenuto’s book, ‘Tracey’ drifts out of his children’s lives. He has travel and new friends and doesn’t really have the time or money any more. Yes, it’s devastating. It does feel like being orphaned. But in time you learn to live with grief, you move on, and hopefully you find yourself choosing to live.
A very distressing story was sent to me recently, which resonated with new revelations I had had about my own father. I have been in touch with my father’s second wife for a couple of years and gave her a call recently when her aunt died. She told me that when she was in hospital having miscarried twins (and haemorraghing and very ill) he refused to visit. My heart breaks when I imagine her going through that experience and having not an iota of empathy from my father. I was just a child at the time and had no idea. There is a lot to say about narcissism and also the relationship of the trans father towards women and reproduction.
Here’s the story, about a prominent trans author who has tried to quash his wife’s allegations of abuse during their marriage.
What seems really wrong here is that this author seems to have dodged responsibility for appalling behaviour by being trans. Here is his treatment of his wife:
“When my son was born in 2014, I had severe pre-eclampsia and injuries from giving birth. I had to have major reconstructive surgery. I was extremely weak and in severe pain … Meredith was extremely abusive to me during this time, calling me a ‘feeding station, not a parent’ because breastfeeding my son was one of the only things I could do, and because I was asking [Meredith] to help with things like diapers,’ Russo also alleges. During this same time … [he] would tell her to commit suicide. [Meredith] kept mocking me when I was in pain, and told me I was so useless as a parent I should just kill myself.”
It’s difficult to live with the realisation that your father can be so cruel. Mine said similarly cruel things to my mother and his second wife. And to me! The cruelty in Benevenuto’s book is also shocking.
Another piece of writing you might find interesting is this thoughtful and very personal piece from a daughter of a male transitioner, with experiences I think a lot of daughters will find familiar:
In an ideal parental situation, there are clear boundaries about what is shared about parents’ sexuality. Sometimes it’s not shared, but when it is it happens when the child becomes an adult. For me – and for this writer – this all became blurred and boundaries were crossed. Far too much information is given by fathers who have lost sight of appropriate behaviour around children. These are traumatic experiences. The writer has made her blog private – which wasn’t the case when I first read it – but this particular entry has been widely shared.
A further interesting piece of writing is an article in the New York Times from the daughter of a transitioner. This is by far the most mainstream article from this perspective that I have found so far.
Here, the daughter, Danielle Marian Smith, reflects on the issue of trust. This made me reflect on my own inability to trust in relationships. If my father could turn loving and then cold at the drop of a hat, how could I tell if anyone else would do it? Having convinced two women that he was a happy heterosexual with no gender issues, how could I tell that the person I loved wouldn’t be like my father? It’s something so ingrained in me it hadn’t occurred that it would be an issue for other children of transitioners!
Smith ends by saying that things may inevitably change, whether it’s ‘our expectations, our beliefs, even our genders,’ but she still wants to ‘choose togetherness despite the unknown.’ Like Christine Benevnuto, who found a new partner and new happiness, Danielle and the other women featured here have made a positive choice to move beyond betrayal.