Never mind, have a Pride t-shirt! (Reviewing ‘My Trans Parent’ by Heather Bryant)

It’s been a revelation to read Heather Bryant’s ‘My Trans Parent’, finally hearing people discuss having similar experiences to mine. Several key areas are discussed in the book. Feelings of resentment, love, anger and grief are explored. Nuances and complications are addressed. There are helpful check lists at the ends of chapters with ‘prompts’ suggesting things you can explore about your own situation. But it also tiptoes artfully, managing to divert the reader away from any of the more difficult issues associated with having a trans parent. In short, the book chucks a ton of rainbow glitter in your face and hopes you’ll be too distracted to think critically.

At the heart of this is the fundamental question that only seems to prompt unclear responses: when your father says that he is ‘trans’, what on earth does that mean? Bryant takes inspiration from Julia Serano (referenced quite a bit in the book) that while our fathers may have a male body, their ‘subconscious sex’ is female. However, in the (online) launch of her book (buy it from Shakespeare & Co if you can), Bryant talked about the ‘spectrum of genders’. So what does your Dad transition from, or to?

Just to muddy the waters a little further, here’s the ‘trans umbrella’. Versions of this can be found all over the Internet:

So ‘My Trans Parent’ could be a man who is happy dressing as a regular guy, but feels ‘female’ on the inside. Or he could be a ‘drag queen’ or an ‘androgynous person’. When I was a child we were really just talking about transsexuals. Transsexuals tend to be a fairly stable population. It’s a psychological disorder of some sort and surgery is a last resort in treating it, where it’s decided in therapy (ideally) that having surgery to reconfigure genitals & hormones to change the secondary sex features will alleviate the patient’s distress. There really are only a few thousand transsexuals.

So where have all these new ‘trans parents’ come from? The answer is on the hanger, of course. It’s all about the cross-dressing.

When you realise that your father doesn’t have a female brain in a male body things become much clearer.

We call it autogynephilia. I am not surprised it’s not in the book because Julia Serano hates the term and has tried to ‘debunk’ it. But ‘autogynephilia’ isn’t a random term, it describes a range of behaviours common to men like our Dads. A lot of it is to do with sex – an autogynephile by definition is aroused by the idea of people desiring them as a woman, not a man. It explains the pornography and sexual issues that men like this have and also the importance of ‘women’s’ clothing. Don’t tell me you haven’t seen how important the clothes are. The clothes are EVERYTHING.

So reading ‘My Trans Parent’ is somewhat helpful but also a little uncomfortable because there’s a big chunk missing. However, the book has an amazing answer to this – the reward for ignoring the autogynephile in the room is you get to join the queer rainbow glitter party!!  Yay! You get to wear a t-shirt and go to Pride, you get to be ‘queer’ somehow, and you get to have Janet Mock (thinks being a child prostitute is ‘empowering’ and calls women ‘fish’) as your new hero.

To let go of the distress of your father torturing your family with his narcissism and self-entitlement while taking all your family’s money to pay for the fantastic new life he is planning without you, you HAVE to become a fierce trans ally (although Bryant stresses that you must clear things with trans people before you post anything on social media). This means (and she says this three times, so it’s a bit like a spell) that whatever you do you mustn’t listen to feminists, particularly ‘Terfs’ and ‘academic feminists’. Apparently they have gender wrong, although Bryant doesn’t explain why she thinks that.

At the launch of this book (in which people were very happy and lovely) I asked the following question but was ignored:

“The book has a lot of wonderful things in it, but the way you talked about ‘terfs’ and feminists was uncomfortable to me. Feminism helped me understand what happened to me. Some girls experience fathers crossing their boundaries (like wanting to try on bras together). When you warn girls about feminism, are you in danger of persuading them to comply with abusive behaviour.”

This was a bit awkward, but Bryant really is lovely and the contributors are so insightful. Many of them were at the launch and it had a ‘party’ mood, so I do understand why it wasn’t chosen, and instead questions like, ‘When will it be available as an audiobook?’ were chosen instead. (It will make an awful audiobook in my opinion, as there are lots of lists and links and you will want to engage with the prompts.)

In fact, the book skirts (pun intended!) around the issue of fathers trying to appropriate their daughters’ experiences of womanhood by telling the story of Amy, whose father wants her to have a makeover with him. Amy isn’t really into make up so declines but it makes her father cry. Apparently, they talk about it later and it’s resolved. And while that may seem quite reasonable the fact is that Amy’s father doesn’t really want Amy to have a makeover. The offer isn’t to pay for Amy to have a makeover or to treat Amy and her mother to a makeover. The fact is that Amy’s father wants a makeover and wants Amy to be there, and is willing to use emotional blackmail to push Amy to do it.  Profiles of trans fathers and daughters often seem to involve grooming. Girls helping their father with his hair, clothes, make-up etc. are a bit of a cliché in media coverage of this relationship.

In many ways, it’s lovely to hear about people who muddle through with their families and their relationships somewhat intact. Some people have positive experiences, and very much benefit from the increased acceptance of transgenderism in modern society. If that acceptance continues remains to be seen, as issues around trans people in sports and single sex spaces abound. More disturbingly, Bryant sees acceptance for families with trans parents coming from the new phenomenon of ‘trans kids’. I am more wary of this and wonder if the inevitable backlash, which will come when these children grow up to realise the damage done to their bodies in the name of transgenderism will backfire on the whole idea of being ‘trans’. Some transsexuals have also expressed concerns that the trans umbrella covers so many people, and causes such a range of issues across society, that this will very likely lead to a backlash. We shall see, but the uncritical stance that Bryant takes of anything ‘trans’ feels outdated already somehow. In the UK at least, the voices of trans activists seem weaker and less effective as politicians have started to listen to feminist campaigners. No wonder Bryant doesn’t want you to listen to them. What if you started to question your father’s ideas? That’s not what people do in the rainbow glitter party!

Like other children of narcissists and/or emotional blackmailers, the children of trans parents need to learn how to set boundaries, how to say no, how to handle emotional pressure etc. Becoming a trans ally is something you can do independently, but you don’t exist to help your father turn his transvestite fetish into a lifestyle. A partner may or may not choose to engage with his desires for feminine clothing, but the sexual nature of the transition means that you are dragging children onto very dodgy ground when involving them in doing a transvestite’s make up/clothing/hair. Peddling the idea that he has a female brain, or a female ‘subconscious’ (given that the idea that the brain has a sex or that we even have a subconscious are both heavily debated might give you an idea of how nebulous they are as justifications) to us doesn’t help. Let’s call an autogynephile an autogynephile. Let’s stop trying to make everything trans fabulous and throwing rainbow glitter all over it. Let’s stop congratulating men for invalidating their children’s experiences and making them responsible for their emotional health. And then let’s write a book together.