by Paul Hempel
Should we have seen it coming? Our third child was born in 1980 in South Carolina, where we lived at the time, and right from the start, there was that little question. During the pregnancy, every one of the wives’ tale pointers (how high was the baby carried, how much did it kick and so forth) pointed to a boy, and after 2 prior daughters, we were looking forward to a boy and had several boys’ names picked out. I was in the delivery room with the obstetrician, who warned me to stay quiet and reminded me that South Carolina was not Massachusetts, where our two daughters had been born and fathers were welcome in the delivery room. When Evan was born, it seemed obvious that we had a healthy girl and so the boy’s name we had already selected was exchanged for a different name. Then, in an ironic twist (which seems today to be more prescient than ironic) the pediatrician visited us in the hospital and reported that we had a healthy boy. When we expressed surprise, he left the room and rechecked his notes and the nursery and returned to tell us he had made an error and that we had a healthy girl. We assumed we would take home another daughter. Wrong. We took home a healthy boy presenting as a girl.
As Evan grew, our child presented as a darling little child with blond pigtails and hand-me-down smocked dresses and as he became old enough to play with his sisters, he was the clear tomboy of the pack, even though he presented as a girl. If there was a tree to be climbed, Evan was the first up the tree and daring the others to follow. Other than having a severe case of flu that had him hospitalized at less than a year old, he was healthy and a perfect little child.
We moved north back to Massachusetts for my work before Evan entered kindergarten and he entered kindergarten a bit ahead of others since his birthday is in November, just before the cutoff. During that first year in kindergarten, things began to change. Evan was still a tomboy but developed severe tantrums and ultimately the school recommended, and we agreed, that he be seen on a regular basis by the school psychologist. At the end of the first year of kindergarten, the school recommended in firm terms that he repeat kindergarten because, although he was clearly very bright, they told us Evan need to develop social skills more and since Evan was on the cusp age wise, an additional year of kindergarten would not hurt. Today, I understand this very differently and wish we had been working with professionals who might have seen it for what it was – a little boy struggling in a physical body and gender assignment.
Evan did well in school and ultimately managed to control the temper tantrums but continued to have social fit issues. He preferred the company of boys and older classmates which seemed unusual to us in light of the way we were perceiving him at that time and how his sisters were. We simply considered that he was his own person and didn’t give it much thought. As his sisters left home and went away to college, Evan became more reclusive and spent more time in his room studying. This all was not helped much by my oldest daughter identifying as lesbian after her first year at University and my and my wife’s very different reactions to it, which distracted our attention away from paying attention to what was happening to Evan.
I was also discovering who I was as a gay man and struggling with a failing marriage – partly because of the painful coming out process that I managed poorly, and partly for other reasons. The result of all this was that Evan didn’t get nearly the amount of attention he needed and deserved, and we totally missed the fact that Evan was transgender, that Evan was a boy child.
As high school drew to a close, I began the process of searching for a college with Evan – he was bright, a great student, interested in science, but also needed a smaller school which had a reputation for allowing lots of different types of people to thrive. Ultimately, with his guidance counselor’s suggestion and a visit I made with Evan, we selected Oberlin in Ohio, which turned out to be a perfect choice. Oberlin is an outstanding Liberal Arts College which also has a performance conservatory attached to it. I started visiting Evan every few months to reestablish the relationship after what had been a difficult transition myself from straight and married to single and gay. Every time I visited, Evan arranged for some kind of performance experience, and often with gay themes, like the production of Angels in America. On one trip he introduced me to his new girlfriend and since I still identified Evan as female at that time, I assumed he, like his sister, was lesbian. I tried to be supportive. Then he sent me some pictures from a Drag Ball dance he had attended with his girlfriend and told me that he had gone as the boy and used the name Evan. I missed it again. Several months went by and one of my other daughters finally clued me in: “Dad,” she said, “Evan is transgender. If you want to connect with him, call him Evan, use male pronouns- like his friends do, like I do.” I didn’t know how to react but decided that if that’s what he wanted I needed to honor that. I started calling him Evan.
At first it was very difficult, and I made lots of mistakes – especially with pronouns. I still do sometimes, but these days I never think of Evan as a daughter. Those early days were hard for me – but much harder for Evan. After finishing his degree in Neuroscience with great grades, he seemed to collapse under the weight of the change. He stayed in the Oberlin area near his friends and was nannying and working in a pizza place. I had the usual dad reaction – I paid all this money for Oberlin and your degree in Neuroscience and you’re making pizzas?
Gradually I relaxed and started to trust Evan to make the right decisions for his life.
After a year, he decided to come to the city where I lived, where he had some friends and asked if he might stay in my spare room for a while. I was living as a gay man in a two-bedroom two-bathroom condo and was glad to have him there for a few months for the transition. Pizza maker turned into Starbucks barista and poetry writer. I still wondered if he would get back to his passions in science, where he had studied so hard. He would, and he did. Now I know he was using this time to forge friendships in the Trans community that are so necessary to surviving and thriving. Until those connections were in place and he had a community that understood him, forging ahead in his career would have been both impossible and unwise.
Finally, one day he told me that he had gone to a placement agency and gotten a temporary job at a local research hospital as a clerk. Not too long after that, he moved into his own apartment and went on with life. The temporary clerk job turned into a job working with clinical trials and then into another job managing clinical trials and then eventually into the job he has today, directing the clinical affairs department for a company in the pharma industry. He had some stops and starts with relationships, but eventually settled into a strong relationship with one of the most loving and supportive women I know, who supports him in ways I’m not sure we ever did. Best of all, Evan made the decision several years ago to stop hormone treatment and try to get pregnant. While this is not unprecedented, it’s certainly not the norm and took a lot of courage. It was a process involving five years of false starts and a few losses, but three years ago he conceived. He presented us with an amazing and wonderful grandson, who he and his partner (who also adopted him) are raising in a quite progressive way. My husband and I visit Evan, his partner and our grandson as often as possible.
These days, my husband, who also has three children by a prior marriage, and I realize that we are truly blessed with a diversity that few others are privileged to experience.
Between us we have 6 children, 3 boys and 3 girls, all grown adults. So far, three of our children are queer – two lesbian, one transgender and three are straight. We have had 6 grandchildren, four from our queer children and two from our straight children, and possibly more on the way.
As I look back, I guess there are many things I would have done differently with respect to Evan that might have made his transition to who he is easier and better. I can rationalize that, at the time, the professionals we were working with weren’t trained to see transgender as anything other than a disorder, or that my own life was in such shambles because of the poor choices I made around when and how to come out, that I was incapable of seeing what was happening to Evan. But none of that really matters. Today I realize that what really mattered was finding the wherewithal to be patient and accepting; to be supportive of allowing Evan to find his own way and the love and support that his sisters and mother also gave him. Ultimately, Evan made the choices that made the real differences in his life – where to live, who to partner with, how to pursue his career. All he really needed was love and support and, every so often, just the smallest bit of guidance. Fortunately, in today’s world – at least in significant pockets in the U.S. – it is possible to live an out, open and productive life as a transgender person. Not easy, not without risk, but possible. I can take solace as a father in perhaps not always helping that to happen but at least not getting in the way of the good choices my son has made to make a good life as a transgender person.
Writer’s Note: In writing this blog note, I learned a lot about perception. As a father of a transgender boy, I experienced my child as a girl for over 18 years and that was a very real experience and required me to go through a transition of a different type as Evan went through his own transition. I understand why the trans community, including my son, need to understand themselves as always having been the gender by which they identify today, and I support that. Writing this piece forced me to make some choices that were not comfortable for me, since my experience as a father was every bit as real as my son’s. I am writing this add on note specifically for parents of transgender persons. Our transition is not easy. At first, we will often mistake gender when we talk of our progeny and that may last many years, since that is the reality of what our experience has been. I’m convinced this is OK and even necessary to honor both our perceptions of what we have experienced as well as the reality of who our children are. Honoring the reality of our children’s gender requires struggle and effort. The opposite of that is what the current administration is trying to do – simply defining reality out of existence and trying to ignore it. Struggle means almost by definition that we will sometimes succeed and sometimes fall short. But if we simply define our reality out of existence and ignore it by not acknowledging the struggle, we are simply pretending and thus not honoring the reality of who are children are or the struggle they go through every day in our society today.