“But what are you wearing?” I muttered into the phone, through gritted, smiling teeth.
“Don’t worry about it,” my dad quipped back.
This was our predictable dialogue, re-enacted every time a friend asked me for a ride home from school or track practice, until I got my blessed learner’s permit my sophomore year of high school.
I’d like to say that growing up with a transgender parent was always a positive learning experience, that we spent my teen years trying on makeup together and sharing dressing tips, but let’s be honest — when I was in high school, I was way more concerned with fitting in. And my dad, then known as Michael, now Trisha, was a great big sore thumb.
We were pretty young when my sister accidentally found some photos of Dad dressed up in the trash. Dad sat us down and told us that he was “different,” like a woman trapped in a man’s body. It sounds cliché now, after Oprah and the Internet and Boys Don’t Cry, but we had never heard the word “transgender” before, and we just nodded in mute confusion.
Luckily, mom knew before they had married. She provided quiet support and stability while my sister and I adjusted to Dad’s announcement.
Soon thereafter, we moved to a small Midwestern town, where everyone knew everyone else. We all hoped to start a new life there — my mom with her new job, my sisters and I with our new friends, and Trish with her true gender identity. But people talk, and little children can be cruel, or at least cruelly forgetful.
I’ve lost track of the times my sister and I carelessly called, “Hey, Dad!” across a crowded store to my flustered, feminine-looking parent. But Trish didn’t get mad at us for those missteps. I think she knew that there was a certain level of compromise inherent to keeping our family intact, and we really weren’t trying to hurt her feelings. But we were still most concerned with how Dad’s identity affected us.
A funny thing happens when you grow up: you start to put yourself in your parent’s shoes. It was sometime in high school, as I gained my independence and stopped relying on Dad for rides and spending money, that I realized how tough life had been for Trish. How some people in our hometown refused to speak to her, and sometimes crossed the street to avoid her. How nerve-wracking it must have been to drive a car while dressed up, knowing that your driver’s license says “male,” and hoping that no state troopers would pull you over while in a vindictive mood. How difficult to face neighborhood parents who deeply disapproved of your choice to have kids, and who made playtime with the Shattuck kids off-limits. And how brave she was, to live openly as Trish in the face of all that criticism.
Over the years, and through some real uncertainty, my family remained intact and supportive. A real test of that support came in high school, when Dad legally changed names to Trisha. I detailed this transition in a recent Op Doc, “Name Change,” for The New York Times. As I dealt with the emotions that came with that switch, I began to see that the social pressures I felt weren’t coming from within my family, but rather from those around us who didn’t understand Trish’s situation, and who viewed us with suspicion and fear. I began using Trish as a litmus test; if a friend could accept my dad, then they were worth keeping around. I still count friends from high school among my dearest, closest friends.
Now, I’m making a documentary film, called Project Dad (working title), about growing up with Trish (who is still proud to be our dad despite her switch to feminine pronouns). The film will feature my family, but I’m also very interested in meeting other kids from LGBT families and talking to new LGBT parents about their hopes and fears for the future. During the filmmaking process, I’m finding that the way my family chose to do things — what pronouns to use and whether to call Dad “Dad,” for instance — is in some ways similar, and in some ways very different from other LGBT families. We’re one family that chose to do it one way, but I’m curious to meet other families that chose another direction.
While there are many more openly LGBT families now than there were when I was growing up, we still see our loved ones stigmatized every day, socially, legally, and politically. I hope that the film will shed light on some of the struggles LGBT families still face, while revealing how normal (but not boring!) we really are.
Growing up with an LGBT parent taught me many things, among them to be open-minded, accepting and kind. I learned to be assertive and to stand up for everyone's rights, because sometimes the people whose rights are being violated are loved ones. And I learned that it’s OK to be different, that if you’re a nice person, people will love you despite, or because of, your differences.
There’s no one else quite like Trish in my hometown, but I’m proud to say that she’s not alone. I love you, Trish. Happy Father’s Day.
SHARON SHATTUCK is an animator and filmmaker who lives in Brooklyn. Her documentary film in-progress, Project Dad, is raising production funds now on Kickstarter.