My parents subscribed to tough love when it came to raising children. My father, a staunch believer in the Calvinist doctrine of original sin, was not an unkind man but he had a deeply pessimistic outlook on life. In his world view, people didn’t change. A strange thing for him to believe, considering he made a living helping people see that they could change themselves. Or maybe he believed he could help them manage what they couldn’t change.
My father was a trained psychiatrist and had a private practice for more than 30 years. In his later years, he especially enjoyed working with PTSD survivors from South Africa’s military. Maybe it had something to do with his wanting to serve in the army when he was young but not being able to due to poor health. His work kept him alive, he would say, and I would wonder at how depressing it must be to listen to sob story after sob story. Then again, maybe their sorrow was an outlet for him to escape his own pain and discomfort.
My father was a complicated man. He showed kindness to the people he helped, fought the stigma of mental illness on his patients’ behalf, and worked closely with nursing staff, having little time for the politics of hierarchies within the healthcare system. At the same time, I got the sense that he felt his patients were different somehow, that healthy families led to healthy people and that ours was as healthy and functional as they got. He wanted his children – expected us – to thrive!
I wanted to share my father’s vision. Growing up I subscribed to the belief that staying on the path to salvation was going to be challenging but that it was central to my survival – or else I would slide into a pit of sorrow, despair and endless gnashing of teeth. Knowing I was born in sin, I went to church, read the Bible before going to bed, prayed on my knees each night for God’s forgiveness, and thought of devoting my life to the church as a monk when I grew up.
Of course, girls couldn’t be Christian monks. But I didn’t consider myself a girl. Not really. I had no idea that transsexual people existed, least of all females who became males. I think my first encounter with transsexualism was seeing the movie The Crying Game in my late teens — and that was about a male-to-female transsexual. No, back then all I knew was that I liked playing with my Hot Wheel cars, pretending I was a knight in King Arthur’s court, or riding my bicycle to the neighbouring school’s parking lot and creating a whole imaginary city populated with families with unhappy children just like me.
These games weren’t gendered. I didn’t think of myself as boy or girl back then. And because I had not yet entered the gender-segregated world of puberty, I could get away with just being myself. No one looked at me funny.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when I knew I was different. There was no exact moment. The discomfort I felt with my body was a tangle of nebulous fears and confusion over why I felt so awkward. And because I didn’t understand what was happening I retreated into depression, shutting myself off from the people around me. As for the one man who was trained to help people like me, he couldn’t help me.
When I finally came out to my parents at the age of 25, they were horrified, angry, sad – in that order. What I craved from them more than anything was a kind word. An acknowledgement of the mental anguish I had been through to make the decision that I had made: to transition from living life as a woman to living publicly as a man. It was hard, leaving the path of Woman behind. If Womanhood didn’t feel right, at least it was a known entity. I knew what was expected of me even if I failed to satisfy those social expectations.
But as a man? I had no guarantee that things would work out. I had no way of knowing if society would embrace my new identity. Would I ever work again? Ever experience love? Would I be able to travel to foreign countries? What if I got sick, would doctors bother to treat me? The world I was entering was a scary place and I knew that kindness was in short supply.
My father died a year after I announced my transition. He was living in South Africa, and I was in Canada. A continent away, far from anyone who knew the man who was my father, I grieved on my own. That was in 2005. It’s 2013 and I still think of him daily. But it’s true what they say: time heals. The edges along the wounds’ edges have softened, and my memories of him are coated in a warm, hazy glow. If he was around today, I think I’d hug him. Even though he struggled with my decision, and didn’t approve of what he deemed a lifestyle choice. Kindness is all I’ve got to offer. To him, to those who want to hate me.
Kindness is what I show myself every night I stare into the mirror and reflect on how my life has turned out. It’s been a rough ride. But learning to love my broken, flawed self has seen me through some stormy waters. I’ve made it through; and I can see land up ahead. And Dad, if you’re listening, I believe people change. I always will.