Illustrations by David Huang
When I was ten, my dad told me that he sometimes dressed like a girl. A few days later I got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and saw my dad wearing a frilly nightgown.
“It’s a good thing he told me about that,” I thought. “Otherwise I’d think this was weird.”
Being a weirdo didn’t bother me much until I was 12. Middle school was when weird suddenly became wrong. Just wearing an X-Files shirt made me a target of ridicule. I was terrified of what might happen if people found out about my dad.
It was 1994, and many of the words my dad used to describe herself are now considered offensive. When she first came out to me, it was as a transvestite. When she started going to a trans support group and realized that her true gender was female, the words she used were “transgender” or “transsexual.” None of these words were familiar to the general population. It just wasn’t a topic that most people talked about. My dad wasn’t living as a woman, but she had started taking hormones and growing out her hair. It was a secret that was harder to keep every day. And I was very afraid of what would happen if my classmates found out.
They did find out. Faster than I expected them to. One day a horde of students, most of whom had never spoken to me, cornered me during lunch.
Their ringleader said, in the snottiest voice she could muster, “Jessica told me your dad’s a transsexual.”
I wish that I’d stood up for myself, or better yet, for my dad. I wish I’d had the fearlessness to say “Yeah, so what?” Or even “I’m surprised Jessica knows what a transsexual is.”
But I was too busy trying not to cry. Because, of course, she knew what a transsexual was. She knew because I told her about my father. Because I had to tell someone.
Instead I just denied it and walked away. And that horde of kids just looked around peevishly because I hadn’t cried or confessed or done anything very Degrassi at all.
I didn’t tell my parents what happened but my mom came home and found me crying.
“I’m always going to be the weird girl, aren’t I, Mom?” I said between sobs. My mother never lied to me so she just said, “Yes.”
* * *
That year, my dad’s 40th-birthday present was a week in Disneyland as a woman. We went as a family. She wore dresses and makeup and we called her Denise. Our present to her was that she could be herself. It seemed reasonable at the time; it seemed nice. I’m disgusted now to think that was a privilege we granted to her as a gift. “You’ve lived 40 years of lies, here’s one whole week to be yourself. Go wild.” It seems like something from a dystopian novel or a fairy tale, being granted one week to be yourself. I wish I’d had more empathy for her then, especially because we both wanted the same thing; to live honestly without being judged, to be ourselves without fear of being harassed or ostracized, to be loved for who we were. I was too young to see that. And I was too wrapped up in my own pain to understand hers.
I’m disgusted now by the embarrassment and shame I felt. The fear that someone would find out exactly how weird we were. I don’t really know what I was so scared of. Did I think people would point and laugh? Maybe. But that had happened to me at school before. How much worse could it be at Disneyland? Did I think we’d get thrown out? Probably not. We were paying customers, what we wore certainly wasn’t any business of Disney’s. My dad wasn’t even conspicuous. She passed really well. I think, when you live a long time with a secret, you’re afraid of being caught, even if you have no idea what the consequences would be. We’d all been living with a secret and now it was out there, in broad daylight. Our secret shame on display at Disneyland.
My mom insisted on taking my photo constantly. It was an old ritual we’d developed on family trips. She would point at a historic building or breathtaking view and say “Alithea, go be picturesque.” I would run over and strike a whimsical pose, flashing big toothy grins. I wasn’t in the mood to be picturesque anymore. I dutifully stood by whatever she pointed at, giving thin smiles and looking away from the camera.
A few days into our trip we were eating dinner outside. My dad was explaining the logistics behind the “Fantasmic!” show we’d just watched and my mom caught me smiling.
“I think she’s forgiven you for screaming on the Rescue Rangers ride,” my mom teased her.
“It was scary!” My dad defended herself, chuckling a little.
“Only ‘cause you’re a giant wuss,” I rolled my eyes. “And that wasn’t as bad as mom saying that Goofy was flirting with me. So embarrassing!”
My mom laughed off my ribbing and lifted her camera.
“Come on, pose for me,” she cajoled.
I pulled a silly face and pretended that my souvenir Koosh ball was attacking me. My mom snapped the photo and we all laughed. It was the first time we’d all laughed together in a long time. I realized that I was breathing easy in a way I hadn’t all year. We’d been walking around Disney for days with my dad dressed as a woman and no one cared. Not only did no one care, no one noticed. We were just another family at Disneyland. No one gave us a second glance.
The last day came and we didn’t want to go back. No one wants to leave Disneyland, but more than that, we really didn’t want to go back. My dad was slow to get dressed that morning, pulling her hair back into a tight ponytail (her “manly” hairdo). Her body stiffened as she pulled on grey Dockers and a rayon button-down. She moved with an almost painful heaviness as she climbed into the driver’s seat. I got into the car and I put on my headphones. I listened to Aerosmith (a failed attempt to start listening to cool bands) and retreated into myself.
I didn’t hear my parents talking. Didn’t hear my dad saying she couldn’t go back, she couldn’t keep pretending, she couldn’t be a man anymore. What I didn’t hear was the sound of our lives changing.
My parents sat me down in the living room, the bright light of spring blasting through the windows. Summer was coming, they said. I was leaving my school and I wouldn’t go back. They’d chosen a date in the summer when my dad would start going to work at her one-hour photo store as a woman named Hilary. She’d already started drafting a letter to her customers, explaining the change. When summer ended, I’d go to a new school where no one knew that Hilary used to be my dad.
I wasn’t changing schools just because my dad was changing genders, but I definitely blamed her. The truth was I was failing out of that school. I’d just been diagnosed with ADHD and it was recommended that I go to a private school, somewhere smaller, better suited to my needs. At my public school I couldn’t keep up. I was miserable every day. I barely had friends. I don’t know what I was clinging to. The devil I knew, I guess.
But a school where no one knew me would be a great place for me to blend in as someone who just happened to live with two women.
“What’ll I tell people about my dad?” I asked quietly. My parents looked at each other for a moment. I don’t think it had occurred to them.
“You can say your parents are divorced,” Hilary offered. It was plausible enough. Almost everyone I knew had divorced parents.
“I think I should say my dad is dead.” It was Hilary’s turn to be uncomfortable.
“That’s a little … creepy, isn’t it?” It’s not uncommon for trans people to refer to their pre-transition selves as dead, but Hilary wasn’t a fan of the idea. For me it was pragmatic.
“If I say my parents are divorced, people will want to talk about it with me,” I grudgingly explained. “When did my parents split up? What’s the custody arrangement? Where does my dad live now? It’s too many lies to keep straight.”
“She’s got a point,” my mom admitted. Hilary still looked a little unsettled but knew it was time to pick her battles.
The one time I said it at my new school it stopped all questions in an instant. It felt a little forced to say out loud, like I’d forgotten my line and said it a little too late to sound natural. But no one pressed the issue.
* * *
I prepared for my first day at school like it was D-Day. I drafted different outfits and the attitude that would go with them. I planned out what I would say if someone was mean to me. I practiced not caring and looking cool.
And then something amazing happened; I had a good day. This was a small school full of “problem” kids; kids with drug problems, behavioral problems, learning disabilities or other neurodivergent traits. Or, as we called them in the ’90s, weirdos. There was a lot of structure and supervision, but the atmosphere was decidedly casual. Teachers were called by their first names and often had relationships to the students that were closer to a mentorship or even friendship. Bullying was almost non-existent because if a student started to act like an asshole there was a teacher nearby to tell them so.
In this environment, individuality flourished. And I could see that when I walked in the door. There was the guy with the liberty spikes Mohawk, with whom I immediately fell in love, the girl with pink bangs and winged eyeliner that I knew I wanted to be friends with, the guy with long hair who instantly annoyed me but soon became my first boyfriend. Someone actually complimented me on my X-Files binder. I made friends quickly, something that had seemed impossible just a year before. I wore whatever I wanted. No one cared what music I listened to. And everyone knew the same words I knew. Well, mostly.
One day my friend’s mom drove me home. Both my parents worked so I would try to bum rides off of other parents whose kids lived near me. One of my favorite moms was Jessa’s mom. Jessa was a Goth kid, so we became fast friends. Her mom was disabled, like mine, and had the same no-bullshit attitude, tempered by kindness, that my mom had. One day she drove me home and when she got to my house she stopped the car and meaningfully turned to me in the back seat.
“Now, this is none of my business,” she began, “And you can tell me to go fuck myself if you want…”
I was a little shocked to hear someone else’s mom swear in front of me, but I got the sense that this was done to convey just how serious she was, and that she was speaking to me as an equal, and I really was free to tell her such a thing in this instance.
“Your aunt Hilary isn’t really your mother’s sister, is she?” This was not an accusation, merely a request to cut the crap. I have always hated lying and had a strong respect for the cutting of all crap. I wasn’t sure what to expect next but I told the truth anyway.
“No,” I said, and I didn’t breathe until she spoke again.
“They’re… special together, aren’t they?” She said “special” in a kind way, a way that said she remembered that she was speaking to a child who might want at least a small verbal fig leaf for an adult conversation. She also said “special” in the way that my godmother had used to tell me that her girlfriend was not just a friend. The expression was so quaint that I almost laughed.
She thought my parents were lesbians. Of course she thought they were lesbians! We lived in a two-bedroom house! How had I been naive enough to think that anyone would buy our bullshit “aunt” story? And how had it not occurred to us to just say that my parents were lesbians? I longed for a situation as normal as Heather Has Two Mommies.
I think I did laugh, just a little. And then I said, “Yes. But not the way you’re thinking…” And I told her everything. And then…nothing happened. I think she gave a little “you learn something new every day” kind of shrug, thanked me for my honesty, and dropped me off at home.
As I got closer to other friends I told them about Hilary, and the reactions were all pretty similar. People were surprised, curious, confused, but never hostile. I never lost a single friend over it. If it ever became a rumor, that rumor never got back to me. Eventually I realized that it must have gotten around, everybody must have known at some point. It just never changed how anyone treated me.
The difference was that everyone at my school had been the weird kid at their old school. So no one cared that I had two moms. Or a mom who used to be a dad. Or whatever I had going on at home. If it wasn’t an issue to me, it wasn’t an issue to them. I got to be normal because no one was normal. I got used to having two moms. I got used to being happy.
Until one day when I walked into the kitchen for breakfast and saw Hilary crumpled into her old grey suit. My parents were filing for bankruptcy and Hilary had to go to court as a man. She looked miserable. She looked wrong. Like she’d been beaten, broken, and stuffed into a space where she didn’t fit.
That was the first time I understood what she’d been through. I felt her pain in my bones and I saw how selfish I had been. I’d been so angry, so wrapped up in what her actions had done to me. I’d been so preoccupied with what everyone else might think, been so afraid of something that never even happened, that I hadn’t seen how much she needed to be herself. I’d never seen how stifling her life had been before.
In that one moment of empathy, my whole world changed. My anger disappeared in an instant. I no longer cared what anyone else thought about me or my family. We were happy. We were ourselves. That was all that mattered.
Alithea Howes is a writer, performer, and educator who writes about sex, social justice, and the magic of weirdos. She is currently working on a novel about a 1920s sex worker, based on “Cinderella.”