34 | People with Trans Parents

Listen to Gender Reveal podcast to continue the conversation and learn more!

Meet the Guests

Heather Bryant, a writer based in Sunnyside, NY, grew up with a trans-parent and has published short fiction and nonfiction in The Massachusetts Review, The Southeast Review, Anchor Magazine, and in multiple anthologies. Her essay, “Habitat,” about a visit with her parent in Florida, won the Southeast Review Narrative Nonfiction Contest. She was an Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Randolph College. Now, she is working on a handbook for people with trans parents for Jessica Kingsley publishers and COLAGE (a national organization for people with LGBTQ parents).

She is looking for people with transgender parents to interview for the handbook. If you have a transgender parent or know someone who does, please connect with Heather! You can reach her at heatherb@colage.org.

Becca LaValle was born in Boston in 2001 to her mother and father. Becca’s dad struggled with identity issues her entire life, and did not realize until 2014 that she wanted to be a woman. Becca plans on attending college next fall and working on her law degree.

Further Reading

Episode Transcript

Emily: People with transgender and gender expansive parents experience pressure, bias, and assumptions in unique and often challenging ways. The identities of our parents impact queerspawn and our family dynamics at home and how we're perceived and how we interact with our communities. To talk about navigating transitions at home and out in the world, I have two guests with me - Becca and Heather. So to get us started, who is in your family and how was it formed?

Heather: My parents met when they were very young in college and they married and had me and my sister. And then my dad came out as gay when I was about six months old and my parents divorced a year later or so, but stayed close. Then my dad came out as transgender when I was 10 and we moved back in together during the transition. So we were living together as a family through the whole transition and stayed together during that time. And that's my family.

Becca: I live with my mom and my dad and I have a 13 year old brother. My parents have been together since their junior year of high school. So they've been together for pretty long time. My dad came out as transgender, male to female, when I was 13. We're still living in the house. We're still doing our thing and working with the transition.

Emily: Becca. What's one thing that you like to do as a family?

Becca: We like to go out to eat a lot, which we relate on a lot. One thing that me and my dad and my brother do is skiing, so we relate a lot based on like the sport and stuff like that. So we really enjoy that.

Heather: From as long as I can remember both before and after the transition, my family loves going to bookstores and browsing in bookstores. When I was little we went to the library a lot. I still have my early library cards. They were my most important possession when I was little. That was something that we did sort of as a family, like both my parents and my sister and me.

Emily: I remember so clearly like some really specific or like big moments in my life. You know, I was eating a sun chips when my moms told me they were separating when I was 14, and it truly took like 10 years before I could eat some chips again because they just like tasted like divorce. Do you have memories that kind of stick out like that related to our parent coming out? Do you remember when your parent telling you they were transgender and going to be transitioning?

Heather: So for me, I remember it being a very ordinary day. We were in the kitchen in our house in Berkeley and we had just moved in there that summer. We had moved all the way from New York to California and I was just very excited that I had my own room and we were sort of setting the place up and I really didn't know anything about the transition, though my parents had talked about it before and sort of brought us together as a family to go through this. But to me we were essentially just living all together as a family again. So that was exciting, you know, and I just remember that my dad that day had started to dress as a woman and was wearing a long skirt and had a headband on and we were learning her new name and I didn't learn the word transgender then I just learned to say Diana instead of Dad. And that was it essentially, so to me it seemed like this very almost seamless transition. Like I was just learning this new name, you know? That was going to be the name I would say. And at the time I was about 10 years old. And so to me, I just thought, okay, like this is our new reality. And I didn't really start to question it for a few years after that.

Becca: My story's a little different. I didn't actually find out from my dad that she was transgender. Thanks to my snooping skills I found out from a Facebook account on my dad's phone because I took a really good selfie and I was like, you know what, I really need to send that to myself. So I went on my dad's phone and saw the Facebook app and he told me that the Facebook app came with the phone and me being 13, I was like, I know way better than that. So I went on the Facebook account and saw that my dad was dressed as a woman. I didn't say anything. I think I was the first person that knew in my family. But about a year after that, my parents started to get the feeling that I knew something was up. So they sat me down and on a cold November day, I remember, and told me they were transgender and I think my only response was, yeah, I know. So it was an interesting day for all of us.

Emily: In those early days, were there worries, concerns, or big questions that you had that you were maybe keeping inside that you weren't talking about with your parents? Questions about what all this meant for your family?

Becca: My parents were still together at that point, so I didn't know if my parents are gonna get divorced, if they were gonna live in the same house, or get separated. I didn't really know what was going on there and my brother didn't know. So it was this big secret that we had to keep from the rest of the family and we had to worry about what pronouns to use. What's respectful, what's not respectful and all of that.

Heather: Yeah. I relate a lot to the part about the secrets. For me in the moment, on the day when I learned that my dad was transgender, I learned that new name. My main question was just, what if we're out in public, at our favorite bookstore, and I shout across the way - Dad! You know, what if I just say it by accident? I was always very close to my dad, so I just thought, oh my gosh, what if that happened? What would we do? So that was my big question as a kid. And then over time secrets were a big part of how we navigated it as a family because some of the professionals who were helping Diana through the transition had suggested creating a family story so that my sister and I weren't ostracized socially in our school communities. So my dad became my 'aunt' to people. Then we would say, this is Aunt Diana. While that kind of helped with some of the social stuff for me and my sister in school, I think in the long term it became more complicated because here we were telling this story that this was my aunt and some of our extended family also didn't find out for a long time. So it does get complicated when it comes to keeping it a secret.

Becca: Yeah, I agree with that. It was wild for me just because I was going into high school and I'm like trying to tell my friends, not even just family about it, but trying to explain to my friends like who this person in my house was. When we would go outside I would say, oh, that's just my mom's friend or whatever. Da would come to my softball games and people would ask me who that is. And I couldn't say, that's my dad, because my dad's wearing a skirt. And I didn't want to have to go into the whole my dad is transgender and just give my whole spiel because I wasn't there for that. Trying to explain to my friends who my dad is when I started high school was very hard.

Heather: Yeah. I relate to that so much.

Emily: Was it something that you all talked about together or when you would introduce your dad in different ways, was that something that your dad was aware of or was that something that you chose for yourself?

Heather: That's a great question. We had this family story that we'd sort of developed that this was my aunt and we even said that she was my dad's sister, which worked mainly because we were living pretty far from our extended families. So people didn't know that my dad didn't have this other sister. And so that was essentially what we would say. Then when I went to school, I kept up the same story with my friends more or less. If I had a friend over I would say, Oh yeah, this is my aunt. But there was always in the back of my mind that a little bit of concern of, Oh, is this person going to wonder or ask more questions? I was just always relieved if they weren't asking a lot more questions.

Becca: In certain situations we decided as a family, We were very avid members of the church. So it was hard with the church when people would start asking questions and start giving us weird looks. But when it came to like my friends and stuff, we never really had a conversation about it until recently because I started having more friends and they started coming over the house. And so we were trying to figure out how to navigate that. But I think with our family, the secrets thing is still a big part of our whole story. Mostly everyone knows now, but it was a long time before everyone found out. So having to navigate that was also very hard too,

Emily: When thinking of those early days, on the one hand you both described finding out and it sort of being a normal day or not really a surprise. On the other hand there was a sense of the need for secrets. Did that sense of secrecy come from your own family's desire to figure out what all of this meant and how your family was still going to fit together in private? Or from the need to protect yourselves when you were out in public?

Becca: For my family, when my dad came out we were trying to figure out our own stuff. So having to explain to other people was hard, when we didn't know how to explain it ourselves. So I think we just wanted to deal with our own family unit and not worry about how it would look on the outside because we don't even know what it looks like on the inside, if that makes sense.

Heather: Yeah, that's a great way of putting it. I think there's so much in those early days of transition when you're navigating your own family identity and the parent who's transitioning is also navigating their own identity and sort of seeing how that will play out. There's a lot of seeing what that identity will look like in the long run. And at the same time, I do think one of the pieces driving our story was the fact that when my dad transitioned, it was not commented on at all. I really didn't know anyone who was transgender apart from a few famous people previously who had transitioned. So part of it was also just not really having larger narratives where it fit in or larger stories in society where it fit in. But I think there is that piece of navigating the question - where does this story fit into the larger world? And I would have been so excited to know any other people with transgender parents, but I really didn't. I met a few through the place where my dad was going to transition, but they weren't really my age and I didn't really relate to them.

Emily: Becca, how did you find other people who had a transgender parent?

Becca: Well, I've been going to therapy since my dad came out. So I think my therapist went to a conference or something having to do with LGBTQ parents. She got me into COLAGE, which got me into the Family Equality Council. I'm trying to think of the timeline. My dad came out when I was 13 and I don't think I connected with COLAGE until I was 15. So it was a good amount of time before we found the resources.

Emily: Heather, do you remember when you first connected with COLAGE, which is a national organization by and for people with LGBTQ+ parents?

Heather: I found COLAGE almost 20 years after my dad transitioned, which is unbelievable to me. But I did find COLAGE a bit later, but I was so excited just to find other people with LGBTQ parents. Through COLAGE I then found other KOT (at the time the our term was Kids of Trans). We had the KOT Guide. And just reading that guide was so incredible for me because I felt like, oh, this was my experience. And so it really does feel like a missing piece, finding that community and finding those other people. Even meeting people who had two moms or two dads, it was this experience where they just looked at me completely differently when I would share about my family. So it was just such a great experience.

Emily: Becca, I've had the pleasure of hearing you speak about your family at a workshop and Heather, you're now a leader within the PTP or People with Trans Parents (formerly KOT) community within COLAGE. So you're really both outspoken activists in different ways. How did you get to that point of feeling comfortable and confident to speak out? Becca, this is all newer for you. Your journey is not as long as others. How did that happen for you?

Becca: I think once I started explaining my story to different people and I became more comfortable with the situation myself, it was easier for me to talk about it. It's actually way easier to talk about it then write about it. I actually found out, which is kind of weird, but I think it's really, it took me a really long time for me at least to even talk about any of this cause it's so raw, it's so very real and I don't do well with that stuff. I think it's very rewarding for me to talk about it because then I start to understand how I feel even more. But it took me a little while to get to this place, but not as long as it would take other people.

Heather: Yeah, I completely agree. It's interesting too because some of the pieces I've published have been about my family and then it's almost funny because people will say, oh, well if I had a family like that I would probably be writing too. But actually as Becca said, it's actually really hard to write about this. And so I always loved writing and liked writing about all kinds of stuff. My love of writing is almost separate. It wasn't having this family that led me to be a writer. It was just that I loved writing for other reasons and it just happens that some of the pieces I've published has been about this. But I think the way I started to speak out about it was mainly through COLAGE, through getting involved with COLAGE and it was that sense of strength and community that can come and sort of gives you that strength to sort of share your story. Because even when I had written about it, I would sometimes feel uncomfortable if I was at a writing conference or something and someone would say, Oh yeah, I read your essay. And they almost said it as if they knew everything about me. You know, I think it is having that strength in community that makes the difference.

Becca: We were supposed to write our senior essays (what I sent in college applications) about a life experience or something that changed your life. And I was like, well my transgender father, hello? What a good topic. And I have never actually sat down and tried to write my life story. So when we were sitting in English class and we were starting our senior essays and I was ready to write about my dad, I literally started to cry and I couldn't understand why. Cause I'm not sad about it. I'm fine with it. But figuring out how you feel and actually putting it down in words, it's just very real for me. So writing my senior essay about my dad was a very long process.

Emily: And how have your parents and your siblings and responded to your activism, are they joining you or were they hesitant at first?

Heather: They're very supportive. I had just written an essay recently essentially about the process of coming from a place of silence or keeping secrets to speaking out. And Diana was the one who was the final editor on it. She went over it and gave me these great suggestions and she really kept kind of a distance in terms of what I was saying and really looked at the heart of it. So my whole family has been really supportive of me in that process, but it has also been a process. There was a time when my extended family didn't really know our whole story. Just the fact that we're talking about it now as a family has made people more supportive. So far it's been very positive.

Becca: I think my parents like me talking about it because it shows that I'm comfortable with it, if that makes sense. I think my parents are proud of me and they've said that to me multiple times, but my brother is just kind of staying out of it. He's doing his own thing.

Emily: One thing that I love about the podcast is that I've been able to talk to guests about the great things about our families and about the hard things about our families. Is there space in your community and in your family to be frustrated or unhappy or to grieve in different ways?

Heather: That's a great question. I think in some ways there is this almost internal pressure to present a certain facade of happiness or a resolution just so that people who might be transphobic or anti-LGBTQ might use negative stories as a fuel for essentially expressing that hate. And so to some extent when it comes to sharing stories with a wider audience, I feel like I have left out some of the more challenging or difficult parts, which doesn't necessarily serve the larger community. I think people need to hear about all the complexity of our lives and our experiences. And there have been a lot of challenges in my family and there was a sense after my dad transitioned, I felt as a child like, oh, now it'll be like we've arrived. Like this is what we were working towards. Like there was a whole thing where my dad had to live as a woman for a year before surgery. And then it was this feeling of once the surgery happens, then everything's great. But actually it was a period of real difficulty. Diana went through a period of a lot of depression and that was really rough for us as a family. And there have been times when she has struggled a lot with feeling hopeless or anger and sometimes took it out on me and my sister. And that's frustrating too because I know part of that is connected to society and the systemic transphobia. I think it's important to talk about those parts too because it's part of the whole experience And then it doesn't make people feel like, oh, why isn't my family perfectly happy as that?

Becca: Right. I agree with the fact that you have to look happy on the outside so people don't judge you as much. I had to do a lot of acting around my own family too because they were very judgmental of our choices and my parents' choices to stay together. So I think I had to be that middleman between everyone and act like everything was hunky-dory when sometimes it really wasn't.

Emily: Yeah. What are some of the things that you've learned about yourself through your parent's transition?

Becca: That's a good question. I think I've learned that I'm very resilient, if that makes sense. learned that I don't deal with things very well and that bottling stuff up doesn't really work, especially when it comes to my family situation.

Heather: Yeah. I think I agree 100% with, with both of those - piece about discovering your resiliency and also that it doesn't work to bottle things up. I agree with that a lot. I realized that I have a strong need for belonging. That at one point sort of led me to hide my family's story thinking, oh, I'll fit in better if I hide it. But actually I've found that I have more of a sense of belonging when I share it. And I feel like actually by sharing it, I get that sense of connection more.

Emily: Are there any topics or anything that we haven't covered yet?

Heather: One topic that has come up for me recently is just the question about being nonbinary. Because a lot of the narratives we see of transitioning and of transgender experiences are of this sort of 'he becoming, she or she becoming he.' But what I've found lately is even that isn't set in stone. When I was recently visiting Diana, she had said something to the extent of, you know, I don't know what gender I am at this point. She's identified as female for a long time, but she feels like she doesn't fit into one box. So the other side, I think the whole kind of nonbinary identity is also emerging in the conversations.