What’s It Like Growing Up With A Transgender Parent? Sharon Shattuck Knows.

When Sharon Shattuck was a kid, her dad told her that she identified as a woman and that she was going to change her name to Trisha. Now, Sharon has decided to explore her father’s experience, along with the experience of LGBT families across America by making a documentary. She’s currently working on raising money for her film through Kickstarter (just one day left!).

I recently had some back and forth with Sharon about what is was like to grow up with an LGBT dad in a time and place that wasn’t necessarily always the most queer-friendly. As a future LGBT parent myself, I found Sharon’s perspective to be both useful and educational.

GINA: Because I think it would be very useful for future LGBT parents to hear from a “kid” perspective, looking back on your experience with your dad, is there anything you wish either of you had done differently? Any questions you wished you had asked?

SHARON: I think the one thing that really sticks with me from my childhood is that I felt very alone–I felt like no one else’s family was like mine, so I just sequestered that part of my life and didn’t talk about it with my friends or acquaintances. Trish (my dad) became the elephant in the room — everyone in town knew of her, but no one wanted to ask questions or to understand our family dynamic. It was very Midwestern and stoic, but there was also an undercurrent of fierce suspicion and fear from some people in the community.

I guess I wish I had talked about it more, and been more open from the start, open to answering questions and diffusing the fear that some (but not all) people exhibited. It would have been an opportunity to educate people who might not otherwise know any LGBT people. I also wish that I could have met other kids from LGBT families, but I think that when I was younger, that Midwestern tendency to not talk about things also ran pretty strong in me, so it might not have really changed things much.

I also wish that there was some sort of template for us during dad’s transition. I think that it was as confusing for my dad as it was for the rest of the family — much more confusing, I think, than not having kids, or transitioning prior to having kids. We never really nailed down which pronouns to use, or what to call dad, besides “dad” — because I feel like “mom” is off-limits, since I have a mom. And dealing with all that in a very small, conservative town only compounded the stress, because we were getting negative feedback from certain people in the community.

G: Speaking of that, let’s talk a little about your mom. How was the experience for her?

S: Well, dad told mom about being transgender before they got married, although I’m not sure they knew the term “transgender” back then. Luckily, my mom decided she was ok with that part of dad’s identity… back then, it wasn’t something that dad wanted to express in public, and so they’ve definitely had to evolve together over the years to make the marriage work once Trish realized that she wanted to identify as a woman. My mom considers herself straight, in that she’s attracted to men, so I think that being with Trish posed some challenges. Trish never had “sexual reassignment surgery” (SRS) though. I think that eventually my mom and dad came to a compromise and learned to love one another for the people that they are. There is an element of gender compromise there for my dad, too — over the years, Trish has oscillated from being more feminine to being almost gender neutral, and I think partly that was due to her desire to stay with mom.

G: That must have been tough for both Trish and your mom. How has your extended family reacted to your dad’s transition? Has everyone been supportive?

S: I don’t think dad’s gender identity was necessarily a surprise to anyone in my extended family. Trish grew up in the 60s, and was a long-haired hippie, so there’s always been an “alternative” element there. I think it was somewhat difficult for my dad’s brother and sister, because they grew up with “Michael,” but I was recently in Chicago with my extended family and it was really heartening to hear my aunts and uncles refer to dad as “Trish,” and to hear my cousins just use “Trish” automatically. My grandparents, dad’s parents, also were fairly supportive, after an initial adjustment period. Really, I think ours is one of the more happy stories of a trans person finding acceptance within the family; there are unfortunately a lot of transgender people who feel they have to hide that side of themselves from their family indefinitely, or who are completely ostracized. I’m so glad that didn’t happen to dad.

trish

G: What were some of the biggest positives of having a trans dad? How about the negatives?

S: I think the biggest positives of growing up with a trans parent are probably the same as the positives of growing up with any LGBT parent. I grew up painfully aware of how it feels to be different and so I was uncomfortable talking about people behind their backs, and tried not to judge people for being different. I think it also helped me to understand the unique struggles and discrimination that LGBT people sometimes face, so I’ve been an advocate and ally for LGBT rights for many years now. Also, growing up with a parent as unique, creative and unabashedly “weird” personality-wise as Trish made me realize that it’s okay to be different. Trish always says to “follow your bliss,” and I try to do that with every decision I make.

On the negative side, I think it’s just tough to feel drastically different because of something that’s out of your control. I felt embarrassed of dad when I was in elementary and middle school, because kids would ask me questions about my family that I didn’t know how to answer. I worried about offering my friends a ride home from school, because I wasn’t sure what Trish would be wearing when she picked us up. Trish was very uncompromising with her femininity when my sister and I were in elementary and middle school, and that caused some serious tension in our family, because that was also a point in our lives when the most important thing seemed to be fitting in with our peers. I did wish for a “normal” dad back then.

G: Because this has come up a lot in comments about your piece and because there is a wide variation in terms of knowledge about the trans community, I’m wondering if you can talk a little about your dad’s use of gender pronouns. You refer to her as “Dad,” and sometimes “him,” and “he.” Does she go by both male and female pronouns?

S: Sure. I’m learning that calling a transgender parent “dad” is far more contentious in the trans community than I realized! My sister and I grew up using “dad,” and Trish never requested any other term. When I say “dad” I almost automatically say “he,” because, well, my brain is hardwired that way, but I’m trying to change that by using “Trish,” which reminds me to say “she.” In a recent interview, I posed this pronoun confusion to my dad, and asked what pronouns people should use when addressing her. Trish said, “whatever they’re most comfortable with.” But I think that she appreciates it when we use feminine pronouns, because it’s an issue of respect.

What I want to make clear, though, is that this is how MY family chose to be, but it’s not how every transgender family is. That’s part of the reason I want to meet and interview lots of other LGBT families, as well as experts, journalists and researchers, so that I can incorporate their stories and viewpoints into the film, too.

To learn more about Sharon’s film, Project Dad, check out the official site–or watch a section of it on The New York Times.

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42 Comments

  1. @ Sprout — is there another male role model in the family — maybe an uncle or grandfather or something — that your sons can spend some time with? That might help, I dunno.

    • No_one, yes fortunately my father is a huge part of our life, we lived with him up until 5 yrs ago and I have the boys enrolled and active in Boy Scouts which they enjoy tremendously and look up to our scout leader and many of our older boys who are great young men!! I have both boys in therapy through the school and my younger boy who has Aspergers enrolled in an equestrian therapy program for special needs children. I’m doing all I can to provide them with a stable, well rounded home that they can thrive in.. I just wish I could take away the pain and anger that has been caused by their fathers choices and actions!!! I don’t know what to do to help them in that area!! The you get boy won’t even talk about it and when he does it brief and to the point and them it’s “I’m not going to discuss this anymore mom, I’ve said what I have to say..period the end!!” He is quite the precocious little man :-)!! The older boy is very angry and is acting out at home and school, he fights with his brother, he constantly argues with me which usually ends with him storming off and slamming g his door and yelling how much he hates me (after a few min he calms down and cries and tells me he’s sorry he doesn’t hate me) he gets in fights at school.. At the same time because of his size and his a ring out he’s bullied at school too ( my boys are the size of 6&7 yr olds…they take growth hormone injections daily!!) my older boy tells me he is angry with his father but since he’s not around he doesn’t know who to take it out on and he doesn’t me to take it out on everybody else..he feels abandoned by his father and feels worthless!! I make sure my boys know they are the 2 most important ppl in the world as far as I’m concerned and that to me they are worth more than all the money, things and ppl in the world to me and that to me they always come 1st!! That’s all fine and good but for a 13yr old boy what their father thinks of them is very important!!! I just feel alone and like I can’t FIX this!! As people who went through similar situations to ours what can I do as a parent to help them? What did your parents do to help you through your famines situation?!!

  2. I will first begin by apologizing for any offense taken. I am extremely new to the LBGT community and have been trying to learn more in order to begin to understand my father. I am unsure of what is proper pronoun usage (I will definitely ask “him” tomorrow what “he” prefers after reading these posts!) but will, for the sake of this post, refer to my father as “Dad”, “he” and “him” as I’ve had 28 years of doing so and am claiming naivety!

    My father very recently told me that he is in the process of transitioning. I’ve known since my teens that he enjoyed dressing as a woman but I guess I never thought that he may actually want to BE a woman. In my teens I too was very angry with my father. I blamed him for not being a “normal dad”. In retrospect that was very selfish of me.

    I found this article because I wanted to hear other stories of people who had grown up with transgendered parents. I also wanted to know how others were dealing with reconstructing their own views of their transparent’s identity. I found the article interesting and honestly felt comforted knowing someone had similar feelings as I did. At 28 I am just beginning to want to understand what my dad has been living like, and the emotions and feelings that he must deal with, having to hide his lifestyle for so long. Unfortunately our family has not been quite as accepting as the authors. My parents are no longer together, but I still have a very close relationship with my dad. My brother (who is 25) found out more recently about my father and is still very angry. This new image of my dad does not match with the memories of the father he grew up with and he’s finding this very hard to deal with.

    Having read through all these posts, I think it’s important to hear all sides, and be tolerant of the naivety that will inherently be present as children of transgendered parents try to begin to understand them. I feel that there is value to stories like these but am also thankful for the all of the responses I’ve read as I’ve learned a lot in this one forum!

  3. As a trannsexual and a parent, I’m a little disturbed by some of the comments on here, bashing this family, and especially this daughter who is obviously trying to figure some things out still (“I’m learning that calling a transgender parent “dad” is far more contentious in the trans community than I realized!…In a recent interview, I posed this pronoun confusion to my dad, and asked what pronouns people should use when addressing her.”) As far as I’m concerned compromise is what family and parenting is all about. “Mom” and “Dad” are terms of endearment, and it’s a hypocritical for anyone to say that, for example, “penises and vaginas don’t dictate gender,” and then imbue a familial term with an inherent gender. My kids continue to call me “mom” whenever they want, because that’s what they’ve called me most of their lives and, sure, because they already have a dad. If I were to have a “new set” of kids–post-transition–they’d likely call me Dad, but I would never ask my current kids to change over because that’s our relationship, and we’ve given that term its own definition between us. There are connotations they have with the term “dad” that I wouldn’t want to be associated with, for the same reasons. When you’re a parent you adjust, you don’t always get your way, you do a hell of a lot of playing by ear, and you often put your kids’ feelings above your own; these don’t seem like outlandish concepts to me.

    Like I’ve always taught my kids: remember that when looking in on other people’s relationships you’re never going to know their full truth, so you should usually just leave it up to them to decide what works best. I know plenty of parents who would answer just like Trish, “whatever they’re most comfortable with,” when asked what their children should call them. And like so many of our parents, siblings, partners, and friends have had to learn, because they love us: sometimes the relationships in our lives are more important to us than than the pronouns.

  4. Resurrecting an old thread here, I know. But I googled “anger at transgender parent” and this thread came up. My 67 year-old father came out 6 months ago to family members as a transgender person. My mother has known for years apparently, and it appears she was ok with it as long as he was discreet. However, now my father has announced his intention to live openly as “Meaghan”. His timing couldn’t have been crappier. My mother has been nursing my grandmother through ovarian cancer and Grandma passed away three weeks ago. My father announced that Meaghan would be going to the funeral. My mother almost completely lost it, so he backed down. I put on a good face, but underneath I’m seething with anger.

    This is just the latest example of my father’s selfishness and insensitivity. It’s always all about him. His rages and violent abuse of my mother were the dominant features of my childhood. My younger brothers and I learned very early to walk on eggshells around him. To this day, he still gets loud and aggressive in order to intimidate and bully people into letting him have his way. Now he says he wants to live as a woman. How does that reconcile with the alpha-male bullish*t that he’s still pulling??? I’d like to be all “puppies & rainbows” and accepting but that’s not going to happen until he takes responsibility for the pain and the trauma inflicted on me and my siblings growing up in a domestic war zone. There’s more than one elephant in our family living room.

    • Transgender people tend to be very unhappy living as their birth gender, and some express this dysphoria as rage. Not excusing your father for being abusive, but it’s quite possible she will be a lot nicer as Meaghan, and that her behavior was a reaction to gender dysphoria. Coming out as transgender isn’t your father being selfish and insensitive, it’s her finally taking ownership of a chronic problem she has had forever and not handled properly. Think of it like an alcoholic making life changes and setting boundaries to help them quit drinking.
      But whatever the reason for your father’s abuse, you need to care for your own needs. Have you gotten counseling for yourself? Counseling and space are the best ways to deal with trauma.

  5. this is really interesting as a trans myself and are concerned how my daugthers are and will coupe with my transition,may I point out to the negative ones there is very little info for teenagers of a transparent.for help

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