So the other morning I went to the grocery store and an employee greeted me with a "Good morning, sir, can I help you with anything?" I said, "No, thanks, I'm good." The person smiled and we went our separate ways. I grabbed Cheerios and I left the grocery store. And I went through the drive-through of a local coffee shop. After I placed my order, the voice on the other end said, "Thank you, ma'am. Drive right around." Now, in the span of less than an hour, I was understood both as a "sir" and as a "ma'am." But for me, neither of these people are wrong, but they're also not completely right.
This cute little human is my almost-two-year-old Elliot. Yeah, alright. And over the past two years, this kid has forced me to rethink the world and how I participate in it. I identify as transgender and as a parent, that makes me a transparent.
As you can see, I took this year's theme super literal.
Like any good dad joke should. More specifically, I identify as genderqueer. And there are lots of ways to experience being genderqueer, but for me that means I don't really identify as a man or a woman. I feel in between and sometimes outside of this gender binary. And being outside of this gender binary means that sometimes I get "sired" and "ma'amed" in the span of less than an hour when I'm out doing everyday things like getting Cheerios. But this in between lane is where I'm most comfortable. This space where I can be both a sir and a ma'am feels the most right and the most authentic. But it doesn't mean that these interactions aren't uncomfortable. Trust me, the discomfort can range from minor annoyance to feeling physically unsafe. Like the time at a bar in college when a bouncer physically removed me by the back of the neck and threw me out of a woman's restroom. But for me, authenticity doesn't mean "comfortable." It means managing and negotiating the discomfort of everyday life, even at times when it's unsafe. And it wasn't until my experience as a trans person collided with my new identity as a parent that I understood the depth of my vulnerabilities and how they are preventing me from being my most authentic self.
Now, for most people, what their child will call them is not something that they give much thought to outside of culturally specific words or variations on a gendered theme like "mama," "mommy," or "daddy," "papa." But for me, the possibility is what this child, who will grow to be a teenager and then a real-life adult, will call me for the rest of our lives, was both extremely scary and exciting. And I spent nine months wrestling with the reality that being called "mama" or something like it didn't feel like me at all. And no matter how many times or versions of "mom" I tried, it always felt forced and deeply uncomfortable. I knew being called "mom" or "mommy" would be easier to digest for most people. The idea of having two moms is not super novel, especially where we live.
So I tried other words. And when I played around with "daddy," it felt better. Better, but not perfect. It felt like a pair of shoes that you really liked but you needed to wear and break in. And I knew the idea of being a female-born person being called "daddy" was going to be a harder road with a lot more uncomfortable moments. But, before I knew it, the time had come and Elliot came screaming into the world, like most babies do, and my new identity as a parent began. I decided on becoming a daddy, and our new family faced the world.
Now one of the most common things that happens when people meet us is for people to "mom" me. And when I get "momed", there are several ways the interaction can go, and I've drawn this map to help illustrate my options.
So, option one is to ignore the assumption and allow folks to continue to refer to me as "mom," which is not awkward for the other party, but is typically really awkward for us. And it usually causes me to restrict my interaction with those people. Option one. Option two is to stop and correct them and say something like, "Actually, I'm Elliot's dad" or "Elliot calls me 'daddy.'" And when I do this, one or two of the following things happen. Folks take it in stride and say something like, "Oh, OK." And move on. Or they respond by apologizing profusely because they feel bad or awkward or guilty or weird. But more often, what happens is folks get really confused and look up with an intense look and say something like, "Does this mean you want to transition? Do you want to be a man?" Or say things like, "How can she be a father? Only men can be dads."
Well, option one is oftentimes the easier route. Option two is always the more authentic one. And all of these scenarios involve a level of discomfort, even in the best case. And I'll say that over time, my ability to navigate this complicated map has gotten easier. But the discomfort is still there.
Now, I won't stand here and pretend like I've mastered this, it's pretty far from it. And there are days when I still allow option one to take place because option two is just too hard or too risky. There's no way to be sure of anyone's reaction, and I want to be sure that folks have good intentions, that people are good. But we live in a world where someone's opinion of my existence can be met with serious threats to me or even my family's emotional or physical safety. So I weigh the costs against the risks and sometimes the safety of my family comes before my own authenticity. But despite this risk, I know as Elliot gets older and grows into her consciousness and language skills, if I don't correct people, she will. I don't want my fears and insecurities to be placed on her, to dampen her spirit or make her question her own voice. I need to model agency, authenticity and vulnerability, and that means leaning into those uncomfortable moments of being "momed" and standing up and saying, "No, I'm a dad. And I even have the dad jokes to prove it."
Now, there have already been plenty of uncomfortable moments and even some painful ones. But there's also been, in just two short years, validating and at times transformative moments on my journey as a dad and my path towards authenticity. When we got our first sonogram, we decided we wanted to know the sex of the baby. The technician saw a vulva and slapped the words "It's a girl" on the screen and gave us a copy and sent us on our way. We shared the photo with our families like everyone does and soon after, my mom showed up at our house with a bag filled — I'm not exaggerating, it was like this high and it was filled, overflowing with pink clothes and toys. Now I was a little annoyed to be confronted with a lot of pink things, and having studied gender and spent countless hours teaching about it in workshops and classrooms, I thought I was pretty well versed on the social construction of gender and how sexism is a devaluing of the feminine and how it manifests both explicitly and implicitly. But this situation, this aversion to a bag full of pink stuff, forced me to explore my rejection of highly feminized things in my child's world.
I realized that I was reinforcing sexism and the cultural norms I teach as problematic. No matter how much I believed in gender neutrality in theory, in practice, the absence of femininity is not neutrality, it's masculinity. If I only dress my baby in greens and blues and grays, the outside world doesn't think, "Oh, that's a cute gender-neutral baby." They think, "Oh, what a cute boy." So my theoretical understanding of gender and my parenting world collided hard. Yes, I want a diversity of colors and toys for my child to experience. I want a balanced environment for her to explore and make sense of in her own way. We even picked a gender-neutral name for our female-born child. But gender neutrality is much easier as a theoretical endeavor than it is as a practice. And in my attempts to create gender neutrality, I was inadvertently privileging masculinity over femininity. So, rather than toning down or eliminating femininity in our lives, we make a concerted effort to celebrate it. We have pinks among the variety of colors, we balance out the cutes with handsomes and the prettys with strongs and smarts and work really hard not to associate any words with gender. We value femininity and masculinity while also being highly critical of it. And do our best to not make her feel limited by gender roles. And we do all this in hopes that we model a healthy and empowered relationship with gender for our kid.
Now this work to develop a healthy relationship with gender for Elliot made me rethink and evaluate how I allowed sexism to manifest in my own gender identity. I began to reevaluate how I was rejecting femininity in order to live up to a masculinity that was not healthy or something I wanted to pass on. Doing this self-work meant I had to reject option one. I couldn't ignore and move on. I had to choose option two. I had to engage with some of my most uncomfortable parts to move towards my most authentic self. And that meant I had to get real about the discomfort I have with my body. It's pretty common for trans people to feel uncomfortable in their body, and this discomfort can range from debilitating to annoying and everywhere in between. And learning my body and how to be comfortable in it as a trans person has been a lifelong journey. I've always struggled with the parts of my body that can be defined as more feminine — my chest, my hips, my voice. And I've made the sometimes hard, sometimes easy decision to not take hormones or have any surgeries to change it to make myself more masculine by society's standards. And while I certainly haven't overcome all the feelings of dissatisfaction, I realized that by not engaging with that discomfort and coming to a positive and affirming place with my body, I was reinforcing sexism, transphobia and modeling body shaming. If I hate my body, in particular, the parts society deems feminine or female, I potentially damage how my kid can see the possibilities of her body and her feminine and female parts. If I hate or am uncomfortable with my body, how can I expect my kid to love hers?
Now it would be easier for me to choose option one: to ignore my kid when she asks me about my body or to hide it from her. But I have to choose option two every day. I have to confront my own assumptions about what a dad's body can and should be. So I work every day to try and be more comfortable in this body and in the ways I express femininity. So I talk about it more, I explore the depths of this discomfort and find language that I feel comfortable with. And this daily discomfort helps me build both agency and authenticity in how I show up in my body and in my gender. I'm working against limiting myself. I want to show her that a dad can have hips, a dad doesn't have to have a perfectly flat chest or even be able to grow facial hair. And when she's developmentally able to, I want to talk to her about my journey with my body. I want her to see my journey towards authenticity even when it means showing her the messier parts.
We have a wonderful pediatrician and have established a good relationship with our kid's doctor. And as you all know, while your doctor stays the same, your nurses and nurse practitioners change in and out. And when Elliot was first born, we took her to the pediatrician and we met our first nurse — we'll call her Sarah. Very early in in our time with Sarah, we told her how I was going to be called "dad" and my partner is "mama." Sarah was one of those folks that took it in stride, and our subsequent visits went pretty smoothly. And about a year later, Sarah switched shifts and we started working with a new nurse — we'll call her Becky. We didn't get in front of the dad conversations and it didn't actually come up until Sarah, our original nurse, walked in to say hi. Sarah's warm and bubbly and said hi to Elliot and me and my wife and when talking to Elliot said something like, "Is your daddy holding your toy?" Now out of the corner of my eye, I could see Becky swing around in her chair and make daggers at Sarah. And as the conversation shifted to our pediatrician, I saw Sarah and Becky's interaction continue, and it went something like this. Becky, shaking her head "no" and mouthing the word "mom." Sarah, shaking her head "no" and mouthing the word "no, dad."
Awkward, right? So this went back and forth in total silence a few more times until we walked away.
Now, this interaction has stuck with me. Sarah could have chosen option one, ignored Becky, and let her refer to me as mom. It would have been easier for Sarah. She could have put the responsibility back on me or not said anything at all. But in that moment, she chose option two. She chose to confront the assumptions and affirm my existence. She insisted that a person who looks and sounds like me can in fact be a dad. And in a small but meaningful way, advocated for me, my authenticity and my family.
Unfortunately, we live in a world that refuses to acknowledge trans people and the diversity of trans people in general. And my hope is that when confronted with an opportunity to stand up for someone else, we all take action like Sarah, even when there's risk involved.
So some days, the risk of being a genderqueer dad feels too much. And deciding to be a dad has been really hard. And I'm sure it will continue to be the hardest, yet the most rewarding experience of my life. But despite this challenge, every day has felt 100 percent worth it. So each day I affirm my promise to Elliot and that same promise to myself. To love her and myself hard with forgiveness and compassion, with tough love and with generosity. To give room for growth, to push beyond comfort in hopes of attaining and living a more meaningful life.
I know in my head and in my heart that there are hard and painful and uncomfortable days ahead. My head and my heart also know that all of it will lead to a more rich, authentic life that I can look back on without regrets.