I was twenty-three years old the first time I saw my father wearing a dress. My reaction was immediate—I had lost my dad. At sixty-one, my father was a physician, and he’d always been a dude, a cowboy, an army buff. He was a cigar-smoking, elegant, moody guy with a biting sense of humor (think Ralph Lauren on his ranch but tall and skinny). And now here he was in kitten heels, jingling bracelets, and a long, sandy blond wig with bangs.
It was the summer of 2001 and I was working as a photographer, living in Manhattan with my older sister. My parents had already been separated for a year at this time, after thirty-four years of marriage. A few months earlier he’d come out to the family that he was a transvestite, that he felt good dressing in women’s clothes at home. A month later, however, my father told us that in fact he was not a transvestite but a transgender woman.
Six months earlier, I’d done a photo shoot of a female impersonation pageant in Little Rock, Arkansas, the Miss America equivalent for gay male entertainers. I went behind the scenes with my camera and documented the process of these men transforming themselves into fascinating, charismatic women. Back in New York, I sorted through the 3,000 photos, captivated by the by the idea that sensuality could be created, and was not simply innate in women, as I had always assumed growing up. (Sensuality fascinated me precisely because I felt I lacked it greatly.) I began to work on an essay on sensuality and femininity to go along with the photos. My father offered to help me do some research for the essay. It was in doing this research that he discovered what exactly transvestite and transgender meant. Suddenly the feelings he had always buried deep down were clearly defined, written and described in black and white on his web browser. Now that he had a name to put to the feelings, he could no longer push them away.
“Being transgender is about gender, not about sexuality,” he told me as we sat in the West Village restaurant that was exhibiting my project. “It’s not just putting on a dress and makeup,” he emphasized. “I’m a woman born in the body of a man.”
I scanned my childhood memories for some “aha” moments, but I found none. I watched my father as he cautiously explained to me his new truth, surrounded by my color photos of men dressed up as women. I couldn’t help but think that this was entirely my fault.
When he stepped out as Nancy in my living room on that summer day in 2001, I wasn’t sure how to react. He resembled an attractive, female version of himself, and seemed happy and peaceful, if slightly uncomfortable. On principle, I fully supported him. But this woman standing in front of me felt like a complete stranger. I no longer saw my past. The man who had raised me seemed to be abandoning me.
I managed to work out a smile of acceptance, and he approached me with one of his side hugs, the one where he puts his arm around my shoulders and rests his head on mine. I squinted my eyes shut as I tried to hold back the tears. I shared some words of encouragement and lots of compliments, but underneath I felt guilty. I had told close friends about my father coming out and that I accepted and supported his decision. Now it was time to walk the walk. Yet all I could think was, “I want my father back.” The realization that my father was finding happiness as someone else was scary.
The months that followed were loaded with sadness, confusion, and the uneasy feeling of embarking into the total unknown. When I saw him in person, different feminine details began to appear—wigs, skirts, accessories—yet when I spoke to him on the phone I heard his usual masculine voice. I’d imagine he was still a man, puffing a cigar in his vintage Lee high-water jeans, wearing his old New York Yankees baseball cap. I kept hoping he would all of a sudden say, “Nah, I miss being a man.” But that never happened.
I kept asking myself: Why would a grown man—a husband, a father, a physician—come out at his age as transgender? In 2001, transgender issues were not talked about much in mainstream media and I was terrified how people would react towards him. The thought of hate-mongers attacking my father weighed on me heavily (and still does). I worried about discrimination he might face while shopping, how his patients at the hospital would react to him, complications from sexual reassignment surgery. I couldn’t understand how this was all worth it just for him to go out in public as a woman so late in life.
While I had admiration for his courage, I couldn’t help worrying that this would unhinge the last iota of “family” our dysfunctional family possessed. My father had been depressed and suicidal for much of his life. As a child, I remember hearing him say that he just wanted to put a bullet in his head to make things easier for everyone. I lived with the constant fear of coming home to find he had gone through with it. My mother no longer took his threats seriously and had built up tremendous resentment towards him. My teenage sister was facing possible time in juvenile detention and I was navigating the pained role models around me by seeking solace inwards.
I sought comfort in my two sensuality guides—Marilyn Monroe and my best friend’s mother, June. Marilyn and June oozed love and compassion. They had a sensuality that was completely unselfconscious and embodied exactly what I wanted as a grown woman. When we watched movies at my best friend’s house, I would observe how June lovingly caressed her husband’s back. I had never seen this between my parents and made mental notes—this is how I wanted to be. My mother often complained that she married a man with no sense of intimacy, and from a very young age both my sister and I were aware that our parents had not been intimate since I was conceived. In the mid 1980s, when I was barely ten, they decided we should all see a family therapist. He soon had a strong case study on us, dedicating an entire chapter to our battered family in one of his books.
As a child, the occasional days my father was home from the hospital were golden. He would drive me to school, stopping to eat Egg McMuffins at the beach and watch the seals on the rocks in the overcast Pacific morning sky. I was mortally afraid of the dark and he helped me overcome my fear by shepherding me on a nighttime walk. The darkness beyond our flashlight beam scared me, so he shined the light on that precise woodsy area I feared and we walked right at it. Lighting that darkness, uncovering and understanding it made me feel as if I’d conquered it.
In an effort to keep my dad close, I shadowed him as a child. In my eyes, everything he did was perfect, regardless of his self-hatred. Using his old Nikkormat camera from the 1970s, he showed me the fundamentals of photography. He helped me build a fish-eye lens that I proudly pranced around with in high school, shooting, developing, and printing photos, making the darkroom my sacred place.
I revolved around him for so many years, but the pedestal upon which I’d placed him began to wobble after his transition. I was searching for a way to accept him as a woman, yet part of me still hoped the idea would fade away. When I saw him wearing the same silver jingly bangles that I wore every day I was somewhat flattered that he saw me as a role model. But it quickly became overwhelming and uncomfortable. Where did I get that purse? He went out and bought one for himself. What nail polish was I wearing? He wanted the same. Where was my skirt from? It was just perfect for him. I shared my shade of lipstick when he asked, even if it took every bit of strength in me not to run away and smear off my own.
It was all too heavy for me, but I didn’t want to let my father down. Seeing how people stared at him in public, I vowed to help him as much as I could. When he cleared his throat, it still sounded very masculine and I tried to show him how to make it a little more feminine. Learning to be dainty turned out to be a process, full of trial and error. We worked on getting his makeup right, choosing more age-appropriate wigs (no more sexy blond bangs), and narrowing down what kind of heels he needed for an evening out (not that his social life required them, but just in case, he would tell me with a glimmer of hope that he could finally strut his glamorous stuff somewhere). He was giddy with experimentation but becoming emotionally disconnected with the rest of us.
Looking back, I understand that those years were meant to be selfish, his “adolescence” as I came to view it. He’d finally gotten in touch with himself; how could he have the emotional space to connect much with others? It made sense, but it hurt.
My father continued to live and work as a man at that time, but he had started hormone therapy and was seeing a psychologist to work actively on his transition. When he came from Pennsylvania to visit us in New York, he would tell us in advance if he was coming as Nancy or as Dad. Soon it was just Nancy coming to visit; Dad made very rare appearances. I would occasionally request for my father to come as a man, and he would oblige since he knew it was hard for us. But the time came when I could not ask him anymore—it had become torture for him to dress as a man.
The anger he had pushed down for many years intensified—his difficult relationship with his father, anger at his male self for being “weak.” He delved into his new self with fervor: his makeup became heavier, and the jewelry, accessories and clothes continued to roll into his closet as he maxed out his credit cards. It felt like he was raging with teen angst.
In the spring of 2002, my father was called back to serve in the military. It was post 9/11, and he was needed as a trauma physician for a six-month mission in the Middle East. He was in the early stages of hormonal treatment at that point and had already begun to develop breasts. My father was ambivalent about going overseas—on the one hand, there was his love for the military and the thrill of working in combat zones, but on the other hand, he wanted to be a woman. He knew he’d have to live as a man, but he worried that his physical changes would be visible to others.
His crew would return to their base late at night, after five days of daily and nightly missions, and everyone would jump in the open, communal showers. My father dove straight into his cot, showering early the next morning instead. Years later he referred to these months as a mental “no man’s land,” feeling undefined in between genders. A conflict zone. A combat zone.
One day he awoke in the barracks at 4:00 a.m. in uncontrollable sobs. In his half-awake state, he faintly heard words—his words—forgiving his father for the lifelong pain he’d caused his young son. He felt his father communicating back to him, expressing his love for him, and reassuring him that everything would be okay. The crying continued, gradually turning into relief, allowing him to fall back into a deep sleep. He woke feeling that he’d been liberated from the burdens of his past and was now ready to move forward with his future as a woman.
A month after he returned from his deployment, I moved to Paris. The fashion magazine I had been working for offered this transfer and I jumped at it. It was a great career opportunity, but I also couldn’t deny that it was a relief to escape the intense family drama and start my own life elsewhere. A year later, when it began to seem more permanent, I flew home to bring back more of my things. It had now been almost two years since my father had come out. I went to his apartment to go through the last of my boxes that I’d stored there. Unpacking them, I noticed several of my dresses were missing. I looked around, wracking my brain trying to remember if there was another box I might have forgotten about. Then I glanced at my father’s double-doored closet. I approached it, assuming I’d find nothing, but decided to have a look just in case. As I slid the doors open, my father’s complicated double life came into view: sport jackets, skirts, military uniforms, heels. And then my heart sank. There were my dresses, casually hanging between scrubs and pressed button-down shirts.
My knees went weak and I sobbed in absolute sadness. I felt completely betrayed and disillusioned, as if me and my affairs were open-territory and that I served only one purpose for my father: to aid him in his transformation. I wanted to escape even farther away than Paris, somewhere so far that I’d be totally alone, free to be who I wanted without the risk of my space being encroached upon, or more precisely, without being a role model for my father trying to figure himself out while I was still trying to figure myself out. I grabbed my dresses and shoved everything into my suitcase.
This felt like a tipping point. I didn’t think I could be supportive any longer. I needed to confront my father, yet I was so afraid of hurting him or making him more uncomfortable than his life already was.
“I only unpacked a few of your things so that they wouldn’t get wrinkled,” he tried to reassure me, when I finally mustered the courage to talk to him about it.
“But Dad, you never took care of your own clothes, let alone other people’s!” I retorted in desperation, hoping he would tell me the truth.
At that point he felt cornered and I backed off, emotionally drained by the whole experience. Yes, he was experimenting at that time, and since he was not living full time as a woman, I understood that he needed to test women’s clothing at home. But I had already given him all the support I could, and now he was taking more than I was able to give.
After that day it was hard for me to see my father. For the next several years, we stayed in touch by phone and email. A long-distance relationship with him was easier for me at that point, and there was something reassuring in hearing my father’s (male) voice over the phone.
The plans for my father’s genital reassignment surgery came together seven years after he first came out. He would officially, technically, become a woman. His surgery was scheduled for November 4, 2008, the day Barack Obama first ran for president. My anxiety was at a record high—I prayed to every possible god that my father would come through okay, and that Obama would win. A group of close friends gathered in my apartment that overlooked the Eiffel Tower. The camaraderie—and the flowing chocolate martinis—helped ease the tension. Thankfully, my father came through fine. And Obama won.
After the surgery there was no turning back. I realized that I had to accept Dad as Nancy if I still wanted him in my life. In a sense, the surgery gave me closure on the loss of my father as I knew him. He was a woman. Nancy’s second adolescence eventually passed, and she fast-forwarded back to her actual age, doing the things that Dad had enjoyed as a man and more. She regularly sends me pictures of herself, happy in makeup and a vintage military helmet while smoking a cigar at home, to which I reply with selfies with my two young sons, along with crazy-faced emojis and a few wine-glass emojis.
There are still moments when I wish I had my father back, as a man. I wish I could see him coming into the kitchen wearing some funny thing on his head to make me laugh, with his high-water jeans and his old Converse. I wish I could hug him and not feel bra straps on his back or his breasts against my chest. I wish I did not have to see people staring at him when we’re in public. Sometimes I wish I could see his face again as I did growing up, with his auburn bushy eyebrows and stubble instead of plucked brows and blush.
When we meet someone today, my father proudly introduces me as his daughter (with that side-hug I love), and indeed, I am his daughter. But he is not my mother. When strangers say “Oh, your mom is so lovely!” I just nod and smile. I have to hold back an urge to correct them and say that Nancy in fact used to be my father. But I’m afraid that letting someone think that Nancy is my mother negates my actual birth mother and everything she did for me growing up. But I also don’t want to negate my father’s decision on who he is today, nor the unconditional love and support he has given me throughout my life.
It took me almost fifteen years to feel sincere happiness for my father and his decision. I no longer blame myself for being the catalyst in his coming out. Even without my photo project on female impersonators, he would have come to this realization at one point or another. But it does still cross my mind: was one of my roles in life to serve as my dad’s—Nancy’s—role model?
Even in my thirties, even still living an ocean away, I struggled with how to handle my “missing” father in the public sphere. For many years, I told only close friends, worrying that someone from the office might find out. I was afraid I would be seen as a weirdo, or that a future boyfriend might wonder if I might have once been a man too (I’m taller than most women). Who knew if it was hereditary, right? Even when I was pregnant with my first child, this thought crossed my mind, that hearing the baby’s heartbeat for the first time would slash any doubts my husband might have had. Big shocks make you think odd things.
Dad’s coming out has given me great admiration for all transgender people who are confronted with this complicated lot in life. As society becomes (slightly) more accepting, I hope things get easier. I no longer hesitate telling people about Nancy. I can now tell my story as the daughter of a transgender father, the daughter who was a sort-of role model but then escaped to another country, in some ways starting over at the same time as Nancy did. We came into our own, and now we’ve come back to each other.
When I visit Nancy from France, we go to nail salons and do mani-pedis, chatting at length over lunch and a bottle of wine, then shopping—both of us trying on clothes in the women’s fitting rooms which I now find funny. Our conversations are the same as they were when my father was still a man.
My sons, four and six years old, squeal “Nadgee!” when they see her face appear during our Facetime calls. They are aware Nadgee is a woman, but they also hear me speak of her as my father and sometimes use “he,” though I am making a concerted effort to only use “she.” I answer my boys’ questions as simply and openly as possible to help them understand why Nadgee—a twist on “grandparent” in Hungarian—became a woman.
Halfway losing my father and replacing him with someone new, yet not entirely unknown, has been a complicated shift, even if Nancy remains Dad on so many levels. She doesn’t try to erase her past now; on the contrary, she’s finally become proud of the man she was before and even feels empathy towards her former male self, as if he lives peacefully somewhere within her. The anger is gone, as well as the self-hatred and the suicidal thoughts.
My past with Nancy as my father won’t change, and that’s important for me to have. Dad as a woman is still Dad, the same Dad who walked me through the terrifying woods at night and the Dad who would do it all over again. The main difference is that today’s version is in a wig and makeup, wearing one of her military helmets, kitten heels, and jingly bracelets, puffing on a cigar. At home. Sending me selfies.