My domineering dad stood by me during my gender transition, but I didn’t truly become a woman until I finally stood up to him.
I called Papa in June 2001, the night before my sister Juno’s sweet sixteen party.
“I’m coming in on the bus around five,” I said. “I’ll be wearing makeup and women’s clothes. I just want to let you know so you’re not surprised. We can talk about it later.”
If I acted as though it wasn’t a big deal, maybe it wouldn’t be.
“Just make sure to be beautiful,” Papa replied.
I couldn’t believe it worked. I didn’t realize how much of an act my indifference was until the wave of relief from his acceptance made it hard to speak, so I quickly said goodbye.
Papa was a social worker for homeless people with AIDS, so he’d been around a lot of queers. But I didn’t expect him to be so unconcerned when the queer in question was his child — his first-born son.
Before he was a social worker, Papa was a taxi driver, going to night school to get his degree. He bragged about his straight A’s while I rolled my eyes about how easy his classes were, not like at Harvard where I went. That’s what it was like between us; he always wanted to prove he was better than me because it was his natural place as a father, and I didn’t let him because he wasn’t. Papa’s insistence on his intelligence was his way of taking responsibility for my success. He didn’t raise me, since he spent most of my childhood in the Philippines as a drunk, but he could claim genetic credit.
His stubborn confidence worked to my benefit when I transitioned. I arrived at my sister’s party, in front of 200 people, in tight black clothing and makeup more elaborate than hers. He simply nodded his approval and introduced me to everyone as his child.
When I came back down to New York from Boston for the weekend a few weeks later, my stepmom told me during one of her bouts of obsessive housecleaning that there were friends and relatives who disapproved. When I asked Papa about it, he said that his attitude towards me was none of their business, and that he didn’t need to see them if they were going to say bad things about his child.
I was in town because I wanted to tell them in person that I had legally changed my name and gender. Nothing was ever particularly formal in our family, so I just mentioned over dinner, while the TV was on, that they should call me Meredith and refer to me as “she.”
“I don’t think it matters that much,” Papa said.
“It matters to me,” I replied.
This is the part of being trans in America that Papa didn’t get, that effeminate men are targets in a way they weren’t back home. In the Philippines there were lots of feminine gay men who wore makeup and women’s clothes out in public without changing their names.
I was too grateful for his support to push him much on the details, so I spent the next few weeks gently reminding him to use my new name. After he told me during an argument over dinner, “You’re a woman now. You shouldn’t be so aggressive,” I realized his acceptance came with a new set of expectations of me. I tried my best to adjust, since this was something I needed to do to make my way in the world anyway.
I tried to argue less, but the fact that he kept calling me by my old name, my deadname as trans people call it, nagged at me and I tried to get him to stop. Thankfully, Tagalog doesn’t have gendered pronouns so that didn’t come up so often. But the more psychologically distanced I became from the person I was before, the harder it became to hear my old name — and the worse it felt that he had the power to make me feel bad just by saying it.
Then he picked me up from the bus station in Manhattan the week of Thanksgiving, and we stopped at a diner on the way home. He was in one of his obsessive fits about what I should do with my life, which was fine, I was used to that, but he kept using my deadname.
“[Deadname], you should come to New York for grad school.”
“[Deadname], you can move back home.”
“[Deadname], if only I had your opportunities, I’d be much better off than you are.”
The waiter passed by; my father raised his hand and said, “He needs more water,” pointing to me. I was in full makeup and heels. The waiter smirked as he filled my glass.
In the car on the way home, I told him he needed to stop calling me by my deadname, and that he needed to remember to use “she.”
“I’m an old man,” he replied.
I told him the waiter looked at me funny after Papa gendered me incorrectly. He said he calls men “she” and women “he” all the time; he gets confused because it’s just one word in Tagalog.
“I will do it if I remember,” he said, his eyes on the road.
At a stoplight, I opened the car door, got out and walked, clutching my too-thin tweed coat for warmth. I hated him, hated his stubbornness, hated myself for being like him, for refusing to let go of this argument even though I knew his stubbornness about gendering me correctly was rooted in the same refusal of society’s expectations that allowed him to accept me for who I am. He followed me in the car, through three blocks of dark residential streets, as I stared straight ahead, stomping along in my heels. There were black and yellow patterns on the ground from tungsten streets lamps casting shadows over trees, and a breeze stirred the world while my eyes clouded over it.
We reached a busy intersection but I was too determined and angry to stop. I ran across the street as a car sped toward the corner. I felt my ankle give way in my heels and had to skip the last few steps to avoid getting hit, feeling the wind from the car graze my back.
“Do you want to die?” Papa yelled. “Get back in the car!”
“You know how you could get me killed?” I yelled back, “Tell people I’m a man!”
I walked the rest of the way. That night was the second-to-last time he would call me by my deadname.
* * *
Papa thought about coming with me to Thailand for my operation, but he couldn’t get enough time off from work. I didn’t see him until two months later.
It was late afternoon when I got to the two-bedroom apartment he shared with my stepmom, my two sisters, and a couple of boarders. The summer light from the windows momentarily blinded me as I came through the door, and I didn’t notice Papa napping on the couch until I set my suitcase down a little too loudly and saw his eyes flutter open.
“You look good,” he told me, his face placid from sleep. He remained lying down as I sat on the floor next to him, the top of my back brushing his leg.
Then he said, “I can’t believe I lost my first-born son.”
There was a tear I didn’t see him shed, but I saw him wipe it. He told me how proud he was of me for taking control of my life even though I didn’t grow up with his love. He said he wished he had more courage like me to have made his own way in the world, to have pursued his ambitions to be an artist rather than being forced to marry when my birth-mom got pregnant with me, which led to his drunken rebellion when I was a child. He told me this is why he has always supported my decisions even if he disapproved, no matter how hard it sometimes was. But he always saw himself in me and my successes, because I was his first-born son.
“I’m sorry to burden you,” he said.
That’s my only memory of hearing my father apologize to me. I told him not to worry and let him go on telling me about his feelings about my transition, which he withheld for so long to give me room to be who I am. To him, it felt different to dream for a daughter than it had to dream for a son. It was different to dream for a man he thought of as the person he could have been if he’d had the same opportunities, rather than a woman who wasn’t like him in fundamental ways, who will live the rest of her life as someone he can observe but never truly understand.
“Papa, I’m still the same person,” I said, as I rested a cheek on his knee. “I’ll still be who I am even if I’m a woman.”
* * *
From that conversation on, I relied on Papa in ways I hadn’t before. A year after my younger brother died, when I suffered from intense seasonal depression and couldn’t go to class my first winter in grad school at Cornell, Papa was the first person I called. He drove the five hours up with my stepmom and sister to take care of me for a few days. I invited him to my readings and events, unlike in high school and college when I kept any accolades from him because I resented his assumption that he deserved some credit for my accomplishments. He still thought I was too independent for my gender, and even tried to convince someone I broke up with to “take me back” because he was afraid I would never find someone. But I didn’t confront him like I would have when I was his son, because what I took as intrusion when I lived as a man felt more like protection after transition and, for the first time, I felt like the credit he took for my success was justified.
What I didn’t know was that during these years of relative calm between us, the tension in his marriage with my stepmom Clara was swirling into a storm. It was hard to notice because nothing much changed between them on the surface. She still did all the chores in the house and worked two jobs while he only worked one. He still spent too much time going out with friends, not enough making sure she felt loved. But one day, after 28 years together, she decided to leave him, and locked him out of the apartment when he refused to accept her decision. He finally went back to the Philippines to live in our old hometown, distraught and confused.
When I went to the Philippines in the summer of 2011, I found out that Papa was leading the life he’d led when I was a child, addicted to alcohol and drugs. He sold some of my grandmother’s land to fund his addiction but refused to take care of her, and refused to let anyone else enter her house, my childhood home, because he feared that one of my cousins would take it from him. So she was forced to move in with my cousin because she was too fragile to take care of herself.
Being the oldest man in our extended family gave Papa a great deal of power, which he refused to use justly even after I implored him to think about my grandmother, his own mother, whose decades of building a farm and amassing land was the reason he had money and property to begin with. But to Papa, all this was a fair price for the life his parents deprived him of when they forced him to marry too young, and refused to support his dreams.
After these conversations went nowhere, I told him I couldn’t be in touch with him anymore. I knew from reading about addiction and codependence that sometimes the best way to deal with an addict is to let him hit bottom. Papa relied on me as a reflection of himself, as an extension of the parts of him that made him proud. I thought that removing myself from his life might force him to rethink his actions.
* * *
Nearly four years later, in January of 2015, Papa and I still hadn’t talked. It was easy to avoid him when he was half a world away and his life no longer had anything to do with mine.
But I returned to the Philippines for work. I visited my grandmother Nanay Coro, who by then was in Manila, where my cousin had moved to a single-story cinderblock house. My grandmother moved there to escape my father, who wouldn’t even let her build a business adjacent to his property. It was a long drive from the home and life she spent decades building. Nanay came from a childhood wracked with images of torture during the Japanese occupation. She needed to leave school as a teenager to work as a subsistence farmer, then found herself, through wit and perseverance, the owner of lands and a large home.
So to see her once again, at nearly eighty years old, reduced to a spare room in the back of a house in a project where she knew no one, forced my heart to encase itself with anger so it wouldn’t break.
“Can you bring me to my house?” she asked.
Nanay knew she couldn’t live there because of Papa, but she just wanted to see it again, to remember her happy years with my grandfather.
I hired a car to drive us to our hometown.
Traffic was brutal so a drive that was supposed to take four hours stretched to seven, ending in our town’s single street as we arrived near sundown.
As I approached the house’s main door, I noticed a big padlock in front, and no one answered when I tried to knock. A visibly tipsy neighbor who looked not unlike my father came over, introduced himself as one of Papa’s friends, and motioned for me to follow him. I asked my grandmother to wait in the car while I tried to get the key.
The mango trees in our backyard obscured Papa’s hangout, but when we walked through them I saw a vast hole in the ground, a quarter-mile long and at least two persons deep, where the rice paddies next to our house used to be — the first land that my grandparents owned. Had I arrived only two hours earlier, I would have heard the roar of industrial equipment, familiar from the time when my grandfather dug distant parts of his land to sell the fertile soil elsewhere. By wounding the fields that my grandmother held so dear, it was as if Papa was avenging the loss of his youth, his life.
I recognized the man climbing out of the hole as an emaciated version of my father.
“Can we have the keys to the house?” I asked. “Nanay just wants to see it.”
He said he didn’t have the keys, and when I asked him who did, he said they were with his new girlfriend who wasn’t there. Then, when I told him I’d break a window, he pulled the keys out of his pocket, held them up, and jangled them in front of me.
“You can’t have them,” he said. “The keys are mine.”
I used the same tired arguments I’d used before, about him kicking out his own mother, whose only wish was to see her home. But as I repeated this well-worn speech, I watched him shuffle his feet within inches of the mammoth hole he had dug, and imagined myself pushing him inside.
“What you don’t understand, Marc,” he said, “is that I am in charge here.”
He used my deadname for the first time in more than a decade, intending to remind me of his power to define my gender. But what Papa actually did was reveal how devastated he was that I, his first-born son who became his daughter, had deserted him, when I’d promised to be the same person all those years ago.
What my father didn’t know was that I was no longer trying to mimic a woman by acting demure. I was sure enough of myself to use my strength. I was taller than him, younger, fitter, my body un-ravaged by drugs. Calling me Marc no longer reminded me of a vulnerability that made me feel unsafe. It reminded me that I could be called Marc, could fight like my father didn’t think a woman should, and still be the woman he witnessed me become.
My muscles tensed as they prepared to wrest the keys from my father’s hand. But Papa shuffled away, down the soft edge of his hole, and took the hand of one of the children playing at the bottom. Papa ambled with him, turned his back to me intermittently, dangled his keys and grinned.
“Look at him,” our neighbor said. “He’s just a child. Just humor him and he’ll give you the key.”
He suggested that I tell Papa I love him, that I use my feminine wiles to coax him into feeling protective and granting me my wish.
Papa wanted me to be the kind of mother he never had, to make up for the son he lost. I learned how to be a woman in the world with his help, but he never quite learned how to be a man. Inside him was a scared boy who hadn’t grow up, a boy who wanted to be seen and held.
But my heart was caged in anger, and refused to propel my feet. I was trapped in my own pride, the same pride that I learned as my father’s first-born son, that I couldn’t relinquish as his daughter.
There was barely light by the time I returned to my grandmother without a key. We rode in silence until I asked the driver to stop at an ATM. I withdrew my meager savings and gave it to her, not enough to restore her self but enough to keep her happy for a while. If I couldn’t be a mother to my father, I could at least be a granddaughter to the mother he didn’t want. This was the only way I could manage to be a woman.
* * *
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