by Jennifer Tianen
My father was killed in an industrial accident when I was 6 months old. He was a librarian, a Finnish-American Socialist from the Upper Peninsula, and a war hero who had been wounded while winning a bronze star assaulting Omaha Beach on D-Day. I grieve that I never knew him or even much about him. The aftermath of his passing was deeply traumatic with frequently challenging circumstances and evil characters.
When I was about 5 years old my mother remarried. My new stepfather, nicknamed Duke, had been a Sargent of the motor pool in the old regular army and became a truck driver as a civilian. His hands were like vice grips from constantly shifting gears. His presence was authoritative and commanding but leavened with awkward caring. He was incredibly handsome and could change the oil wearing a white shirt and a three piece suit and never get a spot of anything on his pristine clothing.
Very shortly after they married, my mother gave me a T shirt that said, “My Daddy is a Truck Driver.“ She pointed out the window to a passing truck and said, “Your Daddy is a Truck Driver.“ I very clearly remember the T shirt, the passing truck, and the moment of wondering, “WHAT’S A DADDY??? “.
My stepfather and I were not simpatico. He could not understand my interests in astronomy and classical music, and I hated his country music. Being told about the birds and the bees was enormously awkward and embarrassing. I wanted to crawl under the rug. Other times, he said that my biological father was a bookworm and that I would go insane reading so much. Talking about my biological father was forbidden as disloyalty to the new blended family. But I asked about him anyway.
High School was marked by the double whammy of effeminate body language and interest in various intellectual pursuits. I was called a queer, insulted, harassed, threatened, and assaulted. So I consciously altered my body language and fought back, deftly knocking tormenters onto the floor. Since I was so ardent for my high school sweetheart I really didn’t understand being called queer. She wasn’t just cover. She was my first true love.
As an adult I had 2 marriages with children, one son from the first and three from the second. My oldest son was gay. I admonished him to act straight, because I didn’t want him to send signals that would get him harassed and assaulted as I had been as a little boy. But I didn’t tell him why. He said I ruined his life and that he didn’t want to see me again. I haven’t seen him in 10 years. I could have been a much better father to him, but I haven’t bought into the guilt trip.
In my second marriage, as I prepared for the role of stepfather, I tried to synthesize my father, stepfather, and roiling inner gender conflict. My father-in-law was a total handyman who came over occasionally to fix things in our house. He didn’t seem to hold me in much regard because I couldn’t do what he could. It was like my stepfather all over again. Being a stepfather myself felt like maddening poetic justice. My stepson thought I was an interloper and didn’t pay attention or appreciate me.
I wanted my 3 new sons to have the best of my father, my stepfather, and my hidden femininity. We played catch in the back yard and went camping together as a family. I liked those things. I went to their little league games and cub scout meetings. I hated those but did them anyway. I read to them at night and stumped them with brain teasers at the dinner table. Whenever they fought, I taught them to negotiate. I taught them by example to always support your family and never cheat on your wife. To affirm diversity and always honor and respect your partner as an equal. To never be abusive in any way.
I remember sitting with my therapist and talking about coming out to my sons. Shaking and crying, I said, “I’m so afraid.“ Yet my sons have affirmed me. They call me their father with admiration and respect. I always wanted my sons to be so deeply self-confident that they wouldn’t need to posture with totems and overbearing arrogance to be thought of as “real men.“ All men are real in one way or another. I never wanted them to think that winning is everything.
About 20 years ago I called my stepfather to wish him a happy Father’s Day. No matter who called, my stepdad would always just hand the phone to my mother. I was preparing to tell my mother to tell my stepfather Happy Father’s Day. But my stepfather very atypically stayed on the phone himself. I told him that I was sorry for not having appreciated him, that as a stepfather myself I now knew how difficult that was and how lonely it felt to be unappreciated for working tough jobs and for failing despite the best of intentions. He was deeply moved. That was the last time I ever talked to him. Whether being transgender made any difference in being a successful father I don’t know. Perhaps any decent well rounded man would have accomplished the same result. I just don’t know. In my own personal case I can only think that being feminine made me a better father. Not just a denatured parent but a real father. Four sons and a stepson. I will never fully understand how I did it except by putting one foot in front of the other. It was often an excruciating endeavor but now I am so happy that I did it. I am a father.