Stuck in the Middle With You

Parenthood in three genders.

I'll Give You Something to Cry About

Fathers seek to protect their children. A transgender parent wonders how.

Photo of Jenny Boylan by Augusten Burroughs

Photo of Jenny Boylan by Augusten Burroughs

My family moved to Ireland in 1998, where I had a job teaching American literature at University College Cork. I had told my wife Deedie I was transgender by then, after ten years of marriage, but we were paralyzed by the idea of transition. My becoming a woman didn’t seem like the best way to improve our marriage.

My boys went to Montessori School that year. They learned to sing in Irish. D’aois MacDonald bhí feirm, E-I-E-I-O! Getting them ready in the morning was a challenge, though, especially for my son, Sean, who at age three had become rather particular regarding his sartorial choices.

One morning, as I was trying to get him dressed, Seannie resisted the shorts that I had selected for him. They were plaid and had an elastic waistband. He pulled them off, threw them on the floor.

“Okay, you’re not doing that,” I said. I laid Sean on his back on the floor and held him down with one hand while yanking the shorts back over the child’s kicking feet. Then I pulled him into a standing position. “When I put your shorts on, you leave them on,” I said.

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Sean yelled, “I don’t want pants! Oh, I hate pants!” And threw them onto the floor again, and began to weep.

“I’ll give you something to cry about,” I muttered.

A week later, I went to Amsterdam by myself. I brought a suitcase of female gear, checked into the American Hotel on the Leidseplein, and did the presto change-o. After a few hours I stepped out onto the streets of the city, in a black skirt and a light blue top. Why would I do such a thing, you ask? Because I couldn’t, not.

No one looked at me twice. Was this because I was so undetectable as a female? Or because, when all was said and done, what I looked like turned out to be of far less consequence to the world than I had anticipated?

At the end of the day I found myself in the Anne Frank house on the Prinsengracht.

I climbed the small staircase up to the hidden annex, walked through the passageway hidden by the bookcase, crept through those tiny rooms full of such longing and horror. There weren’t a lot of other tourists in the house that day. And so it was that I found myself dressed in drag, alone in Anne Frank’s bedroom.

There was her tiny bed, the photographs of Hollywood movie stars from fifty years ago still pasted to the wall. A sheet of Plexiglas protected the photographs from the fingers of tourists.

I stood there frozen, imagining the young girl passing her days here, waiting to be set free. There was a window on one wall. Birds were singing.

In spite of the room’s aching sadness, it was still a teenager’s room. It made me think, for a second, of the room I had lived in when I was sixteen.Next to my bed, instead of a photograph of Joan Crawford, there had been a photograph of the surface of Mars. I used to lie in bed and look at the planet, imagine what it would be like to live there.

I thought about Anne Frank, driven into hiding by Nazis. What about you, Jenny? I asked myself. Is this really how you’re going to live?

I fled from the girl’s bedroom, went down the stairs, and fought my way in a blind panic out into the streets of Amsterdam. I rushed in my heels to the Prinsengracht canal and stood there in self-loathing and despair, looking down at the dank green water.

I have made up my mind, Anne Frank wrote, to lead a different life from other girls and, later on, different from ordinary housewives. My start has been so very full of interest, and that is the sole reason why I have to laugh at the humorous side of the most dangerous moments.

I saw two hippies coming down the street, American college boys with backpacks. “Entschuldigen, Fraulein,” one said to me, pausing. “Sie sind verletzt?”

Excuse me, miss. Are you hurt?

“Mir geht es gut,” I said. I wondered if he could tell the truth about me from my voice. “Es ist ganz nichts.” I’m fine. It’s nothing.

The boys loped onward. A few meters farther down the street, they laughed. I wasn’t sure about what exactly, but I had a guess.

The burden of shame fell even more heavily upon me. There I was, in my twinset and skirt, standing in the very shadow of the Anne Frank house. Where boys had looked upon me. And concluded I was German.

When I got back to Cork, my sons were waiting for me at the door. They rushed forward, their arms spread, and I gathered my sons to me. They were still so small I could pick up one with each arm.

“Daddy’s back!” they shouted.

A day or so later, I stepped on a shard of glass and wound up in the Cork City hospital. This led to an operating room, where surgeons used knives and tweezers to feel around for an elusive splinter. It took them a while. The anesthetic didn’t work.

When I came out of surgery, Deedie was waiting for me. “What happened to you?” she said.

“Glass in my foot,” I said.

Deedie parked at the apothecary to get my drugs. As I waited for her, I thought about the Anne Frank house, all those pictures of movie stars on her wall.

When my wife return to the car ten minutes later, drugs in hand, she found me wracked with tears.

“Jimmy? Oh, my sweet Jimmy-pie,” she said, and held her husband in her arms. I lay in her arms and shook. All at once I foresaw the perilous journey that lay ahead, not just for me, but for all of us.

Now, fourteen years later, I wish I could have told my younger self that love would, in time, save us. In the wake of my transition, my sons--now a college freshman and a high school junior-- would be come better men, and that my wife and I would stay together, our marriage stronger than ever.

But there was no way of knowing this at the time. Who would ever believe that such an unlikely future existed? Who would believe that America would change so much in a decade and a half that what was once unimaginable could become normal, or that the gender of parents at last could be considered less important than the love in the family?

My wife had seen me weep, now and again, over the ten years of our marriage. But Deedie had never seen me weep like that.

When we got home, the children were waiting for us. “Daddy, you were crying,” said Sean.

“I was,” I said. My face was all red, and my cheeks were still wet.

Seannie pointed at me and grinned, as if he’d figured something out.

“Daddy,” he said. “You were a bad boy.”

I nodded. He had that right.

“Why were you crying?” said Sean. “What’s wrong?”

I gathered my sons into my arms, wondering how on earth I could protect my family, how I could possibly stand between them and all the trouble in the world.

“I don’t want pants,” I whispered. “Oh, I hate pants.”

Jennifer F. Boylan is professor of English at Colby College in Maine.

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