by Théa Ryan
In May of 2013, I’d just graduated from two intense years at a United World College in Victoria. I was 18 and I was exhausted. Five days before my dad and I left to walk 800km across Spain on the Camino de Santiago, my dad announced to me that they were becoming a woman. They said they couldn’t keep it from me anymore and that it was something they’d felt their whole life. (You may have caught the first hiccup: why did I write “they”? I call my dad “they” because it’s the best I can do for now. More on that later.)
I was shocked, partially because I thought they were going to tell me they were terminally ill or somebody had passed away. My mum came to pick me up at my dad’s place shortly thereafter and they broke the news to her, too. The first thing my mum and I did was go to the liquor store and sit by the river.
We were both overwhelmed, so my mum brought us to a psychologist. In the days leading up to the appointment I could almost convince myself it hadn’t happened, that I’d wake up and it would have just been a strange dream. I still feel that sometimes. The only thing I remember from the session was having a dusty old white guy tell me “your idea of your father is dead. This is your mourning period.” But how do you mourn someone who is still alive?
Let’s be honest. This was a total mindfuck. I consider myself to be an open-minded, accepting individual. My friends have changed their pronouns and I’ve adapted without resistance. The mindfuck was two-fold: first, my dad, my prime male figure, was disappearing through a kind of metamorphosis; second, I was feeling a physical clash between what my brain was theoretically ready to accept and what my body wanted to run away from.
I call my dad “they” because I recognize that my father is trans, and the pronoun is somehow comforting—“they” has become the bridge between the man I grew up with, the guy who went to Woodstock, who was in a frat, who was on the national rowing team—and Lola, a person I’m still getting to know. I think I’ll be able to call my dad “she” one day, but for the moment I need to respect the pace of my adjustment.
While being at Quest, my dad just became a (gradually higher-pitched) voice on the phone for eight months of the year. The real challenge is when I’m face-to-face with them and I need to take it all in, all over again.
I thought I’d get used to it, that it’d get easier with time. It hasn’t. I go through periods of anger, loss, and deep appreciation. In my first two years at Quest I would get really worked up when I heard someone, fresh out of Global Perspectives, talk about trans issues with all their newly-learnt PC language and I just felt like yelling at them, “you don’t know shit”. I may not be well-versed in queer theory, but I can sure as hell tell you about how hard it is to have a parent transition.
I sometimes feel paralyzed in public with my dad, sensing the curious and deciphering eyes on both of us, trying to figure out how we’re connected. I’ve been asked if my dad is my grandma. I get uncomfortable when my dad wears bright blue eye shadow and nail polish, or when I find my old clothes in their closet.
My father’s transition has taught me about our contrasting perspectives on femininity. Whereas my dad needs to capitalize on, and emphasize, the most stereotypical feminine traits—soft gestures, eyebrows knotted in worry, smooth, shaven legs—I can go without shaving my legs or armpits for six months, wear baggy, unisex clothing, and not be mistaken for a man.
I’ve spoken about my dad to most of my friends, but it’s easy to keep “dad” as a faraway person that only one of my Quest friends has actually met. This is why graduation seems particularly daunting. A number of people have reassured me with various iterations of “those who matter don’t mind and those who mind don’t matter”, but it’s still a big deal—partially because I’m not totally comfortable with my dad’s transition yet.
I don’t think I’m alone in this. Any big life event (graduation, funeral, wedding, newborn, whatever) attracts people. Maybe because we want to feel that we witnessed something important, maybe because these are the moments in life where we feel it was all worth it. There will be no way to know what everyone is going through at graduation, but it might be a good idea to keep these possibilities in mind:
Maybe your divorced parents can’t stand to be around one another. Maybe you can’t stand to be around your parents. Maybe you’ve lost a parent or a relative who would’ve been there and their absence is all you can think of. Maybe there are step-parents and step-siblings with whom you don’t really feel a connection, but feel obligated to involve in this big event. Maybe your family gets into some ridiculous fight and you’re caught in the middle. Maybe it’s too expensive to come to Squamish. Maybe they can’t get the time off work. Maybe you’re going through mental health issues and you don’t feel on top of the world like people expect you to. Maybe you’re leaving your partner. Maybe you don’t know where the hell you’re going next and it isn’t exhilarating, it’s paralyzing. Maybe you don’t feel anything.
Every person who will walk across that stage at graduation does so with a whole life of influences, mentors, setbacks, conflicts, heartbreaks behind them. My dad has been a huge part of my growth these past four years. And I love my dad. A lot. It’s just tough sometimes.