The Most Important Thing I Can Do for My Trans Daughter

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My father was neither talkative nor demonstrative. When I was growing up, my mother, who in retrospect probably could’ve used a little more emotional intelligence from him, called him “low-amplitude Dave.” When my wife told him she was pregnant with our first child, he said, simply, “Oh, neat.” I didn’t feel unloved, but if you were to ask my sister and me what he cared about most when we were little, we would’ve answered: chores.

Once, during one of his rare appearances at my Little League games, on a blind swing I hit the only home run of my short career; from the bleachers, he gave me a tiny, taciturn salute, a flick above his brow. Such pride. Approval. It was like the moment at the end of the movie Babe, when James Cromwell turns to his little pink buddy and says, “That’ll do, pig, that’ll do.” I’ve dined on that slight gesture for years. I still summon it, occasionally, when I’m feeling low: crack; that’ll do, pig, that’ll do.

We weren’t close. Could I have used a more dialed-in father? Did I frequently feel adrift and too on my own as a kid? Would I have benefited from some more legible fatherly affection now and then? Probably. But no one is perfect. And as my wife likes to point out, it’s not as though he’s the only one in the family who might consider the way I move through the world genuinely mystifying. The distance between us is not entirely his fault.

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When you become a parent, the world tilts in such unexpected ways, and it seems only natural to think about your own childhood again. It’s such a daunting task—to take care of someone and keep them safe and happy. You’ve got this little, helpless person, and only a certain amount of time to get this right. So: what does it mean to be a good dad? What is one’s basic responsibility as a parent? Old memories come back, unbidden. You sift through them with new eyes, looking for clues, for clarity.

When I was 11, my family sailed for weeks off the coast of Vancouver Island. It was wild up there, and wonderful; we read books, turned over rocks looking for crabs; days passed without seeing other boats or people at all. But five days in, we got caught in gale-force winds, and could do nothing but shelter near a small island on our small sailboat, far from the mainland. I know now that we were, in fact, in real danger, we shouldn’t have been caught out there, and it’s a miracle that something bad didn’t happen. But all I remember is the sound of the wind, the rain, and my parents talking very quietly to one another. My sister and I weren’t worried, even though we should’ve been.

When I think about this now, what I remember most is waking up early, when it was still dark, and hearing my dad topside, checking the anchor, walking the deck, and returning below to unfurl his charts and listen to the weather on the radio. That weather voice filled the silent cabin—it was emotionless, robotic as it called the wind speeds, and I remember my dad, hunched over, making notes on his chart. He noticed I was awake in my sleeping bag, looked over, and smiled; he said nothing, and I listened to the wind until I drifted back to sleep. I was able to do this, I think, because I knew he was there, checking the lines, charting the course, rising to do it again quietly, asking for nothing, a picture of vigilance and pure concentration.

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And it’s occurred to me over my years as a parent that perhaps in this memory is the baseline I’ve been looking for, the one thing a father should always be able to do for his kids. Let them know that you understand how to keep them safe, that the anchors are well-set, and that they will be shielded from the very worst weather. Later, perhaps, you can say: such a close call, barely made it out of that one! But at the time, in your little sailboat, with the wind just waiting to dash you on the rocks, the story you wish to tell your children is this: this might be scary, but we will get through this just fine, you are taken care of, do not worry.

My daughter is 12 now. She is happy, open, a glorious weirdo, a truly marvelous kid. And when, two years ago, she told us she was trans, the biggest surprise was how easy it was to hear and receive this information, and how right it felt (to her, to us). The adjustments were small, easily hurtled: her school was welcoming, her friends supportive (there’s a lovely generation coming down the pike, by the way). Her younger brother quickly became the sweetest little gender warrior around. We are lucky not only to have her in our lives, but to live in a community that sees her and celebrates for who she is (doctors, teachers, neighbors, friends). Everyone she meets loves her immediately. I am not kidding about that. It’s a quality she must’ve inherited from her mother, who is 100% less mystifying than me.

But it’s one thing as a parent to feel lucky and settled in how things are in one’s close community, another to know, and be repeatedly reminded of, just how hostile this country is becoming to people like her, and to feel helpless in the face of it. Laws are on the books outlawing gender-affirming care (with more on the way), and there are states to which we cannot, will not, travel for fear of something happening to our daughter while there.

The level of vitriol and hatred directed at trans folks is appalling and terrifying. And why? For what? As a parent, you want to say to your child: walk out into the world, it’s waiting for you. But this country has tipped, and feels on the verge of denying her, wholesale, very basic individual rights. How am I supposed to protect her from that? And how am I supposed to prepare her for a world that seems deeply invested in preventing her from being the person she knows she is and deserves to be?

This is not rhetorical. I’m asking seriously. What do you do? How do you cope with and manage this knowledge as a parent? And then how do you distill it, temper it, for your nearly teenage kid so she understands? And how do you do this without making her more afraid? If you have an answer, you can text me at three in the morning. I’ll be awake.

My daughter and I recently flew to Seattle to see my dad, who is now in memory care. I was ready with her passport at TSA, prepared to watch the pat-downs and tell the screener she was trans if necessary. I was vigilant standing outside the women’s bathroom in case something happened while she was using it. I endured, like all fathers, men of all ages quick-glancing my too-young daughter in a certain way that made me want to scream. We passed through, without the trouble I was ready for.

When we saw my dad in his new room, he reached out to both of us, embraced us. He doesn’t make much sense when he speaks now, but he did know my daughter and saw her as she wishes to be seen, introduced her to all his new friends on the memory floor as his granddaughter, and me as his son, who’s made his life elsewhere. Everything about this place was new to me, unfamiliar, but he seemed at ease.

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I wanted to ask him about his experience of that fierce wind when we were all on the boat, but for some reason I couldn’t. I was just happy to be in the same room, and to hear the texture of his voice, and see him laugh as my daughter told him stories from school he most likely didn’t understand. Once, when I was sitting next to him, he put his arm around me and rubbed my back affectionately for a long time—something he’s never done. My mom’s jaw just about hit the floor. If I could’ve, I would’ve stayed in that moment forever, but it was our last day, and we had to head home.

More dire election news followed us on the concourse televisions as my daughter and I rolled our bags through the crowd. But we chattered away, rode the shuttle that would take us to our gate, ate at the airport restaurants. She was as happy as I’ve seen her, thrilled to have spent time with her grandparents and soon be on another plane. She was already planning what she wanted to see the next time she was in Seattle.

I wonder now, a few months after that visit, what my father would’ve said if I had asked. I imagine he would’ve admitted he was scared, and that we were lucky the boat didn’t sink, and no one was hurt, and isn’t that something? In my new memory of him, the one that lies like good weather over all the rest, is the feeling of his hand on my back. I don’t know how he meant it, but to me it said, simply, and in a way I could finally see: you are loved.

There is so much outside of our control. We are all, to varying degrees, at the mercy of the elements. But you do get to choose how you secure the lines on your small boats, how you manage your own distress while you wait, and hope. That hand on my back—it laid to rest an uncertainty I’d carried into my adult life. And though my wife and I can make no promises to our daughter about what her future in this country looks like, what we can do is love her, demonstrably and in no uncertain terms. We can take the guesswork out of that equation, at least. And until we see what is coming next, that will have to be enough.

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