All Any Child Wants Is Acceptance, Irrespective Of How They Identify
Father’s Day is meant to be a time of joyous remembrance, of thinking back on all the good things your dad has done for you and forward to the happy future you will have together. But for many of us, it’s an imperfect holiday – particularly for many trans men and women whose dads have been less than supportive of their coming out, their transitions, and their living as their authentic selves.
This is the story of my father and me. From the beginning, he did not know what to make of my trans identity. Though I was assigned female at birth, I have identified as a boy since I was six years old. I grew up in a village in Nigeria where people typically adhered to strict gender roles, and so when they saw me wearing my brother’s clothes instead of dresses, they made fun of me. They questioned me. My parents were embarrassed about it.
Still, I persisted. Being a child, I didn’t know there was anything “wrong” with the way I was; in fact, I thought the way I felt was very right. And I wanted to share this revelation with those I loved. My dad was the first person I came out to when I was eight years old… and he laughed. Loud and hard, like it was the funniest joke he had ever heard. Then he told me, “all little boys and girls go through this phase. It’s absolutely normal. It will pass.”
But it didn’t pass. Nor did the discomfort in my refusal to bend to gender norms caused my father. And over the years, as I grew into a teenager and an adult, and as I became more and more insistent about expressing my true identity, our relationship grew increasingly strained and distant. He had a career in the military and was highly esteemed in Nigerian society, but my sexuality and gender nonconformity were an embarrassing stain on his accomplishments. Members of my family abused and ridiculed me and even tried to literally exercise the so-called demon out of me, and Dad gave this behaviour his silent consent.
He was not a father I could rely on or look up to. But he was still my father. And I never gave up on him or stopped hoping he would eventually come around. Nor did I give up on my goal of living as my authentic self. I went through many tumultuous years full of struggle and depression and addiction, but by 2013 I was in a stable relationship; I had opened the Happy Transgender Center, a counseling service for trans people and their families as they undergo the transition process; and I myself had fully transitioned to live as the man I was always meant to be. I was healthy and happy – and yet I was not fulfilled because I still did not have my parents’ support.
I was living in the United States and they were in Nigeria, so our visits were few and far between, and when we did see one another it was painfully strained. They had not seen me since my transition, and I did not know how they would take seeing their daughter now as their son. However, I was about to find out, and in the worst way possible. In September I found out my father had flown to London to undergo emergency surgery to remove a cancerous tumour. Without thinking twice I got on a plane and went to be by his side. Despite our differences over the years, he was still my father after all, and there was no way I could not be there to help him however I could.
All it took was a brush with mortality to bring us back together. Was our relationship perfect after that? Of course not. Whose relationship with their parents ever is?
Of course, I was nervous about the trip. What if he rejected me? I imagined the horrified look on his face when he saw my newly masculine face and physique. I remembered how he had laughed when I had come out to him at eight years old, and my stomach churned. But my worrying was all for nothing. At the hospital, after greeting me warmly, Dad, to my immense surprise, introduced me to all his doctors as his son. And afterwards, while I stayed on as his caregiver during his recovery, he apologised for all the years he’d been so distant because of my sexuality, my gender nonconformity, and ultimately my transition.
“You are my child,” he said. “And you’re a good one at that, no matter whether you’re male or female. You are simply my child.” In an instant, this plainspoken yet profound statement broke down every wall I had built around myself to keep him out. All it took was a brush with mortality to bring us back together. Was our relationship perfect after that? Of course not. Whose relationship with their parents ever is? But we’ve come a long way, and we’ve found it’s possible to meet in the middle.
These days I can appreciate that my father is the product of the culture in which he has lived his whole life- in Nigeria, same-sex couples can be imprisoned for merely engaging in relationships, as can anyone who belongs to or even just encourages a gay organization, but I can also say I am so, so proud of him for overcoming that hatred, for listening to his heart and accepting me for who I am. That is the most any child – son, daughter, or however they identify, can ask of their father.