I hadn't seen my family for five years when I showed up on their doorstep in 1998 with an unannounced companion: a video camera. It was Christmas, that most wonderful time of the year, when all family drama creeps up from the depths of hell to become dinner conversation.
In my five-year absence, I had been busy transitioning from male to female. When they had last seen me, I was just beginning my transition, but I was not out to them. I was always pretty androgynous; even while I lived under their roof, I would be taken for a girl. Through college, however, as I grew my hair out and pierced my ears, they barely said a word to me about my increasing femininity. The bottom line: My gender was a source of discomfort for the whole family, and none of us knew how to talk to each other.
This was made clear during my previous visit, just after I had officially started my transition in 1993. The first day of that visit my parents saw me from a distance, mistaking me for one of my sister's girlfriends. We spent the rest of that visit with that shock hanging in the air. My parents talked to me about everything except their concern that I was wearing blouses and pleated slacks. I fumed, wishing that they would get over their religious beliefs and let me be their oldest daughter.
Having just finished college I was still figuring out how to make ends meet on my own, and part of that included learning to live and find work in the world as a woman. I realized that before I darkened their door again, I needed to prove both to myself and my family that making a gender transition was not only possible, but necessary. So it took a little time, and in that time I realized I needed to definitively tell them why I was changing.
After a few years and dozens of drafts, I finally sent my mother an epic 10-page coming-out letter addressing everything from my gender theory to my deep problems with their religion. Their response was guarded; they didn't disown me like I expected, but they didn't fully welcome the announcement. They were still hung up on the fact that as a teenager I had been a model Mormon citizen.
In retrospect, that was an enormous mistake. My good behavior was completely insincere. I had rejected their church at an early age, realizing that its intolerance for homosexuality, among other things, was incompatible with my tranny destiny. I also realized that a loud rebellion would result in extreme measures; I was afraid they might decide to send me to some wilderness faith camp where I'd wander around the salt flats of Utah for a week with a canteen and packet of beef jerky.
So, it was still a bit of a shock when I showed up for Christmas at my parents' house, with videotape rolling, wearing my holiday dress. It was videotape, as much as anything, that had led me there. I had recently become obsessed with visual theory, reading Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag while I learned to use cameras borrowed from friends and housemates. One friend, who had just nursed her father through his final days with bone cancer, especially moved me to reconsider a family reconciliation.
In my parents' house, the video camera was a completely alien creature. We were never really the kind of family that took home movies. Too poor to own a video camera, we would take posed photos with snapshot cameras, and even those images were always awkwardly unnatural: smiling images of everyone in their Sunday best.
As I shot footage over the holiday, I began to realize that even though I was consciously using the camera as a sort of security blanket, I was beginning to see the members of my family in a much more vulnerable light than I ever had before. I stifled the urge to relent, to put down the camera and return to our typical group dynamics.
But no one asked me to put away the camera, nor did they ask me to stop wearing skirts. As the days progressed, everyone seemed to acclimate both to the camera and my appearance. The rage that I carefully constructed in my short queer life began to wane slightly as I watched my family become all too human through the filter of the camera lens. I had arrived smiling, but ready for battle between good and evil.
Their openness gave me a little substance to drive my camera work. In addition to candid shots of Christmas cheer, I could let them each talk to the camera, not necessarily about religion or gender, but whatever they desired. Everyone would get a closeup if they wanted one, and everyone took me up on the offer.
My sisters have always been the easiest to talk to, for perhaps obvious reasons. My brother, who I've never been close to, wasn't much harder, but then again none of us was really talking to the camera about anything consequential. My parents were another matter.
My mother, who had been a dancer, has lived a life of chronic illness. An early polio victim, she had Harrington rods implanted to correct her scoliosis; then multiple sclerosis arrived just before she hit 40. She's a dignified Mormon woman, so she tries desperately to never complain, despite the lifetime of quotidian rage she's stored up. In her wheelchair, her awareness of the image my camera captured of her was especially difficult to witness. As I taped her talking in her favorite room, a sort of Dickensian living room containing her cedar chest, china, quilts and knickknacks, I saw a new facet to her response to my transition.
Her fears around my transition have always been palpable, and while at first I figured that her resistance was fueled by her faith and her fear that she and I would not be able to see each other in the afterlife, it was not until then that I realized her fear also had a medical component. After a lifetime of being shuttled from one doctor to another, always complicating an already complex medical history, she had legitimate worries that I would submit myself to the medical establishment. I tried to get her to talk to me directly about these concerns, but it was hard enough to get her to welcome and understand my transition off camera.
My father was the one I couldn't understand. He was a quiet man with a terrible temper. Our communication was almost exclusively limited to bad jokes, especially in later years, and this gave our relationship the tenor of an office cocktail party.
He loved singing, and while I was growing up he was always involved with the church choir. He loved that every Christmas all the church choirs in the area would band together to put on a production of Handel's Messiah. Even after he inexplicably stopped singing in the choirs, he would keep a couple of versions of the Messiah around the house--giant multiple-record sets on heavy vinyl--and he would sing along.
One afternoon flipping through the channels, he found a production of the Messiah under way, and he turned it up so he could hear it while he was cooking. I grabbed the camera and started rolling, at first without telling him. The music progressed to one of his favorite passages, and he emerged from the kitchen singing. He leaned against the sofa with his eyes closed, immersed in the words: "wonderful counselor, the mighty god, the everlasting father, the prince of peace." I would only see my father twice more before he died.
Watching this footage is always difficult, because it reveals so much of the sadness I felt within my family. It reveals so much of my own defensiveness about my own transition, and perhaps worst of all, it reveals me making some of the most tragic fashion decisions in history.
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide
The Gifts That Count (11/18/2009)
The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts
The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford
Party in the U.S.A. (12/23/2009)
2009: Criss-crossing the country in search of new adventures and reconnections with the past
Without a Net (10/31/2007)
Michelle Tea's Debut Novel Returns As Reminder Of Her Nascent Formidable Talent
Reinventing the Grrrl (10/10/2007)
Connecting the Dots Between Noise, Rawk, and Queer with Olympia's Twin
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