I just want to live while I’m alive.

A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.  Maya Angelou

The 23rd of May would have been Dad’s 65th birthday. I’ve talked a lot about him being ill, his death and how that’s affected me but there’s a big section of his life I’ve not mentioned on this blog until now.  Not because I’ve been embarrassed or ashamed by it, I’ll talk at length with people in person, but because it is something that a large section of the population can’t understand and I didn’t want to have to put up with negative comments that are inevitably on their way whilst coming to terms with a death.

But since it’s been over 6 months since he died and I seem to be doing better, talking about it seemed like a good birthday present.

For the last 4 years Dad has been known not as Donald, but as Dawn.  It’s going to get confusing writing about it because when we found out we asked him what he wanted us to call him and he said that only 5 people in the world could call him ‘Dad’ so we should stick with that.  But with ‘Dad’ comes ‘he’, ‘him’ and ‘his’.  Whenever I talked about him with others I still used male pronouns, but if we were out in public together I did make an effort to use ‘she’ and ‘her’.  But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Dad was not great at telling the exact truth about this to any of us.  I think he’d been keeping secrets and hiding aspects of his life for so long that he probably didn’t know quite how things began anymore and so when we asked about how it all began we got slightly different answers.  But essentially he started dressing up in girl’s clothes at a young age – between 5 and 8 depending on which day you asked him.  His father certainly wouldn’t have approved and since this was the mid- 1950s probably very few people would have understood.

He continued dressing up throughout his teens and into adulthood.  He didn’t tell my Mum when they first met, in fact they had been married for a number of years before she found out and it wasn’t really something she understood, but they loved each other and had two children together at that point, so they stayed together and he continued cross-dressing in secret.

I have  a lot of respect for my Mum for this.  In the 70s it would have been difficult to have left him, but in some ways it would have been even more difficult to stay, keeping that secret to yourself for so many years.  And even when things were difficult between them (they eventually split up after 30 years together in 2003) she never used his secret as a tool against him, never leaked it to her children or the world at large.  It must have been incredibly difficult for her to keep that secret.

I guessed that Dad was a cross dresser about 8 years ago I suppose.  Whilst he was with Mum he always had a beard, he looked like 1970s Billy Connoly or Hagrid from Harry Potter.  When he and Mum split up he shaved his beard and it made me really unsettled and uncomfortable to look at him like that.  I’ve got some pictures from a meal we had when my sister was moving to New Zealand for a while and he looked terrible.  Although he was still smiley with a twinkle in his eye, it really didn’t seem the same without a beard and with newly shaped eyebrows.   That should have been a clue and probably stuck in the back of my mind for a while.  Another clue popped up when I was staying with him and my Grandmother.  Dad had a parcel from Kays Catalogue that was unopened and felt like a belt.  I asked if I could open it – I love parcels – and Gaggy snatched it away muttering that it was none of my business.  Another odd occurance that sat in the back of my mind.  Then one August, my little brother asked if I noticed that Dad had been shaving his arms and suddenly everything clicked into place.  I was going to a festival with Mum so I took the opportunity to ask her then.  I had to ask her three times because she didn’t want to tell his secret if he wasn’t ready to but I explained that because of his appearance I didn’t want to be around him.  He made me feel uncomfortable, but if it was because he was a transvestite then that would make it easier to understand and be around him.  So she admitted it, said she found out when they’d been married for three or four years and she’d kept it quiet all this time.  I really don’t know how she managed it.  In only three years with my boyfriend I found out things about him that I had to keep secret, his alcoholism being one of them, and it’s not something that is good for you.  I felt I had to stay with him and keep his secret.  Well done Mum.  It must have been really hard at times, but you managed to keep a smile on your face and keep our home a happy one for the most part.

In the couple of years before she and Dad split up he had been working on models for films and things in London and only being back with us at weekends.  I had noticed that he was more irritated in those days, tired, grumpy and Mum put it down to the idea that he was dressing up more and more whilst away and was resentful that he couldn’t when at home.

I kept this information to myself for just over a year – Mum and Dad had been split up for about three years or so and he’d not felt ready to tell us yet, so I wasn’t going to pressure him into it.  Eventually it came out through a ‘mistake’, my younger two brothers were living with Dad and Gaggy in Oxford whilst training as stone masons and Dad ‘happened’ to have left a photo of him dressed up in a pile of family photos that one of the boys flicked through.  He thought it was hilarious and sent it to the rest of the siblings and so the news was out.  I confirmed what I knew from what I’d worked out and what Mum had told me.  We agreed not to say anything straight away, that it was up to Dad to share when he wanted to, but after three months my oldest brother rang him and said ‘We all know, no-one cares.’  Dad was very relieved.  He had seen many of his transvestite and transgender friends lose their family because of their lifestyles and he was afraid of telling us incase we rejected him.  I did point out that he and Mum had raised us and he should know that we would be alright with it.

It was around five years ago when he decided to tell us he was taking it to the next step.  I was visiting Dad with my oldest brother and I was sent up the road to pick up the fish and chips.  It’s a trip that takes about 20 minutes and Dad sent me so that he could talk to Ian and tell him that he was undergoing hormone therapy as a step towards transitioning as a woman.  He told me when I got back and I just said ‘oh, right’ and carried on dishing up the food.  He rang the others to let them know and that was the start for us.

I did cry a little that night, it was a strange time – I had been living with my best friend from university for five years and she’d moved out not long before, I’d not got the job that I’d been promised and now I’d not have a dad anymore.  Well, I would, but not one to walk me down the aisle, not one that my kids would call Grandad.  Things would just not be the same.  Dad was essentially the same person but, at 60, had renamed himself *herself* Dawn to keep the same initials and to represent the dawn of a new stage of life.

On the whole I was fine with it.  I think that people should be able to live the lives that they want to but there was some resentment about the selfishness of it all.  I’d asked why he hadn’t told Mum before they got married so that she could make an informed choice – he didn’t want her to leave so kept the cross dressing quiet.  That worked out ok for me, I wouldn’t exist otherwise – there are 9 people alive because of that lie of ommission, but would Mum have had a happier life if she’d been given the option?  He didn’t tell us about the transvestitism, we told him we knew; it was an easy way for him to deal with it, putting the responsibility onto someone else.

He never had reassignment surgery, he had diabetes with poor circulation so the likelihood would have been that he would have lost his legs if he had undergone surgery.  He had wanted breast enchancement, but a year into the hormone therapy he contracted cancer and had an operation to remove it.  He realised that the surgery would hurt and so made do with fake breasts.

I asked Dad a few times why he chose to live as a woman full time – he said he had spent 60 years as a man and fancied seeing what it was like on the other side.   I think there was more to it than that, you have to undergo years of therapy before you are put on hormone therapy.  After all, it’s an enormous change and not something that you enter into lightly.  I would have found it easier to understand if he felt he was a woman but born into the wrong body but he said that wasn’t the case.  I don’t know, and now will never know, whether this was truly the case, or whether he was more open with his friends within the transgender community about his reasons.  Again, I think the years of feeling that he had to hide himself had a lasting affect. Perhaps he thought he was sparing feelings by being blaze about it.

In the years that she lived as Dawn she started slipping into the ‘ways’ of an old woman, which became increasingly frustrating for me, but she revelled in.  Little things like not being able to tune the tv anymore, not cooking decent food or attending the doctors appointments.  She was forgetting birthdays and not seeming to be bothered so that was also annoying.  But what we didn’t see so much was what her friends got from her, in person, through phone calls, facebook and message boards.

She was a friendly ear and a supportive voice at the end of the phone/keyboard to others in similar situations, but often without the acceptance from their families that Dawn had.  She was an elderly stateswoman for many of them, telling stories and jokes at social events.  Rebecca, one of  her friends, spoke at the funeral and said some lovely things about her which really opened up my eyes about another side of her.

Here is what I said at the funeral on behalf of the children.  Apologies for the repetition from this post:

“Before I read what we would like to say about Dad I need to explain that we were accepting of him becoming Dawn.  It is a strange thing when someone tells you that they are going to live as someone else, and although it took a bit of time to get used to, he was still the same person and still our dad.  We asked what we should call him once he was Dawn and he said to call him Dad, because only 5 of us in the world could call him that, but along with Dad comes ‘him’, ‘he’ and ‘his’ instead of ‘her’, ‘she’ and ‘hers’.  So since most of the memories that I’ll share with you are from when we were young and he was still him, that’s how I’ll continue.

Dad was not a very traditional dad in many senses.  Looking for father’s day cards was problematic because they were covered in footballs, fishing rods, golf clubs – not things he was interested in.  Instead we would have to find something with a joke or a funny picture on the front that was left blank for our own message.

When we were small he was a big bear of a man, which belied who he wanted to be, but he was always honest about how much he loved us and Mum.  Although splitting up from Mum was hard for both of them and us, it allowed him to be who he needed to be and live a life that he couldn’t have done before.

So who was he to us?  He was Badger Man once he had a grey streak in his beard.  He was the quiet one who sat at the side at morris things, tapping his ring on the pint glass in time with the music. He was the one who took us driving in the dark with the moon roof open so we could see the stars and he was the one who helped us recognised which they were.  He played Corries, Christy Moore and Fairport tapes in the car.  He was the one who made Mum toast in the shape of a heart and us eggy bread in the shape of bears and gingerbread men.  He took us to steam fairs, Warwick’s fireworks party and knew the difference between a Model T Ford and a Model A (I still have no idea, they look the same to me).  He also argued with someone working for a competition that Ford was promoting that had the question ‘What was the colour of the first Model Ts produced by Ford?’  He said that no one could win because the answer wasn’t black, they produced them in many colours until Henry Ford realised that it was quicker and easier to use black paint, which is where the mis-quote came from.  We didn’t win a new Ford.

He took us to karate, guitar or piano lessons.  He made the garage smell like resin and got spray paint flecks on the drive way.  He was the person who accidentally exploded red paint in the microwave.  He stuck his fake teeth back in with superglue.  He wrote our names on the front of birthday cards with candles instead of I or in the shape of a train.  He read us stories on holiday and insisted that we visited educational and interesting things in case we never went back there again.  He chatted up the ladies at the petrol station so that they gave extra Green Shield stamps.  He looked after the cats and gave bear hugs in the garage.  He taught us the correct way to put cutlery in a draw and the order for the end off the day – teeth, wee, bed.  He cleared up the sick in the middle of the night when we were ill and made us ‘butterballs’ to help us swallow paracetamol.  He carried stuff around in a WW1 army pack with a mirror with a hole in and stole sweetener by the handful from cafes.  He wrote comedy sick notes for PE that the teachers would stick on the wall – a particular favourite was ‘Ellie has the Millennium bug, please excuse her from PE.’  He would get annoyed if we mispronounced things like ‘schedule’ and ‘harass’, used ‘me’ when it should be ‘I’ or if we asked ‘Can I get down from the table?’ instead of ‘May I get down from the table?’.   His magic word was carrots. He bought lots of crème eggs for Easter and made little Easter egg hunts in our rooms.  He filled Christmas stockings and put a Satsuma and a shiny 20p or pound in the bottom.  He pushed us on swings and let us bounce off his belly.  He let us walk on his feet and made kits with us.  He didn’t play sports with us or play board games, but he did squirt us with the hose, help set up water slides in the garden and let us drive the space cruiser around Turweston Aerodrome.  (Aerodrome, by the way, is a word that he was annoyed about being removed from the dictionary for lack of use, along with gyroscope.) He always wanted to give trick or treaters laxative chocolate, but I’m not sure he got around to that one.

He wasn’t perfect, he sometimes lied, he sometimes hurt people, he didn’t take much responsibility for himself, he most of the time forgot birthdays, didn’t remember what we were up to or moaned if we didn’t call.  But people aren’t perfect.  They make mistakes and that’s what makes them human, they do the best they can.  And if we were sad and called him he always had time for us and tried to make us feel better.

It’s a shame that he’s not going to be able to do that anymore.  It’s a shame that he only met four of his grandchildren, when there may eventually be more.  It’s a shame that he’s not going to be able to see whatever we do next, but we’re glad he’s not in pain, that he’s with Gaggy and that he got to live as Dawn.  We’re glad that he and Mum chose to be our parents.  We think they did a pretty good job.  We will miss him. Love you Tranny Dad.”

I managed to get through it without crying and I think my voice only cracked at the end a little. We sang folky style hymns and said goodbye.  After a wake/reception thing at the pub over the road with scones and cakes we went back to the church to pack up, only to find a latin dance group practising, so we had to sneak Dad’s ashes and urn through the back of them.  He would have laughed.

When Dad died, and after the funeral, I had something from Grey’s Anatomy playing in my head… (Sometimes I think my brain works in film, tv and music quotes)

CRISTINA: “There’s a club. The Dead Dads Club. And you can’t be in it until  you’re in it. You can try to understand, you can sympathize. But until you feel  that loss… My dad died when I was nine. George, I’m really sorry you had to  join the club.”
GEORGE: “I… I don’t know how to exist in a world where my  dad doesn’t.”
CRISTINA: “Yeah, that never really changes.”

I think it’s getting better.  I guess we’ll have to see when I get back to England.

Dawn

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7 thoughts on “I just want to live while I’m alive.

  1. Ellie, this touched me more than any of your other blogs, partly because I lost my own dad last year and partly because I loved your ‘tranny dad’ stories so much that I almost felt like I knew Dawn myself. The ‘dead dads club’ is something I could have written myself, it’s the best description of how I feel that I’ve read and I wish that it was possible to prevent anyone else ever having to join. People tell me a time will come when I’m able to look back on the happy times without being overwhelmed by loss and I really hope that’s true, for now though, the pain still feels too fresh. I haven’t been very good at communicating it (maybe because saying things like ‘how are you doing?’ feels too trite and I don’t want it to irritate you they way it does me when people ask me) but I think of you a lot and I hope that you will also get through this and be able to look back with only happiness. For now though, I’m really looking forward to your return, a summer of fun, singing and friendship is being planned by many people who have missed you a lot since you left. Lots of love and sorry for the cheesiness! Xx

  2. I think that this was truely excellent and your dad would have approved. This story describes how most of us transpersons operate and it also highlights the differences between us at the same time. Most of us know from a very early age that we are different but we are not equiped to deal with the harsh reality of being transpersons, I use transpersons as an umbrella term. Only a fraction of us remain in a relationship after transitioning, there is no right or wrong way to do this its as individual as fingerprints.
    Love Carla

  3. Thank you for such a sensitive message Ellie. I never knew Don, and only knew Dawn for a short time but she touched my life with her care and irreverence. I also don’t understand how someone can decide late in life that they are in the wrong sort of body, even though I am one of the ones who has done just that.

  4. I’ve been … is “looking forward to” quite the right phrase? … Not entirely, but it’s the closest I can get right now.

    I’ve been looking forward to reading this particular blog. When you started blogging, I thought that you’d want to discuss the whole Dad/Donald/Dawn thing (besides, some months back, you mentioned elsewhere that you would) and you have done so eloquently. Like another of your friends said, your Tranny Dad stories are tremendous – they are told with truth, wit and love.

    (And I know you know this, Ellie, but) for the record, to me, Dawn was very recognisably the same person as Donald. A little louder, sometimes, and just as kind, but a bit more herself in other respects.

    So, your memories and account of your Dad’s life is very moving, of course, especially to anyone that knows you or Dawn. But I do know hope that your words reach a much wider readership, too. Transgender issues aren’t half as well understood as they could be, and your stories are a very good place to start.

    Jx

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