This year for Pride month, we wanted to revisit a topic that’s long interested us — the relationship between cis male family members and their transgender brothers and sisters; sons and daughters; and various permutations of extended family (cousins, grandchildren, etc.). And so, every week in June, we’ll be spotlighting one such family as part of a series of conversations we’re calling “Proud Families.” First up: Seventy-four-year-old Wyatt and 44-year-old Valentine Portz, a father and daughter from California who dealt with issues of gender diversity long before we’d been told that we’d reached a “transgender tipping point.”
Valentine: I spent most of my childhood in Claremont, CA, where I grew up with Wyatt and my mother Carolyn. I didn’t have a clear idea of gender identity when I was growing up. I knew I was identified as a boy, but I never identified with that. At the same time, I saw some of the difficulties that women faced, and in some ways, I was happy I was assigned male — because I realized it was a hard road to be a woman in our society.
It was during high school that I realized my gender seemed different than everyone else’s. I didn’t fit in with the girls or the boys, so I identified as androgynous for a long time until I realized that wasn’t the case. I was facing a lot of issues at the time anyway, gender aside. When I was 10, my mother got cancer. She made some choices that stressed her relationship with my dad, and they broke up. That was difficult. Then, not long after I moved in with my mother and her new boyfriend, she died of cancer. This was a lot to experience during the height of puberty. It was almost like my gender became another one of these issues. I felt the same alienation and uncertainty everyone feels during puberty; it was just magnified.
Wyatt: As a child, Valentine loved soft things. “Soft” was one of the first words she ever learned. She loved stuffed toys and insisted on having flannel sheets from the time she was three. She was different.
As she got a little older, I wondered if she was gay, but the idea that she was transgender never occurred to me because I had no idea “transgender” was even a word. I wasn’t insistent on my kids obeying gender roles, but I still knew nothing about gender diversity. I was born in the middle of the 1940s. It was the time of John Wayne. As I grew older, though, the conventional role models seemed more and more shallow. I never doubted my own masculinity, I just thought that the models of masculinity that were presented to us were seriously stupid. They made me want to laugh out loud sometimes.
Because of that, I even wondered if I was gay for a little bit, but I never went on to have any gay experiences. It was the 1960s. There was a lot of feminist conversation happening on campus and pronouns were important back then, too. We came up with different terms to use in order to be more gender neutral. So that’s how I grew into my own gender.
Valentine: Growing up, I had a diverse group of friends in California, but I barely knew anything about “transsexuals,” the old language for transgender people. Everything I saw in the media was shared through the eyes of cis men, so I never identified because there was never a clear portrayal of what a trans person’s experience was actually like. I read The World According to Garp, and Garp’s best friend was a transsexual. And there was a rather strange episode of The Love Boat with a football player who was trans, played by a cisgender person of course.
Wyatt: I’m what you call cis.
Valentine: “Cis” meaning the same, as opposed to “trans,” which means across. Back then, I felt like being trans was like having a disease, because I felt such disease in my body. I felt like I desperately needed to have a female body, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I knew there was a medical solution, but the prospect of bringing that up to everyone in my life, including my family and my work, was overwhelming. This was the mid-1990s. It was so daunting, like, “Oh my god, is this really what my path is?” So I tried hard not to make it my path for a long time, but ultimately, that didn’t work.
Wyatt: Valentine was the first transgender person I’d ever met. And I didn’t know she was transgender until she told me. That was a shock. I had no idea how to respond. I had a lot to learn. At the time, I didn’t recognize the internal component. I only saw body parts, and I understood those as very binary. I got scared I’d never be a grandparent and scared of having to be an intermediary between Valentine and the rest of the family. I didn’t know how to ensure that she would be accepted.
Valentine: Overall, I’ve been blessed. The biggest issue is people acting like our gender identity is a delusion or a fantasy. So the best thing you can do as a family member is to open your eyes to the person in front of you telling you who they are. I think of gender expression like colors. Colors are labels we’ve created for certain expressions, and we’ve named more over time. That’s our own construct we’ve upheld for centuries. Same with gender. Now, we’re all learning more names for different kinds of gender expressions.
Wyatt: In terms of acceptance, it’s pretty simply: Acceptance is the only loving thing to do. We may not have always understood one another perfectly, but we maintained a dialogue because that was the loving thing to do. Ultimately, I couldn’t reject my child because they told me something about who they really were.
Valentine: I wore women’s clothes for a long time before I ever told him I was trans, he was just blind to it. He’d just say, “You sure do wear some tight pants.” Or: “You wear a lot of velvet.” That kind of thing.
Wyatt: You know, I love velour. There was a time in my life where I wore velour for about 10 years. So I just thought that was your clothing preference. Nothing more.
Valentine: Most men don’t look that closely at outfits.
Wyatt: When I found out how long of a process transitioning really is, I was somewhat comforted. It gave me some time. During that period, I was trying to emphasize understanding among my family, and I remember we had a lot of conversations about pronouns. That’s tough. But if you get that nut cracked, perception starts to change because the language has changed. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. The perception changes so the language changes; once the language changes, the perception changes even more. That helps a lot.
Valentine: Everybody in our family has now gotten to the point where Valentine is a she or a her, except for one person — and she’s about 90 years old. When you’re in the closet as a trans woman, you’re always wondering, Is this masculine? A big part of transitioning is being able to be yourself. It’s an opportunity to discover who you really are, instead of who you are when you’re constantly limiting parts of yourself to appease societal gender roles. Who knows what else you’re putting in the closet besides your gender?
Wyatt: Our relationship is better than ever and has been since she transitioned. In fact, when she got divorced, she came and lived with me for a bit.
Valentine: I transitioned during our marriage. We had been together for nine years. She was used to me dressing like a slutty girl on weekends, but never saw me as a woman. I had long made comments about how uncomfortable I was being male, but it was like selective hearing. You hear what you want to hear. If your boyfriend is saying that they want to cut off their balls, you’re not going to listen to it carefully if you want them to keep them. She was heartbroken to lose the man she saw me as, and I was happy to be as feminine as I wanted to be and live without restriction and secrecy. So when I went and had surgery, my father was there to take care of me. I feel fortunate that I have such a loving father who is willing to love me, boy or girl.
Wyatt: Neither of us have any regrets about the transition, of course, but that’s something parents worry about a lot. It’s common for parents to be worried that their kids are making a choice that they’ll regret.
Valentine: I’m fortunate that the biggest issue I’ve faced after transitioning is in terms of my professional life, because a lot of trans women have to fight to simply survive. Whereas I had full-time jobs in architecture before, I’ve mostly only done freelance work since affirming my gender. Architecture is a male-dominated field. Without male privilege, you aren’t often given the benefit of the doubt.
And when you go through a transition, you go through puberty again. If you remember what it’s like to be 13, that’s where your headspace is when you’re transitioning. You have a difficult time focusing and tons of emotional stuff to deal with because you haven’t settled into the new way of your life. I ended up leaving my job, and money problems became another easy excuse for the dissolve of our marriage, which I resented at the time, but am happy about in the end.
Speaking of happy, a friend of mine’s child recently came out as trans at the age of 10, even though they knew since they were 5. We had a phone call, and she asked if I was happy. I said, “We have to do the same thing everyone else has to do to be happy. We just have another step of work to do on our bodies in order to be healthy and happy.”