“Just don’t tell grandpa.” It’s been my family’s constant refrain throughout the entirety of my out, public queerdom. It should be easy enough, right? We just… won’t tell him. But no matter how well you keep it, a secret won’t stay contained. It seeps from the black box where we tried to censor it out of our lives, growing little tendrils that infect everything they touch. Any other thing your secret would change is a secret now too. We always end up with more than we bargained for, until we’re desperately leaping across the chasms it leaves in our world.
My grandpa doesn’t know I’m a woman. How am I supposed to hide something like that?
Sure, it was easier when I was 19 and came out to my family as a “gay man.” As I tearfully hugged my mom and sister, I was so grateful just to be accepted that I probably would have gone along with anything in return. But it was my own cowardice too. It did seem safer, after all. What was the harm in letting grandpa – racist, Palin-loving grandpa who goes to church every morning and evening and gets mailers about the UN’s “homosexual agenda” – keep believing whatever he wants?
The holidays and birthday parties at his house, the weekly dinners together that had become a tradition for us since grandma passed away, the avoidance of politics as we barely concealed our disgust, everything continued as usual. It’s not like I ever had any boyfriends to hide, anyway. Maybe that should have told us all something.
By the time I first came out, I was well on my way to feminine territory. But breaking out of assumptions, especially big ones like what gender you are, can take some work. You’ve lived as a guy all your life, you find you have an attraction to men (even if not an exclusive one), you lean toward the effeminate, and that’s the role society offers you: gay man. It was just the nearest place I could find for myself. I wasn’t yet ready to consider that I might actually want to be a woman instead.
Sometimes I wish I were one of the people who had “always known” in some sense that they were really a man or a woman, the people who eventually have that epiphany all at once, and know exactly what their path is if they choose to take it. Sure, I knew what it would mean to be trans – and people who knew me online were already starting to see me that way – but I had to carve away at the space of possibilities until the only remaining option was too obvious to ignore.
So I spent two years putting myself together into what I wanted to be, for the first real time in my life. Two years of going by “he or she, either’s fine,” while being she’d and ma’amed in public more and more often. Two years of growing into something more than a gay guy. “Drag,” I jokingly called it. But really, it was just… me.
You’d think people would notice their child, their grandchild, their sibling becoming a woman right before their eyes. It’s obvious in retrospect, but you might not recognize what’s happening if you don’t know what to look for. For my little midwestern family, the idea that one of us could be trans wasn’t even on their radar. “Sex changes” were just some abstract thing that happened to other people, somewhere else, in the realm of Jerry Springer and Maury and bad comedy movies. When something is so utterly remote from your experience, you don’t even consider the possibility that it could happen in your own home. Not even if you see it every day.
And that’s how things stayed, with nobody really sure what was going on, not even me. I settled into what I had begun to call the “gender demilitarized zone,” not quite trans but maybe, definitely not a guy but still partially “he” for no reason other than the inertia of the years, not yet countered by enough of an opposing force to push me over the hump into outright womanhood.
Then I met Heather. We hung out in the same queer chatroom, but we hadn’t really noticed each other until we both ended up arguing with some guy who thought all LGBT people should come out, no matter the personal cost. She’d recently realized that she really was lesbian after all, and that things weren’t going to work out between her and her husband. And somehow, once we started talking with each other, we couldn’t stop. We marveled at having finally found someone we could talk to on the same level, who truly understood what the other was saying, who never ever got tired of being around us. We talked for hours each day, only parting when we had to, staying up late into the night, inexorably growing together. And she called me “she.” It felt so right, for both of us.
After just a few months of the closest friendship I’d ever known, we decided we had to meet. We counted down the days – 63, 62, 61… – until she arrived in Chicago for a long weekend together. We dreamed of what it would be like, of holding hands and holding each other, of looking out on the world from the top of the Sears Tower and promising we’d be together forever.
I’m nothing if not oblivious. Maybe it runs in my family. Afterward, she told me she’d been afraid of telling me how she really felt and scaring me away. Me, I’d just never been in love before, not like this. I didn’t know what it looked like. I couldn’t put a name to it, even when it was right in front of me.
She ran to me and swept me up into a hug the moment she saw me, holding me tighter than I’d ever been held. It was like everything I needed in life came together as we embraced, bathed in the light of that moment we’d dreamed of, finally made real. We held hands and ventured off into the city, not caring where we ended up as long as we were together, stopping at whatever bookstores and sculptures and museums we encountered along the way. At the end of the day, we closed our eyes and leaned on each other in a dark room at the Art Institute, ignoring some black and white film about tunnels.
It wasn’t long before we found ourselves in bed, lips against lips against skin against skin for hours until the night descended. Neither of us expected that. We didn’t know where this was going, and it didn’t matter. If this was where we’d been heading the entire time, then it was right. I never wanted to let her go.
Before she had to go back to Florida, she asked if I would be her girlfriend. Sometimes, all it takes is one question to put everything in perspective. I was not a boyfriend, I would not be a boyfriend, and we both knew it. We were nothing like a straight couple. And I was nothing like a guy. I cried as she got into her taxi and promised her we’d be together again.
When you’ve already come out to your family as a gay guy, it can be kind of awkward to tell them you have a girlfriend now. It felt like taking something back, even if I was actually queerer than ever. But it would have been even more awkward to give them the full story, explaining the intricacies of gender identities and the true nature of our relationship. It wasn’t until months later, when I was about to move to Florida to be with Heather and her kids, that my famously non-confrontational mom finally asked if I was still gay. The most I could bring myself to say was “…yeah, just not only gay.” We were both content to leave it at that.
Adjusting to life as a stay-at-home mom was one of the hardest things I’d ever done, but it’s so normal for me now that I can’t really remember what made it such a struggle. My family was worried that this was a big step for me, being so far away from home for the first time. Really, it was better for me than I ever expected. I was with Heather every day, and I was finally in a place where everyone had always known me as a woman. She’d even taught her kids about “girls in boy bodies and boys in girl bodies.” I didn’t know how valuable this kind of unconditional support was, until I experienced it firsthand and found out what I had been missing.
Being with someone who had been through her own journey of self-discovery, who had dated trans women before, who saw me unambiguously as a woman, I knew that she understood me. I knew that I was safe with her. When I finally reached a point where I had to find a therapist, a doctor, to take the leap into starting hormones, to file for my name change, to pick out my first bra, she was there with me. And when I decided to call up my mom and sister and explain that I’d really been her girlfriend all this time, she held my hand as they spoke those same words: “Don’t tell grandpa.”
Where does all this leave grandpa, anyway? He never knew I was gay – back when I was the other kind of gay – so it came as no surprise to him that I have a girlfriend now, that I have kids, that I have my own family. We still talk sometimes, and he loves to hear about how we’re all doing. “It’s almost like you’re the mom,” he said as I told him about Heather’s new job. Yeah, almost. I don’t have to hide anything about my new life, except for this one little detail that could tear everything apart.
I haven’t seen my family for over a year. Even if we had room in our finances and our schedules for a trip across the country, I don’t think I could do it, not while I’m still some secret they’re keeping. Not if I’d have to pretend to be someone else. For all the ridiculous fearmongering about how any mention of transgender people will just “confuse” children, I’m certain my sons would be much more confused to see their stepmom treated like a man, called by a name they’ve never known.
I won’t put us through that. I’m not going to act like Heather and I are straight, I’m not going to be a “stepdad” or a “husband,” and I’m not going to hide what my body has become. When I see my family again, I won’t be the person they want to pretend I am. I won’t be someone else. This is too important to compromise, so until something changes, I just won’t be there. I can’t do it.
Despite how scary it is, how likely to end in disaster, I still want to tell him. I’m convinced that he deserves to know, even if he hasn’t necessarily earned it. When Heather and I get married, I want him to be there. The alternative, the ultimate passive-aggression of leaving him out of it all or waiting for him to die without ever knowing who I really am, is even more unthinkable. I want him to know that he has a granddaughter, that I’m making the most of myself and I’m finally, truly happy for the first time. He’s our last connection to the grandma we all miss so much, who never got to see me grow up, and I know she’d want to be a part of my life no matter what.
I still keep putting it off, and I don’t know why. Maybe I just want to have as many days as I can where I know I’m still loved and appreciated, even if it’s on false pretenses. Maybe I don’t want to have it confirmed that my own grandpa would hate me for who I am. Maybe I want to hold on to the hope that it might not be so bad. But every day he doesn’t know is a day I won’t get back, and that’s the price I’m paying for this secret.
It’s not that big of a deal… is it? I’m still the person he’s always known. The rest of my family treats me just the same – it hasn’t changed anything between us. It’s just who I am, and it should be the least important thing in the world. Why does it have to matter so much?
This can’t last, and we all know it. Everyone in my family has always valued keeping the peace above all else, and none of us are looking forward to blowing the whole thing wide open. But it has to happen. Some things are more important than peace, and too valuable to hide away forever. What am I waiting for? Just courage – the courage to put that missing piece back into my life, to wipe out that spreading ink blot of secrecy. This time, I’ll be the one to fill it in with the truth.
Zinnia Jones is an atheist activist, writer, and video blogger focusing on LGBTQ rights and religious belief. Originally from Chicago, she’s currently living in Florida with her partner Heather and their two children.
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