Transgender people have been back in the headlines as President Joe Biden lifted ex-President Donald Trump’s ban on their service in the military, hired them in his administration, and signed an executive order barring discrimination on the basis of gender identity. This much-needed show of support for a group that is too often the target of misunderstanding, derision and abuse has predictably stirred up debate. In fact, just this week, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) hung a transphobic sign up outside of her office and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) wrongfully referred to gender affirmation surgery as "genital mutilation" during a confirmation hearing for Dr. Rachel Levine, who is the current surgeon general of Pennsylvania and transgender. As a gay man with a trans brother, I’ve personally seen how difficult this path toward acceptance has been for the community.
I didn’t sleep the night after my mom told me the news. She sat me down and looked very grave as she asked if I knew what a transexual was. I was only 12 years old and I didn’t. In 1972 I doubt anyone in my Midwestern suburban neighborhood would have. I worried it might have something to do with me preferring Barbies and Easy Bake Ovens over Hot Wheels racing cars or baseball gloves. Was I going to have an operation? I didn’t like having my tonsils out and this seemed a lot worse. But I soon realized she was referring to my sister, who was 18 and what people referred to as a tomboy.
I worshipped my big sister. We both loved bringing home stray animals and filling our home with those misfit pets, and she never tired of trying to teach me to be handy with tools no matter how hopeless I was. Even though she often had dark, intense moods, I knew I could always charm my way to her tender side.
When our mother mentioned the surgeries my sister was planning, I began to feel overwhelmed. What exactly were these operations? I had so many questions but didn’t dare ask them. Those parts of the body weren’t something I was eager to talk about with my mother.
“She has done a lot of research and is convinced this is the issue she has struggled with her entire life,” she told me.
With her commanding voice, bleach-blonde hair, midi-skirts and fringe vests, my widowed mom was a mix of Dinah Shore and Bea Arthur.
“We are going to respect and support her wishes,” she said firmly. “This is a very brave thing she is doing. She just wants to be happy.”
I wanted my sister to be happy too, but as I stared at my bedroom ceiling that night, I wished I knew how I was supposed to help.
“Do you want orange or grape juice?” my mom called out cheerfully as she dropped two frosted brown sugar cinnamon Pop-Tarts into the toaster the next morning.
My sister had already graduated from high school and as I sat down at our kitchen table, I was relieved she’d slept in late that day. I was planning my escape to the bus stop before any awkward encounter with her when I heard the creak of the stairs. My stomach knotted as she appeared at the doorway and sleepily shuffled past me. She looked exactly the same. I had thought the hormones my mom said she started taking might instantly transform her.
“Good morning...” I stuttered. I didn’t know if I was supposed to use the girl name I had always known her by or her new boy name, and realized I couldn’t even remember what her new boy name was.
But my sister just grunted at me grouchily like she did every morning before her first cup of coffee.
“You’re going to be late,” Mom reminded me.
I felt like I was in the ”Bewitched” episode where Samantha acted like everything was normal even though Ben Franklin was lounging on the sofa.
At my Catholic elementary school, I kept to myself and could barely focus on my lessons. I wanted to try to find out more information from the school library but realized that would be impossible. What could I possibly say? ”Hi, I would like some books on the great battles of the American Civil War, and could you toss in anything you have on transsexualism?”
Since there was no episode of “The Brady Bunch” where Jan feels like she was assigned the wrong gender at birth, I realized I pretty much had to figure out this hybrid brother/sister thing all by myself. My mom’s guidelines were clear: we will accept this, but we will not talk about it — not even with each other. That first conversation I had with her was also our last.
Only a few days later, I arrived home from school and was stunned by my sister’s new buzz cut. Soon after, I noticed a slight mustache and some facial scruff. She still wore her usual jeans and t-shirt, but her short frame began to noticeably bulk-up. Soon, even her voice was changing. She talked like my sister but lower and deeper. And she never used this new voice to talk about the past. Then we began calling my sister “he,” which was easier than I ever would have guessed. It was soon like my big sister had never existed.
But no one outside our house understood the new rules. The neighbors had tolerated mom mowing our front lawn in her lime green bikini, but the girl-next-door turning into the boy-next-door was harder to ignore. I tried to convince myself that everyone thought my sister was just trying out a new summer cut with sideburns. I soon realized I was fooling myself when my best friend Cindy began making snide remarks about my weird sister “who thought she was a man.” I was embarrassed and ashamed but had no way to defend myself. If I told Cindy the truth, she would tell her mom and her mom would tell everybody. It was safer to just stop being Cindy’s friend.
Our conservative, Catholic relatives already thought my mom had sinned when she attended the touring production of ”Hair” with its infamous nude scene. But “allowing her daughter to do that to her body and be okay with it” was absolutely unforgivable. If I wanted to play with my cousins, I had to be dropped off and picked up in our driveway like a kid shuttled between divorced parents. Many, like my grandmother, refused to speak to my new brother. I could feel something new emanating from every single person who knew or suspected what was happening in my family. It wasn’t just judgment ― there was emotion behind it. It was disgust.
My brother left home a few months later. He told me those operations he needed were done on the West Coast, but I wondered if he was also aching to get far away. He never wavered in his conviction that this was the right thing to do, but he’d been completely ostracized by everyone except a very few of us. As he drove off, even I felt a wave of guilty relief. Now maybe everything could go back to normal.
My mom moved us to a new school district before the year was out.
Five years after his surgeries, my brother came home. I felt jealous when he first stepped out of his pick-up in his trucker’s hat and t-shirt. Even though I’d hit puberty, I was not nearly as masculine as the man standing before me.
He restarted his life and eventually met a conservative, religious widow who he married.
“That’s great,” I said to my mom on the phone when she told me. By then I had moved to New York City and surprised no one when I came out as gay. “Is his wife cool about his past?”
My mom sounded offended by my question. “Why would she need to know about that? It would only cause problems.”
I was used to my family’s skill at hiding the truth, but this took it to a new level. When my brother’s new wife asked my mom to see pictures of him as a child, she told her they had all burned in a fire. Over the next seven years, I often wondered what mix of naiveté and denial kept their marriage going, but I wasn’t going to ask my brother. Although we shared the bond of being outsiders, we never talked about him being transgender ― even with each other.
It was a much different time and a much different world then. As difficult and dangerous as it can still be for transgender people to come out, it was virtually unheard of ― and unthinkable ― at that time. So many trans people were not able to live the lives they wanted to live, and those who did often found themselves dealing with secrecy or shame or both.
His marriage inevitably ended in disaster. His wife was furious their relationship was founded on a massive lie. And my brother’s shame and guilt eventually led to a suicide attempt.
Twenty-five years have passed since then. My brother got needed support from groups and therapists that became increasingly available to trans people, and he happily remarried a woman who knew his story from their first date. Now he lives a peaceful small-town life under the radar while I live out loud and openly as a married gay man.
But whenever I wanted to tell the truth about my family, I felt I was betraying the sacred rule passed down from our mom: accept but don’t talk about it. Although we scattered her ashes in 2009, speaking about this part of our past still felt disloyal. The last thing I wanted was to reopen old wounds. But wasn’t this my story, too? Didn’t I have the right to speak about it?
“It’s a good story,” my brother said when I called him recently to let him know I was writing about our lives.
“It’s not easy to tell,” I replied.
“It wasn’t easy to live.”
I was relieved and grateful he didn’t try to stop me. I knew this wasn’t exactly fun for him. My brother was never a trailblazer by choice. He became a pioneer out of necessity. Transitioning saved his life. And my life was forever changed because of it.
He was never able to teach me to be the handyman he is, although he impatiently tried, rolling his eyes when I handed him pliers after he asked for a socket wrench. But our relationship taught me something more important — how to not get hung up on the external and to be able to recognize the humanity in others. When I see how much time the world wastes demonizing the “other” and causing unnecessary strife and pain, I know now is not the time to be timid. I need the same courage to take the kind of action that he and my mom showed me all those years ago.
When my brother remarried, my husband and I danced at his backyard reception with him and his wife. It was a bright spring day and we were surrounded by supportive relatives. My grandmother died without ever speaking to my brother again. Others in the family took a few decades, but finally came around and now adore the man they’ve come to know. Their kids and grandkids weaved through us as we danced, playing a game of tag, unaware that the groom had once been thought of as perverse and disgusting by many of the people around them. I marveled at this wholesome family scene. This was all my brother had ever wanted.
Keith Hoffman has written for such television series as “The Secret World of Alex Mack,” “Sister Sister” and the popular Nickelodeon cartoon “Doug.” He was a producer for the GLAAD Award-winning series “30 Days” and is executive producer for Animal Planet, for which he produced 10 seasons of “Finding Bigfoot.” He has been published in The New York Daily News and has an essay forthcoming in Grub Street Literary Journal. He is finishing his memoir, “The Summer My Sister Grew Sideburns.” You can read his blog at TheRavenLunatic.com and follow him on Instagram at @keefhoffman and Twitter at @khravenlunatic.
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