Partnering and parenting relationships
Partnering and parenting relationships
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter investigates the patterns of intimacy in relation to the reconfiguration of existing partnerships. It then moves on to consider the narratives of participants whose transition is linked to partnership separation. Next, the chapter reports the formation of new intimate relationships following transition. It explores how participants negotiate gender transition as parents. The formation of new relationships was significant within many participants' narratives of intimacy. Decisions around when and how to tell children about their forthcoming gender transition were central to the narratives of transgender parents. The importance of open dialogue is also stressed in terms of enabling children to adapt to the changes initiated by gender transition. The incorporation of transgender intimate practices into analyses of contemporary patterns of social life further show how ‘the family’, as a social institution and as a process of lived experiences, is subject to ongoing contest, negotiation, and innovation.
As Chapter Two discussed, there has been an expansion of research into shifting familial and partnering structures within sociology and social policy. Intimacy is seen as a site of social transformation within contemporary society (Giddens, 1992; Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 1995). Lesbian and gay partnering and parenting relationships are positioned at the forefront of changing affective structures (Weston, 1991; Giddens, 1992; Sandell, 1994; Stacey, 1996; Roseneil, 2000; Weeks et al, 2001; Roseneil and Budgeon, 2004). For Stacey, lesbian and gay families are the “pioneer outpost of the postmodern family condition, confronting most directly its features of improvisation, ambiguity, diversity, contradiction, self-reflection and flux” (1996: 142). This research suggests that transgender intimate practices further illustrate how family life is subject to ongoing contest, negotiation and innovation.
Studies of same-sex families and intimate relationships pose a challenge to a sociology of ‘the family’, which theorises intimacy through an all-exclusive focus upon the nuclear, heterosexual, monogamous, reproductive family. However, as Roseneil and Budgeon argue, non-normative patterns of intimacy tend to be relegated to “subfields of the sociologies of family and gender” (2004: 136). Further: “these practices, relationships and networks largely fail to be registered in a sociological literature which retains an imaginary which, without ever explicitly acknowledging it, sees the heterosexual couple as the heart of social formation, as that which pumps the life-blood of social reproduction” (Roseneil and Budgeon, 2004: 136).
Moreover, the partnering and parenting relationships of transgender people are ignored not only within sociologies of the family, but also within gender research. Thus sociologies of the family, studies of samesex intimacy and analyses of gender relations have yet to take account of the specificities of transgender. While the impact of transition upon relationships with partners, lovers and children will differ in individual circumstances, the process of transition will always take place to some extent within a social framework of intimacy. It is from this juncture that I move on to explore changing experiences of intimacy through transgender practices of partnering and parenting.
(p.128) In the first section of the chapter, patterns of intimacy are explored in relation to the reconfiguration of existing partnerships. The chapter moves on to consider the narratives of participants whose transition is linked to partnership separation. It then addresses the formation of new intimate relationships following transition. Finally the chapter explores how participants negotiate gender transition as parents.
Practices of partnering
Recurring themes in the narratives of research participants who transition later in life are long-standing professional and relationship commitments. Bernadette (age 71) had a high-profile career as a government broadcasting adviser and a marriage of 40 years before transition. She says:
Similarly, Christine (age 60) had a successful career as a partner in an international accountancy firm and was married for over 30 years before she began the process of gender transition. In the following quotation, she discusses how work and family obligations structured her earlier life:
I had a wife and children to support and I became chairman of various investigative boards and had a busy time for 11 years. Throughout all this time, I suppose, professional and academic success enabled me to keep the gender problem at bay but it never went away. I suppose it was a matter of subjugating my feelings to professional success and it worked. And I accepted that I was playing a fairly crucial role in government service at that time and it would have been irresponsible to vast numbers of people and organisations if I'd have said ‘oh to hell with you, I'm going to go off and do what I've always wanted to do’.
(p.129) As Christine's career developed, so did her identification as a woman; however, she negotiated her transition alongside professional considerations and decided to postpone the process of transition until she had retired:
In the 1960s and 1970s the scenario was very different from how it is now. You left school and did your duty. You didn't query anything. You got your career and marriage and had children. You didn't have time to think about what you were and that was the environment that I was in.
In these narratives, professional and relationship commitments are articulated as coping mechanisms for complex feelings around gender identity and as an explanation for late transition. Bernadette and Christine's transitions were thus reflexively negotiated and performed within the context of work and family life. These narratives also show Bernadette and Christine acting as ‘energetic moral agents’ in “weighing up the pros and cons of the consequences of their actions, considering others' perspectives and needs and reflecting on the decisions they make” (Williams, 2004: 42).
Over a period of time I knew what was going on and I became more aware of my feelings. But what is important here is that my career was progressing very well and I was operating at a fairly high level in a large professional firm. So the best thing seemed to be to wait until I had retired, which I did. I took early retirement and a whole new lifestyle arose. I no longer had to pretend and I no longer had the defence mechanism of having a respectable job, so those things went, and, literally within three weeks of retirement, I came out.
When Bernadette (age 71) was in her 30s, her best friend of many years died. A few years after the death of her friend, Bernadette married the best friend's wife. Although it would be 30 years before she took the decision to transition, Bernadette was open with her partner about her feelings around gender identity. As Bernadette articulates in the following quotation, her partner was to become a central source of emotional support: “I had a very helpful wife who supported me. […] She has supported me in every aspect and she supports me still.” Christine (age 60) also discusses the support she has received from her wife throughout their marriage: “There's no support round here, there isn't a gender counsellor or anything like that, and so what I had in place of that for support was from my wife.”
Bernadette and her wife moved to the village where they currently live four years before Bernadette's transition, and Bernadette became well known in the village. She was an active member of the village church and was elected chairperson of the local council. As the population of the village has fluctuated, Bernadette believes that (p.130) her transition has become less of a public issue and that she and her partner are rarely perceived as a previously heterosexual couple. Rather, Bernadette (age 71) believes that: “everybody thinks of us as sisters. A lot of people think we are sisters.” Correspondingly, Christine (age 60) says “If we have to describe ourselves we say that we are sisters-inlaw.” These relationships are located beyond a sexual framework and are repositioned within the context of kinship bonds. Bernadette was unconcerned that some people in her local community may view the relationship as a lesbian one, and focused upon the subjective shifting meanings of intimacy throughout the relationship's lifespan; as shown in the following section of the interview:
Bernadette suggests that the continued emotional bond between herself and her partner has been possible due to the lack of emphasis placed upon sex within the relationship before transition. Christine (age 60) also suggests that sex was peripheral within her marriage: “I've never really had much interest in the physical meanings of sex. What mattered to me was tenderness. It was the larger picture that mattered, the caring aspects.”
Do you think some people see your relationship as a lesbian relationship?
Oh, some people might, but that is their concept of it. I have a relationship with my wife, which is very intimate and loving and has been for the past umpteen years – 40 years – and it isn't any different now than it has ever been and it's very good. […] I suppose, in the case of physical aspects of sexuality, I always seemed myself to be more of an observer, than a participant and in that respect that's the problem I had throughout all my married life, but that was OK with her.
These relationships can be seen to be characteristic of a commonsense perception of long-term partnerships, and, particularly, heterosexual partnerships, whereby emotional closeness is seen as more significant than sexual desire. In de-centring sex within their relationships, Bernadette and Christine challenge the notion that sex is central to partnering and emphasise the role of emotional care. These relationships cannot be smoothly characterised as either sexual relationships or as friendships. Rather, the meanings of intimacy transgress either framework to illustrate how intimate practices may be revitalised across time and situation.
(p.131) There are connections here with Roseneil and Budgeon's (2004) work on friendship and non-conventional partnerships, which suggests that contemporary practices of intimacy represent a blurring of the demarcation between lovers and friends. Weeks et al suggest that the role of friendship in the lives of lesbians and gay men is intrinsically connected to the significance placed on the role of intimate relationships: “[…] the prevalence of the friendship ethic provides some of the necessary conditions for greater intimacy” (2001: 120). In this way, friendship is held to be as important as sexual attraction or desire within a successful partnership. Further, in the research of Weeks et al (2001), the continuum of friendship and sexual desire within a longterm partnership was seen to be fluid and interchanging across time and circumstance. The blurring of sexual and friendship bonds are also apparent in Karen's (age 31) narrative. In the following quotation, Karen discusses how her relationship with her current partner developed out of a close friendship:
Within the context of these long-standing partnerships, the meanings and lived experiences of intimacy can be seen to be fluid and adaptable to transformations of gender identity. Moreover, practices of emotional care and the values of honesty and trust are emphasised. These narratives correspond with Giddens' (1992) notion of ‘pure relationships’, whereby equality is foregrounded. Shifting experiences of intimacy within the changing context of gender transition are also apparent in narratives of relationship separation.
We met on a course we did together and were friends for a year or so. Most people either see the physical side or see you as a friend, but it wasn't like that. We ended up getting married after we'd been together for a couple of years, and we're still together now. Although it's not a traditional marriage relationship we're glad we did it and we are married. She's had to be strong, and we've had to be strong together. I think the trust has grown.
Many participants spoke of how gender transition may initiate irreconcilable shifts in partnering roles, which can lead to relationship break-up. Nonetheless, intimacy remains a fluid rather than constant process that is frequently able to transgress the boundaries of sexual relationships and friendship.
(p.132) Prior to her transition, Rebecca (age 55) separated from her wife, who is the mother of her son. In the following quotation, Rebecca talks about the difficulties of this break-up:
Rebecca's discussion connects with broader shifts in contemporary relationships where ex-partners become important parts of support networks (Williams, 2004). Rebecca's narrative shows that intimacy can be re-formed across time to enable supportive and caring relationships to be reconfigured. The narratives of Tony (age 39) and Cheryl (age 45) also show how sexual relationships can be transformed into close friendships. Tony's partner provided emotional and, as the following quotation indicates, practical support during his early stages of his transition: “It was a decision we made to try and do it together whatever happens. Quite often if she and I would go out for a meal, if I chose to put a suit on, she would do the talking so that we just passed as a heterosexual couple.” As Tony became more resolute about his male identity, his partner found the changing gender roles problematic and their relationship broke up. Yet, as the following quotation shows, the relationship between Tony and his ex-partner has shifted from a sexual relationship to a close friendship: “We still see each other and we're still very close. Her family were absolutely brilliant, and basically I've become a member of their family.”
It has been a very, very rocky road for me and my ex-wife. She was deeply in love with me and she admits herself that it took her many years, and I mean many years, to get over it. It's only in the last two to three years that she's started to become more civil. […] She's always wanted to be friends but couldn't be. But recently she has calmed down. She was very ill a couple of years ago and she chose me to support her, which I was very happy to do. We were together for 17 years, so she's a big part of my life and if there is anything I can do for her I'll do it. I'm there for her.
Cheryl also discusses how her partner's initial acceptance of gender transition was unrealisable. Cheryl cross-dressed for many years before beginning the process of transition. She has been married twice and both relationships ended. Cheryl was open with her partners about her feelings around gender identity, saying that she “[…] told them both, probably within a month, so that when we got married they were fully aware that I would cross-dress.” Cheryl said that her first marriage ended because she and her wife ‘drifted apart’, although she also stated that “she [her first wife] couldn't really handle the situation (p.133) very well”. By the time she met her second wife, she had made friends with other transgender people and often spent weekends away at transgender social events where, initially, her wife would accompany her. Cheryl says:
Yet the marriage broke up when her wife found that she could no longer manage the shift in gender roles. Cheryl says:
My second wife and I got on very well. She could handle it all and she came away with me for a couple of our weekends and she said they were some of the best weekends she's had. Everybody was so friendly. We used to get really close when I was dressed.
Like Tony, Cheryl has been able to build a friendship with her expartner: “My wife has said that she'll support me as much as she can and we are good friends.”
And then basically last November things were getting more and more intense. And my wife said I should see a doctor and she said ‘if you are TS [transsexual] I can't live with you any more because I married a man and you don't fulfil that role any more.’ It was hard for both of us.
Within these narratives, a range of affective possibilities are illustrated and the boundaries between sexual relationships and friendship are seen to oscillate. Issues around sexual desire and practice, however, are of key importance to experiences of forming relationships after transition.
The formation of new relationships was significant within many participants' narratives of intimacy. Rebecca (age 55) is now single and, in the following quotation, discusses how transition may bring complexities to the formation of new relationships:
Dionne (age 40) has also been single since she transitioned. Like Rebecca, Dionne says that she would like to meet a partner, although she articulates a further issue in the formation of relationships after transition:
I went through a really, really bad few years to begin with, where I had to come to terms with the fact that in the gender description that I have chosen, and all the complexities and ambiguities that that throws up, that the chances of coming across a woman who can accept me [pause]. I have had a couple of relatively brief relationships (p.134) with women but they have not been tenable, unfortunately, because of their confused feelings.
The experiences of other participants, however, show the potential for the formation of new sexual and/or partnering relationships after transition. Until he met his partner five years ago, David (age 26) had similar apprehensions to Dionne's about the prospect of parenting issues hindering a new relationship. David says:
And I'll never be able to have kids. I'll never be able to have kids as a man and I'll never be able to have kids as a woman either, and that's something I'd love to do, but it's something that I've sacrificed. So if you meet a partner it's got to be someone who doesn't want to have kids and that's hard as well, so that's another thing that I worry about, that someone won't want to be with you, because you can't have kids.
While David's narrative indicates that concerns around parenting need not prevent the formation of new partnerships, the experiences of other participants show more broadly how new relationships are often developed post-transition. Here Amelia (age 47) talks about meeting her current partner: “We met totally by chance and his reaction was ‘so what? I've only ever known you as you, that other person is nothing to me, I never knew that other person.’ Which I think is quite a wonderful reaction.” Like Amelia, William (age 25) found that his current partner was unperturbed when told of his transition: “She just got it straight away, and was fine about it all. And in terms of accepting my body, (p.135) I've come a long way, and she absolutely does accept my body. And it's really important that she doesn't have any problems with my body, it validates me.”
I wasn't looking for a relationship. I thought there were too many problems. For me to tell them I was a transsexual, that we'd not be able to get married or have children. I didn't want the hassle of a relationship. But with her it just happened. It was a sacrifice I was prepared to make, not having a relationship, if it meant I could be myself. But it's been great, and she's my main support. And now we think about maybe having a child in the future, we've talked about it. We've talked about adoption and IVF.
Bodily acceptance is also central to Dan's (age 37) narrative. After several years of being single, Dan felt that he wanted to begin a relationship, although he was fearful of being rejected by prospective partners once he told them about his transition. He says: “[…] I was so shy of my body. I'd had chest surgery quite early on but it's just a real fear about if someone will accept your body.” Dan met his current partner through an internet dating site and they communicated for a few weeks by email and phone before meeting. It was important for Dan to discuss his transition with this woman once he knew that he wanted the relationship to progress:
Despite these reassurances, Dan worried that his new partner's feelings towards him would change once the relationship became sexual:
I'd decided before we met that if I really liked her and we clicked I was going to tell her that night. And so I told her, and I just rabbitted and rabbitted and she was quiet for about five minutes, didn't say a word, and I just thought ‘oh no, I've blown it, I've blown it’ and then she just said, ‘well, it doesn't make any difference’.
The interplay between (trans)gender and sexuality is complex, and Dan's narrative reflects back to the significance of gendered embodiment within trans-subjectivities. Although these narratives question normative understandings of gender and sexuality as experienced and practised through biological ‘sex’, there is, however, an investment in a discourse of romance; whereby non-normatively gendered bodies ‘make no difference’. Such a discourse is different from a discourse of realism, whereby non-normative bodily status would be acknowledged (p.136) and negotiated. Moreover, a transgender romance discourse contrasts with a queer discourse, in which non-normative bodies would be a site of celebration and pleasure in their own right.
You know, she was saying everything was fine, but how was it going to be when things started getting physical? I was also really worried about, you know, would I know what to do? So I was really worried and I was worried that she wouldn't like my body, that she wouldn't like it because I didn't have a willy. But I did know what to do [laugh] and for her [pause]. She wanted [pause]. She did want to be with a man but what she didn't like was, you know, the penis side of sex. So she was happy, I was happy.
Cheryl (age 45) met her current partner shortly after her marriage broke up following her decision to transition. In discussing her new relationship, Cheryl positions emotional support as central: “It's a very close relationship and she's been so supportive. She's there for me when times are hard. She's been a rock, she really has. We are having a relationship, but it's also about our friendship.” Cheryl's broader story articulates the fluidity and complexities of gender and sexuality as theoretical categories and as lived experiences. Within her life history, Cheryl's gender and partnering identities have shifted from a married man in a heterosexual relationship, to a female lover of a lesbian-identifying woman. Thus the binaries of male/female and hetero/homo are complicated, and a diversity of intimate subject positions reflected.
Narratives of transgender practices of intimacy raise a number of themes in relation to changing practices of partnering. The experiences of participants such as Bernadette and Cheryl lend support to suggestions of an increasing fluidity between the boundaries of friends and lovers (Sandell, 1994; Roseneil and Budgeon, 2004). Second, they resonate with findings of research into same-sex partnerships (Weeks et al, 2001) to suggest that understandings and experiences of intimacy are fluidly situated, and a range of affective processes constructed within non-normative intimate practices. Such practices support the assertion that intimate relationships within contemporary society reflect an increased presence of reflexivity and negotiation (Giddens, 1992; Weeks et al, 2001). However, narratives vary in the degree to which they speak of individuality or relations, and some narratives, such as Dan's, fit more with a conventional partnership discourse that is based around a notion of romance. Nevertheless, within narratives of partnering relationships, a strong emphasis is placed upon the value of emotional honesty, which, as the following section of the chapter moves on to explore, is also a key theme within narratives of parenting through gender transition.
Practices of parenting
Although many transgender people are parents, there is an absence of sociological research on the experiences of transitioning parents. Outside sociology, Green's (1978a, 1998) clinical studies on the impact of gender transition upon the children of transsexual people remain (p.137) the only UK studies in this area. Moreover, though lesbian and gay parenting sparks much debate within contemporary society, there is a cultural reticence to speak about transgender people as parents, which leaves the practices of transgender parenting largely invisible
Decisions around when and how to tell children about their forthcoming gender transition were central to the narratives of transgender parents. While the issues of disclosure here relate to gender and not to sexuality, there are links with the experiences of ‘coming out’ to children within the context of lesbian and gay parenting. Gabb comments that “heterosexual parents do not need to make ‘proud’ declarations of their hetero-sexuality. The image of such parents routinely ‘coming out’ to their children as heterosexual is almost beyond our imagination” (2001: 347). Similarly, the ‘inside/out’ (Fuss, 1991) gender binary naturalises non-transgender identity as something that does not have to be articulated, while transgender identity, as the outsider to the silent norm, is forced to speak its name.
Dan (age 37) was in his 30s and the lone parent of a nine-year-old son when he decided to transition. Dan felt dissonance with his gender identity as a young child. In his 20s Dan married and had a child. In the following quotation, Dan's decision to become a parent is articulated as an attempt to manage his conflicting feelings around gender:
Dan's marriage broke up when their child was a baby and parenting commitments moderated his decision to transition during this time. Dan says:
I didn't start dealing with it, well, talking about it, until I was in my in 30s, but I went through lots and lots of denial in that time and I got married because I thought it would make it go away. One of the reasons for having a child was that it would make it go away, it would make me whole. You destroy all this stuff that was doing my head in, but it didn't.
(p.138) As his son grew up, Dan began to change the way he viewed the link between transitioning and parenting:
I had my son when I was in a can of worms. That was the hardest bit while I was sorting my head out; it was ‘I need to do this for me, but what impact is this going to have on him? Will I lose him? Will he hate me? Will I have to face a custody battle?’
Thus, rather than seeing transitioning as problematising his relationship with his son, Dan began to see it as a process that would enable them to have a more successful relationship. Initially Dan's son found the situation hard to understand, as Dan describes:
My point of view then was that I was becoming so screwed up in my head that I was starting to fail my son as a parent and if I didn't sort my head out and live as me, as how I felt, then I would totally fail him because I didn't have it in me to love him and provide for him and, you know, I'd end up on tranquillisers and god knows what. So he would have ended up without a parent 'cos he wouldn't have had a parent to support him.
Dan's openness about the procedures involved in gender reassignment can be seen to have enabled his son to understand the changing situation more fully. The importance of open dialogue is also stressed in terms of enabling children to adapt to the changes initiated by gender transition.
He was very distressed when I told him; he was nine, just nine. His first reaction was that it'd messed his life up. But after two weeks he came back and said ‘OK, if it's got to be, it's got to be’. I think to start off he was worried that he'd go to school on Monday morning with me as his mum and I'd pick him up on the night as his dad. And I explained to him that you started off very slow and he realised it was going to be slowly.
As Dan (age 37) began hormone therapy, open dialogue with his son enabled a close relationship through the first stages of transition. He says:
Dan's narrative suggests that open dialogue can enable a climate of emotional care in which support is generated, not only from parent to child, but also from child to parent. Reciprocal caring between parent and child, however, may mean that the child cares for the parent by not revealing the full extent of what is happening in his/her emotional life. Children may feel more internally conflicted, or face more external conflict, than they feel willing or able to reveal to their parents.1
And he'd known that something was troubling me, but he didn't know what it was. So I'd hidden a lot from him during that time and once I'd opened up and was honest I told him everything that had happened since that time (p.139) and he actually started asking some really, really pertinent questions. But he was brilliant, especially at the beginning; if I needed to go to the loo he'd insist on going into the loo first so that he could find out where the cubicle was for me. So he was very protective of me, which was brilliant. It was nice to know he cared that much. We've always been in a close relationship and it's been tested along the way, and we talk and we've always talked.
Support between parent and child is also articulated within Bernadette's (age 71) narrative. When Bernadette married she became step-parent to two teenagers. In the following quotation, she discusses her relationship with her stepchildren and talks about the support she received from them when she decided to transition: “My stepdaughter is one of my best friends, she's in her 50s now, she's a super person. Unfortunately, my stepson died, but he again was someone who was totally supportive of me. I was always entirely honest with them and it's been very good.” Here we can see fluidity between parenting and friendship, which supports Pahl and Spencer's (2004) thesis of a fusion between friends and family within people's ‘personal communities’. Moreover, as in discussions of significant values within partnering relationships, emotional support and honesty are emphasised.
Although at the time of our interview Cheryl's (age 45) children did not know that she was about to begin the process of transition, she too related to the importance of openly discussing the process of gender reassignment. As Cheryl's wife is the main carer of the children, Cheryl's situation with her children is more complex than that of Dan. Although Cheryl's wife supports Cheryl's decision to transition and they remain friends, she is unhappy about telling the children. Cheryl says:
Although Cheryl is pragmatic here about not discussing her transition with her children at present, she indicates later in the interview that she experiences the situation as problematic. She continues:
She [Cheryl's wife] doesn't want to tell them yet. I'd love to live my life as I do when I'm seeing them but I respect her wishes on that. In time, when I start taking hormones and my body starts to change obviously things will change. To start with it won't be a problem, 'cos it is such a slow (p.140) process so we're probably talking a minimum of 18 months and they'll be seven and nine. I want to talk to them about it, but for now the important thing is that I keep seeing them.
Here open dialogue with children not only signifies an emphasis upon honesty within parenting relationships, but is also linked to the affirmation of Cheryl's identity as a woman.
I live at home as Cheryl and I see myself now as a cross-dresser from female to male because I cross-dress to go to work and to see the kids. Before her clothes were in a suitcase in the loft, now his clothes are tucked away and I have to get them out to go to work. And it's the same with family and I think with kids honesty matters and is important but I'm not able to be honest. I feel resentful about that sometimes but it is going away because things are happening and the goal is getting nearer.
A significant component affecting relationships between transgender parents and their children relates back to partnering relationships to show that the relationship between a child's parents significantly affects how the child accepts gender transformation. Partnership breakdown can thus make parenting relationships difficult for transgender people, especially if the child lives with the other parent. Similarly, Green's (1998) clinically based study reported that children of transsexual parents said that they were affected more by the breakdown of their relationship with their transitioning parent following parental divorce than with the issue of gender transition itself. Melanie (age 41) discusses how the relationship between ex-partners significantly affects parenting relationships:
Amicability between ex-partners who are parents can thus be seen to affect a child's emotional wellbeing significantly. Moreover, the parents interviewed in this research were aware of the importance of maintaining an amicable relationship with their child's other parent. The maintenance of positive relationships between separated parents can consequently be identified as a key objective within transgender practices of care in relation to parenting. This corresponds with the work of Smart and Neale, which finds that parents frequently sustained their relationships following separation: “practical ethics which are important in these situations are based on attentiveness to others' needs, adaptability to new identities, and a spirit of reparation” (cited in Williams, 2004: 45). Balancing self-identity with emotional care for children can be complex (Lawler, 2000), however, and the process of negotiation between the two is a key theme in the narratives of transgender parents.
For trans parents who go through the divorce there is the trauma of divorce that affects everyone who divorces. But if you are also trying to deal with the changes of transition, that is another aspect. And then if you put children in the frame, it is a very dynamic situation, a boiling pot. And for separations which are not amicable, the other parent may use the children as a weapon and courts are very unsympathetic (p.141) to trans people. Although some trans people do get custody in some cases and many do get access, it can be very hard. And while some children will accept, others won't and under the Children Act, if that child is over the age of 12 years old and they say they don't want contact with the parent then the law says you don't have to see them. And so the dynamic with the other parent is very important and if they are trying to undermine the trans person's relationship with their child it can be very serious. And if you have transphobic or homophobic social workers they can aid and abet this and courts are not really places to go for trans parents.
Negotiating transition with children
A significant issue discussed in relation to helping children come to terms with gender transition concerns the linguistic shifts that accompany changes in gender identity. Rather than reversing the parenting nouns of ‘mum’ or ‘dad’, each of the parents I spoke with had suggested that their child call them by their new first name or a nickname, which was often a variation of their pre-transition name. Dan (age 37), for example, says:
Similarly, Bernadette's stepchildren called her ‘Bernie’, while Christine's children were able to continue to use the name ‘Chris’. Considerations about how children would address their transitioning parent are thus reflexively situated in relation to enabling children to adapt to the changing gender status of parents.
He doesn't call me dad, he calls me ‘Danny’ and I think that made things a hell of a lot easier for him. And at the school he was at the headmaster talked to all the staff and (p.142) they were instructed that from that moment they were to call me ‘Danny’, nothing else, you know, never to say to my son ‘when's your mum coming?’ or ‘when's your dad coming?’ just ‘when's Danny coming?’. That really helped things as well. And it helped with the pronouns, but for a couple of months I heard the most convoluted conversations, you know, ‘ask Danny whether Danny wants a cup of tea’ and it was quite interesting [laugh]. But I think that really helped him. I think one of the main issues children have problems with is changing that. A few people in the group [FtM Network], when they've been talking about problems with children, I've said ‘don't try and get them to go from “mummy” to “daddy”, try a nickname, even if it's not something you want to be known by, some androgynous nickname’.
A further theme within discussions of negotiating the process of transition with children concerns how children experience changes in their parent's appearance once the parent begins to take hormones and/or have surgical procedures. Some participants discussed how their transformed physical appearance proved problematic for their children. Rebecca's (age 55) son was a teenager at university when she began the process of gender transition. Although he initially appeared to accept the situation, as the process of change developed, he became unhappy. Rebecca says:
Christine's (age 60) and Lynne's (age 67) narratives suggest that reactions to the shifts of transition may differ between siblings. Christine says: “My son was very supportive but my daughter couldn't cope with it”, while Lynne says: “My eldest daughter, she's great, and my granddaughter, she's great. My youngest daughter doesn't talk to me, no Christmas card, nothing.”
At first he was fine, of sorts. He would have been about 16 or 17 then and then the tragic point came for us about a year later when I changed my name and I had a party. I invited him to come and he declined. It was too much for him.
(p.143) For some participants, however, difficulties in relationships with children were transitory and intimacy was rebuilt. Christine (age 60), for example, says “but now we're [herself and her daughter] back together and it's resolved itself”. Likewise, Rebecca (age 55) was able to rebuild a close relationship with her son after a period of distance. She says:
Rebecca discusses the ways in which the passage of time can significantly change problematic relationships between a parent and child. This research indicates, then, that the parenting relationships of transgender people and their children are often able to withstand periods of instability, and are negotiable within complex gender practices.
We [herself and her son] had a period of about 18 months when we were out of contact and he was very angry so I left him to it. I made sure he knew that I still loved him and that I understood his feelings. […] And now we've come back together and we're building a new and somewhat different relationship. So he's OK and he comes and stays here and I go and see him. So I'm very pleased and very proud of him.
Moreover, the research suggests that children of parents who transition from female-to-male, rather than male-to-female, may find the process easier to adapt to as the parent was more able to present androgynously before transition than were male-to-female parents. Dan (age 37), for example, says:
Greater cultural acceptance of female androgyny compared to male femininity can thus be seen to impact upon the experiences of children to benefit the children of transgender men. Yet children's experiences of their parents' transition are not only affected by the ways in which their parents negotiate the process with them. In the following quotation, Dan discusses how the understanding of the head teacher at his son's school smoothed the process:
I always wore a shirt and a tie to work before, anyway. That's what everybody else wore and that's what I wore, and I've still got clothes now that I was wearing seven or eight years ago and that shows how male, stroke androgynous, they were. So my clothes hadn't changed. So it wasn't like one day I was taking him to school in make-up and the next day I was in a shirt and tie.
Here Dan articulates the significance of the head teacher's role as a mediating agent. For parents of young children, the school environment and particularly the reaction of teachers, parents and other children are raised as important factors that impact upon a child's adaptation to parental gender transition.
(p.144) Obviously his peer group were going to be an issue at some point, but again the school dealt with that. It got to the point where some people, some of the boys, were starting to question why I was looking more masculine and the headmaster rang me up and said ‘I'm telling the boys tonight’. We'd agreed it would happen at some point, and we don't know what he told them but they sent my son off on an errand and told the boys […] All I know is that some of the parents rang me up the next day and said ‘my son has come home and told me what's happening and you've got our total support’. We don't know what the headmaster said but he said something that really bound them together in a protective network and as far as I know my son has never had any difficulty.
Corresponding with the narratives of partnering relationships, a central theme to arise from narratives of transgender parenting relationships is the reflexive negotiation of the process of gender transition within the context of relationships with children. Thus, rather than representing an individualised process, decisions around the timing, disclosure and management of gender transition are considered and realised in relation to parenting concerns and responsibilities. Key values in negotiating the process of gender transition with children can be identified as trust, honesty and care.
Sandell's point in the early 1990s that “[…] men and women have, for years, formed committed same-sex relationships, and had children, but what is relatively new is for men and women to self-identify as being part of a gay or lesbian family, and to have children with that identity” (1994: 2) is pertinent to the current state of play in relation to transgender parenting. Thus historically, while many cross-dressing and cross-gender-identifying men and women would have been parents, self-identifying as a transgender parent is a recent social development. Further, as social and legislative debates around lesbian and gay parenting have contributed to the growing public profile of lesbian and gay families (Sandell, 1994: 2), the 2004 Gender Recognition Act has drawn public attention to the existence of transgender families.
(p.145) Shifts in gendered parenting roles problematise normative assumptions of the link between biology and parenting identity that firmly situates motherhood with female biology and fatherhood with male. Castells argues that technological developments, such as surrogacy, sperm banks and in vitro fertilisation, have led to increased reproductive possibilities and choices, representing “growing control over child bearing and, over the reproduction of the human species” (1997: 241). Developments in reproduction technology additionally present increased parenting possibilities for surgically reassigned transgender people. Moreover, developments in reconstructive surgery and endocr inology further sever gender identity from biology. Castells' premise that technological transformations have affected a “whole new area of social experimentation” (1997: 241) can subsequently be expanded to take account of transgender practices of parenting in order to address the issues that these practices raise for theories of social change. In this way, De Sutter (2006) points to the ways in which current technology, such as sperm or ovarian banking, creates opportunities for transgender people to have children following surgery.
The themes discussed in this chapter raise significant implications for future social and family policy and, in particular, indicate the importance of developing policies that recognise the diversity of contemporary family structures. Moreover, the issues discussed in this chapter indicate that the incorporation of transgender practices of partnering and parenting into studies of family practices and intimacy facilitates a richer understanding of the dynamics of contemporary ‘life experiments’ (Weeks et al, 2001). Notions of agency and choice are apparent within the accounts discussed here, illustrating that complex decisions around gender transition are negotiated within the context of partnering relationships and family commitments. Narratives suggest that the meanings and experiences of sexual identity and sexual desire and practice may shift in relation to the performance of gender diversity. The boundaries between sexual intimacy and friendship are traversed as emotional support and care are emphasised within current partnering relationships and in relationships with ex-partners.
Many participants reflexively explore the impact of gender transition upon parenting relationships, and the notions of openness and honesty are stressed as important responsibilities within practices of parenting. Participants suggest that, from their experience, children are more able to accommodate the complexities within their changing situation if (p.146) open dialogue takes place. Further, transgender parents identify a range of additional factors including the age of the child, the relationships between parents after divorce or separation, the gender of the parent, and the role of mediating agents as being significant to practices of transgender parenting. The narratives discussed in this chapter illustrate that transgender practices of partnering and parenting are amenable to complex shifts in meaning and expression. Gender transition can often be seen to enable an ‘intimacy of the self’ (Jamieson, 1998), which is built around mutual disclosure.
While these partnering and parenting narratives articulate personal creativity and agency, I suggest that the experiences discussed here speak not only about individual change over time, but that they speak also of sociohistorical changes in the diversification of meanings and experiences of gender and the impact of these shifts upon intimate lives and social frameworks. While not wishing to exaggerate the social acceptance of gender diversity, nor deny the continuing existence of transphobia, in the main, this research optimistically suggests that relationships with partners and children may be sustained or renewed within the context of gender transition. Additionally, findings illustrate the possibilities for the formation of new partnering relationships after gender transition. Stacey (1996) proposes that we are witnessing the ‘queering of the family’ as the meanings and expressions of ‘family’ diversify. The incorporation of transgender intimate practices into analyses of contemporary patterns of social life further illustrate how ‘the family’, as a social institution and as a process of lived experiences, is subject to ongoing contest, negotiation and innovation.
(1) It is important to note that the children in question were not interviewed and to acknowledge that children may offer different accounts.