On Friday morning, I was getting my seven-year-old daughter ready for school and chatting happily about our first father-daughter dance later that night. So when a friend of mine suggested later, "Remember where you were last year at this time. Give thanks for then and for now" as a May Day spiritual practice, my meditation was on gratitude for my first-ever father-daughter dance.
Though I was a daughter, I had never been to one with my father. My parents' divorce when I was two years old was not friendly back then. And I have an older daughter, now in her late teens, I went through her school years as her mother. To my youngest child, I am Daddy. But a year ago at this time, life for us was socially awkward. Only the loss of my full-time employment as a Christian theology professor at 47 freed me to start the changes that allowed me to recover from mental illness to be fully present in her life -- but as her dad. My intersex body was still recovering from 32 years of feminizing treatments with estrogen and progesterone, and my legal name and gender change were still waiting in an eight-month process of court approval.
The awkwardness of my "in-between" transitional appearance made most other adults obviously uncomfortable if not outright hostile, especially when their children were present. Whether at school events or at local playgrounds, adults often pulled their children away from child in silent but obvious fear when I was with her.
Last year at this time, my then first-grader asked me to take her to the father-daughter dance at her school repeatedly, and every time, my refusal made her cry. For about two weeks, she begged and whined, "Why, Daddy, why?"
Embarrassed and even a little angry, I'd answer, "The other parents don't understand, honey."
What I was too ashamed to explain last year at this time was that I was afraid around other dads -- because I didn't look or sound like a dad -- and as I now work in LGBT community, I know all too well that interactions between a group of cisgender straight men and one token trans* person or less-than-masculine gay man often end in violence.
Tearfully, my young child angrily (and probably rightfully) asked me, "Who cares what they think?" -- not understanding why I didn't stand up to the mean people this time (as she had seen me do for our extended family of LGBT college students). Because this time, young children would be the ones caught in the crossfire, I resigned myself without trying to explain further, "Not yet. Maybe next year, honey."
So I am grateful this year because instead of shame, fear and tears, we had a laugh reading the dress code for the father-daughter dance.
"No strapless dresses allowed." I said, "Too bad."
Since she had proudly picked out her outfit to show me the night before, she said to me, exasperated, "Dad, you know I wasn't going to wear one anyway!"
When I grinned back at her, she saw the humor. "You mean you were going to wear one? Da-a-ad!" She rolled her eyes and laughed with me. Progress!
To help manage the social anxiety for both of us as we got ready for the dance, I asked her to pick out my outfit, only requesting to stay in my blue jeans (which she approved). Out of all my plain, boring dress shirts, she picked the only one in rainbow colors (plaid), adding a black bowtie and black leather motorcycle boots -- a choice I tried to steer her away from out of my own nervousness.
She was fearless and insistent, "These look the best on you, Dad!"
Once we got there, the old social anxiety returned. After all, my child was the only little girl in the whole room with a trans* dad, and she is already used to being socially excluded. But with a lot of patient waiting as she sat through those feelings, gently but firmly insisting, "We're going to stay 'til you are ready to share one full dance, then if you are still not having fun we can go", and the eventual help of one empathetic staffer to connect her with another little girl who is a friend, she finally danced with me and her friends the whole last hour of the event.
As I tucked her in bed that night, she told me, "This was the best time of my whole life!"
From a year ago today to now, I have much for which to be grateful. So many of my intersex friends have been wrongly told (as I was by doctors) that we could never have kids -- so many gave up without trying. So many trans* friends who are parents lose custody of or even visitation with their children for no reason other than their gender. So many gay men and trans people aren't even physically safe in a room full of guys who aren't LGBT -- let alone accepted without any fuss as I was with my child that night -- like any other dad and daughter. The whole community around us has grown and opened hearts over time. So I am grateful.
But it took willingness to stand our ground in this unknown territory and take the pain of others' fear, hostility, exclusion, and social awkwardness every single day for nearly two years to get to where we are now. Running away, hiding out, or fighting back are all easier than what my young child actually did at this school dance -- and less effective for changing hearts and minds than the long-term work of staying in relationship with those who don't understand or even worse, bully.
And so learning from my young child, I honor those at Ferguson and Baltimore -- even though we are far away in L.A. And even though some dismiss the particularity of their moment-by-moment, daily acts of ongoing courage with the pithy generalization "all lives matter". #BlackLivesMatter -- specifically, in this particular time and place. The hardest, bravest work of all is staying -- without surrendering, without attacking -- to stand your ground.
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