In search of her father's girlhood

Noelle Howey, author of "Dress Codes: Of Three Girlhoods -- My Mother's, My Father's, and Mine," discusses sexuality, angora and life with a transgender parent.


Amy Benfer
July 3, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)

It sounds like the punch line to some joke buried in our collective consciousness: Noelle Howey's distant dad, Dick, was one. Until he became dickless.

Except it's not a joke. Or even fiction. And it's certainly nothing to get upset about. "This isn't a tragedy," writes Howey, in her memoir, "Dress Codes: Of Three Girlhoods -- My Mother's, My Father's, and Mine." "It's just non-fiction."

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Howey's memoir is filled with details so apt that, were it fiction, you'd accuse her of being heavy-handed. Her father, Richard Howey, called Dick, was a cold, heavy-drinking father, who spent his time out of the house acting for a local drama club. He loved to watch prison movies. (Says Howey, "I mean, there's no way you could script that. My father feels like he's in prison. Get it?")

And while 12-year-old Noelle was upstairs dressing up in blue eye shadow, Lip Smacker and a secret gold teddy (which, strangely enough, she finds stowed in her father's drawer), Dick was in his basement workroom with his secret stash of Ruby Red Max Factor lipstick, padded bra and a "green hausfrau number."

Happily enough, this is not "The Crying Game" or "Boys Don't Cry" or any other version of the tragic coming-out story. As Howey puts it: "Drag à la Hollywood is often just that. A drag." Instead of tearing the family apart, Dick's transformation into Christine ultimately pulled them all closer together.

Not that it started out that way. Noelle's mother, Dinah, the daughter of a radical Communist and sexual revolutionary, had known that Dick was a cross-dresser since high school, when he confessed that he liked to wear angora sweaters. And she married him. By the time Noelle was 14, her parents decided it was time for her to be let in on the family secret -- though, at the time, it was more like an invitation to join them both in the closet, as they insisted that no one could know.

Eventually, coming out became a family affair. Dinah and Dick divorced when Dick decided to live as a woman. (In another coincidence too good to be fiction, Dick and Dinah were at one time both dating men named Michael.) And when Dick became Christine, her daughter and her ex-wife threw her a coming-out party in their hometown of Cleveland, Ohio -- a fact that was noted derisively by Lois Wyse, a columnist for none other than Good Housekeeping.

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"After you've lived your life as this boring, suburban family in Ohio," says Howey, "it's really strange to find that suddenly you're being mocked in Good Housekeeping. You have to ask: How did this happen to us? How did we become amusing fodder for women's magazines?"

If anything, the joke is on Wyse: It's hard to imagine any memoir of recent years that better exemplifies "family values" -- in the form of openness, love and the sharing of intimacies. While many memoirists are derided, or even sued, by angry family members after publication, Howey's parents openly shared their pasts with their daughter, so much that the sections of her book that take place during her parents' childhoods in the '50s and '60s have the same depth of detail and observation as those sections devoted to her own childhood in the '80s and her young adulthood in the '90s.

Howey, who is 29, is also the editor of the anthology "Out of the Ordinary: Essays on Growing Up With Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Parents." After spending seven years in New York, she now lives in Minneapolis with her husband and her 5-month-old daughter. (And where, according to Howey, her book has so far been strangely ignored -- an advertisement for a local reading described it as a memoir of "growing up in Ohio.")

Howey spoke to Salon about her literary collaboration with her parents, the politics of memoir and the general ordinariness of living with a transgender parent. (And yes, the shifting gender pronouns are Howey's; although in her book her pronouns tend to match up with "Dick" or "Christine," in this interview she shifted back and forth with a fairly random -- and impressive -- fluidity.)

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I was sort of stunned by how much you ended up knowing about your parents' sex lives. Not only that, but how candid you were about your own.

I didn't do it to be icky or sensationalistic. The reason that it's in there is because, well, when your father changes genders and becomes a woman, the first thing everyone wants to know is: Did she keep it? Did she lop it off? What did she do with the penis? That's the No. 1 question. And often, it's all about the genitalia for a lot of people. It shouldn't be, but that's how it gets boiled down into one easy, bite-size chunk.

I think that to write a book about this subject and not deal with the sexuality of everyone in the book is to miss the point. Fundamentally, it's about sexuality. So as much as I knew we could all have elements of discomfort about it, we don't have the most traditional parent-child rapport in the first place, partly because when my dad first did come out, it brought up a lot of questions right away, that we had to deal with together over a number of years.

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From the time I was 14, we were asking each other questions like, "Is cross-dressing a sexual fetish?" This is not the kind of thing most families are talking about with their 15-year-olds. Probably our sense of what is normal to be discussed between parent and child is not the average. But again, when I started the book, I explained to them both that this was something that we were going to have to go into, and that if they wanted things censored, they should probably just not tell me in the first place.

And at some point, as a teenager, it seemed that you started to use your own sexuality as a weapon against them. Having had to know so much about your parents' sexuality, you started to throw your own in their faces, like describing your loss of virginity in graphic detail to your father.

I knew it would upset them when I told my parents about my various sexual interludes as a teenager. Obviously, you know this isn't something that is comfortable for your parents to hear. But they had forced me to confront their sexuality, they had thrown it in my face, saying, "This is your father's problem and you can't tell anybody. If anyone knows about this, you could be ostracized, thrown out on the street."

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There was all this weird Armageddon stuff surrounding it. So I thought to myself, Well, shit. Then why do I have to pretend to be little Mary Sunshine? I'm just going to come out and say who I am too. And if that makes them uncomfortable, well, welcome to the club.

Were you pissed off that your father timed his coming out such that you were both more or less female adolescents at the same time?

There was a bit of competition between my father and me because I felt like he was sucking up all the attention. It was a little irritating. I didn't have that much patience for my father's various experimentations. I was very much focused on myself. I was a teenager!

So much of your book deals with very specific details about both of your parents' childhoods. Tell me about your research methods. Did your parents collaborate with you?

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Yes, I interviewed them for about six hours a week each, for over a year. I spent a lot of time on the phone, and made a bunch of trips to see each of them, because at the time we were all living in different places. I approached it as if I were writing about people I didn't know. I'm a freelance journalist usually, so I tried to approach it as if I were writing an article, or a biography, in order to re-create people and events as they were before I was born.

I went through every document I could get my hands on. Frankly, it was kind of challenging, because both my parents have terrible memories. And none of us have kept diaries. I spliced together pieces of what they told me, put it together in a narrative structure and then let them read it -- basically fact-check it -- and told them to let me know if I was just completely off-base. It was definitely a collaborative effort.

We're all very close anyway, but once I started working on this, they both got very interested and excited in this project. They started to open up more and more. Once the book was actually completed, there was nothing that they told me they didn't want in there.

They also told me that many of the conclusions I drew they would have never come to themselves, but they agreed with them anyway. That was really interesting.

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Do you have examples?

My mother always downplayed her childhood. She never really talked about it to me, or to anyone. She is so vested in being like everyone else -- she really believes that there is nothing unique about her life, nothing unusual. She couldn't acknowledge that the fact that the FBI were after my grandfather, that they actually interrogated her as a child, that that is not something that exactly happens to everyone.

But I would say that's a rather formative experience that may have an effect on how you live your life. Once I wrote about it, and tried to make subtle connections on how that might have affected her relationship with my dad, she started looking at it in a different way. She started saying, "Oh maybe that is why I got involved with someone who said he was a cross-dresser and later a transsexual, and spent 18 years with him. Maybe having a very insecure childhood and a father who was very involved in the sexual revolution could have normalized this for me." She never would have made those connections herself, because she is not someone who is inclined to overanalyze things, the way I am.

There were a lot of interesting moments. I had to tell my dad that my mother did not lose her virginity with him.

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He never knew?

She lost it with some guy at a keg party; she doesn't even remember his name. If there's one thing in the book my mother's not very happy with being out there, that would be it. My father read this part of the book and said to me, "Oh no, Noelle, you got this wrong." You know, trying to help me, like a good little fact-checker. "We lost our virginity together," she said. And I had to say, "Actually, Dad ... no, you didn't. According to Mom, she said you just never asked whether it was her first time. You just assumed."

That was an extremely awkward moment. There was just this dead silence on the other end of the phone. And then she went, "Uh, well, OK." And I'm thinking, I'm revising my parents personal history.

Because the book deals a lot with sexuality, you go through a lot of water that normally you would not go anywhere near.

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Your book also has many intimate details about your parents' divorce, which happened while you were in your teens. How much did you know at the time, and did you find out stuff you didn't know when you went back to interview them later on?

I knew about a lot of it at the time. I don't think I knew the full extent of it. I didn't, for example, know how depressed my father was. At the time, he was very close to suicidal. I knew a lot more about what my mother was going through than I did about my father, because he wasn't living with us for most of high school. I didn't see him much during that time, apart from the divorced-dad-daughter Saturday outings. But even when we were together, it was pretty superficial.

We didn't start to get close until after high school. For most of that time, I had no idea what he was doing, and I didn't ask. I was terrified that he'd tell me. I had these images of my father living in this dank, dark, little apartment, putting on fake eyelashes and sashaying about the room looking like some sort of amalgam of Ziggy Stardust and Boy George. Every sort of gender-fuck image I could possibly imagine. And I thought he was living this vaguely sordid life, creeping, literally creeping, into bars and talking in her Minnie Mouse voice that she was cultivating during that time. I didn't want to ask, because I didn't want my worst fears to be confirmed.

At the time, everyone seemed to view this as such an abomination and such a strange, unfortunate, terrible thing that I figured anything I could find out about my father was going to alienate me even further.

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Finding out now what went on at that time, and how relatively benign it all was, didn't come as a shock to me, because I'm hopefully a lot more savvy about this now. But it was interesting because it's not something we talked about while it was going on.

In your book, when you finally see your father in drag, it's sort of an anticlimax. You wrote about being shocked at how normal-looking she was.

It was completely bland. She's really not that freaky looking. She's just perfectly normal looking. It was shocking in its normalcy, to the point at which I thought, God, if I had known it was going to be this banal, I wouldn't have waited so long! These images that have been popularized in the media were circling in my head, and they are images that really have more in common with drag queens than they do with transgendered people. There were virtually no images of transgendered people in the media then, and there are very few now.

And, just to speak in sweeping stereotypes for a moment, isn't the biggest accomplishment for most transgendered people the ability to pass?

Absolutely. Being outed is at odds with being transgender. That's something people don't understand if they haven't ever given it much thought. They begin by thinking that being transgendered is like being where the gay movement was 20 years ago. While that might be true, being out and being gay are in no way contradictory, whereas being outed as trangendered means you become a "trangendered man" or a "transgendered woman," which is not the same as being a "woman" in the way that people perceive you and treat you.

It's a much harder road for a lot of people. I know it has been for my father. Knowing that the book was coming out, she was going to have to tell more people who had totally accepted her as a woman, that she was actually transgendered. They will probably now totally accept her as a woman with an asterisk. But there is always the caveat of it. She likes living, not so much in the closet, but with a small circle of people who do not know, just so she can be treated the way she wants to be treated.

You were also the editor of an anthology by writers whose parents were gay, lesbian or transgendered, so you've obviously talked to many people who had similar experiences. To continue with the grand generalizations, did you find that teenage boys tended to have more of a problem dealing with a transgendered parent?

I have found that. I found more reticence on the part of boys, even men, in dealing with transgender issues. That's a big generalization, of course. But just as girls, especially those who were raised in a relatively feminist household, have more leeway to break out of gender stereotypes, boys often still don't.

Ironically, a lot of boys who have transgendered parents who later came out were raised to be very boyish. They are often raised to embrace every traditional male stereotype. Oftentimes, their parent has been very heavily invested in those stereotypes as well, because they were using those models of traditional masculinity as a way to submerge their personality in masculine archetypes, so that no one could tell who they really were. Sometimes, it comes back to bite them in the butt. You know, they come out and they have raised their children not to be so open-minded or tolerant, and -- guess what? -- the children are not open-minded or tolerant about them.

There are definitely exceptions to that. I've actually met a lot more daughters of transgendered people than sons. I have no idea why that is.

Do you see that kids tend to have more problems if the transgendered parent is of their same sex?

To be honest, I haven't met that many people. The number of kids who have a transgendered parent, and are willing to talk about it, is tiny. I mean like, say, 12 kids. I was actually asked once by an interviewer, "Is this book really for the kids of transgendered parents?" And I was like, "God, I would have written a pamphlet and distributed it at a picnic!" There's like, seven of us! It's not exactly a booming population.

What I have noticed among the kids I have met -- and sometimes people do seek me out, because I have written about this -- is that a lot of people were thrown into the fact of their parents' transgenderism in a much more traumatic and unpleasant way than I was. My father came out to me in a really loving way and was incredibly patient, and really worked to gain my trust. Whereas a lot of people I've met who are estranged from their parents are not so much estranged because they are out and out bigots. The simple fact is that living in the closet creates this awful petri dish of self-loathing. It's a very unpleasant, awful way to live, and it corrupts relationships. It absolutely destroys families.

If you are only in the closet for a brief time, like we were, you can kind of pull it together, but if you stay in the closet for a long, long time, it's really, really dangerous. When a parent is living in the closet, oftentimes all their family sees is that they are behaving in really awful, cruel, secretive ways, and then suddenly -- whoo! -- they come out and everybody is supposed to be happy. But the kid may be still saying, "Wait a second. You weren't ever there for me." That happens a lot. Transgendered people rarely come out of the closet, because it's still so hard. And people still assume that if you are transgendered and have children that you are destroying the children. They don't realize that having a parent who was living in the closet is probably what was destroying them.

You make a distinction in the book between "coming out" and being "found out."

Yes, it's a huge difference. It's just about being generally honest. Many parents are not as open and honest with their kids as maybe they should be. My family is certainly very honest and open, but it hasn't seemed to hurt us. When you are dealing with something like this, if the parent can't come out and be straight with the kid -- no pun intended -- then, it's much less likely that a relationship will ensue. This is not an easy thing to deal with. Not because it's so awful, because it's really not, but just because there is a lot of cultural pressure telling you that this is a very difficult, horrible thing. In order to fight against that, you need to have a fairly strong relationship to be working from.

Although you were afraid to come out to your friends about your father in high school, once you made it to Oberlin College, being the kid of a transgendered dad gave you nearly celebrity status.

At Oberlin, it was a big deal. Otherwise, I just would have been this middle-class white chick. Woo-hoo. So interesting. So unusual. It was definitely my claim to fame. And I worked it. I put it on applications for classes when they asked me to state the way that I was unique. It got me a lot of attention, as well as a lot of ridiculous praise. I was always told "It's so amazing that you can deal with this." But as much as I thought it was ridiculous, I also liked it a lot.

If I had not gone to a really liberal liberal-arts school I may not have been as fortunate. But I was lucky that I chose a school with that particular ideology, especially at the time when I went. Had it been 10 years earlier, I probably still wouldn't have been able to talk about it, no matter how liberal the school was.

Do you sometimes get annoyed that the fact that your dad is a transsexual is the one thing that everyone remembers about you?

That's how I got my first published magazine piece! It was: Guess what? My dad's a transsexual! I called it my cottage industry for years.

It has irritating elements. I mean, I'm only 29, so it's not that big of a deal that it's the only thing I've written books about. I write about a lot of other things, too. It does get irritating when people think, OK, this is it for you. This is what you are about, this is all there is. When I got my book contract, there were some people who were sort of derisive about it, saying, Well, I suppose if I had this family story, I would get a book contract. And I was like, You know, it's not like I have this pedigree, and so they just hand you a book contract. I had to have ideas. I had to write it. You get a little pissy.

At this point in my life, I'm just sort of amused by it, because it's so completely normal to me. The only reason I wanted to write the book is because I've spent so much time thinking about it and writing about it, that it has led me to other conclusions that I thought were more interesting aside from the mere fact of who my father was.

Dad is fascinated by it, because she's so completely average in so many ways. I don't mean that in a bad way -- she's witty, she's really smart, she's a great writer herself, she has a lot of wonderful, wonderful attributes. But she's not particularly exotic.

Being a writer herself, is she jealous that you got to write the book?

She wrote a play, actually, that was produced in New York, Cleveland and Minneapolis. She didn't really want to write a book about it, and if she had, it would have been a completely different book. There have already been accounts of "I Am a Transsexual," and she didn't feel like the marketplace was screaming out for another one.

Whereas it seems to be a hot time in publishing for books and articles on children who have been raised by gay, lesbian or transgendered parents. If the last generation was grappling with the fact that one could be gay or transsexual in the first place, it seems like this generation is very interested in the issues of marriage and family.

It's something that people are fascinated by, but still, unfortunately, there is also revulsion. At least one publisher said they were only interested if I did a fairly sensationalistic treatment. A number of publishers wouldn't even look at the book, because they said, "We already have our sexual deviance book of the year, thank you." Another publisher -- a huge one -- had a book of fiction with a transgendered supporting character, and they said, "I'm sorry, we won't look at it."

So it's a double-edged sword. Certain places won't touch you with a 10-foot pole, and then Montel Williams is all over you. The reason I wanted to write the book was to take it out of the realm of all that sensationalism. Yet, it ends up there anyway.

Your mother was a straight woman married to a transgendered man. The typical response is to say, "Oh, she should have known." But your mother from very early on did know that your father was at least a cross-dresser. And she still married him. And after your father came out as transgendered, she eventually decided that she was attracted to women after all, and became a transsexual lesbian. Do you think that under different circumstances, their marriage could have worked?

My mother's not attracted to women, and I think if there was any way she could have convinced herself that she could be attracted to my father after he started living as a woman, she would have, because she was heavily invested in the relationship at that point.

That said, I have a good friend who just transitioned from female to male, who is my age, 29. And her partner did identify as a lesbian. They were together for many years as a female couple, and now they are married as a heterosexual couple. Her partner just came along for the ride. She decided she was attracted to a person, not a gender. I think that's really amazing, and I think that's something that would have been less likely to happen a generation ago. I think our generation is more open to the fluidity of things like gender and sexual orientation.

That wasn't even part of the dialogue when my mother was 30. For so many years, she thought this was something that could be controlled. She thought of it as a sexual fetish, she thought it was something that my father could go into a bedroom and do by himself, and then come out sated and happy, and they could go on with their day. Perhaps it was a form of denial, but my father was in denial, too. She would have had to be omniscient to look into the future and say, "Dick is going to become a woman." None of us expected that, including my father.

Your mother's father was also in the vanguard of the sexual revolution. So, unlike many women of her time, your mother was very familiar with many kinds of alternate sexuality, at least on an intellectual level. Do you think that made her more open to starting a relationship with a man she knew to be a transvestite?

Ironically, what led her into this marriage and this situation that eventually became so untenable was the fact that she was so open-minded. She was not the kind of person who wouldn't confront things. She just thought that men had weird sexual peccadilloes, that's what they do. I think, weirdly enough, she thought of my father's cross-dressing as his most male attribute. To her, the thing that really made him a man was the fact that he wanted to wear women's clothes, because only men do weird shit like that.

The fact that she saw my grandfather experimenting with things, while my grandmother sat idly by made it all normal for her. Maybe if she had been brought up in a much more conservative household, where these things were not discussed openly, she probably would have heard that my father liked to wear angora sweaters and immediately ran for the hills. She probably could have protected herself more if she had been less liberal. But she was just liberal enough to handle this, but not so liberal that she wanted to change her sexual orientation and stay with someone who was transgendered. But she did throw him his coming out party.

I was so nervous going into that coming-out party. We didn't know if people were going to show up with blow torches. And then people were just calmly eating canapés.


Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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