When she was 14 years old, Noelle Howey's mom let her in on the family secret: "Your dad likes to wear women's clothes."
Dress Codes: Of Three Girlhoods — My Mother's, My Father's, and Mine, is a poignant account of Howey's struggle with her father's transformation from an emotionally distant dad to an affectionate transgendered woman.
Author Noelle Howey joined ABCNEWS.com for a live chat on Monday, Dec. 9. The transcript follows.
Also: Read an excerpt from Dress Codes, the latest selection in Good Morning America's "Read This!" book club series
Welcome, Noelle, thanks for joining us.
When you first found out about your dad's cross-dressing habit as a 14-year-old girl, you were stunned. How have your feelings changed over time?
Over time, it has become very normal for me — almost to the point where I have to stop from time to time and remember that this doesn't happen in everyone's family.
This has been something I have dealt with and came to terms with about 15 years ago. If I were still dealing with these issues — and if this was still a painful ordeal — I couldn't have written the book. I would still be too involved in coping with it. Now it's kind of old news in my family.
How have the changes that your dad went through altered your perception of gender? Do you now see the divisions between male and female differently than you used to?
That's a great question. I absolutely see male and female differently than most people do. I don't see male and female as something that is just biological. To me there is an element of choice and orientation.
There are women who are masculine; there are men who are feminine. There are so many different kinds of ways of expressing one's gender. Many of them are so subtle that I think even those of us who would never think of having a "gender problem" still grapple with gender issues — like women who feel they aren't feminine or girly enough or guys, like my husband, who feel people expect them to watch sports all the time.
I think the lines are very flexible — more so than people want to admit, most of the time.
I read this after it was shown on the show, and I thought the book was extremely warm and funny. I really enjoyed it. Was writing the book very cathartic for you?
Actually, no. I think writing in your diary should be cathartic in the sense of releasing your emotions and processing things. But when you write a book, you're trying to communicate with other people; it's not just for you.
So I wasn't willing to write this book until I thought that it would be interesting and entertaining for other people — and until I could have a sense of humor about it. I didn't want this to be one of those depressing memoirs everybody always talks about.
Does the author think that the experience would have been more, or less traumatic had it been her *mother* who'd decided to cross over and become a man? Is there more stigma attached to acting feminine, as Madonna suggests in her song, "What it Feels Like for a Girl"?
It would have been harder if it were my mother — mostly because my mother and I were so much closer, so any big change on her part would have been difficult.
To get to the larger question, I think that there is more of a stigma attached to acting feminine. If you think about it, women who wear their boyfriend's shirt, for example, are considered sexy as opposed to a boyfriend wearing his girlfriend's shirt — that would be classified as a sexual fetish or something considered distasteful.
While it's hard for anybody to move across gender lines, female-to-male transsexuals have a slightly easier time than male-to-female. When you're a male-to-female, like my dad, you're no longer accepted by men as a man, but you're no longer accepted by women as a woman. You live in this world that's in between the two.
I think that for somebody raised male and particularly somebody who had positions of power, like my dad, that can be a very hard place to be.
Lucas Bronsman asks:
Your grandmother is like the unmentioned "fourth girlhood" in this book and a fascinating character. I felt like she added a whole other dimension to the themes of the book. I'm curious to know how you feel about her importance as a character in the story.
She's actually my favorite character in the book. I almost wanted to write a book exclusively about her because to me she embodies so many of the tensions that get addressed in the book.
It's difficult enough to be a powerful and attractive woman nowadays; it was even more so in the 1950s. I think that my grandmother was such a creature of her time. She tried to be the perfect housewife; then she tried to be the perfect executive; then she tried to be a socialite in the Reagan years; then she tried to be an activist in the Clinton years.
I think that in some ways her character to me is a microcosm of the rest of the book.
Your book jumps around between several different time periods, starting in the '50s and ending in the '90s. How do you think things may have turned out differently if your family's story began in the '90s?
I think it would have been a completely different book — and that's probably a good thing. This is not to stay that gender is something we have grappled with as a society and conquered; that's not the case. People still tend to view transsexualism as a vaguely gross or often funny predicament.
But that said, there are so many more resources now for people who are transgendered and there are so many more discussions about what it means to be guy or a women. If my dad were a teenager now, he could join a transgender youth group and march in transgender parades.
That could never have happened in the 1950s — or the '80s for that matter. This is a very recent phenomenon.
What do you think we should be teaching high school aged kids about gender? Any thoughts?
I think the most important thing is that there shouldn't be so many judgments placed about where you fall on the gender spectrum — meaning ultra-feminine at one end and ultra-masculine on the other.
Schools, along with every other institution, have a responsibility to communicate the fact that a diverse student body — diverse in every sense, including gender — is a perfectly healthy thing.
We're a long way from people even thinking in those terms. I don't necessarily blame schools specifically. There is no one, two or three ways of being a man or a woman or a family. If schools helped to promote that idea, I think we'd all be a lot better off.
How do you friends and family feel about the book? Are they supportive?
My parents are 100 percent supportive. They really thought the book was important in giving a face to what has so far been a string of really juvenile depictions of transgendered people (like you see on Jerry Springer). We felt that when you can make a caricature of somebody, like a transgendered person, then it is so much easier to discriminate against them or to think that their problems don't relate to yours.
The only people I worried about in writing the book were ex-boyfriends. But at least one of them I heard from — and he has been really supportive (his virginity got outed in the book!)
If you had to give one piece of advice to a young person struggling to cope with and love a transgender parent, what would that advice be?
Try to have as much patience with your parents as you would like them to have with you. For most people, coming out is a form of adolescence; it mirrors puberty in almost every particular. If you can accept the fact that your parent is going to change and is going to have some phases — some of which you will find hysterically funny or just plain weird — and if you try to have a sense of humor about it, it'll be much less painful.
I think the hardest part is just dealing with the fact that a parent is changing. Everyone expects their parents to remain the same. Of course they won't, and they don't. The only difference with this is that the change is much more visible; it's much more external, so that other people will react to it and make their own value judgments. I've found dealing with others' reactions can often be harder than dealing with the actual transgender issue.
Thank you all for asking questions. I hope people have found the book entertaining — and most of all funny.
Thanks to Noelle Howey — and to all those who joined the chat.