Family legend has it that the first word I ever spoke was "Tai." Pronounced "tie," the word means "sticky" in my mother tongue of Afrikaans. It soon became my family nickname. It was an oddly apt choice considering the stickiness that would unfold a quarter of a century later concerning my identity.
While my two sisters inherited their grandmothers' names, when I came along my parents decided to name me after themselves. My first name was a feminized version of my father's first name, and my middle name was my mother's first name.
In my 20s, I wanted to choose my own name. That would mean leaving behind the names my parents had chosen for me. I knew they would find it difficult to accept; they might even interpret it as a personal rejection. I wanted to do what I could to show them I still loved them.
I had two choices, really: I could decide on a name that was entirely unrelated to the ones I was given at birth, or I could take the names I had and alter them slightly. There are benefits to both approaches. It can be easier for family and loved ones to make the adjustment if the new name is far removed from its point of origin, since there is a clear line between the old identity and the new. On the other hand, a birth name is a gift parents bestow on their child. It carries with it the hopes and expectations they hold for you. You don't throw that away lightly. But I was changing and I needed my name to reflect that.
At 24, I was diagnosed with a neuroendocrinological condition commonly known as transsexualism. I underwent a psychological assessment and was given the go-ahead to begin treatment. That is, I received hormone injections that allowed my body to develop secondary male sex characteristics such as facial hair, muscle mass and a deepening of the voice. The girl I once appeared to be melted away, and a young man took her place. He needed a name.
I settled on keeping my father's first name and dropping my middle name, the name my mother gave me. I figured I already carried with me the echo of my mother's body, a body I was trying to turn into that of a man. Besides, my mother, when she found out what I was up to, disowned me.
But I decided to keep my surname. Even if my family struggled to embrace my new identity I wanted to show them that I was not doing this to get away from them. Views change - maybe they would grow to accept me one day.
No one in my family took kindly to my transition. After the initial shock of finding out the truth and worrying about what to tell their friends, my sisters avoided talking about it altogether. Since we live in different cities, this was easily accomplished.
My mother accused me of not wanting to accept myself as "just a lesbian." I attempted to explain the difference between my sense of gender identity and who I felt attracted to and that they had very little to do with one another.
My father, a doctor, diagnosed my behaviour as just another symptom of my self-destructive tendencies. My family did not care what name I chose; they would not call me by it.
Most painfully, considering what I felt were my honourable motives in choosing my name, my father requested that I cease signing my e-mails to him, as my now-masculine version of his name made him wince at his own name. He simply could not bear it.
I was hurt but I complied. Give it time, I thought. But time was the one luxury we did not have.
My father passed away in 2005 shortly after I started the transition process. He had been sick for years but doctors struggled to find a diagnosis. Three weeks before his death they finally determined he had non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
For the final two weeks of his life, I called him every morning in South Africa before I left for work. We didn't speak of my transition or the conflicts that had dogged my family even before I'd made the decision to change. Instead, we spoke of the weather, of how my father was feeling, and I listened as his breathing became shallower with every passing day. There was no Hollywood movie ending. We didn't kiss and make up before he died.
Despite the pain and rejection I felt at the hands of my family, I loved my father and I believe he loved me too. I no longer believe that love conquers all but I do think that, with the help of time, it heals. And as the years go by and I think back on my life and that painful period, what I remember most is not the angry accusations, the disappointments and misunderstandings. Rather, I imagine my father as he once was: a boy from a rural town who dreamed of doing great things; an adventurous man who immigrated to northern British Columbia and brought with him his South African family; a respected, if old-fashioned, physician who devoted himself to healing others.
Today, I carry with me my father's name like a faded souvenir, a reminder of the conflict - and the love - that binds us. Sometimes I wonder how my story would have unfolded if I'd waited until after he had died to begin my gender transformation. But there's not much use in speculating; I could not have known how sick he was. I do not regret my decisions. I am glad my father was aware of the choice I'd made before he passed away. Otherwise, it would have felt like he never really knew me.
Stefan de Villiers lives in Vancouver.
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