When their father diligently chaperoned their school dances, bake sales and field trips, Sharon Shattuck and her sister Laura would cringe: Dad was showing up dressed like a woman, having recently come out as a transgender. Going through their own hormonal transitions and trying to fit in at school, the adolescent girls didn't care for dad's earrings and blush.
Sharon Shattuck mines the hard years and a family coming to terms with its transgender patriarch in her new documentary From This Day Forward. Ahead of her own wedding day, Shattuck revisits with her father and her mother to see how their 34-year-old marriage survived in a small Michigan town, and what a wife does when her husband prefers feminine pronouns. Trisha (previously Michael) is a 60-year-old artist who begins presenting as female when the girls are in grade school. Wife Marcia, a 63-year-old doctor, speaks of tears and confusion: If her husband is a woman, what does it say about her own sexuality and feminine identity? Soon, the question becomes whether Trisha will wear a gown or a tux to walk her daughter down the aisle.
Much as we are beginning to champion transgender rights, this documentary shows that machinations within a family are always complicated. Trisha is a mischievously goofy parent but also poignantly self-aware, two qualities that make her a highly accessible spokesperson for those in trans-marriages, a love story some viewers may have a hard time wrapping their heads around otherwise. The Globe spoke with filmmaker Sharon Shattuck about family ties (and Bruce Jenner) from Toronto, where From This Day Forward screens at the Hot Docs 2015 film festival.
How did you and your sister feel the day you discovered photos of your father cross-dressing?
I was around 8. My sister was three years younger than me. We didn't understand what it meant. Then my dad told my mom, "We should just tell them." Little kids are some of the most open-minded people you'll meet, but when we went out into the world and realized that society frowned on this, we started to get really self-conscious.
You and your sister wanted your parents to divorce, which they decided they would before reconsidering to stay together. Why did you want them to split?
One of the things that was formative to me was the movie Mrs. Doubtfire. First of all, seeing Robin Williams in a dress blew my mind. Even though the character wasn't transgender, I realized, "Wow, that happens to other people's dads." The whole story was a divorce story and I couldn't help but imagine, wouldn't our life be so much easier if we just had a single mom? We wouldn't have to explain or try to keep our friends away from our dad. When you're in middle school and trying to fit in, you're mostly concerned about your own survival.
Obviously I'm glad they didn't divorce. I'm more compassionate because I've grown up with somebody who's different. It's helped me to keep an open mind.
Your sister says on camera that she felt your father was prioritizing personal satisfaction over the family. Was it seen as self-indulgent behaviour?
Now I understand the backstory of why Trisha came out when she did. I know that she called a suicide hotline and that it was literally life or death. But when you're a kid trying to figure out how you can fit into the world, it's confusing when your parent is transitioning. We didn't want to be doing it at the same time as our dad.
Making this film I was able to ask all the questions that I couldn't ask when I was younger. We've been able to talk about things that went unspoken in our family for a long time. It's been a healing experience for the family. Now I understand the context, which helped me to completely embrace my dad's choice to come out when we were younger.
What about this idea of children being in the closet too?
As kids of LGBTQ parents, we'd meet new people and just wouldn't tell them about our dad. Actually everyone in our really small town knew already. To their credit, our friends stayed our friends. They didn't care, which was surprising to me at the time.
Your parents grew up in the 1950s, and your mom was reared on marital myths of princesses and heroes. How did their marriage survive this?
Trisha told Marcia that she was transgender in 1979. I can't imagine my mom even understanding how that would work. Nobody was more surprised than my mom that she could get past gender and stay with this person because they love each other so much.
Your mother's sole condition was no sexual reassignment surgery; she said she'd married a man, not a woman. Was that a sacrifice for your father?
A lot of transgender people don't have bottom surgery. Over time, Trisha has become more comfortable in her own skin. It was the last signifier of how they interact with each other physically in their marriage. They're very physical with one another even now, Trisha pinches mom on the butt. It's awkward for me, but they're in love.
Does your father want to present as a woman full-time but doesn't for the sake of the marriage?
Trisha is kind of butch. Even if Marcia wasn't around, Trisha would probably be wearing a Western-style button down shirt and jeans. That's just her style most of the time.
You've met other wives in this situation who say they miss their "man" – even though their spouse is right there.
They felt like their friend is still there but they lost their intimate partner. I spoke to one family where the transgender woman works her day job in men's clothing and then comes home and changes back into her usual clothing. The wife is just completely disinterested, and it's very hard for both of them.
My mom's been very open-minded and strong. She's changed her ideas a lot over the years about who she can stay with. I don't think everybody can do that. But there's no merit system if you can or can't stay with a person. My parents talk a lot and they're always checking in. It's like a dance between the two of them.
What have your parents taught you about marriage?
I've always looked to them as an example of how to be with your partner, to be considerate and compassionate.
What advice do you have for parents who are transitioning?
If you're transitioning and you have kids, definitely try to get them connected with support groups like those hosted by the Family Equality Council and also Colage, which is specifically for children of LGBTQ parents. I'm part of a Facebook group for kids of transgender people. Some of the messages read, "It's weird seeing my dad in a dress. Does that ever get easier?" I want to try to help them.
Do you feel a kinship with the Kardashian clan as their father Bruce Jenner has formally come out as a transgender woman?
I'm not that different from Kim Kardashian West apparently! Still, my heart really goes out to Bruce Jenner dealing with paparazzi everywhere. Immediately after his Diane Sawyer interview, his children started sending out tweets of support. I hope that they're really sincere about that. It would be amazing if they would start speaking about it and being publicly supportive.
Like the Kardashians, your own family is having an "ongoing conversation." What are the flashpoints now?
The flashpoints come in social situations with more conservative people and worrying how Trisha is going to present. My mom never says, 'Don't wear that' but there is stress. Half of my hometown is very supportive and loving toward my family. The other half doesn't want anything to do with us. My parents have had people cross the street rather than talk to them. It's crazy: They're missing an opportunity to meet the nicest people in town.
My parents saw the film and said it made them cry. They want this film to open people's hearts and change minds.
This interview has been condensed and edited.