Psychotherapist Steve Gunther is wellversed in other people's family crises. But his ownhas involved charting virtually unknown and, at times,disturbing territory. Story by Emma Leask.
Life for psychotherapist Steve Gunther was happilyticking along, married in his mid-thirties with twoyoung children. When one day, completely out of theblue, he received a 50 page letter from his staunch,fundamentalist Christian, 65 year old father - confessinghe was a transsexual.
Now 42, Steve remembers the experience as being "surreal"."I was surprised, shocked, curious - I just wanted toknow more about it". Steve says there were no obviousindications his father, George* was a transsexual. "Hehid his femininity well, all my memories of him werethis stormy patriarch. It wasn't like he was campy."
Steve found himself charting unknown territory. Transsexualsare often the object of lurid fascination, extreme discomfort,even overt hostility. He found no self-help books abouthow to cope with one's father becoming a woman - evenpsychiatry placed the subject in the too-hard basket!
Back then Steve had a fairly good relationship withhis father, who he describes as "a bit of a maverick"."He liked to go against the flow of things, he worea beard when everyone else shaved, he rode a bike wheneveryone else had a car, he was always a bit of a radical."
Born into Los Angeles Jewish families, Steve's parentsdecided to emigrate to Tasmania to escape the materialisticclimate in America in 1963 (when Steve was four).
George worked long hours as a teacher and scientist.Devoted to his hobby of electronics, he enjoyed tinkeringin his workshop. "He was a very selfish man, very wrappedup in his own world, extraordinarily insensitive tothose around him and pretty difficult to live with,very moody," Steve recalls.
George was in his late twenties when he married Steve'smother. "The relationship was always her being moreavailable and more wanting, and him to a certain degreewithdrawing or being difficult.
"Of course all this time he was just hiding this partof himself from the world and from himself and tryingto adjust. It certainly makes his moodiness understandable."
Steve's mother died of cancer aged 53. Just four yearslater, Steve received the mind-blowing letter from hisfather.
Even after his wife died, George continued playinghis part as a male by dating other women, and nearlymarrying again. It took him a long time to accept hissituation, despite living with these feelings all hislife. "Since age six he always felt something was wrong,like he wanted to be a woman and when he mentioned itto his mother she'd tell him not to talk rubbish. Whenhe was in the navy, he always got laughed at for beinga bit effeminate, so he learnt to hide anything likethat in himself and was a recluse in some ways," explainsSteve.
George "came out" gradually, telling his Christianfriends in the conservative Tasmanian community overa period of six months. Almost every person in his lifedisowned him. "His Christian friends all dumped himlike a hot potato," says Steve. "I felt sorry for him,it's hard enough for him to come out let alone loseall his friends over it. It was pretty appalling, hisentire support system just dissolved."
With incredible courage, George moved away from hisbeloved Tasmania, where he had lived for 25 years, tothe more cosmopolitan Melbourne. Although George hadbeen cross-dressing all his life in high secrecy, histransformation to become a woman was a gradual process.This was when the reality of the situation began tosink in for Steve.
"He started to look a bit different, grow his hairlonger and wear slightly different clothes. He startedwearing jewellery, make up, slowly feminising himself- I found it a bit strange but it was kind of okay atthat point."
However, Steve felt a new dimension of intensity whenhis father started talking about "the op". "Then hejust went the whole shebang and had the operation anda zillion operations to raise his voice and take thehair off."
Steve's beloved father was disappearing, and in hisplace a person he knew less and less. But George's mindwas made up. During this process George became insistentat erasing his past, sending back photos, letters andevery memory to Steve. With this he began to turn hostiletowards his son, who seemed to serve as a painful reminderof all the years of self denial.
George, now Carol* considers himself a woman. Carolhas constructed for herself a female past, carries afemale passport, spends hours on her make up and worksas a childcare worker. (George, on the other hand, hadno interest in small children).
Steve still feels a great deal of mixed emotion andconfusion. A new personality inhabits the drasticallyaltered frame of his father. George the knowledgablescientist is gone, and in his place is Carol who, accordingto Steve, professes limited intellectual ability, isscatterbrained and more inclined towards gossip.
Perhaps Carol is drawn to children because they areunconditionally accepting. Indeed, Steve's kids havetaken it in their stride - Grandpa is now Auntie. Carol,however, doesn't tell people she used to be a man becauseshe is often shunned or rejected.
Steve has no problems telling people his father isa transsexual. "It's sort of like saying he's a scientist,he's a child care worker, he's a transsexual - that'swhat he does." Steve's wife also is very open to thesituation.
The range of people's reactions includes shock, intenseinterest, sympathy and incredulity. But Steve does notwant to perpetuate family secrecy and believes thereis nothing to be ashamed of. "I'm quite committed tobeing open and speaking to people freely and to stopit being a hush hush issue."
Steve feels he has lost his father, which saddenshim. "It's kind of weird because he's still my father,but he is living as a woman and not identifying in anyway as my father and she's not my mother. I guess youcould say that he is still my parent."
When discussing his father, Steve refers to her as"he" and "she". "I certainly can't say George any morebecause he's definitely not George - do I say Carol?For her she's a she - she's Carol, but for me althoughshe's Carol, he's my father, it's a very strange situation,"he laughs. Humour is the only way he can digest thesituation at times.
All the intellectual acceptance and tolerance doesnot help the intense emotional experience Steve hasbeen through, a mixture of sadness, confusion, hurtand, most painful for him to admit, dislike.
He confesses he finds it hard to relate to Carol."Yet this is the person my father now is, so if I'mto have any kind of relationship then this is the personI have to deal with. I still find him a difficult person,quite domineering and passive aggressive, and so that'smore problematic for me than the transsexuality."
Despite this loss, he admires and respects his father'scourse of action. "It took a lot of courage and I appreciatethat he is living the life he wanted to live." In manyways, his father has changed for the better. "She nowis probably more tolerant, more patient, more compassionate,humbler."
As a result of his experiences Steve strongly believesthe process of changing sex is a family issue. "Whena person becomes a transsexual, it's not just 'a person'having the operation. The whole family needs counsellingthrough this process together - otherwise it generallysplits families.
"I feel quite angry at the medical profession becauseit did not contact or involve me, I was not invitedto counselling. It's just like well here's the person,and it's such a crazy way of looking at human beingsand physical and psychological health."
Being a psychotherapist has been "incredibly helpful"for Steve, who has come to his own understanding ofthe situation. His spirituality and meditation are alsoan "underlying constant" in his life.
Today, he has reached a level of acceptance. "I feelgood that I can acknowledge him as a transsexual andI can say this is Carol, this is still my parent. Ican say she is living her life and I accept her fateand then I also acknowledge that he is still my fatherin some ways."
Steve copes by allowing himself the freedom to feelhis feelings when he needs to. "You know I'm 42," helaughs, "but I'd still like to have a father who's amodel for me of a maturing elder and I don't have that.I have this person who lives as a woman - I mean goodon her - but there's no male role model for me there,so when I need to feel sad, I feel sad about that."
New events unfold that change Steve's perception andso his story is not fixed for all time. His hopes forthe future focus on himself. "I hope to be less needyand demanding of him to be a certain way - so that'sa sense of empowering myself."
*names changed to protectthe individual's identity
Steve Gunther has self published a book of advice formen about relationships with women.
He can be contacted on: (02) 6621 3911,
or write to 16 Coleman Street, Lismore, NSW 2480