I awake when the hotel door swings open. The sound of little feet padding past my bed tells me that the kids have returned with their mother. How did these two little ones manage to awaken, dress and leave the room without me noticing? Their entrances and exits are customarily boisterous, something that I can delight in as a visitor to this family but which eventually draws a strained look from their parents.
I can feign sleep no longer. I place my glasses on my face just in time to watch my friend Ezekiel's son launch himself onto his father's bed. His sister quickly follows suit. They are fairly bursting with what had enabled the not-small feat of their stealthy morning outing: "Happy Father's Day!" they shout. Ezekiel's head pops up from under a pile of blankets and children to flash me a sleepy smile.
As the two children explain their scone selections to their father, Ezekiel's wife Gail puts down a tray with three large coffees and turns to me. "You get honorary Father's Day coffee too," she intones, mock-ceremoniously offering me a cup. I accept this small gift gratefully, touched. I feel as if the drink has faintly anointed me with the special glow of fatherhood.
I witness Ezekiel's first Father's Day in a Philadelphia hotel room, a block away from the Transgender Health Conference that has drawn 3,000 to the city. I surmise that there are numerous others within our community celebrating this first today, one pinnacle amongst the many precious firsts that transgender men experience throughout our gender transitions.
The only corollary imaginable is the joy of a transgender woman on Mother's Day, should she choose to be a mother, and should she not be unnecessarily kept from seeing her children. She may reasonably consider every Mother's Day to be celebrating her, including those before she emerged socially as a woman. A transgender woman is always a woman, whether acknowledged by others or not. And Ezekiel, our trans-masculine compatriots, and I have always been men.
Like many, though, this year is the first Ezekiel gets to hear "happy Father's Day" from the mouths of his beloved kids. From where I'm perched on my adjoining hotel bed, those three words carry a special ring. Unprompted, his son ends the moment by popping a party hat onto his head and singing "Happy Birthday," the realization dawning too late that he meant to say "father." The good intention stands as Ezekiel quietly excuses himself to the bathroom to dress. The kids dissolve into a make-believe session enlivened by animal balloons, provided yesterday by the conference's day camp.
Shortly, we are walking the streets of Philadelphia, looking for an easy, family-friendly brunch. I take the time to observe Ezekiel and Gail interacting with their kids, attempting to glean hints about how to raise my own future children to be as curious and open-minded as theirs. The best Father's Day gift I can think to offer Ezekiel is a reflection on my own childhood, as framed by my single mother's disability and fatigue.
I tell him that although I understand his occasional consternation at the children's unflagging inquisitiveness, an unpredictable trait that sometimes leads them to breach personal space, both physical and mental, his parenting offers something irreplaceable. I speak from my perspective as a man whose childhood was restrained by poverty and declining welfare benefits.
His children are allowed the freedom to explore until they reach the boundaries of their youthful comprehension, unashamed to ask questions concerning received biases about gender, (dis)ability, race, and employment. Their parents intervene when their language is disrespectful of others, or when their curiosity breaches privacy, but not when they discuss issues of sexism, racism, ableism, or classism, considered "impolite" for company. When they reflect back their developing worldviews, these young people spill over with compassion.
I spend my borrowed first Father's Day brunch deep in conversation with Ezekiel and Gail's school-age daughter, frankly answering her questions about my own youth. I can see her struggling to paint an internal picture of me at her age; mentally walking in my shoes provides her another building block of empathy. Brow furrowed, she fires a string of queries to help her understand the man before her: born with (to use her phrase) "a body like mine," moving from apartment to shelter to apartment, holding in my playful shouts to help my sick mother rest.
"Your mom must have been sad when she got sick; seeing you now must make her happy," she concludes. I silently send up a wish that this child will never learn how many parents unthinkingly lose out on the happiness of knowing their own transgender sons and daughters.
She is so intent on hearing my story that her parents offer to slip out, entrusting me to keep her heart, mind, and body safe. After an hour spent verbally careening between my childhood reminiscences, the dangers of cigarettes, the different kinds of artists one can grow to become, the difference between presidents and senators, and how tattoos feel, I regretfully realize that it's nearly time for me to catch my bus home from Philadelphia.
Stepping out onto the sidewalk, she grabs my hand as I steer us back to her parents. Locking eyes with a man as I pass, he mumbles to me, "Happy Father's Day, man." I consider stopping to explain that I am merely a temporary guardian, but instead I nod in thanks and continue onward.
Read more about Ezekiel and Gail's family on their blog First Time, Second Time.