A girl learns many things from her father. I could say: I learned everything I know about being a woman from my father, even though I know perfectly well this is not true at all. That is, at some perspective, it is entirely true and within another, not true at all. Even when he did not teach me about being a girl, he taught me about being a boy and therefore, a girl who could be a boy. If he did not teach me about what a girl should do, he perhaps taught me about all the things a girl could do. Even when he never mentioned girlhood or boyhood or womanhood at all, still he showed me, in his own way, with his pride at my boyhood and his subtle acknowledgement of my womanhood that I could be a combination of many things. And when he disliked my womanhood his disapproval also strengthened my need to articulate myself. In this sense, everything good, bad, approved and not approved, was influenced by this figure, my father.
Yesterday I was riding my purple bicycle and smiling to think about how I had to hold the gear shift in just a certain way so that I could ride in a higher gear without the chain falling off. I thought of how much my father would enjoy this lazy trick to avoid paying for repair or doing something about it myself. These memories come back to me often now, without warning, raging in like a storm and leave me, at times, crushed with sadness.
There are a series of moments that flood over me when I think of the way my father strengthened dichotomies in me: The strong girl mowing the lawn, cutting down the blackberry shrub. How much he loved this moment and reminded me yearly about this experience together. How he expressed pride when I broke into the house; how he congratulated me on the day I first got my period and I was holding a drill from having installed the curtains in my bedroom. How proud he was of me, how much he loved my capability. It must have made me realize, I could never stop being a boy at heart.
He was the person that taught me to ride a bike in high heels (because you should always pedal with the ball of you foot), install curtains on the first day of my period (because that is as good as any day), wear frilly expensive panties on the inside of grungy thrift store clothes (wear what you receive and don’t buy it yourself). No, he taught me none of these things, and yet—they were somehow a result of him. In essence he taught me about my own bisexuality and androgyny; that I could be male and female, love women and men, be intellectual and artist. I love to think how he shaped and touched me even in the ways that he taught me negative behavior, even in the ways that he reacted with suspicion or rejection of the things that were/are important to me.
At the time, in those moments, of course, I never felt grateful for his suspicion, his questions, for example, about my hair. “Why did you cut your hair like that, Katie? Will you always leave it like that?” I remember having to work through a theoretical series of responses before being able to deliver even one in real time—and this always felt teenage, defensive, and pedantic.
I remember that in the last couple of years my father read some of my writing on queer performance and when I visited him in Virginia shortly thereafter, he told me while riding in the truck: “I enjoyed your writing, but does all this stuff about performance and female sexuality really matter all that much?” And somehow, to my dismay, I recognized what he meant—in the sense that I could concede to see where he was coming from. And I relinquished for a moment instead of chirping back with teenage defensiveness. “Sure,” I said, “I guess in some sense ‘female sexuality and performance’ doesn’t matter all that much.”
But now that I reflect on that moment I realize that he felt similarly about his obsession with mathematics—not really that it didn’t matter, or that it was futile, or that he would give up trying to figure out that one problem, but rather that in the larger scheme of things certain mathematical problems didn’t matter all that much except to him. So when I asked him about the mathematical problem he spent fifteen years contemplating without finding any answer, he also conceded. “What will really happen if you figure it out?” I asked. And he answered, “Nothing. Absolutely nothing, Katie.”
In fairness, it must have been, always will be, difficult for my father to understand and to empathize with my relationship to sexuality—and I am probably speaking of my mother as well. For one thing, my relationship to sexuality has changed and evolved a lot in the last twelve years, a lot for such a short period of time. A parent has to empathize one way and then another way and it must seem as though their child is always changing and demanding a new understanding all the time—and most of the time they’re not even close enough to catch up on all the minute changes along the way.
You tell them you’ve been raped and they’re outraged and scared and fearful, you tell them you’re bisexual and they’re skeptical, you tell them you’re married and they’re relieved—but then why all these performances about gender and sexuality? And perhaps they can only think how traumatized you must be, or hurt, or broken. But actually you’re just developing and learning and doing your thing and it feels good to you.
In some sense there will never be an entirely happy ending; a father and a girl’s sexuality are always at odds, or almost always set up to be so. He is the model for all men; he is the expectation of all men; his fears of men are her fears of men; his imaginings of other men as predatory are as real as men being so. And as well it should be for him; he would have his daughter believe he is the safest man in the whole world.
And looking back at him, perhaps he was. Even though I know, perfectly well, this is not true at all.