“I’ve lost it. It finally happened. I’ve gone completely crazy.” My father entered the kitchen with the frantic energy I had recently come to expect. “I was driving out the front of the neighborhood, and you remember that police officer that’s been camped out between the dividers all weekend?” He plopped down a brand new layer of soon-to-be-lost papers and receipts on top of an already three-inch thick debris pile. “Well, I didn’t. He pulled me over. And he gave me a ticket. And I was driving away. And then I don’t know what came over me.” He sat down at the kitchen counter and started fanning himself. The back of his neck was already glistening. “I just got so mad. Why did he have to give me that ticket? I turned around. I drove back. I got out of the car and started asking him, “Why? Why did you give me that ticket? And then I just, I just started bawling.”
In 2010, my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer. One experimental laser surgery later, he was both cancer and prostate free. Until last April. Somehow, without actually having a prostate anymore, his cancer returned and latched onto his hip. Since prostate cancer cells feed on testosterone, my father’s urologist started him on hormone shots—female hormone shots. Estrogen. Along with his bi-monthly shots, his doctor warned, my father could also expect to experience a pseudo-menopause, complete with very real, very moist hot flashes.
My father began setting the air conditioning at 68 degrees. But that wasn’t the only side effect: he began to believe the estrogen shots were changing his behavior, too. Suddenly, every misplaced car key, every late arrival, every forgotten name was caused by those disorienting female hormones: “I don’t know how you and your mother stand it, how you function.” That anyone could survive with all these chaotic, contradicting emotions seemed like a small miracle to him.
My father has always spoken pretty liberally—he’s a sharer—and he was no different when it came to his hormones. He spoke openly about the emotional changes he thought the estrogen shots were causing, but he made it pretty clear these changes were unappealing and unacceptable. The implications of his complaints bothered me: it was never just the hormones, always the female hormones that were to blame. Whether he meant to or not, my father suggested that the root of his problem was not a general change in his body chemistry, but the introduction of something female—and therefore emotional—to his body. And with that extra boost of femininity, he suddenly assumed that he could now understand some essential qualities of womanhood. Apparently, those four months of sweating and crying had taught him just as much as, if not more than, my last 18 years of living both biologically and socially as a woman.
Eventually, I figured out that this was his coping mechanism, a way to laugh at something really shitty—the cancer, not the hormones—happening to him. It was how he dealt with having, not just his body, but his prostate, something he saw as an essentially male part of his body, attack him. But what was a joke for my father is very real for me. It’s not okay for him to laugh at what he thinks femininity is. There is no single, all-encompassing experience of womanhood and all those multitudes of experiences can’t be reduced to one biological process started by one hormone.
To my father, the body and gender are inextricably linked. Sure, sometimes the body can play a part in forming gender identity. But higher estrogen levels don’t make me a woman; a few extra fat deposits don’t make me a woman; shedding the uterine wall 12 times every freaking year doesn’t even make me a woman. And as soon as I figure out what does, I’ll be sure to let you know.