When I was growing up my father always tried to keep Venus fly traps. The only place with the steady fall of sunlight the plant required was our kitchen window, which faced east. I can remember standing at the sink washing dishes, one of the many day-to-day chores that kept me occupied during summer vacation, caring for my two younger siblings while both my parents worked full-time jobs. The fly traps lived in plastic little pots from the nursery, colored in imitation of terracotta. The barcodes still stuck on. They didn’t look like anything dangerous, but I always got a little nervous knowing that it ate meat, somehow translating that into it having a brain. That maybe it was hungry, was aware of being hungry, was thinking about food.
The main impediment to the thriving of my father’s little pets was that our house didn’t have a bug problem. Something about the dead flies my father placed gently in the folds of the plant was unsatisfactory. The plant never closed around them. It wanted live flesh. The tiny tendrils with their grinning leaves usually faded brown and shriveled within a few weeks.
My mother tried to tell me several times during my childhood that there was something different about my dad, but I never believed her. There were two reasons for my disregard of her statements. The first was, she never sat me down and tried to tell me rationally and directly. Instead, she always dropped the bomb when she was angry. During her mood swings she would stomp around our house, cleaning or reordering things to calm herself down, and saying incredibly mean things about us, her family. “And your fucking dad,” she would come out with as she furiously swept the tile floor of our kitchen. “He’s a freak! I caught him wearing my underwear.” Or, more directly to his face when the two of them were fighting: “You’re a faggot,” she would sneer. Such outbursts were frequent, almost daily, but these specific accusations toward my father only spewed out about once every six months to a year. I remember them in particular because they made me so angry (I could see that they hurt my dad’s feelings) and seemed to me the most ridiculous of all her mad expletives.
The things she said in those episodes were never true that I could tell—It certainly wasn’t the things she said about me, not an “ungrateful cunt” or a “numb fucking bitch.” Compounded with the general inaccuracy of her vitriol was my father’s undeniable masculine air. He worked in a maximum security prison, where he had been quickly promoted to a supervisor and was also in charge of training and leading the team that subdued riots. He fixed cars, built our porch, grilled burgers. He went hunting for deer, duck, and squirrel with his father and brothers in the misty Midwest mornings. He was the Scoutmaster for the local Boy Scouts, for Christssake. He was a stable, fixed entity within the emotional chaos of my young life. I would usually start to defend him against my mother when she began digging into him this way.
How was I supposed to believe her? How could I have?
How people come to both learn about and accept the social role assigned to them by virtue of their genitals is something scientists still don’t fully understand. Despite all our probing into the genome, each conclusion we come to is too narrow, too neat for real life. Is it suggestion from cartoons and teachers, grandmothers and magazine covers that makes many little girls prefer ponies and glitter over bugs and robots? That sends brawling boys tumbling through puddles of mud while the ladies squeal with delight or horror? Or does some pre-primed pump start working in our brain around the age we begin to speak, internal programming installed with every vagina or penis, a set amount of estrogen or testosterone shaping our spirits?
It is important to remember when considering these questions that Western gender roles are just that—European, Western, the product of a particular cultural evolution. It is especially interesting to compare our ideas about men versus women to the way Native Americans allegedly perceived gender. Some anthropologists maintain that tribes like the Crow, Navajo, Sioux, Fox, the Blackfoot, Cheyenne, and Pawnee recognized and accepted gender variance. Those Native Americans who deviated from the Anglo-European norm in terms of gender expression have come to be known among scholars as berdaches. These individuals were, according to historians, able to dress and act as they wished along the gender spectrum, with some even varying day to day. Often they supposedly became shamans, healers, and artists, since they were considered to be more connected to the spirit realm, in possession themselves of two spirits. Some were inspired to change gender by a vision or dream, while others just answered the needs of their natures.
In his book “Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America,” Will Roscoe tells us that many tribes considered having sex with a berdache to be good luck. Stories of the Ojibway berdache Ozaw-wen-dib report that after this accomplished warrior became a berdache, other warriors would come to have sex with him before battle “to acquire his fighting ability and courage, by having intimate connection with him.” Other tribes tell stories of women chiefs who dress as men, shoot guns, and have four wives.
Roscoe also writes of the European reaction to this acceptance of gender fluctuation by the peoples they came to conquer. It is as horrific and intolerant as one would expect. As an example, it is said that when Vasco Nunez de Balboa encountered a group of femino amitcu, or male cross dressers, in Panama, he had them fed to his dogs.
The Venus fly trap is the only member of the genus Dionaea, meaning there isn’t another plant quite like it anywhere else on the planet. There are certainly other carnivorous tendrils and shrubs, but none with the same hunting mechanism as Dionaea muscipula, the life form that captivated my dad. Muscipula means mousetrap, a reference to the plant’s feeding methodology, in which it snaps shut around prey. The genus name translates from Greek into “daughter of Dione,” an oblique reference to Aphrodite/Venus, who was the mythical Dione’s daughter, and the goddess of sex and love to the pagan Greeks and Romans. It is this association from which the plant derives its common name.
The fly trap’s original habitat was a 60-mile swath of bogland in North and South Carolina. Nowhere else on Earth does it grow wild. Transplanted populations have been able to thrive in Florida and Washington states. The requirements for the fly trap to flourish are somewhat specific—high presence of light and water, and bad soil. In the dirt where it evolved, nitrogen, and phosphorous and calcium—minerals necessary for survival—were absent. This is why the plant developed its digestive capabilities—as a response to something necessary that its environment wasn’t providing. The trap needed nutrients, and nutrients it got, viciously.
Despite the fact that the fly trap’s carnivorousness is a reaction to lack of sustenance, giving it Miracle Grow or other fertilizer will kill it, not make it vegetarian. The roots of the fly trap can’t absorb the vitamins it gets from eating meat, even if they want to. They have gone without for so long, they have found another way to get what they need. In the wild, that adaptation is necessary, but now that they’ve become a commodity, they could kick back and relax if they had the ability. We’ve come into a new age, one in which the way you survive is no longer determined by your physical characteristics. Modern medicine and technology give us longer lives, fuller lives with more potential for complexity. People survive accidents and illnesses which would have killed them ten years ago, and children can be made with needles and petri dishes. We no longer have to tame our natures, to be perfectly ordinary, each like the other, perfect hothouse roses, fabricated and scentless.
On July 2, 2012, my father came out. That night was hot in Chicago, where I lived at the time. I can remember the way the air in my tiny bedroom lay oppressive on my skin when my father called me. He said he had a confession. At first he called himself a cross-dresser, but even in the moment he said those words, I knew he meant by them something much deeper. That he was transgender, a man by sex but who saw himself as a woman. Wanted to be a woman. As a younger person I’m more tuned-in to the new language of gender variance than my dad, a product of the 60s who only knew the derogatory, closeted term cross-dresser to classify his lifestyle. But I also knew he never did anything by halves—and that if he had been hiding something from us, it was because he was ashamed and afraid—because it was something about his deep nature, not just his liking to wear women’s clothes sometimes.
I immediately recalled a nightmare which had gripped me five months earlier.
My parents were long divorced at this time, and my father was living alone in a rented house in Speedway, Indiana. In my dream I had chased the ghost of a girl through his shadowed home. She was crawling through the heating and cooling ducts. I finally cornered her in a ground vent next to his television. I clawed the metal cover off and pulled out handful after handful of creamy yellow foam insulation. I could hear her laughing within the pipe. “Come out,” I shouted, “come out!”
“Amber,” the voice of my boyfriend said. I looked into the kitchen to see my father sitting at the table with a handgun in his mouth. He was crying. My partner stood guard over him, holding him back from the act of suicide. I walked into the kitchen.
“Give me that gun,” I demanded. My limbs were heavy with dread even in sleep. I do not remember my father’s face, only the shocking white of my outstretched palm in the dimness. He didn’t speak, nor did he hand me the gun.
“If you won’t give it to me,” I said. “You’ll have to shoot me to stop me from taking it.”
I awoke in that moment. After being haunted for hours I finally called my father. I told him of the dream and there was a long, long silence.
“No,” he had finally said. “Other people might do that, but not me.”
Now, with his confession, something of what he must have been thinking at that time revealed itself to me. Had he been terrified, excited, or just stunned into silence? Had he been considering suicide as an alternative to coming out? I couldn’t think so. He was tough, the strongest person I knew, the bravest. And this, in turn, was the bravest thing I could imagine him doing.
“Okay,” I said, my throat thick. “Have you gone shopping yet?”
He laughed with delight. “Yes. I got my ears pierced.”
Though he now had earrings and fake nails, both acquired within the last eight hours, my dad assured me he wasn’t planning on any kind of gender reassignment surgery or breast augmentation.
“Maybe, you know, maybe10 years ago,” he said. “But I’m close to 50. I’m just going to live my life.”
I told him I wished he had come out sooner. He told me he hadn’t because he wanted to protect us, to keep our life as normal as possible in the small town where I grew up. When we hung up the phone over an hour later I cried, but even now I’m not sure who or what I was weeping for.
I can’t say for certain that the genus Dionaea was assigned to the Venus Fly Trap because of its appearance, but it seems likely, given the oblique reference to sex. It is undeniable that the trapping leaf of the plant resembles a vagina. When open, awaiting prey, the lobes are a luscious pinkish-red, framed with long yellow-green cilia. These tough, thick hairs form a toothy cage once the leaf snaps shut around prey, but look long, flirtatious, when the plant is open. A milky pale midrib runs down the center of the lobes, surprising against the vibrancy of the red. Creamy, inviting, almost decadent.
I also can’t say for certain that my father’s liking of the plant stemmed from this resemblance, from his own desire, kept secret through my childhood, to unleash his inner woman. This seems less likely—fly traps are undeniably cool, and he’s the morbid sort to watch them feed with fascination.
But yet perhaps I only want it to be unlikely. When I think about the decades Dad spent hiding, my heart aches. I am reminded of all he gave up for the sake of our family, while on the windowsill the fly trap went hungry in the sun.
Around Christmas, six months after he came out, my dad baked a giant box of cookies for the saleswomen at his new favorite store, Deb. The reason he likes Deb so much is that when he first went in to try on women’s clothing, the workers’ reactions were completely accepting—which in Muncie, Indiana, isn’t a kindness one can expect, not with the parking lot full of trucks with the Confederate flag in the back window and billboards selling Jesus on the roadsides. Conservative is a polite way of putting it—some Hoosiers are just backward. But not the girls at Deb.
“They didn’t stare, or make me feel like a freak,” he told me in the car on the way over to drop off the cookies. Since that first meeting, he’s developed a friendly acquaintance with the staff, to the extent that they single out clothes they think he’ll like and hide them. My little sister Toni and I went into the store with Dad to deliver the gift, and began shopping. There was a giant multi-compartment plastic bin of cheap women’s underwear, five for $15. Toni and I immediately gravitated toward it, and after delivering the cookies, Dad joined us, his high heeled boots thudding softly on the blue carpet. He had on more makeup than I had ever worn in my life, foundation carefully shaded to make his face look more feminine, lipstick, bright eyeshadow. He wears heels, skirt, and stockings almost every day, even if he isn’t leaving the house. In many ways he’s more girly than I am.
“Now some of these,” he said, “just won’t work for me. Like these.” He held up a sequin-covered thong. “Gotta find the more supportive ones.” My sister giggled. I focused on digging through the masses of flimsy fabric, keeping the panties I had already chosen clutched tight in one hand. It made me slightly uncomfortable when he kept holding up and scoffing at the panties he couldn’t buy. Why, I wondered, did he feel the need to keep calling attention to his maleness? Wasn’t he trying to be a woman? Or was he now somewhere in the middle? Was transgender just a permanent state of transience, in which I would now have to think of him as both, father and female, man and mother?
Once we had all made our selections, we decided to compare, and it was discovered that Dad and I had picked out an identical pair of boyshorts, printed to look like denim cutoffs.
“It’s ok,” Dad said quickly, tossing his back into the pile. “You get them.” Now he felt uncomfortable. I could tell from the set of his mouth, even through the lip gloss.
“No,” I said, picking his pair back up and handing them to him. “I don’t mind if we get the same ones.” He asked if I was sure, and I repeated that I was. And I really was. I was surprised to find that knowing my dad and I liked identical pairs of underwear was somehow comforting, a reassurance that we were still connected, like when we ordered the same thing at restaurants, or back when I was in eighth grade and we had an identical eyeglass prescription.
“I guess now we know where your taste in underwear comes from,” my sister joked. “Good thing Dad came out, or we would have always wondered.”
PHOTO CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons, Judit Klein.