Ashton Skinner and his father, Dennis, talk about their relationship after Ashton revealed his sexuality and, later, his transgender status. Tom Tingle/azcentral.com
Dennis and Ashton Skinner told their story at a recent Arizona Storytellers event that focused on the importance of family. This is their shared first-person account of how they handled a major life event.
DENNIS: Ashton and Sammy were miracle babies. Identical twins gestating in a single amniotic sac. Very rare and very dangerous because without an amniotic separation, twins usually tangle and strangle on each other’s umbilical cords. In fact, our OB/GYN had been practicing for over 20 years and had yet to see a pair of mono-amniotic twins where the babies survived.
But these little girls beat the odds. And in January of 1993, there we were holding two beautiful, 3½-pound, 8-week-premature bundles of perfection. We could finally exhale. And that’s when the dreaming began.
I visualized the pink aisle at Toys “R” Us, daddy-daughter-dates, making guys squirm at the front door on prom night, and dancing with my daughters in their white wedding dresses.
One night, just after the twins graduated high school, they were out with their friends and my wife, Janine, and I were home watching TV and, out of the blue, Ashton texted us, “Hey, wanted you know we’re into girls”. And we’re like, “Did our twins just come out as lesbians by text?” Janine sends back … “Both of you?” And Ashton replies, “Uh, yeah … we’re identical twins!” And that’s when we took this sharp left-hand turn away from the path we’d visualized for our family.
Now, for Sammy, the whole “Daddy’s little girl” relationship has persisted. And hers is also a rich story worth telling. But this story is about Ashton and me, because for the two of us, the father-daughter thing was eventually going to change.
ASHTON: I was a heartbreaker as a kid – but not the good kind. It seemed like every boy who I was friends with at some point asked me out, and I always said no. I think they liked that I acted like one of the guys.
When I was in fourth grade I cut my hair to shoulder length and started wearing my big brother’s hand-me-downs to school and felt like a rock star. So of course it was no surprise that dating guys was not my thing, but it should have been pretty obvious that femininity wasn’t my thing either – I’m just not sure any of us truly knew the extent of that misfitting.
So by the time I was in college and had the cool masculine clothes I loved, was in a serious relationship with a beautiful woman, and had good grades, and good friends and all the things I dreamed of having as a kid … I realized I was still severely unhappy, and that I must be missing something bigger. Then I became friends with a young trans woman in college. We were talking one night and she casually said, “My dysphoria is getting really bad” and I said – “what’s dysphoria?”
And that’s when the world opened up all around me as she defined this feeling I never had a word for. She said it meant that you don’t just feel uncomfortable in the gender roles and stereotypes that are expected of you, but that you also feel unhappy with the way your body matches that category. And I was freaking out inside because suddenly I realized why I loved having a low voice, and always brought in a picture of a guy when I got a new haircut, and had been slouching for years so I could hide my chest in my T-shirt. It all started to make sense now!
DENNIS: In retrospect, we should have known it was coming. Because, when Ashton was a senior in college she started leaving breadcrumbs at our feet and just gently but purposely shaping the path for us. We share a Kindle account, so we see each other’s purchases. Suddenly our e-library started to fill up with books like “Transgender History” and “Gender Outlaws.”
Meanwhile, Ashton was sharing papers she was writing in class about gender being a spectrum and not a binary. I remember talking to Janine and saying, “You know we should prepare ourselves for Ashton telling us that she’s transgender.”
She nodded, and then we went right back into our happy place of denial. Not because we didn’t think SOMETHING was coming. We just knew how challenging transitioning could be, and didn’t want Ashton’s already complicated life to get even more complicated.
ASHTON: Once I was sure I had to come out as a transgender, I started seeing a gender therapist. I was no stranger to the nerves of coming out, but at least when I came out as a lesbian it was pretty straightforward – you’re a woman, you like women, you’re gonna date women and not men – got it.
Coming out as trans is exponentially more complicated for people to understand. So I felt I had to become an expert before I dumped this news onto the people I love. After a couple months of therapy, I was headed home for the holidays and my therapist and I decided it would be a really bad idea to tell my parents before Christmas.
Once I decided on that time frame I was so over being nervous that I woke up the day after Christmas, sat on the living room couch where mom and dad were drinking coffee and I think I small-talked with them for all of 2 minutes before I couldn’t wait any longer and just said, “So, I’ve decided to transition …”
DENNIS: “So, I’ve decided to transition.” Left-hand turn No. 2. I don’t remember what we said, but I can tell you exactly what we were thinking … We went right to the downside.
He goes to a Christian college. How are his peers and his teachers going to treat him? Will he be bullied? Beat up? Down the road will he be fired or refused service for who he is? Doesn’t testosterone therapy have side effects? And the big one: Will he be one the 40 percent of trans people who attempt suicide.
So, yeah, we were afraid.
But, more than that, we were just so sad, knowing he had been carrying around this burden for so long, all by himself, and relieved that he had finally had the courage to remove it from his shoulders, and lay it at our feet.
And we were ready to return that gift by letting him know how much we love and support him, we knew this is who he truly is and, damn the downsides, he would never again have to carry that burden by himself because we’d be walking beside him every step of the way.
ASHTON: We have strengthened our family bonds so much throughout this journey. And our story is still being written. But looking back, it has been far from neat and tidy. We’ve each had our ups and downs.
For example, I remember how for months at the start of my transition people could not easily read me as a woman or a man and I lived with constant fear of what might happen if someone felt too uncomfortable with my appearance.
There was the time after I had started binding my breasts and when I went through the airport body scanner, the Velcro on my chest binder flagged the sensor. The male TSA officer gave me a pat down and said, “Sir, what do you have strapped to your body?” and I realized that he thought I was concealing a weapon.
I thought about making some joke about what I was actually smuggling in but thought better of it and suddenly heard a female TSA officer yelled to him, “It’s a female!” so loud that every head in the security line turned to me. I’ve never felt less human in my life.
And then there was the time a woman screamed at me in the ladies’ room and said, “What are you doing in here? You’re not supposed to be here! Get out or I’ll call the police!” And the many times I’ve had to change a tampon at a bar and realized that men’s rooms don’t have those convenient little trash cans in their stalls.
But for the most part I have been extremely privileged and so grateful to have a smooth transition with family support and the financial security to match my body to my brain and soul. And through coming out I have been welcomed into an amazing community of trans people all over the nation who teach me new things everyday about self-love and chosen family.
DENNIS: And Ashton’s mom, Janine, and I have had our ups and downs, too.
For one thing, there were the pronouns. We had to overcome 22 years of muscle memory referring to Ashton as “she” and “her” – or as Ashton used to say – we had to replace the pronouns with “Bro-nouns”. It took a good year before we stopped slipping up; luckily Ashton was super patient with us.
But the bigger deal was a grieving process. I had to let go of my daughter. Which intellectually, I really didn’t think was going to be a problem. Used to be my daughter, now he’s my son. Same person, no big deal, right? But just when I thought I’d come to terms, I’d see an old photo, or a video of Ashton singing a song with that sweet alto voice, and I’d suddenly just wilt into tears.
So, I lost a daughter, but in her place, I gained this amazing new relationship with my son.
I have a mini-me who shares my love of wingtips and bow ties and sweet threads … I’ve lost count of the times we’ve shown up to an event together wearing pretty much the same outfit. We even compare best practices on how to give ourselves Testosterone shots. Yes, some of us old guys have low T — it’s a thing, don’t judge me.
But the biggest upside is seeing my kid, freed from the burden of a secret — happy and alive, and fully living into who he truly is.
ASHTON: I have learned through these experiences that there is no news so shocking that it would make my parents walk away or give up on me, and that they are two of the most adaptive life-long learners I know.
And through our increased involvement in Arizona’s LGBT community, I have learned again and again how rare a supportive family like ours still is. All too often LGBTQ identity becomes a rift between parents and children, but we have only grown closer because of our unique story and so many people have shared what an impact it has made on them to see our family so strong and close.
The thing people don’t realize is how easy it is to choose to love someone. I mean, it can be extremely hard day to day to act out that love, but once you have committed yourself to loving someone, you can get through any challenge together. It’s that simple.
DENNIS: When this miracle baby was born, and assigned as a female, I conjured up this dream of the woman she would become. And you know what? The clothing and the pronouns may be different, but the dream is the same and it’s totally coming true.
This guy’s not just handsome, smart and cool; he is kind, generous, thoughtful, and a fierce, passionate, warrior for justice who’s using his gifts to make the world a better place. I could not be more proud of the person he has become.
For Ashton’s part, it’s taken unfathomable courage to be his authentic self; but for us, as parents, all it took was what every parent has the capacity to give … unconditional love and support, and a willingness to roll with the left-hand turns, retool your dreams, and rewrite the future story you’ve envisioned for your family.
Although, for the record, I am still planning on dancing with him at his wedding.
ASHTON: And, as usual, we’ll be wearing roughly the same outfit.
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