Author S. Bear Bergman, centre, with his husband and their three children. Photo: Courtesy of S. Bear Bergman
The truth is, I have always been dad-identified.
It’s a strange thing to say, looking back—especially for a person who was assigned female at birth; a person whom the world would have expected to be a mom. But even in the earliest days of understanding my gender, back before I knew the word “transgender” or understood that it might be possible—in the long and uncertain future—to actually be a dad, I felt like one. And though the period between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day is a month in regular, calendarized time, it feels like an entire epoch to me, complete with a glacial abruption; the two holidays being entirely different creatures, in entirely different eras, bearing only the similarity of happening on the same rock.
This movement, however slow, has decisively and irrevocably placed me on the Dad side of history, where I obviously belong. In fact, I actually really enjoy Father’s Day—or in my household, Fathers’ Day. Yes, I love receiving a handmade card depicting me as an animal wearing sunglasses, and yes, I would like a necktie and a soap-on-a-rope. In our two-dad house, Fathers’ Day usually consists of a joyful family activity and a brunch feast, which suits me perfectly. My appreciation of my new grill tools comes with a recognition that arriving here, to my Danger: Men Cooking oven mitt, includes an excavation of my own history, complete with the many sedimentary layers that built me into dadhood.
When seen through the lens of the most common transgender narrative (the one that goes “I never wanted to play with dolls, I never wanted to wear a dress, I always knew I was a boy…”), I don’t entirely fit the profile. It’s true that I never wanted to wear dresses; there are photos of me at five years old decked out in a very fancy gown, a tiara and a “4th of July Princess” sash looking like someone handed me a slice of moldy apple that was covered in ants. However, I didn’t mind my dolls, and I didn’t mind my friends who were girls. I was just considered to be a weird little tomboy. I wasn’t prepared to insist that I was a boy, refusing all other assignments, and no one ever showed me where that door was anyways.
I was prepared, however, to insist that I was a dad. If we were playing house, I always played the father. When our stuffed dogs played house, my stuffed dog was the father. If we played farm or space or pirates or explorers somehow, without fail, I played the dad—I scolded and tended to everyone and then I sat down and read the newspaper or importantly packed up my briefcase, rubbed my worried brow with my tiny hand, and went off to “work,” as my dad did.
Later, as a teenager, my dad-energy persisted. By both nature and nurture, I am a worrier and a caretaker—I am always the one with extra emergency supplies, the one who will slip you cash when you’re low and boss you into eating a solid breakfast. I’m the one who you can call at any hour and always receive the same greeting: an ebullient “Hello!” followed by “Is everything okay?” (unless it’s after 10pm, in which case we skip the first part).
In fact, the vibe was so strong and omnipresent that it literally named me. I got the nickname Mama Bear as a teenager in my LGBTQ youth group, and eventually it was shortened just to Bear, because—as we all agreed—I just didn’t feel very… motherly, within or beyond my own mind. I wrote my first theatrical performance, Ex Post Papa, at 24, all about the ways in which I had become an emergency backup Dad (after the fact) to any number of my fellow queer and trans peers, all of us trying to find our way after being roughly thrust into the world without a lot of emotional or cultural support or knowledge but me just slightly more willing, always, to dive in and act even when I had no idea what to do.
As an adult, I worked as an academic advisor to the athletics program of an American university regularly featured on ESPN. There, my students called me Dad, reporting their successes and failures to me in one of the strangest environments in the world to be gender non-compliant in the 1990s: collegiate athletics. Through it all, the world understood me as masculine queer woman, a butch—and so to match, I did what the estimable butches around me did. I bought a thick belt and a thicker watch, I wore Dockers to work and neckties on dates and I pretended to be aggravated when someone read me as a man because that’s what my butch friends did—but in my secret heart I was thrilled every time.
There were, however, complications. I remained an absolute softy for babies and kids, which was judged not-very-butch by many of the queers I knew at the time. Ditto my fondness for cooking and my propensity for worrying about and trying to take care of everyone all the time. Many of my early efforts in being an Ex Post Papa, a queer community dad, were flawed—and on a few occasions actively harmful—because the conflict between my instincts and what felt valuable or even just allowable among the other LGBTQ people I knew was jagged and unstable. I wanted to make people soup and listen to their problems and help them get unstuck and hold them while they cried and feel the warmth of being useful. That was difficult to navigate while trying to stay part of my community, and there are a couple of very nice people I hurt badly trying be a copy of the kind of butch I was shown as a model. What those models were doing wasn’t wrong in any way, but: it never came naturally or revealed its internal logics to me, and my fumbling attempts to make my insides match their outsides led me badly astray.
In my early 30s, I’d begun to fully grasp that the collection of joyful moments when someone called me Buddy or Sir, and the ways I wanted to live in my body, in my community and in the world added up to a different gender expression than I had going on. I had joked for years that I would be just as bad at being a man as I was at being a woman, that I’d have to throw out all my Dockers and buy feather boas. But it so happened that when I examined my actual gender identity rather than copied the people around me, it turned out to be much more queer-man-with-a-boa than it was butch-dyke-in-cargo-pants.
Then, I met my husband, a man who I fell for almost immediately. He was very upfront, very early, about being on a journey toward fatherhood himself. He wanted to be a dad, and made it plain that if I wanted anything serious with him, I would also have to want that. In that moment, sleep deprived and drunk on love (and, let’s be honest, lust), I was surprised to find that perhaps... I did. Suddenly, I understood my future: a life with this very cute, very smart man, whom I had known for six weeks, and our eventual children.
The music of the world had played, for the first time, the note of Dad in a way that I could hear and understand to be about me, for real. Not pretend-dad or close-enough dad, but the messy and magical actuality of fatherhood. It shook me to centre and back to the edges again; filled the spaces between my constituent molecules and overran the sides with abundance. Yes, I would marry this man (I did, within two years). Yes, I would be a father (I am, of three amazing and exhausting humans). And yes, I would live in the world as a man—a house I could never quite enter through the doorway marked Boy, but could and did run exuberantly into, through the doorway marked Dad.