The Danish Girl- Not my Transgender Story

Everyone wants to believe in heroes. Some want to be one. Some want to be rescued by one. Others are them–held above the masses, if only for a moment, based on an unfathomably unique, or above average feat.

The definition of heroism morphs based on society’s beliefs at a certain moment. In our society; being the first to try something risky is heroic. So is putting your safety in jeopardy to save another. More than ever before,  the youth of this generation define heroism as the breaking down of boundaries and stereotypes that keep humans from living their truth. By these terms, the protagonist in the movie The Danish Girl is a hero. danish

I wept throughout the beautiful movie, falling head-over-heels into the romance of the script, which tells the story of the first gender re-assignment surgery, conducted in Germany in 1930. The patient was Einar Wegener, a married man, whose wife Gerda recognized a femininity in him, and gently coaxed it to the surface with her art. The shock for Gerda was, that once released, Einar’s feminine side took over. He was she, and had been all along.

I wonder, after watching the movie, if every hero must in some way be his or her own antihero. For with his gender choices, Einer (who becomes Lili) breaks Gerda’s heart. Does every heroic decision require that someone suffer? Whether it is the hero, or the person being saved, does someone have to be victimized? For to require saving (by definition) means that you have been a victim to something, or someone.

The story of heroism portrayed in The Danish Girl made me think of my transgender father’s choice to have gender reassignment surgery in his late sixties. He had lived a long, unhappy life in a body that was obviously not the one in which he felt he belonged. In his endless discontentment, he chose a life of self-inflation, constantly building himself up at the expense of others. He created victims along every path he traversed.

Now, as I watch the world embrace (at least the idea of) gender confusion/reassignment with love, reverence, and a sort of hero worship (as displayed so beautifully in The Danish Girl), I have an aching wish to make my father a hero. Heck, I’d give up a few years of my own life to know him/her as someone heroic. But alas, I cannot.

Why? Because while the decision to go through with gender reassignment surgery takes guts, in my father’s case it was not heroic. It was a relief for her, yes. It was what she needed, yes. But not heroic. Because in the path to reassignment, while she was still living and breathing in a man’s body, he was one of the cruelest, most damaging, and hateful men who ever called himself “Dad”.

Watching The Danish Girl made me want to love my father because he bravely had his genitals altered to match his internal reality. But he was no hero. In fact, he was an anti-hero.

My father (who died in February 2015) was weak, and lived a distorted version of reality where he could beat my brother and mother to a bloody pulp for the tiniest infraction. Speaking too loudly; not eating your most hated food; not brushing your teeth correctly; leaving an dirty dish on the counter- each was rewarded with ambulance worthy brutality.

Knowing that my father envied my being born a girl makes me hate him even more. Leaving me out of the physical abuse he delivered for 12-years of my childhood (and during the five years before my adoption), tripled the psychological pain of the mental abuse. Untouched, I became the forced savior for a family that he should have been saving. I spent every waking moment of my first twelve years trying to figure out an escape route from hell. While other little girl’s had Daddies they could look up to (their heroes), I had an enemy force to conquer.

The Danish Girl made me feel tenfold, the pressures of a society that wants me to shout from the rooftop- “Hey, My dad was transgender. She died a woman. Wasn’t she heroic?”

I must answer those expectations with a resounding, “NO!”

Just as no one can cast every person of a certain race, or ethnicity as having the same beliefs, behaviors, or tendencies- being transgender is not all goodness, light and love. Sometimes being transgender is evil, dark and hateful. Sometimes being transgender is not The Danish Girl story, and is instead a tale of cowardice and anti-heroism.

Blessings for knowing a real hero,

V.L. Brunskill
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