The last thing my father knew, he had a son. He could only ever remember me as a baby boy, swaddled in my mother’s arms. He had no idea that I was male by gender only, or that I was miserable, alone, and confused, until, at age 21, I completed a series of operations to become the person I was meant to be—a woman. So when I drove out to see him last week, our first encounter in 30 years, I felt sick with anticipation. Would he reject me, like so many other people had done before?
My whole life, I’ve longed to know my birth father. There were so many unanswered questions. My mother’s explanation was that he’d abandoned us. But I always wondered if that was the full story. Did he really leave me, or was it just the bitterness of his breakup with my mother that had torn us apart? Did he ever try to find me? If he had, it couldn’t have been easy.
My mother and the man she married were into drugs. Growing up, I never stayed in one house or school for more than a year at a time. My given name was Danny. I changed it to Maria when I was 21. The odds were against my father’s ever finding me.
Life in Marysville, Calif., a small, conservative town, was no picnic for a young boy on the transgender path. A few times my mother caught me dressing up in her clothes, and she was furious. Kids in school and adults on the street would react with scorn at this feminine misfit.
It was a life of constant rejection and isolation. My stepfather never really accepted me and always treated me differently from my half-brother. I dropped out of high school and took odd jobs. When I was 18, I was traveling with a sales crew selling cleaning products door to door, when my colleagues deliberately left me behind. Stranded and penniless, I called home, but no one cared enough to help. That’s when I started turning tricks with older men to earn money. Shortly after, I tested positive for HIV.
At 19, when I learned the diagnosis, I found my way to San Francisco, but things weren’t much better there. For the first two months I was homeless, hopeless, and entertaining thoughts of suicide. But a crisis center referred me to Larkin Street Youth Center, an organization for the newly diagnosed, like me. It turned my life around and helped me come to terms with my transgender identity. Soon I began hormone therapy and a series of operations so I could successfully transition to the woman I am today.
Life as a transgender is fraught with the possibility of rejection by men. Trust is always an issue. Still, I eventually married a wonderful guy and moved back to Marysville, where I found a job as a secretary at a used-car dealership. I even reconciled with my estranged family, but there was always a void in my life that I was trying to fill. A piece of the puzzle was always missing.
When my mother died in 2009, the need to find my birth father became more urgent. Somehow I needed to tell him she’d passed. I didn’t want him to hear it from someone else. I tried to find him on my own, using the name on my birth certificate to track him down, but the addresses and phone numbers I’d found were never a match. I despaired of ever finding him.
Then I saw Pamela Slaton’s show, called Searching For ..., on the OWN Network. Pam is an investigative genealogist who has successfully brought together more than 3,000 long-lost relatives. In her book Reunited, she talks about finding her own birth father. If anyone could help me, it was her, so I wrote to the Web address that flashed on the screen at the end of her show. Pam agreed to take on my case, and tracked my father down—just last weekend, in fact. She found out that he’s a retired auto mechanic, alive and well and living in Corning, Calif., about an hour away from me.
On June 11, he called me. I wasn’t expecting to hear from him, because I had first been told the crushing news that he didn’t want to know me. Turns out, that had been a big miscommunication. Pam had tried a couple of times to reach him, and when she couldn’t, she called my uncle, who passed along some misinformation. In fact, my father was so eager to see me, he wanted to drive out that day. But I was so shocked, I needed a day to collect myself.
At first, I didn’t know what to say on that fateful phone call. My throat was dry, and I could barely get the words out. But after a few awkward moments, the conversation started to flow, and we spoke for the next three hours. I learned a lot in that conversation. It was heartbreak over my mother’s infidelity that caused my father to leave. They were both 17 when I was born, and apparently Mom had had affairs with my uncle and others.
My father had tried to see me a few times when I was a baby, but she refused to let him visit. On one occasion, when I was an infant, they bumped into each other on the bus. My mother shoved me into his arms and said, “Here’s your f--king kid.” She started cursing at him, so he handed me back and walked away. A later attempt to reach out was thwarted when my mother’s brother informed him that my stepfather had adopted me. But I still think my father should have tried harder.
None of this mattered when we finally came face to face. But first we had to get past our terror.
We decided to meet halfway, at my father’s favorite restaurant in a town called Chico. Anticipating the meeting, my palms were so sweaty, they kept slipping off the steering wheel. What if he was disappointed in me? What if he couldn’t accept me as a woman? Would he approve of my husband?
As I pulled into the parking lot, I saw a lone couple sitting at a table outside. They had to be my father and his longtime girlfriend, Jamie. His eyes were fixated on me as I parked the car, and my heart was pounding in my chest.
At first, I didn’t want to get out of the car. I told my husband, “I am so freaking nervous, I don’t know how I’m going to react.”
Finally I took a deep breath and said, “OK, let’s do this.”
I stepped out of the car, walked right up to my dad and gave him a hug, which he returned with a big bear squeeze. “I’m so glad you’re not crying,” he laughed, “Because I’d be crying too.”
Dad told me he was so anxious, he’d smoked a pack of cigarettes on his way to our meeting. But as soon as we locked eyes, it felt right. The first words out of his mouth were, “Excuse my French, but goddamn, you look exactly like your f--king mother!” We both cracked up.
We talked for the next six hours. I didn’t want to go home. He was familiar to me, as if I’d known him my whole life. The chemistry was instant. I loved his girlfriend, Jamie, and he immediately took to my husband, Richard. Everyone bantered back and forth easily. But my focus was entirely on my long-lost father. We quickly discovered we have the same flat feet, the same shoe size, the same hairline, the same nose, the same small ears, the same forehead, and the same wicked sense of humor.
Our emotions ran high. We laughed hysterically, and then cried to think of all those years we could have had together, lost. I was deeply moved by his acceptance of who I am. He displayed a compassion and open-mindedness that’s all too rare. He was saddened I told him about the hardships I had gone through, and told me he wished he could have been there for me. We both feel cheated out of the life we could have had together. I am his only child.
The next day, Jamie told me he bawled his eyes out all the way home.
There is one bittersweet side note to this story. Because of my mother’s affairs, we couldn’t be 100 percent sure of paternity. Before the end of our dinner, we each swabbed the inside of our mouths with the DNA testing kit I’d brought, and we’ll know the truth in a week or so. Regardless of the results, I’ve already met the father I’ve always wanted. Our reunion has healed my heart, and today, for the first time in my life, I am going to celebrate Father’s Day.
As told to Samantha Marshall, coauthor with Pamela Slaton of the new book, Reunited: An Investigative Genealogist Unlocks Some of Life’s Greatest Family Mysteries.