What's it like to have a transgender parent--or spouse? How can a family stay together in the face of such significant change? What does a marriage-bound daughter want her transitioned father to wear for the traditional trip down the wedding aisle?
Filmmaker Sharon Shattuck answers all these questions in From This Day Forward, a deeply intimate, honest and inspiring feature documentary about her experiences as the daughter of a transitioned father and a mother who remain committed to their marriage.
The love story in From This Day Forward is simultaneously unusual and traditional.
Sharon tells the story from the beginning, which she marks as the moment her sister found a picture of their dad dressed in women's clothing. When they asked their mother, Marcia, "Why is Dad dressed like Grandma?" they didn't have to wait long for an answer.
"Dad left the room," Sharon says, and a few minutes later, he returned dressed in woman's clothing. "I didn't understand what that meant," she recalls, though she would eventually come to realize that her father, who took on the name Trisha, was identifying as a woman. This was to be the family's future. Several years into her rocky transition, during a morning drive to middle school, Trisha made it clear that she hadn't changed her mind. "Sharon," Trisha said, "whenever you get married I hope that you'll let me wear a dress when I walk you down the aisle."
"I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach," Sharon says, adding that she "didn't want that day to come." But her viewpoint would change.
While many media depictions of transgender people focus on the dramatic and controversial nature of such experiences, this documentary spotlights a family that is in many ways very typical, and unexpectedly outgoing.
Trisha, interviewed throughout the film, is low-key and affable as she recalls early days growing up in Denver "where the air was clear," though she also had a "definite sense that something's not quite right." Yet a courtship with Marcia eventually ensued, along with marriage, a life in Chicago and later Northern Michigan, children and a passionate pursuit of music and art. (Trisha is a multi-instrumentalist and painter.) Ultimately, Trisha could no longer conceal her feminine side, and its expression is often paired with wry self-deprecation. "I like pleats. They give me the hips I don't have."
The film includes home videos from Sharon's childhood and times before Trisha's transition, then moves on to Sharon's return to her parents' Midwestern home as she prepares for her own wedding. She is particularly interested in learning how her parents were able to stay together in the face of such substantial change.
The essential ingredient, she discovers, is commitment. While the couple initially decided to separate, they could not go through with a divorce due to the strength of their bond. Despite their deep commitment, however, there were times, Marcia says, when she "didn't know if I can stay in a relationship." There was also bitterness--"How can you betray our marriage and our family?"--and the couple sought outside help. "There were lots of arguments, tears and therapists." Yet the bond held.
Marcia's unwavering compassion and tolerance also played a key role. She told Trisha to do "whatever you feel like you really need to do," even though she sometimes found the transition personally painful. "I married a man, not a woman," she says. In an interesting twist, Marcia asks Trisha, "What would you think if I were the one who transitioned? Would you be able to handle it?" Trisha's response: "Probably not."
Sharon also investigates the transformations she has gone through. She admits that for many years she "pretty much rejected my dad," adding that a "lot of the past is kind of unresolved." But change slowly comes, and as her wedding day approaches she finds that earlier apprehensions have faded, including discomfort with her father's choice of attire. "The dress doesn't bother me now," she says.
Video from the wedding shows a traditional gathering of family and friends, with bride and father--and also father and mother--spinning across the dance floor. "Sometimes," Trisha says, "a woman just wants to dance with her husband." After surprising everyone with an unexpected outfit, Trisha says, "I felt good. It was the happiest day of my life so far," words echoed at countless family weddings.
Sharon has powerful praise for her folks. "When my parents got married, I don't think they ever dreamed how difficult it would be for them to stay together. I don't know if I could do what my mom did." Marcia reminds her that life--and love--is always a work in progress. "We're still finding our own way."
"Growing up with a transgender parent was challenging for my sister and me," says Sharon, "mostly because we cared so much what our friends and neighbors thought. But as we got older, we realized that in our small town, everyone knew about Trisha. Though some townsfolk shunned us (and still do to this day), our close friends didn't care--and that made all the difference.
"The fact that my parents remain married, even though my mom identifies as straight, makes Trisha's search for identity all the more complex. But to my parents, the larger political conversations about gender identity are less significant than what they truly care about--staying together.
"Unfortunately there are many stories of transgender people that don't have happy endings. I think that it's important to hear these painful stories, because they galvanize society to push for change, for an end to discrimination. But I think it's equally important to hear stories of hope within the tapestry of transgender narratives. My wish is that my family's story inspires others to embrace the LGBTQ people in their lives with compassion, respect and love."