TED | Paula Stone Williams and Jonathan Williams: The Story of a Parent’s Transition and a Son’s Redemption

Paula Stone Williams: So, I was the CEO of a large, religious nonprofit, spoke at some of the largest churches in America, was on television in 70 different markets, but more than anything else, I just wanted to be a good parent. I told all three of my children, “When the going gets tough, you have to choose the road less traveled, the narrow path.” I had no idea how difficult that was going to become.

I knew from the time I was three or four years of age that I was transgender. I knew if I came out, I would lose everything. But the call toward authenticity is sacred and for the greater good, and it asks you to trust that the truth not only sets you free, it will set everyone free. I decided to stake my life on it. So I came out. Turns out, if you spend most of your life working in the conservative religious world, coming out as transgender is not all that great for your career.

Who knew?

Within seven days, I lost every single one of my jobs. My family was supportive but struggling. Most of my friends and coworkers had rejected me; the rest were confused. One friend said, “You really messed with me.” I said, “Yeah, well, get in line.” They said, “You were my only example of an alpha male who was gentle.” And I thought, “Oh. You’re right.” I was an alpha male. And I was gentle. And if it was hard for him, how much more difficult was it for my own son?

Jonathan Williams: Estrangement was not an option. It was Father’s Day and my girls brought me craft beer and a homemade jar of pickles, which, in my estimation, is the perfect Father’s Day gift.

But the question remained: Do I call my own father? To call him, and I continue down this spiral of denial, pretending that my dad was still — well, my dad. To not call was to acknowledge that everything had changed. It meant that I was in for years of pain and mourning and sadness, but ultimately, hope for reconciliation. There’s no playbook for when one’s father of 30 plus years decides to transition to the female gender. But my dad did teach me one thing. He said the road to redemption always comes from choosing the narrow path. And so I decided not to call that day, and a few months later, Paula flew out and met me at a hotel in New York, my wife and I.

I knocked on the door, and this woman answered. It definitely wasn’t my dad. “It’s good to see you,” she said. It didn’t sound like my dad, either. We went to lunch, and the waiter came to take our order. He said, “Let’s start with the ladies,” but there was only one lady at the table and it was my wife, and — oh my God, there are two women at the table. And my dad ordered something like lettuce, and I was like, I have fries on my plate. Did my dad like fries? I don’t remember. I think he liked them. But she wasn’t eating them. Here’s this woman who knew everything about me, and I knew nothing about her. I don’t even remember saying goodbye.

PSW: All I could think about that day was that it was late September in New York, and I was wearing white jeans.

You don’t wear white after Labor Day in New York. There was a knock at the door, and all I could think about was, here I stand in my wrong jeans. And then I saw these big, blue eyes I love so much, and they were staring back at me in disbelief. And I thought, “Oh, this is not going to be easy.” When one person in a family transitions, the entire family transitions whether they want to or not. Now, for those on the fringes it was easy. The liberals said, “Oh, wonderful! She’s found her truth, how delightful.” And the conservatives said, “That’s messed up, I’m out of here.”

But for my family, neither extreme was going to work. Their anger, their hurt, their love and loyalty — all of it had to be brought on to the road of trials.

JW: Was it all a lie? Every game of catch in the front yard, the Mets season tickets — was that with my dad or was that with her? I remember this one time, my dad took me on a bike ride through Heckscher Park to teach me about sex. He explained the parts of the body that I now know he wished weren’t hers. Had my father ever even existed? Now, grief — grief is without rules. Grief borrows your car without asking, wrecks it and then doesn’t apologize. And I was a wreck. This was heavy. I retreated into myself. I was angry. I felt betrayed. And I guess I should have known by the fact that you encouraged me to be a Mets fan that you were preparing me for life’s really big disappointments.

That’s true. And yet, there were the games of catch, and there were the season tickets and bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches every Saturday from the best bagel place on Long Island. My father lived this life he didn’t want to live, but he lived it so that I could have a dad. I stopped wondering if my dad had ever existed. He had existed — willfully, consciously, intentionally — each and every day of my growing up. For that, I was thankful. Paula’s body was hers now and her transformation was complete, but my transformation was just beginning. I had another trial, another journey, another choice to heed my father’s advice and continue down that narrow path.

PSW: So most days I believe there is a God. Tuesdays and Thursdays can be tough, and any day that you’re on the New Jersey Turnpike. I mean, really, you know?

It’s hard to believe in God when your soul is in the wrong body. Still, somehow I ended up in ministry. When I lost all my jobs, it was nothing personal. It’s what religious tribes do. They believe an enemy is necessary for the tribe to survive, so where no enemy exists, they create one. Right now, sexual minorities are the enemy; my departure was swift and sure. I was surprised when my son left his job teaching in West Philadelphia to go into the ministry. I did not see that one coming. And now I wondered: What would he do? I didn’t have to wait that long to find an answer. Six months after that first visit, he invited me back to New York.

JW: The designers of the Brooklyn Bridge, they had their share of bad luck. John Roebling, he died shortly after the bridge’s construction began. His son Washington took over, but he suffered from decompression sickness. His wife Emily became the surrogate executive engineer who oversaw the bridge’s completion. Father and son, John and Washington, done in by their work. It was this sunny day in May and my father and I sat in the shadow of that Brooklyn Bridge. Would our lives follow the Roeblings’ — father and son, done in by our work?

My father thought that her friends in church would carry her through her transition, and they did not. They ditched her and they clung to me. I was the pastor of a new church in Brooklyn. This wonderful group of forward-thinking people, and yet, we were financially tied to really conservative churches. To hold space for Paula meant jeopardizing our own church’s livelihood. I sort of straddled the line between these warring worlds. So I said to my dad, “Dad, I still live and work in your old world. Is it possible that you might extend an olive branch for my sake?” And her response was impassioned. You said to me, “Do you have any idea what it feels like to finally show yourself to your true friends and have them completely reject you? To ask you to live a lie? Do you know what that feels like?” And I didn’t know what that felt like. But I knew I had a decision to make. It was the decision to continue down that narrow path through nights, but for the first time, I caught a glimpse of light. I cannot ask my father to be anything other than her true self.

PSW: So as we sat by the river that day, Jonathan talked about his pain, his suffering, his grief, his confusion. He brought all of himself to that conversation, and it tore at me to be the cause of such pain. But as he talked, there was something redemptive going on, full of tension but possibility, grounded in that narrow path. He said, “This is always going to be hard. It always will be. But Dad, I love you.” My son is the best of me and more. He’s bold and strong, sensitive and thoughtful. I guess you could say, he’s an alpha male who’s gentle.

JW: It was time for my daughters to meet their — Paula. We went back to my apartment, and my daughters were coloring at the dining room table, and there was this awkward silence. And finally, my youngest asked a single, confident question. “So, Grandpa, do you have a penis?”

And after the tension abated and the laughter subsided, my girls took their grandpa back into their room and showed her their new toys, and they christened her with a new name. They called her “GrandPaula.”

PSW: So this past summer, I had all five of my granddaughters at my home, there in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. We went swimming in the cool waters of the river that flows through our little town. And one day, one of Jonathan’s girls said to me, “GrandPaula, can we go tubing on the river?” And I said, “Well, you know, I’d really wait until your daddy gets here for that. That feels to me like that ought to be his call.” And she said, “Oh, but GrandPaula, he’ll exactly make the same decision you would. He’s a lot like you, you know.”

And I thought, yeah, he is a lot like me, both of us determined to find the narrow path and follow it through the long, dark night, all the way to the light of dawn.

JW: Have you ever noticed that a child who is secure, a child who knows love, that child will dance? They wave their arms, they kick their legs to music that only they can hear. It’s the music of a child who is safe and unharmed and wholly loved. The day after my children met their GrandPaula, she took them to go get doughnuts, and I watched as they walked down the street, and my girls took my father’s arms, and they danced. My father’s arms swung wildly. You bought them one too many doughnuts, because you always do — I watched my older daughter take a bite of her doughnut, and she unleashed two jumps and a twirl. It was perfect. That narrow path, it always has its share of burdens and challenges. But I was certain that we were going to see this through to redemption. I looked at my dad and I looked at my girls who were dancing and eating their doughnuts, and I said aloud to no one in particular, I said, “This … this is how God sees my dad.” My father was literally born again. And by choosing the narrow path of redemption, I was born again with her.

Thank you.

About VIA


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