The Real ‘Transparent’: ‘My Dad Transitioned into a Woman’

Denise took the gun out of her mouth. She wasn’t going to give up her kids. She wasn’t going to say goodbye to Fran, her high school sweetheart and wife of 34 years.

Her last break-up had been a bad one. It was sudden, heart-wrenching. As a result, Alyssa Brunner, 22, wasn’t looking for anything serious when she met her current boyfriend a few months ago. But he was.

So she decided she’d tell him about her family, in the hopes that it would scare him off. More precisely, she shot off a text message: “I have two moms,” she wrote. “Well, my dad transitioned into a woman.”

The new boyfriend, however, didn’t care.

Alyssa smiles now at the memory, a mix of bashful and rascal in her eyes. She seems not so secretly delighted that her plan didn’t work, if she ever thought it really would. She said that aside from some run-ins with a few nasty boys in middle school, no one has since given her a hard time for having a transgender parent.

“To me that’s real important and that’s really what this is all about,” said Denise Brunner, 58, the parent in question. “Because society is changing.”

So much so that she and her family, including her wife and three children, don’t really see their life—filled with a hyperactive new puppy, Saturday night dinner plans with friends, and jobs that leave them precious little downtime—as worthy of a news story anymore. Case in point: the middle Brunner child, Scott, 25, declined to be interviewed because, his family explained, he’s done talking about something that seems mundane to him.

Still, the Brunners know that not everyone sees their life as so “normal,” that many transgender individuals face pervasive stigma. Thus, in the hopes it will foster acceptance and understanding, they continue to talk about their lives and experiences.

“Yes I want to be out there and educate people, I want the world to be a better place,” said Denise, or D, as her children call her, from her New Milford, New Jersey, living room on a recent Saturday afternoon. The family appeared on Oprah in 2007 and has been written about in several news stories. Denise used to frequently give presentations about her journey. “The more people know, the better they understand. And that’s my only reason for doing everything we’ve done.”

The Brunners also recognize that the normalization they feel may in part be because exposure in the media to the transgender community is steadily growing more common. Time magazine declared the emergence of a “Transgender Tipping Point,” with its June 2014 cover story about Laverne Cox, a transgender actress starring in the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. Amazon’s hit new show, Transparent, about a family similar to the Brunners, won two Golden Globes last month. Glee, the popular FOX series now in its sixth season, recently revealed its second transgender character with Coach Beiste deciding to transition from female to male. The episode included a 200-person transgender choir.

“Without a doubt we’ve seen a significant advance in the public’s awareness of transgender people,” said Masen Davis, the former executive director of the San Francisco-based Transgender Law Center. “Seeing shows like Transparent and Orange Is the New Black has introduced transgender characters to many people who perhaps have not met a transgender person in their day-to-day lives. This is really important because while the majority of people know someone who is gay or lesbian at this point, a small minority of Americans know, or at least know that they know, a transgender person.”

There are about 700,000 transgender people in the United States, according to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. Not a huge number, but not insignificant either. Still, a poll by GLAAD and Harris Interactive found that just 8 percent of Americans say they personally know someone who is transgender.

That invisibility is part of what advocates say breeds ongoing discrimination. “There is still a lot of ignorance, uncertainty and bias out there in the world,” Davis said.

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Already this year at least five transgender women of color have been killed, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. The 2011 National Transgender Discrimination survey found that the rate of extreme poverty among respondents was four times that of the general population, employment and housing discrimination were common, and about 41 percent of survey participants had attempted suicide. Among the general population, less than 2 percent had done the same.

And notwithstanding some thoughtful, nuanced portrayals of transgender characters on TV and in movies of late, depictions that perpetuate negative stereotypes abound, said Nick Adams, director of Communications and Special Projects for GLAAD, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender media advocacy organization.

The news media is also not always especially sensitive. Speculation about Bruce Jenner’s gender identity is a case in point. In recent days, stories about whether or not Jenner will come out as transgender reached a frenzied, and often tactless, pitch (read: In Touch Magazine’s photoshopped cover last month).

“When the media creates a situation like this one where they’re speculating and outing someone against their will, it creates an environment in which all transgender people feel unsafe,” said Adams, “and makes it harder for transgender people to go to work, go to school, walk down the street, period.

“For real transgender people just trying to live their lives and find acceptance among their family and their friends and their peers, seeing transgender issues turned into a media circus is disappointing and painful to watch,” he continued. “I hope that someday soon the media will be embarrassed that they created such a frenzy around the simple fact that someone might be transgender.”

Although not commenting directly about Jenner, Jean Malpas, director of the Gender and Family Project at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, suggested that society’s generally rigid concept of gender as only male or female plays a part in the lack of understanding by some people.

“So anyone or anything that is bringing to our attention what is happening outside of the pink and blue boxes in a way can be challenging,” he said. “We’re profoundly organized around that idea that someone is born in a certain way and will identify according to the sex that they were assigned.”

But that’s just not always the case. Denise said she knew from the time she was in kindergarten that something was off. In high school she would quietly steal her sister’s clothing and dress up in private. As an adult, she hoped her feelings would change. They never did.

The Brunners too were dismayed at the Jenner story. Knowing what a vulnerable time transition can be in someone’s life, Denise said she was saddened that anyone would potentially have to go through it under the microscope. Alyssa questioned why it was news at all, with Jenner not confirming anything publicly one way or another.

“It’s someone’s life and someone’s feelings and somebody’s emotions,” she said. “It’s not for people’s entertainment.”

The way Jessica Brunner, 28 and the oldest child, explained it, the fact that Denise (or anyone else) is transgender is not what matters. Yes, it was hard to watch her family struggle, especially her younger brother and sister initially. But they managed.

“It’s more the fact that my dad had to go through all the emotional turmoil to get to this point. You know what I’m saying? That’s what bothers me,” she said. “And the ridicule, and all the stupid, petty bullshit that goes on in the world around it, that bothers me. And the fact that, literally, it came to D either committing suicide or transitioning, that bothers me.”

Denise did get close to suicide, with a gun in her mouth in fact, before realizing that giving up wasn’t the legacy she wanted to leave for her children. And she simply couldn’t say goodbye to Fran Brunner, her high school sweetheart and wife of 34 years. Although Denise told Fran well before they were even married that she sometimes had feminine feelings and tendencies, she still believed Fran would ask for a divorce when she finally divulged that she was taking hormones and intended to fully transition.

But Fran, 57, surprised her. Knowing Denise’s transition would already be a lot for her children to handle, Fran said she didn’t want to add a divorce on top of that. But she also didn’t want her relationship to end.

“We were comfortable with each other. And, like I said, the packaging was changing, not the person inside,” she said. “I loved her. She was the father of my children. We had built a life together. It was just going to change a little bit—or a lot. But not enough to make me want out.”

It is not altogether uncommon for couples to stay together even after one partner comes out as transgender. Among participants in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 55 percent maintained their relationships. Ten years later, Fran and Denise say their marriage is stronger than ever. The reason is simple:

“We love each other,” said Fran, quietly.

“Sometimes,” said Denise, smirking.

“When she behaves,” added Fran.

It is also common that transgender parents and children maintain their connections. Among the survey participants who were parents, 70 percent said their children continued to speak to them and spend time with them after coming out.

Having journeyed through Denise’s transition intact, the Brunners know they are fortunate. They also know that while most of their relatives, friends, co-workers, and neighbors have been accepting, not everyone is so open-minded.

Denise, who owns her own heating, air conditioning, and plumbing company, is also an EMT and captain of the New Milford Ambulance Corps. In January, she was named New Milford’s Emergency Management Coordinator. Throughout the appointment process she feared being transgender might tip the balance against her.

“In the back of your mind you’re always wondering is me being a transgendered person, which, again, everybody in this town knows who knows me, gonna affect me getting the position?” she said. “Am I gonna be discriminated against? I didn’t think I would be, and I’m not, but it really plays on your emotions.”

To this day, wondering if she is the subject of gossip at big meetings with borough, county, state or federal officials, remains a source of stress.

“I do worry if they think I am less of a person, or less capable of doing my job as an emergency manager.”

The Brunners also sometimes worry about traveling and how strangers will treat them. To head off any problems, Denise said she always brings documents proving she is a public official. “It gives you credibility,” she said. “Because, unfortunately, not all society feels that people in my shoes deserve the credibility.”

Alyssa and Jessica said one of the ways they’ve experienced stigma is when reporters ask about their own sexuality, as if Denise’s transition could affect them that way. Or when they are asked about their parent’s sex life.

“And, like, I don’t even remotely want to think about that,” Alyssa said. “I just say it doesn’t exist!”

“I think Alyssa’s answer to that would be, ‘la la la la la la la!’” said Jessica.

“Well, Jessica was adopted, I was immaculate conception, ’cause God just wanted you to have me,” Alyssa continued.

“What about Scott?” Fran asked, amid everyone’s laughter.

“He was an uh-oh,” Alyssa answered.

(P.S. This reporter’s response to such a question about her own parents, a man and a woman, would be exactly the same.)

Jennifer Finney Boylan, a transgender woman, parent, and the author of three memoirs, said that it’s high time the public get past its fixation with transgender people’s genitalia and whether or not they’ve had “the operation.”

“You know, I am all for understanding,” said Boylan, an English professor at Barnard, the national co-chair of the GLAAD board of directors, and a consultant to the makers of Transparent. “But people need to wonder, what it is that they think they’re going to understand? And knowing about the details of surgery is not the thing that is going to shine a light on the transgender impulse and transgender identities.”

What does make a difference, she explained, is when transgender people are true to themselves, when they live their lives authentically, and talk about that. That’s when their humanity comes out.

So the Brunners told their story. Again. While most of it feels “old hat” to them by now, even Denise learned something new this go around.

Jessica was recalling the first time she saw Denise as Denise. While home for her first Thanksgiving break from college in 2004 the two decided to go into New York City together for dinner and to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.

But their first stop was a hotel on Rt. 46. As Jessica watched TV, Denise unpacked a small suitcase and proceeded to get dressed in women’s clothes and carefully apply her makeup. She highlighted her cheeks, shaded her forehead, and lightened the bottom of her chin while darkening the sides. Jessica was blown away by the transformation.

“I was honestly amazed,” she said, “because I really didn’t do much makeup, Mom doesn’t wear that much makeup, and here, out of all of us, D did the best makeup!”

But their night out was even better. Jessica had always wanted to see the famous tree, and she was dying to see her parent in her truest form. That night she did both.

“I had the best night of my life. I had so much fun,” said Jessica, as Denise listened intently, her smile widening. “It was just so nice to see Denise relax and having fun. She wasn’t as uptight, like, she was more relaxed, there was just a different confidence to her. There was something different. It was just better.”

Denise remembers being nervous. “You don’t know what her true feelings are,” she said. “You don’t know if the smile on her face was for my benefit or if it was a true smile. So sitting here now I’m tickled pink.”