I accepted that I was transgender in my late 20s because I made friends online and in real life who helped me develop a vocabulary to explore my gender identity. I am now and have always been transgender because I had two parents who raised both my sister and I not to accept the shackles gender had placed on their own lives. They’ve never been able to experience the freedoms my sister and I cherish so dearly and I doubt that they ever will.

I thought about my mother and my father a lot as I watched 20th Century Women, Mike Mill’s electric follow-up to his beloved sophomore feature, Beginners. 20th Century Women is about a teenage boy, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), raised in SoCal in the late 70s by his single mother, the engineer and independent spirit Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening). With Jamie’s father a non-presence in both Jamie and Dorothea’s life, Dorothea worries that she can’t sufficiently raise her son on her own and recruits two young women, ill photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and troubled teenager Julie (Elle Fanning), to help shape her son into a whole person.

My childhood can be split up into two distinct periods. Before my parents divorced, I was attached to my mother at the hip. She was a tomboy as a kid, and her more masculine aspirations (athletics, joining the military, going to college) were denied to her at every turn. She raised me to respect the autonomy of women, to not let my more feminine build define my aspirations, and to stand up for what I believed in even if it caused me physical harm.

Then my parents got a divorce, my mother and I got into a big fight about her then-boyfriend (and then-husband who would go on to physically and emotionally abuse her for years), and she kicked me out of the house. I lived with my dad til I went off to college and I didn’t speak to my mother again until I was 19.

My dad is 6’2″ and a big boy all around. He’s also one of the most sensitive, warm, and generous men I’ve ever known. I get my habit of crying during any emotional beat in a film/book/TV show/video game/song from him. I get my habit of giving more of myself than I have to give to help others from him. I get my proclivities for anxiety and depression from him. When he was the only parent I had in my life, he made sure that I knew that emotion was not the same thing as weakness, that there were things that mattered more than material success and acquisition, and that the relationships in your life can carry you when you can’t always carry yourself.

My sister and I also watched both of our parents drown in the lessons they could never internalize themselves.

In 20th Century Women, Jamie does a stupid teen stunt and nearly dies. He wasn’t necessarily acting out. He was being a teenager and not thinking about all of the potential consequences for his actions. That’s the moment when Dorothea decides she needs others to keep an eye on her son. She was raised during the Depression and Jamie attributes her communal notions of parenting and socialization to the rigours of that decade. Dorothea tells Abbie she wants someone to keep an eye on her son, when he’s out in the world in a way that she’ll never get to see because the relationships between mothers and sons keep that from happening.

Abbie is a 1960s/70s artiste. She lived in New York during the early days of punk rock and art rock. She’s Patti Smith and David Byrne all rolled into one. She’s also recovering from cervical cancer and living in Dorothea’s boarding house because her own mother can’t be around her because of the guilt she feels about giving Abbie her cancer in the first place. Abbie teaches Jamie about feminism and not in broad strokes. She hands him books and books on the topic. On sex and the politics of sex and the politics of womanhood and the politics of aging as a woman. The film’s second half is interspersed with characters reading directly from seminal (white) feminist literature of the 1960s/70s.

Jamie’s exposure to actual feminist thought and not bland platitude feminism makes his life hell as you can imagine it would for many teenage boys today, let alone in the 1970s. Jamie discovers how selfish so many men are about a woman’s sexual gratification and pointing it out to other men results in his getting his ass kicked and his mother’s car painted with the phrase”Art Fag.” Jamie is forced to think about how the women in his life are marginalized and how that marginalization increases as they get older and their value as sexual objects decreases to men. He reads a passage from a book on that particular topic to his mother and she (rightfully) resents his illusion that he understands what her life is like now.

However, Dorothea also begins to resent Abbie for the conflict she’s bringing into her relationship with Jamie and the violence it’s loosing in Jamie’s life. She doesn’t think Jamie is old enough to work through these readings and it’s only going to confuse him. Dorothea is at least partially right  as Jamie only internalizes the parts of the feminist thought that is convenient for him but fails to understand Julie’s autonomy as he confesses his to love to her again and again despite her careful but undeniable rejections. But what Dorothea really resents is that Jamie is now questioning everything in her life that is making her unhappy but she lives in a society where even if she answers the questions Jamie has with honesty and precision, he’ll learn the hardest truth life has to offer: the patriarchy will grind away strong women and decent men because their existence is a threat to toxic masculine power. And that is such a real answer that Dorothea isn’t comfortable telling herself that truth.

Both of my parents are deeply unhappy. I am too (for some of the same reasons that they are but also a lot of different ones). I’m not sure that either of them will ever understand how deeply connected they are to my own decision to intentionally denounce the social capital of masculinity and cishet notions of gender. My mother is one of the strongest and most resilient women I know, but she has too much faith in the capacity of toxic men to change. Their constant disappointments shadow her at every turn, and she seems unwilling to accept that men are broken and they will never make the changes they need to find their own happiness or satisfy her needs.

My dad reminds me a lot of 20th Century Women‘s William (Billy Crudup). He’s a fundamentally decent guy, but he’s also a man that was raised by men and lives in a society that constantly reinforces masculine supremacy and he has never had the socialization I’ve had in feminist thought to recognize that toxic masculinity and the patriarchy have done more harm to him than anything except for, perhaps, capitalism. He doesn’t understand that his masculine independence and self-determination is an illusion that supports his social isolation and inability to connect. He doesn’t understand that because men are taught that they don’t have to change for the world. The world has to change for them. And even when men aren’t actively hurting other people, they don’t understand that accepting their fallibility and their complicity in their own unhappiness and the unhappiness of others is essential for growth and progress.

One of the many reasons that I knew that I was trans was because I thought so much about why my parents were so miserable, and I knew it was because neither could say no to how gender was hurting their lives in both the most and least obvious ways. My dad clings to his stubborn masculine pride, and my mother clings to her belief that women have some obligation to help change the men in their lives and that it’s a weakness to sever ties with toxic men because you just aren’t trying hard enough to keep a relationship together.

I couldn’t be either of those people. I am deeply aware of how few answers I have. I spend most of my life wandering from one near disaster to the next although I’ve been in a healthy, extraordinarily fulfilling relationship with my nb partner (who I can just name now without their nom de blog, Tina, anymore as Nic Frankenberry) and that relationship has given my life some stability although I wouldn’t have been ready for it if I hadn’t been so far into my transition.

And there are times where I feel like my parents think I’m condescending to them when I talk indirectly about queer theory and feminist theory and queer feminist theory and how those things have made my life healthier and happier and more realized. And the only thing I want to be able to tell them is that they gave me all of those personality tools and drives to seek out that sort of thought. That the only things keeping them from escaping the boxes that have closed in on them their whole lives is that my generation made damn sure that folks knew there was another way and that them raising me the way I did meant me finding myself immersed in that culture was an inevitability of my life. I want them to know that my life changes aren’t a rejection of everything they gave me and taught me but the logical next step.

After 20th Century Women was over, I turned to my partner and I told them I was glad I met them in a point in my life where I was an Abbie and not a Jamie. That I wasn’t the lost teenage boy, solipsistic in my concerns and my understanding of the struggles of the women in my life. That I was now aware of my transfeminine nature and that I was able to actually see the complexities of womanhood (and my partner’s trans identity) in a way I had never been capable of when I still identified as a man. But every man or someone who was AMAB has to start somewhere. They most often start like a Jamie. They need a Dorothea to open the door and an Abbie that hands them the map and its key. I was so fortunate to have both.