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Today is Wednesday, November 28, 2007


As Father Switched Gender, His Strained Relationship with Daughter Improved

Reluctantly, the small child would scramble into her father's lap, hoping for affection, or, at very least, acknowledgment. She'd tried so many times before, but he'd sit frozen in his armchair, indifferent to the child and her charms.

"He loves you, baby, he really does," her mother would say. "He just doesn't know how to show it."

And so it went, for 14 years, until the child learned her father's secret: he liked to dress like a woman. In fact, his lifelong dream was to be female. The mere telling of the secret worked magic in the father, breaking down the wall he had built around himself. Gradually, he became the loving father the girl craved, even as he eventually became a woman.

In time, the girl, Noelle Howey, would grow up and tell her family's story. She has written an intricately woven memoir, "Dress Codes: Of Three Girlhoods - My Mother's, My Father's and Mine" (Picador USA, $24), which she will discuss at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Shaker Square, at 7 p.m. today.

"When I found out dad was a cross-dresser, that opened the dialogue," says Howey, 29, who was raised in University Heights and Moreland Hills.

Her parents divorced in 1989, and her father, Richard Howey, a successful Cleveland advertising executive, determined that cross-dressing wasn't enough. In 1994, he had a sex-change operation to become a woman named Christine.

A life of hiding

Christine Howey, now 56, says she knew she wanted to be a girl when she was 5. "The girls were on the porch playing with dolls and the boys would go down the street and hit each other with sticks or something. I kept projecting myself onto the porch."

Life was an exhausting charade. She recalls the necessity of being constantly aware of all her actions to avoid the appearance of femininity. It was especially tough when young Richard was a boarder at University School, an all-boys school.

"When the boys would see me standing in a slightly feminine position, they would make fun of me," Christine recalls.

At 27 Richard took a chance at marriage, his wife Dinah fully aware of his proclivities. Plenty of cross-dressers had "fine married lives," says Christine, "and I thought that might be who I was. Dinah thought it would work out fine."

Friendship pulled them through, more or less, says Dinah, who remarried and lives in Solon. "Chris was supportive and encouraging," she recalls.

"He was very romantic and wrote beautiful love poems, but in the area of sex, he froze."

Richard kept her at bay sexually, says Dinah, by making her question her own sexuality. " 'If you were more attractive, I wouldn't feel this way.' "

They became involved in community theater, and Richard made his mark as an actor at the Dobama Theater in Cleveland Heights. "I thought if I played enough guy roles," Christine now says, "I'd get it."

In fact, Richard's whole life was being played out on stage, and his only respite was to "go numb, into neutral" at home. That was why, he says, he couldn't express his love for his daughter.

"All my life I portrayed Richard, and if I pretended at home, I'd be pretending all the time and whoever I was would disappear," Christine says.

"The joy of having a child was in my heart, but I couldn't express it. That is probably the ultimate torture."

Christine says that although she'd be perfectly happy to "disappear" into her new gender and just live her life, she encouraged Noelle's decision to write her book.

Living in the open

"I have a political component in my life. I personally think your life should be more than making yourself comfortable," says Christine, who moved to Minnesota three years ago and is the creative director of an advertising agency in St. Paul.

"I haven't become a Mother Teresa, but this is something I can do. The general public is never going to understand gender issues unless someone tells them."

Her family's story is far from the horrible tragedy many assume it to be, Noelle says.

"I have the most loving functional families that I know, including the traditional ones. I talk to my parents most every day because they're my best friends.

"If she [my father] weren't transgendered, I wouldn't have a father. I'm so grateful that the coming out occurred."

Dinah and Christine remain friends. Christine attended Dinah's wedding, and they continue to celebrate some holidays with Noelle, who lives near Christine.

"The same thing we had all along, we still have," Christine says. "We respect each other immensely." Despite the happy ending, Christine regrets the years she missed being Noelle's loving parent. "When I think about it, I get very sad. What I have now is an enormous gift."

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