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My dad is cross-dressing and Mum is bitter. What can I do to help? The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

I am in my 30s, an only child, married with one child and another on the way. I see my parents once or twice a year (I live abroad).

Over the past few years, my father has been dressing transexually. He now wears female clothing full time.

After seeing the rather undeniable wearing of a bra, I asked Mum about it; she stifled her tears and said she didn’t know, he won’t talk about it. I can’t ask them about it during one of our visits, because our time together is limited and I don’t want to ruin it.

During one visit, three years ago, I wrote them a letter and gave it to them at the end of their stay (I’ve always been better at written communication) asking them to keep it for when they got home. They sat down and talked about it. He told my mother he used to play dressing-up with his older sisters’ clothes until one day he was caught by his quite strict parents, berated, and told to never do it again. He’s not talked about it since.

I don’t know if he does it because he feels like a woman inside or if he prefers the cut and luxury of female clothing. I feel he’s been bottling up something big for most of his life and now feels, sod it, I’m doing what I want.

My dad doesn’t talk. He can’t say or do the right thing. My mother has become excruciatingly bitter towards him, and generally very negative towards everyone and everything. Our time together, already extremely limited, has become horrific.

Over the years, I have written to them twice, pleading to take some kind of action, reminding them that I am their daughter, not their relationship counsellor.

I don’t know what to do to get them to move forward. Should I do something – is it up to me?

Your much longer letter was extremely eloquent and full of detail. I can see this is a desperately unhappy situation for all of you.

I contacted Juliet Newbigin, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist with an interest in sexual and gender identity (bpc.org.uk). She feels there are three issues: “First, that of your (in)ability to communicate with your parents, other than via writing to them. Second, the marital problem between your parents, and third: your father’s cross-dressing.”

(Cross-dressing is not a problem per se, but it is causing one here.)

Newbigin also notes that there is something “that has made you pull away” quite early from your parents – you chose to go to boarding school, you chose to live abroad. She wonders whether you had noted some difficulty between your parents early on, and wanted to protect yourself?

It isn’t your job to sort this out. You are right: you are not their marriage counsellor, so stop trying to be. What’s going on with your parents is deep-rooted and they can’t move forward, healthily, without kind and compassionate discussion: but it is neither your job to instigate this, nor chair it.

“Why can’t you ask more directly and sympathetically what is going on with your dad?” asks Newbigin. “There seems to be a wish to shut this down rather than find out who he is.” I am guessing it’s because of the questions cross-dressing throws up for your mum; it isn’t something that has been discussed between them, so it’s incredibly excluding for her, plus she probably finds it very confusing. People often mistake cross-dressing for homosexuality – but heterosexual men also cross-dress. The reasons for cross-dressing are many and varied. “As well as a source of excitement, it can be a way of relieving stress,” suggests Newbigin, “something a person can be driven to for reasons that he may not be able to explain.”

Did your parents have problems before the cross-dressing?

To move forward, Newbigin feels that you could “get yourself some support to think through your relationship with your parents”. You say in your longer letter you have tried to encourage your parents to get therapy and they haven’t/won’t. I saw that you are aware of cross-dressing organisations, but I wonder if you have heard of the Beaumont Society (beaumontsociety.org.uk; 01582 412220) which offers support to partners of cross-dressers. “Your mother,” says Newbigin, “would really benefit from talking to someone.”

It sounds as if you have more opportunity to talk to your mother, so perhaps you could mention this organisation to her. But, of course, you can’t contact them yourself.

You need to talk face-to-face with your parents: one at a time is probably best. Letters are wonderful, up to a point. Not to “marriage guidance” them, but to try to get your relationship on a more honest footing.

You are afraid of “ruining things” but the situation sounds fraught already. It doesn’t have to be about the cross-dressing and shouldn’t be about their marriage (that’s counsellor mode). You could try, with your dad, to find out where he’s at. Get beyond the “thing” to the emotions. Something like: “How does life feel to you right now?” is a good opener. “Why do you cross-dress?” is too big a question. And he may not know the answer.

If they won’t talk about it, you have to draw a line, not under this, but around it. Continue to talk to them, of course, and see if you can do without upsetting yourself. But you may need to see beyond their marital problems and the cross-dressing to the parents trapped underneath.

This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 30 December 2016.