When Susan Faludi stood in front of a large crowd at the Carnegie Music Hall Monday night, she asked more than 1,000 people to consider refugees.
“Around the world today are unintentional monuments to the truth that we live in the age of the refugee and the elusiveness of the refuge they seek,” she said.
Although the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist was referencing the millions of refugees forced to flee their homes in the last decade, she was also including a lesser-known kind of refugee — those seeking an accepted gender identity.
Faludi’s lecture, an installment of the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures series, focused on her father’s struggle with identity throughout his life and his experiences as a Holocaust survivor, Hungarian-American immigrant and transgender woman.
Faludi referred to her father as her “father” throughout the entire lecture — also acknowledging her father transitioned to become a woman later in life. To communicate the timeline of her story, Faludi used masculine pronouns when talking about her father before the transition and feminine pronouns after the transition. For this article, The Pitt News will use pronouns consistent with the speaker.
Faludi is known for her 1991 best seller “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.” The author also recently published “In The Darkroom,” which memoirs her father’s life and discusses broader themes of gender identity.
Throughout the talk, she likened her father’s lifelong struggle with gender identity as a “search for refuge.” Her father was born as Istvan Friedman to a wealthy Jewish family in Hungary. The Friedmans were separated into different concentration camps during World War II and then reunited when Istavan used a stolen fascist armband to free his parents. The family survived the rest of the war by impersonating Romanian Christian refugees.
Faludi’s father eventually emigrated to Brazil, where he spent many years as a photographer. He then moved to New York, officially changed his name to Steve Faludi, bought a red Ford convertible and started a family.
Faludi described her childhood perception of her father as a patriarchal figure who often abused his wife and children.
“He ruled our home as the household despot. We feared his wrath and obeyed his orders. My father’s mood turned increasingly dark, explosive and then physically violent,” Faludi said.
She had a tense relationship with her father, and after her parents divorced and he moved back to Hungary, Faludi did not hear from him for more than 25 years. But then she received an unexpected email from her father in 2004.
“At the age of 76, and without telling anyone in the family, my father had flown to Thailand and undergone gender reassignment surgery to become a woman,” Faludi said.
At this time, Faludi was already an accomplished feminist writer, and her father invited her to Hungary to write about her new identity. Faludi, however, was skeptical.
“I wondered if this was another act of flight — my father seeking refuge in yet another identity reinvention,” she said.
Faludi recalled her father initially trying to use her new gender identity to “absolve her past crimes, as a man.” Eventually, though, Stefanie Faludi — Faludi’s father’s new identity — reconciled with her daughter. Faludi said she was able to eventually forgive her father for the abuse during her childhood.
“I came to see how she and I were in many ways on a similar life path, each struggling to free ourselves from the constraints of gender,” Faludi said, referring to her own involvement with the feminist movement.
Faludi also discussed how she conceptualized her father’s change in identity with her own knowledge of the gender spectrum and feminist theory.
“In many ways, what Stefanie was doing was using the cuddle of hyperfemininity to break out of the case of hypermasculinity that Steven had been trapped in — an armor that had come close to suffocating my father,” Faludi said.
Louanne Baily, a community member who has read Faludi’s books, said she enjoyed “how [Faludi] broadened the definition of refugee and refuge and identified many things that refuge is not.”
Francie Robb, a former professor at Waynesburg University, also thought Faludi’s lecture was captivating and thought-provoking. She identified with Faludi’s themes of masculinity because of her own experiences.
“As a mother of men, [I am] acutely aware of how society forces as many limitations on men as it does on women,” Robb said.
Faludi confirmed that the search for refuge that her father experienced in her gender identity extends to more groups of people today than ever.
“Identity can be liberation — people standing up for who they are, whether that is an oppressed minority, an unacknowledged social caste or a stigmatized sexual identity,” she said. “It is no accident that the age of the refugee coincides with gender border crossing.”