In the winter of 1992, my sister got married. A year before the wedding, she asked me if I would grow my hair shoulder length for the occasion. At the time, I was twenty years old and just beginning to come to terms with owning a transgender identity (though I didn’t yet have words for it). But the dynamics of my gender “situation” had been playing out in my family life since my earliest memories. Stuffed into dresses for synagogue despite putting up a fight (always a losing battle), or hiding in the dining room so as not to be stuffed into a dress (laying on the chairs tucked under the table) until I (quickly) got too bored to stay there, and then was summarily stuffed into a dress and off we went. I hated dresses, but I actually liked synagogue. The rabbi had a thick New York accent. He was a teller of fables, the kinds with foxes in them, and grapes, and though there was a moral at the end of each story, his stories were about the journey as much as the destination, and he always had a playful lilt to his voice and a twinkle in his eye.
Fights over attire didn’t begin and end at synagogue. I also fought with my mother about what to wear to school. Sometimes I even won those battles, but then my mother sulked, which was never fun. As I moved toward adolescence, my mother told me I would never be loved by anyone but her. That I bothered people and shouldn’t ever call them (well, I should, but only telepathically—and if they didn’t return my “calls” on the actual phone, according to my mother, it meant they didn’t want to talk to me.) My childhood was an obstacle course of troubled dynamics with my mother. Much of the trouble, though certainly not all of it was gender-related.
By my early teens, she was following me around inside and out, stomping her feet and swinging her arms, mimicking the way that I walked, exaggerating my gait, or just fictionalizing it, to make a point—an unkind burlesque. She told me the way I walked was ruining my health—that it was literally injuring me—and tried to train me to walk (and bowl, if you can believe that) (I come from a bowling family) in a more feminine fashion. She brought me to films and told me in graphic detail how I should feel during the heterosexual sexy scenes. In in a frightening hiss, when she dropped me off at softball camp in my sophomore year of high school (in fact, I think this was the first time I’d ever heard her use the word), she ordered me to “stay away from the lesbians.”
Life until college involved my mother constantly trying to police my gender presentation and sexuality (then there was the part where she decided I had special powers and insisted I use them to save her and the rest of the family from all kinds of graphically violent deaths. A story for another time.) And my father kept telling me that no matter what my mother did, it was our job, as a family, to take care of her. Mine, in particular, as she looked to me most for emotional support and turmoil. (He started telling me this at the age of seven…My induction into the family business…)
Where was my sister during all this? I don’t really know. Possibly doing her own thing? But more likely, judging from the way our relationship has played out in adulthood, sorely neglected and forced to witness my mother’s strained focus on me, the constant battles that happened when she wanted me to do something and I said no. (Whenever I didn’t do what my mother wanted, including the “occult” things she believed it was my responsibility to engage in, she cried, withdrew, accused me of being “mean,” of abusing her, often losing her shit in pretty intense ways. She did this when I didn’t want to “practice ESP”. When I didn’t want to try to move objects with my mind powers. When I didn’t want to get hypnotized to ‘talk to dead people’. When I didn’t want her to come into my room at night and hands-on “heal” me.)
So by the time my sister’s wedding came around, my relationship with my parents was fractured at best. My relationship with my sister minimalistic and fraught. Not that we were fighting. Just that we didn’t have a solid connection or understanding of each other, and she was not someone who I could speak to about what was happening with our parents. She seemed indifferent to the fact of my queerness, though resentful of the attention it drew. I tried once to talk to her about my troubled history with our parents, and my sister told me to “forget everything that happened.” That it was my job to take care of the family first, no matter what—to be who and what they needed me to be. I’m not sure how it came about that I became a designated caretaker of my mother, but I think it’s because I somehow, more than anyone, I had the capacity to upset her. Or, I should say, she was perhaps more invested in controlling me than my sister or father, and when I didn’t comply with her wishes, she became distraught, and therefore her breakdowns somehow became my fault.
When my sister asked me to grow my hair out for her wedding, I said no. Growing my hair felt too personal. Changing something that was literally part of me, and over a prolonged period of time. I told her I would not grow my hair, but that I was willing to wear the green taffeta bridesmaid dress. (I thought that was a pretty generous offering.) She said, “I don’t want people pointing at you and laughing while I’m walking down the aisle!” At the time, it occurred to me that the people at her wedding would probably be too busy celebrating her and her soon-to-be-husband to notice me or care what I looked like. I guess in the anxious build up to her wedding, she wasn’t looking at things from that angle. I imagine (though I’ve never been able to confirm this) she just wanted me to slide into the background for once so she could spend this very important occasion with the full attention she deserved. And her worries were not entirely unfounded. On the day of her wedding, ostensibly because of my gender, my mother nearly failed to show up.
When I said I wouldn’t grow my hair out for the wedding, my sister “released” me from bridesmaidhood. I wasn’t intentionally trying to make that happen, but I can’t say I was disappointed. On a visit to New York (I was in college at Princeton, and often took the train to the city to survive the horror of being a visibly queer person in Princeton, New Jersey, in the early 1990s), I went to a very cheap clothing shop, and bought a grey silk suit. (On my father’s credit card. I bought several things on his credit card, without a solid understanding of how he then had to pay it back, and how I left a trail of clues of what I was doing in New York, including buying quite a few hankies and magazines at a leather shop primarily for gay men. I still sometimes feel guilt and shame about this.)
I was relieved and delighted to think, now that I wasn’t a bridesmaid, I could wear a suit to my sister’s wedding. I can’t recall if the suit was really silk. (It cost somewhere around eighty dollars I think). But whatever its makeup, I loved it and I thought it looked quite nice. This was either magical thinking on my part, or a sign of my generally dissociative state of being. When I showed the suit to my mother, she said I could not wear it. Shocking. Well, what really happened was that she said, with an air of finality, that the sleeves were too long. But the meaning was quite clear. I didn’t argue. It was my sister’s wedding, after all. In our final compromise, I wore a skirt and sweater of my mother’s and a pair of “flat” female-type-people shoes. I looked like shit and I felt like shit, but I wore lady clothes, and did my part to be accommodating, which felt like the right thing to do. Still, my mother spent the entire day of my sister’s wedding chasing me around from room to room of the hotel where the wedding was taking place, and where all our relatives were staying, just to tell me once again (and again) what a disappointment I was. At one point she locked herself in her hotel room and phoned rooms aggressively, one after the other, demanding that people find me and send me to see her. People would hold the phone in one hand, pointing to it, giving me one of those “what do I tell her?” looks. And I would shake my head emphatically. Whisper. “I’m not here!”
Soon it was almost time for the wedding. A cousin told me she refused to come out of her room unless I agreed to speak to her. I worried if I didn’t face her, she might “boycott” the wedding. I finally went to her and she told me how disgusting I looked and how mean I was and how uncomfortable I made everyone around me because of the way that I looked and acted. (I suppose I should have expected it. That it shouldn’t have hurt as much as it did.)
And this is how I “ruined” my sister’s wedding. By not managing to be who and what my mother wanted, (even though I made what I thought were reasonable compromises). With my queerness. (And my “selfishness” and “irresponsibility,” etc. etc. —things my sisters would subsequently accuse me of on a regular basis.)
Fifteen or so years after my sister’s wedding, in the fall of 2006, a close friend of hers, a family friend, Mindy, was getting married. I had recently moved to New York from Oakland, California, and visited my parents’ house regularly to spend time with my nieces. (Because my sister and I were not on speaking terms, I didn’t get to see my nieces often. Only when we both happened to be at my parents house at the same time.) I visited when Mindy and my sister were preparing for Mindy’s wedding, and despite their unfriendliness, I spent several hours helping them prep. I put together invitations and did some other menial stuff I can no longer recall. Just before the wedding, Mindy sent me an email saying was invited to attend only under the condition that I wore female clothing, something I hadn’t done pretty much since my sister’s wedding more than fifteen years before. I recalled, then, helping out on the morning of my sister’s wedding, a few hours before my mother started chasing me around the hotel—we arrived early to shlep chairs and tables, and my mother was already going off on me about the way I looked and at some point said in a harsh whisper: “Quit with the Victor/Victoria act.”
I’m still trying to work that one out.
In any case, though I visited often to spend time with the family (despite all the many reasons not to), and thought I helped out Mindy with wedding preparation, it in no way gave Mindy or my sister the idea that I should be treated with anything but contempt. I was told I could come to the wedding only in “female clothing.” My parents elaborated on the topic. My dad wanted me to wear the same outfit he’d seen a butch friend of mine wear. She was from a nearby town in Pennsylvania, though we met in the Bay Area. She had come to PA from CA for a family occasion. Randomly, we both happened to be in Allentown at the same time, and she met us for ice cream and she showed us photos from the event. She’d made a “clothing compromise” and went to the event in non-butchlecheit (a Yiddishy way of saying non-butchy) drag. Apparently my father paid very careful attention to her outfit and wanted me to wear the exact same thing to Mindy’s wedding—women’s “capri” pants and flat lady shoes and a women’s blouse. An outfit I wouldn’t be caught dead in. (Literally. I would rather die.) I sent Mindy a note saying that I hoped the wedding was lovely, but I would not be able to attend under those conditions. But I decided to visit Allentown on the wedding weekend so I could spend time with my nieces It was the last time I would see them (aside from one really short and stressful visit in 2012. But more on that later.)
On the morning of Mindy’s wedding, as I had made the fateful choice of being “in town”, my mother got very upset that I wasn’t going to attend. Her eyes teared up. “Please,” she said. “I really want you to be there. There’s no reason for you not to go.”
I said no.
“I have a women’s suit you can wear. I think it will fit you.”
I said no.
I sat at the kitchen table paging through the local newspaper, wiping the newsprint off on my jeans, anxious, fidgety, wondering if this might not be a good time to leave.
My mother, meanwhile, rummaged through her closet and found a navy blue pant-suit and called to me from upstairs. I stood at the bottom of the staircase and looked up at it, queasy. “Just try this,” she said.
I said no. I went up the stairs and tried to explain. “I won’t be comfortable,” I said. “And I’ll still look like me.”
“Just try it,” she said. “Please.”
Humiliated, I put on my mother’s suit. When it was on, I stood in front of the mirror in my sister’s childhood bedroom (which had become the room I slept in when I visited.) My mother walked circles around me, assessing if I looked “passably female” enough to go to a wedding I didn’t even want to go to. Who wants to go to a wedding on the condition that they don’t show up as themselves? I don’t know. I didn’t know what people wanted from me or what they expected. That I should put myself in the position of feeling profoundly ill-at-ease to go to the wedding of a person who treats me with disdain? That if I put on a “women’s pant suit” I would suddenly not be trans?
My sister came into the room and started circling me with my mother. In fact, I think my mother called her into the room. My sister has barely spoken to me or looked at me since her wedding in 1992, except to make cutting remarks. Since her wedding, the only time we had a half way civil conversation was strangely also on the day I found out she had been telling her very young kids I was a “bad and mean” person. I found out, because the youngest, maybe four or five years old at the time, came up to me in her charming, curious way and said, “Mom says you’re a bad and mean person, but you don’t seem that way to me.” I was furious. Distraught. Sickened. I was soon to be stuck in a car with my sister for two hours—it was the day of a cousin’s wedding and we were all going to New Jersey in my parents minivan (a wedding I was thankfully invited to wear gender appropriate clothing to).
After my niece said that to me, and I realized what my sister had been doing (no wonder the older niece gave me the same contemptuous looks my sister did, and avoided me as much as possible), I went out and bought razor blades. We drove to Tenafly, New Jersey, and as the highway ribboned out from under us, I did my best to breathe. When everyone was getting ready for my cousin’s wedding I went into the bathroom of the hotel and sat with the blade to my thigh. I made a few scrapes. There was just a thin, barely beading, staccato ribbon of blood. I thought, What if I cut too deep? What if I really hurt myself this time? I was less worried about myself and more worried about other people’s experience of the wedding. (What if I ruined this wedding, too?) But it got me thinking. What was I doing this for? I was in my mid thirties now and had been cutting and burning myself since my early twenties. It had served its purpose. Offered some relief. A unique, if temporary, form of escape from the emotional pain that for so many years had made life feel untenable and endlessly exhausting.
I was alive. I’d somehow made it this far. Wasn’t it time I found another way to cope?
I threw out the blades and went across the street and bought a few giant stuffed cabbages from a deli. I was starving. They weren’t as good as my grandmother’s, but they were definitely delicious.
My father had recently been undergoing radiation treatment for cancer and he was frail, vulnerable, starting to bald, but with long, feathery gray whips of hair—though before his treatments he had one of the thickest crop of hair I’d seen on a sixty year old man. It was painful to see him this way, and I didn’t want to burden him further, but I knew if I didn’t say something to someone, I wouldn’t be able to go to the wedding. I pulled him aside. We went for a walk. I told him what my niece, B., had said. I complained about the way my mother and sister treated me. He did his best to listen. When I was finished pouring my heart out, he shrugged. “I’ll think about it,” was all he had to say. A response that was so very him. And it was never brought up again.
It’s so strange to look back on that day. The horrible morning. The trip to the hardware store. The terrible thrill and nervousness of standing at the check out counter with razor blades. Relief. If I needed it, there it was…The tense drive. The abbreviated run-in with the sharp edge of the blade, then tossed into the trash in a hotel bathroom. The delicious halupkies shared with a family I felt completely alienated from, after which my father did something wonderful. I had borrowed a tuxedo from a friend for the wedding and I didn’t like the bowtie, and said as much. My father, whose was quite a bit nicer, traded with me. I wore his bowtie and he wore mine. It was one of the sweetest moments I’d had with him in my adult life, and on a day that felt near to unbearable. And then we went to the wedding service and I cried as soon as the quartet started playing Pachelbel’s Canon for the couple’s walk down the aisle. People must have thought it was the wedding I was crying over, but it was the potential loss of my delicate, inscrutable father, the whispy strands of hair peeking out from under his kippah.
Four years later, I stood in my sister’s old bedroom, wearing my mother’s pants suit, being assessed by two people who care nothing for my comfort or personhood. The same sister who waged a propaganda war against me with her very young children. The same mother who told me on countless occasions that I made her sick, that I was disgusting, that I had basically ruined her life by the mere fact of being myself. They both circled around me like sharks.
“Do you think it looks okay?” my mother asked my sister, it meaning me, or I suppose, the suit. Hard to say.
“You don’t want to know what I think,” my sister said gritting her teeth, so full of contempt—her jaw set with tension in the way it always is when I’m in the room—practically spitting at me. And then, the torrent. She told me exactly what she thought in no uncertain terms: that I looked hideous; that I was a mean and selfish and irresponsible and despicable person.
After fifteen years of giving me disdainful looks or ignoring me altogether except for the occasional glare, after fifteen years of cutting me down—cutting me down when I visited by myself, cutting me down when my girlfriends came with me, cutting me down for having a life of my own, cutting me down for not being a more supportive sibling (?) when all she ever did was push me away and cut me down, cutting me down at my grandmother’s funeral for “showing up” (“for a change”), telling her kids I was a “bad and mean” person, treating me with an unchecked hatred and resentment as she assumed that she knew what kind of “person” I was though she’d never taken the time to try to learn a thing about me—I finally lost my temper. I finally screamed at her. I’m not sure where it came from, but I screamed, “You never loved me!” over and over again and I got up in her face, fists clenched at my sides, a little too close. She shoved me hard into a lamp and as I and the lamp fell backwards toward the floor, I grabbed her arms to break my fall. I left two thumbprint bruises, one on each of her arms (my mother told me this later). Because of that, my sister accused me of physical assault and forbade any contact between me and my nieces. It’s been over ten years.
Once, a year or so after Mindy’s wedding, my nieces were at my parents’ house—my parents were watching them for a few days—and I was coming through town briefly. I was hopeful that I would get to see my nieces. I missed them horribly, and I suppose I still hoped there could be some kind of repair. That things could go back at least to the way they were (the younger one and I getting along famously. The older one glaring at me endlessly.) But the older niece called Mindy and told her I was coming, or called my sister who then called Mindy, and Mindy “rescued” my nieces from my parents’ house before I arrived.
Five or six years later, I was dropping my pup off with my parents before going to a conference in L.A. and my younger niece, B., was there. Considering we had been close, the visit was devastating. B. was very withdrawn. Barely interacted with me. She seemed terrified of me. My sister’s propaganda had clearly done its work. Meanwhile I had to deal with the stress of my aging dog, who didn’t like kids, and who had already bitten three people. I was terrified he would bite my niece and that my sister would see it as even more evidence of my monstrosity.
It’s so strange how quickly and easily “monstrosity” is foisted upon those of us who are queer. I’ve often thought it is because we don’t fit into the family narrative—the story they want to tell about themselves. The image they want to project. And, I think, at least in my case because of my differences, I played the role of a “truth teller.” I was not willing to go along with the family’s stories, the ones that tried to blot out any trace of my real experience or my realness. I don’t think this is an uncommon role for a queer person to play. A family trying to force the queerness out, and all the perspective and outsiderness that comes with it. All the stories and all the truths that aren’t welcome. They seem to think that they will benefit by reshaping and revising a person’s tendencies and personhood. Yet, at both my sister’s wedding and Mindy’s, I moved toward compromise, and no one was happy. Both ended in disaster.
I honestly believe that had I gone to the weddings in anything other than a gladiator outfit, no one would have paid much attention to me. Why should they? These occasions were other people’s celebrations. Maybe a few people would have wondered about me for a moment and then moved on.
Had I found a way to look “more female” (?) would it really have brought my sister, my parents, or Mindy true happiness? Doubtful. Do we really have the power to ruin people’s lives with our gender? Or fix people’s lives with our gender? My guess is that if someone thinks we’re making them miserable because of our transness, they were miserable to begin with.
Things That Might Be Going on When People Ask Me or Other Non-Cis Folks to Dress and Behave in a Way That Is Antithetical to Our Core Identity
1) Someone wants to be the center of attention and worries our queerness is going to undermine that.
2) Someone wants us, as a wedding gift to them, to be someone they wish we were.
3) Someone thinks many problems (i.e. family issues) would be solved if we would just look, act, and behave “appropriately.”
4) Someone thinks their definition of “appropriately” is more appropriate than ours because they know how to conform to social norms, such as believing that gender is dichotomous.
5) Someone has witnessed us dressed in what they see as “gender appropriate” clothing before, in childhood, perhaps, or somewhere, some time, and they think we were passing well-enough then at whatever gender they would like us to pass as, and they don’t understand why things can’t just go back to the way they were when we did that or were doing that. (I think it might be impossible for some people to understand the intense suffering some of us experience when forced to conform to or present in the way of a gender identity antithetical to who we are.)
6) Someone has seen or heard of another queer person who made an exception and offered to conform to their family’s request around presentation, and so they think we ought to, too.
7) Someone thinks that it would be easy for us to change who and what we are and what we look like, that our queerness is simply a matter of a few articles of clothing, or an easily brushed aside act of rebellion—perhaps even that we are queer to get revenge on them. Because, after all, it’s all about them.
8) Someone loves us, accepts us in their way, but fears our visible queerness might unleash great drama that they wish to avoid. They think it is our job to placate others by hiding ourselves.
My takeaway from the fact that even after I tried to compromise, no one was happy: No matter what I do aside from abdicating my selfhood, some people are never going to be able to tolerate my being.
Recently, after forty odd years of struggles with my parents around my gender, during which my parents did and said a lot of really cruel and unkind things (my mother crying every time she looked at me for years and years, telling me it made her physically sick to look at me, that I was literally making her sick, likely killing her. Then, when I asked my parents to refrain from using pronouns as much as possible—rather than asking them to use my correct pronouns—they doubled down in their use of female language. Calling me “little miss” such and such and other absurdities. My parents telling me, after they found out I was taking T, that they didn’t want to see me, and my mother telling me she couldn’t “be nice to me” because she didn’t think I was “really trans.” Insisting that she knows who I am and I don’t. That somehow, after living openly as a transgender person for twenty plus years, I am still deluded about my own identity)…they started using my correct pronouns and name. There was no apology. No acknowledgement of past hardship or behavior. Our relationship remains fragile, troubled and complicated in many ways. But I’m grateful that they’ve made this shift and my mother no longer cries every time she looks at me. She no longer tries to change me. And we manage, in our small ways, to stay connected.
I still don’t speak to my sister. We haven’t had any contact since Mindy’s wedding, except she wrote me one small Facebook message a few years ago after my parents told her I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalopathy (CFS/ME), to say she was sorry to hear I was sick. That’s all she said. She didn’t invite me to contact her. She didn’t ask any questions. For a few months I worried over what, if anything, to do. Whether or how to respond. I decided that since it wasn’t a clear invitation to connect, I should move forward and let it go. After twenty plus years of her being verbally abusive and cruel, and after making no amends around this abuse or around cutting me off from my nieces, that little “olive branch” or whatever it was (I really have no idea) was far from comforting. I’m not willing to be in contact with people (aside from my parents) with long histories of cruelty if they don’t at the very least acknowledge their past behavior and clearly state their intention for doing things differently.
I haven’t seen or heard from my nieces. I imagine they are somewhere imagining that I am somehow monstrous. What else am I to believe? I try to convince myself that I am not. Or, that if I am, I am more Sully from Monsters Inc than Voldemort.
Recently I posted something on Facebook about the fact that I saw (by accident—we are not Facebook friends but we both happened to wish Mindy’s brother Brett a happy birthday and I saw her profile image) that my sister had a rainbow “love comes in all shapes and sizes” type image on her profile pic. I was sickened by it. I posted about it in a non-specific way and asked people for (snarky) memes, basically to help me process the information—laugh a bit, and feel supported. Most people offered lovely, funny, supportive responses. However, a few people who barely know me, tried to give me advice about forgiveness. How I should forgive whoever this person was and move on. One person seemed to think I had no idea that “families are complicated” (and that therefore, I should “forgive and forget”). Another person said that my sister’s rainbow flag profile photo (I didn’t say it was my sister, just that “someone” who had “tormented me for decades because of my queerness” had posted a queer rainbow flag on her profile pic) might be her way of apologizing to me and therefore I should be grateful. As if decades of dehumanization should be erased with a Facebook profile picture posted by someone I am not on Facebook with just so this Facebook friend who I barely know doesn’t have to deal with their discomfort at my having feelings. (And he’s a trauma therapist!)
It was unpleasant, to say the least, these “Facebook fixers.” People who feel the need to challenge the experience of people whose feelings about something they don’t approve of or want to hear about. Do they have any idea what I’ve been through? Do they know the work I’ve done for my entire adult life to survive the legacy of my sister’s disdain and my mother’s abuse, and to show up as best I can for my daily life? For my other relationships. For my relationship with my parents, even though they’ve never apologized for anything, never acknowledged any of their past harms, and have never been willing to do any work themselves. (In over twenty-five years of being openly transgender, my parents have never asked me one question about my experiences or identity and have never tried to understand. Really, they’ve wanted to know very little of my experiences in the world, but they do, I think, want to gloss over the profound fractures between us so as to appear like a “normal” family. One which, at the very least, is in minimal contact. They are not emotionally available, to say the least, but they have always been supportive in the ways they are able to be. They have financially supported me whenever they can, and this has been profoundly meaningful, potentially life-saving. They have, when we are comfortable enough with each other to have a laugh, wonderful senses of humor. They make me laugh. I love them, and am grateful for their support, but that doesn’t make our relationship easy, or erase a long and troubling history.)
When people on Facebook, and acquaintances in general, try to brush off or diminish my experiences in some way, at times I find myself overcome with a kind of primal agony of being misunderstood. What do these “fixers,” these “brushers off” know about me? If they think I need to hear their opinions on my life: “it’s not so bad” “they didn’t mean it” “I’m sure they meant well” “all families are complicated” “stay positive” “everything happens for a reason” “look on the bright side”—why don’t they at least ask me a few contextualizing questions? They know nothing of the day of Mindy’s wedding, the day my sister cut me down one last time, pushed me, screamed at me to “get the fuck out of” my parents’ house, told me, “you’re not welcome here anymore”; they know nothing of how it felt to pack my things and walk to the front door, my mother weeping on the stairs, telling me quietly “you know you don’t have to leave,” but of course I had to leave, and for the first time in my life, I heard her use an I statement—she didn’t tell me it made her physically sick to look at me, or yell at my friends “how can you stand to look at [him]?!” or say that because of me she didn’t even know why she bothered getting up in the morning, (why she bothered living), or tell me that I was literally killing her—that she had heart palpitations because of me and her doctor said she could die from them. She didn’t say any of those things. She just said (after so many years of awfulness), “I don’t know how to deal with your gender.” And I said, “Maybe you could get some support.” And then I left with my mother crying on the stairs and my nieces freaked out and my sister convinced that she had been right to say and do all the things she ever did, right to declare me a mean and bad and selfish and irresponsible person who wasn’t welcome in my parents’ house, because after years and years of her cutting me down, I finally snapped and raised my voice, which she saw as confirmation of all of her ideas about me. Isn’t it funny how this kind of insidious storytelling works….What do these “wise acquaintances” know of what it felt like to drive back to New York that day, with a hollowness and pain pressing against my forehead, shattering my already fragile ecosystem of stability; how I drove to an empty beach—it was early fall, the waters were rough-angry—and watched the waves grapple with their own existential unease. I considered getting in and letting the currents take me to another place entirely? “But there was a breeze blowing, a choppy, stiff wind that whipped the water into froth…She turned her face seaward to gather in an impression of space and solitude, which the vast expanse of water, meeting and melting with the moonlit sky, conveyed to her excited fancy. As she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself.” (Chopin)
What do they know of the strangeness of leaving the water behind. Of going home but feeling a hollowed out feeling that there is no such thing as home. And each day after that, hearing my sister’s words, knowing she simmers with a kind of bitterness that won’t stop seeping into my life—that she would tell and continue telling my nieces I was a monster, and I had to sit with that, knowing that propaganda works and it is poisonous and I might never have a way to right that wrong?
What do they know about going days and months and years cut off from people I love deeply, how before that day I did my best to build a connection with my nieces despite being queer, despite the way my family treated me? How, not long before the day of Mindy’s wedding, B., the niece I was close to, said to me, in a small and quiet voice, when we were hanging out in my sister’s bedroom where I was staying at the time, and I was reading Harry Potter in Spanish and she was translating all the spells for me because she’d read the books over and over again and knew the spells by heart, how she said that I seemed like a boy to her. And I wanted to tell her, yes, that is because I am, because I am transgender and I am queer, and that that is okay—because I wanted to be authentic, and also because I thought she might be queer herself.
But instead I just shrugged and brushed off her question and changed the subject, and I never got to tell her that it was okay to be queer and it was okay to be different and that whoever she was, I would love her.
I’ve been thinking about monstrosity, that it is not the evil part of a body, but the tenderest, most vulnerable place, an awareness of the tenuousness of any small sense of belonging. To be truly known, to feel truly at home, in the self, and in the world, takes a great effort, and a great bravery and grace, that not all of us have access to, and even still, if it comes, the feeling only appears in scattered moments, the perfect little breezes of spring that are here and gone, sandwiched among the chill of winter and the cloying sizzle of summer. And these small moments of true integration, of feeling held in some way by the world, are often offset by the understanding of their transience and of the vastness of time. Vertiginous.
But it’s nearly March now, and every evening the light stays a little longer, like a friend who lingers, who doesn’t want to leave. And today spring is in the air, the squirrels are squirreling and all the snow is melting.
I don’t know if I’ll ever see my nieces again, and I try not to dwell on it.
If I do hear from them some day, I have no idea what it will feel like. What they’ll want to share with me or know of me. What we could and might be to each other after all this time.
I don’t know if I’ll ever see my sister again, or speak to her. The last time we were in the same place at the same time was at my uncle’s funeral four years ago, and she avoided me. She left soon after I arrived (I got stuck in traffic and was a little late) without acknowledging me except, I suppose, by her avoidance.
If others choose to create stories about me and my life and my choices and motivations without taking the time to know me, there is nothing I can do, but let the breeze ruffle my fur, growl here and there when I need to and let the chips fall where they may. Bask in the glory of loved ones in my life who can love me as I am…snout and all.