An Open Letter to the Woman Who Gave Birth to Me, In Honor of a Holiday I No Longer Celebrate
December 25, 2011 18 Comments
What follows is both an autobiography of sorts and an actual letter addressed to the person who used to be my mother. (Trigger warning: talking about rape, trauma, suicide, drug addiction, sex work, and violence against trans women and people of color). But first, some context.
Once upon a time, I celebrated Christmas. I was raised as a devout Baptist. The family I was coercively-assigned-at-birth are pious, evangelical Christians. I was taught the world was created a few thousand years ago in precisely 6 days, shopping on Sunday and being vegetarian are both sins, women should never be in positions of leadership, and things like reason, science, and ethics are all creations of the Devil. To them, being a fundamentalist is a good thing – to their queer/trans daughter, it means they are dogmatic, Bible-thumping, fanatical bigots.
But once upon a time, I was Born Again, “on fire for Christ”, too. I was part of the Lord’s Army, preparing for the coming End Days. Until I was 12 or 13, when I found out sex and drugs and punk rock are much more fun. After that, things were never good between me and my assigned-at-birth family. I tried, unsuccessfully, to run away several times. I finally moved out when I was 17, and rarely went back.
But I did visit their house, every year, for Christmas. It was always a horribly traumatic experience. They would torment me, ridicule me, try to convert me, threaten me, lecture me, embarrass me, shame me, and so on. If it had just been the adults, I would have said “fuck you” a long time ago. The only reason I kept going there on Christmas was because it was the only time I got to see my siblings. The last time I saw them, I was 21 and they were 13, 7, and 3, respectively. And I adored all of them.
My assigned-at-birth family knows almost nothing about me, or any of the things I’ve done since I was a teenager. It was always very “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I would visit for Christmas. They wouldn’t ask what I’d been up to, and I was allowed to stay as long as I didn’t tell them. Though I had been genderqueer for a long time, I decided to transition on the winter solstice of 2006. The next year, I came out to my assigned-at-birth mother on Christmas Eve — somewhat by accident.
On that day, my assigned-at-birth mother refused to go Christmas shopping with me because she was too embarrassed to be seen in public with me. She said I “looked like a woman.” Tired of hiding who I really was, I replied, “That’s because I am a woman.” She told me I was very, very sick and was going to burn in hell forever. I was disowned by her and her husband shortly thereafter. I was also forbidden from seeing my siblings ever again.
So I decided, finally, to tell my (former) mom the whole story. I wrote it completely on a whim. It may seem a bit self-indulgent. (It’s also somewhat bitter, sarcastic, funny, vindictive, and potentially very triggering.) But this is because I’ve been feeling very powerless and alone, even suicidal, and writing this was therapeutic. Affirming my own worth while feeling completely worthless might seem like gloating, but really its just survival. Plus… I was totally drunk when I wrote it. :) Zoe described it as “broken and triumphant and scathing.” It was empowering to write, and has already been empowering for some to read — so I’m sharing it here. (I don’t actually know how to contact my former mother, but maybe she’ll google search me some day…)
Christmas is one of the most depressing days of the year for me. I’m happy for my friends and loved ones who are with (supportive) families right now, but me… I’m all alone. And today I needed, more than anything, to remind myself that I don’t need my assigned-at-birth family to survive, be loved, do incredible things, or be happy. Even if I’m alone during this time of year, when most of the people I know are celebrating some holiday (Christmas or Hanukkah or the Solstice or whatever) with their birth families… I have made my own life and chosen my own family, who are with me on any day I need them. And that’s far more important.
[7pm, ETA: An after-thought below.]
Since the last time I saw you, I have received three awards, been put on the cover of two magazines, interviewed on three radio shows, and featured on national television. I have been homeless three times, and taken on prostitution to support myself while living off meager food stamps and welfare allotments. I have known three [now four] women who have been murdered. (All were African American or Latina transgender sex workers.) I have worked at a direct service agency as a counselor, legal advocate, and case worker for low-income transgender women and sex workers, but I lost my job due to the government’s budget cuts.
Dirty anarcho-primitivists taught me how to hitch-hike, shoplift food, and survive in the woods. I was an undocumented immigrant working for illegally low wages in Montreal for a year or two. I’ve traveled to 42 u.s. states, four canadian provinces, and four countries in Central America. I’ve swam in the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, the Great Salt Lake, rivers from Vermont to Oregon to North Carolina, three of the Great Lakes (Michigan, Ontario, and Eerie), Lake Champlain, Lake Nicaragua, and a volcanic crater in the Guatemalan jungle. I’ve hopped freight trains and gotten rides from truckers. I’ve slept under bridges, in tents, by the sides of highways, and on more couches and floors than I could count. I guess I kinda owe you for that — if I hadn’t been so eager to run away from the hell you put me through, I would never have had all those wonderful adventures and experienced so much of the world.
But it hasn’t all been fun. I’ve been tear-gassed at demonstrations against police brutality and pepper sprayed while marching against capitalism. I sold marijuana for awhile, until someone pulled a gun on me and stole $200. I’ve squatted abandoned buildings with insurrectionary militants who have since been arrested by the FBI and charged with terrorism. I’ve been sexually assaulted more than once. One time, while hitchhiking someplace in Kentucky, a man took me to his house and tried to rape me, but I escaped out the window and ran away.
I saved up enough money working at a restaurant in Bloomington, Indiana to go stay for awhile with a Nicaraguan peasant family who lived in a hut made of clay. We had to travel for hours on an unpaved road from the nearest town, and then hike miles through a mountain trail to get to their village, which didn’t even have running water. I visited a coffee plantation that was operated by its workers, who seized the estate when the Sandinistas overthrew the U.S.-supported dictator who ruled their country in the 70’s. I also stayed with anarchists and radical students in San Salvador and in Guatemala City. One of the people I met in Guatemala was a seventeen-year-old Mayan whose parents were disappeared during the U.S.-funded genocide of indigenous people there. After I left Central America, he was murdered for being an outspoken activist demanding that the military be tried with war crimes. He was cut into several pieces, put in a garbage bag, and thrown on the side of the road.
When I couldn’t get residency status in Canada because of restrictive immigration controls, I moved to Washington, DC. I came to DC because they have a good transgender health program, I have friends there, and I knew I could get a job. I was adopted by a family led by the elders in the DC transgender women’s community, who helped look out for me and gave me strength when I had NO ONE else to turn to. I lived for many years in a collectively-run house that was a safe haven for queer and trans people for over 7 years – until Hurricane Irene caused massive damage, including our roof to collapse, and the landlord tried to make us pay for it.
I worked at a café for awhile, and was considered one of the best baristas on the manual espresso machine. I worked as a case manager for low-income women at an abortion clinic for two years. I also worked briefly for government-subsidized housing for homeless LGBT youth in one of the poorest parts of DC, where I befriended several young trans women of color who were not that younger than I am and in basically the same position.
I’ve spent more time working on volunteer activist projects for transgender civil rights than I have at any paying job, though. I have helped draft, advocate for, and successfully implement government policies, including policies for how police officers and the jail system should treat transgender people that are now being copied in other jurisdictions and used as a model across the world.
I’ve been mugged by strangers in front of my own house, I’ve been shot at, and I’ve been arrested for shoplifting. (I was an excellent thief, back when I had no other choice but to steal or starve. And before I developed a severe anxiety disorder…) I can speak three languages, and am learning more. I’ve had essays published in books, magazines and newspapers. I was a successful porn star, and even won model of the month once. I loved being a whore, and I’m not ashamed to say it.
I’ve written articles for websites that were read by millions. I’ve been addicted to a number of drugs. I once marched for immigrants rights with 2 million people in DC, and most recently marched with 40,000 people in New York City during one of the largest economic justice demonstrations in recent history.
I’ve been honored at banquets, invited to meetings with top government officials, and appointed by the Mayor to serve on the District of Columbia Department of Corrections Transgender Advisory Council, which I helped create. I’ve been asked to serve on the DC Commission on Human Rights, and offered positions on the board at numerous LGBT organizations (all of which I turned down). I’ve had my own float in the Gay Pride parade in DC, twice.
I’ve been engaged twice, and married once. I’ve dated or been romantically involved with ten women (all but two of whom were also trans). Pretty much all of them ended in heart-break, but most of them remain my intimately close friends. I even still share platonic, explicitly lifelong commitments with a few. We still consider each other family. That is, my real family – the people who actually care about me and take care of me.
I’ve been diagnosed with five “mental illnesses”: Panic Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder, and Gender Identity Disorder. (The last one I only let them diagnose me with so I could get my hormones covered by Medicaid instead of having to buy it illegally on the internet.) I’ve also been considered for Bipolar and Major Depressive Disorder. I once tried to kill myself by swallowing an entire bottle of barbital and an entire bottle of acetaminophen at the same time. (It almost worked, but one of my girlfriends saved my life.) I’ve taken up self-harm – like, cutting my arms repeatedly with razor blades – as a coping mechanism. I’m tired of hiding that part of my history, and I’m not ashamed to say it anymore.
I’ve been seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist for many years. I think I’ve been crazy my whole life, but the PTSD I got when someone jumped me in the dark and hit me in the back of the head, after having to fear for my life for many years – after all, I’ve nearly been murdered and, like I said, have seen too many friends die violently.
Remember, right after I came out as trans to you that Christmas Eve years ago, trying to explain my identity while pacing and hyperventilating and trembling? I made you take me to the emergency room because I was absolutely convinced I was having a heart attack. That was actually my first panic attack, and that’s how I got referred to a mental health program. Those panic attacks never went away.
Ever since, I’ve been plagued by nightmares. I have them almost every night, and they’re always about the end of the world, some trying to kill me, or seeing the people I love die. The worst part is, the nightmares aren’t too different from my real life. I have flashbacks of rape and violence and other things that have actually happened to me, but sometimes I also have flashbacks from things I saw in my nightmares that feel just as vividly real and I can’t always tell the difference between the horrors of my days and the horrors of my nights.
You’re in a lot of my nightmares. But even more frequently, I dream about the people who used to be my siblings, before you poisoned their minds with irrational prejudices and hateful bigotry. I still think about them all the time, and it still makes me cry.
I still smoke cigarettes like I have since I was 17, even though I quit once for eight whole months. I still love cats, and talk to them like they’re people (because they are). I’m still a vegetarian. I never found god, and never will – but I do see something sacred in every aspect of life, and I believe that we should do whatever it takes to ease the suffering of others, and that’s good enough for me. I still go to punk shows. I still love baseball. I still eat more sugary junk food than you’d approve of, and forget to brush my teeth most nights. I did, however, finally graduate from college. I paid for it all on my own loans, since I had no “family” to help me.
I currently live in an anarchist commune of mostly trans women in Brooklyn, New York, where I have been a leading organizer for the Occupy Wall Street movement. After losing my home to a cruel, lying slumlord and twice losing jobs I loved because of budget cuts to the social safety net for poor people, and since I’m well in debt thanks to a college education that didn’t help prevent me from being homeless and jobless, I joined the Occupiers. Maybe you’ve seen us in the news? That’s right, I’m still a… “revolutionary commie extremist.” Isn’t that what you called me once, after you threw my entire collection of hand-copied zines into the rain and described it to me in detail over my voicemail?
Only now, our revolution is winning. And now, I don’t have a choice. The world that exists right now wants people like me — poor people, queer people, trans women, sex workers, people with drug dependencies, indigenous people, homeless people, people with psychiatric disabilities and disabilities in general, people who live in countries without the government’s permission — to die. If we don’t change the world first, this world will kill me.
That’s not the only reason I moved to New York, though. I’m also madly in love with another person in the commune. She is a beautiful, brilliant woman who lives in Europe, and is also married. (Yes, her husband knows and is okay with it. Like all of my lovers, we’re polyamorous – which means I often date more than one person at a time.) I’m going with her to Amsterdam soon – and who knows? I might stay there.
I’m only 25 years old. I have so much more to do. And I managed to accomplish all of this, and to survive all of these horrible things, without a single word of support from you. In fact, I can’t really think of a time you ever supported me. You raised me for many years, and you weren’t a terrible parent at first. You worked hard for me, always made sure I was healthy, and tried to do what you thought was best for me. You even brainwashed me, tormented me with images of eternal suffering, abusively forced me to abide by antiquated morals, and indoctrinated me into your religion – all because you thought it would save me from some imaginary everlasting damnation. I know you thought you were trying to protect me from hell, and I can appreciate that, even if I don’t believe in it. But your attempts to enforce conformity and punish me for being different led me to open rebellion and your “lessons” about respecting authority just made me want to question it even more. I probably owe you the most for that.
But you also taught me to deny my history, my ancestry, and the entirety of who I am. You taught me to be ashamed of my body and tried to keep me ignorant about things that could have meant the difference between life and death. You tried to make me a racist and a sexist, just like you. And every single time it ever really counted – every time I needed comfort or shelter or love or acknowledgement or money or a few kind words of support or even just a simple acknowledgement that I’m a decent human being – I never got it from you.
I hope you have a merry Christmas. I hope you were able to afford terrific presents for my former siblings. I hope when you sit down for your holiday dinner, you don’t forget that there is an empty seat where I used to be on this day every year. I hope you’re happy — but I have a feeling you’re just as empty inside as you looked the last time I saw you.
My Christmas gift to you is some advice – even though you don’t deserve it, because you never gave me a single piece of good advice. Ditch that husband of yours.You were a much better mother before you married the man who became my step-father. He poisoned your mind with all his hateful, ignorant, and bigoted interpretation of Christianity. Seriously – the man thinks dinosaurs died because they didn’t fit on Noah’s Ark and that Satan invented carbon dating to trick us. That’s not even the worst of it – he once told me that 9/11 was the start of the Apocalypse and Barack Obama is the Antichrist. He thinks Mexicans are the cause of this country’s economic problems because some crackpot on a radio show told him so. And even though it’s been years since I’ve seen you, I could tell back then that he wasn’t making you feel fulfilled. You seemed profoundly miserable and lonely.
His ideas are poison. It’s not your religion I hate; it’s the fanaticism he brought to it. You weren’t always so intolerant. And it’s not just his religious views. He might think he got to be middle class by his own hard work, but he’s got a lot going for him as a white straight Christian male in this country. Just because he was able to get himself out of poverty and now supports himself doesn’t mean we can all just “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps” you know. What kind of a Christian believes that instead of helping the poor, we should cut all programs that benefit poor people? The man would take away his own mother’s government assistance.
More importantly, what kind of a Christian marries a woman with a child, promises to help raise that child, and then disowns the child for being transgender and calls her a perverted freak to her face? (In case you forgot he did that, I sure didn’t. He said it in an Applebee’s after I told you I was getting married.) I’m not exactly sure that’s “What Jesus Would Do.” Why are the parts of the Bible that supposedly condemn homosexuality (right alongside eating shellfish and wearing mixed fibers) so important to you, but the parts about caring for the poor so irrelevant? I’m pretty sure the Bible has worse punishments for people who get divorced; you won’t find me casting that stone against you, though. Not to mention, even Biblical scholars who believe it’s all really the literal Word of God don’t all agree what the authors meant when they spoke of what you presume, based on biased assumptions, referred to homosexuality.
The only thing I have in common with your Savior is that your Jesus was homeless a lot; hung out with disabled folks, crazy people, and whores; overturned the corrupt money-lenders; and tried to feed hungry poor people. You’d accept this person into your heart, but you won’t even let me into your house?
As you know, when I was a kid, my two favorite stories were X-Men and Star Wars. In X-Men, a persecuted minority of misunderstood people who were different from mainstream society struggled for acceptance while trying to make the world a better place for everyone. That’s not just a comic book, you know. That’s the real world for me. I always saw myself as Jean Gray. Her biological parents didn’t accept her either, her empathy made her care for others, and she nearly died and lost everyone she loved. Sometimes, because of all the horrible things that had happened to her, she swung too far and was consumed by her powers and became Dark Phoenix. That’s kinda what happened to me, when I tried to kill myself and was addicted to drugs. Maybe, if people just accepted me for being the person I can’t help being, that wouldn’t have happened.
And then there’s Star Wars. I made you sit through the original trilogy so many times! I can still recite almost every line. I’ve made this joke to friends before, but there’s a lot of truth in it: I think you’re like Darth Vader. You once loved me, I know you did. Before you turned to the dark side. But, just like Luke Skywalker, I believe there is still good in you. I hope I’m right.
You’ve never really known who I am, because you never bothered to ask. Even before you told me I was no longer welcome in your home, you never asked how I was doing or what I cared about. Even when I was a kid and a teenager, you never asked about the people I loved, the causes that drove my passions, or how I managed to survive all those years without your support. You were a terrible mother.
Now you know some things about me. I’m not gonna change, or apologize for who I am. Ever. And I don’t need you — I already made my own family. But if you ever decide to give up on the dark side and take up the cause of mutant rights, let me know. There’s still space in my life.
Your Former Daughter.
So, its been about 24 hours since I sat down to write this. And today actually ended up being fucking amazing for me! For one, thanks to everyone who said nice things in response to this. I got a lot of love on Facebook and in private messages. Also, one woman I consider my trans mama/mentor sent me a text message wishing me well and said to me, te admiro mucho mucho y gracias por tu carino. I’ve also been chatting with both of my partners, and excited about being back in their arms soon. One of my best friends brought me fresh glazed cinnamon buns, without even knowing that my assigned-at-birth family had a tradition of always making cinnamon buns on Christmas morning and eating them while we exchanged gifts. Plus, my ex-wife’s mom called to say she still loves me and will always consider me her daughter. It made me cry, but tears of joy. I was afraid she wouldn’t care about me now since her daughter and I aren’t married anymore. That’s partially why this Christmas felt especially painful and scary. But between all of these things, I realized, I haven’t lost any more family members. I’ve gained so many new ones! It all felt so… appropriate and comforting, like proving all the things I said in this letter/blog post. Seriously, who needs a biological family? I have the most fucking AMAZING and beautiful family of all!