This is a post I wrote about five months ago and never published. It somehow seemed a little too personal and vulnerable, even for this very personal blog. I’m publishing it now, with an addendum at the end reflecting on how family matters have evolved since I originally wrote this post.
It’s strange how certain wounds just don’t heal. I came out as gay to my Puerto Rican Catholic mother almost ten years ago. She didn’t deal with it well, but we are still on speaking terms. Except that we have nothing in common and cannot have any conversations that involve true sharing because she has demanded that I silence everything having to do with my gay life. I thought that I didn’t need her support, and have been financially and emotionally independent from the ripe old age of 18, but the fact is that I still feel a dull base of anger, hurt, and resentment about the way she has refused to deal with the news, aside from telling me that it is wrong, that she never wants to hear me speak of it again, and that she will never meet a lover of mine or set foot in a house I share with a lover. We have had a single conversation about gender expression. When I came home from college to visit her, she angrily pulled me into a room and hissed, “Are you trying to look like a man?” When I responded that that was, in fact, the look I was going for, she angrily intoned, “God made you a girl, and He made it so that the man’s penis would fit perfectly into the woman’s vagina.” We have not talked about my gender since then.
During the past few years, I have been slowly reestablishing contact with my father. When I was five, he and my mother divorced, and he migrated back to Malaysia. But I look exactly like him when he was a teenager, and I have an insatiable curiosity about Malaysia and the rest of my Malaysian family. When I was a kid, my father and I would write each other letters. His were always sweet and loving. My letters to him were a chance to say whatever was most important and exciting in my little life. Meanwhile, I refused to call my stepfather “Dad.” That was just wrong; I already had a Dad. Like every kid, I gradually learned to see my mother’s faults. But since I never saw my father, I never had to be disappointed by him. He was the loving, receptive silence on the other side of my childish letters.
When I started seriously thinking of making an adult trip to Malaysia about five years ago, I began, for the first time, to experience certain fears. It’s strange, because it was so easy for me to defiantly come out as gay to my mother, although I knew I risked rejection. But somehow, the idea of my father rejecting me, disapproving of me, or being disappointed in me seemed far more poignant and sad.
My father facebook friended me the day after I came out to my butch mentor, only two days after I changed my gender to male on facebook. I felt like my worlds were colliding. I rejected his friend request, but responded to an email in which he requested recent photos of me. I sent the photos (in which, of course, I do not look like a straight woman), and never heard back from him. Will he welcome a queer kid, much less a trans kid? Will I even be allowed to go meet my Malaysian family? I really don’t know. And this makes me anxious and sad.
During this time period, I began to really freak out about my butch mentor’s less than joyous reaction to my coming out as trans. Being made aware of my father’s potential rejection of me, and the potential of being cut off forever from an extended Malaysian family that I don’t even know brought into crystal focus what my butch mentor meant to me and how crucial her support really was. I am desperately grasping for kin, uncertain that I would have any left after coming out as trans. And, at the same time, I find something immensely appealing and comforting in her fatherly habits of checking up on me, giving me financial and career advice, making it her business to solve my problems, and sharing intergenerational queer camaraderie with me on everything from clothing choice to non-monogamy. I am charmed by her penchant for telling me what to do, her habit of talking to me like I was a young fool, and her frequent references to the generational gap between us. Others may have found some of this annoying or inappropriate, but I am transfixed by the Dad in her. A Dad that I actually get along with, who actually gives me advice that is (often) useful, with whom I share a genuine warmth and care, whom I actually look up to, whom I actually want to impress and please, and to whom I wouldn’t mind being similar one day. Such small things, but things that I had never experienced with a family member before. It is hard for me to articulate what a powerful experience this is, the deep ache that it seems to draw on, and the reservoir of potential this relationship seems to hold.
To actually have a real Dad, a good Dad, a Dad who isn’t happy that I’m trans, but is going to do whatever she can to support me since I’m her kid and that’s how it is… Initially, I thought I had to sit my butch mentor down and explain to her how I needed a father-figure and ask if she was willing to be that. Instead, I managed to insinuate and joke my way into her acknowledging fatherhood. Now, in our frequent texts, she is “Pops” and “Papi,” and I am “Sonnyboy,” “Junior,” and simply her “son.” I can hardly express how warm, safe, and loved it makes me feel when we use these terms for one another. I am pleased-as-punch and proud to be her son, and I feel so much love when I think of her as my Pops. I can’t say how grateful I am for this experience. I find myself fantasizing that she is teaching me to play baseball in the yard; I want to be a brat and talk back to her so that I can get into trouble; I want her to try to toughen me up, the butch Papi with her sissy kid; and I want hear her stories about how she became a butch and a top and learn from her, even if that is not what I become. It’s strange and a bit embarrassing, but nonetheless authentic and powerful, at 31, to be so intensely identified as someone’s boy, and so intensely invested in seeing them as a father. Clearly I have some deep psychic needs, and wounds that have been festering for decades and that, are I hope, finding some kind of a healthy, healing outlet in this.
I don’t know if she knows this, but I am in this for life. I can hardly believe it, but, if I play my cards right, I could have a Pops I can turn to for advice whenever something difficult happens. I could have a Pops who would be proud of me, and whose pride would matter, as I celebrate my adult accomplishments. I could have a Pops to visit, when I visit my close friends in her town. I want to do yardwork for her when she gets old, come to her bedside when she gets sick, give her thoughtful gifts throughout, and do things to surprise and please her, though she might not know how to express her pleasure. I have been a lousy daughter – absent, ungrateful, and resentful, but I know that I could be a really really good son to my Pops. Will I ever be able to be a son to my mother or my father?
Five months later:
This is an intense time for me to revisit this post. Nothing has been resolved; everything has been magnified. My voice just dropped, and I have begun to contemplate how I might break the news to my mother that I am trans and on T. I wrote a letter, but did not send it, all too aware that she might disown me, say terrible transphobic things to me, and make me associate my transition with loss, ruined relationships, and rent kinship ties. My father never responded to the message and recent photos I sent five months ago. Pops, on the other hand, has been more and more present in my life, though she now lives several states away from me. She advises me on everything from academia to warm winter coats to learning to defend myself against male-male violence on these mean streets. We are in constant contact now, texting and emailing several times a day; whereas I talk to my mother less than once a month. All the sentiments I articulated about her in my previous post still hold true, and I feel tremendously, amazingly lucky that the hopes I expressed are actually becoming realities. The incredible thing is that she takes her role as Pops as seriously and literally as I do. Without my having to tell her, she understands that there are certain responsibilities that go along with this role and has consented to shoulder them. She knows that I need her, and that she is my primary kinship tie.
We had a poignant breakthrough moment just last week, when we were emailing about me breaking the news to my mother. For the first time, Pops was sympathetic about the difficulties of transition. She gave me some good advice, from a parent’s perspective, about some things I should include in my letter to my mother. She also, for the first time, acknowledged that she hadn’t been a model of support when I came out to her. And she apologized. I was astounded by all of this, but most of all, by the fact that we had come so far. Just a few months ago, I was afraid of losing my Pops due to my transition. Now she is advising me on how to tell my mother! I have a lot of people around me who support me fully in my transition, but somehow, the experience of bringing Pops with me through this process, which is difficult for her, feels more valuable. It reflects the kind of commitments one makes to one’s kin. On her side, to work through her feelings and do her best to support me. On my side, to try to bring her over and to help her understand; and to be vulnerable to her disappointment and disapproval, because I care about her, and to try to understand her feelings. She knows how hard this is going to be and that there is some possibility that I either will have no family left afterward or that my family ties will be irreparably injured. As my Pops, she has consented to be my rock through this.
“Pops is sorry [about his prior reaction to the news]. You’re still his son even if you become a guy.” Words I hold near my heart.