My parents claim they have an honest relationship with me. I hesitate to say they think so because the claim is so bizarrely impossible that them “thinking” their way into it seems like the real stretch.
Do you think I’ve been honest with you about me, Mom and Dad? Do you really think me knowing I was trans for almost two years before I told you is the aberration, the break from our pattern that signaled a loss of trust? I don’t believe that for a second. I think you twisted and turned your way into this narrative because it let you harp on how I handled my disclosures for a while, instead of having only your own bigotry to lean on as a reason why my being Alyssa instead of [deadname] is a crime against family honor. I think you built this skein in your minds because it was important to you to feel a certain way about your children, and that it has less than nothing to do with me.
I let you stew in denial about my atheism for most of my life. I became an atheist in fourth grade. Do you know when I first asserted that word to you? During my undergraduate education, or perhaps a few years earlier, in high school. Everything in between was lies, evasions, arguments about specific points of religious doctrine, visible disinterest in religious events and materials, and otherwise decorating my atheist closet. I had no hope of living openly, because I knew what that would cost me. Even after my overt disinterest in being part of a religious society became clear to you, I kept you in the dark on the extent of my apostasy and my understanding of my natal religion’s crimes against humanity. You found out about as much of that as you’ve been able to discern and process because you have busybody relatives I wrongly trusted not to make a scene about my blog. I would quite happily have never told you anything if it meant not having to listen to the earliest of your many, many admonishments about the person I turned out to be. How’s that for honesty?
I knew from the moment I first fell in love with biology that science and learning would be my life. I knew for literally every moment between that early day, shortly after I learned how to talk, and right now, that those were my options. I knew that early and never forgot that I would never, ever pursue a medical degree. That decision was reinforced every time I talked to a medical student about science. They endlessly reestablished that I was no fit for that crowd, that they are a fundamentally incurious lot interested in biology to the exact degree that biology gets them a winning MCAT score and not one iota more. Just as badly, they reminded me that medical doctoring requires a level and kind of diplomacy, and interest in humans in general, that is foreign to me. I knew all of that in elementary school, in high school. I knew all of that when I added a second major in marine science. I told you about that second major entirely because that major had equipment and field trips I could not conceal. I knew that early that I wouldn’t even attempt to get into medical school, wouldn’t take MCATs, wouldn’t subject myself to the cutthroat fuckery of that entire dystopian enterprise, and I didn’t tell you until I told you that I’d gotten into the University of Ottawa as a biology grad student, because I know the prestige having a doctor in the family holds and what it would mean to you to lose it. How’s that for honesty?
I applied only to the graduate schools that my honors thesis adviser suggested. I took them seriously in proportion to how far away they would take me. I made sure that, if I went to graduate school at all, it would be 1600 kilometers away on the other side of an international border, and I would be free. I told you it was one of the best in my field, and it is, but that’s not why I applied there with enthusiasm and that’s not why I accepted the position there I was offered even when it wasn’t in any of the labs I’d wanted. I picked it because you didn’t give me the option to even consider universities outside of commuting distance for my undergrad, and even with my own preferences lining up behind that radius, I resented that restriction. I picked it because I knew that living with my parents would keep me stunted and unfulfilled. I picked it because I knew that finding myself, exploring more facets of life than I’d yet managed, and having relationships with other humans on my own terms was entirely contingent on getting the fuck out of that house and out from under your thumbs. How’s that for honesty?
I knew that wherever I went for graduate school would, much more likely than not, be where I wanted to settle long-term. I knew that Canada was likely to claim me hard and fast, as a country effectively living in the future as far as the United States is concerned. I knew those two things from before I looked at my first graduate school application, and they added urgency to my quest to make sure my grad school was far, far away. I knew that I’d be in no position to immediately make my own life in the US if I came back after completing my degree, and that the loss of freedom that would come with living “at home” in the interim would be traumatic. I knew that Miami would become more and more alien, and Ottawa more and more familiar, the longer I spent my time up north. I knew that I would grow more and more distant from my remaining Miami friends as their own adult lives took shape down south and diverged farther and farther from mine. I knew in my first semester in Ottawa that I liked it more than Miami. I kept the idea of returning open, and returned to it when I was particularly lonely at various times in that first year and most of my connections pointed south and when I first began to acutely miss what had stayed behind. And then I abandoned it, because I am done living in that past. You found out most of this rather late in the game, and what I got for it was a welter of shrieked questions and accusations over the phone that didn’t wait for answers. You kept pretending it didn’t happen after that. I kept letting you. I still haven’t told you that I’ll be a Canadian permanent resident soon, and don’t intend to tell you until I have to. How’s that for honesty?
I knew from the moment my relationship with the Mormon girl in high school fell apart that, if I ever managed another, she probably wouldn’t be Hispanic. I was already ignoring your long-ago warning that I avoid dating “outside my race” because of the cultural decisions and difficulties that come with mixed households, because I don’t choose my partners based on such bizarrely unromantic and borderline racist questions. I knew that the vast majority of my own kin didn’t and couldn’t see me as a potential partner and lover, and I spent a long time proving that to myself. My culture has no thoughts for autistic people, no thoughts for atheists, no thoughts for leftists, no thoughts for people whose relationships with their parents are based on lies, evasions, and defensive hostility, other than “Have you considered not being any of those things, for family’s sake?” and “But you have to at least try, for family.” I would have been hard-pressed to find any understanding in my community, and I still am. Do you know what happens to people like me in this culture? We get the fuck out. It’s not even the ever-present implication that we deserve the violence we receive: it’s the yawning gulf of embarrassment we have to wade over to get close enough to hug you, how you regard us as defective for being at all different, how you consider yourselves great big paragons of saintly acceptance when you let us be around you at all, but only if we behave, which is code for “let you pretend we’re not those things.” The closest I ever came to prioritizing finding a partner who would keep me tied to the pulse of my community was when I despaired of ever finding a partner who wanted me, the actual me, and felt that the only balm for loneliness I could ever find was someone who’d have me around and never really know the actual person I am because she’d be pressing me to be the one my community demands, and we’d have an affectionate but intensely dishonest relationship because that’s how I know how to survive, and then I’d have slowly disintegrated over years and you lot would wonder what was happening and I could never tell any of you. If I was honest with myself then, I would have admitted that, in this perverse plan, I’d have had all the intra-community social awards I could ever earn and still not see myself surviving to age 30. How’s that for honesty?
There are people in my life who matter to me a great deal, whom you will probably never meet, because you can’t conceive of a life ethically lived with more than one partner. There are people I talk to at night, cuddle with in movie theaters, assist and receive assistance from, and go on travel adventures with, whom I have to call “friends” when I mention them to you, because you don’t have it in you to recognize that there can be more than that to my relationship with them without getting between me and Ania, because you’ll immediately devalue my relationship with Ania if you know she’s not alone. There are people in my life whom you’ll never meet because they’re many-times queer and the two of you are raging bigots, and I won’t inflict you on them without their and my express consent. How’s that for honesty?
I know you neither understand nor appreciate my strength. I’m so good at keeping it quiet and hidden that, even when you figured out I was hiding something, you never figured out what. I know you don’t understand the kind of strength it takes to be a person like me. I know you understand even less that it takes far more of my strength to stay in touch with you at all than it ever has to just quietly fade out of your lives. I know you don’t understand the strength required to hide my accomplishments when I know they’re attached to something you find shameful. I know you don’t understand the strength it takes to even try to have a relationship with my relatives, when I’m related to at most one person who could have been my friend if I’d met them elsewhere. I know you don’t understand the strength I summon when I have to just breathe, when I am once again in the impossible pinch of having to have “a relationship” with my relatives when almost all of them have no interest at all in having a relationship with me, are hostile to who I am and bored at best by everything I care about, and see my attempts as things to report to you to embarrass both of us. You don’t see the strength I had to build up, hard and callused and fragile and distracted, prone to sitting quietly under my desk or in my closet to try to calm back down, just to exist, just to live when I had no words to describe what I was or why I felt the way I felt, when I was still years away from finding the words “atheist” and “autistic” and “transgender” and understanding them well enough to see how much better things could be for me. You don’t see the strength it took to have all of this in front of me and not have the words that would have gotten you to take any of it seriously, or affirm that any of my struggles were real and valid, or allow any endpoint other than sharp, painful, enforced normalcy that would have ended me within the hour. You don’t see the strength it takes to endure you telling me that I should have told you about my transition earlier so that you could have tried to stop me. You don’t see the strength it takes to live this life of labor, lies, and being a long, long way from so much of myself. You don’t see it, or take pride in it, or show enough self-awareness to be horrified at how it was ever necessary, and that means that the two of you are the least safe people I ever talk to. How’s that for honesty?
I know the two of you see most of the difficulties I have ever experienced as the result of my “unaccountable decision” to be whichever flavor of my weirdness seems to be relevant: autistic, atheist, transgender, lesbian, radically vulnerable, embracing the Internet age, leftist, unmanly. I know the only advice you have ever had for me—literally and actually the only advice—has been, “Well, have you tried not being that?” or its close cousin, “Well, have you tried being that, but super secretive about it instead of open?” I know your whole view on this matter is that I’ve ruined myself by being myself, and that if I’d only be some other person, everything would work out for me. I know you don’t see my friends as real until you meet them and sometimes not even then, I know you don’t see my interests as anything other than placeholders for when I “grow up” and suddenly get obsessed with something “normal,” and I know that you think that I can only justify my “weirdness” if it is utterly and completely free of difficulty or negative consequence and that any acknowledgement of some issue I face related to something “weird” about me is a signal that I should give up that part of myself. This is not an environment that lets someone come to their parents with their problems and feel understood, valued, and validated. This is an environment where someone rapidly figures out that it’s not her they love, but the robotic clone they wish would hollow out and wear her skin already so they could have “her” at the dinner table without dealing with all the “HER” the actual “her” would bring along. This is an environment where I lose any incentive I ever had to even try to be understood by people close to me, because I already know what follows. This is an environment where I shut down and close off for my own safety, because I’m not “normal” enough to not be constantly insulted in it and it’s safer for me if I don’t feel it. This is an environment where you’ll always feel the cold wafting off of me, the defensiveness, the demand for some sign that things might ever improve. This is an environment where you consider those requests insulting instead of information, and so, you’ll never actually know me. How’s THAT for honesty?
I have had to mentally brace myself, spend hours calling up that strength, to maintain my once-a-week calling schedule, because the questions that had to have lies and evasions for answers were never far off. Maintaining that schedule was one of the most emotionally draining things I had to do, and abandoning it when things turned uglier between us was utterly liberating. I don’t actually like talking to you or Dad, because you refuse to recognize my expertise in anything I’ve studied where you also think you know things, because you don’t respect me, because the “me” you love is a figment of your imaginations, because of everything else in this essay. How’s that for honesty?
Our relationship will never be honest until you grapple with all of this, until you stop being “offended” that I’d dare be this secretive and start asking yourselves what you did to make me feel like I had to be.
Our relationship will never be honest until you become the kind of people I could have told about all of these things as they were happening, instead of the people I rightly kept them from until I felt I had no other choice.
How’s that for honesty?