My mother and I are seated in our living room. She’s watching television and my attention is solely directed towards my cellphone and the multiple conversations I’m currently juggling. She asks…
“I don’t get it. Is it easier to fall in love with a man or a woman?”
It’s a trap and I know it; I’d be “outing” myself if I answered. Only I recognize it too late – during the moment I’m delivering my response to be exact.
Uh. Oh. Too late. My heart skips a beat as I await her reply.
“How do you know?”
Nope. Kleos isn’t falling for this one. Fool me once…you know…
But she already knows who the woman was; and that’s the thing with women, sometimes when they ask you a question, it’s because they already have an idea of the answer and are just seeking confirmation. My mother already had an inkling that I was oriented towards women; I suppose this was her ingenious way of confirming that suspicion.
The conversation was relatively short; as in, that was it. The cat was out of the bag after a few sentences and I felt a sort of “relief”. I mean, I had long since given up hiding my affinity for women; I figured my mother would have to be experiencing a severe case of denial if she had not already put two and two together, so to speak. And so, that moment was more of a mutual understanding that we both knew I was a lover of women, than any grand proclamation of such.
Having had the conversation with my mom and receiving such a muted response, I assumed all was well. I had a blatant disregard for the thoughts and opinions of others as they contained solely negative rhetoric; so what ever my other family members and the inhabitants of the town we lived in thought of my orientation had no bearing on my life.
Let’s fast forward to two years after this conversation…
I was in the best relationship of my life to date. Her name was Jhinelle and she is still absolutely amazing. We met like most couples this generation are expected to meet: on social media. One fateful day she sent me a message on FaceBook; we started talking and we spoke to each other every day, without fail, since that moment, for two years.
You can only imagine the length and frequency of our conversations when Vonage decides to let my mother know that we were abusing our privilege of “unlimited calling”. I think that was when I began to pay more attention to the asterisks on advertisements and promotional offers: *Conditions Apply.
One afternoon my mother asks if Jhinelle and I are together; well, yes, of course we are. I actually felt proud that I could tell my mother I about my girlfriend; my privilege was not lost on me. But then something curious happened: my mother became withdrawn, she wore a look of constant worry, her sleeping pattern changed for the worst and she began to lose a lot of weight. My boxers started showing up in the weirdest of places – in the towel closet under all the towels or at the bottom of one of the drawers used to store bed linen – and my mother began ragging on me for my choice of clothing.
I was absolutely bemused. Why was my mother deliberately hiding my boxers? Why the sudden discontent with my choice of attire being jeans and t-shirts? I had always dressed in this manner, so why was it such a problem now?
Like everything else of a personal nature, we ignored the elephant in the room: her discontent with my gender expression and how it was affecting me. I realized after a while, that perhaps she wasn’t as comfortable with my gender and sexuality as I thought she was; but the thought of breaching the topic again to engage in another uncomfortable discussion about it provided me with more anxiety than I could handle.
Eventually, the proverbial straw broke the camel’s back (read I got fed up of playing treasure hunt with no clues for my treasure trove of undergarments), and I asked her why she was hiding them. My poor, perplexed mother could not provide me with a suitable response, so shortly after I was able to locate my boxers in their rightful place: my drawers.
One day my mother decided that she had had enough. The knowledge that her little “girl” liked girls was ripping her to shreds; especially because we had not spoken about it since my admission to having a girlfriend. She introduced the subject as gently as she could:
“You know, you told me something the other day and I still can’t believe it.”
“What are you talking about mom?”
“You said that child there [Jhinelle] was your girlfriend.” …because far be it from my mother to call “the child” by name…
“Yes mom. We spoke about this years ago, remember?”
“Yes but I thought you were joking!”
“No mom. I wasn’t joking.”
I was flabbergasted. Why would anyone “joke” about something like that? Especially when society would perceive you as a lesbian (in my case because I was designated female at birth) and we all know the level of intolerance and discrimination LGBT persons face. It is not a path anyone would choose to trod, much less enthusiastically so.
Once again, the conversation was brief. If it was confirmation that she was seeking, I was entirely certain she now had it; but with the acceptance of the fact that I was indeed attracted to women, came other questions…
“Is it my fault?”
“What else could I have done?”
“Do you like boys too?”
…along with the four word sentence that inspires the never-ending hope that eventually change will come, I shall be made right as rain, and all will be well with her world again: “It’s just a phase.”
No mom it’s not your fault. I’m not doing this to spite you.
You raised me wonderfully; there really isn’t anything you could’ve done differently that would have altered my orientation.
No mom. I don’t like boys. Believe me, I’ve tried.
No mom. It’s not a phase. I’ve always been attracted to women.
No matter how many times I reinforced these simple truths, my mother still believed that she had failed as a parent. As such, I watched in agony as my mother tortured herself with thoughts of failure and inadequacy, lost 15 pounds and became but a shadow of herself. I watched as she slowly disappeared before my eyes; for the lethargic woman with no appetite and shadows under her hollowed eyes was not the mother I knew.
I blamed myself for what my mother was going through; after all, I was the cause of her distress and I hated myself for it. I hated that I was the reason she was feeling this way. Hated myself because I liked women instead of men; even more so because I couldn’t even make myself like them for her sake. I wanted to ease her pain; put an end to her suffering. I wanted to erase it all, but I couldn’t; and so, these ultra-negative feelings developed into an overdose of self-loathing for whom I loved and who I was.
I kept telling her I was sorry. Sorry for my feelings. Sorry for how my sexuality made her feel. Sorry for all the slander now associated with her name; for all the unkind, judgmental whispers that emerged behind her back. Sorry for her feelings of failure and inadequacy. Sorry for all the pain and hurt I caused. Sorry that I could not change; as no matter how many times nor how hard I tried, I always found myself wanting women.
Sorry that I could not go to church and feel comfortable any more because I was committing the “ultimate” sin: the practice of homosexuality. Sorry that because of it we were being ostracized by our family; me more than her. Sorry that it was widening the chasm between my father and I.
I was more than sorry; I was beyond remorseful for everything; the depth of my self-reproach knew no bounds. It ripped me to shreds every time I looked at my mother and saw who she had become; with the knowledge that it was as a result of something I had absolutely no control over: to whom I was attracted.
The tension in the house became unbearable. There was an abundance of negative vibrations – worry, regret and self-loathing – all compounded by our lack of communication. My relationship with my mother soon resembled the one I had with my father: we could not co-exist peacefully in the same abode in excess of 2 days. But as with all things, it was not destined to last.
By now I was in college and I had come home for the holidays. Though the quips were less frequent, references were still being made to my manner of dress and homophobic sentiments were still being expressed. I cannot recall the contents of the verbal exchange that sparked my action, but I do remember being mentally and emotionally exhausted from having to deal with the situation.
I went into my bedroom, googled literature for parents with LGBT teens, found the most comprehensive document with an appropriate reading level and returned to the living room. I set my laptop down in my mother’s lap (rudely interrupting whatever it was that she was doing), showed her how to navigate the web page, instructed her to read it in its entirety and then notify me when she was through.
In that moment my desire shifted from seeking my mother’s acceptance, to simply having her understand that I was not doing this with the purposeful intent of hurting her, nor was the “blame” for who I was, to be laid at her feet. She needed to be aware that I was indeed normal; that homosexuals, bisexuals and heterosexuals were simply natural variations of our species; that gender and sexuality were fluid and existed along their individual spectra.
Approximately 15 minutes later my mother appeared in my bedroom doorway and softly asked me to come with her. We returned to the living room and sat down on our black leather sofa. With my laptop on her lap, she scrolled to the section which presented the various sexual orientations. She pointed to the word “lesbian”…
“So this is who you are?”
It wasn’t entirely accurate, but I nodded for the sake of keeping the conversation simple.
Then she pointed to the word “bisexual”…
“Have you ever been this one?”
It was apparent that at this point she could think of nothing else to say, so I graciously terminated the conversation and returned to the sanctuary of my bedroom. In retrospect, I would pinpoint that day, that stretch of silence that lingered after she uttered the word “Okay”, as the moment my mother fully stepped into her acceptance of my predilection towards women. She was not entirely comfortable with it and she never would be as it conflicts with her Christian principles; but my mother decided that her love for me and consequently her relationship with me, was more important than her personal discomfort with whom I loved.
Afterwards, our relationship got progressively better. No longer was there an invisible barrier preventing us from communicating with each other for fear that the dreaded “subject” would somehow worm it’s way into the conversation. We spoke a lot more frequently and our conversations were lengthier; sometimes way longer than I signed up for, but they were enjoyable nonetheless. In fact, it was the blossoming of a deeper relationship between us that led me to “come out” to her a third time, but as a transgender man. After all, the third’s time the charm right?
I suppose I am riddled with anxiety; for given the wonderful relationship I now shared with my mother, the prospect of said conversation was still nerve-wrecking. As such, I pondered on it for months. Wondering when would be the right time to tell her, how should I introduce the subject, what exactly I would tell her. In these numerous sessions of brainstorming, never were the words quite right; so I delayed, then I delayed some more.
Along comes my mentor with another of his brilliant sessions in which he asks me to identify three things I would do in the immediate future were no feelings of fear associated with them. Of course, talking to my mother about my gender identity and my hopes of transitioning was a mandatory list item. I took this conversation as my cue from the Universe that it was time to face the inevitable; so I travelled to Mandeville one Saturday afternoon determined to have that conversation sometime over the course of the weekend.
I arrived home exhausted as I usually am after long-distance travel and made a bee-line for the kitchen as I was also starving. Being the kind, nurturing mother she is, mom fixes me a plate and I invite her to sit and talk with me while I eat. Of course I have my own topic on the agenda but she need not know that just yet.
As an entry point I query if my father had ever wanted another son. Apparently he didn’t, so my prepared response of “Well, he got one. Pity he didn’t recognize it.” was now unusable. Bummer. I improvised instead and asked what would her response be if I told her that I had always felt that way: like I was a boy. She ponders on it for a while, but as the conversation progresses and we step back into the past, analyzing my behaviour and desire to always present masculine and engage in more masculine activities or those designated for boys, she admits that it makes sense. We spoke about my haircut and my abandonment of the horrid name I was given at birth for something more masculine/gender-neutral; to which my mother responds:
“Well, men wear their hair long too. Oh, but that’s not your style. Okay. I like it the way you have it now, but mi nuh like when yuh cut it so low mi see all di vein and muscle dem inna yuh head.”
I’m slain. Momz has the most hilarious responses sometimes, but this is great. Hurdle one jumped; my mom has acknowledged my gender identity as a man and seems rather chill about it to boot. Cautiously I take the second plunge…
“Mom, remember that time you had asked me if I was going to chop my breasts off?”
“That’s okay. I didn’t expect you to.”
“What was your answer?”
“Oh. So what’s your response now?”
“What if I told you yes?”
“LAWD JEEZAS! NO SAH! NUHBODA WID DAT! IT IS A VERY SERIOUS PART OF YOUR BODY! NO NO!”
“Okay mom. You’re not ready to have that conversation yet. That’s fine. Eventually we’ll get there.”
“No sah! Mi nah ever get there! I’m not ever going to have that conversation.”
Well, she’d prove her own self wrong, as the next morning while I sat in the kitchen observing her prepare breakfast she said to me…
“So you told me what you were going to do with up here…” -motions to chest- “…but what about down here?” -motions to groin-
“Mom I thought you weren’t ready for that conversation?”
“Well, I’m curious, you know?”
“They have surgeries that take care of that.”
“Oh okay. I don’t like it.”
“I know you don’t mom; I never expected you to…”
“…But it would make you feel better right?”
“I know. Only you feel what you’re going through and nobody else can really invalidate what you’re experiencing.”
I was shocked. Momz was hitting me with pleasant surprises this weekend. In all of my speculation, I never once envisioned that this was the way in which things were going to unfold. Needless to say, I was over the moon. My mother had just given her nod of approval towards my intention to transition, so you know who printed transition guides for parents with transgender children and gave them to her. Yup. This guy.
I think my mother had had another premonition of sorts; so again, my “coming out” as transgender was not the least bit surprising to her, as her response to my “revelations” was to me. I had expected another six or so years of unease as she mentally struggled to come to terms with this new, deeper dimension to my human existence, but she already had.
And that’s the thing about acceptance: sometimes it is a process. It happens gradually; sometimes as a series of the most minute of steps. It creeps up on you like inebriation from vodka; so subtly that you cannot pinpoint the exact moment at which it arrived, only that it has. Other times it is instantaneous; new information is introduced and we never second-guess its validity for an instant. It was a combination of these two paths that eventually led to my mother’s acceptance of who I am after I “came out” to her on three separate occasions.
I am fully aware that I am speaking from a position of privilege as I have heard all sorts of horror-filled coming out stories. Disownment, displacement and abuse are only a few of the rewards for many LGBT youth who stand in their truth. According to research literature, up to 40% of homeless persons in the United States are LGBT youth who have been displaced because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. I can only imagine how harrowing the statistics are here in Jamaica and we need look no farther than our “Gully Queens” to recognize that this is no foreign phenomenon, as it also happens here on local soil. (Shout out the the Colour Pink Group and all the work they do (Y))
As so rightly highlighted by one of my friends, even if my mother had not fully accepted my desire to transition and only accepted my gender identity, that, and the mere occurrence of the conversation was beneficial to my mental health. Discouragingly, not all transgender youth are so fortunate. According to the Family Acceptance Project, LGBT youth who were highly rejected by their parents/caregivers were:
- More than 8 times as likely to have attempted suicide
- Nearly 6 times as likely to report high levels of depression
- More than 3 times as likely to use illegal drugs, and
- More than 3 times as likely to be at high risk for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases
Such are the results of a culture of intolerance. If we are to prevent these statistics from being mirrored in our own local context, then there is much work to be done. When attempting a reformation of social attitudes, education is always a great place to start. As such, I hope that my blog inspires more of us to join the fight for equality; for as Benjamin Franklin stated “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”