“I am saying that a journey is called that because you cannot know what you will discover on the journey, what you will do with what you find or what you find will do to you” –James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro.
Disclaimer: this reflection is not going to make much sense tonight because the world doesn’t make much sense to me tonight, either. If you’re okay with that and have time to read about 4000 words from my mind and heart that are trying so desperately to make sense of the incomprehensible world within which we all live right now, beautiful, then keep on reading. I welcome you. If you’re not into reading an exploratory thought-piece tonight, believe me, I totally get it and won’t be offended in the least if you cease reading on; I won’t even really ever know.
If you’ve stuck around, here it is: I’m on a journey, a journey of living life in revision, both metaphorically and literally. But aren’t we all, whether we recognize it or not? Andrew Solomon, in his seminal book Far From the Tree, speaks about vertical and horizontal identities. For vertical identities, think of those traits often aligned, not always, but often aligned between parents and their children: skin color, hair color, body type, and so on. For horizontal identities, however, think of those pieces of children’s identities perhaps not reflected in their biological parent’s identities: gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and so on. He asserts parents of children whose vertical identities match their own tend to have a deeper lived experience with their children around these identities; they often understand what it’s like to live a life in that same identity. On the other hand, he argues it’s trickier for parents raising children who have identities that are not reflected in their own, horizontal identities like being a prodigy or identifying as a transgender person. Why am I talking about this tonight? Well, because I am raising a child with a horizontal identity to my own: I am a mother of a young visible transgender child. Please know this truth, one of many truths that I’ll reveal to you tonight: I write this thought piece tonight to open a window into our journey for you. I am trusting that you will be responsible with what you read and learn from me tonight, as writing so personally as I intend to is an act of sheer vulnerability.
And now, I invite you to journey alongside me. You’ve stuck around this long, so you should get my personal invitation, right? It’s a painfully raw journey and I won’t represent it as anything other than such. If you’re open to rawness tonight, let me bring you along. If you aren’t in a mindset for that tonight, come back to me when you are, I’ll be here waiting patiently. I’ve but time.
I am staring at this blank page below now. It’s full of possibilities, full of hope really. Sorry, though, you won’t get that from me, not tonight at least. These feelings do not match my heart tonight. I hesitate to even write further right now, as I feel really raw. I feel too heartbroken. And enraged. And disappointed in humanity, too. But, maybe this is the ideal time to write so you can live my reality uncensored, unedited, untouched by the clarity of the new day’s sun. Perhaps, but I don’t really know.
I usually write in the comfy space of my hallway “office”: a tiny desk space carved out of the long hallway that attaches the front of my home to the back. But, not tonight. Tonight, I’m on my laptop lying in bed, feeling too emotionally weary to sit in my usual writer’s stance. So, as I lay here trying to make sense of my mind and my heart, I look to my right. Beside me is my sleeping five-year-old. Yep, he’s still at the young snuggly age that when he has a bad dream, he comes tromping down the aforementioned long hallway, blankies in hand (of which there are five, no joke) ready to snuggle in beside me for comfort. Often, he then ends up sticking around until the wee hours of the morning when the sun cracks through the blinds of my two bedroom windows. If you’ve raised young kids, you remember those days, right? My kid will get some great sleep; me on the other hand, well, I’ll end up relegated to the edge of the bed, fighting to commandeer some blankets back, and trying not to get whacked in the head by a flailing arm as he shifts his sleeping position for the twentieth time. Ha, you get it. And, I want you to know this about my life right now. Why you might be wondering. Why would I want you to know this about my life? Because. I want you to know me, rather, know my story. As I’ve young children who deserve my protection from the harshness of visibility, you’ll only know of me through the written words of my stories, you understand and respect this, right? And here’s why I want you to know me through my stories: because I want to know your stories, too. I want to know you better. And I understand that’s probably not possible as the anonymity of the internet enables you to know me without me ever knowing of your existence. And I’m alright with this. Here’s why: think of the “you” and “me” in more of a metaphorical sense. I want you to know me through my stories because I hold the belief that we need to share our stories with one another.
James Baldwin said the following words in the documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, and they hit me in a very raw way tonight: “Apathy and ignorance, which is the price for segregation, that’s what segregation means: you don’t know what is happening on the other side of the wall cause you don’t want to know.” I want to know what is happening on the other side of the wall and I hope that you seek that knowledge and understanding, too. We need to know one another at deeper levels. We need to have shared experiences with people around us that look like us and don’t look like us. We need to know the stories of the people in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our communities, in the spaces that we frequently occupy. Then, we need to branch out of the places we occupy and seek to know others, too. Other families, other neighborhoods, other communities. I fear that if we stay in our comfort zones, in the places that reflect people who look like us, think like us, act like us, how are we to ever know what it’s like to live a life we don’t recognize? How will we ever have the opportunity to grow our awareness of other people, grow our understanding of what it’s like to live a life we don’t recognize, and to grow our minds broader? How will we ever grow empathy in our hearts if we don’t seek to truly know one another? How will humanity begin to make big shifts toward compassion for one another? And for goodness sake, when will we really begin to engage in dialogue around these issues, within our communities and across our communities, so we can begin to tackle the critical work as human beings of knowing what is happening on the other side of the wall?
I sit with all of these questions rattling around in my heart and mind tonight, as I try to tug back a bit of blanket from my five-year-old. Ha! No, seriously, I just had to put my laptop down a second ago to try to wrestle a bit of covers back. I know you get what I’m saying if you’ve ever been in my shoes before. If not, you can imagine the scene, right, and you’re rallying for me to snag a bit of covers back? And that’s what this reflection is essentially about: no, not blanket procurement, but rather whether or not you’ve actually walked in my shoes and can viscerally get what I’m talking about, including trying to hold my ground in bed-square-footage and blanket space with a sleeping five-year-old, if you’ve never lived this in your life, you can imagine what it’s like, right? Either way, you now know something about me you didn’t before. And that’s where awareness, understanding, and empathy start: knowing one another’s stories. As James Baldwin lamented in the documentary, “I’m terrified at the moral apathy that is death of the heart which is happening in my country.” I see this as the work of empathy-building and the work of leading with a life defined by the stance of love, really.
Truth: I’m naïve. I just am. I always have been. And, I have trust issues. Again, I always have. Two truths that in combination have led to some tricky situations in my four decades on this planet. But, they are my truths, so I have to own them and figure out ways to work through them. So, now you know two more things about me. Okay, ready for more? I am feeling really shaken by what my eyes have witnessed, my heart has felt, my mind has processed over this past year, longer than this past year really, but most vividly, during my life’s journey this past 377 days. Why so specific with the digits? Those are the number of days my young child has been bravely living a life of visibility, hence, our family has been living a visible life alongside him. There are so many things I could tell you about this journey, so many twists and turns along our path, so many small wins and big losses. And, in time, I will as I continue to process them all. And, soon, he will tell you, too, in his own words because I’m a firm believer in the power of a child’s voice in telling their own truths. But tonight, my voice is what you get, for better or worse.
Truth: when your young child is both verbally and physically assaulted by peers at school for his identity and you learn about it from his teary-eyed heart, you break. Your heartbreaks, your soul breaks. When I reflect on what James Baldwin named in the documentary about one’s journey, that one cannot know what they will discover on the journey and what these discoveries will do to them, what I can tell you is what it has done to me.
It has broken me.
Broken me in the most painful ways and the most glorious ways, too. My soul has been cut, my heart has bled for my child. I have lost friends over my child’s realization of self and our family’s stance of fierce support of him as he explores what this identity means for his life. I’ve painfully chosen to cut certain family members out of our life to keep my child safe. I have struggled through navigating within institutions, educational and medical, and legal. And honestly, I have struggled with all the relationships in my life, as well.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” When I reflect upon James Baldwin’s words here, I think about the idea that nothing can change until we face it, on a large societal level as well as a more introspective level of one’s self. It’s the deeply important work of living a life in revision. As I’ve broken into tiny pieces this past year and attempted to fashion them back together into a human being that no longer resembles who I was for nearly four decades, some of the pieces fit beautifully, some I struggle with making fit, some simply don’t fit any longer. Some pieces of my old self I gladly leave discarded at my feet. I’ve made space for new pieces to fit into the new mosaic of me that’s forming and that’s been glorious. This means I’ve redefined every single one of my relationships in my life because I’m forever changed by the discoveries I’ve made, and continue to make, on this journey. This has been exhausting, I’ll be honest. Some relationships have been easier to revise than others: in some cases, I chose people in my life well, or rather they chose me, in other cases, though, it’s been trickier. With the loss of relationships has come the opportunity for newness. New relationships to form with people who I choose to journey with going forward. I’m very mindful to align myself with folks that compliment my newly evolving self and that of my family. That’s been incredibly exciting and daunting, as well, for one with trust issues, as I named before. But, such is life, I guess. Maybe that’s my naivety speaking, I’m not sure.
Gosh, this is feeling a bit like a therapy session and I don’t exactly mean for it to be. But, if you want a glimpse into what it looks like to travel this path with a child such as mine in the terrifying world within which we live today, well, this is what you’re going to get. At least, get from me on this particular night.
Truth: I’m deeply affected by the documentary I Am Not Your Negro. I’m actually angry that it’s taken me nearly four decades to see the world for what it really is: gloriously beautiful and unjustly cruel. I’ve come to know the truth of this statement this past year, but before this past year, I was blind to its truth. I’m going to explore a few things James Baldwin said in the documentary and then try to make sense of them alongside the journey I’m traveling. I do this both as an attempt to make sense of the world as I’m coming to know it and to help you know me better, my family better, so honestly, I can humanize what it means to live the life we’re living and hopefully help your beautiful heart to grow in empathy and your mind to expand in broadness. And while I know James Baldwin’s words in the documentary were an exploration of race and this work is one of the most important explorations we can take on to make our world more just, I want to ask your permission to use his thinking to explore two things. First, to make sense of something a wise group of fifth-graders opened my eyes to in the last days of the school year. And two, to draw parallels from my understandings of what it means to live with a skin color that is systematically oppressed and violently targeted in a racist society with a transgender identity that is systematically oppressed and violently targeted in a transphobic society. The underpinnings of the racist history our country has led since before its inception are far deeper seeded than the struggle of transgender civil rights, this is known as truth. I hope, though, that you will allow me space to respectfully draw on these parallels without negating the gravity of the lived reality of the historical and present-day racism that has defined the country within which we all find ourselves living today. I’m not sure if this parallel of identities is even just and I fear I am being incredibly disrespectful, but I also know that I’ve been shedding skin for the past year and reexamining everything I see around me, so I thank you for your trust in me as I navigate these two areas and try to make sense of things that are far from comprehensible in my mind and my heart tonight.
“I attest to this: the world is not white, it never was white, cannot be white. White is a metaphor for power…When you try to stand up and look the world in the face, like you have the right to be here, you have attacked the entire power structure of the western world” –James Baldwin.
I sit staring at this chart tonight, as my five-year-old has finally settled in and seems to be content with the amount of covers I’ve negotiated with him, for now anyway. This chart was created by thirty-four fifth-graders, mere days ago, as they tackled the notions of societal privilege, power, and oppression with their teacher and me. I’ve written about how the thinking around this chart came about, here, here, here, here, and here, so tonight I want to tackle this final version of the ladder of privilege as seen by a group of insightful children of color. In short, this is the way these children view society privileging myriad identities they see in our country. Take a moment to study the chart and really internalize what message it sends to you. Now, jump out of your privileged adult perspective and look at it through the lens of a child. Notice what stands out to you now. Go on, I’ll give you a minute to study it, as I place my laptop down again to give a tug to my blankets as I spoke too soon and my kid just shifted again; my feet are getting cold.
When James Baldwin clearly stated that white is a metaphor for power, this image struck me as I reflected on this chart. Who is clearly at the top of the ladder of societal privilege: rich, blue-eyed, educated white male adults. The world is not white, as James Baldwin states, but to attain power in our country, the closer you are to whiteness, a metaphor for power, the more privilege and opportunities you have access to. You see this, I see this, and kids see this reality of the way in which the world works, too. Look at where all of my friends, family, and the children that I support personally and professionally, fall on the ladder of privilege: at a level of ‘3’ or below; on the bottom 3/5 of the population of our country. Notice who these fifth-graders placed in the top 20%, who historically and presently hold all the power in our country. It’s quite disturbing, both that so much power is held by so few and denied to so many, and, that kids see this reality at such young ages. Damn, what are we to do with this information? I have one big idea: share it and talk about it. Talk about it with children. Talk about it in your family, in your neighborhood, in your community. Share your thinking, and worries, and outrage, and experiences, and reality with those around you. Share your stories in the realms you have influence over, be it your classrooms, your community centers, your places of worship, your places of business. “…nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Please face it and talk about it. It’s a start.
This reality of the systemic oppression of identities that don’t conform to the notions of whiteness is a reality I’m realizing is defining our journey, as our family has chosen to be visible while living it, as our child has chosen to be visible while living his truth. Patriarchal, sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic institutions define our country and hold the majority of the power while systemically and overtly denying this to anyone that does not check the box of metaphorical whiteness of which James Baldwin speaks. This is also true for my child. To painfully learn how to self-advocate by using your voice to fend off harmful words and aggressive actions toward one’s self, at the young age of seven and eight, is nothing I could have imagined for my child’s life when he was born. I don’t seek to define who he is, I never really have and at the same time, to see him struggle just to survive in this violent world has forever changed the way within which I navigate this world, too. So much I want to say here, but I’m not really sure where to start. Perhaps, as I process my thoughts, I’ll bounce off another of James Baldwin’s poignant thoughts. I hope you don’t see that as a deflection, but rather as a sign that I’m still sorting out some serious issues in my head. I appreciate you giving me space to process.
“What can we do? I don’t know how it will come about, I know no matter how it comes about, it will be bloody, it will be hard. I still believe we can do in this country something that has not been done before…we think we need numbers, you don’t need numbers—you need passion and this is proven by the history of the world…History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us, we are our history.” When I heard these words from James Baldwin in the documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, they pierced a hole in my heart, especially the image of how bloody things are, have been, and will continue to be as we struggle along this path of change toward a more just world. The countless innocent bodies that have been killed due to racism in this country alone make me want to curl up in my little cave, close my eyes, and cover my ears. That is my white privilege talking: that I even have a choice to do that reflects my privilege in our racist society. But here’s another truth of mine: I will not hide from this cruel reality. I will not blind myself to the reality of our country and close my eyes. I will not cover my ears when I’m notified that another Black transgender person is murdered. I will not. When James Baldwin asks the question of what we can do, it reminds me of a similar question we asked this group of fifth-graders at the end of reading a trans-inclusive book. We asked, “What is our call as humans? Our responsibility now that we have knowledge is…in our home, school, community, the world? What are some actions we can take?” Below are their ideas of actions they felt they could commit to taking to channel their aware empathetic hearts into action. Many responses from these wise children were poignant, but one really stuck out to me: “Be open to hearing them, be an “open door.” This struck me because it goes back to my essential truth in writing this thought-piece tonight: knowing one another’s stories is where awareness, understanding, and empathy can grow from.
“It’s a problem whether or not you’re willing to look at your life and be responsible for it and then begin to change it.” I want to leave you with this thought from James Baldwin to linger upon. Are you willing to look at your life, reexamine what you hold as truth, your positionality within those around you, and take responsibility for the privileges the system affords you? Are you willing to begin to break a little in order to change the way you navigate through life to work toward creating more justice around you? Are you willing to take what you’ve learned from a bit of my story that I’ve revealed to you tonight, hold it in your heart, and begin to shift your thinking and actions in ever so slight ways, to bend the moral arch toward justice? I hope you are. It’s the only way we can collectively shift the narrative I see in our country, in our world, defined by so much hatred, aggression, anger, and inhumane treatment of one another. I will no longer stand idly by while these atrocities happen to my child, my family, my friends, my community without using my voice to speak up for them and my hands to actively work toward justice. I’ve spent far too long as an empathetic spectator watching life flow by. Life has thrown me in the deep end of the pool and while I’ve spent much of the past year drowning, gasping for breath, I’m learning to swim. I invite you to swim alongside me. We must all get wet. It’s the only way to make strides toward a more just world defined by love, compassion, empathy, and understanding. A world that I hope my two boys will one day inherit.
Published with permission from a parent of a trans child in our advocacy network.