I’ve been trying to figure out how to save my child for 365 days. I’m going to say that aloud to myself, so my soul can hear what I just wrote: I’ve been trying to figure out how to save my child for 365 days. That sounds weird to say, perhaps even a bit arrogant or presumptuous, right? But, as a mama, it’s true. So, I don’t really care what it sounds like too much, because it’s my truth right now. Please know this too: when I say that I’m trying to figure out a way to save my child, I do not mean it in the white savior complex way that so many western white folks say it with hubris and devastating outcomes. I say it with pure humanity and love in my heart to see my child survive into adulthood. And it’s devastating that I’m naming it even as surviving and not thriving instead, but I’ve learned enough to know that surviving is what this game of life is about; thriving is an unrealistic goal, sadly. A bit of context for you, first, and then three lessons I’ve learned these past 365 days of steadfast work and research across this nation trying to figure out how to save my child.
Essentially, I am trying to figure out a pathway, any pathway, that saves my child’s life, and that of his young trans peers in a country that is built upon this shameful truth: we privilege those closest to whiteness in a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, religiously intolerant, hypocritical world. If you’re with me on this truth, I appreciate you not judging me for realizing this reality within which we live more recently; I acknowledge you’ve known this truth your entire life. If you’re not there with me yet, you will be soon, I suspect. On August 1, 2016, I began to search this nation to figure out what human beings were doing to create the conditions within which we could shift the oppressive narrative that renders trans youth essentially powerless in our nation, which leads to over forty percent attempting suicide over their lifetime, and that creates little space for them in much of our public world, in our communities, and in our school cultures. My path has led me to seek knowledge in myriad realms: community spaces such as churches and our local LGBTQ center, academic settings such as universities across the nation and the published work by scholars in this field, school settings such as elementary and middle schools coast to coast, literacy spaces such as national and international conventions, and connections with authors, researchers, community members, educators, religious leaders, and just about anyone who would spend time talking with me. I’ve been trying to figure out who is doing the work to shift this narrative, both in a time when I had hope for a progressive future for our country and now, in a time after the devastating blow characterized by our nation’s election, which has centered an unending oppressive stance toward the trans community within the last seven months, a part of which my beautiful child has found community within.
Humility. I read a quote by Dr. Christopher Emdin (follow his work on Twitter @chrisemdin) the other day that I’ve essentially had to learn the hard way. He wrote, “Never work FOR marginalized communities. Work WITH them. Working FOR brings hubris forth. Working WITH brings endless gifts.” I’m in one hundred percent agreement with him: my goal is to work with a community my child has now entered by the realization of self. I am a cisgender heterosexual white woman and those identities bring a ton of privilege, translated into our society as power. And with power, I’ve made a ton of mistakes in 365 days. Big ones, small ones, and ones in between. The small ones hurt just as much as the big ones, especially those that have been at the expense of another’s feelings. Of course, none have been made purposefully, but out of my unknowing, naivety, or ignorance. But, none of that matters, really, at the end of the day. My intent is not as important if my actions render someone feeling hurt. So, as I’ve made mistake after mistake, I’ve learned what it means to really apologize. A real apology. The other week, I was watching a panel with one of the minds and voices I look to for mentorship, Alex Gino (follow their work on Twitter @lxgino). They were on a We Need Diverse Books panel at Book Expo America in June and the first question began with defining what an apology is. Alex’s explanation was essential (they borrowed some thinking and adapted it from a workshop they attended at NOLOSE). You can find their words here; go have a listen, the panel is breathtaking. Here are the words Alex has given to define the actions I try to lead with as I make mistakes, as I know I will continue to engage in my life’s work and enter spaces I’m not sure how to navigate. Mistakes are inevitable.
Alex defines an apology as having “three parts, plus homework.” Alex’s words below:
- “The first part is where you actually say you’re sorry for what you did…I did a thing.”
- “The second part of that apology is: thank you, thank you for pointing out to me that I have wronged you, thank you for saying something. It is not fun to call someone out, so thank you for trusting me with that information.”
- “And in the future, I’m going to ____…so that you don’t do the same thing again.”
- Homework: “You still have all those emotions, your homework is go talk to someone else about that…you need to figure out why it happened, so go talk to a person who shares that privilege.”
Their words are immensely important and have really solidified language for me to guide how I address the myriad mistakes I’ve made and am bound to continue to make. I appreciate their clear stance on each part, especially the last part: go work out why you did a thing, but don’t do it with the person you’ve wrong; that’s just oppressive to think the person you’ve wrong now has to spend time trying to make you feel better by helping you unpack why you did a thing. That’s just the hubris of the person making a mistake. I agree with Alex, don’t do that. Work it out with folks who share your privilege, perhaps it will help them unpack the mistake and try to avoid making one similar by learning from you. That’s the approach that leads my actions, now, anyway. Thank you, Alex, for guiding my heart and actions with language. And by the way, I’ve been clear with my children when I’ve made mistakes. I’ve told them about them and what I’ve done to try to make it better. I’ve shared examples of how I’ve used Alex’s three parts in my apologies. In our family, we now try to follow those three parts, too, as my two children have lots of opportunities to practice them. Any parent or guardian or adult with youth in their life can attest to this fact: children, especially siblings, have myriad daily opportunities to practice the art of meaningful apology. I hope their ability to express a real apology follows them into adulthood, as they are both bound to make endless mistakes along their life’s journey, as I do in mine.
Community. We cannot do this work alone. Period. If you think you can be a lone person on a mission barreling through life at hyper speed, negating the work of others around you, you’re wrong. Just plain wrong. That’s your own privilege, your own hubris. We’ve all a ton to learn from one another, a ton to learn from the folks doing this work for decades before us. As I’m newer to this work, not to the world of education as I’ve been in the profession now eighteen years, but newer to trying to figure out this specific piece of the puzzle of life, I’m nothing if not for the beautiful work of incredible mentors who came before me. The arrogance to even assert that I’m anywhere near folks who’ve been in this fight, in this research, in this world decades before I would be disrespectful. And, here again, is where humility comes in. It’s something I’ve had to learn: unlearn my privilege in a way that recenters myself in this narrative, in a respectful way to build upon the foundation of those before me, when given permission, and to know when to step aside so my voice does not presume to speak over important voices in this work. It’s been a huge learning curve for me, one I’ll spend a lifetime continuing to work toward I’m sure. I’ll continue to make mistakes, but this work cannot move forward without a collective community behind it. I am grateful every day to be welcomed into this community of thought, research, and action, but I’m always mindful to know my place and navigate with great focus on how I position myself within this community.
Revision. I am not the same person I was 365 days ago. I will never be. I cannot. What I’ve seen my child go through. What I’ve seen his peers endure. What I’ve seen the parents of trans children endure this past year. None of it was I remotely prepared for. Nor was my heart. Nor my soul. I’m broken because of it. I’ve spent the past 365 days breaking slowly, finally recognizing my personhood lay scattered in pieces at my feet, and it was my responsibility to piece myself back together, part by part, to engage in this work to the best of my ability. I call this living life in revision, to borrow a beautiful phrase from Arlene Casimir-Siar. If you don’t know this amazing soul, and how could you not, you should follow her breathtaking work (follow her work on Twitter @ACasimirSiar). Life is dynamic, the only three things certain are birth, change, and death. If we are not in constant change, constant revision, then I’d assert we are not living, just merely existing. I choose a life of living, not simply existing. And for me, it’s not a matter of choice, really, it’s a matter of life or death for my child and his peers to see themselves survive to adulthood. If trans youth are six times as likely to attempt suicide than their cisgender peers, our nation must address this epidemic of thinking death is the answer over life. How can any of us sleep at night knowing that our child or the friends of our children are six times as likely to attempt suicide? I cannot sleep, haven’t been able to in any real way, since my child revealed his beautifully authentic self to our family and became visible to our community. All this and his age is still in single digits. He’s living a life in revision, so what makes us adults think we don’t have to live our lives in revision, too? Hubris and privilege, that’s what. What I can say is this: living life in revision is both a mindset and tangible action. It’s the only way I see defines a life worth living, so that’s what I choose: to live my life in revision, welcoming the pain and the beauty change brings.
On my 365th day of trying to figure out how to make sure my child sees his eighteenth birthday, and then that of his twenty-eighth and every decade after, I will not waver. That’s a mother’s promise to her trans child. I will fight for his right to exist in a world that I exist in. I will continue to do the work I’ve been doing, with humility, with community, with revision. It’s the only truth I know.
Published with permission from a parent of a young trans child in our advocacy network. -C