My mother, like many parents of adult children, suffers from selective amnesia. She didn’t remember burning my writing in the backyard when I was 13, or trying to protect me from disappointment by telling me I’d never amount to anything, or the countless times she beat me when I didn’t want to wear a dress on Sunday morning. When I was 9 or so, I said to her with a child’s conviction that God is concerned with the content of our spirit, not our appearance. That morning I sat on the pews in the church where my grandfather preached with the welts on the backs of my legs stinging.
My mother didn’t remember how many times she broke my heart. I know I broke hers, not once but twice, the first when I came out as queer when I was 17, the second when I became a man at 24. But, where my queerness hadn’t made us closer, my transition — the sheer impossibility of changing gender — eventually tore a hole in our shared reality, one through which we could talk about the ways we’d both been broken.
One August afternoon, we sat on the porch swing telling stories about things we’d never spoken of before. I knew her father had been a violent drunk, a moonshiner I’d never spoken to because he had a stroke that took his speech the year I was born. I hadn’t known that he’d buried his bootlegging money in the woods and thrown my grandmother against the wall when she tried to dig it up. I hadn’t known that my mother grew up hungry or that my grandfather sometimes shot his guns into the house while his wife and children were inside. She told me that her childhood had made her fearful of new experiences. “And you were always so different,” she said, “different from the whole world.”
She hadn’t known that in 1996, I became the only out person in my rural Appalachian high school. I told her things I’d mostly forgotten about this experience until that August afternoon conversation. One teacher had blithely told me I was going to hell. Another took me aside and told me to never set foot in her classroom again. An administrator stopped me in the hall and quietly told me I made him sick to his stomach. “Why didn’t you ever tell me about that?” my mother asked. “I would have marched right into that school and given them a piece of my mind.”
“Mom,” I said, “don’t you remember?” Our home, already racked by poverty and alcoholism, was a war zone in which I became the primary target after I came out to her. I saw those memories come back, and the great shame they brought her. “I’m sorry, honey,” she said, “I just didn’t know any better.”
Though my mother and I have worked very hard to have an honest relationship, there are limits to what we can understand about each other. Our reconciliation has been an adventure of the spirit, one that has required many leaps of faith and moments of forgiveness.
But I can’t imagine what my mother has had to give up to let go of the idea that gender is immutable. And she cannot metabolize the fact that my friends commit suicide, or that trans people are murdered for the transgression of existing. It is almost as if, having been so changed, she cannot let in the horror of how many people still hate us, even as she agrees that it’s best for her husband’s family not to know about me, even as she refuses to hang pictures of me in the hallway.
Though her husband showed her videotapes about trans people to help her understand me, I believe the most instructive thing he did was to show her love. My mother, who burst into tears when I asked her if she’d ever felt safe, had never known what it was like to be treated like a full human being until she met him.
I share many bonds with my mother, the greatest of which might be that life has been much harder than it could have been. Those of us who are regarded as nonpersons do not need allies. We need those who have power to understand that the cost of having that power is much higher than the price of giving it up.
My mother gave up what she had always known about gender in order to gain a son. But she didn’t just gain me. I see her now, when she makes the long journey from Appalachia to New York — and she is less afraid of everyone.