The Power of Going Home Exactly as You Are
We're looking at what home is — whether it's a tangible place, a group of people, a meal shared among friends, or the expression of your truest self. This Thanksgiving: go there.
As a nonbinary writer who has made a career of reflecting on my experience with gender, there are few things that I have trouble talking about in public. I talk about my dating life (or lack thereof), about struggling to feel safe in a men’s restroom, about the decision not to pursue medical transition, and about how the children of strangers react to me when I walk around. In March, I’m publishing my first memoir, Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story. Soon, my life will literally become an open book.
Despite all of that forthrightness, there are some things that I still struggle to name publicly, chief among them being the fact that, despite accepting me as I am (after some work, over time), someone in my family still holds very conservative political beliefs — even ones that specifically disenfranchise people like me. No amount of openness or transparency about my life makes that easy to admit.
Here’s the thing: I love this person. They’re someone who has watched me grow up and who cheers me on and who is excited when I succeed in life and devastated when I fail. On an interpersonal level, they have made tremendous strides from initially rejecting my gender identity to now being comfortable(ish) going out in public with me in a dress. Over time, their outlook on my identity has undergone a complete 180 — or, if we’re being honest here, a sharp 90-degree turn. These days, they fully accept the fact that I’m trans, they know that I’m writing a book about my journey with gender, and they are authentically happy that I’m going to be a published author. Just this week, we were celebrating the fact that I finished recording my audiobook; they were proud of me and cheered on the phone when I called to tell them the news.
This interpersonal affirmation stands in stark contrast with their political views. While their personal support for me has increased over the years, so has their support for hyper right-wing politicians. Fueled by daily doses of Fox News, they’re as gung-ho as ever about a president who seeks to erase trans and gender nonconforming people like me. I don’t know how they resolve the cognitive dissonance of it all, but they have somehow found a way to affirm my identity in person while simultaneously voting for people who want to take away my right to exist. It’s an uncomfortable mix to say the least — and one that challenges me to continue showing up.
With the holidays coming up, I can’t help but think about that. The holidays can be hard for queer and trans folks returning home. Still, the ability to go home, to be reunited with your family, is a privilege that many of us take for granted.
For many of us, going home can mean confronting our abusers head on. It can mean bringing up past trauma we’re not ready to deal with. For people who are politically displaced or undocumented or whose homes are ravaged with political violence, going home may not even be possible. So I am not implying anyone has an obligation to visit family over the holidays if doing so will result in emotional or physical harm. I’m not saying that everyone has the ability to go home. I am saying, for those of us who are able, going home can be the most powerful political tool that we have, even — and perhaps especially — when it’s hard.
Too often, in politically heterogeneous families, the “solution” is silence. That’s certainly been the tactic I’ve employed over the years. I don’t bring up politics at the Thanksgiving or Christmas table, because I can’t bear it. Because it seems to always, always, always result in a fight. And that fight reactivates shitty family dynamics that remind us of past trauma, and someone inevitably starts crying.
But I don’t want to give up. I don’t want to give up on someone I love, or allow them to give up on others like me. I don’t want to give up on someone who loves me. And while I know that we may not ever be able to see eye-to-eye politically, I wonder if we might be able to narrow the difference; if we might be able to shift from a chasm to something smaller — a rift, a crack, a simple gap.
Looking back on past conversations, I know what doesn’t work. In the past, I’ve only ever challenged this person in reaction to something they’ve said. We don’t sit down to have a discussion. We don’t start on neutral ground. Instead, it’s instant combat. They’ll say something loathsome about immigrants or low income folks or China and that’s when I intervene. That’s when I try to explain that, in my view, they aren’t looking at things in a fair way. Except by then, I’m usually not so eloquent or cordial. I’m furious and angry and on the attack and that’s never a good place from which to have a transformative conversation.
This year, I’m going to try something new. This year, I’m not going to wait until they say something gross at dinner. I’m going to find a time to talk to them before that. I’m going to be proactive and calm about the thing. I’m going to do something sweet like take them out to coffee or give them a back rub and then I’ll bring up politics.
And instead of having an abstract conversation about policy, I’m going to make it personal. I’m going to tell them that, because of this President, I’m more afraid as a trans person. I’m going to speak from the heart and tell them that I am worried Trump’s transphobic rhetoric and policy agenda will embolden someone to attack me when I’m wearing a dress. I’m going to tell them that I am more worried for my safety than ever. That I’m actually pretty afraid of going on my book tour this spring because it means I’ll have to wear a dress in a lot of strange cities with people I don’t know. I’m afraid that someone who feels emboldened by Trump will take it upon themselves to come to one of my book signings and hurt me. Or will see me walking around in their town and throw a punch or worse. I’m scared that the same people who own assault rifles are the people whom Trump inspires to attack communities of difference. I’m going to tell them that I am afraid — and that their accepting me personally, as some kind of exception because I’m in the family, is not enough. That I’m worried people like me will be increasingly threatened and beaten and assaulted and killed.
And then I will simply give them space to think about that.
I don’t know if it’s going to work: This is a new approach, not a tested strategy. But in a time when our country is more divided than ever, I am desperate to find other ways to communicate. I refuse to believe that people cannot change. I refuse to believe that queer and trans people cannot help those who love us to grow. I refuse to believe that I cannot share my tender, beating heart with someone I love. In fact, that’s exactly what I’ll do. Wish me luck.