There’s a red envelope sitting near the paper shredder. It arrived about a week ago, the shape betraying it as an obvious Christmas card, the writing on the front looking like my mother’s. The envelope is still unopened.
This happened last year, too. At that time, my partner got tired of looking at it sitting there, and said, “do you mind if I open that thing? You never know, maybe she’s had a change of heart. You never know what it will say until you open it.”
“I know what it will say,” I tell her. “It will have a lengthy sentimental series of verses of love for one’s son printed on the card, and inside, there will be a two-page handwritten letter from mom about how she prays for me every day and asks God to take away this feeling that I’m a girl. She’ll tell me all about how Jesus can supposedly fix it all in an instant when I ask, and then she’ll go on about how much I’ve hurt her and the family by my transition. She’ll go into a few paragraphs about how my sister is doing and how my niece and nephew are growing up, just to remind me of what I’m missing, and then she’ll finish by talking about how every day she’s just holding on in hope of seeing the day that I’ll find Jesus, go back to being a boy and then she can die knowing that my soul will be saved.”
I felt like a heartless ogre saying it all just matter-of-factly like that, but I knew that the alternative to ignoring the card was something I couldn’t live with. By the time I was three years into my transition, I was completely accepted in every other environment I found myself in, to the point where being trans was a non-issue. But then I’d talk to my family and it was “[old boy name] this” and “[old boy name] that,” and every conversation was about how I was supposedly destroying my life and everyone else’s. I’d complain that they needed to get used to my name – it had been my legal name for quite some time – and pronouns and my transition, and they’d say, “but [old boy name], you have to realize this is difficult for us” and then go on to fail to get it right even once. My mother would talk about how dad breaks into tears when he thinks about me, how my sister is petrified of the thought of ever having to tell the kids, how her heart breaks every time she sees me or worries what the neighbours would think if I came to visit. And detransitioning for family’s benefit was not something I could bear to do: after being able to finally be out and free, stepping back into that strangling, suffocating forgery of a life would not be something I could do without ultimately slitting my throat. I had become the cause of apparently tremendous pain to my family, so I disowned myself from them. That would be painful too, but somehow it seemed far more humane than remaining an ever-present source of anguish for them. They weren’t going to change and I couldn’t reshape my life just for their benefit, so this was the one thing I could give them which would provide any sense of closure from which they could move on, and heal.
Last year, my partner had wandered away with the card. A few minutes later, she came back, stood in the office doorway, and looked like she wanted to say something.
“What did it say?” I asked, knowing the answer.
She looked down, which was the only indication she could give that I have guessed exactly right, and turned and walked away.
My mother is dying.
She has Cardio-Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD). When I last had contact with her about two years ago, she had been told that she had roughly four or five more years left to her. She had two sisters who died of the same condition, and they deteriorated much faster than their doctors had expected — given my mother’s inability to quit smoking and the chronic depression she suffered throughout her life (as long as I can remember, in fact, and clearly biochemical in nature), I wouldn’t expect her to be much different.
And I don’t know what to think. I’m ashamed of not being there for her in her final years, knowing that I have a responsibility to her but also knowing that the fulfillment of that responsibility would come with conditions: of more years of living a lie for someone else’s benefit, and of daily having to repudiate all that I know is real in order to give lip service or acquiescence to the same ideology of hatred that I’ve seen destroy lives. Knowing that anything other than full capitulation would be just as much a source of anguish for my mother as not being there at all — except that in one of those options, I’d be there to be a constant reminder.
Because she will never compromise. Her church apparently told her that acknowledging my name and appropriate pronouns and accepting me rather than openly opposing my transition would be aiding and abetting my sin. It came down to a choice between her God and her child and, well, how can anyone compete? This is done in the name of what’s “moral” according to the Fundamentalist Pentecostal branch of the Christian faith, and if I can’t abide by that, then I have to accept being the pinnacle villain in my mother’s life.
The card sits near the paper shredder.
I am thinking about my mother. I am thinking about someone who believes that the annual letter and photo she receives from “Monise Pierre” is a personal thank you from her sponsored child in Haiti sent directly to her, rather than one of a pool of six or so that they send to all child sponsors. I am thinking about how she lives perpetually ashamed of smoking and yet ashamed because she feels she can’t quit under her own strength and God hasn’t seen fit to “deliver her” from it yet, thus being one more indication to her that she isn’t “worthy.” I am thinking about how church teaching and a preacher’s counseling and devout peers’ encouragement kept her trapped in a physically and emotionally abusive marriage long after my sister and I actually wanted her to leave our father, and how we two kids ended up dealing with emotional abuse from both parents because of the mounting tension resulting from her belief that it was God’s will to stay. I am thinking about someone who is as destructive to herself as to everyone else around her, and who then uses that as something to beat herself up with. I am thinking about someone who really does believe in Jesus’ philosophy of love and forgiveness and mercy and who has somehow been led to believe that this twisted militarization of faith is the means to accomplish them. I am thinking about how televangelists and her local church minister have exploited this to get her to give and give and give the money that really should be going toward her groceries — and how it’s almost fortunate in a sickly twisted kind of way that she no longer has to save for retirement and only for one child’s inheritance.
And at the same time, I am thinking about a child who knew something was wrong because she had an absolute certainty of being a girl but her body was changing, growing facial hair, getting a deeper voice — every day a new disappointment and evidence that everyone else must be right and she’s just a freak. I am thinking about a child who — at age ten, age six, age fourteen, age seventeen, age seven… it all just kind of flows together in one singular mass — spent sleepless nights trying to be as quiet as possible while crying and looking up at the sterile moon and wondering why she had to think she was a girl or why she had to look like a boy. I am remembering a child, ashamed of being different, hating herself for being what she was taught was evil and sinful. I am remembering a child endlessly begging God to make her a girl, or make her think like a boy — it didn’t matter which, just as long as everything bloody well matched. I am thinking about people who tell me that I didn’t ask or try hard enough, when I sacrificed my childhood and adolescence — the first eighteen years of my life — on that altar. And the next eighteen trying to pass as a boy to make everyone happy (which is how I know with total clarity that I could never go back to that for others’ benefit).
It’s hard not to be bitter. But Christianity is not the problem. Fundamentalist radicalism of the uncompromising and unblinking variety is the problem, whether it’s this brand of Christianity, or an offshoot of Islam that espouses violent jihad, or obsessive nationalism, or beliefs in “racial purity,” the class system, extreme capitalism, extreme socialism, elitism of the highly educated, or space aliens. Anything where the most logical conclusion of an ideology is the erasure, expulsion, imprisonment or even eradication of entire groups of people who disagree is a problem.
This year’s letter from mom will have a paragraph about how she thanks Jesus that the Province of Alberta has delisted health care funding for Gender Reassignment Surgery. She will take it as a sign that God is answering her prayers. She will not know of the August trip to Montreal, the morning that the roommate had Radiohead playing on her ipod as the packings came out and the tears flowed. She will believe that her God is manipulating circumstance to bring me around to her brand of Christianity and deliver me from my transition.
And I have the card that — as long as it’s unopened — allows me to think that maybe something’s changed. Maybe she’s come to a place where her love is greater than the ideology she’s fed and just maybe who I am and the name that I wear don’t really matter. As long as I don’t open it and dispel the notion.
Sometimes, the greatest gift we can give someone is their own illusions.
(Offered to Pam’s House Blend)