on family & grief

when i was in tenth grade i did a project on american womanhood. each section covered a life; my grandmother’s, my mother’s, and my own. it was a lesson in proper heterosexual reproductive futurity. it was a practice in biological linearity and good old-fashioned bootstrap american ideology. my grandmother grew up in deep, poor rural america where she stayed her whole life. she was a lunch lady and mother of five. it only sort of read like an obituary.

my own mother was the first and only of her siblings to attend a college, an eventual point of contention that would relegate her and my family to the status of black sheep, especially since, unlike her siblings, she had moved away from the family’s small radius of homes. we lived 45 minutes away in a town which, despite having only about 5,000 people, seemed like a metropolis by comparison. and, i grew up being told that if i worked hard enough i could go to a top college, get a good job, and be even more successful than my parents had been.

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the best laid plans, right?

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like many queers, i have always had an odd relationship to family. we were never close to my extended family on either side and being some amalgam of whiteness, i have never had to think much about my ancestral history. but, i have always been in the habit of creating lineages and networks within which to place myself. it has been a practice not unlike sedgwick’s concept of ardent reading; searching for myself in places that aren’t quite right, finding identification/sameness even in the darkest of places.

i didn’t know i was trans when i was younger. i didn’t even know what that meant. all i knew was that by high school i had learned that if i wanted to be liked, i would have to be docile, i would have to act less intelligent, i would have to dress a certain way and behave a certain way around men. i wanted to be liked; what teenager doesn’t? but, i didn’t want to be liked for dumbing myself down, for being someone i wasn’t. i wore my intelligence, my ambition, my drive like a shield. i also cried a lot.

so, i tried to make a livable womanhood for myself. i found myself obsessed with amelia earhart; she lived on in the cultural imaginary as figure not only of strength, but of spectrality and mysticism. perhaps more importantly, she was someone who had gotten the fuck out. over my bed i hung a huge poster of rebecca lobo, the wnba star, soaring towards a slam dunk. i scoured the library for information on alice paul, the suffragette who seemed, at that time, radical compared to other political women i had learned about. i composed a constellation of strong women to guide me. absent the knowledge of my own relationship to my gender expression, i attached to models of gender transgression, non-conformity as a means of groping towards a truth i couldn’t yet make out.

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this attachment was a means of survival. weaving myself into a narrative of white, cisgender womanhood, marked by a linear economic and social progression between generations was the only way i could imagine myself getting out, getting better, moving on.

but, it was an attachment to a fantasy that as i’ve grown older, as i’ve come into a queer and trans identity, has begun to ring hollow.

my grandmother died last week. i didn’t know her well.
my mother and i don’t speak.
and, i’m no longer a woman. i got the fancy degrees, but i am in the ongoing process of attempting to meaningfully reject narratives of what it means to be successful, a process that i have the privilege of choosing for myself as a white, masculine-perceived, able-bodied person. for the moment, it means performing relatively low-income service work, work that i have learned over the years to take great pride in.

white liberal feminism will not save me. upward mobility will not save me. heterosexual, monogamous reproductive futurity and its attendant form of social grouping, the biological family, will not save me.

and, in fact, all of these constitute, to some extent, systems of social violence.

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queers learn fast the arbitrariness of biological family. when blood-related folks who claim to love you unconditionally reject you for your choice to live boldly outside of social norms, you realize how quickly familial love can be emptied of its significance. when you live among a supportive and caring group of folks who respect your identity, you realize that family relation is affective, agentive. it is a feeling of comfort, safety, and the spark of self-determination.

and, perhaps more troubling, is the lack of experiential overlap. i have the good fortune of having only one sibling who is also queer. but, for folks to whom i am biologically related who are cisgender and heterosexual, the way i live my life is something strange and, in some ways, uncomfortable. i have experienced harassment, discrimination, and violence that my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins simply cannot fathom. there are things i cannot speak of easily in their presence. there are ways i cannot be myself with them. there are pangs of stress and anger when i realize that the people who were supposed to care for and support me are also members of the class that oppresses me.

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i wrote these words following the suicide of a trans woman in my community. my grandmother had just turned 87, she was on the brink of death. i wasn’t sure how to make sense of the fact that despite my deep sense of compassion, i could not make myself feel anything about her impending death:

i didn’t know bryn well. we only met a handful of times. she put in a good word for me with a date once. and, i won’t know her better or not really because she is dead now.

and, how can i explain the fact that i have wept for someone i barely knew, but i cannot cry for a woman who has held at least some kind of presence for all of my 27 years, a woman who shares a blood tie? how can i explain my relation to these two women i barely knew, one whose death feels like the loss of a sister and one whose life feels like that of a stranger? how can i explain the shuffle of my feet as i tried to select a card for my grandmother amid the artificial affects of the greeting card aisle? a card to celebrate her upcoming year when she probably won’t make it, when she and i have taken so little interest in one another.

as transgender people and as queer people, it is only relatively recently that we’ve been swept up in the illusion that we are, at the very least, less proximate to death than we once were. but, to be queer is to hold grief, to the hold the grief of all the folks we’ve lost to violence, to hiv/aids, and, especially recently, to suicide. to be queer is to be melancholic, to consume all of the sadness of all of our ancestors, to be driven by that attachment that we can’t let go of. sometimes we cannot help but self-destruct.

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in one sense, i’ve been raised to believe that there is a lineage of folks who are, biologically, the condition of possibility for my very existence. but, i have come to learn that what is more important is the people who create the condition of possibility for my *survival*, queer and trans folks from the past and present who have on a very real level given me life, given me the expansiveness to believe that who i want to be is not only possible but also real and viable and beautiful.

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