By Alok Vaid-Menon
The other day a young nonbinary person came with their parent to my show. After the performance during the Q&A they asked me how to deal with constantly being misgendered.
It was such a simple and yet utterly complex question. The type of constellation of syllabus that transports you back to a different time and place. How to explain 24 years of denial and hunched backs and averted eye contact? How to encapsulate the hundreds of languages and gestures I have learned to apologize for my existence?
It was one of those questions that felt more like a a declaration, like, “I AM HURT.”
I was touched by their candidness. It feels so rare these days that people express when they are struggling (let alone in public). I had one of those answers that felt more like an apology, like, “I AM SORRY.” And in that moment I wanted to run off the stage and hug them and their father and the doctor that lied to him and the biology that lied to him and the state that lied to it.
I told them that for the majority of my life i just didn’t correct people. I just sort of took it. It wasn’t worth the constant labor of justifying myself. It wasn’t worth the pushback, the skepticism, the violence. I told them that I just waited, which was not the same as being closeted. It was strategic. It was about waiting till one day I could surround myself like a warm blanket with people who got “it,” that intangible sense of being recognized even when I’m wearing basketball shorts and a t-shirt, being appreciated outside of visibility.
I started to think about a few months ago when I met some family friends. Their child reminded me of myself growing up, our resemblance was uncanny. We spent the day gossiping and talking about fashion and selfies. Everyone kept on saying, “Isn’t it remarkable how well they get along?” and I just laughed. I wanted to leave the house with that young person take them aside say, “I AM SORRY / THEY WILL TRY THEIR BEST TO DESTROY YOU AND CALL IT LOVE,” but we had to part ways because they had to go to their “home” and just sort of take it and I had to go to “mine” and just sort of take it. And when they drove away I cried because I thought about why all of the beautiful things always have to leave us. How familiar this scenario has become: saying goodbye.
So later that night I cried. Like when I got home from that performance when an honest person told me their heart hurt. I cried because I remembered my own queer child. He/She/They that were carefree, curious, and colorful. They who insisted on wearing their sister’s hand-me-downs and having roses on their birthday cake. They who danced at Indian dinner parties to bad Bollywood songs with no shame. And everyone laughed and smiled because they had no shame. I cried because I remembered my shame. I remembered how it tore me to pieces. I remembered how I had no one to talk to about it. I remember how they stole those pieces and squished them together into a “man,” like a puzzle you can’t quite figure out so you just settle with its jagged edges. Pretend it fits.
I cried because I remembered how so many of us had to destroy our queer child and never got a ceremony for it. Never got a chance to declare in public, “I AM HURT,” because they kept screaming and punching and harassing and ridiculing and humiliating “THIS IS WHAT IT MEANS TO GROW UP.” “THIS IS WHAT IT MEANS TO BECOME A MAN.” How so many of us will spend our entire lives grieving a loss that comes not just from losing something earnest but from losing what could have been. That double loss that I’ve come to associate with anxiety in my stomach that still tells me I am wrong when I dare to speak about the entitlement of a world that is so patronizing (i mean, so insecure) that it believes it knows what is best for us without even asking first.
Sometimes I wonder who I could have been, who we could have been, if we had a world that didn’t require us to destroy our queer child in order to get “here.” When I look at a movement that so desperately hungers for recognition from the military, from the state, from the very people who disown us I understand that we are grieving. When I look at a movement that celebrates something so simple as a politician saying our name or a bathroom acknowledging we exist I understand that we are grieving. When I look at a movement that does so much violence to other people and calls it “progress,” and “equality,” and “love,” I understand that we are grieving.
I wanted to run back to those two cities find those two queer children say: I AM HURT / SO I HURT OTHER PEOPLE. That’s how I dealt with being misgendered: I HURT OTHER PEOPLE. and when I said I AM SORRY what I meant is I am sorry that the only way we have been taught to heal is to hurt. I am sorry that there was no where to hold the sadness, the rage, the insecurity, the pain, so I wanted other people to feel the same way as me. I am sorry that this entire world is grieving the loss of their queer child and taking it out on you. They/WE are so jealous of your brilliance, its delicacy, its wisdom, its candidness.
. . . . .
Sometimes I wish “the world” staged a Q&A with “us.” I would raise my hand and ask it: “WHO BROKE YOUR HEART?” I would tell it:
“I AM SORRY.”
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