Family secrets are powerful things.
If you’ve ever seen a Southern costume drama, you might have heard a thing or two about them — discovered amidst the dry spells of an endless summer, one after which no one was the same ever again. In the movies, the big secret is shared with a sultry heroine and her two or more siblings through faded letters found in a locked chest — one that their departed mother forbade them to open. These letters were likely addressed from the lover-husband that almost was, the one she met before their father, the one who went off to war and only came back in letters. The letters bring to life a boy that mother kept in hidden places around the house, one whose presence or relevance was never explained, representing another life, another possibility just hidden from view.
Every family has pictures like these on the walls, whose faces you can’t quite name — because family is bigger than you are, bigger than your narrow remembrances of it. But what if that stranger on the wall was your own father or mother? What if it was you, smiling back through baby teeth you’ve long since left behind?
Whenever I bring my friends over to my grandparents’ house, the house I grew up in, it’s an awkward affair. This is for two reasons. First, my grandparents are budding hoarders who never throw anything away, in case it secretly becomes useful later. But the bigger reason is that any person who sees the inside of your house will expect to see at least one picture of you from a younger age. Recalling your prepubescent pimples with friends is more than just part of growing up; we’ve become a society of personal tourists.
However, when people look at photos of me as a child, they skip the parts about my skin. They just want to know who the pretty little girl is.
Over the years, I’ve told the lie version so many times that I usually forget the truth, unless I sit down and focus, force the memories out of me. In the lie, I was afraid of scissors until the age of five and absolutely refused to get a haircut. Whenever anyone would pin me down to try to trim by beautiful locks, I would do my best Tonya Harding impression until they relented. Thus, I was left looking like a hippie — until I eventually got over it.
I’ve told the lie so often that others have adopted it, that I’ve heard other family members repeat those stories in passing, even though no one was looking at a picture of me and there was no real reason to bring it up. It’s a great story, and people love hearing it.
But it’s total bullshit.
After almost twenty years, I’m just now getting used to telling the truth version, to talk about that little girl in the picture. I hope to do her justice. Some of this story will be the truth, and some of it will be how I remember the truth. It’s hard to know the difference.
However, this story does not start with her. This story begins with my mother. This story begins in a hospital.
When I was almost three, my mother had her second child. She named him Phillip, after her grandfather (because women on lots of drugs can only usually remember the names of their immediate male family members). He was born early and weighed less than five pounds. According to the doctors, Philip was this close to miracle baby status, which I’d always assumed you got a prize for. Congratulations! You were born! Here’s a nice Ashley chaise lounge and colic. And for a hastily-wedded Catholic couple whose young relationship was constantly on the rocks, Phillip sure felt like a miracle to the touch, like the bundle of heaven that might deliver them from the realities of their marriage.
He died six months later. My earliest memory is his funeral.
I remember how small the coffin was, how it was built for a doll. I didn’t know how he could crawl inside — because he couldn’t crawl anywhere and the only thing he ever did was cry — and I thought it was a boat. I didn’t know where anyone could go in such a boat — it didn’t even have a propeller! — but I knew him leaving made my mother sad. And when all the people came to see him off, she could barely look to see him go.
When we gave him the quietest party after he left, I sat on the floor in my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pajamas, looking around for a mother that wasn’t there. I hoped that she didn’t go with him and that she would come back to eat cake with me. I didn’t want to eat it all by myself, but it seemed like everyone was eating alone that day.
A short time later, my mother would give birth to another baby that would only stay with us for a short time. His name was Jonathan Michael, named in opposite for my uncle, Michael Jonathan, and he swore a lot. He didn’t get to experience much of the world during his eighteen short months in it, but he got around to learning just about every word he was never supposed to. Most babies choose Mom or Dad as their first word, but Jonathan’s was more likely along the lines of “#%$%%&#*#!” Our nurse, Julia, was never sure if she was taking care of a child or a tiny, deformed sailor.
As his condition worsened, my mother blamed herself, and the doctors helped her make up a disease to do so with. Named after my first brother, “Philip Lang Disease” catalogued all the symptoms my brothers suffered, what life felt like for them, what they thought the world was like from the way they experienced it. My mother hasn’t told me much about their pain — because to talk about the way they hurt is to talk about the way she hurt. But I know how they saw. When they look at the world, most people see people, friends and things that they can name; my brothers only saw shadows, a shapeless world they didn’t have the adult muscles to reach out and grab.
As a child, I didn’t know much about the disease, but I knew one thing: it lived in me, and everything about me was wrong, tainted and slowly fading along with my brother. And based on the very small sample size I had, I scientifically deduced that it only affected boys, and that was me, too.
That had to change.
When I was four years old, I told my mother I wanted to be a girl. Although I was never a particularly masculine child and spent equal time playing dress up with my female friends’ Barbies as I did gawking at their incorrectly-depicted body parts, this was a big step for me. However, I accepted my decision with surprising ease. The change was a natural fit, like slipping into a shoe that just happened to be in your size. Maybe this was the heel I was born to wear, one covered in sequins.
Having much bigger things on her mind, my mother took it surprisingly well at first. She thought it was a phase I would grow out of, a child’s way of dealing with unimaginable trauma.
My father wasn’t so sure.
At the time, our apartment complex was located next to the local community college my mother took English classes at, and my father held meetings with one of the faculty members there, to discuss if anything could be done about “my case.” The professor insisted that I was a normal, healthy child and that my father should indulge my need to express myself, even if this was confusing to him. My behavior was natural, especially given the circumstances.
At first, I indulged in little things, choices that alarmed my parents, their friends and our family, but ones that everyone could shrug off as youthful eccentricities. Even before I “came out” to my family, pink was my favorite color to draw with — because it was the “brightest and prettiest.” And after my coming out, I quickly entered my “Pink Period” as a young artist, sketching everything in pink, from cows and reindeer to houses. I saw the world in ever-unfolding shades of pink, so much so that I insisted my mother buy me rose-colored glasses. They were both shaped like tiny hearts, and I liked seeing love all over my face when I looked in the mirror.
Later on, I started dotting the I’s in my name with hearts and stars, for I thought they livened up what was an otherwise boring name: my father’s name, his father’s name, a boy’s name. After that didn’t spruce up by name enough, I decided to experiment with different spellings and variations. I went by “Nic,” “Nici,” “Nicki,” “Nickie,” “Nickee**,” “NiCkIi” and “*NICKEE,” before settling on something less reminiscent of a Real Housewife or one of Flava Flav’s girlfriends. My grandparents often called me “Nicky” to differentiate me from my father and that suited me okay. (At the time, I wasn’t aware that this spelling represents a common masculine variant of the name given to all the first-born men in my family, Nicholas, but I was four. Cut me some slack.)
Probably because they had much more dire things to worry about than a possibly trans* son, my parents tried to ignore it. If I were one of those kids you see on the news, I would have been beaten or locked in a closet for days for violating gender norms most heterosexual adults take for granted, but my parents just usually drank and smoked a lot, repressing their feelings in that time-honored Midwestern fashion. When I told my mother things like that I didn’t want to grow up to be a lawyer, I wanted to grow up to be Alice from Alice in Wonderland, she would smile, tell me I could be whomever I wanted and then go take a swig of Maker’s Mark right out of the bottle. To this day, I imagine her blood is more parts whiskey than water.
However, when I started going to daycare to give my mom some space to deal with my brother’s illness more attentively, things took a turn for the worse. My daycare was in a gym called “Scandinavian,” which my parents interpreted as signifying Nordic godship. This preschool nurturing would come with lunges, crunches and reenactments of scenes from Ben-Hur, the kind of place that made boys into men and where the walls were covered in chest hair and Stetson cologne. But luckily for me, this supposed temple of heteronormativity was fortunate enough to have a wardrobe department, one filled with all the pretty princess dresses I had until this point only dreamed of wearing. Sure, I sketched them in my Lisa Frank notebook, but try one on? Surely life could not be so sublime.
Shortly after my first foray into women’s wear, I insisted upon wearing a dress every day that I went to daycare, usually selecting whichever dress was pinkest and/or came clad with the most sequins. News of my drag extravaganza didn’t reach my parents for some time, as I was smart enough to be out of that thing long before my parents came to pick me up. I was a born rebel and gender spy, like the Mata Hari of gender fuckery. At first, I liked the duplicity, but I grew more and more attached to the dresses, their petticoats and lame flourishes. After I cast myself as the lead in an impromptu staging of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, I insisted that everyone refer to me only by only her name. And I refused to take off the dress.
When my mother came to pick up a beautiful princess with flowing blond curls, a conversation with our daycare supervisors led to a full-blown conference — with counselors shouting and paperwork being thrown on desks — which begot more drinking and louder fighting at home. Although I assume that my parents argued about my gender for long before this time, their anger was always hidden from me, reserved for the moments I wasn’t looking, the times I was too busy being four years old to notice anything else. But like a glass tipped over, the anger spilled out over everything around it, and when anger mixes with fear, the mess consumes everything.
It consumed me.
Gone were the dresses and the tutus, the hearts above my name, the wet kisses I used to stamp any drawing I made with my special signature. No doodles of pink six-legged dinosaurs were ever loved by my lips again, and to make my parents happy, I broadened my color palette to include purple — a color that, at the time, I didn’t realize still worried them. I chose purple because it was the color of royalty, and in place of my dresses, I began to wear long capes around the house — referring to everyone as my “loyal subjects” and insisting that everyone clean up after me. For a four-year-old with way too much time on their hands, the trade-off did come with some perks.
But as I wasn’t taking to heteronormativity exactly the way my parents planned, my father decided to kick the gender norms lesson into overdrive, teaching me the ways of manly football. Oddly enough, I responded to the lesson rather well, finding joy in the drama and bigness of it all, especially the costumes. When we were at the store one day, I insisted that my father buy me this oversized Kansas City Chiefs hat — because I enjoyed the way it played with proportions. I never took it off, not even for a second, until it mysteriously disappeared out of the car window during our yearly road trip to see my cousins in Texas. My father blamed the wind. Hadn’t I seen The Wizard of Oz?
However, more than anything, I wanted to make my father happy because I loved him, and I wanted to be the person he wanted me to be. I wanted him to smile at me, the way he used to smile at my mom, the way he used to smile at the sight of me standing there when he came home, just ready to be picked up and flown around the room like a tiny, giggling airplane.
Thus, I acquiesced to the ties, the dress shirts, the overalls and a Cincinnati Bengals sweatshirt that became ubiquitous throughout the rest of my childhood. Because he was a good, loyal Ohioan, the Bengals were my father’s favorite, and I loved showing him how much I was on his team, that I was at his side, that we would always be running the same direction. When we got to wherever we were all going, I wanted to be able to be at the end celebrating with him and with my brothers, dancing without the fear of anyone stopping us.
While learning to play football with my dad, I learned to mask, to lie about and to hate all the things I thought I liked, the person I wanted to be and the person I really was.
On my first day of school, when my bus driver opened the doors, my mother and I were the only ones standing there. I remember the moment vividly, almost too vividly, because when I think of those doors, I see them flying open at rocket speed, faster than most things are supposed to move, like a pod bay door to an uncertain future.
When this strange being gazed upon me — the moppet with a head full of hair, demurely awaiting my ride to another planet — her smile widened seussically, revealing her to be made up almost entirely of teeth.
Just as the world and the doors came to a complete stop, she bellowed out to me: “O’ my! What a pretty little girl you are!”
Part me of wanted to take her compliment — to curtsy, giggle, drop my handkerchief or react however a lady would in this situation; I wanted to climb aboard that bus and let everyone accept me for exactly who I was, not who anyone else wanted me to be. I wanted to make up my own hopes and dreams, rather than living as someone else’s — dreams that were piling higher every day, like unopened letters do when no one is home to read them.
But I could feel my mother behind me, feeling her quivering breaths pressing up against my backpack, and I knew what I had to do.
I screamed: “I don’t want to be a girl! I… am… a… boy!” I threw my backpack down and ran the opposite direction, away from the life I was giving up to be the boy my parents wanted, the only thing they ever really wanted.
The next day, I let them cut my hair.
Shortly afterwards, Jonathan joined my brother in sailing off to wherever babies go, and when he left, I kissed him on the forehead. This time, I knew that we wouldn’t be able to take him home with us, that none of us would really be able to go home ever again, but I didn’t understand why his body was so cold. He had been locked up in the freezer for four days, in preparation for the funeral, and my mother had shut away her feelings with him. But when I asked her why he wasn’t warm like babies are, everything burst out of her. She held me and cried, a cry that felt like it lasted lifetimes.
Over time, my mother was able to hide it all somewhere inside of her, putting it away on shelves that no one would be able to reach, and I tried to be as good as I could be, to be the thing that kept all the shelves from coming down, to be stronger than gravity. I made her picnics in our living room, using an old basket that was only meant for decoration, and got enough A’s and gold stars on all my tests for three children. All of my teachers said I was a joy, and one actually cried when I left her class for another grade.
If my parents wouldn’t let me be a girl, I wanted to be the perfect little boy. I just wanted to be perfect.
A short while later, my best friend, who lived next door in an adobe-colored ranch house at the top of the hill my grandparents lived on, asked me to play dress up with her. A strikingly beautiful little girl, she wanted to practice her modeling and borrowed her mother’s camera just for the occasion. And after we were done with her shoot, she wanted take pictures of me, too. She handed me her favorite pink dress, with a giant black bow on the back, one tidied up for just this occasion.
It looked like the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and my eyes welled up at the thought. I knew exactly which of her plastic headbands to wear it with and just what shoes would complement it nicely.
But holding back tears, I flopped down on her bed and asked if we could do absolutely anything else. Somehow, she understood, and we put on her favorite record, which we listened to on repeat for the rest of the afternoon. As TLC reminded me that I couldn’t go chasing waterfalls, I closed my eyes and promised that I wouldn’t try. I looked in the mirror and told myself to forget and spent a lifetime keeping that promise.
I never talked about her ever again, but I can’t quite forget her. Sometimes, when I look at my reflection, I can still feel her eyes, wrapped in pink eye shadow, staring back at me. I know that my parents are proud of the boy I became, but I still wonder sometimes what she would think of me if she knew me. I wonder if she would understand, if I am still the same pretty little girl to her, no matter what.
I wonder if she would think I turned out perfect.