Trans Love Letters
On April 28th, 2019, I wrote what I have come to think of as the most important love letter of my life. It was, by volume, mostly exposition – storytelling context, establishing the circumstances and setting the scene – and concluded with a short but poignant declaration of love for myself.
This, here, is also a love letter. It will begin, as is my way, with some exposition; and it will conclude with the heart of what I want to say.
That first letter represents an incredible turning point in my life. It marked the beginning of the Starship Gender project, and it stands, three and a half years later, as a monument to the transformative power of love. I wrote it on this very computer, in fact – which I had to take a minute to convince myself of, because the circumstances in which I’m writing could hardly feel more different.
I still re-read that letter, often and fondly. I never fail to be moved to tears by my own heartache, my own desperate affirmation of a profound affection and appreciation for myself that the world had spent so much energy trying to steal from me.
Much of what I write, both here and in general, is meant for a wide audience. I like to share, however, even beyond “intended audience.” I believe that it is only by seeing beyond the edges of our awareness that we are able to learn. And in this spirit, I often write knowing that my “intended audience” will hardly be the only ones listening to my words. This letter is no exception.
This is a letter of love – to trans people. But it is not only for the eyes of trans people. I share this love, openly, because it needs to be seen. Yes, trans people need to see it. So does everyone else.
We live in a moment in time where our very existence is not frequently described in terms of love. If anything, it seems quite the opposite; the most common sentiments I see around the idea of trans people are fear, and hate.
I have an immense respect – and a genuine love – for bell hooks. I’ve been enriched beyond all measure by her wisdom, insight, and indomitable courage to speak insistently of love in a largely loveless world. When I wrote that first love letter to myself, what seems like an eternity ago, I’d never heard of her.
Indeed, there was a lot I did not know then. A lot I could not see.
I had spent much of my life, up until that point, desperately trying not to look inwards. No wonder, then, that I had a very limited ability to see outwards.
I do not say this in judgment of myself, past or present. I have learned, along the way, to refuse to see myself as my own enemy. I have rejected the urge to rely on simplistic, binary modes of thinking – that might otherwise suggest to me that I should be harsh to the Me that Was.
Instead, I look back on Her with nothing but understanding and compassion. I can see that she existed within a much larger context. I can see that she was not hiding out of ignorant cowardice, or lack of insight, or reluctance to explore change.
Quite the contrary, she was a brilliant, clever, resourceful soul – hiding for her very survival.
I grew up in the clutches of a virulent, fundamentalist, evangelical religious cult. I came up under the heel of violent, abusive, exploitative, authoritarian, patriarchal parents. I had a very great many hateful ideas literally beaten into me.
These ideas told me that to be feminine is to be weak and inferior. These ideas told me that strength and authority and power are the rightful domain of the masculine. These ideas told me that love and intimacy are the province of exactly one woman, exclusively and solely in service to exactly one man. These ideas told me that who we are thought of, when we are born, is who we must be – always and forever.
Fuck each and every one of those lies, and all the rest I haven’t bothered to name here.
I can guess that it may seem odd, for me to call this a love letter to trans people, and yet spend so much time talking about myself and very little time talking about you. This is a fair concern.
I think the art form of letters is, by and large, a vanishing one in our contemporary society. Under harsh and prolonged conditioning by the technologies of social media, we have come to crave quick, easy bursts of communication. Squeeze it into a tweet. A text message. Brevity. Concision. When I was younger, we called these “sound bites” – smaller tidbits of something more. Today we call them “content” – as if there was nothing larger to consider, at all.
To take time, to truly invest a large number of words and a hefty quantity of thought, while shaping our communications… these are not the usual ways of our times. Of the many themes of my own life story, however, adherence to the usual is not among them.
Love is a way of being in relationship. I look back, often, to the way bell hooks framed it for us: a simultaneous grounding in ourselves, blended with an uncompromising insistence on honoring the autonomy and self-determination of our beloved, and always, always in action. Love is more than a fuzzy sensation, an emotional experience, or a state of mind or heart; love is, above all else, a verb. We must act it.
The depth of our ability to love is limited by two major factors. To love outside ourselves, we must find the ability to love within ourselves. And to love, regardless of where we wish to place that love, requires a space for the action of love to take place – if love is the unfolding of a story that we carry out, then relationship is its stage.
We live in an era that falsely promises us quick relationship. Making a friend is as easy as clicking a link or tapping a button. Finding a lover is as easy as swiping the appropriate sequences of left and right. We replace deep connection with mutual followers, community with clout, and intimacy with furtive exchanges locked behind privacy settings.
In short, our culture has taken from us much of the skills we need in order to be in relationship – and, therefore, to love.
It took me thirty-three years to begin to love myself. As I said before, I don’t see this as some kind of failing or deficiency on my own part. Quite the contrary; I regard it as something of a miracle that, given all that was thrown at me – a childhood of abuse, spilling over into an adulthood of yet more of the same – I was able to learn to love myself at all.
Trans people taught me that I could do this. Trans people taught me that, no matter what lies I’d been fed, no matter how long I’d struggled to uphold the mask that protected the dangerous truth inside of me, I could break free. I could shed the baggage, I could change, and I could find a life of actual fulfillment and meaning.
When I wrote that first love letter, I recognized that I was facing a kind of portal into an unpredictable future. I didn’t know it yet, back in April of 2019, but joy was on the other side of that wormhole.
It was not an instant journey. It was long, arduous, and fraught. I have shed more tears and wept through more sleepless nights, in the pursuit of my own love and joy, than I ever imagined I could bear – and I have borne quite a lot, in my time, although not always well.
Trans people taught me that I could, in fact, bear it. That not only would I survive, I could – with effort – emerge changed for the better.
By learning from trans people, I learned to love myself.
I love bell hooks. I will eagerly and insistently reference her in many a conversation about the struggles and ills of our world. I wept, bitterly, the day she moved on from us. But as I look back on her writing and her wisdom, I see more than simply a vital wisdom and a powerful message of what must be done in the service of liberation.
I see, too, a negative space – a gap, a silhouette of what is missing. I feel the pangs of an immense heart, desperately pleading with us all to heed the importance of love, as she expertly and deftly illuminated the ways in which our world’s lack of love is at the core of its myriad forms of pain. I sense the upper edges of her vision, too, as she left open-ended questions, urging anyone who would listen to try to carry forward and seek to answer them.
This awareness, of what is missing from her words, did not happen originally in my brain. That is to say, it was not an intellectual observation, not at first, but rather an emotional one – one I have become all too familiar with, as I walk this earth as a trans person myself: where am I, in all this? Why can’t I see myself here?
Why, in all these conversations about love, about patriarchy, about racism, about feminism, about healing the various wounds that oppression has inflicted on us all… why am I not here? Where are the trans people? Where are those of us who defy and expand the very concept of gender, in all our infinitely variegated ways?
I will fully admit I haven’t quite had the heart to dig more deeply into this. I’m operating on an understanding based on writings – books, essays, talks captured on metaphorical paper. I do not know if bell hooks thought much about trans people; I only know that she did not seem to write much about us.
I do not say this in judgment, or criticism. Instead, I look back only with compassion and understanding – aware that there are any number of factors that may have contributed to the situation, that led to the result of my own feelings of being absent in her work. I have no desire to pick apart that context, and no inclination to refute or contest what she taught us.
But I can build on it.
I would not have had the courage, I think, to say things about such a luminary figure as bell hooks, not that long ago. When I consider my willingness to say them, now, I can see the roots of it all – the thing that made it possible. I know my own worth, in defiance of a world that wants me to be worthless. I know my own wisdom, in defiance of a world that wants me to be thought a fool. I know my own power, in defiance of world that is doing its absolute damnedest to rob me of any power whatsoever. I know my own significance, in defiance of a world that wants me to be lumped into a tiny, statistically-small bucket… all the easier to erase and forget about me.
I love me.
And it is my love, for me, that lets me see that I am not misinterpreting the insight of a great thinker. It is my love, for me, that lets me see that it is not hubris to say that I can add to what she gave us. It is my love, for me, that lets me see that I, too, must speak about love.
It is my love for you that compels me to write this letter.
Trans people, I love you. I love all of you – both in the sense of all trans people, and in the sense of the entirety of you, each and every trans person. I love us.
And I need you to understand something. I know that you are the one that needs to hear this, even if I can’t possibly know what to call you. Even if you don’t really know what to call you. No matter who’s there, no matter what has happened, no matter where life is going, I love you. Nothing can ever, ever change that.
We are more than just differences and deviations. We are more than just outliers from the norm. We are more than just “crossing the boundary” (as is the etymological import of the very word “trans”). We are more than just “non-binary,” existing in contrast and removed-from a default of binarist notions of reality.
We are possibility. We are range of motion – the embodiment of the inherent, inescapable, characteristic freedom of the universe to do many, many things.
We are movement. We are change. In the sense that all life involves change, we are life itself made manifest – an unshakeable, unsilenceable monument to the change that life is capable of.
We are reality. Our existences, our experiences, our voices matter. The harder the world tries to make us go away, to make us shut up, to make us take our place, the more the world reveals a truth it desperately fears: we are bigger than the constructed world of kyriarchy.
The world of kyriarchy is painfully, horrifically real. But that “world” – oppression, violence, hate, fear – it is not all of reality.
By mere virtue of the fact that we exist, we prove that reality is so much more than what we’re handed.
This may be a cold comfort, in light of what the theorist realm terms “material circumstances.” We’re being denied jobs, health care, even the legal “right” to exist, on a daily basis, worldwide. We are hated, loathed, talked about with disgust, even murdered, for the audacity of trying to simply be. We hurt. And when we carry multiple intersecting oppressions on our backs, we hurt immensely.
I am autistic. My brain does not work in a way that the world has deemed acceptable or worthy of consideration. I feel this pain atop the pain of being trans. I am invisibly disabled, left with a lasting legacy of anxiety and dysfunction, lingering scars of decades of abuse and mistreatment. This pain, too, piles atop of me on a daily basis.
I am white, and middle-class. It would be far, far too easy to let this blind me to what is going on outside of me. It is only by continually taking the time to look within me that I can name these things, and recognize the artificial barriers they create to loving people who are not like me.
Indigenous trans people, I love you.
Black trans people, I love you.
Perhaps for you, most of all, I feel the ache of uncontainable love – the energy that compels me to put all these words into one place, in the midst of Trans Awareness Week, and leading up to the Trans Day of Remembrance.
We must be seen, yes. We must be heard, yes. We must be remembered and honored, yes. Our pain is real, and our hurt is deep.
These things are all true.
And beyond them, we must love. We must love ourselves; and once we know how to do that, we must love each other. We must learn the lesson that our transness declares so boldly: that difference is not something to regard with fear or rejection or distaste. Difference is not something to look away from or ignore.
It is only through difference that we can move; to move, to change, requires a form of difference. That which is different may be hard to embrace – but in an extant reality of horror and tragedy, what could be more different than hope and acceptance and liberation?
Our differences may yet save us. But for that to happen, we must, through the long journey of learning and living, come into the skill of loving our differences.
I spoke earlier of love being a story, and relationship being its stage. Stories take time, even short ones; and rich, powerful stories need a grand stage. This letter, then, exists upon that stage – a place where our relationship can unfold and take place.
Letters, by nature, are not conversations; but they need not be monologues. They are pieces, easy to think of as existing in isolation; but there is much more to be gained by seeing the context in which those pieces reside.
I hope, deeply and truly, that this letter – being a piece of the relationship between you and I – is not the only act upon this stage. I’m not particularly concerned about how much more time I, myself, spend on this particular stage; it is, after all, not mine alone. It is our stage.
This is our relationship – for all of us, among all of us. Among all trans people. And I dream, in the core of my heart, of a world where this relationship becomes an example, a beacon, a demonstration of what can be. We are not merely unrealized potential; we already are. And yet we can also be so, so much more.
I long to see what we all create, together, in both our relationship with each other, and our relationships with the larger world. We may feel it only rarely, if ever, but we have immense beauty and freedom to teach to those around us… if only we can find it in ourselves to love ourselves enough to heal from the way we have been forced to exist.
I spoke before about love as being grounded in a combination of self-appreciation and respect for autonomy and self-determination outside of ourselves. I will not tell you what to do. I am not here, nor ever, interested in eliminating choices or removing options. What you do with yourself, with your life, is yours – and I will forever honor that.
I will also, in parallel, show you what I feel – the contents of my own heart. I reveal these things at risk, yes; because to love requires risk. I reveal these things with respect for your autonomy, not without motive or cause, but as an invitation, if you see fit to accept it.
I love you forever. I love you. I love those of us the world gets to see, and those of us who are seldom or never seen. I love us because we deserve to be loved. I proclaim this, loudly, over and over again, because we deserve to have something that can always be trusted. We can always trust that we deserve to be loved.
And you can always trust that I love you.
This is my invitation. If you see fit to accept it, I would very much be honored to dance with you, on the stage of our relationship, in the grand venue of life.
I restlessly await your reply.
With each and every tiny fiber of my heart,