When we talk about words, it is nearly always in regard to words that are spoken, written, typed or signed in order to communicate with one another. What we don’t often talk about is the power of the unspoken words that we use to think and feel, whether or not we ever hear those words spoken aloud or utter them ourselves. Let me share a deeply personal example of the power of this reality and the damage it can do when children are deprived of essential, accurate vocabulary at a young age.
Growing tall, living small
I grew up in a large, working poor family in a small, conservative, agricultural town that I joke seemed to have had more christian churches than it had people, with a high percentage of Mormons—the church I was raised in. I grew tall early and I was almost always the tallest kid at school. I was also skinny and, because of the rapid growth, I lacked the agility and coordination needed for basketball until my late teens. I wasn’t bullied often, but there were the insecure boys who found it somehow satisfying to pick on someone much taller than them, even though they probably weighed a good bit more than I did and were more muscular, as well. (Toxic masculinity and male fragility start early, it appears.)
The most painful aspect of my childhood, though, had nothing to do with the treatment I received from other kids, my siblings or my family. My misery and self-loathing remained mostly hidden behind good grades and (for the most part) good behavior. I was a people-pleaser of the first order, constantly trying to prove to myself, even more than to others, that I wasn’t as sinful and broken as the church and world were making me feel I was.
A childhood adrift
I was a mama’s child and, for some reason, I was driven to be a golden child. I wanted to excel at everything and make my mom proud. But in my town, that meant Cub Scouts, then Boy Scouts along with church groups, which became gender-segregated church groups and gender-segregated sports at school and at church. I was expected by my peers to be “one of the guys”–going out partying , riding off-road vehicles, fishing and shooting guns, among other things.
The most excruciating part of this experience was the fact that, from a very young age, I knew that I didn’t fit the framework and the narratives that I was being given about what a boy should be and what I should want and aspire to, but I had no way to even consider why that might be the case. The constructed truths within the grand narrative of the church and the dominant culture of the community denied me not only the ability to embrace and actualize myself, but—pre-Internet and pre-home computer (in my working poor household)—I was denied even the words to discover and conceptualize the fact that I wasn’t a boy at all and that I wasn’t straight. Without concepts and vocabulary to understand it, I had developed the sense that something about me was very wrong and in need of fixing. I felt this at the deepest level and it affected all aspects of my life. I never formed deep, durable friend groups and thus grew up adrift in degrees of social and emotional solitary confinement. But I kept trying, at times managing to conjure some semblance of a hyper-masculine persona long enough to engage in jackass behavior that I was lucky enough to survive mostly unscathed. Not all the kids I grew up with did.
A culture of casual bigotry, misogyny and femmephobia
My only exposure to the concept of anyone being anything but heterosexual was in church of all places, where passages from the bible were deployed and weaponized in the form of hushed references to people who were “abusers of themselves with mankind.” While it didn’t register for me consciously at the time, I’m sure the toxic, mythical gender binary was ingrained in me, as well, when being “effeminate” (from the same bible passage) was lumped in with fornicators, idolaters, and adulterers. Of course, because of the hateful, bigoted beliefs inherited from adults and our churches, the only other time alternative concepts of gender or sexuality came up was in the form of slurs and insults on the playground.
What wasn’t off limits, of course, in my wholesome hometown was many of these same church-going, small-town boys making sexist comments about girls, being predatory toward them, having no concept of boundaries and—sadly and predictably since there was no real sex education offered—a number of high school pregnancies, at one point clustered within a group of the sons of regional church leadership and their girlfriends.
Through all this, I remained completely ignorant of anything related to being trans or otherwise gender-expansive. The only way I could understand my discomfort in all-male spaces at the time was to assume it was because I was really a homosexual and frightened it might show or that I would be tempted to act on those feelings. This despite the fact that, while I was attracted to some guys, I was far more drawn to and attracted to girls—platonically, romantically and sexually.
Sprouting hair and new despair
I had never tried to analyze the discomfort, bordering on distress at times, I felt when I had to get ready for church, where I was expected to wear the most traditionally masculine of clothes: button-down shirts, jackets, slacks, ties and dress shoes, all in shades of black, blue or gray. I tried to suppress and deny the inexplicable sense of longing and envy as I watched my sisters get ready, allowed and even encouraged to actually have some color in their outfits. It wasn’t until I left the church, well into adulthood, that I realized how much this factored into my dread of Sunday mornings and other church gatherings.
I remember being caught off guard at the horror I felt one day when my sister pointed at my bare chest (it was rare for me to show much skin) as I stood in our living room shirtless: “What is that?! You’re growing chest hair! You’re becoming a man!” It’s the first time I remember feeling truly hopeless and depressed. I found myself feeling more isolated as time passed and activities at church and school grew more polarized along gender lines. Skipping events started to feel better than going and having to try to pass as one of the guys—or suffer the ordeal of hanging out with them. I loved nothing more than when I’d be invited to activities with the girls—but they were so heartbreakingly few and far between. I often stayed home, a devoted mama’s child, happy to help out around the house.
The long road to awareness—and the endless road to healing
It wasn’t until my late teens, if not early twenties, that I discovered that anyone in the world openly identified as anything but heterosexual. I was nearly thirty before I spent any amount of time around someone who was openly gay when I worked at a large software company in Seattle. And I didn’t actually meet anyone I knew to be trans or otherwise gender-expansive for many years after that.
I have spent most of my adult life cycling through feeling like I must actually be gay and that I had some sort of shameful fetish for wearing “women’s clothes.” I had come out to select friends at various points over the years as gay, bisexual, a cross-dresser, etc. as the concepts and vocabulary became available to me—even though none of them were accurate or true for me. They were the only concepts I knew and had to work with. As you can imagine, this made for a sometimes rocky and difficult road for my wonderful partners who have shared their lives with me, trying to keep up with my quest to find my authentic self and live my elusive truth in a society that made it incredibly difficult, almost impossible, to do so.
The incredible gift of visibility
During my thirties, I met, worked with and grew close to several friends, neighbors, colleagues and family members who were out and proud about being gay, lesbian and bisexual. (I hadn’t met anyone, yet, who identified as pansexual, asexual, etc.) Television shows started to emerge that featured queer characters who, for the first time ever, weren’t there simply to be laughed at, demonized or victimized. I started to realize and slowly embrace the fact that I was clearly attracted to both women and men (the only two genders I was aware of at that point). I continued to identify with and be attracted primarily to women, but I would occasionally meet a man who set my heart aflutter and my skin on fire.
Sadly, it wasn’t until my early forties that I found myself in a room, organizing for racial justice, with people who identified as non-binary and/or genderqueer. It was in this space that I first learned of people using pronouns other than she/her and he/him. I had never been in a meeting or gathering where people included their pronouns along with their name during introductions and on their name tags. It was a moment of dizzying revelation and so many things started to come together from that moment on. A wonderful partner I was with a year or two later encouraged me to explore the possibility that I might be genderqueer / non-binary—even if that wasn’t the end point of my gender journey—and those conversations and that encouragement helped me feel like this emerging clarity could become a lived reality.
My life, going all the way back to my earliest childhood memories, started to make so much more sense. All the things I was so desperate to hide, the things that had made me feel isolated, broken and ashamed were things I now celebrated and I was able to look back and smile with love and compassion for my younger self who made it out and got me to where I am today: out and proud as a trans, queer person committed to intersectional social justice for the trans and queer communities, and for all marginalized and oppressed peoples everywhere.
Committing to visibility and education
I would never suggest that all trans and queer people should be out and visible. For some of us, that would put our safety, livelihood, life chances and potentially our very lives in danger. But for those of us who have the privilege to do so, I hope we’ll look for every opportunity to share the incredible, life-changing and perhaps even life-saving gifts of knowledge and visibility. Even if you yourself aren’t able to be out, at all or in a given setting, there are often subtle ways to make known the fact that you are an enthusiastic ally. I love the moments when I’m out and about in the world, breaking all sorts of dominant gender norms, and someone passes by—from small children to older adults—and I can see what appears to be a moment of raw curiosity and even revelation in their eyes and body language. Perhaps they are feeling what I felt not so many years before: a spark of curiosity, combined with the realization that perhaps the journey toward radical authenticity might be open and possible for them after all.
I try to look for opportunities to be the person for others that my queer and trans friends were and are for me by giving me the words and models for finding my authentic self and living my whole truth, fully and joyously.
If you have a child in your life, please make sure they are able to see themselves in the world and feel seen, safe and celebrated here.
In closing, please take a couple minutes to watch this beautiful video. I love you. Let’s continue doing good work in the world.
Fun Home Performance – Tony Awards 2015 (3:59, YouTube): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pMAuesRJm1E
Here is a version with the lyrics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xHk3o_Yqzzg
I.S. de Lis
Founder & Volunteer
Pronouns: she, her / they, them / ella en español
I.S. de Lis is a volunteer, community organizer, activist, writer, photographer, event producer and full-time student, with a double major in Sexuality, Gender & Queer Studies and Spanish. She is also the founder of Transcend.