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On the first day of Pride Month, a letter to a younger version of myself.
DEAR YOUNGER ME:
When you were a kid, your parents split up. On weekends, when you got to spend time with your father, sometimes he’d take you to a shopping mall. You got the poor end of the stick in the custody fight because your mother didn’t make much, so you learned from a young age that if you wanted a nice toy, good clothes that wouldn’t tatter after a couple washes, or your favorite snack, then you’d better ask your father.
You didn’t know English then, but later you’d read an essay by the American writer James Baldwin about his father, and feel your stomach sink because the description was so true and the language so inaccessible to you as a child. “The absolutely unabating tension which emanated from him caused our minds and our tongues to become paralyzed,” he wrote. Like Baldwin, you were frightened.
You still wanted games for your GameBoy, though. So you learned to strategize around this unabating anxiety. You’d amble through the halls of the mall in such a way that you’d happen upon the video game store, as if you didn’t know the exact layout of the mall already. Sometimes, you’d lap the lower level before going upstairs, in preparation for the ask.
You also picked up a coping mechanism. Before asking your father to buy whatever it was that you wanted and had to have, you started to count down from 10. When you got to zero, if you still felt terrified, you’d start over. The fright rose up to your chest from the depths of your stomach and knotted itself in your throat, tight. Maybe the way that Baldwin’s father was wrathful and your father was wrathful had to do with how they had been raised, in cultures that historically have rewarded machismo. The rejection never came just as a “not today, my love.” What you wanted—that you wanted it—was always unreasonable. You learned to brace for these gales of anger.
“Papi,” you began innocently, the squeak of a mouse.
While in college, you gave someone, a man, a drunken hug when you two were alone, late at night. Maybe a bed was nearby. Maybe clothes were scant, or maybe the alcohol convinced you they could slide off easily. He held you, and you lingered, breathing him in. Remember, how you knew? The knot came back and it sent chills down your spine, raising the light hairs at attention. Do you remember, also, that you had known, before?
You hadn’t, of course—not in the way you know now. You came of queer age in a world after Marsha P. Johnson threw that brick at Stonewall against police violence but also for liberation, after Duane Kearns Puryear made that quilt himself (our knowledge of which necessitated his death of HIV at the hands of government neglect), and after dozens of trans theorists and thinkers like Leslie Feinberg taught us about the wild, variegated forest of being non-binary. These facts and these histories were unknown to you until college. But the body has a way of knowing before the mind consciously does.
You imagined what it would be like for your father to die without knowing that you were bisexual. And we made a deal that he would, because the devastation wrought by the furious gale would be too great.
I am writing to tell you that I broke that promise.
In the picture I’m enclosing here, taken July 2020, you had brought your first boyfriend his favorite flowers, hydrangeas. You are standing in the kitchen of your first apartment together, your first apartment with a boy, the one you moved into four months after you met because you saw a picture of the two of you, boy with boy, and it all made sense. There are water and food bowls for the dog, even though never in a million years you thought you’d live with one. You’re wearing a shirt you got at Target with him, after he said he thought it was cute and you, being the Aquarius that you are, told him it was the objectionable product of Corporate Pride™ and it was too happy-go-lucky liberal. And then at the check-out you told him, “Wait here,” and went and got it. And then you ended up wearing it because you’re that much of a sucker. He’s behind the camera because he saw the light hit you just right. He has a way of noticing this. You saw the results with a sad happiness because the photo couldn’t be posted anywhere.
These were the feelings you couldn’t explain in Spanish, not with as much homophobia as you had been raised around, both subtle and overt: the house-wide mandate against skipping, the admonitions against skinny jeans, and the raised brow at the rainbow Pride shirt you bought at the inaugural Orlando City Soccer game to help raise funds for Pulse victims. It was always “las novias” that the tías asked about. But you knew that meeting this boy rocked your shit so hard that you came up with just enough words to tell your mother, on Valentine’s Day, a week after meeting him, that you were bisexual. Her first question was whether you had been with a man.
Her second: “When are you going to tell your father?”
As long as there have been queer and trans people there’s been queerphobia and transphobia, which is to say, forever. There has never been a better time to be queer than now, in the sense that we have mutual aid, a bountiful reservoir of joy, and, as a people, an endless insistence on bending the boundaries of sexuality and gender. But these are grief-laden times, as well. Hate crimes against LGBTQ people don’t seem to go down—and how could they, what with all manner of efforts around the country, and indeed around the world, to legislate queerness and transness out of existence? Rooms full of people laugh when comedians turn us into punchlines. Platforms turn a profit on our pain.
I don’t write to tell you that you have to come out. As with your undocumented status, that’s a decision that only you can make, and the entire concept of “coming out,” you know, is flawed. Nobody, and especially not cis, straight people, is entitled to your sexuality if you don’t want to share it. You can keep dreading holidays with seemingly no coherent explanation to yourself. Grindr will still be there when you come back to D.C. Now, your partner has given you a pass, even, telling you that it’s such a personal choice to come out and that he would never require you to tell your father. It is a fine place to be, even if it’s not the place you want to be, because the face you show the world cannot deny the person you know yourself to be. Queer people are queer regardless of whom they tell and what month it is.
I do write to tell you that all of that will be behind you because of the choices you will make. You will see men wearing pussy-bow blouses under double-breasted suits, and you will crave that sweet freedom. At some point during your last semester of law school, you will be confronted most urgently with the fact that you don’t want to pretend like the boy who’s beaming while taking photos at your graduation is just a friend. Your father will come visit you over the break, and you will want to tell him in person, but you won’t. You will go on to work with incarcerated and detained people who will help you realize that with as much injustice as there is in the world, there are far greater concerns than the immediate reaction of one person. Later, you will try to FaceTime him to tell him. When that proves too scary still, you will want to call him. You will be reduced to the child you once were, counting down from 10. You will send a text because it’s more important that the message be conveyed than how it’s sent. You will be filled with shame and terror the moment you press send.
In that moment, the only thing that occurs to you is to get up from the couch you’re sharing with the beautiful boy, run to the bedroom and hurl your phone inside like a grenade, shutting the door, bracing. When the countdown reaches zero, there will be no blast.
I write from your very queer future to tell you that your life is worth living. I know you need to know that, right now. You will see your father hug your boyfriend out of the corner of your eye while you are touring the next apartment you two are moving into together. You will remember the words of Richard Siken: “There is an empty space next to you in the backseat of the station wagon. Make it the shape of everything you need. Now say hello.”
Hello, Angel. Happy Pride.