Published on July 19th, 2023 | by MD0
We Are the Cry
Every night my 4 year old picks a book for me to read before bedtime. Lately it’s been The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish, a vivaciously illustrated volume you can sing to the tune of “Wheels on the Bus,” gifted by my childhood friend. A. likes to pore over the pages of picture books and at the end of this one, the drag queens have spread the colors of the rainbow all through the town and are twirling in the street with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.
“That’s where I come from,” I tell them as we survey the glitzy, far-out party.
“Franca-snisco?” (It’s a work in progress.)
“Yes, and that’s a parade that happens there every year.”
They consider this carefully.
“And all the queens are there?” they ask.
“Sure—maybe not these exact queens, but there are lots of queens and people who go.”
“And have you gone?”
“Hm, I think I went once a long time ago.”
They digest this information and then a look of distress suddenly contorts their small face.
“But I wanted to go, too! Ahhhh…” and frustrated tears spill down their scrunched cheeks.
I assure them we will go someday, that it happens every year in that city and also many others. We track on their light-up globe all the places we want to travel. Soon they are pacified and slip into dreams, their future vast and full of possibility—as it absolutely should be.
I’ve missed plenty of parades, I contemplate in the dark before disentangling from my child’s snoring body. What was I doing when they all passed me by? Is it too late to join in?
The experience of “coming out” in a country where your foreignness already sets you apart certainly depends on the country. In my case, I was raised in the Bay Area, came of age in New York City, and settled down in a coastal section of Italy that, while among the more liberal regions, is still firmly rooted in Catholic, patriarchal traditions (and also happens to be where generations of my father’s family came from). That I managed to not be aware of my own queerness in two of the most famous places to be queer in the United States is somewhat of a bitter pill to swallow. Furthermore, I only began to recognize this at a moment when my life had never been so full of hetero-signifiers: in a legal marriage to a man, having been pregnant with and given birth to our child, as well as being a stepparent to two young adult men and an adult woman who has also made me a stepgrandparent. An accumulation of milestones and life events all took place while an essential piece of my self hid in the shadows, unacknowledged.
No outward marking suggests the internal search I’ve been on to understand, in a belated inquiry, the true nature of my own desire, sexuality, and identity. I cannot pinpoint exactly why it occurred to me one afternoon while I sat outside in the bright garden of our house while the baby napped, but I can describe how:
I was listening to the Spanish pop singer Rosalía.
I imagined being in love with her or also maybe being her.
The daydream was deliciously liberating, the attraction to these feelings of play and fluidity easily familiar.
Then an urgent bulletin darted through my mind: Don’t you realize you are not a passive witness to this energy? You are a living part of it, and it is a living part of you. I am not nor was I ever just an ally at the edge of the LGBTQ+ community; I belonged to this community all along but was not brave enough or safe enough to admit it.
I felt a surge of release, of joy—a door unlocked! And within, a deep relief. In that instant, that piece hidden in the shadows stepped into the sun. I wept at how far I’d had to travel for it to find me. And then I wept at the awful timing.
Once, while snooping through my mother’s jewelry, I found a small gold cross on a delicate chain that was given to her on the day of her confirmation to the Christian church. I put it on but was chastised as soon as she caught me.
“You really shouldn’t be wearing that; you were never officially baptized. That’s only for people who have an understanding of what it means.”
I felt ashamed as I unclasped it. I had committed a profanity I was not even qualified to comprehend. An inner voice wondered, “It’s only a bit of jewelry — what’s the matter with liking it?” But saying this aloud risked trouble, and I forced my fraudulent fingers to put it back.
What intrigues me now is that the church enshrines confirmation as a rite that gives a person the opportunity to proclaim they understand what took place at their baptism. That is to say, it upholds the fact that an infant is not a cognizant participant in the decisions and promises made on their behalf, and thus provides a way for them to assert their own intentions when they have reached an age when they can answer for themselves. There are many people out there that need to concern themselves more deeply with the holiness of that statement.
Adults in my life told me what I wasn’t, right and left. I wasn’t going to be a dancer, or an artist, or any of the things I felt drawn to and happy doing, because how was I going to make a living? I wasn’t bad or stupid, but I wasn’t good or talented either. So, what was I? The soundest thing to do was wait around for someone to tell me because it seemed whenever I tried to assert myself, I got it wrong.
Years passed and then I was expected to articulate my plans, even though I had often been cautioned against trusting my own voice. At fourteen I was gang-raped by some men I vaguely knew in a crime that was never reported. This trauma, combined with the absence of proper treatment in its aftermath, abruptly extinguished most of the sensual curiosity I had acquired by that age, and a decades-long dissociative state took hold.
“Didn’t you know we wanted to protect you?” my mother asked me recently as we continued the long project of trying to reckon with how catastrophically this incident impacted my trajectory, and, in a completely different manner, that of my parents.
“I don’t think much of anything around supported my protection,” I replied carefully. It’s not an accusation, just the truth.
Finding new friends in a second language as a second version of yourself who is new to you, too, is tricky. I find connection mostly through the glass screen of the computer, joining Facebook groups for meme-sharing pansexuals and enjoying one-sided attachments to numerous queer comedians and the characters in the show ‘Pose’.
My public presentation is undetectable and mainly takes the form of wardrobe adjustments that hadn’t occurred to me before: leather pants, appointments at the hair salon for bangs and slick dye jobs, Rosalía t-shirts that allow me to secretly announce to society I’m queer without society having any idea what these choices represent to me. I am daring myself to try different things and training myself to listen to what I actually want.
In private, the evolution of this queerness has been cautious and halting. When I had the revelation in the garden, I was overcome with a panic that it automatically meant I would now have to either consciously repress my feelings or overturn my whole life—the stability I have struggled to attain, the family of whom I am proud. I even entered a phase of what felt like grief, a period where I mourned how pitiful it was to stumble upon a multiverse while trapped in 2-D.
But was I really trapped? Hadn’t my husband and I joked about swapping gender roles with each other since we met, our way of professing faith in an attraction that prevailed over each contradiction we encountered? Wasn’t there a possibility that the genuine love between us could be further expanded, transformed, remade?
As soon as I found out I was pregnant, I quit smoking. Z., on the other hand, had stopped and started up through our child’s third year.
“The doctor told me I need to find something to distract myself,” he said one night.
“If you quit smoking,” I proposed, “I’ll distract you with a strap-on.”
He hasn’t lit a cigarette since.
Famiglia (“family”, singular feminine) arcobaleno (“rainbow”, singular masculine) is the term used in Italy to describe a same-sex couple and their children.
I have not found the term for mixed-orientation, mixed-age, mixed-nationality couples who are raising children in a country where the whole blended family is considered uniquely foreign, weird, estraneo/a/i/e (“alien”, singular or plural masculine or feminine, depending on subject/s).
What I have found is that most contemporary Italian social movements have a noticeable commitment to intersectionality. When I bring my child to the annual March 8th assembly, it is not being held in the name of International Women’s Day, but as a sciopero transfemminista, a transfeminist strike. In attendance are antiracist groups, socialist groups, migrant advocacy groups, workers’ unions. There are parents like me there, we just haven’t met yet. Solidarity pulsates through the crowd as I scream with the rest:
“SIAMO IL GRIDO
ALTISSIMO E FEROCE
DI TUTTE QUELLE CORPE
CHE PIÙ NON HANNO VOCE!”
(we are the cry
loud and fierce
of all those bodies
that no longer have a voice)
My belief that children should feel at liberty to express who they know themselves to be is also fierce, a fundamental principle of my parental ethos. But out in the world, I’m only too aware of how hard it can be to step beyond the parameters that one inevitably encounters. In the small Tuscan city where we live, I must send my child to their public preschool in a pink smock, while others must wear blue. In classrooms and playgrounds, they speak a language where fruits are female and trees are male, nature itself divided down a false line along with infinite inanimate objects. I see their early life already crisscrossed by presumptuous rules that only serve to reduce imagination rather than nurture it. It has been implicitly and explicitly communicated to A. that they are “girl”; they repeat it without question.
How can I let them know that it is OK to question? Will I be able to offer alternatives in a context that often rejects difference? Can I protect them from the evils, loud and low, that nearly took my voice? And can I do it without unwittingly perpetrating other errors?
At least here on the page I can symbolically create the space I want them to feel entitled to explore by using an ambiguous pronoun, a reminder that the right to say who they are belongs to them.
Wherever home is must be a safe place. Home must be a tranquil, harmonious place. Home can even be wherever I wrap my arms around A. Home will be full of music and good smells.
Home will have color and laughter.
These are some of the words I tap out on my phone in the dark-blind hours of nursing you. We committed a serious act of hope by conceiving in a year when neofascism is lapping at the shores of all three countries that might claim you. Your father and I say our respective nations of origin are in a race to the bottom, and the one in which you are born wouldn’t even recognize you as its own citizen until I finished a legal process that took seemingly endless years and sums. But here you are, already declaring your ideas and your preferences in two languages. I won’t lie and say I’m not frequently terrified. I’ve stared down death itself, but nothing could have prepared me for the fear that freezes my muscles when I think of you suffering the slightest harm. However, I have to accept this will be evermore out of my control. What I can do is keep my promise that home will be a place of love where we carry on teaching each other and where you are able to try out all the facets of your growing self. What I have seen so far has remade the world as I thought I knew it. Wherever my story had to wind to bring me here to you, I wouldn’t change a word.