On National Coming Out day, we look back at the open letter Harper wrote for Mission about their relationship with their mother after coming out.
At age 16, I approached my mother’s room. The action I was about to take was a familiar one for which I had developed a muscle memory. I pushed the gold-tone handle of the double doors down slowly and silently as to give myself the opportunity to retreat from the battle that was about to ensue. I could see a distorted reflection of myself on the handle. Versions of myself, across time, were linked by having occupied this same space, having used these same muscles in this same way. My anxiety was not only a feeling, it was a position I assumed: my shoulders slouched though not relaxed indicating pre-emptive acceptance of defeat, my eyes accustomed not to others, but to the ground, a tension in my muscles that seemed permanent. I was about to ask my mother if she would let me get my hair cut short. Objectively, this reaction seems excessive. But standing there, about to open those doors, I was reminded of the pain which began this way a little more than a year before: I’d walked into my mother’s room at three in the morning to tell her I was bisexual and dating my friend (who she despised). I expected to see her face change, to show some emotion other than annoyance, but it didn’t. It remained the same. She asked, “You woke me up in the middle of the night for this?” She told me to go back to sleep.
The next morning, she said she was furious at me for hiding things from her, that my grades had been plummeting already and that I was being distracted by girls and sex, and that I was out of control. She took my phone and laptop, and told me I wasn’t allowed to see friends. She told me the punishments were indefinite and I had to gain her trust back and get my grades back up before I was allowed any of these privileges again. However, my mother held the strong belief that people don’t change. She already believed that above all else, I was selfish, distracted, spiteful, cold, and a liar. As a result, I was uncertain that it was possible to gain her trust back. I was isolated and sunk into a deep depression. Only when I started to sneak around and find support from counselors at school was I able to begin a process of self-recovery. While my mother believed my recovery was a result of her tough parenting, in a strange way I was proving her hypothesis that people don’t change correct: lying and hiding was the path I used to recover. She had suspicions that I was continuing to deceive her, but did not realize that it was only through these deceptions that I was able to improve. Instead, she saw them as transgressions that actively prevented my recovery. As she began to trust me more, even if it was in tandem with intense suspicion, I became more comfortable making jokes to her. A few months had passed since she said anything particularly homophobic.
I had been playing around with the idea of cutting my hair short for a while. For as long as I could remember, my hair was boring. It went about four inches past my shoulders. I parted it down the middle. It was soft and thin, but un-styled. I wanted to have short hair, but it wasn’t something I was deeply committed to, at least initially. My friends and my counselors at school helped me build the confidence to ask, telling me that it was my hair so reasonably she had to let me do what I wanted. I told them they didn’t really know my mother, that none of those things mattered. They told me she was probably becoming more understanding, and that she would love me regardless. I could hear my fifteen-year-old self telling me I promised her not to rock the boat again, that I failed to use my judgment a year ago, and that I was about to go against my best judgment now to succumb to what seemed to be merely an impulse. I finally repaired the damage that I had done, and I was about to throw it all away. When I asked myself, in that moment of retreat, why I was about to do what I ended up doing despite the warnings I had received, I had no answer.
Something pushed me to change my mind once again. I took a deep breath, exhaled quietly, and again applied controlled pressure. I closed my eyes and waited until I felt the latch bolt recede and could freely push the door open no more than ten degrees to see where she was. Perhaps given the calculated manner in which I opened the door, I should have realized that this was more than just an impulse.
She was drying her hair. I knocked on my mother’s bathroom door and quietly forced out, “mom?” No response. Typically I would’ve given up and run. But for some reason, I completely broke from character. Possessed by a strange courage, the source of which I to this day cannot locate, I knocked on her door again, this time louder. Once more. She was on the phone and annoyed I had interrupted her call. I heard an annoyed, “Yes?” I told her I was wondering what she thought of maybe letting me get my hair cut short. She asked what I meant. I told her I wasn’t sure. She asked for pictures of what I was talking about, annoyed that I had come unprepared. I went and printed some out. She looked them over for five seconds before raising her voice and, as though she could will her ideal reality into existence, commanded, “I will not have a dyke for a daughter.” It was not the first time I had been called a dyke in a derogatory way, but it was the first time it was used to describe me in a negative way—or rather to tell me that it would not describe me if my mother had anything to say about it—by someone who mattered. It was not a statement that described what I was, which itself would have been a form of recognition, but instead functioned to communicate that lesbians existed, that butch lesbians existed, but that to be my mother’s daughter and to be a dyke were mutually exclusive. The declaration rendered me unable bring myself to move or speak for a moment. I backed down from my argument. I told her it was fine, that it was just a passing thought, that I wasn’t that serious about it.
She looked them over for five seconds before raising her voice and, as though she could will her ideal reality into existence, commanded, “I will not have a dyke for a daughter.”
I sprinted the fifteen feet into my room, shut my door and started sobbing. Typically I was fairly stoic in these situations. I had mentally prepared myself for the answer to my question. In fact, all of my past experience told me exactly what I should have expected. And so, as I sat in my room on the verge of a panic attack, I was forced to ask myself the question: why the hell does this matter so much to me? It appeared I had accidentally made a part of myself vulnerable that had never quite been exposed in that way before. Two hours later, it hit me: it had something to do with my gender. I had a crisis for a week during which I could feel myself slipping back into my depression. The more I thought about it the more I realized that I wasn’t comfortable with the categories of male and female. By the end of that week, I decided I was never going to tell my mother I was trans. Things had gone too horribly the first time around. To render myself vulnerable to her in the same way I did when asking about cutting my hair short would have meant I would never fully recover from my depression.
To shield myself from her, I would continue to let myself be called by a name and pronouns that I didn’t like. Lily would function as a sort of band-aid or protective shell for whoever I actually was. In my current emotional state, I could not handle scrutiny from my mother directed at my gender identity. By refusing to tell my mother I was trans, I refused to let my gender identity take root in my home where I would have had to justify it, pin it down, explain it, and defend it. Something about that felt uneasy. While I had the language to explain being genderqueer to my close friends who wanted to understand, I did not yet have the language to explain it to my mother for whom everything was a piece of evidence that needed to undergo close examination. Instead of situating my gender identity within my family and home, it became situated in completely different spaces: the privacy of my friends’ basements, long drives in my car late at night, my school counselor’s office and the group therapy room, the table in the corner of the harshly lit student union that I would wake up an hour early to sit in so that I didn’t have to be in my house any longer. I used conversations with those I was comfortable with as a place to anchor my gender identity that was distinctly separate from my home where there would have been no room for exploration without forced explanation. These served as places that were more conducive to experimentation since I could voice ideas and then change them freely and without judgments or demands.
To shield myself from her, I would continue to let myself be called by a name and pronouns that I didn’t like.
Once I left for college, things became paradoxically more and less complicated. I was away from home and could effectively live completely out. People were comfortable using the name and pronouns I wanted them to. I was so taken aback by the sense of independence and freedom I felt at school that I forgot that my mother would eventually return. As family weekend approached, I hastily spread the word that should someone see me with my family that weekend, they should call me Lily or avoid talking to me altogether. I shrouded my requests in jokes about receding back into the closet for the weekend, failing to remember at the time that I had never been fully out. Since I had established my identity on that campus so strongly as Harper, the presence of someone who I distinctly was hiding that identity from on campus made me deeply and profoundly uncomfortable. My mother sensed that something was off, and she was right. I was suffocating under the weight of balancing two identities for even a weekend, something that should have been infinitely easier to do given that I had been well trained in the practice for two and a half years. However, muscle memory had failed me. Putting that identity back on felt much like the immediate aftermath of a growth spurt. The motions are the same, but somehow they necessitate relearning because the body is different than before. The memory was there, kind of, but not exactly. It wasn’t simply that it was difficult to re-constrain something after it experienced freedom. Instead, it felt like, somehow, there was more there than before and that that excess could be covered but never quite fully concealed. Despite this, I somehow managed to escape the weekend without detection from my family. As soon as my mother left the campus, I felt like I had escaped a near death experience: there was relief, but at the same time that creeping unpleasant reminder of my own mortality and vulnerability, and the existential fear that lingers afterwards.
A week later, I was starting to regain my footing after having been shaken by her presence. While walking back toward my dorm, I checked my phone to see an email from my mother with the subject line “between us…” The email read:
It was great to see you on Parent’s Weekend in New York. Bard is a beautiful college and I am proud that you are doing so exceptionally well there.
What was up with this painfully awkward introduction? We both knew Parent’s Weekend was incredibly uncomfortable, why lie? What was the function of this introduction that revised events that happened only a few weeks before? What performance was she giving and to who? Was this a denial of the past or simply an act of forgetting?
Last Tuesday, I read an essay that you wrote that was online. Honestly I did not understand until now that you identify as transgender. It must be very freeing in many ways for you to be able to identify yourself and yet challenging to express yourself to some family and friends.
Last Tuesday? What was I to make of the week between her reading my essay and emailing me? Would I have preferred not to know that she knew? And what was she doing in that week? Clearly not drafting this poorly written email. She had gotten advice from someone about this, otherwise she wouldn’t have waited, but who? I stopped in my tracks—my mother never took an interest in my work beyond telling me to get better grades. Not once did she inquire about actually reading something I had written, let alone seek it out on her own online several months later. This was a serious break from character, and to this day I do not know what compelled her to seek out my writing. It felt like an invasion of privacy but given that my essay was publicly available online I could not accuse her of that. In reality the action was a betrayal of my understanding of my own mother and a confirmation that I could not control my own circumstances. All at once, the implications of this came crashing down on me. She was going to make me explain being trans to her. She wouldn’t understand what being nonbinary or genderqueer was. She was going to make me try to pin down something I couldn’t, and scrutinize my explanation of myself when I was still figuring it out.
I want you to know that I support you 150%. I now understand why it was difficult during our visit. However I am now aware and hope that you will be able to be open with me in the future, even in spite of any previous missteps I have made in the past. Please know that as your mother, you can always expect my total unconditional love and support.
There was no indication of what “support” looked like. Acknowledgments of missteps came after “hope that you will be able to be open with me in the future.” Everything here was more implicit than I was used to. There was no explicit accusation of deception or lying, every accusation was in the negative space. “Hope that you will be able to be more open with me” suggested I hadn’t been previously. There was no apology here, which was typical, but there also wasn’t a demand that I apologize. “Please know,” a command poorly veiled in politeness, “that as your mother,” a reminder of the familial structure I was trying to escape and of her position of power over me, “you can always expect,” but not should which would have communicated a need for her accountability, “my total unconditional love and support.” This should have been comforting. This would have been comforting to any other trans person I knew.
If you ever want to talk with me about this, I promise I’m open minded, I’ll listen and I will always be there for you.
I love you, Mom.
“If you ever want to talk with me about this…” What was I to make of the “if”? Should I have been comforted by the gesture of giving me an escape from this situation or critical of her motives? These kinds of offers were typically niceties rather than genuine offers. The “if you” functioned to put the ball in my court, a tennis metaphor my mother loves to use. No matter what happened next between us, I could be blamed for it so long as I was the one making the decision. She simultaneously stripped me of my agency and made me feel as though my agency was to blame. Her mind may have been open in this moment, but her door had been closed all my life. It was unclear which I should take as genuine. And who was the “you” in this email, anyways? She was a mother addressing her child. Her declaration “I will not have a dyke for a daughter” echoed as I read the email. The “you” itself was conditional and had been ever since that moment. “As your mother, you can always expect my total unconditional love.” The love itself was conditional on the parent-child relationship, and my position as her child still seemed precarious.
And yet, none of this felt intentional. The email was too awkward to have been carefully crafted to intentionally communicate what was communicated. How much did intent matter? Was my overthinking rational and justified? Had I been found or found out? Was this closer to overhearing or to eavesdropping? Should I feel more like I was overseen doing something private, or like I was caught in an illicit act? It felt like an accident. I preferred to keep things on the surface, but something was digging deeper. For now, I chose to interpret it as a chance happening that left me naked in a way I hadn’t been before. Neither active choice nor coercive force led me to the position I was now in. At the same time, I no longer had the choice to come out to my mother. The same actions now had radically different meanings. Silence was a rejection of what was framed as a good faith action rather than an evasion of suspicion. It was an admission that I lacked confidence in my identity. Regardless, I chose silence, admission of uncertainty, and the temporary route of escape that was offered in that “if” for as long as I possibly could. For now, this meant that I was vulnerable but not yet completely uprooted, but I had a sinking feeling that the deviation from character indicated by my mother’s search for my essay was an anomaly that suggested other deviations were less likely in the near future. I knew that the conditional provided to me was insincere and would be foreclosed shortly.
My stubbornness came toe to toe with my mother’s by late December. We were in the car on the way to a doctor in the city. This was one of the few times of the year where my mother and I spent several hours alone together. Being in the car meant I had no escape route. She mentioned the email. I immediately assumed that same defeated tense posture that overcame me whenever I was in front of my mother’s bedroom door. She told me she talked to my high school counselor who explained it to her and told her I used they/them pronouns and went by the name Miles. Not only was this a break of confidentiality, it was a betrayal from someone I was close with who thought she knew my mother better than I did and it was a violation of one of the spaces in which I had willingly rooted my trans identity. She asked when I was planning on telling her. She told me this meant I was hiding a major part of my life from her. I avoided the question and told her that my gender identity didn’t change anything about me or who I was—the first of many simple reductions of my identity that I would make in the years to come. She again asked me when I planned on telling her. I was silent. She asked again. This time the question felt more like an accusation. I knew she couldn’t feign patience for long. Now over and over she asked slightly different variations of the question, without breath or pause, stealing away any silence I might have used to think. Her voice was infuriating: piercing, but somehow hollow. Shrill, but somehow monotonous. I needed to make it stop, so I blurted out, “I wasn’t.”
In this moment, I became certain that I hadn’t been found, I had been found out. She demanded to know why. I pointed to when I asked to cut my hair, and she blamed her reaction on the way I did it. I pointed to when I was elected the president of my high school’s GSA and she told me I couldn’t do it and I sprinted to the senior who ran the club at the time while sobbing. My mom told me that I was making that up and that it had never happened, that she had always supported my activism. I closed my eyes in an attempt to escape. Was she gaslighting me? Did she genuinely not remember? Or did she truly believe so strongly that people do not change that she revised her entire memory? I was filled with a profound emptiness. Facts were useless in emergencies. We were both working by hindsight. Were either of our assertions grounded in reality? Certainty was escaping me, but at the same time my mother was demanding an explanation of the very thing I sought to avoid explaining for three years. The facts were straight and simple, she told me, that I was lying and hiding because I was selfish. She asserted that I did not share my accomplishments with her despite the fact that as my mother, they were rightfully hers to enjoy as well.
I was filled with a profound emptiness. Facts were useless in emergencies. We were both working by hindsight.
There was that language again: “as your mother.” It was only ever used to subjugate me. My mother found me out, but she also founded me. She brought me into being. My body and life were still merely an extension of hers and, therefore so too were my experiences, my thoughts, beliefs, and knowledge of what I believed to be true. I had no jurisdiction over facts. She was still talking. No silence, no pause, no room for reflection or possibility for exchange. I opened my eyes. It was bright and we were still on the highway. Two words broke through the noise emanating from my mother, “Explain yourself.” It was followed by a jarring pause that I was not prepared for. A beat later, I registered that this was not a rhetorical demand. This was the moment I was most afraid of. I couldn’t speak. I wasn’t sure what she was asking me to explain. For a moment, I looked longingly at the handle on the car door, feeling that familiar depression that I thought I’d left behind two years prior slipping back into me as I felt my agency being taken away. It would have been so easy just to unlock the door and open it like I would any other door. I was imploding, but I wouldn’t have done anything. There would have been no escape from that escape, a certainty that didn’t sit well with me. The longer I was silent the angrier she got. I said, “Well, I guess I’m not really either and I guess I’m kind of both.”
This, like everything else in life, ebbed and flowed, though each wave was different than the last both in force and character. Change is never linear, and slippage always occurs. The question was whether the norm she slipped out of at any given time was being accepting or unaccepting. I don’t really remember what happened in between, but over time the norm seemed to shift into one of acceptance with the occasional retreat into old habits. She asked to buy me new clothing and tried to convince me to get my name changed legally despite my reservations. She asked me if she could call me Harper, and I told her no. She seemed offended, genuinely, that she couldn’t take part in my life the same way some of my friends had. During that conversation in the car, this request felt like a framework she used to make me feel guilty. Now, however, it felt genuine. There were times when she disobeyed my request not to call me Harper, but was I really allowed to be angry over this? I could not in good conscience call these actions anything other than nuisances. I was again questioning whether I had been found or found out. As the tides shifted and felt more gentle than resentful, I felt myself again leaning towards giving her the benefit of the doubt and decidedly feeling I had been found rather than found out. At the same time, it was clear that to some degree she held onto her beliefs that I was selfish and deceptive. When she became aware that I had another Facebook page on which I was out as trans that she was blocked from, she was furious and told me that social media was the only way she could know what was going on in my life and that therefore I had to add her to that page. When I told her she could just ask me, she told me I would lie. I could feel her falling back into a need for control. She was trying to force my identity into a familial structure so she could understand it. However, this had become the break in character rather than the default. The baseline is always shifting, forcing me to let go of the resentment I once held, forgive something that had never been apologized for, and accept that I will never have full agency over my identity: unable to come out, I am perpetually rendered in a flux between being found and being found out.