I wrote you a letter last night, but it didn’t post, and somehow I don’t even find a draft of it. So I get to write it again.
Well, by the time I write the next letter, you and your mother will have finally joined me in Syracuse. This has been one of the hardest stretches I’ve had in years; I miss you two so much, and I think of you all the time.
It’s hard for me to tell you how you’ve been changing over the past month, when I haven’t seen you very much. We talk on the phone most days, and we use Skype (I don’t know what it’ll be called by the time you read this, but right now it’s using laptop computers’ camera and microphone functions to talk to one another over long distances. It’s been around for a while, but it’s still not perfect; every now and then we lose connections or they freeze up) a couple times a week, usually, but it’s just not the same at all. I don’t get my hugs and kisses and “squeeze-pops.” I don’t get to scratch your back. I don’t get to push your hair back out of your eyes, which are so much like your mother’s eyes.
Your behavior hasn’t been the best this past month — I know that. Some of it is your changing circumstances, and the fact that I’m not there. Some of it is just because you’re three years old, and you’re testing limits. You have a tendency to answer a lot of your mother’s requests with an immediate, “I’m not going to do dat,” or “No, I don’t want to.” Sometimes, you’ve even said it automatically when she was offering you something you really did want.
It can be frustrating, but I’ll level with you — I’ve seen the struggles a lot of other parents have had with their own kids at this age, and even though I know most of those parents have probably worked just as hard as we have at being the best parents we can be, some of those kids are just flat-out obnoxious. I know it’s not a nice thing to say. I know those parents don’t want their kids screaming and throwing tantrums and all that, and I don’t blame the parents under most circumstances — and I know the kids are still just kids and haven’t figured out how to control their own actions to the extent that adults would like them to, so I can’t really blame them either. But it doesn’t mean I like it any better. I just accept it easier.
I really have no idea how old you’ll be when you read these. It makes it tough, sometimes, to figure out what to talk to you about. If I knew you’d read them at age 13, I’d talk about things that might be important when you’re 13. If I knew it wouldn’t be until age 30, I might talk about more serious matters.
If I thought you’d start reading them at 7, I might be a bit more careful.
But there’s something in particular I want to talk to you about this month. It’s tough for me to talk about, because a lot of people I care deeply about don’t agree with me, and in general I prefer peace to an argument. But sometimes, keeping the peace isn’t as important as doing what’s right.
I want to talk to you about a friend of mine. And even this is risky, because my perception of what happened is definitely only a small portion of the reality of it. We can never know someone else’s situation in its entirety. I only know what I saw. I can only tell you what it looked like to me.
My friend — for this letter, I’ll call him Elliott (not because that name has any connection to him that I know of, but because it’s the first name I saw on a book cover when I looked around from where I’m sitting right now) — was, to put it bluntly, difficult. He had a tendency to be overbearing. Loud. Rude. Offensive. He and I had a number of arguments that left one or both of us storming away. For someone like me, who prefers peace, it was at times hard to be his friend.
But at other times, when he would let his guard down and be real, he was full of so much love that it was amazing to behold.
Elliott was troubled; we all knew that. He had health issues, he had personal issues with family and friends, he had financial issues. He would laughingly tell us that he was a mess, and we all had to agree, quietly, that he wasn’t joking. But he had stunning levels of creativity as well, and it was impossible not to find yourself caught in the wake of his genius ideas and counter-cultural artistic concepts.
I spoke at his wedding. Technically, I presided over it (having gotten the simple, legal paperwork required by Indiana to have the right to do that), and it was one of the happiest days I had with him. That’s what Elliott meant to me. He was a mentor, a friend, and someone I just flat-out enjoyed.
This is where it gets to my perception of events, and people who were closer to him than I was may read this and pick it apart, telling me how wrong I am. That’s possible.
Elliott was gender fluid.
I don’t know if that term will stick around in the long run. It’s relatively new to the English lexicon and there are still a lot of competing terms, frankly, all trying to be claimed and defined. If for any reason that term has fallen out of favor, I apologize. If it has just vanished, I’ll explain.
When you identify as gender fluid, it means that your gender varies over time. At any time, Elliott could find himself identifying as male, female, a combination… it’s the sort of thing that’s very hard to explain to people used to living in a very binary world.
In case things have changed — and I hope they have for a lot of this — I’ll give you context for the way things are right now, from my perspective.
Most people finally accept that being gay is not a choice. Many people still reject that. The majority of Americans have finally come around to supporting marriage for all, not just “traditional” hetero, cisnormative couples, and the Supreme Court just this year finally affirmed that right.
(I’m hoping that you’re a little appalled that it took this long.)
However, there is still a strong social hierarchy in place, and in general most people want to believe that you have one sex and one orientation and that’s all that you should really worry about. You’re a man or a woman, and you’re straight or gay.
We’re just barely starting to see a movement to reduce the stigma attached to bisexuality and transgender. Even the vocabulary is still a hot topic, frankly, and I still make mistakes at times. If you find those, I really am sorry — I’m trying.
Anyway. “Gender fluid” is a term that many, many people don’t know — and a concept that has never occurred to most of them. It doesn’t make sense to them that someone could feel like a boy one day and a girl one day and never “choose” (as if it’s a choice). Even many gays and lesbians look down on this, despite the struggles they have faced for acceptance themselves.
So when Elliott would occasionally wear a dress, a wig, and make-up, people didn’t understand. They didn’t understand that at that moment, Elliott wasn’t looking for attention, or trying to “fool” someone into an encounter they didn’t want, or anything like that. People were cruel to her. People mocked her. They called her names. I don’t know of any physical assaults, but the statistics would suggest she probably dealt with that at least once.
And Elliott didn’t understand it either. Elliott didn’t want to be “that way.” Sometimes — rarely, but sometimes — he would talk to me about it. He actually preferred to hide his feminine “side” from me. I never had the opportunity to hang out with Elliott while she was female, although I did see her once when walking to my car downtown.
By this point, many of my friends reading this — because I do publish them openly as I write them — know who I’m talking about, and that’s fine. Many others don’t — either they somehow never knew about Elliott’s gender fluidity, or they don’t have any idea who Elliott was.
And also, by this point, many of my friends reading this are probably having one of three reactions. Some people are nodding as they’re reading this, because they know someone like this or they’re like this themselves, and because they know the difficulty of just day-to-day existence when most of the people around think this is impossible or shameful. Some people are intrigued because they don’t know much about this at all, and maybe they’re having a revelation that I had, and that I’ll mention in a bit. And some of them are having negative reactions; they’re sad, or they’re angry, because they don’t believe that this is possible. They believe that Elliott was just “confused.” Or that he was “sinful,” because the Bible clearly delineates male and female, etc, etc, etc… which I know Elliott heard more than once.
Now I want to be careful when I say this. Elliott had a LOT going on, and there are an incredible number of reasons that things turned out the way they did. I’m not trying to suggest that Elliott’s gender fluidity was the only source of misery.
The masculine side… the feminine side… the blended side… we buried them all together when Elliott was taken off the machines that were providing life, after cirrhosis from years of alcoholism took its final toll.
I don’t know that the lack of acceptance by “the world in general” led to Elliott’s alcoholism. There were lots of factors. But I do know that it was definitely one of those factors. It scared him. And even though he had friends who accepted all of this, he never accepted it completely himself.
I spoke at the funeral, as well.
I want to talk about that revelation that I had — the one I referenced earlier. How does one “feel like a boy” or “feel like a girl”? What exactly does that mean? In some cases, there is what they call “body dysmorphia” — when you genuinely feel like your body isn’t right. But in a lot of cases, it’s not even about the body, and it’s often not about an orientation, either. (Elliott said more than once that he was a straight man and she was a gay woman.) In a lot of cases, it has to do with what we perceive as masculine or feminine traits. The “norms.” The things we learn from a young age — that men are more stoic, and technically minded, and competitive, and that women are more emotional, and creative, and collaborative.
Those traits may have a statistical basis, but I think most people would agree that they’re not definitive. There are plenty of emotional men. There are plenty of competitive women. Society gives them hassle about it a lot of the time, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It also doesn’t mean that they’re any less of a man or a woman.
So with that in mind, I honestly suspect that a whole lot of people would technically be considered gender fluid. Another term — maybe not quite identical, but with a similar concept — is non-binary. That rests largely in the belief that it’s not an either/or scenario. And I really believe that if people weren’t so quick to stick to the gender-role concepts they’ve been taught all along, if people were open to considering their feelings and behaviors without judgment, that most people would have to admit that it meant they were, technically, non-binary.
And that, to me, means that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all.
Who you are matters. What you do matters. But whether that’s the girliest girl, the manliest man, or some combination that thinks both of those terms aren’t just silly but also inaccurate — that doesn’t matter.
Once you start thinking about that, you start to realize how binary we try to make the world. (Not even just for gender; mixed-race children have the lowest rates of adoption in the U.S., and how dumb is that? Our current President is mixed-race, for crying out loud.)
I tell you every month to be who you are. And I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this, but it scares me to give you that advice. I’ve told you — I prefer peace over an argument. So what if who you are isn’t someone that society wants to acknowledge? What if being who you are has some painful personal cost to it? That scares me.
But the world isn’t going to change itself. Right now, there are still so many people who can’t be who they are because of the fear of what it could cost them. I’m working to make it a better place. I’m doing what I can. And I hope that by the time you read this, if the idea of the gender fluid and all the other beautifully complex issues that center around personal identity haven’t been sorted out yet, that at least some significant progress has been made.
I don’t care what your gender or orientation turn out to be. I don’t care if you’re non-binary or as binary as can be. Not in terms of what you’d mean to me. I know it may seem like I’m flogging the “agenda” of openness and acceptance almost as if I’m asking you to be something, but if you figure out that you like every last traditionally feminine thing and that’s who you are, I won’t love you any less and it’s not possible for me to love you any more.
I will be nervous if it turns out that who you are is someone who will have extra societal pressures. But I hope that I’m bringing you up to be strong and resilient, and to always, always, always know that you are loved.
I guess that’s it. I wrote this last night and I don’t think I got quite so preachy. I guess it really hit me a few days ago when I was thinking about all the people I miss in Indianapolis, and I remembered again that Elliott is gone. And I really miss Elliott.
Be who you are. As we say in ComedySportz: I’ve got your back.
And my other advice: when you meet someone new, remember what matters. Love.
I love you so much, Sage. Your mother and I both do. I can’t wait until I can get another one of your amazing hugs!!!