Three women sat in the descending gloom of the first day of daylight savings time. The hour was early but leafless trees scratched the windows to say how very late it was. Three generations sat in a circle in the sewing room, mom, daughter, granddaughter. Mom grew up in the 50’s in the mythical America of winged cars and sock hops where my dad, voted class wolf, wore greased back hair and cigarettes rolled up in his sleeve. The daughter, me, was born in the years between the high of civil rights and the low of bussing in Boston. The granddaughter, my brother Andrew’s daughter Seba, was born in days of cacophonous change when homosexual became gay and lesbian and queer and trans and became a fight for equality we thought we’d nearly won.
The sewing is done and we have finished stitching out the news–how is school, and what will we do for Thanksgiving, and aren’t little brothers just the worst. Three women sat in a room: a white woman who had the great joy of a life full with family, of middle-class dreams paid for with sweat equity and houses painted with her own hands, an American experience that spawned a million MAGA fantasies; a black woman born biracial and living half a century in predominantly white spaces, dancing along the heartbreaking ridge of America’s color line; a young woman, a girl still, brave and bold, president of her school’s gays straight alliance that she helped to found, trick or treating as the gay superhero for Halloween, trailing a rainbow and trans flag behind her.
“So,” my mother begins, calling to order this unplanned meeting in her sewing room. “how are you voting on the questions,” she says in reference to Massachusetts’ three ballot questions. Question one is hard to decide, and we talk about the arguments being put up by both sides while Seba, the granddaughter watches us ping-pong back and forth. “I’m too young to vote,” she reminds us, free from having to figure out the complexities of mandated nurse minimums.
“And three? ” my mother asks, like a host who has finally gotten to the juicy part of the interview. We three exchange glances, pausing to see who takes sides. Question three is about recent protections the state put in place for trans people, allowing them, among other things, to use the bathroom of their choice without fear of consequence. A “no” vote would roll back protection while a “yes” vote would ensure that protections stay in place. Sometimes similar bills are dubbed bathroom bills, but the stakes for trans people aren’t contained in the stall alone.
We talk about the incidents of sexual assault resulting from someone taking advantage of gender misidentification. There are none. My mother seems skeptical at first but agrees that she has seen the reporting. We talk about what a gender-neutral bathroom looks like.
We talk about sexual assault. Do you really think that sexual assault will be curtailed by this bill? One in four women are sexually assaulted, and no one seems to care about all the places where that happens.
We talk about the false narrative of people “claiming” trans to get some mysterious benefit–what? bathroom privileges? the joy of trans discrimination? Seba tells about her trans friends who worry about violence at school and violence at home.
“How do they know they are trans?” my mother asks. I ask her when she knew she was straight. We talk about decades of changing ideas about what “makes” someone something.
We talk about suicide rates and school bullies and trans men and trans women. We talk about trans people we know, trans people we love and the struggles we hate to see them go through. We talk about history and the not so distant past. “We didn’t use to have trans people,” my mother says.
“Because they died. Or they hid. It wasn’t safe, but they were always there,” I say. We sit for a moment with the heaviness.
Seba turns our mind to ancient history and cultures that had three-four-five genders. I talk about the forties and fifties when sexual orientation and pedophilia were lumped together in the deviant sex category by a psychology field in its infancy, and how much we have learned since then about the human body and mind in our evolutionary times. This is a good debate. We talk calmly. We work to inform each other with solid information.
Seba, with the prescience of children, sees first the rising tide of my tears. My mother can smell my emotions, suddenly surging, threatening to flood our most civil debate. I see myself wound tight reflected in the concern in their faces. I did not plan to have this conversation. I can feel myself mount the bull of all the anger and sadness about racism I cage.
“You know,” I begin. I don’t want to go on because I feel the tears and I’m fighting them because I don’t want to. I don’t want to cry and I don’t want to make this personal but it is personal and it’s too late and fuck it so with love I remind her.
“You know how hard it was.” I don’t have to finish. I don’t have to remind her how hard it was to grow up the only person of color in my community, my class, in my family. “And her, ” I motion to Seba. My mother sees in real time her beautiful brave rainbow butterfly emerging from her cocoon in a world that is not quite ready to love her yet.
And my mother knows. She is a white woman who wore gloves, and saddle shoes, a Hancock girl in a tony Back Bay dorm waiting for marriage to sweep her up into her life of raising a family. She is also a woman who whispered to me of a great grandmother’s kitchen table abortion and quest for a college degree, who loved my father–a second generation American who’s Irish father emigrated when “No Irish” signs dotted Boston’s streets, who adopted a biracial child even when others whispered about her black baby, who knit, just this month, a rainbow-colored scarf for Seba ringed with a neon green as bright as her cherished granddaughter. My mother has soothed too many tears caused by discrimination to be unfamiliar with a world of pain she may not frequent.
“And you’re a woman,” Seba reminded her. For all my mothers many happy years, she too has never lived in a country that granted her full equality.
“In the end, there is only one question–do you believe everyone deserves the same rights?” Arguing for the rights of trans kids, I find myself arguing for my own liberation, feeling like that awkward second grader, my afro floating like a balloon amongst my all-white classmates. I see my mother recognize the girl in me, a little girl that she would do anything to protect from discrimination.
We had exhausted the talking points, finished arguing with our heads. The argument of the heart simply and sweetly settled the debate. If you love me, you want the best for me. If I deserve it, everyone else’s child deserves it. There is no debate.
“I know.” My mother is unequivocal. Her answer was a vote not just for a ballot measure for trans children, but also for her own daughter and the racism she faced, and her gay granddaughter, and for herself. Empathy is not easily compartmentalized: enough of it will spill into all areas of life, a rising tide that lifts all boats.
“This is very different from what it used to be like,” my mother says, no nostalgia, merely observation. We balance the weight of change between us. It is hard, we agree, to sometime wrap your mind around ideas that are different from what you have always heard. But life is this, listening, learning, shifting. It takes time, like growing the loveliest flower, to let new ways of thinking take the place of outdated dogma. Seba and I watched my mother bloom, opening up to see clearly her daughter and her granddaughter and her own self stretching towards the light, towards justice.
So we sat, three women in a room, three generations, three different identity groups, bound together by a mix of blood and love and time. Bound now by a renewed commitment to each other’s freedom. Three women who loved each other dearly bound by an explicit commitment that we would none of us be free until everybody ‘s child was free, seeing each other clearly in the rapidly darkening night.