Since I was a child, I have been motivated by an organic drive to dismantle systems of oppression and violence. At 13 years old, I began organizing my friends and family to register folks to vote against George W. Bush in the presidential election. Since then, as I have organized in communities all over the country with different people who have a similar approach, we have explored different ways of combating systemic and structural violence. Our paid work takes up most of our time, but our conversations after the protests, conferences, and meetings — whether in hotel rooms, someone’s living room, or outdoors — are about how tired we have been; the lack of support that leaves us feeling isolated and alone; and, our individual and shared pain and trauma. Having the space to talk about trauma is healing and an act of resistance.
Together, we resisted by fostering spaces of healing that have shifted the dialogue to the ways that white supremacy manifests as internal suffering — suffering that many go through in silence and shame. Shame about who we are (or aren’t) and what we do (or don’t do). We have resisted by beginning to ask and answer the question: what could the world be if we all shifted the focus to building spaces of healing and restoration for us? We have resisted by creating spaces where we can speak about our trauma, if only with ourselves. We have resisted by choosing to love. We have resisted by creating and expressing.
You were 6 years old. You needed to be held. You deserved it. You are not selfish. You do not make people sick.
Thank you to my love, partner, and best friend, Joy KMT — without you pushing me to take my own medicine and invest in my healing this piece would not exist.
[Originally read at Trans Voices: Open Letters in honor of Trans Day of Resilience]
I remember the first time you heard the sting of sharp-tongued words hit the base of your ear drum and offer a resounding, “You are the devil. I don’t want nothing to do with you. Don’t call me.” You were ten & hanging on every last word. Standing in the courtroom with what felt like 1,000 people, and they were all staring at you. Tears started to well up in your eyes, your face turned hot, and I remember you detaching from what still feels like the greatest pain you had ever felt. Your father. The clean cut military reservist and postal worker sporting the darkest 5 o’clock shadow you had ever seen on his face. Smelling and looking like he hadn’t showered in over a week. Wearing a tan jumpsuit and handcuffs around his ankles and wrists. Six feet and two inches tall looking down at your small frame and telling you that you caused all this.
Everything freezes You go numb. I get distant.
You see, you don’t know this yet, but the experiences you have now will impact your ability to see us clearly. Throughout our lives, we will be forced to learn to bear witness to the vast fullness of who we are. Not just the things we’ve been through…we must commit to acknowledging the emotional and material impact those things had on you.
Six years old. Sitting at your desk, just finished your homework and there was a lighter tucked inside the pen cup.
Lighter meet homework — the thin, brown recycled paper lit instantly and the flame was moving quickly up the page. You threw the paper down and stomped on it. For emphasis, you ran to the bathroom (just pass the argument coming from your parents’ bedroom), grabbed some water and a cloth, and attempted to clean the burn on the carpet. All the ashes thrown into the garbage and just two inches of lightly burnt carpet were left as evidence. Just after thinking you had gotten away with it, your parents opened the door to your room and asked, “What’s that burning smell?” Terrified of the repercussions, you say, “I don’t know.” In what felt like seconds later, your little brother, 3 years old, comes in and says, “I did it.” Your parents are angry and yelling at him and you hear him get beat for you. Three years later, after being forced to sit in the backseat of the car by you yelling the ever-so-serious “SHOTGUN” at the top of your lungs, your little brother blurted, “I never burnt that carpet.” The horror of the truthful revelation hit you as hard as the back-handed slap in the face from your father that cracked the passenger window that one time.
You are not a liar. Yes, I remember that being your first big lie & the reaction & I know that we have lived our life under the impression that, like your mother said to you that night, “once a liar, always a liar, & God hates a liar.” All you could see was the fire and brimstone you would be forced to face for the rest of eternity. Now, I don’t even believe in Hell, yet we still feel the swelling wave of panic that overcomes me at even the smallest discrepancy.
Later that year, Little Dave, our favorite cousin, was killed in a gang shooting on Federal Street. Grandma Irene, his only parent, lost her mind. No, literally, she lost her mind. Yes, you were only six, but in your six-year-old reality, she was running back and forth on the concrete in the middle of a thunderstorm after she got the news. I remember her tossing you to the ground and you trying to keep up with her as she ran out the front door of her tiny shoebox apartment in Allegheny Dwellings. You were responsible for holding her 6-foot 1-inch frame down on the couch and you had failed. Within the next month, grandma went from working for the Mayor’s Office, selling Avon, serving as a ward captain, and just being your grandma to someone you didn’t even recognize. She had changed. She was angry and sad all of the time and she couldn’t remember who anyone was. For some time after Little Dave died, you and grandma shared a bed that she later fell out of and it felt like days later she had a stroke, was diagnosed with advanced diabetes that led to glaucoma and blindness, and could barely move.
Michael David, you blamed yourself. Your grandma did not get ill because you let her get off the couch that night. Your grandma did not lose her mind because you were unable to keep her safe. You were six years old. You needed to be held. You deserved it. Michael David, you witnessed more violence in that night than some people experience in a lifetime. You are not irresponsible. You are not selfish. And, you do not make people sick.
Ten years old. You skip school with Mark and Brandon for the first time to drink beer and smoke spliffs outside the church down the street. At first, the beer tastes nasty and you hate the smell of weed. Mark and Brandon are laughing as you are choking on the smoke. About 20 minutes later, you were slumped on the steps and feeling euphoric, so they told you to follow it up with a Newport. When your mom found out you were smoking, she said, “Go on ‘head and smoke; it’ll be the hardest habit you ever have to quit.” You laughed. And, we still smoke. Every time she sees you, she makes mention, “Ugh, you smell just like a smoker.” Laughing, she says, “You stink.”
Michael David, alcohol will get you caught up in a lot of trouble in college. And on some days, blacking out will be the only thing that saves you from taking on your own life. Alcohol has been a tool that will scare you more times than you’d like to admit.
The 24-pack of Milwaukee’s Best that always sat on the front porch;
the Seagram’s lime-twisted gin that he sipped from throughout the day;
and, the drunken apology that he gave after the first time he beat you out of your sleep.
When it comes to substances, we have to learn to navigate them in a way that doesn’t destroy everything we have worked so hard to combat. Alcohol helped you navigate an almost all-White girls school for four years in college in a neighborhood where you were regularly chased by the police for suspicion. Alcohol helped you navigate feelings of shame and isolation about your Blackness, your transness, your queerness, and your femininity. Alcohol was there when your father showed up at your apartment to “fight you like the man you wanted to be”…sent you text messages and voicemails that were only repetitions of your birth name, slicing into the very fiber of your body with every syllable…and, alcohol was there when you called him and said, “I won’t let you hurt me anymore. And, I won’t be there to bury you.”
Michael David, it is okay that you blocked his number and still look to see if he has called four-and-a-alf years later. It is okay that you wonder if he still reads the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette every day and comes across your name. It’s okay that you wish you could see him smile about the work you are doing. Michael David, you do not have to prove that you are worthy of love by working ten times harder just to make it half as far. And, it is okay that you miss him. It’s okay that you want him to love you, even now.
Michael David, you are not your father. Today, you are the father to five stunning, striking, and divine beings who challenge you each day to be the highest form of yourself. You don’t always get it right. So, no matter how many times you call Aunt Betty Jean and she says, “Boy, you sound just like your father,” even after you told her that you hate it when she says that, you are not him. You have an opportunity to be better. You have an opportunity to choose love. He may not have shown you the love that you wanted, but you have an opportunity to be the father to five children and shower them with the love that you always wanted. You have already chosen love. You are using your pain as a catalyst to manifest spaces like this one right here. You chose to leave a job that didn’t serve you. You chose art. You chose to start an organization for queer and trans people of color in a country that believes you shouldn’t exist. You chose to stop toxic relationships for the ones that embrace the full you.
Michael David, I love you and I’m proud of you. Keep challenging, keep pushing, and keep loving. You are worth it.