One of the ways I have been coping with everything is writing letters. I write them in my head all the time to you, to Mom, to the kids, to everyone. Sometimes I write them down. I’ve often thought about writing an entire book in the form of letters. I’m still thinking about it, actually. I have many letters already written about all kinds of topics. But this letter to you is the hardest to write and I’m not sure why.
I like to imagine the beginning of my life where you and Mom first saw me. I was screaming and all pink and healthy looking. I remember the picture of me upside down and you always told me the doctor kind of smacked me to help me clear my lungs, but I didn’t need any help. As I recall, the story goes that as soon as my mouth was out, I was screaming. And then you’d always say “And you haven’t shut up since then…” I don’t think you will ever understand how many times you made reference to how I talked too much, never shut up, asked too many questions, and told me no one cared to hear what I had to say. Those things hurt at the time and they still hurt. I felt shut down and like my voice didn’t matter. I stopped talking in school in 7th grade. The message from you was loud and clear and my peers chimed in at that point too. They confirmed what you had been saying all along; I was too much.
I remember when the bagger at the grocery store told you that you had a wonderful son who was very helpful. I smiled at him and then at you, but your face was mad. I think I was somewhere around five years old. Your face was so mad and you corrected him. “That’s my DAUGHTER.” I remember the bagger looked at me sadly and apologized. I was embarrassed for him and for me. I wish you wouldn’t have corrected him. It was like you were offended by him misgendering me, but I wasn’t. All I ever wanted was to be a boy. You knew that. You knew it by the clothes I chose, the clothes I DID NOT choose, and what I asked to do. I wanted baseball and you chose ballet for me. I wanted to wear boys’ pants and you brought home dresses, or threw dresses over the changing room door to Mom for me to try on. I hated them, all of them. Sometimes I would feel bad and I would agree to try something on, especially when Mom would say “Just do this for your father, it would make him so happy.” And I learned that your happiness was greater than mine. She would make me come out of the changing room to show you the dress I hated and your eyes would light up. You’d tell me I was such a beautiful girl and a little part of me died every time you said that. I’d go with Mom to get my haircut and I’d try to find the shortest hair picture I could find every time. When I came back, you’d always make a point to say how feminine I looked. I hated you for that. I did not want to look feminine.
You were a great protective dad. You didn’t want me to date until I was 16. You were scared boys would take advantage of me. You hid so much of the harshness I was going to face so that when I was in danger, I had no idea. And I was violated repeatedly as a teenager and young adult. I didn’t need a protective dad. I needed a dad who saw who I really was. I needed a dad that would say “I see that you are struggling with wanting to be a boy. How can I help you?” I didn’t need you invalidating everything about me. Telling me I was too much and that I was so feminine when I was obviously trying not to be feminine. I tried to tell you that I felt uncomfortable with boys and you liked that. You felt that it would keep me safe and away from boys. You didn’t know that I just wanted to be friends with the boys. And that the first girl those boys would try to take advantage of would be their friend that hung out with them. I was violated long before you could imagine. I was 11 when two of my male friends held me down in the woods and a third took his pants off and pulled my pants down and tried to have sex with me. I can’t remember if I agreed to it or I didn’t really understand what was happening. When I heard them say they all wanted a turn, I fought all three of them off. Nothing happened to me other than my pants were pulled down. When that boy laid down on me, the other two let go. I shoved him off of me into the dead leaves and I jumped up quickly. I got my pants pulled up with my brother shielding me and taking punches from those other two boys. I did not hang out with them again. Your “real” son, my brother, felt so scared when I was held down that he was too paralyzed to help me until I got myself free. He was only 7 anyway. They were all 10, almost 11. He cried when we rode our bikes back home and hid in the backyard. He kept telling me he was sorry and he was mad at what they were trying to do to me. I never told you anything about it. And he didn’t either. We both knew that you would overreact and we would somehow be responsible for it. So we kept it to ourselves and never told you. We just stopped hanging out with those boys. We only hung with Steven down the street after that. Or Nathan and his brothers. Ironically Nathan was cousins with the boy who took his pants off, but that boy wasn’t allowed at Nathan’s house because he lit something on fire in the backyard. We never went into the woods after that.
When I started puberty, you talked about it with other people. Relatives talked about me “developing” to my face. Why adults think it’s ok to openly comment on a young girl’s body, I will never understand. I hate you for constantly bringing this up to me. I also hate you for having to be the one who handed me the package of teenage menstrual pads. Why couldn’t you just leave them outside my door anonymously? Or let Mom do it? Why did you have to intentionally make everything awkward and then laugh about it when I blushed or begged you to stop? Why did you have to bring up sex all the time and then pat yourself on the back for being the dad who wasn’t afraid to talk about it? You made so much awkward for me without even caring that I was uncomfortable. You never cared that I was uncomfortable.
When I went to college, I was scared about going to a women’s college. I had really struggled with having female friends and I wasn’t sure I could fit in with an entire school of women. But you were all about it. You liked the idea that boys weren’t just running all around, unsupervised. In fact, that was the first question you asked when we were on the campus tour before I applied to the college. “Are boys allowed in the dorms?” Sure I had a boyfriend at the time, but I was most definitely not having sex at all. We weren’t interested in that. We moved very, very slow. But I didn’t want to talk to you about that. I wanted my life away from home to never be part of the conversation at home. I needed to have my own world, where you couldn’t interfere with it. Or ruin it, basically, because you ruined everything in my eyes.
I struggled that first semester in college. I was like a child among adults. I was petty and mean to my roommate. I didn’t know how to be a good friend to women. There were a few other awkward souls that I connected with that first semester. I survived that first semester, but I was planning to transfer after the second one. But my entire life changed that second semester. I had been struggling with my sexuality. Or, more accurately, I knew I liked girls. The attraction was so strong. I felt like I had been zapped by electricity once I realized I was attracted to a classmate. My whole world changed and I saw color for the first time in my life. I was happy. It all started to make sense. I knew I wasn’t a lesbian though, and that was always a sticking point with her. Everyone told me I was, but I knew I wasn’t. I knew I liked girls. I didn’t want to tell anyone at home for a long time, but my hand was forced.
You reacted so badly and it has permanently destroyed our relationship. We will never recover from it. Nor will we recover from you constantly bringing this moment up as “the moment you broke my heart” or “that thing that destroyed me.” The last time you brought it up was less than 5 years ago. And I told you if you did that again, we would be done forever and you would never see me again. This was the third time in my short 19 years that you assigned blame inappropriately to me. The first was when I was 8 and the boy on the bus exposed himself to me and groped me and when I finally worked up the nerve to tell you, you blew up and asked me what took so long to tell you and what did I expect you to do when you needed to get to work? The second was when I was 16 and my boyfriend at the time groped me while we were hiking and you said it was my fault for being alone with him. And now me being in a happy, functional relationship was what destroyed you? I gave you two passes when I was 8 and 16, but this was unforgivable. I spent the next two decades of my life flailing. Not trusting myself to do anything right. Thinking I was a terrible monster who just hurt people without thought.
The more than I sit here and recall all of this, the more i find myself wanting to shut you out again, even as we have been trying to work on our communication the last 6 weeks or so. We are trying to move past everything. But I don’t think I can. I don’t think I can look away from how you treated me and made me feel small. You think that because you are accepting of my marriage now that we are all good. We aren’t, because you still don’t know the real me. You intentionally looked away from what I was trying to show you as a little kid. You forced me to be what you wanted and you emotionally manipulated me into doing what made you happy. You took my voice, my self-esteem, my trust in myself and others, and you poisoned my mind into believing I was worthless. The narrative that tells me I am not enough and I am unlovable is in YOUR VOICE. The narrative that criticizes every little thing I do wrong is my mom’s, but your voice is the one that tells me I am too much yet not enough.
Allow me to introduce myself. I am Zander, your son. I was born this way and the only choice here is me choosing to live as who I know I am. There is no option for discussion or explanation on this. This is simply who I am and the sooner you accept it, the better our relationship will be. The daughter you tried and failed to protect does not exist and never did. That was the facade you projected onto me. I know you don’t believe I was a people-pleaser because I argued with you all the time, but I was. I hid away from who I really was because your rejection scared me. But the truth is that your rejection has already happened. When you corrected the bagger, told me I looked feminine, and ignored my clothing preferences, you were rejecting who I really was. And I let you all this time. Today that stops.
I am Zander. The choice is to accept that or not. What I do next depends on what you choose. You don’t get a vote in what my future looks like anymore.