cw: lgbtq, HIV/AIDS, death, grief, medical, tattoos
People don’t become what they were brought up to be, people become themselves. —Sarah Schulman, People in Trouble
My godfather Richard was my mom’s best friend. He was also a drag queen. They met when they both lived in NYC at the very end of the 1970s—my mom was looking for someone to do affordable electrolysis on her eyebrows and mustache and my godfather was the person with the right price who answered the door one afternoon in an Alphabet City walk up. They became inseperable and the one time they got into Studio 54, it was together of course. I spent my childhood bemoaning the fact that they didn’t really take photos during that time, especially at Studio 54, and my mom would just roll her eyes.
“Do you know how uncool that would have looked?” She threw her hands up in the air.
My mom’s dance career was cut short by a torn ACL at almost 22. She came home to Florida and my godfather came with her. My conservative grandparents were polite but not super pleased that my mom had a gay man attached to her hip. They were even less pleased when she chose him to be my godfather a few years later.
“Well, he is Catholic.” My mom grinned as she shut down the conversation.
If my aunt was my life raft during my teen years, Richard was that during the first big part of my childhood. He understood my mom, he was patient with her, and he doted on her. She had a full time job and was still trying to work on the side as a choreographer all while being unhappy with my dad. She felt trapped and this seeped into everything she wanted for me. I was little but I was constantly being told I had to do big things, I had to be successful, I had to live the life that had been taken from her with one injury. I felt the pressure all the time but didn’t really know anything else.
“Don’t worry, she’ll ease up eventually.” He would squeeze my hand.
I only had fun when Richard was around, when he and my mom would laugh and listen to disco and new wave and Latin freestyle in our living room, encouraging me to dance and spin until I fell on the carpet. He was the one who protected me from my mom’s moods and loved us both so much. My mom was so full of light and I think this was when I saw the real her, the part that wanted something completely different than what she had. She was her best self with Richard. He adored her the way she had always wanted and that sunshine landed on me and the whole life they imagined for me. They were partners in a way my parents never were.
It was HIV when my godfather was diagnosed but it quickly developed into AIDS, in just less than a year. My mom spent all of her time taking care of him and calling his parents to beg them to come see him; they never did. I wasn’t there when he died but I knew it had happened as soon as my mom walked through the front door. The next day she took me to Burdines to buy me a black dress to wear to the funeral—I was seven. His was the first dead body I ever saw and I can still see his waxy face, the concealer shiny and dry at once. They played his favorite song, Rose Royce’s “Wishing on a Star”, on a boombox as they slid his casket into the mausoleum slot. Whatever hope I had of my mom softening and letting me become whoever I was going to be was buried that day too.
I didn’t know I was queer when I was seven; that part didn’t come until later. I did know that my favorite person was dead and that my mom was miserable. I also knew my Catholic school theology teacher was full of shit when she told my class that gay people went to hell. I pushed back, which was very much not my style as a kid, but it was one of the few times I let myself tap into anger back then. I yelled at her. I told her if anyone was going to hell it would be her. I screamed that if my godfather was in hell then there was no god, that I’d go there too because he was the best person I’d ever known.
She walked me by the back of the neck to the principal’s office where I sat while they called my mom. I expected my mom to lose it on me for getting in trouble but the opposite happened. I waited in the hall while she yelled at the principal and the theology teacher and told them if they ever brought anything like this up again, they would be sorry. Tears were streaming down my mom’s face when she walked out and motioned for me to follow her. She was quiet the whole ride home until we pulled into the driveway and she turned off the car.
“You don’t have to be sorry,” she said. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
We never talked about it again.
I am every millennial bisexual on Twitter by which I mean that I had a huge crush on both Devon Sawa and Christina Ricci in Now and Then (1995). It didn’t feel wrong per se but I knew enough about how mean everyone was in middle school to not say anything about it out loud. I kissed boys before girls but I knew I liked both; I knew I liked a range of genders. I knew what I wasn’t: straight. I started telling friends my senior year of high school and I told my mom close to graduation in a rare moment of sobriety for her. I was shocked when she didn’t take it well.
“But you weren’t a tomboy,” she said. “You’re girly and you’re really pretty. I just don’t think this is you.”
I went to college with this in the back of my head. I knew who I was but I was also haunted by the doubts my mom put into my head. I lived my life openly at college and explored who I was but I was paralyzed by the prospect of being on my own. My grandparents eventually found out I was queer from my mom and everyone was very concerned about me. Anything that I did, anything that went wrong in my life was blamed on this, this queer thing that I obviously had to have been pressured into by bad influences. Not that there was anything wrong with being gay! But it wasn’t for me, you know? Not for their daughter and granddaughter.
I was so depressed and just completely rudderless. My grades suffered not because I wasn’t interested in my studies but because I was questioning everything about myself and my life. I had gone from a cocoon with my family (albeit one that was smothering) to being out in the cold with the reality of our relationship finally being clear: I wouldn’t be supported in any way but especially not emotionally unless I found the right path again. I felt dead inside. I knew I was pushing a huge part of me into a box in the back of my head but I had also been conditioned to feel entirely helpless. I was lit up by queer theory and the history of ACT UP and the idea that I could connect with my mom through the memory of my godfather and the fluidity of identity and the relationships and friendships and community and activism I’d found but I was also terrified to lose my relationship with my family. I covered up my tattoos in long sleeves and let my hair grow long. My mom was too deep into alcoholism to remember her friend, to remember the joy of being young and exactly who you are.
I transferred to a college near my hometown and found myself living with my grandparents. They knew about my tattoos from visiting me during a hospital visit a few months before but didn’t mention them for almost two months. We pretended everything was fine. We circled each other that summer and I never took off a cardigan around them. I even wore a zip up jacket to the gym every day. It was finally mentioned when my shirt slid off my shoulder while I read a book on the couch.
“What’s on your arm?” My grandmother frowned.
“What do you think it is?” I snapped.
She didn’t say anything but she didn’t have to: she was disappointed. She left the room and came back with my grandfather who also already knew about my tattoos but pretended to be newly surprised and concerned. It was then I realized that not only had I changed; their love had changed. I heard them later that night on the phone telling my parents about the tattoos, about how they never expected this of me. I slept in a long sleeve t-shirt that night.
I’m from South Florida and so it was easy to find a plastic surgeon that offered tattoo removal. I had my consultation with a very blond woman who poked around at my tattoos. She told me they should come off in a year or two at most and we could begin as soon as possible. She clicked her tongue at my ice cream cone, my lady with a pistol inked directly from ACT UP historical materials—outlined in black, her gun fuschia, the text not on my body but in every ounce of who I was: not gay as in happy but queer as in fuck you.
“Such a pretty girl,” she said. “Shame.”
“She’s not like that,” my grandmother replied. “I don’t understand what happened.”
I sat like a specimen pinned to a dissection pad and pulled up my sleeve. I started to cry and they both patted me on the back, telling me I was still beautiful, that I would be again. I told them I wanted to begin as soon as possible. I wanted my family to love me again, I wanted to stop feeling shame; I just wanted to stop everything. My grandmother wrote a check for almost $4000, which would cover removal indefinitely, until the tattoos were entirely gone. She hugged me on the elevator.
My first appointment was the very next day. I wore something sleeveless under my jacket and sat upright in the exam room. While I was holding the hose of cold air on my skin, they told me the first session would be the most painful. I nodded and put on the protective glasses and closed my eyes as well. I kept them shut tight as they began the procedure. It hit; it hurt more than I can express, more than the original tattoos, more than any other pain I’ve ever experienced. Tears streamed down my face as it went on for twenty minutes, the lasers breaking up the pigment of the ink for the body to push out. My arm swelled to twice its size by the time it was over. The nurse asked me if I was ok as she bandaged my arm and I could barely nod. I cradled my arm inside my jacket as I drove home.
I spent the next four days in bed as my body pushed ink out of me. I had a fever for two of those days and blistering, bleeding pain for all of them. Most of the time, I laid very still and looked at the ceiling trying to stay in my body. The next month’s appointment hurt slightly less, as each one did over time and the tattoos started to fade. I started classes at the college I had transferred to and I focused for the first time in my college career. I got excellent grades, I got my GPA up, I participated in extracurricular activities, I did what I was supposed to do. I was still unhappy, I hadn’t beat that yet, but this time around, no one could tell. If they could, no one cared because I seemed fine.
I did it for two years and they faded but they never went away. At what ended up being my last appointment, I stopped the nurse as she switched lasers and asked when she thought these would be done. She looked pensive for a minute.
“I don’t know that these will ever be done,” she told me.
I let her complete the procedure and I made the appointment for the next month. I didn’t think about what she said until the morning I woke up and realized I didn’t want to do it anymore. One of the tattoos ended up getting covered by something else and the lady with the gun is still there, a faded reminder that I couldn’t outrun who I am.
I married a cishet man and my family was happy. I’m happy (for very different reasons than they are)! But it took time for me to come back to myself fully, to engage with my sexuality and identity, to begin activist work not just in queer spaces but in adjacent radical spaces as well. I told my mom who I was a second time, a few months before I moved to Canada. I said I loved my husband but that isn’t all of who I am, that I was queer and it shaped so much of how I existed and moved through the world. She lowered her head while I spoke and finally lifted her face to look at me.
“I know who you are,” she said. “He always told me to let you be you.”
This isn’t a coming out although I’ve come out a few times in my life. This isn’t a pride story even though it is the last day of pride month. There isn’t a bow to tie on this, there isn’t a resolution here. There is just the reminder that love shouldn’t be conditional, that you can’t be who others want you to be if it isn’t who you are, that you don’t have to carry anyone else’s shame about who you are. We will never be crushed by the weight of other people’s versions of who we are. That isn’t mine and it isn’t yours—don’t you dare carry it.