Mo RanyartLetters from the author to himself in his teens and early 20s, as he tries to sort out multiple facets of his identity.
You aren’t used to being called that yet, but it sounds good, right? I know you’ve never really connected with the name you were given, and that you wish you had another name, or a cool nickname people would use. Give it some time; you’ll really like this one, I promise.
It’s so easy for you to realize you have crushes on boys, but I wish you’d notice the crushes you’ve had on a couple girls, too. You’ve spent a lot of time daydreaming about what might happen when your penpal Rachel comes to visit; those daydreams have a lot of kissing in them, don’t they? You won’t wind up kissing her, but it might be helpful to remember that you wanted to. It means something, and I promise that it’ll be clearer eventually.
You cry a lot, and the world doesn’t feel real sometimes; your dreams are often the most vivid and memorable part of your day. I know you don’t feel safe talking to anyone about how bad you feel so much of the time, and I know you don’t feel safe seeking help because things went so badly the last time an adult learned how upset you felt. I’m sorry it’s so hard right now, and I’m sorry that you aren’t being offered the help you need. I’m so upset on your behalf about that. I wish I could offer help from where I am. I wish I could trust that anyone else would notice how badly you need it.
Also, I know you felt like you didn’t have the right words to express why it felt so wrong when your dad compared same-sex marriage to someone marrying their dog, but I’m glad you got mad and got into an argument about what he said, even though you weren’t sure how to win it. Your heart’s in the right place. Keep that anger safe; you’ll need it later.
We have to talk about your friend Tiffany. You think about her a lot. Her smile is amazing. She’s so clever and creative, and you love spending time with her. You pass notes in school constantly, and you get a little thrill every time you find one in your locker. I doubt you’re reading these words without smiling at least a little at the thought of her.
Mo, you sign your notes to each other with “Your Forbidden Love.” You call each other that all the time. It’s a joke between you, or so you both say, that you’d be in love if you weren’t both girls. Doesn’t it seem like maybe you have stronger feelings for her than just friendship?
Now that you think about it, doesn’t it seem obvious?
Do you remember the time you wound up together in the prom dress section of a department store when you were hanging out at the mall? Neither of you needed fancy dresses, but she suggested you try some on, anyway. She picked out a style and color you never would have chosen for yourself, but somehow it was perfect. You weren’t sure why it felt like such a special moment, to see yourself in something new that she chose for you, but you felt beautiful in a way you rarely did in those days. That shade of red will never stop reminding you of her.
I know you have reasons to believe she might not be able to accept your feelings any more than you can right now, even if she returns them, but I wish you could understand how you’re feeling now and not in a few years once she’s gone away to college. It’s a special thing to feel so strongly about someone else; I want you to be able to feel that admiration and love for her fully while it’s happening.
You’ve gotten a few books out of the library that say they’re about gay or lesbian experiences. You’re pretty sure you’re straight, but there’s a subtle pull coming from these books; you want to see if anything in them resonates with you. But you don’t live in a queer-friendly area, and the resources in your library aren’t up-to-date. The novels you manage to find aren’t uncomfortable and alienating to you because you’re straight; they’re uncomfortable and alienating because they were written in the ’70s, or written by straight people, or focused more on suffering than on any sort of joy in discovering one’s queer identity.
I wish you had something to read that felt relatable to you. Something about close friendships and longing and “jokes” that never quite felt like a joke, not really, about how you love each other. A narrative in which you could see a reflection of yourself, so you might be able to fit all these pieces together sooner. You’ll feel silly, looking back, when you do figure it out, but I understand why it’s so hard to understand your feelings now.
Congrats! You finally figured out that you’re attracted to women. I’m so glad for you, truly. I know you were worried, for a while, that you were faking those feelings somehow, or just pretending you had them.
There’s more, though, and I know it makes things more complicated. Once you got to college, remember how happy you were to be able to start introducing yourself as Mo to more and more people? How you kept thinking about how nice it was to have a more gender-neutral name, but never thought too much about why that seemed important?
I know you remember how much of an impact Gender Outlaw made on you when your best friend loaned it to you. How striking it was to read about someone saying they didn’t identify with their assigned-at-birth gender, but that maybe they weren’t the “other” gender either. That maybe gender wasn’t a category with only two options.
It’s all still percolating in your mind right now, and I don’t want to push you towards any particular conclusion. But when you’re doubting your feelings here, when you worry you’re making it all up, I hope you’ll think about Tiffany.
Think about how obvious it is, now, that you had feelings for her. How clearly you can see that affection written across your friendship. How easy it was to push those feelings aside firmly enough that you never quite sorted things out when you were still spending time together.
Think about the clarity you have about those feelings now. Let yourself be confused or uncertain or overwhelmed by your thoughts and feelings about gender, sure, but don’t doubt yourself. Don’t try to argue against how you feel.
Everything feels like it’s changing, and it is. I can’t say it’ll all be easy, but I can tell you it’ll turn out all right.
Hey. I know things are really confusing right now. That you aren’t sure who you are, gender-wise, or even who you want to be, and that this uncertainty is eating you up inside. I know that it really is all right—truly—to be uncertain, and I also know that knowing this won’t make you feel any better just yet. There’s not much information out there for trans people, and almost nothing for trans people who don’t fit into a rigid binary system defined by a very specific idea of “traditional” gender roles. It doesn’t mean other people like you aren’t out there, because they are; there just aren’t many spaces for you yet, and you haven’t found all of the ones that are out there.
I don’t know if this will comfort you, but it’s the truth: your feelings, your identity, will continue to change. Even after you make some pretty big decisions about your gender and your life and how you want to present yourself to the world. What’s important to you, in terms of the language you use for yourself and the way you want others to see you, is going to keep changing. It’ll shift again and again; the general shape will be the same, but the edges will shift and blur and change. Above all else, I want you to know that that’s fine. It truly is.
So much about what you know about the lives and feelings of trans people is confined to your tiny local community of mostly-strangers, your partner, and the often alienating, occasionally helpful communities and resources you’ve been able to find online. Sometimes it feels like there’s no room for ambiguity in the trans experience, that your lack of a clearly binary, definitive sense of identity means you aren’t trans at all, that you’re mistaken or pretending or just not enough of anything to count.
None of that is true at all.
What’s wonderful, and what I hope you can hold out for and take hope from, is that before long you’ll have a huge community of friends with similar feelings about gender; even those whose genders are very different from yours will understand, deeply and intimately, the way you feel about your own. They’ll get you. You can all provide support and understanding for each other, and you’ll be able to see, as time goes on, how many of you there are. How incredibly varied the experiences of trans people turn out to be when we feel free to share them without worrying that our access to medical care will be taken away if we step out of line, when we’ve carved out spaces for ourselves in person and online.
Your gender is a block of beautiful, fragrant cedarwood you can carve and shape as you see fit; you can use whatever tools you like, and any sharp edge or fine detail that looks good to you now can be filed or chiseled away if it feels wrong later. It’s a flamboyant cuttlefish, small and shifting and strobing with color, remaining the same shape even as its appearance changes. It’s whatever you want it to be, and while I know the ambiguity hurts right now, I promise that pain will fade into acceptance and love as time goes on.
Take some of that love and bounce it back at yourself. Try to be compassionate when you think about your younger self who somehow made it through everything to get you here. Look how far you’ve come! I’m so proud of you.
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