This past weekend, I had the privilege of being invited to perform for Drag Story Hour at Dolley Madison Library in Mclean, VA, alongside some truly remarkable talent. I had a blast reading Neither and Kevin the Unicorn: It’s Not All Rainbows to the kids and their caregivers; tales about not quite fitting in with the world of “This and That” and an apt message that even the most vibrant and happy of people don’t always feel the same way inside that they project.
It was an incredible experience for me because I got to share a bit of my story as well. I introduced myself as a “non-binary transgender womxn with she/they pronouns, which is a lot of words to say that I’m a normal womxn, but only I get to decide what that means.” Seeing the excitement and enthusiasm from the children in an environment where I didn’t have to have to pretend I was someone I’m not was truly surreal. This type of event was completely unheard of when I was their age, not even a full 20 years ago.
I came out of the closet for the first time in middle school immediately after reading Jennifer Finney Boylan’s memoir, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, where I realized for the first time that I wasn’t the only one in the world who felt this way, that I had options for aligning my body and mind, and there was a name for people like me: transgender.
In fact, over the course of two weeks, I’d read everything on the World Wide Web about what it meant to be transgender (the internet really wasn’t as big back then). I became the authority in my community on what it meant to be trans in a world where “no one has ever heard of anything like that.” Or, more accurately, everyone pretended we didn’t exist. Because they believed if they could keep us from being “exposed to the gay,” that we might somehow avoid getting “infected” with it. I know they only did what they thought was best, trying to protect me from “deviancy” and “mental illness.” “Gender Identity Disorder” was quite literally considered a mental illness at the time.
Online, I’d read about, and even talked to, many older “transsexuals” who had been disowned by their families. Strong people who’d survived incredible discrimination and prejudice and lived to tell the tale. They offered me a sense of hope that life didn’t have to be this way.
“It is imperative that children are encouraged to explore who THEY are as individuals. What THEIR hopes, desires, and dreams are. That is the point of play.”
At the time, my mom had been taking me to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington every Sunday (which even then boldly proclaimed themselves allies of the LGBT community), so it came as a shock to me when I came out to her, and she immediately dismissed me as “going through a phase.”
Even though I still dressed and looked “like a boy,” I was publicly humiliated by my Spanish teacher when I “referred to myself in the feminine.” I wasn’t allowed to quit the Boy Scouts even as I was beaten until bruised at “Gun Club,” had rocks thrown at me until I bled at summer camp, and was routinely used as a scapegoat whenever anyone wanted to get away with anything. When it came time for the school dance, I begged my parents to buy me a dress; even a cheap one would have been fine. They took me shopping for a suit and tie instead, and I felt miserable the entire time.
In some ways, it would have been easier if my parents had just outright disowned me. Instead, they worked so hard to convince me that I was something I wasn’t. I know that in their own way, they did care about me, wanted the best for me, and believed I might eventually outgrow my obsession with “changing my sex.” But the truth was all this did was suppress me and hold me back.
It is imperative that children are encouraged to explore who they are as individuals. What their hopes, desires, and dreams are. That is the point of play. To learn about what makes us happy, experiment within different constructs, and experience different ways of being. But from such a young age, when I tried to tell my parents something fundamental about myself: that I wanted to be a girl — that I was a girl — and they forcefully rejected it, there was no room for me to grow.
I was too busy being someone else. Someone my parents wanted me to be. I liked whatever they told me I liked. I was whoever they told me I was. I tried so hard to suppress a seemingly trivial part of my identity that I became passively suicidal. I welcomed the mental and physical abuse from other kids and my teachers. It was, after all, just the way of the world. I started actively taking the blame for things other kids did. I stopped trying to defend myself and completely embraced being this horrible monster that everyone told me I was.
By the time I tried to start hormone replacement therapy as an adult, I’d gotten so good at masking and lying that I struggled to convince a psychologist I’d ever even had any dysphoria. So I rehearsed and practiced the tried and true script: dramatically forced overt femininity. Heels and makeovers and “oh my gawd like totally”s, and it was all just as absolutely horrible. I didn’t take any time to explore who I really was or what kind of womxn I wanted to be. I just committed to the “I need my dick cut off or I’ll kill myself” schtick so much that self-deprecating humor became not just second nature, but my only nature. Chop up my body, rip out my hair, do whatever you want to me. I’ve been through worse. I didn’t care so long as I could finally just be a girl.
I spent my entire first transition completely dissociated. Telling the same barely-socially-acceptable story, over and over. Being repeatedly told how brave I was, how “normal” I was (compared to those other transsexuals). I was invited to speaking events as long as I embraced as long as I stuck to that script. And still, I faced discrimination at work. I was denied housing because it made a landlord “uncomfortable,” and romance after romance failed because I kept dating straight girls while lesbians looked the other way.
Eventually, I detransitioned. Suddenly, I was taken seriously at work, even considered for a promotion. I got really into wearing neckties and learning all about what kind of message each type of knot sent. I spent some time trying to inhabit the middle ground of “androgynous,” all the while slowly trying to kill myself in the most socially acceptable all-American way: obesity and diabetes.
It took an entire global pandemic, a dedicated and detail-oriented new doctor, a therapist who themselves is non-binary, and the incredible courage of the Black Lives Matter movement for me to finally wake up and really embrace myself. To step up to the challenge of asking myself the questions I never let myself ponder as a kid: Who am I? And what do I want?
The new Blue’s Clues clip celebrating Pride, especially showcasing transgender and non-binary characters, made my eyes well up with tears. It was surreal — it was exactly the kind of thing I wish I could have seen when I was that scared, alone, and rejected little girl. And so, when I was offered the opportunity to be exactly this sort of visibility in my own community, I welcomed it with open arms.
“Chop up my body, rip out my hair, do whatever you want to me. I’ve been through worse. I didn’t care so long as I could finally just be a girl.”
The “controversy” surrounding the event made everything all the more real. And personal. Unbeknownst to me, in the days leading up to Drag Story Hour, anti-LGBTQIA2+ extremists worked hard to sabotage the event. @FairfaxGOP on Twitter decided to take it upon themselves to rile up the sort of people that call us “pedophiles” and “child abusers” to the point where during the event, there were actually people holding up crosses to us, pouring holy water on the carpet, heckling us about “confusing the children” and shouting that they “loved” us and were “praying for us.”
Some of the audience was understandably scared off, leaving the room almost empty for our second performance. It’s taken me several days to really process everything that happened. Perhaps appropriately, the most important lesson that I took away from this experience was that life as an out queer person is not all rainbows.
We are living in a society that seeks to erase our identities and insists on policing the way we look, dress, and act; it’s exhausting but important that we continue to fight and be authentic so that our children can grow up unburdened. So they can have aspirations beyond simply “existing.” Pride month may be coming to a close, but it has never been clearer to me that our struggle for equality is far from over.
So my question for you today is how can we increase visibility, support, and encourage children who are LGBTQIA2+? How would your life have been different if you’d seen a “Drag Story Hour” as a kid?
Persephone Rose is a transgender actor, writer, and activist who is looking forward to co-starring with Keanu Reeves in the Matrix 5.