UNTANGLING MY PAST, BRAIDING MY FUTURE

WRITTEN BY ZAITOUNA KUSTO
Zaitouna Kusto is a Palestinian-American trans woman living in San Diego, CA. Her writing has been featured on CSuiteMusic.com/politics and in the short film Life in a Box, which won Best Short at Film Fest Twain Harte 2014. Find her on Twitter @zaitounak or at the beach being very gay with her partner.
Untangling My Past, Braiding My Future

This story is part of our exploration into the theme of Parenting. If you like this story, be sure to check out Zaitouna’s other piece on the healing power of queer intimacy.

“You love sushi too much to ever handle being pregnant,” my partner always tells me. It’s true, but also, I’m a trans woman and don’t have a uterus. For me, like many trans people, my transition process began with Hormone Replacement Therapy. Generally speaking, trans feminine people are put on a regiment of testosterone blockers and estrogen. Slowly but steadily, the hormones take effect and all of the wonderful changes start happening. Not all of the changes are desired for everyone, of course, particularly those regarding sterilization. But when the doctor told me hormones would likely render me infertile, I felt nothing. There was no twinge of sadness in my phantom womb, no shedding of tears for the proverbial children’s laughter I was to be denied. At that point in my life, I was processing too much of my own childhood trauma to even begin thinking about having kids of my own.

I still have a lot of unresolved baggage from my childhood. Not only because I am a trans woman—which makes viewing my early years more painful and complicated than most—but because I was severely abused by my parents. The years of immature, vengeance-based manipulation my narcissistic caregivers dragged me into created trust issues that I am still struggling with to this day. It’s a fight I often feel I will never win, but looking back at where I came from, and how much I have progressed, gives me hope about my future healing. They split up when I was three. My memories of that time are fuzzy, but looking at the dark circles under my eyes in photos from back then is a pretty clear indication of the devastation wrought upon me. Hell, I’m 29 now and I still can’t find a decent concealer to cover those dark circles up.

IT’S A FIGHT I OFTEN FEEL I WILL NEVER WIN, BUT LOOKING BACK AT WHERE I CAME FROM, AND HOW MUCH I HAVE PROGRESSED, GIVES ME HOPE ABOUT MY FUTURE HEALING.

The story behind their break up is too cliché to bother detailing and it really had nothing to do with me. Of course, as a child, it was impossible to see that or understand reason, so I spent my early years convinced they did end because of me. That their constant yelling and smashing of things was directed at me and not each other. It wasn't until I was much older that I came to realize their divorce was between them and that I was simply an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire.

My mom is many things. She is the most tenacious person I know. She is a Palestinian immigrant and has battled Multiple Sclerosis since her early twenties. Her life has been hard and she has fought to be where she is. I admire a lot about her. She is a very proud woman and it’s not hard to understand why. But her pride, unfortunately, has an ugly shadow. When my dad left her for a younger woman, she was wounded. And instead of processing her trauma herself, she decided to make my father’s life a living hell—through me.

My dad married his second wife around the time I was eight. I was supposed to be his “best man” at the wedding and I would probably have more to say about the extremely confusing and upsetting gender politics of that if I actually ever made it to the wedding. My mom, still full or venom and vitriol after all those years, concocted a little scheme: she wanted me to go to the wedding and ruin it. I was supposed to raise my hand and disrupt the wedding just as the priest announced, “If anyone objects to this union speak now or forever hold your piece." Which, aside from being incredibly cruel to ask of your child, is also just an absurd plan. It would not have stopped the wedding, and probably would have just made the "rude little freak who disrupted the ceremony" a target for some snipes and stares by the buffet table.

I didn’t want to do it. I pleaded with my mom, but she insisted that if I really loved her I would. She had essentially raised me alone, so who was I to question this powerful and central figure whom I looked up to and depended on? A day or so before the wedding, I was at my dad’s house talking to my mom on the phone. We were going over the plan—what I was going to say and when. A few moments later, my dad burst into the room, threw me into a wall, grabbed my throat, shook me violently, and screamed obscenities at me. He had been listening on the other line, and without explaining what was going on, he put me on a plane back to my mom’s house, and I never got to be his best man.

I WAS ROBBED OF A CHILDHOOD IN MANY WAYS. NOT JUST FROM HAVING NORMAL, STABLE PARENTS, BUT AS A CLOSETED TRANS WOMAN WHO WAS BARRED FROM HAVING A GIRLHOOD.

I was robbed of a childhood in many ways. Not just from having normal, stable parents, but as a closeted trans woman who was barred from having a girlhood. Sometimes it’s nice to fantasize about what my girlhood would have looked like. How would I have done my hair? What clothes would I have worn? How different would my worldview be? Would there really be pillow fights at slumber parties? I do my best to avoid these kind of thoughts now. Aside from being depressing because I don't have the answers, they can also feel invalidating. Because truthfully, I did have a girlhood—I am a girl and I always have been—it was just different than what most people are used to. So many of my early memories are of me covertly attempting to express my femininity in whatever way I could. From dressing my G.I. Joe up in Barbie clothes as a “punishment” for getting caught behind enemy lines, to ditching my after school programs so I could try my mom’s lipstick on before she got home—my girlhood existed in clandestine and confusing glory for no one to see but me.

I often refer to myself as a “trans girl”, rather than a “trans woman”, because in a way, I am still a child. Or at least, I’m reclaiming a lost childhood. Trans girl socialization is unique in that growing up I was not “manly” enough for my father to teach me how to shave, but not “girly” enough for my mom to teach me how to do makeup. So, I here I am, a relatively well adjusted adult who just kind of sucks at both. As a result, transitioning has had a huge learning curve. I’m only now learning how to braid my hair (just simple French braids, nothing too fancy). You have to completely readjust to how people interact with you, how men speak to you, how to carry yourself. I feel smaller somehow, not like I actually take up less space, but that I’m simply allowed less space. Transitioning is really like starting over in a lot of ways and it makes you feel fresh and bad at things in the way an unsure and unconfident child might.

I OFTEN REFER TO MYSELF AS A ‘TRANS GIRL’, RATHER THAN A ‘TRANS WOMAN’, BECAUSE IN MANY WAYS, I AM STILL A CHILD.

Because I still do feel like such a child, it’s hard to conceive of raising my own kids. I like to tell people that I simply wouldn’t be a good parent and that’s why I don’t want kids—but I know in my heart that’s not true. I would be an amazing parent. I am overflowing with love and care and the desire to help. I’m not scared that I would be like my parents, despite the cyclicality of abuse. My dad hit me because his dad hit him, but there’s no way in hell I would ever do that to my child.

My parents’ generation was raised by distant figureheads who doled out discipline with cold justification. That’s just the way things were. It’s no wonder why my father turned out how he did. The science of childrearing during the 1960s is vastly different than that of our current epoch. Children were not thought of as legitimate people with agency of their own. They were property that had to obey… or else. And while this is certainly still true in minds of many parents today, I do believe our generation (and the one following) has achieved a level of emotional maturity and clarity that has not been achieved before in the history of our species.

Similarly, the way language and knowledge has developed regarding trans issues over even the last decade has afforded young people tremendous opportunities to explore the deeply complex and conflicting feelings one might experience as a trans kid. I believe a lot of that groundwork has been done by queer and trans people, like myself, over the past few decades grappling with our identities and becoming self-aware in ways that allow us to not just empathize with others, but to want to help them.

Yet despite knowing I wouldn’t make the same mistakes my parents made, I still don’t know if I want to have a biological child. No matter what semblance of peace I have made with my mom and dad, there is a part of me that fundamentally distrusts parents and that’s why don’t want to be one. I can’t conceive of what stable parents look like. Many of my friends seem to have them and I default have to assume they are faking it because my trust and faith in parenthood is so absolutely and unequivocally shattered. Yes, I know that great parents do exist. I know my feelings are untreated wounds in desperate need of parental peroxide. But I also know that no matter how many happily lit holiday cards you shove in my face, I will forever flinch.

AND AS STRONG AS MY CONVICTIONS ABOUT PARENTHOOD WERE AND ARE, EVERY NOW AND THEN I GET THIS DEEP, SINKING FEELING IN MY TUMMY AND I WONDER WHAT IT WOULD BE LIKE TO CARRY A CHILD.

But hormones are a wild and unpredictable thing. They pull your insides out and render all your preconceptions moot. I’ve been on them for over a year now and they have completely turned my life upside down. Aside from simply looking different, I feel more in touch with my feelings. It’s like I’ve unlocked a vault in the deep reaches of my mind and a tidal of unprocessed emotions is flowing out like a never ending fountain of youth. So yeah, I cry a lot. I cry about sad things, I cry about silly things. I mostly like that I can cry freely and unabashedly. And as strong as my convictions about parenthood were and are, every now and then I get this deep, sinking feeling in my tummy and I wonder what it would be like to carry a child.

Pregnant people walk through the world in a different way than others. Special treatment doesn’t really seem like the right way to put it, but they certainly seem to experience the world and be experienced by the world in a unique way. There is something intangibly profound about this process of creating a life inside of you, that you pass on a part of yourself to this completely new and sentient being who bears a resemblance and shares a lineage. There are times when I think I would really enjoy that. The feeling of extra weight, the glow, the anticipation. It sounds impossible, but I recently saw an article about a trans woman breast feeding, so who knows what the future has in store for us.

Many trans women have complicated relationships with their bodies and reproductive systems and I am no exception. My aversion to having kids was so strong in the past that I even looked into getting a vasectomy (but didn’t go through with it) long before I started hormones, so my endocrinologist’s caveat about sterilization was no cause for concern. Now that it’s come and gone, I wouldn't say that I have regrets, but there is an unexpected finality to this subject for me in a way there wasn't before. It’s a relief in many ways (my partner doesn’t want to get pregnant either), albeit a little bit deflating. Because now if I did change my mind, it’s too late—my lineage ends with me.

Parental betrayal is something a child never really recovers from. I often feel addicted to my pain, helplessly trapped in it. I still call my dad, despite his abuse, despite his rejections, despite his recent email telling me he wants to take a break from parenting, which oddly enough, has nothing to do with me being trans and everything to do with him just being tired of having kids. It’s amazing how badly you can still want to be loved by someone who cares so little for you. Maybe I want the sliver of hope that I will get the memories I deserve, that our best years are yet to come. Like an unfurling coil, I have been bent so out of shape I perpetually return to my abusers because that’s all I know how to do. I’m only just now starting to process my trauma and mourn my childhood by reducing contact and finding new people to look up to.

I need to accept that I am never getting those years back and let them go. Because of the feeling of lost time, it’s hard to not be jealous of younger trans people who are growing up today in a world with a modicum (generously speaking) of compassionate understanding. When I was a kid, all the signs were there, but I and those around me lacked the vernacular to articulate my transness. But how would I have handled knowing I was trans as a child and dealing with the parents I was dealt?

I have half the answer from my brother. He is one of the two kids my dad had with his second wife, and he is a sweet trans boy. I love him so dearly it hurts. At sixteen, he is being slowly extinguished by his parents who refuse to let him start hormones (in his case, it would be taking testosterone). It pains me to talk to him sometimes because I see how badly he is suffering. I wish I could help him. I wish I could adopt him with my partner, and be the loving and nurturing parents he deserves. It’s more like a maternal instinct than a big sister sort of thing. I find myself wanting to be his mother because he doesn’t really have one. Or at least an emotionally stable and nurturing one.

I WANT THAT. I WANT TO SEE LITTLE QUEERS RUNNING AROUND OUR YARD PLAYING WITH DOGS, EXPRESSING THEMSELVES, FEELING SAFE TO EXPLORE WHO THEY ARE.

My partner and I have talked extensively about the prospect of having biological kids of our own and they feel the same way I do. It’s a shame, really, because we are queer and the world needs more queer parents. Especially given how many queer and trans kids are thrown out of their homes, or who, like my brother and I, struggle with abusive or negligent parents. One day, if we are financially able, we would like to foster queer and trans kids whose parents have betrayed them and give them the sanctuary they are due. Not just as a way of giving back, but as a way of healing, of pulling back the curtain and peering into what a childhood could have been. I want that. I want to see little queers running around our yard playing with dogs, expressing themselves, feeling safe to explore who they are. I want them to love me and to be loved because we all desperately need it.

We need to end the cyclicality of parental abuse and begin a new cycle of truly unyielding, unconditional parental love. All of this is a long way off, but it’s something for me to work towards—a long term goal of doing something bigger than me. But before I’m ready to take in all the strays and heal their wounds, I need to take care of myself. I need to put my past to rest and move on. I need to grow up. I need to learn how to do my own braids before I can do them on someone else. Maybe once I can confidently call myself a trans woman instead of a trans girl on a regular basis, I’ll know I’m ready. And the best part is, if and when that does happen, I won’t even have to give up sushi.

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