“Gender-based trauma is less like a broken leg and more like a bad back.” That is a brilliant sentance, even if you don’t have a gender non-conforming child. 

It was the first line that hit me like a lightning bolt as I tore through Sissy: A Coming of Gender Story by Jacob Tobia. There are so few stories that tell a non-binary gender narrative, so I tore through this one. 

The first half of this book is better than the second half. I found it hard to reconcile the extreme privilege and comparative acceptance Tobia had as a star at an elite college with the fate of so many other queer and trans teens and young adults—particularly those who grew up in the South and in the church. (Particularly ones I grew up with in the South whose lives were derailed because of the treatment they received…) 

Tobia mostly was accepted by his church and his family and his peers. He came within a few votes of winning a prestigious election at Duke, and he even became a media darling when he decided to run across the Brooklyn Bridge in heels for charity. Along with that good fortune, he seems to have sidestepped severe depression, self-harm, physical bullying and assault and addiction issues that plague so many others. 

To be clear, I don’t wish those things on anyone. But Tobia’s experience—while certainly bruising for him and a powerful story of being different even with support—is hardly the typical story of a trans kid. On one hand, as the mother of a gender-fluid child, I was delighted to read a story where the world did make a place for someone like Eli. But I wonder how other queer and trans young adults who’ve had a much harder road would feel reading it?

Still, the stories of Tobia’s childhood—how he always longed for a non-binary gender idenity and the lengths he’d go to secretly to express it—struck me powerfully. It felt like the blanks were being filled in on my own gender non-conforming kid’s internal life. 

“As a gender non-conforming adult, I am still recovering from how the world treated me when I was a child.” Wow. I had to immediately go hug Eli when I read that. I have obsessed over how the world treats and gets to interact with Eli since it was clear to me that walking in heels wasn’t “a phase.” Much of his life, I’ve been a human forcefield around him. 

There’s a scene where Tobia wants to be Pocahantas for Halloween and his mother talks him out of it, out of caution that he’ll be bullied. He writes about this tension between affirming a child’s sense of self and essentially giving voice to bigots in the name of concern. Overall, his mom is a huge champion of him, so he characterizes this more as something she was unprepared for. 

It was stunning to read because Eli was the same age when he wanted to be Moana for Halloween. It was a very similar decision point (complete with the concern over cultural appropriation as well!) I picked the other fork, which was not anticipating the world shaming Eli before it happened, combined with full throated enthusiasm and I-made-my-own-Tamatoa-costume-to-go-with-you support.

What happened? I only found out 11 months later that Eli did get bullied at school that day. One kid even tried to grab his heart of Te Fiti necklace off him. (!) It’s taken 18 months of therapy to unpack the damage from that moment. But I still believe it was the right move as his mother. There is no ambiguity on Eli’s part over how I feel about his identity, he’s faced how the world can be, and he’s come out on the other side stronger. I believe he’s deeply internalized that the problem is with the bully, not him. He’s even said this when kids have tried to bully him since.

But over the course of those 18 months, I started to get worried by what I perceived as Eli “closeting” himself as a result of this incident. 

What he was actually doing was developing remarkable coping skills for navigating the world as a 6- and then 7-year-old who knows he (she? they?) is/are different. 

Someone wisely pointed out to me that all of us censor aspects of ourselves in certain situations out of safety. “I know you want the world to always be safe for him, but it won’t be,” this person said. “He’s pretty impressively figured out a way to assess each room and whether it’s safe or not and how to adjust.” 

As I thought more about this, I realized how true this was. There are times I don’t swear. Times I don’t openly talk about overthrowing the patriarchy. Times I don’t bring the full Sarah Lacy™ to the party. And even the full Sarah Lacy™ is a projection of who I really am that I show the world. 

My kids get this. When I’m engaging with someone who knows me professionally or at a book event or a problem needs solving, my kids don’t refer to me as “mom,” they refer to me quite naturally as “Sarah Lacy.” They know there is the brand and there is their mom, and they are proud of both of us. I never had to explain this, perhaps because Eli so acutely developed this way of doling himself out to those who deserve it. 

Because it isn’t always about fear and safety. It’s also about who deserves the full Sarah Lacy or the full Eli. I’ve always said Eli is a child who brings so much beauty and color into any place, that he makes you realize the world was in black and white before he entered the room. As I’ve told members of my family who struggled to embrace him: Seeing that is a privilege. Having him in your life is a privilege. “Tolerance” is not an option. 

Tobia echoed this in his book when he talked about his issue with the concept of “the closet.” He takes issue with the term, in the most eloquent way I’ve heard yet, preferring instead to refer to being a snail with a shell. 

“When a person hides in The Closet, we act as if it is their responsibility to come out. But when a snail hides in its shell, we don’t delegate responsibility the same way. A snail only hides in its shell because the world outside feels hostile. If a snail recoils at the sight of you, it’s not because the snail is cowardly or lying or deviant or withholding, it’s because you’ve scared it. When queer people hide our identities, it’s not because we are cowardly or lying or deviant or withholding, it’s because the world and people around us felt predatory; because someone scared us—intentionally or unintentionally—and we were trying to protect ourselves.”

No one owes us a view of their whole self. We have to earn it.

Today’s new questions on Chairman Mom:

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