"Why does it have to be so public?", my not ill-intentioned cousin asked my sister at a family reunion. I wasn't there.
A few years ago, I was in the Bay Area when I got news that Tio Ricardo, my dad's cousin, whom I considered to be my 'gay dad' was dying. Life serendipitously had brought me to his city precisely at this moment.
On the way to see him, doubt crept in. I knew he would be thrilled to see me and felt in my gut that going was the right action. Not knowing what state he was in though, I worried he wouldn't recognize me. I look a little different now that I am transitioning and on testosterone. I was worried that if he didn't recognize me, he'd feel like he was going nuts. The urgency of the situation gave me no time for fear, so love it was.
When I got to his room, I hesitated. "Camila?" My cousin Felipe, who lived with me at Tio's many moons ago, hugged me. My heart overflowed seeing him, so much time had passed.
Tio never had kids; all his friends were lost to AIDS in the 80's, and his lover of forty two years, Danny, died of cancer around fifteen years ago. A natural caregiver, he'd housed a random assortment of cousins, aunts, and sisters, along with some of our girlfriends and pets, in his giant bohemian San Francisco home. Part of me had worried he would die alone, since we were all passing through. But Felipe wasn't the only one here. The cavalry had come to town and it choked me up.
Felipe walked in with me. When Tio saw me, it took a second. I think he was shocked to see me in San Francisco. But there it was, just as I'd hoped, the sparkle of deep recognition in his eyes. Noticing his long legs sticking out from the bottom of his hospital gown, when all I'd ever seen him wear were overalls, I said, "Tio! Look at those legs! Why have you been hiding those gorgeous gams in overalls all these years?" He loved that. "Gwans a diba, olgways a diba!" was his reply.
It was perfect yet bitter-sweet to be here. A strange mirror of the present-past-future continuum all mingled into one. He'd always loved me, like really loved me - as is. When he knew me, I had no idea I was trans. I was moving through the world doing my best to pass as a girl and trying to spark an acting career. He loved me because I was in many ways the woman he would've wanted to be: young and splendid. I loved him because he represented what I wanted to be: love, living life unabashedly, a true artist. It was sweet that someone appreciated the woman I had been (even though I wasn't a very good one) though, it almost made my efforts worthwhile.
On the way home I cried in gratitude for everything Tio was and all the love he'd shown me. I cried because he used to tell me I didn't eat enough as he spooned huge piles of food onto my plate. I cried because I was able to see him one last time and because my being there lit him up like Christmas. I cried at how beautiful and intact his sense of humor was even under such duress. I cried because I wouldn't be there to hold his hand in the end, but I was there to hold it today. And I cried for having had the good fortune of having such an amazing gay role model in my life. We should all be so lucky. His love was almost beyond a father's love because, unlike most, he was never offered the choice of having children. A true teacher, he handed down what really mattered: love.
I didn't know Tio existed until I was nineteen and went to San Francisco and my dad realized I should meet him. I imagine people in his life felt the same way they do in mine. Why does it have to be so public? The underlying suggestion being: Why can't you tone it down so it doesn't make me uncomfortable.
Visibility matters. Representation matters. I met Tio when I was nineteen, right as I started to figure out I was queer. Had I not seen the possibility reflected in his life, perhaps my story would've ended differently. Studies show that queer people who have even one person in their corner are less prone to suicide and depression. The rate of queer suicide attempts has dropped around forty percent since gay marriage became legal. And forty one percent of all trans people try to commit suicide at one point or another. Forty one. Almost half of our tiny population. These things matter.
And they have to be public because we cannot be what we cannot see. Seeing others like ourselves allows us to shed the shame we have socially inherited. It has to be public, because we are out here, we exist. And it has to be public because loving me means changing alongside me. Hiding who we are is ultimately choosing fear over love and it kills. Silence is killing us. It has to be public because I am not your skeleton and I will not be hidden in your closet.
A personal step we can take on the daily toward love is to meditate. There's an app called the breathing app. It's free and very simple. It has two tones. You can set it for five minutes and breathe along with it: in one tone, out the other. This mix of pranayama and meditation is one with high efficacy for me. Even for just a few minutes. The extra spaciousness created can then help disrupt patterns we have been blindly participating in and open up our potential.
An outwardly social step we can take is: to stop asking people to hide, stay quiet, curb, or shut down who they really are and what matters to them. Instead, we support the things they care about. Fiercely. Be in their corner. Life is expansive and there's room for all of us in it. Our differences are our super power.
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