in my culture we often joke that we never smile in family photographs.
You see there is no need to smile because
‘The photo’ is simply a transaction,
A ritual we perform to document an event like
Family is some sort of timeline we are creating together in public
Today my grandmother is turning somewhere between 84 and 86 years old.
We do not know her actual age because her father made up a date on her birth certificate so she could be more marketable for marriage.
So today I am celebrating the fact my grandmother was born -2
and somehow managed to survive.
We spend hours deciding our outfits for the photo.
Grandma wears an elegant black sari
I wear a shirt and jeans.
Sit up a little bit straighter as the camera flashes.
Take record of this moment.
Sometimes I believe not smiling is an act of defiance
It’s a way of acknowledging and documenting the silence that glues my culture together like
Do not mention: that he prayed for a son and got her instead.
Do not mention: how he could not tell the difference between ‘bottle’ and ‘woman.’
These routine acts of violence, rendered invisible,
That allow ‘family’ to develop on the other side
I come out to my grandmother when I am 18.
There are no photos to document this event because
In my culture coming out is not a moment,
It is a smile smudged on a photograph, you must understand,
It is an ocean swallowing us back.
It is all of our portraits weeping.
It is a family unraveling at the seams.
It’s not so much that we never talk about it again,
It’s more that the silence speaks for us
You see in my culture we have learned that
there is no difference between ‘silence’ and ‘violence’
We inherit both from our men.
My grandmother only starts painting in her late 70s,
When I watch her make art I realize this the first time
she has ever used her hands to make something for herself.
Eventually pen and paper turn into brush and canvass
turn into paintings scattered across the house like protest signs
turns into the person she sacrificed for ‘woman’
turns into the “what if”
turns into the “too late”
Sometimes she asks me to sit next to her as she names her pieces.
She holds one she made with a sponge from the kitchen says,
“This is my rage.”
You have to understand
My culture relies on an underground economy of rage,
How we hate our men so much that sometimes
We even hate ourselves for them:
Call it ‘gender’ for short
In my culture eventually a baby
turns into a child
turns into a gender
turns into marriage
turns into house
turns into mother
turns into servant
turns into regret
turns into repeat.
When I start wearing women’s clothing I am 20
years old and it is the first time in my life that I
look in the mirror and do not see the very man
I grew up terrified of staring back.
Can I show you what
it means for an entire body to be a wound?
Can I tell you what it feels like to
Watch a gender rewind itself?
I put on a dress and turn into that old photo of my grandmother
turns into “what if”
turns into me deciding to show her who i am
turns into me leaving the house
turns into a man on the subway
turns into his questions
turn into the disgust
turns into an entire train staring and doing nothing
turns into him telling me to go to hell
turns into a beating heart
turns into there is nowhere to escape in a moving train
turns into exiting the car at the next stop
turns into walking to grandma’s apartment
turns into her telling me i dress this way to draw attention to myself
turns into her blaming me for my own violence
turns into isn’t gender always about being blamed for your own violence?
turns into there is nowhere to escape from family
turns into me sometimes i believe her
turns into me gifting her man for her birthday
turns into this family photograph
how gracefully we perform
how if you look
hard enough we are mourning
all of the violence that has been
done to us both
in the name of gender
This evening my grandmother calls me the biggest disappointment in her life.
I recognize this is not my own gender oppression, it is hers:
You see, I come from a long legacy of women punished by men
Who continue to push the man inside of me.
How good it feels for the hurt to hurt someone else.
In my culture
transgender is not an identity
It is a tactic of survival.
It is a way of escaping from the men who control our hands to do their work for them
It is the journey that all of us take to reclaim our bodies from the genders that stole them from us.
It is my grandmother’s paintings.
It is the first time in her life that her worth is not evaluated by a meal or a man
It is me doing this for myself
It is the first time in my life that I am making something out of all of the rage that surrounds us
So I refuse to call her transphobic
I will not blame her for her own violence
Instead, I will join her in not smiling in this photograph
And there is solidarity in this silence,
And there is resistance in this refusal to pretend
that we are something we are not.
support the author