Welcome to this month’s edition of READ LOCAL First: Utah’s most comprehensive collection of accomplished poets and authors. This month we introduce you to two authors: mother Nan Seymour and daughter Beatrice Washburn.
Beatrice Washburn is a transgender community advocate. She was featured alongside her mother, Nan Seymour, in Hope Lives, a 2016 documentary addressing teen suicide in Utah.
She speaks on various panels about transgender issues. Born and raised in Utah, Beatrice now spends her days in the Sonoran sun of Tucson, Arizona. She volunteers with Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. She writes to reclaim Christianity as the faith of the oppressed, radical, and disreputable.
Nan Seymour is passionate about helping people find and foster their voice. She provides narrative encouragement through River Writing, her generative community writing practice. She also designs and facilitates oral storytelling workshops. Nan is a miller and baker by trade. Her patience comes from waiting for loaves to rise.
An Unremarkable Girl
Chapter 2 Excerpt
I first know I am a girl when I am three years old. I’m in the bath, the water is clear. Through the warm water I see my penis. I don’t know what to call it, but it looks wrong, somehow, this protrusion. I reach down and I tuck it between my legs. Looking down and seeing a fold of flesh, I feel right. It just fits.
Standing in front of the full-length mirror in my parents’ bedroom, I tuck away my penis again and cross my legs. I look better, somehow. Like a girl, though a girl with short hair. I wrap my towel around my body like a dress, covering my torso as well as my lower half.
I don’t remember it, but I have photos to prove that when I was three, I was very happily dressed up as the Queen of England by my closest cousins on my father’s side. I stand in the Arizona sunshine, beaming at the camera in my floral dress and large hat, costume jewelry slung around my neck.
I’ve always felt this way. Not that I’m necessarily in the wrong body, but that people don’t see me the right way. So I put on black dresses and shawls. I watch The Wizard of Oz, sitting on the scratchy couch in the basement, and I see myself as the Wicked Witch of the West. I love her green skin, her magical abilities, her harsh voice, and her infamous cackle.
I visit France when I am five. Dad is eager to take our little family through Provence, and more eager still to meet Madame Lulu Peyraud, a contemporary and teacher to one of my father’s favorite authors, Richard Olney.
Madame Lulu owns a winery, and the fine house attached to it. She emerges from the door at my father’s knock, a petite cyclone of a woman with short hair dressed in springy florals.
“Bonjour, bonjour!” her voice is powerful, and though she is older than my grandparents she carries herself vigorously. Slightly red nosed, strongly set, the very essence of joie de vivre. While she serves a lunch, I explore the garden with Amelia, my mother’s tall dark-haired sister.
We play a game, a re-enactment and revision of The Wizard of Oz. I take the role of the Wicked Witch, making her the heroine of the tale. I practice a loud, keening cackle, and pretend to throw fireballs at Amelia, who hams up her death scenes by bugging out her eyes and clutching her chest. She is all movement, energy, olive-skinned limbs fully invested in our game.
We go to Tarrascone, a town dominated by its massive old castle. I’m enchanted by the sheer hugeness of the stone, the floors worn smooth by the footfalls of seven centuries, the battlements. It reminds me of the Wicked Witch’s Fortress. I command Amelia to march along like one of the guards, chanting “woo-ee-oo, WOE-OH.” I delight in being a Witch Queen.
I start preschool. I find that boys and girls are kept apart for certain things. Boys have one bathroom, girls another. Boys are expected to play with balls, girls with dolls. This doesn’t make sense to me. I get in trouble with Miss Liz, my thin blonde-haired teacher, because I try to go into the girls’ bathroom. It’s not like I want to go in there to spy on anyone, I just don’t like using the boys’. There’s always pee on the floors and walls by the urinals.
The older I get, the more I wish I would wake up as a girl. A girl with long black hair and a regal face. I pray for it when I go to bed, and sigh unhappily when I wake up with short dirtyblonde hair and that lamentable protrusion between my legs. I get angry with God. He’s supposed to answer prayers, isn’t he? Why won’t he answer mine?
The desire grows the more I’m expected to act like a boy. I can feel society drawing hard lines as we move from first to second to third grade. In third grade, I feel conclusively that I’ve been put on the wrong side of the line. I hate sports, I don’t like action figures, and while I don’t mind war games, being obsessed from an early age with history, I don’t like how boys play them: absentmindedly, reveling in killing their enemies on the field without considering strategy or the human impacts of war. (I overthink things.)
In third grade, I tell a close friend about how I feel, who I am. “I’ve always felt like I was meant to be a girl,” I confess.
“Do you ever wish you were a boy?”
“No,” she says firmly, “that’s weird.”
The judgement is delivered like a shoe stamping on a bug. I feel instant regret for saying anything. She’s one of my best friends, and she thinks I’m weird. Today I learn that if you’re a “boy” and feel like a girl, it’s “weird” with a capital “W.”
That night I say a different prayer.
“Please God, make me not want to be a girl. I don’t want to be weird.”
Summer of an elementary school year. Which one? Doesn’t matter. It could be any of them. My dear parents send me trundling off to day camps. My father worries that without the imposition of these regimes I’ll spend the entire summer indoors with my books.
Five Days of Fun! The name rings hollow. It’s hosted at a sports center midway between my home and the bakery my father owns, a mundane building of blocky red stone. Five Days of Fun! To my inner dramatist, the place might as well be a German Stalag, the cheery counselors smiling sadists of the SS.
No, they don’t beat us. But they force us into sporting activities, another kind of torture. I don’t mind physical activity; I enjoy jumping on a trampoline, swimming, running around our big backyard on the hunt for pillbugs and snails to build little houses for. Sports, however, with their rules and demands for attention, are distasteful in the extreme.
More repugnant is the whiff of gender in the air, the reek of societal expectation. I clash with the rough-and-tumble nature of the field, with the burly boys trying to prove the aggressive masculinity passed on to them by their fathers. I can sense the disconnect between myself and the other boys, that element of alienation, apartness.
Five Days of Fun isn’t just a place where I don’t fit in, it’s a place I don’t want to fit in. The difference is important to eight-, nine-, ten-year-old me. I don’t fit in most places and I’ve begun to accept that might always be the case. To be a little proud of it, even. But here in the world of sports, especially amidst the boys, I am filled with disdain. I want nothing to do with it.
I say as much to my father. “I don’t want to go to summer camp! It’s boring, I hate it, and I don’t like sports!”
That last sentence causes dad to visibly wince.
He forces me to go out on an autumn afternoon to learn how to “toss aroun’ the old pigskin.” Here I am, at one end of the side lawn, carpeted with dead leaves. There’s my father, at the other. He hurls the football at me. I clumsily lunge, I miss.
“That’s okay pal, throw it back!”
I pick it up and chuck it as though it were a stone.
“Gotta learn how to spiral it, here.”
He tries to show me. I fume in impotent rage. This is beneath me, I think. I’m never going to be a football player. What is the point of standing out here in the chill air tossing back and forth this “pigskin”? I’d rather be inside eating pork roasted with Dijon mustard.
“I want to go inside!” I protest.
Dad’s face grows red. “You’re going to learn how to throw a football.”
It’s not a request. It’s an order. One that I cannot abide.
“No, I’m not. I want to go back inside!” If this were a cartoon, steam would come out of my father’s ears. He takes a deep inhale, and then breathes out. A slow, loud whoo. A shiver runs up my spine. When dad seethes, I freeze. He’s never hurt me, nor do I think he ever would, but when he seethes like this, I see the kind of anger that can turn to violence. It scares the hell out of me.
“Ask to go back inside one more time, and I’ll take away privileges.”
First would go the computer. That was always first. Then TV. Then dessert.
“Okay, okay,” I surrender. I learn how to hold the football properly. How to throw it. Dad’s anger melts, and he even beams when I execute a proper spiral throw.
“Now can I go back inside?”
“Fine,” he sighs, defeated, disappointment etched on his face.
I go inside, into my room, and I cry. I hate disappointing dad. I feel like I do it all the time. I hate that I hate sports so much. I hate that the normal father-son activity of throwing around a football turned into recrimination, anger, and fright. I cry because I’m bad at being a boy.
Whenever the world of gender is imposed on me, I shrivel. Or worse, I try to act as though I’m one of the boys, like I have an understanding of what boys are supposed to like, supposed to do. These performances are threadbare at best, and the boys can smell it. They know a fake when they see one.
I lean into the performance. I always feel that I’m acting, and the result is that I become a pathological liar. I enjoy telling stories: long winding tales of absurdity. People falling out of planes, explosions at relative’s homes. Drama, pathos, comedy. I enjoy seeing the amazement on the faces of my friends at my skyscraper-tall tales. I love the feeling of holding an audience captive.
I don’t claim heroism. I don’t cast myself as a main character in these fictions. Instead I’m merely a witness, an observer to the improbable action-movie scenes I describe. Lying is easy for me. I do it every day anyway.
In fifth grade, my teacher brings up my absurd tales in a parent-teacher conference. I squirm in my seat as she says, “She has a lot of imagination, but she needs to separate truth from fiction.”
I stop telling the big lies after that, but I’m still good at deception, still good at making people believe the absurd, still good at hiding the truth. It’s second nature. In sixth grade we study Ancient Greece, including the theatrical traditions, and I identify very strongly with the actors who wore the masks that portrayed a single emotion, exaggerated, so they could be seen by the destitute of Athens who filled the nosebleed seats.
“It’s wrong to lie,” I’m told. But I know this is a polite admonishment for the little things. Wrong to lie about your aunt nearly dying in the explosion of a gas stove, yes. Wrong to lie about the time you claim to have seen a man fall from the window of a plane and be caught by a baggage handler, yes. Wrong to lie about who you are? No. Because who I am is weird. It’s wrong to lie about the small things, they say. However, we need you to keep telling the biggest lie of all, to say, “I’m a boy.”
An Unremarkable Girl
Chapter 16 Excerpt
I left the wing-print there all winter, imprinted in dust and grime high on the kitchen window, visible only in a particular light. A sideview—the blur of body and head in motion, an angelic pattern of distinct feathers, an outline reading flight. Eventually, I retraced the mark of the bird to the bird itself, and the bird itself to its death.
I’d discovered him on the porch below the window one afternoon, weeks before spying the mark. A male tanager: red head, yellow belly, wings with black feathers… a body small enough to hold in my palm. Breath gone, wings limp, song spent.
I wrapped him in a towel and I regret this now, but I also placed him in a shoebox. I dug a small hole in the corner of the yard, buried him and marked the grave with a smooth round stone —distinct enough not to be confused with other stones. Many years have passed since then.
Each fall when tending to that corner of the yard, when cutting back the spent lavender, I see the stone and remember the bird. A memory scented with lavender and sadness—I pause to take it in, then let it pass.
It was much harder for me to wash the window than it was to bury the bird. I took many months to work up to it, months waiting for the passing of winter, for longer days and more light. I thought I might never wash it; I thought perhaps I should preserve this last trace. This was, at last, impractical. I wanted unfiltered light streaming in. I wanted clean light, and the imprint was not the only mark on the glass.
I encountered the phrase dead name for the first time on a parents forum. I asked Beatrice if she used that phrase to refer to her own birth name. “Of course,” she answered without blinking. “That’s the common way to speak of it.” I was caught off-guard then by a wave of grief.
“Oh,” I replied. “I didn’t know.” She shrugged. Ache washed over me but I didn’t know why.
I hadn’t really missed the name we gave her at birth. It wasn’t so hard to forfeit, perhaps because I had been desperate not to lose the girl herself. Also, I love the name Beatrice. I don’t think I was grieving the “dead name,” but perhaps grieving that it had to die. I had considered her first name gone, never to return, but I had never thought it dead. Calling a name dead implies that my daughter had to kill it in some sense. Am I sad because it was a close battle? Yes, but there’s something else…
I look at Beatrice and consider the nature of her hero’s journey, the differences between hers and mine. Just like my daughter and just like you, I had to fight to become myself. We all do. What’s the difference, really? Sooner or later, we must face this dangerous adventure. The difference is she had to start too soon. I was lucky enough to start in the Shire, a grown-up Hobbit with hair on my feet and with enough time for a second breakfast before Gandalf came to call. I got to leave from home.
Not transgender kids. In this culture they are born into Mordor, into the middle of a deep, dark binary lie. The landscape of the lie reveals itself to them as soon as they start to learn language. They begin their journey when they can barely speak—much too soon and too much alone. Their journey is on a brutal fast-forward.
To survive, these kids must slay lies as if they are dragons. Beatrice did what she had to do. She vanquished her now-dead name, which was the earliest and most powerful of the lies. She survived to give birth to herself.
Beatrice is a beautiful name for her. A good, strong name. It feels right.
Perhaps it’s her matter-of-factness in the face of death, her soldier’s stance, that pains me. She’s not sentimental about her battles. Her birth name, her given name, is now dead. Instead, there is a living girl going about her business at the kitchen table, making tea and plans for the day, annoyed by my questions.
I’m ready now to bury my grief over a name, so insignificant in the scheme of things.
There is an unbridgeable gap between the signifier and what it signifies. I respect this distance. I understand the nature of traces and names: mere signifiers, ever-distant from our essential selves.
Still, when I first heard the phrase dead name, I wanted to wrap the wrong name I had once given my baby in a small shroud. I wish I could have buried it myself, without a shoebox. I wish I could have held it one last time, kissed it gently on the head and laid it softly into the ground. “It wasn’t your fault little name, we were both wrong,” I still want to say. “I’m sorry you had to die.”
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