The first time I came out to my mom as trans, I was told that, should I pursue transitioning, I would have to find another place to live, and I would no longer be able to be a part of our family. For a few days, I did just that – I sought out the assistance of friends who lived nearby and started making preparations to find alternative living arrangements as, whether I had my family’s support or not, I knew that this was who I was, and I was not going to be dissuaded from living as my truest self. The only problem was that I had picked a real shitty time to come out: it was March of 2020, and only a few days later, then-President Donald Trump would declare a national emergency over the coronavirus pandemic, putting everyone’s life plans on hold and sending me back to the home I shared with my mother.
For the next week, we didn’t speak to one another. Every attempt I made to start a conversation was met with steely silence, and not the slightest hint of a verbal or physical response. It was as if I wasn’t even there. This was in sharp contrast to her barrage of insults only a few days prior, her initial reaction to my coming out. I hadn’t exactly anticipated hugs and kisses – I was painfully aware of how much of a shock this might be, and how much harder my life could become because of this – but even my measured expectations I used in any Important Conversation™ with my notoriously critical mother (who always found an issue with any decision I’d ever made and anyone and everyone I’d ever associated with) couldn’t prepare me for the coarseness of her replies.
There was no inquiry to understand why I was the way I was, or how long I’d known this. Instead, she sought to deny my transness at all costs, hurling hate at me in some misguided effort to “save me” from such a “sad life.” “You’ll never be a pretty girl,” she said. “No one will ever take you seriously. You’ll never get a job like that. Why would any man want to be with a woman who wasn’t a real woman?” And on and on and on. It’s not as if I hadn’t heard these things (or thought them myself) before. But hearing them from her – this woman who, warts and all, meant the world to me, and had always served as an inspiration for me, especially as a woman who had survived an abusive household, single motherhood, and the everyday exhaustion of the modern female experience – felt like a fatal evisceration of my very existence. It not only shattered my perception of what our relationship was, but caused me to question who I was as well.
And so, in the week that followed my (failed) coming out in which we were estranged, I gave my mother her space and retreated further into myself. After this week, my mom – seemingly on cue – started initiating normal conversations with me again as if nothing had happened. I played the part (after all, we were stuck in quarantine with one another for the foreseeable future, and I didn’t want to make that any more unpleasant than it already was), but inside, I had started to harbor intense hatred for her that I didn’t know how to diminish – and I didn’t know if I wanted to, either. She had given me a week to myself and my own troubled thoughts, in which I continued to relive my contentious coming out over and over again, sensing the sharpness of her spite more severely every time. Whether she meant those things or was simply overcome by her emotions in the moment didn’t matter to me – she said them, and I wouldn’t soon forget them.
I ended up spending nearly the entirety of the pandemic with my mom in that house – just the two of us – as my final year of college was moved entirely online, and I had no other activities that provided me a natural escape either. And throughout it all, though I did my best not to “rock the boat,” it was clear that a chasm had opened between us, and this once imperfect yet beautiful bond we had shared had been broken, potentially permanently. I can honestly say that I no longer loved my mom, and at a point, I accepted that I might never love her again, and started making the emotional preparations to process that. But I simply couldn’t look at her and not hear those words all over again, and I didn’t know when – or if – that would ever change. I had trusted someone I cared for more than maybe anyone else in the world with something that had plagued me for most of my life, and my vulnerability was met with malice. And that still stung.
In May of 2021, I graduated college, and the following month, I made the move to Los Angeles with five of my friends. We had all had these plans in mind for months – years even, in my case – and I always knew that all of my professional (and personal) future awaited me on the West Coast. It was a tearful farewell on my mom’s part, but not on mine. Moving halfway across the country from her – from Elkhorn, Nebraska to southern California – had become a necessity that was almost unbearable to wait for over the past year, and I couldn’t get away from her quick enough. Over the next few months, I proceeded to establish my roots in the city, find my community, and start really living as “me,” for the first time. It felt great.
However, you can only live with one foot in the closet and one out for so long until life as a whole becomes unfulfilling, and you feel like you’ve hit a wall. All my friends knew the real me and accepted me, but online, at work, and to my family, I was still holding on to my past persona, and this secret was stifling. I wanted the space to find myself in this strange city – and make plans for my future, should I actually be disowned the second time I try to come out – before sharing my true self with the world and my mother (once more), but the time had come. No matter what happened next, I could no longer keep living a half-life – a lie, really. And so, one year ago, near the start of February 2022, I called my mother one Tuesday night and told her what I intended to do.
I could barely get the words out before I was a blubbering mess, and I spent the next five minutes sobbing, struggling to say anything further. In this moment, my mom was her traditional tender, nurturing self, trying to coax me to tell her why I had called. But I was fraught with the fear that what had happened two years prior was about to occur again, and although I was a much different person now than I was then – older, wiser, and much more confident in myself – I still didn’t know if I could take hearing all of that a second time. Eventually though, I knew I had no choice. It was now or never. And so, the truth started to spill out of me. I told her I loved her, and I didn’t want to lose her, and I didn’t want to do anything that would intentionally make her mad, but that there was something I was that I had tried not to be for a very long time, and I knew now that I couldn’t change that. I told her I was trans (again).
Initially, there was a long pause. But when she spoke, it wasn’t with remembrance of our first conversation two years ago. Instead, it was a lot of the same sentiment she had shared before, but now posed in the form of invasive, objective questioning. “Are you sure?” she asked, firmly. “How do you know you’re sure? Don’t you think you can just be a feminine boy? Don’t you think this will make your life harder? Do you think you’ll ever pass as a woman? Do you think you’ll ever get work like this? Do you think any man will want to be with you?” And on and on and on (again). This time, once I had regained my composure, I was at least prepared with answers to every one of her questions and concerns, so even if that didn’t prevent her probing, it did lead to a more productive… “discussion.”
Ultimately, by the time the conversation was over (over two hours later), I wasn’t disowned by my family, but my mother wasn’t exactly delighted with this development either, and it didn’t remotely repair our relationship even if honesty helped clear up some of our communicative struggles. In the next few weeks, I would start seeing a doctor for gender affirming care and begin HRT, effectively starting my medical transition, and though my mother was involved in all of these events and knew they were happening, we remained at a distance from one another. Our talks were short and sweet, and never went below the surface level – she now knew who I was, but I don’t think she’d yet fully accepted it, and as a result, we had yet to regain the emotional connection we had once so carefully cultivated throughout my childhood and beyond. I had started to make peace with the fact that, as I’d once feared, it may be too far gone.
And then, a few weeks later, I saw a little film called Everything Everywhere All at Once. I knew very little about the film aside from what I’d gleaned from its first trailer (a multiversal sci-fi-action-comedy starring Michelle Yeoh? Sure, I’m in) and the raves I’d read on social media out of South by Southwest. So, not only was I not prepared for the overwhelming emotional and existential impact it would have on me, but also for the fact that a fraught relationship between a mother and daughter made up the very foundation of the film. From the first scene, I was left speechless by how much of my own mother I saw in Michelle Yeoh’s Evelyn Wang – a cantankerous, coarse, and bitterly critical woman who, despite working hard to care for and provide for her family, can’t help but casually hurt them in the process, particularly when it comes to her queer daughter, whose identity she “tolerates,” but just barely (and even that’s a bit of an overstatement).
But Evelyn didn’t just exemplify who my mother was – she helped me understand her more as well. It was never lost on me throughout my life how much strife my mom had suffered through, from poor, unloving parents of her own and a failed marriage that left us fending for ourselves for much of my adolescence. But the one thing I had failed to see was how much this not only changed her, but how she approached her remaining familial relationships with her children as well. Even though so much of my sister’s and my coming-of-age was chaos as a result of events outside our control, my mom had done her best to steady the ship and give us as normal an existence as possible, aiming to protect us from the worst of the world and push us towards a brighter future. After I came out as trans, my mom had realized that there was one thing she could never protect me from, no matter how hard she tried – myself.
This wasn’t to say that she necessarily saw my transness as an innately “bad thing,” but that, objectively, my life was about to be harder than she had ever believed it would be simply by being who I was, and certain opportunities would instantly become unavailable to me forever. My mom didn’t not want me to be trans because she had a problem with trans people – never once had she espoused any transphobic beliefs, which made her initial response to my coming out all the more shocking. My mom didn’t want me to be trans because she had spent her whole life assuring that I would have what she didn’t, and this was the one thing she couldn’t plan for or protect me from. That exasperation turned to enmity, which in turn threatened to tear us apart forever, until she accepted that my transness was not a failing on her part, but just a fact of reality that we would work through together.
As Evelyn too realized how the sadness over the state of her own life and push for perfection in Joy’s had left her estranged from her daughter – and left her daughter stranded in the expanse of a nihilistic existence – it was futile to resist the resonance this moment held for me, and by the time Evelyn had finally summoned the strength to tell Joy that she would “always want to be here with [her],” there was no turning back. I was a complete and utter mess, and not just due to the power and poignancy of Michelle Yeoh’s masterful performance (and the wrenching realization of this astonishingly affecting arc), but because that’s all I’d ever hoped to hear from my own mother – and Everything Everywhere All at Once made me believe that was possible again.
It didn’t happen overnight. We continued to grow back together gradually over the next few months, but as with any growth, growing pains followed, and there were countless fights that resulted from my continued transition that constantly tested our connection. One of our major arguments arose upon my intention to finally legally change my name – an act that would not only erase the child my mother had raised for good in her eyes, but also render my transition “irreversible” and make it feel all too real (as if the hormones weren’t already doing that). However, we pushed through and ultimately found ourselves on the other side, as she accepted that this change was happening no matter what she said or did. But then, the next fight was actually honoring said change, as, for a few months that followed, she couldn’t bring herself to actually use my new name but instead only my first initial, “Z.” To her, this was a gender neutral equivalent that still sufficed. To me, it was another example of her denial of who I really was – and who I had become.
There were times when I thought the reconciliation that Evelyn and Joy experienced would still elude me forever, and maybe it was a pipe dream after all – the stuff you only see in the movies. But for as mad as my mom made me, I still wanted it more than anything in the world. I just knew it had to be on her terms, in her own time, as it was for Evelyn. This progress wasn’t something that could be pushed or forced by outside influence – it had to come from within, as my mom accepted and understood where (and why) her emotions had arisen and made a mission herself to move past them in order to maintain and repair our relationship. I visited my family over Christmas – returning to Nebraska for the first time since officially transitioning – and naturally, awkwardness ensued, as everyone reacquainted themselves with “the new me.” But shockingly, my mom had already started to show a new side to herself.
One of my favorite memories I have with my mom over this past winter break was when we went shopping together, at her request. She used the excuse of “having extra Kohl’s Cash,” to justify this trip (a classic Midwestern white mom line), but I could tell there was some genuine excitement behind her desire to take her new daughter out on a mini shopping spree. Not only did she support my fashion conquests, but she even started to offer recommendations of her own based on what she started to learn of my style – and she wasn’t that far off. It felt like the closest I’d been with my mom in almost three years. But the one bridge she still couldn’t bring herself to cross was calling me by my new name. When referring to me to myself or to others, I was still “Z” to her, and in spite of all the other newfound support she showed, I couldn’t help but be saddened by the fact that she still hadn’t fully embraced this me. After that day, I had faith the time would come, but how much more waiting would I have to do?
Upon my return to California, my mom told me that she would be shipping a box to me soon, filled with some sweaters I had accidentally left at home, and some other holiday treats I couldn’t fit in my suitcase. I told her to let me know when I should be on the lookout for it, and we left it at that. A few days later, I got a text from my mom telling me that she had been notified that the box had been dropped off. I went downstairs, mentally preparing myself for what I’d read on the box, as this wasn’t the first “care package”-of sorts my mom had sent in the past few months, and all had been addressed to “Z” – not me. But when I threw open our front door and picked up the package sitting on our doorstep, I saw not just a “Z,” but a few letters following it as well. For the first time, in her own handwriting, my mom had addressed a package to “Zoë.”
One of our basic human needs – and wants – is to be seen. It’s at the core of Jobu Tupaki’s crusades in Everything Everywhere All at Once, as she’s not only searching for an Evelyn who sees the world the way she does, but one who sees her as well. And reading my name – my real name – on a package addressed to me by my mother showed me that, at long last, she finally saw me – the real me. And not only did she see me, but three years after first coming out (and one year after successfully doing so), she accepted me too. After making our way through the mangled mess of our own emotions and the overcomplicated chaos of everyday existence, we had finally found our way back to one another – and this time, we weren’t letting go.