a letter to the white families of my queer partners: past, present, and future.

if we ever cross paths (again, or for the first time), perhaps you’ll learn that i am a person who carries a lot of feelings. sometimes i express them. sometimes they get buried. sometimes they just travel throughout my body, burning to get out. there will be a lump buried at the base of my throat. my heart will move with a rapidity that convinces me it’s about to rip open my chest. i have to curl over from the pain in my stomach. these are the ways i experience my feelings. viscerally. and oftentimes, they inspire writing. this is one of those moments.

because i’ve been wanting to write this letter for quite some time. i mean, fuck, i’ve needed to write this letter for quite some time. but out of fear, or consideration for the womxn i’ve loved, i haven’t. but today is the one year anniversary of the pulse massacre. you remember:  forty-nine black and brown queer folx were murdered at a nightclub in orlando. that day, a year ago, was one of the most heart wrenching days of my life. but today is also loving day. the fiftieth anniversary of the supreme court ruling, in favor of mildred and richard loving, saying that folx of different “races” could get married. as a multiracial person, sometimes it’s jarring to realize that perhaps i would not be here had it not been for the resilience of the lovings. so today is a day filled with lots of emotions. and, at the moment, my body is telling me it needs to cry: that heaviness, at the base of, and behind, my eyes. but, at any rate, today feels like the right day for this letter. today feels like the day that these things need to be said; if for no other reason than to honor the folx whose lives were stolen a year ago in orlando, by asking the world to consider being a little more kind today.

i talk about y’all a lot in therapy. how my relationships with you have informed who i am today. the way that i trust. my need for acceptance. the ways in which this black, queer, body is triggered. and how i work to move through those moments. your bigotry and intolerance has led to a lot of pain for me. and my partners. a lot of warped understandings of what is good and healthy and acceptable. a lot of warped ideas about the kind of love and respect that i deserve. and a lot of warped ideas about the love and respect that i feel comfortable asking for. so as you can imagine, i’ve had a lot of healing to do in therapy. and outside of therapy. and in my mind. and for my body.

i don’t often think about the relationship i was in when i first came out. i don’t think about the butterflies. the excitement. the aha moment, realizing that i was attracted to her. i don’t often think about choosing to love her. and the beauty of having that reciprocated. but i remember that, because of all of those tender feelings, i was never scared to come out. in fact, i was elated to be able to share that love with our families. like, “hey! everyone! i figured out something really important about myself: i’m not straight!” the liberation of that moment. of recognizing myself in the mirror. saying, i know you. i see you. the love you’ve found is beautiful. and worthy. and important. so i wasn’t scared. i felt grateful for the opportunity to come out. until i did. and, as a nineteen year old, experienced what it meant to be rejected by the people who were supposed to love you. and by the people who were supposed to love your partner, and you, by extension. and i have gone through this pattern in relationship after relationship. telling myself i won’t let it happen again. i won’t allow myself to experience that trauma again. until i do. but, i still have those moments, looking into the mirror and saying, i know you, and the love you’ve found is beautiful. and i look at my partner and am able to say, i love you, and what we’ve found is beautiful and worthy and good, unequivocally.

but some days, throughout these relationships with your children, i’ve just felt like an outsider looking in. trying to understand how you could ever reject this beautiful humxn that you helped bring into the world. how you could reject the person that she is. the life that brings her joy and wellness. it astounds me. but when i can’t remove myself, and merely be a witness, i find that i feel that rejection, viscerally, too. and damn, i mean some of y’all haven’t even ever said my name, some of you didn’t know that your child loved me, or didn’t want to know; but i’ve personalized your rejection. i’ve imagined that your bigotry is directed at me, specifically. that i am the problem. that you resent me. because of your child’s love for me. and that is when the warped ideas began developing. that is when i became set on "earning" your love. proving myself worthy. buying you flowers. waiting patiently for you to be ready to see me. feeling honored when i was finally invited back into your home. letting the racist comments about black and brown folx slide. loving your child, fiercely, despite it all. so that maybe, one day, you might find me worthy. and as i write this, i just think HOW SHITTY IS THAT. and how misguided i have been since coming out in my nineteenth year.

i think one of the most difficult aspects of your rejection, though, has been its basis. the foundation you stand upon. you know it used to be mine, too, right? i used to drive myself to mass every sunday. i used to beg my parents to take me when i was younger. i used to get in trouble for staying too late at youth group. i used to pray the rosary while driving to school with my best friend. i used to lead my team in prayer. i used to read the bible. carrying it, and books about it, with me always; wanting nothing more than to understand what it meant to be a good catholic. a catholic who lived by the book. i was humble. and loving. and reverent. and steadfast. i used to live by everything that you currently stand upon.

so it’s jarring to have that foundation thrown back in my face. to listen to you tell your daughter, and me by association, what god believes. what jesus believes. what the church believes. what that huge group of white men in some big, ornate, building in rome has chosen to believe. it’s jarring to listen to you say homosexuality like it’s a fucking curse. it’s scary to think that you actually believe that jesus - this all loving, radical, radical (i’ll say it again), RADICAL man who was murdered by the state - would give even a moment’s thought to the fact that i love your daughter. other than to say, thank you, for loving someone as deeply as i have loved you. i write this to say that i think you’ve got it all wrong. and this isn’t the liberal in me. this isn’t the gay agenda. this is me, once an insatiable student of catholicism and my faith - and still, a person who loves words, and who yearns to understand more deeply - who has read what your savior has to say. and, in case a summary is needed: he just asked us to love.

and, yes, that means loving the forty-nine brown and black queer folx who were murdered in orlando last year. that means saying their names. that means not scrolling through their story, or flipping past it in the newspaper, because perhaps their lives weren’t all that important to you. because your savior said that every life should be important to you. every single one. that is what love is. so that means not ignoring the hatred against the queer community, hatred that often finds its roots, and certainly its teaching, in the very churches you occupy; that means not ignoring the hatred and disgust that resides in your chest. that means owning it, and moving through it, and past it. and recognizing that it is this hatred that led to that massacre. that their murders were this hatred, manifested. and it is hatred and bigotry, that continues to try to erase their stories today. that erases all of us. black. brown. queer.

so i have a hard time associating myself with the catholic church these days. between the hypocrisy of these holy men who have sexually assaulted our children and been protected anyways, the racism, the sexism, the every -ism under the sun, the complicity - OH, THE COMPLICITY - it’s hard to believe in the unwavering goodness of this institution. but, i’ve realized i can get down with jesus. and his message. and his radicalism. and his love. and my hope for you is that you’ll begin to more deeply understand his message, and that maybe that will give you clarity about your child. and the people whom she chooses to love. and the beauty of her love, unequivocally.

and if we ever get to a point where you are ready to really know me, i think it’s important for you to recognize the complexity of our relationship. i am, as i said earlier, so grateful for the resilience of the lovings. i am grateful that my black and brown elders and ancestors fought for themselves, and fought for me, and fought for the future of our people. but i also recognize that choosing to love a white person, as a person of color, can be challenging. and a few years ago, i chose to be colorblind in these relationships. i chose to internalize the microaggressions. to remain silent. to allow them to continue. and so what i want you to know about me is that i am not that person anymore. your child has chosen to love someone who will demand love and respect. and that means leaving the racism, the microaggressions, the “jokes,” or comments about my hair or my complexion at the door. and, if you’re not capable of that just yet, if you haven’t done that work just yet, it means being ready to learn. to be called out. and called in, if i have the energy. it will not be easy. but i am learning that it is what i deserve.

i’ve been angry at you all for a long time. i’ve carried this with me for a long time. for the ways you asked your daughter to choose between us - dangling your love in front of her as a reward. and sometimes undermining the love we were building, as a result. for those times you tried to set her up with men while i was out of town. for the times you pretended you didn’t know she loved me, to spare your own feelings. to stay comfortable, even if it meant shoving her, violently, back into the closet. for all the days you refused to say my name. for calling us unnatural. for that disgusted look in your eyes - yes, i saw it. for asking us not to tell people we were dating. for those months you wouldn’t invite me into your home. for letting your other children pretend i didn’t exist. for the nights i spent sobbing, drowning in your rejection. for believing that you were giving me a gift with your tolerance, and not realizing all the days i’d given you the gift of my patience. for the pain. the pain. the pain. and for treating me in such a way that i forgot i was in control of the relationships i choose to engage in.

i am remembering this fact. i can choose to have a relationship with you. or not. i can choose to share my beauty and tenderness and energy with you. or not. i can choose to put myself in situations where i may get hurt. or not. and i can choose to keep laughing with her. and holding hands with her. and dancing with her in our kitchen. i can choose to keep building with her, again and again and again; and to be grateful for the radiance of the smile she shares with me. and i can choose to let your rejection fall somewhere other than upon my body, and continue to love your child. deeply. and viscerally. and in the most natural and life-giving way that i know how. i can choose myself. and i feel well and tender and so, so loved, remembering that fact.

in truth and flowers and tenderness,

kristen

dear kristen: a love letter

dear kristen,

since moving to st. louis, i have developed a real love for writing letters. or perhaps renewed my love for it. i’ve written a lot of personal letters this year. some of which have been sent off across the atlantic. (it still astounds me, sometimes, how much trust we instill in our world’s mailing system - that i can send a letter and know, with more certainty than not, that it will arrive where it is supposed to arrive.) i’ve also written to my parents back home in california. my sister. a dear, dear friend in portland. and new york. and off the coast of florida. and to my partner. from our early days till now, with doodles and all of those warm and fuzzy feelings. with gratitude, and vulnerability, and reflections on the depth of the world we are building. and i’ve written open letters. to white people. to catholic people. to people who choose to violently assault marginalized folx every day. or, who choose to pretend such assaults don’t occur. i’ve written more letters over the last year than maybe throughout the rest of my life combined. but i have struggled, immensely, to ever write a letter to you that i felt was worth reading.

so now, just two weeks after completing our twenty-fifth lap around the sun, i’ve decided to try again. recognizing that even as i write this, i still have no idea where this letter will take me. but perhaps i should put one foot in front of the other. so. happy birthday. i felt compelled to write to you this year, as your twenty-fifth orbit came to a close. maybe it’s the romantic in me. or the poet. but somehow, this year seemed more important than those that have come before. maybe, though, it’s because it is. maybe, when you find yourself in reflection - trying to determine pivots and turning points and the moments that changed everything - you will remember so much about your twenty-fifth year of life. so maybe, there is some grand or existential reason, beyond my comprehension, that has contributed to why i feel compelled to write to you at this time.

and i suppose i’ve been wanting to talk to you about fear. and about the necessity of pushing against it. your life has been operated, often, out of fear. choosing one outcome for fear of another. you have also, of course, been incredibly bold at times. like that time you told your partner that you loved her. the will that it took to steady your voice, so that she would know that you meant it. that your love was not wavering as you said those words. i love you. you wanted her to know that loving her was the act that made you feel most steady, most true. and there have been other moments of boldness. the choice to cut your hair. to wear a bowtie. to burn, even if only metaphorically, those dresses in your closet. to change all of the things that physically, made you feel so little like yourself. you would spend hours looking into a photo, your body in a dress, attempting to find your joy. attempting to find your likeness. and there was so much courage and bravery in the moments in which you chose to say no to all that. and to choose to physically manifest all that was on the inside. i am so happy for you. that you made those choices. because it seems to me that you are becoming more yourself every day.

and so i write, in this moment, to encourage you to continue to push against that fear. but maybe, to also keep trying to discover its roots. where does it come from. why is it there. who put it there. was it you. was it someone external. was it something external. keep finding the place where the fear flourishes. and grows. where the light hits it just right, and it finds a way to keep moving through you. because, then, maybe, you’ll be better equipped to ward it off. or to learn something about it. and about yourself. and you’ll continue to be able to make choices that are based in love and your liberation.

i think i would be remiss, here, to speak about this past year for you without mentioning therapy. i have so much joy when i think about the fact that you chose therapy for yourself. that you chose to prioritize your mental and emotional and physical health. and it brings a smile to my face when i consider how much joy and comfort the process has given you. but also, the ways that it’s challenged you, and insisted that you grow. and damn, the ways you have grown.

you have discovered so much during those moments in therapy. but it seems to me that perhaps the most valuable tool has been learning how to reconnect with your body. what does it mean when your stomach seems to be ripping itself apart. what does it mean about your anxiety. and fear. and uncertainty. what does it mean when something like winter falls over your body. and you’re trembling. with no real explanation. what does it mean when that feeling of heaviness weighs onto your head. seeming to threaten your vision. can you even see the world around you in those moments. can you see yourself. you’ve reconnected with your body. and recognized that those physical manifestations of all that is going on emotionally and cognitively, do not have to be your normal. that you can respond to them. and be gentler with yourself. and that you have the tools to breathe tenderness into your life. it’s been a beautiful thing to witness in you.

so maybe you’ll look back and think about therapy. maybe you’ll look back and think about the fears that you’ve overcome. and maybe you’ll look back and think about your art. the beginnings of it. or, the beginnings of being intentional with it. the fact that it is your art that has given you the power to begin this letter. because maybe you’ll be sitting in a studio, your studio, walls covered in your photography and paintings and quilts and sketches, and a stack of your books in the corner, and you’ll be flipping through your old notebooks. maybe you’ll cry over the fear that you had to overcome to keep writing. or maybe the tears will be those of jubilation and pride. emotions that your ancestors, despite their trauma, found a way to gift to you. what a gift. so perhaps all of this will happen and you’ll know that in your twenty-fifth year, you made the right decision by embracing the art that lives inside of you.

your twenty-fifth year was filled with challenges that you’ve never faced before. and courage that you did not know you had. seriously. there have been moments when i just look at you and think, damn that was brave. so i hope that one day you’ll look back with the ability to recognize the beauty of it all. and maybe you’ll write that letter to your ancestors that continues to breathe inside of you - asking them to help you to continue to understand you. to help you be more gentle to you. and thanking them for finding a way to radiate such light when the world insisted that they shouldn’t. and maybe, by the end of that letter, much like this one, you’ll begin to understand more of who you are, and come to recognize how magical it is that you choose to write in flowers each day.

in tenderness, in love,

kristen

dear haileigh: about the color purple? thank you.

i believe i have inside of me everything that i need to live a bountiful life. with all the love alive in me i’ll stand as tall as the tallest tree. and i’m thankful for every day that i’m given. both the easy and hard ones i’m livin’. but most of all i’m thankful for,  lovin’ who i really am. i’m beautiful. yes i’m beautiful. and i’m here.
— celie, the color purple the musical

dear haileigh,

do you remember  when we were transitioning into and out of college, respectively, and realizing (in the solitude of our minds) that we fell somewhere on the queer side of the sexuality spectrum, and feeling all of the terror and uncertainty and loneliness that comes with that? i wish we had known to talk to each other. that we could have confided in one another. and i wish that we had known how our blackness and existence and magic would be threatened and assaulted by this world in the years to come. i'm compelled to think we would have huddled closer to one another. that we would have learned to hold each other in case the folx around us couldn't. i’m grateful that, since those days, we’ve begun to learn what it means to hold one another close.

when i started thinking about creating radically tender, i talked a lot about salt. and reflected on salt. and reread salt. i still talk a lot about salt. when i’m trying to explain this project to people. or trying to explain myself. nayyirah waheed’s poetry has become something like a point of reference for me. handing over a book of poetry to a stranger and saying, here, this will help you to understand me. but, in actuality, i think the beginnings of this project started with the color purple. the musical. cynthia erivo. black girl magic. which means that it started with you.

do you remember when i was visiting you in new york for the first time, in april of last year, and we were walking through times square? that was when you mentioned the color purple to me for the first time. the streets were breathing. shouting. fighting to be seen. and heard. but their noise could not come close to competing with you in that moment. you were a black womxn inspired. you had seen yourself, i think, on that stage. and you wanted the same opportunity for me. which made me want it too.

i read the color purple nearly a decade ago (damn. how?) in my high school english class. with a white teacher. which is perhaps a reflection for another time. but, the fact is, i never really got it. what all the excitement was about. but i remember walking through times square with my sister and my parents, on our way to the theater last year, and feeling like my life was about to be changed.

and it was.

it’s beyond words. or maybe the words just haven’t been created yet. or discovered. or they’re found in a language that is not the one i have learned in this country. but it was that feeling of being so fucking proud to be black. a feeling that i had not really encountered until a few months prior. the feeling that comes when you see yourself on stage. when you witness the excellence of black womxn in their element. black womxn taking up space. black womxn telling their stories. writing their stories. owning their stories. black womxn as tender. black womxn wrapped in flowers. black womxn learning their worth. from each other. and rediscovering it every time they look in the mirror.

and it was radical.

i don't always have the words to describe the show to other people, but i do have the most visceral experience listening to the soundtrack these days: i can feel it building in my chest. that feeling of being understood. of kinship. and community. the memory of communicating with you after the show in expletives and sound effects (i.e. wtf, ahhh, etc.), because, really, the magic stays with you. and the awe and joy and energy was all-consuming.

about half a year later, after reading salt, and starting therapy, i recognized this theme writing itself into my story: i needed to start showing up for myself. i needed to listen to my body when it was trembling from that anxiety that feels like winter. i needed to hold me. i needed to learn something about self-love. and flower work. and tenderness.

so, today, as i continue navigating my story and unfolding my vision for radically tender, i’m grateful for cynthia erivo. and the color purple. and you. it seems, fitting, doesn’t it, that my project started because a black womxn that i adore insisted on sharing something profound with me?

you’ve given me such a gift.

with love, and tenderness,

kristen

 

an open letter

to anyone, to everyone:

you don’t know me. but i’m going to share part of me with you. because i feel compelled to share all that this project represents for me. and the place from which it emerged.

yesterday, my therapist asked me which part of my identity i claimed. which part of your identity do you claim? the question has stayed with me. to give you some background, i started therapy back in december, ultimately, because i didn’t feel black enough. what the hell does that even mean? i can't say explicitly. but i can paint you a picture. i suppose, having grown up in predominantly white spaces, having spent years being called out as an oreo, or for speaking differently, etc. etc. something in me has been convinced that i am not an adequate enough black person. that i don’t have an intimate understanding of our culture or our struggle or our joys. i’ve bought into that on most days. and find that each day presents new obstacles that involve feeling unworthy of wearing this beautifully melanated skin.

over the course of these last few months, my therapy sessions have turned into a litany of identity studies. mostly, how i don’t feel adequate in any of my identities. how i don’t feel affirmed. or worthy. and so, yesterday morning, i was telling her how i don’t call myself a writer. like, i wouldn’t put it on my business card. and, likewise, despite something like eight years of photography experience, i won’t call myself a photographer, either. i do those things, i told her. but i cannot claim my identity as a black creative; because i simply don’t feel worthy of that designation.

we have talked, at length, about how my inability to accept myself has led to a lot of my suffering. we have talked about the opportunity i have to grow and to experience joy and to feel affirmed, if i could only figure out how to extend myself some compassion.

a couple of months back, there was a moment when my therapist got fired up, and told me that i needed to start showing up for myself. that i needed to be my own source of safety and comfort. that the capacity to show up for myself resides in me. you have everything you need, she said. and continues to say. i was compelled by this idea. showing up for myself. and wondered how other people do it. how other people have developed the capacity to actually be their own best friend. their favorite person in the world. a humxn that they love, unconditionally. i didn’t know how they did it. and i wanted to know. so i began to ask. what does tenderness mean to you? how do you choose to be soft with yourself during the hard seasons? how does that choice impact your health, your relationships, your community?

this is the space that this project has been created from. a space of suffering, honestly. and confusion. and lots of insecurity. it has grown with every instance of my therapist telling me, you have to learn to extend yourself some compassion. and wondering what that looks like and feels like. it’s an exploration of self-love and tenderness, in a way i’m not sure i’ve ever really understood. and it’s the recognition that to be black or brown and tender is a radical act of resistance.

thanks for reading.

kristen