|Photo by Morgan H. Goode|
I see you in your brown cardigan, face wrinkled at the tips of the eyes next to the temples. Your smile is a big dopey smile and your arms are curled over a small brown woman, my lola, who looks far more displeased. That image would be my guiding model of relationships—however, that is another story. Your thick full head of hair is puffed out in the Midwestern sun. Your eyes are wide and gorgeous. I bet in that photo you had just picked fresh Michigan flowers, black-eyed Susans and lilacs, that could never make up for the splendorous sampaguita of your childhood. This photo of you, dashing and humble, is never folded. Like all my basics, it travels with me without question wherever I go.
I was the kid who sat on the porch in the scorching summers of Chicago with you. We sang songs together—all English, Tagalog, Pangasinense songs. My own father wasn’t available. He was a poor, rural white man who just couldn’t be around. Any understanding of masculinity I had stemmed from you, my grandpa and lolo; all slicked back hair and generous quiet smile. Somehow you were always gingerly in the cut, prepped with breakfast for the entire household of children. You kissed the foreheads of all of us, and loved our mothers—your own children—with an embrace that paralleled the softness of clouds. When the children were at the whim of punishment, right before the sturdy hand or branch came down swinging, I remember you interfering. It was you who moved in between an angry hurt overworked parent and us. You would remind the parent carefully of the love they had and how striking a hand wasn’t the answer. Your own wife insulted you and hit you often, but you only reacted with a calm fortitude that some of us could only try to imagine for ourselves. You knew we were tired, and you understood that the jobs under the table or cleaning people’s houses in white amerika were a treachery. You knew how beat people were. When possible, you shared how false the amerikan dream came to be for them/us, and also how the rage cannot be given to the children. You could soften and remind us with your own humility. You could remind us of our own uncanny ability to love one another.
I was not raised as a boy. I was not raised to have the entitlement of a straight heterosexual, though brown man. I was a weird, big pink glasses wonder of a gender-queered brown child who couldn’t make the cut of binary femininity. I’ve come up as a brown, trans, disabled man working towards justice. Not once when you were alive did you treat me as anything less than marvelous. When I made odd noises and had even odder hobbies, your smile was brazen with pride. You encouraged me. You helped me with my detailed, tedious art projects and supported my curiosity to archive questions about our family’s migration story. Not once did you treat women/transgender people in our lives and family as less than. You surfaced with emotions that were vulnerable but held space for the women and LGBTQ people of my family to take up space in all areas. Maybe this is the way of our family, a matriarchy. Although, I’d like to give all of us more credit than that. You were a man with compassionate manhood, a man who made us laugh and provided for us without the inhumanity that patriarchy demands.
Anytime I feel misogyny colonizes me, or sense it ruminating during the moments I “pass” as a cis straight man—lolo, you are the example I turn to. Anytime I am reminded that good can exist even if it’s socialized in expectations of coldness, intimidation, abuse, and anger, yours is the face I consider. Riddled in otherwise hurtful and hazardous understandings of brown masculinity, you are the brown man I dare to be. What a concept for masculinity not to automatically incite terror. What an innovation for us to challenge that legacy the best we can. Leadership and love for your community doesn’t have to come out of the expense of fear of those around you.
Lolo, most importantly you demonstrated that men have feelings. We can love genuinely and can explore our afflictions too—neither of which necessarily negate or neglect systemic, heteronormative patriarchy. Men like us complicate the imminently outdated dynamic of masculinity and manhood. We have tender ways that fade into the backdrop. I was conditioned to be a FAAB (female assigned at birth) caretaker, and you were a dude who worked hard and cried hard. Our lives implore us to ask how messages of masculinity limit everyone of every possible gender. FTMS, queer people, men, trans people, transmasculine, AGs, Butches, and Studs face harm and neglect that can silence us all. So many families and community members face pain and trauma from systemic oppression that we lash out at those closest to us. Yet, often we respond the only way we know how, with violence and unrealistic societal expectations. I want to thank you lolo and so many other ancestors—queer and trans—who remind us: striking a hand wasn’t and is never the answer to those we love.
Kay Ulanday Barrett is a poet, performer, and educator, navigating life as a disabled pin@y-amerikan transgender queer in the U.S. with struggle, resistance, and laughter. A 2009 Campus Pride Hot List artist and 2013 Trans 100 Honoree, Kay has been featured at colleges and on stages globally, including: Princeton University, UC Berkeley, Musée Pour Rire in Montréal, and The Chicago Historical Society. Kay’s bold work continues to excite and challenge audiences. Kay has facilitated workshops, presented keynotes, and contributed to panels with various social justice communities. Honors include: finalist for The Gwendolyn Brooks Open-Mic Award and contributions in Poor Magazine, Kicked Out Anthology, Windy City Queer: Dispatches from the Third Coast, make/shift, and Filipino American Psychology. Kay turns art into action and is dedicated to remixing recipes. Follow Kay on twitter @kulandaybarrett or visit kaybarrett.net
This blog post is part of the Strong Families' first Papa's Day celebration. You can read more posts in the series on the Strong Families blog. Strong Families is a national initiative led by Forward Together. Our goal is to change the way people think, act and talk about families.