How do you tell your parents about everything you lost when they were supposed to be protecting you?

-@HariZiyad

How beautiful if nothing more than to watch him sashay down the catwalk. How beautiful to hear his parents cheering for this young boy as he strikes a pose, then another, then another—each more fierce than the last. I don’t even begrudge the black fanny pack strapped over his shoulder like the worst damn fashion catastrophe one could think up. I’m too busy being in awe of Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union and their lack of deterrence at the digital screams and taunts about the supposed horror of their child’s gender expression.

Wade proudly posted the video of his son Zion on Instagram with the simple caption, “Killing sh*t.” I skim through the comments on Twitter and only catch the snippets, as if the threads are a staticky radio with a worn out antenna: “The effeminization of Black boys…” “Turning him gay…” “Sin…”

Neither Wade nor Union have responded to the torrents of hatred spit at them for how they are raising Wade’s son at any point when it has flared up in the past, and they don’t do it now (Note: I do not mean to take away from the role Zion’s birth mother Siohvaughn Funches plays in raising him freely, and mention Union because she has been featured in many of these public shamings). I want to say they are modeling for their child how not to feed the trolls who are waiting under bridges, both virtual and material, to swallow him whole. Or maybe they think if they ignore it, it won’t reach where it matters. It won’t reach his ears.

I want to say my parents loved me this much. I want to say that they just showed it in other ways, and they did, but I also don’t want to have to say that. I don’t want there to be any caveats to love. I want my parents to read this essay and see the error of their ways in the times they opted instead to protect the antenna and become the radio. When they were the trolls rather than the ones reminding me that I was killing shit, regardless of how queer I was (and I was queer before I knew any sexuality). I want them to apologize for the trauma I experienced growing up in a home where I could be anything but free to be who I was. I want to not need them to say “sorry” anymore.

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Though my mother is on Facebook regularly just like me, she recently told me she doesn’t really read what I post. “It can be too much sometimes,” she said. I get it. Or, I think I do. At any rate, I don’t ask for clarification. I write about my parents and growing up and my childhood trauma a lot. It’s how I process it. My mother is a minister in her religion, and was always regarded as the one who had her shit together, so it’s kind of like I regularly put all of our dirty laundry out for everyone to see when we only learned how to wash and dry in the shadows. She doesn’t blame me for what I write, I don’t think. She has never asked me to stop. But she doesn’t really read what I post. Maybe she thinks if she ignores it, it won’t reach where it matters, too.

To be fair to me, I haven’t really put all of the shit out there. That is coming in my memoir Black Boy Out of Time, which I will show to my parents before it’s finalized. I’ll even let them suggest what shouldn’t be included, will even listen to those suggestions, but there will be no ignoring it. No ignoring this slice of my life that has been missing, and is still unaccounted for. And I’m nervous as fuck for us to finally face our hardest truths together.

How do you tell your parents about everything you lost when they were supposed to be protecting you? How do you hold that in tension with knowing that they should have never had to be strong enough to protect you against everything in the first place? How do you make sure they know you know that they love(d) you, without letting them off the hook for the hell they put you through? How do you make sure they know it’s not a binary? That you know you fucked up too? That maybe you’re fucking up now by trying and making mistakes because you don’t know exactly how?

I tell my therapist that I’m afraid to talk to my parents truthfully about what I feel about growing up with them. He asks me why. “It can be too much sometimes,” I say. He asks for clarification. I say I am still afraid of disappointing them. He says this is yet another way I file down my queer edges, running back into the dark laundry closet. That as queer as I claim to be, the shaming words still seep through the static sometimes. That we might grow up, but when trauma is unresolved, we never really do. And so the healthy thing to do is resolve it, even when we want to look away.

I’d rather look at Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade and cry at how beautiful their parenting is. I’d rather call this a win for representation, cheer that we finally get to see this on the big screen of Instagram’s 1080 pixelation. And maybe it is a type of win, but that’s never really enough, is it? These tears mean a lot of things, but they do not mean I am healing.

They say that at some point, if all goes smoothly, you might end up parenting your parents as they age. The circle of life. I see Zion’s face in my father’s eyes, hidden somewhere under his aging cataracts—a beautiful reflection of grace. I see it in my mother’s cheekbones, which I inherited too, and which are now slightly sunken in by the cancer she is fighting and beating.

I don’t know if Zion is gay or not, and he might not know either. He is still a child. But he is queer as hell. Queer as in free. Queer as in free to be free. Queer as in what all Black children are when they reach this world, even if not for too long. Queer as in what we should all make sure Black children are allowed to be forever. Queer as in what my parents were never allowed to be either.

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I wonder if there is a queer child in them somewhere, still fighting to be free. I wonder if they too have struggled to beat the shame and the guilt and the trolls, which have accumulated over decades now. I wonder how I can follow the model Wayne and Union set, not just for my future children, but for all children, even the ones us adults have lost within ourselves. The one I lost within myself. The ones my parent’s lost.

One of the first lines of Kiese Laymon’s devastating Heavy: An American Memoir, which is addressed to his mother, is “I wanted to write a lie.” The way he struggles throughout the book with being honest about the violence of loving his Black mother in an anti-Black world is a struggle I know all too well. I still don’t want to send my manuscript to my parents, but I will. I know that I deserve to be undeterred at the screams and taunts in my head, and I know that they deserve to be too. And I know the journey begins with looking at our childhoods honestly and truthfully, when we’ve all been lying to ourselves for far too long. No matter how ceaseless the marching, we have to believe we are worth it.

Editor’s Note: This post originally mispelled Dwyane Wade’s name, and has been updated to include a reference to Zion’s birth mother.