At this point, it feels very tired to talk about how our queerness and transness often pushes us to make chosen families of our own. But it is an important and distinct part of being queer and/or trans. We create these families in order to survive, of course, but we also create them to reclaim something that was denied to us in our upbringing: the unconditional love and acceptance of the people who are bound to us through random selection. As a result, we often end up raising ourselves and each other. We parent each other, we sibling each other, and, sometimes, we even grandparent each other. I think that’s part of what drives the desires of the queer and trans people who so desperately want to see only positive and uncomplicated narratives about us out in the public eye. They think that if people could see how we’ve “done so well” regardless of the trauma thrust on us by the society around us, then maybe, just maybe, the people starving us will throw us some scraps. Navigating the world as a queer and/or trans person is endlessly complex every single day, as are the ways we figure out how to survive, the choices we make, and the roles we fill in each other’s lives. These demands regarding how queer and trans people should portray themselves or the characters they create in our various narratives are not only extremely aggravating, but they’re also simply untrue.
While people are certainly challenging these demands all the time, it still feels so special and revelatory when stories of the messy and, oftentimes, ethically ambiguous ways we survive this hostile world make it out into the open. Faltas: Letters to Everyone in My Hometown Who Isn’t My Rapist is an exciting and, at times, breathtaking addition to the canon of works about “messy trans lives.” Written by legendary trans activist Cecilia Gentili, known for both her work in sex workers’ rights organizing in New York City and her role as Ms. Orlando on the hit FX show Pose, Faltas is an epistolary memoir, a series of unsent letters to some people in the small Argentinian town she grew up in who impacted her life in some significant way. The scope of the memoir covers most of Gentili’s life prior to emigrating to the U.S. and describes her experiences with being outcasted by her peers (and one antagonistic older woman in the town), childhood sexual abuse, parental absence, sex work, class mobility, domestic instability, friendship, leaving a previous life behind in the search for a new and better one, and the possibility of forgiveness.
Titled Faltas, which means “faults” in Spanish, Gentili uses some of the letters in the memoir to explore the flaws — or the ways people mistreated or exploited her or allowed her to be mistreated and exploited in some way — of the people she’s writing to. Often, this mistreatment came in the form of power imbalances, not just with the grown man who took advantage of young Gentili’s need to be seen as feminine and female but also with her father’s mistress who used Gentili’s budding transsexuality as a way to further sabotage the relationship between her father and her mother. Throughout Faltas, Gentili navigates how her positionality as a “faggot” made her vulnerable to the exploitative and abusive behaviors of the adults, specifically the adult men, around her: “What a fucking fight it is to be. Just be.” But she never positions herself as a victim who was completely without agency. Gentili learns early on that the qualities that make her different and the things she’s interested in doing and being render her powerless to the inimical forces around her, but at the same time, she finds some relief in these relationships with people who seem to see her for who she knows she is:
For many years I thought that I liked it. I have now come to understand that I didn’t like it.
I needed it. I needed someone to see me. I needed someone to look at me as the girl I was, to have the experience of being someone who was normal. I needed it and he knew that. He gave me the only thing I could not get from anybody else. Not even the people who were supposed to love me the most. They didn’t really see me. He did.
However, this emotionally complex understanding of the ways that Gentili experienced her abuse does not absolve the adults who hurt her, of course: “What I needed was not just to be seen as a girl, but to be treated like one, and that he didn’t do. He treated me like you treat a woman.” In a few places throughout the memoir, she asks repeatedly how and why the adults around her let the abuses she experienced happen, and she doesn’t exonerate them of their responsibilities to her.
In a recent interview in Xtra, Gentili said about Faltas: “I wanted to talk about how happy I was as a child at times, and how I was able to navigate terrible situations gracefully. I wanted to say that many things were horrible, but many things were not, and those two things can live together.” And while the recollections of the more traumatic moments of her life definitely take up more physical space in the text, she does strike a balance through some of the other letters in the series that examine the areas of Gentili’s young life that provided joy and actual safety to her.
In other areas of the text and in a letter of its own, she describes how her grandmother was supportive of her gender exploration as a child and tried to make her feel as if she was loved no matter who she was or who she came to be. “Your kindness also offered me an immense space to be happy. […] I wanted to be happy! And you wanted me to be happy, too. […] When I think of you, I think of a woman who in her greatest pain was full of joy, and who understood that that joy was not to be kept.”
Throughout the course of a compellingly intimate and emotionally complicated letter to her childhood friend Juan Pablo, Gentili describes the refuge she found in their eventual friendship and how much it meant to her to have Juan Pablo on her side. She interrogates, “What would our lives have been like in that nest of vipers we called our neighborhood if we had not ended up on the same block? Every single one of them was so incredibly weird in such various and specific ways, and yet they all looked on us as the weird ones. Together we were able to look back at them in the same way.”
By the end of the memoir, you’re not left with a lot to reconcile. You’re left with a lot to hold all at once. And that’s part of what makes Faltas one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. It’s a somewhat unique opportunity we don’t always get in nonfiction where an author isn’t necessarily in a moralizing position but is, instead, helping us do exactly what Gentili set out to do: carry multiple and sometimes contradictory emotional truths together at the same time. In this way, Gentili’s memoir not only presents trans life as intricately as it should be presented, but it also just straightforwardly depicts both the ways we fail young trans people every day and how young trans people still find the time and space to experience joy, pleasure, and — occasionally — freedom.
Faltas: Letters to Everyone in My Hometown Who Isn’t My Rapist by Cecilia Gentili is out now from LittlePuss Press, a feminist press run by two trans women, Cat Fitzpatrick and Casey Plett.