Language and Queerness

What do you do when your communication is limited with family members because neither of you know how to express queerness in your native tongue?

I am mixed race: white, indigenous, Portuguese (where there is Cape Verdean, and black Açorean folks). I grew up bilingual, but my Portuguese is very…different. It is not “high” Portuguese. I can understand people who are Brazilian in certain areas of Brazil, I can understand Cape Verdeans, I can understand other Açorean folks except people from the island of Pico and I don’t know why, and I can understand Angolans. My mother’s family comes from the island of Saint Michael, the biggest island, and they were poor which also affects their Portuguese. My grandmother and my mother are the only two who are literate in Portuguese in my entire family (besides me). Their Portuguese is influenced by class, race, and the fact they are from the islands. My Portuguese is a mix of being influenced by English words, their slangs, learning Portuguese in school and knowing the proper way to say certain things/proper grammar.

It’s also entirely straight.

I don’t know anything about queerness in the Lusophone (portuguese speaking) lense. I don’t even know the word for me, except my mother would call gay portuguese boys that I grew up around, in hushed tones with her sister and cousins, “panelas” — which means pan, by the way. It denotes that they are like women, in the kitchen, doing feminine things. Like faggot.

But I am transgender, and how could I even convey that in Portuguese? In English, I was able to take comfort in academic works written for my American side. I could escape in a book that explored gender and sexuality. But none of them could address my situation:

I am going to have top surgery, and I take care of/live with my grandmother (Avó or vavó). This is the same woman who crosses herself when she sees sonograms, who thought I wouldn’t be allowed to go to college because I was a woman, who thought Salazar (a portuguese dictator) was still around, who thinks fortune telling is real and that if you pay enough money to a nomadic traveler from the islands you can get a curse on someone.

How could I explain when she is not only going deaf, but that my Portuguese sounds fundamentally different from hers? Mine is marred with proper education in grammar, pronunciation, less slang and the Spanish I also know. How can I explain that fundamentally something is different about me and it goes against everything she’s ever seen, because she comes from a world where women who had babies out of wedlock would “disappear for school” to the mainland to come back exactly 9 months later. How can I explain that gayness and being transgender is a thing when I don’t even know the words? How even race plays into our language and how it’s weird?


I asked my mother — a mother who doesn’t like the fact I am doing all of this and still misgenders me as I write this — to help me. I envisioned a sit down, where I would say something and she would translate it. I wanted to pick a day and time. Instead, she cut me off -

“How am I going to explain all this?”, she asked.

She too didn’t have the answers. She told me that my grandmother didn’t need to know. Why does she have to know? It’s private, it’s my business. For weeks it was like this, until I threatened to get my aunt involved to explain. Then she caved. I set up a date and time.

Instead, my mother came over the next day while I was at work and talked to my grandmother. I wasn’t given the agency, or chance, to tell her in my own words about it. Instead, my mother told vavó that I wanted to be a boy and I’m going to a hospital to make me into a boy. A few months later, I finally had my surgery day.

Vavó still tells me she loves me. She stares at my chest in a weird fascination of ogling western science and then revulsion because it must be painful and also it’s abnormal. She gives me apologetic looks or tries to make me a favorite meal, which leaves just so much unsaid between us. I still don’t know the words to explain myself, and none of my queer friends are Portuguese but latinx with either Spanish or indigenous languages.

Will I ever?