“Every woman I have ever loved has left her print upon me, where I loved some invaluable piece of myself apart from me — so different that I had to stretch and grow in order to recognize her. And in that growing, we came to separation, that place where work begins.” — Audre Lorde
A couple years ago, as I was submerged in a bout of depression, a young femme who listened to my then-podcast, Two Brown Girls, sent me a care package. Within this beautiful small box, with a blue drawing scrawled onto the cardboard, were a few items: a cassette tape for my sonic loneliness, a face mask, bath crystals, and sea debris the sender had found on a beach. There was also a letter written in black ink on a piece of crumpled brown wrapping paper. It described what I had meant to them, and how seeing another femme of color talk openly about the immense suffocation of depression and heartbreak — the way Asian mothers can drown you in despair (and how hard we try to please them) — made them feel like they had been seen for the first time.
I recently found that letter again, smooshed into a clear Glad bag, where I kept the other letters that I carry with me. I reread it and cried. It was exactly what I had needed. A reminder of the things we forget to see in ourselves, until someone with a smile shines light on our truculence and lifts our heads from our stubborn necks, pointing at our grandness. When I’m feeling low, everything becomes static and I forget myself. I focus on what I hate, on how I’m a failure, and I fester in those feelings until I’m broken and it hurts too much to fight for my own life. For me, depression is where my frenzied self-hate overwhelms me. So, as I read this letter, I thought back on all the ways the relationships in my life with women, with femmes, have brought me back to life.
Not having a mother affects you a way that is hard to articulate. Even more so when you do have a mother, but your relationship with her is rife with the layered tenacity of her mental illness. The sadness is attached to having a mother who was never quite there, but how to talk about the mother wound to people who have received the love of a mother? My mom’s hybrid schizophrenia (meaning it’s many things categorized into one paltry explanation) has always made me seek the love and affection of women. They validate you in a different way, a way that feels more heartfelt, a way that is removed entirely from your body or sexual voracity (even in relationships that are sexual), and so it becomes a validation of the soul.
Through the years, women have been my lighthouses.
I went to an all-girls high school in and around Sydney, and over the years I grew close to my principal. She was the epitome of a headmistress: stern, kempt, and discerning. But we shared a vision, as corny as it was, for the world to be better. We talked about refugee rights, about Islamophobia (in 2005!), and about the gendered disparities of this world. She also helped me when I was suicidal and had no one to turn to, when my mother was abusive at home, or when I had run away. I turned to my principal, my proxy-mother, like an altar, wanting so badly to be saved. Though she never saved me, she eventually gave me the tools to save myself. I began to believe I was worthy of seeing myself. When I graduated from school, I went to her office to say goodbye. She said, “This isn’t goodbye,” and handed me a “COEXIST” T-shirt, a reference to our constant conversations of religious tolerance over the years. Back then, generosity was far and few between. We both cried.
Being friends with femmes has always felt like the best secret because of the private high it gives you. There is something irrevocable in the way women can lift other women up. It’s anti-capitalist — it’s not about commerce, it’s about heart and connection — and it works as a salve for this world.
As Audre Lorde said, there is self-care in the act of caring for oneself. As a black woman, Lorde knew caring for herself was not self-indulgent—it was self-preservation and “an act of political warfare.” In a similar vein, femmes caring for other femmes is like addressing the wounds in each other’s bodies and beginning the process of healing. It’s why being seen is so powerful and vital to our survival. So many of us have been forgotten: first by society and secondly by ourselves. Being recognized or acknowledged by one of our own is a necessary step toward caring for ourselves. That validation is often life-affirming.
I think of the day-to-day violence femmes experience. Women of color, trans, disabled and n/b femmes are more inclined to face extra violence — on top of the ubiquitous violence that comes with just existing as a femme-presenting person in this world. I think of all the sexual assault allegations that pour out of the woodwork, from all the women harassed and raped by Harvey Weinstein to the Stanford rapist to the stories I’ve told a few people but mainly kept locked inside. The stories femmes have told me in hushed secrets, scared of being labeled as whores, told “they were asking for it,” besieged by doubts, which only reinforces the silence. This is why our friendships are so powerful; we stand as a united front against the patriarchy.
Being friends with femmes has become a sort of elixir for me. A necessary salve to living in this world. The friendships I have fill my heart in a desperate, human way. Where would I be without these letters, these gifts, or the reminder that I am strong, powerful, beautiful — that I am enough? When I was younger, I used to think women were part of the problem. But now I’m seeing we’re really the only solution.