My Life As A Queer, Mixed-Race Adoptee
By July Westhale
I’ve been confronted with the fact — the hard, bold, underlined fact — of my adoption since I was first stamped and approved by the Riverside County Courthouse at the age of 8. My adoption was regularly a topic of conversation among familiars and strangers, not only because of logistics (one of my adopted sisters is six weeks older than me, which either made my not-belonging obvious, or positioned us as the strangest, most miraculous gestation story ever told), but because of the sheer weight of gratitude I was expected to carry around.
I knew who my parents were — at least, I knew who my family had been from ages 0 to 4, before my birth mother died unexpectedly of causes I’m still not entirely sure of, and my stepfather had no jurisdiction to jump in and take custody of me. So I spent the better part of a year as a ward of the State of Arizona, jumping from children’s homes to foster care, until my maternal aunt, my mom’s sister, began the proceedings to adopt me.
My new family — which was also my own family — reminded me of my Otherness, overtly and covertly, every day, coming down on me each time I made a misstep or objected to the way the household was run.
It was, largely, an abusive, traumatic, somewhat erasing experience. After all, wasn’t I so lucky, shouldn’t I be so grateful, that I existed at all? These were the words used over and over in my household — the metric against which my every action was measured.
In this way, I’ve long grappled with something I imagine other adoptees have, too: imposter syndrome. I felt, and still struggle with feeling, like a person who would be committing a massive crime by taking up space.
It didn’t help that my family made no acknowledgement that I’d had a life before them, and therefore might also want space and validation around grieving that life.
And yet I did, and still do, grieve.
Though I was very young when my mom died, I remember fragmented parts of our lives, as if looking through a pair of eyeglasses in the wrong prescription. I remember living in a house in Phoenix, where there were many books. I remember my mom and stepdad acting perpetually amused with my theatricality (like the time I made shoulder pads from socks, smeared lipstick on my mouth, drew thick eyebrows on my face, and walked dramatically into the living room, exclaiming, “Don’t you knooooow who I am? I’m Joan Crawford!”). I remember monsoons, learning to make sun tea with my mom on the back porch, and talking about gender. “Am I a boy?” I asked her once. “I don’t think so,” she replied, bemused.
When I was 26, I was given access to a storage unit containing the items of my mother’s that had been packed up when she died. Going through the letters she wrote me when I was a baby, the photographs of her and my stepdad on their wedding day, her paperback novels and notebooks full of poems, I couldn’t help but fall apart. It wasn’t until then that I realized the magnanimity of my loss, how big a thing I’d missed out on.
Afterward, and even to this day, my relationship with her feels somehow cosmic, otherworldly, deeply spiritual. In one letter, she wrote, “We worked so hard, you and I, to be in this world together.”
Yes, I grieve.
My sense of Otherness goes deeper than all this, though: I’ve also felt like an imposter because of my religion, my mixed race, and my queer identity.
Growing up, I believed that I was white, the same German-Irish blend the maternal side of my family showed in the curves of their features, their light hair and eyes, their ancestral pride. It wasn’t until I was in college that I found out that my birth father (who I’d never met) was/is (I’m not sure if he’s still living) Chilean, that he’d come to the United States to flee the Pinochet regime, out of fear of getting disappeared.
Instead of disappearing himself, he passed it along to me, his daughter. My adoptive family made no mention of my mixed-ness, showed no respect for the differences that set me apart in the world.
I was also a bastard, born out of wedlock and with no present father, in a family of extremely religious people. This made me feel out of place not only within the structure of my family, but as a child of God (for this and other reasons, I left the church at age 12).
So when I first started suspecting I was queer, at age 11, it made sense to feel illegitimate in that, too. I was told that I didn’t want what I wanted (It’s a phase! It’s a curse! I’m this way because I don’t know what it’s like to have a real family! — that last one thrown at me by an ex-partner during a heated argument). More than that, I worried that if what I wanted was indeed real, then it would be one more reason that intimacy and love would be denied to me. And so, I spent a long time (and still fight with) believing that I couldn’t possibly know myself, or my wants and needs.
I remember when I came out, how nervous I was to bring my girlfriend home for Thanksgiving. I decided to just bring her home, instead of having a conversation about it, because I was so worried that I would be talked out of it or asked to not attend, please. But to my great surprise, not only was my family (a recent matriarchy without my adoptive dad) welcoming to my then-girlfriend, they were also wholly unsurprised. My older sister even whispered to me, “Um, we’ve all known forever.”
The effect of that was validating, but also strangely nerve-wracking. Had I grown up with queer all over my face? Did my alienation and Otherness always make others assume they knew who I was and what I wanted more than I did?
One of my favorite writers, Liz Latty, an activist and adoptee herself who helped spearhead the online journal Bitch, You Left Me, has talked specifically about daughters and mothers, or those socialized as female and their mothers — how so many are quick to try to find a cause and effect that underscores identity, especially identity that is subversive, and especially in the Freudian society we occupy. Our Electra Complex is pulled from the societal toolbox in order to say, you are filling the void of your absent mother by loving other women.
There may be some truth in this, just as there can be truth in the ways women sometimes choose partners who have characteristics of their parents. But it wasn’t until I read Latty’s work that I realized that adoption has not been seen — by the world, or by me until that moment — as an entity. Rather, it read to me as a lack of an entity.
I left my adoptive parents’ home when I was 16, choosing instead to finish out high school under the care of various friends’ parents, all of whom still take a good deal of pride in having a part in raising me. It’s very likely I would have spent much of my twenties taking space from my family, except two things happened during my senior year of high school that drew me closer to them: my parents got divorced, and my sister (the almost-twin) got pregnant. The immediate absence of my abusive adoptive father, and the bringing of a new (boy!) into the world left me wide open, forcing me into a space where I had to learn how to heal rapidly, or at least transcend, so as not to bring another kid into the world who would spend their entire adulthood recovering from their childhood. At 17, I had to get it together to show up for my nephew.
I would be remiss to leave out this part of the journey I went through with my family, the part that got me to a place where I can see them and be near them and love them, where I can have expectations of them that they can actually meet. It’s a place where I can think of them with compassion, and empathy, and forgive them for not doing the best they could with what they had.
A few years ago, I met Latty, the adoptee writer whose words so resonated with my life, at a party.
She was both frank and somewhat gentle as I vehemently denied identifying as an adoptee.
“Can I know more about why you don’t?” she asked.
I had absolutely no answer for her. In fact, the question sent me into a tailspin — a total identity crisis.
My adoption story is a strange one, and perhaps this is part of the reason for my inability, at the time, to answer Latty’s question — and why it left me so shaken.
And yet my spiraling following this poignant question was one that finally gave me the unapologetic permission and space to say, Yes, I am. I am a mixed-race, queer adoptee. And there is a big, wonderful, wildly diverse community that I can belong to, one that will not constantly remind me to be grateful to the point of erasure.
Instead of looking for something in my family that I will never find, I’ve learned to focus on what I do enjoy about them — which, at present, is their survivalist instincts, the matriarchy the holidays have become, the kind bossiness of my sisters — while outsourcing my other needs (reliability, validation, emotional support) to my community, partners, friends, and therapist.
It’s a slow process, learning to be a person when you’ve been raised as a poltergeist — someone who doesn’t really exist, but is responsible for every disturbance created. But there are days, sometimes entire weeks, where I feel slain by gratitude at the sheer magnanimity of my life, at the resourceful, strong, present, kind person I’ve been shaped into. I understand the world as it is, with so many dark edges and ill-fitting pieces and disorienting alleyways. And furthermore, I understand how to navigate it.
Yes. I am.
Click here for more on National Adoption Month.