Mormon Cowboys, Drew Barrymore and Trans Joy
Joy requires neither ease nor permission.
Tonight, I’m writing to you about my Mormon cowboy dad, Drew Barrymore and trans joy. If you’re up late reading this, I hope you’ve got a soft blanket to keep you warm. If you’re up early reading this, I hope there’s some soft light coming in the window.
Last week, West Virginia asked the Supreme Court to let it enforce a state law that restricts transgender girls and women from participating in school sports. The outcome of the shadow docket case will be used by courts for years to come when considering the legality of anti-trans discrimination.
In Florida, over the past month lawmakers have proposed bills that would:
make gender affirming care for minors illegal,
modify out of state custody agreements if a custodial parent is gender affirming of their trans child. A modification that would technically make kidnapping legal if it was carried out by a non-affirming parent who was also a Florida resident..
Make it a misdemeanor for a trans person to go into a bathroom that matches their gender identity.
And expand Florida’s Don’t Say Gay bill to charter schools and 8th grade classrooms.
At CPAC, a right-wing pundit crowed, “For the good of society … transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely — the whole preposterous ideology, at every level.” When I read those words, my stomach clenched. Every level? What about the second level of a child’s home?
I thought of a house opened up like a dollhouse. In a bedroom, at the top of the stairs, there’s a closet with a few new dresses and a backpack with a lunchbox marked with a new name. A little girl is tucked in by her parents, who tell her again they’ll always love her, just as she is. It’s a joy to be loved like that.
She should be eradicated for the good of society? What good?
The pundit later claimed he wasn’t calling for transgender people to be eradicated. This from Rolling Stone sums up my reaction to that
“Erin Reed, a transgender rights activist and writer, tells Rolling Stone that it’s an absurd distinction. There is no difference between a ban on ‘transgenderism’ and an attack on transgender people, she says: ‘They are one and the same, and there’s no separation between them.’”
I was raised in a religion where the traditional family is the engine of salvation. I was taught we are gendered eternal beings made for joy. I was born female because I was eternally female, and had eternal female roles to fulfill. Men were eternally male with eternal male roles to fulfill. Who could change eternity?
My dad was a Mormon cowboy from Las Cruces, New Mexico. He grew up two-stepping and hunting. Uncomfortable in bare feet, he even wore his cowboy boots in the house. I know the lyrics to every Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton song because of him. I believe in a God that saves unconditionally because of him too. And yeah. I guess Cash, Parton and that God probably do belong together.
He was what we call maternal, but what we really mean is nurturing. He folded laundry and swept kitchen floors. He didn’t think women existed just to become mothers. And one of my earliest memories is him telling me he couldn’t wait to read the book I’d write when I grew up.
But the dad of my childhood was very young. He was only 25 when I was born. That’s not many years removed from the first things he was taught. He was still very traditional in many ways. While history is full of transgender people, it was a concept completely absent from my childhood encyclopedia of knowledge.
I spent a lot of my twenties trying to conform to traditional womanhood. And then I spent years trying to subvert traditional womanhood. But my conformity and subversion both depended on a gender binary fixed from birth, dependent upon and proven by organs and certificates.
In the middle of those years, I had a conversation with my dad. We’d driven over to my grandpa’s house together for dinner. Sitting in his truck, country music playing, talking, delaying the moment we’d have to go in and eat whatever my grandpa cooked. It was often some kind of microwaved fish. Just as he was about to get out of the car, I said, “Hey, dad?”
There was something I wanted to know. The national conversation about trans rights was just beginning to murmur and I was trying to understand it.
“Have you heard about people who are transgender? What do you think about that? Do you think that’s something that is…I don’t know…true?”
It was a year before he died. He was still young, just 52. But he’d become much more expansive. The subtext had changed. Maybe it was because he had time to know better. I think that if you spend enough years loving enough people that can change you too. Maybe that kind of love is a kind of knowing. He paused for a minute, the way he did. And then he said,
“We’re taught gender is eternal. And the mechanisms of life are not very good at capturing eternity. It seems entirely possible that someone would be born into a body that doesn’t align with their eternal gender.”
I was stunned. I just nodded my head once. And then we went into my grandpa’s house to face whatever waited for us.
My dad was dead before I’d reached the space he’d made that day. I wish I could talk to him about it now, from where I am. I’ve left the religion he raised me in. I’ve left the notion of a gender binary behind too. And I definitely don’t believe in eternal gender anymore.
I am not sure what eternity looks like. But I do believe it holds him. And I feel very certain that wherever he is now, there’s been more love and more expansion. I think I could ask him any question and he’d leave me feeling stunned again.
When I saw Drew Barrymore trending on Twitter this morning, I panicked. Was Drew okay?
I’ve been in a parasocial relationship with Drew since 1989. And because of that parasocial relationship, I’m going to call her Drew like we’re real friends.
I was four years old when I saw E.T. for the first time. Drew played 5 yo Gertie, a little girl with pigtails who is brave enough to keep an alien secret. I wanted to be her and I wanted to be her friend. I thought we were the same age for years. She’s really ten years older than me. That’s okay. She could be my parasocial big sister, then.
There was something about her that gave me permission to be the way I was in the midst of a teenage girlhood that kept bruising me. Too soft-hearted for the Baby Hit Me One More sound. Too soft-hipped for the low-rise fashion. Too serious to be cool. And too earnest to be chill.
When I was thirteen, she came out in three of the movies that got me through my teen years - The Wedding Singer, Home Fries and Ever After. I watched them on loop. I knew that movies where the girl found a happy ending in high school were not for me. American teen girlhood was something I was going to barely survive. There’d be no crowning moments, homecoming queen or otherwise. It seemed like Drew and her movies understood that about me.
I cut a photo of Drew out of my mom’s People magazine. A picture of her in a floating scarf dress from the Ever After gala.
Plato said that every physical object is just a shadow of a perfect Form that exists outside of space and time. So every tree is just a shadow of the perfect Form of tree. When I was a kid, anything in People magazine felt like it existed outside of existence. And so it wasn’t too difficult for that Ever After gown to become my Form of dress. Every dress was just a shadow of that Dress.
That perfect dress could have easily then represented a type of womanhood my awkward serious softness barred me from assuming. But Drew - Drew who’d never felt distant since the first time I pushed that E.T. VHS into our VCR - was wearing the Dress. And so maybe I could become a woman too, one who wore lovely dresses and knowing smiles.
I taped that photo on my wall and it stayed there until I left for college. Every time I looked at it, I felt hope. It was a picture of what was possible on the other side of American girlhood. Someday I could be myself, in a gown.
I am 38 now. I get that actresses play parts, Drew probably didn’t get to keep that dress and being an adult woman in America is no guarantee of happy endings. And it involves a lot more than frocks and smiles. But I still look to Drew to remember what’s possible as a woman in America. Not her professional success or her excellent hair. (Although I wouldn’t turn down either.) She is just one of the public people who reminds me that American women can have and express joy, often through loving other people.
Don’t worry. Drew is okay. Well. I guess I can’t declare that Drew is okay. I’m not really in a position to know since I’m only in a parasocial relationship with her. (Unless you want to shift this thing to real friendship, Drew! Email me!) But she wasn’t trending because she is not okay.
She was trending because she did an interview with Dylan Mulvaney, an actress and transgender rights activist. And, surprising absolutely no one, conservative reactionaries got mad about it.
I didn’t know who Mulvaney was before today because I am the only person on earth who doesn’t use TikTok. But millions of other people are well-acquainted with her. For the past year, Mulvaney has documented her gender transition in a series called Days of Girlhood.
I watched dozens of the videos today. They’re delightful. Some feel like frothy fantasy, set in the world Holly Golightly wished was real. Others are tenderly real, like the images she shares from her facial feminization surgery. And many are gently teaching, like the TikTok after her surgery, reminding us that not all trans people want affirming surgery or hormones.
Educating people while transitioning seems like a lot. But Mulvaney said she decided to document her transition to “share trans joy” and to help people know that she is “not a monster.” When she said that I wanted to cry. I want to share my joy. I am not a monster. Why do we make people hold so many things at once?
Mulvaney was appearing on Drew’s show on her 365th day of Girlhood. She was dressed like Audrey Hepburn in the Clueless universe. And yes, that is one of the best compliments I can give. While they talked, Drew got off her chair and sat on the floor in front of Mulvaney.
It was such a lovely moment. I guess as she brought her eyes level with Mulvaney’s, I couldn’t help thinking about how Drew made being a woman seem possible for me. And how she might’ve made it seem possible for Mulvaney. And Mulvaney might make it seem possible for people too. Regenerative womanhood.
A lot of conservative men are sharing images of Drew kneeling in front of Mulvaney and claiming it’s a woman “getting on her knees for a man.” Only a man would see that moment as a woman getting on her knees. Mulvaney saw it for what it was. Drew was getting on the floor to talk with a friend. Mulvaney slid onto the floor with Drew, and they talked together, leaning in, the way so many women do.
Other tweets claim that Mulvaney teared up in the interview over how hard it is to be a woman. That’s not true. Mulvaney only cried with happiness. But she could cry about it being hard to be a woman. I know I have. Being a woman is hard! But it’s not naturally difficult. It’s been made difficult. The same way transitioning has been made difficult. But it could be easy. Or at least, easier. If we’d let it. I don’t know if we ever will. So what then?
Well, I guess I do still believe a few things from my raising -
We are eternal beings made for joy. Who can change eternity? Joy requires neither ease nor permission. Someday love will get us to the other side of this moment, where we’ll be able to safely, fully be ourselves. In a gown. If we want.
Joy may not need permission, but it does deserve support. Consider getting involved with local LGBTQ+ organizations or national ones like The Trevor Project.
Also, side note: Nothing has been more relatable to me than Drew not lip syncing quite right in this TikTok. Drew, I see you. Girls like us? We’re not made for this kind of media.
Not me tearing up in the soft morning light on a cold day... oh yes, yes it is. (Like you, I am too earnest for this world).
Meg, I love this so much. I ache for the maternal/nurturing presence of your dad and I'm grateful every time you share snippets of him. I am also not a Tiktok afficianado but this is almost enough to make me want to go watch the things you mentioned, if I had the time today...
Thank you for starting my day like this. I am going to write about trans issues soon on my newsletter but I know it won't be half as beautiful as this, but if we (especially those of us who are formerly Very Religious and very gender binary) can keep talking, I hope more people can start listening. All my gratitude!
Thank you for this. All of this. Too much to put into words.