This is Ethan Smith. He's a 22-year-old graduate and performance poet from Boston who works in LGBT advocacy.
After he started transitioning he spent six months deciding exactly what he wanted to say to his younger self, and then turned it into a poem. He called it "A letter to the girl I used to be".
When he performed it for the first time, many of his friends had never even heard the name he was given at birth. But Ethan felt he needed to say things to Emily. He needed to grieve for the children he would no longer be able to have. He wanted to tell her that although she didn't make it to 21, as she had predicted, someone else did.
Above all, Ethan wanted to apologise to her. Not for replacing her with Ethan, but for the fact that it took so long.
This is Ethan performing the poem.
And here's the text in full:
"A Letter to the Girl I Used to Be"
Every time I watch baseball a voice I no longer recognise whispers
"Ethan, do you remember? When you were going to be the first girl
To play in the major league Seattle mariners rally cap?"
But to honest Emily I don't
Dad told me that like it was someone else's bedtime story
But I do know you had that drive
Didn't let anyone tell you to wear shorts above your knees
Didn't care if boys thought your hair fell on your shoulders just right
But with girls, sleepovers meant the space between your shoulder and hers
Was a 6-inch fatal territory
The year you turned 11
Was the first time you said out loud that you didn't want to live anymore
In therapy you said you wouldn't make it to 21
On my 21st birthday I thought about you
You were right
At 19 you started to fade
I tried to cross you out like a line in my memoir
I wished I could erase completely
And maybe I'm misunderstanding the definition of death
But even though parts of you still exist
You are not here
Most of my friends have never heard your name until now
I've been trying to write this letter for 6 months
I still can't decide if it should be an apology or not
But now you will never hear "Emily Smith" announced at a college graduation
Get married, give birth
When the prescribed testosterone started taking effect my body stopped producing the potential for new life every month
I thought about your children, how I wanted them too
I let a doctor remove your breasts so I could stand up straighter
Now even if I somehow had those children I wouldn't be able to nourish them
My body is obsolete
Scarred cosmetic but never C-section
I was 4 days late
There will never be grandparents
I was one week late
They will never hold their lover's sleeping figure
I was 11 days late
They will never breathe in a sunset and a sunrise in the same night
I was 2 weeks late
They will never learn to jump rope
I was 3 weeks late
They will never shout "Watch mummy, watch me on the slide"
I was 2 months late
A piece of us will never wrap their arms around our legs for comfort
Just to keep them from falling down
And I am sorry that this process is so slow and all you can do is wonder if you ever had a place
You still do
Don't forget that
P.S. I never hated you
BuzzFeed News spoke to Ethan about the letter and the story behind it.
Why did you give the poem that title?
Ethan Smith: I worded it that way because it felt the most comfortable. I know that I don't personally believe I was a girl – obviously I've always felt like I was a boy, but having been raised as a girl and socialised as a girl for so long it still makes more sense for me to address it in that way.
You said were 11 when you first had suicidal thoughts – how aware were you then of what was going on for you?
ES: My hometown in Washington state was very close-minded about all of this. There are barely any out gay people, let alone trans people, and I didn't hear that word until I went to college in Boston. So I had no idea what I was feeling when I was 11. I just knew that something was wrong and convinced myself there was something internally wrong with me and that I was better off not dealing with it at all.
In the poem you grieve for things you lost by transitioning. Can you explain that a little?
ES: I wrote this poem right after I first started taking testosterone and it's what I was experiencing at that moment. At the time it was very urgent for me that I stopped menstruating and that was a whole process I had to go through. The decision I made to go through with this physical transition, I wouldn't take any of that back because I am much happier now. But it is a bit of a loss when you have something that was available and no longer is.
The climax of the poem is your grief for the children you will not have biologically – has that been one of the key adjustments for you?
ES: Yeah, definitely, it's something I still think about, that I would have liked to have children at some point of my own. I don't know I would have ever carried them but before I started transitioning that wasn't really on my radar. It is something I have lost. There's just a part of us that we want to carry on our family and genes, so it is an adjustment and there are many other ways that I can have children. I intend on being a father some day.
What was it like to say the name "Emily" out loud?
ES: That was one of the scariest things about performing that poem for the first time, because a lot of people that were hearing it didn't know that name. But I felt like it was important for me because it makes it much more real. And when I was able to perform the poem for the first time it was really healing for me to say the name out loud and to mark this as a phase in my transition – not medically, but in coming to accept my new identity. It was a real milestone for me to be able to say that name out loud and move past it.
You say sorry to your younger self in the piece. Can you describe what was going on for you there?
ES: The apology isn't about what I did; it's about what the person I was had to go through to get to where I am now. So it's an apology for not recognising it sooner and not being able to verbalise any of that. I'm pretty happy now, I'm glad I got here eventually, but it is just acknowledging that it was hard.
You transitioned pretty young. Do you think about what it might have been like if you'd had to wait a couple of decades?
ES: That's a very big question. I think it would have been very hard. As soon as I heard about what transgender meant I knew that it was true for me and I don't know that I could have put it off and been OK. I started transitioning about the age of 19, a year after I came to college, and I see people now that knew me when I first came to school and they say, "You're a totally different person." They're not just talking about my voice or body. I'm filled with life and I never felt like I was before.
They saw you as lifeless and depressed before?
ES: Yeah, I was pretty depressed when I got to school. I had moved far away and I wasn't very good at making friends because I wasn't comfortable with myself and I didn't know why. I wasn't very talkative or social so I stayed in my room a lot of the time.
What would you at 11 have made of you now?
ES: I'd probably be pretty stoked, pretty excited that I got there at some point. But also not knowing that this was my truth for so long, I don't think it's something I ever expected until it happened. I knew I had certain thoughts about my body when I was younger and I felt like I didn't want to live at times, but I'm sure I would have been excited to see it eventually happen.
What was the reaction like when you first performed the poem, and since then?
ES: I was very nervous when I first performed it and mostly the reaction was just people hugging me, which was really great. But it turned into a piece that I decided to bring to competition, which is where the recording was taken. And now a lot of times people come out to me, which is really beautiful and I always love experiencing that. People contact me a lot about their stories and it's really intense because a lot of people are not able to transition or they're younger than me and their parents don't understand. There's only so many things I can say. But one thing I love about the internet is it's not scary any more to tell someone your story.
How is life for you now?
ES: I feel really great. I graduated college a year ago, and I'm working at a really incredible organisation right now. Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders is doing some amazing work not only with [same-sex] marriage but also with trans rights and youth rights. I feel blessed to be a part of that and I'm also working with young people learning poetry, working with a team of 15- to 17-year-olds. They're really amazing, they crack me up and they're not afraid to say anything, which is one of the beautiful things about youth poetry. Someone gave them a microphone and now they're ready to say whatever it is they need to say.
Patrick Strudwick is a LGBT editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Patrick Strudwick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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