Ryan: I'm Sorry

Often it's counterproductive to say sorry for the things we did as fifteen year olds. Our outfits too contrived and our eyeliner too smudged, the list of missteps could fill a five subject notebook. Besides, a lot of those things we did as freshmen in high school aren't generally that damaging. Embarrassing, yes, and sometimes even reprehensible...but never that dire. I don't feel the need to apologize for how I clipped up the face-framing hair in a Snooki-esque poof or the winky faces sent to boys late at night via text. I do, however, have something from my adolescence weighing on my conscience, and I think the only way to begin to shake that feeling is to figuratively throw my hands up in apology. Specifically, this is for a boy named Ryan, with whom I am no longer in touch. This isn't for any reason other than the effects of space and time, though. I imagine Ryan is just as vibrant, talented, and pensive as he was when I met him nearly five summers ago. This apology will probably never be seen by him, and while part of me wishes that weren't the case, at the very least I hope this will educate someone else and cosmically send positive energy his way.

So, to provide some backstory, I met Ryan when I was nearly fifteen at the University of Virginia's Young Writers Workshop. It was--and remains to this day--an intensive two week program devoted to developing creative writing skills in various fields. Ryan was in the songwriting concentration, while I was in the creative nonfiction program. We knew each other, however, because we lived in the same dorm for the time we were there. Ryan, myself, and ten girls our age all shared a hallway and common living space. We all grew incredibly close, sharing secrets and singing along to songs we all knew by heart. You may be wondering why Ryan was placed in a dorm with eleven girls; that's because at the time Ryan had not come out as a transgender male. Ryan was assigned female at birth, and though he presumably always identified as male (I say "presumably" only because it's not my place to speak on his behalf, as I haven't experienced life from his perspective), he was named "Kayla" and grew up under the false pretense of girlhood.

And now here's the part I'm anxious to write, for fear of accidentally offending anyone out there. I'm trying to straddle the line between telling the story in a coherent way and not using incorrect terms. In the past year, I've committed myself to learning as much as I can about issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, but forgive me if I make any missteps here. I'm still learning and I welcome the opportunity to learn more. If anything I say from here on out comes across as incorrect or ignorant, let me know.

So anyway, I knew Ryan when he expressed himself to the world as Kayla, a girl who made me laugh and played the guitar with finesse. At the time, Kayla identified as a lesbian. I wasn't at all uncomfortable with this, because why would I be? Kayla didn't judge me for anything I said or did, so why wouldn't that be reciprocal? I remember some girls on our hall having adverse feelings toward Kayla's sexuality, though. There were one or two girls who didn't want to change clothes or walk to and from the showers when Kayla was around. I can only hope and pray that in the four years since then, these individuals have learned better.

Now fast-forward to later on that same year, a few months since I'd said goodbye to my Young Writer friends. I distinctly remember being in a hotel room with my mom, for a reason I now can't remember, when I received a notification from Facebook. It was a message from (then) Kayla. It was not only addressed to me, but to many of the girls I had grown close to at the workshop. Though we had all promised to keep in touch, that wasn't really the case. Needless to say, receiving the message was peculiar in and of itself.

The message was very straightforward. Ryan wrote us letting us know that he was transgender, and because we were important to him at the time he wanted to tell us separately. He asked us to please call him by his new name and referred to him with masculine pronouns. He planned to post a Facebook status for the general public to see later on that day, but he thought we were more special and should be told privately.

I won't lie to you guys: I had no idea what that meant. I had no clue what being "transgender" was, and instead of using the power of the internet to learn for myself, I instead sat on my thumb as responses from my friends poured in. I supported Ryan in all his endeavors and was touched by his confiding in me, but I didn't know what to say. In retrospect "I support you in all your endeavors and I'm touched by your confiding in me" would've been perfect, but that's not what I said. I read my friends' responses, saying they loved him and that nothing could change that. They were all sweet and well-intentioned. I then felt confident enough to type my response. I don't remember what I said verbatim, but it was something to the effect of:

Kayla,
You are so brave for coming out and such a wonderful person. I love you and I miss you!
x, Lauren

And that was wrong. It might not seem like much, and some of you may even be confused. That message doesn't seem offensive or rude, but it is. Ryan confided in me and trusted me to know important information about himself before he announced it to the rest of the world. He trusted me to respect him and his wishes, and I didn't do that. Though he blatantly asked to be referred to by his new name, I called him "Kayla" anyway. And sure, what I said was seemingly nice, and if I had known any better I wouldn't have called him by the wrong name, but that's also a problem. I had the ability to educate myself and gain knowledge through non-invasive, respectful questioning. I didn't do that. I didn't take even a few minutes to learn more. I didn't care enough to make my friend comfortable. And that's awful. "Not knowing" isn't an excuse; being well-intentioned isn't enough to permit ignorance. My motives were right, my words were wrong.

And so, here's the apology: Ryan, I'm sorry. I can only imagine how poorly my response was received, as it was ignorant and dismissive of your wishes. By coming out to me, you showed an extraordinary act of love toward me, and I wish I had met you halfway. I'm sorry for misgendering you and that it's taken me almost five years to say sorry in the first place. I hope you're doing amazing things with your life. I hope you still play the guitar and I hope you're still writing songs. I hope you're making yourself and those fortunate enough to know you very happy. I hope you think of the summer of 2009 on occasion, and maybe even think of me. I hope the people you've touched through your presence have learned to be more loving, tolerant, and educated. Inadvertently you've taught me so much and made me grow exponentially.

So for those reading this, if you only remember one thing from this blog post, let it be this: words have the power to build someone up or break someone down. Speak kindly, ask questions, and make a conscious impact on those you care about. Remember that you can have your heart in the right place, but you can still put your foot in your mouth. When you do, apologies are much more meaningful than excuses.

Stay excellent.

x,
Lauren

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