My protest: I added my middle name to Facebook. "Lauren Sotolongo" is now "Lauren Ileana Sotolongo" (as she has always been).
Your response: Why do millennials have to be so dramatic? Why is there such an egotistical self-importance put in every piece of what they say, post, photograph? Good for you, Champ. But there are many things happening in the world. Do you really think your middle name needs attention?
Why does [Ileana] matter?
I used to hate saying my middle name out-loud. When people asked, I would smirk, respond with a joke, and deflect. Why? Because (though it seems small), my middle name wasn't Elizabeth or Mary or Rebecca. Because up until a month or so ago, I wished it wasn't so...different.
Why does [Ileana] matter?
Because I used to hate my skin. Because my skin seemed to reflect so little, or be assumed to reflect so little, of the pain and struggle my parents and grandparents put forth in fighting their way into this country. Because I wanted my unique differences from the kids around me to be both obvious, and yet invisible. (And part of my privilege is exactly this; that because of my skin, I usually got to choose.)
Why does [Ileana] matter?
Because Spanish was my first language, but its roots started to dry up on my first day of kindergarten. I blushed as words stumbled out of my mouth with an accent that few others shared. My roots and tongue learned quickly what it meant to survive in different types of soil; my grandmother’s house was rich, my elementary school was barren.
Why does [Ileana] matter?
Because my tongue learned to hide its inherited stories and inherent differences from those around me, from the age of five onward; too many beauty marks; too much dark hair on my arms, which I was teased for. My tongue and body learned to curl up, ashamed and as quickly as possible, into the same shade and sound of “American” and “White”, which others exuded.
Why does [Ileana] matter?
Because the time for bleaching my heritage, ethnicity, and racial identity are over. I am acknowledging my light (white) skin. I am acknowledging my parents and grandparents as refugees. I am acknowledging myself as a first generation American. I am acknowledging my socioeconomic privilege. I am acknowledging the opportunities and abilities my parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents didn’t have, which I do.
Why does [Ileana] matter?
Because if there was a ever a time to stand up and reclaim and renew and take hold of our unique differences, and acknowledge these differences as beautiful; IT IS NOW.
Why does [Ileana] matter?
Because my name is Lauren Ileana Sotolongo.
My grandparents call me Lorena. I am the daughter of political refugees who became citizens, who then became changemakers and radical lovers of humanity, community, and faith in these United States, which deems itself "America; Land of the Free".
My heart finds its roots in both Cuban sand and California streets, though a drought of cultured dilution has threatened its survival. My skin is read as white; it is what it is. I am what I am. And I will not shrink into whatever you feel comfortable acknowledging me as; I am towering here, in front of you, chest out, arms outstretched, smile ready.
What does a Cuban look like? What does an American look like? They both look exactly like me—and nothing like me at all.
Understand that boxes are too small, and your walls cannot keep your worldviews from being challenged. Not while I am here, on your soil. You have been infiltrated, for centuries, America. And for centuries, you have conquered and colonized, America.
America, watch your people remind you; we come from the earth; the ships; the villages you pillaged and the lives you shackled; the mountains you built on and the forests you flattened; your cities of joy and your suburbs of fear.
We inherit this history together, and you cannot fence out this truth. America; we—the immigrant, the refugee, the Black, White, AAPI, Latinx, poor, rich, gay, straight, transgender, intersex, PhD and high school degree—are You.
Because I—Lauren Ileana Sotolongo—am You too, America; and I will silence my bumbling Spanish tongue, no more.
Dear Romance; You are no longer my wife.
Dear Romance; I will remember our first “I love you”; I will remember it and cry for a night—and then, Friend, I will move on.
Dear Romance; I will remember these memories we share as full bursts of freedom, but not as freedom's culmination or end. Not the culmination or end of relationships. Not the culmination or end of good “Love”.
Dear Romance; I will get up and jog. I will do sit-ups; push ups; go for an extra twenty minutes just because I want to. I will not see myself as a lesser version of what you needed, what you wanted, what you asked for.
Dear Romance; I will see myself as a fuller version of what you couldn’t hold, couldn’t see, couldn’t — and didn’t need to — accept. This is okay. Neither of us is at fault.
Dear Romance; You are not my friend—we cannot be friends. I cannot twist my arms into certain shapes just because you say this is the way “to be held”, “to be right”, "to be 'good enough' ”.
Dear Romance; I cannot look at you longingly anymore; the fairytale has faded, and I can no longer read the words. I do not want to.
Dear Romance; When I pass you on the street, I will say hello. I will not be rude, because you did wonderful things for me. Romance; you opened up boxes in my brain that were filled with colors and toys and journeys I didn’t know existed.
Dear Romance; When you reach your hands to hug me, when you smile affectionately, when your eyes linger a little longer than they should — so that my skin shivers — I will not lookaway; I know that these things were once the holiest things I knew; the purest form of “Life” I knew.
Dear Romance; I am different now. I have grown up since we last made breakfast together.
Dear Romance; I know that love looks different than your warm smile. I know that fullness means more than sacrifice, constantly, in your name. Romance; I now know that hope isn’t shackled to your name, like an anchor in a graveyard.
Romance; I do not know if the love I have for you will dissipate; I do not know if the paintings you splashed across my brain; fingernails; arms; legs; will rub off.
But, Romance; your paintings will not be the last; they will not be the “epitome” of anything—except that particular moment of warm breathing (the last one we shared).
Romance; The illusion you whispered and replayed is no longer a mountaintop. It was a stop.
Dear Romance, I love you. I was born with your stories in my blood.
But this “thing” that’s been going on; the oppressive way you’ve convinced me that you’re the best thing existence has to offer; this is over, this is done, this ends — now.
Romance; I will not be rude; it is odd to say, but our illusion was very real. And yet, I will stop being soothed by your scratched records; I will stop calling this suffering in your arms, “Love”.
Romance; I will not be rude. Our illusion was real. And now, over.
A Name You Forgot
Winter thaws and begins to stretch its arms, before quietly and quickly retreating back to its stagnant, cold state. I do the same.
At times I stretch my arms; at times I am full and ready to shake weight off; at times I feel so empowered and warm and tingly and full, all on my own. It is in these moments that I make every joke and laugh at myself. I do more push-ups and offer oreos to strangers and friends, just because.
And suddenly, violently and gently, I constrict again. My arms heavy. My body “others” itself. My arms are a conspiring enemy.
I constrict. My arms shatter and shed their excitable joy; they heavy; they fall into themselves. And the cold cements them into place.
A friend of mine - her name being Anxiety - visits often during this time; she feels necessary and constant; she asks me to dinner and I always say yes - even when I know the meal will resemble stones, not food.
Winter is trying to thaw, and so are we. Tomorrow, they say that a storm will pass through the city. Winter will constrict - perhaps for just a moment.
But I hope she knows that she does not have to stay like this forever.
I hope that she understands that seasons are for her too; to rest, breathe, not carry the expectation that she must always be the same, cold, thing.
After seeing an article, from a well-known Christian org on "Why the Transgender Debate Is About Redefining Reality":
What is at issue is not merely the question of which individuals can use what bathrooms but whether individuals have the right to redefine reality in a way that the rest of society is forced to accept. At issue is whether there is any fundamental reality that all people must acknowledge or whether reality is itself is malleable and based on personal preferences.
Those who accept the idea that we can ignore biological sex for the mental construct of “gender identity” are endorsing metaphysical subjectivism, the view that “our own mental activity is the only unquestionable fact of our experience.” They are not only disagreeing with those of us who believe reality is created by God, but are attempting to make metaphysical subjectivism the standard that trumps all others in determing norms and ethics.
Christians, let's start with this little ditty:
Trans people have always existed in Scripture. It is not about redefining reality - or your holy text; it is about seeing reality as it is - and has always been.
To think that humans have only existed in a gender binary (distinctly male and female) is a completely Western idea; and not congruent with any sort of research. Third genders, intersex, and multiple expressions of gender have always existed, period.
But Lauren—you say—what about the Bible? Other cultures or time periods are insignificant. What about this NIV/KJV Bible I hold in my hands?
Oh, good; you have one too? Let’s say this again:
Trans people have existed in Scripture.
And yes, you’re right; transcendent Truth is not relative. But what exactly have you digested as “Truth”, from childhood until right now—without researching, questioning, or asking (when presented with different life experiences from suffering humans)?
I understand that Hebrew words and translations may not be able to fit on felt-boards and within kindergarten attention-spans, but Christians; not only are we not children any longer, but these people that you are reducing to an uncomfortable debate, are your spiritual siblings; or, if you cannot see them as that, then you must at least see them as human beings. They are that. And if they are that, then you must pay attention to the way you treat, regard, and love them; human/beings.
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a [grown hu]man, I set aside childish ways. 1 Corinthians 13:11
[American / Christian] Church;
1) Scripture is human. It just is. It was written; it was felt and translated and emoted by human beings with a range of feelings, just like us. If it had come from an angel, all in one piece, with each letter signed and affirmed by a celestial being, then I have an alternative religion you may interested in studying (but Christianity isn’t it). Your Bible is breathing; your Bible is messy; your Bible is you—and it is not concrete; it is human skin (malleable and breakable and bloody and interconnected).
2) Trans people exist(ed) in Scripture; in reality; in society. We just haven’t taken the time to see them. Because when you see “man” in Scripture you pay attention, as you are a man; when you see “woman” in Scripture, you pay attention, as you are a woman. But the gender-implications (or lack thereof) of a eunuch wasn’t something you paid particular attention to, was it? And why? Because you are not someone that exists outside gender norms, which Israel was very interested in preserving, because gender norms were a way of distinguishing their existence from neighboring communities. (Quick aside: Are gender norms and roles necessary to your Gospel and salvation? It’s an important starting question for many - including myself. Is procreation a necessity for Kingdom gates to swing open? If procreation is not, why "male" and "female"? What role does gender serve? Is it deeply tied to divine purpose and worth and family-status in "the Kingdom"? Minor questions, I know. For a starting point, try "Bible, Gender, Sexuality").
Deep breath; with all that said - please do not call the “Transgender Debate”, a debate about “redefining reality”. The more accurate description: It is about redefining your reality, which is a very precisely created mirror—the Western, White, American, Christian, Colonizing reality—that affirms everything you are, and makes small packets of room for that which you are not. This is not about redefining reality; this is about realizing that we have been out of touch with other people/cultures/our own humanity, for quite some time. But don’t worry; Jesus allows grace, even when we deny it.
3) If you think “identity politics” is “too much”, your identity is probably not one that has fought or feared the systems around you - so please try to listen, and make room. You probably haven’t been threatened because of your whiteness or maleness or high socioeconomic status (and no, I don’t mean “threatened” as in, being uncomfortable — I mean, literally threatened because of an unchangeable factor of your self; not a uniform or a job; but your very skin; your heart’s very insides, trying to be seen outside for the first time). These are not one-liners we think of; not agendas; not identity politics—these are survival.
I’m sorry if these statements feel abrasive or harsh - I get protective when I feel people/family/hearts being dehumanized.
Christians - we are not children anymore. It’s time to put the felt-boards away, and ask the hard questions. Look for resources from both sides (I am). Make up your own mind (I am). But do not make blanket statements based on untested or un-researched ideas; based on something you grew up “knowing”. These are real people, so you must do real research on the assumptions of gender that we all grew up believing.
Here’s something I grew up knowing - Fact A: N’Sync is the most popular band of my heart and life and in society as a whole. Here’s something that has changed since - Fact B: N’Sync was a boyband that was created by the manager who also created Backstreet Boys, for the purpose of competition for the Backstreet Boys (yes, Backstreet Boys actually came first, and they were betrayed by said-manager…I know, I know). Also something that has changed since Fact A was true - Fact C: N’Sync and Backstreet Boys no longer exist.
Apologies for the strong words. But I am speaking and trying to make room for the Trans Youth and students I worked with during my time as a Social Worker.
I am speaking and trying to make room for B, a Trans Youth who—also a deeply committed Christian—was beaten up in an alley, to the point that he was in a coma for weeks. When his mom said; “B — do you really have to do this? Can’t you stop?” He responded: “I’m not scared anymore. I was more scared inside myself, lying and afraid, than I am now - out, as myself. I’m not giving up.”
I am speaking and trying to make room for the men, women, and in-between and not within gender binary humans—strong, persistent, hopeful, and undeniable siblings of mine—like B, who show me what True Faith (all the capital T's and F's) is about; Justice, Hope, Love, Us. The greatest; Love. And your reality must make room for it.
Because these people are real.
Because these people are your people.
Because this family is yours too.
Because B and me and the kid down the street—we are your family too.
And we are not leaving.
It’s hard not to make this a battle.
It’s hard to draw my weapon and tell you to approach slowly, if at all.
It’s hard not to put up my shield and forget what your face actually looks like.
It’s hard to remember that, when our blood spills, we are both in pain; both loved; both cried; both suffered.
It’s hard to remember that, because I have been carrying my shield from a young age.
When I was a kid, I was sexually abused within the context of the “trusted church” (and other trust circles). After that point, I learned that the shield I carried was heavy, but it was mine to bear—and I was entrusted to bear it. No one else should help me carry it, no one else should see my trembling hands, or tear-stained face, behind it.
This shield had to go up. My weapon had to stay drawn. I had to protect myself from being hurt again, and I had to protect others from realizing that I was hurt.
I carried this logic into my discernment and understanding of my sexuality years later—though the abuse remains a separate matter (and my attraction to humans in general was solidified at a younger age), I employed similar tactics of survival. My shield was high, and my weapon was drawn.
No one should come to close, save they see my pain, or try to carry my shield.
Presently, I am trying--very hard--to put my weapons, and my shield down.
I am trying to believe that our similarities, as humans, will mean that—somehow—you will learn to love without hurting, due to our differences. I am trying to believe that we all have goodness to share—as we do—even if our evil spills out, and scars our skin sometimes. I am trying to put down my defenses.
But let me explain, my defenses are strong and sensitive and electric, because they have learned that pain comes quickly, silently, and often from places you wouldn’t expect.
My defenses are a result of being hurt many times (whether intentionally or unintentionally), in places I thought were safe.
My defenses perk up when certain words are used; my defenses perk up when certain books are recommended; my defenses shout and yell and my heart starts beating when a text comes unexpectedly.
I cannot tell you how many times I have seen a name on my phone screen, and my heart has started beating uncontrollably. What will they say? What do they want? How will this hurt?
I see my phone screen, and my shield goes up; my weapons come out; I try, once again, to prepare myself for pain from the places I love.
Here’s a beautiful reversal that has been happening—especially recently. I see a name, my heartbeat quickens, my shield goes up; I open the message, and instead of a stance, instead of a disagreement, instead of hurt, I see simple words; “I love you.”
My defenses shatter. My shield falls on my chest as I sink to the ground. My weapon slips from my hands.
(And usually, I cry.)
I am still learning that love doesn’t always have to hurt. I am still learning that new things can come from old pain. I am still learning that what once was, isn’t always what has to be.
And I am learning that our connections, and our compassion, can bridge the gaps that our differences create (when people are willing).
When I see you smile; when I hear your voice break; when you tell me about your day; when you love me, without adding an asterisk to the action.
I am still learning to put my shield down; my eyes are still peeking over, searching quickly from side to side, making sure the “coast is clear”. I am still nine years old, in some ways; I am still nineteen; I am still twenty-three; and I am still in every moment of deep suffering and pain I have ever experienced (as those things never leave)—but I am also, always realizing that there is so much more than those things.
And, there is to much more, behind my shield, than just pain.
It’s hard not to make this battle; but I must—I am trying—to stop calling you the enemy. We can learn from one another; we can learn *to love* one another. I will continue to try not to walk away. I am trying to remember that we both smile; we both ache; and there must be something that can bridge this gap (and maybe, it's us).
(P.S. Shields are very good and necessary at certain points, in certain discussions—and I’m not advocating we throw healthy boundaries down by any means. But; I am learning to put my shields down in places that are redefining themselves as healthy exchanges, where they were once not.)
Did you know that roasting coffee beans, happens through a breakdown?
Coffee beans get 1) Put in a machine; 2) Absorb heat; 3) Hit a "crack" - a breaking point of heat; and 4) They become a light roast. If they're left in the machine, they continue to absorb heat, hit another "crack", and become a medium roast. And if left in the machine even longer, they hit another "crack", and become a dark roast.
Lighter roasts bring out the nuances and delicate flavors; bright/fruity/earthy notes will be tasted. It's a kind of giddy and fairydust roast (like a kid after their first trophy). Darker roasts have "fuller" tastes. This may be your "old man and the sea" type roast. Roasting at different temperatures highlights different things.
As with coffee beans, so too with humans. [That's an old proverb, right?]
We all have breaking points, and they highlight and deepen our experiences in different ways. And no matter what "stage" we are (or someone else is) at, we must acknowledge the beauty found in each part of this growing/roasting process.
There is no hierarchy of knowledge, only different expressions of it.
We're all being tested at different temperatures. We're all learning to exist and encourage one another into a beautiful reflection of the light we possess, no matter what "roast" we are, or how many cracks/years/breakdowns we've had to endure. We all have something to give. We all have a part to play; and each part is important.
So let's share a cup of coffee together. I imagine we'll have some bright notes and full-bodied experiences to share.
I think, no matter what, we've all got something to give/share/say, and it is a beautiful thing when we do so.
[P.S. Did anyone bring donuts?]
There are few things I find more beautiful than solid, intentional, radical and open-armed (free and adventurous and unbound) friendship.
Yesterday, we ate breakfast together. Went to a new friend's for cornbread and board games and wine. We stayed curled up on couches until the sky faded—because when company is rich and conversation is deep, what more do you need? We laughed and talked about creativity and anecdotes and the fact that there are around 25,000 species of orchid; we played fishbowl, and made pizza + brownies.
There are few things I find more awe-inspiring than moments like these; even when the world feels heavy and unclear; even when insecurities and doubts abound; love is always stronger—not flimsy or passive or unsure, but bold and fiery and tender; it shouting and whispering and belting. And I am no expert; I am the amateur stumbling. But I am so, so happy, to have others to stumble with.
May we seek and create intentional spaces that leave room both for messy hesitation, and for a radical expectation (and encouragement) of one another toward "the Good"/whole/true/joyous things.
January 1, 2017 was a holy day.
I hope we can cultivate more moments like these, with soul-family, where we can fishbowl laugh—and cuddle up on the couch like a band of wild, very soft puppies. I think this is what many religions strive for; holy company and content (bubbling) joy.
I think, truly, these are some of the most sacred exchanges (and experiences) in a human life.
3,421 miles later - 3am. The streets are quiet and empty.
It is fitting that I started this trip alone—and traveled thus for the majority—and ended with a communal return. This is a life hope, is it not? That we follow our feet where they lead, and at some point, we find someone else walking beside us.
Thank you to everyone that joined me on the road (whether in body or text); and thank you to those that offered lodging/love along the way. I'm learning that spontaneity is a gift, and not a reactive disengagement from purpose/goals/drive; because I do, in fact, have a path (we all do)—and this trip was a part of that.
So here's to the curve balls & people we never see coming. We've got some life to share and build, so let's get truckin'. That was fun, this is now (and still fun).
2016 was a waterfall and earthquake; it was every wake-up call I needed, and every growing pain I tried to smile through.
2016; the year I said goodbye to Abuela Carmita; to a whitewashed view of Justice; to a closet (publicly); and to silence (both internally and otherwise).
This year I marched to say #BlackLivesMatter - not because "all lives" don't - but because when there is specific pain (within yourself, your community, or your neighbor), you either tend to it or get infected.
This year, I spoke up; cried; planned a vigil and read 49 names of people who died in a particular nightclub, just like the one I was in that night.
This year I celebrated; becoming a Tía again, seeing my nephews grow, and relearning the complexities and compassion of family.
This year, I left nonprofit communications, moved to direct service social work, and then I felt a call elsewhere, and answered.
I saw new friendships emerge (like whack-a-mole's) out of the dust, aka the way God likes to work. I said hello to crushes and heart-rushes, and said abrupt goodbye's. I learned my heart is a parachute and loves the fall (though it's still trying to master the land, without injury).
This year was many things. And now, I see the slow orange/pink of a sunrise coming. I see reaffirmed passion. I see boldness. And I see people and opportunities I could've never expected.
2017: You may only be a symbol for new things, but I see so many sprouting up; I see the warmth of your arms extending to me. And I don't want to smile too expectantly, but what can I say? I welcome this embrace, and I relish the chance to meet you, today, for the very first time.