When University of Baltimore MFA student Joshua Cole decided to transition, he suddenly felt motherless. Then one day, Coretta showed up…
I don’t believe in ghosts. Most days, I barely believe in Jesus. But ask me about my faith in fairy godmothers, and I’ll crack a smile as wide as Wyoming. You see, earlier this year I was issued my very own fairy godmother. Ms. Etta Coretta is her name. Six feet, three inches of midnight royalty, a drag queen of the highest order. Her liquid eyeliner makes her green eyes pop like four-leaf clovers on LSD. High-heeled in halter-cut gowns—that woman knows how to dress. She speaks hard truths swaddled in blankets of kindness, but she’s quick to call me on my bullshit. Ms. Etta Coretta’s the badass bitch you want in your corner. She’s the momma I wish I had.
Though she inhabits no earthly body, Ms. Etta Coretta is as real as you or me. The first time I encountered Ms. Coretta, it had been two months since I’d begun hormone replacement therapy to produce physiological masculinization of my assigned-female-at-birth body. I stood in my bathroom, staring in the mirror at my freshly shaven face. Though no father figure had taught me the lathered lessons of the razor, I managed to remove the newly sprouted chin hairs without drawing blood.
My dad, whose mustache would make Tom Selleck nod with respect, schooled each of my younger brothers in Barbasol basic training. I’m sure he would have done the same for me were it not for one small detail: Until the age of 34, I was a girl. Or, at least, that’s what the obstetrician told my parents. By the time I emerged in January of ’86, the Cole welcome wagon stood ready to receive me with pink blankets and prescriptive tutelage in the ways of all things female. It will take me a lifetime to unlearn those lessons.
As I had done every morning since beginning testosterone injections, I looked myself in the mirrored eyes and said, “Good morning, Joshua.” It was a private exercise in self-affirmation, practicing my new name to assess how deep my voice had gotten in the previous 24 hours. The low hum of the coveted T buzz had set in, a product of vocal cords thickening within the confines of a fully formed adult voice box that was unable to accommodate the growth. That morning, I noticed a distinct difference. As I smiled, the glimmer of a diamond earring appeared at the edge of my own reflection. With that, Ms. Coretta stepped to the side and made her debut. She was pretty and butch both, a little bit stout, a lot sweet and Southern.
“My boy, you’re sounding mighty butch today,” she declared as she adjusted her costume jewelry. “By the way, I’m Etta.”
I could hear the sultry timbre of her affirmation as my eyes, which had watched the impossible become possible over the previous months, drank in her magnificence. Chanel No. 5 wafted its way toward me, a scent I now associate with home. She instantly became my queer Jiminy Cricket, issuing love and corrective training in equal measure. She channeled her inner Cher to belt ballads of encouragement; she soothed my hurt heart, but mostly, she called for me to GET! IT! TOGETHER! JOSHUA! I never questioned the existence of the Gay Goddess—if my queer experience has taught me anything, it’s this: When someone shows up in your darkness glowing the way Etta does, you don’t ask why—you welcome the light.
When the mere act of existing provokes malice in fellow humans, friends, family members, church congregations, and co-workers finds subtle ways to encourage you to keep that queer door shut. For many of us, that closed door holds in monsters we mistake for our own reflection for years. No human is meant to live in the dark. No being can grow in those conditions. Shame’s poison climbs the limbs of our queer bodies like ivy, choking the hope from our futures until it seems the easiest thing to do would be to give up, to lie down among the dead.
Earlier this year, I wrestled with the realization that my body and my mind don’t match. I tried to pack that doubt away deep in a locked box hidden in the recesses of my brain, but the damn thing kept reappearing like a refugee seeking sanctuary. Without warning, in the middle of a lecture, a workout, a masturbation session, he’d present himself for inspection, a starving boy begging to be fed. “F*** off,” I’d tell him, but the hungry ache to exist kept him coming back. No matter how ugly I was to him, despite how hard I pushed him away, he always returned, never possessing the decency to apologize for his own existence. He made me sick. I lost sleep, lost weight, lost control of my own thoughts, so consumed was I with the incongruence of my existence. What had begun as a simple question, “What pronouns do you go by?” morphed into, “You know who you are. What are you going to do about it? What are you willing to give up to become?” I thought I might kill him.
Once I accepted my transness, I began the heavy calculation of grief that was to come. I knew from my first encounter with being outed that the decision produces irrevocable changes in relationships, especially with family members. Nearly a decade and a half had gone by since I had come out as gay. I thought coming out was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but somewhere along the way, I found myself bound in the same dark closet, wrestling between the urge to breathe and the fear of what that breath was going to cost me. I had one knee in the dirt, my body returning to the position of prayer so ingrained in its muscle memory. “My father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me, nevertheless, not as I will, but your will be done.” The last thing I remember hearing in response to my supplication came in what I now know to be Ms. Coretta’s glorious voice: “Come on out, Josh. Your people are right here on the other side, but you’ve got to twist the knob yourself.”
Picture a cemetery on an overcast Tuesday afternoon, a family gathered around a freshly dug grave. The preacher man you recognize from every Sunday service you ever attended at your family’s home church has just completed his sermon as you approach. The blue-suited man closes his bible on the portable pulpit and walks down the aisle, passing you as if you weren’t there. Though the attendees face forward, you recognize the backs of those heads to be those of your flesh and blood.
“Momma!” you call. “Hey, Daddy?” but no one turns. You take a few steps forward until the face in the casket stops you dead. It’s you. Softer features, too much make-up, but you’d recognize that face anywhere. It’s funny—you don’t remember dying. In fact, you’re quite sure you didn’t. But after walking a few more steps forward to get a good look in your parents’ eyes, you see the weight of grief upon them. A large, dark hand with gold rings on every finger squeezes your shoulder.
“My boy, I’m so sorry you have to see this,” Ms. Coretta whispers.
“I’m right here,” I say. “I’m right here. Why can’t they see me?”
“Sweetheart,” she says, “they’re mourning their dead daughter.”
I choke. “Why can’t they just love their son?”
Okay, maybe that’s the writer in me trying to dramatize something into TV that felt even worse in real life.
I was turning left in front of Camden Yards to go home when the call came. Under different circumstances, I might not have picked up. But the promise of the past weekend’s budding romance had inspired some queer bravery in me, and I answered the call. My mother’s Gulf Coast accent emerged from my Tacoma’s speakers. It was the first time she had reached out since I had broken the news to her about my gender, and I knew whatever came next would dictate the direction of our relationship for years to come.
“How have you been?” I asked.
“It’s been so hard for us,” she replied. “I’ve cried every day since you told me.”
I swallowed. I had hoped so much that she’d understand.
“It’s like you died,” Mom said. “We love our Jessica. We want our Jessica back.”
It was as if my family’s collective heart couldn’t transfer their love to the surviving family member.
“You didn’t include us in this decision,” her venom seeped through the mouthpiece. At that point, a chasm opened between us. My mind traveled back to every softball game, graduation, my time in the military—every moment I had ever made them proud. “Jessica was our superhero,” she said. That meant Joshua must be their villain.
“When I saw your picture on Facebook, I thought, ‘That’s my Jessica. That’s who I’ve always known.’ Now you’re saying you’re going to live as a man. I don’t know if I can accept that.” I prayed then that the wreck inside my truck wouldn’t lead to one on the outside. Etta Coretta, take the wheel. Mercifully, muscle memory led me home.
The power we vest in our mothers’ towers above all. That day, the Baltimore sky wept with me. I prayed my skills as a storyteller and as her child would be enough to pay the toll. She found the sum of my words to be insufficient. There was no room at her inn for this son.
I didn’t want to commit this conversation to paper. It isn’t that I’m ashamed. In fact, I feel a sick pride in the experience, the way a war veteran savors the details of the bloody encounter he survived. I earned my trans stripes that day. The reason I don’t want to write this story is simple: Recording it makes it real.
Today, I walked into the same bathroom where I saw Ms. Etta Coretta head to toe for the first time. I smiled at her, and she at me, as we always do. There is a sacred bond between a boy and his fairy godmother—a mutual knowledge of pain too deeply felt to name.
She spoke in a stern tone I hadn’t heard before. “Joshua,” she said. “Look at me.”
I watched in silent wonder as she applied a soapy washcloth to her face. I’d never seen her sans make-up, and at once I knew this revelation was something sacred. Slowly, methodically, she worked the cloth, revealing the naked visage beneath. My breath left my chest as my mind caught up to what I saw: what I thought were green eyes turned blue before me. Wrinkles revealed themselves at familiar corners, and a faint scar through her right eyebrow told me what I must have always known. When I first met Etta, I saw her as a completely separate entity that my mind had created in its dissociative state of T-brain (also known as my brain on testosterone). But today, I saw she was a part of me, had been inside of me all along. The drag queen who’d been holding my hand was the same man I’d discovered back in March. It’s me. It’s always been me. “Good morning, Joshua,” he buzzed.
I found my voice: “Good morning, Joshua,” I replied.
Joshua Cole is a queer trans man originally from Alabama who now calls Maryland home. An Army veteran and MFA candidate at the University of Baltimore, his work has previously appeared at The Prelude, The Future Southern Fugitives, and Welter Online. This is his first essay for My Real Life Modern Family, a Baltimore Fishbowl series that features creative nonfiction from local writers.