An Open Letter to the Stranger Who Called Me a Girl

Dear Stranger Who Called Me a Girl,

You may not remember me. I'm forgettable; I've learned to live with it. To refresh your memory, a few months ago we were on the N train heading towards Queens. I was going to a friend's party and I think you were on your way home from shopping with your grandson as evident by your Gap shopping bag. I was a little tipsy, thanks to an unlimited mimosa brunch in Hell's Kitchen. I hopped onto the N train on that gray afternoon without a care in the world. I didn't have a seat, but it's the N train on a Saturday. I wasn't expecting a miracle. I was just gleefully observing the other passengers and writing notes down in my weather-beaten journal. It's incredible how introspective unlimited mimosas can make you.

I glanced over at your grandson, who was tugging at your skirt.
"iPhone, iPhone," he repeated. "Por favor, Abuelita. Give me the iPhone."

I locked eyes with you and smiled. I know, that was probably creepy and that's probably what set you off, but hear me out. I was thinking about my own abuelita, who was countless miles away in a new nursing home in Miami. The operative word in that sentence was new. My parents had called me earlier that week to tell me the caregiver at the private nursing home my abuela was living at had failed to make mortgage payments, and they had to evict all the tenants.

I want you to picture my abuela, who was once strong and witty, in a gurney on a street corner drooling onto her Minnie Mouse shirt. It's heartbreaking. So when I saw you with your grandson, I was remembering tugging at my abuela's skirt asking for my Gameboy (yes, I just dated myself).

I looked away from you, and wrote in my notebook: "Abuela y nieto. Lots of love. A relationship that will last a lifetime."

You then shouted out, rather aggressively for a pre-Saturday night train ride: "You look like a girl!"

At first, I couldn't believe you were saying that to your grandson. It was only after the third time you repeated it that I realized you were actually talking to me.

I looked at you again. If you weren't wagging your finger and sneering at me like some self-righteous Loony Tunes character (picture Daffy Duck), I probably would've given you a hug. It's shocking the lack of compliments an effeminate Cuban male in his 30s receives. Some people have mistaken me for the actor who played Alfalfa in The Little Rascals 1994 film, but that's about it. Being called a girl is awesome. I'm gay and know very well that girls kick-ass.

I removed my headphones. "Huh," I asked, drunk and confused. "Are you talking to me?" (Sidebar, I knew you were talking to me. I was just drunk.)

"You heard me," you replied, standing your ground like a fierce lioness. "Tu no es un hombre. Tu eres una mujer!"

Little background on me, you're not the first person to say I'm not a man. In fact, this isn't even the first time I've been told I look like a girl. When I was on the playground at the small Baptist School I attended for kindergarten, the other boys were hesitant to let me role play Ninja Turtles with them because I was too skinny and pale to be one of the actual Turtles.

"Well you do look like April O'Neil," Jose Diaz said. "You can play as her."

I nodded at Jose Diaz. He wasn't being vindictive; this was a time in life before issues like homosexuality were relevant to playground politics. Jose Diaz was just calling it how he saw it. And you know what? He was right. I was unusually gaunt with a brown and untamed muff for hair. I also had an affinity for writing (as you've probably guess). I was born to role play as the fearless reporter April O'Neil at Gladeview Baptist School in 1988. I want you to picture a group of boys relentlessly attacking a tree, pretending it was Shredder, the main villain of the aforementioned Ninja Turtles franchise, and little me standing in front of them with an imaginary microphone in my hand talking to an imaginary camera. It was the best thing ever.

And that was basically my life up until the 2nd grade. The boys played Ninja Turtles and I was their strong female sidekick who occasionally was a damsel in distress.

It never occurred to me that I was doing anything wrong until one day at my abuela's casa, I was in her living room shaking my hips to the merengue that was blasting. Abuela was clapping, but my abuelo came up to me and yelled something in Spanish. I had a hard time understanding him, the cancer made his voice low.

"You shake the hips too much," he said in a thick Spanish accent, gasping for air.

That was the first time I knew something was wrong with how I acted and that was also the last memory I have of my abuelo. After he died, I tried not being flamboyant. I would even pray to him in heaven, telling him not to worry because I'll undoubtedly grow up to be a strong man.

I studied the other boys at the new school I transferred to. I noted how they held their Michael Jordan trapper keepers with one hand. I tried to hold it like them, but subconsciously I would just hug my Lisa Frank trapper keeper. Yup, Lisa Frank a.k.a. the sticker goddess of the 1990s. Specifically I had the Cleocatra trapper keeper. Really, I never had a chance.

To be clear, I never felt like a girl trapped in a boy's body. I just wasn't like the other boys and during my pre-teens I struggled with my identity. This other time when I was twelve, I was at Sedano's Supermarket with my mom. She was ordering a café con leche and the barista (did we call them baristas back then?) asked her, "Tu nino es hombre o mujer?"

I couldn't believe the faux barista asked my mom if I was a boy or girl. That was really embarrassing because I was trying really hard to emulate Jonathan Taylor Thomas circa The Home Improvement era. I thought I was rather successful and here came Faux Barista bursting my bubble.

The question of my masculinity haunted me all throughout junior high. I'll spare you the gory details, but assume it was a 9.0 or greater on the Richter scale of bullying. But something became very clear during those hellish years: I admired women. My mom was a kick-ass paralegal, my mentally handicapped sister took shit from no one, and my best friend was a feisty redhead with a keen sense for good literature (which in 7th grade was Emily Dickinson, coincidentally also a very strong female role model).

I hated when the other boys use to say, "you throw like a girl" to me during P.E. as if it were some kind of insult. I can now retrospectively ask: "How is throwing like a girl an insult, Rocco Rodriguez? You were barley 4'11 in height back in 1997. Shut up!"

I also loathed when the boys thought it was funny when girls got their periods for the first time. They were tracking it on a notebook, guessing who was going to be the next one to accidentally menstruate all over their JanSport book bag. In fact, on the subject of first times, the first fight I ever got into was because someone said I had gotten my period because a red pen had exploded all over my JanSport. Good ol' Rocco Rodriguez.

A magical thing happened in college, I studied feminism. I read authors like Simon de Beauvoir, Shulamith Firestone and Judith Butler. Each talked about how gender was just a construct, a role given to you at birth, and that true equality laid in seeing no distinction between the sexes. I can ramble on and elaborate about this, because I just boiled down very complex feminist thought into a half-baked sentence for a blog post, but my word count is limited. I recommend hitting up Wikipedia for those feminists in order to understand their rhetoric. The main takeaway was that those were ideas I had really thought about for years but because everyone told me how I was living my life was wrong, I pushed those ideas out of my head. And even though I can never fully understand the struggle of female identity in America, I can tell you that my experience growing up has made me accepting of everyone regardless of gender, sexuality and race.

So here we are in New York City, in the year of 2015, and you're calling me a girl on a subway that just left Hell's Kitchen. Never mind the irony that you yourself have a vagina. We just left Hell's Kitchen, the epicenter of gay culture in the entire country. Possibly the universe.

"That's not an insult," I told you. "I have amazing girlfriends who work had and have overcome every hurdle they've come across. I'm proud to be called a woman."

"You shouldn't be," you yelled. "You're suppose to be a man, maricón."

Our subway cart was quiet now. I mean, you did call me the Spanish equivalent to the F-word. Everyone knows what a maricón means, even your grandson. Thankfully my stop came and I got off the subway without giving you last words.

However since this is my open letter, I would like to give you those final words in the form of a quote from America's First Grandmother, Betty White. Actually, I don't think Betty White has grandchildren. She was a stepmother to Allen Ludden's kids, so it's possible but Wikipedia isn't clear. In any case, every open letter or rant should end with a Betty White quote:

"Why do people say 'grow some balls'? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding."


Paul Florez