Search form

Scroll To Top
Out Exclusives

A Homecoming: Trans Activist and Artist iO Recounts the Life of His Warrior Queen Mother


iO Tillett Wright’s new memoir, Darling Days (Ecco), is available now.

Courtesy of iO Tillett Wright.

Everyone hates to suffer. They'll do anything to avoid it. Not my ma. She lives within pain like the war-torn overcoat of a Bosnian.

Her scars form a moat dividing her from the rest of society, from those who have never experienced emotional dismemberment. Her stories are not about life's pokes and pricks and sticky problems she had to solve. Her stories are tragic, Gothic, Civil War splatter flicks of amputation without anesthesia. Awful in the grand sense.

She plows into pain, through it, with it inside her. Sometimes there's the question of whether or not it's possible to go on, but never of whether or not one should. You just find a way. This is life. No matter how heavy the blows.

My mother is not of this world. In a city full of puffed-up, politically correct yuppies and gluttonous, self-centered adult children bursting with stories of that one time they volunteered to serve a meal to the homeless, my ma operates by a different code. For all her failings, for all her faults, she would curl up in a damp sheet in the cold of winter before she would ever take a blanket off me. She would go to sleep hungry if she ever thought I needed her portion of food.

When she was under attack, accused of neglecting her most treasured baby child, she still never publicly shamed my father for his addiction. She never threw him under the bus, though she could have taken that cheap shot a thousand times. She knew I treasured him, and they had a deal.

She worked several jobs with a brutal hip injury to keep us from starvation, for years, but she never touched the money I made as a child actor. She never stole, she didn't lie, she never intentionally hurt anyone. She made do with what she had, and she gave the bigger portion of all she had to me.

She is an eccentric in a world where eccentrics often live out their lives as untouchables; that is, until they die and are lionized as brilliant. When they overdose at 27 we put their faces on T-shirts and call them "Bright comets" or "flares extinguished before their time." We celebrate their art, their music, their performances. We love and exploit the products of those very peculiarities, but try growing up with them as your only guiding lights. Try having such an "eccentric" as a parent, your primary guide through the world.

I've been home for a few weeks and I've been witness to a transformed person. My ma, who was once my superhero, my stalwart warrior queen, has been broken. It took several blows before the snap, but I know my being taken away was the ultimate wound, and the guilt of it is with me constantly.

The severity of her hip pain has crippled her proud posture. Unable to overcome it with willpower, she has been worn down by the frustration of crappy health care provided to the impoverished: the endless runarounds, unmotivated doctors, interminable waits, cold-blooded refusals, and profound humiliations. She can't have her hip replaced on Medicaid in any way that will be safe, but to get better insurance, she will need to put up thousands of dollars she could never earn. So she's stuck.


She won't discuss Gus with me, but I see her thrashing in it, overwhelmed by the cruel joke of being in love with a man who batters her. It gives her a commonality with countless women, but she will never seek a community or support. She'll just tsk and nod and shed a tear or two when she sees another in such pain, but validation from them would do nothing to soothe her. She is isolated in time's relentless forward march.

The apartment is like I've never seen it. She has always hoarded useless shit, fragments of all the beautiful eras she sees being white-washed and plowed over by this antiseptic new world. But now it's hard to move through the place. A pile of empty jumbo olive oil cans takes up the center of my old room, something she claims to be saving for an art piece. There are pieces of furniture far outsized for the house and sacks of envelopes, each written on in her distinctive scrawl. I pick one up and read a dark poem about Gus, his betrayals, her misery. How she'd cut his back open in the night with a box cutter when he told her he had cheated with a woman who might have HIV.

She has kept every single thing I have ever made, including a four-foot easel I built in wood shop when I was eight, a stack of cardboard castles I made in the second grade, and my entire autograph collection, gathered over my whole life, including Puff Daddy, Isaac Hayes, and James Brown. There are bags of my old clothes, my scarves, my baby shoes, my socks. It's insanity.

She thinks of all things I've touched as treasures. I am the exalted one, but it's as if this distinction is reserved for the memory of me. In person, she can barely bring herself to be warm, she has so much to be angry about.

A thick shell of emotions encloses her, feelings hardened into tangled armors of resentment, fear, love, fury, and responsibility. She has become a kind of giant tortoise, majestic, slow moving, unreachable. Everything vulnerable has been pulled inside.

When I look at her a chasm opens within me and I long to fill it with maternal care, a space that hasn't been filled since I was seven or eight. Since her eyes started to go dark. Since the visitor started to take her over. I want to mend her, fix her body, wrap her fingers in mine and protect her bones. I long for her to caress my head. When she offers to massage my back at night, I jump at the chance. But I know it won't last. Her moods are fickle and her turns are violent. I carry apprehension like a shield into every interaction with her, but my affection weakens it and this angers me. My wounded hope for a true mother is scabbed over by disappointment.

I love her. When people watch her jump the turnstile with judgment in their eyes, I want to cut them. I want to push them onto the tracks. What do they know about being a widow? What do they know about being a single mom, scraping together enough money to feed your fifth grader, trying to keep a kid's mind stimulated by sneaking them into the second half of Broadway shows when you're under threat of eviction? What do they know about surviving on $10 a day? Would they support their child if they decided they were really a boy? Would they wash the sheets to welcome her and her girlfriend when she came home as a lesbian teenager? Could they even begin to imagine what it's like to carry a torch for a man who's been dead for 20 years?

Her greatest love was sundered by the horror of murder, but my ma goes on, left behind in a world too banal to understand her, an inverse ghost, too alive in a soulless void, wandering the wrong purgatory.

Excerpted from iO's new memoir, Darling Days (Ecco), available now.

Like what you see here? Subscribe and be the first to receive the latest issue of Out. Subscribe to print here and receive a complimentary digital subscription.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

iO Tillett Wright