io tillett wright has identified as a boy, a girl, and a man, and traces his gender-fluid journey in a new memoir
Darling Days is an incredibly honest and emotional read by a transgender artist and activist.
In his candid new memoir, Darling Days, activist and artist iO Tillett Wright chronicles his unusual upbringing, which begins in the untamed East Village over 30 years ago. "The East Village in the 80s and 90s was a wild place," explains iO, who is well-known for Self-Evident Truths, a project for which he is photographing 10,000 people (including Lily-Rose Depp) who identify somewhere on the vast LGBTQ spectrum. "It was flypaper for all the lunatics, schizophrenics, musicians, artists, performers and weirdoes who made up our family of friends." The sticky streets were also attractive to iO's mother, a radiant 6-foot tall glamazon with bleached-blonde hair, who he describes as a "unicorn in a world of horses." In the second chapter of the book, iO recalls, "She once carried a busted fluorescent tube through midtown and shook it in the face of street thugs like a jagged spear."
Though sometimes erratic and irresponsible—there were times when his mother forgot to feed him—iO's parents were his biggest supporters, ignoring traditional concepts of gender and encouraging the young artist to be himself. When iO—who was designated female at birth—declared he was a boy at age 6, his parents didn't blink, and when he re-declared himself a girl at 14, that was OK too. "My parents dropped the ball on a lot of basic stuff, like food, presence, predictability, electricity, but the one thing they always nailed was building my sense of self-respect. I honoured what I felt was true for me inside, and in turn, so did they."
To continue to honour his authentic self, iO came out as transgender after Darling Days went to print (which is why, on the back of the book, female pronouns are still used to describe the author, but now iO prefers male pronouns). "I think there should be many words for genders, so that people can identify with their place on the spectrum," iO explains in the following interview, "and they should always reserve the right for that to change if they want it to."
The book opens with a letter to your mother, which serves as both an explanation to her and celebration of her. Why did you decide to start the book like this? Has your mother read the letter, and the book? What was her reaction?
I felt very protective of her. Going into this, I asked her permission. I told her, and my father, that this book would air all of our dirty laundry, and I wouldn't do it if they weren't both on board. My mother, who arguably has the most to suffer from the revelations in the book, responded coolly, "I'm on your team, kid." My father, of course, was wholly on board too.
My mother is a unicorn in a world of horses. She's not a breed people understand, and those who like to classify other humans will be eager to slap a label on her. I wanted it to be expressly clear to the reader, from the jump, that I feel that I owe my parents so much, despite what many see as their parental failings.
What is your favourite childhood memory of your mother?
Oh, there are so many… My mum always supported my fantastical dreams. She took me to the copy shop to make copies of my "newspapers" and "magazines" that I started publishing around age 7. She didn't tell me I would make a great journalist when I grew up—she told me I was already a great journalist then. She stood around while I sold lemonade for eight hours at the gay pride parade in the West Village in 1995, and took me to buy hot dogs that I sold in Central Park while she waited.
When (and why) did you first declare yourself a boy? How did your parents react?
For the book, I scanned my mum's entire collection of 2,000 photographs, and I was struck by the realisation that, there I was, at 3 years old, flexing my pecs at the pool, jumping over fences, and sword fighting. If that's what's considered boyish, then I'd been showing that since I could walk and make my own choices. I specifically told my dad that I had a new name and was a boy when I was five, but he wasn't particularly surprised.
How important was it that your parents accepted you for who you are?
It was everything. My parents dropped the ball on a lot of basic stuff, like food, presence, predictability, electricity, but the one thing they always nailed was building my sense of self-respect. I honoured what I felt was true for me inside, and in turn, so did they, which gave me the everlasting notion that what I feel I am matters. Everything else in life can go away, but never that.
What was it like growing up in the East Village in the 80s and 90s? How did your neighbourhood and its inhabitants, whom were also inventing or re-inventing their own identities, inform your own identity or who you became?
The East Village in the 80s and 90s was a wild place. Everyone was there because they'd left somewhere more uptight, been kicked out, or got stuck and couldn't afford to move. It was flypaper for all the lunatics, schizophrenics, musicians, artists, performers and weirdoes who made up our family of friends. It was the greatest. No way of existing was off limits or not present, it was a carnival of self-invention. It gave me a profound respect for non-traditional ways of existing, and it made me unafraid of people. I also have a deep sense that everyone comes from somewhere, everybody has a mother, just maybe the road took a curve somewhere.
You lived as a boy for eight years. What happened at 14 that made you want to be recognised as a girl again?
I hit puberty! I got boobs and my period while I was living in a small town in Germany with my dad. It was a whole new world, so I felt like maybe I could re-invent myself. I was scared that the kids I went to school with would see my body changing and find out my secret and kick my ass. Now, as an adult looking back, I think I just wanted to fit in and have a normal fucking life for the first time ever.
You recently decided to come out as transgender and prefer male pronouns. Why now?
Over the last couple years, I've been drifting more and more toward my own masculinity—in my haircuts, my clothes, and in relationships. At a certain point, I was having a conversation with a friend where he asked me how I felt in my own body, at night, once all the lights were off and the societal performances of roles had gone away, and I realised I had seen myself as a man my entire life. I'd just grown accustomed to my body in the mirror not matching my body in my head. I didn't hate my body though, which was what I thought was the Trans narrative, so that's part of why it took me so long to understand what I was dealing with.
Do you think even the pronouns he/him are too limiting? Do you think that there needs to be a total shift in people's perception of gender?
Yes, I do think there needs to be a total shift in the perception of gender, but for some people, extreme femininity or masculinity makes sense and I would never want to strip them of that. For me, I feel like I'm a boy in a girl's body. I'm not trying to be radical or flip the world on its genderless head. I am just a boy… who will always have a girl's accent. I think there should be many words for genders, so that people can identify with their place on the spectrum, and they should always reserve the right for that to change if they want it to!
What do your hope your memoir will achieve? What do you want people to think about or understand after reading it?
Oh shit, that's tough, there are so many things... I want young people to feel less like they have to be one thing to be normal or successful. I want everyone who suffers from neglect, depression or anxiety to see that you can make it out of a gnarly place in yourself and have a full, beautiful life. I want parents to re-assess whether they truly make their children feel accepted. I want teachers to have more insight into what kids go through who don't know what's going on with their gender yet. I want people to have another look at the people they dismiss as addicts or damaged, and maybe think about what got them there. I want people to think about their own parents or relationships, and have a little moment of added forgiveness. Everyone is just doing their best.
What advice would you give to your younger you?
Let people go who need to go. You're going to make your own safety. You're gonna have a beautiful life.
Text Zio Baritaux
Portrait Ryan Pfluger