A certain man married a woman who eventually became pregnant and gave birth to a boy. While the father was delighted to have a son, the woman was neither happy nor joyful as she held him in her arms, for privately she had always wished for a daughter and in fact had already chosen a name for her: Susana.

However, she kept this desire from her husband and went along with him when he suggested they name the boy Joseph, after his father’s father.

The mother maintained her silence on the matter throughout the early years as she nursed and cradled their infant son. However, she could never fully contain the urge to convey longing for a daughter. Rather than have another child in hopes of gaining a daughter, she expressed these urges in how she raised her son. Every night, after the father had kissed their child goodnight, she remained in the room and rocked the boy to sleep, whispering the name “Susana” in his ear to the tune of a nursery rhyme.

Whenever she had the opportunity, she dressed him in pink and refused to cut his hair so that it came down to his shoulders. This, the mother insisted to the father, was the latest trend for toddlers. Puzzled, the father nevertheless went along with the idea and entrusted his wife with much of Joseph’s needs.

Now it came to pass that the boy grew until he was around eight years old and attending elementary school. It was at this time that returning home each afternoon, he would stand outside the house and listen to the loud shouts coming from inside. He would notice that the shouts were loudest during the holidays, especially whenever his grandfather planned to visit them.

Joseph learned to sit on the bench outside the front door and wait until the shouting had ceased; he would then enter and find silence between his father and mother. He would go up to his room and pretend to play with the dolls his mother had bought him; for some reason, he wasn’t supposed to tell his father about them. For a while, he would sense his mother’s presence outside his room, watching him through the partially ajar door. Once he felt her presence had vanished, he would take out his favorite toy trucks, action figures, and plastic soldiers that he hid in the closet because they upset his mother whenever she saw them.

To hide them from her, he often put them in his backpack and took them to school. One day, he argued with a girl in his class over which classroom toy was the best. She then accused him of something that made the teacher search his backpack. Upon discovering the toys, she immediately confiscated them and without explanation had the school security officer take him to the principal’s office. Once there, he began crying, but no one comforted him or told him what he had done wrong. He sat there for several hours until his mother arrived with a strange look on her face. Without speaking, she took him to the parking lot and drove him home.

As they were driving, she kept saying, “Don’t you worry, Susana: we’re going to make this right.”

The boy was too upset to ask her who she was speaking to.

When they arrived home, his mother proceeded to take his favorite toys and toss them in the garbage, ignoring his pleas for her to stop. She then went into the attic and began taking out small dresses and skirts and laid them out on Joseph’s bed, telling him they would be his new clothes.

“Why am I being punished?” he asked.

“You’re not being punished. You’re finally accepting who you really are. You’re confused. But put on this dress and you won’t be confused anymore.”

But the boy became more confused than before when his mother tried to force him to put on a dress, insisting to him “You want to wear this” even when he denied it. She kept calling him “Susana” until he began to cry and ran out into the backyard, staying there until his father arrived home and found him hiding behind the woodpile. His father seemed just as confused as he entered the house and Joseph once again heard the shouting that he had heard for years.

Except this time the shouting turned to screams and it lasted longer than it had ever had before. When Joseph entered the house, he found his mother in the kitchen smoking a cigarette. She snuffed it out with the bottom of a lighter and then announced to Joseph that his father did not want to be a part of his life anymore. Joseph did not protest or cry because he was afraid of what she might do.

From that day on, she forced him to wear a dress and insisted on calling him “Susana.” She also told him he was a girl and that he had always wanted to be female. When he told her that he liked being a boy, she would punish him and lock him in his room until he was ready to obey her and say he was female.

He was quickly pulled out of school after a group of boys made fun of his dress and hair and made him cry; his mother said the school didn’t care enough about her little girl and that she would educate him herself.

Each morning, she would wake him and have him stand in front of the mirror and say “the future is female” seven times before she would let him have breakfast. Throughout the day, while he was doing schoolwork, she would randomly call out “Susana!”

At first, he did not respond, and she would punish him with the spatula.

“Your name is Susana, and you are my little girl!” she insisted before locking him in his bedroom for the night. He wanted to make her happy and not be hit, but it seemed wrong to lie to her, even if he was punished for it.

The next day, she again called “Susana,” and he did not reply. Once again, she punished him and locked him in his room. The third day she called out “Susana!” and this time he answered “Yes, mother?” He was rewarded with a bowl of ice cream.

She taught him to do other things as well. At noon before lunch, he was sent out to play with the dolls that she had given him, which he had to “dress” and was graded by his mother for how well he did.

But no matter how hard his mother tried, no matter what she said or forced him to say and do, Joseph did not think of himself as “Susana” or a girl. When they were out in public and someone asked his name, he struggled to answer. When his mother was not close enough to hear, it was “Joseph.” Other times, it was “Susana.”

When she permitted him to go to the local playground, he would tear his dresses to make them resemble shorts and he could play soccer with the other boys. They laughed at him and his long hair until they realized that he did not like to wear the dresses and that he was very good at the game.

Afterwards, he would tell his mother he had accidentally torn the dress while playing with “the boys.” She was initially upset but changed her mind. Something he said about how he liked them seemed to please her.

Then one day, his mother he approached him and said she was going to take him to the doctor for an important medical appointment. But first, she wanted him to go to a place where he could see how there were others like him and that “being different is a gift.” They met up with some of his mother’s friends and drove together to a large building covered with rainbows.

As they entered, his mother spoke at great length about how proud she was of Susana and how brave she was to be different from everyone else. Her friends repeatedly told Joseph that he had a lot of courage and that made him special. He nodded his head but did not want to thank them, for he did not know what brave thing he had done, nor why he wanted to shudder or turn his head away as they walked past the many displays and exhibits on their left and right.

Then, as his mother and friends spoke, Joseph wandered off to look at one of the exhibits of a man covered with arrows rather than clothes and tied to a pillar. Looking at it made him want to cry, but didn’t want to get the black stuff his mother put on his eyelids all over his face.

Yet he couldn’t help but wonder what the man had done to deserve to be punished like that. He looked at down at the exhibit display and tried saying the name, but he could not pronounce it. He then saw a button on the display and pressed it, and a voice spoke.


The boy walked away from the exhibit, but repeated the name over and over in a soft voice. He then took out the notepad and pencil from his dress pocket that his mother gave him to put down all the ways he liked being different and wrote down the name. Later that week, his mother took him to the library for a reading by an adult girl who his mother said was also different and brave like Susana. He sat with the other children and listened to the large girl read a story in a deep voice, but looked over to see if his mother was still watching. When she stepped outside to smoke, he got up and spoke to one of the librarians.

“Who was Sebastian?” he asked.

“Who?” the librarian asked.

“Sebastian. He did something bad and was punished for it.”

The librarian looked at him strangely, but then said, “Oh, you mean St. Sebastian. You want to learn more about him?”


She took him to one of the aisles and pointed at several large books. “His entry should be in one of the encyclopedias. Just looked under ‘S’ until you find him.”

Joseph took one of the books and sat down in the aisle as he turned the pages quickly. When he came to the entry, he read it as best he could. When another librarian saw him struggling to say the words, she asked him which ones he didn’t understand. He pointed to one and she replied, “that’s ‘martyr.’ It’s someone who dies for what they believe.”

“Why do they die?” Joseph asked.

“Because they don’t want to say they believe something that they don’t, and people kill them because of it.”

“So they didn’t do anything wrong?”

“No. They’re being killed for the wrong reason.”

“Does that make them brave?”

“Very brave.”

Joseph pointed at the picture of St. Sebastian that went along with the entry. “But he looks very scared.”

“I’m sure he was. Being brave means doing something even when you’re scared.”

After the librarian left, Joseph carefully tore the page with the entry out of the book and put it in his dress pocket. He then got up and returned to the circle of children, sitting there until his mother came back and, after getting a photo of him with the adult girl, took him home. He immediately went to his bedroom and closed the door, taking the torn page out. He sat on his bed and practiced saying the words that were difficult to say. He did this until dinner time, when his mother called “Susana!”

Without answering, he put the torn page under his bed covers and went into the kitchen and sat down.

“Why didn’t you answer when I called?” she asked.

“I’m sorry,” Joseph replied.

She smiled and kissed him on the head. “It’s going to be so exciting to see the doctor this week. He’s going to help you be different. You know it’s okay to be different, right? It’s brave to be different.”

Joseph nodded.

But on the day of the appointment, he was reluctant to put on the dress his mother picked out for him. He fought her when she applied the black material to his eyelashes. He wanted to say he hated it, but he knew she would punish him and then do it anyway. At the doctor’s office, Joseph felt cold as he sat beside his mother.

Then a voice called out. “Susana?”

A woman in white stood in front of him. He didn’t speak. His mother looked at him worriedly, then answered. “She’s ready.”

“You ready, Susana?” the woman asked Joseph.

“She’s ready,” his mother repeated.

Joseph was more scared than he had ever been in his life. But it couldn’t stop him anymore.

“I’m not ready.”

The woman seemed perplexed. His mother glared at him.

“What’s the matter, Susana?” the woman asked.

“My name is not Susana.”

“What is wrong with you?” his mother demanded, whispering in his ear, “You’re not being a good girl right now. Behave, or you’ll be punished.”

Trembling, Joseph replied, “I don’t want to be a good girl. I want to be a good boy. I am a good boy.”

The room was silent. His mother tried to reassure the woman, but Joseph stood up and began to shout, “I am a boy!” until his mother dragged him out of the office and back down to the parking lot. She put him in the back and did not speak until they were home. There, she brought him to his bedroom, her large spatula in hand, and shoved him against the bed.

“You are Susana, and you are a girl!” she yelled as she struck him. “You want to be a girl!”

All the times before, the terror of being hit had made him obey. But the fear no longer had its former effect. Taking a deep breath, he tore at his dress and began to take it off. Now only wearing the shorts that his father had bought for him and he always secretly put on, he yelled at his mother.

“I’m not going to lie anymore! I am not Susana. I am Joseph! I am a boy, and I love being a boy!”

His mother stood silent for a moment. Then she cried out in a way he had never seen before as she struck him again and again with the spatula until it was speckled red with blood. After she was done and locked the door behind her, he turned over on his side and quietly cried. As tears fell down his face, he took out the torn page with St. Sebastian from his pocket.

He then looked at the small, round bruises on his arms and smiled as he thought to himself:

“Now I know what it is to be brave.”