Where do I fit in? And other identity crises.
Updated: Jun 14, 2022
By Nico, a Queer Romany Gypsy
“I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.” — this quote by Emily Dickinson encapsulates my feelings on being adopted. I firmly believe adopted children should always know they’re adopted, but there’s no escaping the feeling of being an outsider within your own family.
Having said that, there’s a dichotomy in my identity - I’m a perpetual seeker but also have a strong sense of self. It stems from the same feeling of being different - the “me against the world” mentality. The armour you create to protect yourself from hurt while simultaneously being unequivocally, unapologetically you. The hurt in this case being rejection; not that it isn’t a fear for many people, but it is often acute in the case of adoptees. Even if you can rationalise it, the fundamental trauma runs deep - it’s the primal wound, as Nancy Verrier so perfectly puts it.
There is of course another way to look at this - your adoptive parents chose you, after all. In my experience though, that comfort pales in comparison to the solitary existence of being the only adoptee in your family. Perhaps, had I not been the only one, solace could’ve been found in the comradery of shared experience.
As an 80s baby, I grew up with little information about how I came to be - adoptions were closed and post-adoption support was minimal. It was expected you would simply assimilate (ick) and this goes some way to explain my parents’ lack of understanding of the child they took home with them.
I only learned my ethnicity when at 14 - at a time I was also navigating my queer identity - I accidentally discovered my family in the neighbouring town (a long story for another day!). I was then faced with two realities - not only was I different by virtue of adoption, but also due to my racial identity. Suddenly things made SO much more sense - I’d always felt at odds with my adoptive family and felt it might be due to more than not being blood-related, but couldn’t identify exactly what. Funnily enough my (adoptive) mum had given me Rumer Godden’s Diddakoi to read when I was younger and it had deeply resonated with me; could it really have been my ancestors calling to me all this time?
It was a complicated time - enlightening, confusing, beautiful and messy - a cavalcade of emotions that a troubled teen (back in the care system at this point, such was the fractured relationship between me and my parents) wasn’t properly equipped to deal with. I had a great care worker but Social Services’ support was generally lacking, although I was able to access my full file before the age of 18, due to the unusual circumstances of the situation.
Meeting family members and learning “the truth” answered some questions and raised even more. Everyone has their own narrative and reasoning but there are certain, indisputable facts that make navigating these relationships challenging. Honesty is paramount to me - another common theme among adoptees - when you grow up not knowing where you come from, your essential but elusive truth becomes a sort of Holy Grail. That’s not to say these relationships aren’t also rewarding - the instant bonds that can be formed are truly special.
I can’t speak to the experiences of other transacial adoptees, and I recognise the privilege of sharing skin colour with my adoptive family, but I was nonetheless denied my culture and language until the chance meeting. None of it was in my adoption notes - a single page of A4 with some basic family history and a fictional biological father. The grief and anger of it all is something I’m still grappling with some 30 years later. For myself and many others, even if we reconnect we still feel different and othered - caught between being both “not enough” and “too much” of each ethnic identity. I’ve also found this to be prevalent with other mixed race people, and also those, especially other Romani, who were raised to hide their ethnicity.
I’ve always been proud to be a Gypsy and proud to be queer, but I’m lucky not to have grown up with the level of shame and fear that others have. My adoptive family is staunchly Catholic but I don’t pay much mind to what they think about my queerness anymore. By the time I started figuring that out, the relationship was already fractured. I rejected religion after my Confirmation but it’s true that Catholic guilt never fully leaves you! Nevertheless, I’ve found that part of myself easier to navigate over the years - perhaps due to the various fluctuations of my own sexual and gender identity. The same can’t be said of ethnicity; that’s never going to change, nor would I want it to.
Reconnecting with community and your own ethnicity, and reconciling multiple identities isn’t always straightforward - again, the fear of rejection is strong, not least because depending on how, when and where you grew up, people have different ideas about what it means. To me though, there are no rules to being a Gypsy - there are of course deep cultural traditions to be respected, some of which were always innate to me (hello again, ancestors) - but ultimately it’s your DNA, your birthright, and every one of us has our own, valid experience.
No matter our individual circumstances, I’ve noticed two conflicting truths of being Romani over the years - we are proud, strong and resilient while also wary and sometimes aladged. Given our history, and all that’s happening to us across the world even now, these things are unsurprising. Personally, I want to tap into the first truth so I’ll finish with the words of George R.R. Martin — “Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”