20 November 2014

Transgender Day Of Remembrance 2014

Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance.

If you've been following this blog for some time, you know that I commemorate this day every year, with a blog post and by participating in an event that memorializes those of us who were killed simply for being who we are--and for those who were killed because someone thought he or she was one of us.

A typical TDOR event includes a reading of victims' names and hometowns, if they are known. (Too many of us lack homes and documentation.)  I still recall reading the name of Brian McGlothlin, shot in the head with a semi-automatic rifle on a Cincinnati street by someone who hated him for wearing women's clothes.  

On the night I read his name, my gender-reassignment surgery was a little more than eight months in my future. I remember feeling that I had navigated some treacherous currents in my journey from living as a man to life as a woman, but knowing that there still could be all sorts of storms and other dangers ahead. (I didn't even know the half of it!) Even if I'd lived and worked in an environment where no one knew about--or had reason to suspect--my past, my life could still be endangered by someone who "outed" me.

I also couldn't help but to think about an old friend of mine, Corey,who committed suicide because she (I have chosen to remember her as the female she was in mind and spirit) simply could not bear the burden of having to carry herself in a man's body.  I do not mean to trivialize people like Rita Hester --whose murder in the Boston suburb of Allston in 1998 led to the first TDOR the following year--or Shelley Hiilard, Islan Nettles, Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar or Gwen Araujo when I say that I have always thought of Corey as the victim of a murder, of a hate crime. What else but the hate and hostility she encountered and feared could have driven her to hang herself from the rafters of the drafty building in which she lived?

So, while I plan to commemorate those of us who were shot, stabbbed, beaten, run over by trucks, immolated--or some or all of the above--because someone couldn't bear the thought of us being who are, I also will remember those who simply couldn't bear the hostility, the discrimination we've faced. Whether the bullets, the slashes, the beatings were inflicted by a random stranger, a date or the victim's own hand, we need to remember every one who was killed by hate and the cowardice that allows it, not only to exist, but to be directed against some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society:  those who do not follow their culture's dictates about what a person must, or must not, be because of the "M" or "F" on their birth certificates.

18 November 2014

R.I.P. Leslie Feinberg

Sad news:  Leslie Feinberg has died.

Of course, she is best known as the author of Stone Butch Blues, the first coming-of-age story about an LGBT person many of us read.  But she also became the sort of scholar I admire most:  an independent one.  While her writings on gender identity and gender politics (Her last words were: "Remember me as a revolutionary communist!") are widely cited in academic circles, she herself was never affiliated with any university.  In fact, she stopped attending school around the 10th grade, but would still receive her high school diploma.

Her life and work gave us important lessons on how we can, and how we must, evolve in our sexual identities and gender expressions.  Though she, for years, lived  as a "butch" lesbian, she later identified as a trans person, though not as a trans man. Near the end of her life, she said she had "never been in search of a common umbrella identity, or even an umbrella term, that brings together people of oppressed sexes, gender identities and sexualities".  Instead, she believed in the right to self-determination for members of oppressed individuals, groups, communities and nations.

Her philosophy was encapsulated in her use of she/zie and her/her for herself.  As far as I know, she did not try to convince other people that they should use the same pronouns, though which ones they use are important.  Still, she pointed out, "people have been disrespectful of me with the right pronoun and respectful with the wrong one".  

I find such comments particularly interesting because when I first read Stone Butch Blues, years before I began my own transition, I was struggling, as I had been for a long time, to find a language and other means to express my own gender identity and sexual inclinations.  They didn't fit into the terms I'd been given--boy/girl, man/woman, marriage, even love--because such terms could only be hetero-centric because they were taught to me, however unwittingly, in hetero-centric ways.  As Jess, the lead character (and, some would say, a stand-in for Leslie Feinberg herself) in SBB says, "I need 'butch' words to describe my 'butch' life".  Jess's girlfriend, Theresa, understood as much but needed to hear it from Jess, who has shut herself down emotionally because of the brutality and violence she's experienced.  To Jess, like others in the lesbian subculture of the time (early 1960's), that lack of emotion is her butch identity and what gets her "props" in that world.  But it also led to the breakdown of her relationship with Theresa.

Even if you don't identify on the "spectrum", the book is interesting in all sorts of other ways.  For example, the story begins in Buffalo, where--at the time Jess "comes out"--there were still many blue-collar jobs to be had, and butches like Jess worked in some of them.  Jess would leave that city and move to the other end of New York State, to my hometown.   Later, when she returned to Buffalo, she found that her lesbian friends had died, moved away or married men.  There was no more blue-collar work; instead, her old friends were working as store clerks or night managers, or not at all.  

Aside from the history lesson, SBB taught me (and many other readers) much else.  When I read Christine Jorgensen's autobiography as a teenager, I was interested in, but not absorbed by it.  Part of the reason was (what I felt) her very mannered way of telling her story.  But more important, aside from feeling that I was male only in my genitalia (which I hated), I found little in common between me and her.  Most important of all, I didn't get the sense of Ms. Jorgensen's evolution, much as I hate to use that term.  I never had a real sense of how she came to see herself as the female she was, let alone how she explained it to herself or anyone else.  What I couldn't articulate then was that she eschewing one proscribed role (that of a man of her times) and taking on another (a woman of the 1950's).  Of course, it wasn't her job to instruct me or anyone else on how to perceive and express our self-identity.  But I would not find any insight on how I could define, let alone express, what I knew to be true,--or intellectual or spiritual sustenance for the journey of becoming myself.  Ironically, one of the first places in which I found such things was in SBB, the story of a butch lesbian who later comes to understand her own version of her trangender identity.

Then again, Leslie Feinberg and I were more alike than I ever could have realized.  After all, we are both transgenders who are attracted mainly (actually, in Feinberg's case, entirely) to women.  She identified as a transgender lesbian; I think of myself as a trangender bisexual with lesbian tendencies, though my lesbian tendencies are decidedly of Feinberg's butch variety.

And I'll admit that the one and only time I ever met her, I felt attracted to her.  Yes, in that way.  I mean, why wouldn't I be?  She was smart:  my first requirement.  And she was--at least when I saw her--disarmingly warm.  Perhaps her warmth disarmed me only because I was expecting to see the "stone" character she portrayed in her book.  And, finally, I will never forget the way her face lit up I told her my name:  One of her characters is also named Justine.