31 January 2009

What Stands Between Me and Her?

It's already the end of the first month of this year. Soon there will be only five months between me and my surgery.

Can you imagine me doing a commercial in which I coo, "Nothing comes between me and my surgery." OK, of all the women in this world who are or ever were prettier than I have ever been ( I admit, that's a rather large percentage of the female race!), Brooke Shields is one of the last I'd want to be. (As you might expect, Sarah Palin is at the bottom of my list, at least for now.) I mean, when Ms. Shields, who was about sixteen-going-on-twelve at the time, all but whispered "Nothing comes between me and my Calvin Kleins," was that child pornography, or what?

So what's all this got to do with the price of a postage stamp?, you ask. Well, not much, except for what happened when I stopped at the post office before going to the farmer's market on Roosevelt Island early this afternoon.

Roosevelt island is connected to Queens by a bridge that looks like a pair of cranes that are sleeping in seperate beds, if such a thing could be made by a young boy with an Erector set. (Now, tell me, what kind of a message does a toy with a name like that send to said young boy?) And, after creating it, some angry alcoholic painted the contraption in a tint of orange that's one shade removed from rust and left it to fade, chip, crack and peel for about 40 years. The island is also connected to Manhattan by a finiculaire over the East River, seemingly within arm's reach of the 59th Street Bridge. I've taken two dates for nighttime rides on that gondolier in the sky: You can hardly find anything more romantic for the price of a subway ride (You swipe your Metrocard to get on; back in the day you used a token.) or, for that matter, at any price. As long as you focus on the lights from the New York skyline flickering on ripples from boats that, from that height, seem to skitter along the river--and as long as you're not agoraphobic and don't think about the time passengers were stuck in it, high above the river, for eleven hours--it is one of the most beautiful short rides of any kind you will find anywhere.

At the north end of the island is an old lighthouse in the middle of a park built on the rock that comprises the island,and Manhattan. That is where I buried my first cat named Charlie, and Candice, the pretty calico who died little more than a year after he did. They say that still waters run deep; somehow, I think that even under most treacherous currents there is calm, if not peace. Which, really, is all you can give to those who have just died. And the only way to honor the dead is with the truth.

The rest of the island, which once housed a sanitorium, consists mainly of buildings and a parking deck that might win a Stalinist architecture competition, if anyone would hold such a thing today.

Ok, so what's this all got to do with anything? I'm coming to that.

In addition to the Farmer's Market, which is held every Saturday, Roosevelt Island has, to my knowledge, the only post office besides the big main post office next to Penn Station that's open on Saturday afternoon. I needed to mail two small packages, so I stopped at the post office before I went to the market.

I stopped in that same post office last week, when I needed something postmarked and was running low on stamps (something that happens less frequently these days). Mike, who is wonderfully genial and sarcastic--yes, at the same time--told another customer that he had the Edgar Allan Poe commemorative stamps, which I bought last week. "Nice stamp, even if I don't like it, all that gloom." I felt myself cracking a smile. "Hey, watch it, I'm from the Poe anti-defamation society, " I called out to Mike.

A woman standing two places in front of me began to titter. She wasn't much more than five feet tall, but she stood out as much as any basketball player would have. Her face and eyes were in tones of earth, with all its complexity, and nearly raven-colored hair. She could have been a peasant or the wisest woman in the world, or both. Most people wouldn't think she was beautiful; however, she seemed to have a sense of style that transformed the plain black pants and brown jacket she wore. It had something to do with her accessories: I especially loved her earrings, which looked like a cross between something Native American and something from India: a metal that looked like a combination of bronze and silver, and stones that looked like green and red marcasite.

She, Mike and I exchanged some banter about Poe, the stamps and other things. She asked what I did. I told her I write and teach English. "And whenever I teach Othello, I tell my students to remember this: 'Quoth Iago/Lusty Moor.'"

Her laughter seemed familiar, in some odd way. So did just about everything else about her. Who was she?

I didn't ask. I couldn't. During those few moments, I thought I was talking to a professor I had at Rutgers. The woman I saw in the post office looked and sounded like, and even had similar body language, to that prof who taught the class I took on John Milton. That prof would most likely look a good bit older than the woman I saw today; I'm not even sure that she is still alive.

That prof was a poet and I loved listening to her read passages from Lycidias, Comus and, of course, Paradise Lost. A few people I knew at the time, including Elizabeth, thought that perhaps I had a crush on her. After all, attractions to older people of any gender were never out of the question for me, and all of my relationships before Tammy were, with one exception, with people considerably older than I was.

But the real reason why I noticed that prof, and why I still think of her, is that she represented everything I ever wanted to be. She wasn't beautiful, but she was sexy because of the person she was: a poet and an all-around interesting person. And a woman. So, I couldn't say, "I want to be her when I grow up" without raising a few eyebrows, or eliciting something worse.

I took the Milton class with that prof around the time Brooke Shields was ruining a lot of guys' underwear because, if she was telling the truth, she wasn't wearing any. Just her Calvin Kleins. That prof would never have worn Calvin Kleins. Then again, she was a prof, and in those days profs--especially at Rutgers, with its proximity to Princeton--had an image to uphold, if you know what I mean.

So...that prof wasn't really much to look at, even considering that she was roughly the age I am now. But she was a woman, to the core, and a formidable one at that.

She's one of the first people I ever wanted to be when I grow up. And that woman in the post office reminded me of her.

Only five months between me and my surgery. But what, between me and her?

30 January 2009

An Aunt Who Begs For Money

It's funny that yesterday I wrote about serving a community and wondered how people come to serve communities very different from the ones in which they've lived. Today I had an opportunity to ask someone that very question, but didn't. However, I suspect the chance to ask will present itself again.

Today I talked with Father Louis Braxton, the founder and director of Carmen's Place. We first encountered each other at the Transgender Remembrance Day service Dominick and I attended two months (!) ago, but I didn't really talk with him until the brunch Dominick and I attended two weeks ago.

Even in his large body and face, his eyes dominate. They are deep brown but as full of light as any others I have seen. They don't so much express and command as they register and suggest--and radiate respect and empathy at the same time. Seeing them, I'm not surprised that the teenagers in Carmen's House love and respect him and that those who are helping him aren't the ones one might expect. I think now of Nina, who wasn't there today, and a young woman who's a graduate student at NYU and was there when I came into the house.

That's exactly what it is: a row house that was recently built. Across the street from it is a mansion, and on the block, which slopes downward, are the kind of brick row houses one sees all over the parts of Queens that lie west of the Van Wyck expressway. At the top of the hill on which Carmen's house sits, you can see the RFK Bridge and, when skies are clear, Long Island Sound. I jokingly refer to the neighborhood as "the San Francisco of Queens."

Inside Carmen's House are two bedrooms shared by the six young people who stay there at any one time. The one I saw was cluttered, as was the rest of the house. But that is to be expected in such a place. Father Braxton lives in the house, in a smaller room. Last year, he left the pastorship of a church to become the full-time director of Carmen's Place. Now he has a makeshift altar in the living room, where he leads the young people in morning prayer services.

He needn't have told me all of that for me to sense his commitment to what he's doing. I wondered, but didn't ask, why he chose to work with transgender people. He would probably say it was a "calling," that God led him to it. Of course, there are lots of people who don't believe that God (or whatever they call whatever they worship) would entreat anyone to work with transgenders. I won't argue with them, any more than I would try to talk Father Braxton out of what he's doing (as if I could!). He seems to be the sort of person for whom doubt, if and when he experiences, is part of growing in his faith.

OK, so you didn't open this blog to read what I think about religious faith, right? Well, we talked for a long while, and he asked, "I'm hoping to recruit you." The truth was that I was already recruited at the brunch: I had made up my mind that somehow or another I would be involved with Carmen's House. The only question was what I would do.

It looks like I'm going to be an aunt who begs for money. In the parlance of the house, an "aunt" is an older female like me who will be a presence most of them haven't had in their lives. According to Father Braxton, most of the young gay and transgender people who live at Carmen's Place grew up in foster homes or with violence or other kinds of severe dysfunction in their homes. They have never known someone who leaves home to go to work, an adult who's not abusing drugs or alcohol or anyone who hasn't been in the criminal justice system. So, I could be mentoring, exhorting or nurturing them--or, possibly, doing all three.

And I'm going to write materials for the house's fund drives, and to work with other volunteers to make those drives happen. Hopefully, my writing will entice people to write checks and otherwise support Carmen's House.

Oh well. This aunt is geeting sleepy now. I'll talk more about this later.

29 January 2009

Serving A Community

More electrolysis today. Today a very nice young woman named Sandra zapped and plucked me. Turns out, she's been in the Navy, although she's almost nobody's idea of a military woman.

What's really interesting about her, though, is that she says she wants to specialize in services for male-to-female transgenders. She says she became interested in us because her boyfriend owns a club where she's met trans people. "I have so much respect for you, to do what you do. And I've had a lot of fun around transgender people." And, she said, "There's not that much in the way of services for you."

"Tell me about it!"

"You have to go through so much to find anyone who understands what you need."

She could not have been more right, but there's much, much more I could have told her. But I did tell her that I've known that I'm transgendered before I knew the word for it; in fact, I knew even before I knew the words "girl" and "boy." And, although I'm making my transition fairly late in my life, I am lucky: I have something like a career and a life.

So many young trans girls run away from, or are kicked out of, their homes, sometimes immediately after "coming out." So what job choices does a teenager have if she hasn't finished school and is in a city she doesn't know? Let's see....Starbuck's is about to close 700 stores. Other chains have already closed all of their stores. And most other jobs, not to mention college, are not available for someone who doesn't have a high school diploma.

So what do they do? Almost nothing legal, I can tell you that. Many of those trans teenagers who leave or are kicked out of their families' homes end up on the streets, where they do whatever they have to do to survive. That is how too many end up selling their bodies or drugs.

Sandra's heard of such stories. I've actually seen them, and it's awful to be living one. Any one of those girls might make more in a night than I do in a month, but there's no way they can hold on to it. So, more often than not, the money they make doesn't last a day or two.

Anyway, I am glad that Sandra is choosing to work with trans people. She is sensitive and has a good feel for a person's hair and skin, so I think she should do very well.

It still fascinates me when straight people want to work with trans people. Sandra told me a bit about her story, but I think there's something else motivating her. I thought the same thing about Nina, the grandmother and retired school teacher who volunteers at Carmen's Place, a shelter for young trans people.

I'm always interested to find out why people choose to serve certain communities or groups of people. It's often said that we try to help those with whom we most identify: members of our own community, in other words.

Sometimes, though, we don't find the people we expected in our communities

28 January 2009

Flimsy Stockings and Strong Support

Today was another one of those days of which we've already had too many this year: snow that fell in the wee hours of morning turned to sleet and slush by the middle of the day. I guess, in some way, it's an improvement over the last few days, when it wasn't even warm enough for snow to turn to sleet.

Now, any sensible woman of my age would've worn pants today. But who said I was that kind of woman? Instead, I wore a silk skirt printed in a sort of houndstooth pattern of blue, gray and black. With it I wore a charcoal gray turtleneck under a long cardigan-like sweater in a lighter shade of gray with a kind of pewter-colored sash.

So far, a nice winter outfit. I got compliments on it. And the sheer black tights worked with it. Well, I should say coordinated: They didn't work so well. I don't know how it happened, but by the time I got to school there was a big hole on the inside of the left calf.

Is it me, or do black panty hose tear or develop runs more easily than hoiery in any other color?

I made a joke about it with the first class I saw today. "If you want extra credit, don't notice the tear in my black pantyhose." A couple of the female students hummed and nodded knowingly. I guess it's one of those things about being a woman that nobody teaches you.

At least it was a cheap pair of panty hose.

Anyway...I don't think you came to this site to read about my wardrobe malfunctions. I certainly don't look as good in them as Janet Jackson did in hers during the Super Bowl halftime show a few years ago. Trust me, you'd rather've seen her outfit come undone than to see me lose the clothes I'm wearing.

About the class: It's the one about which I've been nervous. I may not have had reason to be. As I looked at the students and answered their questions, I realized something: They want to be there. It's not like the composition or research writing class all students at the college are required to take. I'd forgotten that not all classes are like that.

Also, I saw a few students who'd taken other classes with me. One took the Intro to Literature class with me four years ago, during my first semester at the college. She's actually one of the more intelligent and perceptive, if not happiest, students I've had. So, you can imagine how baffled I was when she wondered, "You're not going to hold what I did in that class against me?"

"What? The excellent work?"

"OK. I won't worry about it." She actually smiled.

Whatever I was supposed to hold against her, I've long since forgotten. I'm so sorry to disappoint her. She'll live with it, though.

I could feel her and that class energizing me. I may not be a hip-hop expert and I am making up the course as I go along. But any teacher who gets energy from his or her students will do all right. I hope that's the case for me, in that class.

So Poetics and Rhetoric of Hip-Hop here I come. I've told the students that most of them know more hip-hop songs than I do, and they could use songs that aren't mentioned in class as part of their papers and presentations. "So you're going to teach me, too. That's the dirty little secret of teachers: That's what we become in order to learn.

27 January 2009

Not Queer in a Gender Studies Class

So...I survived my first day as a student in 16 years. What do I make of it?

Well, I got in a few minutes late. The class is a seminar, in which everyone sits around a long table, so it was pretty hard to hide--especially when the last remaining seat was next to the professor. If I'd had enough presence of mind, I could've made a joke about being seated at the right hand of the goddess or some such thing.

And I looked at the reading list. Yes, lots of reading, but I expected that. After all, it is a PhD level course in English.

What gave me pause was the kinds of reading: Lots more theory than I expected. It didn't seem to phase any other student in the room; from what I could tell, they were all ongoing students in the PhD program. And a couple talked about research projects in which they were immersed.

I learned of them as we introduced ourselves and talked about what brought us to the class. I confessed that I was indeed taking my first class in 16 years and that until I signed up for the course, I swore that I would never, ever take a gender studies course, or anything that resembled one. Surprisingly, the students seemed to humor me. A few even smiled approvingly.

And the professor seemed pleased. I also mentioned that I'm transgendered (The prof and some students probably knew that already: After all, she's the president of the Graduate Center's Gay and Lesbian organization, and probably half the students in that room are members.) and joked that I'm taking the course "to hear what you guys and all those other scholars are saying about me."

I think I broke some ice there: I noticed that one student, who was sitting diagonally across from me, slackened her jaw and a couple of other students' postures seemed to expand a bit. I wasn't trying to open up the class: I think the professor could have done that perfectly well on her own. But if I helped, well, I'm happy.

I'm happy. Yes, I actually enjoyed being in the class. Of course, it was only the first day and we didn't do any of the hard work yet. But in spite of the gaps in my knowledge and education, I didn't feel like a misfit there.

And I got to talk to the prof a bit after class. I can see why her students at Hunter College revere her. (Most of the Graduate Center faculty teach at CUNY undergraduate colleges, of which Hunter is one and York, where I teach, is another.) And the idolizing remarks I read on Rate My Professors came from students in advanced courses, not students in freshman-level courses who said that she's an easy "A." Those Hunter students says she is rigorous but fair and accessible and even sweet and charming, according to some. I could see that.

Besides being smart and nice (always two huge pluses with me), she's attractive in a soft-butch kind of way. I mean, she makes a handsome butch, but she could almost as easily be a cute femme. And, yes, she was wearing Doc Martens (or shoes that looked like them) and what looked like chino pants with a button-down shirt, but in a way that no male would wear them. No guy would also accesorize as she did: I came this close to asking where she got her earrings. So, while her style isn't Michelle Obama, it's style--real style--nonetheless.

Thinking about her, I recall a conversation I had with a York College adjunct prof who recently got his PhD. We were talking about what people mean by "queer." He said that according to any number of gender theorists, it means "nonconforming," which is close to the original meaning of the word.

I don't remember which of us said this: The way I'm living and express my gender identity now, I'm actually less queer than I was when I was living as a straight male. As far as most people can tell, I'm just another middle-aged straight female. People who express consternation upon finding out that I'm transgedered tell me that, until then, they thought I was a straight woman. Which, of course, is what I am, kinda sorta.

So why that last qualifier? Well, I am seeing Dominick now, and I find myself interested in men these days. But I don't think I'll lose my ability to be attracted to a female, whether or not I act on that impulse if it presents itself. Furthermore, the kinds of men--and women--to whom I'm attracted are probably different from what most straight men or women like.

But attracted to men, and dating one, I am. Also, I dress and otherwise present myself in ways that most people would expect from a straight, if rather conservative, woman. (Students have told me that they like my clothes because they're "conservative but nice.") On the other hand, my ways of relating to the world were, in many ways, different from those of most straight men. Bruce and other people who've known me for a long time have always told me this.

Most important, though, is that in the very fact of living as a straight male, I was a "queer," at least in the sense that it wasn't what most people would expect from the bisexual-to-straight woman I always envisioned myself to be.

Hmm...I wonder if I could work that into one of the papers, or the presentation, I will have to do for the class. Or a tell-all book: "I Was A Teenaged Queer Bisexual Male."

I guess I'm not so queer in that class, after all.

26 January 2009

Flight Fantasies

The idea of going someplace where nobody knows me seemed even more appealing today than it did yesterday.

I've heard of more than a few trans people who've done exactly that. They go to some place where no one knows their histories and live the new lives they'd always wanted. I remember Jennifer, from my first support group, who moved to somewhere near St. Petersberg, Florida because she wanted to start over. She'd waited until her kids had grown up to start her transition, and after she and her wife split up, she wanted to meet new people and see new sights.

Today, a faculty member with whom I have exchanged greetings saw me on the subway and told me he'd heard that I'm transgendered. So he wanted to talk about that, when I just wanted to zone out on the ride home. He actually seems to be a nice person, and I know that my old misanthropic pose doesn't fool anybody. And, honestly, I don't mind talking about my experience with people who are actually interested in me as a person rather than as a specimen of some label they've read about.

But it seems that no matter what else I do, I will always be known by colleagues and others as the tranny. Their token tranny. The one who helps them fill their quotas. So now they have a white friend, a black friend, an Asian, a paraplegic and a butch Filipina bisexual. I complete their collection, which they will redeem for valuable prizes. You know how it works, "Save the whales. Win valuable prizes." Whales, blacks, trannies: Saving them all will get you brownie points.

So the idea of moving to another place, another job, another career, another life after my operation appeals to me now. Also, I'm sick of the cold, gray weather. Dominick has never liked it. (Of course that's why you get a boyfriend: You can blame him any time you follow some half-baked idea!) Leave the college: No more pencils/No more books/No more teachers'/Dirty looks. Wait a minute: I'm the teacher. Dang!

But then again, you probably have an idea of how well the Geographic Cure has worked for me and other people. It usually leads to the "same shit, different city/state/country/life" syndrome. I guess that's better than the "same shit, different syndrome" syndrome.

And, after all, here I do have friends with whom I can talk about other things besides gender. That is because they know me as more or less the person I actually am. And, well, I realize that there are people who want to see me as an example for what they do. Today I got an e-mail from a trans woman who says she is following right behind me in my path and is looking to me. I will write to her; that e-mail made my day.

Then there is the promise I made to myself and my mother that I wouldn't run away again. I made that pledge after finally admitting that so much of what I did before making my transition was just an attempt to escape from myself. All those relationships that didn't work and some of the trips I took: They were about running away. And my transition from being Nick to living as Justine is a repudiation of responding by flight.

So I guess I'll just have to deal with the cold gray weather and the curious (or nosey) people. One thing I've learned is that the point of life is not convenience. Nothing in life happens at our convenience. Sometimes it happens when the time is right, but almost never when it's most convenient.

Besides, I can assume that the young woman who chatted me up while waiting for the bus was just being friendly. I think she's new to town, and was trying to find her way around. And I'll assume that those guys who were looking at my legs weren't wondering which set of apparatus was underneath my skirt. I thought I was Madame Michelin Tire (Is that what the Michelin Tire Man's wife would be called?), the way I was bundled from my waist up. Hmm...Maybe some guys are fantasizing about seeing Madame Michelin Tire with nice legs, or at least in a sexy pair of black leather boots.

These boots were made for walkin'...not for running away.

25 January 2009

Then and Now: Suffering and Living

Ok, so some people have been reading this blog after all. And I'm not getting hate messages. I should consider myself lucky.

Tomorrow I start a new semester: my last before the surgery. So what are my students going to tell their grandchildren? Hey, I knew her way back when, before she had her surgery. Well, I'd have to become famous before anyone told his or her grandchild anything like that. Unless my book sells or some hotshot editor or Oprah reads this blog and realizes how smart, witty and charming I am, well, I don't think I'm going to become famous any time soon.

Last night Dominick and I were having a "Would you still love me if...?" conversation. Yes, Dominick, I will love you if you become a woman, or anything else. Yes, even if you decide to become a lawyer who defends Mafiosi, the drug lords and the next Bernie Madoff. Or if you decide to become a mercernary. I can love you through anything I can think of now.

We talked about a lot of things, actually. It was probably the first time I talked about my sexual history or my parade of lovers and partners at any length. Looking back, it seems to make sense that we had such a conversation after watching Milk. I think he's just beginning to understand why I had relationships with Tammy or Eva, or any of the others, and why I didn't start my transition sooner than I did. I think other things are starting to make sense, such as my not having a relationship with a man for more than twenty years and why I want him now.

Coming into my teen years in a small New Jersey town during the 1970's, and even attending college later in that decade, was very different from Dominick's coming-of-age in Queens two decades later. At the time Harvey Milk started his activism, most people--even gays themselves-- believed, however unconsciously, that gays and lesbians were a pox on this land. And all they knew about transgeders were Christine Jorgensen and Renee Richards. In other words, we were freaks, and most people didn't want to know any differently.

Back then, there were no city, state or federal ordinances to punish violence against us and almost no mental health service that affirmed us as we were. In fact, some kids who "came out" were sent by their parents for electroshock treatments and other horrors to rid them of their "illness." Now, instead of electroshock and psychotropic drugs, kids are sent to fundamentalist camps to be "cured" and "saved."

Tonight I was talking about this very subject to Mom. I'd mentioned that Dominick and I had seen Milk, and I was telling her about how I had to explain those times to him. He's often asked me why I didn't start my transition sooner, and I explained that I often wish I had. "I think of all those years I could have actually lived."

"And you wouldn't have had to go through all of those things."

"I probably wouldn't have been in any of those relationships I was in."

"Of course. None of them worked. They couldn't. You were trying to be someone else."

Tears were streaming down my face. "I know. I wish it could've been some other way. All I ever wanted to be happy."

"Well, I hope this surgery does it for you."

"I think it will. My transition has been working out for me so far. I'm not depressed all the time."

"That's true," she sighed. "You almost never seemed to be happy, even when things were going well."

"And that's why they only went well for so long."

"And why those relationships didn't last."

We paused. "Well, that might've been the one good thing about all that: Those relationships didn't last. Not with Eva..."

"Thank God for that."

"Tell me about it. But sometimes I wish I didn't have to go through those things."

"I do, too."

"But the other side of it is that I can transition now. Things are better: There are more people who understand and accept."

"That's true."

And, I explained, that is the reason why, in a way, I envy young LGBT people. There's still a lot of bigotry, and the possibility of becoming a victim of hate is never far away. But at least there are ways to fight it, and we don't have to accept mistreatment or even the bones lawmakers and others throw us now and again. That is what Harvey Milk stood for. And that is the difference between young people's experience and my own.

But I have my experience, and it has helped me through the past few years. It's all helped: my days as a bewildered child, confused adolescent, angry young adult and resigned, benumbed adult are a resource to me now. I have been both the victim and perpetrator: I was taunted and beaten for being a "sissy," and I once beat up a young man whom I thought was gay. They have become lessons for me and now I realize that I can pass those lessons on.

And, yes, I remember when Harvey Milk was assasinated. That, too, is something I hope to pass on: not only the memory of how he died, but the wisdom that came from how he lived, and how and when he chose to live.

One day he took a risk and discovered what it means to really live. Once you learn that, you can't go back. At least I discovered that for myself, and I hope others do too. I'm not talking only about gays and transgender people. I mean everyone.

Hey, I'd like for my mother and father to be happier than they are. After all, they--especially my mother--have a hand in helping me to attain my own satisfaction in life. There are all kinds of things I haven't had to experience as they did, and I'm grateful for that.

And yes, Dominick, I will love you even if you don't suffer in the ways I did, they did, or Harvey Milk--0r anyone else--did. It was all temporary; you don't love someone for temporary things.

You love them for now. And here we all are, after Harvey Milk, after all of it.

24 January 2009

The Life of Harvey

Tonight Dominick and I went to see Milk. Of course, we are both intensely interested in the subject, and I've been a fan of Sean Penn ever since I saw Dead Man Walking. But I wondered just how good of a film it would be.

Well, it exceeded my expectations. It's the sort of movie that demands that the people in it are given their due complexity and emotional weight. The film delivers on that count. Having Sean Penn play the film's eponymous protagonist helps, but I think the script is good because the other players, particularly Dan White, are shown through their conflicts with themselves and others.

The film also made me realize something about Harvey Milk: that he lived most intensely, and accomplished everything for which he is remembered today, within the last eight years of his life. As Milk begins, he's tape-recording a message he intended to be heard if he were assasinated. You might say that he anticipated his demise, although he probably didn't guess that Dan White would kill him as well as mayor George Moscone.

After we see Milk recording himself, we see him the day before he turns forty, cruising another gay man in a New York City subway station. At the time, he's a closeted "suit" for an insurance company; soon, he and his new lover drive to San Francisco, where one of the world's most famous gay communities was forming in the Castro district. There, they live openly as themselves for the first time in their lives, and the ostracism and sometimes violence they experience propels him into activism.

If I had seen the film when I was younger, I probably would have cheered when they "dropped out" of the rat race and became, in essence, hippies during their first couple of years in the City Improper, as San Franciscans like to call their home town. You might say I did something like that when, a week after I graduated college, I flew to London with no itinerary and nothing but an open-end return ticket, my bicycle, a couple of changes of clothing, my camera, two blank journal books and a bunch of condoms. A couple of years ago, I confessed to my mother that the trip, which I claimed was for educational and cultural purposes, was really a way of running away. I think she already knew that; maybe she knew that one day I'd acknowledge that fact.

Since I saw the movie tonight, and not earlier in my life, Two Buddies on a Great Road Trip Adventure wasn't its appeal to me. Rather, it's the fact that Harvey Milk in essence began his life as he neared middle age and lived all of his life, really, in those last eight years. I'd say there's a parallel to my own life. I started dating Tammy just before I turned forty. She is the first person to whom I openly acknowledged my female self. The only problem was that I allowed her to think that I was merely cross-dressing; after three years I saw that woman in Saint Jean de Maurienne who, simply by crossing paths with me, made me realize that I could not continue to live as a man. The funny thing is that Tammy acknowledged that I was destined to live as a woman before I was willing to make such an admission about myself. And it was the reason why she ended our relationship.

Now I am only five months and two weeks from my surgery. I feel that the path to my current life opened as I was about to turn forty; I began to follow it shortly after I turned forty-three. At forty-five, I changed my name and began to live by it. During the past seven years, I have begun to learn about my body, as I mentioned yesterday, and more important, about how to live by the dictates of my spirit.

Somehow I see myself entering yet another phase of my life. Of course, it has to do with my impending surgery. But I don't think that surgery is the only factor in the changes that are coming. I have a feeling that I might be headed in a new direction, career-wise and creatively. The classes I'm about teach and take may lead me into, or out of, some vocational path. So might the collaborations I have been discussing with a choreographer and two professors. Any or all them might lead me in some direction I can't yet envision.

So...I existed until my forties, when I started to live. And at fifty I might be headed for another life. Harvey Milk didn't expect to live to be fifty; so perhaps I have a challenge and opportunity he didn't have.

It seems that lots of people don't begin to live as fully-realized human beings until they're forty or later. What happened back when people only lived to thirty? How many Harvey Milks were there?

I'm glad that at least there was one of him, and he was the one we had. Now I know a little bit more about how to live.

23 January 2009

The Body of Lessons

This is depressing. I get the feeling that nobody's been reading my blog lately: I didn't get any hate mail after yesterday's post. In fact, I didn't get any mail at all. Maybe everybody understood what I meant, and that I meant no harm. However, I will refrain from using the "f-word" again. Really, I will.

And guess what? I submitted my tuition waiver to the Graduate Center. That means the course is now paid for, and I'm in it. I also told my department chair and a couple of other people in my department what I'd done. So now I guess I'm committed.

It looks like I'm committed to that course--The Poetics and Rhetoric of Hip-hop-- I'm scheduled to teach, too. Even Tom, my voice instructor, mentioned that he's heard about it. "I bet it'll be great," he said. Same sentiment, different words, from what my department chair said. And a few other profs, a bunch of students, Cady Ann and Sharon (the department secretaries), Dominick, Bruce and everyone else who's heard about it. And they all say I'm going to do fine in both of those courses.

OK. For the course I'm taking, I'll forget that it's the first class I'm taking in sixteen years and that it's on a topic--gender studies-- I once swore I'd never touch. And for the course I'm teaching, I'll forget that for half of that course's content, the students will know more than I do. So I won't introduce myself as Prof J-Val or Mizz J--at least not on the first day, anyway!

Today's session with Tom may be the last I'll have with him for a while. I wish that weren't so: The three sessions I've had with him have taught me so much. However, he's directing a play and is involved with another production that will keep him busy. I know I could take other voice classes, but nobody can top a teacher who's opened up a world to you.

In a way, Tom reminds me of Ray, the social worker I saw every week during the year before I started to live full-time as Justine, and for the first year-and-a-half of my current life. They both combine discipline and empathy: They have a clear sense of what they're guiding you through, but they also understand what you're going through. And, of course, Ray taught me all sorts of first lessons about one thing and another, while Tom taught me my first lessons about the way I carry my body and take my breaths.

I've talked to many women--and have read the words of many, many more--who look back in shock, anger, grief or frustration over the fact that they knew so little about their own bodies. Usually, they were in the dark because parents, teachers and other adults couldn't or wouldn't discuss those matters. Some of those women come from milieux in which such talk is taboo. For others, their lack of awareness had to do with the pure-and-simple misogyny of their communities or societies, some of which they internalized in much the same way that I internalized a lot of homo- and trans-phobia. I recall now an interview that some journalist--I forget who--did with an Afghani schoolteacher. She said that one result of the repressive regime that required all women to be covered from head to toe, save for a small grille around the eyes, was that women's bodies deteriorated. Worse, they were unable to pass on any awareness of how their bodies worked to their daughters, female students or any other girls or young women in their lives.

Of course, frustration over how little women understand their bodies--and one part in particular--is part of what motivated Eve Ensler to create The Vagina Monologues.

After my surgery, what will my vagina say? "Thank you for bringing me to light," or "Cotton only, please!"?

I'll soon find out. Meantime, I'm learning through other means.

22 January 2009

Gender Studies Is For Faggots; Why's a White Tranny Woman Teaching Hip-Hop?

Don't ask how we got on the subject. But Dominick asked an interesting question: Since I began living as Justine, have I ever entered a men's bathroom by mistake.?

Actually, I haven't. I can confidently say that because if I did, I'd probably remember even though I wouldn't want to. Ironically enough, I can recall times when I accidentally (Yes, I'm telling you the truth!) entered women's bathrooms while I was in boy-drag. Some might argue that my subconscious was guiding me; I wouldn't argue. However, bathrooms for either gender, or both genders, never had any great appeal to me. Why would anyone want to be amid the filth and smell of most bathrooms for any other reason than to do what one needs to do? I mean, I never saw the appeal of "peeping" or having sex in bathrooms.

So what have I "accidentally"done since beginning my transition? Well, early in my life as Justine, I signed documents (including a newly-issued ATM card) and answered the telephone with my old name. Then again, I've always had lapses: I now recall the time early in my sobriety when I signed up for a workshop and gave a telephone number I hadn't had since I was twelve years old. Funny, I can recall it now: 212-435-0470. However, that number--or whatever phone number is assigned to that house--begins with "718" instead of "212" becuase it's in Brooklyn.

Wow! That alone is enough to date me: I can remember when all five boroughs of New York City used the "212" area code.

Anyway...Now that I think of it, I haven't really had many instances of gender spasmosis, if you will. At least not in logistical matters, anyway. But I've found myself lapsing into old ways
of thought and expression, and of acting on attitudes I'd absorbed, as Nick, by osmosis.

Why don't I want to teach that course called "The Poetics and Rhetoric of Hip-Hop?" Well, for one thing, I got into it accidentally. (No, I'm not one of those people who thinks everything happens for a reason.) But more important, I'm exactly what some hip-hoppers despise: I'm a white professional and I'm a woman. But not just any bitch or 'ho: I'm one who used to be a dude, at least on the outside.

Now, I know that not all hip-hop expresses misogyny or homophobia. And hateful ideas don't necessarily make for bad art. (cf. Pound, Celine and goddess-knows-how-many-others) However, knowing that a number of rappers have expressed their disdain or outright disgust for me and my sisters, it's still odd for me to be the one who will not only present the music, but also help students build bridges between it and all those books written by dead white men and taught to me by old white men who are most likely, by now, dead white men.

Oh...So that's why I'm having trouble getting published? I'm not a dead white man. Nor will I ever be. Instead, one day, I'll be a dead white woman. Or tranny-girl.

So I'm all wrong for that course I've designed. That means I'm also wrong for the course I planned to take: Literature, Gender and Sexuality. I've always been wary of gender studies. I don't want to be just another LGBT person with a certificate or degree in gender studies. For one thing, I suspect it would close many more doors than it would open. Haven't you heard: Gender Studies is for faggots. The latter term doesn' t necessarily gay or effeminate men. Instead, it means people, usually men, who wimp out on commitments, or who just generally shrink away from life.

All of this could lead me to what I've been avoiding for so long: becoming a scholar, becoming the enemy, accidentally. I already feel as if I've become one of them, though I'm still not convinced that I could do much in the way of theoretical work.

Yet everyone tells me I'm going to do fine. I must be absolutely amazing and fabulous if I can inspire that kind of confidence when I'm abut to do things for which I have absolutely no aptitude, inclinaton or desire.

So what would I be doing in a class for faggots or about people who despise them? It's a matter of pure, dumb luck.

21 January 2009

What Am I Doing In School?

Feeling a little under the weather. Got up late, which meant that I missed a workshop at the college.

Tonight, the course I taught met for the last time. Actually, it's the date of the final exam, which meant that my students were turning in final projects. Well, you know what I'm going to be doing for a while. However, there's not nearly as much to do as there was at the end of the regular semester.

I'm really thinking about not taking that course I'd signed up for. Something in me says to take something "practical." After all, I don't know what the future holds for me in the academic world. And, right now, in spite of the people who've reached out to me, the good students I've had and even my department chair expressing enthusiasm for a course I'm teaching (and I created) this semester--and a collaboration I hope to pull off with a prof in another department--I still feel alienated at the college, and by the whole academic enterprise.

Right now I think that course I'm about to teach is bullshit. It probably is. So is the one I had planned on taking. All of it, really, is made-up: all contemptible, damnable bullshit. At times like this, I wish I had more aptitude for math or one of the other sciences. I mean, if I have to spend a good part of what years I have left in pursuit of another degree, why can't it be in something based on the real world. I think now of Anne, who's studying the stuff that makes up living organisms, including humans. And, at the last meeting for new faculty members, I talked to a geology professor. He's studying what makes up the ground we walk and the seas and skies that surround us. That means he's helping people understand tangible, basic things.

And what do we do in literature classes, particularly the "advanced" ones? We use conjecture and find or fabricate relationships between "texts" (which can mean almost anything) to come up with theories. Theories about literature. Just reading poems and stories and imagining the worlds they present takes me to the limits of my imagination; beyond that, I'm really not of much use. I am not an abstract thinker at all, so I don't know how in the world I'll make it through a class on literary theory. And I picked what is probably the least theoretical course offered in the Graduate Center's English Department, yet I'm having these thoughts.

Plus, I've come to see that with every PhD in English schools like the Grad Center turn out, this country becomes less literate, let alone literary. I think that having "experts" in fields like nineteenth-century novels actually makes other people less likely to read them. For one thing, all those smarty-pants PhDs speak--when they condescend to speak at all--in such dismissive tones that leaves other people feeling put off. I think that's one of the reasons why, in this country, we have many (and proportionally) more people with PhDs than other countries have, and people talk so much about the importance of education, yet we have a virulent kind of anti-intellectualism (and anti-art, -culture and -science attitudes) that other industrialized countries don't seem to have.

Enough of that ranting ramble for now. I could just cancel my registration for the class I would've been taking. But I still wish I weren't teaching that course I designed. For one thing, I'm not ready for it and I find I'd rather do almost anything than prepare for it. Why can't I teach the basic intro to literature class I had been scheduled to teach instead of the silly elective course I'm scheduled to teach?

I really want the next few months to be nice and simple. Why can't I teach only the basic courses I had been teaching before? A lot of people liked that well enough, and I didn't have to pretend that I was trickling new knowledge into minds that were thirsting for the latest literary theories.

Right now I wish I could skip over the coming semester or go someplace where nobody knows me. Then I wouldn't have to take or teach silly courses. I could just work and get myself ready for my surgery. Really, is that too much to ask?

20 January 2009

Aging and Time Passing

OK. I loved that yellow dress Michelle Obama wore today. But there's no way I could wear it. First of all, that color would never work on me. Second, she's skinny. At least she looked great in it.

As for the inaguration: Sometimes I was enjoying it; other times I was turned off. Actually, I think I was more alienated by the commentators than anything that happened in Washington today. Then again, the so-called journalists have talked even more and said even dumber things than they did today.

I'm still glad Bush is gone and Obama is in. I think even McCain would've been better--and would've had a chance of winning had he not chosen Sarah Palin for his vice-presidential nominee.

Now that the Inaguration events are mostly over and done with, I feel, if nothing else, a little older. Well, of course, you're probably thinking: One is a little older with the passage of time, any amount of time. But something occured to me: This country now has a President who's younger than I am! So I'm having another one of those "Holy shit, I'm getting old" moments. Just like I had when I taught a freshman class and realized that none of them had been born yet when I walked up to the podium for my bachelor's degree. Or when I met someone younger than me who was a grandmother.

But it's not just someone's chronological age that makes me conscious of my own. After all, there are new faculty members who look like they're younger than I was when I ended my marriage and got my master's degree. (I don't mean to imply that there was a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the two. I do, however, find it interesting that one of my current students told me, last week, that she came back to school after her marriage split up. ) I feel like, if not one of their peers, at least not like some washed-up aunt or in-law around them.

And then, of course, there's Dominick. I never dreamed I'd be with anyone, of any gender or orientation, who is as young and good-looking as he is. Then again, I never could have imagined a soul like his. Maybe that's why I don't feel old when I'm around him. If anything, I get all giggly or teary around him sometimes, and can feel--or at least imagine--myself as the girl, the young woman, whose life I could've lived.

What's even stranger than anything else I've mentioned is that the changes I've undergone don't make me feel old, even when they make me wish I could be younger and making the journey to my current life. I was talking about this with Celeste, who is one of the first faculty members I met when I came to the college. I find myself liking her more as time goes on, in part because I've seen her change. (Not that I didn't like her as she was before.) She showed me an essay one of her students wrote about a poem of mine. That student saw things in my poem that hadn't even occured to me--among them, a theme of growing older. The student liked the poem, though she said it was "not an easy read."

Celeste and I talked about that essay, and about the changes we, and people in general, experience. She lost a lot and has just given up a full-time lectureship for a grad school fellowship. But, she says, the man who forced her, with a threat to her life, out of her "comfortable, cozy life" as a department chair at a college in Texas, and into several years of adjunct teaching before attaining the postition she's just given up, ultimately did her a favor. "I've learned so much and can move on to better things," she said.

But it's strange, I said, that sometimes we hold on to things, and relationships in particular, because we want something or someone that's remained as we remember it. We don't want it, or that person, to change. However, we ultimately lose those things, those relationships, those people, whether by our own doing or through some other means, precisely because that person, that thing, didn't change.

"And we did," Celeste added. "Everything and everyone has a certain amount of time in our lives. If we don't leave or let go, it's not good for us. Like that former friend of yours you'd told me about."

"Yes. I wanted to continue our relationship because I wanted to hold on to something from my past. What I was really wanted was a memory. But it didn't work, precisely because I was having the same conversations--perhaps with the names and places changed--as I had twenty years ago."

Then Celeste remarked on how much change she's seen in me. "It's not just that change," referring, of course, to my gender transition. "You seem more centered now." She said that, not only today, but a couple of weeks ago, too.

I first met her almost four years ago. On one hand, it seems like a lifetime ago. On another, it seems like yesterday. I know that sounds like a cliche, but it's true for me. It also explains, I think, why thinking about my changes doesn't make me feel old. It's the things that remain the same that age us in the ways we don't want to grow old.

And today's voice lesson, my second, didn't make me feel old. If nothing else, it's showing me what it's like to learn something brand-new. Nobody grows old doing that.

19 January 2009

Getting to Know People

I just noticed that the last few posts have been about people, mostly. I don't think I'll write much about others tonight, for I have spent the day with no other company but Charlie and Max. And, well, they're technically not people, though I think of them as my family.

Anyway, it snowed again today. So far, we haven't had a big storm: It seems that we have an inch or two of snow every couple of days. So the snow and ice haven't totally disappeared at any time, at least not since I returned from seeing Mom and Dad. I can't believe it's been almost three weeks already.

I also can't believe that the course I'm teaching ends the day after tomorrow. Three weeks, and it's over. In a way, it's like taking a long plane trip and getting into conversations with people you've never met before and will probably never see again. You and they are 30,000 feet in the sky; they can no more see what your life on the ground is like any more than you can see theirs. So all you and they have, for that time on the plane, is that little bit of space and each other.

What I just described was especially true on my flights to and from Istanbul: ten hours going, eleven coming back. In that space of time, it seems, personae are born and invented. Sometimes people reveal aspects of themselves they might not to people they see every day; likewise, it seems that the cockpits of transoceanic jetliners are hothouses for flirtation, sometimes with people one would not meet, notice or acknowledge on the ground. (I first noticed this on when I went to Paris four years ago: my first trip abroad as Justine.) Maybe this all happens because, in that hermetically sealed faux-community, flights seem longer than they actually are.

In June of 2006, I taught another three-week course. And I felt that same sense of instant intimacy, if you will. But I realized that there was more to that class, and my relationships with the students in it, than that. Some of us shed tears on the last day of class; one student made a beautiful (I should be so beautiful!) drawing of me that everyone in the class signed. Several of us stay in touch with each others; I see others on campus from time to time.

And so I'll be saying goodbye, again, to people I may well, and would want to, see again. Somehow it seems appropriate to experience that at a time when I'm meeting new people, both in person and on line, whom I never would've imagined meeting in my previous life. What's even more intriguing, to me, is how often I find people extending themselves to me. Have I suddenly developed wit, charm or charisma I never knew I had? Lately people have told me, unsolicited, that I possess all three qualities. It's odd: I don't feel like I'm doing anything special.

Anyway, one more thing to be said for today: It's Bush's last day in office. Tomorrow is Obama's first. I, like many other people, feel that almost anything has to be better than the outgoing administration. I really don't envy Obama: So much is expected from, or at least hoped for, him. And he's inheriting a mess.

Oh well. I'll watch the inaguration and see what Michelle is wearing. Maybe if I'm really lucky, I can find it in my size and on sale.

18 January 2009

Role Model

Today Dominick and I went to a brunch on Long Island to benefit an organization that, it happens, is located only a few blocks from me.

Carmen's House shelters young transgender people in the shadow of the RFK (nee Triboro) Bridge. It also turns out that one of its board members, who sat across the table from me, is a neighbor of mine.

Nina (not the one I mentioned earlier) is a retired junior-high school math teacher who, according to a friend who accompanied her, spends much of her time at Carmen's House. As far as I can tell, she's straight, and I'd guess that the director of Carmen's House, who's an Episcopal priest, is not. I'd love to find out what motivated them to devote themselves to such a project. Needless to say, I'm glad they're doing what they're doing.

And I may be joining them. They agreed that I could be the sort of mentor some of the young people need. According to the reverend, "Those kids don't even have bad parents; they have no parents." Or adults, for that matter; much less adults who have real jobs and some level of social skills.

OK...If they saw any of the latter in me, I must've done a really good job of fooling them. ;-) Not that I tried to do anything like that. Then again, they also think I have a real job or am an adult. Dominick could set them straight on those matters, as if I'd want him to set anyone or anything straight.

Anyway...I'm really thinking about volunteering with Carmen's House. For one thing, I miss contributing in direct ways to the well-being of those who share or sympathise with my experience of gender and sexuality. I did a lot of that during the my first two years of living as Justine, and now I find I miss that. It's not so much the work itself , it's the people--what some might call my "community"--I want to experience again. The brunch reminded me of that.

Bruce says that even when I'm not doing advocacy work, I'm helping because I am educating people about what it means to be transgendered. It's not as if I try to do that every moment. However, to some degree, I do that simply by living my life around those who know of my gender status. That's what Bruce says, and he's been right most of the time.

I still find it odd that anyone can see me as a role model. I wonder whether they'd see me that way if they knew anything else about me but my gender identity and the work I do. I mean, there are things I didn't do and people I didn't treat well. And I've given lots of advice that I'd love to take back. And, I still struggle with the homo- and trans-phobia, as well as other kinds of bigotry and prejudice, I internalized from people who probably didn't realize they were transmitting it.

Plus, the majority of what I've accomplished, such as it is, I achieved before starting my transition to life as Justine. I earned my degrees and started teaching, got most of my publications and accomplished myself as a cyclist and other kinds of athlete, as Nick. How could those young people see me as a model trans-woman, much less as the "tranny poster girl" that Jay once called me.

Tranny poster girl? I wonder who'd buy a poster of me, or where it would end up. I didn't end up with the Judy Garland poster that was part of the Chinese auction at the brunch. It's much more glamorous and elegant than any that could made of me.

I'm guessing that Nina, the priest and the teenagers at Carmen's House aren't looking for a poster girl. Or a model, unless she's a role model. Now there's a job I'd like to have: a role model for a major fashion designer!

Or for some young people. You might say I do that when I teach, which a reason why, even after all of these years, I still vacillate between loving and hating it. I guess it's an extension of my role as the oldest sibling in my family: I was expected to be an example for my brothers. I couldn't always, and didn't always want to be, the sort of role model the adults in my life expected me to be. Even after an excellent review or expressions of gratitude from students, I'm still never sure of how good I am at being that sort of person. Yet, somehow, that is the role in which I always seem to find myself.

And if that's what the young people at Carmen's House need, well, that's what I'll do, as best I can. I'll show them what Dominick, Nina and the priest see in me.

17 January 2009

Lifestyle Choices

Cold and tired again. Well, I guess I have myself to blame for the latter. Some might say that the former is my fault, too, if my increasing sensitivity to cold is indeed a result of taking hormones. After all, they'd say, it was my choice to take them.

True enough. So is everything else I've done. So is going to therapy when you're depressed or confused, or church when you're looking for meaning or stability in your life. Or, for that matter, having children when...well, whenever it is that people decide to have children.

They are all choices, indeed. And so is working to make a living. I mean, after all, you could not do that, couldn't you? The results may not be what you'd like, but, well, that's a choice, too, isn't it.

But mine is a "lifestyle" choice, you say. Hmm...Is being a woman a "lifestyle?" I guess it is. After all, the style in which a member of one gender lives must, by definition, be different from the way members of the other gender live. One could argue that facets of those "lifestyles" are choices. But, again, what are the consequences of not making those choices?

In other words, I'm asking what people mean when they say "lifestyle choice" or use either of those words seperately. This is not a question of semantics or any of those other esoteric bodies of ideas. Rather, it's a question of what you will do to live, as opposed to merely surviving--or not being at all.

So I made a choice to live. It's really nothing more than that. That is why I find it strange that people will call me courageous, as Tom did yesterday and Anne the day before. Really, each of them made the same choice, albeit by very different means than I did. After all, their circumstances and their most basic questions are different from mine. The same for Bruce, who joked--as only a friend of nearly three decades can--that he fully expects me to start having a period.

They all understand that I made the choice I made out of what some would call necessity. In a sense, it is: In order to live the sort of life I've always wanted, I had to make that choice. And I'm sure Mom understands that as well as anybody can. Why else would she be as supportive as she's been? Oh, I know she's my Mom. But others have lost their relationships with their mothers, fathers, and everyone else they loved, and whom they thought loved them, when they chose to live by the dictates of their minds and spirits rather than those of the society in which they live.

I think she also understands that this isn't only about self-preservation. I've done that--sometimes well, sometimes not so--all of my life. Of course: How else could I be here now? But answering a "how" question is like solving the question of what you'll live on. The kinds of choices I made, that others have made, have to do with the "why" questions: the ones that have to do with what you'll live for.

So, yes, I made choices to be cold and tired at this moment. But at least I can go to bed tonight with another kind of energy--that of the spirit, la force vitale: what Michelangelo's and Rodin's works were all about--that will at least sustain me as I live with the struggles that go along with choosing to live.

And, yes, I've got that robe Mom gave me and a nice down comforter and flannel sheets. And then I could always leave the bedroom door open and let the cats curl up with me. Wait a minute: Isn't that supposed to be someone else's job? You know who you are! ;-)

Oh well. Now it's time to carry out another lifestyle choice: sleeping. I mean, I don't really have to do that now, do I?

When I ask questions like that, even in jest, that's definitely a sign I need to sleep. So that's what I'm going to choose, as soon as I finish writing this.

16 January 2009

Recovering My Voice

Today I had my first voice lesson. Tom, my coach, is a voice and drama professor at the college. I almost pity him: He's a sweet man, and I don't think I'll be one of his easier or better students. He asked whether I ever had any voice training or did any singing. No voice training, I said, and I sang--if you could call it that--briefly in a church choir. (OK. What other secrets from my dim, dark past will I reveal?) And I've done nothing whatsoever to explore my vocal range, for I never thought I had one.

Now, I know I don't have the greatest range, and my highs are not very high. (I'm talking about my vocal palette, not my psychological state!) I never particularly thought of myself as a "tough guy," which is exactly the reason why I tried to seem like one. And that may be the reason why I never used the vocal resourses I had above my chest rather than the ones in my solar plexus, which I had always used.

I know that there were lots of ways in which I was "fronting." All of that sports training, particularly the weight lifting and extreme cycling, were part of my attempt to feel and seem manly, or at least to deflect any suspicion about my sexuality or gender identity.

Even my intellectual pursuits, such as they were, reflected my dubious and futile efforts at seeming to be at least somewhat macho. I would read enough, and just deeply enough, to be able to express and rationalize my disdain for other writers and their works, some of which I hadn't read. Real men read Hemingway, not Fitzgerald or--gasp!--Henry James. Even when I wrote poetry, I eschewed a certain part of my sensibility, which of course I've rediscovered only during the past few years. And that is one reason why I reluctantly pursued a Master's Degree and am still resisting the idea of a PhD: Real men didn't become literature professors or literary theorists or critics. Real women didn't, either, but somehow I could suffer Helen Vendler, who has absolutely no taste in poetry but who can write a pretty good sentence, but not Harold Bloom.

You might say it was my own kind of sexism. Except that, with a couple of exceptions, I hated men, ostensibly because a few treated me horribly, but really because I had to live as one. Or so I thought.

And so now here I am, just beginning the process of liberating my female voice. At least Tom doesn't want me to talk in a falsetto or to "make" a voice. He wants me to find the feminine aspects of the voice I already have.

It's funny, really, because some people have said that my poetic, and even my prosaic, voice are "feminine," at least in some ways. In the early days of my transition, I showed my poetry to a woman whom I met while volunteering at the LGBT Community Center in The Village. "So this is where Justine was all those years!," she marvelled. Yes, I was there, even though I signed those poems, and everything else up to that point in my life, as Nick or Nicholas.

So someone else had my voice, and I 'd been using someone else's voice. Or, at least, I'd been using one tha wasn't my own. And now I'm starting to reclaim another part of myself. You see, that's what everything about this so-called transition really is: recovery. Yes, recovery: After I had been sober for a number of years, I finally realized that is what "recovery" really means. It's not simply a matter of giving somehing up or changing it; rather, it's about taking back your essential self, or at least some part of it.

And so I'm starting to work on getting my voice back. I'm glad I have Tom coaching me. After all, recovery is never easy.

15 January 2009

Plus Qu'un Peu

Having to go to faculty meetings makes me feel like a real fool for going to graduate school. However, the one I attended today--for "new" full-time faculty members (some of whom have been teaching for more years than at least a couple of the meeting's organizers have lived on this planet) was, at least in some way, satisfying for me.

The good thing about meetings like that one is that they allow me to actually talk to a few of those new faculty members and catch up with some others. Most of them are nice people and interesting in their own ways. The weird thing is that they all seemed to know my name even before I actually met them. And some of them really made an effort to treat me well even when I was sulking at the beginning of the semester.

Today I spent about an hour after the meeting with Anne. I had met her on her very first day at the college, back in July. She was trying to find her way around campus and asked me for directions. Now, about my navigational skills, I tell people I'm a direct descendant of Christopher Columbus and inherited his sense of direction. I mean, after almost four years at the college, I still get lost sometimes. Then again, people who've been there even longer than I've been there say the same thing.

Anyway, she and I would occasionally pass by each other in the hallways. The funny thing is that I had more or less forgotten about the time I gave her directions until she reminded me of it at a meeting just before the holidays. And, on seeing her, I would greet her with a "Bonjour, comment ca-va?" When she said, "Oh, you speak French," I said, "un peu."

Well, today she exclaimed, "Your French is more than 'un peu.'" I felt myself blushing a bit. "I read your writing."


"Oui. J'en ai lis sur le web."

"Mes articles.?"

"Your blog. I've been reading it. I found out your full name and looked you up." She saw my surprise. "I know, I'm nosey," she demurred.

"Oh, I don't mind. I'm just kind of surprised."

"Well, ever since that first day, you intrigued me. You aren't like anyone else here, you know."

"So I'm told. "

She went on to express admiration for my writing as well as my gender identity transition. But it wasn't idle praise: Gender identity and sexuality was part of her research for several years. She is a geneticist who studied under another geneticist who has also done research in gender identity and sexuality and who, in fact, is a leader in the field.

During the course of our conversation, I used the acronym LGBT. I explained that it stands for "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender."

"Why are the transgenders in there. What you experience is so different from what gays and lesbians experience."

Wow! For a straight, straight woman, that's quite a bit of understanding: more than
un peu, if you will. What she expressed is the frustration I came to feel as an activist: That we were lumped together, although we were so different. However, I explained, there are reasons why we're together.

"Because you suffer from the same kind of discrimination."

"Yes, that. But also because we don't conform to society's ideas about gender and sexuality. And, in fact, transgender people were an important part of the early gay liberation movement, at least here in the States."

The thing about Anne is that she wasn't just expressing the "right" or even merely enlightened ideas. I think she has a genuine understanding of us, and of me. And she's a very warm, accessible person, in whatever language we're speaking.

And here I was, worried that I would seem foolish. After all, she is one of the most intelligent people I've met. But she was reaching out to me. And I'm glad that she has, more than
un peu.

I have to admit, though: It still puzzles me when people think I'm unique, memorable, special or say that I stand out in some way--not to mention when they compliment me. I guess whatever you live with isn't exceptional when it's integral to your being, and when you know enough to know how much you don't know, you feel like you only know
un peu.

I hope to sit down with Anne again soon. I feel that I'd learn more about a few things, along with my French!

14 January 2009

Into the Night

Funny I should mention her...

Tonight I was riding my bicycle home from work. I was only a few blocks from home when I saw a petite, youngish-looking woman talking on her cell phone.

That, in and of itself, is nothing unusual. But I heard her voice: "I'm at 32nd Street" and the tone of victim-like helplessness combined with resentfulness. And the voice was a few sizes too small even for her diminutive body.

As I neared the side of the intersection where I was standing, I noticed her facial features: a rather well-formed nose and cheeks that, although not high, were at least rounded in a rather pleasant way.

And her skin color: somewhere between the olive tone of Southern Italy and the earthier yet rather sallow hue of central Asia, possibly one of the countries whose names end in "stan." Hmm...Stan's States. Now there's a name for a business.

Passing about twenty feet or so in front of her, I got a glimpse of her and heard more of her voice.

I've known only one person who looked and sounded like her. You guessed: my former friend Elizabeth, whom I mentioned on yesterday's entry. That was the first time I'd thought of her in a while, and I certainly didn't have her on my mind tonight, as I was pedalling home.

Now tell me, what was she doing there? What were the chances?

Of course it's entirely possible that she moved into, or was visiting someone in, the neighborhood. But, still, this is a city in which you could be living a couple of doors away from some long-lost relative and not even know it.

I was tempted to turn around and...what? See whether or not it was really her? If that young woman wasn't Elizabeth, then I'd just apologize, I guess. "Oh, I thought you were..." And if she had been Elizabeth, what would have I said?

Well, I could say lots of things. But none of them would matter. After all, when a person begrudges you your happiness or, worse, denies who and what you are and your right to live by the substance of your being, what can you say? What kind of a conversation can you have with someone who'd rather see you dead than happy just so that she can be right, or at least able to rationalize her resentments and hatefulness?

Yes, it hurt when she said she no longer wanted anything to do with me. The rejection from my brother Tony hurt even more, but somehow I could forgive him. If he were to call me, I wouldn't ask questions, except about the state of his health and well-being, and would do the best I can to resume the kind of relationship we once had. I don't think I could, or want to, do that for Elizabeth. I guess family ties are stronger than any others after all.

And Elizabeth, in essence, denied not only that I am part of her family, if you will--I'm referring, of course,to the sisterhood--but that I ever could, or had a right to, be one of its members. That, evne though there was a time in my life--a long time, in fact--in which she was my best friend and probably knew me better than anyone except my mother or grandmother ever has. Or so I thought.

So, for all I know, she disappeared into the night. And so did I. Two people can do that only if they're going in different directions. At least I know that her path isn't the only one to life as a woman. Thank goddess!

I was tempted to turn around and try to get another glimpse. But I knew I could ride or walk only but so close, if at all, until she noticed me. Or maybe she wouldn't. That would be fine with me.

13 January 2009


The other night Dominick and I were talking--about the movie (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) we'd just seen, our families, our work, and about, well, ourselves. Seemingly out of nowhere, I became contemplative. Dominick sensed it immediately, and asked what was "the matter."

I said "oh, nothing," which was true enough for government work.

"What are you thinking about?"

Lately, I find myself thinking a lot about what changes I've experienced and witnessed during the past six years--since Tammy and I split up and I moved out and started on the road to my gender transition. I also find myself thinking about the passage of time and what is lost, and gained.

Before I embarked upon this journey (All right, I'll stop getting all quaint on you!) I had assumed that, with the surgery--when and if it happened--I would be leaving an old self, an old identity, behind. The person who lived before the surgery would cease to exist--would become a memory-- for me and at least a few other people. A new self would emerge, to be sure: That is the point of all of this work, after all. But what would happen to the old self, to the things I used to be?

As Dominick and I were tallking, something occured to me, which I tried to articulate for him: Different incarnations, if you will, of me had passed by at that very moment when he and I were together. Nick, or the very early Justine, wouln't have been led by the hand by, or walked arm-in-arm with, Dominick, as Iwas at that moment. Part of it had to do with the notion I had of my sexuality, such as it was.

That was passing, or was already gone. And so, I realized, is the person who was earning diplomas and working before Dominick was born. Almost by definition, I could not still be that person and be with him. And, some people--notably Elizabeth, Jay (a male former friend, not to be confused with current friend Jay, who's my favorite butch because she's the first person to whom I "came out") and my brother Tony--ended their communication with me precisely because I am no longer that person. On the other hand, there are people in my life whom I probably never would have met, much less befriended, had I remained the person I was.

The funny thing was that I could see everyone I used to be passing by at that moment I was talking to Dominick. No, I haven't started taking drugs or drinking again: If I can see what I saw the other night, why would I need to?

But it was strange to have, in some weird way, my life flash before my eyes. I can't stop thinking about it and wondering if it portends something. I mean, it's the sort of experience one normally associates with a life-and-death moment, and in that moment with Dominick, I was about as alive as I have been and could be. I didn't sense any danger. Maybe there was some turning point at that moment. I just can't say, yet, what might've turned or changed.

Maybe it will make sense later. Or maybe it was just passing, too.