31 October 2009

Wearing The Mask

My first Halloween as a woman and what did I do? I went in drag.

All right. I know that joke's getting old, and I promise never to use it again on this blog--unless my age, blondness and absent-minded-professor-ness (What kind of word is that?) get the better of me and I forget this post.

Seriously, I didn't go out in boy-drag. Nor did I go trick-or-treating in a Michael Jackson mask or a Kate Gosselin wig. Those were two of the most popular getups this Halloween. And I didn't go as a witch, as appropriate as some of my students may think it would be!

Actually, I spent the day in a very out-of-season pair of bay blue shorts and a top striped in aqueous shades. They were handy and the day was a bit warmer than normal for this time of year. Besides, I had no engagement that called for appropriate attire.

In other words, I was feeling lazy today, at least about my appearance. So, I didn't wear makeup, either. I simply brushed my hair and put on some lipstick before I went out for a walk.

Now here's something for which I can blame my mother: Even when I'm as poorly dressed as I was today and when I'm not wearing makeup, I don't leave the house without putting on lipstick. About two years into living as a woman, I realized I'd developed that habit. When I told Mom about it, she gasped: "That's what I do, too!"

A pause. Then I quipped, "Like mother, like daughter, eh?"

Another pause. "It looks that way, doesn't it?," she mused.

"At least I have a great mother to be like."

"And you're a fine daughter. I still don't understand what you're doing--I'm trying to--but you're my child, you're good, and you deserve to be happy. And I've never seen you happier."

That, from exactly the person I could never fool with a mask or a wig.

Perhaps some day I will wear one again, for fun. But for now, it is a victory--in exactly the same sense that survival is victory--that I don't have to wear a wig or mask, at least not most of the time.

My previous life reminds me of what Paul Dunbar's narrator said:

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile;

But let the world dream otherwise,

We wear the mask!

"This debt to human guile." If that's not a definition of the masks and costumes I wore every day for more than 40 years, tell me what is.

I really hope that all the kids I saw tonight won't have to wear that sort of mask. Let them have fun with the ones they're wearing!

30 October 2009

You Can't Get An Education From Anyone You Don't Trust Or Who Doesn't Trust You

I am thinking again about yesterday. Perhaps that's not a productive thing to do, but I'm prone to that sometimes.

Anyway...I find myself reflecting on what I've been learning during these past few months. So much of it comes down to trust. And now I realize that the trust I'm learning is not only toward those who can actually give me the care and education I need. It's also a trust in myself.

When you don't feel whole, complete or simply right-- whatever that means to you-- how can you trust yourself? What can you trust if your body is lying to you and in order to survive, you have to tell-- or worse, perpetuate-- lies of one sort and another? And how can you hope to get an education of any sort if even your name is not your own?

James Baldwin once wrote that a child cannot learn from a teacher who despises him. That's more or less right. But I think that it would be more accurate to say that no one can get an education from anyone he or she does not trust, and who does not trust him or her. All you learn is a sort of defensive deception: You lie, dodge or commit whatever other subterfuge is necessary in order not to be harmed. And, of course, if someone is telling you the complete truth about something, it cannot be anything but a falsehood in such circumstances.

You go to a doctor because you think you've cracked your ankle in a fall. If the doctor, or his or her screener, asks if you've felt depressed, you say "no" because you want your ankle fixed, not to raise suspicions that you harmed yourself on purpose.

Something like that happened to me. And to practitioners I've previously used, I've said that I had sexual fantasies about women, and even talked about wanting to marry one or another, just so that I wouldn't get locked up somewhere that couldn't offer me what I needed, much less wanted.

How many times do we get through a situation, a day or a period of our lives by saying what someone else wants, or seems to want, to hear? Or worse yet, what we wish were true?

When I saw Mom back in August, I said that my years at Rutgers, where I was an undergraduate, were the worst of my life. She asked what I would have done differently: Would I have gone to another school? Studied different things? Or delayed going to school?

I might have done all of those things, I said, but I probably still would have been miserable. She cringed when I said that last word. "Oh, you were!," she said. "I haven't seen very many people who were more unhappy than you were in those days."

I explained that I was, by any definition of the term, deeply depressed. I felt as if I had nothing in common with anybody at the college. In part, it had to do with the fact that when I was young, I tended not to make friends among my peers. What friends I had were, for the most part, women older than I was.

Also, I felt more hostility toward who and what I am than I ever felt in high school, or before that. For many years afterward, I accepted the standard explanation: that I was noticing it more. And, being the sort of person I am--one who just wants to live her life--I trusted other people's opinions before I trusted my own experience.

The thing is, the higher you go in education, the more you encounter that mentality. If you experience something, it doesn't count for as much as what some "expert" says about it. I have come to realize that such an "expert" is more than likely to be self-appointed and gains his or her authority because so many people are, for whatever reasons, too cowed or indifferent to challenge it.

But there was another dimension to the conditions that made me so unhappy: I was in a residential college. So I was living with other students, whom I saw every day. They included various jocks or jock-groupies and frat guys. Living among them meant that I had to keep my acts and my defenses up at all times. I played the drinking games with the guys and feigned more interest in "banging" women than I actually had. Worse, I not only went along with the "fag" jokes, I made a few myself.

And, because I engaged in such mendacity, I came to despise everything about the college, college generally, the people in it and what I had to do to keep myself there. Today, of course, none of that surprises me--or, for that matter, the people who've heard this from me--because I had, by that time, learned to so thoroughly despise myself.

I fell into such an awful state because I could not articulate what was happening to me. I tried to fit into the labels: I was "straight;" I was "gay;" I was "bi" (whatever those terms mean! ); I was a guy with a "feminine side." And, of course, I kept that side as far from view as I could.

The result was that I never did anything more than half-heartedly. I was present only physically in my classes and in other college functions; when I reached out to others (Yes, I got very lonely sometimes!) I could only do so from behind a wall. And even in that relative safety, I was still in a mask and costume, whether or not it was Halloween.

So I could never ask the sort of questions I wanted to ask, or do anything that would allow me to get the sort of education that stays with a person: that which teaches a person by expanding his or her self-definition. This means helping that person to learn how to do what he or she is capable of doing, and to expand that person's range of what is capable.

Maybe this is the reason why, in spite of all the time I've spent in a classroom as a student and teacher, I have never quite trusted Education (with a capital "E"). Even when I enjoy teaching (which, these days, is most of the time) and otherwise helping students, and when I enjoy an exchange with a colleague (a more frequent occurrence these days), I still sometimes feel as if I cannot trust it. Perhaps I am still carrying a lot of residual damage.

I am interested in helping people gain an education, whatever that means for them. And most people go to school for that, and we are--at least in theory--charged with that role. But I often feel that my own education bears only an incidental relationship to the time I've spent in school.

In brief, I felt a little sad after leaving Dr. Jennifer's office yesterday for the same reason that I shed tears upon leaving Marci, Nurse Phyllis, Robin and all of those other people I met in Trinidad: From them, I was finally getting an education--a real education.

Now I'm wondering whether it's the only education I've ever had.

29 October 2009

Another Graduation

Today I had what will be my last appointment with Dr. Jennifer, at least for a while.

She confirmed what I've suspected: Psedomona is gone! Okay, say it again: Pseudomona is gone! Just rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it?

Yes, that minor-but-pesky infection I had is history. And, she said, all of my major healing is complete. But she did advise me to finish my current round of antibiotics and to wait another week before getting back on my bike or getting that other kind of exercise. You know which kind I mean.

Of course this is great news for me. But I shed a few tears, too. For one thing, I was actually enjoying those visits with Dr. Jennifer. All health-care professionals should have her warmth and empathy as well as her skills. That, of course, is what I also say about Marci Bowers.

My tears today were, I feel, like the ones people shed at graduations. They are tears of joy, yes. But they also express a feeling of relief, of having arrived safely and well at some destination.

In some way, this really feels like a graduation, in much the same way having finished my session with Nurse Phyllis or seeing Marci the day after my surgery: I had "made it" through something through which each of them had guided and nurtured me.

That I learned about my body from each of them almost goes without saying. However, I now realize that my new-found education has come about because I had to trust each of them with my body as well as my spirit in ways that, earlier in my life, I simply couldn't have with anyone --partially because I never had to.

With each of them, I had to allow myself and them a level of intimacy that, for most of my life, I didn't know how to permit anyone else, much less myself.

You might say that I was experiencing, viscerally, what I had experienced vicariously when I saw The Vagina Monologues: a shared experience of having one.

As I understand it, that is supposed to be a reason for graduations: The new graduates reflect upon the common experiences of those who are graduating with, and who have graduated before, them.

So what does this "graduation" mean? For now, at least, I can, in some way, function independently as a woman. Maybe it was the logical "next step" for me. I've gotten to the point where, when people address me as "Ma'am," "Miss," or "Lady," I do not append it, even in my own mind. Although having lived as a male will always be a part of me, I no longer see it as a qualifying condition.

I have graduated again; I came home on a spectacularly beautiful fall day.

28 October 2009

The Hate Crimes Law

I'm supposed to be happy that Obama signed the so-called "Hate Crimes Bill" into law today.

And I guess I'm supposed to vote for Obama when he runs for re-election.

Essentially, that's one of the reasons why he signed it: He figured that he'd get our votes that way. I wonder how many in the LGBT community will forget that he opposed gay marriage. Not that I think that winning that "right" will put gays on an equal footing with straight people: I think that marriage is none of any government's business. If people want to marry in their religious institutions, that's fine. But I don't think that a government--especially in a country that's supposed to have a separation between church and state--should have the power to decide who's married and who isn't. If they absolutely must be involved, they should just grant civil unions to everyone, and it shouldn't bring tax benefits with it.

All right, you're saying to yourself, she's not married and probably never will be. Point taken. Still, I think that in a secular country, a government should not be sanctifying marriage--or any other relationship between two or more people. That's, in essence, what it does with its policies on taxes and in many other areas.

For that matter, I don't think singlehood should have special privileges or status, either. No government ever forced me to get married, or to be single. Nor has this government forced anyone else into it. People who get married aren't veterans who were drafted into service. As much as I abhor war, I think that they're one of the few groups that should receive special benefits and tax breaks.

Anyway...Given that he opposed gay marriage at the same time Dick Cheney voiced his support of it, I think Obama is being more than a little hypocritical.

Plus, the Hate Crimes Bill is really a law that was added to a military-spending appropriation bill. Most people would see military spending and gay rights as almost polar opposites. But when you realize that the bill really isn't about gay rights, or any other sort of concern for LGBT people, you realize that it's just another way for the Federal government to expand its powers. And, of course, military spending is to government power as heroin is to an addict.

The fact that gay- and tranny-bashing are now, at least according to the letter of the law, Federal crimes will not stop them from happening. Nor will more zealous prosecution or "tougher" sentencing. Such things might stop someone who's thought about robbing banks, but it's not going to curb hate. In fact, if anything, I think that the so-called Hate Crimes Bill just might lead to more "hate crimes."

Think about it: Some person or group who hates gays (and probably lots of other people) can seem like a martyr to himself, or to his group, because he is dealt with more harshly than some other criminal because his victim happened to be LGBT. On a smaller scale, that's no different than the US going to war against Islamic countries that already view us as The Great Satan. Not only will they hate us even more; they will also feel all the more justified in seeing us as demons. And that will give young men with nothing to lose but their belief that 72 virgins are waiting for them in the afterlife all the more rationale for fighting a jihad against us.

Now, of course, I can't blame Obama for the fact that the law was attached to a military spending bill. Or maybe I could. After all, I don't think he's seen any kind of military spending that he didn't like. And look at how he's expanded this country's military involvement with Afghanistan. Does the man read history? Twenty years ago, the Russians, who were just over the border, sent in five times as many troops as we're ready to commit. And they couldn't mold Afghanistan to their will. What makes him think we can do it?

But back to what the law can't accomplish: It won't stop people from committing those crimes because it can't stamp out the hatred that leads to the crimes. And, really, how much can any law help a community--I'm talking about transgenders now--of whom 35 percent are unemployed and 59 percent make less than $15,300 in San Francisco. Let's face it: If you don't have a job, or some other legitimate source of income, you don't have power in this society. And that makes it that much harder to dispel the idea that we're freaks and, if we are working, it's in the sex industry.

Maybe I'm wrong and Obama meant well and this will actually help us. If things turn out that way, well...according to scientific principles, bumblebees shouldn't be able to fly. I don't think that any scientist who's ever opened a jar of honey minds being wrong about that. "If this be error and upon me be proved..."

For now, it hasn't been.

27 October 2009

Our Mothers, Their Daughters

Today I talked with Marilynne. She may be the first friend I've made in my "new" life.

Her daughter underwent the surgery on the same day I had mine. But the daughter's was far more complicated than mine, as she was born with a condition that only a handful of people on the planet have. So, her recovery is also more complicated and lengthier than mine.

Of course I would love to see them again, and soon. However, they're going to Marilynne's parents' for Thanksgiving. It's probably just as well, for Mom and Dad have been talking about coming up this way from Florida. They'd hoped to move here--or, somewhere in this area--by the holidays, but it doesn't look like things are going to work that way. They've had no takers for their house, which isn't surprising. After all, Florida is one of the worst real estate markets in one of the worst economies this country has had in a long time.

Back to them. Sometimes I wonder what, if anything, they'd say to Marilynne and her husband, or vice versa, were they to meet. Mom always says I wasn't such a difficult kid to raise. I don't think she's merely being diplomatic, even though I don't think I could have been such an easy kid to care for.

I'm thinking now of a corollary to something Marilynne said: "As a mother, you always feel guilty." That was her response to my comment that she needed to be more generous with herself and to feel more confident that she's doing everything humanly possible to take care of her daughter and everyone else around her. At the end of the day, she simply has no time or energy to take care of herself. And if she had either, she'd find some other need someone else has and address that.

My mom is like that, too. It's not hard to imagine her saying what Marilynne said. And that's exactly the reason why it makes perfect sense, at least to me, that she would say I wasn't such a difficult kid to raise. Why would she, Marilynne or any other mother feel guilty? They would always know--or at least feel--that something else needed doing, but possibly couldn't be done. That means, of course, that no matter what they have to do, or are doing, they've done or are doing something else that's more difficult. And, chances are that something still more difficult will present itself. So, most things will only seem but so difficult in comparison.

Marilynne says that her daughter really isn't such a difficult kid. "She never wants anything," she says. But that's because "all she ever wanted was to be a girl." I always wanted the same thing, even more than anything else--even life itself. However, as I've mentioned before, I didn't express it because I'd never heard such a thing expressed when I was a kid. Plus, I don't think I was (or am) quite as intelligent as Marilynne's daughter.

But Mom would probably tell you I didn't want that much, either. That was true enough. And, she'll always point out that I never got into trouble (mainly because I never got caught! ;-) ) and that her friends always liked me. Yes, and I liked them, even more than my own peers.

And now I find myself making friends with women of, or over, a certain age--and I happen to be one of them myself!

One thing I know: Mom has been a saint and Dad has been much better than I ever anticipated. I'll bet that Marilynne's daughter will say, if she hasn't already said, the same thing about her mother and father. And her brother has been supportive. As far as I'm concerned, they're a family of heroes. At least, they're heroes of mine, anyway.

At least I expect to see Mom and Dad soon. Marilynne had talked about coming up this way with her daughter this fall, but I think that turned out to be a less realistic idea than any of us had anticipated. Her daughter, like me, is still healing and regaining her energy. Marilynne, I think, needs to do the same.

We're talking now about Spring Break, or possibly the days just after Christmas or New Year's.

26 October 2009

Evaluation: Moving Forward

My workday started and ended with evaluations. First I was evaluated by someone who was probably born about the time I started my undergraduate education and has a higher rank than mine. And, at the end of the day, I evaluated someone I'd never before met.

Next week, I'll find out the results of the evaluation that was done on me. No matter how often I'm evaluated or how good an instructor I become, I think I'll always worry about the evaluations. Everyone tells me not to. But they didn't know me when a vindictive (over what, I'll never know) prof at another school wrote, by far, the worst evaluation I've ever had. The thing about being an English prof is that there are no statistics you can invoke to support your contention that your evaluator was biased. And, if you say that the evaluator had it in for you, the powers-that-be tag you with all sorts of labels, none of them flattering.

Whatever comes of it, I feel good about the class. They are a very good bunch of students, and I very much enjoy working with them--not only because they make me look good! And I can honestly say that I'm doing the best I can by them.

As for the evaluator: I hope I didn't seem resentful of her. She did what you're "supposed" to do in the academic world: Go to school from the time you're four until, oh, about thirty. And she got a PhD with a specialty that the college and department were looking for at the time they hired her. Whether she did those things by design or not, they worked. Plus, she's smart and a seemingly decent person.

In other words, her path--at least professionally--bears almost no resemblance to mine. Probably the only point of intersection between our trajectories is one of the schools each of us attended: She earned her PhD where I completed my B.A. But while she went "straight through" school, I spent more than a decade doing other things between the time I finished my bachelor's and started my master's. And I left the academic world for three years when I was with Tammy.

During the class, I didn't think of the evaluation as a "first." Of course, I had one good reason not to: I've been evaluated a number of times before. But I felt that I had an energy, or at least a level of energy, to which I am only beginning to acclimate myself. Even after the evaluator left--an hour into the two-hour class session, as is standard--and even after the class ended and the students left, I felt as if I could have continued forever.

The students knew I was there for them. And I knew that I was doing what I did for myself. It became very personal; what we did in that class had everything to do with the life I've led--at least, some aspects of it, anyway--and with them. Why else did they respond, not only as intelligently, but as passionately, as they did?

Sometimes I think I'm not an intellectual because....Well, actually, I never think of myself as an intellectual. Why? Well, the only way I've ever been able to learn anything is to take it personally. I am not someone who can learn "objectively" or dispassionately. That's certainly a reason why I was drawn toward literature, writing, history and language rather than to, say, math or chemistry.

Just as I can only learn something by taking it personally, that is also the only way I can teach it. And I can only reach students through that same sense.

To tell you the truth, I don't want it any other way. It's moving me forward now.

25 October 2009

Why I'm Not Celebrating The "Hate Crimes Bill"

It seems that nearly everyone--at least everyone I know--in the LGBT community has been celebrating the inclusion of language that includes transgenders in the so-called "Hate Crimes Bill" and that it looks like the President will sign it this week. If there's any reason to feel good, it's that, if nothing else, public officials as well as other citizens are indeed acknowledging that we are indeed subject to violence simply because we are who we are. In fact, one study says that transgender people are sixteen times as likely to be murdered as anyone else.

I hate to be the one who dumps cold water on anybody, but I must say this: Passage of the bill is not quite the cause for celebration that some believe it to be, any more than gay men and lesbians gaining the right to marry will be. I mention the push for gay marriage, even though that's another discussion unto itself, because it, like the "Hate Crimes Bill," shows how both mainstream politicians as well as LGBT activists too often work for "victories" that have only symbolic value (and sometimes not even that) while missing the underlying issues. Also, I happen to think that more legislation is almost never a good thing, and neither the "Hate Crimes Bill" nor gay marriage changes my mind about that.

However, my chief objection to the "Hate Crimes Bill" what I call its "exceptionalism." In other words, it essentially says that a crime against gay or transgendered people is inherently worse than others because it was committed against a gay or transgendered person. Now, I will say that because I am transsexual, a murder of, or other crime against, an LGBT person affects me in ways that other crimes do not. That, I like to think, is natural: One feels the most for one's own people, whomever they happen to be. Also, I understand the particular dangers we face, having brushed up against them myself, so the poignancy of a person being murdered because she is transgendered or beaten because he is gay is magnified for me. Still, I don't think such a bias--for that is what it is--should be reflected in any law, any more than any other bias should be so encoded.

In other words, I think that if a person is to be punished for killing or beating someone, he or she should incur whatever punishment is meted out because he or she killed or beat someone, not because the victim happened to belong to one group or another.

Some people--again, I am thinking in particular of LGBT activists--argue "hate crimes are different from other crimes," or something to that effect. Indeed they are: When you come right down to it, every crime is different, at least in circumstances, from every other. However, the effect is the same: Someone's life, person or property has been taken away, or at least violated.

Now, I'm no lawyer or scholar of the Constitution, and probably never will be either one. But I know enough to know that under the criminal justice system, a perpetrator's motives are considered in deciding upon his or her guilt or innocence and the type of punishment he or she should receive. One person may harm me because I'm a trans woman; another might want to do the same because I'm ugly or--ahem--because I write posts like this one. Still someone else might hurt me to get the $15.23 in my purse; another, because her husband left her for me. Whatever the motive, the outcome is still the same: that I have been harmed.

In that sense, whatever a person's motive, isn't his or her harming me, by definition, a hate crime? To violate or take a person's life, liberty or property without his or her consent is, at best, enormously disrespectful and, more likely, hateful.

So why, exactly, does it take my being transgendered in order to make the crime worthy of the prosecution that it deserves? Or, even more to the point, why does it take someone's status, whether it's high, low or somewhere in between, to make legislators and the criminal justice system recognize his or her right to live as who he or she is and to be secure in his or her person or property?

In short, why does the fact that I'm transgendered trump the fact that I'm a human being (who happens to be a transgendered female) in some lawmaker's decision that I should have the same rights as anyone else, or that someone should be punished for violating those rights?

To me, prosecuting and sentencing a crime against me or any other LGBT person because of who we are is no different than mourning the death of anyone else who is in any other way "exceptional" over that of someone who is considered "normal" or "ordinary."

And that is exactly what happened after Matthew Shepard's murder. The media trumpeted his fluency in several languages and his leadership skills. Indeed, it's terrible to lose those things, but what would the media have made of him had he been of average IQ or was studying to be an accountant--or, for that matter, had he been a sex worker in Denver? By the same token, I can't help but to wonder whether the media would have paid any attention at all to the disappearance of Laci Peterson had she not been a pretty white woman from a tony Bay Area suburb who'd been a cheerleader at her college. What if she had a been a single mother and a Salvadorian immigrant living in Crocker-Amazon and taking English classes in the Mission district of San Francisco ?

While I don't expect much better from the media (I'm so happy not to have TV reception!), I do want to see respect for life as the fundamental underlying value of the society and culture in which I live. The "Hate Crimes Bill" is no more about that than the sensationalism surrounding Anna Nicole's death was. Instead, it tells judges and juries to evaluate a crime by the status of the victim rather than the life that was taken from him or her.

Doing that isn't going to cause anyone to respect the rights we have because they're the same as theirs. That, in turn, will do nothing to change the "status" we have: a status that leaves us, not only with a one in twelve chance of being murdered, but with a seventy percent chance of being unemployed or working in the underground economy. (And that's in San Francisco, mind you!)

The cynic in me says that the passage of the Hate Crimes Bill is not so different from John Mc Cain's request that Jack Johnson be pardoned. I doubt that he, at his age, will run for President again. However, I suspect that he's thinking about his legacy, especially because he represents one of the two states that does not observe Martin Luther King, Jr's birthday. And, he also knows that his party, the Republican, has about as much support among African Americans than Martin Luther had in the Vatican. Likewise, politicians of all parts of the spectrum realize that LGBT people vote, and that we're anywhere from one in thirty to one in five of the population, depending on which researchers you believe. Whatever the number, it's enough to swing an election.

And, as long as the public is swayed by gestures such as the passage of a "Hate Crimes Bill," it will.

24 October 2009

How I Became Bourgeois In The Storm

Today I took one of the strangest walks I've ever had. It wasn't particularly long, distance-wise--at least, not in the scheme of walks I've taken throughout my life. But in terms of time, it was one of the longest walks I've taken in years.

Perhaps it seemed so because there was no moon tonight. Rather, rain fell throughout the night, sometimes torrentially, other times just barely more than a drizzle. (One thing that hasn't changed: I am still the sort of person who prefers a drizzle in Paris to a storm on Long Island.) When rain cascaded from the sky, I ducked for cover in two coffee shops, a Rite Aid and a Brazilian gift shop. And I also spent some time in a Home Depot store, where I bought some material for a small (at least, I expect it to be) project.

Anyway...Even though I walked streets along which I sometimes shop and through which I pass when I ride my bike to work (which, of course, I haven't done since June), I felt--for a moment, anyway--that I was taking a tour of my past, even though that was not my intention.

That feeling came to me after I turned the corner of 46th Street at 34th Avenue just after crossing Northern Boulevard. That block of 46th Street is lined with row houses that have pitched roofs in a sort of Tudor style. Interestingly, they are more vivid on a night like tonight than they are under a moonlit sky: Their shape does not lend itself to silhouettes. Nor does the light that fills, but never seems to escape from, the windows of those houses: It makes the lines of those windows and roofs all the more stark in the darkness.

In other words, you know that there are people inside those houses. But you never see them, much less the lives they lead.

Somehow, though, I imagine those lives to be in symmetry with the sharp lines of those houses reflected in the rain-slicked street. Although the street was quiet--almost eerily so for an urban neighborhood--I could almost hear, inside of me, conversations that did nothing to disturb the instrumental music--all muted strings, no human voices--playing in the background, possibly on one of the "beautiful music" stations on the radio.

Less than a mile, but about four decades, from that street lived my great-aunt and uncle. When I was a kid, we used to go there every once in a while. My brothers and I liked it because his house was near LaGuardia Airport, and sometimes Uncle Jim would take us to see the planes taking off and landing. Plus, even though his house was actually smaller than the one in which my brothers, Mom and Dad and I were living, it seemed so much more opulent. Cut-glass dishes in shades of cobalt and crimson rested on a dark wooden coffee table that seemed almost Oriental, at least to my eyes at the time; those dishes were filled, though not overflowing, with small hard candies. And we sat on a sofa upholstered with a velvety material (I thought it was real velvet.) in a claret hue.

My great-uncle Jim, who had been a prizefighter in his youth, went into business and eventually bought that house we were visiting. Of course, I didn't know the word bourgeois in those days, and when I did learn it, the context in which I learned it gave it a negative connotation. However, I would realize much later that it fit that house, and the lives he and my great-aunt Minnie were living in it, perfectly.

Also much later, I would understand that their house (He always said it, and everything else, belonged to both of them.) and the lives they were living in it were a refuge from, and a buffer against, the storms that were never far away--from their lives, or anyone else's. He had grown up poor and had fought in boxing rings and on battle fields. By the time I knew him, he had renounced both. From what I heard, my great-aunt was behind that: She belonged to a church, I forget which, that espoused pacifism.

Back in those days, the Vietnam War was raging and, in part as a response to it, young people all over the nation protested violently. It was also during that time when the months from June through September came to be known as "riot season": Many years later, I would realize just how close my family and I came, on at least a couple of occasions, to the confrontations when we were on our way to or from that house, or other places.

Tonight I got caught in another kind of storm. My waterproof anorak kept me dry above my waist. But even as my feet were soaked, I walked with the knowledge that I was as secure as anyone who was inside one of those houses. You need to be at home in order to feel that way. Somehow I understood that back at Uncle Jim's and Aunt Minnie's house in Jackson Heights all those years ago.

Now I am, finally.

23 October 2009

A Power Outage, DWB and Panic

So there was a power outage, or something, in Blogland last night. I couldn't sign on to this blog, much less post a new entry.

I know that in the scheme of things, it was small. But all sorts of paranoid thoughts raced through my head. Did the Y2K bug arrive ten years late? (Maybe it was on the Roman or some other calendar!) Had the Great Depression II brought the world--and the blogosphere--to a screeching halt?

Before I realized that the problem was with the site, I thought there was something wrong with my computer. Or, I thought that being in the age range for Alzheimer's (Am I?), an absent-minded professor and blonde had caught up with me and I did committed some blunder that only someone who bears such a Triple Crown could make.

And this fear also passed through me: That someone found the content of this blog--or me--"objectionable" and flagged it. Of course, anything is "objectionable," for someone could, conceivably, object to it, for whatever reasons. But I wasn't fussing over definitions at that moment.

As often as Oprah and other folks on TV talk about transgenders, prejudice against us still exists. Even the ones who are younger and much prettier than I'll ever be are not completely shielded from it: I've heard all sorts of stories of harassment and worse. Then, of course, there are terrible tales like that of Leslie Mora, and the horribly tragic ones like that of Gwen Araujo.

Speaking of whom: A few years ago, I had an idea for writing a book about people who were killed by bigots. I was going to profile the sad stories of Emmitt Till, Yusef Hawkins, Matthew Shepard and Gwen. All except Till's murders occurred during my lifetime; in fact, I can remember where I was when I heard about Hawkins, Shepard and Gwen. While Till has been commemorated in a Bob Dylan song, Spike Lee dedicated "Malcolm X" to the memory of Hawkins and Shepard's murder led Moises Kaufman to create "The Laramie Project," there was comparatively little attention was paid to Gwen Araujo's murder at the time it occured.

I heard about it only because I was at the LGBT Community Center that day. Only a few weeks earlier, I had moved out of the apartment Tammy and I shared in Park Slope; only a few days earlier, I had my first appointment with Dr. Gal Meyer, who would interview me, order tests and, finally, prescribe hormones to me. At that point, I was still going to work as Nick and my neighbors, family and friends--who didn't see much of me--still knew me that way. But I was spending most of my free time en femme, much of it volunteering with or otherwise participating in one Center activity or another.

So you can imagine how much I was affected by hearing about Gwen's murder. In fact, when creating the link for her name earlier in this entry, I was in tears. No other stranger's death has had quite the same impact on me. If you'll indulge me in a cliche, I will say that I felt I had lost a member of whatever race, nation or other group I belong to.

I was also affected (not merely shocked) by Matthew's and Yusef's killings, though in different ways and for different reasons. In "Jack Price and College Point," I described the way I felt about Matthew Shepard's demise. As for Yusef: He was killed not far from where I grew up and, literally, steps away from where relatives of mine have lived. The adjacent streets are as familiar to me as any others in this world: I have, at times, returned to them, and to the rooms my relatives inhabited, in my dreams (and nightmares!). And, when local TV news reporters interviewed residents of the neighborhood in the days after Yusef's murder, I felt as if I were hearing a language I didn't know that I still knew but would, of course, always be a part of me because I heard (and, to a lesser extent, spoke) it so early in my life.

Now, you may be wondering: How did I go from the Blogspot outage to hate crimes? Well, I described one of the scenarios my mind conjured up when I couldn't access my blog: that someone didn't want a tranny posting on Blogspot, or anywhere else. Were Till, Hawkins, Shepard and Araujo still here, I am sure they could relate.

Anyone who is, by birth, a member of any group--whether it be racial, ethnic, religious, sexual or gender--that is stigmatized, has had moments when he or she couldn't help but to wonder whether, or even believe, he or she was singled out or otherwise discriminated against simply for being whom he or she is. I've met, especially at the college in which I teach, far too many people who were stopped by cops for DWB. I've also heard too many stories about women who were denied promotions, or even jobs, for reasons that were not clearly (perhaps deliberately so) stated. And, of course, I've had the same happen to me--and I've been stopped by plainclothes "cops" (I still question whether they actually were commissioned.) for no earthly reason.

Even someone yelling at you hurts, or simply makes you wonder, in an intensified way because you know that even in the most benevolent of settings, prejudice against you and whatever you represent is never far from the surface. So you wonder what, exactly, was the motivation behind someone who did a "routine search" of you or what really happened when your inquiry "fell through the cracks."

People will accuse you of being "overly sensitive," "paranoid" or "sooo defensive"--or of "reading too much into" someone else's words or actions--when you respond to people or react to a situation in a way that is refracted through the prism of your experience. As if they all don't do the same thing. The difference is, their experience doesn't include the sort of prejudice you've experienced.

I really try to respond to everyone I meet as an individual, and to deal with every situation independently. But there are times when, as a member of whatever group, you can't help to wonder if you've been targeted.

To whoever is in charge of Blogspot: I hope you understand. And I thank you for what was, actually, a prompt and proficient response to the technical problem.

I'm writing in this blog again. I'm happy.

21 October 2009

Whose Stories?

Have you ever realized that you were trying to live out someone else's story? Or, have you ever doubted your own because it wasn't like any other you'd heard?

I answer "yes" to both questions. (Why else would I be writing this entry? ) And it's ironic that I should say so today, after a student asked, in a combination of exasperation and resentment, why should she be expected to read ancient Greek writers, The Inferno or any number of other ancient or medieval "classics."

And what did I tell her? "Their stories are our stories. Their characters are people we see every day."

So, you may be wondering, how could I ask the rhetorical questions that opened this entry? Is that a bit of a contradiction?

Now you can accuse me of being cagey and evasive. (Guilty on both counts!) I'm not going to answer that one, at least not yet.

How is my story "different?" Well, I was born--both in the sense that the state recognizes and that which my spirit manifested--in summer. And, I am living my first full season in the autumn. I am feeling nurtured and energized by the blaze of reds and golds from leaves falling and bricks glowing in the autumn sunset.

Aren't we supposed to begin our lives with the spring? Isn't that how it happens in the stories we hear as kids and see in the media?

And when do you ever hear of someone beginning his or her life after passing one of those round-numbered birthdays?

OK. So my story is different from the ones I've heard--at least in some ways. So how can I say that any story "belongs to the human race?"

I advised that student to look carefully at all of those texts they've assigned to her Western Civilization course. "Murder is as old as Cain and Abel," I said. "And the story of Hamlet is the story of Oedipus Rex."

"You know, you're right!"

"'There's nothing new under the sun.' That's in the Book of Ecclesiastes." The funny thing is that when I said that, her face opened with the light of revelation--and she reads the Bible much more than I read it!

People who feel as I do, and who face the same gender identity dilemma as mine, are not new. And any possible response to it comes down to the classic choice: between flight and fight--or to be or not to be.

In other words, what makes Oedipus Rex and Hamlet endure is not merely the story in each. Rather, it has to do with how each play lays bare the questions we face and the choices we make every day. To be or not to be. To give in to the insanity, or to struggle to be be free. In doing so, do you destroy what's come before you--or make some attempt to honor it?

The student with whom I had the conversation is a black Caribbean woman whom I'd guess to be in her mid-30's or thereabouts. She has described some of the bigotry she's experienced, but says she admires me for the way I've handled my situation. Which, of course, is the reason why she came to me with her question.

I suppose that if I'd been a quicker thinker and had been more articulate, I could have told her that all of those works contain our stories, or more precisely, our truths--without sounding as glib as I just did. The stuff you see in the newspapers, on TV and in those awful books and films they force-feed to kids: Those are the stories of other people, most of whom you'll never meet. I mean, where are you going to meet the sorts of people you see on soap operas--or in politics?

They are only stories: the ones with the spouses and houses you're supposed to have--even if the price you pay for them consists of madness and death, whether inflicted by you or someone else. That madness consists of such things as having to live with the feeling that you were born in the wrong place, the wrong time, in the wrong body and with the wrong desires and needs. The only way out is to live as if none of those things were wrong: You have as much right as anyone else to be who you are, where you are, when you are.

You get only one chance to do that. Then, there's one storyline: We all fall, and it's for eternity. Until then, there's only your story. It's been around since ancient times, at least, but only you can live it.

That is one of the few things I've learned with any certainty. And I hope that student understands this: To live your own story, you have to understand the others. That is my advice to her, and myself.

20 October 2009

A Tranny Theory of Relativity

Today ended in another one of those beautiful autumn sunsets, like the one I saw yesterday. The difference was that I saw it on my way to work, or more precisely, while running errands on my way to work. Then I taught my night class. They're a good group of students, but sometimes I wonder whether I'm boring or whether they're working very hard during the day: I feel, at times, as if they're going to fall asleep on me.

Hey, putting people to sleep isn't in my job description. I'm not an anaesthesiologist, you know.

I'm thinking, again, of "Jeanne Genet"s comment a few days ago. She was talking about relationships formed during intense transitions: They tend not to survive once the transition is complete, or at least has reached a plateau. (Sometimes I think of what Jean Valentine told me about writing a poem: You never finish it; you only abandon it. Sometimes I think that applies to transitions, as well as many other things in life!)

I wonder if her insight explains something else I've described in a previous post or two. I am talking about the passage of time, or at least the way I've been experiencing it. For some reason, last Spring--when I was only a few months before my surgery--seems like lifetimes, or even aeons, ago. I feel sometimes as if it's the life of someone I'd always heard of but who were elsewhere, whether in this world or another.

Perhaps I have to get to work on developing the Tranny Theory of Relativity. I knew that the surgery would be a point of demarcation: Life Before and Life After. Except that this seems to be the inverse of the physical laws I know about.

In any case, it may be that, as per Jeanne, a lot of what I had and developed as a young male or in my transition is no longer neccesary or useful and I'm moving on. Of course, what you're moving away from seems further away than that which is scarcely, if at all, visible.