18 December 2009

When You Don't Have To Apologize For Yourself

So today I turned in my grades and went to the holiday reception for faculty and staff members. That I actually wanted to go to such a thing is, for me, a change. And once I got there I realized why I was looking forward to it.

I did indeed spend some time with colleagues and other staff members I hadn't seen in a while. It still amazes me, even at this late date, that someone can work a hundred feet away from you and you and that person can go for months without seeing each other. Some of that has to do with the nature of our work and the variations in our schedules. But, for some faculty and staff members, I think it also has to do with working for so long in a culture in which people remain in their offices or cubicles. I think some of the newer faculty and staff--I include myself--and some of the administration are trying to change that. However, it took a long time for that culture, which I noticed almost from my first day at the college, to develop. So it will change slowly.

Then again, in the words of one prof who started at the college last year: "We all seem to be doing more this year!" She's right on many levels. I know that all of my class sizes increased by 25 percent this year. So did most other classes. So someone who teaches four sections has, in essence, five. That's no small consideration when you're teaching a writing or a lab course. In my case, I'm reading 25 percent more papers than I did last year.

Well, I guess that, if nothing else, we can say we're equal in that regard. Plus, some of last year's newbies have been "recruited" to various committes and such. I was doing those things already, so I didn't have to weather that shock.

But catching up on friends and other colleagues wasn't the only reason I was happy to go to the reception. All right, I'll level with you: The food was really good. There were Indonesian-style chicken satays and spicy sauce for dipping them. They were a nice complement to the vegetable somosas, the spicy fried shrimp and, of course, rice. And there was some sort of spicy sliced beef, which was also very tasty. As for dessert: I got so involved in conversation that I missed out on the cheesecake. But the berry pie was nice.

Now that I've made you hungry, I'll tell you the best thing, or at least the most interesting--at least for me--about being at the reception. I could see how some people had changed in just a few months. One of last year's newbies had a baby since the last time I saw her; another got married. Others got grants.

And they all said I seemed "different" this year--"in a good way." Yes, every one of them said that! A couple of them knew that I've had my operation; they asked how it went. For the others, I just smiled--not without a little bit of mystery!--and thanked them. Finally, a Biology prof said, "You look so much better. It's not just your physical attractiveness, though. You just seem so calm. You're not apologizing for yourself."

She's definitely right about the last part. Even before she said that, I was noticing that I wasn't seeing myself as the "other", or mentally putting an asterisk next to my name or the box marked "F." Or, for that matter, putting an asterisk next to my job title. I am teaching; I am writing: Therefore, I belonged in that reception--and belong in the college--as much as anybody did or does. And I had every right to talk to that Biology prof, to the Director of Academic Advisement, to my colleagues and office staff in the department in which I teach, to the Dean I saw yesterday--just as anyone else has that right, and the right to talk to any man, woman or child with whom they want to talk, and who's willing to talk with them.

I'm just learning how not to apologize for myself. People have long told me that I need to do that. Better late than never, right?

Now I'm recalling a remark someone made some time ago. This person--someone who once called himself my friend--and I had gone to a memorial service on the night of Transgender Remembrance Day last year. Before the service began, I circulated throughout the church's reception area and talked to a few people. During the service, I was one of the many people who walked up to the altar and read a memorial to someone who was murdered over her gender identity. And, after the service, we stayed for a buffet dinner.

On our way home, this person said, "You know, I've never seen you so relaxed. It's the first time I've seen you and you weren't defensive. You let your guard down, and it was nice."

Funny he should say that. Even when we were having good times together, I often felt as if I had been on trial simply for being who I am. I didn't realize that until I spent some time away from him. And, I'm sure, he didn't realize, and probably still doesn't realize, what he was doing.

I started to feel that, for whatever reasons, he--again, like many other people I've met--felt that that I owed him some sort of justification for what I felt and thought, but that he was under no such obligation to me or anyone else. Lots of people act that way without realizing what they're doing. I mean, if you're a straight white cis male, nobody ever asks you to rationalize your preference for women or, for that matter, Dockers or your favorite beer. Trust me, I know that from experience.

Fortunately for me, these days I don't spend much time around people who think they're entitled to an explanation and defense of every detail of my life. Some want to understand more than they do; I'm happy to help in whatever ways I can. Still others genuinely want to offer support; I am always happy for that.

As for the ones who expect a rationale and defense from you simply for being: They do it in the guise of trying to "understand" you. But what they really want is for you to help them reinforce the status quo that affords them some sort of privilege you don't have. In other words, it is, at best, a form of patronizing--or simply to make them feel less guilty about feeling superior to you.

At least today I didn't have to defend myself against anybody like that. That's why I didn't have to apologize for myself. For that reason alone, it was a really good day for me.

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