31 March 2010

Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar: A Transgender Woman Murdered In Queens

Yesterday afternoon Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar, a transgender woman whose given name is Edelbuerto, was found naked and strangled in her ransacked apartment.

It's hard not to think it's a murder, although (at the time I'm writing this) the police and city officials can't yet label it as such, for legal reasons.  It's equally difficult not to think that her death had something to do with her gender identity and expression.  I mean, why else would her Marilyn Monroe photos have been destroyed? And why would she have been stabbed in the neck and chest several times in addition to having been strangled?

She lived and died in Ridgewood, a section of the New York City borough of Queens that's only a couple of neighborhoods away from mine.  For two years, I wrote for the Times Newsweekly, the community's local newspaper. I felt as safe in Ridgewood as I have felt in any urban neighborhood in the United States.  I had no fear of walking even the more remote streets of the industrial areas of the neighborhood's periphery after dark.  I even left my bicycle--admittedly, my "beater"--unlocked while I covered school board meetings and other events.  My wheels were as untouched as they would have been had I parked in Bhutan.  I brought Tammy there once; after that, we talked about buying one of the stone or brick houses that line the neighborhood streets.  I really thought I'd introduced her to an urban oasis, if not a paradise.

Then again, I was living as a man in those days, and my waist was sculpted by thirty to fifty miles of daily cycling and my shoulders from the weights I lifted every day.  And my clothes, hairstyle and other markers of gender identity were completely congruent with those of other  men of that neighborhood, and American culture generally.  Plus--I never thought of this until now, at least not in reference to the time I spent in Ridgewood--I'm about as white as one can be.

Also, at that time, I didn't know Martin.  He has lived in the neighborhood all of his life.  (Technically, his place is in neighboring Glendale, which is a very similar kind of neighborhood.)  And he's gay.  While he seems never to have worried about meeting a fate like Amanda's, he has recounted incidents of harassment that stopped just short of physical violence.  Among those with and around whom he's spent his life, he seems to have lived, and to be living, by a variation of "don't ask, don't tell."  It seems that everyone knows about his sexual orientation, but he cannot talk to anyone about, say, his boyfriend(s), the way straight people can talk about their dates, lovers or spouses.  He seems to find the arrangement no more bizarre than his neighbors and friends think it is.

In an environment like that, you get along by going along.  The highest compliment someone can pay a neighbor is that he or she "doesn't bother anybody."  And that is what someone said about Amanda yesterday.

It's not a hard sentiment to understand, especially once you've cycled the neighborhood streets and talked to local residents, most of whom are blue-collar workers and their families.  People move to the fortress-like (though still very atttractive) stone and brick houses that line many of the neighborhood streets after working for years to save for the down payment.  Those houses look almost exactly as they did when they were first built between 100 and 80 years ago by German immigrants.  They are investments, shrines, heirlooms and fortresses, all at once, and their owners don't want them defaced.  (Nowhere is graffiti more detested than it is in that part of Queens.)  They help to make the neighborhood all but irresistible to those who want peace, stability and security above all else.

Those qualities make such a neighborhood attractive to transgenders, too.  After Tammy and I split up and I started to live as Justine, I nearly moved there myself.  It's never been known as an LGBT enclave, as parts of Jackson Heights and Astoria (where I now live) are.  However, in addition to Martin, I know of a few other gays and transgenders who live there.  I won't tell you who they are, as the only person I'll ever "out" is myself!  Any LGBT person I mention on this blog has made his or her identity public or has been cloaked with a pseudonym.

Anyway...I never knew Amanda, so whatever I say of her thoughts or motivations is speculation on my part.  Still, I am confident in saying that she probably felt some level of safety and security in living there.  I'm guessing that she also lived "under cover":  From the photos I saw of her, I'd say that she "passed" well enough to go "stealth."  And, because most people in the neighborhood don't want to upset its serenity, they probably left her alone, even if they knew her identity.

Of course, the scenario I've just described has its own perils.  One is isolation.  Most people in the neighborhood are polite; some are cordial.  But the extent of people's interaction with their neighbors is dictated by the amount of time they spend outside those stone and brick walls.  This may have been one of the reasons why it took several days for anyone to realize that Amanda had gone missing, or that some other terrible fate had befallen her.

Now they are mourning her.  So, in my own way, am I.  If we--that is to say, our souls--go anywhere after this life, I hope Amanda finds love and acceptance there.

30 March 2010

Penner Agonistes

Last night, Gunnar sent me an article about Mike Penner/Christine Daniels.  I guess it was supposed to be a sort of post-mortem.  As such, I guess it's all right.  It does talk about Penner/Daniels' career and gender identity conflict.  

(From this point, I will refer to Penner/Daniels by male pronouns and his given name.  I do not mean this as a judgment of his gender or identity.  I never met him, so I cannot even form an opinion about that.  Plus, I don't think it's my place to decide whether or not someone is "really" trans, or gay, or anything else.  I am referring to him as male only because he was living as one, and by his given name, at the time of his death.)

However, the article shares the same flaw with just about every news story I've read about transgender people:  It focuses on the ways in which its subject fits into the traditional narrative about transgender people--almost to the point of making the subject a caricature-- and why that is ultimately the subject's undoing.

One thing the article doesn't do is to discuss the role the Los Angeles Times--whom he served as a sportswriter for 23 years-- played in his coming out, transition and decision to return to living in his former identity.  I guess that's not surprising, given that the article appeared in that same newspaper and was written by one of its staff writers.

I'm not saying that the Times is responsible for his suicide.  What I do believe, however, is that they treated his plight as any media outlet would:  as a sensational news story.  And just about any print newspaper is desperate to sell copies these days.  What could be more of an attention-getter than having one of the newspaper's more prominent writers--who covered sports, which is the most "macho" of beats with the possible exception of crime--"come out" in full view of the public?

If nothing else, it gave the newspaper "creds" with a good part of its readership.  The "quiet, circumspect" Mike became "ebullient and outgoing" Christine under the tolerant auspices of the nation's second-largest newspaper.   What newspaper wouldn't want that sort of publicity, especially in a place as cosmopolitan as L.A.?

On the other hand, Mike wanted to "quietly" transition into becoming Christine. I can fully understand why:  My own social worker, himself a female-to-male, warned me about making my transition "too public."  Turns out, he was right, in some ways:  Transitioning publicly, even for the smallest of audiences, puts you under a microscope.  Everything you do becomes evidence that you've either "gone too far" in living in your "new" gender or that you're not really fit to be part of it.   Sometimes the very same people will make those seemingly-contradictory judgments!  And, if you haven't yet developed a strong sense of who you are, it can destroy you.  Something like that happened to Mike Penner.

Also, when you are transitioning in a very public forum, institutions as well as people will try to "use" your transition for their own purposes.  One minute you make them look good and feel good about themselves for having "tolerated" you or, worse (at least when you're just starting to live in your "new" gender), you become a tool for whatever other purposes or causes they may have.  And, sometimes they'll publicize or simply expose you in ways for which you're not yet ready.   Worst of all, those people and institutions start to act as if they're entitled to use all the details of your life in whatever ways they see fit--and in ways they would never tolerate anyone using their lives and secrets.  

And everything they say about you has an undertone or overlay of sex.  That is, of course, the reason why they'll shun you or stab you in the back later on.

In brief, they build you up so they can use you and tear you down, stab you in the back or cast you aside when you've become "too big" or when you're simply no longer the flavor-of-the-month.

I have experienced everything I've described in the two preceding paragraphs--in the place where I was working during the first two years I lived as Justine, but also with an LGBT organization for which I was a volunteer.  Somehow I got through it:  I guess that my sense of who I am developed, along with the thickness of my hide.

And that is what, it seems, didn't happen to Mike Penner.  I can't say exactly why; from what I've heard and read, it seems that he found himself living as Christine before she had a chance to develop and she had a chance to understand her.

That is what people like the writer of the article never seem to understand:  The "new" gender is an identity that is developing, not just a costume to be stepped into.  Anyone who's being born and goes out into society for the first time--at whatever age--is embryonic, a work in progress or whatever you want to call it.  The way I see myself now, not to mention what I've become, is in some ways different from what I envisioned when I first started my transition, not to mention what I foresaw when I was "crossdressing."  

That, of course, is one of the reasons why we have a "real-life test."  But I think some trans people need even more than that.  I feel sometimes that transgenders are expected, and expect themselves,  to take over the role of a full-formed, full-fledged member of their "new" gender, whatever that may mean to them.  So living full-time in their "new" gender is a sort of bullfight that has to end in the death of the person in the "old" gender.  However, as we've seen, it sometimes ends--as it did for Mike Penner and Christine Daniels--in the death of both selves.  

What is needed, then, is room for someone who wants to live as the "opposite" gender not only to do so, but to really find out what that might mean for him or her self.  That way, if someone decides that he or she has a different idea about his or her  gender identity--or what living in the "new" gender may mean--he or she can modify his or her course, or abandon it altogether.  There would be no shame or accusations that he or she "flip-flopped," and it would be possible to live enriched by the experience of both selves, even if one is aborted.

These days, most people-- even most sportswriters, at least in this country--don't care much for bullfights.  So why should they encourage someone to live one--or try to live one themselves?  

29 March 2010

Palm Sunday During Wartime

Yesterday I took a walk "around the block" that turned into an eight-mile trek.  I started out late in the afternoon, knowing that there were still a few hours of daylight remaining and the possibility of more rain looming.  But the rain held out until I was literally around the corner from my apartment, and then the soft cascade turned into a torrent literally as I entered the doorway to my building.

Some girls have all the luck, eh?  

My walk took me through past the quiet facades of brick houses.  Inside many of them, families--some consisting of two or three people who may or may not have been related to each other by blood, others that were, in essence, miniature villages--were eating those Sunday meals that are neither lunch nor dinner because they encompass and eclipse both.  Nobody partakes in such a repast if he or she is living alone, and not many young couples or roommates do it.  In other words, it's not for those who "do brunch." The sort of Sunday meal I mean is, almost by definition, a family affair. And, as often as not, it follows said family returning from mass or some other religious gathering--especially one of a Sunday like yesterday, which happened to be Palm Sunday.

Even when the bustle spilled out of doors, the streets were still enveloped in that silence--proscribed and followed as if by some unseen, unheard command--that has sealed the people inside those houses away from the cries that, perhaps, they don't or can't see.  Or, by now those voices may be, as far as most people are concerned, mere background noise, like the shows that blare from their televisions during their meals.   

I first noticed that silence--that of damp Sunday afternoons--some time during my childhood.  It seemed to grow more intense, somehow, a year or so into the USA's invasion of Iraq.  By that time, armed Americans had been plying the valleys of Afghanistan for a few years, though it and the Iraq invasion seemed to have endured for far, far longer.  

Some of the funerals that resulted from those imperialist misadventures have, I'm sure, taken place in some along some of those streets I walked.  I saw more than a few flags and banners--and bumper stickers on the parked cars--that read "Support Our Troops" or "Semper Fi."  

What's interesting is that in those working-class Queens neighborhoods--home to many immigrants, some of whom are Muslims--one doesn't find the more overtly aggressive and violent messages (e.g., the bumper sticker that's a "license" to hunt terrorists and features a photo of Bin Laden with a target drawn over it) one finds in other areas.  Instead, people in the areas I saw today seem to have the idea that by "supporting" the troops (whatever that means) or "remembering" 9/11, they are showing that they are loyal Americans.  Given the political and social climate--and what it could become if the economy worsens--I can understand why they'd feel the need to do that.

So why am I talking about the wars or immigrants now?  I don't know.  I just got there somehow, just as I somehow ended up four miles from home on my walk yesterday.

Well, all right:  I think about those wars a lot.  The invasion of Iraq started not long after I'd begun to take hormones and was preparing myself to live full-time as Justine.  I recall understanding, for the first time in my life, that invading another country--especially if no citizen of said country has ever done anything to harm any member of the invading country--cannot be anything but an expression, on the part of the invaders, of profound disrespect for people who just happen to be different from themselves.  I understood, for the first time, that up to that point in my life, I had been part of the very structure--even if I were at the bottom-most rung of its ladder and owned almost nothing of its spoils--that not only carries out such invasions, but doesn't see them as such.

Of course, I wasn't thinking that during my walk--at least, not consciously.  There were only the silence of those streets, the dampness of the air and the rhythm of my steps, all of which somehow kept me walking.

27 March 2010

Wind In The Beginning of Spring

Last Saturday was balmy: I was riding in shorts and a T-shirt. Today I didn't go riding, even though the sky was clear. When I went outside today, I wore a bulky cardigan and my leather jacket.

A cold, windy day very early in the spring has long evoked a particular set of sense-memories for me. You might say they are all related to loneliness.

It has something to do with the fact that my the first couple of days my family spent in New Jersey, after moving there from Brooklyn, were much like today, if I recall correctly. We moved about this time of year: I recall that because spring break was beginning, as it is now. Also, Easter came early that year; on that day, snow and ice fell and covered the still-barren trees and sere grass that surrounded that almost disarmingly (at least for me) spacious house.

So, a day like today, in the early days of spring, makes me think of an empty suburban house with branches still shorn of leaves and a lawn sapped of its color. Some would see that emptiness as spaciousness and the relentless brightness of the sun unfiltered by apertures of leaves as clarity. But for a kid who's just moved from the one and only place he'd ever known, it's enough to turn him into an agoraphobic. On top of that--unbeknownst to him--he would soon enter puberty. For me, it was a kind of prison. Or, more precisely, it was like interment, except that I was alive but couldn't kick because there wasn't enough room. It was confined enough for me to hear the echoes of my own breathing yet just spacious enough for it to reverberate back to me and magnify my pain.

Fortunately for me, that pain--and that puberty--are memories now, evoked by the cold and wind we had today. Those memories include a house into which I could not fit myself, at least emotionally, and a body that would become more inhospitable to, and incongruous with, my spirit.

26 March 2010

A New Girl In Town

Tonight, as I was walking from the bus stop to my apartment, I heard someone call my name.

She was a young trans woman whom I met, by chance, at an ATM the night our second blizzard of the year began. We've talked a couple of times since then.

Marta hasn't been in town very long. She came here from the Philippines, by way of California. She's been trying to get work and her boyfriend just got a job. One thing she knows: Things ain't easy when you don't have work.

Whenever I meet young trans people, I feel a combination of envy toward, as well as fear --and hope--for, them. My envy comes, as one might expect, from my own experience of starting my transition in my 40's. And the fear is, perhaps, also a result of my own story: As much as I would have liked to transition when I was younger, I can hardly imagine what it would have been like. I had fewer emotional and spiritual resources--or, at least, I didn't know how to access them--in those days. Plus, the world was a very different place for LGBT people. That, paradoxically, is what gives me hope: More people understand us, at least in some way, and more also accept us. So girls like Marta (and young trans men) may come of age, and make their lives, in a more tolerant environment than we've had.

Even so, it's hard to start a new life in the gender of our spirits--which so many of us have suppressed--and in a new city. I've done both. I can't say which was more difficult. On one hand, when I lived in Paris, I had some (albeit limited) command of the language and the sheer bullheadedness young people have when they're trying to show that they can do things their elders said they couldn't. But I knew no one, and officials in the City of Light sometimes act like Princes (or Princesses) of Darkness. I don't know what, if anything, I had going for me, save for the fact that I'd been travelling by bike and was therefore not seen as a "typical" American tourist.

On the other hand, when I started my transition, and to live full-time as a woman, I had online as well as face-to-face networks from which I could draw upon other trans people's advice and experience, as well as those of our friends, families, co-workers and those whose missions--whether voluntarily or professionally--are to support us. Those networks didn't exist in my youth. Even so, finding out how to navigate my new path wasn't always easy.

As far as I can tell, I am one of the first parts of the network I hope Marta will develop. She's nervous because she still needs to develop the sense that she has the same right to be who she is that anyone else has to realize themselves. I just hope she doesn't become embittered by other people's hatred and opprobrium. At least she won't get those things from me.

25 March 2010

On The Right: Wishing You Weren't There

One of the courses I teach is Writing for Business. The majority (though not all) of the students in the course are business or accounting majors. That has led me to do something I never would have imagined doing: I now read Business Week and The Economist and peruse various business-related website. Plus, the depression that no politician or banker wants to admit we're in has motivated me to elevate the level of my understanding of economics from non-existent to rudimentary. So I've been reading what I can of various economists and experts in related matters.

As a result, I get almost-daily e-mails from an organization called the Sovereign Society. Now, I haven't nearly enough money to follow any of the strategies they advocate. But their stuff is still interesting to read, for they have been studying and analyzing the situation in ways that nobody in the mainstream media--or in the old-boys' networks of government and finance--more than likely ever will.

One of those writers and advisers for Sovereign is a gent named Bob Bauman. I noticed something in his photos--a sort of body language, if you will, that is visible even in his head shots--that said "gay." (I also saw it in Jim McGreevey before he was "outed.") So I looked him up, and sho' 'nuff...my suspicions were confirmed, big-time.

About thirty years ago, he was one of the rising stars of the nascent modern conservative movement. He represented the Eastern Shore of Maryland in Congress. He played more than a bit role in helping Ronald Reagan win the presidency. But just a few weeks before the election, Bauman was caught soliciting a sixteen-year-old male prostitute. So, while other Republicans swept into office on Reagan's coat-tails, Bauman lost his re-election bid. He tried to withdraw from the race, but his party's leaders wouldn't let him.

In short order, he lost--in addition to his congressessinal seat-- his family, his historic home and most of his wealth. Onetime friend and allies like Richard Viguerie villified him; so did people on the left, including most LGBT activists.

He would become an advocate for gay rights--reluctantly, he said. And he claimed that if he had his "druthers," he wouldn't be gay. But, he realized, he had no choice in the matter.

If I had been paying attention to the story at the time it unfolded, I don't know how I would've felt about him or his actions. It's no surprise that, for a long time neither the conservatives who were once his fellow-travellers nor gay activists trusted him. Nor did anybody in between. Honestly, I couldn't blame any of them: I probably wouldn't have trusted him, either.

But, I must say, becoming a gay-rights advocate counts for something. And, I respect--greatly--that he would not "out" anyone.

Even more important, though, I can empathise with him, at least to some degree. Now, I am not sure that I would choose to be anything but what I am, at least in regards to my gender and sexuality. For a long time, I wished I could live as a heterosexual man, and I took a sort of behaviorist approach: If I acted like a straight guy, I'd be one. Or so I told myself. And nearly every gay man or lesbian who married someone of the opposite sex--as Bauman did--is engaging in the same sort of denial as I was. Now I feel at least some sympathy for anyone who feels the need to do similar things--especially for people like Bauman, who are about my parents' age. There simply was practically no other way for someone of that time to negotiate his or her sexuality.

Some might argue that his conservatism was a way of "butching up." Perhaps it was. So, for some gay men and trans women, was playing sports or doing any number of other "masculine" activities. But I think that it's not the whole story. Rather, I believe that Bauman's political conservativism was an attempt to integrate himself with mainstream Americans who want the house in the suburbs and the things that go along with it.

Plus, it's still difficult for me to believe that governments can actually make life more tolerable--by keeping people from expressing prejudices--when said governments have been the very agents, at times, of the violence and oppression we experience. Also, if you're anything like me, you simply have difficulty trusting anyone with authority.

That is one reason why I'm not sold on the new health care law and, in some way, I don't want to be. Likewise, I don't really like supporting gay marriage legislation because I really believe that the government shouldn't be in the marriage business at all. However, if the government is going to decide who is married and who isn't, I want gay marriage to be a guaranteed right if only so that gays will be that much closer to equaity with everyone else. It's probably the best we can do under the system we have. But I still don't think it's a great idea.

Oh...If only I were naturally inclined to be a liberal or progressive. Well, at least I'm not in denial about the woman I am: I've embraced it. After that, how hard can anything else be? Right, Bob Bauman?

24 March 2010

After The Trauma

Today I taught two sections of the intro to literature classes. They are normally different, as the earlier class has more mature, or at least older, students than the later class. In the earlier class, it seemed that the students had read the works I assigned and took good notes on them. On the other hand, it seemed that only a couple of students in the later class had done the assignment.

Fortunately for me, I was observed in the earlier class. And I was observed by the prof with whom I began to develop something of a rapport last semester. She was the same prof whom I'd assumed was feeling self-important over having gotten a prestigious fellowship, or simply didn't like me.

The students were great. But I must have been doing a really good job of teaching. After all, they--including the younger male students--were paying attention to me. And the prof who was observing me is obviously younger and definitely more attractive than I am!

The rest of the day at the college, however, was more of the same insanity that one experiences there on any other given day. Nothing particularly bad happened, at least not to me. Still, I sensed the same sorts of hostility and tension I've been able to practically feel on my skin at that place. Maybe that's what you're supposed to feel after you've been treated as if you have a mental deficiency or character defect when you ask people an honest (though not politically incorrect) question and they attack your integrity or character, or treat you as if you have a mental or character defect.

At least tonight I had dinner with Regina, who used to work at the college. Now she's at LaGuardia Community College, where I used to teach. Ironically (and sadly) enough, she said that she was "traumatized" by her time there. That, in essence, is how I've described my experience at the college in yesterday's posting. For some time after she left, she still expected her current co-workers to act the way her supervisior and the administration at my current college did and still do. In fact, she told me, one of her current co-workers said, "Relax, you're not at (College X) anymore."

At this moment, I envy her that. Of course, I don't want to have no job--or money. I'd just like to be in a situation where more of the people are like Regina, and I don't have to defend myself for trying to do a better job, or simply being who I am.

23 March 2010

The Trauma of The Beginning of Spring

Today everybody looked tired. I thought I might've been projecting, but a few co-workers told me, without my asking or prompting, that they indeed were as tired as I thought they were.

Maybe it had something to do with the rain, which started falling yesterday morning. It hasn't been particularly heavy, but it's been dreary. Although temperatures have been mild, the sort of rain we've had doesn't leave people with the sense that spring is on its way, much less present.

I'm starting to worry about something. Today I bumped into the head of the office of academic advisement, a very nice professor of social work and three Spanish professors who indulge my terrible accent when I speak their language. I hadn't seen any of them in some time, and they were all very friendly to me. In fact, the Spanish profs--all female, two of whom are, as best as I can tell, straight--embraced me warmly. Somehow, though, I felt lonelier after seeing them, as well as the social work prof and the director of advisement.

Lately, I notice that whenever I'm at the college and not in the classroom, or otherwise working with students, I feel like a stone in an ocean. Seeing the people I saw today made me realize that so much has passed and, in some way, I am a different person now because of it. It's almost as if they were talking to someone who doesn't exist anymore. In a very real sense, he doesn't. Nor does she: the one who followed him and preceded me.

Some people are committing all sorts of petty treachery. Others, I think, have tried to be friendly or at least have made gestures toward that. Somehow they are more more alienating than the ones who are hostile or treacherous.

Maybe I'm suffering from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. Memories bubble to the surface and I don't want to talk to other people, even if they ask how I'm doing. If I were going to tell the truth, I'd say that during the past couple of days, all I can think about are the people who were once in my life but are gone from this life. They were friends, lovers and relatives who, in one way or another, had to deal with their own sorts of pain, as I had to deal with mine.

In my case, I didn't know how much pain I was in until I wasn't in it anymore. That's something I don't expect most people to understand. My old social worker and therapist, on the other hand, probably would have understood. In fact, they both said that the experience of being in the closet, not to mention the prejudice and sometimes violence we experience and internalize, is a kind of trauma. And in that sense, they said, helping LGBT people is often like helping trauma victims.

It's the beginning of spring. But the harshness of winter is neither so far in the past nor from the surface. Or so it seems.

22 March 2010

Spring Has Arrived: Waiting for Spring Break

Another week back at the college. That, after a picture-perfect weekend. I hope next week is something like this weekend was. Whatever the weather may be, next week can't come fast enough. Most of my students, I'm sure, concur with me: It's Spring Break. They're all sick and tired, at least of school. Then again, some of them are in school because they got sick and tired of other things, such as their jobs.

Speaking of sick: My sinuses have been acting up. No wonder I'm feeling tired.

21 March 2010

Back to Normal: Change

You might say that I'm feeling that life is returning to normal. As if it ever was!

Yes, that ride yesterday kicked my keyster (sp?). Since I'm a lady, I can't use that more colloquial word that rhymes with "grass." Besides, I think the alliteration works rather nicely, if I do say so myself!

Anyway...About the only ways yesterday's ride felt different from the same ride at other times in my life are that I felt more tired and that I was a bit sore in some of my new privates. I expected both, so today I took it easy: I washed some clothes and graded a bunch of papers. And, when I finally woke up this morning, I made myself two crepes filled with sour cherry compote I made from scratch shortly before my surgery. Compotes and preserves are delicious paradoxes: They are best made with fresh, in-season, locally-grown fruit, but they taste better after being stored for a while. Tomato sauce, which I also make, is that way, too.

The soreness is all but gone. At least around my tender parts, it is. My muscles are another story. Oh, here's something I didn't mention in yesterday's post: I was riding my fixed-gear bike. So, even though I wasn't going very quickly, my legs were moving as long as my wheels were rolling. And, paradoxically, going downhill is as much of a workout for your legs (if not your lungs) as climbing. You see, when you ride a "fixie", you almost have to backpedal at the same time you're pedalling forward. So you really use those muscles and tendons in your legs, especially in the back of your thighs! The hot bath helped, but I still feel a bit of stiffness.

It's kind of funny to talk about things being, or returning to, "normal" after you've had a major life-changing event. It's just as funny to think that you've had such a life-changing event if things are returning to what they were before the event--or, more precisely, if you're returning to something that you did regularly before the change.

Then again, the beginning of spring is as much about the beginning of new lives as it is about continuing--or, in some cases, resuming--the cycle of life. And, if my understanding of Zen, or my memory of my long-ago reading of the Tao Te Ching (sp?) serves me correctly, life is change. Really, I don't know what else it can be.

That means I'm definitely living. If my definition of life is self-serving, then so be it. I'm happy to be part of the cycle.

20 March 2010

A Journey Through Change: It Remains The Same

Today I took the longest ride I've taken since my surgery. I pedalled about 40 miles and more or less reprised a ride I did once just before Memorial Day, and once again shortly afterward. I'll probably sleep very, very well tonight!

After crossing the Queensboro (a.k.a. "59th Street") Bridge, I rode up Third Avenue to East Harlem, where I traversed Manhattan on 119th Street. Then, I pedalled along the streets that box in Mount Morris Park and made another turn onto a street full of beautiful brownstones, which I followed to St. Nicholas Avenue. I used to ride that way often when I was working for Macmillan Publishing, on 53rd Street and Third Avenue, and living in Washington Heights.

With all of the changes that have overtaken the rest of Manhattan--Most of the places in which I lived and worked are all but unrecognizable--the St. Nicholas corridor looks much as it did long ago. The people all look either very young or very old; most of the buildings are sad and worn, though seemingly not much more so than they were back in the day. Among those sooty brick tenements, on the right side (as you go uptown) of the avenue, there's a place called Alga Hotel which, remarkably, looks as it did all of those years ago. Its exterior is painted an almost-tropical shade of electric blue, which is utterly incongruous with its surroundings but wouldn't look out of place in Miami Beach or some other place with lots of warm weather and Art Deco architecture.

It has been at least twenty-five years since I first saw the place. I don't recall it painted in any other color, and it never looks particularly worn or weathered. However, it has always looked sad. It's tempting to say that the place seems sad and forlorn in spite of its bright exterior. However, I think that hue actually adds to, or helps to create, the aura of gloom because it so belies what I imagine the inside to be like: I have no proof, but somehow I have always guessed that it was and is a welfare hotel or one of those places that charges by the hour.

Anyway, the neighborhoods are much as I remember them, save for Columbia-Presbyterian's research building, which stands on the site once occupied by the Audubon Ballroom--where Malcolm X was assassinated--and always seems to be expanding. A few more blocks up, I came to the entrance ramp for the George Washington Bridge's walkway. I don't think I can recall seeing so many cyclists or pedestrians, not even in May or June. Then again, I'm not surprised: The temperature rose to about 75 F (24C), the warmest we've had in months. Many of those cyclists were, I'm sure, on their bikes for the first time this year. I haven't ridden a whole lot more than they've ridden!

From the Jersey side of the bridge, I rode past immaculate and sometimes ostentatious houses and stores that had little charm save for the fact that they line the ridge of the Palisades and offer spectacular views of the Hudson River and the city. The streets full of those houses and stores climb the rock outcroppings and end in James J. Braddock Park, a rather charming spot that features, among other things, baseball fields, picnic areas and a pond. Until I Googled his name, I didn't realize Braddock was a boxer. (Then again, I know practically nothing about the sport.) He defeated Max Baer for the heavyweight title he lost two years later to Joe Louis.

The last time I rode through that park, the sun was setting and it was Saturday night. As I pedalled through it this afternoon, the sun shone brightly and spring was beginning.

I continued my ride through North Bergen, Weehawken and Union City, where most of the signs were in Spanish and the air filled with the aroma of roasting meat and spicy sandwiches and tortillas. The next time I ride that way, I'm going to stop in one of those cafes.

Finally, I reached the Hoboken waterfront, where I slurped down an Italian ice--half wild black cherry, the other half vanilla-- from Rita's. They were giving out ice free samples, and the one I got was very good. I'll be stopping there, too, on my next ride.

I never saw that promenade so filled with people as it was today. It wasn't just an unusually warm and sunny day for this time of year, or simply the first day of spring; it was one of those days most people would have prized at just about any time of the year.

The waterfront promenade in Jersey City was also thronged. I could almost feel the Beatles' Here Comes The Sun playing in the background: People seemed joyful, or at least relieved. This winter, while colder than last winter, still was not unusually so. However, we had two blizzards and one other major snowstorm, and most of the weather between those snowfalls was simply dreary. If this winter was a war, people were acting as if they were seeing the Armistice when in fact today and the past couple of days might be more like a truce or a cease-fire.

After I left Jersey City, a fairly brisk wind began to blow from the southeast and into my face. I pedalled into that wind through Bayonne and over the eponymous bridge into Staten Island. Then, along Richmond Terrace, which winds along New York Bay-- where one can see rusted hulks of containers and the ships onto which they were loaded or from which they were unloaded-- until the road makes a sharp turn just before reaching Snug Harbor, a mansion owned by the Vanderbilts and surrounded by some of the most beautiful and interesting gardens one will find. When it's open, you can see more than 400 species of roses, among other plants, as well as one of the best views of New York's harbor and skyline.

Just past Snug Harbor was a donut shop where I've stopped on previous rides. The proprietor, an older Italian man who always seemed to remember me even when a long time passed between visits, always allowed me to use his remarkably clean bathroom even though an "Out of Order" sign always hung on its door and I saw him refuse other customers. And I would always buy a cup of tea and a pastry that looked and tasted like a cross between a pain au chocolat and a cinnamon roll for my trip on the Staten Island Ferry, which was only a couple of blocks away.

However, that donut shop is gone now, just nine months after the last time I stopped there. In its place is a "gourmet" food shop. Why does every other little convenience store have to call itself that?

And here is something else I don't remember from the last time I took this ride: the security measures you have to go through in order to get on the ferry. You're allowed through a checkpoint and ordered into a waiting area, which consists of a few benches in front of a security guards' booth, and a bicycle rack off to the side. All of this is ringed by fences, into which a guard brought what looked like a Labrador to sniff my bike. Other cyclists, who came a few minutes after me, got the same treatment. It all felt rather like entering an airport staffed by junior high school substitute teachers.

The ferry ride itself remains one of the best things in this world one can do for free. The boat docked at the ancient pier and gangplank, which led to a new ferry and subway terminal that had just opened not long before the last time I did this ride.

Now I wonder about some of the other rides I did regularly before my surgery. Will anything along those routes have changed during the months and seasons that have passed?

19 March 2010

The Day Before, Again

Tomorrow is the first day of spring, at least officially. But the past couple of days have felt as if we were weeks into that season, and today was even warmer than yesterday. That made it rather odd to see that the trees are still bare and that there is only mud where flowers have bloomed and will bloom again.

The sunset therefore had an almost-otherworldly glow too it. It didn't have the deep refulgence of an autumn sunset, but it had its own life and warmth. I would call it "vivid" except that the oranges and mauves and reds smoldered rather than burned: Those pastel hues seemed almost to be a refraction or inversion of ashen winter skies.

More of the same is forecast for tomorrow. That may well be the only thing in my life that's so predictable right now.

18 March 2010

Another Day After

Today the weather was even nicer than it was yesterday. But I didn't ride my bike to work. I had a very early class. That wouldn't have been a problem: In fact, it would have been nice to ride even earlier in the morning than I rode yesterday. However, I woke up too late for that. I didn't set my alarm clock because I fell asleep while reading a student's paper. The funny thing is that I didn't feel tired immediately after getting home. I guess it caught up with me. Plus, dilating and taking my requisite hot bath afterward was probably not the best preparation for reading papers, or doing any other kind of work!

Well...at least I've ridden to work once this week. Maybe next week I'll make cycle to work a couple of times. The following week will be Spring Break. Hopefully, I'll get to ride some more then.

Maybe, once I lose some weight, I should move to Provence or Tuscany--or, perhaps, to some European city. Once I get my Miss Mercian, I'll be the most stylish cyclist anyone will ever see!

Actually, Provence and Tuscany are appealing after the kind of weather we've had this winter. I don't mind the cold or snow so much; some city blocks are rather charming in a Currier and Ives Christmas card sort of way when they're blanketed in white. But other parts of this city, like the campus and its surroundings, are rather grim in the winter.

And the college itself, save for the students, feels grimmer by the day. I'm starting to wonder whether--actually, doubt that--it will lift with the weather. The administration is trying to make the college a better place, at least academically, and I think that, at least to some degree, they're succeeding. But they're also running the place as if everyone is guilty until proven innocent. They accuse us of things we haven't done and, in turn, supervisors are treating their charges in the same way.

Plus, I feel more and more that I'm in junior high school without the friends--few though they were--I had during my first pubescence. Even the "cool" kids, whom people like me hated because we weren't among them, are absent. Instead, what we have, at least in some of the people there, are the kinds of people who bully because they got bullied when they were at that age. Sometimes I wonder whether education (or, at least, education administration) generally attracts those sorts of people.

Maybe I'll feel better about the place after Spring Break. At least, I still hope for that.

17 March 2010

Cycling to Work for The First Time In My (Current) Life

Today I rode my bike to and from work for the first time since June. The day could hardly have been better, at least for this time of year: the sun had no competition save for a chilly breeze this morning, and I could feel my nose and sinuses clearing from the crisp air.

I took what is probably the flattest route between my apartment and the college. It's also the most diverse: along the way I pass through industrial and commercial as well as residential areas; I pass by hospitals and a court house, and over two highways. Along the way, I see every kind of person one can imagine: blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos; hipsters as well as Orthodox Jews, Muslims and Hindus and women who smooth their pencil skirts as they step out of black cars as well as construction workers who look like they fell asleep wearing the same overalls and jackets they were wearing on the job.

And I made better time than I'd anticipated, even though I was slower than I was the last time I pedalled to work. But I felt surprisingly limber and graceful, given how little I've ridden and that I've gained some weight. I wasn't in any pain, although I felt a sort of lightheaded giddiness. Why wouldn't I feel giddy?: I was outrunning cars stuck behind other cars that were double-parked and someone actually pulled up alongside me to yell, "Nice legs" and try to chat me up. What can I tell you? I guess some guys like seeing a woman pump her legs!

Plus, it's fun to hear people say you have a "nice glow." Some wink and nudge you; I give them a mysterious, mischievous grin. See that? You ride to work and will make you healthy and sexy! ;-)

I guess I was, if nothing else, convincingly Irish, or--at least from fifteen feet away--a convincing imitation of most people's idea of one. I have more or less the right colorings, and I was wearing my pine-green twinset and semi-opaque pantyhose that matched. (When I bought the pantyhose, I didn't know they'd be such a good match!) I also wore my tan corduroy skirt and a pair of metallic gold-beige flats in a sort of animal-hide pattern, and set off the outfit with a silk and velvet jacquard scarf in black with a pattern of leaves in varying shades of green. In that outfit, I rode on my old Raleigh women's Sports three-speed bike.

What? You were expecting me to wear black Spandex and ride a carbon-fiber bike on St. Patrick's Day?!

The funny thing is that riding to--and from--work didn't make me feel like I was returning to an old routine or to "normal," whatever that means. Rather, I felt that I was starting a new chapter of a book I opened eight months ago. I felt even more confident than I normally do; when a coordinator in my department spoke to me in a snidely condescending way, I realized that I have grown and come to understand things that he hasn't, and possibly never will. Marion implied as much and Michelle, a former student of mine whom I bumped into at the end of the day, expressed the belief that I'm growing beyond the bounds of that place, which are defined by the boundaries people have within themselves.

I'm feeling very sleepy now. Maybe it's because of the ride: To and fro, I did close to twenty miles. Even though I did my return trip eight hours after going to work, the amount of riding I did today is still quite a bit, given how little I've ridden. I probably won't ride tomorrow simply because I have to go in very early tomorrow and it will be a very long day. But I hope to be riding every day very soon.

16 March 2010

Easter's Coming And I Can Use A Resurrection of My Own

Regina called a little while ago. I haven't seen her since the summer and haven't talked to her in a few months. We made plans to have dinner next week. I am not merely looking forward to it; I feel as if I am looking at an oasis that's within sight, if not within reach.

I feel the same way about my parents' planned visit. I hope they stay well enough to make the trip. I also hope that Marilynne and her daughter can make the trip they'd been talking about, or that I can see them again soon, one way or another.

Yesterday morning Millie stopped by just before I left for work. It was about the only thing--besides a conversation I had with Marion, an adjunct prof who recently divorced and is now caring for her elderly father--that got me through the days' work yesterday or today.

Marion thanked me for the bits of advice I've given her about navigating the college and for my offers to help her. It's strange: Sometimes it doesn't occur to me that I've done anything for someone until she thanks me for something that, until she thanked me, I'd forgotten about. And, at other times, I give until I have nothing left to give and people only remember what I didn't give them because I didn't have it.

Then again, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised: I realize that on my current job, whatever praise or rewards I've been given have had almost nothing to do with how well I did anything, and I've been ostracized or even penalized when I was doing my best and actually getting something done. Worse, the more I do, and the more I try to be a "good" citizen of the college by working voluntarily on various projects and committes, the more alienated I feel. I can honestly say that when I'm on the campus but not in the classroom, I feel more like a stranger than I did on my very first day there.

And, as I mentioned in an earlier post, faculty members whom I once thought to be friends--because they told me they were--and allies have, so far, been anything but.

What all of that means is that I'm in a dysfunctional environment. And, it seems, the more anyone--like the provost--tries to impose order upon it, the more dysfunctional--or, at least, asynchronistic--it becomes.

Perhaps that's the reason why I've felt so tired most of the time, as I do now. And it's the reason why I want friends and family--particularly the females--around me now. They are an antidote to the games and all-around pettiness and game-playing I'm experiencing from some of my co-workers, particularly the female colleagues who liked me until I got my surgery.

Oh well. I didn't do--or not do--my surgery or anything else for, or in spite of, them. I'm not about to start now.

14 March 2010

Recovering From An Earlier Season

Heavy rain continued to fall this morning, but it had tapered off to a drizzle by the middle of the afternoon. I went out for a walk; I actually rather enjoy the drizzle, even on a rather chilly day.

A few people strolled with their dogs. All of the canines seemed to know me, even though I couldn't recall seeing any of them before and I haven't had a dog in a long time. Do they know that I have two cats? Sometimes I think I should have been a veterinarian.

Anyway...Another season will soon have passed. In three weeks, it will be Easter. Mom and Dad plan to come up this way that weekend. As we grow older, they talk a lot about what could have been or, at least, what they wish the past had been like. I suppose just about everybody does that. And I suppose that the things they missed, or the things they would do if they could go back in time, aren't so different from what many other people would have wanted. He says he would have liked closer relationships with his family and wishes that he had more of a life outside of work. So many other men of his generation--who similarly devoted themselves, whether out of necessity or choice, to their jobs and careers-- say such things. She says that she would have married and had kids later than she did, after getting more education than she has. Other women--who, like her, followed the unwritten timetables women of their generation followed-- have told me similar things.

For me, thinking about what might have been becomes very complicated. On one hand, there are some aspects of my earlier life that were very good. For one, I had--and, thankfully, have--a great mother. A social worker with whom I talked as I was about to start my transition said that I was one of the few women, trans or otherwise, she met who didn't have "mother issues." And, I had the opportunity to travel and do some other interesting things. However, there is that one huge "what if"--about my identity, of course: What if I had been raised as a girl named Justine, or with any other girl's name? What if I could have experienced my birthdays, the holidays and the seasons as the person I actually am?

Even though the past few months have included a bit more drama than I'd anticipated, I still feel that in some way it's been a kind of hibernation. I don't mean that in a negative way: These past few months have been a time to recuperate. In the summer--or the part of it that remained after my surgery--and for the early part of the fall, I was recovering physicall. During that time, I also experienced another kind of recovery, which has continued: from my previous life, or more precisely, its effects.

Probably the worst thing about my previous life, and the thing that has made much of my recovery necessary, is a particular psychic scar that is just starting to fade. All of my life, I somehow felt "less than." Other people could find happiness and fulfillment in marriage and families; I could not. They could feel comfort in their own bodies and secure in their persons; I could not. They could love and be loved, by others and themselves; those things, it seemed, were not permitted to me. And, perhaps worst of all, they could be unselfconscious in ways that I could never be: They did not have to censor themselves in expressing their desires and dreams.

Now I realize why the college feels so oppressive to me: There are a lot of people there who don't--and possibly don't want to--realize that I am not "throwing my sexuality in anyone's face." For that matter, I'm not throwing anything in anyone's face. Other people can keep photos of their spouses and talk about their kids, and no one thinks it's "obnoxious." Or they can announce that their getting married or that a kid's on the way and no one expresses discomfort.

But when you're trans--or gay, for that matter--people ask, and then they're upset with you for answering--or not answering--them. Or else someone in a position of authority tells you "It's not an issue as long as you don't make it so," then treats you in exactly the kinds of ways that can lead you only to the conclusion that your "issue" really is the issue.

What they don't realize is how much privilege they have because their gender expression and sexual inclinations are so assumed to be the normal ones that they're almost never noticed, let alone mentioned. Shortly into my transition, I realized that privilege is something that you don't realize you have until you lose it.

Maybe that's why lately I've felt frustrated and drained when I'm at the college and not in the classroom: It's a reminder of the inferiority complex that I had internalized so thoroughly, from which I am only beginning to recover.

13 March 2010

Another Tempest (a Nor'easter, actually)

What a wild season this is! Here in New York, we have had hurricane-force winds and, according to the most recent measurement in Central Park, four inches of rain so far today. And it's supposed to rain, though not quite as much, tomorrow.

Canal Street in Manhattan just may live up to its name. If it does, will free gondola service be provided? The street used to be the unofficial boundary between Chinatown and Little Italy. But, as there aren't many Italians left (and Chinese people have taken their place) in the latter neighborhood, I don't know who'll sing "O Sole Mio" or whatever the Venetian gondoliers sing.

I guess that means we'll have to take the Queen Elizabeth II--or Le Bateau Ivre. Whichever one comes, I hope it's not bearing the Right Duke of Milan and his daughter.

And we're supposed to get more of the same tomorrow, except that the wind won't blow and the rain won't fall as hard as it did today.

Two weeks ago, we had one of the most intense blizzards in the history of this area. I was going home the night it started. There seemed to be no defense against it: The wind blew umbrellas apart and dense snowflakes into people's faces. Today's storm has been like that one with warmer (though not warm!) weather: If anything, the wind is even more intense now, so there is no escape from the rain.

Oh well...Time to move the clocks ahead, let Charlie and Max cuddle me and fall asleep. Actually, I'm falling asleep already. So, before I type something I regret, I'll let the rain and my cats work their magic on me and lead me into dreamsville.

12 March 2010

Clarity After The Tempest

Last night, after work, I went to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to see a production of The Tempest by Shakespeare. It turned out to be exactly what I wanted, and needed.

From the first time I read the play--more years ago than I'll admit!--I used to identify with Caliban more than any other character I have encountered in literature. Sometimes I still do. After all, he is reviled simply for being: he is the deformed child of Sycorax, a witch long dead by the time Prospero arrives in exile. He is also the only non-spiritual native of the island.

Ron Cephas Jones, the actor who portrayed Caliban, was amazing: He conveyed so much of his character's anger, subversiveness--and humanity--through his eyes alone. With his performance, even someone who's never before read or seen the play could be convinced that "You have taught me language/And the profit on't is, I can curse" can come out of the same mouth as the one who, not much more than an hour later (The action in the play takes place in real time, in contrast to most of Shakespeare's other plays, in which the action can take place in several locations and time frames.) would give us the speech that begins with "Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not." To me, that speech is the single most beautiful piece of writing in the English language.

I used to identify with Caliban because I long felt like the "ugly duckling" of my family, school, and of just about any group, institution or situation of which I was a part. I was always under suspicion and therefore expected anyone who had any sort of authority, or simply any kind of approval that I didn't have, to abuse it--against me. Sometimes I still do.

Perhaps some of you will think that I am painting myself as a victim when I say that to get through any given day from the time I was about five until I was forty-five, I had to lie, connive or in some other way be untruthful to myself or deceitful to others. Some people would say that I'm living a lie now: They have said, and continue to say, things like "Just accept that you're a man and deal with it!" Well, that's exactly what I told myself for all of those years--that I am a man and would have to deal with it. Turned out that the first part of that statement wasn't true and that "dealing with" what is true involved doing things that have cost me relationships, not to mention material wealth.

Now, I am not going to get into some discourse in post-colonialism, mainly because I think a lot of the so-called postcolonialists , or people who fancy themselves as such, say some completely absurd and sometimes offensive things, which is a consequence of generating and disseminating arguments that have little, if anything, to do with the issues some postcolonialists suppose themselves and their arguments to be about. (Then again, one can say that for just about any other school of literary criticism or any other "ism.") However, while I am not entirely convinced that Shakespeare was writing a critique of colonialism, slavery or the oppression of women (Miranda, Prospero's daughter, is the only female character seen for any significant amount of time throughout the play.), I think that no one better understood human dynamics, particularly in relation to power and the way it is used and abused. Plus, I can't see how Shakespeare--who, though brilliant, was still a product of his place and time--could not be concerned with issues of revenge, forgiveness and redemption. They are the underlying powers of The Tempest, as they are of so many of his other plays. In fact, it now occurs to me that in that sense, Les Miserables--which, I believe, is still the best novel ever written--is a sort of great-great-great-niece or -nephew of The Tempest.

Anyway...A great thing about the production I saw was that it gave a clear sense that Prospero's relationship with Ariel was, in some ways, as exploitative as his relationship with Caliban. Of course, that was not something I could see when I was addled by the anger I used to feel so strongly that for a long time I could not understand the real source of my anger. Prospero released the "airy spirit" from a tree and keeps him in his debt with a promise to release him from it one day.

It's odd that last week, I was taking the "E" train home from work and saw it as a modern-day slave ship. It runs underground for its entire length and is usually full, which made me think of slaves chained to each other in the lowest levels of the ship. And everyone on that train was going to or coming from a job that was serving someone who had power--sometimes of life and death--over them. And they continue to go to and from those jobs, and submit to the rules and sometimes caprices of their employers out of a fear that they and/or those they love will not survive if they don't submit. Finally, some of them have some vague belief that if they work long and hard enough, and continue to "keep the faith," they and their loved ones will one day be free from worry and want. Their employers--or, more precisely, the culture they represent, if unwittingly--promulgates those beliefs. Anyone who questions, much less challenges, them won't be long for his or her job, and possibly this world.

But this is not to paint such people--or Ariel--as naive simpletons. Rather, they instinctively understand that rebellion and subversion are, by definition, the loneliest of enterprises. Also, sometimes people don't have any choice but to avail themselves to some "rescue" or another, none of which ever comes without some price or another.

I don't know whether it was the production I saw that caused me to finally understand what I've just described about Ariel and his relationship to Prospero. But that relationship was clearly and fully realized in that production. That alone made it worth seeing.

And I now realize that, whatever scars and resentments we have had in common, I have finally become, at least in one way, fundamentally different from Caliban--or, for that matter, Ariel: Now that I have freed myself, at least in a spiritual and psychic sense, I want to do what I can to help others--or, more precisely, help them to develop their means--to break from whatever's enslaving them. I also hope that they'll understand that life is, among other things, an unending process of liberating one's self. Whether we are liberated through pardons, forgiveness, redemption or our own enterprise, there is always another box to emerge from. And for each one there is a different way out.

Now, if I could only do it all as perceptively, and in such beautiful and precise language as Shakespeare rendered it all!