31 March 2010
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
(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
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
26 March 2010
25 March 2010
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
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
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
Speaking of sick: My sinuses have been acting up. No wonder I'm feeling tired.
21 March 2010
20 March 2010
19 March 2010
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.