31 January 2011

What You Don't Have To Prove

One of the wonderful things about getting older (Notice that I didn't say "old"!) is that confessions don't seem as self-conscious as they do when they're made earlier in one's life.  That may be the reason why they seem more organic, and simply truer, and why people who know you well aren't surprised--or, at least, aren't taken aback--when you make them.

And so it was when I talked to my mother today.  I said that some people--actually, two in particular--seem annoying, if not spiritually and intellectually vexatious to me now.  At one time, I was grateful for them--at least, that's what I told myself and others--because they at least talked to me and seemed to be making efforts at maintaining relationships with me when others fled.  But when I talk to those two people, I hear the same things over and over again.  Whenever I talk to either of them, they seem to have the need to show me how easily they can spot gay people and that they "have nothing against them" although they will adamantly insist that they themselves are straight.

About their claims:  I really don't care.  If they are straight, gay or whatever, it simply doesn't matter to me:  I'm beyond, or at least past, caring about that.  

Now, if either of them wanted to tell me he is gay (and, yes, I have my suspicions), I would be willing to listen and to give advice, if he wants it.  I've had students and other people "come out" to me, or simply confide what others may have already known about them.  One thing I've learned is that when someone like that confesses his or her deepest desires to me, he or she is looking for, or looking to me as, someone who will not be judgmental and who will simply accept what they say.  On the other hand, people like the two I mentioned aren't looking for anything like that:  Instead, they're trying to prove something they wouldn't have to prove to me if it were true.  No one has to prove that he or she accepts someone else; he or she simply accepts that person, or doesn't.  

Perhaps I am being harsh or cruel in thinking that the two people I mentioned--both of whom are known to everyone in my family--are annoying and, worse, willfully unaware of themselves, when they did, in fact, spend time with me early in my current life when other people abandoned me.  Perhaps I am being ungrateful for the small acts of kindness, or at least courtesy, they performed on my behalf.  But now I realize that not only are they annoyances; they can't be trusted.  Their behavior shows a lack of emotional, if not spiritual, integrity.    Being around them could actually be dangerous for me.

My mother told me not to feel guilty.  "You have a few really good friends," she  said.  "And you could make others, if you want to."

Maybe that's what I want.  I feel ready to make a few changes in my life.  My therapist suggested and my social worker (who is a trans man) said that a year or two (or three) after my surgery, I might experience something like what I've just described.  I know that in going through my transition and surgery, I have had to know myself in ways that most people don't have to know themselves.  Others have tried to tell me not to trust my perceptions; they--at least some of them--are the only things that don't fail me, ever. 

Someone told me that I have a kind of integrity that no one else in her life has.  Perhaps.  What I do know is that having had to ask myself some of the questions only I could answer makes the person I once was seem foolish to now.  And, having had to question absolutely everything in my life--and give up much of it--made me realize that the only thing that actually matters in life is life.  That is exactly the reason why I can't see living in any way but one that's true to who and what I am.  

As far as I can tell, the best definition of courage is a willingness to take a stand on one's own life.  I mean, if you won't stand up for that, what else will you stand up for?  I've also learned that truly courageous people don't have to prove their courage to those who have it, and don't expect it of other people.  Instead, it's something one lives by.  I guess I'm just losing my patience with those who won't.  That's the real reason why I find the two people I mentioned so annoying.

29 January 2011

Alchemy And Invisibilty

In the waiting area of Hannah and Her Sisters' nail salon, I was reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.   A woman about my age, but of experiences and circumstances entirely different from my own, was looking at Cosmopolitan or one of the other magazines one typically finds in a beauty parlor.  (Is that term archaic?  My grandmother used it; I can't recall when I last heard it.)  I probably wouldn't have paid her any more attention had she not asked what I thought of the book.

"Well, I'm not finished with it yet.  But I can see why so many people liked it."

I could see she was disappointed with my response.  She probably wanted me to echo what her friends said about The Alchemist.  Perhaps I would have, had I read it earlier in my life.  Much earlier.  Not earlier in years so much as in my own life experiences.  By that yardstick, most of what happened to me before the age of 45 could just as well have happened to some Phoenician.

Anyway, you can tell already that I'm not impressed with the book.  I'm close to the end of it; I'll probably finish it when I take my bath tonight.  That would be entirely appropriate:  I usually go to bed after taking a bath.

I get the feeling that what makes some people love this book so much is that it has just about the same effect on their minds as a warm bath has on their bodies.  It is to literature as the stuff one feeds toddlers is to food.  

Lest you think I'm being a snotty, snooty English professor, let me explain something about both the book and my proclivities.  Like some of you, I have always found most self-help books annoying at best.  Believe me, I've read more of them--usually under duress--than anyone should.  They talk at you about finding your bliss or realizing your personal myth or some such thing.  They always assure you that, yes, you can do it, but you have to want it.  And if you want it enough, God or The Force or whatever will be on your side.  

I guess they're telling the truth.  After all, at least some people realize their dreams through those books.  I'm talking about their authors who, I suspect, wanted to make a pile of money.  And they all seem to accomplish that.  After all, as several characters in The Alchemist say, when you decide to pursue your own Personal Legend, the universe conspires to support you in that quest.  Someone said exactly the same thing when he was trying to get me to enroll in EST and I said--truthfully--that I didn't have the money.  He told me of people who'd just ate their last can of sardines and, upon deciding to enroll, got letters informing them of trust funds they didn't know they had. I won't argue with him, or Coelho, on that point:  After all, when the authors of these books (or the creators of self-actualization "training seminiars") decide that they want to make money, the forces-that-be seem to line up thousands, or even millions of suckers, er, customers.

The Alchemist is one of those self-help books disguised as a novel.  That makes it all the more annoying because of the book's tone:  It reminds you that its narrator is indeed telling you a fable and that there's a moral in it that you're supposed to learn.  When I first started to read the book, I thought the writing seemed simplistic but told myself that it might just be a matter of something lost in translation.  But I've read enough to have an idea of whether or not something may have been good in the original.  I didn't have that impression of Coelho's writing, at least not in this novel.

But what's bothering me most, aside from its preachiness and mind-numbing repetitiveness, is something that, earlier in my life, I might have noticed but accepted as part of the story:  Its overwhelming sexism.  The males in the story include the protagonist, an Andalusian shepherd boy who decides to literally follow a dream that, according to some old woman in a long skirt, says he will find his "treasure" by the Pyramids.  Now, I know Andalusian and Arab cultures are very different from any in which I've lived.  But I simply can't believe that anyone in those cultures, or any other, would speak the way any of those characters spoke, in any language. Their dialogue reminded me of what I used to hear on Saturday morning cartoons about scimitar-wielding malevolents. 

But you hear it all from the male characters.  The female characters, you hardly hear at all.  I've mentioned one already.  Another is a beautiful young woman the protagonist meets along the way.  And the lines Coelho puts in her mouth are just as improbable as those we hear from the male characters.  But worst of all, she and the seer are exempt or excluded from pursuing their own Personal Legends.  (Coelho actually uses that phrase on every other page.) And what are those personal legends? They're all quests of some kind or another:  finding treasures, winning battles, being successful as businessmen or professionals of one kind or another.  If the legends aren't inherently male (and I don't mean "masculine," whatever that means), the ways in which they're expressed are.  

If Robert Bly got the inspiration for his Iron John retreats from reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull, they might have been, or at least sounded, something like The Alchemist.  Or it's what JLS might've been like had it been written by Joseph Campbell.  

Now, to be fair, The Alchemist probably isn't any more sexist than JLS or anything Campbell or Bly wrote.  But I realized, in reading Coelho's work, that I could never be anything more than a spectator or an accessory in the world it depicts.  No other woman could fare, or hope for, any better.  

That, as much as anything else, disturbed me when reading the novel.  I had become aware, by degrees, of sexism in what I'd read and otherwise experienced long before I started my transition.   In fact, it was the first thing I disliked about Hemingway's work when I was in high school.  But what bothered me then was that the female characters weren't so deftly drawn. In other words, it was more of an aesthetic concern than anything else.  Even though I didn't care for much else about Hemingway's writing, I felt that at least it was a world I could enter and experience.  That is exactly what I didn't feel when reading "The Alchemist."  In fact, I think that for the first time in my life, I felt entirely outside of something I was reading.

Then again, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I feel as I do about The Alchemist. I suppose that my experiences can and should change the way (and, possibly, what) I read.  After all, as my students and I were reading and discussing Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man last week, I couldn't help but to feel I was reading a very different novel from the one with the same name, and by the same author, I'd read more than thirty years ago.  It's a very different book, thankfully, from The Alchemist, if for no other reason than Ellison is a much better writer.  

I can make such a judgment because while Invisible Man is at least as sexist as The Alchemist, I don't feel the same alienation from the story and its characters that I felt while reading The Alchemist.  In addition to his narrative style, Ellison's writing distinguishes itself from his seeming intimacy with the people (the men, anyway) and their motives.  I could actually empathise with the narrator/protagonist of the book, even when he seems foolish.  That may be because I have experienced treachery and betrayal, not to mention outright violence, from people who were supposed to be "friends" of some "community" to which I (at least in their minds) belong.  And, even though the protagonist isn't always what I expect, at least I find his words and reactions plausible in the situations in which he finds himself.  Even the misogyny--which, by the way, comes as much from the protagonist as anyone or anything else in the book--seems plausible, if not defensible.  That's a lot more than I can say for The Alchemist.  And it's the reason why I may read Invisible Man again, but I'll probably leave my copy of The Alchemist for whoever wants to take it.

28 January 2011

Stopping Is Part Of The Journey

I can say with near-certainty that on this date at around this time, ten years ago, I was riding on rollers, which are a kind of treadmill for bicycles.  Back in those days, that's what I did during the winter.  Even after I stopped racing, I still was trying to prove something to myself.  Or, more precisely, to disprove something.

What was it?  Well, before I try to describe, let alone name, it, I have to say that what led me to ride rollers even after my racing days ended was the same thing that kept me training for soccer after I stopped playing it.  I knew full well that I would probably never play again and, even though I enjoyed playing, I wasn't mourning my acknowledgment that my playing days were over.  In fact, I felt surprisingly little.  But I still had the impulse to train as if I were still playing.

Something similar happened after I stopped racing.  Although I'm glad I raced, I wasn't upset when I knew that part of my life was about to end.  And once I "retired," I really had no urge to go back.  However, I wanted to know that I could.  

Why?  Well, I always want to feel as if I start or leave stages and challenges in my life on my own terms.  It's never a good feeling not to do something because you're not capable of it.  The worst of it is that you can't even kick yourself, in hindsight, for lack of effort if you simply didn't have whatever it took to do something that you wanted to do.

Perhaps I never got past or over being the ungraceful, unathletic pubescent child I was.  Until I started training and playing, I was taunted by other kids--and sometimes adults--not only for my seeming lack of athletic ability, but also for my perceived lack of manliness, or even the capacity for becoming a man, whatever that meant.

Those taunts were echoing in some recess of my brain.  That's the reason why, ironically, I spent more time on rollers and trainers in my early post-racing years than I did when I was actually racing.    In an irony within that irony, I was pushing my body--my male body--so hard because I was trying to poound it, or something about it, out of existence altogether, or at least into submission.

I've been on my bike once in the past two weeks.  I'm feeling antsy and hoping that I'm not gaining weight.  (At least I'm not eating any junk.)  But, at the same time, I'm not as ornery as I would've been back in the day.  When I couldn't ride--or after a few weeks of riding rollers or trainers--I used to feel resentful and angry that I couldn't do what I wanted to do but, it seemed, everybody else could.

I think that being off my bike for a few months after my surgery last year made me aware, for the first time in my life, that the times when you recuperate, or simply stop for whatever reasons, are also part of the journey. In fact, those times might be almost as important as the times when we're riding and training.   For some people, it's the only opportunity to reflect on the question of why they are doing whatever they do.

24 January 2011

Yes, We're Guilty. Aren't We Always?

I was "surfing" the radio when I heard the tail end of what seemed to be one of those talk shows geared toward white men who want to turn the clock back to 1945 or thereabouts.  Some right-wing blowhard (Yes, there are left-wing blowhards, too.) said something to the effect that this country is "arguing about gay marriage and gays in the military when we're losing the country."

By "losing the country", I'm sure that he meant that more foreigners are "taking over."  He probably wouldn't care, except that he feels the "changes" are threatening his position, or at least what he fancies it to be, in this country.

How can anyone claim to love this country and say that liberty--at least for, ahem, certain groups of people--sometimes has to take a "back seat" in times of crisis?   I mean, I really don't understand how a debate over gays in the military could have caused, among other things, the stock market crash of 2008 or the subprime mortgage mess. 

Oh, what do I know? 

23 January 2011

Unemployed and Homeless LGBTs: How Many?

The weather forecast is calling for the coldest night in six years.  

I can recall that cold spell.  It was like that winter:  It was brutal and seemed endless.  As I recall, the spring was just a brief respite--a truce, almost--between the cold and snow that seemed to blitz us every day, for longer than they should have,  and the blasts of  heat that came only a few weeks later.  

Back then, I was co-facilitating a group for young LGBT people.  What struck me then was how many of them had no place to go after that group.  A few went to the shelters; others wouldn't because of the violence that, when it didn't erupt in screams and blows, seemed to murmur in rumbles like fighting just on the other side of the line.  Almost no one chooses to go into a line of fire; no one should be foreced to do so.

Unfortunately, for some of those young people, the only alternative was another battle-zone:  the streets. Some spent the nights on them--under highway overpasses or in doorways, until they were chased out. At least three (that I knew of) went home--with whoever paid them, however little, for their bodies.  And one didn't even get paid:  All she got was to lie in a bed but not to sleep in it.  

Except for the times I've gone into a shelter, I never saw as many homeless people in one room as I did during those group sessions.  And, I certainly never saw so many young people who were so desperate.

I won't try to extrapolate what percentage of transgender youth are homeless or what percentage are unemployed, or whatever.  After all, nobody has an accurate count of how many of us there are.  Lots of us--like some members of that group--drop out of school and run away from home because of the beatings they got at school--or on the streets, or even at home.  They are known as boys or girls when they disappear from view of their peers and elders in their communities; they are not classified as transgender (or, for that matter, gay, lesbian or bisexual) in any of their identifying documentation.  They "fall between the cracks" of society's various systems.  

Plus, almost no one, it seems, agrees on who should be classified as LGBT.  If we count only the self-identified, we will miss many more because, if for no other reason,  so many fall "off the radar"--as some members of that group did--and therefore cannot be reached by researchers.  

From what I've just said, such statistics as the unemployment rates of LGBT people cannot be accurately measured  because young people who leave school and home have probably never worked, and therefore cannot be counted as unemployed.  Still others are, like a few members of that group, sex workers of one kind or another.  That's the only work some of them have ever done; tragically, it's the only work that some of them ever have the opportunity to do anything else.  Of course, anyone doing that kind, or any other illegal, work is, as they say, "off the books."

It's widely known that the US Census misses a lot of people.  Many others don't comply with it, and still others give only the barest minimum of information on the Census questionnaires.  So if one of the largest and best-funded operations of its kind can't even find all taxpaying citizens, how can anyone hope to do an accurate count people who never had the opportunity to participate in the legal economy?

So, no one may ever have an accurate count of us, never mind how many of us are homeless, unemployed or victims of crime, including murder.  I am almost entirely certain, however, that we are overrepresented in those categories.  

20 January 2011

OK Now

Yesterday I bumped into somebody I hadn't seen in about two years.  Suzanne and I used to work together; now she's working for herself.  She seems happier--or, at least more "centered", to steal from the lexicon of the so-called New Age movement.  

Some of our colleagues thought she was ditzy.  Truth is, she is, at least about tedious, repetitive tasks--which, I've learned, are the ones you have to do well if you want to win favor with superiors and, often, peers.

But she is far more perceptive in other ways than her detractors could ever dream of being.  And, she does have a heart, even if it leads her to minor excesses.

So I wasn't surprised at her reaction when I mentioned that I've had my operation since I last saw her. Her face took on an expression I hadn't seen before:  a combination of joy and concern.  "That's great!," she exclaimed.  Then, literally in the next breath, "Are you OK?", as if I'd been through a long, painful night.   When I assured her that I've been fine, in some ways I've never been better, she gave me a long hug.  

Afterward, her question--"Are you OK?"--seemed even stranger to me than it did when she asked it.  Although the surgery, like any other, had risks, I felt that whatever I was enduring was less treacherous than just about anything I'd experienced before it.  Some of that, of course, had to do with the trust I had in Dr. Bowers and the staff at the hospital.  But the emotional distress I felt nearly every day before I started my transition was much worse, and in some ways more dangerous, because I had no idea of how or whether any of it would end. And I never saw the purpose of it:  I'm not so sure that it built my "character."  On the other hand, I at least knew why I was undergoing my transition and surgery, and had some idea of how to achieve what I wanted to achieve by becoming Justine.

Yes, Suzanne, I am OK.  I'm still learning about this new landscape I'm navigating, but it makes sense.  And, as you said, We have to keep on learning how to be ourselves.   Yes!  Thank you, Suzanne.

19 January 2011

Along The Way

The strange thing about goals is that, so often, when you reach them, they turn out not to be goals after all.  You realize that they were just landmarks or mileage markers.  Or they were just check-points in which you had to get some imprimatur or another before proceeding.

I'm thinking now about the stages of my transition, and my early life.  I mean what most people would call my current or post-transition life.  Before I came here, taking hormones, getting my name changed, and various other events leading up to my surgery, seemed like destinations at which I'd arrived.  Of course, I always had a longer-term vision of how I wanted to live, as a woman.  But each of those events and accomplishments seemed, at least for the moment, to be like grand train or bus terminals.  Of course, for some people, they mark the end of their trips.  But, for many others, it's just a station on the way to someplace else.

One of the office assistants at work--at the college in which I'd been moonlighting last semester--helped me to realize what I've just said.  The surgery and the events leading up to it were just preludes or prerequisites to what I would do next.  They were not goals unto themselves.  

In talking to that office assistant, I realized that if I'm not at a goal or destination, I'm at least on the road I hoped to take.  Or, at least, it bears a strong resemblance to what I hoped to have.  

I asked her whether the department chair would think I was doing something shady when I talked to a young woman who'd come for an interview.  She was in the office; I asked if I could help.  I forgot what she asked, but I sensed that she just wanted to talk to someone who's encouraging, or at least friendly.  The assistant and the department chair both saw me talking to this young woman.  "I hope she doesn't think I was coaching her or doing something I shouldn't be?"

The assistant's looked at me with a touch of pity.  "We're not like that around here," she assured me.  I wondered if she knows about some of the experiences I've had at my other school.

"I'm sorry."

"Don't worry.  You'll get used to this.  Besides, I think what you did was nice.  And she seemed happy about it," referring to the young woman.

But something in that assistant's tone told me so much more.  I hadn't heard anything like it at work in a long time.  I realized, then, the real reason why I like this new school:  I don't have to explain or defend myself.  To her, to the department chair, to my colleagues and students, I'm just a middle-aged woman who's teaching there.   There aren't any qualifiers, from me or them. And, best of all, I haven't encountered the sort of people who wants me to talk about my history and share it with my students precisely so they can use it against me.  

Just a woman going to work.  Maybe this isn't the goal or destination.  But I'd hoped to come this way.  Even so, every once in a while I need someone to remind me of where I've come.  

16 January 2011

Third, Or Not Specified

Lately I've read a couple of interesting gender-related stories.  One comes from Nepal, the other from Australia.

In the conservative Himalayan nation, which was a monarchy less than three years ago, this year's census will include a "third gender" category. This action came as a result of an order from that country's Supreme Court  mandating that the government encact laws to protect transgender people.

I think it's interesting that such things should happen in such a conservative country.  Then again, Spain, which was considered one of the most conservative and staunchly Catholic countries in Europe, if not the world, legalized gay marriage a few years ago.  So, a couple of years ago,  did Iowa, which--depending on whose definition you accept--is at least partially in the Bible Belt.

So why would jurisdictions not known for being avant garde do something that sanctions what many of its citizens oppose, at least in theory?

I think that answer can be found at least in part in something a Nepalese official said about being able to count and locate transgender people.  Governments everywhere like to keep tabs on people. And conservatives like order, or at least the appearance of it.  I am reminded of something that a Dutch minister once said about his country:  Its "liberal" policies, like the legality of marijuana, are actually rooted in the deeply bourgeois Calvinism that defined the country for centuries.  Nobody, he explained, likes order more than a Calvinist, or someone who's been influenced by Calvinism.  So, he said, by legalizing marijuana and prostitution, providers and customers are no longer criminals and are instead citizens who are bound by the responsibilities of, and entitled to the protections of, Dutch civil law.  In other words, the government can keep some kind of control over them.

That, by the way, one reason (along with having a gay daughter) why Dick Cheney has voiced his support for gay marriage, while Barack has not.

Speaking of control:  How much of it can anyone have over someone who's gender is "not specified?"  That's the case of  Norrie, a 49-year-old Australian who was born male and had gender reassignment surgery twenty years ago.   Norrie, who goes by only one name, was "ecstatic" about surgery but frustrated over having to take hormones and over dating men who, when they "found out I was a trannie, told me I wasn't female."  Some of them threatened violence.

Finally, Norrie decided "Nobody can define me as male, and nobody can define me as female."  Two doctors agreed and, as a result, Norrie now has papers that say "Sex Not Specified."    

In one sense, I'm happy to see this.  I have long felt that there are more than two genders.  While I am female in my mind and spirit, I know that some things about me are, and will always be, male.  Some have to do with my experiences, but I think that others have to do with innate characteristics.  I am content, and in many ways comfortable, in living as what most people would see as a straight woman (even if I am, in fact, bisexual).  I claim my right to so live; at the same time, I support the right of people to be more androgynous or to live by whatever else their gender identity and sexuality might be.

On the other hand, the ruling puts Norrie in a bind:  Her gender identity, while unbound from the gender binary, is still defined by the government, which could (at least in theory) change Norrie's status as it sees fit.  Keeping Norrie and other people dependent on a government to define who they are can't be anything but limiting.  Under those circumstances, how does one travel, particulary to a place that rigidly enforces the gender binary and still outlaws all forms of sex that don't involve a man getting on top of a woman.  

Still, I think that the Australian Government's issuing documents in your name without the gender distinction is one the better things that could have happened for a lot of people.Some day, perhaps (though probably not in my lifetime) people will have the liberty as well as the means to live by whatever they think is right for them. 

07 January 2011

Eighteen Months

Today is exactly a year and a half since my surgery.  It's hard to believe that it went by so quickly.  

I haven't heard from my Trinidad "classmates" in a while.  Maybe I'll give them a call or e-mail them tomorrow.  Hmm....I wonder whether they'd prefer not to hear from me.  After all, our surgeries and our stays in Trinidad are receding further into the past.  I'm not thinking much about them now.  Then again, that may just because I've been busy.

There is certainly something to be said for the experience receding into the background, if you will.  After all, while the surgery was a goal, it wasn't and isn't  the point or purpose of my transition.  It was just another step along the way, albeit a major one.

Now I'm teaching a class in a place where that's all I have to do.  And the people have been friendly, but not intrusive.   I'm starting to feel I'd like a full-time job there, should one become available.  It's really nice simply to go to work as a woman named Justine, or Professor Valinotti.  (I must admit, though, I like "Professor Justine," which some of my students call me, even better.)

I feel that simply working and living as Justine, with no need to explain who or what I am, is reason enough for what I did eighteen months ago.

02 January 2011

No New Year's Resolutions

I've learned long ago not to make New Year's resolutions.  It has nothing to do with any fear of breaking them: Lady knows, I've broken enough of them.  Rather, I've come to realize that anything that is necessary or simply worthwhile doesn't need a holiday or other special date.  Anyway, it's events that make days and dates special, not the other way around.  And any significant change I've made in my life began when I needed it and it needed to begin.

One, of course is my transition.