30 June 2011

Someone Who "Gets It"

Someone I see regularly--the UPS truck driver-- said, "How does it feel to have the right to be married?"

I said that I'm glad the law passed, though I'm not sure of how relevant it will be to me.  He furrowed his brow.  "Well, you're a woman.  But..."

A while back, he claimed not to have known about my transsexual status until someone else revealed it to him.  So I can understand his confusion about how, whom or whether I'd marry.  So I tried to explain, in the proverbial 25 words or less, what New York State's new law means for me.

I told him that, for the purposes of employment, housing and just about everything else, the State (but not the Federal) government identified me as a woman as soon as they received notification from my doctor and therapist that I had a disorder, was living as a woman and was taking hormones in preparation for my gender reassignment surgery.  However, I could not marry a man, although I could've married another woman if she and I chose to do so.

Once I had my surgery, the State and Federal governments recognized me as a woman.  That meant I could marry a man, but not another woman, at least all but those states that had same-sex marriage and those that did not recognize sex changes.  As an example of the latter, in Idaho, I could marry a woman because I am still considered a man in that state.  In contrast, in New York, before the law was passed, I could have married a man but not a woman, while in neighboring Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont, I could have married anyone.

The man seemed, not so much by the complexity, but by what he described as the "silliness" of it.  "God made us all equal. Why shouldn't you, or anyone else, marry who you want or whoever wants you?"

Well, I didn't get it all into 25 words.  But he understands.  And he's sympathetic, or at least expressing respect for a person's rights.  When one person "gets it," that's enough to make my day.

28 June 2011

After Marriage: What Next?

Now that same-sex marriage has been legalized in New York,  the question is the same as it always is after a significant goal or milestone has been reached:  What next?

For some, of course, the answer is that they're planning and waiting for the 24th of July, when the law actually takes effect and marriage licenses can be issued.  For others (or, actually, some of the same people), the answer involves campaigning for similar laws in other states and jurisdictions.   And, of course, there are some who are working to have the law overturned.  

Ironically, the provision that allows churches to refuse to marry same-sex couples, and religious organizations to deny benefits to same-sex spouses of employees, is exactly what will make the law more difficult to repeal than the one that was overturned by Proposition 8 in California.  I mean, the fact that there is an opt-out provision for churches and other religious organizations makes it that much harder (or so I would think, anyway) to make an argument against the law on the basis of religion or civil rights.  If I recall correctly, those were the grounds on which opponents of California's gay marriage law fought to have it overturned.

Anyway...lots of people see this time, not without justification, as a "new day."  However, this transsexual Italian-Franco-American yenta (Is that an oxymoron?) has some advice for them:  Let yourself adjust to the new reality.  It can be more joyous and more frustrating, more empowering and more confusing, than what you're leaving behind.  I know this from my own experience:  When you've wanted something for as long as you can remember, and despaired of ever getting it, much of your world-view is defined by longing, if not resentments of those who, fairly or not, have whatever it is that you want.

So, hook up, join yourselves, start your new lives--and move forward!

26 June 2011

Showing Our Colors

I tried to get a shot of the Empire State Building lit up in "rainbow" colors for Pride.  Alas, I wasn't able to do much better than this:

I snapped this photo from the McGuinness Boulevard Bridge, which connects Greenpoint, Brooklyn with Long Island City (near PS 1) in Queens.  Really, it seemed every color was on display, literally and metaphorically, today.  

25 June 2011

Ride, Interrupted

Have you ever had your ride interrupted--or detoured--by some chance event? 

I'm not talking about bike breakdowns, injuries or other emergencies.  Rather, I'm thinking about more serendipitous--or at least pleasant--happenings.

Today I stopped at Parisi's Bakery as I embarked on my ride.  I'd bought a couple of sfogliatelle, figuring that I could eat one as a snack during my ride or save them for later.  I also figured that by the time I got back from wherever I rode, they might be closed or not have much left.

As I exited the bakery (Yes, they let me bring my bike in!), I looked to my left and saw a rainbow flag flying.  Seeing a rainbow flag wasn't itself so unusual, especially on the day after same-sex marriages were legalized in New York.  However, the flag I saw seemed especially prominent and conspicuous, especially given that it's on a rather drab block:

I couldn't get a better photo of the house because it's on a street underneath elevated train tracks.  That means, among other things, that traffic is usually fairly congested on that street because the posts of the train trestles take up a lot of space on that street.   

I've cycled or walked that street only a few times, even though I've been living in the neighborhood for more than eight years and I don't know how many times I've boarded that train.  Living in New York is funny that way:  Lots of people have lived even longer in one neighborhood, even in one apartment or house, than I've lived here.  Yet they, too, haven't walked, and may never walk, down some streets near them. 

Perhaps I can rationalize not cycling or walking that street because it's not along any route I normally take for work or pleasure, and, as I've mentioned, it's not a particularly attractive street.  But today I decided to take a look at that house:

I'd never seen the  "Religion ruled during the Dark Ages" and "Atheism is myth understood" stickers anywhere else.  The others, I'd seen in one version or another.  How many people would line their houses with bumper stickers of any sort, much less ones that so proclaimed their beliefs?  

As I snapped those photos, the owner poked her head out of a window.  "Whose side are you on?"  I could just barely hear her over the clatter of an approaching train.  

I pointed to the train.  She held out her hand.  I waited; just after the train passed, she opened her door and poked her head out.

"You look like a friend," she said.


"Bring your bike in."

We sipped iced tea while we waited for a friend to meet her for a night out.  I'd had the impression that she was either a hippie or a dancer.  Turns out, she was both.  "Now I'm just a senior citizen with a tenant from hell.  But I need her if I'm going to keep this house."

"That's too bad..."

"What's the use of complaining?"

Then we had one of those conversations that veered into more topics than it seemed possible to discuss in a short time.  Not surprisingly, we talked about gay marriage, Stonewall (She wasn't there, but friends of hers were) and about the prejudices and hate some of us still experience.  "I've known people who were beaten up, fired, kicked out of apartments for being gay."

"People have been killed for it," I reminded her.

"My brother was."

I clasped her hand.  "I'm so sorry..."

"Thank you.  It was a long time ago, but it never leaves you."

"Well, I can understand.  There's no shame in that."
 hand. "I'm so sorry..."

"My brother is Julio Rivera."

"The one who was killed in Jackson Heights twenty years ago?" 

She nodded.   I remember his killing, in part, because of things that were going on in my life at that time. But it was also one of the events that led to the passage of "hate crime" legislation in New York.  It seemed that around that time, there were a number of crimes committed out of one kind of bigotry or another.  As an example, less than a year before Rivera's murder, Yusef Hawkins was beaten to death by a group of white teenagers when he went to look at a used car in Brooklyn.

She reminisced about Julio and showed me some photos of him and other members of her family.  Then her friend arrived.  We exchanged phone numbers and I left.

"Enjoy your ride. And be safe!"

24 June 2011

Same-Sex Marriage in New York: Where Next?

Tonight, the New York State Senate voted, by a 33 to 29 margin, to legalize same-sex marriages.  Two upstate Republicans, who had been undecided, cast votes in favor of the bill that allows for same-sex unions, and broke the deadlock in the Senate.  The State Assembly voted, by a wider margin, in favor of the bill last week.  

About an hour after the vote, Governor Andrew Cuomo singned the bill into law.  Now New York State joins neighboring Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont, as well as New Hampshire, Iowa and the District of Columbia, in legalizing same-sex unions.  

The Coquille nation, whose members live mainly along the Oregon Coast, also have legalized same-sex marriage.  They did so two years ago, and there was no mention of it in the mainstream press.  In one sense, it's not difficult to understand why:  In the 2000 Census, exactly 576 people identified themselves as Coquille.  

What is interesting (and disturbing to some) is that New York is the sixth state to legalize same-sex unions.  How, exactly, did those other states--including Iowa!--beat New York to legalizing same-sex unions?

Well, I don't have a complete answer to that. And I can only venture any sort of answer at all.  But I can venture a guess.  

One peculiarity of New York City and State politics is the degree to which the Roman Catholic church has influence.  When Cardinal O'Connor headed the Archdiocese of New York, no one was elected as Mayor or Governor without his approval and endorsement.  Archbishop Timothy Dolan may not yet have anything like O'Connor's influence.  Then again, he's been in the position for less than a year.  Still, one cannot deny the influence he and the Church have, even at this early stage of his stewardship. 

Now, it's true that there are many Catholics in Massachusetts, particularly in the Boston area.  But even when the Irish were the main ethnic group in Boston, the clerical hierarchy of the local Archdiocese never seemed to gain the sort of power and influence that they did in New York.  If what I've just said is correct, it would be interesting to find out how and why that happened. 

Now, I've never been to Iowa.  But I have been to all of the other states (and DC) that have legalized same-sex marriage.  Granted, Connecticut and Vermont are the only ones (besides Massachusettes and, of course, New York) in which I've spent extended periods of time.  However, I think I've learned enough to form some impressions of each one.  

It seems to me that no particular church or religious organization has the sort of influence over those states that the Archdiocese has over New York.  That may be due to the fact that New York has always had such a large immigrant population and that so many of those immigrants were Catholic.  In fact, three of the City's and State's four largest ethnic groups through most of the twentieth century--the Irish, Germans and Italians--were mainly (in the case of the Italians, almost entirely) Roman Catholic.  They didn't have a non-Catholic aristocracy keeping them in check, the way the old-line WASP families did to the Irish Catholics in Boston. Or, at any rate, New York's equivalents to that ruling class, which had been mainly of Dutch and English heritage, had dissipated or disappeared entirely by the end of the 19th Century. And the largest non-Catholic ethnic group--the Jews--mostly allied themselves with the Irish and Italians, and later Hispanics (most of whom are Catholic) on political issues.  That effectively strengthened the Catholic hold on the city.  And, as New York City goes, so goes New York State.

On the other hand, the other states that now have same-sex marriage never had anything like the high numbers of immigrants, particularly from mostly-Catholic countries, that New York and Massachusetts have had.  In fact, religion seems to play very little, if any, of a role at all in politics and public life in Vermont and New Hampshire.  There seems to be more religiosity in Iowa, but there doesn't seem to be a dominant church as there is in New York or, to a lesser degree, in Massachusetts.

Knowing these things makes me wonder which state or jurisdiction will be the next one to legalize same-sex marriages.  Perhaps Proposition 8 will be struck down in California.  Or will Oregon or Washington legalize gay marriages before then?  On the other hand, I don't expect that New Jersey will have gay marriage as long as Chris Cristie is Governor, although I expect the Garden State to wed same-sex couples before most other states.  Whatever happens, I'm sure that New York is not going to be the last jurisdiction in the US to allow same-sex marriages.

22 June 2011

One More Vote, Please

It looks like there will soon be a vote on same-sex marriage bill in New York. The bill needs only one more vote and there are two uncommitted Republicans in the state Senate.

Some religious leaders want their organizations to be exempt from having to perform the marriages and from providing benefits for same-sex spouses of employees.  That makes sense to me because, truth be told, most couples aren't going to go to a church that's hostile them.  And, I guess that if religious groups that provide social and educational services can't be forced to provide condoms or abortion counseling, they can't be forced to provide health benefits for a same-sex partner.

The interesting thing is that some of those religious leaders--who include members of the clergy--are actually being more reasonable than some lay church members who don't want the bill passed at all.  I don't know how many times I've seen, in person or on TV, some church member shouting, "Marriage Is Marriage," "Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve," or "Don't let New York become Sodom and Gomorrah!"  

What they seem to forget is that this state is part of a secular democracy, and that not everyone shares their interpretation of their religion. Like all dominant groups, they don't realize just how much they're acting from an attitude of entitlement.  They think that because they are part of a majority and that they are acting in accordance with their interpretation of their own faith, others should be subject to their will.  They should get tax breaks for getting married and having kids; gay couples shouldn't have the same for committing themselves to each other and adopting kids.  

For some people, I don't think it's even a question of faith or morality.  They have always had the privileged position of being in the dominant or "default" culture, and are accustomed to privilege that they don't even realize they have.  They're not so different from all of those people who thought that Jim Crow was normal, and who claimed to have no prejudice against blacks as long as they knew their "place."  

Just one more vote.  Please....

21 June 2011


Here is an old poem of mine, which I'm posting for no particular reason:


Buds throb red.

Cold raindrops cling
to bare branches
after the first
April storm.

My fingertips swelling,
my body pulses:

the center
of this old wound,
still fresh.

Still, I don’t
pull off my gloves--

There are no leaves
from this tree.

20 June 2011

Did You Catch This?

The New York State Legislative Session ended today.  And the bill that would, if passed, allow for same-sex marriage still needs one more vote.  Governor Cuomo has extended the Legislative Session.  And Greg Ball, an upstate Republican State Senator is asking his constituents, via Twitter, how he should vote.

David Tyree, a former New York Giants football player, says that God may have given him the ability to make the one-handed catch he made to win the Super Bowl so that he would have a platform for opposing gay marriage.  I know that God's ways are mysterious, but that is a very strange rationale, to say the least!

19 June 2011

Doing It (What?) Over Again

Today Millie asked me what I'm doing for the Fourth of July.  Whenever she asks what I'm doing on any particular day, she has something planned and wants to invite me.  For the Fourth, she's having a barbecue, as she's done just about every year that I've known her.  She didn't have one two years ago, even though the Fourth fell on a Saturday, because that was the day I left for Trinidad.

So, in two weeks, my birthday (the 4th) and the anniversary of my surgery (the 7th) will come.  It's hard to believe that two years will have passed since the latter event.  And I'm not going to tell you how many years have passed since the day I was born!

As for the passage of time:  My mother and I were talking about I-forget-what-topic, and the subject of aging and wrinkles came up.  Mom said she'd like to look, not the way she did when she was 20 or 30, but the way she did when she and Dad moved to Florida nearly eighteen years ago.  I said that I'd like to look better, but I don't really have the same anxiety about looking younger that many other women have.  "That's because you don't have any memory of yourself as a younger woman," she said.  

Mom was being her usual perceptive self.  It's in contrast to an article someone passed on to me.  David Brooks, one of my least favorite commentators (which is saying a lot, considering how much disdain I have for much of the mass media), said something to the effect that no thinking middle-aged person would turn down the chance to be 22 years old again.

That means I'm either not a thinking person, or not a middle-aged person, according to Brooks.  He might be right on one or both counts.  But I really think that, to be fair, he's simply not aware of the realities of life for people like me.  Really, about the only way my past could have been much different is if I had been born female, or had transitioned at an earlier age.  And, since I have no memory of myself as a woman (though I was one then, just as I am one now)--or, more accurately, I have no memory of having lived as a woman--I really have no way of envisioning how my life could have been different.  After all, you can't wish to be 22 all over again so that you can make a few different choices if the life you're re-envisioning wasn't your own.  

18 June 2011

Who Is Passing Whom?

I was starting tow write an e-mail to a colleague at my second job, which may become my primary job.  I haven't sent that e-mail, and am not sure I will.  If said colleague reads this post, I probably won't need to send that e-mail.

In it, I described a bit about my experience in that place this year.  In one sense, I would like to make that place my new professional "home," so to speak.  In that place,  I haven't experienced the subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination I've encountered on my primary job.  Plus, it doesn't seem to have the dysfunction, the corruption or just the pure-and-simple pettiness that do so much to define the atmosphere, not to mention behavior and relationships, at my other job.

Still, I can't say that I felt "at home" at that second job, and somehow I don't expect to.  That is in no way the fault of anyone I've encountered there--at least, not anyone I've encountered in person.  (In fact, the colleague to whom I was writing the e-mail is one of the nicest co-workers I've had in a long time.) Perhaps it is not fair to say such things, as I started to work there less than a year ago.  But I have noticed that there is a fundamental way in which I am different, which may or may not have to do with my experiences of gender identity and transition.

I think that if I had to choose one word to encapsulate that difference, it might be "innocence."  There really seems to be a belief that if they work for and with the system, it will work for them.  Whatever remnants I may have had of such a belief were destroyed on my primary job; I don't know whether anyone ever regains such a sense, or gains it after not having had it in the first place. 

What that means is that they trust authority in a way that I can't, and perhaps never will.  The interesting thing is that it's the most "liberal" people there who seem to have that faith (I can't think of a better word for it):  They still think that governments and administrations can be moved to act in enlightened ways.  I'm thinking in particular of one prof--whom, actually, I like personally--who wants me to become an organizer for the union.  It is the same union to which faculty members at my main job belong; both colleges are part of the same university system.  The prof says he "admires" my "intelligence" and "courage."  (Little does he know!)  However, I would have a very hard time in helping out a union that said it couldn't help me in what was a blatant case of discrimination.  

And--let's face it--after an experience like that, and of being "used" by various people and organizations, you tend to become a bit wary, to say the least.  Sometimes I don't simply feel I can't, or am not sure I can, trust certain colleagues and superiors:  I'm not even sure that I want to trust them.  Having been brought up on trumped-up charges, and being blamed for sexual harassment I experienced, may simply have made me less capable, and less desirous, of giving trust, at least on the job.

A few days ago, someone at my main job remarked that I am "outgrowing" that place.  I don't think I've been at my second job long enough for that to have happened.  But I sometimes wonder if I'm "outgrowing" the academic world entirely.  Or, perhaps, it is leaving me in some way.  

17 June 2011

Same-Sex Marriage In New York: Just One More Vote...

The buzz has been about marriage, at least here in New York.  The bill to allow same-sex marriages has been approved by the state Assembly, and is said to be a mere vote away from being voted in by the state Senate.

Actually, we've been here before.  Four years ago, the Assembly, which had and has a Democratic majority, voted for the bill.  However, the Senate, which has had a Republican majority for decades, voted against it.  But a year later, David Paterson, who became Governor after Eliot Spitzer resigned, directed all State agencies to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions, and in Canada, for the purpose of determining benefits.  So, for example, the partner of a lesbian working in the Department of Motor Vehicles would be entitled to the same health insurance and such as the wife or husband of a heterosexual employee.

Once again, though, the state Senate blocked the bill allowing same-sex marriage.

This battle between the Assembly and Senate is the reason why the State's human rights laws include no provisions for transgenders (i.e., language that protects "gender identity and expression").  What's worse it that the Senate has prevented the inclusion of such provisions for the past forty years.

As I understand it, some state Senators are willing to vote for same-sex marriage as long as there is no protection for transgenders.   And others want exemptions for religious institutions. So a program that was funded by the Catholic Church, or any other, could refuse to recognize same-sex marriages and grant benefits to the spouses of their gay employees.

The Legislature will hold its last session on Monday before going into recess.  Some Assembly members are trying to get an extension for the bill that would allow for a vote after the Legislature returns.  Otherwise, the bill would be shelved and would have to be re-introduced in future sessions of the Legislature.

14 June 2011

The Gay Girl In Damascus: An American In Scotland

By now, you may have read reports that the Gay Girl in Damascus blog has been revealed to be the work of an American man studying in Scotland.

Predictably, many people have expressed outrage.  Some of them, I believe, were acting out of anger that throbbed when their egos were bruised from the blow of realizing they'd been had.  But others, I feel, have more legitimate reasons for their anger.

While it could be argued that the plight of gay people and activists in Syria was accurately portrayed, it's equally true that the revelation will make such people targets, if they are not already.  Worse, it strips them of their credibility in they eyes of many people.  So, the next time some gay activists writes of being harassed or tortured, some will dismiss it in the same way people in Aesop's fable dismissed the boy who cried "wolf!"

 I had a hard enough time getting the attention of anyone who could help after two cops ran me off the street, and nearly ran me over, after I ignored their calls of "Nice legs, honey.  Imagine how much worse it could have been if some blogger claimed a similar experience but turned out to be an investment banker living with his wife and kids in a gated community in Connecticut.  Forget about me, if you want to:  What would it be like for the next person who was subjected to homo- or trans-phobic violence?  Imagine trying to get help from people who'd just been spoofed with a story similar to yours.

The unfortunate thing is that the guy who posed as the Gay Girl in Syria will probably get of scot-free (no pun intended) while gay people and activists may suffer some of the things recounted in Gay Girl's blog. And no one will heed their calls for help.

13 June 2011

Illegal Immigrants=Drunk Drivers? According to Fattman, Yes.

Time was when even the most open-minded of people used to say that rape victims were "asking for it" or "must have done something" to provoke the attacker.

I'm sure there are still people who still think that way.  But at least no public officials who want to get elected to, or stay in, office would say such a thing.  And they certainly wouldn't equate a rape survivor with a drunk driver.

Or would they?

Well, believe it or not, a state representative in Massachusetts--yes, Massachusetts--actually said that.  Well, he didn't say it directly.  Instead, he used some of the most tortured syntax and logic to come to that.

Steve Fattman (Does he have a brother named Jake, by any chance?)  said that  rape victims who are illegal immigrants "should be afraid to come forward."  In Massachusetts, there is a program called "Safe Communities" which requires both perpetrators and victims to be fingerprinted so that authorities can check the prints against immigration databases.  Whoever designed the program probably thought that he or she was indeed making the community safer.  However, I don't think anyone thought of this consequence:  Many immigrants are now afraid to come forward.  I'm not talking only about illegal ones, now, either:  Many come from places where, in essence, the cops and the military are one in the same and have free rein to do what they want to people.  That makes them afraid of authorities generally.

And, of course, illegal immigrants would be even more afraid to come forward. That is what Rep. Fattman wants.  "If someone is here illegally, they should be afraid to come forward because they should be afraid of getting deported."  While explaining to a reporter that he was quoted out of context, he said, "If someone got into a car accident, it's obviously a tragic event. But if they're drunk and they crash, it's a crime. If that person was drunk and survived the accident they would be afraid to come forward."  Likewise, he said illegals should be afraid to come forward.

I won't rant and rave about how that statement is offensive on so many levels. Instead, I will talk about a Barbadian student I had a few years ago. I'll call her Charlene.  One evening, she came to class wearing big sunglasses.  I think she knew that I knew why she was wearing them, and she asked to see me after class.

Even though I knew nothing about her life, I knew--even before she opened her mouth--that the black eye and other bruises were caused by her husband.  Don't ask me how--I just knew.  In fact, almost everything about her story was sadly predictable--except for one thing.  Yes, she was here illegally.  So, for that matter, was her husband.  In fact, he wanted to come here and insisted that she did.  And, in her community, everyone took his side because they are all religious conservatives who believe that a woman is supposed to be subservient to a man.  They also believe, after the Apostle Paul, that women are essentially a necessary evil for marriage and making children.  According to what Charlene told me, even the women in her family and community believe this way. 

Of course, I talked to her about leaving him.  There were churches, safe houses and other places where she could go, I told her.  That wouldn't help, she protested:  Her husband, as well as many other people in her community, would look for her.  One or two might even try to kill her, she said.

And, on top of that, she had to worry about Immigration and Naturalization!  That's not what a battered woman--or anyone suffering a trauma of any sort that isn't of his or her own doing--should be worrying about.  

But worry she did.  After all, in the minds of such as Rep. Fattman, she is on the same moral level as a drunk driver.  

12 June 2011

Chaz Bono and Me: Hey, You Never Know!

I'm thinking now of a man who was a colleague of mine back when I was the "before" photo.  Tall, portly and with an easy manner, he's one of those guys who's avuncular at 50 and is now almost grandfatherly.  I'm guessing that he's about 65, give or take a few years.

Anyway, back in January, I bumped into him.  We hadn't seen each other in about a dozen years.  He had heard about me because I stopped at the college where we used to teach and where his brother was still teaching.  His brother seemed more bemused, but he--I'll call him Jimmy--was actually quite sympathetic when I bumped into him.  "I was surprised, really," he said.  "I thought you were straight, you seemed pretty masculine and you were so athletic."

He thought for a moment and added," I guess you just never know who is."

I thought of that when I was talking with my mother today.  She saw Chaz Bono on a program--I forget which--on a cable network.  "She, I mean he, has such a big neck," she said.  

"I know.  It's a linebacker's neck."

"Yeah, you're right.  She, I mean he, really changed."

I then explained some of the effects of taking testosterone, and the fact that, because it's a stronger hormone than estrogen, the changes in female-to-male transsexuals are usually even more pronounced than those in male-to-females who take estrogen.

"But he really looks different from when he was Chastity!," my mother exclaimed.   Then, she paused in a way she rarely does; I guessed that she was trying not to mix up the pronouns.  "You know," she said, "Chastity was really cute."

"Yes, I remember her from those old Sonny and Cher shows."

Chastity, as I remember, really was cute, in an almost Shirley Temiple-ish sort of way.  But even then--about four decades ago--I saw something unusual in her.  I couldn't articulate what it was, but I somehow had the feelng it had to do with whether or not she would like boys when she got a little older.

And now he's one of them.  As they say in the old country, "Hey, you never know!"

10 June 2011

Meeting The Past, Again

This summer, I'm teaching a class on the campus where I worked my primary job this year. Something odd is happening:  Even though I have only taught that class for a week (It runs for seven and a half weeks.), I feel closer to those students than I have to any I have taught at that college in some time.  Yesterday, I--and they--realized that I knew all of their names!

What makes it so odd is that the school already feels like it's in the past for me.  That's how I feel when I'm anywhere on the campus besides my class.  I noticed that when I bumped into two women I hadn't seen, probably, in about two years.  Back when I was an academic advisor and, later, director of the tutoring center, I used to see them all of the time: One is a supervisor in the financial aid office, and the other directs the office of student services.  Both seemed happy, and surprised, to see me and gave me longer and more emphatic hugs than I could have anticipated.

They have never been anything but kind to me.  But, in some strange way, they felt like memories at the very moment I was talking with them.  Perhaps they were:  Perhaps I was talking to a memory I had of them, and they were talking to the way they remembered me.  Not that I disliked any of it.  However, I did have the sense that I might not see them again.  

The director of student said, "It has to be about two years since I've seen you.  Something about you has changed."  I mentioned that it's been almost two years--already!--since I've had my surgery. "Yes!  The last time I saw you, you were about to have it," exclaimed the woman from Financial Aid.

Now I am recalling the other times I felt as I did upon seeing those women:  the months, the weeks, the days before my graduations--from high school, from college, from graduate school.  In each of those situations, I had the feeling, as I did yesterday, that those situations were already in the past, that I had in a sense, already graduated--or left, at any rate.  

In high school and college, I knew I was just biding time:  In other words, I was warehoused.  In high school, I had to stay because the law said I had to in order to graduate; in college, I was merely getting enough credits to graduate, having already completed my major and distribution requirements.

On the other hand, as I neared the end of graduate school, I had the sense that I was beginning something that I couldn't have continued, much less completed, there.   Turned out, there were a whole bunch of things.  True, I was finishing some course work and my thesis.  But I didn't feel that those were, or had anything to do with, the tasks I could see before me.  

If anything, what I felt yesterday was more like what I felt toward the end of graduate school.  In other words, I feel more of a sense of moving on--and, hopefully, ahead--rather than leaving.  I have been at that college for six years --which, even at this point in my life, seems like a geological age.  When I entered, I had been living as a woman, as Justine, for not much more than a year.  I was grateful that I had a job and could work in relative peace, under a department head--I'll call her Claire--who was friendly and supportive.   Now it has been nearly two years since my operation.  Claire has retired and much in the college--and the department in which I've worked--has changed.  The charming, quirky dysfunction one finds in so many departments and colleges has turned into something that is more disorienting, and even vicious.  I've never been in any other place where people get as defensive when you ask a question, and I'm not used to people filing charges against people over a simple disagreement. 

I simply can't see how I can develop, personally or professionally, in such an environment.  At least, I can't see how that place can help me to become anything I'd want to become, as a woman or a professional.  

I feel more like a stranger in that place than I did on the first day I spent there.  The women I saw yesterday are not among the reasons why.  They are simply two more people there, and they are--from what I can tell--working for a pension.  The one from Financial Aid will probably get hers fairly soon; the woman from Student Services has at least a few more years.  They know what their futures will be; I am just starting to understand what mine could be.

08 June 2011

Advice from Brian May

If you're of my generation--or a Queen fan (Come on, admit it, you loved Night At The Opera!)--you surely remember the Brian May song Fat Bottomed Girls.

Even though the song was recorded more than 30 years ago, it remains one of the few to celebrate those of us who aren't built like fashion models.

If you remember the song, good for you. If not, listen to it. And note that line: GET ON YOUR BIKES AND RIDE!

Would that Brian May weren't the only one giving that advice. I did find this entry on Women's Cycling.ca encouraging us to do just that. (The photo came from that site.) However, I find that as the cycling industry is taking more of its cues from the mass media, the cyclists portrayed in advertising, videos and films about cycling, seem to be more and more like those you see in ads for gyms and J.Crew.

And some bike shops perpetrate the bias against avoirdupois. One day, in the last shop in which I worked, a woman who was (at least by most standards I'm familiar with) at least seventy-five pounds "overweight" came in. She had been very athletic all through college, she said, but the detours of her life had taken her away from exercise and good eating habits. Plus, after a surgery she needed following an auto accident, her doctor prescribed a medicine with steroids in it, which put additional weight on her.

She wanted to get back in shape, but because of knee and other injuries, her doctor (who cycled and played tennis, if I recall correctly), advised her not to run or play basketball. Rather, he recommended cycling--an activity she once enjoyed--because it would put less strain on her damaged joints and ligaments. So, she said, she was looking to buy a bike.

One of the sales people in that shop told her she should come back to the shop after losing weight.

I felt badly for that woman, but I did nothing to help her. I hadn't thought about her in some time, and I've related the story as best as I can remember it.

Did you notice that near the beginning of this post, I wrote, "those of us who aren't built like fashion models." Yes, I include myself. Of course, when I was training as if I were going to enter the Tour de France for 40-and-older riders, I woulnd't have said anything like that about myself. Granted, I was trimmer and had more strength. But almost no one has the same sort of body in middle age as he or she had when young. (Trust me: I know that as well as anybody can!) Sometimes it has to do with life taking the turns I've mentioned; it also has to do with the way our bodies age. Also, in my case, taking hormones added a few pounds to the ones I was already gaining by other means.

And, let's face it, most people aren't born to be a perfect size four. (I'm talking about dresses, not Euro racing kit! In my prime, I wore a size three.) So why should that bar any of us from cycling? Is there any law that cyclists have to be, as one New Yorker columnist put it, "lycra sausages"?

07 June 2011

A Real Woman?

I understand Ann Coulter is hawking her new book.  Oh joy oh joy.  

Once a reporter asked her what she would do if she found out her son was gay. She said, "I'd tell him he was adopted."

Good thing she doesn't have a kid to tell that to.  In fact, I wonder whether she'd've answered the reporter the way she did if she had a kid.

I've read and heard rumors that she's a trans woman, or that she suffers from Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome.  If either one is true, I wonder how she'd react to someone telling her that she's not a "real woman" or that she doesn't belong with us.

06 June 2011

How Could I Ever Break Up Your Family?

If I recall correctly, one of the characters in Alberto Moravia's The Conformist (and in Bernardo Bertolucci's film based on the novel) says something to the effect that in Italy, people can rationalize anything in the name of their families.

That's more or less what any number of Italian-Americans (Remember, I speak as one!), from church officials to Mafiosi, have done.  However, in America, instead of one's own family, one can use "The Family" to rationalize all manner of prejudice and hatred.

To wit:  Nearly all of the opposition to equal rights for transgenders (or, for that matter, gays, lesbians and bisexuals) includes some group or another with the word "family" in its name.  It's happening now in Maine, where a group called the Maine Family Policy Council is trying to get the state to roll back some of the protections for transgenders it encoded in its laws.  The Massachusetts Family Council is trying to do the same thing in their state, and in Connecticut, "family" groups are trying to prevent that state from passing a gender-inclusive anti-discrimination bill.  Similar scenarios are playing out in other states that have passed, or are trying to pass, such legislation.

How, pray tell, does protecting the rights of LGBT people threaten the family?  If a man marries a man, or a woman a woman, I don't see how that undermines heterosexual families.  If anything, allowing same-sex marriages might prevent a few broken homes, as some young person who, not so long ago, might have entered into a sham marriage in order to "fit in" will have the option of creating a family on his or her own terms.  I think such a union would have a better chance than some marriage that's based on nothing more than guilt or misplaced familial or societal expectations.

And I don't know how making it illegal for someone to fire or evict me, or to commit violence against me, because I had an "M" on by birth certificate will break up anyone's family or persuade some kid to be like me unless he or she feels about gender identity as I did.

Finally, even if you define marriage as "a man and a woman," and believe that is the basis of a family, I still don't understand how I can be such a threat to it.  I never stopped any heterosexual couple from getting married or having kids, and I never broke up anyone's marriage or family. Well, I've been blamed for the latter, but I still don't understand how I came to have such power.

If anyone can explain how undergoing having undergone my transition, or loving whomever I love, is such a threat to the formation or stability of someone's family, I would be very interested in hearing it. 

05 June 2011

Thirty Years Later, It's Our Epidemic

Thirty years ago today, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published by the Centers for Disease Control, included a piece of information that was little-noted at the time but would, literally, change the world.

Five previously-healthy men, ranging in age from 29 to 36, were diagnosed with an illness that had been all but unknown in the United States, save for people with compromised immune systems.  About all these young men had in common were that they were treated in Los Angeles hospitals and were said to be "active homosexuals."  They had no known common sexual contacts.

The illness for which they were being treated was pneumocystis carinii. By the time the MMWR announcement was published, two of the men had already died. Within a year, the other three would be dead.

About the only people who knew about their illnesses were those doctors and researchers who read that issue of the MMWR.  However, stories about a "gay cancer" in which victims had nearly identical systems to those of the five men in the report had been circulating, mostly by word of mouth (Remember, there was no Internet in those days.) among gay men.

That so-called "gay cancer" and the previously-rare form of pneumonia that killed its victims was, of course, what we now know as AIDS.  

What few people knew was that many, many more people were carrying the seeds of that illness within them.  In fact, a little less than two weeks before the MMWR was published, I was--unknowingly, of course--among four of them. It was the last time I saw any of them alive.  I was twenty-two years old, and those people I saw were around the same age.

Eleven other friends and acquaintances of mine have died of the illness.  Five of them--including my first AA sponsor--died between Memorial Day and Christmas one year.  

That was also the year--eleven years after I completed my B.A.-- I began to teach at the college level as a graduate assistant.  I saw, immediately, a dramatic difference between the freshmen in the first class I taught and my undergraduate classmates--or the kind of person I was in as a freshman.  Even those of us who came from relatively conservative environments were still shaped, in various ways, by the various forms of sexual liberation that had washed over college campuses and other segments of society for nearly a decade before my first day as an undergraduate. 

We may well have been the first generation of undergraduates who weren't hiding our sexual experience, desires and proclivities from each other, let alone those who had immediate authority over us.  In fact, said authority figures--and the parents and guardians of some students--almost seemed to expect that sexual encounters would be part of our undergraduate experience.  I recall one classmate being told, by his father, that he needed to "get laid more often."  That young man's father was one of the so-called pillars of his community.

The freshmen I was teaching nearly a generation later shared none of those attitudes.  In fact, I could sense it even before they wrote or voiced their attitudes about sex and intoxication.  

At first I thought that they didn't value those things as much as we did because they were on a non-residential campus, in contrast to the residential campus I attended.  Then I thought that they were more conservative because they had grown up with Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush as their Presidents, and the resulting conservative values expressed in the culture. 

But one day I thought back to something else I'd experienced about two years earlier, near the end of the 1980's.  I had been working as an artist-in-residence with the Poets In The Schools program here in New York.  One of the schools in which I'd been working was in the East New York section of Brooklyn.  It was considered, along with the South Bronx and possibly East Harlem and South Jamaica, among the poorest and most dangerous parts of New York City.  (The following year, the precinct that included the school recorded more homicides than all of France or the then-West Germany.) 

One day, in that school, an eighth-grader asked how old I was. When I told him I was thirty, he asked when I would turn thirty-one.  I told him three or four months, or whatever it was.  "Then you're the oldest man I know!"

Mind you, that boy was thirteen years old.  "No, that can't be!"

"My Uncle Henry was thirty-one when he died."  And, that kid added, it was AIDS that claimed him.  I would find out that about at least half of the kids in that class had a family member who died the same way; everyone in that class knew someone who died that way or was murdered.  

The students in my freshman class were only two to four years older than that boy in East New York would have been.  A couple of them grew up there; a few more grew up in neighborhoods that weren't much different.  I guessed that their comparative circumspection about sex and drugs may well have been shaped by their experiences of seeing friends and family members succumb to the ravages of AIDS or as a result of the so-called War on Drugs.

During that semester, Magic Johnson announced that he was HIV-positive.  Of course, he was very quick to assert that he is heterosexual.  While nearly everyone believed him, many of us thought he "had" to say that in order to cover himself.  Being the great NBA player he was, he had access to the best medical care available.  But he could very easily have been misdiagnosed or mistreated in some way had he not made that assertion.

On the other hand, his announcement of his "normal" sexuality turned out to be a good thing in the long run, for it helped to change a lot of people's perceptions about AIDS--and, perhaps, homosexuality.  No longer could people equate one with the other.  

So, in that freshman class at Brooklyn College in 1991, I believe I saw an interesting and, on its face, counterintuitive change take place.  Along with their more conservative and restrained attitudes about sex, I was also seeing, if not tolerance, at least an acknowledgement that people they knew and loved are gay and were not, as one televangelist claimed, like rats during the time of a plague.  That is not to say that there weren't homophobic students:  I recall comments scrawled on the door of Allen Ginsberg's office at the college.  But other students, including most in my class, were ashamed and embarrassed that one of their peers could be so ignorant.  And a few students and faculty members openly mentioned their non-heterosexual inclinations.

I was not one of them.  I still feared how people might react had I openly discussed my gender identity, much less manifested it.  Years later, when I "came out," I experienced some of the things I'd feared--though not from my students.  

So I can understand why too many trans people kill themselves or stay "in the closet."  Too many of us lose families and other networks, and jobs, as a result of finally reaching the point at which we could no longer live lies.  The loss of our lives as we knew them drives too many of us into sex work and into other kinds of risky work and behaviors, and the resulting loss of income and insurance keeps too many of us from getting the diagnoses and treatments we need.   

Thirty years after that MMWR report, HIV-positive people are living longer and, sometimes, not getting sick at all.  That is true, anyway, for those who have good incomes and insurance policies.  For everyone else, the disease is just as terrible as it was then.  The difference is that its victims are poorer and more likely to be female.  Male-to-female transgenders just happen to fit both descriptions.  So, thirty years later, the AIDS epidemic is ours.