21 September 2013

From The Neighborhood

Yesterday, for the first time in a couple of weeks, I felt decent and had a few free hours at the same time.  So I went, naturally, for a ride.

The sky was as blue as the air was crisp:  Fall had arrived, if not officially, and yet another summer, another season had passed.  On such a day, I can understand how someone can be agoraphobic:  An open space--whether of land or sea or sky--can seem like a huge, yawning emptiness when there are no markers, physical or emotional.

So all anyone can do--or, at least, all I could do-- was to move through it.  That I did by pedaling, by pedaling Tosca, my fixed-gear bike.  I had a feeling I wouldn't ride a lot of miles, and that I'd ride them slowly, so I wanted to get some kind of workout from them.

As it turned out, I rode about 50 or 60 km, or a bit more than 30 or 35 miles, along the steel and glass shorelines and brick byways that have lined so much of the path of my life. 

A meander from the East River and the bay took me into the heart of Brooklyn, specifically to this place:

On the sidewalks in front, and across the street, from this building careworn and harried, yet content, men and women prodded groups of pale but energetic children as their feet stuttered about the grid of concrete blocks.  Although those children looked different from the way my brothers, my peers and I looked, something was very, very familiar about the rhythm of their steps and their calls to each other.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised.  Although I had not been there in quite some time, I know that building, and that block, as well as any in this world.  In fact, I know it so well that I can tell you that nearly half a century ago, it didn't have the canopy you see in the photo.

Nor did it have the gate that now encloses the courtyard:

By now, you may have guessed that I lived in that building very early in my life.  Some of my oldest memories, for better and worse, are of those days.  

I think it's a co-operative now rather than the building of rental apartments it was in my childhood.  Also, as you probably have guessed, it's populated by families of Hasidic Jews.  In my day, nearly all of the families--of whom my family knew most--consisted of Italian- or Jewish (non-Hasidic)-Americans.  The men worked blue-collar jobs or had stores or other small businesses and the women stayed home and raised us.  In that sense, I guess we weren't so different from the people who live there now.

Then, as now, it was very unlikely that a woman--much less one like me--would have been riding a bicycle down that street--or, for that matter, any of the other streets I pedaled yesterday.  I turned, not quite at random, down a series of avenues and roads and other byways until I reached the southwestern part of Bensonhurst, not far from Coney Island.

I wasn't feeling hungry, but I stopped at a pizzeria--Il Grotto Azzuro--on 21st Avenue, near 85th Street.  From the street, it looks like one of many others of its kind.  But I went in anyway.

"Can I help you?"  The man's accent seemed even more familiar than anything else I'd experienced throughout my ride.

After ordering a classic Neapolitan slice and a white slice, he chimed, "You're gonna have the best pizza there is.   How did you know you were gonna find it here?"

"I followed my nose," I intoned, playing along.  "I always follow my nose when I'm riding my bike."

Somehow I sensed his claim wasn't hype.  Even if it wasn't the best pizza, the guy really believed that it was.  After finishing both slices, I ordered another Neapolitan, even though I was quite full.  "You're right!," I exclaimed.

Those Neapolitan slices were certainly the best I've had in a while.  Even though they were slices and it was five in the afternoon--near the end of the lull between lunch and dinner--it and the white slice tasted fresher than many I've had from just-cut whole pies.  

Sometimes, in the course of a bike ride, a slice of pizza or a bottle of beer can seem like the best you've ever had because you're tired or hungry. (I think now of the sugar and lemon crepe I gulped down after pedaling up Le Col du Galibier.  I've had dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other crepes in France.  But that one was the best.) However, I felt surprisingly good in spite of my recent illness and, as I mentioned, I wasn't hungry when I found Il Grotto Azzuro.

It's been there a while.  As I ate, another customer--a lifelong resident of the neighborhood--told me he'd been going there for more than 30 years.  I hope it's there for at least that much longer: The neighborhood is changing. 

So fueled, I continued down to Coney Island where, after thumping and clattering along the boardwalk (All of it is now open), a guard waved me into Sea Gate, which counts Isaac Bashevis Singer and Beverly Sills among its onetime residents.   I'd heard the area, not surprisingly, took an even greater hit than the surrounding neighborhood from Superstorm Sandy.  But, while the beaches were as eroded as those in Coney Island (though less so than those of the Rockaways or parts of New Jersey), most of the houses seemed to weather the wind and tides well.  Most seemed little different from what they were at this time last year; a few were still being repaired. 

At one of those houses, someone who didn't know my name called me:

Of course I stopped.

He capped his head with the palm of my hand and tiptoed along the rails, rubbing the side of his body through my fingers.  I think he knew I'm "from the neighborhood."

05 September 2013

When Kids "Come Out"

I've just come across this interesting article.  According to Kris Wells, a researcher at the University of Alberta, more kids are "coming out", not only as gay or lesbian, but also as transgender.  And they're coming out at earlier and earlier ages.

One thing I find interesting is, according to the article, that kids are increasingly supportive of their LGBT peers.  To be sure, there is ridicule and bullying, but more kids are making efforts to befriend their gay classmates.  Others simply see their peers' identities as a non-issue.

In some cases, it seems that parents who support a kid's gender transition get more flack than anyone else.  They are often accused of "confusing" their kids, or of intentional or unintentional intolerance.  Perversely, the same sorts of people who want to rigidly enforce "traditional" gender roles for children are the ones who accuse trans kids' parents of not accepting the "tomboyishness" of their daughters or the "sensitive, feminine" traits of their sons.  Or, they try to counsel such parents that their kids' assertion of his or her gender identity is just a "phase" and will be "outgrown".

The funny thing is that the people who judge such parents are the ones who are themselves most confused about what constitutes gender identity, let alone transgenderism.  They have a point when they say that a tomboy isn't necessarily a trans boy.  Millions of girls who hate the color pink or wearing dresses, or who like to play in dirt, do not see themselves as anything but girls.  Likewise, there are plenty of boys who don't care about sports or cars but would never think of themselves as anything besides boys.

Those who are transgendered do not merely flout norms about appearance, behavior and interests.  Whether and however they express it, they actually know themselves as being of the gender to which they were not assigned at birth.  I can remember seeing myself as a girl at a very young age; as I have mentioned in other posts, I--like nearly everyone else half a century ago--did not have the vocabulary or other means to express it, and few, if any, people in my environs would have understood because they were not aware of how someone could come to such a knowledge of his or her self.

Plus, if a kid knows at three or four or five that something is not "right", and expresses the wish to live in the gender of his or her mind and spirit for a decade after that, it's not a "phase".  I myself wished that my knowledge of myself--let buying shoes, clothes and accessories "for my cousin Linda" or "for my mother, and dressing myself in front of a mirror, were all just part of a "phase."  I still had that wish by the time I turned forty:  I still hoped that extreme sports and other "macho" pursuits and sexual relations with women would end it for me.

Granted, some kids will decide they aren't really trans or that, for whatever reasons, they don't want to live as the "opposite" gender and undergo hormone treatments and surgery.  Still, I can't help but to think that whatever conclusions they come to, they will be more secure in themselves if they probed whatever questions they may have had about their gender identities or sexuality, and had adults (ideally, parents, but others can fill this role) who loved them unconditionally in their journeys to self-knowledge.



04 September 2013

Keeping The Faith

Like most other transgender people, I have experienced discrimination, shame, rejection and even hostility for living in accordance with my true self.

Now, as to whether I've experienced more or worse ostracism than others, I don't know.  I have lost longtime friendships, relationships with relatives and professional colleagues as well as access to people, places and things that were once part of my life.   

By the same token, I have been more fortunate than many other trans people--and many other people, period.  I have been welcomed by people and into places when I expected no such hospitality, and at times I have had glimpses into worlds I would not have considered in my old life.  

I'm thinking now of the first time I entered a mosque.  After I took off my shoes, a caretaker directed me into the area in which women prayed.  We sat on wooden chairs behind a partition about three feet high.  The other women prayed, some audibly.  A few retreated to a more private but still-visible area (from which they could have seen the rest of us), removed their headscarves and washed themselves.  

Granted, we were in the Sultanahmet or "Blue" Mosque in Istanbul.  But I had similar experiences in other Turkish mosques, in the countryside as well as the city, some of which were not visited by tourists or other foreigners.  While those visits, and the hospitality of both the women and men, left me with no desire to become a Muslim (or, for that matter, an adherent to any other religion), I felt privileged to be allowed to partake of what, for some people, is the most sacrosanct part of their lives.  

I hope that Lucy Vallender will have such experiences one day soon.

Three years ago, she had gender-reassignment surgery.  Before that, she'd been a soldier in Her Majesty's forces.  After her surgery, she met a Muslim man on an online dating site and became his second wife.  She is believed to be the first transgender Muslim woman in the United Kingdom.

Although she says she's happy with her marriage and new-found faith, she was upset witht the way her local mosque, in the southwestern city of Swindon, has treated her: She's not allowed to pray with the other women and, she says, worshippers have asked her rude questions about everything from her bra cup size to whether or not she has a period.  They've even asked to see her birth certificate.

When I took my trip to Turkey, I had been on hormones for nearly three years and had been living full-time as a woman for just over two; about three and a half more years would pass before my surgery.  I don't know how long Ms. Vallender had been living as female before her surgery or marriage but, from what I've read about her, I probably had more experience, if you will, than she's had so far.  Also, I was nearly two decades older than she is now, which may have given me some social and other skills she has not yet acquired.

I hope that nothing I've said seems condescending toward Ms. Vallender.  I suspect (or, at any rate, hope) that her faith, her love for her husband and his for her will give her the strength she will need to develop the patience she will need until people in her community understand (to the degree they can or will) and accept her. I believe that she will find such acceptance, and even the hospitality I've experienced, because in my travels and in my work I have met very, very good Muslim people--and, most important of all, because she has accepted and embraced herself. 

01 September 2013

LGBT And Labor

I have to admit that I've long had mixed feelings about unions.  Yes, I understand their importance in protecting workers from abuses.  However, I have also seen firsthand how they can be used, like political clubhouses--and, very often, the very corporations whose exploitative practices unions are supposed to fight--to further the narrow interests of a select group of people.  

As an example, faculty members--whether full-timers or adjuncts--in the City University of New York are required to be members of the union.  When you are hired, you sign a card in which you "consent" to join and to have the dues deducted from your paycheck.

Granted, it's not a large amount of money and it helps to pay for some of the benefits members receive.  It's also used, supposedly, to help pay for the materials and work that go into protecting faculty members' rights.  

The union purports to represent adjuncts and other non-tenure-track faculty members as well as those who have tenure, or are on their way to it.  But, I know from experience that the union will throw adjuncts--and others who are not politically expedient--under the bus.  They also don't like to take up discrimination cases because they're "too difficult to prove".  However, they'll bray and bleat all day about some issue or another of "academic freedom".

Still, I'll admit, we need the union, particularly in the current climate: one in which the balance sheet rather than the syllabus is the most important document in education.   

If the marketers, bean-counters and others whose values come from the boardroom rather than the academy see graduates as "products" and faculty members merely as means to production, I don't think they're going to be terribly interested in much else besides getting as much money as possible for or from each student and paying as little as possible to turn those students into graduates.  And if the means of production, I mean faculty member, complains about being sexually harassed, having a false complaint made against him or her or simply not having goals and expectations clearly communicated (let alone receiving support in attaining those goals)--or simply gets sick or has a family emergency-- such administrators would like nothing better than to get rid of that faculty member and hire someone else who won't stand up for him or her self and doesn't have so much "baggage".  

Any member of a group who regularly experiences discrimination is vulnerable in such an atmosphere.  I would argue that trans people are the most vulnerable of all.  Never mind that our health insurance plans (when we have them) don't cover us in the same ways that other people are covered.  No matter how well we do our jobs, we have a harder time keeping them (and, of course, the health plans that go with them) than other people do because there's always somebody who's resentful over "special" treatment he or she imagines that we receive.  Or such a person is simply convinced that we are going to commit, or have committed, any and all sorts of crimes and perversions that never even crossed our minds--or that we are looking for reasons to get them fired over spurious claims of discrimination.  

(As an example of what I've described in my previous sentence, I'm thinking of a faculty member who, upon meeting me for the first time, exclaimed "I always feel I'm walking on eggshells and am going to say the wrong thing around you.")

So, I realize--in spite of my experiences--that trans people, as well as lesbians, gays and others on the "spectrum", need organized labor movements.  And they need us.  That's something to think about on Labor Day, which will be observed tomorrow.