21 January 2014

Jay's House

Lately, I’ve been listening quite a bit to WBAI, the Pacifica Radio station here in New York.  I have gone through periods of my life when I have listened to no other radio station—sometimes, during times when I wasn’t watching television.

I started listening again a few months ago because there is so little on local radio or television I can stand, even as background, while I’m working on something.  At other times when I listened regularly, there were more intelligent, engaging or simply entertaining (by my standards, anyway) options in the media than there are now.  I know that I can find some favorite old episodes and programs on You Tube and other venues, but I don’t want to spend too much time on reruns.  Besides, it’s hard use You Tube or its equivalents as background.

Anyway, WBAI has an “OUT Radio” program, which claims to be the only LGBT-centered radio program in the NYC area.  Their claim is probably accurate.  I hadn’t tuned in specifically to hear that program, though:  I’ve had the radio on most of the day as I’ve gone in and out to shop for food and do laundry and other errands—all within a two-block radius of my place.  Still, I listened.  I’m glad I did:  the producer—I didn’t catch her name—interviewed Jay Toole.

Until recently, Jay headed Queers for Economic Justice.  However, the organization is dying because it’s lost its funding.  But Jay had been working on a dream, which is now coming into fruition:  Jay’s House, a shelter/community center for LGBT people.

Jay’s vision for it was borne of experience living in the New York City shelter system and, before that, on the streets.  Like too many other young queer people, Jay became homeless upon “coming out” as a teenager.  To be exact, Jay was 13 years old at the time and would live without a home for more than thirty years afterward.

One of the things for which I am thankful is that the most difficult times I’ve experienced are nothing like what Jay experienced every day for decades.  Another thing for which I’m thankful is for which I’m thankful is having met Jay, especially at the time in my life when I did.

Not long before I moved out of the apartment I’d been sharing with Tammy, I went to Center Care, the counseling center of the LGBT Community Center of New York.  Jay volunteered as an intake counselor and was on duty the day I walked in.  Until that day, Tammy was the only person with whom I’d talked about my gender identity.  Actually, I didn’t talk about it so much as I insisted that the clothing, the jewelry and the time I spent in them were things I could simply “walk away from” if and when it ever became a possible roadblock to her career—or, more precisely, her own life based on her defying other people’s perceptions of her real and  understandable wish to escape the pain other males in her life had caused her.

Living a half- (or otherwise partial-) truth really isn’t any better—or, at least, mentally and spiritually healthy—than living an outright lie.  Well, it might be better in the sense that sometimes it’s necessary to live that partial truth—which, really, is another kind of mendacity—in order to learn whatever one must learn, or simply to survive, before facing reality.

I knew I had to end those fictions—and the ones I’d given my family, friends and anyone else who knew or questioned me—on the day I met Jay.  As I sat in the Center’s waiting area, I thought about how I would explain myself to whoever I met.  (At that moment, of course, I didn’t know that person would be Jay.)  Until that moment, nothing made any sense to me:  I didn’t know, therefore, how I could make it make sense to anyone else.

The receptionist called my name and directed me to one of the Center’s narrow but well-lit offices.  “I’m Jay.”  “Hi.” 

At that moment, I forgot whatever I’d been rehearsing in my mind.  Instead, this passed through my lips:  “I’m a woman.”

“I know.”

I would later realize that, at that moment, I knew Jay, too, even though we were meeting for the first time.  You see, I intuited—and much later articulated—this:  I was, at that moment, an inversion of Jay, who was about as “butch” as anyone could be without having been born with XY chromosomes.  But, even more important, we had both been defined by our vulnerability and pain.  Both of us had experienced sexual molestation and violence; while Jay was cast out, I alienated myself because I simply could not relate to anyone else, not even members of my own family.  Jay had spent more than three decades without a physical home; I’d spent about the same amount of time, if not more, unable to be at home in my own body, in my own mind, in my own spirit, let alone in any physical environment in which I’d lived, worked or been inculcated with notions to which I simply couldn’t conform, no matter how hard I tried or how much I loved the people who were teaching the lessons they’d been taught and, in some cases, did not understand.

Jay and I would later volunteer on one of the Center’s projects and remain in contact, if episodically.  Although Jay is very busy, the time in which we didn’t talk or write much to each other was also my fault:  I withdrew from almost everyone with whom I didn’t have to be in contact when Dominick was doing everything he could to destroy me.  I didn’t have to make the apology I offered when we bumped into each other, for the first time in a couple of years, back in June:  After all, almost no one else I know understands what it’s like simply to survive the day and the day before as well as Jay does.

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