31 May 2015

R.I.P. "Beau" Biden

Yesterday we lost one of our champions:  Joseph Robinette "Beau" Biden III lost his battle with brain cancer.

Two years ago, as the Attorney General of the State of Delaware, he joined Governor Jack Markell in supporting same-sex marriage legislation, which passed soon thereafter.  Thus did Delaware become the eleventh state--and the twelfth jurisdiction--in the US to legalize gay marriage.  

One month later, he urged state lawmakers to pass legislation that would establish legal protections based on gender identity.  Only fifteen days later, Governor Markell signed that bill into law.

So, within the space of just over two months, Biden managed to bring both same-sex marriage and gender equality to his state.  How many other public officials have such a record?

While his commitment to human rights was palpable, he's an example of how "an apple doesn't fall far from the tree".  If his last name looks familiar to you, it's because his father is Joe Biden--yes, that one, the Vice-President of the United States.  It was Biden pere who, in essence, cornered President Obama into supporting same-sex marriage, something he had opposed while campaigning for office.


30 May 2015

Gay Marriage In Ireland. Where Next?

Over the past few days, I’ve been reading and hearing a lot about the gay-marriage votein Ireland.  Several commentators mentioned that homosexual relations were illegal there as recently as 1993; abortion still is.  This state of affairs has generated discussion of how there has been a sea-change in the Emerald Isle within a generation—often from the very same people who talk about the “grip” Roman Catholic bishops still have on the politics of that country.

I think both of those notions are true.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, young Irish people—many of whom have gone abroad to go to school and work—have developed very different attitudes from their parents and grandparents about many issues.  At the same time, nearly all of those who still adhere to any sort of religious practice are still Roman Catholics. (There is a small but visible community of Muslims, most of whom have emigrated to Ireland recently.)  However, from what I’m hearing from people who have relatives or other connections to Ireland, those who adhere to their faith are doing so with a more independent mindset, as Catholics have done in other European countries in much of the Americas.  (They are the sort of people one Cardinal decried as “cafeteria Catholics".) So, while they might go to church and otherwise profess their faith in God and allegiance to the church, they do not think in lockstep with the Church hierarchy.

It’s hard not to believe that such people are feeling encouraged by the current Pope.  While he hasn’t endorsed same-sex marriage (and I don’t think it’s realistic to expect him or any Pope in the next couple of centuries to do so), he hasn’t spent any time denouncing it, or the Irish vote.  He has said that his priorities are—and the Church’s should be—helping the poor and otherwise disenfranchised.  I’d say he’s putting his money where his mouth is.

What all of this means, I believe, is that we might see same-sex marriage or civil unions legalized in places where we might not expect.  I’m not thinking now about countries like Germany and Italy:  I think they’ll eventually allow gay marriage if for no other reason than most of the other European Union countries, including France and England, have it.  I’m thinking about other countries with young, educated people whose attitudes are changing as a result of their exposure to the rest of the world, whether in person or online.  I won’t “name names”, so to speak.  But, as I say, they will come as much as a surprise to many people as Ireland did with its vote.

29 May 2015

He's The Best Tennis Player In The State--And A Fine Swimmer, Too!

Some of us in the LGBT--especially the T--community have complicated relationships with sports.

In my day, one stereotype of gay boys--and, by extension trans girls (for the latter were considered, if they were at all, to be more extreme versions of the former)--was that they weren't any good at sports.  In fact, one way people expressed consternation at finding out a boy was gay was to say, "but he's so good at sports!"

The fact is, many a gay boy and trans girl has played "under cover", if you will, on boys' sports teams.  I'm sure many a young lesbian or trans boy has done the same on girls' teams. However, because of the stereotypes of the time, a masculine girl who played sports was usually seen as a "tomboy" and given a bit more leeway than a feminine boy.

Nearly all of us who played sports in high school or even college experienced some kind of harassment or even outright bullying.  Still, many of us were spared the worst treatment accorded boys who were--or were perceived as--gay or girlish because sports and athletes are so revered in many schools.  At least, I can say that was the case for me.

But how could things have been different if trans kids could have played on teams designated for the gender by which we identified?

In the time and places where I grew up, such a thing would have been unthinkable to most parents, teachers and school administrators. Much of that had to do, of course, with the stereotypes I've just mentioned--and the fear that trans people (especially trans girls) were sexual predators.  But I have often thought that being allowed to play on teams for our true genders could have helped us in so many ways, from "coming out" to beginning our lives in the genders by which we know ourselves.

Recent events are showing that what I have just said is not a naive or idealistic fantasy.  Among them is the Maine Principals' Association adoption of a new policy that allows trans kids to play on teams according to the gender by which they identify.  That has been a great thing for the tennis team of  Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham, Maine, which has lost only one of its twelve matches so far this year.  One reason for that is Leo Eichfeld, the state's top player.

Yes, you read that right: He's the best high-school tennis player in the whole state of Maine.  And, yes, he's trans.  In fact, he "came out" to his teammates at the beginning of the school year.

He also swims for his school's team.  Actually, he was doing that even before he started playing tennis.   When he goes into the water, he wears a special chest binder and swimsuit that covers him from shoulder to knee.

Some would say that was an even bolder move than being on the tennis team--or just about anything else he could have done.  "It wasn't like he joined the debate team," says his coach, Tracy Doviak.

And, in case you were wondering, Eichfeld swims the 50-yard freestyle and the 100-yard backstroke. By the end of his first season, he'd shaved five seconds off his time for each.

He says that his transition has been relatively easy compared to other trans people he knows about.  Part of that was the acceptance he experienced from his teammates, classmates and others in his community.  Also, he said, competing helped him to "get the energy out".

Now, I know that not all trans kids are, or want to be, athletes.  But for those who have such inclinations, Leo Eichfeld's story shows us how they--and their families, schools and communities--can benefit.

28 May 2015

Protest Against Treatment of LGBT Undocumented Immigrants In California

Contrary to how some would spin the story, transgender inmates aren't looking for "special treatment".

I don't think any trans person would deny that when one of us commits a crime, we should pay our "debt to society", whatever that may be.  Being trans might drive someone to, say, prostitution (which, I believe, shouldn't be a crime) or even other illegal acts out of desperation or the pure and simple stress of incurring the prejudice we face.  

And I think that most people would agree that if one of the purposes of prison or jail is to rehabilitate people, an inmate should not be tortured or live with the danger of sexual abuse.  I believe that most would also agree that a prisoner shouldn't be thrown into solitary confinement simply because the system doesn't know what else to do with him or her.

Yet all of the things I've mentioned in the previous paragraph routinely happen to transgender inmates.  Some end up in solitary because they've been placed in the system according to the gender they were assigned at birth and the wardens simply don't know how else to keep the inmate from being sexually attacked.  Or, trans inmates might be so placed simply out of spite and hate.

Being confined under such conditions--and having to become, in essence, a hardened criminal in order to survive among hardened criminals--makes recidivism all the more likely.  After all, if you take a person who has no marketable skills or other means of survival and place him or her in an environment in which the choice is between becoming predator or prey--and then release that person into the environment from which he or she came (which could well be the streets), what is that person going to do after he or she can't get legal employment, housing or social services?

That is why 70 protesters chained themselves together in front of the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana, CA.  There, as in other places, undocumented immigrants--especially those who are LGBT, with a particular emphasis on the "T"--are routinely subject to the conditions I've described.  And those inmates, as often as not, have no one to fight for them.

If someone in your family got arrested, you probably wouldn't want him or her to end up in the conditions I've described.  Why, then, should undocumented transgender immigrants be forced to live that way?

27 May 2015

The Wound Nobody Could Heal

For most of my life, I have withdrawn from people when I felt they were getting close--or, more precisely, too close for my comfort.

And what do I mean by "too close for my comfort"?  Well, I always knew that deep within myself, there was a pain, a wound, that nobody could make better--and, I believed, nobody else could understand.  It made me very, very angry and whenever people who might have been acting from the purest of motives tried to "help" me, it almost invariably made me feel worse.  Sometimes I would be angry at those people.  I never expressed that rage physically, but I said a lot of things I shouldn't have and walked out on a few people who deserved better.  

Sometimes I withdrew simply to try to spare someone my wrath.  If I and that person were lucky, I could somehow pre-empt that person's attempt at charity or mercy or compassion, which I knew I never could reciporacate and would never make me a happier or better person.  And there were a few people whom I simply wanted to spare from grief and self-blame, to whatever degree I could. 

In fact, there were two occasions in which I stopped myself from committing suicide only because I knew that the only two people about whom I cared at that point in my life--my mother and a very close friend--would blame themselves. Both of those occasions came within weeks after another friend committed suicide not long after the deaths of an uncle to whom I was close and my grandmother.

I will never know exactly what was in Kyler Prescott's mind and heart.  I, like most people, hadn't heard of the 14-year-old Californian until today.  However, I suspect he was suffering in a way similar to what I've described.  From what I've read and heard, I don't doubt that his mother, Katherine Prescott, did everything she could to support him from the day he announced that he was a boy, not the girl indicated on his birth certificate.  But the pain of having to live in a body that didn't conform to his gender--and the bullying he experienced online and in person--marked him with wounds that even the most resilient and resourceful teenager or parent would have trouble healing.

If there is any window into Kyler Prescott's mind and soul, it might be this poem he wrote:

                     My mirror does not define me:
Not the stranger that looks back at me
Not the smooth face that belongs to someone else
Not the eyes that gleam with sadness
When I look for him and can only see her.

My body does not define me:
Not the slim shoulders that will not change
Not the hips that give me away
Not the chest I can’t stand to look at
When I look for him and can only see her.

My clothes do not define me:
Not the shirt and the jeans
That would look so perfect on him
But that I know would never fit me
When I look for him and can only find her.

And I’ve been looking for him for years,
But I seem to grow farther away from him
With each passing day.
He’s trapped inside this body,
Wrapped in society’s chains
That keep him from escaping.

But one day I will break those chains.
One day I will set him free.
And I’ll finally look in the mirror
And see me--
The boy I was always meant to be.

Ms. Prescott is calling for greater empathy, support and acceptance for transgender and other non-gender-conforming teenagers.  She has done what she could, she is doing what she can and is trying to do better.  Nobody can ask more.  I don't think her son would, or could, have.

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26 May 2015

A Ride For Sally

When we're young, it's difficult and even hurtful to learn that people we admired--whether celebrities or family members, teachers or others in our everyday lives--are, well, people.  We might find out that our favorite actor, writer, athlete, aunt or uncle did immoral or even illegal things.  Sometimes finding out the dark side of someone we took as a model for one aspect or another of our lives is painful even after we thought we'd "seen it all".

One celebrity about whom I never became disillusioned is Sally Ride.  In fact, I found myself admiring her even more as the years went by.  It seems that being the first woman in space was just one of many accomplishments in her life.  Few people have ever done more to encourage girls and young women to study math, science and technology--fields from which they were too often discouraged, dissuaded or even bullied out of studying or working.  

I think now of Sophie Germain, whose parents took away her clothes--and heat and light at night--in an attempt to stop her from studying mathematics, which was deemed inappropriate for a "proper" young lady.  I also think, in this vein, about 1977 Nobel Laureate Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, whose parents wanted her to get a college education but protested when she decided to study Physics on the grounds that "no man would want to marry" her.  

If Dr. Ride faced such opposition from her family or anyone else, she never let on.  In fact, she did not let on much about her personal life, including her relatively brief marriage to a man and her later, much longer partnership with a woman.  Most people did not know about those things until they read her obituary three years ago.

Whatever the circumstances of her life, she understood the difficulties young women and girls faced--and still face--in pursuing STEM careers.  So, she did everything she could to help them--and their teachers, who sometimes were not confident of their own abilities to encourage their students in those areas.

Here she is helping a student understand some of the principles of gyroscopic motion with--what else?--a bicycle wheel:

She would have been 64 years old today. If I could be in Northern Virginia two weeks from now and I were still racing, I'd take part in the Ride Sally Ride.

25 May 2015

What "Other Than Honorable" Means

Today is Memorial Day here in the US.

Last night, I listened to a radio program in which the host brought up a little-discussed point:  When “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was in effect, many LGBT members of the Armed Forces received “other than honorable” discharges.  According to this host, there are estimated to be about 50,000 such former service members here in New York City alone.

As some of you know, getting an other-than-honorable discharge has all sorts of consequences.  It can prevent you from getting certain jobs.  Worse yet, it can prevent you from getting certain services you might need from the Armed Forces as well as city, state and the Federal government.   And, although nobody has an exact number, nobody doubts that at least some of those veterans are homeless as well as jobless as a result of their discharges.

24 May 2015

The Irish Vote For Gay Marriage

Having grown up Catholic enough to be an altar boy (and having gotten some of my education in a Catholic school), I am as fascinated as I am gratified by what’shappened in Ireland.

As you probably know by now, the Irish Republic made history the other day when it legalized same-sex marriage—by popular vote.  Yes, the Irish people themselves chose to legalize unions between two people of the same gender.  In every other nation or other jurisdiction in which it’s been legalized, the feat was accomplished by the vote of a legislative body, an executive decree or—as in the case of most US states in which same-sex marriage is legal—a judge’s order.  

What’s so fascinating to me is that, not so long ago, Ireland was regarded as one of the most resolutely Roman Catholic societies in the world.  The Irish were considered to be as devout as the Poles, Spanish and Quebecois.  Now, of course, gay marriage is legal in Spain and Quebec (as it is in the rest of Canada).  Some of the nuns in my Catholic school came from Ireland; the same was true of many other Catholic schools in the US at that time (the 1960’s and early 1970’s).  Also, as I recall, two of the priests in my parish were Irish.

Now, in Ireland as in much of the west, the young are not pursuing vocations as priests and nuns.  Many explanations have been offered for this phenomenon, one of the most plausible being increased prosperity.  Many priests in the US (and, as I’ve discovered, elsewhere) are coming from India, Nigeria, the Philippines and other impoverished countries where Catholic missionaries have been active.  Piety seems to pair much better with poverty than with prosperity.  As someone smarter than I am remarked, “Give them MTV and they’ll never go to seminary!”

That point is certainly valid.  However, one way in which Ireland was different from those countries (and others when they were turning out lots of priests and nuns) was that it was—and is—one of the world’s best-educated countries.  Probably the closest parallel we have today to pre-1990s Ireland is Cuba:  Nearly everybody is literate but also poor.

One difference, though, between Ireland past and Cuba present is that in Eire, education was controlled, directly or indirectly, by the Church.  Early in its history, about the only way an Irish person could get an education was to become a priest or nun.  They, in turn, would open most of the schools—and control the curriculum—in their country.

In the 1990s, young Irish people finally found opportunities to use their educations.   They seized upon advances in technology and the business world to turn their country into a center for research and financial services.  That, of course, furthered young people’s opportunity for education, both in their own country and abroad.  

Given what I’ve described, however sketchily, it seems less surprising that Irish attitudes about gender and sexuality have changed as quickly as they have.  On the other hand, it’s more surprising that abortion is still illegal there.  Perhaps that will be the next change in the Emerald Isle. 

23 May 2015

How To Ride Like A Lady

Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has written, "Well-behaved women seldom make history".

She, of course, is correct.  However, when women are entering previously-unchartered territory, we sometimes have to behave in accordance with accepted gender norms in order to hold onto our places in those worlds.  In other words, we can't be perceived as a threat to men.  On the other hand, we also have to do whatever we're doing in our own way--and, indeed, we often have to figure out what that way is--in order not to be seen as inferior to the men who are doing whatever it is we're doing.

I know from whence I speak: In my transition from living as a man to my life as a woman, I have been criticized for being too much like a man and too much like a woman--sometimes by the very same people.  The same people who told me I was too aggressive on the job told me, in the next breath, that I was too submissive--"like a woman."  It's a bit like telling a woman she throws too hard for a girl but that she "throws like a girl".

I thought about that when I came across this list of "don'ts" for female cyclists that was published in the New York World in 1895:

  • Don’t be a fright.

  • Don’t faint on the road.

  • Don’t wear a man’s cap.

  • Don’t wear tight garters.

  • Don’t forget your toolbag

  • Don’t attempt a “century.”

  • Don’t coast. It is dangerous.

  • Don’t boast of your long rides.

  • Don’t criticize people’s “legs.”

  • Don’t wear loud hued leggings.

  • Don’t cultivate a “bicycle face.”

  • Don’t refuse assistance up a hill.

  • Don’t wear clothes that don’t fit.

  • Don’t neglect a “light’s out” cry.

  • Don’t wear jewelry while on a tour.

  • Don’t race. Leave that to the scorchers.

  • Don’t wear laced boots. They are tiresome.

  • Don’t imagine everybody is looking at you.

  • Don’t go to church in your bicycle costume.

  • Don’t wear a garden party hat with bloomers.

  • Don’t contest the right of way with cable cars.

  • Don’t chew gum. Exercise your jaws in private.

  • Don’t wear white kid gloves. Silk is the thing.

  • Don’t ask, “What do you think of my bloomers?”

  • Don’t use bicycle slang. Leave that to the boys.

  • Don’t go out after dark without a male escort.

  • Don’t go without a needle, thread and thimble.

  • Don’t try to have every article of your attire “match.”

  • Don’t let your golden hair be hanging down your back.

  • Don’t allow dear little Fido to accompany you

  • Don’t scratch a match on the seat of your bloomers.

  • Don’t discuss bloomers with every man you know.

  • Don’t appear in public until you have learned to ride well.

  • Don’t overdo things. Let cycling be a recreation, not a labor.

  • Don’t ignore the laws of the road because you are a woman.

  • Don’t try to ride in your brother’s clothes “to see how it feels.”

  • Don’t scream if you meet a cow. If she sees you first, she will run.

  • Don’t cultivate everything that is up to date because yon ride a wheel.

  • Don’t emulate your brother’s attitude if he rides parallel with the ground.

  • Don’t undertake a long ride if you are not confident of performing it easily.

  • Don’t appear to be up on “records” and “record smashing.” That is sporty.

  • Some of these "don'ts" made me cringe.  But I had to get a laugh out of "Don't try to ride in your brother's clothes 'to see how it feels'!"