Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Three Rules

  1. Everyone's truth is valid.
  2. No one's truth is universal.  (In other words, no one's truth is anyone else's truth.)
  3. People are frequently mistaken.  But when you find your truth, you will know it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Exploring a Small Library

My regular library is closed for renovation, so I've been going to a different one.  It's quite small - only one room - but as Jane Rule says, every library has its treasures, and I found some entertainment just by checking a few shelves.

I found a Diana Wynne Jones book I had never read before (wonder if I should add it to the Super DWJ List on my old blog) and a novel by one Gyles Brandreth, featuring Oscar Wilde as a detective.  It's always enjoyable to read about one of my favorite historical eras, and I have no doubt that Mr Brandreth adores the late 19th century as much as I do.  However, he and I don't always see eye to eye.  I don't really like Wilde as a person (so I suppose it's my own fault if I dislike a book about him.)  He was intelligent but Brandreth has turned him into another Sherlock Holmes, all observant and logical and stuff.  I don't really see the point of that. 

Ironically, Arthur Conan Doyle also appears in the book - he and Wilde are portrayed as friends, which again I'm not sure is historically accurate.  They met at least once, and in fact The Picture of Dorian Gray would have appeared in the same magazine as Conan Doyle's second Holmes story if Wilde had been interested in making the deadline, which he wasn't.  Brandreth crams as many unusual Victorians into the book as he can.  Sometimes he exaggerates their eccentricities, as when he describes Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper as a pair of cross-dressers.  It's true that they were lovers, sometimes addressed each other with male nicknames, and wrote together under the name of Michael Field, but their biographer Emma Donoghue does not mention that they did any literal, as opposed to spiritual, cross-dressing.

Brandreth also brings another interesting fellow into the story:  Ernest Hornung.  He married Conan Doyle's sister, and in what appears to be a spirit of friendly rivalry, set out to surpass the popularity of Sherlock Holmes by creating the character of master thief A.J. Raffles.  Raffles has his Watson - a bumbling accomplice - and the Raffles stories are definitely fun to read.  They're also more homoerotic than I remember Holmes and Watson being, although I started reading them when I was fairly young and oblivious.  Watson is protected by his heterosexuality, as demonstrated in frequent references to his wife (or wives - Sherlockians disagree on how many there were) and Holmes is too cerebral to be interested in sex.  Raffles "seduces" his old school chum (always referred to by his school nickname, "Bunny") into a life of crime . . . but I don't actually believe that Hornung put a double meaning into those passages.  They sound suspicious to a biased ear, but not like they were written by someone with something to hide.

This brings up the oddest thing about Brandreth's Oscar Wilde mystery novels.  I gather he's written several of them by now and never does more than hint at Wilde's homosexual tendencies.  Lord Alfred Douglas appears frequently - so does Wilde's wife Constance - and Wilde spends a lot of time proclaiming his love for his wife, and not coming home at night because he's off gallivanting with Lord Alfred.  What are we to think?  Maybe it's meant to be a realistic portrait of Victorian life.  But there is a certain lack of honesty in it, which I believe would have appealed to Wilde, and seems to appeal to Brandreth, but is no longer fashionable in the 21st century.

Incidentally, the back cover of this book informs us that Brandreth wrote "a much-admired biography of Oscar Wilde," but I cannot find this biography listed on Amazon or anywhere else.  He did, however, write a play about The Trials of Oscar Wilde, in which Tom Baker (of Doctor Who fame) played the lead in 1974.  That would have been something to see.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

How Much Do I Have to Lie?

At a very young age I decided that the only way to be safe was to avoid attracting attention.  And I got really good at it.  I believe I'm better at blending into the wallpaper than anyone else I know.  Hopefully it helped.  It did not protect me from all unpleasantness, and certainly as I grew older it became more and more of a problem.  You cannot get jobs, friends or lovers without attracting attention from someone.

Is concealment the same as "lying?"  I don't really know.  What I do know is that the best way to lie is to believe what you're saying:  to conceal the facts even from yourself.  Of course, I didn't know I was doing that.  It was a perfect cover-up.

For years I believed that I didn't care what people thought of me.  And it's true that even though I never talked to anyone, I still set out to go my own way and do my own thing.  The big secret was still a secret.  Other things I never told anyone but I knew they were true.  It seemed to me that I had enough issues to work on.  The most persistent and ongoing problem that I was consciously aware of is the question: "Do I have any right to exist at all?"  And maybe that still is more important than the question:  "Do I have the right to be trans?"

I was trying to carve out a space for myself . . . and considering where I started from I've done pretty well.  At last I felt safe enough to reveal the big secret.  To myself, I mean.  As soon as I realized I was trans, I instantly understood what a huge coward I am.  I thought I was this big non-conformist.  Ha.  I thought I was honest.  I thought I cared about honesty more than anything else.  But I had been lying to myself for years. And I didn't see any way that I could tell anyone.  Horrible things would happen if I did.

So.  This blog is, among other things, an attempt to explore what it means to be trans.  (Terminology management:  I identify as transgendered. Some people identify as transsexual.  "Trans" is short for both of those.  Some people write "trans*" but please.  I save my geekiness for where it might do some good.)  I admit I still get distracted sometimes.  I spent years thinking about other things . . . and a lot of those things are still important. 

My transgender is central to me, in the sense that I carry it around in my heart.  But it's not the only thing about me.  And of course, I do want people to understand that trans people are, as we all keep saying, Just. Like. Everyone. Else.  So it doesn't hurt to write about other things too.

I'm digressing.  To get back to the title of this post:  how much do I have to lie?  We all have things to conceal.  We all encounter situations where it's socially advisable not to say what you really believe.  So perfect honesty is not desirable (if only because it gives the false impression that someone who is always honest is always right.)  But speaking as someone who learned never to admit anything to anybody . . . expressing yourself is a good thing too.  When it's safe.  Perhaps it's cynical of me to believe that the only function of society is to keep us all lying to each other.  But really:  what's the point of that?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sanditon and other stories

For all aficionados of Jane Austen, I heartily recommend the "Everyman's Library" edition of Sanditon and other stories, comprising what appears to be all of her unpublished works:  two unfinished novels (which will drive you mad with frustration and outrage, since they stop just as things are getting interesting,) juvenilia, the novella Lady Susan (which is available elsewhere, and I have written about it before,) etc.  They are all much racier than her published work.  The juvenilia especially feature mercenary young women marrying unpleasant old men for their money, a form of immorality which Austen almost never allowed into her published novels.  We also discover that as a teenager she had a major crush on Mary Queen of Scots.

I will conclude by giving you an example of how much fun the writer was having, with a story she wrote for (one may even say "about") her older sister Cassandra.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Early Human History in Africa

So a few months ago there was this guy on Jon Stewart, he had written a book about evolution or something.  I don't actually remember what the book was but at one point he said, "The human race has lived in Africa longer than it has lived anywhere else.  We lived there for about a million years."

Technically I knew that, in the sense of, I knew the human race evolved in Africa.  I'm still a bit fuzzy about the number of million years involved.  But somehow that comment made me think about the actual history involved, and I wanted to learn more.  It's hard to find information on this period though.

These are the books that I read:
  1. Origins Reconsidered, by Richard Leakey, 1993 (a sequel to Origins, published 1982.)  This book is an overview of evolution, and it's not what I actually wanted to read about.  Like I said, I already know about evolution.  I want to know what happened afterwards.  But it's still a fascinating book, especially when he talks about all the things we don't know.  Apparently we have found just enough fossils to be able to say that Homo sapiens evolved in Africa but we don't have anything like a complete timeline - there are huge gaps - and the fossils that have been found have not all been categorized into species. There were a series of species between the non-human ancestor of apes and humans, and Homo sapiens itself, and all of the other hominid species died out.  Anyway, paleoanthropologists say things like "We don't know which of these species was an ancestor of Homo sapiens" and "We don't know if these two fossils come from the same species or not." You'd think they would know.  One problem is that everybody wants to discover a new species.

    Leakey himself makes interesting reading.  He went through a long period of rebellion against his parents' legacy, he wasn't going to follow in their footsteps, but then he did.  And I agree with most of his opinions, which is always pleasant.
  2. I read some book about African rock paintings, because I know rock paintings are old, but the problem was that this book was old too.  It resolutely refused to date anything, except the most recent paintings.  The most informative part of it was some gruesome descriptions of genocide practiced against native South Africans by the Boers.
Then I discovered the works of Graham Connah, an archeologist based in Australia who has been studying Africa for at least four decades.  Even his stuff didn't go back much further than three or four thousand years, but it was still completely amazing. His goal is to show, as he puts it in one of his books, that "Africans didn't all live in huts."  He also addresses the related myth that when there was any sign of civilization in Africa it must have come from outside. 

Having said that, one of the signs of a vibrant civilization is that it interacts with its neighbors, and the history of interaction between Africa and the rest of the world is also fascinating.  The third myth about Africa is that it was "undiscovered" until Europeans (which in this case means Christians) found it.  This is an injustice to other parts of the world besides Africa.  One of the things I learned from reading these books is that most of the coast of East Africa engaged in trade with Arabia, India and even with China.  I was also reminded that North Africa has long been part of the Mediterranean community.

I liked these books, not only for the reasons above, but also because I like reading about stuff.  Physical objects.  They built dams.  They worked in iron, bronze, gold, copper and silver.  They had elaborate burials.  They had coinage!  (Some African cultures made their own coins.  Other sites yielded coins from as far away as China.)  They had houses with indoor toilets!  (Connah is very conscientious about mentioning places that had good sanitary facilities.)

These are the books by Graham Connah that I read, in order of how relevant they were to my subject:
  1. Forgotten Africa: an introduction to its archaeology, 2004.  In some ways this book is unavoidably superficial.  It sets out to cover 4 million years of history, on a huge continent, in less than 200 pages.  But it was the only book I could get ahold of which contained any information on the time period I was interested in.  And although it is a series of vignettes, they are magnificent vignettes.

    I will mention only two bits.  First, giraffes in China!  About 600 years ago the Chinese sent an expedition to Africa and brought back a giraffe.  You can see a picture of it here.  Second, on page 43 Connah gives this example of the limitations of archeological evidence:
"It is remarkable that the earliest evidence for cultivated sorghum [in Africa] is only about 2000 years old.  This indigenous African cereal must have been domesticated much earlier, because it was already being cultivated in Saudi Arabia and India, where it was not indigenous, some 4500 years ago."
  1. African Civilizations: an archaeological perspective, 1st ed., 1987 (a second edition was published in 2001, but InterLibrary Loan sent me the old one.)  This is a slightly more focused version of the book listed above, in that it covers only 3,000 years and eight specific areas, in about the same number of pages.  If you are impressed by cultures that were able to build huge buildings, you should read about Ethiopia and Great Zimbabwe.  The country Zimbabwe was named after some large towers, called "zimbabwes," built of unmortared stone on a plateau in southeast Africa.  Fans of Egypt (and who doesn't love Ancient Egypt?) might be interested to learn about Meroe, a city-state that existed at about the same time somewhat further up the Nile.
  2. Three thousand years in Africa: man and his environment in the Lake Chad region of Nigeria, 1981. This was the most "academic" of the three books and I have to admit that I only skimmed it.  He does mention that even though the area he excavated contained nothing that was older than 3,000 years, nearby sites yielded artifacts that were at least 39,000 years old, and he's certain that his area must have been inhabited by humans for just as long.
Obviously I cannot do justice to the history of the human race in Africa in one blog post.  But there was one other thing  that struck me.  According to Graham Connah, one of Africa's major exports has always been slaves.  I have the impression that the European slave trade decimated Africa - how is it, then, that thousands of years of human trafficking apparently didn't make much of a dent?  Were the numbers not really that large?  We're told that the Christians needed slaves for labor on their American colonies.  But the interesting thing about that is that Islam colonized Asia too. Did they not need slaves?  Was there some essential difference between Christian and Muslim colonization?  That question applies to Africa too, of course.

I hope to do more research on the topic of Africa. There seems to be an awful lot we don't know.

    Wednesday, September 1, 2010

    Coming Out

    The recent story about Ken Mehlman, formerly George Bush's campaign manager and one-time chairman of the RNC, announcing that he's gay has caused me to reflect.  Some people have doubted his assertion that he didn't know he was gay.  I didn't know I was trans - or rather, I knew but I didn't want to know.  It was a thought in my mind, never consciously acknowledged, free-floating like some scary shadowy thing in the depths of the ocean.  And even though I never made a living out of demonizing GLBT people and denying their human rights, I used to believe a lot of transphobic stuff.

    Mehlman wants people to "understand" the plight he was in, and I do understand.  I know how hard it is to come out.  How terrifying it is to come out.  I know that he was afraid of losing his livelihood, his friends, and the love of his family.  I know that he may even have feared for his life.  I can believe that he believed that homosexuality is wrong.

    Nor do I envy him for coming out in public.  It's not because of the anger and disdain he's gotten from gay people - he deserves that.  It's because coming out is a long process.  First you admit it to yourself.  Then you think about telling other people.  Then you actually do start telling people, which is a huge step, but it's not the end.  Probably Mehlman will continue to adjust his views.

    In fact, the stages of coming out are kind of like the well-known "five stages of grief:"  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.  Maybe they don't go in the same order.  Denial comes first, obviously . . . but I'm inclined to think that bargaining is an essential stage, both before and after the official announcement.  Mehlman says "I'm gay but I'm still a Republican."  That's bargaining.  He's trying to compromise with the world, and especially, I suspect, with his personal and professional associates.  He's saying "You can still approve of me, I haven't changed all that much!" 

    And it's true that he's still the same person.  It's true that all of us make compromises with society between our desires and what is socially acceptable.  Many people, for example, work at jobs they hate when they'd really rather run off to Tahiti and paint naked people.  Maybe they compromise by covering their bedroom walls with Gauguin prints.  But for GLBT people it's a lot harder to negotiate our social compromise, because until recently everything we want to do, everything we are, was completely forbidden.  The answer was always "No!" and there really weren't any valid tradeoffs.  In a lot of cases the answer is still no.  You can't do that, you can't be that, no sane person would want to do that, you must be sick.  But we're trying.

    One last note:  when I compare coming out to the stages of grief, I'm not saying it's a bad thing.  It's just that no one likes change.