Friday, November 28, 2014

TDOR 2014: Deaths in Foreign Countries

This past Saturday I went to a Transgender Day of Remembrance event at my church. It was much like the one I wrote about last year. I didn't go to any TDOR event hosted by people of color this year. But I did read the article "Remembering Us When We’re Gone, Ignoring Us While We’re Here," which agrees with my experience of white TDOR events:
Trans Day of Remembrance is filled to the brim with the names of murdered Black and brown trans women, but is a single evening of remembering enough? And what does it mean that TDoR doesn’t explicitly talk about race and is often dominated by white people? . . . We only hear about trans women after their deaths. And even our deaths are not our own. A week doesn’t go by without a white queer citing the deaths of trans women of color as the evidence of how oppressed they are.
Let me reiterate: white people using the deaths of people of color as an example of how much danger they, white people, are in, does not make sense. It is not fair. In fact, it's selfish.

One of the names we read was the name of a black trans woman who lived and died right here in New Orleans. Brenisha Hall. (Ironically, her name was spelled wrong on the list of names that was handed out to us.) As far as I know, none of the people at our event knew her personally. Why didn't we know her?

Also, no one mentioned Leslie Feinberg, who died on November 15. Technically ze was not murdered. But ze still deserves to be remembered. (How often does a famous transgender person die, anyway?)

Maybe I'm being overly judgmental. The other people at this event all seemed very much moved by the ceremony. But I can't put these questions out of my mind: do we, white trans people, have a relationship with trans people of color? What is that relationship? Shouldn't we acknowledge the relationship before they die, as well as afterwards? We claim their deaths as ours. But while they lived, they might as well have been living in a foreign country.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The New Cheyenne Autumn

Recently I read the book The New Jim Crow as part of an online book group. Aside from recommending that everyone should read it, I don't really know what to say about it. Why does America, "the land of the free," have more people in prison than any other country? Why do police have free rein to confiscate the property of citizens who haven't been charged - let alone convicted - of any crime?

Supposedly this is caused by the war on drugs. But when we learn that black people and white people sell and use illegal drugs at equal rates - and yet black people are much more likely to go to jail for drug offenses - then it appears that there is something else going on.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"Fix the World" vs. "Fix Yourself"

Recently someone came and preached at my church about his social justice work. I have to say that he rubbed me the wrong way in his very first sentence. He said we were called upon to minister to people whom "society considers to be unlovable."

As a transgender person, I often feel that I belong to a group which society considers to be unlovable. But I do not like being reminded of that fact from the pulpit. Also, even if "society" considers us to be unlovable, we still love ourselves. We can still find people who love us. Love is still present in our lives.

More importantly from a social justice perspective, it is not love that we want. It is justice. (To paraphrase Frances E. W. Harper.) I don't need everybody to love me. I need people not to discriminate against me. I need people to respect me. I need people to treat me the same as everyone else. If you "love" everyone, you can love me too. But in my experience very few people love everyone.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

My First Sermon: "In Praise of Idolatry"

This sermon was preached on August 10, 2014 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans.

The Bible says “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” (Exodus)

In fact, as far as I know the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are the only ones that forbid the creation and worship of idols. We find many “idols” in other religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, African religions, Native American religions, et cetera.

I don't know about you, but I was brought up to believe that all those other religions were false. My parents didn't make a big deal about religion – they didn't go to church – but I didn't get any education about world religions either. And the information I picked up from the people around me was that you only had two religious options: you could be a Christian or an atheist. That's it.

Now many of us here are aware that there are other options. In this sermon I'd like to go back and re-examine some of the things that the Bible says about idolatry and the worship of “other gods.” I'd like to suggest that maybe idols are not exactly what the Bible says they are. And that other gods can be acceptable too.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of idol is “a representation or symbol of an object of worship; broadly: a false god.” Who gets to decide which gods are true and which gods are false? Idolatry means the worship of idols. idolatry is defined as “the worship of a picture or object as a god.”

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Paul Henreid, or Everything was Better Back in the Day.

Recently I've developed more appreciation for Paul Henreid. You know him as the actor who played Victor Laszlo in Casablanca. He preferred to be known for his role as Bette Davis' lover in Now, Voyager (which is a very weird movie and I should blog about it.) Anyway, after watching a few of his films I became interested enough to read his autobiography, Ladies Man.

In order to understand why I am so susceptible, you must know that my favorite historical era runs from approximately 1885-1935, in England and Europe. Henreid was born in 1908, which is almost exactly at the midpoint of this period, and brought up in Vienna. Vienna before the war - is there any more romantic city?

The fact is that Henreid doesn't say much about his early childhood; the book begins with an anecdote from 1921, when he was thirteen. As a young man, he received a thorough theatrical education:
Acting in Austria in those days was considered as much a profession as medicine or law. You had to attend school and study [for three years] and eventually take an examination to determine not only whether you could act, but also how much you knew about makeup and the theater, its lore and its history. You had to know the leading parts in eight plays by heart - four classical and four modern ones. Of the classics, two had to be in prose and two in verse. Of the modern plays, two must be comedies and two dramas.
In 1935, he had a successful stage career and was starting to break into films. When the famous German film studio, Ufa, asked him to sign a contract he was overjoyed. He went to Berlin, saw the studio . . . and when he sat down to sign the contract, discovered that he was required to become a member of the Nazi party. He refused, and went back to Vienna.

Soon he discovered that he had been blacklisted by the Nazis. (Ironically, just 12 years later he would be blacklisted again, by HUAC.) When the film he had just completed was shown in Germany, his name was removed from the credits. No one else in the German-speaking film industry would hire him. Remarking that unlike many people, he wasn't deeply attached to Vienna, he began to look farther afield.

He got a part in an English play (not allowing the fact that he knew no English to slow him down.) One role led to another, and when the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938, Henreid and his wife were both in England.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

"The Picture of Dorian Gray" and "The Portrait of Mr. W.H."

I recently acquired an edition of the complete works of Oscar Wilde, and I've read most of it. I used not to think too highly of Mr. Wilde. But no one can read De Profundis and "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" without being affected.

I also recently happened to watch two filmed versions of "Dorian Gray." Both of them suffered from clunky dialog and slow pacing - but the 1976 version with Sir John Gielgud at least has plenty of homoeroticism. The other one I saw was the 1945 film, which has its moments but some of those moments were added heterosexual interest. Also, although it's a black-and-white film, the sinister portrait appears in color, with psychedelic bubbles on it. (I haven't seen the recent version with Colin Firth yet.)

Despite its flaws, I think it was while I was watching the BBC version that I realized there's a connection between the story of Dorian Gray and Wilde's semi-fictional essay about Mr. W.H., the man to whom Shakespeare's sonnets were dedicated. Wilde (or his characters) argue that the lovely young man of the sonnets was a boy actor in Shakespeare's company.

Dorian Gray's life of evil begins when he becomes infatuated with a Shakespearean actress and then abruptly falls out of love with her. I believe that Wilde portrays her sympathetically, and yet the fact remains that she is an interloper. It's not for her that the parts of Juliet, Portia, or Ophelia were written. After reading "The Portrait of Mr. W.H." I start to ask myself if Dorian fell in love with the idea of a boy in girl's clothes (not the other way round.)

Anyway, the point is: read some Oscar Wilde. It will make you sad.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Out in the Open

Recently I was at a church event where our minister led us in a song called "Safe Passage." When he sang the line "Safe passage, sisters" he glanced at the woman on his right and squeezed her hand. When he sang the line "Safe passage, brothers" he glanced at me (on his left) and squeezed my hand. I was pleasantly surprised, especially since he and I had never had a conversation about my gender identity and I wasn't sure how much he knew.

But although I was happy, when I thought of this occurrence on subsequent days, I found myself feeling angry too. I now believe that this anger was a form of fear. I mentioned in my last post that the idea of presenting my "true self" to people is still strange to me. It's also very, very frightening. To be out in the world with no camouflage, nothing to hide behind . . . as I mentioned in my previous post, this is not what I'm used to.

Another expression of fear is that when I started writing this blog post, my brain started telling me that the incident I described above never happened. I was remembering it wrong, I misinterpreted his actions, he couldn't possibly have done that on purpose. These thoughts never crossed my mind until I wrote the incident down. I spent a week remembering it and wondering why I felt angry. (Can you feel angry about something that never happened?)

Update: I actually went and asked the minister if he remembers that incident the same way I do. And he does. He writes:
You do remember accurately, and though you and I never have had that conversation (until now!), several of your friends at church who know and care about you made sure I knew your gender identity. And, yes, I absolutely intended to call you "brother" in that moment. And what else I remember is how you smiled and showed me by the glint in your eye that you felt seen and known in that moment.
Take that, evil brain!

The mind is a very strange place. I spent most of my life in complete denial about my gender identity. And now I realize that my powers of denial have been reversed. It no longer seems strange to me that I'm what people used to call "a man in a woman's body." (We no longer consider that terminology to be politically correct, but I'll use it now for its element of paradox.) In fact, in a surprisingly short amount of time I went from "of course I'm not transsexual" to "of course I'm a man." It seems perfectly natural to me now. I know what I am on the inside.

I believe now that denying my gender identity enabled me to keep it safe, untouched, buried like treasure deep in the earth. And now that it's uncovered, it's amazingly strong.

The thing that frightens me is that I still don't expect other people to understand. I still expect other people to disapprove, to hate and fear and despise me. I find myself in a welcoming community now. And I want to emphasize that the reason this community is welcoming to trans people is because of the work of those who went before me. I wasn't the first trans person they ever met. (I assumed I would be, but I was wrong.)

I rely on my trans brothers and sisters to protect me, even if they never met me. They keep me strong. And in my heart it's perfectly clear. But there's a big huge world out there. And I still don't like being out in the open. That's why I'm posting this.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

"Coming Out" as Trans

I just came across this very interesting article: "‘Coming Out’ Doesn’t Begin to Describe It: Message from a Trans Survivor." The author, Meredith Talusan, describes how disclosing that one is transgender often causes people to doubt one's gender identity.
When I revealed myself as trans to my entire class of fine arts master's students at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, my classmates also praised me for being courageous. But then I overhead myself referred to as “he," both mistakenly in my presence, and intentionally when people didn't think I was within earshot.

On more than one occasion, I heard those who I thought were friends warn men who might be interested in me about my trans status.
Because the experience of coming out as trans is so different from the experience of coming out as homosexual or bisexual, Talusan prefers to speak of herself as a trans survivor. This fascinates me, although I still feel that the term "coming out" is relevant to my experience.

For one thing, I had to come out to myself as transgender. For another thing . . . I identify with other trans and gender-nonconforming people more than I identify with cis people. It took me a while to reach out to a trans community, but once I did I felt like I belonged. As for the term "trans survivor," it resonates with me but it doesn't describe the way I felt for most of my life. I've survived a lot of things, and it's only very recently that I realized I survived being transgender as well. I'm still trying to comprehend my own experience.

Some of my trans friends say that transitioning is about becoming "your true self." This is a challenge to other people. They thought they knew your true self, but they were wrong. I knew who my true self was, but I blocked that knowledge out because I was afraid. For me, discovering my true self has been such a revelation that introducing other people to my true self actually takes second place. I'm still amazed at myself.

Moreover, I'm still bemused by the idea of presenting myself to people. How often do we ever really see someone else's "true self"? Not very often. This is not confined to transgender people at all. It's just that we expect to be able to recognize someone's gender as soon as we meet them. (And then we think we've discovered something about their true self.)

Talusan says that for LGB people, coming out means "revealing one's 'true' identity [as] an act of freedom, of moving from the confined space of the private realm to the expansive public. This allows everyone to recognize you for who you really are, and for people to accept and celebrate you in your entirety without secrets and lies. But for trans people, to speak our truth is also to have it called into question."

I think that this is partly a result of social acceptance. There was a time when homosexuality was not a "real thing," just as gender identity is not a real thing for most people today. Nowadays, when someone comes out as LGB, very few people will question their sexual orientation (although bisexuals are more likely to be challenged.) When someone comes out as transgender, people line up in droves to question their gender identity. (For an example of this, check out the "talk" page on Chelsea Manning's Wikipedia entry.) Hopefully society will continue to evolve in this area.

Moreover, although this happens less often now, it used to be quite common for people to marry someone of the opposite sex, have children, and then suddenly announce that they really were homosexual and none of their heterosexual activities had expressed their "true selves." Under those circumstances, it's natural for other people to wonder if they really mean it. And this type of delayed "coming out" is still very common for trans people.

Of course, it's also true that for many trans people, presenting as their "true selves" means erasing the fact that they were born transsexual. They just want to be ordinary men and women.This is the paradox of transgender. But it seems to me the real problem is that we live in a society that doesn't recognize the validity of trans existence.

One last comment -  although I like the distinction between "coming out" and "surviving," I'm not sure that it makes much difference on a practical level. If you tell people you're a trans survivor, they will ask what that means and at some point you will have come out to them, with all the attendant problems.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Stephen Colbert Discovers Trans People

I'm a big fan of The Colbert Report. But for a long time it's made me sad that he never had any trans guests on his show, or acknowledged the existence of trans people as human beings. Every so often he'd make jokes about men in dresses, which doesn't count.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Some Notes on the Classic Trans Narrative

(I started writing this about six months ago and never got around to publishing it.)

I am not familiar with all of the "classic" trans narratives, and even less familiar with more recent memoirs. But even so I have noticed a change. For the purposes of this essay, I'll be using the autobiographies of Christine Jorgensen and Jan Morris as examples of the classic narrative. These stories feature:
  • A happy childhood. Everything was wonderful, except for the fact that they were trans.
  • No interference in this happy childhood. We know that many gender-nonconforming children were, and still are, subjected to teasing and punishment, even sometimes to aversion therapy, when they try to express their gender identity. But the classic narrative doesn't mention anything like this. I'm willing to bet that more recent memoirs do talk about it. (And in fact, it's a fairly standard motif in gay/lesbian/bisexual memoirs.)
  • No other trans people. Jorgensen's story especially is the tale of a woman and her doctors. Morris' story is a bit more wide-ranging, but neither of them ever acknowledge meeting any other trans people (although Morris does mention that there were other patients at the hospital where her surgery was performed.)
Things have changed. I don't believe it's a coincidence that, along with greater trans solidarity and trans visibility, we also have less reliance on the medical establishment. Many trans people now question the standards of care and the right of a doctor to decide whether or not someone is really trans. We have each other now, for validation, support, and advice. (I don't mean to dismiss the concerns of trans people who do feel that medical intervention made their lives bearable. It's just such a precarious existence, in my opinion, relying on a cis doctor's word. LGB people seem to rely on each other.)

I assume that these memoirs were written for a cis audience. Actually, Jorgensen does mention that she gets lots of letters from trans people, begging to know where they can get help. Her response is an odd mixture of sympathy and "bear in mind that you might not actually be trans." And of course, she has to distinguish between the transsexual and the homosexual.