Thursday, December 3, 2015

"Give Us Our Roses While We're Still Here"

A couple weeks ago I marched in BreakOUT's trans march. BreakOUT! is a local trans youth organization, primarily trans youth of color. You can see the original "Give Us Our Roses" poster on their website.

As I was walking along, listening to the chants, I suddenly remembered when people used to say "Silence = Death" and I realized that the same thing is happening now. When people's lives are in danger, they take to the streets. It's a chance to find out whether or not the majority cares when gay men die of AIDS or trans women of color are murdered.

In fact, after the march was over I did see someone wearing a "Silence = Death" T-shirt. I thought about going over to talk to him but then realized I couldn't do it. By which I mean, I had been crying before and I felt myself getting choked up again. So I just went home.

Apparently only one trans person, Penny Proud, was murdered in New Orleans this year. There were other deaths though. One white trans woman killed herself in November -- someone I didn't know personally, although many of my friends did. I don't know how many others. What I do know is that I hear black people say "I've been to so many funerals." The only time I hear white people say that is when they're talking about AIDS.

Is it only death that gets people to feel sympathy? (I'm thinking of all the tragic deaths we see in movies, from Waterloo Bridge to The Dallas Buyers Club.) That is what kills us: so often our lives don't attract sympathy. It's as if the only thing we can do right is to die. "Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it." Many times I've heard Transgender Day of Remembrance described as an opportunity to inform cis people that we don't deserve to die. And we don't. But is that the only moral appeal we have?

Perhaps people admire those who are willing to die for what they believe in, like Harvey Milk. Can we also live for what we believe in? Is that worth more than dying? When do we achieve admiration for our survival? I guess in order for that to happen, people would have to acknowledge just how heroic our survival is. Give us our roses while we're still here.

(Once or twice people have called me "brave." I hate that. But collectively we are brave.)

Friday, September 18, 2015

Secret Message

On July 7, 1984, in Bangor, Maine, Charlie Howard, a gay man, was killed by three teenage boys who threw him off a bridge. They pled guilty to manslaughter and served approximately two years in prison. (Subsequently, one of them spent some time speaking to young people about why homophobia is bad.)

In 1984 my family was living elsewhere in Maine. We heard about the killing that summer. Later on we moved to Bangor. The murder of Charlie Howard is only a prelude to my story about the Bangor Public Library. Consider it a reminder of what I, as a queer person, had to look forward to.

It was a nice little library. I haven't seen it since Stephen King donated huge amounts of money towards its renovation. I'm sure it's still nice. When I first started going there, I hung out in the young adult section. Then at some point I discovered the adult fiction room, which was downstairs.

One day I was browsing the shelves and I found a gay novel. Or possibly a lesbian novel. I don't remember exactly which book it was. But I quickly realized that someone had chosen to purchase this book for the library and put it on the shelf. This book and others like it. My recollection is that I had been exploring the adult fiction section for some time - as much as a year - before I found this book. Either I hadn't noticed it before, or conceivably someone had suddenly made the decision to start providing these books. Someone put them there for us to find.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

On the Full Moon of August 29, 2015

“It was completely silent . . . all you could hear were the fire alarms in people's houses dying away, the burglar alarms dying away.” Charmaine Neville, on the aftermath of Katrina*

Oh moon
for such a long time you've been with us
Oh moon
for thousands of years people have said
Oh moon
when you look down on us
what do you see?

Oh moon
the battery in the fire alarm ran out
the battery in the burglar alarm ran out
the 'uninterruptible' power supply ran out
Oh moon
when do you run out?

Oh moon
please stay with us
in all your faces
dark and light

* I am trying to find a source for this quote. I saw it on TV. Right now all I have is this audio track, with reference to the fire alarms around 21:08.

Monday, July 6, 2015

"And should one live in such a body?" - Ta-Nehisi Coates

I have been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog for quite a while. To say that he has educated me would be an understatement. Today I'm going to reflect on this excerpt from his book Between the World and Me, bearing in mind that I come at this from the perspective of a white transgender person.

He starts off by invoking the American Dream:
I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree-houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket.
That dream never meant anything to me. My white privilege insulated me from many things, but poverty was not one of them. I grew up in the country, now I live in the city, but I still don't know what any of those things he mentions are.

Then he addresses his son:
That was the week you learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free. The men who had left his body in the street would never be punished. It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished. But you were young and still believed. You stayed up till 11 p.m. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.
When I read that, I remember that many transgender people, mostly women of color, have also been killed in this country and their killers have never been punished. In many cases their deaths are not even investigated. And the question of whether or not it's okay to kill trans people has not yet been debated on the news. Of course, when it is debated the conclusion is much the same, whether it's a dead trans person or a dead cis black person: they were doing something wrong and their killers were justified.

Monday, June 22, 2015


Recently Rachel Dolezal has been in the news. I do know that by now we've moved on to more serious issues, but it's taken me this long to organize my thoughts.

Recently Rachel Dolezal has been in the news. And I have to think about her because so many people are saying "If Caitlyn Jenner can pretend to be a woman, why can't Rachel Dolezal pretend to be black?" Dolezal is not only co-opting the black struggle, she's co-opting the trans struggle as well.

This means that people have been talking a lot lately about the differences and similarities between racial identity and gender identity. To be honest, it makes my brain hurt. I want to talk about something slightly different.

First of all, trans people do have a history. Comparing Jenner to Dolezal makes it sound like Jenner is the only trans person who ever existed, Dolezal is the only white person we've ever heard of who pretended to be black, so they're the same. Of course that is not the case. I've got nothing against Caitlyn Jenner, but she was a media spectacle. That's her business. There are many more trans people out there than most people have any idea of. Most of them don't seek the spotlight. Trans and gender-non-conforming people have existed throughout history. They fought and died for the right to be who they were.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Tanith Lee, 1947-2015

For many years Tanith Lee was my favorite writer. I believe that I still own more books by her than any other author. (She was quite prolific.) Her first published novel, The Birthgrave, is about a woman who doesn't remember who she is: a story with lots of resonance for a transgender person in denial.

Some call her writing purple prose - as one of her characters remarks, "She'd never use one adjective if twenty-six would do." All I can say is that for me it really hits the spot. Moreover, she wrote queer and gender-bending characters before they were mainstream. In later years she made a deliberate effort to include racial diversity. Her fairy tale retellings are a revelation.

These days, my favorite books of hers are the Scarabae vampire novels. The third one ends on a cliffhanger. I gather that she only ever wrote one chapter of the fourth one. The rest is still out there.

Daughter of the Night is the complete Tanith Lee bibliography website.

Friday, March 27, 2015

"but does tell something in the end"

March 27, 2005, is the day I realized that I was transgender. That was ten years ago. Looking back now, I can't tell if that's a long time or a short time. It's a short amount of time to be living a real life. It's a long period of time to experience the upheaval that comes with living a real life.

I am happier than I've ever been in my life. I've experienced types of happiness that I never knew existed. The unhappiness that I never had a name for has gone away. I've had some losses, but it was worth it. (And I might have lost those things anyway.)

Transgender is such a foreign concept to most people that it's hard for us to understand: trans* people want the same things as everyone else. We want to be happy. We want to be safe. We need to use the bathroom. We want to be reasonably comfortable in our bodies and our lives. We want food, clothing, shelter, and love.

Society makes demands on everyone. It rewards conformity and punishes non-conformity. I don't just mean gender non-conformity. Insofar as we fail to conform to the standard of white, male, able-bodied, gender-normative, hetero-normative (or fail to affirm that those qualities deserve to be valued over all others), we are punished. We punish ourselves.

Even people who say that they believe in "freedom" or "equality," that they're not sexist/racist/whatever, have strange blind spots. And some people take "freedom" to mean that they have a license to be abusive - or that we can't stop other people from being abusive. If we all got to do whatever we wanted to do, would we automatically end up hurting other people? I don't know. I never wanted to believe that. We do end up hurting other people. (But sometimes we hurt them because we believe that's what society wants us to do.)

We all have something that drives us on. Something that means more than anything or anyone else in the world. (Some thing . . . one or two things, maybe.) If we're lucky we get to name that something. If we're lucky we get to pursue that something. If we're lucky, it's not something that will harm ourselves or others. If we're lucky, it's something that no one can take away from us.

Expressing that something in the world is a form of authenticity. And no matter what our status, no matter how privileged we are, society calls on us to renounce authenticity. It requires us to pretend to be either more or less than we really are.

Does authenticity count for anything? That is the question.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Different from the Others

Source: Wikipedia
You might have noticed that I like old movies. I just watched a silent German film from 1919, Anders als die Andern (English title: "Different from the Others.") It stars Conrad Veidt (on whom more later) and the famous Magnus Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld was probably the first person in the West to advocate for LGBT rights. He co-wrote this film and appears as a "sexologist," telling everyone that homosexuality and gender non-conformity are natural and should not be punished.

This film was made during that brief postwar period when people had more important things to worry about than film censorship. It dealt with Paragraph 175, the law which criminalized male homosexuality. Veidt plays a homosexual -- said to be the first openly homosexual character in film -- who's arrested under the law and ends up committing suicide. (Spoiler.)

Even his father says that suicide would be the honorable thing for him to do. Naturally this reminds me of the recent suicide of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn. Here we are a century later.

Well. Conrad Veidt. He's best known for playing the lead Nazi in Casablanca. In fact he was one of the many people who found it expedient to leave Nazi Germany. One of the stories told about him is that when the Nazis required people to provide their ethnic background on job applications, he always wrote Jude even though he was not Jewish. And then there's the "playing gay" thing.

I liked the film though. Just wanted to mention that although Hirschfeld subscribed to the then-popular belief that lesbians and gay men constituted a "third sex" and that they were all, in effect, transgender (being "male people in female bodies" or "female people in male bodies,") the sexologist does point out that in fact not all gay men are effeminate and not all feminine men are gay. It's a distinction that often gets overlooked when discussing the late 19th and early 20th century theories around gender and sexual orientation.