Monday, February 15, 2010

Family Speech from YouTube

This is the written version of my Family video. I figured since I couldn't sleep and I was on this kick, I might as well do what I said I was going to do a while ago.

In my family, ever since I can remember, we’ve had a certain saying that became much more important when our family had to go through serious issues with my brother’s incarceration and we became physically separated from him. Always Together Forever. We would write it as AT4E in all the letters we would send and say it every time we said goodbye. And now I think that my family needs it again. It’s not something that’s only applicable to his situation or to situations in which there is a conventional type of loss. This kind of reassurance matters just as much in unconventional circumstances, and I would argue that it matters more since we are less likely to encounter such reassurance in the larger social sphere. This kind of love should be unconditional. It’s an all-the-time thing.
My parents once I asked me why it was so important to me that they accept me or respond positively to my choice to transition. (I hesitate to use the word transition, even, because I don’t believe I’m changing into something that isn’t already there.) So, why is their support so important? It’s not that I expect total agreement at any point, and I certainly didn’t expect it at the outset. I expected exactly what did come—severe anguish, outrage, disgust, disbelief, depression, and a sense of loss on their part. These feelings are understandable, but at some point, family needs to understand that this decision belongs to you, and that your feelings are indeed stable and rational—that you have thought it through deeply and painstakingly and that you are aware of all the risks, physical and otherwise, that may arise as you proceed with transition. At this point, family members need to step up. While it is important for trans people to understand and empathize with their grieving family members, it is also important for the family members to realize that this situation is not about them. Furthermore, they need to move past preconceived dreams that they had for their child’s future and start to understand how much happier and fulfilled their child will be living the life that he or she truly desires.
Again, why does it matter? Parents who reject their children often say that the child has also rejected them to find family and comfort in friends and that it shouldn’t matter to their child if they support them anyway. But, like most of us in this society, we have grown up with the notion that family loves unconditionally—that they are there when you have nowhere else to run—that when the rest of the world is bombarding us with hate and oppression, we may find solace and comfort in the arms of those who taught us to be the proud, shining people that we are. The last thing that we would expect from these people, who have been there with us throughout the ups and downs of our lives, is a supplement to the transphobic onslaught we are likely to face by some. The last thing we need in our times of desperation and fear are shots of I told you so. When all else goes wrong, and we are forced to hide our true selves from the rest of the world, what we desire most is that safe space with those who supposedly know us the best. We desire that space where we can be and say anything we want—where we don’t have to worry about putting on airs or keeping our guard up. We want the people and places that hold our memories. We want community and stability and familiarity. In short, we want a place where we can be home.
It’s a true test of the family as a whole when something like this arises—when a child tells you that he or she is transgender and wants to pursue gender reassignment options. It’s a test of that unconditional nature of love—the love of a person as a person and not as a normative model for gender. The transgender child bursts a protective bubble that this society has created around the revered “traditional family” model. We shatter norms that most people cling to, hold onto for dear life, as if they risk drowning in the sea of difference that lies beneath their raft of glass. How is this accomplished? We introduce “the Other” into their environment. We bring the foreign, the unknown and feared, right to them. It’s something that just can’t be ignored or dismissed. It’s the same sort of shattering of worlds that goes on when people erroneously assume that cancer, diabetes, and alcoholism are issues that affect other people and families, and not themselves. People unfamiliar with the concept of transgender and transsexual people immediately conjure up popular media representations of the Jerry Springer tranny. They fear being labeled freaks. They fear being different. Yet they somehow do not look to us, the transgendered, in these times. Do they think that we don’t know this same fear? We face this fear every day, and many of us have learned to embrace being different, turning the problem completely around, loving every bit of who we are as individuals, no matter what the fuck anyone else out there has to say about it. I think that parents of trans people should really look to their children to see how strong this has made them--look at their children to see how proud they are of their identity.
Another question several members of my family asked me, quite accusatorily, was why didn’t I tell them first? Why did I have to tell all of my friends and use internet means to convey this information to some? Why did I leave them in the dark to be blindsided by this when they received a phone call from a family member who happened to see my facebook page?
I can first say that I didn’t intend for my parents to be informed by anyone else. I had planned to tell them myself. And that’s the tough part. It’s something you have to plan for. a lot. Coming out as trans to your parents takes unspeakable courage. It takes everything you have to work up to that. You lose sleep over it. You cry over it. You turn it over and over in your head and try to figure out exactly how you are going to do it and when. And a lot of the time, you know exactly how your family is going to react. In my case, I knew that it would be bad. To quote Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird about the level of courage you need for this task… “It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”
It’s like facing a firing squad. Signing up to be a kamikaze pilot. You risk losing everything. You risk losing the love of the most important people in the world to you. You risk losing your home. You risk your education, if you are financially dependent on them. It’s a huge burden to have to deal with the issue of having to tell your family, and for this reason it is hugely important to build a strong network of social support before you tell them. It’s important that you have somewhere to turn when disaster strikes—that you CAN make that 4 am phone call in hysteria to your best friend. It’s important to surround yourself with people that understand you and will love you no matter what may happen with your family. This social support network is what often prevents depression in cancer patients, what helps the newly divorced move on with their lives, which helps all the grieving in the world carry on to the next day. With this support network and with our composure the best that it can be, only then can we approach our families. It is not that we have not thought through every little detail of the process over and over again. It is not that the thought has suddenly arisen out of nowhere. It is not a whim. It’s not a game. And it isn’t something that goes away. It’s something that most of us have known all of our lives, whether we have had a name for it the entire time or not.
We ask that you understand these things. We ask that you respect us. We ask that you try to learn as much as you can without feeling the need to cram statistics of death and unemployment in our faces. Do not assume that we aren’t aware of what awaits us. We are very aware. And that is why we need you more than anyone else. We need you because we know that things aren’t perfect for anyone in this world, and that being different makes it a hell of a lot harder. We need you because we have so many wonderful memories with you and want the opportunity to create more of them with you. All in all, what this really means is that we need you, because we love you.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

When Someone Else's Book Tells Your Story

"It finally dawned on me that I had not been able to grow up fully because I was never going to be an adult woman. I knew that the only way I could grow up--really be an adult--was to become a man."

"While other men talked about wanting validation as men from their fathers or other role models, I listened to my inner self, recognizing the validation I had received over the years, the connectedness I had always felt with other men, recognizing that my masculinity was natural and real, as natural and real as that of any other man in the room, and that if I had stayed in a female body my masculinity would still have been natural and real, because that masculinity did not depend on the possession of a male body."

"Being true to oneself creates the integrity and self-respect we need to have if we are to extend that respect to others."

"Identity has often been a powerful organizing tool, but it should not be mistaken for the ideal model of community. Identity is not a rigid, monolithic social box into which we can each place ourselves, where we will permanently remain. We are all becoming something, and we can strongly identify with different aspects of our lives at different times, or new elements may be introduced into our lives that we must integrate into our identity, such as parenthood, chronic illness or sudden disability, falling in love with a person we wouldn't have imagined being with, or finding a new career. These evolutionary events often draw us into new communities and new identities. The tendency to 'fix' people's identities as encompassing only one aspect of themselves, or as being unchanging in their various aspects, is equivalent to expecting a person to only eat apples because he or she was eating an apple when you met."

"For me, community exists when I don't have to be afraid to let others around me know who I am, when I don't have to worry about surviving hostility simply because I am different in some way, whether that way is gender- and sex-related, or because of the color of my skin or my family background or my occupation. I want a community in which I receive the same respect I give to others, and the same level of services and opportunities that others receive, a community that is conscious, caring and respectful of all life and all human expression that is not harmful to others."

"Being a man is more than looking like one. It requires knowing what is expected of a man, and choosing how to go about meeting or not meeting those expectations at any given moment."

"I wanted to change my body because I felt invisible. Inside a female body, I felt as if I couldn't fully exist, as if the masculine part of me was compressed inside me to a degree that was not just uncomfortable, but downright painful. We all have hidden components of our personality or selves that we either want to protect or yearn to have others see. We all also have to find the balance for ourselves, bringing out those hidden attributes or somehow finding that place of comfort in our own skins, in our own lives. We all want to find fulfillment. For some people, that means something as as simple as changing hairstyles or driving a certain car, for others it means serious exercising and buying a new wardrobe. For still others it means giving up a boring job and attempting to change careers, or going back to school to get that MBA or PhD. For some people it means adopting a new religious practice or confirming the one in which we were raised. For others it means adopting an androgynous or overtly confrontational style of dress and grooming. For some of us, it means changing our sex visibly, legally, internally, and externally--fundamentally and dramatically changing our bodies."

"This is what normal feels like."

"I am the one who has to live inside my body. This is my body of knowledge."

"Every time a stranger called me 'sir' or 'Mr. Green' in person or over the telephone--something that had been happening for decades already--I felt as if I was less and less able to laugh about it. It seemed I was becoming a man in spite of myself..."

"Being different from both the girls and the boys, I was reluctant to engage in interspecies contacts."

"As I relaxed into the comfort zone of each new relationship, I privately resumed my own internal concentration on hiding my discomfort with my female body."

"Trans people don't know more about sexuality just because they are trans. In some cases we may know even less because our own confusion and fears have allowed us less sexual experience."

"I finally learned that I really do know and accept who I am, and I don't have to rely on my partner's appearance, sex, or gender to validate or reinforce my own identity."

"The extent to which we convey the truth of our experience is the extent to which any audience will receive us."

"The pain inflicted by the refusal to acknowledge the lived experience of a person if vicious and debilitating."

"It was a great relief to be able to shake off layers of defensive behaviors developed to communicate my humanity from inside my uncategorizability."

"So why tell anyone about my past? Why not just live the life of a normal man? Perhaps I could if I were a normal man, but I am not. I am a man, and I am a man who lived forty years in a female body. But I was not a woman. I am not a woman who became a man. I am not a woman who lives as a man. I am not, nor was I ever, a woman, though I lived in a female body, and certainly tried, whenever I felt up to it, to be a woman. But it was never in me to be a woman."

"By claiming our identity as men or women who are also transpeople, by asserting that our different bodies are just as normal for us as anyone else's is for them, by insisting that our right to express our own gender, to modify our bodies and shape our identities, is as inalienable as our right to know our true religion, we claim our humanity and our right to be treated equally under law and within the purviews of morality and culture. To do that, we must educate--if we have the ability and emotional energy to do so. That is what visibility is about."

"People can argue abstractly about the "real-ness" of my life all they want, but it doesn't change the fact that I exist or the qualities of maleness people observe in me."

"The longer my hair grew, the more consistently I was perceived by strangers as male...There is something about gender--not sex or sexuality--that transcends clothing, hairstyles, body shapes, voices, and even the conscious awareness that a body has a particular sex."

"I also knew that whether or not I ever changed my body, I would always be not completely male and not completely female, even though I knew I would fit in the world better as a man. I would always be different than other conventionally gendered beings. And ultimately, by changing my appearance to reflect my masculine gender, I did not narrow my perspective to obliterate the feminine, but in fact I broadened my own understanding of what it can mean socially to be labeled 'man' or 'woman.'"

"Gender is a type of language, and there are some very adept individuals capable of speaking many dialects, as well as derivative languages."

"As we throw off the yoke of early oppressions and remove the barriers to being ourselves, we are left with--ourselves."

And this is how the book ends:

"Just like anyone else, when transsexual people lie down at night and shut our eyes, helpless in sleep and vulnerable as infants, whether we have someone's arms around us or whether we are all alone, we know that all we have to live for is to be the best version of our most authentic self that we can possibly be. Through our introspection and experimentation we can come to realize how very like others we are. We can come to accept the mysterious, the feared and misunderstood aspects of ourselves, to appreciate the whole self, to recognize our differences and similarities, to rid ourselves of anxiety concerning sexuality, to understand the body as a vessel of the spirit in an intrinsic way. For some observers, our journey seems a step outside the boundaries of society; for us, once we have arrived at our own balance point--no matter what that looks like to others--we can recognize our humanity and understand our connections to other people. Though others may persist in excluding or tormenting us, and though we may be driven initially by anger or eventually by compassion, once we find that balance point of self-acceptance we can experience an inner shift toward a kind of peace. The beacon of that inner peace living in each of us enables transpeople to endure, and once we bring it to the forefront of our lives, the resulting self-assurance will eventually speak to and calm the fears of others."

quotes from Becoming a Visible Man by Jamison Green

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


These snow days have given me time to read again--given me time to think for myself for the first time in what seems like an eternity. So I suppose that means you have to deal with my mental vomit now, as I am drunk with too much thought for my body to contain.

I could say so many things about banquets and suits and events of several weeks ago, but this isn't the time, and this certainly isn't the place. But I can talk about snow and football.

In 1993, a lot of us experienced a snow storm of similar magnitude to that which occurred over the weekend. But this isn't the same. Elementary school snow days, while we all adored them and appreciated them as much as we could, can't quite compare to what we are experiencing now. I am not discounting the stresses of a life from which I have not even truly separated myself (that life being my childhood, of course). But you can see all around you the remarkably effective ways children deal with their day-to-day stresses. Children don't need to be taught to relieve their stress with meditation and yoga and psychotherapy. Their relief springs from a much simpler source: the innate desire to PLAY.

On the morning after the storm, people were ambling, clambering, and trudging through the middle of the streets, now laden with solid sheets of whiteness. The roads became giant footpaths, inaccessible to traffic, and therefore inaccessible to many of the things that distract us from what really matters. Even cars parked on these roads began to disappear under nature's fine white carpet. It's another clue to what's important, and it's a not-so-subtle reminder, like the storm itself, that we are not the ultimate masters of this universe.

But amidst the chaos of collapsing social order and diminishing institutional control (however minute), we noticed something else. I'd like to think it had something to do with the absence of the "essential personnel." In the absence of these adults--these people who have long since forgotten--we were able to remember.

Those students carrying bags of bread and milk (and cases of Budweiser) were significantly outnumbered by students carrying sleds, skis, and snowboards right down the middle of Forbes Avenue. We saw relay races in the snow on the Cathedral Lawn. Snowball fights. Snow angels. People being together. And playing. It was as much a snow day as any other we've had, yet it was way more than any snow day I've ever seen. In an environment where we are conditioned to believe that the only way anyone can have any fun in college is to do Jell-o shots off half-naked sorority girls and tear down bus stations; where we are forced to become enemies with one another because we are taught that being cutthroat will get us further in life, when all that further means is that we'll want to be even further and that we'll have way more to worry about when we get there; where we are constantly being told that we have to be mature, that we have to shove aside these childish pursuits and studystudystudy all the time and make sure we do this constructive activity and that and put this on our resume over here and add this thing too...In this world, I think the most important thing that we can remember is that sometimes, no matter how much shit is going on in your life and how much you should be doing this or that, what you really need is to go outside, pack down a handful of snow into a perfect sphere, and play.

I think football will have to wait. It's a completely different subject, and right now, my time is better spent not spending my time better at all.