For our weekly Family Popcorn & Movie Night last night we watched a cute little movie called Finding Rin Tin Tin. It’s a children’s version of the story of the famous German Shepherd who was adopted by an American soldier during World War I and went on to become a beloved screen star in the 20’s and 30’s. It was a cute little film–the rare live action kiddie tale that can keep the interest of our whole family, from our four-year-old right up through Mom and Daddy.
This telling of the story has a sub-plot that centers on a French orphan boy, Jacques, who becomes separated from his parents when Paris is bombed. Rendered mute by the trauma, Jacques is placed under the care of the ruthless camp cook, who abuses him and even tries to sell him into slavery before the plot is uncovered by Rin Tin Tin. In the film’s final scene, Jacques is reunited with his parents as Rin Tin Tin prepares to leave France with the victorious American forces.
As my wife and I were laughing about the unabashed sappiness of that scene, my seven-year-old daughter, who was watching from a pile of pillows on the floor, turned around and started to climb into our laps. That’s when I noticed that she was crying. In fact, she was wracked with sobs–so much so that I assumed one of our boys, sitting on the couch behind her, had kicked her in the head and hurt her. (These things occasionally happen in our house.)
“What’s wrong, honey,” I asked. She was crying so hard it took her a few seconds to respond.
“Tears of joy, Daddy,” she sobbed–at which point all our cynicism about sappy movie endings dissolved and my wife and I joined in. Before the credits had finished rolling, the whole family was weeping tears of joy together, cuddled on the couch, relieved that after all he’d suffered, the probably fictional Jacques would have a chance to live happily ever after with his family.
I’ve taken pride in the past that my wife and I are raising children who are so in touch with their feelings and so unashamed to let them show. But when I shared my daughter’s story with a colleague this morning, she helped me see it in a way I hadn’t before. “I was just thinking about all that time you spent separated from your wife and kids while you were job hunting,” she said. “I wonder if she was remembering that.”
It hadn’t even occured to me to make that connection, but as I’ve thought about my friend’s observation, it makes perfect sense. Longtime readers may remember that our family was separated for almost ten months while I searched for a job after finishing grad school and transitioning. In order to minimize expenses, my wife and kids lived with her parents in Montana; because they did not approve of my transition and would not allow me to live with them, I stayed in Arizona with my mom. Though we did all we could to stay connected while we were apart (we spoke on the phone daily and I wrote letters to the children almost as regularly), it was still incredibly hard on us all. As my daughter’s sobs seem to show, the anxiety it created in my children lingers, almost a year later. I wonder how long it will last?
I know we’re not the only family that’s had to endure a long separation–families do it every day, and it has nothing to do with being trans. And yet I can’t help but think that it was avoidable in our case. If only my in-laws were more accepting, if only their church would speak from a place of compassion for trans people and not one of domination and oppression, if only it weren’t so hard for trans people to find meaningful work through which we can support not only ourselves but our loved ones as well…if only.
It has been said that all politics is personal. I think it’s truer still that all activism is personal. My reasons for doing the work I do are very, very personal. My daughter shouldn’t have to worry that our family will have to endure long-term separation again just because her daddy is transgender. Nobody’s child should. Nobody’s wife or husband should have to worry about the social cost of supporting a transitioning spouse. Nobody’s parents should have to be afraid of violence against a transitioning child. No trans person should have to be anxious about finding a job or a place to live or walking into a public rest room.
These anxieties have a very real psychological impact on a person and, I would argue, a spiritual impact that is just as real. They can cripple you, hold you back, hold you down, hinder you from fulfilling your beautiful, awesome, awe-inspiring potential. For me, turning my anxiety into action has helped mitigate those negative effects. By making my own small contribution to healing this hurting world, I heal myself. Not only that, but I help make it possible for my kids to grow up in a world that is a little less scary.
I got read this morning.
The circumstances aren’t really relevant beyond setting the context. I had just come up out of the Metro and was walking the couple of blocks to my office when a man stopped me to ask a question. My answer didn’t satisfy him and he became angry and closed in on me, close enough to pick up some subtle cue that caused him to suspect I was transgender. He yelled an accusation to that end loudly as I was walking away, and I felt my cheeks flush with anger and embarrassment.
I feel blessed that this has happened to me very rarely since I transitioned, but when it has it’s left me reeling with self-doubt. As I walked to the office today, that’s where my thoughts went. I was obviously doing something wrong. Was my make-up or my hair unsuitable this morning? Maybe it was the clothes I was wearing, or my posture or gait. Or perhaps something deeper or more abstruse. Is my jawline too square (“Maybe I need some plastic surgery”), are my hands too big (“I wish I had some pockets to stuff them in”), is my voice shifting to a lower range (“Need to start concentrating on that again”)?
And then I noticed that I was walking more quickly than usual, with my head down and my shoulders slouched, fearful of meeting anyone’s eyes as I passed them on the street, wanting only to get to my office and shut the door. I was in that old, familiar place, I realized — the place of fear — and I was experiencing that old, familiar tension, the one between the deep desire to live openly and with integrity and the frantic impulse to safety and security.
In a patriarchal culture, power is equated with the capacity to have power over something: it is the capacity to control, to alter, to manipulate, or to influence the world. This capacity to control builds a sense of strength, an illusion of invincibility. Cloaking ourselves in power, we can manipulate and control our world while protecting ourselves from the effects of power.
This is the power that was employed against me this morning, but it is also the power I employed in response. Just as the man who accosted me sought to control and manipulate me to bolster his sense of strength in the world, I sought to control and manipulate myself so that I might feel less weak and vulnerable. Our instruments of power–debasement and humiliation–were the same, and we even chose the same target, my deepest sense of personhood.
These ways of being and relating are conditioned by our culture and deeply ingrained in all of us, but Feldman reminds us that such violent exercises of power do not come without cost:
In developing power or mastery over anything, we set ourselves against that which we wish to control: we set ourselves against people, against events, against nature, or even against our own nature. With the desire for mastery comes a distancing from that which we seek to control. The distance is essential to create and preserve: it serves to prevent us from being overwhelmed by the power of others and to protect ourselves from fear.
The results are predictable and inevitable: isolation, competition, destruction, the hallmarks of our modern society. Feldman urges women to break free from their cultural conditioning, to “appreciate the invaluable contribution that their disposition and yearning for interconnectedness can offer to the dissolution and transformation of destructive systems that are based on the notion of mastery over others.” The first step in this process of integration and liberation, for me at least, is getting comfortable with my own vulnerability.
I need to warm up to the fact that invincibility is a myth and reject the notion that self-respect is a zero sum game. I need to reaffirm my commitment to live according to what I know to be true, not according to what feels safe, and set aside identities and roles rooted in defensiveness. I need to refuse to give my assent (and thereby surrender my true power) to social systems and relational structures that deny our mutual dependency as human beings, a truth Feldman calls “nature’s first law” and the fundamental principle of our survival, both as a race and as individuals.
As these become my practice, I will grow in awareness and acquire a deeper wholeness. “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
We GLBT people are the canaries in the civil rights coal mine. The health of our civil rights determines the health of civil rights in our democracy in general, and right now we are swaying from the efforts of a decade of poisonous attacks on them.
Teach us to give and not to count the cost.
St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), spiritual director and founder of the Society of Jesus (also known as the Jesuits). Today is his feast-day.
And a comment from me: Even in my most passionate activism, and even in my relationships with those I love the most, I am so quick to think of myself first. May I learn to ignore my selfish instincts, which objectify and dehumanize those I am called to serve, and give without hesitation to the utmost measure.
(Thanks to Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac.)
Lock up your house, go across the railroad tracks, find someone in need, and do something for them.
Karl Menninger (1893-1990), American psychologist.
And a comment from me: While I certainly don’t agree with all of Dr. Menninger’s ideas about psychology (particularly his thoughts on possession as a possible cause of mental illness), this particular quote seemed worth sharing.
Thanks to Garrison Keillor’s Writers Almanac for today.
My activism is patient. It is kind. It is not jealous; it is not arrogant and never blusters or boasts.
My activism never acts dishonorably or unbecomingly. It is not self-serving. It refuses to allow itself to be provoked. It is not vengeful and does not take into account a wrong suffered.
My activism does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth.
My activism bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. This is my activism.
If my activism speaks with power, wit, and sophistication, but lacks any of these aforementioned qualities, it becomes merely noise.
If my activism is full of depth and insight, and if it persists beyond all human endurance, but lacks these qualities, it is barren and destitute.
If my activism prompts me give up everything I own that is of earthly value–even to the point of giving my very life–but lacks these qualities, it merits nothing.
This activism–my activism–never fails.
(Thanks to the Apostle Paul.)
As I said good night to my six-year-old daughter last night, I told her, “You’re the very best daughter in the whole wide world.”
“And you’re the very best daddy-who-likes-to-be-a-girl in the whole wide world,” she replied.
God, but I love my kids.
(Cross-posted at the Family Equality Council blog.)