Archive for Trans Life
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.”
My Dad was the last to know.
I knew it would be hard for him. The most important responsibility our culture assigns its fathers is the transmission of masculinity to their sons, and so I worried that he would blame himself for my choice to drop the masculine mask I wore for so long. I worried that he would agonize over all the ways my transition might affect me adversely and wouldn’t be able to see how healthy and happy I was finally becoming. I worried that he would feel like he was losing a friend, and that he might never recover from his grief enough to give our new friendship a chance to begin.
I never worried, though, that my father would reject me. It’s hard to put my finger on precisely why. He just wasn’t that kind of person. Maybe my intuition was based in my experience of his love as absolutely without conditions. Maybe it grew from the value I knew he placed on loyalty. I think sometimes you just know who you can count on in this world, and I knew I could count on my Dad.
I wanted to tell him in person, face to face. I hoped to sit down with him and Say the Words. In the end, though, it didn’t turn out that way. He knew something was wrong, and he was really worried, and he was losing sleep, and it was time for him to know the truth. But distance and circumstances conspired to prevent me from being able to go and tell it to him, so instead, I wrote him a letter.
Before I sent the letter, my Dad and I would speak by phone several times a week and exchange email about as often. After I sent the letter, it was over three weeks before I heard from him. The silence wasn’t unexpected; I knew he would need some time to absorb the truth, figure out how he should respond, and find the strength to do it. I was genuinely relieved, though, when he called me one day during my afternoon commute.
“Let’s talk about your letter,” he said after pleasantries.
“Your news really surprised me, but I want you to know right now that I love you as much today as I did the day you were born.”
My Dad is a person who chooses his words carefully, and as a father myself, I understood exactly what those words meant. I know how it feels to hold your newborn child for the very first time. I know what that kind of love is like.
But I knew it would be hard, and to be honest, it has been for both of us. My Dad and I have struggled to reestablish our relationship. He has found it supremely difficult to talk about my trans-ness with me or even to call me by my new name, and I have wrestled with anger, impatience, and frustration. He has yet to see me in person as I am today, a logical “next step” that I fear circumstances are going to force on him before he feels ready for it. I’m ashamed to confess that I have occasionally questioned the character of his love for me. “He says he loves me,” I’ve said to myself, “but love is as love does.”
And then today, he called me–on the anniversary of the day I was born. Just to tell me he loves me, and to wish me a happy birthday.
Thanks for the call, Dad. It means more than you know.
Please read Jim Burroway’s post at Box Turtle Bulletin about LGBT Ecuadorians being committed against their will to “treatment centers” that can only be described as torture chambers. (Translations of the series of articles Jim cites can be found here.) Here’s an excerpt from a 22-year-old transgender woman who experienced their treatment:
“My father paid $1,000 [approx. $350 dollars] to have them lock me up in a clinic because he wanted me to change. Four men practically kidnapped me on the street. I wore my hair long and, since I had already taken hormones, my breasts had grown. They clipped my hair. Me and another three homosexuals. They would lock us up in rooms of less than a meter wide. So small that we had to stand on our feet, in the dark, with flies.”
The place where she was taken was God’s Paradise, a drug and alcohol rehab center, led by Jorge Flor who some residents call “My Pastor.”
“When I tried to escape,” says Chiqui, “they hit me until they broke my nose. They’d ask if I was a man or a woman, they’d take our pants down, they’d throw water between our legs and would put live cables to shock us with electricity.
How in the world can such atrocities be committed in the name of Jesus?
I’m reminded of a story from the life of St. Joan of Arc. Before she revealed to her family that she had received messages from God calling her to lead the armies of France, her father had a recurring dream. In his dream he saw Joan leaving their home town of Domrémy in the company of soldiers, which he interpreted as a premonition that she would become a camp-follower and prostitute. He swore to his wife and sons, Joan’s mother and brothers, that if such a thing seemed about to occur he would drown his daughter, and made his sons promise to do the same if he could not.
Such a thing flies in the face of our modern understanding of basic human rights–and yet such things take place every day in our world, and in Jesus’ name. And they don’t just take place far away. Spiritual abuse happens in the church next door and the synagogue down the street and the mosque across town any time families are taught or counseled to mistreat their LGBT loved ones in God’s name.
What would have become of France had Joan been murdered by her family as she was departing in men’s clothes to meet with the Dauphin? What beautiful destiny does the church unwittingly destroy when it abuses its LGBT members and their families?
I think that demonstrating to the world our common humanity despite our differences is our highest calling as trans women and men.
And a thought from me: I’m so encouraged to hear so many trans voices speaking about living openly as a way of fulfilling the mandate of a calling or of enacting and empowering change. I’m inspired by this kind of courage.
Please understand my reasons for not blogging today. I am participating in the Day of Silence, a national youth movement protesting the silence faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and their allies. My deliberate silence echoes that silence, which is caused by harassment, prejudice, and discrimination. I believe that ending the silence is the first step toward fighting these injustices. Think about the voices you are not hearing today.
What are you going to do to end the silence?
(Great news! I was recently asked by the wonderful people at the Family Equality Council to become a regular contributor to their blog for LGBT families. I’m thrilled at the opportunity to be associated with such a great organization. Here’s my first post for FEC, cross-posted with their permission.)
In the most recent installment of their video blog “She Got Me Pregnant,” lesbian moms Dana and Helen laugh about the befuddlement many of their straight friends seem to feel over how their son addresses them. I mean, the famous Heather may have two mommies, but she certainly can’t call them both “Mommy,” right? That would be way too confusing for a child . . . wouldn’t it?
Well, probably not. It turns out our little ones are a lot smarter than we sometimes give them credit for being. As Dana says, “Your kids are going to figure it out.” And they do, don’t they?
But what about when one of Heather’s mommies used to be her daddy?
When I began my transition at home, my partner and I worried a lot about what our kids would call me. Okay, to be perfectly honest, I was the one who did most of the worrying. In fact, calling it “worrying” is a bit of an understatement. Truth is I practically obsessed over it. I even recall a particularly vivid nightmare in which I was out shopping with my kids and couldn’t get them to stop calling me “Daddy” in voices vastly disproportionate to their little bodies. I kept ducking behind racks of clothing and trying to explain to them that they couldn’t do that–that people might find out I had once been a boy and would be mean to us–but it just didn’t seem to sink in. It felt strangely like one of those dreams where you suddenly realize you’re naked in front of a crowd of people. I woke up in a cold sweat.
As the time approached for me to transition publicly, we sat down at our kitchen table with the oldest two, who were eight and five at the time, to let them know what was ahead. I would be living as a girl all the time from that point forward, we told them, and at the advice of my wonderful counselor, asked if they would like to pick a new name to call me. A big part of the transition strategy my counselor and I developed together was to share control over things with my family as much as I possibly could, and so I wanted to offer the kids some say in the matter. We suggested a few options and waited for their response.
I’ll confess that, as the question hung in the air between us for a moment, I was really hoping they’d pick something like “Mama,” “Maddy” (the fine conflation suggested by Jenny Boylan), or even my first name. Kids call parents by their first name in all the really cool families, right?
My five-year-old daughter responded first. “I like ‘Daddy.'”
“Yeah, me too,” my son agreed.
“Then ‘Daddy’ it is,” I told them. Big hugs, sloppy kisses, and they were running into the back yard to play.
To my credit, I was so determined to respect their feelings that I didn’t feel all that disappointed. I’ve never really wanted or needed to live a “stealth” life, in which nobody around me knew of my male history. I had, however, been hoping to be able to go with my family to the grocery store or McDonalds without being outed all the time–but my children’s choice opened that desire up for a little much-needed inspection. Why was this so important to me? What was I afraid of? What might be lost by being called “Daddy” in public, and what might be gained?
I wish I could say that it’s been an easy thing for me, that I’ve never flinched at hearing my kids call to me across a crowded playground or blushed at the strange looks I occasionally get. It hasn’t, and I have. And together we’ve learned that we have to be careful sometimes (in the ladies’ room, for instance). But we’ve also discovered a few really important things about ourselves and others through it. I’ve discovered that I really amproud to be a transgender woman–proud enough, in fact, to let the whole world know it. And I’m proud of my partner and my kids, who are courageous enough in their love to own me for who I am. I’ve also learned that most people aren’t nearly as judgmental as I once feared they would be.
I’d be the last to imply that our way is the only way or even the best way for families with a transgender parent. But it’s working for us. And maybe it’s helping to change a few minds and hearts about transgender people and their families. Call it “playground activism.”