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1. Snake Oiler and Tongue Blaggard are perfectly ordinary names.
2. Race-car-mounted rotary saws can instantly cut down thick trees and even remove the stumps.
3. If your name is Rex Racer and you want to hide your identity, put on a mask and call yourself Racer Ex.
4. A car’s trunk can be opened without keys by a small boy and his pet chimp.
5. The first letter in the name “Trixie” is “M.”
6. Cars can drive up vertical surfaces.
7. If you’ve stolen a fortune in gold and need to sneak it out of the country inconspicuously, have it built into a 200-yard-long “mammoth car” with a crew of dozens and enter it in a televised race.
8. A good way to show your youngest son that you love and respect him is to dress him the same as his pet chimp.
9. The first initial of the name “Speed” is “G.”
10. “Speed Racer” is a perfectly ordinary name.
11. Racecars are equipped with watertight cockpits and periscopes, because racecars are also submarines. Apparently.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
(Here’s another excerpt from my autobiography in progress. Links to other excerpts are at the bottom of this page.)
I’m often told I have a calming effect on people. Once, for example, I was Christmas shopping with a friend, and he told me he has mild panic attacks when he goes to malls, especially during the holiday season, but something about my company soothed him and kept him relaxed. I hear that sort of thing often.
It’s true; I’m uncommonly imperturbable, and my placid demeanor is catching. This trait serves me well in emergencies, and especially so when my job was to provide phone support at an IT helpdesk.
People who call for help with their computers are often in their worst mood and ready to vent their rage at the first available target. This would have been me, but I was usually able to cool them down enough so they could help me help them solve their problems, and by the time the call was over they were happy and grateful. I began these conversations with a Tyrannosaurus rex on the other end of the line; when they ended, I said goodbye to a gentle duck-billed hadrosaur, as torpid and satisfied as if she’d just eaten a hearty meal of tree ferns.
(Yes, I know a T. rex couldn’t have held a phone receiver with its tiny arms and hands; obviously in my analogy the prehistoric carnivore is wearing a headset. Don’t be a wiseass.)
I’ve had this super power, this preternatural tranquility, for as long as I can remember. I recall an incident from my childhood. I was just a wee tad when it happened; certainly no older than six or seven.
My family and several families we knew from church went camping at a Georgia state park. I think it was Hard Labor Creek State Park, but that’s probably wrong and isn’t important. Someone brought an enormous canvas tent. It was shaped sort of like a squatting rhinoceros (without the horn), and was easily big enough for all of us to share: 12 or so adults and a similar number of children.
Supper was a picnic. The meat was grilled on one of those big disposable aluminum pans you can buy at a grocery store; this pan was filled with red-hot charcoal briquettes.
I don’t know why the campsite didn’t have a proper grill, like all campsites do at state parks today. Maybe it did have one, and we just decided not to use it for some reason. But the moms prepared the meal, which we ate, and then everyone played board games and talked and threw a Frisbee around and did all the usual camping things for the rest of the evening until it got dark.
At bedtime, we all went into the tent and piled into our sleeping bags. Someone left the aluminum pan and its hot coals on the picnic table. There were so many grownups, I assume it must have been one of those situations where everyone thought someone else was going to take care of it.
The tent was long, but not especially wide. Only the two campers closest to the front could exit without having to step over other people. My family’s share of the floor was about halfway back.
The next morning I was the first to awake, and consciousness returned accompanied by a powerful call of nature. I was sleeping next to my mother. I quietly slipped out of my sleeping bag, stood up, and stepped gingerly between each of the sleeping bodies, kids and grownups alike, to make my way to the flap at the front of the tent.
I emerged in my pajamas and bare feet, blinked at the bright morning light, looked at the picnic table, and then walked on the dewy pine straw over to the edge of the woods, fifty yards away, where I tended to my morning business.
After this was done I returned to the tent, re-entered, tiptoed again past all the slumbering grown-ups and kids, then slid carefully back into my sleeping bag next to her.
Then, finally, I put a hand on my mom’s shoulder and gently shook her awake. “Mama,” I whispered softly in her ear, “The picnic table is on fire.”
Here’s a panel from Mad Magazine’s parody of the 1970s “Incredible Hulk” TV show, which appeared in issue No. 204 in 1979:
Wait long enough and everything becomes ironic. Last Friday, April 24, after months of gossip, speculation, and some rude and unkind jokes, Bruce Jenner came out as a transgender woman in an interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC News. It’s a big deal.
The viewing audience was told Jenner prefers to use male pronouns until he begins presenting as female in public. That’s what I’ll go with here.
Jenner is not the first famous transgender American; there’s a small crowd of them now. But he’s the most well-known by far, especially within that small club who transitioned after they were already famous. Apart from Jenner, I can only name three: Alexis Arquette, Lana Wachowski and Chaz Bono.
It’s silly even to call these three “famous” compared to Jenner. I’d bet everyone who reads this will have to look up at least one of those names. Bruce Jenner has been in the public eye for decades, and is better recognized than anyone else I’ll mention in this post, including Diane Sawyer. He’s known as an Olympic gold medalist, businessman and TV star. That’s why his journey has garnered such intense scrutiny. We’ve never seen this scenario play out on this level before.
Many LGBT people I know, especially in the transgender community, are enraged by the attention, and hurry to observe how easy his transition has been.
It’s true; Jenner has every advantage one could wish for. He is white, wealthy, surrounded by supportive family (even his ex-wives have been spirited cheerleaders), and resides in the most progressive state in the nation. His transition will be smooth sailing from start to finish.
He won’t have trouble meeting transition-related medical or surgical needs. He won’t be hassled by a county judge when he goes to complete his legal name change. The TSA will never single him out for a humiliating body cavity check if he tries to fly while his identity documents don’t match his appearance. If his children were still minors, their other relatives wouldn’t try to take them from his custody, citing his gender dysphoria as the sole and sufficient reason.
All those horrors have happened, and continue to happen, to less fortunate transgender people—especially the ones who are women, or impoverished, or nonwhite minorities—or who are all three. Follow the links. After the interview aired, while Lady Gaga and other celebrities were tweeting their praise to Jenner for his “bravery,” Ashley Diamond, a black transgender woman, continued to languish in the Georgia men’s prison system, where she has been mocked and misgendered by other inmates and corrections officers, denied hormone therapy, and repeatedly raped. In the unlikely event Jenner must do prison time for the fatal accident he caused back in February, it’s a certainty his straits will never become as dire as Ms. Diamond’s. The two may as well live in different universes.
Life isn’t as bad for all of us as it has been for Ms. Diamond, but it’s bad enough, for enough of us, that to call Jenner brave is like praising my cat for all her hard work in curling up on a warm cushion and sleeping all day. It’s not right that we’re so taken with him, so impressed, when so many others are forgotten or maligned or thrown away to die.
And yet, that’s exactly why Bruce matters so much. Yes, of course the public should care more about transgender people who aren’t white or famous or rich. But they don’t. That’s human nature. We sympathize better with others we perceive as being like us. For the white, middle-class majority, that’s someone like Bruce Jenner. Because he’s like them, they can’t dismiss his transition as some bizarre, foreign otherness; something only “those people” do. He’s bringing gender dysphoria into the suburban house next door.
The male image of Bruce Jenner is in people’s heads. Soon it will be joined by the female image. People will be forced to reconcile one with the other, and to comprehend that all the things they appreciated about the previous version are still there in the update.
Everyone goes through this process when a friend or relative comes out as transgender. Now, through Bruce, everyone who hasn’t had that experience will have it by proxy. And when they realize it’s okay for him to be transgender, they’ll realize it’s okay for everyone else as well.
This is what we’re striving toward: a society in which being transgender by itself isn’t remarkable, and we can earn distinction instead through our unique achievements. As author Jennifer Finney Boylan says, we’ll know the fight for acceptance is over when “[W]e are as boring as anyone else.”
A version of this post also appears this week as a column in Georgia Voice.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
This is the second part of the excerpt from my memoir-in-progress that I posted last week. You can read that part here.
It’s fair to ask why I began to explore my gender issues after joining the U.S. Navy. This was the time of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, after all, and even prior to that the U.S. military had never been an especially welcoming environment for LGBT individuals. Not even the Navy, despite any jokes that may be forming in your head right now. “Rum, sodomy, and the lash”? More like “powdered fruit punch, misspelled tattoos, and ‘the Department of Defense neither endorses nor condones the lyrics to any Village People song.'” Why was this the environment that fostered my first transition? The answer is “Oahu.”
As I recall, in those days the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) technically outlawed “homosexual acts,” not being gay as such; but if you self-identified as gay, that was good enough for the brass. Maybe they counted the declaration itself as a homosexual act. And like most straights, then and now, they made no distinction between the “LGB” and the “T.”
I landed at Pearl Harbor after I’d been in the Navy for over a year, and it wasn’t Plan A. As far as I knew at the time, Hawaii was just another U.S. state, and the main reason I’d joined the Navy was to have strange adventures in exotic foreign lands. At Officer Candidate School in Newport, when I’d filled out the form for my preference of duty station, the U.S. base in Yokosuka, Japan was my first choice. I grew up in the Atlanta suburbs and went to college at the University of Georgia. I’d never seen the Pacific Ocean before, and my travels abroad to date had been to Europe. Asia and the Pacific region were as exotic and foreign as lands could get.
So I was excited when my orders came back and I learned I was headed for a ship homeported in Yokosuka. After completing my training in San Diego, I got my shots, flew over the ocean, reported aboard … and immediately learned my ship would be changing its homeport to Pearl. To say I was disappointed would be a big understatement. Not only would I not be living outside the country after all, but I was attached to a vessel that would be decommissioned and up on blocks, like a hillbilly’s Econoline van, for over a year and a half.
We’d be busy, mind you; during an overhaul, a ship’s crew oversees the shipyard workers who do all the welding and plumbing and degaussing and caulking, and also goes to more training to learn about all the upgraded systems. But working ashore in an industrial hard-hat workplace isn’t what I’d signed up for.
My life as a bohemian expat in the Far East was stillborn.* I wouldn’t learn Japanese through immersion; live off-base in an apartment with rice paper walls and a tatami mat for a bed; flirt with kawaii local girls; learn the bushido code of honor; become proficient with a katana, join six other stalwarts to save a village from bandits, earn the respect of the shogun through my wise counsel, or capture super-powered monsters in tiny red and white balls. Akira Kurosawa films, James Clavell novels, and imported anime had convinced me all these things were likely to happen.
But now the homeport change nixed those sure bets. I was heading back “home.” Hawaii was the 50th U.S. state, but to my mind it was “just another state,” with driving on the right, McDonald’s, the Roman alphabet, infomercials, and morning radio personalities with nicknames like “Bobcat and the Perv.”
It wasn’t happening right away. I had several months left in the Land of the Sidewalk Vending Machine, and although I lived on the ship to avoid the hassle of renting an apartment for such a brief span, I made the most of it and had a few (mis)adventures. Someday I’ll tell the story of getting locked in an outhouse at the summit of Mt. Fuji.
In due course, after a brief WestPac deployment, we arrived in our new home. I settled into life as a kama’aina, in a cozy Kalihi apartment makai of Nimitz Highway. It was five miles east of Pearl Harbor and five miles west of Waikiki, and my downstairs neighbors were a jolly Samoan motorcycle gang.
I soon realized that beyond the superficial similarities and beyond the tourism culture, Hawaii was different from every other state I knew—dramatically different. The state was once a Polynesian monarchy, and its culture was still more similar to other Pacific island nations than to the rest of the United States.
This was true in big ways—an entire island was reserved for people of the indigenous Hawaiian ethnic group—and in small ways: the local McDonald’s offered poi as a side item.
Also, the place names have too damn many vowels.
Most importantly, indigenous Polynesian culture, which was still very alive and present on Oahu, is more accepting of gender nonconformity than many other societies. The Hawaiian language even has a word for males who live their lives as women: mahu.
In the pre-Captain Cook era, this word referred to a person in a specific and well-described role in Hawaiian society, but by the time I lived there it had become more generic in most contexts; a catchall term for transsexuals, cross dressers, drag queens and anyone else who was gender-nonconforming. It was the umbrella term there and then that “transgender” is today in most of the country. I even heard a few people employ mahu to simply mean “gay,” but that was uncommon and never done by people who knew better.
In Waikiki there was a drag bar called Garbo’s, but if you really wanted to know the world of the mahu, you went to Elsie’s Club Polynesian on Hotel Street in Chinatown. Here, gender nonconformity was celebrated. Most of the employees were transwomen or were males who presented as female much of the time.** So were most of the clientele, and also, it seemed, everyone else who lived or worked in the few blocks of Chinatown surrounding the place. It was a transgender town within a neighborhood within a city surrounded by the world’s biggest ocean, and Elsie’s was its city hall.
And they were all “locals,” or were otherwise Asian or Pacific Islander in heritage. All the transgender women I’d (knowingly) seen up until that time were tall, broad-shouldered, and had beard shadows—the opposite of conventionally understood femininity, and embodiments of the stereotype.
I think it’s fair to say the two biggest obstacles for most transwomen hoping to “pass”—to be seen and accepted as belonging to one’s preferred gender—are height and facial hair. I hope it isn’t controversial to further state that the Asian ethnic types populating Hawaii tend to have less of either, compared to Caucasians and African-Americans.
“Passing” was an obsession for me. Nowadays, transgender people who admit they’re concerned about “passing” are gently scolded, or harshly derided, within the community. As a civil rights matter, I agree this shouldn’t be a priority; we have a right to be treated as who we are, regardless of whether we meet some arbitrary standard of what men or women should look like.
I didn’t know that back then, of course, and anyway it’s not that simple, even today. Transgender women who get “clocked” as men can be in real physical danger from violent transphobes or homophobes, so passing isn’t simply a question of vanity. It’s a survival strategy. I’d never tried to relieve my dysphoria by cross-dressing, because it never entered my head that I’d be able to pass, and I had no stomach for the thought of living my life under the stigma of being seen as a man in women’s clothes. I wanted to know I was a girl, and for everyone else to know it, too. If I couldn’t pass, I wasn’t willing to transition at all. Of course that reads as shallow. At the time I wasn’t even old enough to rent a car; of course I was shallow.
But the mahu I met in those days seemed really good at being girls. They didn’t merely pass; they were objectively pretty, like Frieda, and they radiated the confidence that came with knowing it. Not all of them, of course, but enough of them to show me possibilities I’d never dreamed of.
So that’s why it all came together for me then, on that hot island, at that stage of my life. I was about as far geographically as it was possible to be from any friends or family I’d have to explain my behavior to. I’d found a micro-culture of individuals who were supportive and understanding of the need I’d been trying (unsuccessfully) to purge from my mind for most of my life. And they were modeling a level of authenticity (I don’t like that word here, but I can’t think of a better one) I began to think I could reach for.
My time had arrived.
*Yes, I recognize that as a U.S. military officer, I was about as “pat” as an expat can be, and no more bohemian than…uh, something that’s really not bohemian. That’s a hard word for metaphors.
**But not Elsie herself. Come to think of it, I’m not sure there was an “Elsie.” I should have written this stuff down at the time, but I was always afraid of being discovered.
Last year the Amazon Prime Video original series, Transparent, held a nationwide competition to find a transgender woman writer for its second season. Applicants were asked to submit their résumés and an original flash fiction story.
I didn’t win, but that’s okay. I’m developing my own sitcom now.
Below is the story I wrote for my application. It contains no transgender themes; I assumed all the other applicants would be doing that, and I wanted my entry to stand out. I focused instead on crafting a strong narrative and making it funny. Judge for yourself if I’ve succeeded, and let me know! Comments are at the bottom.
“What’s your greatest strength?” she asked. She knew the question was a cliché, but she had been out late last night at the Last Supper Club and blew off her usual diligent preparation. By the time she had walked to her car, driven home, and removed her disguise, she was too tired to do anything but go to bed.
Besides, she liked to see where applicants went with the question. She respected a candidate who didn’t humblebrag and gave a solid, confident response.
This young man was ready.
“Definitely my observational skills. I’m good at noticing things; even the smallest details.” He nodded along with his answer, as if he’d practiced it. She almost smiled at his enthusiasm. Did she detect an accent? She looked down at his name and wondered if it might be Spanish or Italian. HR must have thought he’d be a good diversity hire. She decided to go a little harder on him.
“It’s certainly not that you’re punctual. You were 15 minutes late for this interview.”
He smirked; still eager, but unabashed. She’d seen the same smirk, for an instant, when he entered the office and made eye contact. It puzzled her then; this time it annoyed her. “I had to choose just the right shirt.”
He was wearing a wrinkled white Oxford with frayed cuffs. If this was the “right shirt,” the wrong one was probably a Santana tour T-shirt from the thrift store.
She scanned his resume. University of Phoenix (restaurant management); retail clerk, Starbuck’s barista, waiter: “Fairest Game Catering.” Why did that name look familiar? Had they done the Orcas Forever fundraiser last month?
“I see. All right then. Tell me why you want to work here at Animal Protection League? Your background shows no activism, and this is not an entry-level job. Normally we’d want someone with several years of experience with other advocacy groups.”
He crossed his hands over his lap. “That’s easy. I don’t want to be a waiter forever, you know? The pay’s bad, and there’s no respect. Nobody ever even looks at you. Also, I have a deep interest in endangered species.” That smirk again. “You could say it’s a consuming passion.” He lowered his voice, leaned in. “I think you know what I mean.”
What does he mean? She thought. She opened her mouth to ask him to explain and a stentorian belch escaped.
Her hand flew up to cover her mouth as her face flushed. The smell of last night’s meal expanded into the under-ventilated office. Her embarrassment churned with panic. Could he smell what she’d eaten? No. Impossible! She quashed her paranoia, smoothed her expression. Almost no one could recognize the aroma of baked Sonoran desert plover, and after last night, no one would ever have the opportunity. She’d watched the species go extinct, and then eaten the evidence. She smirked herself, behind her hand, savoring the memory of the delicious wrongness.
He had raised an eyebrow.
“I’m so sorry! Something I ate last night.” She lowered her hand and waved it dismissively. “It’s nothing.”
“Well,” he said, smiling broadly, “You never know when a meal’s going to repeat on you.
Especially if it’s something you never had before. Or ever will again.”
“Something I never…?” Her eyes went wide. The caterers…
He sat back in his chair. “‘Can I get you a glass of water, ma’am?'”
The shock on her face lingered for only a moment before changing to resignation. She sighed, pushed back her chair, stood, and extended her hand.
“Welcome to the Animal Protection League.”
About a year and a half ago I participated in a book for Bloomberg BNA about LGBT employment law. The title of the book is Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Discrimination in the Workplace: A Practical Guide.
I wrote Chapter 6, which is about my case from my perspective, and which is titled “GLENN v. BRUMBY: FORTY YEARS AFTER GROSSMAN.” The editor, Christine Michelle Duffy, rejected my choice of title, inspired by our lawsuit’s conclusion at the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals: “Gone To Eleven.” I continue to believe there should be more references to This Is Spinal Tap in legal writing.
You can download my chapter here. I’m very proud of it.
You may purchase the entire massive, 1,700 page tome directly from Bloomberg at the link above or from Amazon.com here.
The price is $410. Obviously the book wasn’t written for the consumer market, and I don’t expect any of you to go buy a copy. But several other chapters and sections have also been made available as .pdf files online, and I’ve aggregated the following links where you can download them:
Happy Monday, everyone!
Following is an excerpt from my memoir-in-progress. All names have been fictionalized, but all the people are real. Suggestions and other feedback are welcome!
“What can you do about arm hair?” someone asked. Looking back from today, across the stretch of so many years, I don’t remember which of the seven or so people in attendance that evening had posed the question. In my mind’s eye, I look around the tiny living room of Rochelle’s high-rise Waikiki condominium and try, and fail, to attach a face to the question.
The condo was a snapshot of 1970s Hawaiian kitsch; more like a room at Graceland than a fin de siècle home on Oahu. Paintings of plumeria and birds of paradise adorned the walls. A floor lamp wore a hula-skirt shade. The furniture was wicker, dominated by the corner papasan where Rochelle held court. The coffee table was a cross-section of trunk from a koa tree. Whenever I visited the place, I half-expected McGarrett to knock on the door and ask us which stairwell led to the roof.
Maybe “Dani,” the tall, sad-faced, thirty-something Japanese-American, had asked the question. I probably spelled her name wrong; she pronounced it like the standard diminutive of the man’s name, but she used an affected, feminized spelling: D-A-capital N-I, or D-A-N-N-I, or D-A-N-N-I-E, or some variation like that. Actually, maybe her name was Gabby.
It definitely hadn’t been Frieda who’d asked. Frieda, young and pretty, was a “local,” which I understood to mean her ethnicity was multifarious; a blend of all the Asian peoples, plus Portuguese, who’d been brought to the islands as plantation labor over the centuries. Frieda was cheerful, funny, always dressed to flaunt her figure, and effortlessly feminine. She had begun her hormonal and surgical transition when still a teenager. Hairy arms had never been a concern, and a female presentation held no mysteries for her. In her early twenties, she was already an actual beauty pageant winner. She “passed” invisibly, and in this support group, she was a bright ray of possibility, however remote, to the rest of us.
And Margaret hadn’t asked. In fact, in hindsight, it was probably Margaret to whom the question had been put. A haole like Rochelle and me, she claimed to be content in her maleness, but was still more comfortable and happy to dress and act as a woman. And unlike most of the rest of us, she was able to do so at all times—even at her job as an accountant, where her request to begin presenting as female had been met with assent and a shrug by her employers.
Huh, I’d thought, when she’d told me that. The famously easygoing Hawaiian workplace goes a long way beyond aloha shirts on Fridays.
Come to think of it, maybe I myself had been the one who asked about the arms. This was only my first or second meeting. I’d found the group, Honolulu Transgendered Outreach, through a classified ad in Honolulu Weekly. That had led to a phone conversation with Margaret, then a one-on-one meeting with her in person, and now this.
I was not attending en femme. The very thought of dressing in women’s clothes and trying to put on makeup filled me with terror. I was ignorant of most of the practical considerations inherent in placating the dysphoria I’d known myself to have since hitting puberty. I knew nothing about shoe sizes, hosiery, leg shaving, concealing my Adam’s apple, padding my chest, hiding my beard shadow, seeking a medical diagnosis, hormone treatments, or any of the hundreds of other things I knew I would need to learn. I was a baby transsexual. “What can you do about arm hair?” was just the sort of question I would have asked at one of my first meetings. I’m fair-skinned and dark-haired, and while I was never what anyone would call swarthy, there was enough hair on my arms to belie any attempt I made at passing as a girl.
Today, when I refer to “transition,” people assume they know the era in my life I’m referring to. It’s the transition from male to female that began here in Georgia in the middle Naughties; the one that led to the loss of my job, a federal lawsuit, Congressional testimony, a groundbreaking legal precedent, and fame (in certain circles) and notoriety (in others).
Usually, that’s the correct assumption. In the ways that matter in the narrative of my life, that span of years was my Transition (very much with a capital T).
But over a decade earlier and half a world away, I’d begun another transition, one that I eventually abandoned. I was a Navy ensign stationed on a ship undergoing overhaul in the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard; our dry dock can be seen in some photos of the aftermath of the 1941 surprise attack, holding two devastated destroyers lying alist on their blocks.
Away from the base, I lived a lonely existence in a bare Kalihi apartment. For various reasons I’ll elaborate on later, I’d decided this was the time to explore whether I had the moxie or chutzpah or fortitude or spunk (“Mr. Graaant!”) I would need to become the person I—knew? suspected? hoped?—I always should have been. That decision had led me to this cramped living room on this night.
“Well, I don’t recommend Nair,” Margaret (it was probably Margaret) answered to whoever had asked. “It smells awful, and it kind of burns. You could shave, I suppose, but the stubble is prickly, and I don’t know how that would fly on your ship. Your fellow sailors might notice.”
They would definitely notice, I thought to myself. When I pulled duty every fourth day, meaning I was bound to the ship area for at least 24 hours, I showered in the officers’ head on the administrative barge that was our crew’s workplace during the overhaul. I already lived in fear I’d have to explain to someone, least preferably our dictatorial XO or the captain himself, why my toenails were painted Parisian Pink.
“But you can just wear long sleeves when you go out dressed,” Margaret assured me. That was certainly true. Although Oahu is in the tropics, most of the outings I would be able to go out on in this furtive guise would be at night, to the drag clubs or gay bars here in Waikiki. Long sleeves wouldn’t be uncomfortable or suspicious after sunset, and obviously I wasn’t going to be basking at Ala Moana Beach in a bikini.
Rochelle broke in. “Or you can just wait until your arm hair turns white, and no one can see it anymore,” she said cheerfully, demonstrating by pulling back the sleeve of her own long-sleeved, age-appropriate frock. Rochelle, the owner of the condo and our hostess, was at least in her sixties. I gazed at her arm with a mix of perplexity and despair.
“That would be a long wait,” I said.
Last week was the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance. It happens all over the world, every November 20. I’ve written about it before, but it bears repeated mention, if anything about the transgender experience does.
At a TDOR (as it’s usually called; “T-door”), event, a list is read aloud of the names of every transgender person who was murdered in the previous year, if they were murdered because they were transgender. The reading is preceded by speeches or prayers, and sometimes there’s a potluck. It’s often social, but never cheerful. It’s a grim task, but the dead deserve no less, especially from those, like me, who have had the luck or privilege (so far) to avoid the sort of violence that ended the lives of these victims.
Discrimination beyond transphobia is a factor in the murders of transgender people, just as it is with most violence. Women become victims more often than men. Poor people and minorities become victims more often than middle-class whites. Transgender people whose appearance is less “cisnormative” definitely become victims more often than those who “pass.” That’s a tautology, in fact, because transphobic violence only happens in the first place because the victim has been identified as a person who transgresses gender norms.
This year the official death toll is 226 lives. That’s as of early last week; there are new names nearly every day of the year, so the list is always out of date by the time it’s read.
Furthermore, it’s notoriously difficult to compile an accurate list. This is the case for several reasons:
Gays and lesbians suffer physical violence disproportionately, too, and often it’s for the same reason: a gay man’s appearance isn’t masculine enough, or a lesbian’s is insufficiently feminine. This drives some people nuts; they find gender nonconformity repulsive on a deep, visceral level. My friend Brynn Tannehill examined this phenomenon earlier this year. It’s about transgressing gender norms. It’s the most important reason why we’re the LGBT community, not the LGB community and the T community, and any LGB person who believes we aren’t all fighting the same fight hasn’t thought about the matter deeply enough. Their struggle is ours, and vice versa.
It is a basic instinct for humans (most species, for that matter) to dislike anyone we find strange. We hate “The Other.” That’s a necessary survival trait for small tribal groups on the antediluvian savanna, but in the modern world, with billions of people, it becomes racism, ethnic cleansing, sectarian clashes, and jingoism. It’s natural to have such feelings, but we’re better than our nature, on the whole. The attackers are the ones who fail the nurture over nature test.
There’s probably something else also going on than simple “you’re different from me” Othering in the case of transphobic homicides. If I were feeling contemplative today, I’d probably email one of evolutionary psychology friends and try to figure it out. Maybe I’ll still do that, and turn it into another post.
For now I’ll just leave this where it lies. I am transgender. It’s not a condition I asked for I wanted, but it’s an amazing experience that teaches me more things about myself and the world every day, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything.
I pay a price for this experience in many different ways. Every year, across the world, some pay a much heavier price. Never forget them.
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Last month Amazon.com’s Instant Video service debuted its new TV series, Transparent. All ten episodes went live to stream via the Internet in a model copied from Netflix, with its many original series.
Transparent, a comedy/drama, is the creation of filmmaker and television writer Jill Soloway. It stars Jeffrey Tambor as Maura, a Southern California transgender woman who has lived most of her life as a male and is now, late in life, beginning her transition to female. She has an ex-wife and three adult children. The show is about her transition and the effect it has on herself and her family.
Jeffrey Tambor is not a transwoman, of course, and this fact has made Transparent the subject of some controversy in the transgender community. In July the pilot episode was screened in Los Angeles at the Outfest Film Festival, and in the panel discussion afterward, a transgender blogger criticized the casting of Tambor in the leading role, calling it “transface” and insisting a transgender actress would have been a better choice.
Soloway defended her casting decision thusly: “Maura is coming out late in life. A lot of people in that situation do not physically transition. At this point in the story, it’s possible to have a cis male play the character.” She added, “Jeff was in my head before the issue became politicized to me. I didn’t see a controversy.”
I’m guessing by “do not physically transition” she meant that for someone so old (I don’t know exactly how old Maura is supposed to be, but Tambor is 70) hormone replacement therapy does little to affect a transwoman’s appearance. Breast growth will be minimal, and facial features won’t soften and become more feminine in appearance as they would for someone who transitions earlier in life. It was an odd way for Soloway to phrase it, but if that’s what she meant, she’s probably correct. And she’s not without experience in these matters; her own father came out as transgender in 2011. Transparent is fiction, but it’s informed by her own family’s experiences.
My partner and I have seen the first three episodes so far. Maura’s experiences in the present day, and especially the flashback scenes set in her repressed and closeted past, dredge up powerful emotions in me, so it’s not the sort of show I could binge on. But I’m enjoying it, and I think it’s fine that Tambor was cast in the part.
I agree it’s usually best to cast an actor who is a member of a particular race, minority, or community when making a film or TV show about a character in that category, when possible. Transgender people should play transgender people; Asians should play Asians; actors with Asperger’s should play people who have Asperger’s.
This is especially true when the minority in question has a history of being marginalized by Hollywood. I’m thinking of the Chinese detective Charlie Chan, who notoriously was played in all of his popular movies by white actors. Caucasian actress Donna Reed played Sacajawea, who was Shoshone, in The Far Horizons. A year later, Shirley MacLaine played an Indian princess in Around The World In 80 Days.
All outrageous casting choices, and I’m certain they were a result of the racist assumption, which I hope is going away, that Caucasians are the “default” race in the U.S., and they’re who Americans wanted to see as protagonists on screen, even in roles that aren’t Caucasian.
But sometimes the story makes it impossible to cast authentically. Melvin Van Peebles’ great comedy Watermelon Man was about a racist white man who spontaneously turned into a black man overnight. Since one actor played the role both before and after the transformation, would it have been “right” to cast a black man or a white man?
Sally Potter’s movie Orlando is about a person who lives 400 years, half as a man, then half as a woman. Whomever Potter cast would have to play against sex and gender for 50 percent of the scenes. She cast the great Tilda Swinton; should she have cast a male actor?
Another example that comes to mind is Gary Sinise in Forrest Gump. His character, Lt. Dan, lost both his legs in the Vietnam War. Sinise has both his legs; the director painted them out using CGI special effects. Ideally, you’d hire an amputee actor to play an amputee, but Lt. Dan’s story begins in the time before he lost his legs. Casting Sinise was a practical choice. An amputee couldn’t have played the character with legs as easily as Sinise played him without legs.
If Transparent were set entirely in the present day, and Maura were past her transition, I’d also have been critical if a transgender actress hadn’t played her. That’s not the case. Maura is just beginning her transition; in the first episode she hadn’t told her loved ones her secret and still presented as male most of the time. Furthermore, many scenes are set in the past, in the time when Maura, still Mort to everyone she knew, was still learning how to cope with her gender dysphoria.
A transgender actress could play those scenes, sure, but it would be a lot to ask of her emotionally (I know I couldn’t do it), and could be a makeup and special effects challenge, depending on how different the actress looked from her pre-transition self. I remember thinking how brave it was of Laverne Cox to play her character’s pre-transition self in flashback scenes in Orange Is The New Black; later I learned it hadn’t been her, but her (formerly identical) twin brother in those scenes. That was a brilliant casting move, but one that wouldn’t be available for most productions.
Tambor is good in the part because we still see so much of Mort in the show. He’s also good, I’d argue, precisely because he’s not transgender.
Much of the U.S. still thinks transgender people are bizarre, exotic, even mentally ill. There’s a whole lotta Othering going on. Jeffrey Tambor is a well-known actor who has been on TV screens for decades now. People know him and like him, and know he’s not transgender himself. That makes him the perfect guide to take audiences along on this journey, to show them that, just as Jeffrey Tambor is an ordinary, sympathetic individual, so is Maura, and by extension, all transgender people.
Parenthetically, Tambor was also in the cast of Arrested Development a show I enjoyed, but which was guilty at times of some shockingly transphobic attempts at humor. So another good reason for Tambor to play Maura is so he has a chance to pay off that karmic debt.
Yes, casting Tambor to play Maura meant a transgender actress didn’t get the job, and it’s fair to guess unemployment is even worse among transgender actresses than for transgender women in general. But Soloway’s not ignoring the transgender community. According to this New York Times story from August 31:
Soloway enacted a transfirmative action program, favoring the hiring of transgender candidates over nontransgender ones. It wasn’t just a corrective to the trans community’s high rates of unemployment. Soloway wanted to create a set on which inclusivity was more than a buzzword, a place where no one should ever feel that they are part of a majority — not even the majority, whoever that might be on a particular day. ‘I really want it so that there’s no moment, on the set, when trans people are being otherized by people in the crew because they don’t think there are any trans people listening.’ As of this writing, 20 trans people had been hired in the cast and crew, and more than 60 had been employed as extras.
She also hired two full-time transgender consultants to steer her away from any pitfalls.
Those two consultants are Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, who know as much about being transgender as any three people, even though they are only two.
Transparent is doing right by us. It is respectful, carefully thought out, and thoroughly researched, and by her life experiences and by her hiring, writing, and production decisions, Jill Soloway has shown she has the authority and credibility to tell her story the way she’s telling it. It’s not transphobic in any way, least of all in the casting.
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The following post is the keynote address I gave on Thursday, October 2, 2014, for the Opening Reception of “Opening Doors, Outing History,” Kennesaw State University’s GLBTIQ Student Retention Services’ art exhibit for LGBT History Month. I was told this was the second year of this event, and I was its first-ever keynote speaker.
I was honored and proud to be given this distinction, and I’m grateful to everyone at Kennesaw State for the opportunity. Jessica Duvall, Program Coordinator for GLBTIQ Retention Services, invited me to give the keynote and introduced me to the audience.
The Zuckerman Museum of Art hosted the event. The exhibit, as you can see in the photos in this post (which I’m using with permission) is a series of doors describing important events in LGBT history, both nationally and local to Georgia or Kennesaw State. The doors represent the closet.
My speech wasn’t captured to video or audio, so this is the only way I can share it. If you’re reading this, I hope you find it meaningful.
by Vandy Beth Glenn
Good afternoon! I hope you’re all having a good day. I’m excited to be here. My partner and I arrived earlier today to tour the exhibit, and we really loved it. I love the doors as a concept. It’s brilliant; a powerful and versatile metaphor for our community.
Doors are wonderful devices, aren’t they? I love doors! Dutch doors, pet doors, revolving doors, sliding doors, airlock doors, car doors. Opportunities knock on doors. You can’t tell a “Knock Knock” joke without doors.
And closets have doors. They have to, or else they’re just alcoves. When the doors are closed, it’s easy to stop thinking about whatever’s inside those closets. Often, that’s the whole idea.
Gay people have been “coming out” since the 1960s in New York City, but originally it had nothing to do with closets. Gay men would “come out” the same way wealthy young debutantes had a “coming out” ball when they declared their eligibility. It was a way for gay men to make fun of gender norms.
The idea that it was a closet they were “coming out” of came later. That was adapted from the older saying about having a “skeleton in your closet.” A skeleton in your closet is a shameful or embarrassing secret you don’t want anyone to know about. Usually, it’s a dark family secret, like “slave labor was the source of the family wealth,” or “my war-hero ancestor was actually a deserter,” or “it turns out we’re actually Kardashians.”
For many families, the uncle who was gay or the cousin who gender transitioned was one of these “skeletons in the closet.” They would never be mentioned except at family reunions, to which they were not invited, and then they were talked about only in hushed tones. Being in the closet was the default status for these “skeletons.” The fact that we were LGBT was, in society’s eyes, automatically shameful, wrong, sacrilegious, and embarrassing, and by extension, we were expected to believe ourselves that we were shameful, wrong, sacrilegious, and embarrassing. We internalized these homophobic and transphobic attitudes and made them part of ourselves.
We didn’t just stand in our closets; we lived in them, like Harry Potter under the Dursleys’ stairs. We made ourselves comfortable there. We had to, because outside the closet we found only scorn and hate and abuse. The closet may have been small and stuffy, but inside the closet, at least, we could be ourselves. Plus, it was the only way we knew how to live. We didn’t even realize the door opened from the inside.
Of course, to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender is not shameful, wrong, or sacrilegious, and it isn’t embarrassing. It is simply who we are. We are kind, respectable, moral people, just like anyone else. Or we’re jerks, just like anyone else. Either way, it has nothing to do with our sexual orientation or our gender identity, and those are never a reason why we should be judged or excluded.
There should be no more closets for any of us, or for our loyal families and allies who lived with us in those closets. The people who continue to hate us; the homophobic and transphobic people, the ones who stuffed us into those closets, are the ones who should be ashamed of who they are. We should be proud, and we’ve been learning to be proud. The doors in this exhibit show us how far we’ve all progressed in that direction.
Everyone here today, whether gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or a straight ally, knows that no one should be made to suffer or to feel bad about themselves because of the sex or gender characteristics of themselves or their loved ones. We are out. I understand that probably many of you are not out to all the people in your lives. That’s just realistic. Not everyone can safely be out, especially in this part of the country. There are still the risks of rejection, of job loss, of homelessness, that go along with being out.
But I hope most of you are out or will be soon. I hope that for the vast majority of you, your closets are just places to keep clothes, or cleaning supplies, or canned food.
The closets are still destroying lives, and we need to continue to help others pry them open. And we will. This century, this decade, is our moment in history. It is our turn.
Looking back at where we used to be helps us to understand how far we’ve advanced. The exhibit has two new doors this year, commemorating two terrible stories in United States history.
The Lavender Scare is one of them. In the 1950s, the Lavender Scare ousted hundreds of gay people from federal jobs; it was a part of McCarthyism. Gay people were thought to be unfit for federal service, because their sexual orientation was considered a mental illness. President Eisenhower himself signed an executive order firing all the openly gay people working for the federal government. This is just sickening to me. Eisenhower is remembered as one of the most moderate, middle-of-the-road Presidents we’ve had, so his buy-in to this shocking persecution is a strong signal to us today of how mainstream it was to be homophobic in the 1950s.
Today, not only are thousands of our people working openly in federal employment, but President Obama recently signed his own executive order, which in this case protects all LGBT people employed by the federal government and by federal contractors. Presidents of both parties have been appointing openly gay individuals to federal posts since at least the 1980s, and President Obama has appointed many openly transgender people as well.
The other new door tells the story of the Johns Committee in Florida, which began in the early 1960s. This was similar to the Lavender Menace, but was a state government initiative in Florida by state senator Charley Johns, and it focused on the state colleges and universities—a fact which should resonate with those of us here today. It resulted in many qualified and capable instructors and students being denied the jobs and educations they deserved and had a right to.
Today, well, I tried researching the status today of LGBT people in Florida, and the state is maybe still not a shining beacon of LGBT diversity. But at least there are no longer witch hunts against LGBT educators, and Senator Johns himself has long since died of old age. As an aside, I note that many of the people who persecute us are dying of old age. In fact, if you look at the demographics of homophobic and transphobic individuals, you’ll find that old age is their number one cause of death. I’m not saying older people are intolerant. I’m saying intolerant people tend to be older, so to a large extent, an equal society is just a waiting game.
I don’t remember personally the events described on those two new doors, but in many ways the United States I grew up in wasn’t much better. I was in one of these closets for over half my life. Nobody knew my secret! I had an ordinary childhood, went to college, joined the Navy, worked in the civilian world. I even had an apparently heterosexual dating life. People had no reason not to assume I was an ordinary straight person.
I wasn’t an ordinary straight person. I am transgender. There was a life I really wanted to live, but fear kept me living the lie instead. I was afraid I would lose everything that was important to me. I would lose the people I cared about and the job that sustained me. I would lose the ability to walk unnoticed and unharassed in public. I was sure these things would happen if I stepped out of my closet and embraced my true gender identity.
Eventually the time arrived when I had to do that, though. Gender dysphoria is like that; it’s a tinny little voice inside your head, insisting that you need to make a change, and if you don’t answer it, it grows louder every year. At last it’s so loud that it drowns out everything else, and you have to do something about it. You have to. It no longer matters what you’re going to lose as a result.
Well, it matters, but it doesn’t matter enough. Gender dysphoria always wins in the long run. We transition because we can no longer continue to live as we had been. We’ve been reduced to two options, and transitioning is the only option that keeps us alive. I reached this point, and I began my transition. I did so with the certain belief that I would probably lose most of my friends, possibly lose my job, and definitely, definitely, I’d never have another romantic relationship. I wasn’t happy about any of that, but it was a price I had to pay.
This is a fact that even lesbians and gays often don’t understand about the transgender experience. Before our gender transitions, we are suffering. We don’t transition on a whim, or as a political statement, or because we want to be societal outcasts. We transition because we want to stay alive.
So I stepped out of my closet, and true to my fears, I lost my job. The man who fired me, Sewell Brumby, said that my transition was unacceptable in his workplace. He used words like “inappropriate,” “uncomfortable,” and “immoral.” Yes, he said “immoral.” He said it out loud. He felt so safe in firing an employee for being transgender that he didn’t even see the need to hide it. He had no fear about it.
He should have been afraid. I went to Lambda Legal, and together we filed a federal lawsuit against Sewell Brumby. At first I had no confidence we would win; this was in 2007. The judicial landscape for LGBT rights was very different. There were a few good precedents, many bad ones, and we had a President who was openly talking about a Constitutional amendment to ban marriage equality. It didn’t look good for our case, but I knew filing it was the right thing to do. We had to fight the fight, even if we lost.
You know from Jessica’s introduction that we won after all, against all the odds and at two levels of federal courts. Four months after our victory, in April 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced, based partly on our precedent, that it would treat discrimination against transgender people as sex discrimination, which means that now transgender people’s jobs are protected all over the nation.
I’m proud of that, but I’m even more proud that I finally left my closet. It did cost me my job, but not the people who care about me. They care about me every bit as much, and are happy that I’m happy.
And once I’d become a person I could love, I was able to meet someone who could also love me, and she and I have been together for five years now.
We’re all encouraged to be activists these days: to go to rallies, to lobby our elected officials, to march in protests.
These are all important and praiseworthy activities, but to be an activist, we only have to be out. Part of the reason Sewell Brumby felt so safe in firing me was because he didn’t know, or didn’t believe he knew, any transgender people. He may not even have realized he knew any gays or lesbians. I know for sure that he did. They just were not out to him, so he was allowed to believe they were people who don’t count and don’t matter.
Living our lives in the open is the way to win the rest of the world’s hearts and minds. And we have to win their hearts and minds, because the straight population will always outnumber us.
So we put photos of our partners on our desks at work.
We marry the people we love, regardless of their gender, and we wear our wedding bands where everyone can see them.
We fly our flags, and we put rainbow stickers on our cars, and we’re not coy about pronouns when we tell people about the amazing person we went on a date with last night.
We don’t grin and remain silent when we hear a homophobic joke or comment; we politely and swiftly say that sort of talk is unacceptable in polite society.
We do these things, as out LGBT people, because by being out, we’re all activists. A lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender person who lives her life in the light of day, daring any hater to have a problem with it, is an activist. Remember that. Take it to heart. Live it.
Pride isn’t just a word. It’s a way of life. Living openly is the best catalyst for change.
And change is coming. I told you how the employment landscape has improved. In addition to that, marriage equality is the law in more and more parts of the nation all the time. A year or two ago it was only six or seven states. It’s over twice that now; I can’t even keep an accurate count. Even the bigots admit this is a fight that we’ll eventually win nationwide. There are battles left to fight, but the war is essentially over.
The closet doors are standing open now. We don’t have to live there anymore. We’ve stepped out into the light of day, our adversaries are dying off, and the world belongs to us now.
It’s not all happy talk; many challenges remain. It is still legal to fire people for being gay or lesbian in much of the country, and even where it’s not, clever employers can always make up a reason to fire an LGBT worker and hide their discrimination. Legal protection is only part of the solution.
Marriage equality is a war that we’re winning, but it’s not won yet. It’s still illegal for us to marry in more states than not. We have to keep fighting on that front.
Transgender people still suffer and die as a result of ignorance and intolerance. You’re all aware the biggest shared experience each year for gays and lesbians is Pride; for transgender people, it’s the Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20, when we read the names of all the people who were murdered during the previous year simply for being transgender. It’s a list that never seems to grow shorter.
So, there’s much work left to be done. But the first step, for all of us, is to come out. There are some sad tales told on the doors in this exhibit, but the doors themselves are a celebration. Let’s celebrate together.
Thank you for having me here today.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
A friend of mine, a cisgender man, recently posted this question to my Facebook wall:
Okay, so a question that’s thrown a wooden shoe into my gears: I’ve been raised to accept that gender roles are generally bullshit. It is acceptable for women to fix cars. It is acceptable for men to bake cakes. A woman fixing a car does not make her less “ladylike.” A man baking a cake is not more feminine due to the baking of said cake. Transgendered [sic] people seem to welcome gender roles (beyond dress and outward appearance) as a method of reinforcing their identity. Is that regressive, and if not, how?
It’s a fair question, based on his experiences. I assured Emmett (his name is Emmett) his experience is specialist, anecdotal, and wrong. I know hundreds of transgender people, men and women, and their range of acceptance or rejection of gender roles and expectations is as broad as it is for cisgender people. Also, it’s possible there’s confirmation bias at work: Maybe he’s not noticing the clichéd behavior in cisgender people so much because subconsciously he’s more evaluative of transgender people.
It may be true that transgender people as a group are slightly more likely to exhibit stereotypical gendered behavior and preferences. That’s probably true, in fact. Several factors contribute to that. Here are some that come to mind.
First, and probably most significantly, many transgender people go out of their way to embody gender stereotypes when they’ve just begun their transitions. This is a way for them to revel in and celebrate this aspect of themselves that they’ve finally come to accept. Transwomen may buy of floral prints and jewelry; transmen may complain about shopping or buy cowboy boots. Chaz Bono talked in a 2011 interview (early in his transition) about how “testosterone” had changed his behavior:
There is something in testosterone that makes talking and gossiping really grating. I’ve stopped talking as much.
Elsewhere in the interview he talked about his growing interest in “gadgets,” implying there’s something essentially male in that interest, or that male hormones (and transitioning) had brought it to the fore in him. It’s a cartoonish and untrue stereotype that has historically (and wrongly) discouraged women from entering math and science fields, but apparently Chaz believed it, and used it as an example of his new “maleness.” Really, he was just being a jerk. Maybe he even believed “being a jerk” is also a male trait.
I wrote above that new transitioners “celebrate” their gender. That’s not always the right word. Some low-information transgender people indulge in this hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine behavior because they believe they should want to. Their understanding of gender is as simple and wrong as everyone else’s, and badly outdated.
Outdated at least back to the mid-twentieth century, when Johns Hopkins University was the only place in the United States to get reputable treatment for “transsexualism” (as it was called at the time), the university’s diagnosis protocols required people seeking hormones or surgery to conform to these stereotypes. Transwomen had to pretend to like crinoline dresses and dating men, even if they didn’t. The university was the gatekeeper, and if its diagnosticians doubted their patients’ sincerity, they got no treatment. While medical and psychological care has improved vastly since then, but many transgender people still think this way.
Also, especially for transgender women, conforming to stereotypes is simply a survival strategy. It’s easier for a transgender woman to “pass” if she’s wearing makeup and a skirt and walking with a sway in her hips, and if she fails to pass, she could literally be risking her life.
There’s a lower-stakes version of this, too. The world misgenders us all the time, calling us “sir” or “ma’am” where the reverse would be preferred, or using the wrong pronouns with us. It’s not always malicious; some folks just do it absentmindedly or subconsciously. I briefly worked with a sixtysomething man a few years ago who had been a military pilot, and the whine of aircraft engines had destroyed his ability to hear the upper registers of human speech. As a result, certain qualities in my voice meant he often said “he” when mentioning me to a third party. He didn’t mean to, and always hastened to apologize. The cognitive error got into his brain at a deep, primitive level, and it was hard for him to excise it. I corrected him, and he was contrite when I did so.
Firmly asserting our gender identity from time to time, in small ways or large, can be a subtle, nonconfrontational way to remind others how to be respectful of our gender identity.
Perhaps most of all, transwomen are still women and transmen are still men. If they perpetuate behaviors stereotypical of their gender, it’s because at least a plurality of people of that gender exhibit those behaviors. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with women being feminine or men being masculine, as long as we acknowledge that’s the norm, but not normative. It’s fine for women to be masculine and men to be feminine as well.
I myself love embrace my femininity without fetishizing it. I like high heels and usually wear makeup, but I more often wear jeans than skirts. I’ve been known to cry when watching insurance ads on television, but I’ve also been seen to drool when browsing the tool department at Home Depot. If the 21st century is teaching us anything, it’s that we should all finally feel free to simply be who we are.
Earlier today I saw the YouTube clip of octogenarian Ray Jessel performing a song on an episode of the NBC reality show America’s Got Talent. It was moderately appalling, but, you know, what’s not these days? I assumed it was an old clip someone on Facebook had recently shared (what’s not these days?), and I quickly forgot about it.
It wasn’t until a few hours later that I noticed Ray Jessel and his song were trending on Twitter, and that his episode had aired just last night. That’s when I realized I needed to come here and post about it.
In the song, Jessel related that he began seeing a woman. She was lovely, stylish, well-dressed, etc., but unfortunately (and this is the refrain), “She’s got a penis.” This discovery, of course, was a deal breaker.
When he first hit that line, the judges and studio audience went nuts with laughter. As he continued, explaining that he must draw the line at male genitalia, and that moreover hers was bigger than his, the judges and audience surrendered completely to their hysterical mirth. In the vernacular, they “lost their shit.” Ray finished the song to wild applause and a standing ovation from Howie Mandel. He then had this exchange with Howie, Heidi Klum, and the woman I assume is the former Scary Spice:
Heidi Klum: Did this happen to you? Is this a true story and you turned it into a song?
Ray Jessel: Something like that happened to a friend of mine.
Scary Spice (making air quotes): A “friend of mine.”
Howie Mandel (in a dubious tone): Ooohhh…
Ray: I know those “friend of mine” things, but this is true, actually.
The judges then awarded Jessel four “Yes” votes, which apparently is an unusually high score. You’re probably getting that I’m not a regular viewer of this show.
Now, everyone get out your Transphobia Tropes cards. Let’s see what we have in the song and the subsequent conversation:
Did anybody score a bingo? There are no prizes.
We are in the summer of 2014, yes? I didn’t unwittingly go back in time to a day before Laverne Cox was TIME magazine’s cover girl? Before she and Carmen Carrera schooled Katie Couric and Wendy Williams on how to be respectful of transgender people? Before California passed AB 1266? Before a string of favorable court decisions strongly hinted that maybe it’s not so nice to dehumanize transgender people and treat them like circus freaks anymore? Because that’s what it feels like.
I can give Mr. Jessel himself a pass. I wouldn’t expect most of his generation to know any better; he grew up in less enlightened times (although I know men in their 80s who do know better). Call me ageist, but studies back me up: homophobia and transphobia are negatively correlated with age. That kind of ignorance is solving itself actuarially.
In fairness, transphobia wasn’t the only reason he was so well received by the crowd. He also benefited from what I call the “Betty White” effect. Senior citizens aren’t expected to talk about sex, or even know about sex that isn’t wholesomely missionary, marital, and mid-century. Those who defy that expectation get comedy cred, even if what they’re saying isn’t objectively funny. At least a third of Jessel’s appeal last night was in his willingness to say “penis” out loud. Howard Stern made this reading explicit by admitting how impressed he was that Ray, at his age, still had a sense of humor. Scary Spice expressed the same sentiment, more obliquely, calling Jessel a “naughty, funny” old man.
But transphobia was the primary reason Jessel was such a hit. The judges were unabashed about it; their wink-winking and nudge-nudging was adolescent and puerile. They should have known better. At least Heidi Klum should have.
The producers most certainly should have known better; they must have chosen Jessel and vetted his performance ahead of time.
It isn’t just thin-skinned “political correctness” to take exception to jokes about “trans panic” or “gay panic” humor. I can ignore rudeness, or shake it off. Hurt feelings aren’t the only thing at stake. Reducing transgender people to a punch line gets people killed. It’s not funny.
This is how the First Amendment’s protection of our right to free speech works:
Person A: My opinion is [states opinion].
Person B: I disagree. My opinion is [states contrary opinion].
This is how too many people today think the First Amendment’s protection of our right to free speech works:
Person A: My opinion is–
Person B: SHUT UP!
Yesterday I saw an infographic that was getting passed around Facebook that was a photo of an overweight man who had fallen off his motorized scooter in the soda aisle of a grocery store and was clinging to one of the shelves, seemingly trying to right himself. It’s unclear from the photo which store this happened at, but superimposed over it are the words “Meanwhile At Wal-Mart,” so presumably that’s where it happened. “Meanwhile At Wal-Mart” is apparently a well-established meme for the purpose of mocking that chain’s employees and clientele.
I won’t share the infographic here. I’m confident my readers are savvy enough to find it on their own, if they’re interested, and I don’t want to be guilty of directly contributing to its hit count. It’s a cruel, disgusting photograph, compounded by the knowledge that the photographer’s first thought was to take the photo instead of running over to help the unfortunate man.
I was bewildered when someone shared that picture in my Facebook feed, because I didn’t think I was Friends with anyone who would have shared it. When I called him out, he defended the share by saying the person isn’t disabled, eats excess calories, and doesn’t exercise. He was surprised I didn’t want to join in the fun, since, as I’ve mentioned here before, I run every day. He thought my demonstrated ability to keep to a fitness regimen meant I would share in his ridicule of someone who lacked that ability.
My erstwhile friend believed it was okay to be cruel to this individual, because he was using a scooter despite not being disabled, because he was buying sweetened soda despite already being morbidly obese, and because the person has clearly “given up” and is doing nothing to improve his health.
I love the Internet, and mostly believe it makes us better people, but it brings out the worst in some. The Internet enables that kind of shaming because it keeps us anonymous, and shields us from the reality that the victim is someone else’s father, husband, brother, or son. It’s a medium that mitigates against compassion and encourages low-information judgments. Consider:
We don’t know the person is not disabled. It is just as likely he is overweight because he can’t walk and therefore can’t get enough exercise. It’s a chicken or egg thing. And even if he’s using the scooter “merely” because of his obesity, it’s not a reason to make fun of him for his weight.
We don’t know that he consumes excessive calories. He may be shopping for someone else. He may be getting diet soda or tea. Or maybe he’s on a diet and has already lost fifty pounds, and is rewarding himself with the first sweet calories he’s had in a month. There’s no way to know any of these things. But even if he drinks a twelve-pack of high-calorie soda every day, and injects another ounce of chocolate syrup into each can, it’s not a reason to make fun of him for his weight.
We don’t know that he has “given up,” or is content to be the size he is or to have limited mobility. Again, he could well be days or weeks into a vigorous exercise regimen that has already delivered results obvious to everyone who knows him. All we know from the photo is that he experienced one very bad moment in a public place. But even if he has “given up” and stopped trying to improve himself, and lives a life of daily despair, it’s even more reason not to make fun of him for his weight.
The only thing we know for certain is that the man, like all people, deserves to be treated with dignity and compassion. Would my former friend point and laugh if he saw this man in real-time at that grocery store? Of course, he wouldn’t. No one would. People tend to assume the subjects of such memes are not really out there in the world, living ordinary lives and reading the Internet like everyone else. That’s not the case. Consider what happened to Caitlin Seida when she responded to the haters:
The most common response was not remorse or defensiveness but surprise. They were startled that I could hear what they’d been saying.
Shame is a powerful weapon in society, and it can be used for good, as I think it (mostly) was in the cases of Taylor Chapman and the “deranged sorority girl” (and apropos of nothing, that latter became the inspiration for Michael Shannon’s current career pinnacle). When shame is wielded against people who have done nothing to afflict others and are just living their lives, I despair for our species.
I face many difficulties myself, and I deal with them with varying degrees of success. I’m lucky that none of my difficulties are obvious to people who see me out in public. This isn’t true for many trans people, and it hasn’t always been true for me.
Every grown-up should be morally advanced enough not to make other people’s lives harder than they have to be. I kind of hate it that I felt the need to write this post.
I received a negative ad mailer from Elena Parent in the mail today. She’s running against Kyle Williams for the Democratic nomination for state senate in Senate District 42, which I live in, and which Jason Carter vacated to run for governor. The mailer warned me that Kyle Williams has been endorsed by “the same Republican group” that endorsed Mitt Romney. Here it is:
Of course, the Republican group isn’t named. I’m pretty sure it must be the Log Cabin Republicans, since they would have supported Mitt Romney (since they’re Republicans), but also a candidate like Williams (who is openly gay).
Parent is threading a very narrow needle: she needs to associate Williams with conservatives, because Senate District 42 is a liberal Democratic district. But she can’t mention a gay group in a negative way, because that would seem homophobic. So, she just says Williams is BFFs with a mysterious, unnamed “Republican group.”
It’s Vaguebooking as attack ad.
Kyle Williams has released some negative ads of his own, going after Parent’s nuanced position on a HOPE scholarship bill a few years ago.
I’ll be glad when the Georgia primary is over.
UPDATE: I got another mailer from Elena Parent on Saturday, and she’s doubling down on this reprehensible guilt-by-association attack:
I also received a robocall from her today (on my cellphone!) that began “Kyle Williams cannot be trusted…” I hung up after that.
Elena Parent, if you want my vote, tell me who
are. Don’t tell me about the jerks who like your opponent.
Fred Phelps, the 84-year-old founder of Westboro Baptist Church (that’s the Wikipedia link; I find it distasteful even to type the WBC’s actual website name), is at death’s door. He may already have died by the time you read this.
It’s fair to say he won’t be missed by the general public. Under his leadership, WBC has been a single-issue activist group, and that single issue was its hatred of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people. The church’s antics, most infamously including picketing military funerals with hateful, homophobic messages on their signs, are sufficiently well-known that I won’t detail them here. They’re nasty people, and especially nasty if you’re LGBT. They’re so nasty that even mainstream conservatives, themselves openly homophobic, disavow them.
Phelps was excommunicated from the WBC, which he founded in 1955, last year. I’ve seen it speculated that he was kicked out because he has softened his views and was calling for the church to take a “kinder approach.”
That’s not accurate. According to Nathan Phelps, Fred’s estranged, atheist son, Fred was calling for church members to be kinder to each other, after a power struggle that ousted his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper from command (I don’t know how Nathan came by this information, estranged as he is, but the church members themselves aren’t talking, so this is the best information we have.). We don’t have any reason to assume Fred isn’t still hatin’ on the gay people just as hard as he ever has.
At least two Facebook groups are preparing to celebrate Fred’s passing. I strongly condemn such actions. Death is a horrible thing, and I don’t think anyone’s death should be celebrated. For one, while it’s a cliché to say that would bring the celebrants down to the level of their antagonists, it’s also true. Yes, it’s not easy to take the high road with such an odious person. That’s why it’s called the high road. If you’re opposed to the beliefs and tactics of Westboro Baptist Church, you should actually be the better person you think you are.
For another, the death of a human being is also the death of learning. Any chance that Fred Phelps ever had to see the wrongness of his beliefs and repent will die when he does, and that is something to be regretted, not celebrated.
Phelps’s legacy is more complicated than most people realize. Yes, he’s an icon of homophobia. However, as an attorney in the 1960s, he also played a significant role in several civil rights advances. He fought against racial discrimination and sex discrimination, and in the 1980s opposed sending an ambassador to Vatican City on separation of church and state grounds. He and his law firm even won commendations and other awards for this work.
When I first learned about Fred’s past prosocial work, I wondered if he might have had a “Phineas Gage” experience. Phineas Gage, a nineteenth-century railroad worker, survived the passage of an iron rod through his brain. In popular lore, it reversed his personality, changing him from a hard-working, kind man into a shiftless, quick-tempered drunk. The truth is more nuanced than that, but similar things have happened to other people. Might Phelps have had an undetected stroke or aneurysm that caused his shift from tolerance to hate?
In interviews, Phelps has claimed there’s no dissonance between his homophobia and his support for racial and gender equality. Certainly, he wouldn’t be the first clergyman who managed to thread that needle with his theology, and in any case, Phelps’s church has stood behind him the whole way, so unless every congregant has suffered the same traumatic brain injury, we probably shouldn’t assume any such thing.
Westboro Baptist Church’s mischief continues without Fred Phelps, so when he dies, it won’t end. So that’s not another reason for anyone to cheer. There’s no reason for anyone to cheer.
At the Oscars ceremony Sunday night, host Ellen Degeneres made a few jokes at Liza Minnelli’s expense.
“I have to say one of the most amazing Liza Minnelli impersonators I have seen in my entire life,” Ellen said as she approached Minnelli’s aisle seat. “Just really, seriously, good job, sir.”
I’ve been asked if I thought this joke was transphobic. I don’t, but I’d be in good company if I did. Here, let me Google it for you:
This one’s simple. Liza Minnelli, like her mother Judy Garland, is well-loved by Friends of Dorothy, and consequently is a very popular character for drag queens and female impersonators. Here are a few examples.
If Ellen had made this joke about a transwoman trying and failing to “pass,” it would have been transphobic and unkind, no question. That’s not the case. Drag queens are performers, and they leave their female identity on the stage. They’re men. It’s okay to call them “sir.”
The humor in Ellen’s joke wasn’t drawn from the idea that “men dressed as women are funny.” It was drawn from Liza’s popularity as an impersonation for drag queens.
The joke wasn’t even on Liza, for that matter. It doesn’t imply Liza looks masculine. It’s the opposite; it suggests Ellen mistook a drag queen for the real Liza because he was so convincing. It takes nothing away from her.
Hypersensitivity isn’t good for any of us.
My next post will be about Jared Leto and his Oscar win. There will be plenty of justifiable outrage in that one.
I’ve been a runner, off and on, since the year I began college. Originally, and still mainly, I guess, it was for fitness and weight control. Those aren’t the only reasons; I’ve also experienced the “runner’s high,” and the time when I’m running is a great time for me to listen to podcasts and to think. I’ve never meditated, but I imagine running does for me what meditation does for those who do that.
I wrote “off and on.” The “off” has been for many reasons. I had a knee injury that sidelined me for a couple of years. I didn’t have a consistent schedule, or a track of a decent length, when I was in the Navy on a deployed ship. Before I owned a treadmill, it was easy to convince myself it was too cold to go out and run. That sort of thing. I could let myself fail to run, but I always felt bad about it.
February 2013 was the busy period where I worked at the time. I worked long days and frequently arrived home, exhausted, after 8 p.m. or even later. At such times it was even easier to let myself off the hook and skip the run.
Around mid-month I realized I was doing this more often than not, and I was only logging one or two runs a week and feeling rotten. I decided to do something about it: I pledged to run every single day, at least until March or April with the busy season at work wound down. This, I hoped, would take away all excuses. At the end of the day, if I hadn’t run yet, I’d better run, or risk breaking my streak.
I set some rules. I’d never run less than 20 minutes, and never slower than 12 minutes a mile. I figured this would give me plenty of leeway if I had to run while sick or injured.
It didn’t matter if I ran after midnight, as long as I hadn’t been to bed yet. Yes, this meant I sometimes went more than 24 hours without running, but also sometimes I ran late at night and then early the next morning, so I figured it all averaged out in the end. I could’ve gone mad worrying over trivial details like that, so I didn’t.
I also resolved to report each day’s run to Facebook and Twitter (#RunningEveryDay), so my friends and followers could get used to it and grow to expect it. Knowing they were expecting this would help hold my feet to the fire. Er, to the treadmill.
Day 1 I ran for over an hour, and felt pretty good about it. But one day of running is a singular accomplishment; it’s not a trend. If I’m brutally honest, I didn’t have much confidence in myself. I’d made pledges like this in the past and never kept them.
On Day 10 I broke double digits, and for the first time began to let myself think I might be on to something.
By Day 100 I was mainly just worrying that I’d twist an ankle badly or have some other injury that forced me to miss a day. I started taking elevators more often and being much more careful when climbing down stairs in high heels.
Sunday, February 16, 2014, was Day 365. It occurred to me only then that my anniversary wouldn’t actually be until the next day, Day 366, but whatevs. I ran that day too. I’ve kept running. I’m into the 370s now, and I don’t plan to stop. The streak is real. The streak abides. I run every day.
I ran the day work became a long, dreary slog and I didn’t get home until midnight.
I ran on March 5, the day my dear cat Jack died after a long battle with cancer. I ran on November 14, when his sister Piper died of liver failure (they were both very old).
When I had a raging flu last summer, including a fever, runny nose, and whole-body aches, I took some DayQuil, stumbled through my minimum run, then collapsed back into bed, once each day, until it had passed.
Four days in Las Vegas last July? The casino’s treadmill. Four days at Dragon Con last August? The hotel’s track. The need led me to the means.
I made many fewer “minimum” runs than I’d expected. As little as I wanted to run much of the time, I discovered that once I was on the belt and my heart rate was ramping up, I often wanted to keep going once I’d hit the minimum distance. I logged over two hundred hours through the year, and well over a thousand miles.
I’m fitter and slimmer since I began this, but the greatest dividend has been psychological. Before the success of Running Every Day, I’d have told you I wasn’t capable of this sort of dedication. Now that I know differently, I’m wondering what else I’m capable of.
Running every day is not for everyone, and of course anyone starting a new exercise regime should always consult with a doctor first if they aren’t sure they’re up for it. But this is working very well for me.