Transparent.

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.Transparentposter

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.

Not a Chinese actor.

Not a Chinese actor.

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.

watermelonman

Not a Caucasian actor.

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?

Not an actor.

Not an 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.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

“Out” Is Activism.

Panorama

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. 

 

“Out” Is Activism

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.

I was hunched forward because I was protecting my printed speech from being blown away by the wind.

I was hunched forward because I was protecting my printed speech from being blown away by the wind.

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.

Doors about Atlanta Pride and kicking the 1996 Olympics out of Cobb County.

Doors about Atlanta Pride and kicking the 1996 Olympics out of Cobb County.

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.

The Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis.

The Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis.

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.

Doors about ACT UP, the Gay Liberation Front, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, and the Stonewall Inn Riots.

Doors about ACT UP, the Gay Liberation Front, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, and the Stonewall Inn Riots.

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.

Doors about Safe Space Initiative and GLBTIQ Student Organizing at KSU.

Doors about Safe Space Initiative and GLBTIQ Student Organizing at KSU.

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.

Doors In A Corner

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Dye My Eyes And Call Me Pretty.

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.

America’s Got Transphobia

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:

  • Transgender women are “really” men.
  • Transgender women go stealth in order to “trick” or “surprise” the men they become intimate with.
  • Straight men don’t date transgender women.
  • A man who admits to having a an experience such as this should be mocked for maybe being gay.

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.

Freedom of Speech in the United States

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!

On Shaming

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.

Bad Parenting

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:

Parent-mailer-on-Kyle-front

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:

PalinParent

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

    you

are. Don’t tell me about the jerks who like your opponent.

A Wasted Life

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.

Ellen, Liza, and Jokes.

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:

Search term “ellen liza”

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.

Running Every Day

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.

The First Martians

A private venture called Mars One is selecting candidates to be the first colonists on Mars in an expedition planned to land in 2025. I don’t know how well-funded or likely this venture is; you can go to their website and draw your own conclusions. For now I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt (and optimism) and assume they’re going to make it.

Since the colonists never plan to return to Earth, it’s being described in the press as a “suicide mission,” which I think is a shortsighted way to think of it. They’ll be going to Mars for the adventure, for the experience, and (I’m guessing) for the page in the history books each of them is likely to have one day. It’s incidental that they’ll also die there, although Mars will certainly be a dangerous environment. They’ll die someday wherever they are. I doubt any Englishmen ever said to the departing Jamestown colonists, “Hey, man, sorry you’ve decided to commit suicide by Virginia.”

The first group of 1,000 colony candidates has been selected, and I was telling my partner about the announcement a few days ago.

“One of the potential colonists is a transgender woman.”

“…Is it you?”

No, it’s not. I wouldn’t have thought I’d be qualified, for starters. When I heard about the call for applicants I assumed they’d want engineers, geologists, astronomers—people with scientific or technical backgrounds. But no, this first transgender candidate is a British cab driver named Melissa Ede. I wish her well, if she really wants to go and this isn’t a publicity stunt. A few years ago Ms. Ede set up a website to auction off her virginity.

I know why my partner thought she should ask, though. I’ve been in love with the planet Mars ever since I was a kid and read Edgar Rice Burroughs’s (completely nonfactual) John Carter novels. I’ve devoured every book that has anything to do with the Red Planet. One of my favorite science fiction trilogies is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars). I’ve been to two of the Mars Society conferences. I see every movie set on Mars, although this is usually an exercise in frustration, since most of these are failures both scientifically and artistically.

Mars is the next logical home for humanity. It’s a good idea to colonize the planet for all sorts of reasons. Science is a great one; a single geologist in a spacesuit with a rock hammer can accomplish more in a day on Mars than the best rover can in a year. Mars holds mysteries, and we need to go there to solve them.

Culture is another good reason. Humans are natural explorers, and we need frontiers. The frontier opened when we first ventured out from sub-Saharan Africa into parts unknown. It’s debatable when it finally closed, but it was definitely so by the time when we could examine any square meter of our planet we wanted using Google Earth.

Frontiers are bridges, not walls, between societies. If there were a separate branch of humanity on Mars, it would enrich the cultures of both planets. The first colonists to Mars will bring cameras and microphones with them, and everything they see and here can be sent back to Earth. Television, books, movies…every aspect of our culture will have a whole new set of experiences to draw on.

And so on. That link above outlines many more reasons why it’ll be good to settle Mars; I won’t restate them all here, but I’ll argue vehemently with anyone who disagrees. People should be on Mars, and I’d love to be one of them one day.

But I don’t want to be one of the first people. Despite what I said in paragraph two up above, life on Mars for the first colonists will hold many more dangers than I’m willing to expose myself to, and mortality will be high. The learning curve will be steep. In the lower gravity (38% of the surface of the Earth), colonists will be likely to stumble and trip a lot while they adapt to it, and it’s a long way down to the bottom of Valles Marineris. Space suits and equipment will be prototypes, and they may be less durable than their designers had hoped. The colonists will need to grow their own food, and it’s still an open question if plants can grow in the Martian dirt, or if they can, if the crops thus grown would be nutritious.

Other dangers abound. The air isn’t breathable, so oxygen will have to be pulled out of the atmosphere and rocks; the machines that do that could break down. Background radiation is much higher, since Mars doesn’t have a magnetic field, so Mars One’s people will be vulnerable to cosmic rays and solar flares, which will increase cancer rates.

Ms. Ede will have an additional problem. She has stated that she won’t be able to take a lifetime supply of estrogen along for her hormone replacement therapy. Sex hormones are important in the body; even post-menopausal cisgender women’s bodies produce some estrogen, and it helps keep the heart and skin healthy and the bones dense. Since bone density is likely to be a problem for everyone on Mars due to the lower gravity, it’s going to be even more so for Ms. Ede if she doesn’t keep taking estrogen. A broken leg will be a very serious condition in an extreme frontier environment.

I want to live a long time, even more than I want to see Mars firsthand. Joining the first group of colonists would certainly shorten my life, by years or decades, and I’m not willing to do that, not in exchange for anything.

Besides the physical dangers, there’s another major downside to forsaking Earth for its neighbor. While the first Martians will have frequent, maybe even constant contact with everyone they left behind, live communication will no longer be possible. The shortest distance between the two planets is three light-minutes, so if you placed a transplanetary phone call, there’d be a six-minute gap between saying “hello” and hearing a reply. The greatest distance is over twenty light-minutes, in which case a pair of greetings would take the better part of an hour. That wouldn’t work. You could still send texts and email and every other form of non-real-time communication, but the immediacy and intimacy of live conversation would be forever out of reach. That’s another bar I find too hard to clear. Permanently giving up physical contact with the one you love is one thing, and it’s pretty bad, but losing all forms of closeness, including this one, is more than I’m ready for.

Should humans settle Mars? Would you go? Tell me what you think!

D’oh! Dose

At my last endocrinologist appointment, he and I decided my best dose of estrogen would be three pills one day and two pills the next day, alternating.

Next time I requested a refill from the VA pharmacy, I received in the mail a bottle with these directions printed on the bottle:

Take one tablet by mouth twice a day for one day, and take one tablet three times a day for one day.

The bottle contained five tablets.

Flawed Reporting

Katie Couric’s interview with transgender model Carmen Carrera and transgender actress Laverne Cox has been getting shared hither and yon all over the series of tubes lately. I wasn’t going to say anything about it, but today three things came together and happened and I realized I need to weigh in about them.

1. Katie Couric is a twit. Yes, everyone is saying that now, because of her sensationalist, insensitive treatment of Carrera and Cox, and that’s good. But I don’t want anyone to forget that she has always been a twit, a bad journalist, and not a terribly good person. One thing I will never forget is her reportage of the death of Richard Jewell in September of 2007, when she anchored CBS’s evening news. Here are her exact words (which I found online at multiple sources):

Back in 1996, the FBI investigated Richard Jewell, an Atlanta security guard, in connection with the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta. Richard Jewell died today of complications from diabetes. He was 44. Jewell was never charged with any crime.

If you’d never heard of Richard Jewell, you’d listen to that and think he was somehow involved in the Olympic Park bombing, and not the hero security guard who found the bomb before it went off, shooed people away from its proximity, and then alerted the authorities.

Yes, he was briefly suspected of involvement in the bombing. He was investigated, treated very badly by the press, and then completely exonerated. Religious nut Eric Rudolph was later caught and convicted of the Olympic Park bombing and several other bombings in the Southeast (a couple of lesbian bars and an abortion clinic were among Rudolph’s other targets). This rather important fact was left out of Couric’s obituary of Jewell. Because she’s horrible, and could not leave poor Mr. Jewell alone even after his untimely death.

2. The second thing is, the version of this story that’s getting shared the most is from Autostraddle (the one linked above), which it seems is one of those clickbait and listicle websites everybody likes to share from nowadays. This is the headline:

Flawless Trans Women Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox Respond Flawlessly To Katie Couric’s Invasive Questions

“Flawless” is a term used in the drag community. It’s used to describe drag queens (or drag kings, I guess) who “pass” undetectably as cisgender women. It’s not a polite term to use for transpeople, since it implies that transwomen who “pass” have some sort of legitimacy not achieved by transwomen who don’t. This certainly isn’t the case. Not every transwoman cares how well she passes. The ones who do try as hard as they can, and it’s a gratuitous and mean-spirited insult to suggest they’re in any way “flawed.”

The writer of that Autostraddle story is a transwoman herself. I asked her on Twitter (@lunchinthepark) if she also wrote her own headline (they’re usually written by editors). She hasn’t confirmed that she did, but she hasn’t denied it either. I’ll be disappointed if I learn she did; she should know better.

3. A friend of a friend, a cisgender woman commenting about this story, expressed amazement that Carrera and Cox are much prettier than she is. This observation carries with it the presumption that transwomen by default are expected to be hideous, I’m guessing. God forbid that we could be individuals, I suppose.

Now, folks, I know it’s still novel to see transpeople sitting down at the cultural table and taking part in society just like anyone else. I know most of you are still used to seeing us only in circus sideshows, or in Doc Robbins’s morgue on CSI, or throwing folding chairs on Maury Povich. We’re glad to cut you some slack while you get up to speed. But get a move on, would you? You’ve known since the 1970s not to say of an African-American that he is a “credit to his race.” You don’t ask Jews “do your people eat oatmeal?” You no longer speak more slowly to Asians in case they don’t understand English. You get that these people are just people, like you, and want to be treated the way you’d treat anyone else. Transpeople want that too.

You all need to start learning not to be so stupid about us. Don’t ask us what our genitals look like. Don’t be amazed when we don’t look like bell-ringing monsters. Don’t praise us just for being ordinary people.

Just do your thing, and let us do ours, okay?

Odd Bodkins

“It’s not polite to stare.” Most children are told this by their parents the first time they’re caught gawking at a person who looks different from the other people the child has seen. If they’re a different race (in a homogeneous neighborhood), wear clothing typical of a different ethnic group (lederhosen are so last year), are excessively fat or thin, or are amputees, or deviate from the norm in any visible and unusual way, children want to give them a good study with their eyes. Adults do too, for that matter, but we tend to be better about this sort of rudeness. Usually.

Standards of beauty are different all over the world, and there’s something ineffable in what each of us finds attractive, but generalizing very broadly, we all find health and symmetry beautiful. If a person is missing a limb or an eye, or has a scar or blemish, most will find that person less attractive than their identical twin who is whole and unmarked. Obviously one’s mileage may vary, but I don’t think it’s’ controversial to assert that this is generally the case. This is what we call “conventionally attractive.”

Woe betide anyone whose looks depart from that convention by more than a couple of standard deviations. Historically, such people have been hidden away or put on display. Of course I don’t mean people who were simply ugly; I mean the bearded ladies and wolf boys and living skeletons and such. They were fascinating to see, but also horrifying. The circus sideshows were often the only available employment for such people; they were labeled “freaks” and people paid money to come gawk at them. Many “circus freaks” even became wealthy off this occupation. Chang and Eng, the famous “Siamese Twins,” (who, it must be admitted, were at least symmetrical) made enough off their circus career to buy the plantation to which they retired (and became slave owners, incidentally).

Those individuals who were unwilling to trade on their looks in this manner felt obliged to wear masks or otherwise hide their differentness, like “Elephant Man” John Merrick. Or through the use of natural-looking but less useful prosthetics, like artificial legs. Double amputee athlete Aimee Mullins has artificial legs that are flesh-toned and molded to resemble biological legs, but she can’t run in them nearly as fast as she can in her metal spring-shaped “cheetah legs,” which don’t look remotely organic. It’s presumed that people who look too different from the rest of us will take steps to minimize or conceal their differentness.

I wonder if this presumption might be going away with the rise of pluralism in Western society. I’m prompted to muse about this by the late film critic Roger Ebert. I remember being really shocked and unsettled when I first saw this photo of him in an Esquire magazine profile. He lost his mandible to cancer, and efforts to rebuild it with bone grafts had failed. This was, consequently, what he looked like (maybe he died only months too soon for the invention that could have changed that). He could no longer talk or eat, but he didn’t let this stop him. He still attended film festivals and screenings and made other public appearances; if his appearance shocked people, he didn’t seem bothered by it.

Michael J. Fox, retired from acting when diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which causes him to twitch and jerk uncontrollably. He returned to television this fall in a regular sitcom. He had already done many guest roles in which his symptoms are not minimized, and his character also has Parkinson’s.

J. R. Martinez, an Iraq War veteran with a badly-scarred face, has become a successful actor and has performed on Dancing With The Stars.

I’m just thinking out loud here (and yet, for some reason, I’m putting my half-ass thoughts in a blog post for everyone to see), but I see many implications of a society where extraordinarily divergent looks are more mainstream, all of them good. Transpeople have some skin in this game; many of us have gender-nonconforming looks that often draw second glances and often, unwanted attention or abuse. If everybody’s more used to seeing people who don’t look like Joe Average or Jane Lunchpail, it’s to everyone’s benefit. Right?

The Dickens You Say

Every holiday season, beginning on or after Thanksgiving, I reread Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” It’s a newly-minted tradition, because I’d never read the book at all until about four years ago.

I was finally moved to read it by the realization that the story pervades the culture of Christmas in the United States and the United Kingdom more completely than just about any other work. There are other big ones: Dr. Seuss’s book and animated short How The Grinch Stole Christmas; the movies A Christmas Story and It’s A Wonderful Life; the Peanuts television special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”; Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”; various seasonal songs and carols; and of course Haddon Sundblom’s paintings of a red-suited Santa.

We’ve ritualized our annual consumption of all of these, and it’s common to hear people say “It doesn’t feel like Christmas season has begun until I’ve read/seen/sung ______.” Some version of “A Christmas Carol” is king of these, and it’s one of only two that has contributed a word to the language, “Scrooge” (meaning miser). I have three favorite movie adaptations of my own:

  • Scrooge (1970): The idea of a musical adaptation of Dickens is as logical as asking “please sir, may I have some more?” And “Thank You Very Much” is a beloved song from my childhood.
  • Scrooged (1988): This surreally funny version isn’t well-loved by critics, but as a person with a degree in television, I love the update, and the cynicism, which isn’t entirely deflated by the end of the story as in Dickens’s story.
  • A Christmas Carol (1951): When Dickens wrote his story, I feel certain the Ebenezer Scrooge he imagined looked and acted just like Alastair Sim. At the end of the story, when Scrooge wakes up on Christmas Day, he’s almost unhinged in his childlike, giddy joy. Alastair Sim does this part of the story better than any other actor who’s taken the role.
  • The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992): The greatest innovation of this adaptation was hiring Gonzo the Great to play Charles Dickens as an on-screen narrator. This let them include Dickens’s beautiful prose, which most other adaptations have to omit. It was listening to Gonzo’s narration year after year that finally inspired me to read the book. Kermit and Robin are perfectly cast as Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, respectively, and Michael Caine really commits to Scrooge; he plays it straight and serious, which is the only right way to work with the Muppets.

People are suckers for stories of redemption. I think that’s why “A Christmas Carol” is so popular. We want to believe bad people can be saved, and Christmas is the time we want to believe it the most.

That “A Christmas Carol” is in the public domain is another reason why we’re subjected to endless adaptations and works derived from it year after year after year. Just about every television show ever on the air has done an “A Christmas Carol” episode (well, maybe not Meet The Press), from Family Ties to Dora the Explorer to Xena: Warrior Princess. Almost all of them are wretched and unwatchable. They’re lazily written, and the shows’ existing characters have to be awkwardly mapped onto the book’s characters, usually to unsatisfying ends. It’s hard to bottle lightning.

I learn something new from the book every year. Last year I learned that “Walker!,” which was shouted by the little boy Scrooge asked to buy the giant turkey for the Cratchits’, was an exclamation in Dickens’s time that essentially meant “You’re shitting me!” Another year I discovered that Scrooge told his nephew, Fred, to go to hell when Fred invited him to Christmas dinner. But you have to read between the lines to know that’s what was said; Victorian readers probably didn’t have the stomach for such a blunt profanity.

This year I realized that reactions to Scrooge’s meanness are maybe gendered. The women in his life—Belle, Mrs. Cratchit, Fred’s wife—give up on him. Contrariwise, Marley’s ghost, Bob Cratchit, and Fred himself, seem to cling to a hope, ultimately rewarded, that the old man can be saved. I don’t know yet what, if anything, that means, but I love that I’m still discovering new things to ponder, year after year.

“A Christmas Carol” isn’t a full-length novel; it’s only 70 pages in the edition I own. I bet most people could read it in a day or two. I highly recommend it.

Transgender Day of Remembrance 2013

Today is the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). In cities across the world, people will gather to recite the names of all (known) transgender people who were murdered (for being transgender) since last November 20. In Atlanta, we’re doing it at the steps of the Capitol at 6 p.m. local time.

Something about the existence of transgender people really pushes the buttons of the ignorant and intolerant, and transphobia is the cause of a shocking number of murders each year across the world. The stories of at least two of these murders have been told on film, in A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story and Boys Don’t Cry. They’re true stories, about the brutal murders of teenager Gwen Araujo, a trans girl in California, and Brandon Teena, a transman in Nebraska. The South often gets spotlighted when the subject turns to bigoted violence, but these crimes happen all over the United States.

Folks have been remembering the victims at TDOR each year since 1999. The numbers fluctuate, but mostly go up. It’s not easy to get an accurate count, because many news outlets misgender the victims because of non-gender-conforming legal names or surgical status (or just because they’re jerks). Also, some nations get better at recording data and keeping statistics. I recall one year it looked like there was a big spike in transgender murders in Brazil, but I think it just seemed that way because record-keeping had improved since the previous year.

Nevertheless, Brazil and the rest of Latin America has been a perennial pacesetter in the field of physical violence against transgender people. I’m going to be looking at the reasons for this in the coming months.

Here’s a report on this year’s count. Those numbers come from the Trans Murder Monitoring Project. The number as of a few days ago was 238.

When I say these murders are “brutal,” here’s what I mean: in spring of this year, Cemia Acoff, a 20-year-old transwoman, was stabbed to death, then her body was tied to a cement block and thrown into a pond.

In July, a teenager in Jamaica was beaten, stabbed, shot, and run over by a car. This kid had been living on her own after her father threw her out of her home.

Early in the new year, transman rapper Evon Young was chained up, suffocated, beaten with tools, then shot three times by a gang of five boys.

It’s usually a gang, which is why so few of us are able to fight back. Also, when we fight back, we open ourselves up to a different kind of persecution. In 2011 CeCe McDonald, a black transwoman, was attacked by a transphobic racist. She fought back, killed her attacker in self-defense and was convicted of manslaughter for her trouble. She’s serving her time in a men’s prison.

All four of these people I’ve described, incidentally, are nonwhite minorities. They’re not the only victims of transphobic violence, but as in most areas of life, they get the worst of it.

We’re making progress. I try to stay optimistic. But as long as transpeople are seen as punchlines to jokes or plot devices instead of people, we’re not going to be treated with the basic level of respect every person deserves.

Let’s evolve, already. We can do it.

Veterans Day

Veterans Day was last week, and every time it comes up it reminds me of something I’ve been thinking our country could be much better at.

When I was a young naval officer stationed in San Diego for training, I visited the local Unitarian-Universalist church one Sunday and went to lunch with another group of young adults. A woman sitting across the table from me asked what I do, and I explained that I was an ensign in the U.S. Navy.

She looked at me blankly and asked, “is that like a sergeant?”

I took a deep breath, and while I don’t remember what I told her, I hope it was something along the lines that no, it’s nothing like a sergeant. An ensign is the lowest rank of commissioned officer in the Navy (and Coast Guard), which has no sergeants, and that sergeants are senior noncommissioned officers in the Army, Air Force, and Marines.

I didn’t hold her ignorance against her (even in a Navy town like San Diego). Who teaches this sort of thing? The average civilian isn’t. When I was growing up, in good public school systems in Georgia and Texas, in social studies I learned geography, history, a good bit about the judicial system, and how the government works. I think I was taught some very general things about our armed forces and how they’ve been used in the past, but that’s about it. I knew very little about our military before I entered Officer Candidate School. Americans should know more than they do.

The United States has the world’s largest defense budget. It’s bigger than the defense budgets of the next ten or so countries combined, Russia and China included. That’s about a third of the federal government’s total spending for each year.

The five armed forces (Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard) employ several million people, including officers, enlisted, and civilian workers. Many of its bases are the lifeblood of towns across the country (and even in other countries; the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, Japan and the Army base in Wiesbaden, Germany make big contributions to their local economies).

The previous decade was more or less defined by our military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military also looms large in the politics of the Cold War; nuclear weapons, after all, are military assets. Do most people know how atomic bombs would have been used? Or how they can serve a purpose, even if they’re not used? The same goes for more conventional assets as well.

Given all that, it seems perfectly reasonable that the average U.S. citizen should be taught a few basic things about the military while they’re in school. It would make them better-informed about why we devote so many lives and treasure to it, what’s really at stake when our President initiates saber-rattling or conflicts, and what life is really like for people who serve. Most people don’t know what they’re really expressing gratitude for when they say “thank you for your service.”

  • The difference between the Navy and the Coast Guard.
  • The relationship of the Marine Corps to the Navy.
  • The purpose of the National Guard and Reserves, and their relationship to the regular forces.
  • The mission of the U.S. military (It’s absolutely not, as I’ve seen it claimed, to “kill people”).
  • The difference between commissioned officers and enlisted personnel, and the names of ranks in each.
  • How assets are used (Why does the Navy have airplanes? Why does the Army have ships?).
  • Very generally, what the different services’ uniforms look like. I wouldn’t expect civilians to know a major’s gold oak leaf from a (Navy) captain’s eagle, but it doesn’t seem too much to ask that they know Army uniforms tend to be green, Air Force uniforms are dark blue, and Navy uniforms are black or white. Or that the Navy’s black uniforms are called “blue,” even though they’re indisputably black (I never understood that myself).
  • How the military budget is spent, and how the “military-industrial complex” works.

In the 1960s and 1970s, at the height of the counterculture, a suggestion like this would be met with deep suspicion that the powers that be were trying to install a militocracy. I think we’re past that now. This is just good governance.

ENDA Redux

A reporter called me over the weekend to ask me about my lawsuit, about getting fired from my job for being transgender, and about how my experience would have been different if the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) had already been law when I transitioned in my workplace. In a nutshell, of course, my answer is that I wouldn’t have been fired.

It’s a conversation I’ve had with many reporters over the years. It happened often during the lawsuit, and now it happens anew any time there’s movement on ENDA. Like now; Monday night the bill achieved cloture in the Senate, which is finally going to vote on it this week. It’s probably going to pass in that chamber, but it’s due for a chilly reception over in the House.

I’ve written about this before. I served my time in the trenches; I was right in the thick of things when a Congressional committee heard arguments on the bill in 2009. Despite a fat majority of progressive Democrats in the House of Representatives, a filibuster-proof majority of same in the Senate, and a President who’d said he would sign ENDA if it reached the Oval Office, it went nowhere. The House never voted it out of committee; the Senate never even scheduled hearings. The President could have unilaterally instituted some ENDA-like reforms in federal employment through an executive order, but he refused to (and has continued to refuse to).

Why not? I don’t know. People I know who were politically connected up the wazoo (and that is where one gets politically connected) at the time also didn’t know. There was speculation that all the political will at the time was being spent on repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, but I don’t know why that should have mattered. If you can do one thing, it doesn’t mean you can’t also do another thing.

Justice marched on without ENDA. I won my case, Glenn v. Brumby, at the federal district court level and then again on appeal at the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

My claim was based on the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and my win only applied to public employees. But in their ruling, the Eleventh Circuit judges made broad analogies between the sex-discrimination protections contained in the Constitution and those in Title VII, which protects employees in the private sector. A few months after my case was decided, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission built on (and cited) my case when it declared in Macy v. Holder that employment discrimination against trans people, whether in public or private jobs, would be treated the same as discrimination against people in any other protected category.

The teeth in this decision was illustrated earlier this year, when Cori McCreery won her lawsuit against an employer who’d discriminated against her in just the same way Sewell Brumby did against me.

All of that happened without ENDA. ENDA or not, it’s no longer legal to fire transpeople for being transpeople.

In an editorial at Huffington Post, Dana Beyer argues that this fact is being downplayed. She doesn’t speculate why. I’d guess it’s because “things are demonstrably better and headed in our direction!” is a less effective fundraising cry than “the situation is dire and we need your help!”

It may also be because these judicial wins apply explicitly to transpeople, but not explicitly to lesbians, gays, and bisexuals. That’s certainly a real concern; this is probably the first time in history that civil rights for transpeople have ever leapfrogged over civil rights for the rest of the LGBT community. But transpeople’s workplace protections are based on the dictum established in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins that people can’t be discriminated against for deviating from “stereotypes based on sex.” I’m no attorney, but I have no doubt it’s only a matter of time before some clever litigant makes the case that the presumption that men want to be with women and women want to be with men is itself a stereotype based on sex.

Furthermore, the newly established protections for transpeople apply equally well to effeminate gay men and masculine lesbians. For that matter, they apply to effeminate straight men and masculine straight women.

Complain all you want about activist courts, but they’re moving the equality ball down the field. We can’t say that about the federal legislative and executive branches. It would be good to have ENDA. As it now stands, we can win lawsuits when we’re fired. If ENDA were in force, we wouldn’t get fired in the first place, and that’s by far to everyone’s preference.

The reporter asked me if I’m going to watch the vote (on C-SPAN, I guess he meant; I don’t have cable) and celebrate if ENDA passes the Senate. No, I’m not. Good for the Senate for finally taking a stand, but it’s pointless to celebrate. Passage in half of Congress is exactly the same as passage in none of Congress.