Archive for the ‘closet’ Category

Autobiography: Hallowe’en 2006: Epilogue.

Friday, December 18th, 2015

(Read the first two parts of this excerpt here and here.)

To say I was dismayed would be like saying Louis XVI owned a supply of wig powder. I’d been working at the Capitol for over a year, and it had never crossed my mind that any of my bosses might have a problem with my transition. It was a government workplace, I reasoned, and I had always believed governments in the United States didn’t discriminate against their employees in that way. That belief had been a big part of the reason why I left the corporate world, with its unpredictable caprices, for the Office of Legislative Counsel. It’s the trade I thought I was making, in exchange for the much higher salary I’d been making in the IT industry.

In hindsight, I know that sounds naïve. I didn’t predict how conservative and xenophobic Sewell Brumby could be, or that the lack of written and agreed-to office procedures meant he could be an autocrat with great leeway to run his fiefdom however he saw fit.

But hold the phone: Sewell and I were living in different realities. On that day I was a transitioning gender-dysphoric person expressing her true self on the job for the first time. But as far as Sewell Brumby could see—as far as anyone had told him—I was simply one of his male employees who had costumed as a woman as a lark for Hallowe’en.

He was definitely, if unfortunately, within his bounds to send me home for that reason if he didn’t like it. But maybe, I later reasoned, he would have had a different reaction if he had fully understood the situation.

I clung to that possibility for most of the next year.

In the fullness of time, after Sewell fired me and I initiated my lawsuit, I didn’t think the “Hallowe’en 2006 Incident” counted for much. Since he hadn’t known I was transgender at the time, and didn’t fire me then, I thought his sending me home for wearing a costume he didn’t like wasn’t relevant to my case. I almost didn’t even mention it when my Lambda Legal attorneys interviewed me during their fact-finding phase.

The incident was, in fact, of critical importance to the case.

It made all the difference that other people also came to the office in costume that day. Sewell may have seen Barbara in her witch costume, but he definitely saw Eugie in her phouka drag—and he did not send either of them home or tell either of them to remove their costumes. This showed that it was not the wearing of a costume itself that he objected to, but the specific nature of my costume. As Sewell put it three years later when my Lambda Legal attorneys deposed him:

“When I looked at Mr. Morrison, I did not see what to me was a Halloween costume. I saw what to me appeared to be a man who had cross-dressed with some degree of apparent practice and expertise in doing so.”

I saw what to me appeared to be a man who had cross-dressed with some degree of apparent practice and expertise in doing so.

Sewell Brumby was unable to explain why my “apparent practice and expertise” was a problem, so my attorneys explained it to the courts on his behalf, and over his protests: he was creeped out and disgusted by gender nonconforming behavior.

Throughout the lawsuit, Brumby and his attorneys had maintained that he had no problem with gender nonconformity; that it was my transition itself, and the disruption to his workplace that he believed it would cause, that forced him to fire me. But the Hallowe’en affair, which happened before he even knew I was transgender, indisputably put the lie to that claim, and both of the federal courts that ruled on our case got this.

Anyway, on that day he told me to go home, so I went home, shocked and a little heartbroken. And fearful. Sewell hadn’t said, “Go home, change your clothes, and return to work.” All he’d said was, “Go home.” I wasn’t sure if I had just been fired or not.

I decided to act as if I hadn’t been fired. This meant I should return to work, even though it was the last thing I wanted to do. Although there were still some doughnuts left. When I got home I changed back into boy mode and then drove back to the Capitol, arriving around noon. I considered going to Sewell’s office and confronting him, but I’ve never been good at confrontations. I avoid them when I can.

Besides, he’d obviously been seethingly angry when he sent me home. I didn’t want to poke a hornet’s nest; I thought it wise to avoid him until he’d cooled down a little. I went directly back to the editors’ office instead, using the mezzanine stairs. Odds were low that I would encounter Sewell again before the end of the day.

I didn’t see him again that day. A few coworkers asked me why I’d changed out of “costume”; I told them candidly it was because Sewell had told me to. They all looked disappointed; especially the ones who’d heard what I was wearing but hadn’t had a chance to see it yet.

They were puzzled, too. They didn’t understand Sewell’s reaction any better than I did. This reinforced the opinion I’ve always held, and which turned out to be true: Sewell Brumby was the only person working in that office who would ever have a problem working with a transgender person.


Links to other excerpts in this series are gathered together on this page.

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Autobiography: In Therapy, Part II.

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

That first session wasn’t actually the commencement of our “talk therapy;” I spent the whole first hour with Ms. Smith (still not her real name) filling out forms and discussing treatment goals and taking care of other such administrative matters. It wasn’t until the second session on the 26th, also a Wednesday, that we got down to business.

I drove down to her office after work, as before. I was excited. I’d been taking steps toward transitioning for several months, as I mentioned last time; these steps had consisted mainly of superficial things like learning about makeup and women’s clothes, although I was also enduring my excruciating first sessions of permanent hair removal via electrolysis.

That’s as much as I felt I could do on my own, but I was impatient. I wanted to receive an official, medical diagnosis, in accordance with the Standards of Care (SOC), so I could begin taking official, medical hormones. Ms. Smith could do this for me, just as she had done, she’d reassured me during our first session, for many other patients.

In her office for that second session, I eased down into the chair opposite her desk and shifted my weight around, finding the most comfortable pose. This was a historic occasion; I wanted to be as completely at ease as possible when I began sharing these thoughts I’d never spoken aloud before.

Ms. Smith sat at her desk chair and picked up a notepad and pen. I nodded in recognition informed by 142 reruns of The Bob Newhart Show. Yes, psychotherapists use notepads and pens. This seemed legit.

Source: blog.transgenderzone.com

Source: blog.transgenderzone.com

She wrote something at the top of her pad, probably my name and the date, then drew a horizontal line straight across. Then she spoke.

“So tell me,” she said, “When was the first time you remember feeling a sexual attraction to another man?”

If I were a filmmaker, and indulged in clichés, here’s where I’d add the sound effect of a needle being dragged across a vinyl record. My jaw fell open.

“Uh …” I said. My eloquence failed me. I was astounded. If I’d made a list of twenty questions I thought were likely to be the first thing my gender therapist asked me, this would not have been one of them. The question practically dripped with ignorance.

If I’d made a list of twenty questions I thought were likely to be the first thing my gender therapist asked me, this would not have been one of them. The question practically dripped with ignorance.

Nothing else she could have said would have filled me with more dismay. I’d embarked on this relationship confident I was putting my fate in the hands of an experienced professional, and with her very first question I realized she didn’t know shit about gender dysphoria or transgender people.

“I, uh …” I continued. Seriously? I thought. She’s really asking me this question?

Maybe some of my cisgender readers don’t understand what the problem was. Probably not many of you, if you’ve been reading this blog for long, but I’ll explain. “Gender dysphoria” describes an individual whose gender does not match the sex he or she was assigned at birth. “Sexual orientation” refers to whether a person is gay or straight or something else. Put simply and universally, “gender identity” is who you want to be, while sexual orientation is who you want to be with.

So a person assigned male at birth, but who is transgender, may be attracted to men, like heterosexual women, or may be attracted to other women, like lesbians. I don’t know the percentages, but they’re not important. What’s important is that sexual orientation and gender identity don’t track with each other; one doesn’t predict the other. That’s a Transgender 101 fact.

Ms. Smith’s question revealed not only that she was unaware of this, but moreover, she took it for granted that, as a person raised male who was seeking treatment for gender dysphoria, I must naturally be sexually oriented toward men. And that this “fact” was somehow so basic to my nature and so necessary to a diagnosis of my condition that it was the very first thing she asked me about.

“Never,” I finally answered. “I’ve never felt sexual attraction toward men. Why would you ask that? That doesn’t have anything to do with my gender identity.”

Now it was her turn to look shocked. “Uh …” she said.

Inside my head, I was spiraling into dismay. Since the epiphany I’d experienced the previous summer, transitioning was all I could think about. I was impatient to begin the medically sanctioned component of my transition. I wanted it done yesterday. But the SOC was both gatekeeper and keymaster—without an official diagnosis, there would be no Dana (or Vandy Beth), only Zuul. It was almost February now; if I left this “professional” and sought out another therapist, it could delay me another month or more getting the help I needed.

Gratuitous Ghostbusters references are always in order. Source: tashasthinkings.blogspot.com

Gratuitous Ghostbusters references are always in order.
Source: tashasthinkings.blogspot.com

“I thought you said you’d treated this kind of condition before.”

She nodded vigorously. Her tone of voice was defensive. “I have, yes! And, I—you mean to say you’ve never been attracted to another man?”

Oh, brother, I thought. This is going to be a bumpy ride.

I decided to keep seeing her rather than start the process over again, but we didn’t have the therapeutic relationship I had expected. I spent most of our sessions explaining the transgender experience to her instead of the other way around. In addition to the gender identity/sexual orientation blind spot, she admitted she’d never even heard of the SOC. I ended up printing out a .pdf of the latest version I’d found online and giving her a copy.

Of course I was irritated. I understand the need for “gatekeepers;” a gender transition wreaks great changes in a person’s life, and while it’s uncommon for a person to misdiagnose him- or herself, it does happen. It’s valuable to have an infrastructure in place like the SOC.

But that’s just it: the procedure is badly flawed, if therapists who don’t really know what they’re doing, like Ms. Smith obviously didn’t, can advertise that she has expertise in these matters. It can ruin lives.

Still, I got what I needed from her. About a month and a half after our first session, after four or five sessions total, she wrote what’s called a “referral letter.” This was a letter addressed to my primary care physician, printed on her letterhead stationery, confirming my self-diagnosis of “gender identity disorder” (which, again, is what it was called at the time).

We finished that session, and I was done with her. I would resume psychotherapy some time in the future, but never again with Ms. Smith. I would only see her one more time, and that wasn’t for psychological reasons.

Links to other excerpts in this series are gathered together on this page.


If you’d like to support my writing efforts, please consider making a monetary contribution, either at:

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or PayPal:


 

Thank you!

 

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


Autobiography: 20th Century Man, Part Two.

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

Here’s Part Two of this excerpt from my in-progress autobiography. Part One is here. If you’d like to help me crowd-fund this project, please click the “Donate” button at the bottom of this post, or visit my Patreon page. Thank you!

I got up and left, Beth following behind. I moved briskly, despite my mood. I was glad it was lunchtime and most people were out; I didn’t want to encounter anyone on my way back to the editors’ office. I liked my coworkers, every one of them, and seeing them would have punctuated what I had just lost, and cost me the composure I was barely hanging on to. Now that the worst-case scenario had come to pass, I wanted to escape the Capitol as soon as possible and go commiserate with my cats or a bottle or both.

At the landing halfway up the stairs, while briefly out of Beth’s sight, I stuck my left hand into my trouser pocket for a moment, then quickly withdrew it.

I shouldn’t have been shocked by what had just happened. All the evidence, beginning with the incident on Hallowe’en the previous year, had pointed to this action as inevitable. I’d had no reason to believe Brumby would act according to compassion or empathy. Or, if he’d fired me because he thought it would please his “bosses,” as he called them, the conservative Republicans who ran the General Assembly, I’d wrongly credited him with a courage and loyalty to his subordinates that he obviously lacked.

Either way, in firing me, he’d revealed himself to be small-minded and mean, entirely deserving of a name like a villain in a Charles Dickens novel.

"I don't believe this guy." SOURCE: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Dickens

“I don’t believe this guy.”
SOURCE: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Dickens

Back in the editors’ office, I sat down at my (now former) desk to pack. I took a breath and willed myself not to rush. I’d been caught off-guard, but I was going to do this right and protect myself as well as I could. While I doubted I could find an attorney willing to take a case like this in deep-red, “right-to-work” Georgia, I was going to do everything I could to preserve as much of a chance for myself as possible.

I opened Outlook and forwarded to my personal email account any and all messages I thought might conceivably relate to my job, my work performance, my relationships with my colleagues, or my gender identity. Then I trashed my email file and browser history and cleared my browser cookies. I didn’t think there was anything questionable among those items, but I didn’t want to have to worry whether there was. Not that it would have occurred to anyone to tell the IT department to examine the machine; I have no doubt the Acer desktop was reformatted and issued to someone else by the end of the week.

Beth stood next to my desk, arms crossed, a look of deep unease on her face. Larry and Eugie were looking at us querulously from their desks.

“Tell them what just happened,” I told Beth. Her lips parted, but she didn’t say anything. In that moment I realized Sewell must have admonished her to be reticent. It was my first hint he was in any way concerned that firing a transgender employee could come back to haunt him.

“They deserve to know,” I persisted. Put on the spot, Beth finally spilled it.

“Sewell has just fired Glenn.” She stopped abruptly, like she knew that wasn’t a complete answer, but was afraid to continue it.

“Tell them why,” I prodded. She hesitated again.

“For … the obvious reason.” Eugie bit her lip and looked shocked. Larry didn’t show any emotion. He wasn’t surprised.

Done flushing my electronic files, I shut down my computer and looked around my desk. I’ve always been too much of a pack rat, but I was still surprised at all the things I’d accumulated in just two years. Pens, pencils, cartoons tacked to the wall, a page-a-day calendar, a few books, paperweights… In the drawers were employment-related documents: tax forms, direct deposit paperwork; plus a few blocks of ramen and cans of fruit. “I’m going to need a box,” I said. An empty printer-paper carton appeared from somewhere. Larry produced a second and placed it on top of my inbox.

It took me at least ten minutes to empty my drawers and stuff everything into the boxes. I was systematic and thorough. I wanted to be gone, but I wasn’t going to leave anything behind; again, if I hoped to ever win justice for this outrage, the more material I retained in my possession, the better. I couldn’t see any reason to hurry.

Clearly growing impatient, Beth tried to hurry me along. “I think Sewell wants you out of here as soon as possible,” she said urgently.

Despite myself, I nearly burst into laughter. Why would she think I cared what Sewell wanted? He wasn’t my employer anymore; was he going to call the Capitol Police to drag me away? But I didn’t say anything.

The founder of Georgia does not approve. SOURCE: georgiainfo.galileo.usg.edu/statues_monuments

The founder of Georgia does not approve.
SOURCE: georgiainfo.galileo.usg.edu/statues_monuments

Once I had all my belongings boxed up, the four of us left the office via the mezzanine door. I carried my jacket and my messenger bag; Larry and Eugie each had one of my boxes. We went halfway down the divided main steps to the bust of James Oglethorpe, then down the rest of the way to the basement. I looked morosely at Oglethorpe, and at the other familiar monuments and embellishments. I saw everything with the certainty that it was for the last time. No matter what happens now, I remember thinking, Even if I can sue, even if I win—I’ll never work here ever again. It was the saddest thought I’d had all day.

We went out the doors and across Capitol Avenue to the employee parking deck and my truck. I put my things in the front passenger seat, handed my badge and key to Beth, and shook her hand. “It was great working with you,” I told her. I meant it.

“Good luck,” she replied. “I’ll give you a minute to say goodbye to Eugie.”

I shook Larry’s hand. Eugie and I hugged. She smiled at me sadly. I think I wanted to say something to her, but I don’t remember what. It didn’t matter anyway; Eugie and I were friends before we were also coworkers, and that was never going to change.

I got in my truck and drove out of the deck.

A mile away I pulled into a space at the Grant Park CVS Pharmacy and parked. I got out my phone and called Lorraine at Lambda Legal. I’d spoken to her a couple of times before. She was one of the legal assistants, and she’d given me general advice about how to protect myself, but couldn’t do more until I’d actually been fired. Part of her job was to be a gatekeeper for Lambda Legal’s attorneys; they were overworked and didn’t have time to discuss hypotheticals. If and when I got fired, then they’d have something to respond to.

Lorraine answered.

“It’s happened,” I said. “My boss just fired me for being transgender.” I transferred my phone to my right hand and dug into my trouser pocket with my left.

“It’s happened,” I said. “My boss just fired me for being transgender.”

I heard her reach for a notepad. “Are you sure that was the reason? Did he put it like that?” Work like Lambda Legal’s requires rigorous attention to detail.

“That’s definitely the reason,” I answered, “but those weren’t the exact words he used…”

“We need to know his exact words,” she said.

“No problem,” I replied as I pulled the tiny electronic device out of my pocket and unplugged the wire of the lavaliere mike tucked inside the cuff of my left sleeve. “I recorded the whole conversation.”

Posts in my ongoing Autobiography Project:
Rock In the Stream.
Paradise Glossed.
Paradise Glossed, Part 2.
2003.
20th Century Man, Part One.
Perspective.

If you’d like to support my writing efforts, please consider making a monetary contribution:


Thank you!


Autobiography: 2003.

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015






Regrets I’ve had a few
But then again too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption
—from the song “My Way,” made most famous by Frank Sinatra

Got something in your eye, Frank?

Got something in your eye, Frank?

Ol’ Blue Eyes lived such an enviable life—wealth, fame, a successful career, parenthood, success in romance—it’s hard to imagine he had any regrets. It might be fun to speculate what they may have been. And we can only speculate, of course, since he doesn’t mention them.

I have a closet full of regrets. It’s the same closet I came out of, but unlike the truth of my gender identity, my regrets aren’t secret and hidden behind a closed door; they mewl and grumble, wafting through the house like the smell of a cracked sewer main.

At the beginning of 2002, I was working in IT support at a company I won’t name, but it’s an international beverage manufacturer based in Atlanta. I was a software and hardware technician, helping employees solve problems with their computers; I talked them through error messages, got their files to print, showed them how to recover unsaved documents (or held their hands if the documents were gone forever), reconnected them to the network, and fixed broken parts (most often cracked laptop displays; beverage salespeople have tempers). My logical mind helped me figure out what was going on. My calming demeanor helped bring my clients back from the brink of losing their shit. I was good at this work, but I wasn’t happy doing it. In fact, I was miserable every moment I was there.

Not even slightly.

Not even slightly.

This was the career I fell backwards into after the Navy instead of making use of my degree in journalism and my lifelong interest in writing. I’d let myself get sidetracked, seduced by the security the job provided. I wasn’t fulfilled, but it looked at the time like IT would always be an in-demand vocational path, and the money was really good. After just a few years, I owned a house, carried no debt, had significant savings, and I went abroad for vacations every year. I was safe and content. I hated my job, but, I told myself, aren’t you supposed to hate your job? That seems to be the theme of most of Western culture, from Bob Cratchit, to Dagwood Bumstead, to the movie Office Space. My path seemed acceptable. Even somehow pro-American.

But the path ran out of pavement, you should pardon the tweeness of the expression. First the dot-coms foundered, and then the horrible attacks on New York and Washington transpired, taking the country into a recession that hit the digital industry especially hard. It caught up with me, and I was laid off in September 2002. I’d seen it coming, but I was still pretty lost when it happened. I marched out of my office cube that day carrying a great heaviness on my shoulders—emotional and psychological heaviness; not just the weight of stolen office supplies.

Once I got home, had a good cry, and bolstered my spot on the couch with cats, I did some overdue soul-searching, trying to figure out what was important to me. No, I didn’t consider transitioning. I still held up the bargain I had made with myself years ago in Honolulu, and the gender tinnitus continued to ring only faintly inside my brain. This crisis was about what I wanted to do, and I thought I found some clarity that afternoon.

Julius Dithers: Lumberg before Lumberg.

Julius Dithers: Lumberg before Lumberg.

In the past year I’d been trying to scratch the itch my job didn’t reach. I’d been helping my monthly neighborhood paper with its copy editing and proofreading, and I had written, produced, and performed two puppet shows (the second one paid and professional) at the Center for Puppetry Arts. These avocations were really satisfying, and they well received by publishers and patrons, respectively. So when the beverage company that sells products all over the world and has the most recognizable corporate logo in history, which I won’t name, cut me loose, it didn’t seem unlikely that I could turn these into a paying occupation. I resolved never again to work in computer support. My next job would use my real talents: writing and editing. I would do what made me happy.

Easier said than done. I thought my writing talent and my background in IT would make me a shoo-in for a technical writing job. Nope. Technical writers are the canaries in the coal mine of IT. When the job market spoils, they’re the first milk to curdle. A company with three programmers and two technical writers lays off both technical writers and one of the programmers, counting on the remaining programmers to write their own documentation.

That’s what I faced in my job search. Tech writing wasn’t the only work in the field I tried to find. Nobody was hiring copy editors and my published writing wasn’t the sort anyone would pay me to do. Moreover, it was hard to be creative while burdened by my fears for the future. I submitted an idea for another puppet show during this time, but it was rejected. It wasn’t very good.

By early spring I was getting desperate. My unemployment ran out, and it hadn’t covered my bills anyway. I was draining my savings and running up my plastic. So when my friend, Bean, who built decks for a living, invited me to help him out, I took him up on it. I knew it would be temporary, and the money wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad either. And I’d always had a hobbyist-level interest in woodworking and other construction projects. I’d designed and made furniture, refinished walls, put a floor in my attic, and tiled surfaces. I knew how to do this. I figured it would be fun.

It was fun! At first I was just an extra pair of hands, holding up the other ends of boards so Bean didn’t have to reenact vaudeville sight gags to get them from his truck to the jobsite. But I soon learned what I was doing, and within days I was measuring, cutting, leveling, bolting, and wielding a nail gun with alacrity. I was able to work unsupervised at most tasks that didn’t require both of us.

It was exhilarating. I created new locations where before there had been void. Bear with me here; this will seem like a bit of a stretch, and maybe it is, but it was real enough for me: building decks made me feel like an astronaut colonizing space.

We added on to the back walls of houses, often working dozens of feet up from the ground. Once the ledger board had been anchored to the structure and the joists and band were in place, it was easy to forget the ground was below. Then I’d perch carefully on a joist while I nailed on the floorboards, as if assembling a space station module on an EVA from a spacecraft. I was no longer on the surface of the Earth. I was defying gravity; creating a new world. Houston, we have a platform! For a lifelong nerd like me, it was living a childhood daydream.

I did this work for most of the summer, and had a great time. My financial situation improved slightly. I lost weight. I got as much of a tan as my pasty Caucasian-ness would allow (mostly I freckled). My muscles toned up, and they even began to show a little definition.

You might think this last effect would have cranked the volume of my gender tinnitus to panic levels. Surprisingly, it had an opposite effect. Slinging 2 x 8s and 4 x 4s around every day pumped my pecs as never before. My usual work outfit was a tank top with denim overalls; when I flexed just right, I could see cleavage. My pubescent daydream joined my childhood daydream: I could imagine I had breasts. In one of the most male-gendered professions, I found a way to experience my femaleness.

I was impressed by the sheer variety of shapes and configurations possible with decks, balconies, and other backyard features. We built a multilevel porch that flowed down a hilly Atlanta backyard to the creek at the property line. We extended an existing deck, lacing new floorboards in with old to preserve necessary strength. We wrapped a new deck around the rim of a woman’s existing swimming pool and koi pond, matching their curves in a sleek, sinuous way I’d never imagined you could do with wooden planks. And the techniques of the trade were fascinating. The way wood and nails come together to make a walkable surface isn’t always intuitive, but it always works. High school algebra and geometry in action. I learned more on that job than during entire terms during college.

I had an unexpectedly sad moment one day. A customer decided she wanted more shade over her deck, so Bean and I came out to add a partial roof to it. We found a wasp nest attached to one of the posts, and obviously we didn’t want to get stung. So we destroyed it; we sprayed it with bug killer, then knocked it off the post into a bucket filled with water. Once it was gone, we started work.

Hours later, a wasp flew into the yard. It had apparently been foraging; it carried some small green berry in its mouthparts. It went right for that post, then flew around the yard—searching? grieving?—when it couldn’t find its home. I know it was just an insect, but it still broke my heart. It was a fellow astronaut, hanging in the abyss, and its spacecraft had been destroyed.

I knew I would eventually have to return to Earth myself. I hadn’t stopped looking for more fitting employment. I sent out resumes, trawled monster.com, joined professional organizations, and attended networking events. No one was hiring entry-level technical writers.

At a party in August 2003, I bumped into my friend Bob. I hadn’t seen him in a while. When I told him I was looking for work, he said there was an opening at his company. I expressed interest, and he told me where to apply.

I got the job; it was at a large medical technology and software company. I was a software and hardware technician, helping employees solve problems with their computers; I talked them through error messages, got their files to print, showed them how to recover unsaved documents (or held their hands if the documents were gone forever), reconnected them to the network, and fixed broken parts (most often cracked laptop displays; medical technology and software salespeople have tempers).

I should have kept looking.

Posts in the ongoing Autobiography Project:
Rock In the Stream.
Paradise Glossed, Part 2.
Paradise Glossed.
Untitled First Blog Post.

If you’d like to support my writing efforts, please consider making a monetary contribution:


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


Transparent.

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

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.

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“Out” Is Activism.

Monday, October 6th, 2014

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

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