Thursday, January 24, 2013

"civil rights issue of our time"

It was heartening to hear President Obama speak of the importance of gay rights and name check Stonewall in his Inaugural Address. This President, whose thoughts on gay issues have "evolved" in his first term, just may turn out to be exactly the champion we all hoped that he would be when we supported him in 2008. Under his leadership, the much maligned "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy has disappeared and gay marriage is now supported by the White House. Under his leadership, DOMA is under attack as more and more states accept that gay people are, first and foremost, people, and that people have basic rights. But this fight, which we are winning, is far from over, and part of the reason for that is that Mr. Obama left a significant group out of the equation.

Near the start of his first term, President Obama named Amanda Simpson, a transgender woman, a Special Assistant to the Army Acquisition Executive, U.S. Dept. of Defense. She thus became the first transgender woman ever appointed to serve at the leisure of the POTUS and thus the highest profile TG person in the land. However, TG issues are only just beginning to reach the national consciousness, thanks to other high-profile transgender people. Celebrities such as Chas Bono and Lana Wachowski and TV characters such as Unique on "Glee" make it more and more difficult to pretend that we don't exist, or that we cannot be sympathetic people. Still, the vast majority of Americans do not "get it" when it comes to TG people: they think that there is something "wrong" with us, that we are a "crime against nature," that we are "freaks" or "perverts," or that we are simply going against the will of God. Several days before the 2012 election, Vice President Joe Biden called transgender rights "the civil rights issue of our time." It is every bit of that, and it is time for President Obama to publicly engage in the battle.

In the aftermath of the inauguration, an 11-year-old TG girl named Sadie called Mr. Obama out for his omission in an essay that has gone viral. Given his nature, I am sure that he will respond to her with warm reassurances. But it will take more than reassurances from the Oval Office or an invitation for an 11-year-old girl to visit the White House to make a difference in this fight. The President needs to recognize that there is a huge problem that he needs to address with serious action. While 29 states have laws protecting gays, lesbians and transgender people from discrimination, the other 21 do not. It is time for a full-blown push from the White House to pass a trans-inclusive ENDA once and for all. It's the only way that the entire GLBT community can be protected from discrimination.

Of course, official discrimination is only one part of this battle. I am quite aware of that. When I transitioned in 1998, at the age of forty, I became the first public school teacher in America to transition on the job. I was a curiosity, a news story, a source of amusement for the radio talk shows here in Chicago. Jerry Springer and the other TV shows wanted me to come on, but I refused. I even refused Oprah, as I refused the Chicago Tribune's request to do a several page photo spread interview with me in its Sunday magazine (an interview it did a few years later with University of Illinois economics professor Deirdre McCloskey when she transitioned). My reason for refusing all of this was very simple: I had three young children, and I was terrified of reprisals affecting them. No one had any current photos of me; no one knew what I looked like. If I allowed myself to be filmed or photographed, not only could my own safety be compromised, but my children's could as well. It was the nature of the beast. I knew too many TG women who had been attacked, too many who had been beaten or raped. The horrifying possibility hung over all of my decisions. It led me also to hide who I was. Of course those at school knew, and although I was mostly accepted I faced open ridicule by some students and even a few teachers until the initial period died down. But elsewhere, I simply denied my past; fortunately I looked good enough that this was a possibility. Still, a few years later, on a vacation in Europe, the fear of being discovered to be transgender by a man I was with led me into a situation in which I ended up sexually compromised, frightened, and degraded.

The fear of being hurt by others, emotionally or physically, is very real for TG people today. The fear of losing or not being able to find jobs is greater than for the population as a whole. Yet today more and more people are coming out as TG. That should tell people something: this is not a joke, not a phase, not a trend, not a copycat thing. This is something that we *are*. Most of us have known this from the earliest days of our lives. When Sadie writes to the President at age 11, some people may wonder how anyone could allow a child with a penis to "act like a girl." The answer is simple: Sadie is a girl. This is not about anatomy; it's about identity. When you awaken in the morning, you don't need to check a mirror to know which gender you are. Sadie doesn't either; neither did I. No matter what the evidence was that we might have found there, we've known from the start what we are. And it would be a crime against nature to force a child to suffer the emotional pain of living a gender role that is not her own when something can so easily be done about it.

ENDA would be a start, an essential start, and President Obama must see to it that the bill becomes one of his highest priorities. But if transgender rights are really the "civil rights issue of our time," it will take a lot more to stop the discrimination, the merciless taunting,  the beatings, the threats, and the murders that are sadly so much a part of TG life in America today. It will take a leader who is willing to help to educate the masses. Sadie and I--and a whole lot of other transgender people in America--are hoping that Barack Obama is that leader.
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Wednesday, January 16, 2013


As a teacher of writing, I am keenly aware of how difficult it can be to get some students to take the great leap of faith that allows them to let go of their inhibitions and write freely and creatively. Sometimes it seems that no matter how many prompts I come up with, it just isn't enough to break down some walls. And that is why I love the new anthology Reflect and Write from Prufrock Press, a paperback and CD collection of 300 poems and photographs, and other goodies that is designed with the writing student in mind. Authors/editors Hank Kellner and Elizabeth Guy sought to put together an anthology in the style of Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle, and they have succeeded and gone far beyond the original by adding elements such as keywords, quotations and writing prompts to the poems and photos that comprised the original work. Further, they have reached directly into schools themselves for contributors, with several of the poems and photographs coming from high school students and teachers, an even greater connection to the intended audience.

Full disclosure: I'm in the book. I have four poems among the 136 in the anthology. But though that fact natuarally biases me, it does not change the fact that this is the most unique collection of writing for student writers in many years. It should become a staple in every classroom in the country.


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it's your hair that i notice first
streaked with morning
it frames your face
you lying there eyes closed
soft breath not quite there
i follow its path as it bends the sheet
and i can touch you there
touch what i feel is you
in the spark of daylight
you'll rise
pull on the wrinkled shirt from last night
say something you think is beautiful
drink some coffee
from behind my paper
and drive away,
leaving a kiss on my lips
and a hole in my heart
where a fire ought to be

Favorite Films

  • The Wizard Of Oz
  • Amelie
  • The Princess Bride
  • Casablanca
  • Annie Hall
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • All That Jazz
  • Citizen Kane
  • Love Actually
  • Moulin Rouge
  • Big Fish
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • Almost Famous
  • Bull Durham
  • Notting Hill
  • Apocalypse Now (Redux)
  • Magnolia

All-Time Favorite TV Shows

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Gilmore Girls
  • M*A*S*H
  • The West Wing
  • The X-Files
  • The Daily Show
  • Ally McBeal
  • Picket Fences
  • All In The Family
  • Seinfeld
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show
  • Star Trek
  • Firefly
  • Wonderfalls
  • Northern Exposure
  • Get Smart
  • The Dick Van Dyke Show
  • Twin Peaks
  • The Larry Sanders Show
  • Monk
  • Felicity
  • St. Elsewhere

Current TV Shows I Enjoy (in no particular order)

  • Perception
  • Major Crimes
  • American Horror Story
  • Louie
  • Suits
  • The Newsroom
  • Falling Skies
  • Franklin and Bash
  • Veep
  • Scandal
  • Fairly Legal
  • Girls
  • Don't Trust the B---
  • Justified
  • Portlandia
  • Psych
  • The Middle
  • Person of Interest
  • Happy Endings
  • Hart of Dixie
  • Real Time with Bill Maher
  • Nikita
  • Raising Hope
  • Castle
  • Drop Dead Diva
  • Covert Affairs
  • Elementary
  • Rizzoli and Isles
  • Revolution
  • The Last Resort
  • Alphas
  • SNL
  • Revenge
  • Community
  • Suburgatory
  • New Girl
  • Once Upon a Time
  • Grimm
  • Nashville
  • Downton Abbey
  • Smash
  • Homeland
  • Fringe
  • Glee
  • Haven
  • Community
  • Warehouse 13
  • Modern Family
  • Vampire Diaries
  • The Daily Show
  • How I Met Your Mother
  • The Colbert Report
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Leverage
  • Rachel Maddow Show

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