Saturday, June 6, 2015

Caitlyn and Heroism and Me

It's been almost a week now since The Cover Photo, and for transgender people across the country, the world has changed in both tangible and intangible ways. Many have already elected to come out or become more vocal about who they are because of Caitlyn Jenner, and good for them. All have heard the nearly incessant commentary--both good and bad--about "transgenderism" and whether those who feel this oppressive and overwhelming understanding about themselves are "heroes" for "living our truth" or "sick" people who "need help." I watched a particularly patient transgender advocate sit next to a woman from the American Family Association on a Fox News segment and somehow remain completely calm and on message as this allegedly Christian woman told her she was just a self-deluded and possibly dangerous man in a dress, echoing words that an allegedly Christian minister had just spoken. But I have watched many other videos of families accepting and loving their TG children, siblings, spouses and parents, and read so much support for Caitlyn that it makes me think there is really some hope in all of this.

It all brings me back seventeen years to my own transition. Back then, transgender was not a word on everyone's tongues as it is today. Few people who were not directly involved, either as transpeople themselves or as people who knew someone who had transitioned, even had heard of it, unless they remembered old news stories of Renée Richards or Christine Jorgensen. And here I was, in a conservative, upper middle class suburb of Chicago, a 40-year-old school teacher with a family who had been haunted quite literally all of my life by the knowledge that I was truly female, about to make the outside match the inside. When I started telling some colleagues, they each said the same thing: you can't do that here. (Well, a gay colleague said, I guess that takes the pressure off of us, but even he reiterated the other sentiment.)

The thing is: I was pretty certain they were right. I had gone to see someone from Lambda Legal, the only legal service specifically working with the LGBT community, about my upcoming transition, seeking help in case things went south. Their response, once I had explained it all? We can't help you. We are busy trying to get the fight for gay marriage started, and we can't afford to take on cases that are unwinnable. Unwinnable. I had known it anyway, but to hear that from Lambda Legal... The problem was that there had never been a case in the United States of a teacher transitioning successfully on the job. Someone had tried it in the 70's but had been fired and that had been upheld. Someone in Minnesota was currently trying it, but if she managed to come back at all she was going to be moved out of the classroom into the library. Someone in Seattle was going to try it but they were going to make her take a year off and then return as an administrative assistant. What I was trying to do: walk out of my classroom door in June as a male and back through it in August as a female? It had never been done.

Unwinnable.

Compounding that, my union rep told me I could not let the administration know about it because, if I did, that would make it a personnel matter instead of a personal one, and my only possible hope was to argue that it was a personal matter. I could not be the one to concede that it was a personnel issue. Of course, being a personal issue, they couldn't ask me about it either, so on and on we went all year, rumors beginning to fly as my appearance began to change, until finally the principal was forced to ask me about it, to my intense relief. After some rough first weeks--she was mad (justifiably, I thought) that I had not told her--she and the superintendent told me that they would completely support my transition. I was stunned. Ecstatic, of course, but stunned. (I have always believed that they had lawyers look into it and found that, since I had fifteen years' tenure, they had no legal standing to fire me without a court battle, which no one in this very private community would want. Whatever: they supported me!) In May, at a faculty meeting, we announced my upcoming transition to the staff. I went to graduation in male clothing and never have dressed that way since (except as an emergency fill-in for one of my male students in a play two weeks ago...the show must go on).

There was press galore. Oprah and Jerry Springer and pretty much every talk show under the sun wanted me on. The Chicago Tribune wanted to do a photo spread and cover story for their then-glossy Sunday magazine. Every TV and radio station wanted interviews. Despite a nagging voice within me telling me that it might be a teachable moment for the world about being transgender, I declined them all. I had three young children and, since this was unexplored territory, I had no clue whether there might potentially be reprisals spawned by hate that could be violent. I did not want my face out there, and I somehow succeeded in keeping it from getting out there. The news vans outside the school satisfied themselves with interviews with students and other staff members; they were not getting me. And after a few weeks, it all died down.

I have no clue what, if anything, Fox said about it. They were not yet what they are today. Thank goodness. They don't know my name today. No one does, I guess. It bothers me sometimes, that no one realizes that I am in fact one of the major pioneers in transgender history. In the last decade, I have worked with many, many LGBT kids who have needed someone to talk with and a few transkids who needed help with transitions in various ways. I've given talks at LGBT youth centers and university gender panels. Recently I was invited to Washington to speak at a rally for Leelah Alcorn. All of these were arranged through kids who knew me in school. But I am a cipher in the history books, and it's really my own fault. I prioritized protecting my kids over getting the message out. I'd do it the same way again without hesitation, but I have to admit that I do wish my contribution was acknowledged.

Still...

People are calling Caitlyn Jenner a hero. Others take umbrage, saying that word should be used for true heroics, as on a battlefield. Someone suggested we coin the term "civil hero" for such inspirational forces. I don't know what I think. All I know is this:

When I transitioned, people kept saying that about me. They kept calling be heroic, calling me brave. Over and over again, people had that same reaction to what I had done. And my reply was invariably the same: I did the only thing I could do. If I could have done anything else, believe me, I would. No one in her right mind would choose to do this if there were any other options. I don't know if it is really "brave" to do the only thing a person can possibly do.

Some argued with that, saying that risking all of the social backlash was still brave, no matter what. Some thought about it and told me they had never looked at it that way before. Many times over the years I have been called a "hero" just for being who I am: an openly transgender woman teaching in a public high school in a conservative community. I don't think that is "heroic"; I think that is "honest." And if I had a student in my class, I'd like to think that is the central ideal that his or her teacher was modeling every day: honesty. Integrity. Self-worth. Being able to say to the world: no one can tell me I have less value because I am who I am.

Being honest with and about yourself is a hard thing to do. It took me forty years to learn that it is the only way to live your life. Trying to keep essential parts of Self held inside just makes life difficult, incomplete, painful, and dishonest. Yes it can be very hard to acknowledge our truths. But it is the most valuable thing we can do for ourselves and for those around us, and the only thing we can do to allow ourselves to be full and true citizens of our world. Maybe in the end that isn't really worthy of being in history books unless we all are worthy. To paraphrase David Bowie: we can all be heroes.


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sunsparks

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
unmoving
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

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