Sunday, August 31, 2014

the one not taken

My Facebook feed is filling up with joyful photos of happy people on vacation in Germany. My siblings--three sisters, a brother--along with others--cousins, other relatives--are touring with my father, who spends a lot of time these days in Europe with the company that he and my other brother (who is home preparing for his wedding) own. It's a spirited, electric family vacation, as can easily be seen in the many photos and posts, each more alive and memory-filled than the last. And, of course, I am nowhere near it.

When my father planned this vacation, he announced it by saying that, with the inclusion of my sister Kathy, he would "finally have taken all my children to Germany." In his mind, I am sure that is true. In the real world, though...not so much. There is one of his children whom he has not taken and will never take. There is one of his children with whom he severed ties for years and, though he pretends nothing is wrong when he sees her these days, it is one of the facades he has been so good at keeping up since the days when he was having an affair with a neighbor woman while we all went about our family business, oblivious. There is one of his children he likes to pretend no longer exists, no longer matters.

Because that child is transsexual.

Before I came out to my father, we had a good relationship. Despite the fact that he had broken my mother's heart, I thought it important to keep him in my children's lives, so we visited him in Florida every year. His vitriolic and hypocritical reaction to my revelation, though, made it clear that things were going to change.

"When you have children," he yelled at me in the parking lot next to his condo, "you put aside your own needs. I did not love your mother the last ten years of our marriage, but I had brought kids into the world and I needed to raise them."

Yeah, I wanted to say, you just walked down the street and got it on secretly with Mrs. ---. I don't exactly have that kind of option. I can't just be a woman when I feel like it. It doesn't work that way.

For years we did not speak. When we did, and since then, he made it a study to act as if nothing at all has changed, nothing at all is unusual, nothing at all ever happened between us. He also has never once acknowledged me as his daughter. My children? They do not know him; he has made no effort whatsoever to keep them in his life, and he wanted nothing to do with me. I think it is terribly sad: he is a living grandfather that they simply do not know.

And he is a living father that I no longer know.

The Facebook pictures keep flooding in: all of them sitting around a great table in a restaurant, enjoying a meal, walking down a quaint German street, enjoying each other's company once again as stories are formed that I will not be part of. I have not been part of family stories since I left for college, but I've only been excluded from them since I transitioned. I do not begrudge my sisters this experience: I hope they are enjoying themselves; it is indeed something to be enjoyed. But I feel more and more another thing that is terribly sad--horribly, awfully, frighteningly sad. I started feeling it years ago, but as time passes it becomes more inevitably true, more irretrievably horrendous to say. It is this:

I will not feel any pain or loss when this man dies. And I cannot even imagine attending his funeral; I could not stand to hear my siblings praise him. There is certainly considerable time until then, but the way things are going and have gone these last sixteen years, I doubt that anything will happen to change things.

Meanwhile, I'll settle for my brother's wedding for family memories. At least I'll be there for that. So will my father, who will be perfectly civil to me.

As if nothing at all is wrong.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Fighting Depression: A Personal Story

The sky out my window is overcast, clouds pasted in the sky like gray-white shrouds. There is enough wind to move the branches on the trees and increase the already-chilling autumnal temperatures hanging about this mid-August day. It's as if Nature herself understands that some magical Warmth has left the world.

The news of Robin Williams' suicide yesterday caught me completely off guard, as it did everyone else. It's not merely the loss of such a man, one who has been a non-stop font of laughter and energy for a generation and an inspiration to so many, but the revelation that, during so much of the time when he was making us laugh, he was struggling to keep himself from crying. Depression is everything the opposite of funny. It is an insidiously dark, dangerous devil that does not admit laughter, that repels it. Robin Williams could spend a lifetime making us laugh, could spend it laughing himself, but it would not make one iota of difference: not one bit of that laughter could sink through the layers of impenetrable darkness that depression had wrapped around him. It's like walking on the beach slathered with copious amounts of SPF-10,000. You may look as vulnerable to the sun as anyone else, but you are not going to tan or burn.

But Robin Williams, of all people. Robin Williams, who just last year was manically making us laugh in "The Crazy Ones." Robin Williams, who will forever be the Voice of the Genie and Mork from Ork and Mrs. Doubtfire. Even Robin Williams?


Because depression is far more common than anyone who is not depressed understands. Depending on whose statistics you wish to cite, between nine and fifteen percent of American adults are battling depression. The actual numbers don't matter; what matters is that they are not tiny. They are not just the people who are always sad and dark. They are normal people, trying to deal with their lives, fighting against something inside themselves that is making it harder. And if they are fighting chronic depression, as Robin Williams apparently was, all they can really hope to do is control it, not defeat it. It is a demon that does not give up: give it an opportunity and it will try again.

I know this.

I have suffered from depression for most of my life, though it was only diagnosed at age forty. And when the dark times came, trying to find my way back to the light was so hard that sometimes I truly thought it could not be done. Sometimes I thought it was not even worth doing.

My depression was exacerbated by my transsexual secret, of course. Keeping this from the world was such a huge burden that it pushed me close to the edge more than once. On those occasions when I reached that edge, though, when the darkness threatened to pull me under, I somehow found my way back without quite knowing how I managed it. And when I was finally diagnosed, I was given medications to control the parts of my brain that released the chemicals that created the imbalances that drove the demons in the first place.

There are times, though, when even the best drugs do not work against demons. Some years after I transitioned, when my life was on a stable course and things were going well, I was hit by the emotional equivalent of the mythical Three Sisters Waves. The Three Sisters are a myth on Lake Superior of three gigantic waves, one after the other, each more huge than the last, that pummel a ship so dramatically that, when the third and final wave has passed, the ship is simply gone. It was one of the many theories of what happened to the Edmund Fitzgerald, the ore ship that sank on 11/10/75 killing all 29 of its crew. Anyway, in rapid succession: I discovered my fiancĂ© had given me herpes, my fiancĂ© could not deal with that fact and so left me, and then my brother disinvited me to his wedding (because, he said, so many people had not yet seen the transitioned me that the wedding would end up about me instead of him). And to make sure my ship was well and truly sunk, a fourth wave: the transphobic superintendent of my school trumped up a reason to fire my from my theatre position, which I had held for fifteen years.

My head was spinning. My life was in shambles. I had no children with me that weekend, nor would until Wednesday. I was alone. I had an incurable disease and the guy who gave it to me, who didn't care that I was trans, couldn't live with giving it to me. My brother, whom I had allowed to live with me for two years while he made nothing teaching in Chicago, was about to do the most visible dissing that had yet been done to me. And then, my work, into which I had poured myself for years, was suddenly yanked from under me by a bigoted asshole even though I was by far the best qualified person in the school to do it. I tried to keep hold of myself, but nothing was working. I cried for a day. I didn't eat. I didn't sleep. I started hearing the demon for the first time in years.

The promise I had made to my therapist before transition was that I would die female. Well, I was female. That is what I thought as I climbed into the car. I thought about my children as I turned on the ignition, thought about what a fucking mess I'd made of their lives and how they would be better off without me. I knew it was my father's argument, but whatever. I turned on the radio and I just sat there. Waiting.

I do not honestly know if I would have gone through with it. I might have. I think I was almost hoping to fall asleep before fully making up my mind, thus creating a kind of default suicide. I know I would not have been missed until Monday morning, when someone at school would have figured out I was not there and tried to contact me. I'm not quite sure what would have happened at that point. But that is all conjecture.

My phone rang. I don't know why I answered it, but I did. It was a woman from my church, asking about me. She had noticed how I had missed a meeting of a group we were in, and she wanted to know if I'd be there the next night. She asked me if there was anything wrong.

I did not tell her I was in the middle of committing suicide. (Yes, a tad busy now: could you call back later?) But I did hear myself telling her everything that was happening, did hear myself crying, did hear her voice gathering more and more concern. She talked to me for what seemed a long time but probably was not. I don't recall the specifics of the conversation, only that, when it was over, I turned off the car. I sat for another minute or two before getting out and going into the house, but I did that too. The crisis was over.

There is so much life I would have missed had she not called me that night, so much joy (and yes, so much pain too). I talked with her last year to tell her what her call had done; she recalled the incident but had not known the circumstances and was overwhelmed at hearing it.

"Sometimes," she said, "I wonder if I really do any good around here."

I guess my point is this:

If you meet me you would never know that I suffer from depression. Nor would you know it to look at many of my friends who also do. We are not sad. And that is a good thing: it means the compounds we take to rebalance what is naturally out of balance are working. To watch Robin Williams work, you'd never know he was depressed either. Like so many others, he lost his battle. That is not how it has to end. His loved ones did know what was going on; they were trying to help. It just did not work.

Pay attention to your own loved ones. If they exhibit signs of depression, encourage them to seek therapy and/or medication. I am so very happy to be here: life is not to be tossed aside because the demon wants it. Help them fight back.

They cannot do it alone.

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Friday, April 11, 2014

A Transgender Teacher Speaks Out

It’s April 2014, and for the second time in less than a month, a transgender teacher is in the headlines. The first one: a science teacher in California who caused quite a stir in the most liberal state in the nation when she finally—after a long, long life of denial and hiding (and a three decade career)—found the strength to be open about the truth that she had known from early childhood. The most recent: a fifth grade substitute teacher in Texas who made headlines for being suspended from her position.

Did I mention that it is 2014?

One might think that, by now, the world—or at least the United States—might have figured out that, whether or not they understand what being transgender is all about, transgender people do in fact live among them and do not cause any harm, transmit any disease, carry any scary LGBT contagions, or have any agenda other than to live our lives in the truest possible ways. One might think that. After all, Trans Visibility is at an all-time high. Chaz Bono was a popular contestant on “Dancing With the Stars.” Amanda Simpson is a member of President Obama’s government. Janet Mock is all over the talk shows. Jenny Boylan is a high profile university professor and writer. Laverne Cox is receiving raves for her performance on “Orange Is the New Black.” Lana Wachowski, with her fuchsia locks drizzling down, is one of the most significant directors in Hollywood.  

But of course if one does believe that this is an upbeat time for transgender people in America, then one must clearly not be paying attention to the news. It’s hard enough for the LGB part of the alphabet soup acronym of the gay movement: far beyond the transparently insane groups like Westboro Baptist Church that pretty much everyone agrees are ridiculous, a large percentage of regular people still feel that there is something wrong with those gay folks. Many of them base it on the Bible—faulty, pick-and-choose readings of the Bible, to be sure, but the Bible nonetheless. I mean that's a big thing. Others base it on the ewwy feeling they get when they even think about "the gay.". Still others might be afraid of exposing that part of themselves that might actually wonder about that kind of thing.

LGB people, though, are making strides. These percentages, though still high, are no longer a majority. It’s the T-folks, in which category I include myself, who have issues. We’re just…weird. Impossible to understand. Too strange. There must be something very, very wrong with us. And you definitely don’t want any of us around your precious children, do you?

Guess what?

Aside from the transfolk I named above, we are doctors, lawyers, accountants, dentists, clergy, deli clerks, police, construction workers, athletes, laborers, consultants, IT people, restaurant managers, airline pilots, soldiers, chefs, and probably just about any other profession you could name. And, yes, we are teachers. And even more important: we are your children.

No one has to contaminate anyone for them to “become” transgender. It isn’t a disease. It is something we carry within ourselves from birth, like the ability to breathe. No one can say if it is genetic, chemical, hormonal, or what in origin, but studies have shown that it is a physical thing, part of the makeup of our brains, that shapes our minds this way. Most of us are aware of it from earliest childhood, whether we tell anyone or not. That is why you are seeing more and more news reports today of transgender children, and you don’t know what to do with that.

The answer is this: recognize that your world is not as simple as you always thought that it was. It is not black and white. It is not right and left. (Have you noticed how politics does not work as well when everyone is on one side or the other and no one is in the middle?) Everything has a vast middle. We are part of the middle, and we always have been.

Honor the middle by stopping the attacks against it. Transgender people are small in number, but staggering percentages of that number have suffered discrimination in everything from housing to retail stores to jobs to health care. Absurd numbers have been discriminated against, harassed, even beaten, by people on the streets and in rest rooms, even by the police. 57% of transgender people in a recent survey reported being rejected by members of their own families. 41% reported that they had attempted suicide, compared to 1.6% of the general population.

This has to stop. For the sake of those children—who might be your children—who are growing up right now with that deep secret they have yet to share with the world, this has to stop.

I am a high school teacher. I have been a high school teacher for 34 years. In 1998, I became the first teacher in America to transition from male to female in place, on the job, without changing schools or position or taking any kind of break to do so. I did this in a wealthy suburb north of Chicago, a well-known, conservative town where I had been teaching and directing plays for fifteen years. At the time, I was forty years old. I had tried to make it as a “man,” had married, had done my best, had three children who adored me and a spouse who had basically become little other than a good friend over the years. But I was falling apart, both emotionally and physically. I lost forty pounds (and I did not have it to lose) in six months. My colleagues thought I had AIDS. In my classroom, by myself, I broke down in frequent tears. I found myself snapping at friends—something I simply never do.

Finally, I had to face the truth: my secret, which I had hidden for so many years with relative effectiveness, was destroying me. I would not make it much further.

When I told them, colleagues said I was insane to think I could transition in this place. My response was that they were probably right, but what the hell: maybe people, even these conservative people, would ultimately “do the right thing.” And they did. The school supported me, held steady against the onslaught of reporters and the barrage of publicity, both positive and negative, that ensued. The community supported me as well, as I had been a respected teacher for a decade and a half. There were some who did not, but the administration quietly removed their kids from my class lists and that was that. After a few years, even that expedience was no longer needed.

I have been teaching here as a woman now longer than I did as a man. I am one of the supporters of our Gay-Straight Alliance. Students have told me that, by the very fact that I am here, I have taught them more than they have learned in many of their classes. I have also helped two graduates through transitions they wished they could have done when they were younger, but lacked the courage.

I do not speak of my past in my classroom. Why should I? In fact, I strongly suspect that there are students now who don’t even know. But it is my past, and it is my story, and it is my truth. I am a transgender woman. I am a woman. I am a mom. I am a director. I am a karaoke singer. I am a writer. I am a role model. I am a huge fan of “Game of Thrones.” But in my classroom, where I spend so much of my day, I am a teacher.

It is the best thing I can be. 

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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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