Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Pulse is the LGBT Community’s Challenger

Like all members of the LGBT community, I awoke a week ago Sunday stunned at the news from Orlando. I felt much the same as I had felt the morning that the Challenger exploded, way back in 1986: slapped in the face by a reality that had always been a possibility but that I had stopped worrying about because everything was going so well. And just as I had on that horrific day my first reaction was stunned catatonia: I sat staring at news stories, trying to fathom the immensity of it, trying to understand, as if one can understand horror and hatred.

It had been just the previous Thursday when I stood scant feet from President Obama as he delivered his eighth LGBT Pride Reception address, a beautiful few hours in the White House spent meeting LGBT folks from all over who were there to do what I was there to do: celebrate the incredible gains that we’ve made under this administration. The conversations there were full of hope and promise and not whether but when. Could that have been just that Thursday? Two days before the universe collapsed?

In 1986, I must have watched that endless loop of the shuttle exploding a hundred times. There was a teacher on board. A teacher like me from New Hampshire, where I grew up. It was personal. It was too much to handle. It was too much to believe.

It was a different world.

Sunday, I didn’t need video to confirm the stories. The scene has become sickeningly familiar to us all. And yes, it’s still very personal. I’m not young–obviously, if I remember the Challenger–
and I am not Latina, but in a different life I might have been someone who went to a club like Pulse. I’m transgender. I like enjoying life. And 100+ young LGBT people who had gone to do just that were mowed down because...why? The shooter hated them? He was a self-loathing closeted gay man? He was a secretly radicalized Muslim who really hated the fact that he was gay and somehow blamed all LGBT people for it? What?

Catatonia slowly turned to deep sadness. I read stories about the victims: two men who were to be married who will now instead be buried; a soldier who challenged the insane DADT rule; a young nurse who will never be able to fulfill her promise; students, dancers, single parents, journalists, salespeople, beauticians, Disney World employees, out of towners just there for hard to read. So many lives, so senseless. So horrible.

And then deep sadness morphed to plain old anger. It started when I began thinking about how the news was reporting this tragedy. The more they didn’t say “LGBT,” the angrier I grew. The more they latched onto the “radical Islam” angle and called it “terrorism” instead of a hate crime, the more my anger grew. The more I saw people sharing sympathetic memes and rainbow ribbons on facebook–people whom I know to be NRA supporters and therefore complicit in the fact that this guy could legally purchase a military-grade weapon at a shopping plaza gun store without even any needed background check–the more my anger started becoming fury. The more I started hearing that this was about Islamic hatred and we needed to get rid of the Muslims, as if it were not the Christian right in THIS country that fosters the environment that gave this shooter the notion that LGBT people are somehow lesser and are valid as targets and that if he in fact is one he should hate himself, the more that fury became livid.

The President said–as he has said so many times now that he might as well play a recording– that we need to decide what kind of country we are. That’s the problem: we have decided. We are a country that doesn’t care if gunmen, every couple of months or so, blow away large groups of businesspeople, gay people, medical people, moviegoers, or even school children, because we need to hold on to our precious right to own what are, in civilian terms, weapons of mass destruction. That is who we are. Or anyway, that is who the cowards who populate Congress are, as they showed us once again on Monday night, voting down two easy-to-take gun laws even though they had about 90% support from the populace. And I am utterly furious about it.

Because I thought we were finally safe, you know? I thought that all of the asinine laws that the GOP keeps passing were the last, worst gasps of a dying breed of dinosaur passing out of existence. I had forgotten that within all of the ugliness that the right espouses also lies the real potential for actual violence. Until now.

In 1986, no one was even watching the launch of the Challenger. Such launches had become so easy and routine that, as I said, they were sending civilians up. Only the brand new 24-hour CNN, with nothing else to fill its time, covered the launch live. And only they had the video that immediately (in 2016 parlance) went viral. It was a huge event not only because of its inherent newsworthiness, but because of its shattering of a kind of innocence: suddenly we were all reminded, so violently, of what we of course already knew: the dangers inherent to space travel.

Pulse has reminded us, so violently, of the dangers inherent to being LGBT in this country. Where we had started to become a bit complacent–overconfident after so many victories, maybe?–now we once more need to look over our shoulders. Where two gay men kissing in the street was starting to feel (as it should) just fine, now, thanks to this shooter, it will come with the shadow of what if there’s someone like that guy watching? Where many of us gather together, there will always be slight trepidation. Because that is the kind of country America is.

And that really pisses me off.
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Welcome to My Life: An Open Letter to America from the Nation’s First Transgender Teacher

A brazen bit of name and place dropping:

At the White House last week, President Obama spoke of the strides his administration has accomplished for LGBT people as well as the fact that there are still so many things left to do. It was his eighth LGBT Pride Reception, and as I stood just feet from him, I found that that word, “pride,” was a thing I felt deeply. I know he has ”evolved” on LGBT issues; I have no problems with that, for it’s what thoughtful people do. In the end, through their own soul-searching, they get it right. I felt pride in a President who has gotten so much right.

A lot of my friends were saying that they felt proud of me. I’m not sure why. What I had done required no soul-searching at all. They tell me it was “brave” of me to transition back in the 90s, before people understood transsexuals and before there were any other examples of anyone doing what I was doing as a teacher, but I wonder how brave it can be to do the only thing in the world that you actually can do. In 1998, I knew I had only two choices laid out clearly before me: transition or die. There was no third option; I could not go on living as I had been.

In the beginning:

Not that it was an easy road. At the time, we had a couple of gay math teachers and a gay English teacher. There were a few others, but they weren’t out, and the ones who were out didn’t talk about it. And then I came along. I’d been working in the English Department for fifteen years when I lost the battle against gender dysphoria. I mean I had known all my life of course–since I first noticed that there was a physical difference between girls and boys (and I’m a fairly bright person with five siblings, so that was at about age three)–but I had long abandoned hope of ever actually transitioning. When I was growing up (the 60s and 70s) doing that was unheard of and, as I later discovered when I did hear of it, very, very expensive. So my daily childhood prayer (Dear God, just let it be gone when I wake up) was slowly replaced by something more like an unattainable fantasy.

Not that I didn’t try once in awhile. I had to: I’d been harboring a deep secret that had rendered me “the weird kid” in my neighborhood and school. I needed at least to make the token attempt to bring it into the open, even if I was terrified of what might happen. There was a “Dear Abby” column once, a woman writing for advice because her son was going to become a woman. What can I do, Abby? How can I even face my friends? Abby kicked her butt: Your child is a transsexual, and will be facing a very difficult life. It’s a one in a million chance, but there you go. All you can do now is to love and support your daughter and stop thinking about yourself. (I loved Abby.) So I took the letter to my Mom and just gave it to her to read. I stood there while she did, waiting for her response. Finally, she looked up, stared at me for a long moment, and said, “Honey, you aren’t one in a million.”

I never tried after that. She’d proven that she just didn’t see the problem, or didn’t want to discuss it. Either way it was over; she’d shut it down. (Ironic footnote: later, after transition, I asked her about that. She had no recollection whatsoever of the conversation.)

Anyway, I just gave up, allowing a “male” personality to take over my daily life so I could live it. And I lived it as well as I could for the next 28 years. I went to college according to a sort of checklist. (What would a guy do? Well, join a fraternity. Check. Though it was a scholars’ fraternity… Get a girlfriend. I spent the whole of freshman year trying to find one. What did I know of that? I’d never really had one before except for a brief relationship with a girl my sister set me up with in high school; I had agreed mostly as a kind of beard. Speaking of which: grow a beard. Check. In May I finally found a girlfriend. Check. Decided it was so hard to find her, I’d just marry her. Did.) I basically abdicated running my life to this second personality I had invented; it was the only way I could live. And yet I told myself I “had it all under control.” Ha! I’m not sure what kind of “control” there is when you are thinking about something every minute of every day. Still, we are capable of incredible self-delusion. And anyway I didn’t really give a crap about my life; I just wanted to live it as well as I could, get through it, and get it over with. I told myself I was thirty when I was 28. I called myself middle-aged when I was in my lower thirties. I was in a rush to move things along.

We ended up with three children, though the last ten years of our marriage was mostly a friendship. And during those ten years, my mind was coming apart at the seams: I’d met a transperson–ironically through my wife–and just meeting him had opened so many doors I couldn’t shut again that by 1998, terrifying or not, I knew I needed to take a leap.

The actual transition part:

"You can’t do that here!" Everyone told me this wealthy, conservative suburb was the last place I’d be able to make this sort of thing work. But I thought: Might as well try. One of the gay math teachers, when I told him what was going to happen, said, “Well, I guess that takes the pressure off of us!”

As far as my research, the school’s research, and the research of the myriad news outlets that covered my transition could tell in those pre-internet days, I was the very first school teacher in America who had ever transitioned on the job without stopping, remained in the same assignment, and made it work. I just left in June as Mr. and returned in the fall as Ms. on a day when TV news trucks lined the streets in front of the school. Both Chicago papers did feature stories about me; the Tribune offered me the cover of its glossy Sunday supplement for an interview. Oprah, Jerry Springer, and Rachel Ray wanted me on. I was the talk of all of the TV news and talk radio stations. But I granted no interviews: I had little children and, in those days, I was afraid of violent reprisals. I didn’t want my children caught in the crossfire should anything happen. Nothing ever did, but of course violence against transpeople is an ongoing concern even today.

I had plenty of support from the school and from the students and parents I knew, so things went surprisingly smoothly, give or take a bump or two in the road. The few harassments I had were quickly dispatched by the administration and never happened again. It wasn’t perfect, but it was far better than I had hoped: I lost my marriage and several long-time friends, my father and one sister wouldn’t have a relationship of any kind with me for the next seven years, and some old-boy colleagues just couldn’t figure it out. But most of my friends and family, as well as my children, were still with me, and I still had my career, so, all in all, I thought I’d fared very well despite the anguish, the tears, the pain, and the difficulties.

But that was 1998, and the world is a totally different place now. I see it around me, in the news, in the lives of my students, and in the life of my own transgender son. Today I just introduced myself to you. In future blogs, I’ll discuss some of these changes and how they’ve come about, and what current political issues might mean for the future of LGBT–especially trans–youth and adults in the US.

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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

xkcd - A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and