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January 20, 2017

My love built for me a gift of levels and measures – 

some antique, some foreign, some mine.

I can inhabit the precision, the delicate balance, the fragile history of each one. I can feel the hands, calloused and careful, that used these and know my hands were among them.

We all build strong things with fragile tools.

And on this birthday of mine, January 20, 2017, I’ll hang it on my wall to remind me that there is a history of building new things out of lost tools. 

That the measurements and balances still matter – will always matter.

And maybe that will be hopeful enough.

Dearly Beloved

Posted: April 21, 2016 in Uncategorized
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I was getting my teeth cleaned when Prince died. I can’t be certain of that fact, but by the time I made it back from the outer suburbs of St. Louis to the bookstore and heard the news, enough time had passed that it was conceivable that I was discussing TMJ treatments with the new dental hygienist when he last took a breath.

Or maybe his passing happened earlier in the morning, just before sunrise, when I woke up one of many times wrestling with my cpap machine and rolled over, eyes closed but thoughts circling around and around the Trans Town Hall meeting last night, dissecting the countless ways I could have been cooler, younger, handsomer, smarter talking to the crowd of activists- each exquisite in their vulnerability and power.

Or maybe he had already died as I walked from my truck to the church for the meeting in the rain, first putting on a baseball cap, then taking it off and carrying the umbrella, then wondering if the baseball cap would have made me look less predictable, less depressed, less…just less.  Maybe he had already left the world then.

2012princepurplerainmoviepress051212I don’t remember the first time I heard Little Red Corvette. My musical taste at the time skewed toward Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA.  It would have been a few years later, watching Purple Rain on a jumpy video cassette tape on a VCR I rented from the rental place across from the IGA, that I got it- the complicated sex muscling itself through the ruffled collar, purple suit and cape of hair pinned with sheer will into a pose of androgynous masculinity.

Prince was always surrounded by mist, attitude, music and sex in my imagination.  When I sit in my basement bookstore office and reconcile bills, he crafts moody lyrics in a studio somewhere. When I vacuum dog hair off the couch, he parts the curtain on an impromptu concert somewhere unfathomably cool.

So when, in the middle of a discussion about staff management, someone comes up to me and says “Prince is dead,” I don’t believe them.  It’s impossible that the person who changed his name to a symbol could do something as ordinary as die.

And yet here we are. The world is short a little magic now.  We’re left with a little less swagger. A little less sex. A little less… just less.

Damn it.

 


Let’s talk about politics. Specifically this tedious primary race. I have to start in a church nursery circa 1983.  I know, it doesn’t seem to relate, but trust me with a few minutes of your time.

When I was about 9 or 10 years old I asked my mom if I could babysit with her during church.  The nursery at Gospel Baptist* was in a completely different building, a small converted house, that sat adjacent to the church. I didn’t care about watching the little kids, but I didn’t want to sit still on a pew with my dad, so I sat in the baby room with my mom listening to the transistor radio on the changing table. Brother Ray’s* sermon was being broadcast over a local station and we could hear him building momentum through the tinny speakers.  The toddlers in the room next to us had already built a fevered pitch so mom turned up the volume a little.  Just as she did, Brother Ray hit his stride. You could practically see him wiping his face with the handkerchief.  You could hear the calls of AMEN coming from the congregation.

“You can take this to the bank, my friends. This way is God’s way. God’s way is the only way. And all the other ways are the wrong ways!”

“AMEN”

“And I’ll tell you what,” he continued. “The Catholics and all the rest… the Pentecostals speaking in tongues, they’re all wrong.”

He got quieter. I was familiar with this rhythm.  The slowing and building, each swell outsizing the last.

“And brothers and sisters, I may get into trouble for saying so.  No, no I may!  There are those who won’t want to hear what I’m about to say, but I have to say it. God put the words in my mouth so they must be heard.”

I was riveted. There is no cadence quite like a Southern Baptist Preacher who has a belly full of righteous anger.  It is captivating.

“I’ll say it now and you’ll all be my witness, you here in the pews and you out there listening on the radio.” That was me.  He was talking to me.

“They are CULTS that’s what they are. The only way to heaven is through Jesus, through giving yourself to his will by repenting your sins and giving your life to Jesus, the son of God right here in this church! And I know I’ll get into trouble for saying this on the air and they might take me off the air but I WILL NOT APOLOGIZE.  I TELL YOU, I WILL NEVER APOLOGIZE!”

His voice boomed through the speakers.  I looked out the window to the church to see if armies of other religions had surrounded us.  I worried that the radio feed would be cut for his proclamation, that the heathens would try to silence him.  I was ready to defend.  Let them come.  We had the might of right on our side!

But the heathens never came.  We went to Wendy’s for burgers after the service like usual.  Still, that explosive bad boy/good boy fire stuck with me. I was intoxicated.

I didn’t stay with the church. Mom & dad got divorced and I’m queerer than they’d like, plus the higher power I serve now is bigger than a jealous god. Gospel Baptist probably wouldn’t have me back anyway. But good god, I love fiery passion.  I love the underdog. I love righteous anger. I love holding back the masses to preserve the sacred.  (I am a bookseller, you know.) But I also know about messiahs and how they almost always disappoint you.

And that brings me to this year’s primary race for the Presidency.  Specifically the Democratic primary.

It’s easy to point to a guy like Trump and recognize his self-proclaimed deification as ridiculous and dangerous. Cruz draws from the same pool as Brother Ray. That’s familiar and easy. But Clinton and Sanders?  They’re from the side of the aisle that fights over issues – not personalities.  Progressives are about secular politics, about civil rights, about rational thought and science. Right?

And here we are, supporters of both candidates,  loading our Facebook walls with 40 year old photos of arrests as evidence of civil rights involvement, un-vetted accusations of corruption, memes featuring the other candidate as false and untrustworthy-  bitter arguments among the faithful about which messiah is going to take us to the promised land.

The Clinton camp calls Sanders supporters Bernie Bros or Bernie Bots and condescend based on age and class. Sanders supporters practically paint flames and horns on Clinton, painting her as the embodiment of the establishment, the whole problem with the world.  The entirety of the Democratic base is in a competition to be the surrounded tribe whose underprivileged leader is righteous and holy and we are all convinced, CONVINCED that our choice is the only one. That all others are wrong.

And this brings me back to the church nursery in 1983.  When Brother Ray shouted into the microphone that he WOULD NOT APOLOGIZE for calling all other religions illegitimate cults he had the zealot’s rage of a David spitting in a Goliath’s eye.  It was Gospel Baptist Church of Effingham against literally everybody else in the world.  To quote from the  Tinker Tailor Solder Spy movie, “He’s a fanatic. And the fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.” To protect himself from that doubt, he had painted himself into a corner where his religion could not survive if others did and other religions could not survive if his did. There was no room for growth. No room to bring anyone in, just to call everyone out.  Incidentally, a few years later we discovered that Brother Ray had been cheating on his wife with the church secretary and he left in disgrace.

Sooner or later, one candidate will win enough delegates to be the Democratic nominee, and now I fear that each candidate’s supporters have painted themselves into the same corner.  I think that one or the other candidate could end all of it all at once if instead of vilifying anyone or naming their endorsements they just answered a question about a past bad vote or bad position on an issue like this, “I’m sorry.  I apologize for not being where I needed to be on that issue, but I am being the best I can be now and learning every day.  I am not a messiah, but a public servant.  I am a human being who learns from my mistakes and will do my best to represent you.”

The antidote to the overblown narcissism and bellicose rhetoric is humility.  Simple as that.  Real leaders listen. Revolutions succeed because the revolutionaries love each other as much as their cause.

I’ll vote for one or the other.  It’s none of your business who.  But I will say a Clinton-Sanders or Sanders-Clinton ticket would be unstoppable if the supporters of both candidates would stop burning the bridge between them.

*I changed the name of the church and preacher.  Exposing that church and his family would pretty much negate the growth and humility I ask for here.


A poem I wrote for Transgender Remembrance Day 2015

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In the forever that you are gone
No secrets will pass your lips
Your hand will not find mine and we will not share a joke.

In the empty sudden silence without your voice
I won’t wonder how to interrupt your story
I won’t not want to hear it again

You won’t have a point of view
Your favorites will become mundane
There will be no surprises.

You will not see what happened because you were here
And what is lost because you are not.

My foot will find your absence and I will fall into it
You will not catch me.

You will not soothe me
I will find no comfort in you.

In the forever that you are gone
I will know you by the balance of my hand on the steering wheel
The glance at a passing stranger
The drawing of the shade in the night
The yawning expanse of my reach to you

Layers of time will bury you
Generations of dust will gather you to the earth
The sky will swallow you whole

I will carry you into forever in the breath that I take to say your name.


Today, at the invitation of a good friend, I pulled on my big boy pants and read an excerpt from a book I’m working on in front of a couple hundred people at the Trans Spectrum Conference at University of Missouri at St. Louis.  It felt pretty good to air out some of what I’m doing even if it’s unfinished.  So- I’ll air it out a little more.  Here it is – a random part of a random chapter in what will be a book about a random trans man.

________________________________________

The shoulders of my suit jacket were too small by an inch, and the sleeves hugged my armpits. If I crowded my plate like I usually do, the cuffs of my dress shirt stuck out in a betrayal of the civilized and citified version of me I was trying to give to the book editors sprinkled around the table with me and the others from the bookstore. My knee bounced and I checked the cloth napkin on my lap every few seconds to be sure I wouldn’t have to lean out of my seat to pick it up if it fell. I was sure the suit jacket would pinch off the blood supply to my arms and head leaving me a gasping, purple puddle on the carpeted floor of the exclusive steak house that the executives from Simon & Schuster had selected, and my charade as a dignified small business owner visiting New York City on business would come to an excruciating end.

I kept thinking of my first office job – a call center in Mascoutah, IL where I took phone calls from smokers of Carlton cigarettes who had saved enough upcs to send off for a prize in the Carlton Collection. My job was to make sure the gift they selected from the Carlton Catalog got to them. For the first time in my life, I could sit down to work. I called my girlfriend that first week on the job to tell her I had to stay late, you know, for a business meeting. That job would eventually come to an end not long after I took a phone call from someone holding their finger over the hole in their neck spoke through a voice box to ask how their duffel bag could have gone missing.

The invitation to lunch wasn’t something you could turn down, and when I thought of Steak House, I thought of all you can eat buffets and buttery rolls. My brain still defaulted to the Ponderosa dessert bar with soft serve dispenser even though I knew to expect hushed and meticulous service while seated among confusing silverware.

It was a large table, and I was isolated at the end with stylish and important women flanking me, chatting amongst themselves about important books while I watched to see what size bite and at which interval I should eat.

“Did you grow up in St. Louis?” I looked past the olive oil decanter at the immaculately manicured hand holding the glass of water, no ice. When my eyes met hers, she smiled and said, “I’ve been there once, I think.”

“Oh, no.” I said. I brought the napkin to my mouth and crossed my ankles under my chair. I silently scolded myself for using the napkin before the end of the meal. Nobody else wiped their mouths between bites. “Uh, no.” I continued. “I grew up in a small town in Illinois.” The three women nearest me paused in their conversation and waited. I took a drink of my water.

“Effingham.” I said. “It’s in the middle of Illinois where two interstates and two railroad lines meet.” Heads tilted in polite but tired permission to go on. “So it’s a crossroads.” Sweat trickled down my side, and I knew there would be a lake of sweat marking the back of my shirt. I was grateful for the jacket. “Our high school mascot was a heart.” I continued. “There was even a costume.”

When I give directions to Effingham, I tell people to drive east from St. Louis until you can’t find good music on the radio or cell phone reception. Then you’re there. If I need to reference a visual clue, I used to use the intersections of interstates 57/70. Now I use the hulking metal cross next to I70 on the way into town. I chattered on, trying to fill in the silence.
“Effingham? That sounds like a curse word.” Manicure smiled.

“It is.” I said and leaned for the first time on the back of my chair. We can laugh at this, I thought. We relaxed into conversation about hometowns. Each of these women paused before taking the next small bite of salad and momentarily visited their own memories of home and escape.

“My family is all still there.” I had relaxed too much. Awl and thayr had slipped in where all and there was supposed to be. I stiffened and sat up straighter.

“Oh, so you don’t see them much anymore?” The woman next to me asked. I forced my gaze to meet hers. Her mascara was flawless. Each eyelash was perfectly formed and feathered. I looked in vain for the usual midday clump in the corner or slight smear beneath the eyelid, but I couldn’t find anything to connect her to the girls I watched practicing with Maybeline in the bathroom mirror in junior high. Just flawless beauty with a seductive whisper of empathy.

I pulled at my pant leg under the tablecloth, a reflexive tug to cover up my Hanes work socks with the stretched out heel bunched up over the back of my slip-on shoes. My partner Kris and fellow booksellers were engrossed in debates with their dining companions about the publishing industry and literature, relaxed and easy. They verbally danced around each other in a seemingly choreographed small talk quickstep while I could only manage an adolescent nod from the school dance punch bowl.

I wanted to be interesting. I wanted to keep the waning attention of these women sending half their salads back to be wrapped to go.

“It’s a complicated story.” I began. “I was poor. We were poor. There was no college dream or expectation.” It was so easy to slip into my familiar hero myth where I overcome an early childhood in a trailer on a dirt road to emerge as a college educated bookstore owner.

“And then there was the transition,” I said. “I transitioned from female to male when I was 30.” My attempt at a conversational waltz had become a hurried fireman’s carry to the finish line. “My son was 10 and my partner was 50, so I went through puberty and menopause at the same time – with them.”

The three women leaned closer in. They glanced at each other and subtly,-so subtly that I wouldn’t have noticed if I didn’t look for it every time I come out to someone- looked for the woman hidden away inside my male body.

I knew I had won back the room. I had told my story. I had condensed it down to its minor heroics and scandal and had caricaturized the mundane. We all agreed that I could never have survived there in that town, as if smallness is sinister and population multiplies intelligence.

But that’s only part of the story. It’s only the part that makes me look strong for running away. It’s not the part that calls me back there every month or so, sometimes less, to weedy backyards and broke down swing sets, empty streets and a full Wal-Mart, no-time-for-bullshit-stares and an extra paper plate in case you do show up.

And I keep showing up.

Alongside the oiled roads in the summertime, foxtails grow in the ditches between the road and the soybean fields. There are no cars, and the sound of an oiled bicycle chain rides with you next to that ditch and those foxtails, and the smell of a hog farm heats in the sun, and a bee sting on your ankle aches under a dirty sweat. There is the big sky and a lone tree waving from the field so far away you’re not sure you see it at all.

That tree, a beacon wrinkling in the waves of heat between you and it, calls you in and makes you set out across that field, uncertain if time stops at the edge of it. And you don’t know if it’s your future forming itself or your past folding back in on you, swallowing you whole under the swell. You just lay down your bicycle and start walking toward the tree.


I won’t write much here because I say what I need to say in person here:

The link  to comment is here.

If you want ideas about what to say, here is what I wrote:

As a transgender man, co-owner of a small business, consumer of health insurance through the ACA and active, voting citizen, I am writing to encourage full protection of transgender healthcare in health insurance including transgender related hormones, surgeries and other procedures.
Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act is quite possibly the most important part of the entire legislation. If this part of the law prohibiting the discrimination on the ground of race, color, national origin, sex, age or disability is not interpreted to include all transgender care it is still discriminatory.
It is a giant step toward equal access to health care to ensure that transgender individuals will not be categorically excluded from insurance, but it is critical to stress specifically that transgender healthcare must be protected so that in practical use, the access to treatment isn’t eroded by language that categorizes important surgeries and procedures as merely cosmetic.
The arguments against this – that it would put too great a burden on the taxpayer, that it would erode religious freedoms, that transgender surgeries are not necessary or are mutilations of the patients’ bodies – are red herrings. The real resistance to it is caused by ignorance fueled by misinformation disseminated by those who stand to profit from excluding us.
Cost to Taxpayer –
“The California Department of Insurance released an economic-impact assessment in April 2012 comparing the costs and benefits of a California law prohibiting insurance discrimination against transgender people. The department concluded that removing exclusions that target transgender people has an “immaterial” impact on premium costs and that “the benefits of eliminating discrimination far exceed the insignificant costs.”
“Inaccurate actuarial projections about the costs associated with gender transition and the size of the transgender population underlie many inflated estimates of the cost of equal coverage. The city of San Francisco, for example, charged $1.70 in additional monthly premiums for each enrollee when it removed transgender-specific exclusions from the coverage it offers to its employees and introduced a rider for medically necessary care related to gender transition in 2001. Over the next five years, the city collected $5.6 million in excess premiums and paid out only $386,417 on 37 claims. As a result, the premium surcharge was dropped in 2006, and the city affirmed coverage for medically necessary transition-related care as part of its core benefit package.” (quotes taken from – [URL REMOVED]
Religious Freedom –
The specter of the loss of religious freedom has been present in every wave of civil rights movements. Ensuring the protection of the care and civil rights of a segment of the population does not erode the freedom of religion. In fact, the strenuous protection of every American’s civil rights and safety, even if the person doesn’t agree with or fit into mainstream societal norms, also protects the rights of those who worship to worship in any way they feel compelled – even if it does not fit into mainstream societal norms.
The Necessity of Transgender Surgeries and Healthcare Related to Transition
I have known people who have gone into staggering debt, lost their families, friends, jobs, homes and reputations to finish their transition. Desperation is an ugly thing. This kind of desperation – and believe me, I have felt it like a boot crushing my throat – is all consuming, much the same way the search for new lungs, the panicked attempt to locate a lost child or running into a burning building to pull a loved one out of the flames is all consuming. The yawning black hole of the darkest, most evil depression and sorrow threatens everything.
This is not a nose job. This is not teeth whitening. This is not simply a haircut and a new wardrobe. It is bigger. It is necessary.
This administration has the unique opportunity to change the world for transgender Americans like me – to include me as a whole person, protected and respected as much as anyone else. If it fails to interpret and enforce the inclusion of ALL trans healthcare, it will have failed me. It will have left me in a sinking lifeboat far off shore without the hope of ever having access to the medical treatment I need.


jareksteele

Yesterday, we received an anonymous letter in response to this window display commemorating the one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s shooting:

blmThere was no return address, and it wasn’t signed.  It was a very short message on a note card telling us that we had lost a customer.  In it, the person said we stoked the flames of enmity between races and promoted division.  The person asked us why we insisted upon doing that.

It’s hard to know how to respond.  What I want to do is call up the customer and chat.  I want to take him or her out for coffee and talk about what those three words mean and why I and our store feel compelled to repeat them in a window along a busy street in what seems to some to be an act of ill will.

There is no way to do that in this case so…

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