In the Forever That You Are Gone


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.

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Hail Mary Passes


There are a few things Kris and I can’t talk about, not because she can’t talk about them – Kris can and will talk about anything – but because I don’t seem to be able to.  Kris filibusters. Into the yawning acres of my frequent silence, she throws words, buckets full, truckloads full of words. She pins hopes and dreams on those words and tosses them at me, sometimes hurls them at me, hoping and dreaming that I will catch one of her hail mary passes in the end zone, while I make the yard by yard plays sometimes gaining, sometimes losing ground.

In the 13 years we’ve been together we’ve settled into this dynamic. I settle for yardage. She throws for the touchdown. “You are eloquent in your despair,” she says. And I suppose I am.

We seem to navigate money, parenting and home repair better than most.  Balloons, fingernails and injured animals are on my list of taboo subjects.  I will flat out leave the room. In the last few years, my transition has become a taboo subject. Not its existence, but the continuing journey of it.

The final piece, at the 30 yard mark, 3rd down, are the surgeries required to build a functioning male organ. It’s painful for me to even type this paragraph about it, so full of shame, guilt and fear am I.

My struggle with this part of my body is so personal, so individual, so bitterly lonely that it is dangerous. It renders me silent. And yet, as a couple, partnered in every way, intimate to our cores, this piece is shared territory. We have to navigate around it to stay connected.

In a perfect world, I would simply make an appointment, have the surgeries and heal. Life would move on, the giant wall would be gone and we wouldn’t spend the rest of our lives with the sacrifices that would require. We would still have our house, our pets, our bookstore and our dignity. I would feel whole in my body, and we wouldn’t have to avoid the subject.

It isn’t a perfect world, and while I’m trying to come to terms with a punt, Kris is still trying the hail mary pass. “The money,” I say. “We have to make a plan,” she says. “We can’t even repair the kitchen,” I say. “We make choices,” she says.  It’s breathtaking, her strange optimism, her single focus on my well being. If the roles were reversed, I hope I would do the same.

But the roles aren’t reversed, and here I am trying to fit into an ill-fitting body so those good things about our life, and there are just so many good things, don’t disappear on my account. Today I wondered how I would feel if she just gave up and let it go like I’ve been trying to do and realized with a shock (and more guilt) that I was depending on her hope.  I was looking at it from way down here in the end zone by myself hoping that she would, once again lob it high into the sky and I would see it hang there in the air somewhere between her and me and be grateful that she trusted me again to catch it.

Gender in Motion


dogsI rubbed a knot out of my bulldog’s back tonight.  All the while I soothed him and told him what a good and handsome boy he was.  My other dog is no fool and wanted in on the affection extravaganza.  She too heard what a good and clever girl she is as I scratched her belly. And I like to think the three of us there on the fur speckled rug loved each other. I don’t think either of them would have noticed if I called them good and attractive beasts without the gender assignment. They are blissfully ignorant of everything but the touch of my fingers along their spines and the tone of my voice when it’s cookie time. But I am not ignorant of their genders. I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t refer to their pets in some gender or another – humans assign gender to name the objects of our affection.  I have a beloved teddy bear in my closet with no clear markers whatsoever, but even when I refer to putting Snoozie Bear on a shelf I say I put him away.

Transition, then, is dangerous territory. The soft cheek of the woman thickens into the bristled cheek of the man. The deep timbre of the man’s voice ascends with effort into the voice of the woman. And somewhere in the middle, when narrow hips betray the lilting voice, when the hint of a breast confuses the cut of the shirt, we become a puzzle to solve, a question to answer, a questionable past and a dangerous future – to many, we become an object to observe. Objects are easy to throw away.

Our gender does not make us human, but denying our gender strips us of our humanity. So what do we do with that awkward in between place, that gender in motion?

Consider the actor I passed a month ago. His heels dug into the carpet in the lobby just after the show. His weight, his fatigued center of gravity, pulled him backward until the pointed red leather spike heeled boots, slanted forward from the heels of his feet, six inches off the floor, to the tips of his toes, folded awkwardly into the tips of the boots, made dents in the delicate pattern of the rug. His dark hair and beard collected the sweat from dancing and his pants breathed carnal humidity.

I paused there a few feet away from him and we looked at each other for just a second – me in my jeans and dress shirt, scars from breast removal and hysterectomy hidden beneath, him in his tight leather and spike heels sweaty and spent and perfect in his articulate inexactness.

What if we pass each other like this in brief moments of recognition and realize we are at our most human, and we are beautiful?

Letter to a Young Transperson


transphotoDear Me in Past Tense,

There you are, kneeling by the cardboard Barbie house dad made between jobs. You there, picking up the washrag upholstered furniture, aspiring to the talent to make a miniature couch out of packing foam, there are a few things I should tell you.

The first one you already know. That girl sitting next to you pulling the homemade plaid pants off of Barbie in favor of the cowboy dress is not only your sister, but your absolute best friend. You will be tempted to think you are in danger of losing her, but you shouldn’t. She is permanent.

The rest isn’t so clear.  It won’t ever be.  It doesn’t have to be.

You will feel like you are playing by a set of rules no one explained to you – sort of like kindergarten, when you couldn’t make the right handed scissors cut paper. You will correct yourself when someone mentions dressing up and you think of a suit and tie. You will pretend to assume skirt and blouse and then watch what your sisters wear and imitate them. You will – even after you’ve transitioned, gone bald and grown a beard – wish you were prettier. Nobody else will wish you were prettier.

You will, before and after you transition, spend hours trying to be handsome instead. You didn’t need to try that hard. Nobody else wished you were more handsome.

You will adore your sisters and female friends. You will respect and admire women more than you can articulate. You will wonder if a lack of admiration and respect for yourself guided your feeling that you were a man instead.  You will hear others express that sentiment.  It will stay with you. You will feel conflicted. All of your worry will not be necessary. You can be loyal to your female history. It will make you a better man.

You will, at different times in your life, love men and women. You will, at different times in your life, wonder if your gender will change too and you will regret transitioning. None of this matters. You won’t regret it.

None of your ex-girlfriends will be surprised when you tell them you are transitioning. You will find this hilarious.  You will wonder why they didn’t say something before. They will wonder why you didn’t.

Your transition is yours. You will be alone in it. This will feel both freeing and terrifying. You will feel lost, yet you will be expected to explain where you are. You will pretend to know where you are, and this will sometimes help.

You will feel guilty for inflicting your transition on those around you. You will use doctors you don’t trust in order to lighten the financial load on your partner. They will betray you, and you will learn that your partner just wanted you to be safe and happy. This will finally make it possible for you to trust her.

You will simultaneously go through menopause and puberty as your partner goes through menopause and your son goes through puberty. This will seem strangely normal.

You will feel invisible. You are not.

The Barbie house will stay in that house when you move. In your memory, it will remain there forever in the space between the stairs and the door to the attic. No one will have thrown it away.

Love,

Me in Present Tense

Matters of Human Dignity – One Trans Perspective


As I write this, the crowds in Ferguson have dwindled to a fraction of their previous numbers. The police are not aiming rifles into crowds or throwing tear gas at the media. Tonight we’re in a state of relative calm here in St. Louis.

I could go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow ready to go to my job at my bookstore with people I love virtually unmolested. I won’t have to worry about being pulled over because I fit the description of a white man in a pickup truck.  When I park my truck in the pay lot down the street from my store, white women won’t edge away from me as they make their way to the sidewalk. White men won’t over vigorously shake my hand to prove they aren’t afraid of me. Sales clerks won’t follow me around the store. I won’t be asked to leave a neighborhood or be arrested for failing to disperse.

I want to breathe deeply, relieved – and I could. But I won’t.

I pass as a middle aged white guy almost seamlessly. My balding head of hair is clipped close to the scalp. I’m a little thick in the middle. My middle Illinois twang is stubborn. Most of my family of origin votes Republican. I do woodworking as a hobby, for god’s sake.

It’s almost expected of me to believe without question the police narrative of what happened that day between the police officer and Mr. Brown. I’m supposed to nod and agree and give a meaningful look to my friends when someone brings up the notion that “those people in Ferguson” should simmer down and trust the legal process and that the use of force by the highly trained police force is almost always justified.

If I follow my middle America white boy script, I’ll support my local law enforcement by refusing to question its methods and then expect leniency for driving infractions in return. I’ll deny the widely known, unwritten St. Louis law against driving while black. I’ll make sarcastic remarks on Facebook and prove that I’m not a racist by telling as many people as possible that I don’t even see color.  In fact, I have black friends. I may even tag them in the post. I’ll say that the problem isn’t about race, it’s about lack of respect for authority.  Or maybe it’s about bad parenting.  Or maybe it’s about class. Then I’ll say I’m tired of talking about this and that those who keep harping on it are just trying to get camera time or are trouble makers and thugs.  Then I’ll change the subject and tune out when black people and white liberals bring it up. I’ll declare my disdain for having to be so goddamn politically correct all the time.

Here’s why I won’t:

Because none of this is true.

My truth is that I’m transgender. I’ve been married to a man and divorced, given birth to a child, lost that child in part because of my queerness, then parented him at a distance of a few paces anyway for most of his 22 years and continue to feel crippling guilt because of it. I’ve filed for bankruptcy, lost my car, have been virtually homeless but for the grace of my sister and have lived in a garage with rats. I’ve been chased out of bathrooms because of my gender, have been butchered on the operating table and then have been left alone to bleed in Intensive Care. I have been called “it.” I have been called out in public for being trans.  I had to fight the state of Missouri for my driver’s license for over two years.  I had to fight the state of Illinois for my birth certificate for longer. I have a 16 year old stepson whose skin is brown, who I’ve had to teach that the rules that even apply to me don’t apply to him. I’ve watched him struggle to accept that. I’ve hated myself for it.

When I tell my story, I focus on the bookstore I co-own, the family I love, the future I build, the police officers I do support with my taxes, gratitude and peaceful life.

If someone else were in charge of telling my story they might use words like “bad parenting,” “irresponsible”  and “unbalanced.” They might point to my struggles with depression and anxiety and call into question my integrity and point to my history of poverty and question my reliability.

I’m familiar with living a life that looks different from the perspective of each lens through which it’s looked. I’m familiar with being ignored. I’m familiar with being discredited.

And yet, besides pacing sleeplessly, attending protests and curating a reading and resource list through my bookstore, I’ve been hesitant to write and to speak as a trans man to the systematic disregard for and mistreatment of minority groups by emergency responders. After all, my response to being called “it” in the hospital was to be nicer to the nurse who said it.

This is a slippery issue.  I worried that tying the violent targeting of black men by the police to the violent targeting of trans people – especially trans people of color – would dilute the issue and derail the discussion, that it would dim the light on the conversation about race that this area is FINALLY having. I also though that the best thing I could do as a white person is to shut up and listen.

But I think I was wrong.

Last October, Al Jazeera reported that even when transgender people were the victims of hate crimes, 48 percent reported receiving mistreatment from the police when they went for help. What does mistreatment look like?  It’s not restricted to flying bullets and the definitive end to someone’s life.  It also includes being taunted, shoved, arrested for surviving an attack and silenced. It includes being defamed and shamed and closed out of the process. If any of this sounds familiar from the struggle in Ferguson you’ll be able to connect the need for training around race with the need for training around trans issues  – really, the need for humanizing the relationship between the police and regular citizens.

For us to have a conversation about this, all parties must listen AND participate.  There’s room for all voices here, and there’s a need for everyone to learn both to trust each other and be trustworthy to each other.

So yes, this abuse of power is about race and a growing attitude that the police are not members of the community they serve – the whole community, even the ones whose lives don’t look like theirs – and that their first allegiance isn’t to the people they protect but to each other.

I challenge those who read this to respect and listen to all truths even after Anderson Cooper stops talking about Ferguson whether you are a young black man, a white police officer, a transwoman, a genderqueer teenager, a stay at home mom or a lawyer. There are many good police officers.  There are many good young black men.  There are many good trans people.

We are all neighbors, someone’s child, the love of someone’s life, someone’s best friend.  The advocacy for civil rights for one group has to include a call for civil rights for all groups.  I hope that the same people I stood shoulder to shoulder with calling for justice not only for Michael Brown but for the civilians exercising their right to protest would stand shoulder to shoulder with trans people of all races to demand equally civilized treatment.  Race matters. Gender matters. Sexual orientation matters. Human dignity matters.  And it matters to everyone.

Chasing Gillian – A critique of Adam by Ariel Schrag


Well, this is problematic.  I don’t have anything against Ariel Schrag, per say like I do Norah Vincent (the reasons for which I could describe at length). Schrag is a talented writer.  Adam opens with a crushingly awkward and awesome scene where Adam, the 17-year-old protagonist tries to make out with a pretty girl in her bedroom while she IMs her other friends.  It sucked me in, I’ll admit.  When I picked the Advance Reading Copy off of a pile in my hallway to break my reading slump, I thought I was in for a light young adult novel – and it is, really – teenage protagonist, absent adults, adventure to new city, first-time sex.  Plus the blurb on the front was written by none other than Alison Bechdel, I mean holy crap, I love pretty much everything she’s done.

Synopsis:  Adam, socially awkward, 17 year old virgin moves to New York to live with his older (lesbian) sister Casey for the summer.  While there, he and his sister become involved with a group of friends – lesbian, bi and trans.  Adam is mostly on the periphery of the group, following them to clubs and parties, until he meets Gillian, a 22 year old lesbian, who mistakes him for a transman and starts dating him based on that assumption.

The story started out ok.  I even thought Schrag had broken into my head and lifted some of the awkward thoughts and panic attacks out of it and committed them to paper as she followed Adam through his social interactions.  And make no mistake, I remained sympathetic to Adam for pretty much the whole book.

Even as the story progressed, I found myself laughing at the posturing and posing of the 20-something scene in NYC, especially the Marriage Equality March scene where Schrag deftly and humorously illustrates the complicated and sometimes contradictory allegiances within the LGBT community.

Where this went off the rails for me is where Gillian, who is a 22 year old lesbian with more world and relationship experience than both Adam and Casey combined, mistakes a 17 year old high-school student for a 22 year old transgender man – not just once when she’s drunk at a party, but for a sustained relationship.  Why?  Because this pokes at a very sore spot for me as a transman.

Do sparse facial hair, acne and social awkwardness define trans for Schrag?  What about obsession with sex and body image? How about emotional immaturity and desperation for inclusion?  Because those are the only things about Adam’s character that Schrag draws upon to make her case that he is a passable transman.  The other transmen in the story are one-dimensional stereotypes obsessed with their bodies and masculinity who casually hook up with women like Casey and then break their hearts.  (Then, of course the confused woman (Casey) realizes she’s really into butch women and abandons the idea of transmen altogether.)

This premise is insulting to all involved.  In real life, Gillian would have figured out she was dating a teenage boy who had never even kissed a girl immediately.  Transmen have the unique experience of being socialized as girls.  Adam once sneaked his best friend to a place where they could watch his sister have sex with her girlfriend.  I sincerely doubt that same person could pull off even one day in the company of a group of people including other (real) transmen.

During the course of their relationship, Adam crams like he would for an exam so that he can pass as a transman.  He memorizes testosterone doses, surgeries, doctors, research and the shorthand lingo we use in online forums. He recites them in his head as one would before the big test, and throws out the bits of intelligence he’s gathered at strategic places so he looks like he knows what he’s talking about.

In other words, rote memorization without the experience – which is what Schrag’s treatment of the trans experience reads like.

Even still, the story held my interest for the day and a half it took for me to read the book.  And then the end of the story happened.

SPOILER ALERT

Gillian finds out Adam isn’t trans, is ok with it, decides she wants to date a 17 year old boy, then loses interest and begins a relationship with a cis gender man.

Sooo, what I’m hearing is that relationships with transmen (or people one thinks are trans) are only useful to clarify someone’s sexuality so that they can pursue a (real) relationship with the butch woman or cis gender man of their dreams.  So glad we can be of service. You’ll pardon me if I don’t let my partner of 12 years in on that secret.

I finished this book thinking, “Why can’t I find more good stories about trans people written by trans people?”  I suppose I should get to work.

Air Quotes


When I started transitioning 11 years ago, my goal was to be able to wear a suit and tie without irony.  The irony is that now I rarely wear a suit and tie. If you’ve read my earlier posts, you’ll know I’m more of a Carhartt/Dickies kind of guy.

In the beginning, my needs were modest – almost embarrassing in their naivete and physical appearance-focused nature.  Flat chest, facial hair, deep voice.  As if that was all there was to being a man. As if that would open a door that I could walk through unscathed. I wasn’t prepared for the space between female and male or how no matter what phase of my transition I was in, my status would forever be qualified by invisible air quotes.

If you’re gay and live in a state that still discriminates against you, you’ll recognize the air quotes. You’re “married” to your “spouse.”  If you’re black you’ll probably recognize the air quotes surrounding words like “diverse.”  If you were born a woman, you have already internalized the air quotes around “powerful” and “competent.”

I was not prepared for the air quotes around “person.”

When I was admitted to the hospital after an emergency surgery, my attending nurse came to me in the late evening between my opiate induced naps, leaned on the end of my bed and asked, “Do you prefer to be called He, She or It?” I decided that I had to be nice to her because I was alone in my room (they couldn’t put me in a room with a man or a woman) and she was the person who would come (or not) if I pushed the button on the fob tied to the handrail. My face no doubt resembled the look my bulldog gives when he needs to pee and I’m the only one with opposable thumbs to work the door knob.  Compliant, hopeful, grateful for any scrap of dignity. Part of me wished I had a recording device so I could use it to retell the terrifying tale to sympathetic friends. Part of me planned my emergency escape from the hospital if things got too weird.  Part of me (larger than I’d care to admit) just wanted her to like me.

It’s that part – the part that wants to be loved, who hates it when people are mad at me, who cannot abide much conflict at all – that steered most of those early years.  I kept making myself smaller so that I wouldn’t be the cause of any friction. If I’m honest, that part steers me much of the time now, except for I’m better at it because I’ve discovered that most of the time, the person you’re dealing with isn’t very concerned with you at all.  They are so wrapped up in their own insecurities, fears and loneliness that they are posing for you just as much as you feel pressured to pose for them.

In the years since then, I’ve learned to be gracious without begging, to forgive slights without consenting to them, to be grateful while demanding respect.  Being trans in the world has changed, too. Even since I injected my first dose of testosterone, the climate surrounding gender difference has warmed. In many cases, trans people feel freer to buck the whole notion of having a gender at all.  It’s very exciting.  Even Facebook has now included dozens of options under the gender question in your profile.  You can pretty much customize as much and as often as you want.  The whole notion of trans and gender is deconstructed.  Screw the “please like me” impulse – we can thumb our noses at all the air quotes around “man” and “woman” as if we’re not enough of either to be human.  I should be elated!

And I am.

So why haven’t I jumped at the chance to claim my transness on the mother of all social networks? Good question.  And one I’ve been asking myself all day, even after being interviewed about it.

I’ve never hidden my trans status.  In fact, I disclosed it much to my therapist’s chagrin during a group workshop (that had nothing to do with gender) because I had some sort of neurotic impulse to be honest at all cost, even if it derailed the purpose of the session.

I’ve written blog posts, essays, letters and even Facebook posts about being trans.  I went to Washington D.C. and disclosed my status as a transman in a meeting with high-ranking officials at the Department of Health and Human Services for god’s sake. I’m not closeted.

And yet.

I’ve grown attached to my male gender.  It’s mine and no one else’s. I’m a man the only way I can be, which is different than anyone else in the world can be a man. It fits me like my Rural King hat fits me.

The door I thought would be so easily traversed represented the most difficult journey I’ve ever started, and I am no where near, even over a decade later, finished transitioning. As I write this I know I’ll never be finished. 

The truth is that none of us emerge from our lives unscathed. We grow into the people we become – and then grow again. The truth is that transition is not only a  human experience.  It’s the only human experience.

So I’m free to be the person I am.  I have a right to select the term that fits.  So, I’m male.

I also reserve the right to change my mind.