Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Question of Velocity

My friend Rachel and I were running a few weeks back along the top of the parking deck next to the hotel we were staying in for one of the meetings we were conducting and, as we always do, began to catch each other up on our lives since we hadn’t seen each other since before the holidays.  As the conversation unfolded we talked about our holidays and time spent with family – or not.  I shared the story of what it was like on Christmas Eve at my sister’s house with her and my brother in-law and my two brothers and their wives.  We had a nice time, especially since my son was home from college and accompanied Mari and I.  It was good that he could spend quality time with all of his uncles. 

But I was quick to point out that it wasn’t always that way.  Truth be told, I was estranged from my brothers for a few years because they were having great difficulty coming to terms with my transition.  That meant not seeing them at all over the holidays.  It took time, but I explained to Rachel that it was not something I could completely control.  “Everyone in their own time” is what I have taken to saying, as I explained they have now reached a point of acceptance of my true self-in terms that work for them.  Do I think they completely understand me?  Heck no.  But I do believe they have progressed past the point of calling me by my former name and using the wrong pronouns all the time. I do believe - make that I know - that they love me, and I love them back.  Thank God. 

My experience with my brothers has taught me a valuable lesson.  Try as I might, I could not control their path to acceptance of me as a woman.  Lord knows I tried, but at the end of the day it had to be on their own terms and, in their own time.  But that said, I remained steadfast in my sense of self and who I am throughout that entire period.  I had an advocate in my sister, but she could only influence them so much.  That’s why I chose not to go to the family Christmas Eve gathering during those years because I had to stand up for myself.  It was the only way I knew how to make my point.  To perhaps influence their feelings towards me given that it was impossible for me to engage them in a one on one conversation about what it is like growing up in the wrong gender and running from it at every turn.  Did it contribute to them final coming around?  Perhaps.  Maybe one day we’ll actually have that conversation.

For many transgender and gender non-conforming people of my generation there exists a conflict between themselves and those that transition with them about its velocity.  For many, it cannot happen fast enough.  Decades spent in the closet have come to end, the proverbial genie is out of the bottle and one’s mindset becomes “now everyone simply must adhere to my schedule – period.”  It’s as simple as that.  It’s all about me.  Well, it’s not – really.  Wrong answer.  Thank you for playing.  We have lovely parting gifts for you.

All too often, at the moment of coming out, blinders seem to go on preventing the individual from seeing the impact that their transition is having on those around them. Soon one finds that life does not occur in the vacuum they have created for themselves – or at the same speed.  I have had many an interaction with transwomen at this point in their lives and the conversation was entirely about hormones, testosterone blockers, electrolysis versus laser hair removal and who’s the best surgeon for their gender reassignment surgery (GRS).  I try to be understanding, really I do, but is there nothing else going on in your life that you’d like to talk about?  Do you have any other interests? Hobbies?  “All Trans, all the time” is one dimensional and can be just plain boring – bordering on tedious. 

Honestly, I can see where this can happen.  It happened to me.  I completely miscalculated the impact of changing one’s gender can have on the uninitiated. A prime example of this is how I initially handled things with my son – which was a lesson in how NOT to do it. For example, I actually thought that by having pictures of me as my true self with my girlfriends scattered about my apartment would some how create an opportunity for me to have a dialogue with my then 11 year-old. What was I thinking?

I recall my therapist giving me quite a well deserved tongue-lashing when I shared that with her.  She read me the riot act - and I deserved it.  At best I would be confusing him, she explained, and at worst he could be frightened by what could only be seen as very strange images to him.  I distinctly remember her saying:  “He has an 11 year-old brain, which can only process information at a certain level – certainly not as an adult!”

I came away from that near-miss very shaken.  After some much needed reflection and discernment I arrived at a different and, dare I say, more enlightened state of mind.  I needed to ask myself this simple, yet very tough question, “Who do I want in my life after I complete my transition.”  And, I needed to answer it honestly, because the answer would not only guide the tactics of my transition, but also its speed.  I would, more than likely, have to do the one thing that is perhaps the hardest thing for a transitioning trans person to do:  slow down.  Put my foot on the brake, kick it into a lower gear and really, really be honest with myself.  My emphatic answer to that question was “my son.”  To live my life as my true self and not have him in it?  To not share all the moments of his growing up?  To not witness his development into a young man with his own ideas of what he wanted to do with his life and the impact he wanted to make on his world?  That was patently unthinkable.  
So I did slow down, I did find a therapist that would see both of us, I put away the pictures and I let go of the focus of “all me, all the time.”  It was the hardest thing I ever had to do, surpassed only by when I told my son that his mom and I were getting divorced. 

The moral of the story?  For me, it underscores the importance of keeping balance in your life and putting the needs of others closest to you before your own.  In so doing, I believe one can develop a greater sense of self and be in a much better position to advocate on behalf of our community – or be a better parent to their children, or a better sister or brother, son or daughter, or a better friend or colleague. But it doesn't just magically happen. You have to keep that focus day in and day out.  They'll be days when it's easy to do, and they'll be days when it's the last thing on earth you want to do.  But as my dear friend Terri puts it, it is the "inside work" - the work that no one sees but yourself - that may be the hardest you'll ever encounter, but bears the sweetest fruit.

It creates perspective, it creates context for one’s life.  As I have said many times, I am doing a horrible disservice to myself if the only thing I lead with is that I am a transwoman.  Sure, there are times when I need to lead with that because I am in a situation that warrants it - not to mention I am very proud of that distinction.  But I also believe that I bring much, much more to the table, so to speak, as a business professional, a partner, a friend, a parent, a sibling, a contributing member of society – a fully human being.  

Because after all, who really wants to live their life in a vacuum anyway?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

An Absence of Compassion, An Absence of Humanity

So I suppose I’m one of the “lucky ones.”  Not only did I get caught up in the traffic hell of the George Washington Bridge “traffic study” last September, but I also happen to be transgender.  At this point you might be asking yourself, “How do these two seemingly unrelated things relate to each other?”  Allow me to explain . . .

With respect to “Bridge-gate,” my partner Mari and I live in Cliffside Park, approximately two miles south of the bridge.  Since I work in the wilds of Westchester county, north of New York City, my daily commute takes me via local streets underneath the approach ramps to the bridge and then on to the Palisades Parkway.  I’ll save you from all of the sordid details, but let’s just say I was going nowhere fast on those four days in early September.  I do remember that as I inched closer to the bridge, the lines of cars trying to gain entry through the usual access points were longer than I had ever seen before.  “Must be some crazy accident” I thought to myself as I finally made my way around the mess – I was, after all, going in the opposite direction.  But to experience a “crazy accident” four days in a row?  Hmmmmm . . . that’s odd.  Little did I know then what a major crisis it would turn into for our esteemed Governor Christie.  I must confess to not losing a minute of sleep worrying about his well-being, but I digress.  Enough said about the “Debacle at the George.”  It’s the second part, the part about my being transgender, that lies at the heart of this commentary.

If you weren’t paying attention, or more accurately if you do not live in New Jersey, you could have easily missed it.  Amongst the never ending media coverage of the bridge lane closure affair, something that directly impacts transgender New Jerseyans took place in Trenton.  Governor Christie vetoed legislation on January 13th that would have eased the requirements for transgender individuals seeking to obtain an amended birth certificate - one that would accurately reflect their true and authentic selves.  No longer would an amended birth certificate be within the sole reach of those in our community who choose to have gender reassignment surgery or other gender conforming surgeries.   In other words, it would expand the availability of an amended birth certificate to a much larger portion of the transgender community – those that either have no plans for surgery, or those that do, but do not have the financial means to pursue it – yet are living their lives, 24x7, in the gender that is consistent with what they know to be true in their heart, in their soul. To quote a portion of the bill’s text, its purpose is to “. . . acknowledge that individuals do not necessarily undergo sex reassignment surgery when changing sex, and to revise the process for obtaining an amended certificate of birth due to a change in sex to reflect current practices.” 

Simple enough.  Straightforward enough.  The General Assembly thought so, and so did the State Senate . . . But not our Governor . . .  on the grounds it “. . . may result in significant legal uncertainties and create opportunities for fraud, deception and abuse . . . without maintaining appropriate safeguards.”  Really?  You’re kidding, right?  A shining example of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo at its best. 

It has been suggested that perhaps this is just the latest act of political gamesmanship that tends to occur with disturbing regularity in the state that I call home – the state that I was born and raised in. The state that I am proud to tell anyone who asks, that I am from.  Call it whatever you want, but the simple fact of the matter is that too many wonderful things have happened to the Garden State’s LGBT community lately –  gay marriage, the striking down of gay conversion therapy – for the Christie administration to allow yet another “win.”  So who gets the short end of the stick?  Why it’s the transgender community, of course!  Caught in the cross hairs once again.  First it was the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) back in 2007 when we were summarily stripped out of the bill as a protected class in an effort to make it more – you should pardon the expression – passable.  And now in my own backyard – this veto.  Do people think we somehow like it underneath the proverbial bus that we always seem to get thrown under?  Or is it perhaps that we are too easy a target?  Need a punching bag? Roll out the trans community, nobody cares about them anyway.  They’re just a bunch of wackos on the lunatic fringe.

Well guess what?  We are not some secret deviant society that lurks in public restrooms.  Quite the contrary.  We are real people.  Contributing members of society that just want to live their lives in the gender that they innately know is their true, honest and authentic one – and to have it authenticated with an amended birth certificate.  Is that too much to ask?  For Governor Christie, apparently it is.

I can assure you that to many of us in the trans community, an amended birth certificate is by no means merely a piece of paper. It is so much more than that.  It is a panacea for many. I can remember when I received mine in the mail a few months after my surgery.  It meant everything to me to see my mother and father’s name, the hospital in Newark where I was born that is no longer there, the date and time of my birth – and most importantly my full female name.  It is more than an understatement to say it was completing.  I remember thinking to myself through my tears of joy, “this is the way it was always supposed to be – and now it is.”  To deny someone of that feeling of completeness because of a perceived lack of “appropriate safeguards” is at best totally lacking in compassion, and at its worst, inhumane. 

So I pose this question to our Governor and his staff:  Is there no room for compassion for your fellow human beings anymore?  Is there no semblance of humanity left in Trenton?  Wait, wait – you don’t have to actually answer – your veto tells us all we need to know.  A basic tenet of my personal and public activism has always been that education can lay the foundation for understanding, which in turn sows the seeds of acceptance.  But what must happen for an educational interaction to exist?  One must first establish a meaningful dialogue.  A two-way interaction that involves the sending and receiving of messages from the two parties engaged in that dialogue.  Has that ever happened with the current administration?  Do I even have to ask?  The vast majority of the “meaningful dialogue” has occurred in court rooms between lawyers and judges – not with the affected constituents.  I often say in my speaking engagements “just give me five minutes” and you’ll come away with a much different perspective about transgender people.  To briefly paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, if you must judge at all, than work with me to create a forum whereby I can be judged on the content of my character – the content of my “human-ness.”

But perhaps this veto is merely a beacon bobbing on the top of the water attached to something much larger, much deeper, and more troubling – just below the surface.  Jim Beckerman of The Record in a commentary about this year’s crop of movies nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award, points to it very succinctly, “Are we, at the end of the day, a . . . people who care only about success, money, the big score, no matter who gets hurt?  Or are we a people who, when the chips are down, care about equality, compassion, justice for all?”  

I choose the latter, and this veto – as well as the cavalcade of shenanigans going on in the Governor’s office these days – make it clear to me that the former rules the day for the Chris Christie administration.

Monday, January 6, 2014

A Different Kind of New Year’s Resolution . . . .

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions – but with good reason.  Permit me to explain by painting a picture of what they were like for so many years for me.  There was a time in my life that I put great stock into them, though, thinking that somehow the turning of the calendar would magically transform my life – transform me.  Fat chance.  Go buy a Power Ball ticket (oh wait, they didn’t exist yet) the odds are better. 

But this is how it would play out for most of these years:  on New Year’s Eve, as midnight approached I’d somewhat anxiously count down the hours until the stroke of midnight, with the help of a few cocktails, and herald the onset of the New Year with the annual viewing of the ball drop at Times Square on television.  I can recall most of those evenings being quite emotional.  I would invariably find myself in tears about the prospects of getting another year off to a fresh start and leaving another behind.  The beat goes on:  lose a few pounds, start working out, be kinder to others, change my gender . . . .  Oh wait!  Whoa, did I say that?! . . .  I can’t possibly do THAT!!!  That is simply IMPOSSIBLE.  To do that would surely end my life as I knew it:  however fake it had become.  I felt trapped, I can’t possibly keep – let alone make – a resolution to embrace my authentic self.  In those days it was just not possible.
So I cried a lot on New Year’s Eve: yet another year goes by and I have to hide behind a mask, to continue to play a role that had become increasingly apparent to me was not who I was.  Another year of living a lie, of putting up appearances and surrendering my life to be lived on someone else’s terms – and I didn’t even know who that someone else was.  It was, I suppose, some vision of what I thought a man should be and how he should act; stitched together by my interactions with the men around me.  If I took what I thought to be what the best qualities were of each I could somehow transform myself into this super, mega man that would ultimately drive out of my body these feelings I had that my current gender was not the correct one.  But what I didn’t realize then is that one cannot simply cast out what is innately, intrinsically in your heart and in your soul. 

Could I muster up the strength and the courage to keep the facade in place for another year?  Heck, for another month, or another week?  After all, I had gotten pretty darn good at it.  But I convinced myself that it was the only means by which I could cope with the conflict.  I was lost, too afraid to move.  I would always laugh off the tears to others - like my ex-wife, for starters - as that’s just my being overly emotional.  The fact is, there were times when I cried so hard that it was all I could do to stop myself from sobbing out of control for fear of drawing attention to this internal conundrum.  I had tried to run from it, to “love” my way out of it, to immerse myself in hobbies and organizations that would take my mind off of the constant drumbeat in my brain that I was different.  But none of them ever worked.  Oh, perhaps as a temporary salve, but never all that long lasting.  Such were the New Year’s Eves of the 80’s, 90’s and early 00’s.  At least I had Dick Clark, God rest his soul.

Fast forward to this past New Year’s Eve.  My partner Mari and I are over our “brother” Noel’s house ringing in the New Year with cooking, music and wine – oh, and dare I forget the champagne!  What a wonderful evening, we shared stories of our recent cruise together – the pictures of which I finally posted to my Facebook page – and shared the warmth and love of what family to us is all about.  To be sure, we reflected on this year – for me a year of internal change and positive movement in my perspective on my life:  my career, my contributions to the community and to the movement at-large and my relationship with Mari.

We were into the second movie of the evening’s double feature, Serenity (the first was the original release of Kinky Boots with Chiwetel Ejiofor playing an amazing Lola), when I realized midnight was fast approaching.  Surely we were going to pause the movie and switch over to New Year’s Rockin’ Eve to see what antics Ryan Seacrest and Miley Cyrus were up to – or perhaps to see what bizarreness Kathy Griffin was subjecting Anderson Cooper to this year.  But no . . . we were approaching the climax of the movie – another one starring Ejiofor (no, we did not purposely assemble a Chiwetel Ejiofor Film Festival) – and as the clock struck midnight we exchanged kisses and “happy new year” pleasantries without taking our eyes off the screen – or so it seemed to me. That was it!  No countdown, no ball drop, no confetti flying in the air, no images of freezing people wearing Nivea hats partying at Times Square (where and when do they pee??!!).  Nothing.  Nada.  Surely we can go outside and bang some pots and pans??  Nope.

I will admit to a slight case of “hoopla withdrawal”, but I was surprised to find that it passed rather quickly.  How refreshing!  No tears, no angst, no consternation.  Just pure unadulterated gratitude for all that I have been blessed with in my life.  It most assuredly did not happen overnight, rather, it was years in the making.  Perhaps that’s what made it so cathartic to some degree. 

As I leave 2013 behind and welcome 2014 I have no sweeping resolutions to share that I know  I’ll never keep.  Just a promise to myself to love more, write more, read more and most importantly, to hold life gently guided by an ever increasing confidence that God is looking out for me.  Perhaps, just perhaps, that’s what following your heart is all about . . .

Happy New Year!