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!