Monthly Archives: June 2015

Exotica

Published / by rmaddy / Leave a Comment
All of the true things that I am about to tell you are shameless lies.  —Book of Bokonon; Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut

The North American jackalope is among the most elusive of all native fauna. Speculated1 to have numbered in the tens of millions prior to colonization of the Desert Southwest, they are apparently destined to follow in the footsteps of the dodo, the golden toad and the jabberwock.  Despite the warnings on the sign pictured above, I didn’t see one damned jackalope on that entire stretch of road, nor indeed for several days afterwards.2

Nor is the life of an exotic animal always easy.  You are a curiosity.  People constantly point at you, sometimes whispering, other times shouting to make sure everyone else knows that you are the one who made the Epic Discovery.  Strangers poke and prod at you.  Camera-wielding thrill seekers try to pretend that they are taking a picture of something very interesting behind you, but you know they will display your image like a trophy to their friends later over craft beers.  Herding with other exotics only amplifies the effect.  Crowds gather and text messages start flying like hippogriffs and pegasi.  No small wonder, therefore, that many jackalope prefer to remain hidden in the crannies of the forest.

Which brings me to lunch…

Surgeon:  Would you like company as you eat?
Fabulous transgender ER doctor (F-TERD):  Sure
Surgeon:  Um, are you a girl?
F-TERD:  I’m a transgender female.
Surgeon:  Ok?
F-TERD:  It happens.
Surgeon:  I see.  Just so you know, I’m not interested in anything else.
F-TERD:  Thanks for the tip.

Having spent my entire life with one amazing woman, I lack recent experience with the complex mating, or in this case, explicitly non-mating rituals of the human animal.  I hear that humans develop an elegant fluency for this sort of interaction, but alas, I am entirely unpracticed.  Honest to Bob I thought it was a bit awkward.  No matter–he was fibbing a bit regarding his disinterest.  The next hour consisted of two ships passing in the daylight–me asking him about his hometown, medical practice and hobbies and he peppering me with a series of incredulous questions about how I managed to navigate the world, “seeming like a rational”3  professional attending the same conference that he was.  Guess I fooled him.

Most days I probably wouldn’t have bothered, but this time I chose amusement instead of indignation.  All in all, it turned out to be a decent conversation.  I’m pretty sure I saw him squirm a little when I described the freedom inherent in living a life without secrets.  I wasn’t just any old jackalope today.  I was a jackalope rockstar.

Human beings love exotica.  Witness how children love dinosaurs.  Big children (aka young Earth Creationists) love them even more.  Ken Ham’s Creation Museum postulates that extensive human contact with dinosaurs led to proliferation of dragon legends throughout the world.  “Prepare to Believe”, signs suggest helpfully.  I’m not making fun of them.4  My point is that whatever else we might disagree upon, the coolness of dinosaurs is beyond question.

Still, I think that they got it wrong.  We invent ogres, dragons, demons and unicorns because we need them.  They inhabit the darkened edges on the spectrum of possibility.  Tossed about in a world where no rule of thumb long remains unbroken, we cling to our superlatives:  the strongest, the most terrifying, the surreal and the mythical.  We embrace fantasy because most of the time reality feels far more absurd.  As GK Chesterton said:

Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.

Chuck Shepherd’s News of the Weird circulates in more than 250 newspapers and has spawned both friendly and competitive clone sites.  Would millions of people bother to read News of the Tedious and Mundane?  I think not.5  Shepherd sates our nearly unquenchable appetite for the bizarre, simultaneous providing us with something quasi-respectable to tell people that we are reading when we are actually looking at Dear Abby.  Or so I have heard…

At the risk of alienating the folks who probably comprise the vast majority of the page hits on this site, you didn’t find me nearly so fascinating in 2005.  I get it.  I suppose that I wasn’t.  Except that I was, and I was terrified to tell you.  We nearly missed the opportunity to know and love each other.  That’s the message:  somewhere out there, someone you know has an absolutely mesmerizing story to tell but is afraid to tell it.  If you can, try to project the sort of presence that makes others believe that you will listen to them, even or especially when the chain derails.

 

 

 

 

Self-identification

Published / by rmaddy / Leave a Comment

“I identify as black.”  –Rachel Dolezal

It’s that sort of year for the transgender community.  Even when the story is not about us, somehow we are getting dragged into the mix.  Former Spokane NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal6 scripted her words carefully for her first public post-outing interview, and the howl of the transgender advocates and allies was swift and furious.

I think we all understand the underlying question that Dolezal posed.  Right-wing culture warriors certainly pounced on it.  Are we free to forge our identities or not?  If I can call myself female,7 why can’t she call herself black?

I caught my first glimpse of the Lauer/Dolezal interview as I was hurrying to catch a flight.  I was transfixed and my stomach dropped to knee level.  Immediately and intuitively, I sensed that there was something deeply wrong about what she was saying, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

800 miles later, I still can’t.

To be sure, there is much wrong about the Dolezal story itself.  I don’t think it is possible for her to rationalize taking on leadership of a community without disclosure of her background.  Dolezal might believe that it would make no difference whatsoever if we were to find out that Susan B. Anthony or Gloria Steinem were transwomen, but I doubt many people agree.  Further, she has told some pretty big whoppers over the years to cover her tracks, to the point that she is being cast as a pathological liar.

I’m not sure what good this does for the discussion.  If her dishonesty really is pathological, then step one is to stop blaming her for it. Disease is best addressed with compassion, not shaming. To the best of my ability to tell from what I have read, Dolezal is someone who feels strong emotional connection to the black community.  She believes, wrongly in my opinion, that she couldn’t be a good mother to her black child without being black herself.  She felt that her experience of blackness provides credibility and gravitas to her life’s work as a civil rights activist.  Without endorsing her non-disclosure, I recognize that her self-presentation, her racial expression, if you will, arose at least in part from some fairly positive motives.  If she is a little messed up about what it means to be black, might it not reasonable to ask if I am a little messed up about what it means to be a woman?  Witness:

Critics assert that Dolezal cannot possibly understand black experience because she was raised white, growing up with privilege instead of oppression.  She is not black because she has altered her appearance to pass as such.  She could stop presenting as black tomorrow.  She wasn’t always black.  A paper trail and gallery of photographs attest to her former whiteness.   She benefited in some way from her transition.  She is potentially fetishizing black experience.  Stop me when I say something that could not be equally applied to transgender people.

The reason that Dolezal’s comment left me so breathless was not because it was so ridiculous, but rather because it wasn’t.  I might castigate her all I want for dishonest dealings.  I might chafe at the fact that she is capitalizing on transgender experience to score a point.  Regardless, I concede the point.  I don’t know if being “transracial” in the Dolezal sense is a real thing or not, but I see the peril in claiming legitimacy for my own cause on something as logically flimsy as strength in numbers.  Self-report is the bedrock on which my identity rests, and I can’t deny it to someone else while clinging to it for myself.

I see a potential path out of the woods.  It starts by recognizing what actually went wrong here.  Transgender people hide their past life post-transition are said to be “woodworking”, or “going stealth”.  This, and not internal self-concept, was Dolezal’s transgression.  I reject “stealth mode”, and I think it is time for the transgender community to loudly and clearly do the same.  I am who I am by way of who I was.  This does not mean, of course, that we all need to walk around wearing signs disclosing the intimate details of our biography to disinterested parties,8 but we can certainly do a better job of telling our stories when they really do matter.  Further, we can begin to recognize that the rigid constructs of race and gender don’t work as well as we used to think.  We do not live in a black and white world.  We are clothed in shades of gray.9

The transgender narrative wanders off target when it latches on to hopes of future technologies to prove who we are.  I can’t imagine any version of that scenario that does not suck.  I claim the right to define myself.  I affirm the right of others to do the same.  I think that we can do this with both honesty and care.  I don’t call myself a woman, and maybe Dolezal shouldn’t call herself black.  I am a transwoman.  My path to femininity was different from that of cis-women (aka “biological females), but it is not less.

The Jenner Moment

Published / by rmaddy / 2 Comments on The Jenner Moment

There are an estimated 700,000 transgender people in the United States.  Being transgender is more common than being from Wyoming.  Nevertheless, 92% of Americans in a recent survey said that they did not know a transgender person.10  The transgender community would seem to have a visibility problem, or at least it did until last week.

More people know that Caitlyn Jenner is transitioning than know that Rick Santorum is running for President.  One year from now, that will still be true.  I don’t spend much time in my car, but already this week I have heard three radio conversations with trans people as a direct result of the Jenner/Sawyer interview and the Vanity Fair cover.  Such a cluster of coverage–almost all of it respectful and positive–would have been unthinkable ten years ago.  If Jenner does nothing more than this for the cause of transgender acceptance, she will still have done our community a very good turn.  Inevitably, some of the other 699,999 stories are going to be heard.

Onto today’s riddle:

My daughter is a fashionista and cosmetology school graduate.  She has seen all the latest movies and knows the best places to hang out.  She likes sleek cars, muscular guys and takes a wicked selfie.  My wife fell out of a Jane Austen novel.  She dazzles in modest dress, revels in nature and eschews modern technology.  Her beauty is undeniable, but similarly unpolished.  If she weren’t such a strong ally to the LGBT community, she would likely have never seen a cover of Vanity Fair.

Which one of them is the real woman?

If you answered, “What a f***ing stupid question,” you are today’s winner.  Let’s take it a step further though.  Now add me into the mix.  A few of you might still find the question stupid, while others might find the question somewhat more complicated.11  Nevertheless, I trust that all of you would have sufficient respect for my human dignity to ponder the nuances privately.  Not so for an unholy alliance of conservative culture warriors, religious bigots and a few radical feminists who felt the need to respond to Caitlyn Jenner’s recent public appearances with venomous articles mocking her as a delusional pretender and insisting that she is a man.

Attacks from feminists unsettle me the most.  I expect nonsense from the religious right.  Feminism, on the other hand, is nearly defined by efforts to expose and uproot gender-based oppression.12  Women and transgender people (from all points of the gender spectrum) both suffer the ill effects of gender policing and gendered social structuring.  Why would feminists lash out at transwomen?  Looking again to the Burkett article, several reasons shake out:

1.  Transwomen have enjoyed and are suffused with male privilege.  In many cases, this is true.  The nature of social privilege is such that those who have it are least likely to notice it.  I am certainly guilty of not recognizing privilege in my life, and quite probably of not doing enough to renounce and reject male privilege in particular as I have transitioned.  On the other hand, I have certainly (through societal conflation of gender identity and sexual orientation) lost straight privilege, and in so doing, I have formed the idea that privilege is one–in other words, I cannot rationally reject male privilege while choosing to retain privilege based on race, class, education, etc.  Of course there is no guarantee that I will act rationally, but I do believe that I have made some progress.  And, responding to Ms. Burkett, to the extent that I continue to exude male privilege, I admit to being a poor feminist.  Then again, not all women are feminists either, and I don’t see her questioning their identity as women.

2.  Transwomen (and Jenner in particular) embody a skewed vision and stereotypical view of femininity.  Hell, I wouldn’t pose in a white corset either.  That said, there are dozens of glamour/fashion magazines coming out every week, and whether or not feminists of Ms. Burkett’s stripe have applauded the choices of the models, they have certainly not questioned their womanhood.  Is it possible that Jenner’s view of femininity is informed by the women with whom she is most closely associated?  Are they also “not real women?”  Additionally, I refuse to get my lingerie in a loop about the made-for-reality-TV flavor of Jenner’s public transition.  She was a consummate self-promoter long before she was Caitlyn, and expecting her to behave otherwise in this marketable moment would be like insisting that Mick Jagger sit down when he sings.  Ironically, those who wish Jenner would just shut up and/or slink away into a quiet corner are echoing the age-old wish that women should be seen but not heard.

Until transpeople are accepted as people, there will always be insinuations about deceptiveness and pretense.  I work in an all female “office”.  I wear more makeup than 98% of my co-workers. Many of my female friends report that they just don’t feel like they need it, that it feels like a mask, or that it hides their face.  I get that.  Although I enjoy the artistic aspects of application and take some pride in having gotten a bit better at it, I too think it would be nice to just “wash and wear” from time to time.  The problem is that my physical features project something to the world with which I don’t feel comfortable.  My face itself is the mask.  There is something behind it which is very difficult for you to see unless I show you.  When I put on makeup, it is not to hide, but rather to reveal.

3.  “Jenny come lately.”  Transwomen didn’t grow up as girls, and therefore are not women at all.  Except for transwomen who transitioned very young, the initial premise is certainly true.  It is to the conclusion that I object.  Or rather, I say, “define woman”.  If one wants (as it seems evident from Burkett’s writing) to define women as those adults who have vaginas on their original equipment list, I suppose that this closes the case.  Nevertheless, feminism has long aspired to loftier conceptions.

I agree that cosmetic surgeries can be a trap.  Caitlyn Jenner has obviously had some work done, but she didn’t invent breast augmentation, face lifts or nose jobs.  These things have all been available to (wealthy) women for quite some time.  Neither are these operations all bad.  There is a reason that breast reconstruction after mastectomy has become an almost uniformly insured procedure–our sense of wholeness and wellness is profoundly influenced by the shape of our bodies.  Trans people often feel intensely betrayed by and uncomfortable with their bodies.  While surgery should not be a first or obligatory step towards wholeness, it may well play a valuable role.

Every woman I know became one gradually.  Transfolk like Jenner and me are adolescent in spite of our years.  I really don’t give a shit if people think that I am a “real woman”.  That I also don’t know whether or not I am reflects the fact that I don’t think there is any definition of “woman” which universally works.  As Obi Wan says, “You’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”  Meanwhile, if it is my destiny to become a woman, whether in part or in toto, perhaps a bit of patience is in order.

 

Thank you for reading.  If you have any questions or comments, please write them on them on the bottom of a Mopho x4 synthesizer, and mail it to my home address.