Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Few Brief Thoughts on Bruce Jenner

First of all, a disclaimer... I don't watch reality television, and I can't remember the last time that I actually opened up a tabloid and read it. Here's what I know about Bruce Jenner: I know that he's an Olympic hero from the 1970s. I know that he's ON a popular reality show. I know that a lot of people are speculating about whether or not he is actually a trans woman. That's it.

Guess what? That's probably about all most people know about him, too. The speculation flying around about his gender identity has made the mask slip for a LOT of people (including Transparent creator Jill Solloway). The ridicule heaped upon him has revealed the transphobia and/or trans-ignorance rampant in the media, and it will only get worse if/when he comes out as a trans woman.

(Sidebar: I will refer to Mr. Jenner with male pronouns in this post, because absent any other information coming directly from him, it's irresponsible to assume that he would prefer any pronouns than the ones he's been using over his entire public life.)

The first hugely problematic thing we are seeing are the widespread assumptions about  Jenner's identity. Conclusions are being jumped to, and now "sources" are saying that he indeed intends to transition. All of this reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of, and lack of respect for, transgender people. There is no more deeply personal decision than the decision to transition, and EVERY trans person deserves to choose the time, manner and place of their "coming out." Outing a trans person without their explicit permission is disrespectful and dehumanizing, even if they are the star of a cheesy reality program. Until the moment Jenner himself declares that he is transitioning, whatever path he is on is manifestly NO ONE ELSE'S business.

Let's say for a moment that Jenner is trans, and is in the process of transitioning. The problems with how that is being portrayed in the media are almost too numerous to disentangle. First, there will be wall-to-wall misgendering. Many people will surely continue to address Jenner with male pronouns. Second, there is the problematically common phraseology that he is "becoming a woman." Nope. A trans woman doesn't "become a woman" when they transition. They always were women. In our cases, we have to overcome the gender identities that were coercively assigned to us before we can start living authentically. Some people are able to start living authentically as children or adolescents. For others, their journey to authenticity can be much more lengthy and circuitous. Both approaches are valid, and they have as much right to womanhood as any cis women does.

Weirdly, I almost welcome the crude, vile jokes that will start to rain down if/when Jenner comes out. Why? Because they will let us know EXACTLY what the purveyors think about trans women. The fact that Jenner is 65, or the fact that he's had his face splashed on tabloid covers for years, doesn't make it OK to turn his transition (if it indeed is happening) into a joke. If Jenner is trans, he's undoubtedly endured DECADES of mental anguish, perhaps all the way back to childhood. The decision to transition is a terrifying one, because despite the progress that has been made in recent years, our society is openly hostile to transgender people. No one can (or should) blame Jenner (or any trans person) for hesitating to transition, or criticize the manner they choose to go about it (or how they come out).

In my own case, it took me until I was 30 to just come out to myself. After that, I came out to friends and family at age 33, only to freak out and scramble back into the closet again until I was 37. The prospect of losing EVERYTHING was a tangible one, and it was absolutely pants-shittingly horrifying. I can't imagine how difficult it must be to be in the public eye, carrying around what I did for years as a private citizen: The knowledge that this fundamental thing about you as a person could blow up your life if the wrong people found about about it.

If Jenner does come out, I think it's important to remember a couple of basic principles...

First: It's never too late to live authentically. Just because someone waits until their 60s to transition, it doesn't make them any "less trans" than those of us who transitioned earlier in life, or any less of a woman than cis girls are.

Second: Jenner would be under no obligation to transition in a particular way. His journey is his own, and no one else has the right to be judgmental about his decisions, including people in the trans community.

The bottom line right now is that no one really knows what Jenner is going through, and we should all back the fuck off. If he comes out as trans, I'll support him. If he doesn't, I'll continue to respect his privacy and treat him with the basic humanity everyone deserves. More to come on this, obviously.

What do y'all think?

Monday, January 12, 2015

In Defense of the Brilliant (but Flawed) Transparent

One of my all-time favorite TV shows is the American version of The Office. I adored the original BBC version, but the somewhat more optimistic tone of NBC's take resonated more deeply with me. In the episode "The Chair Model," Andy and Kevin agitate to get back their parking spots from Vance Refrigeration's construction crew and they unexpectedly succeed. There's a shockingly moving talking head bit with Kevin afterwards: 

"After Stacey left, things.. did not go well for a while. And it was hard to see... (trails off)... It's just nice to win one."

I've been thinking about that today in the wake of Transparent's big wins at the Golden Globes last night. In the wake of a seemingly never-ending stream of tragedy and horror for the trans community, punctuated by the death of Leelah Alcorn, it was stunning to see showrunner Jill Soloway say this on live worldwide television: 

“I want to thank the trans community. They are our family and they make this possible. This award is dedicated to the memory of Leelah Alcorn, and too many trans people who died too young. And it’s dedicated to you, my trans parent, my “mapa,” if you’re watching at home right now. I want to thank you for coming out because in doing so you made a break for freedom, you told your truth, you taught me how to tell my truth and make this show, and maybe we’ll be able to teach the world something about authenticity and truth and love. To love.”

After all of the shit we've dealt with, that was cathartic. It brought me to tears. They were talking about people like me in front of millions, and it wasn't a cheap joke. It wasn't hateful. It wasn't exploitative. It wasn't well-meaning but tone-deaf and counterproductive. It was heartfelt and humanizing, and it was a message that needed to get out there to the vast majority of Americans who view trans people as alien at best and subhuman at worst. 

Is Transparent a perfect show? Far from it. It strikes a few false notes about the trans experience, and it gave the lead role of a trans woman to a cis male actor (more on that below). However, it is relentlessly compelling and entertaining. It's great television, and includes a nuanced, realistic portrayal of a late-transitioning trans woman. Maura is a flawed person. She fucks up repeatedly (in a jarring moment, she shouts a homophobic slur at a group of gay men while in a state of deep emotional distress), but she also strives towards authenticity and self-actualization. That striving is relatable, as is her struggle through moments of horrifying transphobia from strangers, family and friends (I could barely get through a scene where she is accosted and verbally attacked for trying to use the womens' restroom). One of the show's biggest selling points is its ability to weave the story of a trans woman's journey into an ensemble drama seamlessly, rather than turning Maura's story into a pedantic moralizing slog for viewers. In a family full of broken, blinkered people, Maura stands out as the only one who is able to face the truth about herself and take meaningful action towards self-knowledge and self-improvement. 

There's been some justifiable criticism for the casting of a cis male actor (Jeffrey Tambor) in the role of a trans woman. Everything else being equal, trans roles SHOULD be filled by trans actors and actresses. First of all, there are plenty of talented trans actors and actresses out there who would do a better job than the cis actors chosen over them. Generally speaking, using cis actors in these roles punctuates the invisibility that real live trans people fight against every day. 

However, I think this situation falls squarely into the "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of good" category. I believe it's important to point out the ways in which Transparent falls short in terms of its portrayal of trans people and the trans community. One thing that stuck out to me was a plotline where Maura, at age 68, having dealt with her feelings of gender dysphoria since at least the mid-90s, was seemingly utterly ignorant about HRT. She was a university professor with access to the internet. I know that as a college student back then, I was already digging up all the information I could find about hormones online. It strained credulity to ask viewers to believe Maura wasn't doing likewise. In addition, the show's been criticized for its portrayal of trans men. I'm not here to argue the show is above reproach. It's not. 

But does that mean that it shouldn't be watched? Or that it doesn't represent a groundbreaking step forward for trans representation in the mass media? Hell, no. Jeffrey Tambor is cisgender, but his performance is deserving of every bit of praise it has received (and it somewhat makes up for the weird presence of multiple transphobic/trans-ignorant plotlines on Arrested Development. I probably need to write a whole other post about how I deal with it when transphobia suddenly appears in entertainment I otherwise enjoy/adore). Maura's dignified but flawed humanity is a quantum leap for how the experience of being a trans woman is presented to the mass public, and along with Laverne Cox's stellar turn on Orange is the New Black, it's inarguable that we are seeing tangible progress. 

We can criticize media and push its creators to do better without completely dismissing work that is largely progressive. While the lead role on Transparent went to a cis man, there are multiple roles filled by trans actors and actresses on the show, and for the upcoming second season the show has added a trans woman as a staff writer. Who knows... The second season might be awful or go in unexpectedly ignorant directions. Perhaps in 10 or 20 years, the show will seem hopelessly retrograde in its handling of trans issues. But right now, its indicative of a slow but discernible shift in our culture towards greater acceptance for trans folks... and that's worth celebrating. 

Yes, we needed a win. But in the larger sense, we are winning. Our victory is inevitable, and to deny the progress that we are seeing is to deny us hope for a better future.  

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Why I'm Not Stealth

One of the most personal, private decisions for any transgender person is the time, manner, and place where they "come out" to other people. Some trans folks choose to "go stealth" in their everyday lives. They choose not to disclose the fact that they are trans and allow the people they interact with to assume that they are cisgender (Sidebar: One of the most insensitive and harmful things you can do to a trans person is to "out" them without their explicit consent. DON'T DO IT).

There are many compelling reasons to be stealth. Given the stratospheric levels of discrimination, sexual assault and violence towards trans people, life is certainly easier (and safer) for those of us who are able to successfully pull off a stealth presentation. Every trans person has their own unique set of desires and motivations, and there is nothing inherently "better" or "worse" about being "out and proud" or "going stealth." I have chosen to be open with others about being trans, and the reasons are both practical and philosophical.

One practical reason I choose to be "out" is the fact that as a late transitioner (I went "full-time" at age 38), to truly "go stealth" I would have to move to a new city and abandon my girlfriend and my circle of friends. In addition, with two small children living here in Ohio, just picking up and moving to a new city isn't a viable option for me. On top of that, if I tried to completely cut ties with my past, what would my resume look like? How would I explain not having any references or job history before my mid 30s?

I also find the mere idea of living stealth to be stressful. For a long stretch of my life, I was worried about people finding out that I was "different." The idea of going back to that, of constantly being worried of people figuring out that I'm trans, is terrifying. One of the things that I've most enjoyed about transitioning is living openly and authentically in a way I had never been able to do before. I can't imagine diving into a life akin to a Directorate S illegal on The Americans. I'm already a jittery, anxious person, and I don't think I'm psychologically built to pull off stealth day-to-day.

For example, on my OK Cupid account, I disclose that I'm trans in the first sentence of my profile. Why? Because I hate the idea of getting to know a person, reaching a point of mutual interest and attraction, and then having to give them "the talk." Maybe it would go great, but there's also a high probability of rejection and psychological pain for me, and a non-trivial chance of physical violence targeted my direction. I'd much rather filter out the transphobes at the start and choose among people who are open to dating folks like me.

Philosophically, I'm not ashamed of being trans. In my perfect world, people would look at me and assume that I'm cis, but if/when I get "clocked" as trans, my reaction would be "So? Yeah, I'm trans. What of it?" It's also important to me that my children know that being trans isn't something to be ashamed of, or a secret they need keep about me.

I also feel some responsibility to be a visible trans person. Less than 10% of the population "knows a trans person" (Of course, many of the respondents to the Pew poll in question may know trans people without KNOWING that they are trans), and as we've seen with the gay and lesbian communities, general acceptance increases as more people realize that friends, family, and/or coworkers are trans. Negative abstractions are replaced with the reality that folks they know and care about are transgender. I feel obligated, as a trans woman who enjoys an array of socioeconomic privileges, to embody that reality. I also want other people who might be trans and struggling (particularly younger trans folks) to see that I'm an out trans woman, I'm happy, and I'm more or less OK.

No trans person is obligated to be an activist, or to "represent" the trans community. Everyone's first responsibility is self-care, and if living stealth is something that gives a person a sense of contentment and security, it's a perfectly cromulent way to exist. Me? It's just not in my wheelhouse. To all my stealth brothers and sisters out there: I'm sending you love. You have strength I do not possess.

What do you all think? Whether you are "out" or "stealth," I'd love to hear your feedback.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Frequently Asked Questions

So, what's your deal? 
I'm a trans woman, meaning that I was designated male at birth, but my gender identity didn't match up with that designation. It took me a long time to figure out what what going on. I knew I was "different" around age 8 or 9, and that sense of difference intensified at puberty. Something was wrong, but I didn’t have a name for it. I battled severe anxiety and depression for years. I tried therapy, I tried Zoloft, etc. Nothing worked. Around age 30, I came out as trans to myself. I kept muddling along for 7 more years, but once I finally started taking steps towards transitioning, I wasn’t miserable any more. For the first time, I had real hope for the future, rather than a nebulous hope that following the social script handed to me from birth would work out somehow in the end.

What steps have you taken in your transition?
I started Hormone Replacement Therapy in July 2012, and then laser hair removal a few months after that. I "went full-time" in December 2013, and I got my name and gender markers changed in April 2014 (though I've since decided to go by my new middle name, and I plan to legally change my name again to Ramona Jillian eventually).

What changes have you seen?
I finally have a body that matches my identity, thanks to HRT. I've seen spectacular breast development, and I've developed curves where they're supposed to be on a woman. My skin and hair are softer, and my face has taken on a more feminine appearance. I'm more sensitive to cold temperatures, and I get bruised/cut more easily than I did pre-transition. I was emotional before I transitioned, but it's gotten bumped up from a 7 to more like a 9. I'm MUCH happier overall, and my depression and anxiety have all but evaporated.

Two things that hormones won't do? They don't get rid of your facial hair, and they don't change your voice. I've had decent (but not perfect) results with laser hair removal, and I haven't taken major steps to change my voice (though many other trans women do).

Have you gotten "the surgery?"
First of all, you REALLY shouldn't ask a trans person about that. It's deeply personal and private. As far as I'm concerned, I'm comfortable saying that I have no interest in any surgeries at this point.

Have friends and family been supportive?
Yes. It's been much better than I could have imagined. I had shaky moments with my immediate family at first, but the negative experiences in that sphere have been minimal. Overall, I have more friends now than I've had at any point in my life since college.

Are you gay? 
I like lots of girls, and some boys. I identify as pansexual.

Are you married?
Nope. I am divorced.

Do you have kids?
Yes! The two brightest, kindest, most beautiful children in the universe. I came out to them in July 2014, and while there are occasional awkward moments, they are adjusting quite smoothly.

Are you in a relationship?
I am in an open but deeply committed relationship to a wonderful, intelligent, funny, sexy, caring woman.

Wait, what?
Yes, we are poly. We are free to both date additional people. I'm sure I'll talk more about being poly from time to time.

Where are you from?
I grew up in Eastern Washington (in the Tri-Cities area), and went to college at Western Washington University in Bellingham. I moved out to Columbus, Ohio for graduate school, and I'm proud to call the 614 area code home now.

What are some of your other interests?
The main obsession is for my beloved Seattle Seahawks. I write a blog about the team. Check it out. But I also am a huge pop culture geek (particularly about film and TV), I love to go to Columbus Crew matches and Columbus Blue Jackets games, I love to stroll about Columbus' many parks and shopping malls, and I love to get out and try new things (like writing a blog about my transition).

What are some of your favorite films? 
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Pulp Fiction, Brazil, GoodFellas, Blade Runner, Inception, Her, Lost in Translation, Scott Pilgrim v The World, Fight Club, Boogie Nights... And on and on and on.

What about television?
Hannibal, The Americans, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Bob's Burgers, Archer, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Office (both versions), The Simpsons, Orange is the New Black, Transparent...

Sleater-Kinney, Radiohead, Wilco, Guided By Voices, Nirvana, R.E.M., The Postal Service, etc.

Any books about trans issues you'd recommend?
Yes! Whipping Girl by Julia Serano. It's my trans bible. It helped get me to finally take the leap into transition.

That's good for now... I will update this as needed.

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl

Welcome to my new writing project, everyone. I've been writing for a while about the Seattle Seahawks over on Dave Krieg's Strike Beard, and I've been writing about my transition over on Tumblr for a spell, too. I envision this blog as a space for my longer-form writings that don't fit well on my Seahawks blog or on my Tumblr. It will focus on my transition and on trans issues, but I will also post essays about other topics as I see fit.

The name of this blog references a song from one of my favorite bands (Sleater-Kinney) and the fact that I live in Columbus, Ohio. I'll be posting a FAQ here very soon, but for now I'll leave you with "Modern Girl" by Sleater-Kinney. I think this will be fun, y'all!

My baby loves me, I'm so happy
Happy makes me a modern girl
Took my money and bought a TV
TV brings me closer to the world

My whole life looked like a picture of a sunny day
My whole life was like a picture of a sunny day

My baby loves me, I'm so hungry
Hunger makes me a modern girl
Took my money and bought a donut
The hole's the size of this entire world

My whole life looks like a picture of a sunny day
My whole life looked like a picture of a sunny day

My baby loves me, I'm so angry
Anger makes me a modern girl
Took my money, I couldn't buy nothin'
I'm sick of this brave new world

My whole life looks like a picture of a sunny day
My whole life looked like a picture of a sunny day

My whole life looks like a picture of a sunny day
My whole life looks like a picture of a sunny day