It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over…. and Transition is NEVER Over!

I recently applied for Medicare. A few weeks after submitting my application on line, I received a letter in the mail from Social Security, telling me to call not a phone number but a specific person, named in the letter. I couldn’t imagine what would warrant a letter telling me to call an actual person.

I called Usha, and a real person answered the phone. O.M.G. really??? She looked up my name and asked me security questions to verify it was really me. Then she said the absolute last thing I would ever have expected: “The gender you checked on your form doesn’t match what’s in our system.”

As a therapist, I advised hundreds of people: “Before you ever start telling people you’re going to transition, before you ever start taking hormones – right now, start making a list of all the places your name and gender appear. Include phone numbers, email addresses – whatever information will help you make the change once you reach that point. Add to the list as you think of new things. Library card. Your bank. School. Believe me, you will be so grateful to not have to create this list once people are reacting to your transition, especially if you’re also going to be dealing with a shifting hormone balance.”

No one ever gave me that advice 25 years ago. At the time, I was too young to have much interaction with Social Security. I got a new Social Security card with my name change – but I changed my name long before I started taking hormones and could change my gender. There is no gender indicated on my Social Security card. I forgot I’d never made that change to the Social Security system.

Usha: “Do you have paperwork that will verify your gender change?”

Me, nearly falling over laughing, “I might have a file… somewhere… maybe.”

Usha, beginning to laugh herself as the ludicrousness of the situation was clear: “Ordinarily, you’d have to take paper documentation to your local Social Security office along with your ID, to prove it’s you. Because of Covid, the offices aren’t open, so I’m going to waive this requirement and process your application.” Yesterday I received my Medicare card in the mail.

So, trans folks reading this – make sure you’ve changed your name and gender everywhere you need to! And if, like me, you have transitioned long before you’re dealing with Medicare or Social Security benefits – double check that you’ve changed your gender in their system!

God’s Bedroom

Trail Ridge Road. 12,183 feet. The highest continuously-paved road in the continental United States. The summit of this road is higher by 1,000 feet than the tip-top of Mt. Hood, that glorious mountain just east of Portland. Featured in an article in Bicycling magazine in the early 1980s, I knew this road was destined for a future bicycle tour. How could I possibly resist such a challenge! In 1987, planning my cross-country route around the Contact Dyke list of Lesbian Connection, the centerpiece of the trip would be Trail Ridge Road.

Riding east from Portland felt like one mountain range after another. Right off the bat, the Cascades. On through eastern Oregon, over the Blue Mountains, cutting a corner of Idaho, over the Uinta Mountains in Utah, a rare east-west mountain range. Turning left to head east into Colorado, the Rocky Mountains gradually dominated the skyline. Turns out all previous mountains were practice runs.

The Rockies don’t appear as high in western Colorado as they would from western Oregon. Portland has an average elevation of about 60 feet above sea level. From this perspective, the mountains I was approaching would have seemed high indeed, with peaks 14,000+ feet above sea level. 3,000 feet higher than Mt. Hood.

Western Colorado, however, is already more than a mile above sea level. Climbing to leave Portland, and never quite getting the full descent on the other side to the high desert of central Oregon. Climbing some more, and never fully coming down the other side before hitting a plateau before climbing some more. From western Colorado, the Rockies appear shorter than the Cascades are from Portland.

From a bicyclist’s perspective, my body was already acclimated to over a mile high. Good thing, since I was about to add nearly a mile to my altitude and back down again in one day’s ride.

The Rocky Mountains extend nearly 2,000 miles, from northern British Columbia down through Colorado, fading into the deserts of New Mexico. Grand Lake, Colorado marks the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, home to the highest peaks in the entire mountain range. Grand Lake is a small touristy town nestled in the foothills of the Rockies, over 8,300 feet in elevation, with a disproportionate number of restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts. Whether about to embark upward or just returning from the heights, whether biking, backpacking, or car driving, calories would be in high demand.

Shortly after noon, I leaned my bike against the outer wall of a café, and went inside for yet another meal. The attraction of this particular café was the ‘all you can eat’ sign out front. For a fixed price, I could go back to the buffet for seconds. And thirds. And fourths. ‘All you can eat’ made no money off me that summer! I couldn’t keep up with the calories I was expending.

As I ate and got more food and ate again, I chatted with Rhonda behind the cash register. Upon learning I was heading east on a bicycle, she said, with great concern, “You’re not going over Trail Ridge today are you?” I said no, early next morning, and she said, with even greater relief, “Oh, good, cuz you’re gonna be in God’s bedroom up there.”

Finally, The Day. I fortified myself with the largest breakfast or two I could find, knowing I’d have no way to eat more than granola bars on the way up and over. By all accounts there was no place to stop beyond a very occasional porta-potty. No infrastructure on this road beyond the road itself.

When approaching a mountain range, there is a period of foothills that is seductive: “I’m climbing the mountains now.” Then you reach the mountains and realize, “Oh. NOW I’m climbing the mountains.” The road out of Grand Lake is mountains. Immediately. And for a Long Time. Next stop: Estes Park, over 40 miles ahead to the beginning of the other side of the country, across the Continental Divide.

The trees grew shorter and more scraggly with each twist up of the road. Further apart as the air thinned. Patches of snow in the shade became walls of ice narrowing the road. The peaks of Trail Ridge are aptly-named: the Never Summer Mountains. The trees straggled, and then were gone. Above the treeline, even near summer solstice, the ice never melts. Roadside was tundra. No shoulder going either direction, the walls of ice encroaching on the pavement, obliterating the white line indicating road’s edge. This road was only open about two months out of each year; May 31 was the earliest it had been open in over twenty years.

And the wind. Always the wind. Nothing to break it any longer. It shifted, never consistently from one direction. I was nearly blown across the road numerous times. On a rare stretch of road that was downhill, I had to pedal downhill through a headwind. Some four miles from the top, the headwind was so strong I had to push my bike for a mile or so uphill.

The sky was thin, and I felt I was living above the atmosphere, as if I could take off for outer space with very little effort because I was already halfway there. The sun looked so close. I couldn’t catch my breath, and felt quite out of shape. My admiration for those who climb Mt. Everest soared to hero worship. Over twice as high as I was now…

As I approached the top, I looked with great anticipation for a summit sign. Every bicycle tourist learns to recognize The Top. A crest of a hill, then a gradual flatness, a shifting of gears, and then no need to pedal any longer. And  – a sign we live for, a photo op for the bicycle leaning against a sign that says – there was no summit sign. I felt cheated; of all the summits I’d achieved, this was the hardest-won. I was to learn later, on the other side, that there is no summit sign for Trail Ridge Road to prevent cars from stopping mid-road for the photo op.

As I considered the descent, I was a bit desperate. It had taken me  til midafternoon to get to the top, over 20 miles up from Grand Lake. As I continued east, down the back side of the Rockies, I was leaving the sun on the west side of the mountains. Dark would come fast. I still had nearly 20 miles to Estes Park. I hitch-hiked down. As I stood with my thumb out, I looked out east, and in the distance, a bit south and a long way down, I saw the smog of Denver, the mile-high city, a mile below me.

Jane and Roger stopped to pick me up. They helped me load all my gear and bike into the back of their station wagon, and drove me into Estes Park. As we talked, I was astonished to learn that they’d already passed me going the other way. They were heading over Trail Ridge Road to go home to Grand Lake. They saw me hitch-hiking and turned around to do a good deed. As Roger described it, they were moved by the desperation in my face.

This was an even bigger good deed than they initially realized; Trail Ridge Road closes at 8:00 each day. The Forest Service patrols the road to rescue those left behind when the gates are locked. Jane and Roger drove me to Estes Park, and then had to drive around the Never Summer Mountains via the interstate, not over the top; their day was extended by over 150 miles beyond what they anticipated.

I spent the next couple of days recuperating in Estes Park, gazing from the porch of my motel at what I’d accomplished. I was so depleted on arrival I couldn’t even go to dinner; I ate three bananas and collapsed in bed. The next day, I went no further than the café a couple of doors down, tired out by that small level of activity. I’d fully drained my considerable strength and stamina on that trek into the heights of the earth, fueled only by breakfast and some granola bars, gaining and losing nearly a mile in elevation in one day. God’s bedroom indeed.

The Rhythm of Life

During the current pandemic and quarantine, I work from home. I only leave the house a couple of times a week to grocery shop, spending the bare minimum amount of time out of the house. Over the past few months, I’ve heard various people mention in puzzlement that they are losing track of days of the week, sort of. Losing track of what day it is, sort of. They’re having a hard time articulating the experience. I have put some thought into this time warp, trying to pinpoint the effect on me. There is an unease, a feeling of not being grounded. I‘ve now realized the pandemic is the backdrop of this experience, but not the reason for it.

In the 1980s, I took myself off on several long-distance bicycle trips. One trip was from Portland to San Francisco. I was on the road ten days in mid-August, sleeping outdoors each night, seldom inside. By the end of that trip, I knew precisely when the moon was going to rise, and where, and how big it would be. That trip was north-south, and only ten days, so I didn’t notice much difference in the sun’s position in the sky. As I went south, it was a little further overhead was all the difference to me.

A few years later, I pointed my bicycle east in early May, landing in Boston in early July. This was a two-way trip – I rode back to Portland, arriving home late September. On that trip I became attuned not only to the moon, but also to the sun. I understood for the first time why time zones. I could tell by the time of sunset when I was approaching the next opportunity to change my watch. I knew when and where the sun would rise next morning, where and when the moon was in its cycle. I was seldom indoors for nearly five months, and felt the changing of the seasons.

It’s June 21 as I write this, summer solstice. I only know that by calendar observation. Because I work a Monday-to-Friday job, I haven’t lost track of days of the week, as some of my friends have. What I have lost track of is the time of month, the season of year. June 21? It might as well be May 15. Or July 30. My bicycle trips put me in touch with the rhythm of the earth, the cycles of time we call seasons. I’ve lost that rhythm, and no longer have any sense of what time of earth it is. Spending our time indoors, that sense of rhythm is disrupted for me and most of my friends, subconscious though it used to be.

My friend who is quarantined in a beach house at the coast is having the opposite experience. Spending time on the beach morning and afternoon, she has a newfound sense of the rhythm of life, never having lived with the ocean before. Tides. Moon. Sun. The rhythmic harmony of nature. Those of us quarantined in the city have a harder time focusing our daily lens on ourselves as part of nature. And yet we have had a subconscious attunement to seasons, an attunement disrupted by quarantine.

Even those who go for urban walks fairly regularly have felt the disruption, focused as they are on the potential proximity of other people and not able to attune to the earth surrounding, supporting, sustaining us. It would benefit all of us to get out of the city on occasion if we’re able, to be alone in nature with automatic social distancing, regaining that rhythm of life.

Silver Linings

I am quite active on Facebook. My mission is to uplift people and make them laugh. I haven’t posted much about the Covid-19 pandemic as there hasn’t been much I can say that is uplifting. Silver linings are another matter.

In May of 2020, the New York Times published an article listing 1,000 names of those who have died from Covid-19, with short phrases taken from their eulogies. These 1,000 represent 1% of the number who have died thusfar in the United States.

If I were to write my own eulogy, this could be a start, each phrase leading to a short paragraph:

Retired therapist and mentor. Loved reading, especially mystery novels. Never at a loss for words. Loving, generous, and adventurous spirit. Loved taking care of people. Made time to create and listen to music. Part of a tight-knit family. Had a passion for social justice. Always wanted to be near the ocean. Loyal and generous friend to many.

But these phrases were not written with me in mind. Rather, RIP:

Charles
Ronnie
Youngerman
Lula
Peggy
Christine
Alice
Sandra
Alberto
Susan

The only way to find the silver linings in this era is to look to the personal, to the stories that can uplift us. The New York Times piece contained snippets of stories, enough to remind us that we are losing sight of the heart of this pandemic: people are dying.

And people are living. I have become much closer friends with some of my chorus mates because chorus members host several Zoom socials a week. Two chorus mates have explored dating each other, having gotten to know each other during a weekly social. (So curious how one would date during this particular pandemic?) This is the silver lining to the large cloud over chorus as we are denied singing together or uplifting our audience in song.

Silver linings abound. I pray those mentioned in the New York Times article found theirs before they died. These folks who died – “maestro of a steel-pan band,” “architect behind Boston’s City Hall,” “liked his bacon and hash browns crispy” – notice that lack of political affiliation mentioned? What does that even matter once they’ve died?

Take care of each other. Take care of yourselves. Find your silver linings.

Seeing Each Other Home

In December of 1993, we got the news at a Bridges Vocal Ensemble rehearsal: come soon. We had known that call would come eventually, since June of 1992, when Trent had told us between sets at the GALA choral festival that he had AIDS. No matter how much time we’d had to prepare emotionally, no matter how many friends we had lost in the meantime, Trent was the first of our tight-knit chorus.

That evening after rehearsal, we all went over to Trent’s house. All 20-something of us packed into his living room, standing around the chair he never left at this point, singing every song he knew. He mouthed all the words with a half-smile on his face, too weak at that point to vocalize. After an hour or so, we filed past him one by one, shaking his hands, kissing his forehead, saying each in our own way, “Goodbye for now.” Trent died the next day.

The current Covid pandemic is triggering to many who survived the AIDS era. Some younger people have asked those of us who were there, “How did you get through it? What tips do you have for us?” I’ve been asked myself, and have found myself at sea, unable to answer.

Today it came to me why I’ve been unable to answer: because nothing that helped me then applies today. If Trent were dying of Covid-19 today – we would not be surrounding his chair, singing along with him, kissing him goodbye, later all grieving together at his memorial service. Singing. Together. At his memorial service. And, we would not have had a year and a half of watching him slowly decline, wasting away toward an inevitable death. AIDS never took us by surprise, unless a miraculous person survived. The death rate was nearly unanimous.

I accidentally discovered the power choral singing holds for me in 1986, and have never been without a chorus since. One reason GALA choruses are so powerful today, such a presence in their communities, dates back to the AIDS era. Sharing the air through choral singing is one of the most powerful ways in which humans can bond with each other. Sharing the air helped us survive the loss of so many back in the day; today, sharing the air is part of what causes Covid losses.

I have been a member of the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus since 2008. A few years ago, a member died of Alzheimer’s. It hit me then that in the years I’d been in the chorus, no one had died of an AIDS-related cause. Time was, the chorus sang at one or two chorus member memorial services a month. When I joined, the chorus had a tradition: the first rehearsal of each month, those who were celebrating a birthday that month would get up on the stage of our rehearsal space and we would sing, “Happy birthday.” A nice warm tradition. And back during the days of AIDS, a way of saying, “We’re still here…”

Sharing the air is precisely what we CAN’T do these days. We can Skype. Zoom. Talk on the phone. And we can’t rehearse.  On occasion someone will post a humorous little questionnaire on Facebook: favorite ice cream? ocean or mountains? morning person or night person? favorite day of the week… Monday. Because chorus rehearses Monday nights. Or used to. In my 34 years singing in GALA choruses, I have never had a concert cancelled. A GALA chorus festival postponed. Sharing the air, music to my soul, isn’t going to be what gets me through this time. So, what will?

I do have a useful take-away from the AIDS era: we are resilient, life will go on, nothing will be the same, but that doesn’t mean there will be nothing. My chorus is going to experiment with remote rehearsals, using available technology, adapting it as we can, doing what we can to stay connected. To see each other through. This, too, shall pass.

The PTSD of the AIDS era is kicking in for many, triggered into reliving the pain of loss. And realizing the old ways of coping aren’t there – hugging, singing together, being together, embracing loss together. All the more bereft. Triggered into the past in a way that might be making it hard to embrace what connection there is available today. And really – if Zoom and Skype had been available to us during the heaviest days of AIDS, we would most certainly have taken advantage of this technology as well. We needed then, we need now, whatever will work.

So – isolated as we may be in our individual spaces, keeping ourselves physically safe – let us keep ourselves emotionally and spiritually safe as well. Reach out with whatever form of technology you have, and connect. Have a virtual party. Cook together each in your own kitchens. Raise a toast to each other from your various dining room tables. Put on a mask and take a meal in a bag, handing it to a homeless person. Feed the crows in downtown Portland, now bereft of much of their usual source of food. One of my favorite spiritual images is that we are all just seeing each other home. That remains the goal, though the means of doing so has changed so much, so fast.

Thankfulness 2019

Last year I invented a new holiday to celebrate, replacing the colonial concept of giving thanks for my family’s presence on this continent. (https://reidvanderburgh.com/2018/11/22/reclaiming-thankfulness/)

As the relationship saying goes, “It’s complicated.” The United States is my home. My family’s roots go back to the Netherlands and Britain. Family roots were abroad — nearly 400 years ago. Neither the Netherlands or Britain could ever feel like Home to me as the US does.

At the same time, I feel grief for the millions who were displaced and killed as my country was developed through colonization. I can no longer celebrate Thanksgiving in the uncomplicated literally thoughtless way I did as a child. I know too much.

Thankfully — I am able to feel thankfulness, and so I now celebrate my second Thankfulness holiday.

I have had more difficulty this year articulating my thankfulness. Now the day itself has arrived, and I find my amorphous difficulty crystallizing into something I can express in words.  Last year, I formulated fairly easily a list of what I was thankful for — specific people, specific events; this year I find my thankfulness rooted not in a specific anything that I can list, but in a profound shift in how I view the world.

My prayers these days are simple: “Thank you for all the connection and loving interconnection in my life. Thank you for giving me a loving heart and allowing me to feel the love and connection to friends and family.” I finish with a bit from the Sweet Honey in the Rock song Wanting Memories: “I know that I am you and you are me and we are one. I know that who I am is numbered in each grain of sand. I know that I’ve been blessed again and over again.”

I am thankful for music in my life. In joining my church choir recently I have come to understand music has always been an unrecognized ministry in my life. For decades I have had the experience in one chorus or another of becoming one with the audience and feeling how profoundly the musical experience brings us together. Sharing the air thins the boundaries between us, and our interconnection is brought to the forefront for a time. I have had the experience of being picketed by the religious right in a concert setting and seeing the picket signs gradually lowered to the floor, not to be raised again. Our interconnection has another name we use more often — love, stronger than any picket sign.

In my church choir I have recently had the same experience of helping bring people together in interconnection. Love your neighbor as yourself comes from my spiritual tradition. Love. That’s the message of every spiritual tradition. And that’s what I’m thankful for this year — feeling the love. And being in two choirs, with twice the opportunity to share the love.

I Before E. Take 2!

On June 5, 2019 I published a blog entry titled “I Before E”. In it, I wrote the following: “Looking at myself through the Myers-Briggs lens, I am an INFP. (Myers-Briggs assessment). The N and F and P are clear and beyond debate. (iNtuitive, Feeling, Perceiving) The I (Introvert)? Not so much!”

In fact… The introvert? Not anymore!

I was first introduced to the Myers-Briggs assessment while in college. I don’t remember the exact class or the exact year, but it would’ve been sometime in the late 1990s. At the time, I scored undeniably INFP. I was not near the middle of the spectrum on any axis of the assessment.

In August 2019, I visited my home territory of the Bay Area. I made arrangements to get together with various friends and colleagues, one of whom is a psychologist. I looked for his phone number on his website, and happened upon a link to the Myers-Briggs assessment. Having just written the piece “I before E,“ the Myers-Briggs had been on my mind. On a whim, I clicked on the link and redid the assessment. Much to my astonishment… E NFP. Once again, the N and F and P are clear. No surprise there. And… ??? By a wide margin, E.

Over the years, my identity has found itself challenged multiple times. In 1974, falling in love with a woman, I concluded I was a lesbian. It had never before occurred to me to question my identity, and my world was rocked upside down.  In the mid-1990s, my identity was shaken to the core again upon the realization that I am a transman and not a lesbian. With my first assessment proclaiming me INFP, I read about this personality type; I felt a sense of coming home to myself. I have embraced INFP as my identity for over 20 years.

When did I become an ENFP?! How does this even happen?! My self conceptualization is turned on its head once again, visioning myself as an E instead of an I. And yet, re-reading “I Before E,” my extrovert nature is so clear! I love teaching, speaking with groups of people, meeting new people. I most enjoy myself when I’m with others, not when I’m alone. Sure, I need my down time, but too much of it drains me, rather than recharging me as it would a true introvert.

How does an introvert become an extrovert? Answer: when the introvert never really was an introvert because of personality type. Of all the scales on the Myers-Briggs, I believe the range between I and E is the most heavily influenced by social factors. At earlier times in my life, repressing my trans identity from my own awareness had the social effect of introverting me.

I have spent the past seven weeks living with my sister. I have never before lived with my sister as an adult. I was seven years old when she married and moved out of our family home. If the Myers-Briggs assessment was not enough of a clue to me, living with someone who is a true I tells me all I need to know about myself as an E. My sister much prefers being by herself to being in the company of others. She needs a great deal of alone time. I find myself leaving the house in order to be with others, even if they are people I don’t know. If I have been alone too long, particularly if I am not focused on a project, I find myself reaching out to others for connection, preferably in person or by phone. In retrospect, I hid behind the identity of I, and now feel much more at home embracing myself as E.

There is a lot of power in labels. I encourage all of us to reflect on the various labels others have put on us, and that we have put on ourselves, at various times in our lives. If you used the Myers-Briggs assessment at one point, do it again; if you have at one time or another needed to use repression or denial as a defense, if you have since centered more fully into who you are, your Myers-Briggs types may have shifted as well. The capacity for surprising ourselves is infinite.

 

Conditional Privilege

Yesterday was a rarity for me, a bus day. I loved not having to drive a series of errands downtown. My last commitment of the day was a meeting that adjourned at 8:30. I waited for the bus on a bustling street, alone in checking my phone but hardly alone. I didn’t give my solitary status a second (or even a first) thought.

My trip home took two buses, and it was full dark by the time I boarded the second bus. Fifteen minutes later, my stop. I started to reach for the cord to signal the driver to stop, but someone else beat me to it. And it was as I got off that I was rocketed back decades to a pre-transition time in my life as I realized: I never saw the person who also got off the bus, the person who rang the cord before I could reach it. Perhaps they were slow to reach the rear door I had used. Perhaps they were trying to go out the front door and were slow to gather parcels. Perhaps as the bus slowed they realized it wasn’t their stop and they never even moved. I don’t know.

I didn’t know where this person was. My street is fully residential. Quiet. Dark. I was SO aware I was alone. My knee was hurting from all the walking I’d been doing. I made an effort to walk without a limp. I stood up as straight as I could, to my full 6 foot height. I walked with a confidence I wasn’t feeling.

I never said to myself, “This is silly.” I lived 42 years female; it wasn’t silly at all. Was it necessary? Hmmm. I don’t know. I’m an out transman, 20+ years into physical transition and invisibly seen as a man. How safe AM I? In that situation, probably no danger at all. Note I still say ‘probably’ though I arrived home without incident.

When I teach about trans issues, I am often asked questions about male privilege, along the lines of, “What’s it like to experience male privilege now?” After last night, I have a story to tell that illustrates the concept of conditional privilege: I am safe as a white man as long as that’s how I’m perceived, with an assumption of cisgender identity. If I am known to be a white transman — am I still safe? No longer guaranteed.

I tell students: “I just came out to an entire class of people I don’t know. Am I safe when I leave here and walk back to my car?” Some of the students laugh a bit uncomfortably, as it never occurred to them I might not be safe. Those students who aren’t white don’t laugh; they share my question about personal safety. Those students who live female also don’t laugh; they share my question about personal safety.

I taught my first continuing education class for therapists in 2001. At that time, I didn’t yet have a website. I had just graduated with my counseling degree and had yet to establish my therapy practice. I wasn’t yet known as a trans therapist. It wouldn’t have been easy for the people taking this class to find out I was trans. I put some thought into how I would come out to them. I wanted them to assume I was cisgender and then come out, as an object lesson.

At that time, I was only a couple of years into transition; my lesbian community experience and socialization was still my framework for understanding social boundaries. With this in mind, I thought, “I know… I’ll wait until someone asks me, ‘What are you basing this on?'” I knew full well that if I was still a lesbian, teaching a class to other lesbians about some new way of looking at lesbian identity,  I would hear variations of: “Have you read so-and-so’s work? Have you considered this aspect? How do you know all this?” I assumed, as a therapist right out of grad school, teaching a class to licensed therapists who were much further along in their career, about a radical new way to view transition and gender identity, SOMEONE would ask, “How do you know all this?” I was so certain of this, I didn’t have a contingency plan for coming out. Which meant — when no  one questioned my professional authority, I didn’t come out to that class. I was thoroughly taken aback, and mightily puzzled. What just happened here???

I talked it over with a friend of mine who is a women’s studies professor, the head of the department at her college. She laughed at me and said, “It’s because they saw you as a man. I always get questioned when I teach. Some students don’t believe what I’m saying, because I’m a woman.” I was affronted on her behalf, and said, “You’re the head of the department! You have a master’s degree in women’s studies!” She kept laughing. And she was right: I was so surprised because I was being treated differently than I had been prior to transition. And the only difference was, now people saw me as a man, not as a woman. That’s male privilege playing out in my professional life. Twenty nine students took that first class: 22 women, 7 men. At a guess, I’d say over half the women were lesbians. Not one questioned my authority.

If I taught that same class today, I wouldn’t be able to use the tactic of letting people assume I’m cisgender and then course-correct them. Nowadays, many students know I’m a transman before showing up for class. Unlike the students who aren’t white, or the students who are female, my experience of privilege shifts depending on circumstance. Conditional privilege is my lived experience more often than not, out as I am as a transman. Forty-two years living female, 20+ years living openly trans — my privilege will always feel conditional, no matter the circumstance.

As I was about to hit “publish” to post this blog, a new thought occurred to me. I’m not inserting it where it would rightfully go (several paragraphs ago) to illustrate that it took overnight for this thought to occur to me: perhaps the person who rang the bell to get off the bus was a woman who saw ME get up to exit the bus and thought to herself, “Nope. I’ll get off at the next stop instead.” My privilege may be conditional, but hers doesn’t exist.

The Power of Love

I have been singing in one LGBTQ chorus or another since 1986. I have seen my share of what I call the ‘turn or burn’ banner people, paraphrasing the most common theme of the banners carried by those who picketed our concerts in the early days: “Repent now, turn from sin or you will burn in hell.” In recent years, I haven’t seen the banner people picketing Portland concerts; I’ve seen the banners at Portland Pride, the negativity of their presence subsumed by the effusive energy of 50,000 people celebrating the diversity of human identity.

In mid-April of 2019, I went to a small town in southern Oregon with the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus. We sang a social justice concert to an enthusiastic audience of some 300 folks packed into a small church. Our chorus custom is to greet our audience after a concert, shaking hands and thanking them for coming. With that in mind, I exited the back door of the church after the concert, heading around to the front to greet our effusive audience as they left. My heart was wide open with love of life, the universe and everything, brought on by my newfound spirituality coupled with having just poured my heart out in song. I rounded the corner only to unexpectedly encounter three banner people, blocking my way up the church steps.

Not long after this concert, various chorus members reacted on social media, writing variations on: “It’s so ridiculous those people still picket our concerts; I find it laughable.” There was a time I would have said the same – but not that day. My joy-filled heart was furious; for the first time in my life, I took on the banner people head to head. I told them I was about to be baptized and that I was so glad my God wasn’t theirs. They began a stock response, asking what my so-called religion was, but I came to my senses. The only result of this conversation would be to lead my heart away from joy. I turned my back on them and went up the steps of the church, intending that our audience encounter me before the banners and trying to recapture the uncomplicated love I’d been feeling.

After greeting our audience, I changed my clothes and as I exited the church, saw one of the banner people coming my way. I had already unloaded my anger on my baptism sponsor (also a chorus member), one of the first people I saw after coming back into the church to change my clothes. As we were leaving, she saw my path converging with the banner people, and engaged with them in front of me, running interference for me. I ran to my car and drove off, leaving her alone with the banner people (sorry, Sue!).

Our hotel was some 45 minutes north from the church. I had carpooled from Portland with a fellow chorister, who may have regretted his choice of companions during that particular stretch of our drive. There’s no other word for it – I ranted, repeating what I’d already said to my baptism sponsor. I unloaded on him (sorry, Peter!) all I had not said to the banner people. When we got to our hotel and checked in, I unloaded again on my roommate (sorry, John!).

What was I so incensed about? That the banner people had the nerve to call themselves Christian. That I also now identified as a Christian. How dare they??? In case you haven’t noticed, I am highly verbal, in person as well as in writing. I wasn’t nearly done at the end of that 45-minute drive, or after ranting to my roommate for two hours. Or was it three?

I survived the anti-gay ballot measure era here in Oregon. The banner people are aligned with the same folks who tried in 1992 to amend the Oregon constitution thus:

“All governments in Oregon may not use their monies or properties to promote, encourage or facilitate homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism or masochism. All levels of government, including public education systems, must assist in setting a standard for Oregon’s youth which recognizes that these behaviors are abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse and they are to be discouraged and avoided.”

They failed. Tried again in 1994. Failed again. One of my closest friends, Amy, has since become a devout Episcopalian (as I am today). Some years ago, before my own spiritual awakening, she told me, “I started going to services and it felt great but it took a long time before I would tell anyone I was going. And it was almost a year before I could bring myself to take communion.” She, too, remembered all too well that anti-gay ballot measure era, and that the impetus behind the measures was a particular brand of Christianity. For me, and for Amy before me, for countless other LGBTQ people, the process is one of reclamation – I am a Christian, my identity to claim and define. No one else has the right to define me.

There is a lot to unpack here. Throughout my life, I have claimed identities that put me within the mainstream of LGBTQ. I have received great support from various aspects of LGBTQ communities for my exploration of identity. Now, for the first time in my life, I find myself exploring and claiming an identity that is mainstream within mainstream culture – Christian – and suspect within LGBTQ space. I am a Christian. The banner people call themselves Christian. If it’s my identity to define and claim, isn’t it also theirs to define and claim? What slippery slope am I on if I say they aren’t Christian? Isn’t it the same slippery slope they’re on in saying I’m not Christian?

A few weeks after PGMC’s venture to southern Oregon, I drove south again, alone, to participate in the first-ever Pride Parade in Roseburg. Several hundred people participated, representing all of Douglas County. Several hundred exuberant, exultant people – and a dozen banner people. In June, I saw three banner people drowned out by the 50,000 attending Portland Pride. In July, I saw a dozen banner people not at all drowned out by the few hundred attending Douglas County Pride.

I had no inclination to take them on this time. My mood was wholly different, in part because I had not just opened my heart in song. I was prepared to face banner people in Roseburg. Beyond that, however, I found that my heart was moved to action not by the words of the banner people, but in support of the few who reacted as I had after the chorus concert. There were a few people apoplectic by the banner people’s presence, taking them on, arguing the Bible with them. I found my heart reaching out to those who were so upset.

I didn’t take action – I’m still unfolding and didn’t understand precisely what’s my move here? I expect next year, I’ll have a better understanding. My impulse this year was along the lines of approaching an upset person and leading them away by the hand, providing a sounding board and helping them understand that there are better uses of their energy. Confrontation merely drains positive energy from an LGBTQ person or ally. That’s not the energy that will change a banner person’s heart.

The power of loving interconnection is my key – not engaging with the banner people, and holding safe loving space for those reacting from a place I understand from personal experience. Yes, the banner people are on the wrong side of history (I believe). Yes, their message isn’t truly that of Christ (I believe). And yes, love is the answer (I know). Loving interconnection includes a connection to banner people. They are in my prayers: that they eventually understand the error of their ways, that they can repair their own relationships with those they have hurt, and that they don’t cause more damage in the meantime. I pray for a time when ‘they’ become part of the ‘us,’ and I pray that I am never part of the reason that doesn’t happen. I apply the concept of inclusion awareness to this situation: expanding the circle so it’s not ‘us and them’ in the circle, but a new ‘we.’

Prior to the anti-gay ballot measure era, I had no opinion about religion one way or another. I was raised in an agnostic household: “We see some people believe in religion; we don’t, but more power to them if it works for them.” There was no emotional content to my family’s reaction to religion. After fighting ballot measures 9 and 13 here in Oregon, I was never again neutral about religion. This is why it took 24 years and a trip to China for me to properly understand my own 1995 spiritual emergence. At that time, barely a year after Measure 13’s defeat on the ballot, how could I face the prospect of embracing Christianity myself? I had asked for help one winter night in 1995, and God responded by entering my heart. It took 24 years before I was able to face that truth. But that’s the beauty of higher powers – they act anyway, whether we say thank you or not.

So now I say it – thank you, God. The power of love is in me and around me. May it be in and around all who encounter the banner people. May it enter into the hearts of the banner people. I hold out hope. On one southern Oregon concert tour in 1993, the banner people picketed a concert. Four came into the hall and held their signs up in the back of the room. As we sang, gradually they lowered their signs and by the end of the concert, their signs were face-down on the floor, never raised again. The power of love – the power of music – this is why we sing.

Receiving the Ninth Step

I received a text message out of the clear blue this morning. I cried even as my heart lifted with joy. My young friend Roy (of course Roy is a pseudonym) is safe. And happy. And 444 days sober.

Roy wrote to us in honor of the ninth step of the principles of AA – making amends. “I realize that when things went south for me, I was unable to show up as your friend. I recognize that it must’ve been hurtful and upsetting to see me vanish like that, without a word and without proper thanks for the time you spent as my mentor, or for the beautiful meals I shared in your home.”

Hurtful? Upsetting? No. Neither of those is the way I would describe how we felt. We were worried about Roy. We feared he was dead, or homeless, lying in a gutter somewhere, unable to help himself.

I responded to Roy immediately, telling him how happy we were to hear from him, and that we had worried about him as parents would their son.

As a therapist, I worked with many clients who were either in recovery, or embarked on a recovery program shortly after we started working together. However, it’s one thing to support a client who is making amends. It’s another thing altogether to be a worried friend, waiting to hear.

To those of you reading this who are in recovery, please know this: making amends has a deeper meaning to those you reach out to than your apology for past actions. Reaching out means to us an opportunity to reestablish relationship. And, it allows us the peace of mind of knowing that you are safe. You are alive. You mattered to us before you got into recovery; you matter to us still.

The honest undertaking of the ninth step means that your peace of mind, your centeredness, does not depend on our reaction to your reaching out. You are doing this on your own behalf, not to please someone else. I just wanted you to know.