Like Night and Day

In May of 1995, my then-partner said to me, “I’ve always felt like a man inside.” This revelation from a partner of seven years rocked me to the core. I was a founding member of the Portland Lesbian Choir, and that group was the center of my life. My spiritual self-care has always been connected to singing. Beyond singing, my family of choice, all my close friends, the structure of my life, my social center within lesbian community – the PLC was all that. I had never needed the Choir more than at that time, and it was devastating to me when June came and Choir was on summer break.

During the course of that summer, I experienced what I later learned to call the dark night of the soul. I was depressed, paralyzed by dread and self-doubt, bordering on suicidal. Along about August, I made an attempt to better understand my partner, tired of the repetitiousness of my thoughts spinning down into the same depression and recrimination. Breaking the cycle, I asked myself one day, “What WOULD it be like to walk around the world as a man?” Far from dread and self-doubt and anxiety, that question brought to the surface a most-unfamiliar feeling of excitement and a giddy exhilaration, startling me no end. From those feelings emerged the now-inevitable realization: “OMG – me too. I need to transition too.”

September… back to PLC. In June, I was ‘Nancy, a founding member of the PLC.’ In September, I looked the same. I sounded the same. And no one yet knew that I had become ‘Reid, the guy who is eventually going to transition.’ It was a surreal experience. I had changed so much I felt like a new member, yet everyone was treating me as they had in June, having no idea anything had changed.

September 2018… long living as a transman. Settled into Reid. Settled into baritone in the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus, now a member nearly as long as I was a singing member of the Portland Lesbian Choir. Married. Over 21 years on testosterone, the same amount of time I had lived in lesbian community. What could possibly change now?

Then I went to China. My dark night of the soul is easily explained. I know precisely why I cycled downward in 1995. I have no idea why I cycled upward in 2018. China exploded my heart open to life, the universe and everything. I came back looking the same, sounding the same, as I did when I left. And yet, as in 1995, changed to the core. Spiritually awakened. Energized. In the three months since my return, I have processed and puzzled and written reams, seeking the same level of understanding as 1995. And not getting it.

I have now blessed and released the question, “What just happened here???” I have adopted instead a new mantra, the closing line of the iconic lesbian novel Patience and Sarah: “You can’t tell a gift how to come.”

Reclaiming Thankfulness

When I was a kid, I gave little thought to the meaning or origin of Thanksgiving (or any other holiday, for that matter) — the celebration of holidays centered around time off school, and an all-family gathering at my house. Winston Churchill once said that history is written by the victors. Though probably not speaking of Thanksgiving, this saying is all too appropriate in considering this particular holiday.

When I was a kid, the official history of the U.S. (as written by the victors) went something like this: our ancestors landed on Plymouth Rock. There were some people there who fed them through their first winter. Later our ancestors fought off the global empire of Britain and declared themselves an independent country. We were inordinately proud of this. I grew up with the belief that the West was settled by brave souls who ventured into unpopulated lands, bringing order to previously uninhabited areas. Indians were depicted as savages who popped up randomly and unpredictably to attack the brave homesteaders. Manifest destiny epitomized.

I never knew until I was long adult that the westward movement of white people was a genocide. So this means… Thanksgiving is a holiday in celebration of genocide? Damn. ALL my ancestors, on both sides of my family, were on this continent long before any westward expansion began, but nowhere near as long as the folks who ended up being killed or displaced. Damn.

It is a nice idea to have a holiday dedicated to giving thanks. I am now attempting a reclamation, a day of thankfulness not for genocide but for the blessings in my own life. This is a new holiday for me, Thankfulness. This past year, I am thankful for:

January 4… every January 4, I am thankful for Cristina. Our first date. Every time I go in Peet’s Coffee on NE Broadway, my eye is drawn to a particular table, where we sat smiling shyly at each other in 2008. Every 4th is our monthaversary. (I never can decide how to spell that…)

Attending the Trans Voices Festival in Minneapolis in April. Despite a freakish blizzard that closed the festival early, this was a wonderful weekend. So energizing to meet other trans singers and performers. My peeps! In a moment of weakness I approached the organizers and said the next one would be in Portland. I am thankful for the committee that is helping me organize this endeavor. Go us!

I am thankful for the New Insurgency Revolutionary Choir. Connecting musically with Naomi Littlebear Morena has given me new singing connections with my past. Singing once more with some members of the Portland Lesbian Choir has brought me full circle to my roots. My first choral experience was with the PLC.

The Portland Gay Men’s Chorus. I’m rarely at a loss for words, but I’m not sure there are words enough to express what this organization means to me, especially after August 30. On that day, we took off from Seattle and flew to Beijing. The ten days in China that followed changed my life to the core, leading to the rest of what I’m thankful for.

I am thankful for a newfound connection to spirituality that has added a peaceful dimension to my life, and a deep sense of connectedness not only to others, but to myself. My life is now one continuous seamless thread, no longer pre-transition and post-transition. I am thankful for the reconnections I have made as a result — Amy, Lynda, Kathy, Adrian.

I am thankful for the profound bonds I formed with various chorus members as we shared this intense and exhausting and exhilarating trip. We have brought those connections back with us, revitalizing the chorus and deepening the bonds between all of us. Half the chorus went to China, and all of us are reaping the benefit.

Most of all — I am thankful to be me. PGMC is singing a song in our upcoming holiday concert, Nia. One of the seven principles of Kwaanza, nia means ‘purpose.’ I am thankful that my purpose in life has been, continues to be, fostering connection and hope. As a therapist I was aware every day of my impact on others. The awareness has been less tangible in the years since I left the profession. Now I understand — while I may not be part of the profession any longer, that doesn’t mean I have stopped practicing its guiding principles: understanding people in the service of fostering connection; giving support as needed and appropriate; giving advice rarely. Through writing, through teaching and mentoring, I continue to live out my nia.

I’m looking forward to seeing what I have to be thankful for in the coming year.

 

 

Thoughts of a caregiver

My wife has been disabled since 2014. The trajectory of her disability has been unpredictable, with no clear beginning or end. The exact nature of what’s wrong is unclear. The exact treatment that might help is unclear. Whether there IS a treatment that might help is unclear.

All that is beside the point of this blog because it’s about me, not about her. And that’s the crux of the Caregiver role with a capital C – it’s never really about us. It’s about disability and our role in facilitating someone else’s life. Such was my life for four years, during which time I gradually sank into a depression, so slowly and subtly I was unaware of the process. My depression might be titled, “Is this all there is?”

I had days off. I had time here and there when I went to visit relatives in other states. And, I was never off duty because I was always in range of text messages, phone calls, and email.

And then I went to China for ten days. My wife told me, “Don’t get a VPN that will give you full internet access while you’re there. This is YOUR time.” I had no access to Facebook. Little access to Words with Friends. And no email – which I didn’t count on. Both Facebook and Google are verboten in China – something about not agreeing to Chinese restrictions on security. Gmail is Google. So, no email for me while I was gone.

Ten days NOT a Caregiver. Ten days off duty. Ten jampacked days, jammed with tourism and concerts and rehearsals – MY tourism, MY concerts, MY rehearsals. For ten days it was all about ME and nothing about my wife. I came back from that trip rejuvenated, re-energized, revitalized. I have new purpose in life. I’m no longer depressed.

Strange and ironic – the self-focus of those ten days has allowed me to focus on my wife again. Our marriage is all the stronger because I am now more self-aware than I was, more focused on my own projects and goals. I am now a caregiver as opposed to a Caregiver. Switching from my front-and-center only role, I am now lower-case caregiver, allowing me to be upper-case Partner-in-Life once again.

These thoughts occurred to me last night. This morning as we were driving to church, my wife said to me, “I’ve been so happy with how you’ve been since you got back from China. You’re focusing on your own things and you’re doing so good.” We’re on the same wavelength. Her own life is a bit harder now because in switching to lower-case caregiver, I’m not focusing as much undivided attention on her, necessitating her doing more things for herself. I’m lucky; far from resentfully resisting this shift, she is embracing it, despite her fears about her own capacity. In the long run, this too will be a good thing, not only giving me my individual life back, but hers as well.

To the Caregivers among you: what would it take for you to become a lower-case caregiver? Highly recommended.

Finding Peace

In September of 2018, with 80 or so of my closest friends, I had the honor of traveling to China with the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus — the first LGBTQ chorus to tour mainland China. It was an intense trip. 10 days. Four cities, four concerts. And in  between concerts and rehearsals, about twice as much tourism as you might think would fit our schedule. It was exhilarating. Inspiring. Exhausting. And one of the finest experiences of my life.

One gift of this trip was the opportunity to form friendships with various chorus members I’d seen across the room at rehearsal for years. “Hi, how are you?” during a fifteen minute break at rehearsal doesn’t allow for close connection. Sitting together for four hours on a bus? Yup.

Among the  people I connected with on this trip were several members of the Portland Lesbian Choir. They weren’t singing with us; they were along because they thought touring around mainland China with PGMC for ten days sounded like fun. I had never met these women before, and we had a great time getting to know each other.

This hanging out with the PLC had a familiar feel to it, reminiscent of concert tours from twenty-plus years ago. In 1986, I was a founding member of the Portland Lesbian Choir. I had come out as a lesbian twelve years before and was ensconced in the Portland lesbian community. I had no idea ‘transman’ was a more authentic identity for me. The Portland Lesbian Choir quickly became home to me, the only place I felt truly centered and at home in lesbian community. Singing has always been central to my spiritual self-care; the PLC gave me the space to take care of myself sufficiently to continue to live as a lesbian.

Until 1995. A partner came out to me as a transman, stripping away any possibility of my avoiding the self-knowledge, “Me too.” I fought as long and as hard as I could against the truth of me. I didn’t want it to be true, and wailed to the Universe, “Why does it have to be my VOICE???” I knew I was fighting a losing battle; authenticity finds a way.

I left the Choir in 1997. Choir members were upset about my transition, not because I was trans — they were upset because I was leaving. I left with a hole in my heart. Over time that hole healed, but I retained a bit of nostalgic grief over what I’d lost. Nothing ever replaced what that group had been to me.

In China, bonding with PLC members once again, I felt a bit of that grief in my heart heal.

A few weeks after my return from China, a friend of mine asked me to sing back-up vocals on a song she was going to record. Naomi was a lesbian singer-songwriter here in Portland during the 1970s, 80s and on into the 90s. Iconic. In certain circles around the world, her music is still iconic. Would I sing backup vocals? Did she have to ask? Of course!

At one early October rehearsal, we were standing in a circle in Naomi’s kitchen, singing to each other. Several younger PLC members. Several older lesbians. And me, the only person in the room with a testosterone-influenced voice. As we sang in unison, I in the alto octave with everyone else, I closed my eyes and felt the love — I was singing with the Portland Lesbian Choir again. And another bit of that nostalgic grief in my heart healed.

Toward the end of the rehearsal, one of the older lesbians referred to me as ‘she.’ I was more bemused than anything else. There is a milestone of transition that I passed long ago, an anniversary I wish I could toast every year but I have no idea when it actually is: the last time a stranger called me ‘she.’ How could I ever know when it was the last time? I can venture a guess, based on when I started introducing testosterone into my system. I’d say… mid-September-ish… of 1997. It’s been over 21 years.

I’d been out to coffee with this woman (I’ll call her Pam) the week before. At Stumptown Coffee, I was ‘Reid, he.’ What just happened in this singing circle to turn me into ‘Reid, she?’ I puzzled through this on the way home from rehearsal. It wasn’t long before I knew.

Pam and I are of a generation. Her lesbian community and mine intersected for years, this tight-knit circle. About half a degree of separation between any of us. She and I hadn’t been friends exactly, but we knew each other’s names. A good friend of mine had once been Pam’s partner.

Inside that lesbian community circle, in the heart of it, the ONLY pronoun is ‘she.’ Though Pam called me ‘she’ unconsciously in that singing circle, she did do so intentionally. Her intention was this:

I see you. I honor you. I trust you. I invite you back into the circle. You belong. In this space, in this singing circle, in this moment in time, you are an honorary lesbian.

In that moment, I felt my transition circle around back to my Portland Lesbian Choir roots, I felt my 19 year old self, proclaiming in 1974, “I’m a lesbian!” enfolded in the circle of my heart. My life became a seamless thread, no longer ‘pre transition’ and ‘post transition’ but simply me. All of me enfolded in the circle of my heart. I am an honorary lesbian transman married to a woman and singing baritone in the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus. All me, all the time, without contradiction of identity. How can there be a contradiction when all are me?

Welcome, my friend. Sing with us.

And in that moment, my heart was healed.

 

Coming Out Monologue

National Coming Out Day (shouldn’t that be International Coming Out Day?) originated in 1988, in celebration of the anniversary of the first LGBT and allies March on Washington. Oct. 11 (Oct 12 in some  parts of the world) has become a time of celebrating who we are. For the past four years, Basic Rights Oregon has produced an event honoring coming out: The Coming Out Monologues. I was honored this year to share the stage with eleven others sharing stories of self-realization and self-empowerment. Here is mine:

Racism as a Developmental Issue

I sing in a chorus. A few weeks ago, our director Bob passed out music for our next concert. One song is titled “Cielito Lindo.” Bob said, with a tad bit of embarrassment, “Those of you of a certain generation, like me, grew up thinking of this as the Frito Bandito song. Now we’re going to sing the real song.” Thanks, Bob. I hadn’t heard reference to that jingle since I was about 10; now I can’t get it out of my head, which of course is the point of an advertising jingle.

The obvious racism: changing the words of another culture’s song in order to sell corn chips, using a cartoon caricature figure intended to look Mexican. The more insidious racism: as a child, I never knew there was a song “Cielito Lindo” that had been appropriated. I never knew until I was long an adult that this is an iconic song, sung all over Mexico in many different contexts. I never knew.

I saw the Hollywood blockbuster How the West Was Won on television sometime in the mid-1960s. I always watched Bat Masterson, and the Rifleman. Bonanza. Nothing in my school history lessons challenged the view of the West I saw on TV. Insidious racism: I grew up with the belief that the West was settled by brave souls who ventured into unpopulated lands, bringing order to previously uninhabited areas. Indians were depicted as savages who popped up randomly and unpredictably to attack the brave homesteaders. Manifest destiny epitomized. Another interpretation? I never knew until I was long adult that the westward movement of white people was a genocide.

In 1965, a bus load of kids arrived at my elementary school. Perhaps we were told in advance this was going to happen – I don’t remember. If anyone tried to prepare us, it didn’t stick in my mind such that I remember what I was told. All I knew was, a bunch of black kids were now in our class. I was afraid of them. I was bullied pretty consistently by a trio who cornered anyone they saw alone with no teacher around.

Looking at this situation now, thoughts occur to me that didn’t at the time. There is a pretty close link between bullying and bravado. The buses made one-way trips; none of us white kids were driven to the mostly-black school. There was no attempt at helping us bond with the bused kids.

On a personal level, my mother once told me, “I wasn’t raised in a racist area. We were on the farm, and we played with the black kids who were around, like we played with everyone else. If you asked any of them, they’d say it was all fine and we all got along great.” The context? Rural  Missouri in the 1920s and early 1930s. My mother never did face either obvious or insidious racism in herself.

I don’t blame myself for not having such thoughts when I was 10 years old. I knew no more about the civil rights movement at that time than I did about the true nature of the westward colonization of this continent.

I am glad, however, that these kinds of thoughts occur to me now. The only way I, as a white person, can begin to change racism in myself is to look at where it came from. I’m a former therapist, so I’m big on self-examination and personal history. We were all shaped by our upbringing, from family dynamics to the overarching cultural milieu in which we came of age. I now recognize the insidious nature of racism playing out in my socialization. Can I overwrite my history such that I will never think of the Frito Bandito when I hear “Cielito Lindo?” Unfortunately, I don’t think memories that old can be erased completely. What I can do is listen to “Cielito Lindo” in its proper context, giving my brain new memories to access that help me overwrite the racism of my upbringing.

A Pioneer Passes

Some ten years ago, I got a call from a guy looking for a doctor who would renew his hormone prescription. He’d found me on the Internet. Nothing unusual about that — I was a therapist who worked mostly with trans clients. Then the guy said, ‘And, they have to be willing to not put it in my chart why I need the hormones.’

That WAS unusual. In telling me more about himself, turned out he’d started taking hormones the year I was born — 1955. We talked for a few more minutes, I gave him a doctor referral. But I couldn’t leave it at that. I asked if I could interview him, without the least idea what I would do with the information. With his permission, I later included his story in my second book, using Joe as his pseudonym.

I drove to Joe’s rural home a few weeks later and recorded his story. This was around the time I met Cristina, and we began making regular trips to visit him, bringing his favorite fast food meal and his grocery list.

Later, our visits were caregiving, cleaning and laundry and feeding the wood stove. Joe had a rare degenerative disease that gradually lessened his ability to move his arms and legs properly.

This past year, Joe’s physical incapacity had left him bedridden. But the stubbornness that got him thru transition in the 1950s also made it increasingly difficult for him to be willing to ask for help. (Caregiving nurse’s aides didn’t count, they were the hired help) In addition, he had a horror of anyone seeing him helpless. He didn’t want visitors. He didn’t want to hear about life moving on for others, feeling stuck in his own life.

We didn’t see Joe this past year. I thought of him often, but respected his distance. Though not holding out much hope he would take us up on it, we had told him in our last phone conversation to call us when he was up for a visit.

Joe died on December 24. He never wanted to see himself as a pioneer, he never owned his trans identity and couldn’t understand why anyone would. Nevertheless — he WAS a pioneer. Transition is that much easier today because of people like… it just isn’t right to use his pseudonym in this context. Because of people like Nick.

 

Inclusion Awareness

Inclusivity is a popular word these days. I find it a troublesome term, as it can perpetuate some unconscious biases and assumptions. The term inclusivity implies there has been an exclusivity to be addressed. The goal of inclusivity training, diversity workshops, etc. can often be summarized thus:

“We’ve tried to make our organization inclusive, why don’t _______ people come?” “We’ve tried to make _________ people feel welcome, why don’t they come back?” “What are we doing wrong?” or “Why don’t they fit in?”

Such questions are commonly asked among those who recognize that their organizations are too _______. That blank is usually filled in with ‘white’ or ‘straight’ or ‘cisgender.’

The crux of the problem is this – just who are “we” and “them”? The image that comes to mind is that of a circle. “We” have formed this circle, defined its norms and values, and are now attempting to invite “them” into the circle. There is now a door open for “them.” This model, however, has an implicit assumption that those who take a step through that door then assimilate into the “we.”

There is a fine line, or maybe a broad gray area, between participating in a group activity and assimilating into a group culture. Everyone who participates in a group activity is expected to abide by some ground rules, or nothing will be accomplished. In a community chorus, for instance, there is an expectation that disagreements about music selection aren’t going to be a topic of conversation during rehearsal. There may be some kind of process in place for a member to express disagreement, but disrupting rehearsal probably won’t be it.

To continue the analogy – what of the situation in which a singer realizes over time that all the chosen repertoire was composed by white men who lived during the Baroque period? This is appropriate in a group named The Baroque Chorus; a singer joining such a group should be prepared to sing baroque music! However, what of a chorus named The Community Chorale? What of a chorus that says nothing in its mission statement about singing exclusively baroque music?

Discomfort with this situation is beyond discomfort with a particular piece of music. Now we’re talking about who is the “we” inside the circle. If every singer but one is content with the music selection, the one who is uncomfortable may feel a sense of not being part of the “we” any longer. If this person is not white or male or both, “they” may feel resentment: “Here I go again, having to try to educate this group about why I feel alienated and left out.” Sometimes “they” might make the attempt; often “they” will leave, leaving the larger group mystified: “We’ve tried to make _________ people feel welcome, why don’t they come back?”

I like the image of inclusion awareness: a process of coming to recognize that there is a circle at all, and that there are group norms playing out that are largely invisible to those who are at the center of the circle. This process should sound familiar to those who have done soul-searching to recognize the various forms of privilege they own. Rather than envision opening a door to let “them” into the circle, it is more helpful to envision expanding the circle outward so “us” and “them” becomes a new “we.” Making overt the original norms of the circle facilitates this process.

Again using a community chorus as an example… an artistic director may come to understand that expanding the possibilities of music selection will expand representation of all kinds of communities that aren’t represented by white male Baroque composers. This is the first step toward expanding the circle. The next step would be an “Aha!” moment of understanding why this is important. This might mean the director is looking at music from a wide variety of cultures; it would mean the director has expanded their view of concert themes such that a wide variety of musical genres might be appropriate to choose from. As an example: rather than a Christmas concert, the director might start to look on a December concert as a holiday concert – this moves music selection beyond Santa Claus and Christmas, into realms that include Hannukah, Solstice, Kwaanza, and secular songs about winter.

It is a hard thing to recognize, the center of the circle. One chorus conductor (I’ll call him Joe) took that last step thus. Joe is a white man, and wanted to program a Christmas rap song into a concert. His chorus is largely white, and he was worried about cultural appropriation: is this going to offend African-American chorus or audience members, do “we” have the right to sing this song that was originally done by an African-American group, etc.?

Joe asked all the African-American chorus conductors he knew, and one and all said, “Go for it, we think this is great your chorus is going to do this.” After the concert, he received some angry and horrified emails criticizing his music selection. An African-American chorus director laughed at that and said to Joe, “Let me guess – it was white liberals who were angry and offended. Let me tell you something – it really doesn’t affect black people whether you sing that song or not.”

At that point, Joe understood better – it wasn’t his job to fix everything for everyone; that’s the viewpoint of those in the center of the circle. In expanding the circle, Joe’s job is to program excellent music and create concerts that people enjoy watching and performing. Joe’s job then becomes learning about other cultures sufficiently to know what might actually constitute cultural appropriation, or inappropriate use of music. For instance, in Orthodox Christian tradition, music that has been blessed is considered a holy part of worship; such music is not considered appropriate for use as entertainment in a concert setting. No matter how beautiful Joe might find a piece of Orthodox church music, programming it into a concert would constitute cultural appropriation if the music has been blessed to be part of a service; from its position of holiness within an Orthodox worship service, the song has been put in the position of being entertainment in a concert setting. Some who are not far along in expanding their circle might say, “We didn’t mean any harm by it. No one in the audience speaks that language anyway, so it’s okay.” This view minimizes the harm done by making the Orthodox into “they” – “we” are the only ones who matter.

Those who live in the epicenter of privilege have difficulty recognizing how it plays out in real life. As I said in an earlier blog, it’s a tailwind giving an invisible boost. It’s too easy to become defensive when privilege is coming into consciousness. However, owning privilege isn’t the same as saying we didn’t all have to work for what we have. No matter how strong a tailwind we might experience on a bike ride, we still have to pedal. No matter how far a chorus director expands the circle, including all genres and types of music – it’s still okay to sing Baroque music written by white men. Expanding the circle means everyone is welcome; no one is losing anything – “we” all gain.

Counting Blessings

I am going to be traveling to my home base, the Bay Area, in mid-September. On September 13, my mother would have turned 100 years old. I’m going down there to toast her memory.

A farm child native to Northwest Missouri, my mother and her younger sister Marge packed up and moved to San Francisco in 1939. I have no idea why. They had never been out of Missouri, to my knowledge. My mother was 21 and her sister 18.

Then came the war. For my mom: The War.  When she talked of that time, it was anecdotally. She told of the time she bought her first-ever pair of jeans (at that time, I doubt jeans were made to fit women; all were on the men’s side of the aisle). She had gotten a job working at the Oakland Shipyards, and needed suitable attire. However, no one told her about how to buy shrink-to-fits. She said the first time she washed them, they were so tight-fitting, she drew a lot of wolf whistles next time she came to work. So of course — she wore them all the time. My mom was inordinately proud of the fact that eventually, she was welding ship bottoms. Only the best welders were given that task, for obvious reasons. The original Rosie the Riveter, my mom. One of many.

My mom was a fiscal conservative who blamed the country’s economic woes on Roosevelt’s policies. She never voted Democrat in her life. Living in the heart of San Francisco might have been a bit trying for her. Socially, however, she had a live and let live attitude. In 1992, she tuned in to watch the Republican National Convention on television. Pat Buchanan was the keynote speaker, waxing eloquently about the homosexual agenda and family values. I had come out to my mother as a lesbian in 1974. Her first reaction was, “Where did I go wrong?” A not uncommon response in that era. Then she thought about it for a couple of weeks, and said to me, “I see you’re happier, so you have my blessing.” In 1989, my older sister Susan wrote me a letter, thanking me for coming out to her all those years before. She had fallen in love with a woman (still together today) and my coming out to her made her own process of self-acceptance easier.

So… Pat Buchanan in 1992. My mother was horrified as it finally sank in how far to the right her party had drifted on social issues. And she realized, “He’s talking about my family.” Talk about family values — the Republican party lost my mother in 1992 and she never went back. She approached my sister and I individually and told us she was voting for Bill Clinton, and why. I don’t know about my sister, but my jaw just about hit the floor.

I will also toast my oldest sister Jan when I visit the Bay Area. She died of cancer on Sept. 15, 2004, nine months after my mother died. Jan was a larger-than-life woman, kind and generous of spirit. She was the epitome of an oldest sister, In Charge everywhere she went. Smart, funny, beautiful – that was Jan. She took over the role of Matriarch from my mother sometime in the mid-1980s. Didn’t matter what your politics were, what your religion, sexual orientation, gender identity — Jan met people where they were at, always interested. The only time I heard her lecture any of her guests at family get-togethers was when a guest would try to lecture others about their lives or beliefs. Not under her roof!

So, here’s to Jan Bashinski and Elizabeth Vanderburgh, my family matriarchs. I’ll be toasting you in September, feeling blessed to be related to you both. I’m no matriarch — but I am organizing this family gathering, in your honor.

What Exactly IS Privilege?

A cursory Internet search turns up a number of definitions of privilege:

Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
“A right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor”

The Free Dictionary:
1.a. A special advantage, immunity, permission, right, or benefit granted to or enjoyed by an individual, class, or caste.

  1. Such an advantage, immunity, or right held as a prerogative of status or rank, and exercised to the exclusion or detriment of others.
    2. The principle of granting and maintaining a special right or immunity: a society based on privilege.

Dictionary.com:
“A right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most: the privileges of the very rich.”

Upon being told they have privilege, some people will respond indignantly, “I’ve worked hard for everything I have. Nothing was given to me. So how dare anyone say I have privilege? Show me how I’m privileged!”

They are right – they have worked hard. And – no literal thing was given to them. The definitions of privilege are a bit misleading in this regard. Privilege isn’t about something being given to a particular person or group of people. Privilege is a process. Privilege is a tailwind. Those who have bicycled any distance can appreciate this analogy from personal experience. If you are biking with a headwind, you are aware of the increased difficulty of your journey. You never lose that awareness – until you turn around to go back home again and have a tailwind. You are not aware of the tailwind; you are going with the flow of the breeze and there is nothing to bring into awareness that you have an assist behind you, a power boost.

No literal thing was given to those with privilege without any effort on their part – and they had a cultural tailwind at their back, allowing them to reap the fullest benefit of their hard work. Those without privilege have a cultural headwind, forcing them to work harder to reap the benefit of their hard work.

I had a conversation with my brother-in-law on this topic once. He was incensed at being told that being white and male and straight had made his rise to police chief of a major city possible. He did work hard. He came from a poor family, so had no financial aid from his parents. I saw him start as a beat cop, going to college part-time to get the degree that would make it possible for him to rise to sergeant, then lieutenant, then captain and finally police chief. And as I pointed out to him, could he honestly say that he would have risen as smoothly (or at all) through the ranks if he was African-American, or a woman, or openly gay?

At that point, my brother-in-law understood that I wasn’t saying he hadn’t worked for what he had, but that he had cultural advantages that meant his progress was unimpeded. His own innate intelligence, hard work and dedication to his job were all he needed to succeed — because he was white, and male, and straight. As he said to me, “I got my first cop job when I was 24, a beat cop. This was 1962 – there were no African-Americans beyond the rank of beat cop. And no women. And no one who I knew was gay.” Once he saw privilege as a tailwind, he understood what I was saying to him: even with a tailwind, he still had to pedal. And, his pedaling got him much further than he would have been able to go with a headwind.