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.
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.
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:
“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.
- 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.
“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.
The Pace of Evolution
Is it just me, at the ripe middle age of 61, or is the world evolving at an increasingly rapid pace? And who is the arbiter deciding what gets adopted and what doesn’t as our world shape-shifts around us? Is anyone in charge? Maybe no one ever was, but we lived our lives at the pace of the written word and newspapers of one sort or another. Now we live at the pace of computers and the only limitation is the speed of our internet connection.
A few years ago, I published my second book, Journeys of Transformation. A week or two later, I learned of a new acronym to describe the LGBTQQIAA community — MOGII. Marginalized Orientation, Gender Identity, Intersexed. I cursed that this new information wasn’t in my book! Outdated already!
A few days ago, I ordered my first copies of the second edition of Journeys of Transformation. I think there is some kind of Gay Murphy’s Law at work here; a day after I finalized the second edition, I heard of yet another acronym — QUILTBAG. I love this word and thought it was new; I did an Internet search and discovered 2011 references to this term. Here’s what it means; you tell me why it never caught on: QueerUndecidedIntersexLesbianTransBisexualAsexual/AllyGay. A friend had a wonderful take on this QUILTBAG: quilts are a mosaic of colors and designs, forming a delightful whole that can keep a person warm at the coldest times.
So which arbiter decided this acronym wasn’t worthy of common usage? I’d have thought an acronym that was a real-live pronounceable word would be of huge benefit to MY generation in particular, often overwhelmed by the length and complexity of the current LGBTQQIAA. I wrote Journeys of Transformation to help each letter of that unwieldy acronym understand each other. Though QUILTBAG doesn’t really further understanding, it sure is easier to remember all the letters. And you can pronounce it.
The Humor in Transition
There is a lot of humor to be found in transition, and seeing the humorous aspects of this often-overwhelming process can help trans people navigate their transformation with a sense of proportion. For instance:
– In the mid-1990s, I was part of the support team for Sheila, a transwoman friend who had traveled to Portland for gender-confirming surgery. I waited with her partner Joanne during the surgery, and accompanied her when the staff told us Sheila was emerging from the operating room. Joanne and I were standing in the hallway as Sheila was wheeled out of surgery, just waking up. She half-opened her eyes and said groggily, “Another f—ing growth experience.”
– Diana, a transwoman some ten years into transition, went shopping with Jason, a transman friend who had transitioned to male at about the same time Diana began her process. As Diana went into a changing room to try on a bra, a woman browsing nearby said to Jason, “You’re lucky you have no idea how uncomfortable bras can be!” Since Jason had lived the first 27 years of his life female, and had had to wear a very uncomfortable binder for a few years before he underwent chest surgery, this wasn’t exactly true…
– Louise and Alison had remained married after Mark transitioned to become Louise. Two years into Louise’s transition, they were in a pediatrician’s waiting room with their biological daughter, born two years prior to transition. A lesbian couple sitting nearby struck up a conversation, eventually asking if Louise and Alison had known their sperm donor.
– Rose went to a local building supply store to pick up some hardware for a home improvement project. She patiently listened to a lengthy explanation from a very helpful (male) store employee, who assumed she had no idea how to tell a screw from a bolt. (Not possible, for this former carpenter) She had become resigned to such treatment, saying, “Once I got treated like an idiot in the hardware store, then I knew for sure I was being seen as a woman.”
– I have often been invited to do presentations about trans issues for college classes. Some five years into my physical transition, I was speaking to a large sociology class at a local college. As usual, I had done a brief personal introduction, speaking of my own transition and then shifting into a more general discussion about the transition process, the nature of gender roles, etc. A young woman came into the classroom late, and slid into a seat in the front row. Throughout the remaining class time, I could see her looking increasingly puzzled, and I thought, “Just ask whatever it is!” Finally, toward the end of the two-hour period, she raised her hand and said, “I thought when someone transitioned they were supposed to dress like the other sex, but you have a beard and dress like a man…” It took me a moment to realize that because she’d missed my introduction, she didn’t know what direction I had transitioned– she had assumed I was a transwoman!
– Terry, a non-binary person who was assigned female at birth, went to the office of a local non-profit organization to do some volunteer work. At some point, they went to the bathroom, choosing to use the one labeled “Men.” They were amused to see a sign that read, “Your mother doesn’t work here. Please leave this bathroom as you would wish to find it.” So, they left the toilet seat down.
– Ed went in for a routine physical exam. He transitioned over 15 years ago, and had a metoidioplasty procedure ten years ago; he now has a penis in the small-to-normal size range for a cisgender male. During the exam, his doctor pronounced, “Good news, your prostate is fine.” Given that he doesn’t have a prostate, Ed was understandably concerned about this finding. He told the doctor he was a transman, and her response was, “It says that in the chart, but I thought that must be a mistake.” Ed is now shopping for a new doctor…
This one isn’t really funny, but does encapsulate why many trans people look for a new job after transition:
– Jane is a cisgender female partnered with a transwoman. Jane recently started a new job, and was pleasantly surprised to find her building had a gender-neutral bathroom (not every building at her new company had such a feature). She mentioned this to a co-worker, testing the waters to see what gender attitudes might be like. The co-worker said, “Yeah, we put that in about five years ago when we had an employee who transitioned from female to male. We went to all that trouble to do that, and then she left anyway. I don’t know why.”
– A friend of mine is a professor who transitioned to male nearly thirty years ago. He has been private about his transition, not considering it relevant to anyone but close friends and family members. His area of academia is generally unrelated to trans issues. Last term, he taught a class in which the topic of transgender issues came up periodically, in the context of cross-cultural work. At one point, a self-identified ciswoman student went on the warpath against my friend, accusing him of benefiting from cisgender privilege and being unwilling to admit it. She did not connect the dots when he said to her, “You shouldn’t make blanket assumptions about people. Anyone in here could be trans and you might not know it.” Her response? “I’m talking about YOU, not any of the students.” Well, so was he!
– When he was 21, Lee obtained a state ID card in his home state so he could go to the bars with his friends — this was long before his transition, so his ID said he was female. He never acquired a driver’s license, and forgot all about this ID card as time went by and he didn’t use it any longer. Twenty years later he transitioned to male in another state. By this time, he had acquired a driver’s license in his new state, so changed it to male along with all his other documentation. He never changed his name, content to keep the gender-neutral Lee. Ten years or so into transition, long after he’d considered himself “done,” he moved back to his home state to care for his aging parents. Of course he went to the DMV to get a driver’s license. The clerk behind the desk had a good laugh, saying, “Wow, someone made a mistake in your record 30 years ago, maybe they were high or something! Your former ID card says you were female! Guess I’d better change that for you!!” Very taken aback, Lee just said, “Huh, thanks for fixing that for me!”
– Michelle scrimped and saved for years, finally reaching her goal of gender-confirming surgery in Thailand. As she woke from surgery, her first exultant thought was, “Yay, those boy parts are now food for the carp in the canals! This is the ultimate in carpe diem!”