I was featured on the Basic Rights Oregon homepage talking about my experiences at New Relic
Today I did a brave thing. Every month we do Women Who Lunch at work. Today, I took the floor and talked about my experience transitioning and what it has been like being out at work. I was engaging, I was funny, and I was inspirational.
I started transition in 1991. In that time, maybe a total of three people that I knew professionally knew I was transgendered and there were less than two dozen people total who knew whom I had known only *after* transition. Of that nearly half were people I had been out on dates with where I would disclose if things got as far as a first kiss or it felt like things were going so swimmingly that a first kiss was going to happen.
There were easily three or four dozen people in the room today.
Afterward, the room gave me a standing ovation, which humbled me deeply. Then people came up and either hugged me or told me how much this had meant to them or how moved they were.
Someone called me a hero. I am proud of myself today because I did a good and brave thing. Tomorrow, an email is going to go out from Basic Rights Oregon that is going to have a picture of me talking about my experience at New Relic and being trans. BRO has asked if I would be interested in doing more public speaking on the subject to which I said yes.
A year ago on this date, if you had told me this is where I would be 73 days out from surgery or 1000 days *after* surgery, my answer would have been “NOPE!” Because being public about being trans was always in the ‘when the Winter Olympics are held in the heart of the Sun’ category of probability.
Six months ago I came out as trans because I was too ecstatic about surgery being around the corner to hide it. I’ve gone public now because I feel I can do at least this much. Once I knew that this was going to be over, something clicked in me and I realized that I’m proud of myself. Not because I’m trans. I didn’t want this, this is just how things were. Not even that I transitioned but that I transitioned and was wildly successful in the outcome and I did it on the terms I had set for myself–no sex work if it could be avoided and making sure that it *could* be avoided.
Tomorrow, when I wake up, it will be 72 days until surgery.
A cat woke me up this morning about five-thirty in the morning and I don’t fall back to sleep until well after eight. Woke up about 11:15 grumpy as hell and went outside and started working on the yard. By 1:30 my wife was bringing me a thing of iced tea and lemonade and remarking that I seemed to be in a better mood.
The back lack yard still needs more mowing but I’ve started making a dent.
The front yard looks decent enough though:
It’s almost over! On Wednesday, I received my surgery date. On August 5th, I will check into OHSU and eight hours later, wake up in the recovery room, my body complete, nothing sticking out or bulging where it shouldn’t be, and I’ll begin the long painful road of recovery from major surgery. My transition is about to end, some 25 years after it began.
When I set out on this path, I was 24 years old. My life was absolutely a wreck, I felt I had nothing to lose from transition and maybe it would be the thing that would get me to start putting my life into some kind of order. I had not much in the way of role models of women with my experience and what I saw in either the transactivist community and the working girls who plied the world’s oldest profession at the edge of the Tenderloin in San Francisco held no fascinations for me. So I made four decisions that, as it turned out, were all surprisingly perspicacious and prescient in light of maturity. They are what I will call my Ten Fold Path of Transition:
- Be patient with yourself.
- Don’t look back. Once you start down the path, don’t go backward because if you do, you may not be able to start yourslf again.
- Gender Confirmation Surgery solves one very specific problem. It will not make you any kind of woman. How you transition, the mistakes you make and the ones you avoid will make you the woman (or man) you become.
- Transition does not fix your life. You may fix your life in the process of transition but if you are high-maintenance going into transition, you’ll be high-maintenance at the end.
- You are being given an opportunity to remake yourself, take advantage of it! Remake yourself as you saw yourself in the dreams that faded just as they were tantalizingly real or the daydreams you dared not admit to, even yourself.
- To that end, make peace with your inner little boy or girl you didn’t quite get to be. Particularly make peace with your inner late teenager.
- Surgery is not the goal. Wholeness of being is the goal.
- It doesn’t matter if you look the way someone else thinks you should look, it only matters if you look the way you think you should look.
- Be gentle with yourself.
- Avoid the sex trade. Don’t sell your body and don’t allow your body to be exploited as a ‘he-she’. Street prostitution is inherently dangerous and you already feel horrible enough about your body. You don’t need to collaberate in your own fetishization.
For a confused 24 year old who felt out of her league and had absolutely no idea what the hell she was doing, the above are ten of the best decisions I ever made. Of those ten, seven of them (items 2-7 & 10) I wrote down in my diary as ’these are the things I must remember’ were what I knew I needed to do going in. The other three I learned over the course of the journey.
When I started this out, my guiding star was to turn into the woman the 16 year old girl I didn’t quite get to be might have wanted to become. I am, in many respects, that woman. The way I got to this place was not up the quick and shiny path of fame and stardom but up a slow and laborious and winding path called maturing.
If I could go back in time and meet myself in 1991, I would give myself a big hug and say, “kid, you have no idea what good decisions these all are. I know some around you are telling you otherwise. Ignoring them is the right path.”
Maybe I wasn’t quite as dumb at 24 as my middle aged self thinks she was.
Surgery is 97 days out as of this writing.
There was a time when this post would have been unthinkable. Even as I write it, I wonder if I will have the character to hit ‘post’ when I have said all I have to say here. I have a secret. It is a secret that, until very recently, I have kept very close to my vest. This secret involves a quest that I set out upon twenty-five years ago. That quest was to bring my body into line with what I knew and know myself to be for I am a transwoman; a woman who has a Y-chromosome where none should be. I have been stealthy, very stealthy, for all of the years when I could start to pass. I did so for a number of reasons. Some of that career related—I work in corporate software and I thought that black and lesbian was quite enough difference, thank you very much, for one person to have to explain. Some of that was social.
I came out at a time when to be a transsexual in what was then euphmastically known as ‘the women’s community’ (or because I’m a lesbian of 90s vintage, womyns) was a bit controversial. I learned to carry that secret close to the breast and let people get to know me, Aj, my true, ultra-geeky, Lawful Good self. And then, if something in the relationship crossed certain points I would then disclose to the other person. Typically that meant someone I was romantically interested in. If there was a first kiss then the conversation happened before there was a second kiss. Sometimes if the first kiss seemed a fait accompli even before dessert had been pondered, then it might happen before the first kiss. There were friendships that would get to a point where I would want the person to know just because I wanted to fill in some gaps in the story.
So why now? Two reasons: the first is that after 25 years the end is in sight. In just slightly over a month my medical plan will pick up the cost of GCS and I will get an appointment to meet the surgical team and then get a date. The waiting list is comfortably under a year and so this journey ends next year. Even if the worst were to happen and I were to not have surgery until 2017 that would still only mean another full calendar year. The quest, the self-imposed geas that has defined my adult life will come to an end. The second is that as it comes to an end, there are promises I made to my younger self that I feel compelled to follow through on.
When I began this journey, I knew that either it would either be the crucible through which I would pass and emerge a much stronger, more powerful person or I would be destroyed upon the way somewhere. What I envisioned started out, as all youthful dreams do, as my writing the Great American Lesbian Science Fiction novel, it becoming a break out hit, Hugo award, Nebula award, etc., movie rights, all of that. The life I built, one that is simultaneously more interesting and yet objectively quotidian, is beyond anything I imagined. I am beyond the woman I dreamed of becoming back in the late 1980s when the ice I had built up around my inner self began to thaw. Locking up my feelings, including my feelings of being a girl, was only supposed to be a stopgap measure. I never intended it to be a lifelong commitment. Of course, I froze that knowledge up with my emotions.
When I began this journey, it looked impossible. In fact, I knew it to be impossible but I felt I had no choice but to try. All the possible futures where I did not transition and live the rest of my life as the woman I hoped to become did not have any dates beyond March of 1997. I would have destroyed myself had I not transitioned. So to save myself from myself, I took a leap into the unknown. And to my surprise landed on my feet! I told myself two things because I knew that I would have to put my writing career—such as it was or wasn’t—on hold until I finished this. The first was this: if I manage to get to the eve of surgery and know that I have come to the other side of this journey with more than I started with, then I will know I have done the impossible. From that point on, everything I ever attempt will simply be merely difficult. I used to have a housemate, Diana although we all just called her Fritz, whose battlecry was ‘I can do anything’. Well now, like Fritz, I know I can do anything other than that which my body or physics prohibits. I am a better worker, a better spouse, a better parent, a better neighbor, a better friend and a better sibling than I could ever have imagined myself being. I am smarter than I knew myself to be (and being clever was the only thing I never lost faith in). I am much, much, stronger than I once was. Bruce Banner to Hulk is the scale upon which we are talking about.
The second thing I told myself was that if I got to a place where I had transformed myself into a force of nature was that I would have to be out so that I could help other transsexual women on the journey. I have built a good life. An amazing life, really. It is not fancy. My life is not glamorous. I drive a nine year old Prius that I paid cash for with a tax return earlier this year. We are still renting our house although we are going to buy it. My name is not up in lights. It is a life that is achievable though.
I had, as late as the beginning of this year, told myself that when it was all over I was going to leave it all behind me. But I kept reading story after story, viewing meme after meme, about how the fate of black transwomen was that we are murdered in the course of doing sex work. Usually the sex work part is conveniently ironed over in order to smooth out any narrative wrinkles but that need not detain us here. I realized that if I were starting this journey in 2015, I would feel far more pessimistic than if I did starting in 1990! I would think that as a black transwoman I’m either going to be unemployed and turn to sex work and die, or I might be underemployed and turn to sex work and die, or I might just skip the employment and go straight to the sex work and die. As an alternative to death, I might become a celebrity. But nowhere was there any idea that I might have a nice middle-class job where I can keep us in a modest home while my wife is a full-time student. I can do that and we still have the means for her to lease a horse and take lessons which is something my wife has wanted to do since before she could say the word horse.
The only way for young transgendered women to know that a life like this, a suburban house, five cats, a dog, a turtle, a bearded dragon, and a hedgehog, friends who enjoy our company, neighbors who love one, and a job one enjoys and is compensated well for are ALL within grasp is for those of us who have achieved these things to be out and visible. The only way for people who are not transgendered (neither my lips nor my pen nor my keyboard will ever use cisgendered except to talk about the term itself) to understand what our lives are like is for women like me to come out wherever we are and whenever we can.
I am secure in my job. I have established relationships with my friends and neighbors and coworkers that I am certain will weather this revelation just fine. Surgery is a matter of keeping my job and keeping my job is a matter of continuing to work hard. The top strata of my corporate brass all know as do my manager and his manager as well as my whole immediate team. The rest of my team will know very soon.
There are some people, our dear friends across the street being the most immediate ones, that I was going to wait to post this so that I could tell them in person but I know that this is a scary coming out. The coming out that I dreaded far more than coming out as a lesbian. Being an out lesbian is easy. Being an out transwoman is quite another thing altogether. We’ve shared a lot and I’ve wanted to share this with you personally. Since I know that jumping into these waters is something I’m terrified of doing, I know that the only way to do this is to just jump. If I stand there and think about how cold the water is or how deep the pool is, I’ll never go in the water. So I jumped. My apologies for your finding out in this impersonal manner instead of the far more personal one that you deserve.
So there it is world, I’m a black, transsexual woman who is a lesbian. My life is good. Great in reality. As good an ordinary life as any woman could ask for.
There are a few people I need to thank for making this post possible:
Always, my wife Jaime for being the best wife while insisting, incorrectly of course, that I am the best wife.
Jeanie Swan for teaching me what real Christianity looks like lived out in realtime.
Elizabeth Miller for being a solid friend and telling me that I could do this coming out.
Rev. Sean Parker Dennison. He knows why.
Rev. Patti Pomerantz of Eastrose Fellowship Unitarian Church.
My sister, Lola Davis, for accepting me as her little sister.
My fellow Crew from Team Planet Espresso at New Relic.
I changed the tagline because what I envision for this blog has changed. Many of the voices speaking about black life in America or queer life in America in the early 21st century come at it from a very radical perspective. A perspective I think is unhelpfully radical. I want to try to talk about some of those same topics and issues but from a less radical position. The conversation about rights, identity and equality on the American Left is broken. There are hopeful signs that a serious thaw in what had become of left-leaning discourse has begun. Call out culture, the odious social media practice of publicly shaming people has fallen from favor. People do not like bullies and I learned plenty about bullies growing up.
Finally, someone recognizes ‘When Night is Falling’ for the masterpiece of lesbian films that it is!
“Butch is a legacy identity, dating from a time before we understood gender as something that could change or fall between the poles of male and female. Individuals who identify as butch, or who have identified that way at some point in their lives, may now find themselves on different points along the gender spectrum. In the long run, there may be no way to save this dinosaur of an identity—or butch may eventually be nailed down to a single point rather than encompassing multitudes. For the present, however, what butch means depends on which butch you pose the question to, and it is rare to find two butches who will give you the exact same answer.”
There was a period, call it almost a decade, that I identified as butch. During the last half of that time, the assumption in the community was that I was going to transition from female to male. When we would go to butch-femme events the assumption was that I wanted to be called ‘he’ and Jaime’s ‘fella’ neither of which I wanted. I know we’re all supposed to say we’ve never heard or seen a butch woman being, well, badgered to transition but I have been on the receiving end of it. I’ve had people say “well, when you’re ready…”
We’ve managed to do in, perhaps a decade, what the prior five decades of serious anti-gay bigotry could not; kill off butch. Not individual butches, but I suspect that butch is going to dwindle away. The butches will get grayer, grayer, and there will be fewer and fewer younger ones to take their place.
I think we are letting one of the most beautiful expressions of womanhood slip away from our fingers, and we don’t even know that we’re doing it. I think we will not realize what we’ve lost until it is gone. And the lesbian world will be less colorful, less sensuous, less sultry, less seductive, less beautiful place. Twenty-some odd years ago this June, Del Martin made me weak in the knees when she just flashed me a wink, coming out of a 7-11 in the Castro when I was on my way to the Dyke March. She melted my knees. A woman clearly old enough to be at least my mother if not my grandmother, and she just put this tremor through me. I felt, in that moment, like the most beautiful creature to ever walk this earth. One look, one wink, from a butch woman a year older than my mother and I was just a puddle of lesbian goo waiting to buy a pack of smokes. I have been flattered by the attention of men at times—if the approach was genuinely respectful—but no man has ever made me weak in the knees, much less by doing nothing more than winking at me.
We are not likely to see the likes of the butch lesbian, in all of her stone and in all of her womanhood, again anytime soon.
I once heard someone describe the generational experience of immigration to be something like this: the generation that were adult immigrants bring the old country with them. Their children want to be Americans and try to put some distance between them and the old country. Their children then are just Americans. The old country is just this place where their great-grandparents came from. Their children, in turn, feel rootless and so wish to return, at least spiritually, to the old country. I am going to try to paint a heretical picture in pursuit of a truly heterodox position. I’m going to argue that black America is now finishing its immigrant experience. Our experience was interrupted by slavery, specifically, even more so than Jim Crow although that prolonged the amount of time we were held outside the society, the foreigner with their strange names, funny accents, different foods, and unfamiliar customs. Overcoming Jim Crow is something like crossing the ocean with its physical manifestation perhaps being the Great Migration.
This morning I noticed that a friend of mine commented on a Facebook post that people were arguing, still, that the Greeks and Europeans stole everything from blacks in Africa even though there is no evidence that anything of the sort happened outside of the self-referential world of Afrocentric studies. Here we see another manifestation of the syndrome—if Dixie in the first three-quarters of the twentieth century was the Old Country then pre-historic Africa is the place that the people in the Old Country would call their Really Old Country. Well, they might if they had believed any such nonsense although my parent’s generation, certainly, seemed to have very little truck with it. We focus on Africa but not Africa now. Just like it is always 1952 in Alabama (and thus in America) it is always 7000 years ago in ‘Kemet’. So Africa, the modern continent with all of its vibrant and rioutous diversity disappears being entirely beside the point. What is important about Africa is what it was and to the degree that modern Africa counts in the least bit what it remains, is yet another sign of the depravity of Europeans and Americans both past and present. Apparently not only did the Greeks steal the knowledge of Africans (how one steals information from a culture is left unexplained) but they prevented the Africans from continuing to use the knowledge they had. How that trick was pulled off is also left largely commented on.
The problem with trying to get back to the Old Country is that, unlike Ireland, the past exists but you can only get stuck there you cannot come and go. This is not to say that the study of the past is unimportant, far from it! But you cannot get stuck there. The problem of the Afrocentrists, who are less the concern of this essay, is that they are stuck in a past of their own imaginings. The Africa they imagine never actually existed. The problem with being stuck in the Old Country that is the last century, is that it has sapped one of our great cultural strengths as a people. A cultural strength which, was paying dividends as more and more black people found good paying jobs and implanted themselves in the middle class and it continues to pay to this day.
If you’re a middle-aged black person or older, you probably remember being told as a child that you were going to have to try twice as hard to be recognized as merely average. This kind of can-do and will-do attitude was a source of strength for us. It gave us an internal power that could not be taken away because it was not in the gift of anyone but ourselves. Whites could not touch it because it was inside of us; we carried it in our brains and breast, where it is beyond the reach of all forces save death. It was and remains a double-standard and that is certainly a moral violation but seeing it clearly and recognizing that, for all its evils, there was a way to overcome it was a moral triumph. If we were courageous enough to take the plunge, that is. Freedom is scary, much more terrifying than a past you can never actually visit whether it existed or not. But dreams of glory have all the defects of sleeping dreams, they are ephemeral and no matter how vivid, disappear at the slightest touch. The desire to live in either past, imaginary Kemet or very real Alabama, circa 1952, is an understandable one in the face of the terrors of taking the risk of striving. There are no guarantees in that path. One might fall flat on the face. But the glories of ancient Kemet, or the depredations of Old Dixie, are already paid for.
I believe we are seeing a transformation in the psyche of black America. I think that the old ways of being black no longer serve us and many younger black people do not know what it means to be black. Here is the parallel between black Americans and the experience of other immigrants. It is both a generational experience and a personal one and how can it be any other way for generations are made of people. Both my grandmother’s generation and my parent’s generation (born in the first 22 years of the 20th century) knew precisely what it meant to be black. There was no question about it. You could have all the PhD’s one can imagine earning and you still weren’t sitting at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s. My generation knew what it meant to be black. It was not the same meaning as my parent’s generation or their parent’s either. It meant something specific to our time in the story and for us, to be black meant to be strivers. We were the integration generation. We were the first generation of black Americans to have grown up in a world where if we remember Jim Crow at all, it is only the vaguest, most hazy memories of early childhood; the place where a ‘colored only’ sign hung above a water fountain, a nasty bathroom at a gas station sans the sign but still where black folks had to use the restroom. So the meaning of our blackness was that we were the ones who were going to take advantage of the opportunities the generations before us had fought for.
But what does it mean for modern black people just entering adulthood to be black? Hell even to some degree the tail end of my generation, that part of the cohort born in the 70s instead of the 60s, who probably remember nothing of the old remnants of Jim Crow don’t really have an anchor. So what does it mean to be black in a world where a black President is now a fact of history, and a black doctor, lawyer or engineer is unremarkable? What does it mean to be black in a world where you can earn your way into the physics programs at Cal Berkeley or MIT? There was a time you could have been the fulfillment of some long-forgotten prophecy of a Chosen One who would, once and for all, work out a unified field theory to make relativity and quantum mechanics play nice together and you still wouldn’t be admitted to MIT. That day is gone. Are there a lot of black students at MIT? No, but there are black students there proving you can get in if you’re black. You need to be able to hack the work, but you can get in to try to do so.
Yes, black men are stopped and shot by police more often than other people. Yes, more black men are incarcerated as a percentage of the population than any other people. Yes, more black children live in poverty as a percentage of the population than other people. But for all that, this is still not 1952. Black people are far more integrated and assimilated into America than at any point in our nation’s history. I started forming this heretical idea of black America evolving into just another ethnic group, instead of a race apart, a few years ago. Increasingly, I’m beginning to think that this might be the way we talk about ourselves going forward. It has the virtue of connecting us with a very American story of how this ancestor came here from this or that shore. This is a story that resonates deeply with who we are as a people. It also has the virtue of using the language of a journey and the journey motif is already deeply woven into black American culture—particularly our religious culture. So we need not invent a new language that we then have to teach people, we already have the language. We need to use it to tell ourselves an updated version of our ethnic group’s story.
It is a story of a people who first began their journey to America in the 17th century. For the whole of the 18th century and most of the 19th, we were held apart in an isolated island called Slavery. When we were then emancipated from this island and brought to the mainland, we were still quarantined in a place called Segregation, the capital of which was Separate but Equal. During that time, we migrated within the borders of our own land in a Great Migration, leaving Dixie, the site of most of the worst of our oppression and torments. We finally destroyed Segregation, although some of its structures still stand but its religion, Racism, has lost favor and adherents lately and so it has become an increasingly lonely place, peopled by groups that reject the moral progress of America. So now, we are here, we are Home in America.
I am an American. I am black. American defines my nationality, black defines my ethnic experience of American. It has become a shibboleth on the Left to say that race is a social construct so I see no reason for us to continue to speak of black people as a ‘race’ and high time we speak of ourselves as an ethnicity.