Friday, July 19, 2013

On Being Personally and Professionally Trans

One should not have to represent an identity just for having one,
But to change minds, we need those willing to have public conversations
and navigate the consequences of mixing the personal & professional


Questions & Concerns

Recently a twitter question has come to my attention in response to a quote from an interview with Natsu Onoda Powers, Assistant Professor of Performance Studies at Georgetown University, regarding her upcoming play, referencing a concept I introduced to her on being "Professionally Trans." The quote ran as follows:

"I was out with a friend of mine who identifies as a cross dresser; he identifies as male who likes to wear dresses and looks sexy," Power explains. "And he told me that he invited someone that he didn't know from an ad on Craigslist who was a fully transitioned person, male to female. And it turns out this person was a fully transitioned person, male to female, and an escort.

"But these two people were very interested in each other's lives. Very different mode of dressing; being trans is a profession for one person, and the other is a casual cross-dresser. We had a really interesting night out."

The concerned person on twitter wanted to know why anyone would think that being "Trans" is a profession. Put that way, I can of course see the problematic image that is summoned up of a mild-mannered cis-gender person getting up from bed, taking a shower, putting on their "trans" suit and going to work. 

This image plays upon anxieties already present about Trans people being synonymous with male or female impersonators, with there being a sense of perpetuating a performance, artifice, falsehood or even deceit. With all that already experienced on a daily basis (including by myself), I can feel the place where such a concern arises.

That is not as far as I know the direction that Dr. Power's remark was intended to go. From conversations we have had previously and since, "being trans as a profession" refers to a much wider discourse about what it means to represent an identity or a community.

As a sign of respect and to not simply clarify what Dr. Power was referencing, but to respond to the call to open up the question of representing and defining terms of identity, I would like to offer a few words on the words we use, who uses them, and why.


Issues with Terminology

"Trans" or "Trans*" has become somewhat of an umbrella term, much like how "Queer" now serves to describe a wide range of things; hence the insertion of the asterisk to suggest the need for a clarifying foot-note whenever the term is being invoked. 

Taking Trans away from "Transgender" (itself often an umbrella term) or Transsexual or Transvestite, all add to the inconstant and diverse use of the term as a sign of identity, of neurological or bodily states, of political movements, etc.

As with anything that brings people together, there are concerns about distinct groups being "lumped together," and on who gets to draw the lines. 

Should Drag-Kings, Drag-Queens, Impersonators, Cross-Dressers, Transsexuals, Transvestites, Transgender, Butches, Femmes, Bois, Gurls, Hormone Users, Pre-Op, Post-Op, and Non-Op (to name a few) all be regarded together? What about differences in geography, nationality, income, race, impairment or disability, religion, time period or other important intersecting factors that further distinguish one person or group?


Representations & Representing

This has been a concern for myself in my own life and career as a writer, speaker and academic. It was likewise a concern for Dr. Power, as she wrote and directed "the T Party" which opens tonight in Silver Spring, MD.

That was one of the reasons I was asked to speak to Dr. Power's cast and answer some questions they had. As part of the conversation, I talked about the importance of being conscious of yourself and differences whenever you step forward to represent or speak as part of a diverse community.

There is a value to stepping forward and speaking about your experiences or relating the stories of others. In the process of explaining this, I offered a distinction borrowed from a colleague who identified as not only a gay man, but a "professionally gay" man. The distinction was meant to reflect that not every person, gay, straight, bi, pan, queer, etc., should be expected to speak out publicly about their sexuality, just because they don't fit a norm. 

Furthermore, some of us end up getting paid to serve on committees, on conferences, on TV, in class-rooms or on the stage to speak about our experiences and as a member of an identity community. After relating that story, I commented that I recognized that distinction for myself. I was not simply a Trans woman, but because of my work, I end up being "Professionally Trans."

Speaking on behalf of yourself, in situations where you may be taken to or intend to speak on behalf of a larger community thus places responsibility on us to know what we need to know and to know what we do not know. 

Whether or not you are getting paid, or just getting paid attention, representing or "professionally" being an identity should come with a keen awareness of potential goods and other potential consequences. We all in a sense represent ourselves, but the more ardent, out-spoken and intentional you are in the public eye, the wider the range of outcomes you may affect --- beyond your own life.

Monday, July 15, 2013

A Perk of Being of a Wallflower: Being Alone Together

Alone, Together

One of the great joys of staying with my mum for the summer is getting to watch and discuss movies with her. Tonight we watched The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I grew up in a household where you talked during movies, but generally about the movie. This was amplified by my mother's struggling hearing and her request that I repeat and explain some of what was said (there is a lot of whispering; a common feature in a lot of teen dramas). 

It is great talking with her, as a Nurse for over three decades, she was the first person to really get me observing, thinking and talking about mental health. After doing home-visits with kids with all sorts of mental & physical differences and diseases, my mother would come home and share her day with us over dinner. Many disability studies lessons, I first learned from her.

My mother is book smart, but even more she has emotional intelligence and empathy. So whether talking to us about what is going on in our bodies and worlds, or about her patients, I cannot thank her enough for making it feel normal to pay attention and be able to share in the discomfort, joys and dignities of people who are living in separate universes of thought and experience. 

"We may never see the same colors anyone else sees," explained a friend, who recently just started on her nursing degree, "each of our rods which make the spectrum may be different. We literally see the world uniquely." The lyrics of a Fall Out Boy song, from their 2013 album, "Let's be alone, together" expresses in simple verse a scientifically verifiable reality.

"Most people are thrilled that someone is paying attention to them," my mum has told me about many of the people meets. "Someone who will sit with them and just listen; like Jules (our dog). We would all be better people, I think, if we were more like him. He takes care of me so well." I laughed and told her that my stuffed animal friend, Little Penguin does the same for me. "Yeah," she says, "I sometimes wish he could speak, but I wonder if it's better for me this way." 

Going back to the movie, what the story weaves together is a world without bad guys, and a lot of pain. It was written, said the author/screen-writer/director in the commentary, to reveal all the things that kids carry around with them. Physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, trauma, homophobia, sexism, criphobia -- all of them compound on one another as people pass along the hurts they receive. 

More than through direct transmission alone, the movie shows all the shit that children see, and how being aware of suffering without an ability to "do something about it" affects us; whether its Patrick who refuses to be "a TV special" growing up gay narrative, able to take care of himself but wondering "why can't you save anyone?," or Charlie, a child narrator surviving his own personal trauma, who sees "so much pain, everywhere and there is nothing I can do,"  desperately wanting to know "how do you turn it off? How do you stop seeing it?"

It does (and can) get better, the story evidences, but only if we combine being a wall-flower with doing something about our lives."We need to break the cycle," says the author, but that takes the courage to do what isn't be done, for ourselves and for each other. The key moment, he continues, is Charlie getting up and walking over to Patrick and Sam. He could have sat there & nothing would have changed. Most people probably would have just sat there. But he got up, and did something; allowing all the good and bad and better that came from it to happen.

That was the start of the film, by the end of the film none of the problems have been "fixed," many have gotten apparently "worse" but much of that is because they have been brought to the surface. Some things, important things, do get better. Friends emerge and a family changes that are willing to struggle and laugh, step back and step in when things get bad. "Let's go be pyschos together" is one of the story's climactic lines. As the building of relationships and the writing of the book/film evidence, however, to move from observing to doing, we need to learn how to talk about whats going in inside and around us.

This general sentiment hits home with a recent battle in my home school-system where The Perks of Being a Wallflower was banned from being taught in schools, following the objection of two local families. After a campaign by students and parents, the book was again allowed to be taught, with the stipulation that the children of parents who found the themes of the book objectionable had the ability to opt out. While the final decision to return the book comforts me in many respects, I worry that the children of the parents that are withholding this literature are probably exactly the kids that need this the most.

How often do we exclude care and community from the people who need it most?


Acceptance vs Approval

A friend and I were talking a little while back about what we wanted out of our current lives. Our answers are deceptively similar upon first hearing, but almost immediately the differences became evident to us. 

"I've realized I want approval" she said, "that's how I grew up." Nodding, I thought about that. It is really important that people I trust and look up to tell me that I am doing a good job. As an extrovert and an empath, I am incredibly uncomfortable with people I can't read. In the absence of communication, I assume the worst. 

But then I got to thinking about how little I respond to compliments on my work. I need it to keep going, sort of like a green-light that I'm on the right track, but it rarely stays with me.

What I do well, I tend to pass off to another agency. "Anyone reading X or doing Y or hanging out with W would have arrived at the same conclusion," is my knee-jerk narratives for success, as untrue as that may be. I guess it's because I can see success far better in other people and things. As someone who does take in so much, what I output rarely feels like it came from me exclusively. When I feel I have done something well, it's generally an appreciation for everything that went into it, with me as the vehicle that brought it together.

This is not true for what I do poorly. When problems arise I pull the fault into myself. I've shared before how I compulsively map of alternatives and escape routes in my head due to a general excitement (the profit of an anxious-depressive nervous system). The retrospective of this means that I can generally see, without need for outside criticism, numerous places that I could have rerouted. 

The fault lies in the instrument, in my mind. Add this to the fact that as an empath I tend to absorb the range of direct and ambient emotion of criticism. Add that to a flood of back-logged shame that is held at bay by years of training, a deluge of disapproval I selectively block-out in order to function: (1) because so much of it is directed at me on a daily basis just riding the train going to work by looks and comments and (2) because I just see too much, too much pain, fear and anxiety of the people are around me. No, if I gave a damn about approval, I'd go insane.

"I want acceptance," I decided. "You don't have to agree with what I do, but get on my side or get out of my way." Approval comes with fair-weather friends. I don't really trust a person until I see how they respond to a failure on my side. I can't settle into a romantic relationship until our first fight. If that goes poorly, well then I am better off going somewhere else. 

The people I trust to remind me who I am, who really make me feel like what I do, good or bad, is worth all the shit, are the people that stand by and support me when things get bad. If I can trust you with failure, I can trust you with success. I think that's why the people I gravitate towards tend to have a certain kind of edge or darkness to them, people who have seen similar kinds of shit thrown at them, and know how to handle it.

In one of my recent relationships, my partner came to me and talked about her fears of dating a trans person, admitting that after talking with family, she got to thinking about all the potential for violence or alienation that could happen to me, her or us together. I could tell in the way she said that she wanted me to untie this knot somehow, but I couldn't. 

"It's good you are afraid," I had to tell her, "it's scary shit. I'm scared by it, every day. Being scared shows you know what's going on and can appreciate it. I can't tell you how not to be scared, I can only hope that we won't let it control us." She took that in, and I think she understood. 

From all I knew about her and saw day to day, I know she did lots of things that scared her. The hard thing about loving someone and accepting them is pulling down your defenses and sharing those emotions; being scared for someone else, being brave for someone else. That's what I want and need.

I don't want approval, I want to know someone has my back.

This is the Road to Ruin, 
and We Started at the End

For those who follow my Facebook or Twitter, you may be aware that I am reading through GK Chesterton's Heretics and once again discovering many surprising things that I didn't know I knew. Few but Chesterton could write a book called Heretics and leave me feeling more hopeful about humanity; but perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, because he wrote Orthodoxy and left me feeling more hopeful about faeries.

Part of how Chesterton does this is by writing in a style and with an ethos very much aimed at "the common experience."  His defense of traditions, what he calls the unconscious vote of the dead which we carry on into today, is committed and will stand behind both the practice of drinking enormously and then going to confession the next day; great liberty protected by the ability to set laws on oneself; conservation through perpetual innovation.

My appreciation of Chesterton meets its limit at the juncture between the common (we might say normative) and the mad. I've stated elsewhere that I've noted that Chesterton seems to define madness as though it were  intellectual, as opposed to socio-neurological. Also, he tends to regard paranoia as the chief madness, whereby reason is brought to irrational extremes. Once again, he continually returns to "reason" because he regards it as a useful common tool for all (or most) people. His method by definition excludes deviance, while noting that deviance (even rebellion tends to be a common feature among all people).

People may, and have, begun the other way around: beginning with madness and looking for a way back to a common experience. This is not to say that difference and identity, madness and sanity are opposites, but rather that they stress alternative aspects of an interrelated experience of at once being a part of a global community and alienated from it. As discussed with the Part vs Whole post last week, we need to find a way to talk about common experiences without covering over uniqueness.

Meditating on this brought me to recently post on face-book some thoughts on madness among the millennials, a generation sardonically referred to as a bunch of special little snow-flakes:

In so many ways an ability to be articulate about mental health, disability, and difference is going to be ever more critical for future writers. The emerging generation, which I am proud to say I am a member, has grown up with therapy, medication and madness as a common if not public experience. This is hardly to say we all received the best care or access, but those conflicting realities (mass pathologization, without mass valuation) is exactly why once we take the reigns of this shit economy, we will be hungry (if we even know it) for people who can speak with empathy and intelligence about these experiences.

From here I began to assess how much art being produce my young people today revolve around this sense of madness, held in common. This is hardly to say that madness is our exclusive property, but rather in fact it is our inheritance; one we take with far more glee than might be expected.

For whatever reason, we are not nearly as cynical as our elders, despite growing up through Wars of/on Terror, an Economic Crisis, an Environmental Crisis, Austerity Measures which cut most of us out of the means to live, and general professional collapse). Talking with people, there is a general sense, "we can't do much worse" (granting that we all probably still could). This generation has been praised (and cursed) for our Technology Skills, but frankly this group of budding pyschos is being given far more useful training: we have Survival Skills.

A key element of those survival skills will, I hope, continue to be finding ways of being alone together; be it on our laptops, texting from across the room, making art like FOB's recent album (from which the second and third subtitles of this post are drawn) or the Perks of Being a Wallflower, and moving on better modes of dealing with the economy, with society, with poverty, with the global and ecological world. This is a shit-hole, but if we are to each have our own little corner of it, we need to be able to speak through the squalor.

We are growing up in ruins. We may be mad, but we are inheriting a mad world. Perhaps cynicism is in surplus because there is still a desperate grip to be sane.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Breaking the Grail: Partings in Le Morte d'Arthur

An alternative title could have been
"How We Are Made Whole by Relationships"


Re-Questing Narratives of Wholeness

As I pass through Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, I find the King crying on his Queen's shoulders at the pledge that the Round-Table will follow the Quest for the Sangrail (tales all about inconstancy & being-made-whole). The tears are because King Arthur knows that his collection of friends and family will be separated by this quest and when they all return back together, it will not be the same community. 

Usually, I take the position of protecting "Parts" from "Wholes," noting that "Wholes are often antagonistic to parts" and that there is an importance to "Parts as Parts." It is one, for instance, to consider an amputee as a whole within herself. It is another to consider her a part without a sense of holism, a sort of ontological free-agent. 

However, as disability studies is not simply about affirming the dignity and liberty of people with disability, but also about assisting in the care and betterment of all manner of lives, there is a value in considering the restoration of a whole as a potentially desirable and valuable trajectory. Being able to come back together as a community after departures is critical to a sense of self.

"The Restoration Narrative" (as Arthur Frank has argued in the Wounded Storyteller) towers above all our desolation, leaving us with the sense that a "integration" or "cure" will be compulsory; thereby erasing our sense of self & dignity in our part-ness. How do become whole without losing the important parts of ourselves?

"The Quest Narrative" (appropriately named by Frank) often incorporates a return to a kind of wholeness, but while sustaining difference and process as parts of what it means to be whole. To accomplish this narrative, we need to redefine wholeness in such a way that does not simply replace or subordinate the importance of parts.

As we consider: (1) What is a whole vs a part; (2) Why being whole matters; and (3) How we can form better wholes, we can shed light on our own friendships and sense of wholeness.

To begin, I have found it useful, for myself, to illustrate these three points on a white-board.


1. Wholes vs Parts

A key principle to understanding my new approach to "the Whole" in such a way that does not erase the importance of "Parts as Parts", is that I regard the Whole as a Part. What makes a "Whole more than the Sum of the Parts" is that it is arrived at by adding together all the parts and then adding "the Whole" part which is what constitutes these otherwise separate organs as unified as some kind of singularity.

I've used the metaphor of the skin before, where without it the parts are visible as parts, but the skin adds a sense of aesthetic unity. Likewise with the casing for different kinds of technology. Sadly this does often erase the visibility and thus our evaluation of parts. I find clear casings for electronics to be interesting for exactly the reason that it somehow twarts the sense of wholeness by emphasizing the object as a hybrid of many parts.

But I will go further in my definition of "the Whole" and I hope open up new possibilities for considering the values of Wholes vs Parts: Wholes are Relational Parts.

We have often regarded the Parts purpose as servicing the Whole, providing distinct qualities, objects or services, but the Whole services the Parts as well by bringing them all together and setting the terms of their relation. Hobbes's Leviathan attributed the Part of the Whole to the King, who sustained and ordered the relations of the other Parts that make up the Kingdom.

Now, Kingdoms are not popular here and now, but perhaps we could understand them and ourselves differently. Do we need Kings (or Queens)? Do Parts Need Wholes? Yes and No. It depends on what you want to do and be. In one sense, we can (perhaps) be King-less, Nation-less, and exist as free-agents in an Chaotic Anarachy of Individuals. But is this not to say that we are each Kings or Queens of ourselves? Is not the benefit of being a Part that we can de-part from this Whole and form/join that Whole?

What we arrive at by the revelation that every Whole (or King) is also a Part, and that every Part is on some level a (Whole), is that we one some level Relate and on another level Retreat from relation --- here we might see a correspondence with Graham Harmon's "Real" and "Sensual" objects. The Whole is that part of us that makes us "us," or me "me." The Parts are those parts of us that allow for us to also be "them," or me "you;" such as when I talk about my friends or organs as separate-able from myself. 


2. The Importance of Wholes

Wholes are important to consider separately from the Parts, just as Relationships are important to consider from the Partners, for very similar reasons.

When things are going well is useful to remember that in a Relationship there are the Partners and then there is another thing which is the Relationship itself. Making a Partner happy is great, but that doesn't always lead to a happy Relationship. Relationships take work and consideration on their own terms. Being with your Partner may be nice, but having points, such as Date Nights where you emphasize The Relationship is also important. 

Celebrations, Conferences, Retreats, Meetings, Ceremonies, etc are all testaments to the helpfulness of regarding the Whole in addition to the Parts. Goals are set, plans are made, and the Relationship is assessed and affirmed.

Considering the Whole or the Relationship as a distinct Part is also useful when they need to be changed or disintegrated. Being able to say "they are a great person" or a "they are a valuable part" even though "the relationship" or "the union" isn't working is helpful to a certain phase of a break-up, I have discovered. 

Likewise, when the Relationship needs to change, such as moving from "Friends" to "Lovers" or from "Lovers" to "Friends" it is useful to consider  the person as well as how we relate to them; what I have called the Whole. As the Parts or Partners change, often the Whole does or needs to change as well. In other words, as we change, what and how we are together and how we relate to each other change. A Relationship needs to change with its Partners.

Again, even if you don't want anything to do with that Part, Person or Whole, this is impossible (or difficult) without being able to say that at some point you were or could have been attached together by some kind of "Wholeness." One cannot be Single or an Individual, without asserting a sense of being a Whole in relation to yourself. Otherwise you may forever be "Dating" or a Part which never quite settles down into a Whole/Relationship. This may be possible.


3. How to Form Better Wholes

Arthur's court fractures when his knights set out in search for the Sangrail, and this reveals relationships and sub-wholes within the partitioning. The knights compete in clusters, according to ties of friendship or family. Furthermore, each knight is himself a whole made up of different body parts, weapons, armor, horses and likely an unseen retinue of servants; because what Lord truly travels alone with all he has to carry?

In looking at how "Wholes" can change along with their Parts, as an-other Part, we have looked at one dimension of how we can form better "Wholes." Another aspect of trans-forming "Wholes" is to recognize that insofar as Wholes relate Parts, so too we may have many relationships and be a part of many Wholes at once.

Whether conflicts arise from within or without, parts may need to make demands on the whole if it is going to sustain itself. Be it the mismanagement of Part called Whole (i.e. the King) or the harm being cause on One part by another (i.e another Knight), transformation may need to occur. 

Failure to accord these changes may result in one Part being removed and a redefinition of the prior whole, and an assertion of independence of the other. An organ may work with the body for a while, but at a certain point the body and the organ may need to be surgically removed to ensure the health of one or both. 

All of this is to say that being conscious that any given Whole, Friendship, or Relationship depends on the Parts which may consist and coexist within a multitude of other Wholes, compels us to try to regard as many dimensions of our community as possible when conflict arises. Typically the lines of fracture will announce themselves, but often we will have to follow them to see where they lead.

Asking, "How is this part-ner's other selves (bodily-health, friendships, romances, family, work-place, etc.) possibly setting competing tensions with our relationship?" or "How do I fit in as a part to their sense of wholeness?" may give critical awareness in conflict resolution.

Outside of conflict, such awareness may give us an improved appreciation for Friendships critical relation to our sense of wholeness.