Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Yes, We Can Change: Transliterature Thanks President Obama


"It may be incomplete, 
but it is a beginning, 
a step along the way."

Oscar Romero
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2008

The year is 2008, I am standing within the restricted area of Millennium Park where President-elect Barack Obama is about to accept his election to the Presidency of the United States. This is not the end of something but a new beginning. This is not a moment but a movement. On this day, I will still arguing with some friends and colleagues who found his campaign too idealistic, too idolizing of Obama as a champion. There was some of that, true, but that was a shallow reading of a lot of information I told them. If you listened when Senator Obama spoke on the campaign trail, he continually redirected the attention coming at him to others. Change was coming, he said, but not because of him as an individual but because of who we are as a fresh take on politics and social justice. Hope was renewed, but not because he would fix everything that was wrong but because we would give ourselves permission again to be critical but cynical about government, because we would try, really try, and try again even when we failed. More than any other slogan, Obama's message was condensed into the message, "Yes, we can." Can what? We can hope. That is allowed. That has merit. That does things in the world. We can change. That is allowed. That has value. Change is not only inevitably but can be used for good. And once things change, there will be no changing back. You can't make America anything it was again. You can only make it different. You can make it hope, make it change, and try to do better. That is what I heard him say, that is what I told others, and that is why I was there that night. You could call this the feeling that this was a historic moment. But studying history has taught me to see history as a movement more than a moment. History is where different pasts collide and battle for different futures. History is a record of change and movement. Things never go back to where you remember putting them. History is adaptation, the record of how we survive. History allows you to see the future as another element of the past. Those who build roads and cathedrals imagine the future feet that will walk on the stones they set. This night was not the grand opening of that Cathedral but the laying of the foundations. 

The other reason I was at Millennium Park was that I was offered one of a limited number of tickets as thanks for working on his campaign throughout 2008. I had piled into buses traveling around Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana. We were be put into teams, given materials, and set off to visit homes. Usually, and most memorably, I was among the groups sent to check-in with those who have showed interest in Obama or Hillary Clinton early on. Our job was to see what their thoughts were, what information they needed, and to make sure they got out to vote. So many people I talked to on those canvassing trips were telling me how this was the first time they voted in a while or else the first time they ever voted. I recall walking toward a house, only to have one of the residents open the door, look at us in our buttons and shirts, and yell out, "Obama! We are voting for Obama! All of us. The whole family!" We asked if the woman or anyone in the house needed directions to the polling place. "Oh we are all going in a van, we are going to pick up our cousins too!" I had done canvassing on other campaigns and for other issues but nothing has beaten the energy of folks I encountered in the midwest in 2008. Talking to them affirmed for me why I too felt hopeful and capable: people were hopeful. Senator Obama was central to the campaign but what made the movement powerful was the collective energy and will to make things better in the country. The United States is gifted with a lot of energies that are often at cross-purposes, even within the Democratic Party. Yet in 2008, there was a reorientation of this willfulness toward a shared trajectory. Where it would land was uncertain but folks were on board for the ride.

I first heard of Barack Obama when he started running for an Illinois Senate seat. What made his arrival so striking was how I found about the campaign: my grandmother. My mother's mother is a proud Polish woman who does not like many people. She especially does not like many people of color. Before and since it was not uncommon to hear her blame everything from the economy, medical costs, to bad television on black and brown people. Then one day, my mom gets a call from her telling us that we have to go listen to this Senate candidate speak. "He sounds like Kennedy," she said. That is all she had to say. For Polish Democrat Catholics in Chicago, John F. Kennedy was the height of class and grace equal or above that of George Washington. Now, at the time I'm not sure whether my grandmother had actually ever seen a picture of Barack Obama or if she had only heard him on the radio but her sudden support for a man of color who would soon be our Senator and later our President was a real sign in our family that things were changing. Hope was appearing from households that had turned away and change was occurring in hearts that had been closed. Immediately after that phone call, my mother and I began listening to Obama speak. We kept on listening and we kept on being surprised by what we heard. Again, it was not only what he was saying but what others were saying about what he said. Now, my grandmother did not turn around suddenly or completely about people of color but in her now existed room for potential. No one in my family saw it coming when Senator Obama announced he was running for President. Once that became a possibility, we knew that was what we wanted to see. Early on, Obama didn't seem like he stood much of a chance against the other candidates. But surprise after surprise happened, then it was down to Hillary Clinton and him. Then just him. The old logic that said this couldn't happen was being proven wrong. There was reason to believe in change. There was reason to thing we can do something different. As a country, we can change.

Printing out my ticket and then arriving at Millenium Park did not feel like the final victory lap but the beginning of something new. It was something new for me as well. Obama was going to Washington DC and soon so would I. A few months after he moved into the White House, I moved into an apartment on the same street and just a few blocks away. When family would visit, I would take them to the end of my block, where you could look down the hill and see Obama's White House. Within our shared time at DC, I would be called down that hill to twice enter the White House and offer the administration my perspective on transgender and disability justice. As a whole, Washington DC was a town very much unlike Chicago and unlike anywhere else. What lay ahead of me on this night in Chicago was as much if not more uncertain as what lay ahead of President-elect Obama. But that was a good thing. When I feel at my most cynical and depresssive is when I feel the most certain about what the future holds. The humility of not knowing what comes next also offers the hope of the unexpected good. I will never know how the next eight years of my life would have gone without this night but I do know that I was more prepared to face the challenges and embody challenges to my future profession, the country, the church, and my own preconceptions because I entered this journey with a spirit of hope and a belief that yes, we can change. What I remember of that night is not only President-elect Obama and his family on stage but the ocean of people all around me, in the park and streets outside, and watching on television. This was about more than a person or a presidency. This was a moment that renewed our participation in a long collective movement. We would be the engine that got up this hill or not and he was to be our conductor, telling us, "Yes, we can."


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2012

The year is 2012, I have a fellowship from the Obama re-election campaign and am sitting in a DC satellite office as we wait for the voting results. We sit in a room full of old computers. A box of cheap flip cell phones stands in the corner. This is the office's phone bank which is now silent. No one left to call. No information to get to give. We collect in this room because there is room and chairs enough for us all to sit while we project the results on the wall. Unable to stay still, a naturally anxious workaholic, I am pacing the office seeing what little things can still be managed while the states are announced. Very much fitting in among those who work in politics and activism, I am not alone in this constant motion. I find others going through files, getting things ready to be moved to the next major campaign initiative. Some are sitting in one of the smaller call centers, checking polls on one of the computers. They are looking at different numbers than the general group, however. Pausing here for a while, I get another lesson on how to read polling information. States and the electoral college are the big, somewhat artless facts. The devil of elections are in the details. Specific districts reporting specific figures at specific times make a big difference. Elections are won and lost not only in swing states but swing districts. These districts can come down to a certain part of town, a certain school district, a certain church parish. And it doesn't only matter who wins and who loses. The margins matter. A close win or a big loss in certain districts can signify changes in attitude that will be exploitable years down the road. Certain districts will be marked as contestable. Already before 2012 is over, the 2014 and 2016 elections are being strategized. For folk who devote their lives to getting votes for initiatives and candidates, the work never stops. They are work addicts that never stop moving. They come to love the movement.

The years between 2008 and 2016 was a busy time full of plenty of work and movement. What will I say it was like to live during the Presidency of Barack Obama? Our oldest child was two when he took office and our youngest was born weeks before he was elected. Obama is the only president they have known. This is the way the world is to them. Soon, by contrast, they will begin to build memories of what this time meant to them. All of us will have to do this work, regardless of age. So what will we say? For me, I saw these years as one with her head thick in stacks of work. Others I knew were likewise making the most of every minute to be productive. The change was slow if it came at all and it was hard fought. In some ways, for the transgender community this was a time of significant shifts in awareness and systemic support. But these wins were met with violent hate and waves of anti-transgender legislation on the state and local level. After 2012, a witch hunt began in key states for transgender persons who were abused, humiliated, or killed. These rising waters of hate also grew among white supremacists and nationalists who executed their agenda and their frustration on black youths and immigrants. When those same hard movers and shakers got to work organizing resistances to these assaults, the rising tide of racism went into high-gear to label this new wave of black liberation and Civil Rights as terrorists. This is how it was. Social justice and welfare movements were busy building changes that would have lasting effects, often in ways that went unnoticed. Then supremacy groups reacted to set back the clock and undo the change. Then more work had to be done to protect those under attack by the groups. More often then not, the protections were too little if they came at all. This was the dance, move and counter-moves, netting progress in the end but with great personal costs.

The 2012 campaign demonstrated the ways in which tactical incremental changes, even if they are shaky, can shift the flow of events. The big question during the re-election campaign was the new Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare. This was an issue I was geared for well before President Obama announced it. A registered nurse, my mother had been working for health insurance companies for years and still does to this day. I saw how the lack of the ACA, the transition to the ACA, and the results of the ACA revolutionized the medical field, especially how it was financed and who got care. As a transgender person, whose ability to claim my own body is dependent on health care providers, the ACA mattered. As a woman, whose collective agency over our bodies are constantly being tested, controlled, and undermined, the ACA mattered. The ACA was a matter of life and death, or a livable life and an unlivable life, for people with disabilities. Health insurance disproportionately affects and excludes people of color and those with transnational life stories. Now, saying the ACA mattered did not mean that it was perfect. It did not do all it needed to do or all President Obama wanted it to do. As with his first election, what mattered most was the discussion and the movement. Something needed to be done about healthcare and health insurance in this country. Something more still needs to be done years later. By pushing the ACA front and center, making it the focus of the 2012 election, President Obama shifted and set the conversation. Good or bad, this or that outcome, there would be a conversation about healthcare. One way or another, things would change. Unjust foundations that had been set for decades were beginning to move. The question, "what kind of healthcare does the public need?" replaced silence and the question, "does the public need healthcare?" Change came in a big, uncertain, imperfect way through the ACA but it came and its effects remain. The end effect of such movement, then, is the need for more movement.

What was it like living during the Presidency of Barack Obama? The answer to that question is uncertain because it depends on what it is like living in another time. What are the differences? What differences matter? Towards giving a reply, I can say what I was on my mind and heart as I stood in the doorway watching the election result be reported. I was dreaming about the future of the past. I was thinking about essays I would write and ways I would improve www.ThingsTransform.com, because medieval disability studies was very new and transgender literary and medieval studies were still in the womb. I was dreaming about the futures imagined by the past. Would the exclusion of transgender persons from jobs, schools, and healthcare continue? Would I be able to work in academia? Would I be able to care for a family? Is there room for me? More importantly, is there room for those who came after me? Most people were not asking these questions in 2012 because most people did not know much or anything about transgender. The future battles and arguments that would introduce new and old information, as well as new and old slurs and fears were only bubbling. What these other times look like was uncertain but I felt confident that we would meet them. By election night 2012, we were confident that President Obama and his movement would continue. The belief that things should be better and can be better was alive. This was a belief that was battle tested and ready for the next fight. In the back of the room and in the other offices, folks were already murmuring with plans on what we do next and what the next move would be. As the campaign ended, I knew that these workers would still be around, still making calls, polling, and pushing things forward little by little. I believe this because I saw their faces in the dark illuminated by computer screens and an old whirring projector. I saw the look in their eyes and knew what it meant. There was a whole lot of future ahead of us and whatever it held, we would meet it by stepping forward together.


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2016

Today feels like the last respite in a precious moment in time. The year 2016 has just been put to rest and today is President Obama's last day in office. I am savoring saying that Barack Obama is our President. I am savoring knowing that Barack Obama is President. A friend today said it felt like the deep breath before the plunge or the critical thinker's hesitation before being forced to drink hemlock. That flood of hate and poison that lies before us is the Trump Presidency. To this thought, echoing the Apology of Plato, one thinks then of Socrates's last words: "The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways — I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows." With so many artists and social justice activists dying in 2016, it seemed to some as though Socrate's wager was being tested. Is it better that we live into 2017 or is it better for them that they have avoided 2017? The hit musical, Hamilton tried to answer this question through the figure of George Washington who tells Alexander Hamilton (and the audience): "dying is easy, living is hard." Perhaps Limbo would be easier. When our family watched Groundhog's Day, our youngest child commented how nice it would be to trapped in a time-loop so Trump would never take office and President Obama would stay forever. On days like these, it is important that we remember who the President is and what this has been. This is not just a moment, it is a movement. The movement President Obama drove forward resists the desire to stay where and when we are forever and never allow for change. Sometimes the road to a better world takes unfortunate detours down troubling paths, but we cannot allow ourselves to become frozen in fear before the entrance to the woods. Our poets, Socrates and Dante chose to descend into the underworld if it was the only road that remained to the city on the hill.

In President Obama's final year, I was brought into the White House twice to lend my perspective and voice to decisions of administration. Following the model of the man in charge, when asked to talk of myself, I worked to pivot to all those who were not present in the room. I was not alone in that rhetoric of making room for the excluded. Consistently in both meetings, there was a shared spirit from the advisors to the President down to author-scholars that what we were about was the work of building roads so that others may walk on them. The questions and concerns of the Federal Government are often structural, certain in this administration, working with the knowledge that the biggest benefits may not be visible for generations. The words of Oscar Romero were are my mind then as they must have been when President Obama's when he visited his memorial at the end of his first term. "We plant the seeds that one day will grow," prays Romero. "We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development... We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way... We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own" (A Step Along the Way, Romero). The White House is a big thing. The Federal Government is a big thing. The Presidency is a big thing. In their shadow, I feel like a small thing. Transliterature is a small thing. But in the spirit of middle-ness in the Middle Ages, in Romero, in Obama's Presidency, it is enough to move the collective work further down this relay race. To paraphrase an angel from another Middle Earth, we do not get to chose the time, place, and challenges we live in; but we do get to chose what to do with that time. All totaled, my couple afternoons and Obama's eight years in the President's home is a small thing that we will feel in generations to come.

Recently, I listened to an interview with Megan Mullally as she described meeting President Obama in the wake of the election. "Don't go," she pleaded. He pulled her in for a hug and told her, "I'm not going anywhere." When a President hands over the office of power to a new person and party, there is bound to be real irreversible change. President Obama is going away, in that sense. In another, he will remain with us as a citizen; a citizen that by custom and law retains the title President. Yet Obama's campaign and administration was never all about him. If we see the Obama Presidency as a movement rather than a moment, then hope and change is not ending. The movers are not leaving. Things will continue to transform. Transliterature is not going anywhere. So even if the movement in experience and reality is truly "not going anywhere" to the point of being stymied, by consistent forward pushing we can resist veering in dangerous and damaging directions. The next four years will not look like the last eight. Things change. The challenges in the next four years will be different from all those we faced before. Things change. Yet the fight for justice is the same. Amidst all this change, our central drives remain. Amidst the shutting down of borders and communications, movements remain.

Tonight we pack for one last family trip to Washington DC for some time. Tomorrow, the power of the presidency is handed over to another and the next day we will be a part of a nationwide Women's March. Our children have been asking us for months what we are going to do when Trump becomes President. Will we leave the country? What will he do to us when Trump becomes President? Will he make us (want to) leave the country? We tell them that we will remain. We tell them that we are not going anywhere. When others tell us to move, we will stand our ground and say, "you move." Our replies never seem enough. We struggle to articulate a response in how we live and continue to live. That is why we are taking them out of school so we can all join the Women's March in DC. We want to show them how we keep moving. We want them to see who else will be doing that moving with us. They will not fully understand everything that is going to happen, tomorrow, the next day, or for the next four years. We won't understand it all. But there is wisdom in the moving. There is grace in the moving. Their is hope and change in the moving. The moving reminds us that we can keep moving. We speak it through our feet. We hear it in our joints. Over Christmas, the Reverend bought us all matching light-up shoes which we will wear as we walk. Because often we come to see the way by the light of walking the way. We find the reason for keeping moving only after we are someways down the road. In the uncertainty of the road, we find paths and destinations that we could not have imagined before we began. In eight years, our bodies have changed. Our country has changed. That will not be stopped or stymied. No matter the promises of any candidate, there is no making things like they were again. The world has moved beneath our feet and the peoples that once lived there are not who they were. The only fixed things are the drive to move and mutate. Things transform. That is real. We did change. We will change. Thank you, President Obama for walking the way with us to show us, yes, we can.
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Let's feel this moment for a moment. Look back at the road we have come together. Allow yourself to feel the miles in your joints. That is the rhythm of bodies undergoing change. That is the hum of a movement coursing through our veins. Let's look back so that we might give thanks to President Obama for walking the way with us. Let's tell our story of the journey to remind ourselves that this is not a moment, it is a movement. Change continues. Things transform.

For teaching us that yes, we can change.
Thanks, Obama!

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