Sunday, September 17, 2017

I Shouldn't Be Here, But Here I Am: A Birthday Reflection and Wish

"You asked me what I want this year
And I try to make this kind and clear
Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days"

Better Days
the Goo Goo Dolls

In memory of Ally Steinfeld

A Birthday

I was born premature with my umbilical cord wrapped around my neck. I came quickly and my mother wasn't even able to be given any pain medication when she got to the hospital. She arrived and thirty minutes later, so did I. When the doctors saw the cord and the color of my skin, they went into immediate action to get me breathing. The strangling cord was cut and I was coached into taking my first breath. I was lucky. I was lucky to be born in a hospital with doctors who knew what to do. I was lucky my mother was a nurse, practiced in delivering babies, who had the knowledge and access to the care we needed. I was lucky that the night before, my mother stopped while brushing her teeth and called to my father, "I think I am ready for this baby to be born." My father laughed because I wasn't due for weeks yet and my mother was showing no signs of labor. But late that night, things began to happen quickly. My mother woke up and told my father that the time is now. They rushed to the hospital and if traffic had been worse I would have arrived into the world in the back of a car with a cord around my neck and no doctors with sharp scalpels to give me air. I was lucky. I was privileged. I shouldn't be here, others in similar circumstances aren't here because they lacked such luck and resources like life-saving healthcare. They had just as much right to be here but aren't. But here I am.

Flash forward ten years, I am double-digits and proud of that as I sit in a doctor's office with a strange humming machine pressed against my chest. A few days earlier I was at my routine physical and the doctor checking my heart had heard an abnormality. He had another doctor come in and listen. Then my mother was told to take me in for an echocardiogram to confirm. The results are conclusive, I have a heart condition. While twenty years later, further research has showed that my condition is not fatal and that people with my diagnosis can have full rich lives, at the time the material facts and the current knowledge painted a far grimmer picture. I was warned that my life expectancy would but markedly less than my peers and that, most certainly, I would need open heart surgery by the age of thirty at the latest. The doctor could see the immense concern cringing my mothers practiced face. Both could see the color draining out of my skin. Open heart surgery is risky, even on the relatively young. Thirty-years old seems far away to a ten-year old but not nearly far enough away. The doctor assured me that he would do everything he can to prepare me and keep an eye on my condition. I was told to watch what I eat, to exercise, but also not to push myself too hard. I was given a note that would excuse me from gym class at school.

 I never used that note, however. Buying into what Eli Clare calls, "the super-crip" narrative, the moment I was told that I couldn't or shouldn't be out running the mile with my classmates, I felt the compulsion to show that I could and would. In fact, I joined the track team, literally jumping over hurdles. But pushing myself didn't change the fact that I would and still do get light-headed when a burst of heart palpitations hit my body like a punch to the chest. Nor did it allow me to enjoy coffee later in life without bringing on similar stress with a cup of full black. Nonetheless, I am turning thirty-years old this year and although I am relatively young, I still don't feel any more prepared for open heart surgery. Fortunately, that is no longer regarded as necessary. In fact, after years of regular cardiograms and doctor's visits, as well as many miles run, I am not shorter nor shorter-life spanned than those without my heart condition. My diagnosis is the same but the prognosis is good. I was told I shouldn't be here, many others with better bills of health aren't here, but here I am. Despite the panic I felt at the age of ten, I am grateful for the luck and resources I was given, for the doctor's note even if I didn't use it, and for the whole team of people who were on my side and ready in case my heart gave out. What if that attention and care was given to those other kids, regardless of having a white nurse mother and a diagnosed heart condition? How many more that aren't here would be? How many more birthdays would be celebrated?



A Reflection

When at the age of eighteen a pair of police officers drew their guns and pointed them at me, my first reaction was disbelief. I was standing in front of my condo with my partner, a friend, and my mother, working on a school project. The disbelief was not dispelled until I was pinned against a car being frisked. My initial surprise arouse from many sources but not least because we were not doing anything dangerous or illegal. Of course, years later, when I would have the police called on me yet again I wasn't doing anything dangerous or illegal either. In both cases I was being investigated by police because someone who saw me judged me to be a strange person who doesn't belong in their normative safe white community. In both cases I was with my family. Years later, it would be my children who had to watch as a police officer interrogated me to determine that I  was these children's other mother and not a pervert and child abductor as the onlooker had supposed. This time, however, it was my mother who had to watch in fear, praying that her daughter didn't get shot in front of her eyes. I recall having to tell both my mom and my children that everything would be okay, that we would talk and everything would be sorted. Of course, in reality, I had no such assurance. In the end, both sets of police soon realized that I was no threat and that they had been given bad and prejudiced information about me. Yet in the moment and afterwards, I am keenly aware of how many trans persons, youths, people with mental disabilities or illnesses, and people of color do not have such luck. I ask myself, had I been a trans person of color would the police officers have paused long enough to listen to our story? What if the prejudice of the passerby who saw me had ignited the same prejudice in the police officers, sparking the outcome which too often comes when the thought, "you shouldn't be here," takes the form of violent action?

Well before my tenth birthday I already knew about another factor of my life which I was told the prognosis of even without doctors or fancy buzzing machines: I am transgender. If open heart surgery at the tender age of thirty took the blood out of my skin, I can't imagine if I knew the statistics then about how many trans kids attempt suicide a decade before that by the age of twenty. The Youth Suicide Prevention Program says 50% of trans persons will attempt by the age of 20. The American Society for Suicide Prevention states 41%. Another widely reported figure states that if I was a trans woman of color, I may not worry so much about heart surgery at the age of thirty because my life expectancy is not that much later, with an average figure of 35 years of life. These are the numbers that further research compounds, not corrects such as in the case of my heart condition. This diagnosis, whether given by a doctor or by society, brings with it a prognosis that should make all of us sit up and pay attention. Turning thirty, these are the numbers and names that still haunt me. When I accepted who I am, affirmed that I would transition, I prepared myself for the type of life and violent death that I am more likely to face. I have been told, directly and indirectly, that as a trans woman I should not be here. But here I am. That presence would feel like a victory if not for how many trans persons (especially trans persons of color) who should be here, should have been told that they should be here, but are not. 

And this is not just a matter of luck and access to healthcare. Because the too often fatal prognosis for trans folks are not determined by fate but by people, by other human beings. As scholarship on necropolitics, precarity, and "slow death" is showing, suicide is not a matter simply of bad luck or a bad apple. Suicide is inextricably linked to systems of shaming, abandonment, isolation, marginalization, and expectations which bring on depression, anxiety, despair and death. These systems of education, care, and prejudice which divide those whose lives will be managed from those whose lives will be abandoned, are also the systems which divide cisgender from the trans, intersex, and non-binary, male from female, straight from queer, able-bodied from disabled, white from black (and all other persons of color), the Christian from the non-Christian, and the haves from those whose resources have been taken or exploited. Such systems have said to me time and again, you shouldn't be here, but here I am; not least because in other ways and times I fit the criteria of those to whom society says, you SHOULD be here. The negative and mixed messaging is enough to send too many just like me or those better, more promising, more normative than me, to their graves. But to those who hear the compounding voice made from the many intersecting utterances of "you should not be here," there are many who should be here that aren't and many who have less of a chance to be here whose persistence should be lauded all the more. I hear traces of their condemnation in the voices which condemn me and also in the voices (those white supremacist, able-bodied, educated Christian voices) which praise me in part, even if I fail to live up their demands. In being able to say, "here I am," I feel the loss (the socially engineered loss) of all those who aren't. In being able to say, "here I am," I feel the responsibility to remind everyone to consider that they are not and why they are not.



A Wish

Over my years here in this world, I have seen many time and ways that people have been told "you shouldn't be here" and the many ways these wishes are made into reality. Recent events in the government, the United States as a whole, and even in Medieval Studies in particular, has stressed the persistence and power of dominant groups issuing the demand that marginalized peoples and persons no longer be allowed to be here. I have been told this. I see my friends told this. I see important colleagues told this. I see queer, trans, and crip graduate and undergraduate students told this. I see people of color told this. And I see the consequences. These words have power. These wishes are not silent thoughts or harmless opinions. These wishes are real and are having disastrous consequences. Yet it is not too late. The candles have not all been blown out. We might make other wishes, better wishes.

The cruelty but also the power of it is that these deaths and these messages, "you shouldn't be here," are not sentences from heaven or Nature but the judgements of humanity. This is not a matter of magic or super-natural wishes. Life is not a resource which must be hoarded for some and denied to others. Affirmation and welcome that you should be here is not something which runs out the more you say it. Indeed, the longer and more I become present here in this country and this world, the less I feel that "here" belongs to me. I am "here" but I do not possess it. There are many more who should be here, could be here, might be here if we didn't work so hard at belonging here and making here belong to us. Take for instance my role in the academy, the more I find myself, against odds, still here in the scholarly community, the greater I feel the pressing absence of all those who should be here but aren't or are here but are still told that they shouldn't be because of being outspoken, trans, queer, crip, feminine, old, young, poor, or a person of color. In an academy that is shrinking in funding and size, we need all hands on deck. In a culture grappling with transphobia, racism, sexism, ableism, xenophobia, and homophobia, we need more critical voices (especially among the oppressed) to turn the tide. In a nation which daily increases the volume and spectrum of the voices which say, "you shouldn't be here," we need more open and affirming voices, more voices of difference and dissent which respond, "but here I am," then add, "and so they should be too." It need not be survivors guilt or imposter syndrome to say, "I don't belong here," if we turn that statement into a demand on behalf of others who should be here.

On my birthday, when I say, "I shouldn't be here, but here I am," I do not wish to express self-pity. Rather, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for all who have literally said to me, word for word, the statement, "so long as I am here, you will be too." What is more, my birthday wish is that I may be able to say the same to the others who are here but pushed to the margins, those who are here but aren't certain they should be, those who are here but aren't sure for how long, those who are here but told they aren't welcome, as well as those who aren't here, won't be here, might be here, could be here, and should be here. My wish is that we say in greater frequency and clarity, responsibility and variety, "you should be here" and "so long as I am here, you will be too." This is not our gift to them because we do not belong here any more than they, "here" does not belong to us. Rather, if we make this wish, then we might receive the gift of their presence and that is something worth celebrating.


Transgender and intersex persons are still constantly told 
by society and the law that they are not welcome here, 
in restrooms that correspond to their personal gender identity.


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