17 November 2009

A More Radical TransTuesday Post - Eradicating the Binary from my Life

In last week's post I talked about the ways in which I came to have a rudimentary understanding of the world of transsexuality, but my journey through sex and gender certainly didn't end there, nor can I imagine it ending in my lifetime. It seemed that not long after I was able to put my head around transitioning from one discrete sex to another, there were suddenly new options to understand. There were transgender folks who didn't necessarily feel the need to transition their sex to transition their gender, or to transgress gender entirely. There were folks who were genderqueer, whatever that was. There was the fabulous Kate Bornstein, writing "I know I'm not a Man...and I've come to the conclusion that I'm probably not a woman, either. The trouble is' we're living in a world that insists we be one or the other."

Aside #1 - I've chatted with Kate on Twitter, met her in person, seen her perform in a theater, seen her perform in a book store, and shared a wildly cool dinner with her and some other lovely Twitterati and assorted geeks. Additionally, she once saved my ass whilst stranded in Manhattan waiting for a call time and directed me to some cool museums. Her fabulosity has been confirmed, reconfirmed by independent lab analysis, notarized and announced publicly, here and many other places as well. So huzzah to her books, lectures and performances that have given so many the reassurance that they weren't alone and the bravery to transition.

Aside #2 - Yep, all quotes from books and names of books/films are going to link you directly to buying said items from Giovanni's Room which you should run, not walk, to do. They are the oldest independently owned queer bookstore on the east coast and recently had to replace a structural wall to the tune of $50,000 so they need your support more than ever. Please shop there for Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Michaelmas, any Pagan holidays whose names I haven't learned yet because I've been lazy, and pretty much any holiday, rainy day or Tuesday that you can think of. Do it!

Back to our regularly scheduled blog: Here are a short list of things that helped me leap from "Yes, there are two genders/sexes and sometimes people are born in the wrong one" to "There are many sexes in nature, although all but the predominant two are considered pathologies in most cultures. There are as many genders as there are people, it's all a social construct, and people are WAY TO FREAKING UPTIGHT about deviating from the predominant two in almost every culture I'm aware of."

1. Watching more of those programs on Discovery Health, I discovered intersexed people. They'd pretty much all had surgery performed on them at an age long before they could consent of even express what sex or gender they felt like they might be, and were none to pleased about it. My initial thought was "they ought to wait until at least puberty and then let them pick one, with of course "one" being one of two options. It was a process of years and bits of information here and there before I realized that some people might be more than fine with living as a third, fourth, or fifth sex beyond M or F.

2. I saw a documentary on Kinsey. A lot of science focuses on either/or, mainly because it's easier to teach than "maybe," "nuance," or "depending on fetal conditions, resource availability, or diet," etc. We learned Mendelian genetics in high school. Peas were smooth or wrinkled, yellow or green, dwarf or tall, in a regular predictable pattern. We didn't learn about genetic aspects with multiple gene influences, gene expression inhibited by environmental factors, etc. We certainly didn't examine sex and gender: an almost unintelligible ballet of infinite genetic, hormonal, environmental and societal influences. So yeah, Kinsey. He looked at some insects and saw thousands of iterations of variation on one attribute and thought, hmm, maybe nature is not so often down with either/or. I can dig it.

3. Yet another Discovery Health special. This one included a FTM trans guy who was at that point pre-transition and performing as a drag king. However, unlike every other Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, butch cowboy/mechanic/miscellaneous male archetype drag king that I've ever seen, this dude was, a huge, flaming QUEEN. Now there's gender confusion, or at least it was confusing at the time. I could handle changing your sex, and being queer myself I understood people who were gay after transition. (It still astounds me how many people vaguely get both gay & trans but then say "but if you're going to sleep with women, why not stay a guy?! But of course, sex and sexual attraction of nothing to do with one another.) Alright, so I've got all that, but a person born female who wants to become a feminine gay man, lisping and swishing in a boa? That was a big leap. I'd already disconnected penises and vaginas from man and woman and already realized there were other options for genitalia anyway, but now to disconnect masculinity from man and femininity from woman? It was a big pill to swallow, which if you've ever met my inconsistently moderately butch, mostly flitting self, is deliciously ironic.

4. I read GENDERqUEER, an anthology edited by Joan Nestle, Clare Howell and Riki Wilchins. You should read it to. It is full of great stories, trans history, and ideas that will so liberate you from so many "shoulds" and "ought to bes" that I'm sure it's terrifying and fabulous and just will send gooesbumps right up and down your spine. Go read it! After, of course, you've bought it from Giovanni's Room! ;D

That's one blog for me, one brief summation of my losing the idea of binary gender for you. If I left something out or you having something to add, a question, something you'd like me to address with regard to gender - please leave it is a comment and I'd be happy to respond in next week's post! Until then, happy TransTuesday!

15 November 2009

How to divorce a concept

1) The beginning is to ask why. This often may not occur to you to do in the face of conventional wisdom, a boss, a parent, etc. For example, you suggest a new idea like going back to school, changing careers, adopting a dog, adopting a child, adopting a new political party, spiritual belief or religion. This is then countered with "but you have to," or "but you can't..." And then fill in the blank. You have to: have insurance, give two weeks notice , get married, see the dentist every six months, eat your vegetables. You can't: just up and change like that, upset your father, be a starving artist, live on rice and beans.

Now here's the hard part: ask why It usually doesn't even occur to us to question thing so ingrained as the need to steadfastly pursue a steady income and health insurance, at least if you come from white, middle class parents like mine who believe it is your first and foremost concern to have a job with a steady income and insurance. I'm lucky to be queer, to have friends that up and change their sex and/or their gender, lucky to know a whole bunch or radicals and hippies and freaks who meditate, sculpt, pray to God, pray to Kali, pray to the moon, or maybe don't pray at all. For me, I'm surrounded by questioners and asking why has become as strong a reflex in me as offering the ingrained rules is for the people who do it all the time.

Advanced technique: ask why without having an answer yourself. For example, I've already figured out how to counter why I should need insurance and can quickly rattle off "why should I worry? I'm healthy, vegan, I exercise, and haven't needed medicine in years. If I get cancer I'll go bankrupt curing it and then start over or I'll die. Who gives a shit?" The harder and scarier thing is just to ask "why" even if you don't even if you don't have any answers yet. If you're really and truly lucky, you might get possible answers to this questions, arguments for both or many sides, and a chance to explore the possibilities. More likely you'll get some more conventional wisdom, platitudes, cliches, and some shit your great grandmother thought made sense in 1911. Remember, the person doing the offering isn't malicious. Then again, even if well intentioned they may well be shit and an obstacle in your path who needs to get out of the way or learn to support you, even if they don't understand you.

2) If you ask why and don't get a good answer, divorce yourself from the idea.

Advanced technique: get a divorce yourself from the entire system on which that idea is based. For example, some transgendered people change their sex from male to female or vice versa and end there. Other trans folks, regardless of how they do or do not transition their sex, come to the realization that, regardless, sex and gender as binaries are false and do not exist as described in biology, psychology, or society at large. The second group are using the advanced technique, and teaching the rest of us something truly fabulous and wondrous and amazing.

Likewise, I've recently divorced myself from a steady pay check, but I'm ready to divorce myself from the entire concept of validation of achievement through discrete digital values including, but not limited to, the numbers on my pay check, grade point averages, scores on individual tests or other assignments, batting averages, job reviews expressed as a number, the number of pages I write per day, the number hours it takes me to memorize a scene by rote, or the number of blogs I post in a week.

One of the great hallmarks of the modern world is to quantify things. This is by no means a terrible thing all of the time. The percentage of my laptop battery that is charged is a valuable number that can help me plan my actions to best benefit my productivity. Believing I have achieved some adult rite of passage by earning a paycheck isn't valuable, at least to me. It is certainly not valuable to ask how many pages I wrote this week.

Do you know what I did do this week? I looked at an affirmation in the Artist's Way that seemed really silly, like a straight ream of New Age horseshit, and I wrote it down and I responded to it with every cynical and mean and unsupportive thing I had to say. Afterwards, I responded to my own cynicism with kindness and support that I didn't know I had in me to give to myself. And I just sobbed and let it out, and then went upstairs and painted a whole new affirmation on the wall so I would remember what was really important. So, does it matter if I wrote a paragraph or a page or an epic novel? No. It matters that I forget that men aren't supposed to cry and that I "should" be earning a living, or that I should be doing anything at all other than exactly what I was doing which in fact was amazing and transformation and healing. I stopped trying to do anything at all other than create and nurture the best possible me I could be and I had a real, honest human experience. You cannot quantify spiritual and emotional growth. The weather yes, the human experience, no. That's how I'm working the advanced technique (this week).

3) Be willing to be validated, rewarded, fulfilled, clothed, fed and brilliantly happy. On the surface this looks like a no-brainer, but it's not. Some people find it emotionally, spiritually and/or physically easier to stay where they are than to go someplace new, especially if it involves risk getting there. And let's face it, it takes risk to get anywhere interesting or rewarding. So yes, this seemingly obvious thing is actually an important step.

4) Be willing to be scared, look like shit, have no money, and fail. Let's get personal here. I asked why I should have to give two weeks notice to an emotionally abusive boss, so the last time she pulled her intimidating, immature, publicly humiliating bullshit I decided it was, in fact, the last time. I walked out, found another computer and worked from there, emailed her saying that abuse wasn't an option, and I wasn't coming back to the office until there was a solution. The next working day I called HR but they were already in the office and I got fired. I am willing to be scared, look like shit, have no money and fail. I'm not willing to be abused while I sit in a cubicle I hate, not making the art I would love to make, just so I can have insurance.

If your job is the only ill effect on your mental and/or physical health, then ditch the job and BAM, insurance problem solved. I know that's not an option for everyone, and sometimes you ask why you must keep a miserable job to have insurance and you get a very good answer like you have a congenital condition and will die without your prescription coverage. Asking why doesn't mean you'll always get an answer that changes everything, but if nothing changes then at least you have a reasonable explanation as to why, at least for now and maybe for always, things are the way the are, and not just "because I said so."

Now I have to be willing to be scared and possibly broke if my former employer contests my unemployment benefits. I have to look like shit. (I'm out of exfoliant and it doesn't seem like a reasonable purchase just at the moment.) I have to be willing to fail at an unemployed actor who is waiting to hear about his application to return to college. I have to be willing to fail to get in. I have to be willing to fail at getting a job serving, or even bussing tables. I have to be willing to fail at paying my rent and having to move to my parent's house, be homeless, squat an abandoned house or rely on the charity of friends or family. I have to be in an emotionally and possibly physically and financially precarious or even dangerous place. But this is divorce. It might end quietly and fairly in mediation; this might be the knock-down drag-out fight of my life. I have to be willing to get hurt and, if you're divorcing a concept, so do you.

5) Lather. Rinse. Repeat. What, you thought you were going to divorce yourself from one concept and establish a new one in its place and life would be honky dorey from then until you shuffled of this mortal coil? No, not likely. There's always something else to learn, some other bullshit to unlearn, and a whole lot of work to be done.

08 November 2009

For Twitter's TransTuesday, A Blog

I can't remember a time in my life when I didn't have some awareness of transsexuality. My cousin Erica is a male to female (MTF) transsexual person. (Aside: Some people just say "a transsexual," including some trans people that I know, but in the same way I wouldn't say "a black" or "a gay" I will generally use transsexual as an adjective that modifies an aspect of a person's humanity rather than as a noun.) She is a somewhat distant cousin from me and her immediate family wasn't initially so accepting so I never met her until another cousin's 90th birthday just a few years ago. I don't know exactly how to describe the ways I heard about her talked about other than to say that she was the butt of some jokes except that everyone is the butt of some jokes and embarrassed stories in my family so it didn't seem malicious even if it wasn't optimal. Additionally, I was so fascinated by the idea of someone that would change their sex that I didn't really care what anyone else thought. I just wanted to meet her for as long as I can remember.

The other way in which I became aware of transsexuality was through programs on the topic on Discovery Health that I watched in high school. They were typically told as biopics on individuals, more often MTF than FTM, that were altering their sex through some combination of hormones, SRS , nd lessons on how to appropriately modify their voices and body movements. To me, this was a pretty straight forward thing. My understanding was that they were people who felt that they were born with the wrong bodies and they took action to rectify their spirit with their body. It wasn't my experience but it wasn't hard to understand. One program even discussed a study on the post-mortem study of the brains of 6 transsexual women demonstrating that a substructure of their hypothalamus called the BSTc was the same size of that typically seen in people born female. There was debate over whether this was a born variation that explained these women's transsexuality or whether it was a result of hormone therapy, but it seemed possible that there was a simple biological explanation for their transssexuality. It didn't seem like the kind of thing that should invite vitriol and even hate crimes to me. I never understood that.

That was a great primer for me, but there was a lot not being answered. Were the little boys who wanted to play with dolls longing for that because it was inherently a girl thing to do, or because that's what girls were doing and they knew they wanted to be girls? Where was nature in nurture in gendered behavior. Beyond that, there was a whole lot more learning to get me from that limited-but-valuable understanding of being transsexual and transgender to the gender queer, gender fucked, gender what/what gender? place that I live today. But that is all for another blog on another #transtuesday.

05 November 2009

I Find Family Everywhere - Thank you Dr. Lee

To me, family is just about anybody who supports me to be the happiest, most productive and creative version of myself that I can be. Today I found that support from the attending neurosurgeon for with whom I have worked directly for the past two years. In fact, our anniverary, as it were, is this Saturday. Since that time I haven't received any raises or promotions at work, though I've received considerably more responsibilities and seen a steady decline in my morale.

Today was the first day I was excited at work in a really long time. I attended a meeting of surgical coordinators and was able to give input on how to make both my job and my patients' experiences more efficient and pleasant. I was working on a particularly dynamic plan that would coordinate the care of multiple departments to expedite the patient's visit and require them to make fewer stops in their pre-surgical consultation and testing day. Considering that 40% of my patients have metastatic cancer to the brain with a few years or even months to live, I'm thinking that reducing the amount of time that they spend in doctor's offices, particularly performing redundant registration procedures for multiple departments who after ten years can't agree to unify their fucking computer systems, would be a good thing. Aside from this I think that creative problem solving is a very creative (as the name would imply) practice and while I'd rather be screenwriting, it's a hell of a lot more interesting than editing and printing medical dictations in an inefficient system which, by the by, could use a hell of a creative overhaul of its own.

Not only was my idea pretty get groovy but, miracle of miracles, multiple administrators in the nation's oldest hospital (officially), located in the country's angriest and most stagnant city (unofficially), were absolutely all about my idea and how to make it work. I take it back to my office manager and she immediately shoots it down. She talks red tape. She talks extending myself beyond what is "my job." Apparently, dynamic creative problem solving to increase the patient experience is not part of my job in healthcare. She pointed out that I'm already stretched to thin. I pointed out that this was because she gave me someone else's job to do one day every week and gave that employee no other responsibility. We were getting nowhere fast and my first enjoyable day at work in almost a year was sinking fast.

As soon as Dr. Lee wrapped up a meeting I popped into his office to lay it all on the line - I recently reapplied for school and would be happy to continue working for him part time if he would get behind me having a more interesting task of changing the way things are run rather than putting together charts because the girl at the front desk is too lazy to and doesn't really care when dying patient's lose their medical records. I went on to point out my intelligence, my creativity, and the ways both were being wasted.

He took it right from the little question of could he and I band together to reverse the inertia and lack of care in a broken health system to provide a better patient experience to what did I really want. We talked about going back to school just for the sake of learning, which I've missed terribly, and the fact that I am taking acting classes and building a film resume. He mentioned an interview with an actor that he'd seen where the actor said that said aspiring actors should study no other skills because then they'd fall back on those and not pursue their dreams. Mind you, I've been trying to have just such a conversation with my parents for well over a decade, not because I need their approval per se, but because we love one another and they don't need to understand me or how my value system differs from theirs to unconditionally support me and believe that I was going to be OK, which they don't do or believe.

Dr. Lee then moved on to some of his own feelings of frustration and anger and raising his voice and arguing with other people and how it stemmed from a feeling of a lack of control and how my anger was basically coming from the same place. I agreed and was talking about how it's frustrating because I don't want control in a maniacal or power hungry way, but in the sense that my intelligence and creativity are recognized and I am therefore given the freedom to exercise them to the best of my ability and to the highest benefit of my patients. And then the really cool thing happened. He was talking about how when he was in the OR and far from office politics and phone calls that everything just melted away and he was in his element, removing brain tumors or evacuating subdural hematomas. I concurred and shared that I felt the same way acting a scene. The greater beauty of the moment was in recognizing that there are so many ways of finding our Zen space or Tao space or happy, centered, joyfully fulfilling our potential space. The world needs neurosurgeons and the world needs actors and those people need surgery or acting or any other imaginable profession, hobby or spiritual practice to carve out the moments in the day when it feels like every molecule in your body leaps from jumbled dissonance into a sudden an utter exaltation which, if heard, would be like the most glorious and resounding symphony in the history of people having the ears to hear such things.

I feel so liberated. If he wanted to help me stay and work part time and do only the parts of my job that I enjoy then I'd have an excuse to stay in a toxic work environment and try to sidestep the horseshit while I'm going to school full time and taking acting classes and rehearsing and taking all of my vacation time for film work. Instead, he asked me what I want. Then he listened. Then, he told me I should pursue that and be non-negotiable in achieving it. That may not seem like a big deal but when you're 25 and a college drop out, it's a rare experience. On one hand it might seem unlikely that my big supporter for going into the arts would be an Ivy League educated neurosurgeon. Then again, maybe the audacity to root around in someone's brain and the audacity to say you're in acting for real (and for nothing less than an Oscar) aren't so terribly different. Now I know that when my acceptance letter comes and my loans line up that I'll be writing a two line resignation to management and a very heartfelt thank you to Dr. Lee