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Personal stories

Gospel By Gaslight

If gaslighting is “a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity,” then religious fundamentalism (of several sorts, although my experience is specifically with Christian fundamentalism, and other forms may vary) is a particularly insidious form of mass gaslighting.

Although I no longer hold to any particular faith, I continue to believe that the problem is fundamentalism, rather than any particular flavour of religion in its moderate form.  I do recognize that faith can have a positive effect in peoples’ lives, and has the potential to teach a certain amount of goodness and morality that people can otherwise be too self-absorbed or indifferent to learn of their own accord.  But fundamentalism, often a hardline, literalist interpretation of scripture(s) in a way that is intended to override a person’s own thoughts, experiences and inner sense of reality, easily fits the bill of spiritual gaslighting.  Fundamentalism, in its authoritarian insistence on flatly denying anything contrary to its specific interpretation of faith, its reliance on often contradictory (or at least vague and unclear) scripture, and in its refusal to adapt when quantifiably true information becomes known, can then only possibly destabilize a person’s sense of self and delegitimize their whole sense of what is true.

My own experience gave me endless examples of this, each of which had to be dismantled in a process that took years and left me bitter and angry when all was said and done.  I had been raised Catholic at first, but then from the age of 7 until I was 17, I, my mother and sister began attending a Protestant church that was so radical it was kicked out of the Pentecostal Assembly.  That church was seen as one of the more modern of its day, but that didn’t make it progressive as a result: the sell was loving, but there was no shortage of absolutes and militant edicts to be confronted with, requiring entire changes of life, and threats of rejection or divine consequences for failure.

The example that stands out most memorably stems from having been a child / teen who struggled (because that was what I was taught to do) with attraction to both sexes, and a gender identity that I was unable to articulate (because we didn’t have the language for it in the 1970s and 1980s) as being out of sync with my birth sex.  All of these things were a part of my core person, things that I couldn’t switch off like a light, things that I prayed for years for Jesus to take away, things that I threw myself into 24/7 efforts like bible study and evangelism in hopes that they’d help me overcome.  All of these things were in direct conflict with what my religion told me was true and morally acceptable.  My faith told me that Christ could “heal” me if I just believed (I did, ardently; he didn’t).  My faith told me that Christ could cast my demons out, which was a particularly horrible kind of mind game, suggesting that intrinsic parts of my being were actually manifestations of Satan incarnate.

Continue reading Gospel By Gaslight

What the “Walk on the Wild Side” controversy says about trans* awareness and a changing social movement

A little over a week ago, a University of Guelph student union drew international ire for condemning Lou Reed’s 1972 song “Walk on the Wild Side” as transphobic.  This occurred after the Central Student Association apologized on social media for playing the song at a campus event.  Although this might seem like a minor thing to get upset about (especially in the outrage-saturated age of Donald Trump), and most of the reaction has focused on the historic roots and intent of the song, the controversy is actually a noteworthy reflection of the changes that take place as a social movement — in this case, trans* activism — matures.

This brings to the surface a lot of mixed feelings for me, as a former activist who chose to be visible and vocal at a time before trans* people were taken seriously, let alone had much in the way of public acceptance.  “Walk on the Wild Side” was an inclusive part of the subculture; one of the rebellious anthems we rallied around and took pride in.

It shows how profoundly things can change as a marginalized class of people becomes better understood and more enfranchised: even those things that had once been welcome and validating can become sour and invalidating.  It also says much about how social movements evolve, and how each generation inevitably repudiates the last, as they seek to distinguish themselves.

It’s a process I came face-to-face with several years ago, while trying to form a trans-specific support organization in Alberta.  One of the town hall participants took me aside and tried to impress upon me that in order for the trans* movement to advance, the “dinosaurs” (which included me, apparently) needed to “make way for the new age.”  As hurtful as the discussion was, they did have some points that resonated in the years that followed, and ultimately contributed to my decision from withdrawing from trans* activism and (mostly) from writing about trans* issues.  Some of the concerns they raised were painfully pragmatic (i.e. needing to have leaders who didn’t bring with them the baggage of bitterness and ill will of having fought the lesbian and gay establishment for inclusion in LGBTQ activism), some insulting (i.e. suggesting that one had to be younger, academic and/or trans-male in order to be an acceptable “face” of trans* activism), but other arguments were the byproduct of recognizing the changing language we use to communicate trans-ness… and the tide of acceptance that was coming with it.

After all, the activism I was accustomed to was a kind of triage, of coping with and trying to educate traditionally hostile medical, governmental and social institutions, while directing people in need to safe, welcoming inroads and pushing those institutions behind the scene to provide better options and opportunities.  I’ve often likened the experience to dashing ourselves against the rocks in the hopes of blunting them enough for the next people to come along.  But the activism that was quickly becoming needed was more direct — lobbying, legal challenges, public actions — and although I started making some of those changes in what I was doing, there was a danger that by trying to be an intrinsic part of that activism, I might inadvertently hold it back by defaulting to the triage-style efforts I’d been accustomed to.  In the end, I realized there was some important truth to this.

My point, of course, is that along with awareness about trans* people, the movement toward trans* human rights is undergoing a generational metamorphosis.

Part of that metamorphosis is in the language used to communicate “trans-ness,” if you will.
This is seen in the many diverse and sometimes seemingly-chaotic genders that are being investigated and embraced as peoples’ terms of self-identification.  Although many of the newly-embraced genders are relatively beyond my own experience (I’m personally comfortable in a gender binary, while still recognizing the problematic social constructions with that), there are almost always very deep and specific reasons those gender terms have been embraced.  I’ve learned to respect and support (while not trying to speak for, except when there is no one present to do so) gender diversity that is outside my limited range of experience.

I raise this as a point of language because before a movement can fully coalesce, the language it uses to communicate itself needs to be rethought.  Until trans* people had a language to communicate their own experiences, they had to cope — often with a lot of frustration and awkwardness — with the language that was imposed upon them.  In my lifetime, trans* women and trans-feminine persons were conflated with gay men (particularly effeminate ones); trans* men and trans-masculine persons were conflated with lesbians (particularly “butch” dykes); trans* people were defined and categorized by medical practitioners who constructed stigmatizing models of mental illness to explain them; pornography and second-wave feminists alike defined trans* women as “she-males” (usually with the implication that ‘she’s really male’); social conservatives wielded terms like “crossdresser” and “transvestite” to reduce peoples’ entire experience to a clothing fetish… and even those terms were imperfect and evolved unexpectedly.  For example, in the 1990s, a lot of trans* women actually did refer to themselves as “crossdressers” and used that as a label to rally under — it was the limitation of the language people had available to them at the time.

It wasn’t until trans* people were able to assert their right to define themselves and determine for themselves what their words meant that the old stigmas could be shed and better-fitting terms and their definitions could be settled upon.  Some of that is still taking place, and it may seem strange at times — but it is a necessary process (I, for one, welcome and embrace it — as long as no one tries to redefine my own self and experiences, in the process).  Even now, there are still disagreements about using words like “transgender” as umbrella terms (which I why I personally prefer “trans*” — it provides a much more open-ended acknowledgement of the diverse range of experiences being discussed).

But some of the earlier problematic use of language still remains in the things that were written about us — both by cis* (non-trans*) people, and by we trans* “dinosaurs.”

I won’t go into too much depth about the particulars of the song “Walk on the Wild Side,” since a lot of that is public record.  Reed wrote the song as an intended tribute to some of the trans* folks he knew as a part of Andy Warhol’s clique at The Factory, particularly Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling.  It’s also probably historically relevant that Reed had a lengthy and enigmatic relationship with a trans* woman (who has unfortunately faded into obscurity), which had a profound effect on him.This doesn’t change the fact, of course, that the song has some lyrics that now tread into potentially misgendering and transphobic tropes (“… Plucked her eyebrows on the way / shaved her legs and then he was a she….”) The content hasn’t changed — but the context given those lyrics certainly has.  And even if there is a consensus right now it that the University of Guelph Central Student Association is on the wrong side of the issue referring to the song as transphobic, the evolution of trans* activism and the lesson of histories of other social movements tell me that the student union’s statement is more in line with where that activism is headed.

This is true of a great many things that used to be a part of what used to be the trans* subculture.  Some of the things that we consider offensive now were embraceable or rallying anthems even ten or fifteen years ago, if only by the virtue that trans* people were so stigmatized and made to hide that anything that acknowledged our existence in even a mildly sympathetic way felt like progress.

Today, the film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar is likely to bring up heated discussions about the differences between drag queens and trans* women — if not angry division about whether drag is a kind of trans* “blackface.” In 1995, it was a celebration of a culture that was often one of the few safe-havens and opportunities to come out of the closet that trans* women had (although how welcoming the drag community was varied by region), even if it meant being willing to be a bit of a self-caricature.

In 1987, Aerosmith’s “Dude (Looks Like A Lady)” was sometimes taken as an affirmation, despite its misgendering — and in a twisted way, this may even have been in part due to the uncomfortably sexualized form of acceptance implied in the repeated refrain to “do me.”

In 1992, it was hard to know how to feel about the treatment of the character of Dil in The Crying Game, given Jody’s obvious love for her and the well-developed and nuanced relationship that she forms with Fergus… yet that is starkly contrasted with the jarring pivot of the movie, which has the latter vomiting upon the discovery of her trans* status.  Today, the movie is seen as the progenitor of the “vomit shot,” a recurring trope in an enormous amount of offensive material that portrays sex with trans* women as sickening.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch had a cult following that still largely adheres to the play and film, despite the fact that both [spoiler alert if it’s needed] end with the protagonist’s detransition — though to be fair, Hedwig has a second trans* character who doesn’t, so the decision is fairly painted as an individual one, rather than a morality tale that should apply to everybody.

Probably most notoriously, The Rocky Horror Picture Show periodically inflames division for centering around a character who was recently described as a “cannibalistic-murderer-mad-scientist obsessed with constructing the perfect Adonis to submit to Frank’s erotic pleasures,” while the original film (and theatre participation that went with it) is also paradoxically fondly remembered as peoples’ first opportunity to present themselves in public as their identified gender, and for its affirming themes like “Don’t Dream It, Be It.” Of all historic trans-related media, RHPS probably has the most chequered baggage, and isn’t helped any by being written by someone who somehow found a way to be both gender diverse and transphobic simultaneously.  In 2017, RHPS might be slightly rehabilitated by its campy intent and a remake starring Laverne Cox (which sadly makes it one of the few films about trans* people that the media industry saw fit to cast an actual trans* woman in), but I suspect that the future will not be as kind.

We’re even seeing this in the Twin Peaks reboot:

“When Denise first appeared on the ABC series in 1990, she was a trailblazer. Then (and today), trans people were practically nonexistent on network television. So to see a trans character like Denise who was smart, capable, and more than one-dimensional was a breakthrough moment for representation.

“… Jenny Boylan, a trans activist and cochair of the GLAAD board of directors, posted on social media that the scene “made me squirm.”

“25 years later the David Duchovny trans character in #twinpeaks ep 4 lands really differently, made me squirm. I’m not your dancing dwarf,” Boylan posted on Twitter…”

From perhaps 2006 to 2010 (my approximation, anyway), there has been a shift in language, and this has brought about a parallel shift in thinking. With the aftertaste of 2005’s Transamerica and the newfound ability of trans* people to tell their own narratives and define their meaning, it became no longer enough that a work of film, music or art simply be sympathetic for it to become anthemic or a point of communal pride. Since then, the language — and the context and depth of understanding that goes along with it — has been changing.
Inevitably, that means that some of the things we remember fondly do go the way of the “dinosaur,” fortunate or unfortunate as that may be.
(This post also appears at

The Roaring Silences

RoaringSilences-wOn January 15th 2012, my dad passed away.

It didn’t really seem possible, at first.  This is someone who had both legs completely shattered when a load of lumber fell on him.  Told he would never walk again, he simply steeled himself up, pushed through physiotherapy without (to my knowledge) tears, defied the odds to drive truck again, and then later reinvented himself as an industrial welder.  Speaking as someone who is regularly crippled by tendonitis in both of her knees, his ability to surmount all of that made him seem invincible and unshakable.

Death is one of those things that seems to take forever to process, with daily life (the relentless cad) having to take precedence. I sometimes manage to put it out of mind and keep distracted, only to see something or someone who reminds me, and then I’m ambushed by the many emotions still swirling in the background.

Yesterday, it was a passerby whistling through his teeth that brought his memory back. I tried to fight it all off on the drive home from work, as birds danced haphazardly across the highway, swooping in front of passing cars (taunting, really) like it was a surreal game to dare drivers to try to mash them into their grilles.  Then out by the bend near Aldersyde, a falcon — one I’d seen in the area many times on my drive in the past few months (you don’t miss a beautiful bird like that) — circled only a couple feet above the ground in the median before veering unexpectedly into the path of my car, lifting somewhat, headed for certain collision with the upper left part of my windshield.  I gasped; went for the brake.  He swooped upward gently, unconcerned.

For a moment, he was vivid, sleek, gliding, his mind sharp, focused on something in the barren trees.  He looked confident, and in control.  He was gorgeous, dressed in rich shades of warm brown and white plumage that reminded me of the blanket that used to lay across dad’s couch.

And then, only inches away – I could have reached out and cupped him in my hands – he moved up, possibly buoyed by the flow of air around my car.  In a split second, I looked back and saw him sail across my back window, then up above the highway.  And then we breezed our separate ways, into the roaring silences.

The floodgates opened.  Again.

It doesn’t get better.  It only gets more distant.

It’s a little more distant now – but not by much – from the afternoon of his memorial service.  When we arrived, we entered and sat on the relatives’ side, but after a few minutes, my aunt called us up to join the family in the side room and sit at the front.  My sister largely went on with business and acknowledged us when necessary, although my niece hung around, offering support in what she obviously knew was a difficult situation.  I’d known a little bit about what to expect, having seen dad at the hospital and then the whole family in the long-term care room before he’d died.  But I wasn’t sure how many among our relatives and his friends even knew about me — if I was the proverbial black sheep everyone was ashamed of, some pitiful prodigal, or the Deadbeat Who Left.

My sister delivered a lengthy eulogy that attempted to describe dad’s life and all of his relationships, attempting to animate the classic “dad” moments she remembered — his habits, his absurdist humour, his steadfastness.  She invited everyone in attendance through naming them to be a part of the definitive memory of his life – my sister, our mom, my brother-in-law and their kids, dad’s brothers, his sister, his cousins and second-cousins, his co-workers, his coffee buddies, the wait staff at the Zellers restaurant where he would have breakfast….

Although I knew it wasn’t about me — and was never supposed to be — it wasn’t lost on me that the narrative she wove was one in which I had never existed at all.  I was erased by the roaring silences.

My niece said a short remembrance as well, and then the priest made a brief comment about opening the floor to anyone who wanted to speak before moving on to a song… but the musician was already on the way to the podium before he finished speaking.  Formalities had to be observed, of course, but nobody really wanted to risk hearing from the Deadbeat Who Left.

And perhaps it was better that way.  That had been the thought, anyway, when I had dropped out of my family’s lives.  I had come out as transsexual to them several years ago, and they seemed cautiously accepting at first – and mostly acknowledged that things made far more sense to them, now.  But the years that followed made things more strained, rather than showing any improvement.  Pronouns were always the old pronouns, names were always the old name, and if I’d complain about that, the answer would be, “you have to realize that this is difficult for us…” and then they’d go on to fail to get it right even once.  The old questions kept getting repeated or grew even less informed, conversation became more strained.  Whether from outright rejection (at that time), or inner denial of the situation, things in the first few years of my transition had simply moved backwards.  Soon, speaking to family had become an experience in which I would step from a world in which I lived authentically and people hardly gave that a second thought, back into a world in which I was still [old name], “he,” the persona I’d had to play for forty years.

While the world adapted and came to accept me as I am and as I live, my family still fretted about not wanting to tell my niece and nephew, or being afraid of the shame they’d feel from my aunts and uncles.  In conversation, I learned from mom that my father — who recovered from shattered legs calmly, with more strength than those around him — cried like a baby on multiple occasions at the thought of his son transitioning to female.  I couldn’t de-transition (going back to that kind of suffocation would have been unbearable now that I’d discovered what life could be like), so it seemed like the only thing I could give my family was closure – to disown myself from them and let everyone move on.  And that’s how I became the Deadbeat Who Left.

I had wanted to write about dad and not be self-focused or self-indulgent.  I’m not really sure that I can, though, when my most vivid and recurring memory was the distance between us, the chasm that each of us wanted to cross, but neither could see a way.  For dad, it was the tradition, the stoic discipline of silent nobility that he had learned so thoroughly that he didn’t know how to step beyond it.  For me, it was the ill-fitting skin that confined me in ways that I had no idea how to describe and had only the belief that he – like the rest of the world – would see me as some freakish monster if I had attempted to do so.  All we had was the distance, and the roaring silences.

And like my sister’s elegy for dad, I guess, all of our memories are helplessly coloured by the way we perceived things; by our observances, remembrances and interactions.  No matter how closely we can know someone, we will all always relate that in only filtered anecdotes, separated as we are by the confines of our own skulls.

And as it was, that separation was pretty vast.  That’s the way it was supposed to be, in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s: men were stoic, aloof, never fazed by anything.  Masculinity was not just about being strong, but about being cold and detached… a kind of “superior,” it was thought… although for the life of me, I’ll never understand why.

For dad, his role models were straight out of Westerns, the Clint Eastwoods and John Waynes, the dark, quiet, Shane-like strangers trailing darker secrets — violent heroism, unintended misdeeds, a town left behind and a body on the plain.  The world was Hollywood-simple, the conflicts tangible, and admiration from afar was seen as preferable to any close affection which might turn over the rock that could reveal one’s flaws.  In this world of pre-Randian ruggedness, you never surrendered control, but rather just forged ahead, still conscious that there was a morality to that struggle, instead of just ignorantly believing (as many seem to now) that the right of way simply goes to those who take it.

Some of that harkened to the realities he grew up in, I’m sure — the oldest of several kids living in a northern prairie town, working from when he was young, taking on the mantle of responsibility like it was expected of him… but also seeming to revel in that, at times.  Responsibility was a burden, but it could also be a badge of honour.

This is someone who had quit a plural-decade smoking habit by throwing out the remainder of his last package and then just never smoking again — without complaint or comment.  He just as abruptly stopped drinking, which had until then contributed to a volatile home.  Years later, he found he could social-drink again, without slipping into his previous addictive patterns.  When it came to sheer acts of will, dad set the bar pretty high.

Yet, some of the Western motif was also escapism for him.  I always wondered if his affinity for Westerns and his silence on Aboriginal (in our case, Métis, so already with some degrees of separation) history were somehow connected. Bad things tended to happen to “injuns” in Westerns — usually red and wet bad things that pre-empted any possibility of sympathetic portrayal.

In this cowboy world, you “just take it.”  You “be a man.”  You talk through deeds and actions, not words and feelings.  You “sneck up” and don’t ever, ever cry.  It’s not an easy ideal to live up to.

And it’s doubly difficult when manhood mystifies you.  As much as everyone tried to condition me toward that ideal, I never really got it.  I only figured out how to act the part… sometimes enough so that I still forget how to let down my guard and just relax and be myself.  But for a six- and eight- and twelve-year-old round peg forced into that square hole, it was crushing at times.  I admire my father for many things, but I’ll never fathom what it must have been like being him.

And that was the distance, the gulf between us.  We never talked… instead, we exchanged small talk, and then listened to the roaring silences.

I cried a lot as a kid, and took a lot of scorn from people for it.  I learned to try to muffle it, hold it in, cry in private and choke it back when I was in danger of being discovered.  My father was not violent toward me, but I still had the feeling that my sense of being a girl was so unspeakable and alien that the inevitable critique would just as soon be in the form of a violent backhand as verbal.  But even that didn’t scare me as much as the possibility of outright rejection.  But it was the 1970s, and that sense emanated from everywhere, not just dad.  And in those years, bad things tended to happen to “girly-boys,” while the source could be anyone — and usually, they were red and wet bad things that pre-empted any possibility of living out loud.

There was one moment that challenged that distance.

Talk show host Phil Donahue did a show about crossdressing when I was young (actually he did several shows during a time when it was almost never spoken about, eventually garnering attention when he wore a dress over a suit during a 1988 sweeps week). The day the news arrived home, I remember my mother talking disparagingly about it with a friend on the phone, and then later with dad.  Dad was typically very quiet, and his four word comment was something about transvestites that was not exactly pleasant (I don’t remember now exactly how it was phrased).

I had tried to pretend I wasn’t listening to any of the discussion, but my emotions started to boil over.  I discreetly went up to my room, and wept as quietly as I could imagine, probably for several hours.  “Transvestite” wasn’t really the right word for me, but at that time, I had no real language or understanding to know that.  What had overwhelmed me emotionally was the sudden realization that there was a word at all.  Because if someone had thought to coin a word, then it meant that I wasn’t the only one.

The days following that, I would begin the first of what would be many pilgrimages to the downtown public library to try to learn more, before arriving at the “authoritative” Janice Raymond volume on the subject, which painted a nefarious, vicious and violent portrait about “co-opting womens’ bodies” and raping through emulation (or caricature) that certainly didn’t coincide with what I understood for myself — leading me to believe for a time that I must not really be transsexual.  But that night, before all that library searching, well, that night was different.  That night I tried to choke back the sobs quietly, when dad walked in to tell me something, and realized that something was terribly wrong.

I’d wanted to talk with him for ages — to really communicate.  But there was no way I could talk to him about that.  I had only just realized moments before that I might not be some lone, demon-possessed, defective freak, and certainly had no way to articulate what was going on in my head.  I was just starting to realize that my sense that I was supposed to be a girl might be more than just a personal failing.

I knew I was different. I knew I related to girls. I knew that boys confounded me. I knew that my body parts were weird and didn’t fit, even before puberty came along and complicated everything all that much more. I knew that I was far more emotional than I was supposed to be — but then, the “stoic, aloof” male image I grew up having to live up to was unreasonable to begin with, and I didn’t believe that “emotional = girl.” And that was the problem: once you try to communicate it, you start navigating a bunch of stereotypes and miniscule elements that don’t adequately show how completely encompassing it is.  It was a complex series of things overall, but I knew I was unmistakeably different. And when I’d try to figure out how to explain it, all I could do was either scratch the surface of a few semi-relevant stereotypes, or else stare away, feel the crushing frustration, and feel helpless at the enormity of it.

“Only Everything.”

But my family, my body, and essentially everything around me told me I was supposed to be a certain way. It was something that encompassed likes and dislikes, yes, but was not really about liking dolls over trucks. It was something that encompassed being a sensitive kid, yes, but was not really about emotions. It was something that encompassed relating to girls and women, but was not really about the formation of personal bonds. It was something that encompassed body issues, but was not simply a body image problem. When I grew older, it would be something that affected sex and sexuality too, yes, but was not really about that either. It was… everything, a sense of being a stranger in my own life, 24/7.  I don’t know how a 12- or 14-year-old could begin to put words to it.  I still can’t completely and adequately do it.

And given that everyone and everything else told me that I should just naturally be all those things that were to me actually instinctively uncomfortable, unnatural and puzzling, I concluded that the problem was me. That it was a character flaw. It made more sense that I was wrong, than to believe that of everything and everyone else. And at that point, I came to understand myself as invisible, insignificant and freakish.

The unspeakable loneliness of not being able to tell anybody who you are.

So when dad had come into the room that evening, he’d unintentionally cornered me at one of the most difficult moments in my childhood.  And I couldn’t think of a single thing to say that would explain what was going on.  It would be the one chance in my life in which there seemed to be an opportunity to reach across the chasm.  And I couldn’t do it — my secret was that unspeakable.  Instead, I made something up about having had an argument with friends.  To which he replied, “Oh.  Is that all?” and made a few clichéd comments about things getting better, before leaving the room.

All that was left was the roaring silences.  But then, I remember that moment, and realize that given the context of the very early 1980s, if I had tried to explain things then, it likely could only possibly have gone worse.  It was a time, after all, where gender difference in children was seen as something to be quashed, and where transsexuality was equated to sociological or even literal rape by perceived “experts.”  Even by 2007, you could still find the occasional hospital in Alberta which treated gender issues using ECT.

I suppose that he had tried to communicate too, in his own way.  A few times, he took me out to his place of work, having a few things to do at the shop.  In that masculine world, I met some of his friends and co-workers, hefty, rugged blue-collar chums who lived in a realm of grit and bravado.  How I must have embarrassed him, this scared, effeminate kid afraid to talk, afraid to get dirty, uncomfortable and unsuited for that world — although if he was ashamed of me, he never did or said anything to indicate that.

It was probably his way of communicating without talking, but I couldn’t hear him, intimidated by all the roaring silences.  Raised to be stoic, I often didn’t know what to do with those things that needed to be said, so I stuffed them down and buried them like I thought I was supposed to.  And he, I suppose, tried to do much the same.  The one outlet I had was writing, and so I did a lot of it, filling scribblers and notebooks that I would never return to, destroying them so no one else would read them… sometimes even writing on my arms and body (kept carefully covered), if nothing else was available.  And he, I suppose, didn’t even have an outlet at all.

Before Christmas, when my cousin contacted me to let me know that dad was sick, I’d already been estranged from the family for a few years.  I hadn’t known that during that time, dad had come around better than anyone else in the family, taking time to learn about transsexuality, telling his side of the family, and pushing them for a commitment (which many of them eagerly gave) not to shut me out of the family.  In many ways, I’m ashamed that I hadn’t had more faith in him.  I’d also assumed that his side of the family would likely reject me, too, yet it seems that with the exception of a couple people who couldn’t make eye contact with me at his funeral, I was very much mistaken.

But when I went to the hospital to see him, it was without knowing what I was walking into or who would be there.  As we were getting ready to leave for Edmonton, a message came in on Facebook.  My sister, too, was writing to inform me that dad was sick, although her note was colder, aloof, seemed to be sent as a result of mom’s prodding.  In my sister’s eyes, I was the Deadbeat Who Left.

I found that mom had started to accept things, making an effort to understand, an effort to acknowledge.  In the face of the opinions that some of the religious leaders she reads (John Hagee, Billy Graham, James Dobson) have about trans people, that’s a monumental step.

I’d started my transition a number of years ago.  When I came out to my family, I told my sister first.  I’d always been somewhat aloof from all my family, knowing that who I was could sooner or later be an issue, and I tended to shut them out of my life — which probably hurt her worst of all.  But I also thought our bond was strongest in some ways, and I trusted her to be the most resilient and capable of being a support for our parents.  But with her too, the distance grew over time.

My sister came to want little to no contact with me.  It could happen that for the rest of our lives, I am for all intents and purposes dead in her eyes.

Her biggest excuse for keeping distance, at first, was fears about when or how to tell her kids. That was fair for the first weeks and even months — she hadn’t had nearly as much time as I had to process who I was and what that meant.  But after the passage of a few years, and right up to dad’s hospitalization, she still hadn’t said anything to them.  She probably saw it as protecting them from something, and the luxury of time and distance had made it easy — but it would also have the consequence of forcing a revelation at an already emotionally turbulent time.

Because up until the evening he died, they still didn’t know.  And in the midst of everything else that had been going on, I also had to worry about keeping out of sight and not crossing paths, while my sister and brother-in-law had to figure out how to break that news to the kids too.  In addition to dad dying, we were the hot potato in a game of hide-the-tranny.  For them, it could have been a triple-whammy, because my longtime partner was there with me, and her presence might have broke the usual sexual orientation expectations, too.

After the nurse announced that they’d be starting his IV, which would contain a painkiller that would probably also cloud his perception (and they didn’t expect him to recover afterward), the room cleared out and everyone went to stand at his bedside, except for my partner and I.  My sister and nephew were still in the room, and I still felt like I was supposed to keep from ruining their last moments with dad.  I’d spent a lot of time with him earlier that night, so I could understand that, but it bothered me that I couldn’t be there in support during his last moments of consciousness and lucidity, as he gathered up his courage to proceed into that Big Nothing.

By the time anyone who needed to be evacuated was gone, I came back and he was already asleep.  Mom was holding his hand, and asked me to do the same — at first, I was uncertain, knowing that the narcotics in his system would leave him befuddled, and I didn’t want to cause him panic if he awoke and forgot who I was.  But once I held his hand, I didn’t want to let go, and I stayed with him all night.  Sometime either just before or just after they started his IV, my niece and nephew were told about me.  My niece stayed with us and turned out to be an incredible and unexpected source of support.

I never was able to have a father-daughter relationship with my dad.  But then, even if he’d lived several years and we’d stayed in contact, I doubt we ever could have.  He’d been stoic and distant all my life, and that wasn’t likely to change much.  And after nearly 40 years of trying to fill a family dynamic that never fit either of us in the first place, I doubt it would have been very easy to learn something different.  So I would never be a daughter to my dad, and never know what it’s like to have that relationship.  But at least, at the end, he and I were able to reconcile the years that I was not really a son.

Because that afternoon, we arrived at an unspoken understanding.  Although there were times of comfort and stability, his life had not been easy, and he carried some weights he never wanted to burden anyone else with, and did so the best he could.  I realized that the burdens of his life were probably beyond anything I could fathom, and something I couldn’t help but respect.

And he more or less told me without saying it aloud that he came to the same realization about me.

That mutual respect was what we had both wanted.  And it was the one thing that screamed across the roaring silences.

After he was gone, there was a little bit of discussion about dad’s things.  Dad’s last wish was that everything along that line remain civil, so I didn’t ask for a lot: the antique clock that sat on the fireplace mantel when we grew up, and dad’s crib board.  My sister had suggested I’d want an ornamental display of two swords and a shield I’d given to him when I was in my teens — although I’m not sure if that was more out of consideration for me or out of a desire to not have to see it.  I wasn’t too worried about things.  I got to hug my dad in his last days, to hold his hand, and even to kiss him.  Those were things that would never have been possible before — men (or at least men at that time, I suppose) didn’t do that.  To me, that meant everything.

Yesterday, as the falcon swooped across my line of sight, casual, intent on something nearby, I thought of dad.  I was a little jealous of the practiced ease in the way it dodged; the way its confidence wasn’t shaken by a huge steel projectile hurtling at it; the freedom it had to circle above the world.  I shouldn’t have been, I suppose: that majestic creature was something I was never meant to be.

As it soared upward, out of view, I saw its mouth open to cry out.  Insulated and enclosed in my car, I couldn’t hear it any more than it could hear my momentary gasp of surprise.  It roared in silence.

Fitting, I suppose.

Crossposted to The Bilerico Project.

Take Me Away! Or, Why I’m Live-Tweeting The #Rapture

I’ll be live-tweeting the #rapture this Saturday. Or for part of the day, at least. We’ll also have a house to clean, because hey, life goes on.

I do want to make clear, though, that I’m not mocking all Christians or all people of faith. I respect the person of Jesus as the ultimate altruist (and socialist, no matter how much corporate conservatives might try to turn a message of compassion and being community-conscious into “let them pay their own goddamned way”), and respect affirming and mutually-respectful people of faith who honor that one top commandment, to love one another. What I’m mocking is a kind of elitism that takes on the air of the ultimate revenge fantasy, when the elite chosen relish the thought of cheering on their ascent into bliss and our descent into damnation. The kind of elitism that destroyed my traditional family. Continue reading Take Me Away! Or, Why I’m Live-Tweeting The #Rapture

The Ex-Gay Jesus-Fix-It Perpetual Emotion Machine

(The following is not meant to absolve folks like the recently fallen Alan Downing, but to just show what it’s like.  Because the religious right would have everyone believe that it’s all so simple:  just pray, believe, and it will all go away.  What follows is the first 17 years of my life.  Possibly triggering for some.)

The nightmare begins in the morning, awakening to Your Same Old Reality™ again, afraid, ashamed, torn.  Today will bring another fall, you fear, yet you steel yourself against it, determined to resist all temptation.  Don’t doubt, or it will make you fail.  You say a prayer… you begin by begging forgiveness, by confessing the ongoing falls from grace, the failures, acknowledging the worthlessness of being one of the many who “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  You know you cannot fight this temptation on your own, and you pray that God will deliver you from it.  No, you beg God to deliver from it.  But you remember that temptation will come — it always does — and you pray that you’ll have the strength to cast it out.  You remember that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” and you despair that it only takes a moment to fall.

(more after the fold)

Continue reading The Ex-Gay Jesus-Fix-It Perpetual Emotion Machine

“Christmas: Baby Please Come Home”

There’s a red envelope sitting near the paper shredder.  It arrived about a week ago, the shape betraying it as an obvious Christmas card, the writing on the front looking like my mother’s.  The envelope is still unopened.

This happened last year, too.  At that time, my partner got tired of looking at it sitting there, and said, “do you mind if I open that thing?  You never know, maybe she’s had a change of heart.  You never know what it will say until you open it.”

“I know what it will say,” I tell her.  “It will have a lengthy sentimental series of verses of love for one’s son printed on the card, and inside, there will be a two-page handwritten letter from mom about how she prays for me every day and asks God to take away this feeling that I’m a girl.  She’ll tell me all about how Jesus can supposedly fix it all in an instant when I ask, and then she’ll go on about how much I’ve hurt her and the family by my transition.  She’ll go into a few paragraphs about how my sister is doing and how my niece and nephew are growing up, just to remind me of what I’m missing, and then she’ll finish by talking about how every day she’s just holding on in hope of seeing the day that I’ll find Jesus, go back to being a boy and then she can die knowing that my soul will be saved.”

I felt like a heartless ogre saying it all just matter-of-factly like that, but I knew that the alternative to ignoring the card was something I couldn’t live with.  By the time I was three years into my transition, I was completely accepted in every other environment I found myself in, to the point where being trans was a non-issue.  But then I’d talk to my family and it was “[old boy name] this” and “[old boy name] that,” and every conversation was about how I was supposedly destroying my life and everyone else’s.  I’d complain that they needed to get used to my name – it had been my legal name for quite some time – and pronouns and my transition, and they’d say, “but [old boy name], you have to realize this is difficult for us” and then go on to fail to get it right even once.  My mother would talk about how dad breaks into tears when he thinks about me, how my sister is petrified of the thought of ever having to tell the kids, how her heart breaks every time she sees me or worries what the neighbours would think if I came to visit.  And detransitioning for family’s benefit was not something I could bear to do: after being able to finally be out and free, stepping back into that strangling, suffocating forgery of a life would not be something I could do without ultimately slitting my throat.  I had become the cause of apparently tremendous pain to my family, so I disowned myself from them.  That would be painful too, but somehow it seemed far more humane than remaining an ever-present source of anguish for them.  They weren’t going to change and I couldn’t reshape my life just for their benefit, so this was the one thing I could give them which would provide any sense of closure from which they could move on, and heal.

Last year, my partner had wandered away with the card.  A few minutes later, she came back, stood in the office doorway, and looked like she wanted to say something.

“What did it say?” I asked, knowing the answer.

She looked down, which was the only indication she could give that I have guessed exactly right, and turned and walked away.

My mother is dying.
Continue reading “Christmas: Baby Please Come Home”