Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Challenging Racism: Part II

This is a continuation of my previous post on Damali Ayo’s public service art: “Hello My Race is…White." The artwork can be downloaded from her website.

My favorite quote is from step 4: “Keep a tally of the many times a day…you benefit from your whiteness. Inventory is a hard step in the program. Try keeping a favorite friend, hero, or personality of color. When you can’t do it for yourself, do it for them.”

As many readers know, my partner is a genderqueer woman of color. Reading the 4th Step actually made me very upset, thinking about the times that I might have consider something easy or accessible, and she might find it incredibly inaccessible. Case in point, she recently applied to a very prestigious school and I recall thinking that she would easily get in. Not only is she an amazing artist with a strong vision, but also I thought her Blackness, her queerness, and her female identity would all lend the school a greater diversity, which it desperately needs. Well, I was wrong. But what makes me cringe and shrivel inside is that my partner’s friends of color knew that her race wouldn’t help her. I was suffering from “a white view of affirmative action” where I thought her ability to address issues of race, sex, gender, and queerness would add to her desirability. I thought that, should a snap decision come between her and another equally qualified candidate her race would be a deciding factor. Her friends knew better. They knew no institution made on the backs of women (and men) of color would turn a 360 and let her in because of her racial identity. This is not an instance where I benefited from my whiteness but where I was clearly not supporting her enough because I couldn’t see the whole racial picture. This is an instance where I hurt her through my unacknowledged privilege.

Ayo’s Fourth Step, and the inclusion of her plea to do it for others when you can’t do it for yourself incited me to challenge someone the other day in a space and at a time when I would have rather kept my mouth shut. At one of the Masculine Spectrum meetings a fellow transman made a comment where he compared un-educated people and physically dangerous people to people from Developing Nations. The comment basically ran that folks from Developing Nations have no education and therefore no compassion and will take out their anger on transpeople. The comment was in the context of the safety of coming out as transgender at work – and he was making an excellent point that we (transgender people) can’t condemn a person for being closeted, as the world is still very scary. Before we could move on to a new subject I spoke up with “I” statements: “I heard you say that people from developing nations aren’t as intelligent and won’t be supportive of us. I don’t know if this was your intended statement, but I heard something racist that sounded like it was saying that people of color are dangerous and un-educated. I wanted to let you know what I heard.” It went on for longer than that, but it was all very low-key and I tried to not say “you are racist” but to say “what I heard was unacceptable”. It’s important, of course, to admit racism but I think that it’s more important to try and get white people to understand how racism occurs through them and how they’re able to end it. This is why I wasn’t more confrontational, even though various anti-racism trainings I’ve been to (and portions of Ayo’s work) imply that my style of soft statements isn’t acceptable. Maybe it’s not. I don’t know. And I certainly don’t want to make these statements just so I can say “aren’t I great and anti-racist?” I want to be able to say, “I’m connecting and changing white people, and I’m constantly challenging myself”.

Like Ayo writes, it’s easier for me to speak up when I think of my partner. I think: if she were here, would I allow this to go down? Just because I’m in an all-white space doesn’t mean that racism can go un-checked. And if I’m in a mixed space, it’s not the job of people of color to speak up against racism. It’s my job, and I plan on doing it in a respectful way that encourages change and ongoing conversations.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Challenging Racism: Part I

When I suffered from insomnia I used to cuddle up under blankets on my family’s couch and watch PBS until dawn (the hills blocked us from getting full reception and sometime around my first year in high school we stopped receiving any signals at all, it was very sad). I always had to hurry off the couch and leap into bed before my mother would get up as she thought my late night doings were because I was a disobedient child and not because I could never sleep. Regardless, it is through watching PBS in my native Bloomington, IN that I first encountered Damali Ayo. Ayo is an incredibly talented artist, writer, activist, and environmentalist. All of these arenas are interconnected, as are her discussions of race, sex, education, and art. The program I was watching detailed her work on reparations and I was impressed by the creativity of her work and how she was able to explain racism in a succinct way. I rediscovered her recently and am very glad I did so.

Ayo has two new-ish publications that I have really enjoyed. The first item is a booklet on racism; Volume One of a series Ayo is calling “I Can Fix It!” This is part of her larger Now Art projec where she works to make art accessible and an agent of dialogue. For this publication she interviewed 200 people on 5 things individuals can do to create positive change. This particular volume is split into two categories: “White People” and “People of Color”. I’m going to pull some quotes and place them below, please remember that the quotes I’m pulling are very specific to my current situation and myself. I encourage anyone reading to go to Ayo’s site, download the booklet and to read it from cover to cover because I am sure that you will find different points of connection.

From “White People”:
- “Acknowledge that white is a color and a race. Learn how to say ‘white people.’”
- “When a person of color is sharing their experiences…Don’t make it about you or what you are feeling in reaction to them…Don’t cry. It’s not about you.”
- “Consider racism your problem to solve”
- “Challenge white people to talk about racism. Learning ‘what not to say’ is not the point. Understanding how racism works and how it can be dismantled is the point. Help fellow white people to learn not just react.”

My favorite from “People of Color”:
- “Practice self-love. Teach your children to love themselves and others for who they are…We have too much in common to not support each other. Don’t do things to tear each other down.”

Her second new publication is a two-page document entitled “Hello, My race is…White.” This document, which Ayo refers to as a Public Service, is a 12-step program for white people when tackling the question “What can I do about racism?” I recently printed it out and have hung it on my cubicle at work where I have yet to get any comments. What I enjoy about her work is her firmness and her sense of fun. Ayo uses silly analogies and funny metaphors to get across the reality of race and racism to white people. She clearly believes that white people can change, writing in the 7th step: “Truth be told, if white people really wanted to end racism, they would. White people are very smart. You’ve come up with some of the world’s most notable inventions. Racism is only one of these. No one is better qualified to dismantle it. Unless, of course, you decide you’d rather keep it.” I like how forthright she is, and I appreciate being challenged by her. Many white people get away with racism because we believe we cannot change. We were brought up racist by racist parents in a racist country, what can we do? Ayo is clearly taking that for the crap answer it is a setting a new precedent of owning and understanding the past, being aware of privilege, and challenging oneself every day. Having thesesteps by my desk everyday reminds me that it is my responsibility to make the world better, and that includes challenging racism.

More to come...stay tuned!

Friday, February 15, 2008


Once again I am writing on subjects related to my job however, and always, I do not represent or speak for GLAAD. These thoughts are my own and are separate from any work associated with GLAAD. OK, here we go.

I have never been a news aficionado. I have always had a great interest in feature stories, human interests and op-eds, but I have never cared much for hard news. The closest I have gotten to being a news junkie in my past was my 24-hour radio-a-thons with MPR (KNOW). When I lived on my own MPR was my backdrop to washing the dishes, doing laundry, and other household chores. I also listed to the BBC late at night as I wrote papers and surfed the Internet, but their analysis and pithy comments allowed me to enjoy myself more than the abrasive writing style of newspaper journalists.

Now, of course, I spend a good seven hours a day reading news, analyzing news, offering suggestions, and trying not to tear my hair out with the sensational transphobic reporting. This has opened my eyes to some of the reporting done at Fox, The New York Daily News, and The New York Post, which I would never have read otherwise. Knowing that I would be immersed in news stories once I started at GLAAD I made a New Year’s Resolution which I have yet to keep: never read the comments made on online news articles, youtube videos, and transphobic blogs. Every time a story is published about a transgender person the worst, cruelest, ugliest comments appear like chicken pox all over the Internet revealing the appalling sense of humor and decency some people have. The only people who have been cruel to me in my transition are strangers on the streets and in bars, and my parents. When someone gets to know me, when we begin to connect, that fear and anger disappears. So I know that these comments are made out of a lack of knowledge, a hatred of the unknown, a desire to incite responses…yet I cannot read them without becoming overwhelmed by sadness and anger.

These comments aren’t just about gender, however. Whenever transgender people are mentioned issues of class (especially employment and homelessness) come up, issues of illness and mental disability are raised, racial issues inevitably arise, and sex work rooted in sexism and misogyny is mentioned repeatedly. Sometimes I am so overwhelmed by the ignorance and hatred that is bred by the politically enforced silence on these issues that I feel unable to respond. But I have to. We all have to. We have to stand up to all these discriminatory comments even if it causes us to shake in our boots because the world is not going to change without our voices. And believe me, every time I call a reporter I get the shakes all over, especially if they’re male.

So, I will continue to try and ignore those comments, and in the meantime to lighten the mood here are two fantastic articles about transgender stories being told and celebrated:

Getting Out There

A place I have meant to visit often, both in my visits to NYC and now that I have lived here for over a month, is The LGBT Community Center. The Center is mentioned in many news articles and is always the location of the most interesting meetings and discussion groups. For a long time I have meant to attend the Gender Drop-In Masculine Spectrum group. The Center also has Feminine Spectrum, Trans Families, and Trans Partners/Trans Amorous groups. I finally went this Wednesday and was really glad I did so. What happens during the group time is, understandably, confidential. So I’m going to discuss the group abstractly in a way I think will protect the stories we shared and our individual identities.

I was surprised to find myself surrounded by about 30-35 masculine people, mostly men. I know that the Twin Cities has an amazing support system and that there are many active, visible, positive transman doing good work there, but nothing can compare to the calming feeling of entering a room and seeing yourself reflected on the faces and bodies of other participants. I felt safe and supported.

There wasn’t a lot of out and visible diversity in the group. Most of us (and of course with hormones it’s hard to tell) were between 18 and 30 and light-skinned. I think the oldest person in the room was around 50. A number of the people with light skin in the room may have had mixed racial backgrounds, perhaps an ethnicity such as Italian or Irish that depending on their lineage may or may not cause them to identify as white. Many might have parents or grandparents of color and identify strongly along those lines, which is why I’m being careful not to say they were white. Even though we were talking about access to medicine and being out at work no one mentioned racial factors at all.* A handful of men stated a Jewish identity, and a few mentioned Christian upbringings. Depression was mentioned by many participants, both overcoming and struggling with it, but no other mental or physical disabilities were discussed. The building, being older, would probably be very difficult for someone in a wheelchair or using any walking devices although the front door and main area was wheel chair accessible.

Most of the men mentioned being out among families and friends, but simply identifying as male at work. I think one man phrased this very eloquently “You can call me transgender when you get to know me, but first you have to see that I’m a man”. There was a brief and disappointing discussion of misogyny, I hope we can return to that next week. I was the only one who mentioned being a tranny-for-pay during a discussion of outing oneself at work. After I said that I worked for an LGBT rights organization I felt the room become a little quiet. I wonder if that was a reflection on LGBT organizations or simply a realization of anger that I could be so lucky to not only have a well-paying job but also have my identity respected with no questions asked. There is also a possibility that I sounded like I was bragging or boasting, but I can promise that I thought my comment was only relevant if I mentioned what my work environment was like.

The experience of finding myself in such an affirming space has me excited to return next week. Many of the exciting and talented people my partner hangs out with are strongly Queer, Bisexual, or Lesbian identified. They are all very welcoming to me, and I am always excited to be with them, however this can also mean that when I’m going through something very rough about my identity, I go through it alone. On my day off, for instance, I have a lot of time to be “in my head” telling myself stories and analyzing experiences to the point where I forget to open up and talk about them. I recently finished reading the rather disappointing Finding the Real Me: true tales of sex and gender diversity, and the woman writing the final essay, on butch identity, sums this up nicely:

“To this day I still struggle to remember to share my inner thoughts and feelings with friends and lovers that I trust. I’m so used to having an inner dialogue with ‘me, myself, and I’ as a solitary person that it’s hard for me to imagine saying really personal stuff out loud as a normal way of operating in the world” – Butch: a work in progress by Jay Copestake

*There was one comment that I want to write about later. I’m fitting it into a discussion of damali ayo’s work and also trying to maintain confidentiality, so it should be up by next week.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Feeling good naked

It's my day off and on a co-worker's suggestion I'm watching Carson Kressley's How To Look Good Naked. From the get-go let me say that I have always loved Carson. I think Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was unfortunate and trashy but I always loved his exuberance for people and life. This new show, based on three episodes I watched, is phenomenal.

The show avoids racial issues that promote low self-esteem in women, and it focuses on consumer-based ways of achieving happiness. However, despite those short-comings, Carson and his producers manage to let women of all shapes feel sexy and hot just by showering them with positive messages and showing them basic tips on how to dress their body types. My partner knows that I cry easily over happy things, and I have cried a good deal over this show as these women come to see how beautiful they are. It also helps to show that the beauty we try to emulate from runway models and fashion spreads is merely a question of access to photoshop and expensive fabrics. As one of the women said, and I paraphrase, the woman at the end of show is the same woman from the beginning, only now I'm accenting the positive and feeling confident because I finally see something sexy. Carson is basically fulfilling the role of the stereotypical gay male friend, continuously telling these women that they are sexy, strong, confident, and worthy of love. And this message, even if it is delivered through consumption and access to money, is a message everyone should hear.

The show would be improved, of course, if it developed it's help for women of color. Two of the three shows I watched had gorgeous women of color on them, all feeling negative about their bodies because of images and messages about women in general that were immersed in and because of specific issues of body type and race. There was a young East Asian woman on the show who felt that people looked down on her and treated her like a child because of her height. Of course, this is an issue of women in general who experience patronization on a daily level but is also specific to the experiences of Asian Americans in the US. A mother-daughter pair on the show discussed issues with their bottoms, and this was discussed without any reference to the fact that they were both Black, and pop culture has tied blackness and rear ends together. Issues women have about their body are tied to their socio-economic status and their race and nationality.

Body imagery is also affected by standards of normalcy, and it's no surprise that there have been no women with disabilities on the show. I imagine the producers thinking that discussing body imagery of women with physical disabilities would be "too much". That they would have to tackle ideas of normative bodies on top of issues of beauty. I think it would be really healing to show positive body imagery of women with physical disabilities, especially if their "body issue" isn't a prosthetic appendage or being in a wheel-chair.

I would also like to see the show address super-skinny women, women who have fast metabolisms or skinny frames that might always feel skeletal no matter what they eat. Of course, it would also be fantastic if the show invited men and transpeople on it. Transgender women have so many issues with their bodies and looking feminine, it would be fantastic to give transgender women a best-friend willing to boost their self confidence in the wake of all the negativity surrounding transgender experiences with femininity. It would also be a boon for men to be able to talk confidentially with someone about body imagery as men are not supposed to have self-confidence issues surrounding their body. The invisibility issues surrounding men's disordered eating allows it to continue without any real concern. Women make jokes about men's bodies without the kind of concern they show for each other's bodies. While not as many men suffer from life-threatening low self-esteem around body issues as women, men could still benefit from being invited to discuss their bodies.

That said, I have noticed that post-transition (or after deciding that I am male and should live as one) a lot of my body issues have melted away. Clearly, this has a lot to do with feeling confidence in my gender and realizing why I never felt good as a girl. Additionally, though, as a man I am able to have a larger stomach, less well-done hair, and unruly body hair. So Carson's show, while not wonderfully in-depth and clearly consumer-based, is discussing issues that used to consume my life. Understanding that my issues with my body were related to my perception of myself, and that feeling confident as a man would allow me to feel good about my body, shows me that the basis of this show is correct. Feeling confident and sexy is going to change your life more than dieting and going to the gym.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Partners & Lovers

I've had a note jotted down for about three months now since my partner visited me in St. Paul for Thanksgiving. I wanted to write about the partners of transgender peoples, especially the partners who are present throughout changes. I have an idea here, and it's a developing one, that the partners of transgender peoples have to be incredibly welcoming, giving, kind, and accepting in order to stay with their partners.

This thought manifested itself as I was discussing my move to New York with an ex. She asked about my current partner and what pronouns she used (since she identifies as genderqueer). I answered her, and then began thinking about my partner's own gender ambiguity which often is shadowed by my more conservative search for gender confirmation surgery. For the first time it struck me that my partner's genderqueer and bisexual identities were not just beautiful parts of her identity but also important aspects to our partnership. Her love for me began before she even knew how I identified, and with a bisexual and genderqueer background she was set to love anyone, male female, third-gendered, non-gendered, whatever...and to support any decisions about surgery or hormones. In reality, a bisexual genderqueer partner might truly be the most supportive partner in the world as they have been in many camps, experienced many oppressions and been accused of privilege, and have continuously come back to Queer as a home-base.

When I became aware that I was going to transition, I thought that I wouldn't have a steady partner until after my transition was complete. I couldn't imagine that someone would stick by me as my actual body as well as my legal and medical body changed. It's exciting and incredibly important to have someone who is so supportive and affirming of my life, and I imagine for many other transgender people that support is the first thing to lose when you come out. This is not a finished post, I just wanted to make sure that the beginning of the thought went out tonight. I cannot imagine being in the position I am now without the support of my partner, and I imagine that if one was to gather the partners of transgender peoples together you would find that they are the most amazing, caring, and flexible people in the world. Our partners can sometimes be the only people who know how to hold us at the end of the day.