Posts Tagged ‘coming out’

I just watched a very poignant clip of Ellen interviewing Oprah about the 1997 coming out episode (The Puppy) on the Ellen Show. That episode aired in April 1997 and I started work at Youth Outlook in October 1998. I found it difficult not to tear up while Ellen and Oprah talked about both the episode and the backlash following. Ellen’s show was canceled. Laura Dern couldn’t get work for a year after playing her role. Oprah got hundreds of messages telling her to go back to Africa.

As a community, our fight is far from over and some of these messages have made an ugly reappearance recently. While listening to Ellen and Oprah, though, I was reminded of one thing—one primary feeling—of “the old days” that I rarely speak about to anyone, and at THAT time, I never spoke of.

I was afraid. I had reason to be.

When I moved to IL in 1998, I had been out for several years, sported a crew cut and Harry Potter glasses, and had a rainbow in the back window of my car. I was settling into my gender neutrality, having fun with my “boi” playfulness, and I was accustomed to a different atmosphere after living for twelve years in Seneca Falls, the birthplace of the Women’s Rights Movement, and around Syracuse, hovering in or near academic circles of radical feminism. It was a great place to live and a great place to come out.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from IL. I hoped for Chicago overflow, similar to NY overflow, to which I attributed much of the free thinking I encountered in Syracuse. That’s not what I found.

In past blogs, I have mentioned the resistance I met in my efforts to form connections to some of the high schools.  That was rough. I was both irritated and embarrassed to meet other social workers who denied the existence of LGBT kids.  Countering the belief that kids were too young to know who they were (although most of the folks who maintained that could handily tell me at what age they’d had their first heterosexual crush or when they knew for sure that they were cisgender) was an uphill challenge, but it did not compare to the covert and cowardly threats I endured as the first employee of the first not for profit that specialized in working with queerlings in the western suburbs.

The timing of this was important. By 1998, services had existed within the Chicago city limits for years. There were potlucks, a sports association, bars, youth groups, churches, and medical clinics specific to LGBT people in Chicago. In the western suburbs, there were only the daring PFLAG groups.

Then I arrived. It was my job to make connections within our communities, to be a visible face of this new agency. To be publicly queer.

That part I had no problem with. I’d been publicly queer for a while.

Just pause for moment and think about the things Ellen describes and picture how that would have gone in towns and cities in DuPage County, IL.  Name calling? I certainly got the name calling. I got the slurs hurled from passing cars, most often “Faggot” which I have always found odd. I usually want to refer people to Urban Dictionary for the correct slur to hurl, if one is going to hurl slurs at all. Female bodied queer people are not generally called faggots, but I may have to re-evaluate that based on the frequency with which it was used at that time.

As the agency’s single employee and being who I was, I was particularly aware of the hostile environment. It’s a safe assessment that the early board members were also aware and to some extent, felt compelled to keep the kids hidden for their protection (except the kids weren’t interested in being hidden).  Many of them had lived here for years. They knew what to expect.

It was a bit of a surprise on the day a board member asked me to attend a county meeting and afterward, she called me to ask one question. “Do you have to look so….butch?”

At first, I was confused. I had sat next to her in the meeting. I had worn a blue silk shirt and black pants. She had also been wearing a shirt and black pants. I cast around for an answer, feeling vaguely insulted, when I realized she was referring less to WHAT I was wearing and more to HOW I was wearing it. My clothing was not that much different from hers. But I have a stance, a presence, that leaves little to imagination about what my orientation might be.  She had already told me that she could not come out.

We ironed out that she didn’t actually have a problem with the clothing I’d been wearing. She had a bigger issue with the fact that it was 1998 in suburban Illinois and I was identifiable as queer. When I pointed out that being identifiable as queer wasn’t really a bad thing for someone who was running an LGBT focused agency, the conversation came to an awkward stop and never arose again.

I could manage the questions about being out. On the other hand, the death threats put me on edge. It was the anonymous voicemails left about how the building we were using would be set fire to because we were all going to hell anyway. It was the creepy demands to “make sure you tell all those kids the truth—that they’re all going to hell for being disgusting little perverts” and the parents who cried and shouted at me that I could not tell their kids that they were good human beings that  left my sleep ragged.

Those were the days of Westboro Baptist Church and Fred Phelps picketing churches that were becoming open and affirming and the funeral of Matthew Shepard, carrying signs that declared “Matt Shepard Burns in Hell” in front of his already traumatized and horrified family. As an agency, we had to be ready for anything that might be leveled at us, any day of any week. We learned to live with the fear. We wrote guidelines for how we’d handle if we ever needed to evacuate our borrowed spaces on short notice and we coached the kids on what to do if they ever found themselves confronted with a line of protestors carrying vile signs.

Verbal harassment. Death threats. Protestors. I was afraid. I had reason to be.

I did my job anyway, sometimes watching over my shoulder in dark parking lots and often enduring strangers’ comments that if I would just be open (to people of the opposite sex, to someone’s god, to psychiatric help, etc.), that perhaps someday I, too, could be as normal as they were. Oh, and by the way, which church did I belong to? I learned to fend off married women’s passes in public restrooms and to allow the slurs from passing cars and people in crowds to roll off me like water off a duck’s back.

I couldn’t exactly reach out to Ellen in those early days but I do owe many thanks to the Chicago women who supported me, those who understood that you live with the fear and you do it anyway. I just entered year 20 of my job and some of those early memories don’t get trotted out into sunlight very often. The Ellen interview sparked quite a few of them. (http://www.upworthy.com/in-1997-being-gay-on-tv-was-not-ok-ellen-and-oprah-look-back-in-this-emotional-clip?c=ufb3) These days, I’m more likely to be focused on what’s coming next week or next month, and less on what it was like to be a public queer in 1998.  Wow. We really have made history.

And yes, thank you for asking–I did have to look this…butch…while I was doing it. (And can you believe it–she hadn’t even seen me wearing a tux!)

Dedicated to my colleague and friend, Jessica Halem, who will probably never know how much of a sanity saver she was.

Nance

A couple of months ago, it was major news that a bill was proposed in Florida to prohibit transgender people from using public, single-sex restrooms that do not match the sex they were born as. I saw arguments for and against, and eventually the story disappeared into the cyber dust that gets stirred up as new stories are generated and we move on to the next thing vying for our attention.

In the Huffpost article I read most recently, the bill’s author talked about the loophole in the current ordinance that prompted him to write his proposal, speculating that “…but [the ordinance] creates a giant loophole for criminals, sexual deviants and sexual predators to walk into a shower, a woman’s locker room under the cover of law.”  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/09/florida-transgender-bathroom-law_n_6645910.html

Yeah? Hmmmm….

Last week, I offered training at the middle school of a neighboring town on the current trends in working with LGBT youth.  During the course of the evening, we covered the newest stats that the GLSEN National School Climate survey (http://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/NSCS_ExecSumm_2013_DESIGN_FINAL.pdf)  gives us, including the fact that (to the surprise and concern of several parents sitting there), the restroom is viewed as one of the most dangerous places in any school building in the country.  As I was speaking, I recalled the comment about criminals, sexual deviants and predators taking advantage of being able to use the restrooms at will, and then I thought, Yeah, but you know who’s NOT using the restroom?  Lots of transgender kids!  Because they’re scared to pee!

I’ll admit to some confusion and a BIG dose of disagreement with the Florida state rep’s reasoning for this Don’t Pee Here bill. Speaking as someone who has been asked to leave numerous women’s restrooms (despite the fact that I was born into and still reside in a female body) by women who mistook me for a guy, I don’t get it. Are we THAT hung up on body parts that people are freaked out to see someone with short hair standing at the sink, washing their hands?  Given the times women have stopped dead in their tracks as they walked through the bathroom door, looked at me and then checked the door to make sure they were in the right room, I have to say yes, it appears that some of us are.

The most entertaining experience so far was in a theater restroom in Chicago. Four older women (I’d guess in their 60’s and 70’s) came through the door, as some women DO seem to have that need to all go to the bathroom in a group. The woman leading the line stopped, causing all the other women to bump into her like dominoes, almost knocking her over as she hung onto the edge of the door, checking the sign, then checking me, and then announcing to the room, “Oh, it’s okay—you’re a woman!”

Well. I don’t know about that. But thank you for offering your approval of my anatomy.  Which, by the way, you haven’t actually seen.  I’m also not sure what’s the bigger question mark for the women who pile up in the doorway—my short hair, or the fact that I am completely comfortable going to the restroom without three or four other women tagging along!

I had an interesting experience to contrast those against, a little while back. I was in a Costco and I needed to use the restroom. I’d had a LOT of coffee. I needed to use the restroom NOW.  I set my stuff aside and trudged the three miles to the edge of civilization where most of the big box stores keep their washrooms, only to find the yellow cautionary sign up that the cleaning folks were mopping and didn’t want anyone to use the women’s room right at that moment. It was a different version of Don’t Pee Here!  Glancing across the way, I saw there was no such sign in the doorway of the men’s washroom. Should I?  Would anyone care?

I hoped no one would. I entered at a fast walk, heading for the stalls, and saying, “Sorry, guys, the women’s room is closed!”

The three guys who were in there were not phased. All three of them looked at me as I rushed past and nodded. At least one even mumbled something along the lines of, “Hey, how you doin’?”  No one offered an opinion on my anatomy or presentation thereof or questioned my right to use a restroom as needed.

If we can wrap our heads around the idea that for most people, trans and gender expansive people included, restrooms are just a part of the normal course of a day and not an adventure in speed dating or trying to molest anyone, maybe we can stop debating bills like the Don’t Pee Here bill. It’s a matter of need. It’s a matter of what bodies do. Including the bodies of a lot of middle schoolers who are, unfortunately, still attending schools where they’re too scared to pee.

More kids are coming out as transgender—and doing so at younger ages– than ever before. More kids are expressing their gender more creatively and refusing to be locked into our existing binaries than ever before. Here’s an absolutely crazy idea. How about a conversation that starts with—rather than Don’t Pee Here—the idea (based on the guy who greeted me in the Costco men’s room with, “Hey, how you doin’?”) that You’re Okay and It’s Safe to Pee Here?

gender neutral restroom

Today is day 21 of an online meditation practice I signed up for, led by Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey. I haven’t had much success with meditation when I’ve attempted it in the past, but this spoke to me and I decided to give it another try. Today’s meditation was on creating peace. Sarvesham Shantir Bhavatu. I desire peace for all beings.

On Friday, I presented at a workshop on LGBT youth issues. I had the 8 to 9 am spot and not being a morning person, it was a minor miracle that I got up on time, got there and didn’t even have my shirt on inside-out or backwards, which has been known to happen on occasion. (This explains my preference for shirts with buttons when I’m doing public speaking. Buttoning them if they’re on backwards is just hell!)

I digress. I had an hour to do what is normally at least a 90-minute presentation. I talked in fast forward. Developmental theory, models of coming out, now superimpose the stages of coming out over typical adolescent development thus creating the common challenges that face LGBT youth. I got them all in and successfully yielded the floor to the next speaker without tripping, spilling water down my right-side out and frontwards-facing shirt or otherwise making a spectacle of myself.

Post-workshop, I stationed myself by the door to collect evaluation forms from the exiting attendees. Two gentlemen approached. They’d been there all day, early attendees who’d been around during the 8 to 9 am slot. The first gentleman came to a full stop in front of me, not the pause-and-push-a-paper at me that most other folks had done as they breezed by, and he held out his hand for me to shake. I put my palm against his and he gripped tightly—admirably!—and said, “You won’t remember me.”

Curious, I perked up. Should I remember him? Had we met previously?

“I attended a training you did many years ago…” His voice trailed off and he started to chuckle. “Back when both of our hair was much darker.”

I chuckled with him, uncertain about where this was going and now a little distracted by the thought of my greying spikes. He still held my hand and his grip firmed up a bit more.

“I wanted to say thank you.”

My head tipped. “Thank you for what?” I asked.

He cleared his throat and his dark eyes crinkled in the corners. “I sat through your training as a young professional. In corrections. And I thought, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

He did say this was a thank you, right?

“So what did I do that was helpful?” I asked.

“A couple of years ago, my kid came out and everything you said would happen, happened. You helped my family so much…and you didn’t even know.”

I tightened my own grip on his hand and I felt the bridge spanning the space between our hearts click into place. “I know now.”

I was barely tuned in to the next few folks who handed me their evaluation forms as I watched him go and his words sank in. The bridge stretched and I knew I’d feel that for days to come. How many years ago would that training have been when he sat there thinking yeah, yeah, yeah? Eight? Ten? How old was his kid when that training happened? And how old when the kid came out to him? He didn’t have to say anything to me. I was touched that he made it a point to make the connection, touched that he’d stopped and taken my hand. He made it personal. For him, I was sure it had been personal for a long time.

Sometimes what I get to do for a living is humdrum. I push a lot of paperwork and answer a lot of emails on a lot of days. Then there are days like Friday, when I go out to do a presentation and learn that something I said in a training however many years ago made a difference to someone…maybe eased some pain they were experiencing.

I desire peace for all beings.

My Catholic school roots stir. Maybe St. Francis was onto something, praying for something that would echo through my career before people could even spell LGBT. Make me an instrument of peace. That St. Francis must have been one smart dude.

peace

National Coming Out Day is always a great day for reflection, given that I run an agency for LGBT kids for my job. This week found me wandering memory lane, taking a moment for my own coming out, which (if you’ve caught my previous comments) is always a big question for people who start to read Urban Tidepool and expect it to be a coming out story.

I was 25 when I came out, long past the ending point that is written for the current draft of Urban Tidepool. I had come out to a few very close friends but coming out to my family felt different, bigger, more ominous. Not that it should have, as I was already an adult, living in another state from my remaining family members, but I can still recall the sense of dread as I contemplated what words I might use to make myself understood. I felt I needed to explain…at the time, even I believed an explanation of my very being was required. Or maybe I hoped if I talked enough, they would not find time to hate me for becoming this person.

I had been considering it for months when the chance appeared in a phone conversation with one of my siblings.

“I wanted to tell you, I’m seeing someone!”

“That’s great! What’s his name?”

I took a deep breath and made the leap. “Well, her name is…”

My heart was pounding so hard and I was so sure the phone was going to squirt right out of my hand, I almost missed what was said next. It ended in, “…but I love you.”

I think about doing that at 25 and the trepidation I had over that conversation, the stress, tears and sleepless nights it caused for months leading up to it. And then I think about what LGBT kids now are facing, when they take the same risk.

LGBT kids represent up to 40% of the kids who are homeless annually. A 2010 report from the Center for American Progress (http://tinyurl.com/lmarxnh and http://tinyurl.com/lbshqa7 noted that the average age of a gay kid becoming homeless in NY City is 14 years, 4 months old. The average age of a transgender kid becoming homeless in NY City is 13 1/2 years old. Those are some very small human beings to face the streets on their own. But this is their reality. There are no phone calls that end in “I love you”, there are no siblings who blush mightily upon the suggestion (as another way of coming out) that after finishing Thanksgiving dinner, you drive over to Blockbuster and scope out some girls together.  Yes, I did that, thank you for asking—that’s how I came out to the Major. It got very quiet at the table for about thirty seconds, and then my sister-in-law got really busy clearing plates. Loudly. The blood started to creep up the Major’s neck into his face as he looked anywhere in the room except at me. My nephew, Ours as I call him in Urban Tidepool, was 15 at the time. He snorted milk through his nose. It was a true bonding moment for our family.

That nephew, sitting there mopping up the milk he just snorted out his nose, was exactly the age of the kids I’m talking about who end up homeless. He was a goofy kid, reaching for dry napkins and looking to find his path through adolescence, who –under NO circumstances should ever have been expected to find a way to survive on the streets of a metropolitan area.

But our kids do, all the time. They go through that stage of fear that I still experienced at 25, for weeks. Or months. Or even years. And then they take the leap, hoping or maybe praying for acceptance, only to be met with the most brutal of reactions—“Get out.”  Get out, when we know you have no skills to support yourself. Get out, when we know it is the middle of winter and you will risk freezing to death. Get out, where panhandling is maybe your best option as opposed to trafficking and/or survival sex to get through this. Get out, until you are …what? Less gay? More like us, the parents? More like the accessory we wanted when we had you?

The point of National Coming Out Day, to make communities safer because LGBT people and their allies are more visible, can get lost in this kind of family brutality. When our kids are no longer considered accessories, when they are seen as people in their own right, with their own goals and expectations and identities, when they can come out to their families and still be the goofy 13 or 14 or 15 year old snorting milk through their nose at the dinner table, will we even need it anymore?

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Newer national research informs us that the average coming out age for LGBT kids has dropped to 13 years old across the country, down from 19 less than a decade ago. With this change, we are also seeing a shift in how old kids are when they start to wrestle with their own awareness of their orientation and/or gender identity, which is now estimated to be between the ages of five and seven. Five and seven. Basically first grade.  (http://tinyurl.com/bptkoyb)

It’s curious to me that most people who have heard that I’m working on a memoir assume that it is a coming out story. Being queer, of course, that must be part of the story.  I think I’ve disappointed a few people when I’ve replied that my coming out occurred in real life several years after the story I’ve written ends, so no, it’s not about my coming out. Which seems to lead inevitably to the question, “Well, when did you know?”

The references in Urban Tidepool are not veiled. I mention my struggle with dressing in stereotypical female clothing in a number of scenes. In fact, in one place, I am very specific about my contempt for being asked to wear a dress: “But to be forced to wear a dress –and not just to church, but the entire day—this was torture. I could no more feel at home in a dress than I could walk down the street on my hands, juggling bowling pins on my toes. I felt like an imposter, stuck in someone else’s clothes. I never knew how to sit right, or stand right, or where to put my arms and legs and more importantly, I didn’t care. I didn’t want to know.  Pants, I knew how to operate.”

My memories of this struggle go back as long as I can remember and continued through every job I held as an adult until my current one. My clearest memory of trying to share with the father that I was not expecting to grow up to be female comes from when I was maybe three years old.  I sat on the edge of the sink one weekend morning while he shaved, babbling at him about something he probably only half-heard. But he was being a good sport and he just let me keep rambling on while he worked on his shave. He set the shaving cream can down next to me, a tiny tail of the foam left on the nozzle. I didn’t stop talking for a second. I watched him swipe shaving cream over his face, then I poked out a finger, caught the tail of the foam on the nozzle and mimicked his actions, pressing the foam to my face and rubbing it in.

“Daddy, will this help me grow whiskers like you when I grow up?”

He smiled at me and shook his head. “You won’t grow whiskers.”

At 3, that seemed absurd. Of course, I would. At 48, I wonder what the hell I was thinking—who ASKS for more facial hair? But that, my friends, is a story for a different day. The point is, at 3 I knew something was up about how I lived in my body and what was expected of me. I didn’t figure it out for another 20-something years, but I knew at 3 that I didn’t fit in the body I was working with. Excuse me, waiter, this is NOT the body I ordered!

I don’t think I’m alone in this. Many of the friends I’ve met in adulthood share those painful moments of not fitting in their bodies when we were repeatedly told that we weren’t dressing or walking or standing or talking appropriately. That our interests or passions somehow made us less female, therefore undesirable, unlovable, substandard, a clear message that unless we present ourselves to the world in a way that was already scripted…known…accepted…that we would always be less than.

The problem with that in 1970 and still to some extent now is that so few people stopped to ask (no one, in my situation), if those images about what female bodies should look like and be dressed like and walk like ever resonated with me. I am very clear now that they did not.  It’s taken me years to get past the messages of what I SHOULD do or be or dress like to make everyone else comfortable with how I experience myself in this world.   Let me tell you, people worked hard to make sure that I made them comfortable with my presentation—with no regard to how I viewed myself or what I related to.

“So when did you know?”

The unavoidable question…I can tell you that unlike kids today who have language for this much earlier than my generation did, I knew only that I felt different and I felt weird. But at 5, there was no language to explain this. There was only discomfort. And embarrassment at being forced to wear clothing that felt foreign and restrictive and un-me-like.

As I got older, the sources of such messages grew to include school and sometimes other female friends who would bluntly tell me, “Don’t wear or do _____. You’ll never get a guy.” As if somehow, my entire value as a human being became based on what guy would be attracted to me depending on what I was wearing or what I was doing.  Clearly, being myself and being genuine about it was not going to be enough.

But I think that tide is beginning to change. This week, I saw a post for a clothing company for girls’ clothing that goes beyond the stereotypes that I fought against so hard.  (http://tinyurl.com/morly72) Going beyond the scope of orientation and gender identity, it actually might open dialogue about these limiting messages given to girls about what they must look like, what they must wear, what they must be passionate about. Maybe it will even start dialogue on the very frightening idea that girls are enough, in and of themselves, no matter what they wear. If we can change the binary system that looks at gender and declares one better than the other, that looks at gender presentation and declares one better than the other, that looks at sexual orientation and declares one better than the other, then by default, won’t we be assisting all of the kids for whom those binaries don’t resonate?

We are enough. Other people’s comfort with us is not a measure of us. We are enough.

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