Embracing Feminism Young and Old

An interesting juxtaposition of events occurred, Saturday, and of course, it is precisely these juxtapositions that contextualize experiences, and in the best of times, help me learn to use them to be a better feminist.


The beautiful Hope College campus (source: Flickr @Leo Herzog)

I went to Holland, MI (my hometown) to see a production of Vagina Monologues at Hope College. Hope is a well-regarded, albeit socially conservative liberal arts college, affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, a mainline Protestant church. The Monologues are needed at Hope — when I was in high school, I attended special programming for high school students there, and later, I also took two Hope classes before I went to Michigan (Russian and Calculus II, an interesting combination). So it was never my “home,” but I have been thankful to be its guest many times — and irrespective of the form of its policies, I have felt pretty welcome when I have been there. Even back twenty years ago, in connecting with students, particularly in environmental action, I remember learning from young women at Hope their concerns about sexual assault and a general atmosphere in which women did not feel safe on their campus. And yet, the Monologues have played there for years, but this was the first time that Hope “allowed”* them to be performed on campus.

This year’s production was directed by the granddaughter of dear friends. That grandmother, herself, was involved in the production of the Monologues a generation before, and this presaged other intergenerational feminist moments the Sisters on stage shared. That made it deeply special, in a whole other way besides seeing the justice of this play finally airing on campus at Hope, these voices finding wind on those grounds. The production she directed, the art that she and her friends and colleagues created, was brilliant — it married Monologues both old and new** with the ferocity of young feminism in 2016. It was cutting, reflective, considerate, angry, funny, sad, joyful, hopeful, worried, and all gloriously at the same time.

After the play, Teri and I went out for drinks and had an amazing, intergenerational feminist dialogue. We got home a bit before one in the morning. Back to the juxtaposition I mentioned, the second event then happened, when I came home that night, by way of seeing posts on my Facebook timeline (I first heard of this from my fabulous and inspiring friend, Lizz Winstead). It was something I really expected never to see: Gloria Steinem letting Sisters down by saying things that were frightfully wrong. There are really hardly any people alive whom I respect like I respect Gloria Steinem, and prior to that night, I didn’t even consider such a moment possible.

You can watch this, for yourself, above (and also read Ms. Steinem’s subsequent apology). This is not a call out nor even a call in to Ms. Steinem, not primarily. I don’t feel at all qualified to do anything of the sort. This is also not the important conversation about idolizing Sisters in movement, and forgetting that they are human beings*****. My position on the Democratic primary (the young feminist comment occurred in the context of support for Bernie Sanders) remains that I will fight hard for the winner, and I appreciate the (usually) respectful dialogue and engagement in problem solving that is being generated by the Primary. I don’t even have much to say about the equally awful things said about trans women in the conversation.

All I want to do, at the moment, is talk about my experiences being around young feminists.

I have been engaging with young feminists a lot — locally, in informal and formal settings, and online — and what I saw from this fierce group of young Sisters (and from the men and others, as well, in the room) mirrors my experience with young feminism. Tumblr doesn’t really work for me, and although I have an account there, my primary online experience with feminists is Cuntry Living***. I’ve been learning there, from feminists half my age and even younger. To my delight. Seeing them, or hearing this production at Hope, leaves no doubt in my mind that the future of feminism (not that I’m passing my torch anytime soon) is in very good hands.

Young feminists are fiery. They are deeply, naturally, unaffectedly inclusive — approaching the very dream we all have, as represented by the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., that one day his children and “their” children would someday play, side by side. For young feminists play, side by side, and true play is always glorious. Young feminists are intersectional in a real, true way — they are learning, as I have been investing in learning, how to move beyond white intersectional feminism. For them, feminism is so much more clearly and artlessly a way they talk about the web of kyriarchical oppression, and I love that they are finding not just ways to ally and advocate for those who are oppressed outside of girls and women, without denying their womanhood or the concerns of our sex, but a way to make this their lifestyle. They are reflective and introspective, both when they are not, and when they are, loud and proud. They are so brave in melding their personal, lived experience, the fount of feminist authority for all of us, with the broader issues that affect us all.

There are challenges, to be sure, that young feminists face. One, I think, is that the young feminist movement, alongside the young queer movement, shows a tendency right now to engage in what, to me, seems like a very taxonomical, classification-oriented approach — this can be seen, for instance, in Tumblr graphs of sexualities or genders.


Source: Tumblr @queerascat

What I want to, gently, say about this, is not that all these identity states are not important (they are!), or that advocacy around them is not important (it is — for instance, one of my ally priorities this year is to educate myself about asexual/aromantic people by way of being a better ally). My concern — gently — is that down the road of this kind of approach is the challenge that understanding feminism, or understanding queer theory is really not well suited to the approach of memorizing tables of information.

In young feminist discourse, this often means that, quite separately from content notes or trigger warnings (which have their own complicated politic), there is an intense classificatory urge, that I see in the discursive system (and in which I participate, myself), when I am around young feminists, to label or assign things — as transphobic, as biphobic, as heterocentric, as cispatriarchical, as sex-worker-exclusive, as classist, as ableist. Identifying our prejudices and biases, our internalized self-hatred, and problematic**** views and mindsets is so important. But sometimes, I see reticence to have in-depth conversation about the processes at work, beyond just applying the labels. This is where the danger lies — for this to be the end point and not the beginning point of feminist process. The process, in a way, mirrors how we use social technology — this blog post itself is tagged and categorized, and hashtags are a kind of taxonomy, and these kinds of taxonomical processes really underwrite much of the explosive capability of these tools to get activist information out in people’s hands. But, again, to me, and I say this gently, I think a Future Feminism (more on my thoughts on Future Feminism) that stops here (which young feminists have not done, but which will be a challenge down the way), that limits itself to classifications and tags and categories and markers, will not be enough, and although it will spread information among the educated like wildfire, it will not teach or nurture or build up subsequent generations of feminists.

These challenges mirror the challenges of every generation of feminism. In many ways, they are far milder — they are not the racism of the first wave, or the heterocentrism of the second wave, or the gender essentialism of the third wave (or wave 2b, you know, I’m trying not to be overly classificatory here). They are challenges nonetheless, and they belong to us all — not just young feminists as defined by chronological age.

I think the very discursive system in which we argue about whether “young feminism” or “old feminism” is better to be deeply problematic. To me, one of the most beautiful things about being a feminist woman is that I have so many mothers, so many sisters, and now, even so many daughters in movement. Like when I work with young children, my goal in support of this future generation and their future feminism is not to tell them what to dream, or even how to dream it, but to support them in acquiring the tools they need to push feminism farther, to dream their own dreams, and to bring those dreams into reality. That is a privilege — not in the acknowledging one’s privilege sense, but in sense of honor. I want them to be good feminists, but I do not presume to know what a good feminist is, nor do I presume that I measure up to that moniker. As a mother in movement, I expect to be uncool at times. When I was young, this was where we made our parents drop us off a block from school so that our friends wouldn’t see us kiss them goodbye. And although I engage in moments to teach what I can teach, I learn, also, and I truly do receive far more than I give.

To see our relationship as “old” feminists not this way, but as a form of seniority in movement, will be disastrous. We will not win tomorrow’s war with yesterday’s weapons. We will not build a sexism-free, an any-ism-free, future, with the tools of the patriarchy. This is my opinion — not my dogma: we cannot think hierarchically about young and old feminists. We have to be unafraid to learn more than we teach, as I have always done when I am around young feminists. We have to stop dictating who wears the mantle of authority if we wish to abolish mantles of authority and the privilege they confer. Put very simply, I will make no one free if I say to them, “You belong to me.”

I spoke with the grandmother of the director the next morning, about other things, and we touched on this issue, sharing our very positive experiences working with feminists younger than us (since she is a generation older than me, and I am a generation older than her granddaughter), how we are inspired and draw energy from our work alongside them, and how we work hard not to control but to nurture them. And that, ultimately, is what I want to say in response to Ms. Steinem’s comments. I just want to share my lived experience, a middle-aged woman who is proud to stand among young feminists.

* We all ultimately are allowed and disallowed, although we are all ultimately freed not by others, but by ourselves. So whoever stamped the approval, those young women took their rights, for rights are not truly given.

** The Vagina Monologues is a living work, and over time, vaginas, or monologues, as you wish, have been added, and their voices lifted. Notably, the Monologues of today bring voice to Sisters who might not have been heard when the play was created, including trans women and ethnic minority Sisters.

*** I’d love to settle the score on how CL is represented in the press — I will do that another time, but for now, I will just say that my experience with CL so much differs from what is claimed about it, that when I read about it, it is barely recognizable to me.

**** By problematic, one typically means throwing someone else under a bus for one’s own sake.

***** It’s noteworthy here that I already crossed a threshold of disagreeing with something bell hooks said, likewise, not something I had expected myself to be doing.

Is the Era of the Community Center Over?

The following are my remarks at Identifying Our Resource Center, an event that occurred on Tuesday, April 21, 2015, as a joint effort between Holland is Ready, PFLAG Holland/Lakeshore, and Holland Area Pride, three community organizations advocating for LGBT inclusion in Holland, MI, my hometown.

Good evening, and thank you so much for having me out.

I want to start, briefly, by telling you my story, because our lives and our stories matter, and a movement that doesn’t have time for us, as people, and our stories, is not a movement for me. God began calling me to accept who I am and, well, finally act like a grown woman, a little less than 15 years ago. I hemmed, and I hawed, and I said it was too hard, I wasn’t brave enough, or strong enough. God said, “No, little girl, I’ve got you.” I didn’t believe it, right away. It wasn’t until 2013 that I finally started being ready. My 38-year-long, less than impressive, farce of pretending first to be a boy, then a man, then an androgynous more-or-less man, none of which were me, was getting in the way of my mission to kids with autism. In the prior two years, I built the best place in West Michigan for early diagnosis and early treatment for preschoolers with autism. That revolution needed to grow and expand, because there are kids out there who need me, and I was wasting time and energy, pretending. So I gave in, I came out, and I ended the charade. I was scared at first, but I was met with overwhelming love, positivity, support, and celebration. I came out without losing a single friend, family member, colleague, or business contact, and I gained a sea of new loves and new connections in all those areas. When people saw me being brave, they chose to see my transition as an opportunity to be brave alongside me, and they found that we were all better, together, for it.

You have no idea what I'll do for my AutismFamily.

You have no idea what I’ll do for my AutismFamily.

In early 2014, God spoke to me again, when I walked up the rickety back steps of a bar, and there, before me, was the one. God said, “Love him.” I said, “I don’t know, I’m not looking for all that trouble.” God said, “No, I said, love him. He needs you. And you need him. You don’t see it now, but he was the one I made you for.” I hemmed and I hawed, again, and God said, “You know I’m always right.” To which I replied, “I have noticed that. It’s kind of annoying.” God said, “Yes, but it’s also true. Someday, you’ll learn to just accept that. But I’m not asking you for that, today. Today, I’m telling you to love Teri.” And I said, “Okay, done.” And God said, “Thank you.” He kind of gets to have the last word.

...or for my mister.

…or for my mister.

I am telling these two stories for a specific reason, to set the stage for understanding where we are, today. As you may know, in 2014, I was asked to get involved at a number of levels, both here in Grand Rapids and at the state and national levels, in LGBT activism. One of the tasks set before me was to re-invent our notion of LGBT Community in Grand Rapids, for the contemporary world. I’ve written in detail about what I learned in this process, but I am here tonight to ask you a provocative (and hopefully somewhat less offensive than it sounds) question: Is the era of the community center over?

We’ve come a long way since the sentinel events in our history, such as Stonewall. In the just under fifty years since that event, we’ve come into a world where stories like mine are becoming increasingly believable. Many times, in middle and larger cities, for lesbians and gay young men from non-marginalized backgrounds, stories like mine are becoming almost normal. They’re pretty rare, still, for trans people, but I’m neither the first nor the last. Let me be clear: what happened to me when I came out should not be a lucky blessing. It is what every single person who comes out deserves. And while it is becoming increasingly common, it is not universal, and it is not enough to rest on our past accomplishments and live in a bifurcated world where a growing population of connected LGBT people thrive, and a remaining segment of our community suffers.

Fifty years ago, Stonewall was a game changer. What will tomorrow's game changer be?

Fifty years ago, Stonewall was a game changer. What will tomorrow’s game changer be?

The community center has been a staple of these fifty years of progress. Many times, it began as a sort of safe house – sometimes, even in very covert ways (a storied community center serving the trans* people of the Boston area even had a cloak and dagger process of calling from a designated pay phone and being whisked away in an unmarked car to be sussed out and cleared as not a threat!). Often times, this remains the mentality of fighting for LGBT community. We spend too much time asking, “Which restaurants are LGBT friendly,” and not enough time asking, “Why are there any that aren’t?” We don’t come out to our doctors, because we’re afraid they will reject us. We build supports for homeless and runaway youth but we don’t think about how to get to a world where no youth is homeless because of their gender or sexual identity. We create “gayborhoods” as an act of self-imposed segregation.

I want to make the argument, today, that it’s time for us to stand a little bit taller than that. This conversation very much mirrors what I’ve been doing leading my part of the Autism Revolution. To quote a country song, “I will plant my heart in the garden of my dreams, and I will grow up where I want, wild and free.” This isn’t a hypothetical argument. Look around you. The partners for the Pride festivals in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo aren’t some sex shop or little nightclub. They’re Experience Grand Rapids. Bell’s Brewery. Our LGBT professional development program, OutPro, is the only one in the country that is an official program of our Chamber of Commerce, but we see similar actions happening nationwide. Fort Lauderdale last year became the first city whose convention and visitor’s bureau officially began attracting transgender tourism dollars. Five states and a number of cities now require insurance to provide access to transgender healthcare. It’s even pretty easy to find an inclusive church these days.

It is likely this will continue apace – vibrant companies, cities, and civic organizations will continue to court inclusion because it is good for business, good for community, good for everybody. But if we want to go even farther, to end the bifurcation and marginalization of a segment of our community, we need not just evolution, but revolution. If this is what you want, putting in place yesterday’s best practice just isn’t good enough, and yesterday’s weapons will not win tomorrow’s battle. So, what are tomorrow’s weapons? What does the LGBT community of tomorrow look like? My claim to you is the LGBT community of tomorrow must be Networked, Intersectional, and Engaged. And rather than having a community center to which we can go, in this future vision, we will be at the center of the community.

Listen to the pizza, y'all.

Listen to the pizza, y’all.

First, we must be networked. The scale of what needs to be done today cannot be done in a purely grass-roots fashion – the movement forward must span all the way from the activists and developers of queer ideology and philosophy, to the scientists, inventors, businesspeople, leaders, and everyone else. You must leverage a much broader conception of local talent and organizational partners. Second, we must be intersectional – it is dead clear that the bifurcation in the LGBT community is due to multiple marginalization – LGBT people who suffer not just because they are LGBT, but because they come from underprivileged ethnic minorities, from poverty, from lack of access to education, from core city wastelands, sexual victimization, mental illness, physical disability, and the list goes on. If we do not talk more constructively about how each of these things affects the experience of being LGBT, we will not create a world in which we are permanently and fully entrenched in society. Third, we must be engaged. To keep the success stories of the LGBT community engaged in the process, and to get people who are passive allies – who respect us but don’t fight alongside us – activated, we need to leverage much more heavily all the ways in which LGBT people are friends, spouses, parents, anchors to neighborhoods, schools, churches, businesses, how we are leaders not just in the LGBT community but out there in the world, and how we make the world better for everybody.

Together, these three things will provide us an opportunity to have a world in which the kind of experience I have as an LGBT person is a right and an expectation, and where we can all stand truly proud and tall. I’m not necessarily saying that a physical building cannot be part of this vision – but I am saying that the era of the cloistered and secretive community center, for a community in hiding, is over, and that we are now entering the era in which we put LGBT people at the center of all our communities, and lay the groundwork to keep us there, for many years to come. We are trying to do this in Grand Rapids, with the Network, with OutPro, and as queer and ally civic leaders. This is our revolution, and we welcome you to join it. Thank you.

What if the People Who Don’t Know How to Do Trans Inclusion… Are Us?

I want to stitch together a few experiences I have had recently, with a conversation Teri and I had on the way back from Chicago, where I was an honoree for the 2015 Trans100 on Sunday. None of these experiences are meant to call anyone out – rather, it is reflecting on a pattern that emerges, to me, from these experiences, that speaks about all of us, not any individual actor, but the culture and society we are building amongst trans people. It is not an attempt to pick a fight within the sisterhood (or, rather, among the trans siblinghood), but rather to try and have that crucial conversation that needs to be had.

This is my Trans100 bio. I'm so amazed by the talent of the people chosen, and I feel more than a little unworthy.

This is my Trans100 bio. I’m so amazed by the talent of the people chosen, and I feel more than a little unworthy.

The first experience was months ago, at one of a series of workshops put on by leaders in the Michigan trans community. The workshops aimed to develop leadership and build and mobilize trans leaders. At the start of the first meeting, however, things went quickly off the rails. We had a brainstorming session in which we were asked to say what we needed to feel accepted, but it became quickly apparent that the designated note taker, who was putting the ideas on big sheets of paper that everybody could see, would write ideas in really big letters when they* liked them, and really small letters when they didn’t care about them. I pointed this out, and asked critically how we could have a discussion based on mutual respect if this is how we tried to develop mutual respect. One of the people there had an excellent idea, along with this, which was to foster the idea of assuming best intent in others, by having a simple protocol such as saying just, “Ouch,” when something bothered you, and if the person who said it understood why it offended, they could just say “Oops!” and move on (like you should do if you ever mis-pronoun somebody… just acknowledge it and move on). But there were soon a cacophony of “Ouches” that often had nothing to do with what the person talking had even been talking about. They culminated in a kind of surreal scene where one of the people present used what I can only describe as a Darth Vader voice to patronizingly point out to someone else that, if they were embarrassed about the way their voice sounded, they could change it with voice coaching or exercices (a point lost on nobody in the room). Later, we recovered from this, but there were still a lot of these weird moments. At one point in this series, we had an internal caucusing process. I had suggested a woman’s caucus, both because womanhood is the thing with which I most strongly identify, and because it created a potential home for the group of cis women who were participating. There was no interest in this, and I joined a trans caucus**. All fine and good, but then someone created a trans woman caucus, even though trans women were easily the largest group in the room, and the group would leave out both the cis women and some of the non-woman trans people who didn’t have a home. I didn’t feel comfortable with joining this caucus, because, in that space, it sounded a little bit like creating a white people’s caucus or a rich people’s caucus, or a men with power and influence caucus. The trans caucus, which ended up being Teri, me, and a really cool genderqueer / non-binary person, whom I love, was awesome (telling you, awesome caucuses are the only caucuses we should have). But I was left with this profound sense of not being able to belong to my own tribe – a sense I rarely feel when I am in broad LGBT spaces, and I never feel when I am in women’s spaces, or, amazingly, out in the “straight” world – all the places where belong naturally.

The second experience was at a recent meeting of our local trans support group, Own Your Gender. It was a little momentary interaction that didn’t fully hit me until later***. Wrapping up some group conversation about… something, I lightly said, “It could be worse. I could not be transgender.” One of the facilitators quickly corrected me: “You mean it could be worse, you could still be in hiding.” Sticking still to my pledge not to pick fights in the sisterhood, I sheepishly said, “Well, that’s true.” But I didn’t agree. I didn’t need correcting. I’m glad I’m not in hiding any more. But I’m not just proud in principle, in a Facebook post on Transgender Day of Visibility. I am actually proud to be transgender. I love it, as I love life, and I am thankful for it. I was thankful for it even in hiding, although I am far happier living openly and authentically. I own this truth. Not as a weapon, and not to deny the experiences of our struggling siblings, but because it is my true experience. I have said it at the microphone to elected leaders and in front of large audiences, here on my blog, and in so many one on one conversations. I wasn’t fast enough on my feet, that day, caught off guard, to say it like it is, but it is true. And of all places where I should be able to say such a thing, our own spaces owe me the right to love myself in safety.

If you know one thing about me, you should know I'm happy. That's what lets me not spend my time surviving, but doing things like advocating for kids with autism.

If you know one thing about me, you should know I’m happy. That’s what lets me not spend my time surviving, but doing things like advocating for kids with autism.

The third experience was going to the Trans100 itself. While there is always an “A-Gay” kind of phenomenon at national trans events, like First Event or Southern Comfort, this was very different from anything I’ve experienced before. Maybe it was night club culture (which I’ve always hated, for a wide variety of reasons, chief among them the way in which our women’s bodies become meat in a meat market, or in that it was a place where my charade as a “man” was most transparently not working). From the very beginning, I felt surprisingly unwelcome. At the ticket counter, when I said I had reservations and gave my name, the person hostilely asked me if I paid for a ticket, and waved me away. A bouncer nastily (and cryptically) told me, “Green is downstairs and orange is upstairs.” I genuinely had no idea what they were talking about, and so I asked what that meant. The response was, “Green is downstairs and orange is upstairs, that’s really all there is to it.” I still had no idea what was going on – I hadn’t ever been to the venue (I don’t think it was what it is now, back when I lived in Chicago), didn’t see anything green or orange, and orange and green didn’t mean anything to me. I had to figure out for myself that she was talking about the wristband I had, that I apparently had the “cheap seats,” and that she was there to keep me off the main floor. This is all fine and good, although this is an award others nominated me for, and I didn’t even know there were different kinds of tickets. I asked Teri (critically, not rhetorically) in some detail whether this is just me being a princess, and I finally came to the conclusion that it is really not. Because it wasn’t about me – yes, if I had been asked to buy more expensive seats, as a fundraising opportunity, of course I would have… I end up buying expensive gala and fundraising tickets, for one cause or another, it seems, for us, all the time nowadays. But it isn’t about that. I felt, the whole time I was at the event, that I was standing in someone else’s space, that the little tiny space I was occupying in my little tiny dress and my little heels was space that I should be giving up to someone else****. Really just the same way I feel as a woman on a crowded subway car. Teri, to my surprise, felt the same way. It isn’t about not being an “A-Gay” … I hardly expected the night to be all about me, as one tiny person among many being recognized. And I agree that, as one of the people who was being honored, that I am only a person chosen to represent an ocean of diverse talent, and that the celebration is not of us as the 100 “best” trans people, but a celebration of all the best in the trans community, with us agreeing to be used as exemplars or lenses through which that panoply of trans talent can be seen and celebrated. Yet, I also hardly think it necessary to work so hard to make me feel so unwelcome at what, even if only in a tiny way, was ostensibly my own party (and, of course, my own party in that we were celebrating trans lives, and the belief that trans lives matter, and so my trans life should matter, just for being a trans life), to accomplish this end. And if I felt unwelcome, as an honoree, how did people who were not being honored, who come from experiences of marginalization, feel?

But it was the third thing that really started to put together pieces for me. Lana Wachowski, who directed the Matrix and Cloud Atlas, was the keynote speaker. She made some excellent points, for instance stating of the world, “I don’t need your acceptance. I need your evolution.” She is a highly visible, highly successful, highly talented and creative, highly impactful trans person. She leverages all of these things to make the world a better place for other trans people, including by supporting in significant ways some of the critical work to safeguard trans people that is going on right there, in Chicago. But then, towards the end of her speech, she called out the black community for her perception that black people advocate “against us” for things like the odious bathroom bills. The tension in the room – we were seated next to a couple of our fierce black sisters, and I was really happy that the crowd that night was ethnically diverse – was palpable. A group of people, mostly black trans women, on the other side of the balcony, got up and walked out. We stayed, but all I was thinking about was how our black friends next to us, and the ones down on the main floor, and the ones across the balcony, were feeling, and feeling hurt alongside them. This was Lana’s Patricia Arquette moment. Precious Davis was on point and brought the night back to what it is really about, by saying that we need all our voices present in the room, to have the critical conversations that define us as a community. Later, some people I know called out the women and men who walked out that night, accused them of betraying trans people, but she was not doing that. No, she was calling them back in. 

That night, over a gyro and fries we split instead of going to the after party, because Teri was hungry, and because I needed to stress eat (which I didn’t admit to Teri till the next morning, and my eating disorder behaviors come out infrequently enough that Teri doesn’t always know them when he sees them), and then further cuddling in bed in the morning, and over lattes, we had a really great discussion that help me put the pieces of what I want to say together, into something that, at least to me, makes sense as a whole.

That whole is this: we think that using preferred names and asking for pronouns is creating trans inclusive spaces, but the reality is that we, as a community, have no idea how to create an inclusive or safe space, for us. Rather, disrespecting trans lives is not just something that we need to hashtag to the outside world via #BlackTransLivesMatter, but we need to recognize that disrespecting trans lives is endemic in our own spaces and pervasive in our own processes and approaches.

And this is perilous. Altogether too often, our own spaces are not safe for us. We see it in trans spaces where trans people are called out or made to feel unwelcome because they don’t do “enough to transition” or don’t “pass” or meet some other stupid and arbitrary criteria. We see it in trans spaces that operate as an oppression olympics and don’t allow for the possibility that a trans person can be happy, let alone happy to be trans. And we do it in spaces where we take glee in putting up velvet ropes and using bouncers to make people feel like they’re not good enough.

Again, I say this with love and a sincere desire to keep Lana Wachowski and everyone else I mention, either by name or not, in this article, in the family, and to build a stronger and better family together with all of you.

Again, I say this with love and a sincere desire to keep Lana Wachowski and everyone else I mention, either by name or not, in this article, in the family, and to build a stronger and better family together with all of you.

This is really not about calling out the Trans100. Jen Richards and all the people around her, who made this thing possible, did a really wonderful and revolutionary thing. The 300 people who have been honored, over the last three years, including me, share with all the talent and creativity and passion amongst trans people, the burden of elevating our profile, of helping us all learn to stand taller, chin up, prouder, fiercer. I am thankful, humbled, but also dead serious when I talk about being asked to shoulder a small part of that burden. This is also not about calling out Lana Wachowski. She has done, is doing, will do amazing things. She has tremendous power to be a force for good, and she has already done so much in her own way to lift us up as a people.

On the contrary, this is doubling down on what Precious said, as well as what Tiq Milan said at the event, in his own excellent speech, which is in essence that just people like Laverne Cox on magazine covers (or people like he or I receiving awards or being asked to deliver addresses at events) is not going to be enough to stop trans suicide. We need to call everybody in, and at the core of the discussion we have, we need to talk about the fact that we don’t feel safe, all too often, in our own spaces. If we can’t feel safe in trans spaces, then we will just continue to have what we have now. A subset of fierce, happy trans people, like me, will go about their lives feeling safe and accepted outside of trans spaces, in mainstream society (as I do), and the people who are struggling, who have no place, … will face the ignominy of feeling unwelcome in the one place that has the least business rejecting them.

This is an indictment, but it is an indictment of me as much as of anyone else. Just me being visible, being on TV (to talk about being transgender or to talk about autism), being happy, putting on tiny dresses and drinking cocktails, isn’t the revolution by itself. Sure, it might support other people who, like me, and many of other highly visible, successful trans people, didn’t need much to succeed except for people to get out of our way, but it isn’t going to help all those people who are contemplating, trying, or succeeding at suicide. I – we – have a choice in front of us… every community has hierarchies. In good hierarchies, leaders lift their people up. There is disparity, even in most of the best and safest places in the world, but only just enough, and it is far more often seen as a cause for those who have more to give more, than as a cause to take from the marginalized and give to the privileged. In bad ones, we create classes of toadies who use the power of the dominant subgroup to lord over others, or to take glee in creating velvet ropes and glass ceilings and all kinds of barriers that keep our own people down, and we seek to grow disparity rather than eliminate it.

So what do I think? I think it’s time to tear down those velvet ropes, go out in the parking lot and get our sisters back in the room, and get down to figuring out what it actually means for trans spaces to be places where all trans people can feel safe, spread their wings, and fly.

* I’m using gender neutral pronouns here not based on the preference of the person about who I am talking about, but just to keep this conversation about concepts and not about shaming or calling out anyone.

** The idea of an “awesome caucus,” composed of anybody who was awesome or wanted to be awesome, was also nixed, sadly, even though I and a friend fought hard for it.

*** Yes, okay, it was basically this.

**** There were exceptions – I talked to Laura Jane from Against Me, very briefly, and she was the epitome of not being the problem I’m trying to describe, and really served as a role model influence for me in that, much as people like Amy Gore had been at V to Shining V last year, or Lizz Winstead, also of Lady Parts Justice is, like all the time. And a couple of our Chicago friends grabbed us and made sure we got a drink early in the evening.

My Talk to PFLAG Holland / Lakeshore This Week

Good evening, everyone, and thank you so much for having me out to speak to you. I want to spend some time sharing with you my story, and I want to use it as a lead-in to talk to you about how we’re re-imagining LGBT community and the role of the LGBT community center, in the Greater Grand Rapids area, and how we need you to be a part of this.

But let me start with my story. Way back when, when I was a little child, I remember very clearly that, whenever there was a choice to do, have, or be things that girls wanted versus those that boys wanted, I always wanted what the girls wanted or had to do. Even when it seemed to most people like the boys had the better option. But right away, I also remember learning that most of this would get me scolded, made fun of, or sometimes punished. The rules seemed confusing to me. I saw girls with painted nails and it seemed to me like mine should be painted, too, but that didn’t go over so well. By the time I was a preschooler, I had a system down to pass as a boy. I wasn’t too good at rough and tumble play, but I liked riding bikes, I learned to like baseball, and then I really took to Lego bricks and building spaceships – people kind of love it when little boys want to build spaceships. Now, I’ve always loved building things, although, as I’ll tell you later, the things I build now are a little different than anything I thought I’d be building back in those days.

In the meantime, over my childhood years, it seemed to me, with the force of everything everyone was telling me, despite what I felt like on the inside, I must be a boy, although obviously not a very good one. So I spent my daydreams dreaming that magic, space aliens, reincarnation, anything, would turn me into a girl, and I imagined all the adventures that girl would go on, the kind of woman she would be, what it would be like to be a bride, but I never thought I could be that girl. I figured out that I could play with the more tomboy girls, especially if there were other boys around, and I could “get away” with that. Every once in a while, I really lucked out, and I found an activity that was mostly full of girls, and I could again “get away” with participating in it. The violin was a major score (some of you can sympathize, if you know how catty and high-strung budding violinists are). Later on, I “got away” with … reading Anne of Green Gables (and later yet, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte). This kind of stuff helped a little.

My school unselfconsciously used a lot of logos that look suspiciously like they belong to the Black Panther Party. For serious.

My school unselfconsciously used a lot of logos that look suspiciously like they belong to the Black Panther Party. For serious.

My parents moved here, to Holland (I’m a West Ottawa grad) when I was in third grade. That was a culture shock – think back to Holland in the mid-1980s. I felt like, suddenly, I went from having diverse playmates and lots of Indians around to being one of five non-Dutch kids in my school. I joke that me and the Italian-American kid had to band together, and it’s really not so much of an exaggeration. But I learned to hold my own. I learned to have friendships with girls and boys – having female friends was really nice, because many of the ones that became my friends naturally let me into their lives, and while they didn’t necessarily treat me like a girl, they didn’t treat me like a boy, either. I had male friends, too, and I did like some boy interests – my parents let me learn how to program computers when I saw six or seven years old, and I’ve been scripting as long as I was writing, and computers, again, were a great cover, since they seemed innocuously boyish. So I got through. It got confusing, sure. I was supposed to crush on girls, and I was interested in them, but what I couldn’t put into words was that, like them, I wanted – needed – to be someone’s bride, not anyone’s groom. So I dated… maybe one girl in high school. And I didn’t know how to respond to her affection. And I panicked, and although we became friends later, I always felt badly for that. I got fighting the way girls fight out of my system via orchestra – there was this one girl who was always challenging me for my chair, and I took delight in beating her, even though I was playing a $100 violin and didn’t have private lessons.

By the time I finished high school, I kind of understood that there were “Indian Approved Fields” – my parents weren’t keen on medicine, and there was just something about IT that, as appealing as it was (and who knows, maybe I could have gotten in on the bubble?), I didn’t want. So I went to U of M for engineering. I was good at it, too. Really good grades continued to be part of the sham – not that I’m not proud of or identified with my learning capacity, but anything that I could do that seemed to be what I was supposed to be doing … it helped keep up the façade. Michigan was so much fun, too. I wrote for a student newspaper (and briefly was its editor-in-chief). I led an honors society. I met two of my best friends, even today, at orientation, and I had pizza with them at two in the morning and stayed up all night (I didn’t understand all-nighters, because I didn’t really procrastinate in those days, but they seemed exotic, and so I’d pick a class and not do my homework so I could stay up all night with Wei… it was Engineering Mathematics – Fourier equations and loop integrals and stuff – it was really easy and I wasn’t worried about getting it done, anyways). So… I was good at it, but I didn’t have any passion for it. I didn’t date, but I started having really intense platonic friendships with women.

I got exposed to lots of new things in college, that I’d heard of in magazines but never seen before – you know, like English literature majors (my Indian friends swore they weren’t real). I got exposed a little to gender and sexuality politics. There was something alluring about queer community on campus, but in those days, queer was all about being socially non-conforming, and I just didn’t see how that could be me. I’d heard of “transsexual,” but only in the context of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and I’m just not Tim Curry. I got lots of weird data. I didn’t know other guys who loved Jane Austen like I did. Or who wanted to be pretty and not handsome. People would comment about gender differences, like how men and women sit, and I’d laugh along and yet know I sat like the women did except when I was extra cautious to imitate the guys. So… I made it work. I did Intervarsity, and later Graduate Christian Fellowship. I moved into more applied physics, and I stayed for a couple of years at U of M doing ultrafast optics. And had more really intense, platonic relationships with girls, and one kind of questionably romantic one that broke my heart, also. That was a negative experience on so many levels. I think she recognized that I wasn’t what she was meant to be with… but neither of us had the words for it, and we did have this intense connection, albeit not a physical one really.

By that time, I just wasn’t finding passion in physics. I left to work in engineering. Again, as always, I was actually really good at it. The projects were never quite right, though. I got hired at Ford to ultimately spend two years proving that a technology they’d acquired was a hoax, and working myself out of a job – it was a big win, but I struggled to get an opportunity to try and do something else that would make me relevant to the organization, since they’d hired me (with a great salary) based solely on highly technical skills that turned out to be largely irrelevant once the technology was clearly a dud. In hindsight my leadership was really protective of me (more on this in a bit). I did consulting briefly, but I was terrible at that. I did supplier warranty and then product development. I had a big win, again – I picked up a project that had a five year developmental cycle and had to be started over, more than four years in. I worked my butt off, and I got that part on those vehicles, in working condition, without missing a beat. So I was really a pretty good engineer. And what I did like about it was that it was kind of social – I mean, there was technical engineering, sure, but a lot of that was driving to the plant, spending days at a time there, bonding with the people on the floor, so that when I needed to prototype in a rush or get them to do something they didn’t want to do, they would take care of me first.  Plants are noisy and scary (I probably don’t seem now, like I much belong in one, but I can hold my own). Back at Ford, we had a couple of deaths in our plants, and someone died on one of the lines at Textron that actually ran parts that I was designing. On a machine I’d actually operated once or twice on prototypes, myself (because I sweet talked them, and I did their work for them sometimes, and they took really good care of me). That was scary, and it was hard to mourn someone I’d known, even in passing, and support the people I was working with, all with a deadline still looming. I made that work, but during that time, I knew I’d had enough. Masters-degree-or-no, I was done with engineering. I took night classes. Rebelliously enough, in Psychology, because I’d looked at things – I’d actually almost gone to business school – and I wasn’t sure anything would make me any happier.

As Nature Made Him is a really remarkable look at the question of nature and nurture and their roles in human gender identity.

As Nature Made Him is a really remarkable look at the question of nature and nurture and their roles in human gender identity.

Surprise, surprise, I saw a human sexuality class, and I took it. And… I found out about all kinds of things. I found out about the range of human sexual experience. I tried dating guys, but it was a bust – I was attracted to them, but I was clearly in the wrong place. And I was attracted to girls, sort of. Anyways, I didn’t seem gay exactly, even though (straight) people thought I was gay not uncommonly. Interestingly, the gay guys all knew I wasn’t one of them. I also found out about other things. There was this kid (David Reimer) from Manitoba. Maybe you know this story. So the doctor tried to do this kind of circumcision on him that involves … well, basically, they burnt his penis off. This other person, Dr. John Money, a psychologist, was trying to prove that gender was socially constructed / behaviorally learned. So he told them to basically remove the boy’s testicles, also, and create girl parts, and treat him like a girl. Later, they followed up with hormones. Except their little girl always wanted to pee standing up, and did other things that didn’t really fit. Okay, so this was practical – I started peeing sitting down, and if small, that was vastly preferable. Later, Reimer “transitioned” back to the man he was supposed to be, although he ultimately killed himself, at just a little younger than my current age. This led me to, in turn, find out that there were transgender people. But at that time (this was about 2002), I couldn’t find any examples of happy trans people (somehow, I didn’t find some books that had already been published, like Jan Morris’s Conundrum. Kate Bornstein’s book was about to come out, but that would probably have been too much for my delicate mind to handle. Jenny Boylan’s book was what I needed, but it was still about a year away at that time. I basically drew the conclusion that there was no future in transitioning, and I put it out of mind.

I did ease up on myself. I didn’t come across, at that time, the idea of being genderqueer, but that’s what I did/was/tried. I did little things, like shaving all the hair off my arms and chest, that made me feel less like a boy. I had been overweight, and I really worked on myself, just before this, on losing weight, and as I lost weight, I felt light and airy and … girlish. It became quite out of control – a diagnosable eating disorder, and it probably almost killed me. But, I also connected with other people with eating disorders, and … again, I found a community of women, in which I was largely accepted as one of them (although also flirted on / hit on / etc). And, as I got thin, I got into fashion, and at that time, there were guys wearing girl jeans and so on, and … that was, again, in a very androgynous way, kind of amazing and liberating. But also unsatisfying, because I was still perceived as a man, and utterly unsuited to the role. Like camping outside heaven’s gate, faraway so close, and I was probably at my darkest emotionally in those years. I just didn’t see how I’d have a Pride and Prejudice kind of ending to my story. I didn’t want to kill myself, but I just had visions in my mind of my life… just not ending well. Thoughts of death, yes, but also the fear of living on, for a long time, miserably.

There were other revolutions. I was taking these psychology classes – living a double life as something than the good Indian engineer son my parents thought they had. Okay, this doesn’t sound rebellious to you, but you don’t come from a nice Brahmin family. It’s way more rebellious than it sounds – one of the things that contributed to my parents’ acceptance of me later, is that I have a cousin who’s a symphony conductor, and that “lifestyle choice” is way less acceptable to my family than being transgender. Anyways, whereas I was a good engineer, I found no questions I wanted to answer. I found in psychology, I could solve problems – I was good at that, and engineering education made me even better at it – but they were problems about people. Marie Curie said that, as scientists, we “must concern ourselves with things and not people.” Even though the advice came from a woman, I just couldn’t swallow it. So this was something. So, I applied for and got accepted to a clinical psychology program. I didn’t know what this neuropsychology thing was, that I was interviewing with (… with the president of the International Neuropsychological Society, I should mention, whom I told this), but he was nice to me anyways, and let me come to grad school in spite of that. So I moved to the University of Florida.

Psychology grad school was great for a “I knew by now that I was supposed to be a girl” like me. Engineering classes had one woman for every 7-8 men, back when I was at U of M, but my psychology classes were close to the opposite. More platonic kind of intense friendships. But also I started dating in earnest, finally. I fell in love… I really did feel in love, although I was acting out a character to be anyone’s boyfriend. This was also weird, because she knew about my anorexia, she knew that I liked to wear girl pants if I could get away with it (even if they looked and fit just the same as guy pants, I wanted them because they were girl pants). She mostly accepted all of that. It didn’t work out, anyways, but when I was at the University of Chicago, for internship, I dated with a vengeance – I did eHarmony and went on maybe 25 first dates. I dated one woman for a couple months, and then I dated someone for a year, into the time I moved to GR, to do my fellowship here. We broke up, again, I loved these women, but I wasn’t what they needed, and I guess I did kind of know that. I dated again here – amazingly, I was actually… appealing to women, which was also all very weird about all of this. I settled into a relationship that lasted three years. It was enough, again, to try and make it work. A lot of us think “love will cure me,” and I thought that, too. But it doesn’t, of course. So I tried, really hard, but it just wasn’t working. And living with a girlfriend really meant that I felt like my one space of privacy – not that I was doing anything at home – well, I basically felt like I had no place at all where I could be me, except maybe in my fantasy or dreams. But, I persevered. I took my job at Hope Network, in part to stay here and try to make the relationship work, and in part because it really was a fantastic opportunity (that also almost killed me!).

Finally, after all of this, as she and I were both realizing we needed to move on, I started waking up to the world around me. We live in kind of amazing times. I supported a local theatre company – Actors, go see their plays! – and they did a play called Looking for Normal. About a trans woman. And so I had season tickets, and I took guests to see it. I go to all the plays, so I didn’t know what it was about in advance. And then I’m getting uncomfortable in my seat. I’m looking around to see if anyone as obvious signs of the pitchfork they’ve got under their seat. I’m waiting for the boos and jeers. Except. There aren’t any. No, the play gets a standing ovation. Wow. So I did what any 21st century girl does. I googled. And… I found out the world I’d been hiding myself from. I found Jenny Boylan’s book, and I found out that there were transgender people who transitioned and maintained their social and professional standing. I found out that one of them – Lynn Conway – had an office in the EECS building at U of M, and I must have walked by it a thousand times in the six years I was there, without even knowing she was there. And I found out the modern truth. Transition was not really (for me) inaccessibly expensive. It was safe. It did work. And I could be me without losing things I valued about my current life. I took a deep breath, and as my girlfriend was moving out, I got ready to seriously consider transition. I found a therapist. I came out, for the first time in my life, this is last October – to one of the women I took to the play. She was a lesbian woman who had come out later in life, and who had left behind a significant part of her life to be true to herself. That first night, coming out at a coffee shop, I said something I’d never told anyone in my life – in Chicago, I paid for a therapist out of my own pocket for almost a year, and she helped me so much with my eating disorder, but I never breathed a word about my gender to her. It was amazing. She was gracious. And accepting. And not entirely surprised. I didn’t sleep a wink that night, that had felt like such a revolutionary act. I came out to other close friends. I started therapy. I went to Own Your Gender at the Network, our adult trans group.  So I was expecting maybe there would be one or two people there, and they’d think, “You aren’t trans, stop pretending,” or maybe they’d catch me out and put me on TV or something. But actually I walked into a room and saw more than 20 trans faces staring back at me. And gained a sense of confidence. A few months later, I went to First Event in Boston, and if 20 trans faces could give me confidence, imagine being around a few hundred of them.

So, anyways, in December, I came out to my boss. She took a deep breath, and said, in essence, “Okay, let’s do this. We support you.” She talked to her boss, my CEO, a day or two later, and he took a deep breath, and he said, in essence, “Okay, let’ do this. We support you.” And as I kept coming out to people, something magical happened. We estimated losses. Everyone told me there’d be losses. We calculated “acceptable casualties” that my still-vulnerable autism program could sustain. But there weren’t any. I came out one by one to the 50 families we had in therapy by this spring. I’m not going to administer a scale to them, “On a scale of 1 to 5, how much do you accept me?” But the ones that cried with me, hugged me, said, “You do your thing, you’ve got to be you,” or “we kind of know a thing or two about having a child that isn’t anything like what you expected to have, and then it turns out they’re pretty great… if we can do this, you can do this.”  I’ll count those as positives. And if they didn’t say anything, just said, “Okay, I understand, thank you, I don’t have any concerns,” I counted them as neutrals. So I had a rate of 70% positive, 28% neutral, and 2% (one person) who responded negatively. Incidentally, that one person got over herself within all of about four hours, and she and her child are still a part of my clinic. I didn’t lose professional contacts either – far from it, networking with OutPro at the GR Chamber of Commerce, I gained so many new business contacts that I scarcely have time to develop them. I got on a plane in February to come out to my parents, and I was ready, if it came to it, to sit on the curb in front of their house and call a cab back to the airport from my cell phone. To get on that plane, I had to be that ready. But they listened, and listened. Then, my dad said, “Okay, but I don’t know why you came to ask us if we accept you. Of course I accept you. You’re my child.” My dad isn’t given to dramatics, this is pretty impressive. And my mom said, “Okay, if anyone in the family has a problem with you, they have to come through me.” That’s pretty par for the course for my mommy – I get in trouble every once in a while, because you really don’t want to see what I’m like if you mess with my kids, and I get that from her. So I didn’t lose them, either When we finally did a staff meeting for my staff, to come out to the ones who didn’t know yet, HR came. I led the meeting. At the end, the HR people said they wished they could go to more staff meetings like this, because my people were so supportive and it was so easy and without tension. Get that – this crazy meeting where your boss’s boss tells you she’s really a girl… it’s the easy meeting.

And… that brought me to the end of July this year. About five months ago. I got a lot of advice to take some kind of sabbatical, but there was too much going on, and by then, I was way too much of a feminist to be “hushed away” like some pregnant daughter of a socialite. So… we did this staff meeting on a Monday morning, and we’d already arranged for a summer staff party at my house for the following Friday. Everyone said they were still coming. In December, I had made the goal of our holiday party to make them feel safe, to make them feel welcome, and to make them feel like part of the family and not just employees. In July, they returned the favor with interest. And they did so happily. And it was easy.

And here I am. A happy girl, changing the world for kids with autism by day, and the LGBT community by night.

And here I am. A happy girl, changing the world for kids with autism by day, and the LGBT community by night.

Fast forward five months, and my transition hasn’t cost me anything with my social life – it’s only made it way better. I haven’t lost friends, but I’ve gained a ton. The very worst responses I have have been mildly lacking in understanding. No one calls me names. I walk with confidence. My career hasn’t slowed down any. We still get invited to parties. I’m not saying that this is what happens. But I want to stop, and take a moment, and say that this is what happened. In Grand Rapids. At a Christian Service Agency. Where even the pastors like me. The next staff party I threw (last week) was even bigger yet. And it happened, amazingly, without a clear policy of LGBT workforce inclusion, with offices in the suburbs (where Grand Rapids’ pioneering non-discrimination ordinance doesn’t apply), and with all of us just doing our best to cobble a transition plan together without much experience in doing this. That’s surprising – in fact, we did have one prior transition happen at Hope Network, some years ago, but it did not go very well, and that makes my experience even more surprising.

Back in January, probably the fourth or fifth time I left the house in makeup, a friend called me to go out to an inclusive bar downtown (Pub 43, it’s gone now) on a cold, cold day. My friend can be kind of a downer, so I felt like I had to say yes and reward good behavior. So I put a dress on, and out I went. I walked up the rusty back stairs, trying not to fall in heels. And this person catches my eye, standing with friends, at the top of the fire escape on a smoke break. Wearing a cute little vest, tie, and pocket watch. And opens the door for me. And our eyes meet. And… I’m taken. I wasn’t looking for a woman in my life. I realized in transition I’m mostly attracted to men, which never made sense until I could get my head around the idea of being their girlfriend. But I was also happy single. And yet, here’s this butch. So I bat my eyelashes, get Teri to come over to talk to me and my friends. Turns out she’s a writer. An in. So we talk on Facebook, and I ask to read her writing (oldest trick in the book). And she’s shy, and flirty, but doesn’t ask me out on a date. So I set it up. And she almost doesn’t come – car troubles. So I pick her up. And she seems nervous. So I touch her arm, and there’s electricity. But she runs out of the car when I drop her off, and she doesn’t kiss me, and that hurts. Well, I don’t give up easily. I invite her over. I tell her, “This time, you better kiss me.” And she does. And it’s wonderful. And I can wrap my head around being a lesbian. For her. Except… our relationship doesn’t seem to stay exactly lesbian. It gets way het. She’s my prince charming. I tell her – because we’re kind of crazy about each other, I want to be your wife someday, but it doesn’t feel right, calling you my wife. But I will if that’s what you want, or partner, or what do you want? Later… quite a bit later, I find out what I kind of already knew. Teri entered my life identified as a butch lesbian, but is increasingly identifying as a trans man in queer-safe spaces, with the hopes of doing so everywhere soon. And the thing is, the really crazy thing is, that people get us. I bring him to my work Gala in November, and it’s perfectly natural. He’s chatting up the clergy and one of our board members. We’re a perfectly natural couple. And here I am at our Gala again, for the third time altogether, and for the first time, in a black dress. Which is where I belong, but now also as I belong.


Mad fierce in the photobooth at the Hope Network Annual Gala 2014

And, there it was, my Jane Austen ending starting to come true, after all. So let me use that story as an introduction into the Network. I network by temperament. So I approached transition like everything else – I built a constituency. I gauged supporters. I stacked the deck. During my transition, I wasn’t sure what would happen. We did make a hedge plan, and we almost moved to Houston. But we didn’t, because GR is where we belong. Because my autism team needs me. Because my neighborhood needs me. The Network needed me too, and asked me to join the board.

After I knew I was staying, I accepted. As I did that, I found an organization with a deep history. In 1987, a group from West Michigan went to a historic march on Washington, DC, to press for gay and lesbian rights. They came back from the march energized about sustaining that momentum here in West Michigan. In 1988, we had our first Pride. At its peak, we had probably 13,000 people at Pride. But the organization wasn’t developed or nurtured. By the time I came to it, it was in dire straits. It served maybe 150-200 people in support groups, but it wasn’t really nourishing or growing those groups. It had maybe 7,000 people still coming to Pride, but it had lost the momentum, whereas we could have the biggest pride in Michigan. We hadn’t really grown our activities to celebrate the broader LGBTQIA+ story, either, and we weren’t an effective partner really with anyone. We had a dilapidated membership, a senior leader who did not have the right skill set, and a diminished board, with capable people, but far too few of them.

I’ve turned around engineering projects. I turned around the Center for Autism. So I set to figuring out how to turn around the Network. I did a lot of happy hour conversations and power lunches. I asked a lot of people a lot of questions. And this is what I came up with.

We live in historic times. In 2004, a popular vote amended our constitution to block marriage equality. In 2014, we clearly have a majority on our side. Sure, key leaders in organizations like the Church are against us, but most of their followers are not – the Vatican may not be very LGBT-friendly, but the overwhelming majority of Catholics are. We’ve had recent setbacks, to be sure. Elliott-Larsen was not a victory for us, although we were able to stop MiRFRA in its tracks. But, the first key thing I want you to understand about re-imagining LGBT Community, is that we are on the precipice of a world in which our lives matter, and our loves matter. And that world is about to see just how much our gifts matter. Because we’re out here changing the world, already, just nobody knows it. You know it, if you’ve come to a space like an OutPro event. When you do a 360 in that space, you have to be astonished at the kind of leadership and seniority we’ve achieved across every kind of industry. The truth is, when you look at an OutPro event, you start to wonder how or if Grand Rapids could even run if it didn’t have us. We’ve got a lot to give. We are giving a lot. And we’re not just making the world better or safer for LGBT people. We’re doing it for all of us.

That’s the first thing. The second thing is that, in this world, where our lives increasingly matter, and our loves matter, and we are free to practice our gifts, it is increasingly clear that the gains we have made in the 45 years since Stonewall, have not come for everyone. There’s an ever-larger segment of stories like mine. My board president moved into a small neighborhood of affluent and powerful people. They didn’t just accept him and his husband. Because of him and his family, they came together, and the whole neighborhood is closer than it was before. At the same time, there’s a subset of LGBT people who, if you ask them, would think stories like mine or his are crazy. Because they remain severely marginalized and oppressed. Often, it’s because they are multiply marginalized. They live at the intersection of being LGBT and… being from a marginalized ethnic community, growing up in poverty, surviving abuse/neglect, surviving mental illness, etc., etc. But whatever the cause, they’re being left behind – and that disparity is growing, not shrinking. The things we’ve been doing over almost fifty years, which culminate in unheard of things like the way in which my transition has been received, they are simply not benefitting this subset, and they will predictably continue to not benefit this subset.

It’s the confluence of these two realizations that’s at the core of my proposal to reimagine LGBT community. We have to think about what LGBT community means when many of us are no longer very oppressed. When we have our rights. And we have to think about how we can change the conversation so that the movement benefits not just people like me, but all of us.

The way that I propose to do that – the leap from yesterday’s thinking about LGBT community (which is what I found at the Network), to tomorrow’s thinking, is that we need to be thinking and building, right now, a model of the LGBT community not just as an oppressed, marginalized group, but as a stakeholder minority. In the way that some of our overrepresented ethnic minority groups have done, we want to “flip the script,” and not just keep fighting for our rights, but increasingly showcase our public commitment to building vibrant and dynamic communities that are inclusive not only of us, but of everybody. I believe it’s an approach that’s uniquely suited to West Michigan. As a community, we have conservative values. We believe in economic development as the cornerstone of prosperous communities, and our communities have made key investments to leave behind the comfort of what Holland or Grand Rapids was, 20 or 30 years ago, to embrace having a future. LGBT people have a lot to give in this. And following our over-represented minority group examples, this is how we move our community into a place of entrenchment, where we’re part of the establishment, and we’re not invited to the table for scraps, but because we belong at the table.

We started on this re-imagining with the Network about two months ago. It’s early yet. But we’re investing in three strategic pillars. First, we’re going to double down on our heritage of Nurturing The Family. This means that we’re going to really enhance our groups, work to increase membership, and work to make sure the map of our groups matches the needs of the community. Right now, we have active groups for LGBT youth, the trans community, cross dressers, men’s and women’s social groups, parent support groups, and a book club. We’re going to add this year, new activities around wellness interventions for the LGBT community (in partnership with MDCH and other community centers), and a new group for people who are LGBT and experiencing mental illness or behavioral health challenges. Brand new is Our Narratives, our new educational program series. The flagship of this is a workshop that we do (actually, at our home), with small groups. We teach a structured format in which people can tell their stories, integrate their stories with the broader struggles of their community, and leverage the impact of their stories to push for change, both large and small. Outcomes data from our first session indicate that, while the people who come to the program know their own identity, they don’t know how their own struggles relate to the broader story of the LGBT community, and they don’t know how to ask for change or feel comfortable doing so. When they leave, they show significant (in one day) increases in these areas. And they’re going to build an army of advocates. We’re just starting. In January, we’re doing So You Want To Be An Ally. It’s every bit as subversive as it sounds. We’re going to make you re-think everything you thought you knew about what it means to be an ally. And when I say you, I mean all of us – because LGBT people act as allies to people in the other letters (just like I’ll never understand what it’s like to be a gay man). But the thing is, a lot of us make pretty bad allies. A lot of the time. We co-opt the movement. We want our voices to be louder than theirs. We set the expectation that the people whose allies we are place our needs above theirs – that they stop talking, and let us advocate for them. We make them stop their conversation and explain themselves to us. Over and over. And we make too many mistakes and show them too little respect. That’s not being an ally. So we’re going to teach all of us what it means to be a real ally. It’s going to be hard, and it’s going to be challenging, but we’re going to build a real Family with deep and strong roots this way.

Second, we’re going to dramatically expand how we think of Celebrating Our Diversity. Pride is a good start. We’ve got one of the best family-friendly Prides in the world. What we do best is something different from San Francisco, but we have an unparalleled space in which we can party and have a good time, out in the open, LGBT and ally like, and right in the heart of our city, where we belong. But we want to have the biggest Pride in Michigan, someday soon (it’s a friendly competition!). Some of you came to Transgender Day of Remembrance, and so this is maybe your second dose of Mira, but this is just the start of what we’re going to do here. We’re going to build a celebratory calendar throughout the year. We’re just getting started with this, and it’ll take time. But we’re going to do more to celebrate more layers of the LGBT community. We’re going to celebrate the layers many people don’t know about yet, like the asexual/aromantic community (or “Aces”). We’re going to celebrate coming out. We’re going to partner, too. Maybe you can help us create an annual event that recognizes the parents who helped make us possible (like my fierce mom!). We’re looking for partnerships to do things like celebrate LGBT figures in different ethnic groups in town, partnerships to recognize LGBT women and the contribution they make to women’s history, or LGBT businesspeople and the contribution they make to the economy, again, in partnership with the mainstream community. We’re going to use each of these events to highlight how the world is a better place not in black and white, but in all the colors of the rainbow.

Finally, we’re going to invest in something brand new, which is a radical new Engaging with Our Community. This will take a little time, but we’re starting to build an LGBT Volunteer Corps. What we’re going to do with it is instill a culture of volunteerism for the broader good, in LGBT people (because LGBT community goes beyond being gay – we’re a group of really great, passionate, engaged people). Already, whenever anything good happens in our cities, you can bet there are LGBT people involved. But no one knows it. In the future, if there’s a river cleanup, if there’s a building project, a neighborhood renovation, I want the community to count on a contingency of people in Network t-shirts to show up, LGBT people and our allies shouldering the burden alongside their neighbors.

And that’s how we win. We build a world that is better for everybody. Rather than responding to negativity from elements in, say, minority faith communities, we show solidarity with their communities, and this calls them out as they are – small minded individuals, not voices for the people. We build a world where people stop thinking of us as the next annoying group we need to give rights to (coming close on our heels, as I understand it, is people who want to marry horses), and instead, they call us when they need buy-in to make something great happen. And we stand hand-in-hand, and our solidarity creates a chain that uses this to lift all our people out, let them all come out of whatever closets they’re in, and let them walk free and proud, where they belong, at the heart of our community.

If we do all this, we don’t just dream of a future where stories like mine aren’t exceptional. We build that future. And we own it. So. That’s what we’ve been up to. That’s how we’re re-imagining LGBT community. And we need your help. We need you to be members – to take a public stand that you are an owner in great LGBT community and in a partnership to build greater, more vibrant communities. You can also support us by coming to our Gala, February 21, tickets on sale at our website, or if you’d like to talk to us about sponsorship opportunities, we have some great ones. As PFLAG, we also want you to be our partners – by finding ways to co-educate or a celebratory event put on in partnership between us.

Thank you so much for your time. Thank you so much for being allies, and for believing.

I Took My First Dose of Estrogen At A Laverne Cox Lecture

Mostly because it seemed like it’d make a good story. By way of background, when I started transition, I started seeing a therapist and going to a support group (through the fabulous Network) right away, but I didn’t really push for booking an endocrinology consult right away. There is someone decent here in town, but it turned out that I wouldn’t be able to see him until October. Also, he practices out of a diabetes group and trans health is not his primary calling. So, I did some digging and some emailing, and I settled on my second course of action, to seek care instead at the University of Michigan, which had the advantage of offering a comprehensive program. I don’t think speech therapy is my most pressing problem, but I’m going to get a consult from their SLP when I go back for my next appointment. Likewise I’m not sure it’s the surgical clinic I want, but still.

University of Michigan also maintains a great
community resource guide for trans* people

When I started support group, in hindsight somewhat foolishly, I didn’t know if I should come “en femme” the first time. I think, the second time, I wore foundation (and erm, a bra under my short trench) and went out for a drink like that after. One of the bartenders at the place we usually go to said to me, aside, when I was looking up front for someone, that he didn’t know who was what gender, but we were some of his nicest customers. After that I went to group in fairly clearly female form, and honestly, my “look” has only subtly evolved since then. Anyway, it seems in hindsight ridiculous for me to question whether it would be okay to go to a transgender support group in makeup. Mira won the same argument some four or five months later, when I had my endocrinology appointment, and I went in booties, a grey tweed skirt, white blouse, black velvet jacket (❤️ I do rather love clothes), and a faux fur bucket hat, since it was bitterly cold that day, and that hat is cuuuute. Anyway.

Endocrinology was great. The resident seemed like a nice fellow (sorry, medical joke), and the endocrinologist was excellent. They answered all my questions and got me going. Labs at the next building over confirm the testosterone in my blood (can’t wait to see the next numbers I post!). Okay, the Indian woman at the front desk, with whom I didn’t even have to communicate, really, since I got whisked back to a check in desk, was staring. I wondered if it was possibly because she hadn’t seen an Indian American trans woman, but she didn’t say anything, and she apparently stared at a trans man who came in later, and possibly also at my girlfriend (neither of whom are Indian Americans). Whatever, kind of odd, considering that a significant number of trans people come to see the doctor, and we rather pay her salary. But okay. I can tolerate staring, and I’ll be ready for her when I go back. In grad school, long before I took transition seriously, I got accused of working a room like a sorority girl, and forget you, if you think I make a timid woman.

If you haven’t met her, Laverne is radiant. Seriously.
And when anyone preaches bell hooks, I listen.

Anyway, this was a Monday, and I took the day off to drive across the state to the appointment. Tuesday I went into work, and GVSU was hosting Ms. Cox that night – it had been on my calendar for weeks. No time to go home and change (and the place was packed; I wouldn’t have had a seat if I had). A trans woman friend yelled, “Hey, Mira!” across the room, and I had a momentary panic, but the moment passed. I had been able to stop at the pharmacy on the way there, so I brought in my pills (in a baggie with cookies from Subway!), and I got to dose next to a fellow trans person, also taking their evening dose, and surrounded by tons of my own queer friends and literally hundreds of people out to embrace and support our sister Laverne.

And, damn, did that lecture not sound like sweetest symphony on estradiol? And, as she quoted Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a woman?” Nice way to start a chapter in my story.


Do Social Networks Drive Autism Underemployment?

This is an historical post from an earlier blog, Adopted Son of the Autism Family, which I had before this current blog. It is re-posted without modification (other than this introductory sentence).

This is a quick thought of the day, with apologies for good, solid blog posts being lacking from me over the past few weeks. Then again, it’s too much for me to squeeze into a tweet, and my mother thinks my blog posts are too long, so perhaps this will appeal to her!

Take a look at this NYT Blog.

NYT Opinionator blog post from today

NYT Opinionator blog post from today

They advance a very interesting idea that social networks function to extend and strengthen the secret connections that keep the wealthy (and dominant racial/ethnic/cultural groups) enfranchised. They do it by enhancing the ability of “who you know” to overpower “what you know” in being the person picked for the desirable job that becomes a great career or a stepping stone. It makes a lot of sense, since social networks allow easy access across strata of society to people, as long as they have the right connections (for instance, I routinely tweet with people who have 1/10 or 1/100th as many followers as me, or 10x or 100x as many followers as me, and we have a two-way interchange, although primarily because we are connected by the Autism Family). Without the right connections, however, Facebook, Twitter, and the like, are just as closed a door as any that existed before social networking.

We already know that people with autism are unemployed and underemployed compared to other people at their cognitive levels. This spans across the Spectrum — cognitively impaired autistic people are much less likely to work than people with MR without autism. High functioning autistic people with college degrees or graduate degrees are also less likely to work than their “neurotypical” peers. I talk to parents all the time about the fact that much of this has to do with people with autism struggling to read the unwritten messages and follow the unwritten rules in job searches. They rock out in their classes and get high grades, but they don’t talk to their professor or their peers about their interests. They don’t engage their departments to parlay their interests and academic success into internships, volunteering opportunities, and entry level jobs. This is all about unwritten rules and networking. Are we overlooking one of the most powerful tools thus far in the 21st century, in the form of these social networking sites, and what they may be able to do for autistic people?

We know (look at my timeline on Twitter, or check out the #AutismFlashFollow or #autismbullying hashtags!) that we have people with autism thriving on social media, as well as some who engage in it but are not engaged back. Maybe we need to think more constructively about helping people with autism develop social links on social media that are likely to generate jobs (because they may not automatically engage in using social media this way). Maybe the broader autism family needs to help build those links between people with autism on social media and the decision makers and other people who hold the keys to these invisible doors. What do you think? And if you’re an autistic person, have you used social media to land a job? Would you?