Coming up: An Aging Rainbow

I’m so sorry I’ve been away from blogging as I’ve been building my business and serving clients across the country. I’m catching my breath from a wonderful but quick trip out to Cedar Rapids, IA, to work with some wonderful organizations there, including my friends at Tanager Place. If you’re a Grand Rapids, colleague, and you’re involved in elder care, please come see this great event I’m doing with Caregiver Resource Network, a service of the Area Agency on Aging of West Michigan and so many other wonderful partners.

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A New Kind of Sustainability Crisis: Eliminating Minority Stress to Grow and Nurture Truly Sustainable Communities

The following lecture (sorry, this is long, about 7,500 words in several segments) was delivered as the 2016 Elizabeth Lockwood Wheeler Lectureship at Central Michigan University, on Wednesday, April 20, 2016. Thank you so much to Dr. Leah Markel, Eta Sigma Gamma, and the entire CMU Public Health department for the privilege of discussing this topic with you.

What is sustainability and what does it have to do with embracing difference?

Tonight, I want to push you to think about the embracing of difference as not just a social justice issue, but as truly an immensely under-considered public health issue, and an untapped reservoir for public health initiatives that can build better community health, both in the sense of making individual people in communities healthier, but also in the sense of making the community, as a gestalt, healthier.

Multiethnicity

Communities with room for all kinds of faces are better communities (Photo: Fotolia)

I hope that what I can do is not teach you public health, but rather to contextualize your work in this area, and maybe even convince you that your field is important in ways you haven’t thought very much about. Continue reading

My Public Testimony on the Proposed Michigan Board of Education Guidance for Serving LGBTQ Students

I had the opportunity last week to speak briefly, on television, about inclusion of LGBTQ students, particularly focusing on transgender students. This comes in the context of a draft guidance from our state Board of Education, and I want to share more detailed thoughts on that topic.

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Thank you so much to WOOD TV 8 for having me out to discuss the need for schools that are safe and empowering for all Michigan kids

Below is the text of my public comment on the Michigan Board of Education’s Draft Statement and Guidance on Safe and Supportive Learning Environments for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) Students (you can read the guidance here). Public comments are being accepted through May 11, 2016, and if you have something to say, I strongly encourage you to speak. You can make your comment and read comments here.

Dear esteemed members of the Michigan Board of Education,

Thank you for the opportunity to comment publicly on your draft Guidance on Safe and Supportive Learning Environments for LGBTQ Students.

I bring two perspectives. First, I am a neuropsychologist and have dedicated my career to empowering at risk youth, including advocating alongside and on behalf of youth in the welfare system, traumatized youth, and neurologically different youth. From this perspective, I firmly embrace and recognize your important point that Michigan will not be a leader state in education as long as the message is sent that, in school, “open season” is observed on some groups of at-risk children. Your guidance sends a clear message that LGBTQ students matter, and that they are worthy of respect and dignity in Michigan schools.

Second, I am a transgender woman. I did not come out when I was in school – in fact I came out just about two years ago. Like many young people who are increasingly being open about their gender and sexual identities, part of my reasoning in coming out was that, by owning my whole identity, I could be more authentic. This has helped me be a better fiancée to my fiancé, a better neighbor, a better psychologist, and a better community member, because I bring my whole self to my work, advocacy, and play. But importantly, like many young people coming out, a very important second reason is that I wanted to use my visibility and privilege to, in taking a public stance and being “out,” help make the world a safer place for at risk youth. My childhood was significantly affected by in school bullying and victimization. I was able to receive support and rise beyond this. However, for many vulnerable students, this cycle leads to increased days of school missed because they do not feel safe in school, poor academic performance, dropping out, and getting caught up in pipelines that lead to negative outcomes in young adulthood.

I have had the opportunity to integrate my two perspectives. Here in Michigan, I serve as a board member of Equality Michigan. Nationally, I have been involved in policy development for serving LGBTQ youth at the Association of Children’s Residential Centers, where I am a board advisor, and I am also co-chair of the Committee for Transgender People and Gender Diversity at the American Psychological Association. In these settings, I have had the opportunity to review many model policies and guidances from schools and governing bodies, and this gives me confidence in saying that the guidance you are proposing is very consistent with national and international best practice in serving LGBTQ youth.

I hope I don’t need to tell you what I suspect, from these excellent guidelines, you already know. There is simply no evidence, from the many, many schools that already implement policies that are informed by guidance like yours, that this policy creates room for new victimization. Indeed, it merely acts to eliminate victimization already happening. We know this not just from outside of Michigan, but from many Michigan school districts that quietly, in service of creating schools where all Michigan kids belong, have already implemented policies that significantly mirror your guidance. Nor, of course, do guidances like yours create a situation in which LGBTQ students receive preferential treatment – indeed, we as LGBTQ Michiganders just want to be treated like anyone else.

In summary, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart and recognize you for setting forth a high quality guidance that brings international best practice to Michigan, and which will help Michigan schools in their path towards being consistently the best in the world, for all kinds of children, which is precisely what all Michigan children deserve.

 

Changing the Conversation: Re-Defining LGBT Community Values

The following is a speech I gave at the Cadillac, MI Pride, yesterday (August 22, 2015). Cadillac is a town about two hours away from Grand Rapids by car. Its population is about 10,000, although it serves as a hub for rural, outlying communities. Thank you so much to Karen Prieur, David Roosa, Tiffany Robinson, and everyone at Cadillac Pride for having Teri and me out!

The bandstand was actually right on Lake Cadillac, with the audience facing the water. Which was really pretty!

The bandstand was actually right on Lake Cadillac, with the audience facing the water. Which was really pretty!

Good afternoon! My name is Mira Krishnan, and I’m so happy to be visiting with you today from Grand Rapids. I want to ask you to share a little bit of your time on this wonderful day with me, to talk about what Pride really means, and what it means to embrace and celebrate, instead of fear or loathe, diversity. To do that, I’d like to start by telling you just a little bit about my personal story. I could go on for this entire time about me, but I do that a lot. Rather than just talk about me, I want to tell you about me more briefly, to provide you context, and talk about some other things.

Probably some of you in the audience today know a trans person. But, I’m guessing, many of you have never met one of us before, or really gotten to know us. That’s important. We know that a majority of Americans who know a trans person – 66% – support trans rights, but that only 16-20% have met us*. That does make me an ambassador, because I want you to join the “know a trans person” group. Don’t worry, if you’re already there, I think I have a few things for you, too.

I represent one trans story. The story I represent has a simple moral: being trans can be a wonderful thing. Although, like most trans people, I “knew” since I was little, I didn’t come out to anyone until just a little less than two years ago. That first time, I was really aware of the risk that coming out entailed. I practiced what I would say. I didn’t sleep all night after that first time I came out. Similarly, coming out to my company was scary. Coming out to my parents was scary. But for me, what magically happened, is every single person of importance in my life, embraced me. Every single one. That really meant something.

I went fully public in July of last year – it’s just been 13 months, and it has continued to be like this – not only does no one object, but over and over and again, people tell me that they understand me better now, feel closer to me. I see in their faces that they take pride of ownership in my success. Good people – and I believe most people are  good, with some occasional help – they use the way they respond to new situations as a way to learn to be more good. That kind of unanimous, unambiguous support and love has really changed a lot of things for me. It’s been what some people call a virtuous circle: as their responses got better and better, my coming out experience got simpler and simpler, and more and more authentic. In the Bible, it’s written as, “Iron sharpens iron.”

Thanks to that kind of support, I don’t doubt if I’m a woman any more. I just am a woman. I don’t use apologetic or defensive language. This might be new to you. For me, I reject the notion that I am now or have ever been anything other than female (and nobody really argues with me). I’m not almost as good as anything; I’m amazing. I wasn’t born in the wrong body; I was born in just the right body. And I don’t apologize for being trans – I rejoice in it. That first night I came out, I planned and I planned, and I thought about all the details. Now, when I come out, it’s pretty much, “I’m trans. Get over it.” And people do! That comes from people not just accepting me, but embracing me.

And that means I get to focus on things that really matter, and say, maybe surprisingly, that being trans (in contrast) is actually kind of boring. Let me take a quick pause there. One theme that comes up, over and over again, is allies asking for education. I love that. You might feel, though, at this point, I’m not educating you, because I’m not talking about all the “stuff” – hormones and medications, gender marker changes, surgeries, clothes – that you think of, when you think of transness. This is not mistake nor oversight. You think you need to know the wrong things. Unless you’re trans, or a healthcare provider or close family member helping a trans person make decisions, this stuff really is not what you need to know. That’s like, when people want to get to know black people, my friends point out, we always want to, you know, touch their hair or know how they make their hair look like it looks. That’s really, seriously, don’t be touching people’s hair, it’s creepy, but it’s also wrong-headed, because what they’re telling you when they’re saying not to touch their hair, is that that’s not how you get to know them. Talking about this “stuff,” is not how you get to know us. I am telling you the important stuff. And it is kind of boring, because although there’s a richness in our trans experience, we are diverse creatures in a diverse world.

Let me tell you what's not boring!

Let me tell you what’s not boring!

So, you might ask, what isn’t boring? Let me tell you what isn’t boring. For me, personally, I’ve gotten to spend the last four years building a world-class Center for Autism, at Hope Network, my base camp for changing the world, back in Grand Rapids. We get to change kids lives, and we’ve been building life changing therapies at a quality level you just couldn’t get, and often still can’t get, around here. And I’ve gotten to help waves of young clinicians develop their skills – not just creating dozens of full time jobs with good wages and benefits but building and launching dozens of careers.

What else isn’t boring? Right in the beginning of my coming out process, wobbling still, as I walked in my true identity, I met Teri, my Prince Charming. I got to see that, at least once in a rare, rare while, love at first sight is real. And although everlasting love can take work, we’re up for it. Last summer, about this time of year, Teri came out to me, as a trans man. That makes us the strangest hetero couple maybe you’ve ever seen, but I say also the cutest. Two months ago, he proposed, and I look forward to spending happily ever after with him, although you know, that’ll be a lot of work, because happy ever after is something you’re not totally just given – it’s something for which you fight.

And finally, what else that isn’t boring, my advocacy life has blossomed. I don’t have to advocate for feminist movement while denying my own womanhood, any more. I’ve made so many friends in the women’s and LGBT movements. I’ve gotten to speak alongside amazing speakers, and like everything we do out in the community, feel like, when I get invited to talk to people, I learn so much that I’m the one getting away like a bandit.

That’s my trans experience. It’s not a lot of things. I don’t represent all trans people. I’m what we sometimes  call “binary” – meaning my identity fits much more closely to the male/female gender binary than some people’s do (I’m a feminist, radical down to my roots, so don’t worry, I rock the boat a little too, and I challenge for sure all the things people say girls and women can’t do). But, people tend to react to me with, “Well, if you’re trans, whatever that is, it doesn’t sound very interesting,” and I recognize that I evoke that response more than a lot of other trans people. But while non-binary identities, genderqueer or gender fluid people, may seem more “exotic” to you, they’re actually really cool, regular people, too, and I hope you get to meet them, and they’re not as different or other-worldly as you might fear. For all the things my trans experience is not, my trans experience shows one thing I need you to know. That one thing is: being trans, and loving a trans person (like my guy), can be delightful. Not just survivable, not just okay. It can be a privilege – I’m lucky to get to be who God made me, and I’m lucky to get to love who God gave me to love.

Trans people, before, during, and after they come out, can live joy filled lives, and when we embrace them, and give them room, sometimes they can really fly.

Beautiful cinema vérité moment – performer dancing with two little children wearing Pride tees. This is actually what it's all about. Little kids get it.

Beautiful cinema vérité moment – performer dancing with two little children wearing Pride tees. This is actually what it’s all about. Little kids get it.

There’s a catch. What’s so important about this event is that what can happen is not what always happens. You knew that. You didn’t need me to say it. But I am saying it. This relates closely to the next thing I want to talk about: a much broader notion of diversity, within our LGBT community and allies, and also a much broader notion of what it means to advocate for a world that embraces gender and sexual diversity, and finally, a broader notion of Pride.

A big part of the reason my life has been so great, is something called privilege. Privilege is all the things that make my life easier, but I didn’t earn them. Privilege, for me, is coming from a middle class, highly educated family, which meant that I very naturally slid into being highly educated and affluent, myself. Privilege has always kept me in safe neighborhoods. Privilege means being able to access the best resources, easily, whether they’re anywhere here in Michigan, or anywhere else in the nation or the world.

Privilege is a big part – maybe the biggest, but not the only part – of what makes my life so easy and so wonderful. And I didn’t earn it. This is the first kind of diversity I want to talk about. Opposite privilege – that advantage I didn’t earn that makes life easy for me – is marginalization – the disadvantages that I didn’t ask for, and I don’t control, that make my voice less hearable and block my agency.

I started this by telling you about my privilege. If you’re familiar with this idea of privilege, and particularly if you’re, oh, I don’t know, white, straight, male, maybe you might be surprised that I’m the one talking about my privilege. And you should turn to the person next to you, who’s not straight, and get them to notice, too. That’s right. A lot of us the visible, hearable LGBT voices come from highly privileged gay people.

This is why you’ll hear more and more outspoken advocates in the community, like me, shift and balance so that we’re not just talking about, say, trans rights, but we’re also talking about how black lives matter (even if we’re not black). We’re talking about how, and to whom, and when they don’t matter. Which is precisely why we need the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This is a big change – you look around Pride events, and usually, there aren’t too many Latino or Black faces in the crowd. That’s what happens in Grand Rapids. That’s what happens, entirely too often, throughout LGBT community. And if we’re really talking about a world where gay people matter, then we need to be talking about gay people who are Latino or Black. To give you an example, you might have heard about the epidemic of violence against trans people. This year, we believe twenty hate murders in the US have occurred, already, and there’s a quarter of the year left. These are hate crimes, although the law doesn’t always recognize them that way (here in Michigan, it doesn’t). What you may or may not know, is that here in the US, the lives lost are almost always black and Latina trans women. So if we’re real about ending this, we have to be more cognizant about this. We have to realize, for instance, I’m not the one whose life is in danger – even if that statement isn’t always popular among my non-Black/Latina trans family members. You hear this same story again and again – the vast majority of all violence against LGBT people motivated by intolerance of their gender/sexual identities, is against black and Latino LGBT people, and we can’t fix that if we’re not honest about it.

The other major shift we need to make is talking about poverty and how it relates to the LGBT community. The visible image of us, all too often, is a limited image of a small segment of us – you know, the stereotypical young, pretty, toned, gay men on a yacht. They have a lot of disposable income. They know all the best places to get brunch**. They’re the kind of person your business wants as a customer, and the kind of person you want as your new gay best friend. Right? I mean, yes, I know people who actually fit that stereotype (and I fit too closely to that set, myself). But that’s not a representation of the whole LGBT community. While many of us have high earnings, many more are highly impoverished. They might have the education, the talent, the skills, but they can’t get the job. Or they might have had their chances cut off way before all of that, when they were just kids. And here in Michigan, where you can get married on Saturday and fired the next Monday for being LGBT, that’s a big deal.

Cadillac Pride, and Prides like it, are particularly important, because we’ve got to recognize that every queer person does’t live in San Francisco or Manhattan or London. Right? We’re everywhere. The Network brought Pride to Grand Rapids, from Washington, D.C., a little less than 30 years ago. Because it turned out that there were gay people in Grand Rapids, too, not just big cities. And that same message goes to the importance of not just the legacy they left us in Grand Rapids, but what you are building here in Cadillac, and also how we reach out to all those little communities up here, you know, the ones that think of Cadillac as the “big city,” and look at you like you’re city slickers? Yeah, it turns out, they can be gay just as easily as you or I can. But they can’t get resources as easily as we can. And we need to support them better.

The second kind of diversity I want to talk about is what it means to truly embrace and celebrate people who are different from “us.”

At the Network, in Grand Rapids, in partnership with MDCH and organizations throughout Michigan, one of the exciting things we’re working on is talking about LGBT wellness. We’re starting with smoking cessation. What? Well, smoking kills more LGBT people than hate does. And while there are still people out there who do hate us, the tobacco companies love us. They’ve been studying for decades how to get minorities and gay people to smoke and keep them as loyal customers. You know, like, to the grave. It’s time to remind them, we don’t die easy. And that’s just a start in a broader message that we have to take care of our own community in order to be able to take care of our towns and cities. At the Network, you’re going to hear us talk more and more about health and wellness for LGBT people. At the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, we launched Our LGBT Fund last year, with more than $350,000 committed so far. What are we going to do with it? Help support the most vulnerable LGBT people. 40% or more of homeless youth are LGBT or questioning, and it’s time to say NO MORE, and engage to help families of LGBT youth stay intact, help parents through their children’s coming out, end the practice of kicking kids out of the home because they’re different (this isn’t some hypothetical situation – it didn’t happen to me, but it did to my fiancé). And if LGBT youth do become homeless, these are kids who hold our society’s future in their hands, not refuse to be thrown away, and even though they’re more likely to be homeless, the system often doesn’t accept or help them, because they’re different. We’re going to put an end to that.

Those are two different takes on diversity. Here’s a third. Back to Pride. Be proud. Don’t come up to me and apologize – I don’t want to hear it, and I’d much rather be your friend than hear your apology. Yes, I, like a lot of LGBT people, I do struggle with being one of the “lucky” ones, survivor’s guilt. But I’m here. And you’re here, and you’ve made a choice to be a part of this family. Be proud of it. Whether you’re gay or straight, Pride belongs to you – it’s a birthright – if you are invested in a world that celebrates difference instead of fearing it. And although the sexual and gender diversity you straight people bring to the table may not be as visible as what we bring to the table, diversity belongs to you, too. Being heterosexual is a sexual orientation. Being cisgender is a gender identity. It’s okay to own yours, even if it isn’t like mine.

So thank you for giving me the opportunity, especially those of you who’ve never met a trans person before, to let you get to know me. And please, stay in touch. Come talk to me and to Teri. Connect with me, if you’d like, online – my blog is at miracharlotte.com and you can even hear Teri and I tell a part of our story in an audio excerpt I’ve got there from StoryCorps. You’re very welcome to find me on Facebook, etc., too, and stay connected that way. And please keep being a part of embracing pride in gender and sexual diversity, and making the world better for all of us, straight or queer, by making it more inclusive of all of us. Thank you.

* I said 61% from stage, sorry! Well, the numbers are approximate, anyways.

** Right now, it’s TerraGR, people. But that’s really not the point of this story.

Utilization Management and Trans Healthcare

This is a quick post – I posted the following comments in response to a post by Trans-Ponder on Facebook. They, in turn, posted an article by Alyssa Jackson for CNN, “The high cost of being transgender.” Since my comment was longish, I wanted to preserve it here on my blog (so, like some other recent posts, this is one of those “too long to just leave as a FB reply” posts).

Let me start by saying that I am unequivocally for a future (1) where a wide variety of trans experiences are embraced, and (2) where transition related healthcare (e.g., therapy, hormones or other medications, and surgical interventions) that some (not all) trans people choose is readily available to trans people irrespective of their socioeconomic status. My basis for a belief in a future of this kind is first, and foremost, because trans people are and have been around for a long time, and society needs to get used to it. Second, transition related healthcare is clearly safe and effective (viz. this and this and this and this and a million other reviews and studies, including the extensive data synthesized in WPATH’s position).

I am, for better or worse, also a healthcare expert, and I’ve been involved in discussions of making changes to reimbursability and enhancing access to services for underserved populations (in my day world of preschoolers with autism – I don’t provide trans healthcare). This doesn’t make me a leading expert in this conversation, although I know many of the leading experts, and I’ve talked with most of them about all this in some depth. It’s noteworthy, to me, as well, that none of them are quoted in this article, and that HRC, NCTE, and other leading voices that have done and synthesized the healthcare utilization research, are not quoted, either, in the context of cost, although relevant voices are quoted in the context of risk, e.g., with respect to suicide in our people.

The CNN article includes some real-world reports of trans people and their healthcare choices, although it only includes examples that appear to be significantly above the typical (e.g., +/- 1SD) spend for transition related healthcare.

The CNN article includes some real-world reports of trans people and their healthcare choices, although it only includes examples that appear to be significantly above the typical (e.g., +/- 1SD) spend for transition related healthcare.

From a healthcare utilization / healthcare sustainability standpoint, there’s a lot of problematic content in this article. The large (it quotes $140,450 for trans women and $124,400 for trans men) estimates cited in the article are for combinations of procedures that almost no patient ever chooses – note that the Philadelphia center cited for this data includes a wide variety of services, including blepharoplasty and rhinoplasty for trans men*. It appears to achieve its totals by literally adding every procedure together, even when these procedures cannot be done in conjunction. For instance, it adds the fee for an upper and lower blepharoplasty to the fee for a single, upper or lower blepharoplasty – this doesn’t make any sense – the second, lower fee is included in the list for someone who needs / chooses to only have one pair of eyelids, the upper or lower, done, and not the other. It likewise, for trans men, combines the costs of three different chest reconstructive procedures that all achieve the same outcome, and likewise, different, alternative bottom surgery procedures for trans men (that is, in each of these respective cases, any given man can do one of these things, but not all of them at the same time).

This is important because the figures cited in this work (which is on CNN, and thus has the potential to garner a lot of attention as well as remain part of the conversation over time) are starkly in contrast with data gathered in a rigorous manner by the people who’ve been most invested in moving us to the kind of future I want. Let’s start with San Francisco, the first US city to offer trans health care to all residents.

Note that the 2001-2006 San Francisco data had methodological limitations with respect to the per claimant spend (that is, they didn’t know how many unique claimants there were across the five year period, because they didn’t know how many claimants had also been a claimant in a prior year), but the reasonable median estimate was around $25k per claimant over five years, and the high estimate was $64k, well below the $75k cap imposed** in that model program. This is consistent with the long-term, multi-source data that converges on the result that the cost per covered life for an insurance plan (or employer) is very low (figures come out at in the neighborhood of $0.17 per covered life), as long as there is a medium or larger group of covered lives. The cost in San Francisco’s case, when they went through the first wave of making access available to the city’s own employees, was so low, that they famously stopped collecting an offset surcharge because they didn’t need the money.

We live in a world where, one way or another, care is utilization managed. I’m all for flexibility that allows for serving rare cases where transition related health costs are very high. More to the point, $25k is still out of reach for a large segment of the population – for instance the recent NYT article from a couple of days ago cites the median net worth of 18-34 year-olds as just $10,400, making the difference between $25,000 or $30,000 total costs and the unrealistic figures purported by CNN really irrelevant to an affordability conversation.

Similarly, when one looks at other successful attempts to systematically change access, such as the success we’ve had providing ABA therapy to children with autism (which I mentioned because I’ve been directly involved, in my small way), family costs of $25,000-50,000 are generally accepted by the public and by legislators as costs that “most Americans” cannot bear. So, we don’t need inflated estimates suggesting that trans people are commonly spending $80,000 or $150,000 on services, to win the coverage we want to see, both because people don’t have the smaller amounts of money, to begin with, and, importantly, everybody gets that.

The contrary risk is simple: the higher we make these costs out, especially when not borne out by data, the more reticent stakeholders will be to make these important changes.

With respect to reasonably feasible alternatives, outside of very large, high profit industries (the kind already scoring 100 on the CEI and already providing access to care), the alternative also, we have to consider, is an alternative that somehow tries to measure “objectively” the basis, e.g., on pre-procedure dysphoria level for the patient, and that kind of gatekeeping is deeply problematic for the trans community as well as for our providers. The last thing we want is a system where trans people have to be miserable (or pretend to be miserable if, like me, they are really happy) in order to access services. But if we walk into this argument citing astronomical cost bases, I am very concerned that this is where we might end up.

As the public, a lot of my friends believe firmly in a “no gatekeeping” model. But, the reality is that medical care provided in a congregate funding model – Medicaid, Medicare, insurance, universal health care systems like NHS, hybrid public/private systems – is gatekeeped in one way or another. Although the reality is that the biggest cost drivers, especially in the developed world, are not things like trans healthcare (or autism or any other area where we’re fighting for access), but “boring” things – note that in this review of nine drivers of increasing American healthcare costs, the only disease / problem / disorder / population centric things that even make the list are “lifestyle” diseases (being gay isn’t a lifestyle disease – this is talking about the effects of things like sedentary lifestyle, bad diet, smoking, etc.) and end-of-life care. Nonetheless, it’s flashier to pretend like extending healthcare to critical, impactful areas like trans healthcare (which can prevent the staggering loss to suicide in our population and which clearly provides improved quality of life) is the problem. And this is politics – it isn’t about what’s right, but about what’s perceived.

So let’s tell our story clearly, and not misrepresent our situation in a way that reduces our likelihood of getting the help we need.

*  I don’t even know an example of someone choosing those procedures as part of transition, for instance, as a trans man – I’m not saying it isn’t done, but I’ve never met a trans man who had these procedures done as part of transition, and I have been paying attention, both so that I am generally a better advocate and an ally, and of course because I am rather engaged to marry a trans man, myself.

** In fairness, it is worth noting that median and mean figures belie ranges. They are still important – because when you are looking at large groups of insured people, one must estimate actual costs in a given year across the entire population, and these costs can be used to effectively make these estimations. The range does vary, and this is important with respect to how these access policies are set up. And back to fairness, one should note at this point that San Francisco initially capped services at $50,000 and then moved the cap up to $75,000.

Authenticity as the Sine Qua Non of the Trans Success Story, and the Virtuous Cycle of Narratives Informing Lives

I’d like to try and draw together some thoughts that evolved during dinner with a friend at Philly Trans Health Conference, over the weekend. She and I are two very different, but similarly very happy trans women. This topic of happy trans people is established as one of importance to me. I want to move our happiness from a privilege, from luck, to birthright and expectation for our people*. Much like I want to make a world where people are proud to be autistic, where society recognizes the immense gift it is given in the form of the autism family, I want to make a world where LGBT (and particularly T) people aren’t just safe, but we are truly proud.

Proud as Proud Can Be... and you can click on the flag to buy trans pride stuff from randomflyingpidgeons!

Proud as proud can be… and you can click on the flag to buy trans pride stuff from randomflyingpidgeons!

In pursuit of this goal, I made my friend, Kelly, really think during dinner**. I wanted her to evaluate, critically, what it means to be a woman*** – beyond being addressed or seen correctly by others, and certainly beyond wearing a dress or heels, and granting that our identities as women are diverse, beautifully heterogenous, and ever evolving, what did it mean to her that she was a woman? She was a little surprised at how hard it was for her to answer this question.

I asked her a second critical question – not to push her or distress her, but because I think the answer is central to our cause. Why was she happy? And if the first question was hard, the second question was far more difficult.

One piece of extremely worrisome data I want to bring into this conversation is the subset of suicides, particularly of trans youth, that have arisen recently and that explicitly do not seem to look or functional like marginalization, lack of acceptance, or oppression stories. More than a few trans youth have killed themselves in the recent past (like Kyler from San Diego), who had parents who loved, accepted, and celebrated them. Who had solid, if not world-class access to transition-related medical services. Who had schools that celebrated them – one of them was Homecoming King – and who were in at least some cases pretty well-integrated into their communities. Who do not seem to have been experiencing a lot of traumatization by way of bullying or other victimization. I think we need to stop and question why these kids are dead, and how we failed to do anything about it. And we have to recognize that just acceptance – people recognizing one’s gender identity, people supporting one’s name or pronouns, access to school, employment, accommodations – doesn’t seem to always be enough.

This is Istanbul's 2011 Pride... the change is global! (Source: Wikimedia)

This is Istanbul’s 2011 Pride… the change is global! (Source: Wikimedia)

Moreover, trans acceptance, and LGBT acceptance more broadly, is not a static picture. It has changed dramatically just in the recent history – the stuff that happened since Stonewall – and it is changing at a breathtaking, accelerating rate every day. What is the quality of evidence that acceptance is reducing suicidality in our community?

I want to propose an answer to my own question. I cannot provide an evidence basis for it, but it is consistent with my base of anecdotal evidence. I’ve quickly had the privilege not just to become a happy trans person, but to get to know a lot of happy trans people, in fact many of the most influential ones, and even to share my very life with one. And I’d like to hypothesize based on my experience of them and myself. My hypothesis is that every happy trans person begins their process of authenticity with a sincere, internal step of self-acceptance. I mean real self-acceptance. They enter transition or coming out, knowing and deciding to learn to love, who they are. They do this first, and every subsequent decision in their authenticity process derives directly from this internal conviction – a conviction not just in the truth of their gender identity, but in the goodness and rightness of their gender identity. And, this is really important, they enter into coming out and transition happy. Really happy. Although they may gain confidence, surety, ease, from things like their name or pronouns, or from transition-related medical services, they neither seek nor obtain wholeness from them. They don’t, in fact, need to seek wholeness from anything, for they enter this process with it.

Marya is amazing. So thankful for sisters like this one. Source: Mark Trockman / trockstock.com

Marya is amazing. So thankful for sisters like this one. Source: Mark Trockman / trockstock.com

When I was in the throws of surviving anorexia, like many other anorectics, I found a lot in Marya Hornbacher’s words. Her Wasted has this phrase**** all the “ana’s” knew by heart: “If I eat this apple sandwich in precisely twenty bites, no more no less, I will be happy.” We repeat a similar mantra, over and over again, as trans people, and it’s sheer and utter nonsense. If I just have the facial features I think I want, I will be happy. If I just have a vagina, or I don’t have a uterus anymore or, …, I will be happy. If I have a beard, I will be happy. If I get pronouned correctly, I will be happy. If I “pass,” I will be happy. And we continually defer happiness to some future that never seems to come. Recovery from anorexia depended (for me) crucially on rejecting the idea that I would be happy if I just lost another one, two, ten pounds, and not just because I had gone far, far beyond the place where I had ten pounds to lose.

In Christianity, there is a rift between evangelistic and liberation theologies, in that the one is interested in finding deferred happiness in heaven, and the other is interested in helping people be well and whole. The rift is old, and deep, not just in Christianity, but far beyond it. The Christ who overturned tables, fed masses, cured the sick, and befriended the harlot, is alongside the apostle, in the same New Testament narrative, who cared less for what is good and what is evil, and cared more for what is right, and what is wrong. Before that, the God that demanded the Israelites strike down their enemies and leave no survivors was the same God that demanded grapes be left on the vine for the poor and the stateless, again, the one a question of rightness and the other a question of goodness. And on it goes back, turtles astride turtles, and we are forever, the serpent and the sons of Adam, at odds, the one striking at the other’s heel, and the other smashing one’s head*****. It plays out far beyond Christianity, and it is deeply enmeshed in the way we live.

And this is where I bring to the trans community not an answer, but the right framework to find that answer. We are failing these fallen siblings of ours, trans youth and trans adults, not just because we haven’t won complete acceptance and inclusion for our kind, but because we have not taught nor empowered each other to find our identities, to take that internal step of self-acceptance that allows for and necessarily precedes the pursuit of authenticity, and in so doing, we do more than just put the cart before the horse. We kill our own kind by selling them a dream that can never succeed.

So how do we stop? How on earth do we not just stop selling this absurdism that transition or coming out experiences, in themselves, can make anybody happy?

My thoughts from dinner that night, over margaritas and excellent Mexican food, link me back now to a video that I helped do for my beloved Actors Theatre, a couple of months ago. In it, I discussed a virtuous cycle between art and life, where life inspires ever greater, more true, more honest art, and art in turns drives us towards our own truths and our own authenticities, making us better people. This is the kind of art that Actors does, and I believe desperately that this is something of which people need far more.

I am far from done in figuring this puzzle out. But my first answer to this question is that we, as visible trans people, must think of our trans visibility, our stories, our narratives, as participating in a similar virtuous cycle with all the life experiences of the trans-gentry******. If we tell stories that are focused on how far we take transition, or how much external acceptance we gain or take, we will instead participate in a vicious cycle, in which we will press our own people ever farther from the thing that could save their lives. So rather, we must tell stories of authenticity, of identity, not because others could ever take on our identities*******, but because, as iron sharpens iron, as life and art lift each other up, our authenticity and identity stories will push our people higher and elevate them in their pursuit of the self-acceptance that presages being a happy trans person.

That’s my theory. I’m all for gathering supporting data, but I’m not going to wait, because this is life and death, and as one of that minority of really, truly, madly, deeply happy trans people, I’ve got to do something. While happiness remains a privilege, like any other privilege, I need to use it not just for me but for making the world a better place.

* Consider this also a shot across the bow of those people (you know who you are) who think that misery is at the heart of trans activism, and who reject any trans person who is happy. I view happiness like I view footnotes. I put it out there until you quite consider it over the top, and then I put it out there some more. The next shot will be between the eyes, my darlings, for I am out to get your worldview.

** I also made her change our plans and go to a place where I could get reservations, because you know, that process of walking around until you find a place to eat is what leads the world to eat at TGIFridays, and life is far too short. And excellent Mexican food came with Mexican revolution – there was a handwritten sign propped in the glass above the door calling for social justice in Mexico. Thank you for that, my darling Kelly.

*** Make no mistake… this ownership of what makes a woman is the principle bullet of exclusionary feminism movements. Although I respectfully agree with these women that women are a wonderfully diverse people who defy simple definition, and the seat of our definition is not in our cleavage, our hips, our dresses or makeup or any of those kinds of things, I continue to strongly reject their claim that only the cisgender early female life experience can be a gateway to womanhood, or that women of all kinds cannot coexist and build each other up and empower each other.

**** In fairness, none of us have any idea what an apple sandwich is, and if I had reached a greater place of sureness in myself when I got to meet Marya, I would have not just thanked her for what she did for me, which was a lot, but I would have pressed for an answer on this important question.

***** I’m with the serpent, and Ruth, and Mary Magdalene, and Jesus, and all of those seeking good over evil and not right over wrong, but you knew that.

****** A very cute term I am now borrowing from Kinky Boots.

******* The boom boom I have, that all the boys chase, and all the right junk I have, in all the right places, belongs to me and no one else. Just as I can never be any better than lousy at being someone I’m not, none of you will ever be a better me than I will.

A Sorry, Not Sorry Conversation

Dis furst part dedicates to da ladeez

Dis furst part dedicates to da ladeez

I want to try and address two very different situations, involving the word sorry, and explain why, although on the surface the arrangement primarily benefits me and disadvantages everyone else*, I’m not sorry for saying I’m sorry in the one situation, and I wish you would stop saying you’re sorry in the other.

So first, the situation that should be sorry. There is so much ballyhoo about we womenfolk saying we’re sorry. We’re almost bombarded with this message, from feminist blogging, to worrisome study results measuring the concerning level of sorriness among women, to advertisers (damn you, you make us cry anyways) who sell us woman power by criticizing our behavior, and even from our feminist boyfriends who chide us for saying we’re sorry. I was particularly taken by Amy Schumer’s latest contribution to this conversation.

Sorry, Amy, not with you on this one. Although you're amazing and I encourage robust debate amongst us as feminists and women.

Sorry, Amy, not with you on this one. Although you’re amazing and I encourage robust debate amongst us as feminists and women

In the video, a panel of women scientists are apologizing over each other, and the situation is used to essentially poke fun at the way women act. Now, I really do like Amy Schumer. But normally, when we make fun of women for being women, … that’s sexism. When we implicate that there’s something wrong with women, that their preferred behavior is implicitly wrong, and that they should just be men (because men and their behaviors are superior), that’s misogyny. But we give feminists a pass to attack women, if they’re attacking women for saying they’re sorry, or for all the other behavior more common among women that some feminist or another has arbitrarily adjudicated as furthering the patriarchy. And we never ask why men don’t say they’re sorry more – we just attack women and tell them to stop apologizing – that itself should be a clue that something is… hinky.

I’m not so down with this. Scratch that. I’m so not down with this. Look, Teri, Ms. Schumer, everybody. I don’t think you understand why I apologize. This is most tellingly clear in that you don’t pay attention to all the things I’m not sorry about. I’m not even vaguely sorry for being a feminist. I’m not very sorry for bringing the revolution. You interpret me as being sorry for the space I occupy, sorry for the air I breathe, sorry for the attention I demand. What you fail to understand is that I – and I believe, a lot of the other women out there “over” apologizing, we – apologize not because of remorse or regret, but because our apologies act as a social grace. We say we’re sorry because it bridges a gap between you and us. We say I’m sorry, when we sit down next to you, because it covers over the awkwardness that lingers in the air when we sit and say nothing. And we’re also giving you an entrée to make a little small talk, or strike up a conversation with us, if you like.

Because here’s the thing. We really like it when you’re comfortable. This is perhaps a sine qua non in your budding understanding, if you’re not high femininity, of your very feminine friends and loved ones. This is really important to us – and although, on the surface, we do it for you, we ultimately do it for us, as a recognition of who we are, and for our own joy. Just like women who like to look pretty, not only like to look pretty themselves, but like to have pretty things around them**. And while we cultivate that prettiness for ourselves, we take joy in your enjoyment of it. A thing which no feminist is very willing to talk about but which any high-femininity woman knows perfectly well is this: we’re not very interested in being feminine in the middle of a forest, where nobody is around to see it***. And this scares a lot of feminists away from femininity itself. Because they’re so busy trying to rid women of objectification that they fail to understand that femininity is the oldest of performance arts.

Just like this. A cushion of air. Except without so much crying for Argentina.

Just like this. A cushion of air. Except without so much crying, not crying for Argentina.

It’s such an old art that it’s embedded into the architecture of your world****. It’s actually really important to you, too – you just don’t know it, half the time, because you float on an air cushion of our social graces without even realizing it. Just like you appreciate our beauty often without appreciating the line between a woman being the object of your admiration and a woman being objectified. You don’t notice that, when you’re around us, and we’re “over” apologizing, you’re fighting less, you feel better. And then you apply the lens of how you think, to us, because you still think we want to be like you*****.

Now maybe, we do care too much about other people’s comfort and not enough about our own. But your “intervention” in the form of criticizing what I do without understanding it isn’t helping – it just makes me feel badly about myself (which wasn’t why I said sorry in the first place, and if you thought it was, you may actually create the very problem you’re trying to avert). No. This is how many women, how femininity in general, does things. Get used to it. And masculine folk, maybe you should try extending more social grace to others. Maybe, who knows, you’ll like it as much as we do. Or maybe at least you won’t get into as many fights. Maybe your partner will even find it hot. Or, if you really can’t say you’re sorry very often, don’t – it’s okay to just apologize when you’re actually sorry. But stop criticizing my sorries – if you want to help me, because you think I don’t take care of myself, do it by investing in me and supporting me, not by criticizing me.

Sadly, this is is way more intended to help you feel better about yourself than to do any good (HuffPo, 2013)

Sadly, this is is way more intended to help you feel better about yourself than to do any good (HuffPo, 2013)

Right. So here’s the switch to not sorry, as if you thought I wasn’t pressing hard enough already. Now I know you ain’t gonna dig this. Christians, this one’s for you. And your campaign to come to Pride and say you’re sorry. Yeah, stop doing that. Oh, come to Pride. You belong – you don’t have to be LGBTQIA+ to be Family. But come because you belong. And quit with the “I’m sorry”. Quit with the “Not All Christians.” And (if you are really clueless), quit already with the #BlameOneNotAll.

If you’re not white (although I’m kind of guessing you are, #SorryNotSorry), you probably already know why. Hang in for a second and let me educate the majority culture, please. In the 1990s, there was an era of “I’m sorry” events – I think inspired by the beauty of the reconciliation in South Africa, without understanding any of its problems. A group of white people would get a group of black people to come to them, and they would apologize, and then cry and cry over their healing of racism. Yeah, and you probably don’t get why this is a problem, do you…. It’s a problem because the black / non-white people in this dynamic were basically props – they were there to get the decor right for the white people to feel the sense of forgiveness that they wanted. If you ask them, and they’re being really honest, they’ll tell you the whole thing was kind of awkward and not healing for them. They’ll tell you they didn’t ask you for an apology (and can we talk about back income, if we’re really saying we’re sorry here, write me a check). Moreover, they probably (but you may not) know that you left those events and you didn’t change the world******. And this is the way in which this process differed deeply from the goals of South Africa’s racial reconciliation – in the 20 years since those “I’m sorry” events of the 90s, those people who were sorry built communities that were more and more segregated, so that they could spend less and less time with the people to whom they were supposedly sorry. If anything, in many ways, things got worse instead of better, and in any event, while what happened was an important step, racial healing isn’t what happened.

Okay, so these guys were not too shabby. But pay close attention to everything they did, not just one thing they did. Context is queen.

Okay, so these guys were not too shabby. But pay close attention to everything they did, not just one thing they did. Context is queen.

And there it is. Changing the world. Here’s the thing straight Christian allies frequently fail to get. We don’t need you to tell us God loves us “even though” we’re gay, or “no matter” what we are. We already know that. God already knows that. It’s not even in dispute. The only ones who don’t know it… are Christians. We don’t need you to apologize. We don’t need you to tell us you’re not like the rest, any more than we need men to tell us they’re not rapists. What we need you to do, is change the world. Or more particularly, change not God (who is just fine), not Christ (who is just fine), but change Christians (who need to get back to God). Make them confront how they took religion and turned it from a vehicle of love to a vehicle of hatred. Call them out and call them in – make it clear that exclusionary practices are deeply and fundamentally inconsistent with core Christian values, but that they can return to what they once believed in. Tell them that, if they walk away from the idea that Jesus died on the cross for everybody, then whatever it is that they’re doing, it’s not Christian, and it isn’t holy, and that you can’t support their lifestyle choice, although you will not stop praying for them, nor stop hoping. If they’re the sort of people that put up angry billboards or protest marriage equality, particularly, don’t put up a competing billboard telling us you love us. Help them remember the time before their hearts were filled with hate, and help them teach themselves to love, again.

So remind them that they need forgiveness, that it’s not too late for them, and that God still loves them, even if they stopped loving God (because you can’t hate us and love God… if that’s what you think, there isn’t anything about your own religion that you get, at all). And if you haven’t figured it out, don’t do this work at Pride, because that’s not where the problem is. Go do this work at your church, at all the churches. And recognize that the problem has nothing to do with the LGBT community but is about the hearts of Christians.

And again, when you come to Pride, come to celebrate, because that’s what Pride is there for – celebrate because it is so, so good to be. Good to be me. Good to be you. Greater gift has no one ever received than this, and when you don’t get that, you struggle to belong at Pride not because we don’t accept you (we do), but because you don’t understand what we’re doing or why we’re gathering.

So stop saying you’re sorry, and get to work. And stop saying I need to stop saying I’m sorry, and get to work, and let me do the work I need to do. Because there is so much work to be done. And doing that work alongside me is the only thing that can make you my ally.

* Interestingly, I have been accused both of apologizing excessively and of being excessively unapologetic. Curious and curiouser. But you’ve got ninety nine problems, and this bitch ain’t one. Speaking of which. I’ve been meaning to write a piece about bitch pride. But you’ll have to wait for that, pups. Even though you recognize that this footnote is nothing more than excuse to use the word bitch. Three times.

** And the gender binary is at the heart of why they make an exception when it comes to men, who they might legitimately not value heavily on their prettiness, but whom they value for a host of other characteristics.

*** In defense of pointing out the obvious, especially to ourselves as obvious, I would point out that intersectionalism, which often seems to blow the minds of mainstream feminists, was not really an attempt to say something profoundly new, but to inject what had always been obvious to black women, just from having to integrate feminist movement into their complicated lives, into the feminist vernacular, in essence to remove the invisibility from it so that white feminists could see what was directly in front of their own noses. But that’s what happens when you bathe in isms – obvious stuff gets hidden in cloaks of invisibility.

**** So like any great architecture, if you stand back and take it in, it’s breathtaking, but you’re also allowed to let it make you whole and nourish you while barely even noticing it is there.

***** The most savvy of readers will note that I used to rail against the idea of difference feminism. The reason I hated it was not because I didn’t believe in difference – viva la difference – it was because there was no critical assessment of women’s beliefs or values in most of difference feminism. I believe very much in that critical assessment, and in fact, I claim that I’m offering a deeper, more nuanced, and truer assessment of this whole business of us saying we’re sorry, than the people who are telling you to stop apologizing.

****** Which to me, is maybe the second most damning of sins, behind failing to live for oneself.

How I Became a Real-Life, Fairytale Princess

I had the opportunity to provide a lunchtime keynote speech, participate in a panel, and provide a workshop during the 2015 annual conference of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of Grand Rapids. I was particularly honored to speak alongside some really powerful guests, including a number of personal friends and the tremendous damali ayo. I wrote a short, separate post with a link to this full text and also a link to my presentation visuals for the afternoon. This is the full text of my lunchtime keynote.

Thank you so much for inviting me to speak, today. I’m thrilled to be here, with all of you, with all of the energy, the passion, the dedication, and the commitment you bring to the various dreams and missions you are carrying out. Uniting them is a drive to make this world a better place, not just in the abstract, but in the actual, within our own lifetimes and lovetimes. And thank you, as well, to damali ayo for making time to be here with us today – your words and your work are so inspiring, and I am so thankful to have had and to be having the opportunity to learn from and with you.

This afternoon, I will be giving a more formal presentation, Queering the Value Equation, and I hope you come (not that the other choices aren’t very good, too, but come to mine!). Right now, while you digest both your food and the ideas you heard this morning, I want to get a little more personal. I’ve written before that I am a real-life, fairytale princess. My dream and my mission revolve around young children, so I’m going to do what “kid people” do, and offer you a little storytime. For your lunchtime story, I’d like to tell you how I got to princesshood. So, I’m going to tell you part of my story, the mixed up tale that brought me to the autism revolution, and how I found myself, and love, along the way. In my time at Hope Network, I’ve gotten the chance to learn from an excellent teacher of storytellers, but I can’t make a story really, really good all by myself. For a story to be really, really good, though, you’ll have to believe alongside me. I hope you’ll do that.

Like any good story, it’s a long story. I don’t have time to tell you all of those parts here, today, but I do want to start briefly with how I became a nonprofit professional – it wasn’t my original aim. I actually studied engineering in college, and liked it enough to get a master’s degree. I worked in the engineering world for about five years, and although I think people have an increasingly hard time believing it, and sometimes I myself have a hard time believing it, I was actually a really good engineer. I learned, in particular, the art of magic-working as an engineer, and particularly that magic doesn’t come just from one’s own internal power, but it comes from connections and community. I had the chance, relatively late in my five year engineering career, to take on “fixing” a project that should have had a five year development cycle, but needed to be started over, eight months before the finish line. It was maybe the first time in my life I really worked magic, and it taught me an important lesson. What I did to pull it off wasn’t in the technology – I could solve a mean equation, but that wasn’t what helped me do what needed to be done. Rather, it was deeply within relationships. Building relationships with our customer to help them understand just how perilous the situation was, without paralyzing them with fear. Building relationships with our plant staff, who were often angry, burnt out, and felt under-appreciated. Who were never valued too much, but without whom the miracle couldn’t happen. Managing all those feelings, all those fears, pushing them but not overwhelming them. Bringing them together, even if they didn’t realize it. To make magic happen. And I – we – we did it. We launched that product on time. Not quite without a hiccup, but those are stories for another time. Nonetheless, we launched our product on time, and it worked, and the magic we wrought together saved the day.

Ummm, yeah, it didn't work anything like this.

Ummm, yeah, it didn’t work anything like this.

It worked, but it was the beginning of the end. After I’d proven to myself that I could do that – not just solve equations, not just make scientific discoveries or extend science, but build things that actually worked – I knew that I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. For me, personally, although I like solving problems, I wanted a more human, connected, personal set of problems to which I could take my analytical abilities. That took a while to find. Professionally, I spent more than two years taking night classes while working 60 hours a week or more as an engineer. I dismissed some ideas, for me, right away – going to law or business school – there isn’t anything wrong with either of those things, but for me, they were dangerous because they were surface and not deep gratification of my need to change. I didn’t want to put the effort in, just to end up behind another desk, pushing other paper, feeling equally unfulfilled. See, this is something you have to know about me – I can’t live, if the fairytale dies. I don’t have life events. I go on adventures. I don’t mean taking exotic vacations (the truth is that I’m usually too busy trying to change the world to take vacations, but I’m trying to learn, I really promise I am), but this is rather how I’ve always needed to see my life, and at that point, as a young professional, I was finally committing to finding some way to make my life full of adventure, to take my rightful place. Maybe you’ve had a moment like that in your life – where you could do what was safe, or you could do what was good. Like Aslan in C. S. Lewis’s stories, I chose in that moment to be good, but not safe. And I needed to do that, to inch closer to being the fairytale princess I was supposed to be.

Meg Murry, I will always be in your debt.

Meg Murry, I will always be in your debt.

About that… being a fairytale princess. To do that, I needed to find my voice as a woman. Which was somewhat complicated by this whole business of people thinking I was a boy. For a long time, I’d been cultivating girl and women role models, from Meg in Wrinkle in Time and Madeleine L’Engle, to Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Austen, to Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston, and their characters, later, in college. I learned to be as much like my inspirations as I knew how to be while letting people continue thinking I was a boy. In the middle of my engineering career, I had a little time off to myself. Really, I got laid off a couple weeks before 9/11, and there just weren’t jobs to get. During that time, I found feminism, which made things better, and worse. Gloria Steinem and others contextualized in a powerful way for me, what I had already found in Morrison and so many others. They taught me what women’s voices sounded like, and they taught me how to know, instinctively, when they were absent, and how to think about drawing them out (which is the “better” part). But I couldn’t quite master drawing my own out (which is the “worse” part).

These sisters, calling me.

These sisters, calling me.

So, my own woman’s voice was the one most markedly absent in my life. I didn’t really know what to do about that, yet. As I continued trying to molt the image of myself as an engineer, which wasn’t for me, and try to find some kind of way to the butterfly underneath, I didn’t find me, quite yet, but I did find psychology. I took a class, and I loved it. It was, admittedly, human sexuality (I hadn’t taken psychology ever, before that, except one terribly boring high school psychology class, about ten years earlier, and human sexuality is nothing if not completely unboring). How could that go wrong, right? I took that class thinking, well, I don’t know what I want to do with my life, but I ought to stay sharp, until I figure it out. It was sort of like mental training. But it was amazing – I found myself intellectually stimulated, asking questions, growing as a person. So I took another. And I asked myself, what am I looking for, really? Why am I looking for my path, when it’s right here? So I set out to become a psychologist, because it brought out my passion, which ultimately led me to graduate school at Florida.

This came just a little bit later!

This came just a little bit later!

But I wasn’t a princess, yet. I had, actually, found this exotic thing called a “transsexual” (that’s the word they used, in those days). But that whole thing sounded, well, not me. There were too many problems with it. There was some kind of arcane process wherein some kind of surgery turned you into something you were not. But I didn’t want to be something I was not. I wanted everyone to know what I actually was. If there’s good magic and dark magic, that sounded an awful lot like dark magic, at least the way it was presented to me and the way I understood it at that time. And also I didn’t want to be a freak show – I totally respect people who flaunt societal expectations, and I think a new wave of people who are socially non-conforming in new ways, is doing new and really exciting things. In other ways, I, myself, am proud to not conform, but the truth is that I also kind of like fitting in, because I really love connectedness, and for me, if I couldn’t have that, I wouldn’t be authentic to me. In hindsight, since it’s such a trite plot-line in adventures, I had an obligatory near-miss with my destiny. I figured out I was indeed trans (not the arcane and dangerous sounding thing I’d heard about, but the real thing), but I figured it out just a few moments too late. About a year after I came to that realization, Jenny Boylan was the first modern, American trans professional to really tell her story of coming out while retaining her profession and her community – her connectedness. In fairness, I had missed Jan Morris entirely, who also would have appealed more to my sensibilities, than what I found, and she had originally published her book long, long ago. But, anyways, I missed the tidings of good news that were already out there, and I missed the tidings of good news that came just a few moments too late, and I made the strategic decision that coming out, and being fully authentic, wasn’t right for me (yet).

While I focused on getting out of engineering and becoming a psychologist, I accepted, but hid, this idea that I was trans. Although non-binary identities weren’t really a thing that I had been exposed to until after I ultimately came out, I essentially tried to create one for myself. Non-binary identities are great, when they’re representative of that towards which you are running, but they’re not so good when they’re just a form of running away. I didn’t talk at all about being trans, but I gave myself fairly broad ranging permission to stop much of the pretending. I did that, ultimately, for ten years. That identity occasionally made people uncomfortable, but far more people accepted me than didn’t, and I guess it was a gateway to authenticity. It wasn’t authenticity, however, and if you’ve ever been “this close” to what you’d always wanted, you know that it’s not a place to hang out for extended periods of time – that gets excruciating. And it was excruciating, although the truth is also that I made so many friends during those days, I had so many adventures, and I experienced so much joy, too.

In the meantime, though, adjusting to psychology as a culture took some work. I survived more than few faux pas, not the least of which was interviewing with someone (who would become my dissertation chair) who had been the president of two international bodies governing my sub-field and was in the process of becoming the leader of the other one, and telling him that I didn’t know exactly what this “neuropsychology” was about, but neuropsychologists seemed to ask interesting questions, and they work with interesting patients, so would you still let me in? Surprisingly, he did. It took my path away from Los Angeles, where what I thought I wanted had been, and to Gainesville, Florida, where what I needed was.

Seriously, you guys, I did not see either of these two, like, ever.

Seriously, you guys, I did not see either of these two, like, ever.

Gainesville was an adjustment, itself, too. Probably none of you are as naïve (or stupid is a good word, too) as I was, to think that all of Florida looked like a scene from those old Miami Vice shows. But that’s what I thought, and I was all ready to start stocking up on linen blazers and pastel. I arrived in Jacksonville (where my parents had actually moved, coincidentally or not so coincidentally, depending on how you look at it). Jacksonville is much more Gone With The Wind than it is Miami Vice. And then I got on the road, and I drove to Gainesville. And the swamp on the way to Gainesville is way more Anaconda than it is Miami Vice.

Also, when I got to Florida, I found I had to do rotations with children, and this was kind of a problem. The thing is, I was all excited about finding psychology, but I sort of hated kids. The only exposure I had to kids, besides having been one, was being stuck in nursery by my church, because I was a warm body, and it was my duty, which of course came with no training, and being basically thrown into a room full of crying babies. But I knew I had to learn, and so I decided to do what Buddhists call turning into the sharp points, and instead of minimizing the role of kids in my life, I started spending lots of time volunteering with them, at one of Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Camps, Camp Boggy Creek. That changed a lot. The Hole in the Wall Camps are camps for kids with serious illnesses. They’re the sort of place that generally elicit one of two polar-opposite responses, of overwhelming joy, or of revulsion and pity, and it says everything about you which response you have. But they’re also places where you can learn something. I’d never thought of childcare as something in which one learns skill. I thought it just took talent. I’ve never been very good at being talented, but I’m a great learner. And when I did learn, it turned out kids actually kind of liked me. I was good for them. And they were good for me. They wanted – needed – my friendship, my love, my spirit of adventure, but never my pity. And knowing them in their joy was that deep sense of fulfillment and connectedness that had brought me in search of a new career to begin with. It must have had some impact. A few months later, people in my graduate program thought I was studying to be a child psychologist, even more than a few of the child psychology trainees thought that.

That Camp was – is – a place where love burns bright. The love burned bright there, because, there, if only briefly, the fairytale was real. When I was there, I was a fairy-tale character. But far more importantly, getting to understand kids was another pivotal moment in my professional development. When I was an engineer, I had learned that magic was real, and that it came from my connections and relationships. Spending weekends at Camp Boggy Creek and my weekdays in a hospital, one foot in the fairytale and one foot in “reality,” I learned that I could bring the fairytale back with me. Much as the magic, once I learned to unleash it, it started following me everywhere I went. I found that I could create a forcefield around me, and in my forcefield, I could be a real-life fairytale character. Being a real-life fairytale character let me learn to be a doctor without pity, which is the only good kind, because pity has never really helped anyone – if that’s the other thing my kids taught me in those years, it was that, no matter how rough the things that were happening to them were, they never, ever wanted pity from me.

So, things were getting good. Now, I was just missing the princess part. I brought the magic and the fairytale with me to Chicago for a year. I got to live around the corner from the Obamas (not that I ever really saw them). And go on more adventures. When I got my marching orders for fellowship, it took me, surprisingly, back here, to West Michigan (Holland was my home for the second half of my childhood, but I hadn’t really planned on leaving the South, once I fell in love with it, let alone coming back to West Michigan). So, back to Grand Rapids I came, and this was where all the rest of the pivotal events in my ascension to princess status happened.

The next pivotal event was Hope Network. Although, after learning the fairytale was real in Florida, I had continued to work with kids all the way through my time there and in Chicago, I had actually wound up, at Mary Free Bed, in a fellowship working with adults. Although I had ranked the position really highly in the match, it hadn’t been perfectly what I was looking for. In a different way, Hope wasn’t what I was looking for, or what I thought I was looking for, either – I knew how to diagnose autism, but I didn’t really know too much about an autism center. It was kind of funny, really, because one of my dear friends in graduate school would have thrilled at this job, back then, and she got the job I thought I needed (at a famous research hospital), and I got the job she thought she needed. And we’re both the happier for it. I accepted a position with Hope way in advance of finishing my fellowship.

And then I got to Hope – you know, there have to be dramatic turnarounds in stories like this, and this is where the lighting turns dark and the music dips into a foreboding, minor key. The thing about stories is, the good ones never go in a straight line. I walked into an empty clinic. Having finally signed the mortgage on my first home, I was surprised with an unannounced non-compete agreement, but then far more worrisome, a ghost town. We had half a dozen people on staff, but we weren’t serving any kids, maybe for an hour or two a week, at most. We had a practice manager on staff, but we didn’t have a practice. And I started seeing patients and quickly ran rings around the rest of the clinic combined, but I couldn’t generate enough revenue to sustain us all. So I did a lot of going home and crying myself to sleep.

As luck would have it, my boss, who directed the Center, and who had no idea what he was doing, took us to a conference in Philadelphia that winter. There was one other person on the team who seemed to also be a heroine plucked out of her story and placed in this wasteland, my beloved friend and ever since then, my left-hand woman, Elyse. Heroines find other heroines. In this case, we got frozen yogurt. And I asked her what we were actually supposed to be doing – you know, if I had a magic wand (I didn’t yet, back then – I do, now – I got it for my birthday and it lights up and it’s kind of wonderful), I asked her, what was our Center supposed to look like? She was the only person on the team to whom I didn’t need to say, “Because you know it’s not supposed to look like this.” Because she knew, already. And Elyse told me what she knew – which turned out to be a lot – she was the first behavior analyst I really got to know well, and although I’ve gotten to know many more since then, she’s still one of the best I know, and she’s still my left-hand woman, although now our triumvirate is completed by my right-hand man, Joe. And there was my next lesson… sometimes, fairytale princesses need to stage coups, you know, build armies, ignite revolutions, raise hell.

Before I was all like,

Before I was all like, “Welcome to the Revolution!” I was like, “Awww, crap, what have I gotten myself into?”

Now, handling court intrigue is on my short list of talents (this is not one of my more endearing qualities, at least to the HR people). So, I sharpened my knives, but I didn’t even have to depose that director. Amusingly, ridiculously, call it what you want, he got re-tasked a couple months later. The next director – she was the fifth of the Center, in the two years it had been opened, listened to me in a way he had not. She encouraged me when I asked questions. She usually didn’t know how to get the answers, but she always understood why I was asking and never wrote me off. Like any good fairytale, friends and allies are where you least expect them. She got re-tasked, too, though, and eight months after my first job working as a psychologist, I was asked to direct the Center. So, I went from never having any formal management experience to having all this responsibility. Also like any good fairytale, alliances shifted and evolved – when I first met the major donor who had made my Center possible, she stormed in yelling about how the front office never answers the phone. About what she was angry, I had no idea. But I found out, and fixed it, and we’ve been friendly ever since, and she later proved to be a really powerful ally (that’s the thing, the best people make the best friends or the worst enemies, and it’s all a matter of perspective). In that first year of rebuilding the Center (this was three years ago), I spent a lot of time responding to people who had never tried to build an autism program, let alone fix the one we already had which was flopping around like a fish on a boat deck, but who still knew better than I did what it needed to look like. I got pushed, over and over, into death by committee instead of design thinking (sorry, I love freedom, and I empower my people, but I don’t really believe that dreams are democracies). And I had to grow a backbone, and quick (not all of you went to grad school, but grad school isn’t exactly built, too often, around encouraging the idea of backbone … all too often, we’re selected as much for our smarts as we are for our sense of masochism).

It took time, but it worked. Fortuitous winds blew. I got to be involved in changing Michigan law so that kids with autism could get the help they need. I had to “fake it till I make it” with respect to being an autism expert, and I read a lot of journal articles and listened to a lot of science, and I got there. I still think being an autism expert means I’m only marginally less ignorant than the rest of the population, because we know so little about autism, but I did establish myself, as rightfully as most people can claim it, to be a little bit of an expert. And a team started growing around us, and we started delivering results. By the end of our Fiscal Year 2013, we were getting close to fifteen times the size we’d been when I started two years earlier. Little kids were thriving – learning to communicate for the first time, learning to learn, learning to play, learning to have a brighter future. Sometimes – not always – they did so well that people wouldn’t believe it, even though they were watching it with their own eyes. Parents were going from autism victims and survivors to autism advocates. And we were building community.

After I became Director of the Center, I was packing up files the prior directors had left behind, and I found a printed out e-mail with my CV in it. It was written to the director who had hired me. It said, to my great amusement, that I wasn’t a very good candidate for the job, and I really didn’t have much experience or seem very promising, but the recruiter thought she ought to at least pass on the resume, anyways. I still cherish that letter – I’m going to get it framed at some point. And it’s yet another time in this story when I had a surprise up my sleeve. What can I say? I love an underdog story.

But I was still hiding. That summer, I brought friends to Actors Theatre (if I can put in a brief plug – go see their plays. They tell stories no one else in Grand Rapids tells, and they are stories that we all need to hear). They put on a play called Looking for Normal. In the play, what starts out as an apparent mid-life crisis turns on its head, when the main character admits to family for the first time that they are transgender, and need to transition, or start living authentically as who she is supposed to be. I was transfixed. And squirming – yes, yes, I know that’s an oxymoron, but never mind that. I was waiting for people to jeer or laugh. I was waiting for people to get pitchforks and torches out from under their seats (you know, if people try to sneak a text message in during the middle of a play, they would try and sneak pitchforks into the theatre). But they didn’t. They gave the play a standing ovation, cheering and cheering. And my assumptions about what I couldn’t do, myself, turned upside down.

This is the next to last lesson I learned, but it’s the most important. I could wield the magic, I could live in the fairytale, and even bring it home with me, I could have the dream, but it would be just that – a dream, just for a time, still pretend – if I was still in hiding. Hiding wasn’t where I belonged, and until I took my rightful place, the dream couldn’t come true, couldn’t be real or permanent. I’ve always taught my team the belief that we make a long-term commitment, to hold the hand of the AutismFamily, to be an adopted part of that family, and that we can’t just make them a promise today, but we have to build, and to be, in such a way that we can keep that promise tomorrow, and five, ten, fifteen years, or more, down the road. Just as we couldn’t make decisions that would let us serve them now, but then have to shut the doors in a year and leave them, stranded by the side of the road, I couldn’t keep surviving like this, and until I could come out of hiding, I wasn’t really in a position to make anyone, including this family I loved so much, long-term promises.

So, I took a deep breath. The fall of 2013, I invited one of the friends I’d taken to the play for coffee. And I came out. For the first time, ever. And like the theatre goers, but in a far more powerfully personal way, she didn’t laugh, jeer, doubt, boo, turned out not to have brought her pitchfork, but she accepted, believed, encouraged, loved. That was so profound that I didn’t sleep at all that night. I came out to another person, and another, and the same thing happened, except for the not sleeping part – I love to sleep, usually. In December, I asked my Executive Vice President of Talent Management to coffee. I came out to her. She took a deep breath, and she said, “We want you to do this right here. You tell us what you need.” I came out to my own manager at the time, another EVP, and she did the same. They came out to my CEO on my behalf, and he did the same. When he in turn came out on my behalf to my board, the benefactress who had come in yelling about the receptionist all those months earlier was my most passionate defender. All the people who shouldn’t have – the conservatives, the clergy, the risk averse – they supported me. In the meantime, I kept coming out in my personal life. To my astonishment, no one rejected me (and really, no one ever has). Because relatedness and connectedness is really at the center of everything I am, I had a really big professional network, plus almost fifty families in our day therapy program, hundreds of families I saw as evaluation patients, a lot of people who needed me to come out to them. So I did a lot of coming out. Which is kind of good, because, after a while, you know, I started to re-learn confidence. Hundreds of people have accepted you so far. Maybe your carriage isn’t ever going to turn into a pumpkin, and maybe you don’t need to lose a glass slipper at all. Parents responded with an awful lot of hugging and crying. With more than a few “I thought you were going to say you were dying, or that you were moving away, this is great!” And a couple of, “You know, we know a thing or two about having a child who wasn’t anything like we thought they would be, and then realizing they’re pretty great. You’ll be fine.”

In February 2014, I flew to Florida to come out to my parents. I didn’t really know what to expect, although I didn’t really expect them to do anything crazy. But I had in part delayed coming out all this time for fear of hurting them. I was ready, if it really came to it (fairytale princesses must be willing to risk everything) to sit on the curb, call a taxi, and go straight back to the airport. My daddy said, “I don’t know why you came all this way to ask if I accept you. Of course I accept you. You’re my child.” My mamma (my original inspiration for taking no prisoners), lived up to form and said, “If anyone has a problem with it, they have to come through me.”

It took a lot of planning, but I ultimately transitioned at work about ten months ago – although it seems like it was a lifetime ago, and in many ways, it was. The AutismFamily accepted me as their own, just as it always has. We planned for “acceptable casualties” when I came out, but we didn’t lose any patients. Rather, my Center became sustainable for the first time, ever, in the middle of me coming out. My team celebrated me (and may possibly have gotten me drunk, but don’t tell HR that!). While I was walking through the doors of my Center as myself, for the first time, we were passing the million dollar annual revenue mark, for the first time, and we’re on track to pass the two million dollar mark easily, a year later. We keep running out of space and we’re not even slowing down, but learning to move faster. But much, much more importantly, and this is yet another lesson – I learned that, as a leader, when I was brave, my bravery had an amplifying effect. Far from being afraid or rejecting or running away from who I was, I found, over and over again, that people saw me as brave, and when they did, they decided to be brave alongside me. In their eyes, I saw love, yes, and acceptance, but I saw something much more profound – in allowing them to love me, I gave them pride. People with pride can do anything.

This Prince Charming, though.

This Prince Charming, for real

Just one thing left for this story, right? Prince Charming? Yes, that happened, too. In January of 2014, when I wasn’t looking for love, a friend who is never social asked me to come out for a drink. I couldn’t say no. I teetered up the icy back fire escape of the restaurant, trying not to fall. At the top of the stairs was Teri, in his vest and necktie, smoking a cigarette (of course I made him quit) with friends. He opened the door for me, and our eyes met, and I knew. I got him to come over and say hello, found an excuse to keep talking to him, met up with him a few more times in a group, and then we went out on a date. He almost didn’t come, because his car wouldn’t start, and he didn’t have any money. So I picked him up (I might be a Princess, but this isn’t the old days anymore, you gotta do what you gotta do). He seemed nervous, and I touched his arm to reassure him (and turn up the heat). Apparently that’s when he finally figured out it was really a date. He didn’t kiss me, that night, but he did the next time. And we’re enjoying living happily ever after, even if our life is still full of dragons that need dealing with and villages that need help. I encourage Teri’s creativity as a writer and passion for serving youth through the fabulous youth group at the Network, Grand Rapids’ LGBT Community Center, and he encourages me in my role in the autism revolution and in my own role as an LGBT advocate. There isn’t really a good lesson in this part of the story, except, if your Prince Charming (he, she, or they) opens the door for you, and your eyes meet, and you fall in love… for the love of God, don’t ever let go.

So mine is a modernized, but real-life, fairytale story, of a princess whose dreams came true. I’m a princess who took her castle from an embarrassment to something for which people move to Grand Rapids, just to bring their kids. I’m a princess who has created almost fifty full-time jobs in the last four years, with lots more on the way – not just jobs, but with a career pathway, professional development. Something like 30% of my staff is pursuing graduate education – when I say I’m in the business of helping kids chase their dreams, I get to have a broad definition of kids. I’m a princess who added more than two million dollars a year to the local economy and is just getting started. Who taught a large non-profit a thing or two about its own mission. And along the way, found not just the love of her Prince Charming, but a whole lot more besides that.

So, adding up all the lessons along the way, because storytime is almost over, the moral of my story, dear ones, is simple, and complex. It isn’t that magic is real – of course it is, any child knows that. It isn’t that life has purpose, anyone who’s really lived knows it does, and if it didn’t come with purpose, they made purpose. It isn’t that you can survive being different – I’m neither the first nor the best to do that. It isn’t that there isn’t any kind of love except love given freely – I can’t love against my will, and neither can you. It isn’t that we used to leave half the talent on the table, because we wouldn’t hire women, and now we leave talent, still, on the table, when we won’t hire ethnic, gender, or sexual minorities, again, you’re smart people, and you can do basic math. My moral isn’t any of those things.

I tell my team one more thing I want to share with you, which is really the moral of my story. I tell them there are two autism revolutions. The first, and less interesting one, is the one we bring – helping identify kids at very young ages and providing them the intensive therapy they need to learn to talk and listen and play and learn, so that they can chase a future of their own choosing. The second, and far more interesting autism revolution, isn’t anything we do at all. It’s the unexpected, unknown, unforeseeable ways that our kids are going to change the world, armed with the skills we’ve given them. The moral for our lunch story-time is much the same. My diversity moral isn’t that I was better for Hope Network embracing me (although I was), but it is about how Hope Network became better when it helped me stop pretending. My moral is that when we take the risk, collectively, organizationally, together, to let our people live out their fairytales, let them unleash their magic, give them the freedom to rebel against injustice, let them find the loves of their lives, dreams come true. We stop being 501(c)(3)’s and NPOs and all the acronyms and codes and all the blah-blah-blah, and we start being those places where the dreams come true. As leaders, we stop managing departments and we start laying the seeds that will change the world. That is your destiny, and nothing less. You have no idea what your dreams, if you allow them to come true, will do, and you have far less idea what the dreams you build in future generations of warriors and princesses will be or what they will do, but if you follow that path, it’s going to be breathtaking, and just like me, although somedays, it’ll be hard, you’ll never, ever regret it.

Thank you.

Queering the Value Equation

I had the opportunity to provide a lunchtime keynote speech, participate in a panel, and provide a workshop during the 2015 annual conference of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of Grand Rapids. I was particularly honored to speak alongside some really powerful guests, including a number of personal friends and the tremendous damali ayo.

I had the opportunity to give the lunchtime keynote, which focused on my own personal and professional story.

My afternoon talk was called Queering the Value Equation. In it, my goal is to show that reticence to be inclusive in nonprofit organizations is often directly related to reticence to fully, authentically embrace the organizational mission*, and investment in developing a culture of authenticity both solves the “LGBT question” and makes the organization real. For a variety of reasons, the most prominent of which is that I no longer give the kinds of presentations that involve a lot of bullet points, but rather the kind of presentations that tell a story**, I rarely do handouts, and I do not print a copy of my slides for people. I did, however, decide to make the visuals for my afternoon presentation available online, at least for now, via the beta iCloud Keynote. To see the visuals for that presentation, please head on over to here, using an iCloud supported browser. Think of it as a trial, and maybe I’ll decide to do it again in the future. Maybe I won’t.

Click the picture to see the afternoon presentation visuals

Click the picture to see the afternoon presentation visuals

* And I really mean the mission (or better yet, dream), not the mission statement. Mission statements, at their best, can be  powerful rallying cry or call to arms, but much more often, they are about as useful as traditional, annual performance evaluations.

** I do feel there is a certain element of intellectual property, as well, in the way I give presentations, which is mine and mine alone. I am pleased to give away passion and some knowledge, but I retain ownership over my art form. In case you’re wondering if I still think like a libertarian….

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.