HIV And The LGBT Community: Getting My First HIV Test… And Some Education

Here I am with, with Kevin Gierman of the Red Project. See how easy it was? If I can do this, you can do this.

Here I am with, with Kevin Gierman of the Red Project. See how easy it was? If I can do this, you can do this.

Okay, let me dig deep and make an admission. As an LGBTQIA+ person, I’ve never had a formal HIV test.* You’d think that, also, as a healthcare provider, I would be more likely to have done this. But no. I’m pretty solidly aware of the risk factors, and I know the risk calculus of my own exposure likelihood pretty well, but I haven’t ever had testing confirmation. *Taylor Swift voice* Like, ever.

My organization, The Network, shares a building with The Grand Rapids Red Project, Grand Rapids’ leading HIV advocacy organization.** And yet, we don’t talk much about HIV at the Network, outside, of course, of talking about HIV and gay men. And I have to admit, I knew that HIV happens to a lot of people other than gay men, but I didn’t know a lot about some of the other risk groups. It’s kind of embarrassing. Before I started transitioning, and started learning the facts, for instance, I didn’t know that the risk of HIV infection is estimated to be almost fifty times higher in transgender women*** than in the general population. Fifty times.

The origins of this are complex, but they don’t simplify to wealth or regionality – the rates are shockingly high even in wealthy countries, including here in the United States. Those numbers are a little unclear, in part because of things like studies historically considering us a wide variety of strange things (like considering trans women as automatically falling in the men-who-have-sex-with-men category, in some cases barring us from giving blood for this reason, #no), with national estimates quite possibly around 20% in trans women (meaning one out of five trans women would have HIV), and in some high base rate regions like San Francisco, where the trans population also tends to drift, maybe even 35-45%. 10%, 20%, or 40%, though, these are insane numbers. And I don’t want to just call out The Network (without betraying anyone’s confidence, let me just say that HIV is not a topic of conversation that I can recall ever coming up at our trans group) – I’ve been now to two national trans conferences, First Event and Southern Comfort, and the only discussion of HIV testing I ever hear is that many surgeons do a rapid HIV test before surgery.****

I’m an intersectional feminist (and a radical feminist, and proud of it) – and the evidence backs me up. It’s pretty likely that multiple marginalization is a big contributing factor – living in a high-wealth country doesn’t protect you from HIV, but living poor in a high-wage country puts you at higher risk. Underrepresented ethnic minority status (which may not just mean being a “person of color”) confers risk, statistically. And exposure to drugs, commercial sexual exploitation (and I do mean exploitation, this is not a SWERF narrative), and other factors increase risk. So, it’s quite possible that someone like me does have somewhat lower risk (I do, actually, know about what does and doesn’t put me at risk), but it’s also quite probable that the reason that Southern Comfort Conference doesn’t talk about HIV is that the rate of HIV among SCC participants is actually much lower than the global HIV statistics among trans people. Quite possible. And quite unhelpful. And quite scary, since, probably, like me, most of them didn’t know, at least for sure.

So what are the recommendations? Currently, the US government, amazingly, recommends only yearly screening even for high-risk populations, but local experts like Kevin are recommending yearly tests even for monogamous heterosexuals (since, well, sadly, you never know what your partner might be doing) and quarterly testing for target populations (people who have unprotected sex and/or multiple partners, people who use injectable drugs, and a few other categories, for instance, infection with herpes simplex virus, which is very common and can be asymptomatic, is known to increase HIV risk). I find this really interesting. Kevin told me that Red Project is really one of the primary providers of screening in Grand Rapids (many others refer to them, and they have a number of contracts that make them the “go-to” provider from certain referral sources), and they plan to do around 500 tests in 2015. This is a significant increase from 2014 (about 20%). But…hmmm… okay, you know the girl has taken a few math classes here and there (insert trope about women not being able to do math). Sexually active adults, even if they’re monogamous, need yearly tests… and Grand Rapids has a city population of almost than 200,000. And, erm, you know the suburbs are coming to the city for this stuff. Doesn’t that mean tens of thousands of HIV tests should be happening in Grand Rapids yearly?

Kevin and I got to be on a panel for GVSU’s Student Nursing Association a few weeks ago.***** When I got tested, I got to follow up with Kevin on this topic. Back at the SNA presentation, I had opined (potentially, somewhat ignorantly) that I just didn’t see the recommendations on HIV testing frequency happening unless one of the primary sources of testing was at the annual primary care visit (or with other primary providers, such as OB-GYN’s, since many women really rely on them as their PCP’s, in effect). Kevin has a valid point. The biggest problem is that PCP’s and their staff are really not equipped to deal with the intense feelings, fears, questions, and uncertainty that would arise from positive testing results. And a lot of the people who get routine tests with Red Project tell them that they really don’t feel a comfort level at their PCP. Also, anyone who’s gotten follow-up recommendations from their PCP and felt like they slipped through the cracks will wonder how well aftercare can happen with that setup. Kevin and his team, in contrast, get you set up with care very, very quickly, and they hold your hand (literally – they come to the first meeting with you) into care. Kevin’s got great points – there need to be other kinds of options, and particularly ones that make LGBT people, women, and ethnic minorities feel more comfortable. But I do think PCP’s need to be a part of the mix – I’ll go anywhere I need to go, but I know that I’ve been going faithfully to my PCP annually, ever since I became sexually active (and before), and it’s a problem that the best HIV counseling I’ve ever received from them is what I wrote in the first footnote. Truth is I should have been streamlined into yearly testing (which is probably a good fit with my risk category, overall), but just like a lot of the rest of you out there, I wasn’t.

Okay, so that’s a lot of politics. So what was the actual experience of getting tested like? Well, it was nice. Kevin was great (we’re just getting to know each other, but I think he’s kind of fab, anyways). The interview questions raised lots of questions… my life is a little complicated. For instance, I’m a woman, and although I have a stable partner at the moment, whether I’m a woman who sleeps with women or men is a little bit in flux right now (hint: get ready for a Mira Goes Way Het blog at some point). But I have (not trying to be non-PG-13 here) been with women… erm… well, in the way that men are with women. Anyways, it turns out that, far from not thinking about trans women, the screening instruments really view all queer women as a bit of an afterthought, here in Michigan, at least. Some of us might be at lower risk, although there is at least limited case history of female-to-female transmission. Kevin already knows to be pretty trans (and everything else) friendly, and I’m no shrinking violet, so I didn’t feel too awkward. It was more of an interesting discussion (starting with me just simply identifying myself as female, since I didn’t notice there was a transgender option – Michigan only allows one thing to be selected, though, and of male, female, and transgender, you kind of know I’m going to be choosing female). So, there was a short history… the kind of stuff you should be telling your physician (*cough* *cough* people, start telling your physician this stuff, they need to know). Told here, as it would be at your doctor’s office, in confidence. But I would plead with trans people – don’t be scared away from HIV testing… you’ve had the chutzpah to start coming out to people, to live authentically, you got this.

After that, they use a finger prick and blood-based test. It takes just a few minutes to do the actual test. It’s like a pregnancy test, except I’m not allowed to pee on it (and, sadly, I already know what the pregnancy test is going to tell me). The test looks for an antibody reaction. There is a prior phase in which there are not yet, antibodies, but there are antigens, and there are tests that are starting to roll out that test for that. But what this means is that, if you’ve had a new exposure to HIV recently, and recently in some people can be up to 12 weeks, then it might not detect it. This is most of the reason why high-risk people should get HIV tests every three months (which seems eminently reasonable, unlike the CDC recommendations, which seem way too loosey-goosey to me). They do a second test if the first test is reactive (that’s positive, or it means you have HIV antibodies in your system), but they go ahead and set you up with follow-up care in the meantime, because time is of the essence (and we already know that people who do things like get tested, especially if they don’t do them routinely, are in a time-critical window of action – making them wait significantly increases the chances they will just convince themselves they don’t need to do anything). They give you a piece of paper with your results.

This is an innocuous looking piece of paper. Folded in half. What you can't see, on the inside, is the result of my HIV test. It's my business. It's Teri's business. It's my doctors' business. That's about it.

This is an innocuous looking piece of paper. Folded in half. What you can’t see, on the inside, is the result of my HIV test. It’s my business. It’s Teri’s business. It’s my doctors’ business. That’s about it.

This is one more little bit of politicking. A lot of people post these pieces of paper on the internet, like on Facebook, or they tweet that they’re HIV negative, or whatever. The nice part about this is that they are raising awareness of getting tested. The bad part about this is that they’re putting HIV positive people in a tricky situation. If we LGBTQIA+ people are just getting used to the idea of being out, we should be able to understand the basic premise that being out is deeply personal, and we do not “out” other people without their permission, or make them feel ashamed of not being out. And what, pray tell, is the point of coming out HIV negative? It’s like coming out as straight (no, you still can’t have a letter in the alphabet******, and no, I’m not coming to your straight parade). So, I’m not going to tell you (much like I respect Laverne Cox’s decision not to talk to you about her downstairs parts). I’ll simply say that I know it. My partner knows it, too. I haven’t seen my doctor yet, but I’ll be happy to tell her. And that’s the point. Those people need to know about this. And now we do. I mean, look. We’ve got enough reasons to be mourning our dead at Transgender Day of Remembrance every year. HIV kind of doesn’t need to be yet another one.

* Okay, this is real Mira back in the house, and you know I bring my footnotes. I actually had a physician at the University of Chicago – not a resident, but I saw the actual professor overseeing the residents – tell me that, since I’d donated blood, I had a de facto HIV screen (footnote within a footnote, this was back, obviously, before I came out – but actually, policies surrounding whether trans people can give blood are more than a little unclear, as you’ll see back above, later in the story).

** Kind of embarrassingly, before I came in and started Miracizing the place, we haven’t always had the warmest relations… to me, it’s kind of embarrassing for the LGBT community center to not be the most vocal supporter of the HIV organization. I mean, we’ve got a lot of fights, but this is one of them, for sure. Like I said, though, I’m working on that.

*** This isn’t a funny footnote. I say trans women – the CDC looked at NYC HIV data – of transgender HIV cases between 2007-2011, 99% of them (essentially all but two) were trans women. Of course, trans men, genderqueer, and gender fluid people face many of the same risk factors, and in some cases can be at higher risk (for instance, my medication is all oral, and if I did need needles, I know how to get them safely, but trans men who share needles, for instance, for testosterone injection, would be at pretty high risk).

**** I don’t want to ignore the fact that my people are pretty oppressed, but people dying of HIV is just not more important than my access to bottom surgery. For serious.

***** In the middle of a November snowstorm, I might add. But we’re fierce queers, we don’t miss stuff. And they were fierce nurses, and they were out in force.

****** I don’t get a letter if I land back in heteroville, either. But I’m keeping my claim on the “T.”

My Talk to PFLAG Holland / Lakeshore This Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re-Thinking Privilege and Visibility in The Trans Community: How Solidarity and Advocacy Can Make The World Safe for All of Us

I gave this speech as the keynote address for the 2014 West Michigan Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Gathering of Hope, tonight. 

FullSizeRender 2

Some of the dedicated people who volunteered their time to make this event happen

FullSizeRender 3I get to stand up alongside some amazing talent in my advocacy role

Thank you so much for allowing me to speak to you, and thank you to all our allies for being here tonight. This is a special night for our community. Even nationally, we don’t have a lot of spaces that belong just to trans people. Because of this, we very rarely have opportunities to welcome you into our space. But tonight, I’m borrowing Pastor Doug’s (and, well, Teri’s and my) church and appropriating it as “our space” (Sorry, Pastor!). So, I do want to take a moment to welcome you all into a space that belongs to trans people. If you’re one of my trans siblings, you belong here. Tonight, this is your space. Yours in which you should be proud of whom and what you are, yours in which you should hold your head up high, yours in which you should demand that you be seen and counted and recognized. And, if you’re here as an ally, for this one rare time, please let us welcome you into our space. You belong here, too. Because trans people are people, and people don’t stand alone, and you are our community.

Now, what I’m about to say may make some of you uncomfortable – but I would feel wrong if I didn’t say it. The thought behind it made me uncomfortable, for a long time. I also think you, like me, will be better for being uncomfortable. Chad Griffin is the CEO of the Human Rights Campaign, probably the biggest LGBT advocacy organization in the world. He came to Southern Comfort Conference a few months ago, to apologize to our community for HRC’s historic missteps towards us. HRC kind of owed us that apology. When Chad did that, he started by acknowledging his privilege.

I want to do the same. I want to acknowledge the stark contrast between my life and the lives of the siblings we are here today to mourn. Where many of them were impoverished and more than a few experienced homelessness, I have always had a warm bed to sleep in, and enough money to pay for everything I needed and a fair amount of what I wanted. Where many of them were estranged from their families, my parents have been so good to me, and if not perfectly understanding of what it’s like to be me, open to trying. My father said, “I don’t know why you came to ask me if I accept you – of course I accept you, you’re my child.” My mother said, “If anybody in the family has a problem with you, they’ll have to come through me,” and she’s as fierce as I aspire to be, so I wouldn’t mess with her. Where many of them were cut off from their communities, I should acknowledge that I live in a world of talking business over lunch or after-dinner drinks (or, sometimes, brunch!). Far from losing anyone in either my personal or professional community through transitioning, my social network has only grown and strengthened. Far from losing recognition for my expertise in autism, I gained recognition now also for my role in the LGBT community. And where many of our siblings were seen as what the police protected “us” from, I am able to generally assume, when I see a police officer, that they are there to protect and serve me. Their presence makes me feel more, not less safe. I want to come clean about all of this. I don’t want to stand up here and ignore how I do not face many of the risks that felled our siblings – 268 in the last year, I think that’s 12% more than last year.

I want to come clean about the disparity between me having about as good an experience transitioning here in West Michigan as anyone has, anywhere, and the siblings, not just out there, but right here, who struggle with a lack of acceptance or access to resources, and of course, the siblings who paid the ultimate sacrifice, just for being what God made them. We live in an intersectional world. Some of us live at the intersection of multiple forms of marginalization, that make it harder to live authentically, harder to be accepted, harder to survive. And some of us live at the intersection of multiple forms of privilege, that make even challenging life experiences, like transitioning, something through which we not only survive, but thrive. That’s privilege. Mostly, I didn’t earn it. It’s just a matter of luck.


Look at me, getting all fierce

Of course, that’s not the whole story. It’s just a starting point, to challenge you to think differently about how we go farther in getting the world to accept us, in getting our needs taken seriously, and in finally seeing a world where freedom is a right and not a matter of being “one of the lucky ones.” For ALL trans people. To get, there, we need to re-think our use of privilege and visibility. They need to become not just something for which we apologize, or about which we are bashful, but weapons that we will use to win this thing.

So, while I respect that each of us must make choices that are best for them – we cannot build the revolution on anyone’s back – I do want to push you to think differently about being visible. When I was coming out, I knew that I couldn’t be “stealth” in my profession. I’m in a small technical field. Even if I moved to Texas, too many people in my field know me. I could not have been stealth in my profession. But I could have been stealth, in my community, in Texas or some other far-flung place. I thought about this, after I started transitioning, and before my story became public. For a moment. I chose not to leave. Not just because I love Grand Rapids – I do – but because not being stealth gave me an opportunity to be a little more fearless as an advocate. I had a little less to lose. Plus, I don’t really know any other place to wear my heart other than my sleeve. Everybody who knows me knows that.

If you’re a trans person in the room, and you’re engaged in professional or other leadership spaces, especially, you’re kind of used to something that’s new to me, over the four months or so since I went “full time.” You get used to the times when, over and over again, you sit at a table, or speak up in a conversation, or stand up in front of a crowd, and you realize that you are boldly going where no trans person has gone before. And you get used to the sense that there are a million other times when you’re doing that, and you didn’t even realize it. When we go into those spaces and we own them – we stand tall, and proud, and fierce, and we stare down anyone who stares at us, or we throw them a dismissive smile – our visibility makes it easier for the next trans person, and the next trans person, and the next. Even when they hate us, your visibility helps us, because it outs the hate. And when you look around this room, you realize that we have lots of different kinds of visibilities. Some of us are visible with our faces. Some of us are visible with our voices. We are visible by our presence. You are visible just by gathering here tonight. All of you have one kind of visibility or another.

And what about our privilege? Right here, in Grand Rapids, the LGBT community and our allies, we raised more than $280,000 in pledges and donations for Our LGBT Fund. In less than four months. Trans people are represented at that table – as donors and as leaders in the Fund. We are being vocal about our needs and our expectations as we begin the process of prioritizing what we can do with this new source of funding, so that we make sure that trans people are represented at that table as recipients of the supports this funding will bring, as well. Money is one kind of privilege that gets us to the the table. It’s a privilege the trans community is hesitant to mobilize, although today, even small contributions to causes, when added up, can make a difference and emphasize our role in changing things.

But money is just one privilege. Connections, cultivated friendships, opportunities you’ve had to develop skills or prestige, all these privileges are currency in a very real way. That currency helps us get a seat at those tables. But, we choose to be at those tables, because it’s important to make sure we have a voice in the conversation. What I want to challenge you with, tonight, is that we have more privileges than we realize. Some of you work for large corporations. Some of you have privilege by membership in an ethnic group or social class. Many of you have privilege that education brings. Again, when you look around this room, you realize that we have lots of different kinds of privileges. Those privileges, when we lord them over each other, when we use them to build a wall between us and our community, become terrible. But when we we leverage those privileges to make the world a better place for trans people, they can be redeemed.

You can see this – leveraging privilege and visibility – writ large these days. And you don’t even have to look outside our own trans community. I came out in a time of Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Kristin Beck, and Chaz Bono. Their use of privilege and visibility to advance trans acceptance and inclusion – especially leveraging their talents in something other than being trans – made it easier for me. Honestly, they’re kind of hard to argue with. Kristin is like a real-life G.I. Joe character. Laverne had what started as a small role in Orange Is The New Black and kind of stole the show, and not because she was trans, but because she’s an amazing actress and has a warm, lovable personality. And Janet is inspiring as an example about how to be graceful and real, at the same time, for anyone (myself certainly included). And Chaz? Well, I guess I just wish I could dance like Chaz can! Each one of them, in their coming out, made a choice to be visible. They made a choice to leverage their privileges – whether talent or name or appearance or connections – to advance our cause. Those of you who are here as allies, who maybe only know one trans person, who haven’t had the opportunity to be in a space where we’re the majority, you may not know just how many more stories there are, out there, like Kristin’s, Chaz’s, Janet’s, or Laverne’s. You may not know just how awe-inspiring the talent level is when you get a room of trans people together. But you trans people in the room, you know better. All that talent, if we focus it on changing the world for us, can be powerful in changing our perception as a community. So, this is how privilege and talent become weapons.

In the days to come, we’re going to need those weapons. We’re going to need to get uncomfortable, because this is war. So I’m calling on you to ask – how and where are you willing to be visible? And will you think again about the privileges you have and how you can use them in this fight? In a world where so many of you have done so much to advance the cause of marriage equality, we’ve got a lot to do to teach the rest of the LGBT community that “it ain’t a party if I ain’t invited” (even though we’ve always been here). In a world where we need so many candles to mourn our dead, we need to hold accountable the people who have the gall to say we’re “fully protected” already and that our state’s civil rights amendment doesn’t need to include us (this isn’t hypothetical – we need your help on this right now). And in a world where people still call us unnatural, in contradiction to scientific evidence and common sense, we need to teach people the truth – what our friends know already: that the colors are brighter, the laughter more joyous, the songs more cheerful, and the world so much better, when our community embraces us.

My Open Letter to The Mayor

An open letter to Mayor George Heartwell of Grand Rapids.

I personally have been blessed, aside from the benefit of the city’s non-discrimination ordinance, with overwhelming support, acceptance, and graciousness from my community. I transitioned at work in a Christian non-profit in Grand Rapids, and there is really no company of any size or place in the world where my transition could have gone better than here. But we’re not all this lucky. Many LGBT people do struggle with housing or employment, and are pushed to choose between being authentic and true to themselves, and being able to live, love, and work in Michigan. Many highly talented LGBT people leave Michigan for this very reason – and I know many of these stories personally as well as many more who consider leaving the state every day.

See more over on our blog at The Network!

Reimagining LGBT Community

I feel a little remiss if I don’t share this press release, right here on my blog. Sorry it took me so long. Stepping into this new role at The Network has been yet another example of how I constantly find myself stepping back and being sore amazed at the amazing people I’ve somehow managed to draw into my life (and into whose lives I’ve been drawn). We’ve already had two amazingly talented young professionals agree to join me on the board, since two weeks ago.

The first weekend in my role as CEO, scrambling to fix all the little problems and hinges that come unhinged during this kind of restructuring, I had more than a few moments. Teri was there to hold me for them and let me cry the tears I needed to cry. Thanks, mister. And then she pulled a fast one on me – she had a totally believable (slash I’m really gullible) tale about winning a performance competition at work, and that she was taking me out on a date Friday night. We arrive at the home of her manager, where, supposedly, the tickets are, and… my amazing Network friends threw a surprise party? For me? I should mention fellow Network board members sent me flowers, also, back when I joined. Teri* tells me I need to step back and, in addition to my amazement at the passion and talent of the people in my life, remember also, just how much I am loved. I will do. You are right. I am loved, and I struggle daily to be worthy of the people who love me. It’s not something I say to self-deprecate, or self-loathe, or self-anything. I say it because the people who love me… are that amazing. Seriously.

Although I’m watching you, sir, and you will take me out on a date, yet!

Okay, here it is: the announcement of what we’re doing with the Network, a major milestone in a plan I’ve been quietly putting together for months, now.

The Network Looks to The Future, Embarks on Reimagining LGBT Community

Grand Rapids, MI – October 17, 2014 – Mike Hemmingsen, President of the Network, announced today that the organization is undergoing an ambitious and thorough restructuring. “It’s amazing to see the pace of change in LGBT visibility and freedom, both on a nationwide and a local scale,” said Hemmingsen. “Today, we have more rights than we have ever had, more acceptance, and more allies, although many challenges remain, and it is clear these changes have not benefitted all LGBT people equally. Over the last several months, the Board of Directors of The Network has been taking a long, hard look at our place in the changing landscape of the LGBT community and our relationship with our straight brothers and sisters.”

“The first and most important conclusion we reached is that we must not rest. Our work is not done, nor are we yet doing enough, until a time should come when LGBT lives and loves are fully equal, and our gifts are seen at their full worth in the marketplace of talents. However, we recognize that, as this environment changes, we must change with it, in order to continue to be relevant both to the LGBT community and to our broader community, and to be able to fully carry out our vision of making the Grand Rapids area the best place in the world to live, love, and work as an LGBT person or one of our allies.”

As part of the restructuring of the Network that is beginning, Hemmingsen noted that Dr. Mira Krishnan joined the Board this summer. She is a leader in autism diagnosis and treatment, with a strong track record for operations growth, and she brings to the organization experience in non-profit administration and leadership, grant funding, and strategic planning. Effective immediately, Krishnan will assume the role of Chief Executive Officer of the Network, in a volunteer capacity at this time. With strong support from the Board of Directors, she will be tasked with operations oversight and implementation of the strategic / restructuring plan.

“We have an amazing opportunity, right here, and right now, in this pivotal time and place for LGBT rights, to do something really meaningful,” said Krishnan. “This is our opportunity to redefine what it means to be LGBT community. We will recommit to lifting up those in our community who are more struggling, recognizing that, until all of us are safe, none of us are safe. We will continue to celebrate LGBT lives and loves. And we will take our rightful place as community stakeholders. We will reaffirm and increase our commitment as LGBT Grand Rapidians to making this a great city, to enhancing the stability and prosperity of our industry and our neighborhoods, and to doing this for all people, gay and straight. Although the changes the Network is going through are going to be hard for many of us, this is the right thing to do to make sure the Network can be the center of the Grand Rapids LGBT community today, tomorrow, and 5, 10, or 50 years down the road.”

As part of this restructuring, the existing Executive Director is no longer affiliated with the Network. The organization also asks for temporary understanding, over the next several weeks, as regular office hours will be disrupted. There is no anticipated impact on supportive / social group programming, which will continue as normal. The leadership of the Network has spent the past month briefing key community stakeholders about the status of this plan. We will continue to share our vision and our goals for the Network both inside and outside the organization. In particular, we will be hosting town halls in the coming months to share our restructuring plan and allow for community input. Members of the Network, who wish to investigate further opportunities to aid the organization through this process, are also strongly welcomed to contact Krishnan via the e-mail address below.

The LGBT Network of West Michigan (“The Network”) is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization headquartered in the Eastown neighborhood of Grand Rapids. It has united, nurtured, and sustained the LGBT community in the Grand Rapids area for more than 25 years.

Mira Krishnan
CEO, The Network
343 Atlas SE
Grand Rapids, MI 49506
(616) 458-3511


Oh, and while I’m at it, we’re getting started right away with cool, new stuff. Of particular note, check out our new event, Our Narratives. We think it’s so important that we help each other, as LGBTQIA+ people, to tell our stories, own our stories, and use our stories, to help advocate for changes, large and small, that make the world a better place for everybody. I’m hosting the first Our Narratives workshop, to help us do this, and do it better, and do it braver, and do it fiercer, right in my own home. You can register over on EventBrite. Maybe I’ll get to find out your story, there?

* No lie, it’s escalating – she doesn’t just humor me liking Taylor Swift any more, I catch her singing along. She KNOWS THE WORDS. Truth.

A Visible Presence (My First Pride!!!)

First, I’m sorry the living of life has largely usurped the documenting and analysis thereof — I’ve missed encapsulating my thoughts, but I think I needed to have some experiences* to have much new to say.

I’ve blogged previously about the idea that there is a nuanced up and down to choosing a life of visibility, because it confers the opportunity for advocacy, and of stealth, because it confers the opportunity for normalcy. I admit sometimes I still work on what the balance is for me — I never feel obligated to share every detail of my story, much like I respect Laverne Cox’s decision not to talk about her body and surgeries and things like that. At Pride, a really sweet young straight ally who worked the information tent with me joined in a conversation with me and a trans man friend who came by to say hello to me. He was really intrigued and interested in the fact that my friend had transitioned and had a lot of (good) questions to ask. Later, he said to me, “So you’re, like, a lipstick lesbian?” Well, yes, basically**. What can I say? Welcome to Pride, one lesson at a time, knowing all the terminology is really not required or the point, and I guess every conversation need not be an opportunity for education (and, plus, the whole thing was funny). 

Back up a step. I should clarify that, last month, I attended my first Pride, as far as I know. It’s possible I stopped by a Pride somewhere (I remember kiss-ins on the Diag at university, but I don’t remember Pride itself). Anyway, even if I did attend a Pride briefly somewhere, I never did so as a queer-identified person, nor did I volunteer at one. Saturday, I was info tent girl, hostessing Pride for most of the time between 7AM and 7PM! So I didn’t just go to Pride, I rocked the Calder

(That was the actual theme)

My first Pride was a blast.  

7000 people there. Four or five protesters, and everybody else loving on each other and having a good time and celebrating how good it is to be alive. I made it through a 12 hour shift in low heels***. And was cheery***.5. And got hundreds of people to fill out surveys, one for the Network relating to LGBT healthcare/wellness experiences, and the other for a project of my girlfriend’s****, on trying to better characterize homelessness experiences of LGBT youth in West Michigan, and advocate for better services.

It was Grand Rapids Nice… there were, I think, at least four churches with booths, and one or two more roaming the Plaza and chatting people up without a booth (all on our side… God knows where the protesters come from).

Oh, there were protesters, as I said a couple of times. A handful of them. One of them got disrespectful with a megaphone (in violation of city code) and the police officers on parade duty shut him down. The others were … well, as nice as people, who have an awful and dehumanizing view of religion that spurs hatred and intolerance, can be. I (and a few others) went out and said hello to them, made sure they were doing all right (I told them I appreciated their taking the time to come out… why not? They don’t make me look bad), and offered water (but they came with). We kept sunscreen at the info tent, too, because we’re just lovey like that, us queer folk, who recognize that actually being queer is the thing we’re proud about, but keeping people healthy and saving the planet are really, really important, too. 

One of the local network affiliates did a kind of ridiculous piece on our Pride. About 6-8 sentences spent on the marshals (we had April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, an excellent choice), and then paragraphs about the four or five protesters. Okay, I can’t be too mean to these guys … the coverage stank, but they’ve been good to me, and most of the times I’ve had the opportunity to be on TV have been with them. It seems conspicuous, however, to write an article and not mention the 7000 people who came to Pride and had a great time (I met most of them, I should know). Or the organization that hosted Pride. Or the churches that came out, or the vendors, or, … how outside of the world of lawsuits and protesters and throwing slushies, we’re quietly becoming an integrated, deeply entrenched, economically powerful, and vibrant part of the community. And slowly, but surely, we’re advertising it.

It’s hard, though, and I think anyone who’s really gotten into Pride knows, to focus on the negative. And don’t let me do what the TV station did. It was an amazing, overwhelming day. I made friends and strengthened friendships and laughed and danced and hugged and loved and had some kind of pink lemonade shandy that was amazing-pants. I studiously avoided having to use the porta-potties, because even a homo can only do so much with those things, and the elephant ears, because, really, I’m not 8 anymore*****.  

If you Google Elephant Ears, you get a Wikipedia page for Fried Dough… and Type II Diabetes. Just right there on the spot. For serious.

We decided not to go out and party at the end of the night, although that was ramping up as we walked off. Teri and I came home (breeze in the convertible … heavenly after 12 hours on my feet), had a drink on the deck, I think made some nachos in the oven, and went to bed. And I cried in her arms. Happy, happy tears. Of pride. And … that’s what it’s like to know that I am loved, that my life, my love, and my gifts matter, and that I belong.

* There’s a lot going on! Of particular note things like name-change-court-date…. Also there’s a great quote from Their Eyes Were Watching God that’s something about having lived so much as to be content on memories alone, but I can never seem to find it again. Love, love that novel, by the way, a masterpiece.

** We’ve had it out over my orientation, but I’m femme, all the way. We did have a healthy debate, Teri (who is not femme) and I, on this business of femme vs. lipstick lesbian… then apparently there are chapstick lesbians, and SPF30 lesbians, and … gawd … Teri just makes me swoon and get mushy inside. Leave it at that.

*** Which, apparently, are some kind of environmentally friendly shoe… Timberland Earthkeepers. Who even knew Timberland made cute strappy sandals?

***.5 Seriously, I can be obnoxiously perky at times. 

**** Teri also made up with like three or four people following a long-running dispute, while totally outdoing the gay guys at bartending, because, seriously, never let a gay man do a lesbian’s job.

***** Speaking of letting a gay man do the job, I should admit that I just finished Wade Rouse’s At Least In The City, Someone Would Hear Me Scream for book club … I’m channeling a little bit of his snark here. I can only do snark in small quantities. Did I mention that, in the “Which OITNB character are you?” quiz, I’m Piper (if not, re-read note 3.5)? And Teri was Vause. Hmmm… She’s writing fiction on her laptop right next to me while I’m writing a blog post. Hmmm… and I swear, the chicken is real.

I Think I Passed

Okay, never one to shy from controversy, I think I had my first real experience being “stealth*.” To be fair, I’ve gone to the store many times, and I’m more or less stealth – outside that time I went late at night, about which I blogged previously, I’ve actually rarely felt very stared at, and most of the time I make direct contact with a few people in the process, and none of them do a double take, and the interactions are pleasant, except when someone honks at me, because I swear I looked in the rearview and they were not there when I started backing out. 

It’s often worse at inclusive spaces**, in a slightly ridiculous way, because other LGBT people read me more readily than straight people.  Also, more generally, the funny consequence of this is that only people who know me well ever misgender me, even though I’m just three months on hormones. You can argue the point if you want (people got catty when I suggested this was happening in a trans thread on Facebook). But it’s decently accurate, and no one is more surprised about it than I am.

I just met you, and this is crazy, but here’s my number, so call me Blackbird?

But, in the real, not officially inclusive world, the experiences have been stacking up. I do get compliments. They’re flattering, but I also admit that when I get compliments, going out, I assume people know exactly what I am, and they think I’m hideous, and they’re just being nice (because who could ever find me pretty?). So they compliment my bracelet or earrings to be pleasant without having to engage me on my appearance. This interacts a bit with the eating disorder history, too. I don’t have distorted body image so much, anymore, but at some level, those perceptions and those cognitions will always be with me. 

Anyway, little things challenge the pattern of cognition. I sat down at Starbucks the other day, and the woman on one side chatted friendly that she was envious that I could pull of a pant suit, because she can’t. This one I don’t think really had anything to do with recognizing I was transgender, but moreover, it caught me off guard, because I was a little scared to go with the pants over the skirt for fear that the outfit was just a little less clearly feminine, although, of course, with a frilly blouse, heels, and dangly earrings, the point comes across, honestly, well enough. But anyways, I was caught off guard, although the compliment felt genuine and really nice, actually. I quickly recovered with, “Thank you! I’m not always sure I can, either!” Which is actually the truth. My face doesn’t blush unless NARS has helped, but I would have blushed if my complexion allowed for it. The young women on the other side of me liked my earrings. Excellent power up before going into a big meeting, and I felt just plain like a woman all day***. 

But here’s the other, secret part. This is the part I haven’t heard very many trans people who “pass” (either as well as I do, or far better) talk about. Conceptually, I think it’s unlikely no one recognizes I’m, well, a different kind of woman. I also kind of know it’s unlikely that everyone thinks I look like a freak, and they are all simultaneously playing much better poker faces than I can muster, so that no one in the crowd shows it. I can also conceptually accept that some people probably do think I look a little … different … and may not much care for it, and are just being nice. What drives me crazy is not whether I pass, but that I don’t know what other people think of me. That drives me insane, because I’m that girl who wants everyone to like her, and can’t be terribly comfortable with the idea that there may be people who are faking liking me and I don’t know it. There. I said it.

People have written about how it’s hard to be pretty. I’m not going to try to convince you of some absurdity, like pretty people have it worse than ugly people or smart people have it worse than stupid people, or rich people have it worse than poor people, because by and large, the scientific evidence (which has addressed this) does not support the claim. But this is the dark side to … passing is the wrong word. Stealth is the wrong word, because, as I’ve already explained, I’ve made a  nuanced decision not to go stealth, even if I could. It’s the dark side to having a high degree of social acceptability (in a wide range of settings and among people who don’t know me) as a transitioning person, because like pretty people (dare I say other pretty people? It’s taken me a long time to wrap my head around the fact that I’m perceived as pretty, as much as I’ve longed for the moniker all my life), a lot of us hide insecurities, and just … there is a specific hell to not knowing what people think of me, even if the answer would turn out to be not so bad.

* Here I simply mean being in a cisgender space and being pretty sure most of the people with whom one interacts don’t know one is trans. As usual, I semi-facetiously court controversy. So, I don’t pass judgment on the choice of trans people who choose to go into a deep stealth, where they live in such a way that even many/most of their close/intimate friends and colleagues do not know they are trans. As I’ve said before, locally, that could never be an option for me, but were I to relocate somewhere where there isn’t a large neuropsychology presence or other network connections to my perceived-male days, it might be feasible. I don’t have the option globally, unless I were to leave my profession. I’ve also chosen not to do this, because, in my case, I believe I can work and thrive here, where many people know me, and by doing so open the door wider for our siblings. 

** Okay, so I wrote my post about Coolclusion, right? A couple weeks later, at church, one of the same people I mentioned, I kid you not, on the day that the sermon was about what it means to be an open and affirming church, told my girlfriend and me, “If we can accept you [laughter], we can accept anyone, can’t we?” Blithely. What does it really say about us, as a people, if I can go to expensive bars and fancy restaurants, and totally get treated well and feel welcome, and this is the standard to which we hold ourselves in making an inclusive church accepting? How did things come to be this way, and how do we right the apple cart?

*** And they don’t even know what coolclusion is, or who they’re trying to coolclude!

What A Difference A Year Makes

I’m trying to nail down some travel plans for the late summer and in to the fall, to go to APA Convention in Washington, DC and then to Southern Comfort in Atlanta, GA.

I went to First Event in Boston, in January, still quite unsure whether I could do this. It was my first real exposure to trans people outside my support group. I had so little confidence, back then. Just five months later, I feel so strong. Such a difference a year makes – so much is up in the air, and yet I know I can do this. The doubts vanish daily, filled with a gentle knowledge inside that I am so much stronger than I look. 

I’m filing to change my name, and most likely I’ll be flying under my new name before I get on another plane. Delta kindly explained to me that getting my tickets updated, assuming my legal name change goes through by then (it should – I should be able to get a court date in a couple weeks when my fingerprint check clears), is no big. I got this, and, as it turns out, they do, too

This will be only my second APA, altogether (the first was an emotional rollercoaster – it was one of the first conferences in New Orleans after Katrina, in 2006, and a friend and classmate died driving to it, and had I not been so lazy, I would have been in the car with her, but that’s a story for another time), and my first non-LGBT conference (& what a doozy, APA is huge!) at which I will be recognized as a woman. But I’m going to enjoy it. I bought a benefit dinner ticket to eat at HRC’s headquarters down the street from the conference, and raise money and awareness for APA’s Division 44. So I guess I’ll be packing a little black dress*. I’m hoping to see a dear friend and his wife, and re-connect, while I’m there, also, since it’s been almost four years since I’ve been to DC. 

SCC will be my second transgender conference – when I went to FE in January, I wasn’t sure if I would even pack a dress – I felt so squeamish and unsure of my self. This time, I may be packing a skirt suit, too, if my presentation gets accepted (I’ll be talking about what it’s like to transition as a healthcare professional and as a leader). And more to the point, I won’t be packing any men’s clothes, not then, and probably not ever again. I’ll be flying as a woman, on both occasions. I’ll be working as a woman, everyday. I’ll be advocating for the kids and families I serve as a woman. I’ll be back to living a single gender life (well, except for my drivers license, for a little while, at least). But it’ll be my gender, not the one to which I pretended for all these years.

Bring it!

And I’m not scared about checking in at the hotel as a woman, or riding the MARTA to the hotel in Atlanta (no, I’m not staying off it because of what happened recently – because justice will not be meted out by running away), or going through the TSA scanner and generating an anomaly. Not at all, no, I’m trying to figure out an excuse to fly even more in the fall (okay, so I’m also one flight away from a status jump with Delta Skymiles… and right now, I don’t have flight plans from September all the way till January!). 

What a tidal wave. And I am surfing on it, not being swept away. 

* And, erm, semi-comfortable shoes – it looks like an eight block stroll to the dinner. Too bad it’s a short trip and I have to pack carefully. This would be a perfect opportunity to use my über-cute minaudière. 

Coolclusion: That Hip, New Thing

This is gentle criticism, and it’s directed at people I love. I’ve had some really interesting experiences exploring the inclusive church space over the past half year. I’m technically a member, or at least I was, of a certain large Protestant church that is thick as thieves here in West Michigan. I became a member in my 20s, in Ann Arbor, when I was an engineer, after going there through most of college. It was my church home altogether for most of ten years. I left for two reasons. The proximal one was that I was in the process of shipping off to Gainesville, FL, to do my doctoral studies. Of course, the sensible thing to do would have been to re-establish my churchgoing in Gainesville, but I want to be honest and admit I did not do this. The distal, truer, and less public reason, had to do with the fact that, at that time, I knew who and what I was, and I accepted it conceptually, but I was not anywhere near brave enough to do anything about it, and I wasn’t really ready to know how to love myself, either (anorexia, ironically, had already begun to lead me towards knowing how to love myself, but this was early in my disordered eating days yet). I felt a very strong sense in that church of the message from God that no one had the right to separate me from the divine. It almost was like a vision* that came to me, once, actually, when I was late and snuck into the choir balcony, and it was a stern rebuke, not a gentle reassurance. But I had become increasingly convinced, even though at that time, I really was just beginning to understand consciously the issues surrounding LGBTQIA+ inclusion, that this simple message received only lip service, and certainly was not the model of religious fellowship I saw around me, most of the time.

What I saw around me were generally more-or-less good people, with everyday problems (I went to Sunday school with a fellow Ford engineer’s wife, who complained about him “having” to buy Ford cars, which struck me as… disingenuous). I also saw, frequently, that they used the perception of sin as a means to bully each other and achieve submission. The most glaring time I saw this was a newlywed fellow graduate student (whom I legitimately liked) trying to convince me that, even if had not had extra-marital sex, I was an adulterer because I thought about it. These kinds of messages were always externally directed – one got these sermonettes about whatever the “preacher” didn’t personally suffer from, but figured other people probably did, and so they could be cowed by being confronted with it and thereby amplify pre-existing guilt. This is really not the life Christ wanted us to live, and I didn’t (and don’t) pretend to be any kind of saint, but I knew it. So I know it is not my place to bargain with the divine, but I simply told God that I needed to be in placed where people were in need, and I could be of service to them, and to places where I heard the divine voice, and particularly, that, at the time, church sadly was not that place. I also agreed to accept contradictory marching orders – whenever God wanted me in church, to church I would go, without question, but that I would look for divinity my own way until then. I had this negotiation in my own heart, although I transparently told as much to the one or two people who asked about it. For what it’s worth, I do know people kicked out of this church for being what I am (in the sense of my gender identity and my sexual orientation). Although they’ve started taking recent positive steps, my understanding is that I would probably not be welcome as a member, now.

I know it’s just the right size and it has a nice feel to it in your hand, and it swings nicely, but for the love of God, please stop thinking that the correct use of this thing is to hit people over the head with it

I didn’t feel that draw back to church until just the last few years (I went about ten years rarely going to church). Then, I started feeling the tug. I went to Catholic Church. Well, I was dating a Catholic. It wasn’t bad. The priests freestyle over the beat break in the Lord’s Prayer, which I find mildly unnecessary and disturbing (one of my favorite Bible verses is from Quoholeth, “God is in heaven, and you are on earth, so let your words be few.”) In this particular case, they also preach entirely too often on the state of their retirement accounts (and not the kind in heaven). Anyways. I actually kind of liked it, altogether. Since I am not Catholic, I extended my decade of not taking communion, and whereas Catholics do this all the time (which is not what Christ asked for), Protestants do not, and so even with intermittent trips by myself to my home denomination, I continued to do without communion.

If you’re not these guys, you do not get to freestyle over the beat break in anything, let alone the Lord’s Prayer

When she and I split up, I started attending a Universalist-Unitarian church. They’re hokey. But a well-rooted hokey – four of the first six presidents were part of this church. Harvard and Tufts are their seminaries. They’re nice, and they even did a transgender inclusion workshop. They’re not particularly interested in scripture, and they take a very hands off approach to developing right-mindedness, and it didn’t ultimately work out for me, but I like them. Now I’m at a United Church of Christ, and I like this so far. What I have to say goes to both of them, and to many other spaces.

Inclusion doesn’t have to be awkward. I’m advocating for “coolclusion.” A wonderful gentleman introducing himself to my girlfriend and me at one of these churches said, “Well, you’re certainly a different couple, but we’re glad to have you here, and all really are welcome.” He was genuinely trying to be friendly and inclusive. I’m not mad at him, and I feel welcome there. Coolclusion is the gentle reminder that “Cool! It’s nice to meet you, and I’m glad you’re here” works just as well. Coolclusion also advocates that one generally needn’t show ally cred by doing any more than being friendly. One needn’t tell me, “Oh! My niece is a lesbian” as if this will prove one accepts my relationship. One needn’t stare at me and grin until I break down and explain why I might look a little different from other women (which, it turns out, is more often because they don’t know many Indians, and although my blood seems to go all the way back to the migration from Persia, I don’t really look like other Indians anyways). Actually, the point is totally applicable to ethnic inclusivity and many other kinds of inclusivity that have nothing to do with LGBTQIA+.

The truth is, before I went to this newest church for the first time, I had sat by a retired pastor of the church in which I was originally a member. I don’t know how well I “passed” that night, but his vision wasn’t so great, which takes the heat off! Anyway, he treated me like any other young lady (don’t even start with me, I still pass for a young lady in some crowds!). We talked about his daughter, about art and music, about early autism interventions and the value in giving young people all the chances we can, about the vicious cycle of poverty, and about economic development being a key to helping the underprivileged lift themselves out of the cycle. He introduced me to his best friend, and briefly to their wives, who were in the row behind. It was a lovely conversation, and I just want to emphasize that I felt absolutely included without a single moment spent affirming my LGBTQIA+ status or anything else that marks me as different. It didn’t even need a rainbow flag. I did send his daughter (whom I’ve never met) a note on Facebook, just to let her know how great her daddy is.

I have to admit I’m dealing with a lot of my own insecurity, too, and this layers into it. I feel like a hot mess many times even when I look my best. I think in my head that people compliment my appearance, my choice of accessories and sense of style, because they feel sorry for me, and not because there’s anything to compliment. I know. I’m working on this. I know it’s absurd – I got compliments on my style and accessories as a presumptive man, and even with the stress of trying to drape a body that’s just been freed of testosterone two months ago, I do kind of know I know how to do accessories. So I’ll try to be less of a bottomless pit of low self-esteem.

In the meantime, in general, I’m advocating for a more laid back, less-is-more kind of inclusion. If you want to include me, please have a conversation with me and talk about whatever we talk about. Please don’t think that you are not inclusive until you interrupt a conversation about something I find really interesting (autism, healthcare reform, politics, farm-to-table, Dig Dug, Coach purses, etc) or whatever you find really interesting (please don’t let it be NASCAR, please don’t let it be NASCAR) to steer the conversation to my ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity. If you get to know me, as you’ve seen in this blog, I’ll happily talk about those things. And if and when you need help knowing how to fit into an environment you’re not used to and not screw it up, I’ll help if I can (because, god, I’ve had to rock being that only girl in a miniskirt at the party before!). And I’ll just say, “use she and her” if I need to (it’s actually only people who know me and are trying too hard, who offer me options I am unlikely to want, like gender neutral pronouns, again, I know they mean well), because I know you have no idea what I mean when I say I “prefer” female pronouns, because, honestly, less is more on our side too, and I’m also not sure why I use this clumsy language.

Slackware. It’s not just for Linux anymore. Look, the girl made a geek joke! Now sudo make me a sandwich, and stop staring at me! 

Just be cool, dude. And I’ll try to be cool and not-a-dude**. We’ll all be fine.

* We’ll have to see if it’s prophetic, also. The only prophetic dream I ever had involved dreaming there were storm clouds raining inside the optics lab I was working in. I told my fellow grad student about it, and then we went out to lunch. When we got back, the receptionist noted the funny pouring sound coming from our lab. A pipe had burst and it was raining all over the setup. I think it did $35,000 in damages. I don’t know if my utter failure to do anything useful with the prophetic dream got me cut off, if or if this is one of those things where one gets a second chance!

** Also I pledge not to use terms like “hip,” “cool,” or “dude” for at least one or two next blog posts.

The Secret Lives of Boys

Reading a novel I just finished*, it occurred to me that, as a trans woman, I (we) have a unique perspective. While I sometimes regret not having had a proper girlhood, and I didn’t really have a proper boyhood, because I was never more than pretending to be a boy, as an outsider, I had an intimate glimpse into the secret life of boys that few women are afforded. Most of the time, I just feel like a survivor, but I enjoyed my strange childhood (bullying, teasing, and my internal dysphoria notwithstanding), albeit not nearly as much as I do my queerhood. As I reflect on my transition from being a perceived-male leader to a woman leader in the workplace, and I continue to learn to understand (& frequently still wonder at) my male peers (although I’ve had more female than male bosses, and even my favorite engineering supervisor was a woman … I’m not so unsocialized as a woman), I actually think it’s quite a gift to have had this.

I’m a feminist, and I really believe I try to be a truly radical one, but the part of me that doesn’t wish I were an upper middle class British daughter in Jane Austen’s day makes me wish I were a 50s housewife**. I’ve adjusted pretty readily to my current life, where I’m the breadwinner, and am entirely likely to make far more than my girlfriend, for the foreseeable future, even if she is the man of the house***. She has taken on some of the yardwork, but I also do the vscuuming and the laundry and the cooking and the majority of the dishes, so I’m kind of the housewife also. And damn me, but I like it, and I even kind of like it when my partner feels me up while I’m cooking instead of helping. It’s fulfilling****.

I also could’ve been the other Boleyn girl, but that ended a bit badly….

But, I did spend my childhood riding bicycles around the neighborhood, pushing how far we were allowed to explore from the house. We put playing cards in the spokes to make motorcycle sounds and our moms got mad when the deck was missing the jack of clubs and the two of hearts. We explored the undeveloped land at the end of my street, which was maybe two acres, but felt like an empty national park, and we played king of the mountain. I sucked at this. Once, we went to the corner ice cream store. I didn’t wear shoes, and my friend Paul didn’t wear a shirt. The sign said, no shirt, no shoes, no service, and I think they wouldn’t have turned away two six year olds, but I lent Paul my shirt because his shoes didn’t fit me. My mommy was mad that time also – Paul’s mom wouldn’t give him money, so I shared mine, against her wishes. We also once ate cat food that came in a sample package in the mail, because the box said it was for ages six and under (now this should go in a footnote where I can minimize embarrassment). I had boy adventures. I got to come up in the treehouse where the (other) girls weren’t allowed. I got to shoot a hunting rifle when we went to see somebody’s hick cousin outside town (I’m Indian … I have lots of cousins and none of them have guns). Sure, there were girls in our little gangs, most of my childhood. There was one in my earliest group of friends (she was a jerk though, and mostly friends with Paul … maybe she viewed me as competition! Probably they’re married now…), and later I occasionally managed to score a separate clique of girl friends, who included me on girl imaginative play that delightfully involved less killing things. But I was also included, especially in those young years before puberty, in pretty much the full boy experience, and they weren’t.

In fairness, there were also eras (most of adolescence) when I also really was excluded from the world of the young men, and I can tell you that sharing the boys’ locker room during puberty was terrible, and where the bruises from the kids punching me for fun, were incurred. Boys making fun of my nipples was pretty terrible (they’ve, erm, grown on estrogen, but they looked more like girls’ nipples even then, just like I’ve always had hips, at least since adolescence).

To some extent, this inclusion in the boys club did pick up again after puberty. By eleventh grade, the teasing had largely ended. I had a clique again of intimate friends, still mostly boys with a few girls, and I started being included in some guy stuff again. I really loved and valued my friendship with my freshmen college roommate, and my two best friends still, whom I met at orientation, although I increasingly seemed like an awkward fit into the boys’ hall in the dorm (my roommate and I were both odd fits in our hall full of Long Islanders).

After college, there was a summer when we would hang out at my friends Calvin and Chris’s place, and play tennis or swim until it got dark, and then Wei would cook steaks shirtless (this looks like the same story you’re imagining where all the people are white, except with less body hair). I was already shifting to spending more and more of my time becoming platonic friends with women (other women, but I wasn’t ready for that clarification quite yet … this was a gradual progression, and as I’ve learned to navigate not getting crushes on them, because I don’t really feel attracted to feminine women, they make way more sense for me as close friends than men, outside of the handful with whom I share decades and who will own my heart until the day I die). And so, yet again, this inclusion faded over time.

Nobody has invited me to a poker party in a long time, and the only Super Bowl party invitation I can think of in years came from one of my female best friends, Lisa. We went out to a restaurant my friend manages. There were root chips in ridiculous quantity. I had a mixed drink and later got food poisoning. Anyways. The truth is I’ve been an outsider to the private lives of men for years, and even any male privilege I retain now is largely eroded by the well known facts that I love pink, watch romantic comedies way too often and cry all the time (also when telling stories about our autism kids), and like brunch way more than yard work. And trunk sales way more than power tools. Way, way more.

These are still way better for making bicycles make cool motorcycle noises, although my friend Wei is now apparently a coolly competent card sharp at the poker table

As for the boys, I retain their sense of adventure, and although it’s shaded with body image issues and shame and guilt that any other woman who survived anorexia knows well, most of the time, I share their sense of agency. Like them, I still thrill when I can use my talents and when I solve problems. Like them, I enjoy it sometimes when life is quick, when it is unpredictable, just as I enjoy (sometimes) running to the next terminal at the airport 10 minutes before boarding, to get Starbucks, and weaving through the slow moving passengers a I dash back to get “in before the lock.” (Okay, I did this right before the flight on which I wrote this post, and, uncharacteristically for me, I did not get a peppermint mocha, nor did I get a birthday cake pop.) And I also have some of their battle hardening, from the time I had to rescue an engineering project that had lost more than three years of its four year development cycle, and get it out the door, essentially flawlessly, in all of eight months. The battle scars from coming into my Center, driving out the people who were killing it like Jesus in the moneychanger section of the Temple or a World War I soldier invading an enemy foxhole. Sometimes I feel like it killed the little girl inside, a bit, but I also am proud of my survival (and overcoming anorexia is a pretty good girl template of overcoming … hardly any guy is strong like a girl who survived that!).

Thus, in ways, I’ve been working on the problem of how to be a professional woman, just like any other woman, long before I transitioned. But some of this won’t really come into fruition until I’m full time, in the next couple months*****. A lot of the leaders around me are women, in this environment, but a lot are men. It is kind of useful to have grown up with their kind, at a level of intimacy girls don’t have. Maybe I’ll make a good double agent for other career women. Like most of my female leader peers, I think our femininity adds to, not subtracts from, the workplace. I think mine already has, because I’ve always been feminine, and when the last vestiges of pretending are gone, it will, even more so.

But I don’t dream some Amazonian vision of the future where men are obsolete. I think they bring a lot to the workplace, too. I wonder at them. I admire their strength, physical and emotional, although I think we push our boys too hard, to be too strong, too hard, and too soon. Nonetheless, I like their strong arms****** and their strong hearts. I don’t think that women are better than men, and certainly I don’t think men are better than women. I think we’re just different. I don’t think that every child needs a mom and a dad (two moms or two dads is great, and one of either suffices for many in a pinch), and I dont think that because it was Adam and Eve, that Adam and Steve can’t look equally cute together. I do think women and men complement each other, and that masculinity and femininity complement each other, on a broader scale (and in my, ahem, private life… I love being in love with a butch). We are better with both, albeit letting both develop naturally, and not policing our boys into masculinity or our girls into femininity.

And thus, I’m thankful that I got to be a girl in deep cover*******, and I think it adds to my womanhood rather than subtracting from it. My therapist thinks I carry way more male privilege than I do, and warns me about how I’ll withstand loosing it. I wish she would listen better and talk less, but my undercover girlhood amongst the boys, paired with my increasing comfort in and confidence with my feminity, will help me navigate my womanhood with grace and courage. And I shall wear my scars, both scars of bicycle crashes and scars of the heart, proudly. They are badges of honor, and even when I conceal them with makeup, they make me more beautiful.

* Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, our at-the-time-of-writing current book club book…it’s excellent, I really enjoyed it. And I didn’t pick it, so don’t start with me!

** Just for those of you who don’t know me well, the vast majority of me is too busy being in love with this moment and and this life to spend too much time thinking how good I’d look with alabaster skin and a corseted dress or my hair in pins and a tweed skirt and cape. Although I do have a tweed skirt and hairpins….

*** Not to be insensitive to my girlfriend or to overdo the idea of the butch-femme relationship mirroring the heterosexual relationship, or to give too much ammunition to the fellas who want to know “who’s the guy,” but this is pretty much the way it is… I’ve even caught my girlfriend mansplaining things to me, like how I should manage the $2M budget of the clinic I build from ashes with my bare hands (and my team, whom I love, it really was NOT all me… After we got rid of all the people who were snakes in our midst, the people we have left are my true family, and it would break my heart to leave them).

**** The tail end of second wave feminism and the very beginnings of the “land grab” era did at least lead to things like questioning the feminism in belittling a woman for liking to keep house.

***** It’s so close. I ordered girl business cards. I have a skirt suit. And a transition plan for work. I probably can submit my paperwork to change my name in about a month. And I just can’t wait.

****** As long as they’re not ridiculous. All the ladies know exactly what I’m talking about.

******* I borrow this – Jill Davidson, a fellow trans woman psychologist, called her memoir Undercover Girl. I like Connected Queer still, but I have to admit she aced it with that title.