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

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 This comes in the context of a draft guidance from our state Board of Education, and I want to share more detailed thoughts on that topic.

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

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

Dear esteemed members of the Michigan Board of Education,

Thank you for the opportunity to comment publicly on your draft Guidance on Safe and Supportive Learning Environments for LGBTQ Students.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Changing the Conversation: Re-Defining LGBT Community Values

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me tell you what's not boring!

Let me tell you what’s not boring!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Utilization Management and Trans Healthcare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Mission to Christianity

Last week, Calvin College brought Mark Yarhouse to speak about the transgender community. Christian LGBT community members raised concern. On digging further into the matter (I had heard neither of Dr. Yarhouse nor of the Regent University from which he hails), much of this concern is rooted in Dr. Yarhouse’s historical body of work. At its best, he takes a non-judgmental* approach to supporting Christians (predominantly) who are trying to reconcile their sexual identity with their Christian identity. At its worst, it stoops precipitously close to apologetics for conversion therapy, teetering on an edge (although, from Dr. Yarhouse’s perspective, trying not to go over that edge) of what is considered criminal in multiple states (although not Michigan), and what is considered clearly unethical by a preponderance of us as psychologists.

I, in turn, reached out to friends at Calvin and summarized these concerns. They very graciously had me out to tea to discuss them further. I understand (and welcome) their spirit of trying to create dialog across what they perceive as a chasm (although, in truth, we are quite able to sit at the same table, drink the same tea, and find common language with little difficulty). I also understand and accept their challenge in working with a broader range of stakeholders, ranging from their students (who are generally quite accepting) to some of their older constituents (who are, sometimes, otherwise).

gender-dysphoria-cover

Based on Dr. Yarhouse’s presentation, I cannot recommend his forthcoming book.

I went to hear Dr. Yarhouse speak, and up until now, I have been largely silent (or, as I am sometimes accused of being, “diplomatic”). I did so out of love for my friends at Calvin – and I do sincerely consider them friends – who I am very convinced are trying to do right (and good). I do so out of love for my Calvin alumni staff – anyone who knows me knows how much I love my team, and that I would make (and sometimes have made) all manner of sacrifices for them. My friends at Calvin worked very hard to make this a non-combative atmosphere for discussion, and I do appreciate that, although there are subtle nuances of these choices that are more problematic**.

I have held off because I have been balancing various other perspectives, as well, causing me to wait before I responded. I balance the very different perspective my own organization is in the process of taking towards its own mission of Christian service (one which I wholly endorse, for no simpler reason than that it is based in love), and even the wonderful things Calvin College, itself, is doing for its trans students, like a whole campus network of gender inclusive bathrooms***. I balance my duties to the LGBT community – many of whom would not be willing to even listen to this. And I balance my obligation to live my life, to be the sort of woman God made me, to be what and whom God has seen fit, to be unashamed and unabashed, to try and be a source of support and kinship for others. Again, anyone who knows me really knows how much I love the wonder of this life. In speaking now, I accept and embrace that I am doubtless to be scorned on the one side or the other, and most likely, on both. But I – we – must live our lives against what is right and not against what will receive scorn. From anyone.

Yarhouse spoke about many things. Semantically, he used marginalizing language under the apologetic of recognizing that “we won’t all agree on words.” Scientifically, it is my opinion that he misrepresented and selectively presented data – for instance, in discussing the increasingly common practice of suppression / delay of puberty medically for trans kids, he included data that indicates that young children who do not conform to their birth assigned sex have a high rate of “desisting,” or not being transgender-identified by adulthood, but he ignored data that adolescents have a much lower rate of return to cisgenderhood. He ignored large scale data on the safety and efficacy of transition. This data is not inaccessible or esoteric to the researcher – much of it is summarized in the World Professional Association for Transgender Health’s Standards of Care****, commonly considered the international, scientifically accepted, gold standard, and endorsed widely by other provider and specialty organizations (and freely downloadable – you should read it, if you have not already). He included some references to neuroscience, ignoring much of the most recent cognitive neuroscience data. There is much more that could be said about the scientific content of this lecture. But I think this is entirely not the point*****.

Rather, it is the Christian content of this lecture that most troubles me. On one level, the Christian content of this lecture was deeply problematic because it included discussion of the kind of “deadly passages” that are used, and used absurdly, in Christian discussions of LGBT people. To caution for deep pause and great consideration of scripture such as the Deuteronomy quote, “No one who is emasculated or has his male organ cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord,” is to forget the gospel (or worse, to fail to understand it). But the real point that bears discussion goes beyond this kind of legalism, too.

My last blog post was a continuation of a discussion from a year ago. In some ways, this post, too, is a continuation of a prior thread of discussion. What remains from that discussion is this question of why full and easy acceptance (for me, particularly) comes from all corners of society except certain elements of the church (which do not include my friends at Calvin, or even Calvin as an organization, and which does not generally include my own church, but which are exemplified by conversations like the one led by this speaker). I am drawn back (again) to Frederick Douglass’s claim that, under the surface, there are two separate Christs – one of the Cross and one of this land. Whereas the former accepted, included, and fought for social justice, the rather, all too often, back in his day, and still today, looks for permission to hate, reasons to exclude, limitations on welcome, and the development of a Christian body that is more concerned with its organization and prosperity, than with serving God. A Christian body that uses religion not as salve, but as weapon. A Christian body that uses its senior leadership not to motivate believers to love and nurture people, but who motivates them to shun them (or, in a weaker form, to have conversations about whom and what they are still ‘allowed’ to shun). The same sort of people who cry foul that Christians are a mistreated minority (in America, no less) while, in the same breadth, fighting marriage equality.

I find, since reading over the foregoing Narrative, that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation. What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference–so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. — Frederick Douglass

In Douglass’ day, it was the conflation of Christ with slavery, whereas today, this phenomenon is best seen at looking at too much of the church’s attitude towards women and gender/sexual minorities. But, the phenomenon, itself, is wholly alive. And, sadly, quite well. Although there are times when we let ourselves infight as marginalized communities, and one cannot ignore the overwhelming magnitude of the body of depradation wrought by the Christians who championed slavery, and I have no wish to pretend that I have been subjected to those kinds of horrors, still, the mechanics are the same. In those days, Christians had these very same conversations asking whether Black men were men, whether Black women were women (“like our women”). The fundamental problem with Dr. Yarhouse’s talk – and with “Christian apologetics” and the way transgender people are treated by the church – is a failure to recognize that God’s making us in His likeness is a two-way street. God is in heaven, and we are on earth, yet the reality is that merely existing is not enough to be Christlike to anyone, and failing to love, to understand, or to accept, particularly when done in the guise of Christlikeness – is morally wrong.

Early in my coming out process, once, I had a gay man tell me, presuming that I must be interested in him at all, that I could not be his girlfriend, but that I must be his boyfriend. In saying what is the point in understanding what is wrong with the lecture I went to see, I can only say simply that both he and Yarhouse miss the point of my existence entirely, and in exactly the same way. Yarhouse seems genuinely surprised that a gay Christian would perceive more in common with other LGBT people (as gay) than with him (as a Christian). He would be surprised, likewise, that I would shun this olive branch of being told that I can be accepted, not as the woman that I am, but instead, as a “biological male presenting female” or some other self-evident absurdity (again, evident to everyone except certain members of the Church). But far more than this, this line of reasoning runs the risk of ignoring the inevitability that denying what God made me, must always be a denial of God, Himself, as well.

In truth, I felt the greatest wall separating my closeness to God, all the time between when I realized the woman I must grow up to be, and when I finally let myself be her. When I finally accepted the charge to be myself, that wall – those scales – they fell away at that moment of finally accepting the full truth. In those days, I did make a lifestyle choice – one that kept me from my place as a daughter-child of the divine. I left that choice behind, and I became – am becoming – whole again. Not sin-free, not screw-up-free, because I do many things I feel unworthy of the woman I am called to be, and perhaps, most of the time, find myself generally inadequate at this and many other things. But as whole as a wicked girl like me can find a way to be.

Much as it was not my accepting the truth of who I am that kept me at arms length from God, but rather my refusal to do so, for many years, Yarhouse fails to understand that it is not now any choice of mine that prevents these Christians from being Christ for me. It is their choice. Their lifestyle. Their denial of God’s truth (or even the very small part of it that is evident in my existence) even when presented directly with it. This, I fear, is very much the same to be a disciple of the Christ of the land, and not of the Christ of the Cross, to look for excuses not to love, rather than opportunities to love. I am not the one being intransigent in this case – for being that woman is not one of my many sins. I know that I find myself bathing****** daily and hourly, in all manner of guilt that I did not do more, love more readily, work harder, be less weak, and I scarcely feel capable of being Christ for anyone, but I do not spend my time looking for excuses to not love, to not accept, to exclude, to discriminate.

Thus, the premise underlying Yarhouse’s statement is fundamentally flawed. I appreciate your desire to be Christ for me, but if you wish to call me these names, if you want to have this kind of discussion over my living body, then you’ve already made your decision not to do so. This is your decision, and neither I nor God have made it for you. And again, my fear is that anyone who makes such a decision will find themselves aligned with the Christ of the land. I won’t judge you for making this decision – it isn’t my place. But, like Douglass, I will respectfully decline to be interested in that sort of Christ.

That choice is their moral quandary. But thus, I am left with what becomes my moral quandary. Christ spent time in synagogues. He debated and spoke with elders. But he spent much more time loving people, and being out among them. I must ask myself, what is the opportunity cost of spending time (any time) trying to build inroads into the dwellings of this Christ of the land, instead of being out loving? What is the point in this dialog? What is the point of feeling the rage build up inside me, at the injustice, for all these days since that talk, and before I wrote this? Who was I not able to love, because I was too busy hurting, these last days – hurting man-made hurt? Could I not shed the tears I shed, just now, as I wrote this, for something more worthy? To me, the truth is, it is the Church that needs our prayers, with the “issue” of transgender people, not me. Save your prayers for me, please, for my million actual flaws and shortcomings, and not one of the few things that is not wrong with me.

I don’t have an easy answer to this quandary. In my feeble attempt to be like Christ, I try to spend most of my time out loving others. On most days, I am simply thankful for all the kids God has given me, for the rich work I have been given and for the surprising ability of my small hands to do even a tiny part of it. But, like Christ, I also long for a day when the structural injustice is undone, and the Church can again establish itself as a home for the broken hearted, and not for exclusionary movements.

* What, in my sister, Miss Austen’s, time, would have been called “disinterested,” when that word still meant a good thing, that a person was supporting another person out of a desire for that person’s good and not their own.

** Calvin uses – this is not unique to this event – comment cards for Q&A. The cards are moderated, with a subset being presented to the speaker by a faculty facilitator. In general, this has the significant strength of creating a more civil, and a more continuous discourse. It is also probably ultimately faster, allowing for answer to more questions and questions of more substance. In this kind of a case, however, it, unfortunately, amplifies the fact that this is a conversation on transgender Christians but not by or with us – by further silencing our already marginalized voices from the conversation. When Frank Foster, an outgoing State Representative, who fought for change to our civil rights amendment, but made a tactical decision to sacrifice the wellbeing of transgender people for the sake of a bill protecting the less marginalized (but still at risk) gay/lesbian/bisexual components of our community, only, I did feel it was my responsibility to gently raise the issue that we do, in fact, exist, and that our voices belong in the conversation about us. I do not represent trans women, or trans people, but I am one, and, if no one else will speak, I am willing. I also frequently promise not to pick (verbal) fights, and most usually, I keep my word. But, promises to behave oneself were made somewhat superfluous by the manner of the lecture.

*** Although, I do also hope the point is clear that I welcome this, but that I do not generally need/use gender inclusive bathrooms, myself, and I am content to use the women’s room like any other woman, which is also the only generally accepted policy from an HR standpoint.

**** I am a member of WPATH but was not involved in writing the Standards. As of this writing, Dr. Yarhouse does not appear to be a member of WPATH.

***** I often quote my friend, Mara Keisling, who heads the National Center for Transgender Equality, when she says that, “Science is our best friend.” So this may, especially in conjunction with my own pedigree as a neuropsychologist, for the best of readers, strike as somewhat a surprise. Do let me explain. I do think that there is science underlying my claim that I do not “identify as,” “present as,” “live my life as,” but rather, that I simply am a woman. Science that has to do with my brain. Science that establishes the safety and efficacy of transition-related medical services. Science from an anthropological standpoint that demonstrates our stable presence over time and space, across cultures, a marker of a likely biological/genetic/epigenetic phenomenon. But, for people who have not yet accepted gays and lesbians on this same ground, and who in some cases (this happened at a Christian Reformed event, held by a grassroots effort called All One Body, a few months ago) have still not come around to the idea of what they refer to as “interracial” marriage, I think a scientific conversation is really a waste of time and effort.

****** Alongside all the other more trivial, daily, guilts, of having eaten too much, of having not been ladylike enough, and so many other things.

Sexual Healing

This is a part two to last year’s Learning to be Loved*. Teri’s a part (intermittently) of a certain Facebook group for transgender people, which will remain unnamed, which I joined briefly last year and went running from, arms flailing and mouth screaming. And it’s a great example of how few safe spaces there are to have a constructive conversation about the sexuality of mono-amorous, relationship-oriented, yet proudly sexual trans people. There recently was a blow-up over there (I’ll check and see if Teri left the group again – yep, he did) related to who, how, and when a person could be attracted to a trans body (like mine). A blowup that did not include a productive conversation on this topic**.

No, sir, I plead not guilty.

No, sir, I plead not guilty

Even in our national spaces, like First Event, one struggles to find room for this conversation. I was able to sneak my way into some excellent seminars, led by trans men and about trans masculine sexuality***, and this was pretty great. I made some new friends, and I brought home something**** autographed for Teri (do go check out Mitch’s site, too, he’s so cool) to spark further discussion back home. A discussion about queering heterosexuality, alongside the conversation about what trans men can contribute to a desperately needed reboot of manhood.

Go buy this book, for serious

Go buy this book, for serious

But, so, with my recent Mira Goes Het article, I focused on the relationship between our heteroqueer relationship and the heteropatriarchy. I want to return back to the ground of that even older post, and this question of the feminine body as an object of desire, and the extension to the situation in which that feminine body is a trans woman’s body, or, well, in this case, my body. Back in one of those panels, someone said something interesting, and noteworthy for its non-provocativeness. He said, basically, “You know, I date everyone except cis guys.” This was non-controversial … it basically extracted chuckles and knowing nods. And “Honey, I feel you, I dated a cis guy, once.” I did feel badly for the one cis gay guy present, but then again, he made a comment something along the lines of, “You know, if my partner has a vagina, I’m going to want to penetrate that” and… well, there are just no words.

IMG_2339

Also at First Event. I don’t want to just make fun of him… well, maybe for that last bit. But how do we get to being sexual without the weirdness?

So then, on Facebook, this morning, there was this interaction Teri had with a fella who was attracted to trans women (specifically/exclusively). This person was attacked, fairly mercilessly, as one of those “tranny chasers.” The only space that was opened for anyone to be attracted to a trans woman was the absurdist reduction of “trans women and cis women are exactly the same” (I’ve seen trans women take, also, the polemical position that they wouldn’t consider any lesbian an ally unless they would openly pledge, ridiculously, that they would date any trans woman). Apparently, another trans guy (because Teri’s my Dear Future Husband) chimed in and was open about his own attraction to trans women. That was “okay” because he was one of “us.” In contrast, the original poster (OP for you OG’s) was cisgender, and so he was… disgusting. A pervert. The difference between these statements, how they were perceived, and where they came from, was — is — worrisome to me.

Also on Facebook a friend posted an article about what lesbian-identified trans women (a class from which I’m increasingly the dearly departed) refer to as the “cotton ceiling” (namely, because I’m using my footnotes up too quickly today, and I feel bad when I get to ten asterisks, when cis lesbians accept trans women conceptually but reject them as potential partners for cis lesbians, either in the general sense of the dating scene, or the specific sense of dating them, themselves). I responded on Facebook that the biggest thing I could do to fight the cotton ceiling was to openly and authentically be in love with Teri – to be, in the public eye, the subject and object of love, and the object of physical desire*****.

So here is the presentation of the conundrum. Janet Mock has talked about this, too. We cannot extend a blanket statement that people attracted to trans women’s bodies are disgusting, without in turn, making an unacceptable but implicit statement that my body, too, is disgusting. And I’m here to tell you it isn’t (and if you don’t believe me, ask my boyfriend). My body is lovely, not because I’m “almost” as good as a “real” girl, but because I’m better than any other girl Teri’s ever going to find (because I’m the one, Mister). Friends (who are newer to trans people) sometimes say to me, “You looked hot the other night – is it okay if I say that?” And I tell them, of course it’s okay. I like to look hot – and my friends are benefitted by me with the right to appreciate it. And I’m desirable, not to everyone, but to the one that matters, not because I’m exactly the same as other women (because we’re not Barbie dolls … I don’t look like or have the experiences of an African woman, as much as a waitress recently thought I look like Pam Grier, or a woman from Uzbekistan, or any number of other women), but because of my unique value and desirability as a woman unlike any other. And if you pay any actual attention to actual women, that’s (not to speak for everyone — some women are asexual or aromantic) what we want.

I’m not in the business of telling other people to whom they should be attracted. I’m going to go on several limbs, and I don’t mean to offend out here, but I’m going to say what I see. We live in a world that is dominated by long-term, stable, mono-amorous romantic/sexual relationships. That’s the political battleground, for most of us. And yet we do not leverage actual trans people in romantically/sexually, long-term, stable, mono-amorous, satisfying relationships as a part of the war on the cotton ceiling – most of the people I know, Mock aside, who have much to say about this are way outside of this space. And this is crazypants. I’m not in the business of telling anyone to whom they should be attracted – not even Teri. But Teri is attracted to me. And I am attractive to him. I bestow on him the right to have me be the object of his desire, and I delight in his desire. And I deserve it.

I changed the tagline of my blog this year, to “Welcome to the Revolution.” So I might as well be clear about the revolution to which you’re welcome. There are lots of revolutions, actually, but with respect to being trans, I’m reminded of a comment Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said about being feminist – she had to clarify that she’s a happy feminist, because of the dominant assumption that feminists aren’t happy. My revolution is that I’m a happy trans woman. A happy woman (because trans is a modifier, I am not anything other than a woman). Not just like cis women. Different, but not less. I’m happily in love. I’m happy to be the object of desire. I look good – sometimes I even look really hot (and even less frequently, I actually believe this about myself). And sometimes, I need to be told I shouldn’t wear that, because it doesn’t do anything for me. Or to stop obsessing about the scale.

If we want more trans people in happy, satisfying, romantically/sexually fulfilling relationships, this is the kind of revolution we need, and we need to get more of our stories out there (because I know Teri and I are not the only happy ones). We can’t solve the “cotton ceiling” or its heterosexual equivalent without actually including the stories of trans people in good relationships. And just like I play a unique role in being the trans woman who gains acceptance quickly and easily, and who doesn’t really seem to scare anyone, ours is one of those trans relationship that is the safe gateway to the idea that trans people are relationship material. So I’m going to welcome you to it, and help you understand that it … is wonderful. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said that we should all be feminists. She’s right. I’m going to add that we should all be happy.

* You know, everything needs a sequel. Even Pride & Prejudice.

** I admittedly read this conversation over Teri’s shoulder.

*** I was welcomed as having the stake as a significant other of a trans man. Actually welcomed. We need to learn how to actually be welcoming (without diluting our standards or intent) in the queer community.

**** I tend to lead with something like, “I’m in love with a trans guy, and it’s so amazing, we’re so happy together, and no relationship I’d been in before this one just made sense, like this one does” and this tends to go over well, and make me friends / establish me as the trans girl who rides in cars with trans boys. There is probably something about this whole still complex question, as we exit the butch/femme paradigm and move into this heteroqueer space, about this dual issue of whether we end up endorsing the patriarchy and how to come to terms with what the “safeness” sexually we have with our trans guys and bois, absent from interacting with cis guys, says about cis guys, says about the damage of masculinity, says about how to help guys achieve a rebirth of slick.

***** Reader, she means lust. She is the subject of physical desire, as well, but she is a femme and rarely admits it in public.

Transgender Life: The Difficulties of Dating

Some artwork representing the dissonance many trans people feel between who they know they are and how they are seen by the world

Warning, this post is a bit of a blast from the past – I wrote this back in April, for Gays.com. Those of you who freelance know, sometimes, your posts get held in queue for the “right” time for an editor to publish them. This one finally dropped before Thanksgiving, and I never got around to posting it here. It’s interesting to read my mindset seven months ago (here on miracharlotte.com or elsewhere). Seven months on, I don’t just have “hope that there is room for us to find the love of our lives” – I know that I have, in fact, found just that. It’s funny, too, to think about being wound up about things like appearing feminine, or being out and about in public, which I now take, if not for granted, as like laws of the universe which I no longer question.

Dating and relationships is a really complicated business for transgender people, especially transsexual people who decide to transition. We’re all over the map – many of us found a long-term relationship or even a marital partner before coming out as trans, and sometimes (but not always), those relationships work out.

It seems for trans women, that more often was with another woman in a ‘heterosexual’ relationship (all of my significant relationships for example), but it could be all ranges of things. Those relationships have to change if they’re to survive – it’s common for a newly outed trans woman’s wife to express that she’s not a lesbian. That’s fair, maybe she’s not. For trans men and women who identified as gay or lesbian before transitioning, too, their partner might not be able to reconcile their own sexual orientation with the transition. On The L Word Jenny tells Max (whom she had been dating prior to transition), “you identify as a straight man. So there’s the mismatch, because you want me to be your straight girlfriend to your straight guy. And I identify as a lesbian, who likes to fuck girls. And you’re not a girl.” Sometimes, too, the relationship does survive, but not sexually or romantically.

Read the rest, over at Gays.com!

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.”

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. 

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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.

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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.