Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Power of Place

Stock PhotoWhere is home when home keeps moving?

I kicked and screamed my way into existence in a city 45 minutes outside of Johannesburg, South Africa in the late 1970s. Eight months later, my father, mother, sisters and I traversed the ocean and landed in Vancouver, Canada. From there we flew north, to Prince George, BC, the second largest city in the province, with a population of approx 71,000 today so I imagine it was around 50,000 when we lived there in the 1980s. I loved the snow, the spruce trees and pussy willow bushes. I was happy.

Then, in 1990, as I was entering into my teens, my family uprooted itself again. We packed our bags and left for Johannesburg Airport, stopping over briefly in Nairobi, where as white South Africans, we were told we could not disembark – for fear, I assume, of violence. This was my first inkling of the world I was about to enter. A world of racial tensions, the constant threat of violence and political unrest.

I lived in Pretoria, South Africa, with my parents until the late 1990s, when I graduated from high school. During that time, I transformed from a hyperactive, jubilant if slightly sensitive child, into a surly, lethargic, deeply disturbed teenager. Fearing for my mental health my father fed me antidepressants when I turned 16 and took me to see a neurologist and a nutritionist when I flirted with anorexia nervosa.

Despite my father being a psychiatrist, I had little understanding of what was happening to me. Only that I could not see anything beautiful about the world I lived in. I contemplated ending my life for the first time when I was 12 years old. The thoughts were simply that, thoughts, at first – but as weeks turned into months and months turned into years, the thoughts turned into harmful actions. Nothing seriously damaging at first: I would bang my head against the wall softly but repeatedly for hours. Or punch my one hand black and blue with the other.

I thought the darkness would pass after high school. My sister who had stayed in Canada back when my family had uprooted itself in 1990 invited me to come live with her while I attended university. For the first time, I had hope that maybe I wouldn’t die. My mother was reluctant to let me go, but eventually she and my father dropped me off at the airport and I left South Africa for good. I was excited.

Home became Vancouver Island, BC, where my sister worked. I signed up for university courses. Knowing no one other than my sister, and lacking an extroverted personality, I struggled to make friends. The dark thoughts returned. I sought out counseling but nothing seemed to work. My tendency to self-harm returned: I would overdose on the antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications I was prescribed, or I would cut into my wrists with scalpel blades I snuck out of my sister’s laboratory where I worked part-time to make a little extra cash.

I felt ill at ease wherever I went. A transient, just passing through. In 2006, the year my father and a close friend passed away in the span of a few months, I hit bottom. I left my full-time job at an on-demand publishing company, cut ties with my abusive mother, and started the hard work of re-assembling my life. Part of the journey included moving again. This time, to Vancouver, BC.

It’s 2013, and I’m still in Vancouver. I met my partner in 2011 and in two days’ time, we will move into our first apartment together. Yes, I’m moving again, but not far this time. At least not geographically speaking. But emotionally, this move is every bit as important as the many moves across continents I’ve made. And it’s just as hard.

This time, though, the darkness is just a memory. This time, I’m creating home, not just a place to stay. Together, M– and I are building a future, one day at a time. I never thought I’d be alive to experience this. I want to cherish every moment.

Same Sex Marriage, the HRC and Trans Equality in the US

I’m moving in with my girlfriend this Monday. April fools. Are we fools for thinking this is a good idea? What will happen when the dust settles and we stare into each others’ eyes each morning wondering how we got here? Is this the first step towards getting married? Or is this as good as it gets?

When I came out as trans back in 2004 I was pretty sure that meant I would never get married. Heck, I couldn’t imagine ever dating again. Who would want to date a freak like me? Even before my transition, marriage just didn’t seem to be in the cards. Yet here I am, now legally male but still genderqueer; my partner and I look like any regular couple when we walk down the street. People smile at us approvingly when we hold hands in public. Just a few weeks ago, a woman yelled from a balcony that it was so nice to see a couple so clearly in love as we walked by. Love is rare. Love that lasts is even rarer.

Interestingly, in South Africa, where I was born and am still legally considered a woman, we would be classified a same-sex couple. I doubt either of us would feel comfortable with that label or would consider holding hands for others to see.

All this reflection is partly provoked by what’s going on south of the border right now, in Washington DC.

The US has taken centre stage  in the LGBT world for two cases the Supreme Court is currently deciding on. These cases challenge DOMA and California’s Proposition 8 which claim that marriage is between a man and a woman only. One case centres around a lesbian couple, Edith Windsor and Theah Spyer. When Spyer passed away in 2009, Edith had to pay estate tax to the tune of $363,000 on her partner’s $4.1 million estate – tax she wouldn’t have had to pay if Spyer had been a man. Edith argues, correctly, that this is discrimination, pure and simple, and unconstitutional.

The other case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, centers around California’s Proposition 8 ruling. Under Proposition 8, only marriage between a man and a woman is legally recognized. The 2008 ballot defining marriage as between man and woman was successfully passed but subsequently overturned in California’s Court of Appeals. Supporters of Proposition 8 now bring their case to the Supreme Court who must rule whether to uphold or throw out the appeal ruling. If they decide to uphold it, California will become the 10th state to allow gay marriage in the US.

These are historic times – and the queer community across the globe is watching. All over Facebook, supporters of Edith and of gay marriage have posted the following image:

HRC Logo

I posted it too – because I believe in what it stands for: equal rights for equal love. And, as more and more US states acknowledge the rights of same sex couples to form families of their own, to have children of their own, one can’t help feeling that DOMA is headed for elimination. As far as has been reported, even some of the more conservative-leaning justices have failed to come up with compelling arguments on why same sex couples should not receive the same legal privileges as “opposite sex” couples.

But the logo above is controversial. It belongs the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), which according to its website is “the largest civil rights organization working to achieve equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans”. The HRC claims to have over 1.5 million members across the country. Among many trans people, however, its reputation is tainted.

The HRC made few friends among transgender members (the T in LGBT) when in 2007 it endorsed an Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that was modified to exclude the rights of transgender people. The HRC’s argument, that progress is incremental, fell on deaf ears for those who rightly felt that the HRC was treating trans people like second class citizens within the LGBT community. Since then the HRC has worked to raise awareness around issues affecting trans people, but the sourness surrounding the ENDA controversy still looms large. This article, as well as this one, provides an illuminating history of the tensions between trans activists and HRC organizers.

The articles point at a troubling double-standard within the HRC community and a willingness to turn its back on transgender community members for the sake of small potential gains for the remaining LG and B communities. It can not in good conscience claim to represent LGBT interests if the T is treated as a lesser entity. Can you imagine the uproar if a queer rights organization decided to represent only lesbian interests – even if that meant denying gay men equal rights – for the sake of overall progress?

So, for now, I’ve removed the HRC logo from my Facebook profile. And, as I finish the last of the packing required for my own move on Monday, I reflect on the journey we’ve traveled as disparate communities bound together by a common interest in equal rights for all. We must never forget that we are in this together, and equally. The fight isn’t over yet but we’re making progress. The cleanup will take time and effort too.

Plagiarism, Jane Goodall, and The Truth

The Washington Post recently exposed passages in Jane Goodall’s latest book about plants, Seeds of Hope, as plagiarized. To academia’s horror the world over, no doubt, Goodall’s source material includes such pedestrian sources as Wikipedia and the Choice Organic Tea website. Jane Goodall, renowned primatologist and chimpanzee activist, quickly responded to the plagiarism critiques, claiming that duplicated passages were an honest mistake and that she would properly cite them in future editions. Goodall’s actions are – or are they? – a far cry from the more serious offences of New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer, who, among other infractions, invented Bob Dylan quotes for his examination of the neuroscience behind creativity in his book Imagine, or the New York Times writer Jayson Blair who, back in 2003, tarred the reputation of one of the most highly esteemed newspapers in the world with fabricated interview quotes and unattributed sources.

This reminds me of an episode of the radio show This American Life that truly moved me – and a large number of other listeners – when I first heard it late last year. Raconteur Mike Daisey performed excerpts from his monologue The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs in which he reported on the working conditions at the Foxconn electronics factory in Shenzen, China. Initially labelling his work nonfiction, Mike Daisey later clarified that he had taken certain factual liberties for the sake of his art, but that the overall story was true. Ira Glass, host of This American Life, ended up retracting the piece, grilling Mike Daisey in a follow-up interview for misrepresenting the facts, and apologizing to listeners for failing to catch the errors before the show was aired.

I remember, at the time, feeling torn about the whole thing: one the one hand, I felt betrayed and misled and as outraged as Ira was during his subsequent cross-examination of Daisey, and on the other, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for Mike Daisey’s situation. As a writer myself, and a lover of fiction and nonfiction alike, as someone who has taken a journalism class or two in my student days, I can understand the drive to be true to one’s story, even if the facts aren’t quite all there. Nonfiction, I like to tell my friends, is about facts; fiction is about truth. If your story has integrity, holds together, and touches an underlying emotional truth, it can be every bit as meaningful, if not more so, than a dry piece of journalism spouting facts alone.

But where Mike Daisey erred, was in the labelling of his piece. He called it nonfiction, and so, when he reported on conversations as if they were first-person testimonies, he had an obligation to the truth – and to the facts. It’s a fine line to walk: attracting an audience who is interested in the facts about working conditions in a Foxconn factory, and yet doing so in a way that is as emotionally evocative and spell-binding as the very best works of fiction. Mike Daisey tried – and failed – to walk it successfully. But did he lie with malicious intent? I don’t think so.

Jane Goodall is no Mike Daisey. No one is arguing that the facts she borrowed from other sources are outrageously incorrect. Having not read her book I rely on other sources, but it appears the plagiarized sentences are mainly exposition, the backdrop upon which her main narrative rests. If that’s the case, hers were errors in rigour, attention and scrutiny in filling in those expository gaps. The misquotes, too, are more the result of sloppy memory and lazy writing than of wilfully misleading her readers. And for that, I’m sure, she’ll eventually be forgiven.

The larger question, about the line between fact and fiction and what to do when it blurs, is more interesting. In a tech-riddled world where crowd-sourcing, mashups and cutting and pasting are as easy as pressing a button or searching a browser in the comfort of one’s home, perhaps we are seeing the inklings of the next literary frontier: books that no longer seek to be original in terms of word choice, sentences or even paragraphs, but that proudly straddle the line between original and recycled content, where the author is less a writer than a collage artist of facts and truths.

Or maybe, our technologically-addicted digits just need to learn to pause a few beats longer before we press send to our publishers and our audiences. Jane Goodall, I’m looking at you.

Directionally Challenged in Vancouver

I don’t know what it is about me that makes people think I know what I’m doing. But maybe once a month or so I’ll get accosted on the street by a fearful tourist who is hopelessly lost and desperate for some directional advice. It doesn’t matter how many people are around me, they seem to gravitate toward me alone – as if pulled by some unknown force. And I dread every single encounter.

I have a confession to make: I suck at giving directions. OK, that’s not universally true. Give me a map and stick me in the passenger seat, next to the driver in a car, in a foreign city, and I can direct you anywhere. But if I’m walking down a street in my own home city and someone asks me what street I passed a block earlier, I’m likely to stare at you blankly. I’m ashamed. I’m very ashamed.

Maybe there’s something wrong with my brain; some sort of missing neuronal interaction that causes me to fail so completely at fulfilling this basic societal role. When I see people holding maps and looking around them confusedly, I can feel my blood pressure rise, my steps hasten, my eyes flit toward the nearest alley for me to disappear into. It’s a miracle that I make my way successfully anywhere. Sometimes even the simplest directions elude me. Even when I must guide myself to a place I’ve been a dozen times before I’m liable to fail miserably. All I can say is: thank goodness for the advent of iPhones and Google Maps.

Last week, for instance, I was innocently making my way to the SkyTrain station when a handsome young American in a tweed jacket begged me for help. He needed to catch the No. 3 bus to Main and 33rd. My brain rumbled noisily to life, like a rusty old engine. Having no idea where to catch this particular bus, I optimistically pulled out my iPhone and together we navigated Google Maps in search of constructive guidance. Why is it that when another person is watching, my fingers fumble horribly? At last at the right screen, I try to orient myself, but my brain has suddenly turned to mush and  North and South could as well be words from a foreign language for all I’m able to make sense of them.

My direction-less senses over-tapped, I mumble an explanation of the way and he listens carefully, his panic deepening as he tries to memorize my convoluted instructions. At the end of it, he politely thanks me and walks tentatively into the distance. And I feel sorry for him because it soon occurs to me that I incorrectly oriented myself – he should turn left, not go straight when he leaves the station as I’d advised him. But it’s too late to hunt him down now. Besides, I might just lead him astray again. As I hop onto the train, I feel deeply guilty and incompetent. And it isn’t even 8 am yet.

So here’s a word of advice: if you are ever in Vancouver, and lost, please avoid all tall and slender men with beards and grey eyes. One of them is me. And trust me, you’re better off without me when it comes to finding your destination.

The Suicide of Lucy Meadows and Why Richard Littlejohn’s Essay Sucks

The Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn has generated considerable heat in the media following the suicide of a transgender primary school teacher in Lancashire, UK. Littlejohn had previously written a scathing article entitled He’s not only in the wrong body… he’s in the wrong job, in which he accuses the deceased, who went by the name Lucy Meadows, of “forcing [children] to deal with the news that a male teacher they have always known as Mr Upton will henceforth be a woman called Miss Meadows.”

While Miss Meadows had asked for privacy during her transition, concerned parents reached out to the press after the school sent out letters to children’s homes announcing the well-liked teacher’s gender transition. What resulted was a firestorm of media attention, and Littlejohn’s article was at the centre of it.

Couched in language of faux-sympathy for transgender people, Littlejohn’s article starts by explaining that he can comprehend how difficult it must be for someone of one gender to be trapped in the body of the other gender. He even goes so far as to acknowledge that transsexual people should have their surgeries covered through the NHS (the UK’s version of public health insurance), admitting that “transsexuals pay taxes, too.”

But then the tone shifts and the remaining article pretends to speak on behalf of the children that Miss Meadows is presumably traumatizing by her “selfish” desire to “go public with his (sic) inner turmoil”.

Where to begin.

First let’s make it clear that so far police have found no direct link between Littlejohn’s article and Meadows’ subsequent suicide. The events may well have no relation at all. But from media reports, evidence exists that Meadows was struggling to cope with the scrutiny from the press after the school announced to parents that she would return to school as Miss Meadows at the end of Spring break.

Regardless of whether Littlejohn’s article drove her to suicide, the points he makes in the article are part of a larger, harmful narrative surrounding transsexuals that needs to stop.

Littlejohn insists on framing transsexualism as something shameful, the result of an “inner turmoil” that needs to be kept hidden from vulnerable young children who themselves are still making sense of their fragile identities. He writes, “Pre-pubescent boys and girls haven’t even had the chance to come to terms with the changes in their own bodies” and goes on to describe a particular 10-year-old boy who presumably became so confused by  his teacher’s transformation that he became afraid that “he might wake up with a girl’s brain because he was told that Mr Upton, as he got older, got a girl’s brains.”

Children, in my experience, are way more resilient than we give them credit for when it comes to gender variance. Unlike their adult counterparts, they do not rush to judgement but instead exhibit a curiosity and interest inspired by a desire to understand the world around them. Adults would do well to embrace a similar “beginner’s mind” when faced with issues they struggle to understand, such as transsexualism.

While I question how “devastating” Miss Meadows’ identity shift was to the children she taught, what really riles me is the way Littlejohn characterizes Miss Meadows as “selfish” and claims that she “isn’t entitled to project his (sic) personal problems on to impressionable young children. […] By insisting on returning to St Mary Magdalen’s, he is putting his own selfish needs ahead of the well-being of the children he has taught for the past few years.”

Transsexualism is not a personal problem. It is a social problem. As a transsexual man (who was assigned female at birth) I refuse to feel shame for a condition that I did not ask for, that does not harm anyone else, and that is as deserving of treatment as a cleft palate or a broken limb. We do not ask people with physical disabilities to stay out of the public eye lest they damage children’s fragile psyches. Why, then, should Miss Meadows skulk away to a different school to hide her condition, as Littlejohn advises?

Revealingly, Littlejohn concludes his essay as follows: “It would have been easy for him (sic) to disappear quietly at Christmas, have the operation and then return to work as ‘Miss Meadows’ at another school on the other side of town in September. No-one would have been any the wiser.”

This culture of secrecy, of treating transsexualism as a taboo subject, is one of the reasons why suicide rates among transsexual and transgender people across the world significantly outstrip rates among the general population. In the US, a 2010 survey of 7,000 individuals found that 41% of transgender persons had attempted suicide. That’s 25 times higher than the rate among the general population, which is 1.6%. And a staggering 45% of transgender people between the ages of 18 to  44 had attempted suicide! In the UK, a survey of approximately 900 individuals determined that 34% of adult transgender people had attempted suicide.

If Littlejohn really cared about the well-being of the children in Miss Meadows’ class, he would have lauded Miss Meadows for the bravery she exhibited in confronting a hostile press, for being courageous enough to be her authentic self in front of a classroom that no doubt contained 1 or 2 children who themselves were struggling with a condition they did not yet understand and for which they had no language. Having more positive role models for transsexual children is key to showing the next generation that who they are, what they are, is beautiful, natural and acceptable.

Shame on the Daily Mail and on Richard Littlejohn for failing to  lead the way in cultivating understanding and acceptance.

To sign a petition calling for an apology from the Daily Mail and the firing or resignation of Richard Littlejohn, click here.

When Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe, writer of the book Things Fall Apart is dead at 82, according to the latest news reports. He was – and is – one of the most celebrated authors to come out of Nigeria, and Africa.

I remember the first time I read his debut novel, Things Fall Apart, I was studying English literature at university and was grappling with my own white history as an Afrikaner from South Africa. The book is a powerful illustration of the effects of colonialism on African traditional life. It follows the story of a proud Igbo leader who seeks to uphold the traditions of his tribe, only to see them slip away once the white men arrive. Rather than ascribe to the new rules of a new and unwelcome people, Okonkwo (the main character) chooses to hang himself instead. But in the very act of evading the white man’s rules, he breaks the traditions of his own people — suicide is seen as a deeply shameful act and not worthy of a warrior.

This story truly moved me on so many levels. Not only does it portray, in devastating detail, the truly terrible cultural decimation that occurred at the white man’s arrival in Africa, but it also refuses to idealize the pre-colonized way of life. Okonkwo’s actions, inspired by the advice of an oracle, are truly horrific when he takes part in the killing of his own adopted son. He also shows little sympathy for his father, Unoka, a man at the opposite end of the masculinity spectrum. Unlike his son, Unoka is no warrior – he is a gentle soul with seemingly little ambition – and as a result he has little social standing in his village.

The characters feel like real, flesh and blood, human beings, who make mistakes, but try to live honest lives as best they can. Despite his violent, warrior-like temperament, Okonkwo is heroic. Here is a man who seeks to live according to the rules of a bygone age: as a proud, hard-working, stoic warrior. His raw humanity enhances the tragic quality of the book. It isn’t as simple as saying that pre-colonized life was a kind of garden of Eden and that the white man was the snake in the grass. Life is more complicated than that, and the social inequalities and class/gender divides are highlighted within a society that is as complex as any colonized society.

Struggling with my own gender identity, I remember reading this book and wanting to know more about Unoka, Okonkwo’s father. To my queer sensibilities, he felt like part of my gender variant tribe. Of course, he exists in a context so different, where terms like queer, gay/lesbian, bi and trans mean nothing — applying modern sensibilities to this world has limited use.

Ultimately, the book is a tragedy, an evocative illustration of the trauma the African people are still struggling to recover from. As a white man from Africa, I confess, the book makes me feel uncomfortable about the legacy of my people. But while the book is clearly of and about Africa, it is, at its core, a book about being human in an ever-changing world and the complex moral landscape that each of us must navigate as we find our place in it.

Dis-so-cia-tion and a history of shame

It started a long time ago. Don’t ask me when. I don’t know when. I was young. And then it just got worse. And now it’s automatic. The way sleepwalking is automatic. I don’t want it to happen, I don’t choose it to happen. But it does. And now the challenge is to make it stop happening. But you can’t will it to stop. It doesn’t work that way.

Turns out I’ve been dissociating for as long as I can remember. As far as a protection mechanism it’s worked OK, but it doesn’t work anymore, not when I’m trying to engage with the world and claim my space in it. It’s hard to do that when you feel yourself pulling back, having a brief out-of-body experience that means you can’t feel anything, say anything, or remember anything. As they say: ignorance is bliss. It’s also no way to live.

Shame is something I grew up feeling a lot of. I was, in my own eyes, slightly out of step with the mainstream, just a little bit off. Partly this was because of my gender incongruence. Trying to fit into feminine social behaviour roles when these did not come naturally to me. Partly it was because of my disconnection from a place to call my home. My family moved from South Africa to Canada and then back again, multiple times. As a child, violently hurtled into a new culture as I entered into my teens, I felt misplaced. Moving from Canada back to South Africa when I was 11 years old was like travelling through time, from the 21st century back to the 19th century — it was not a pleasant experience. Not only was I faced with a socially conservative society that had little use for gender-confused, sexually curious teens, I was having to navigate the dark waters of a deeply ingrained culture of racism unlike anything I had experienced before.

As I learned more about my history, as an Afrikaner, as a Boer-child, as the child of a follower of the National Party, a political party that is best known for implementing the racist policies of Apartheid, I was none too pleased with my heritage. The National Party my father so loved brutally, violently, bloodily reducing those who opposed it to silence through torture or death. How could I hold my head up high? I coped with the confusion by  stealing away into an alternative world all my own, a place of pure emptiness. In this safe place I did not have to face the questions that I had: about my gender expression, my sexuality, my skin colour, human inequality. In the face of a world I could not understand, I felt disempowered to affect any meaningful change. What right had I, after all, to speak for anyone other than myself? And why should anyone care what I had to say?

When I left South Africa at the age of 18 to attend university in Canada, I had already developed some severe symptoms of clinical depression. While I had not yet actively tried to kill or harm myself – that would come later – I simply avoided every kind of emotionally charged interaction. I navigated the world only half present, the other half pleasantly checked out and floating in a psychic limbo of my own making. The symptoms were a lack of affect, a blank mind that seemed to miss even the basic capacity to string together words into sentences. When my dissociation ran this deep, it terrified me. Words were one of the few things that brought me comfort. Not having access to them felt like losing myself, or at least losing my sanity. Which still seemed preferable to facing the deep shame I felt for who I was, who I am.

So here it is, in writing:

  • I am white and I am an Afrikaner. My father and my mother are (were) Afrikaners (my father is dead now). My father voted for the National Party and believed in the policy of Apartheid. To him it meant “equal but separate”. I was opposed to Apartheid once I grew old enough to understand its consequences. But I kept my opposition to myself.
  • I am transgender. I was assigned female at birth and began my transition to male at the age of 24. My mother rejected me because of it. My father died broken-hearted. I did not attend his funeral as it did not feel like the right time to reveal my new identity to his friends and loved ones. I did not want to shame his memory.
  • At the age of 26, the same year my father died, a close friend, also transgender, slit her wrists in a hotel room and bled to death. Before she killed herself she called my number (and many others) to say goodbye. I still have the recording of her message. But on that day I wasn’t home when she called. And when I heard her message I did not immediately call back. Instead I dissociated. I went to see a movie at a local independent theatre with a friend. I blocked the meaning of her message out of my mind as if it didn’t happen. But it did and she was dead.
  • A year later, I had a nervous breakdown.

This is the shame I carry with me: my inactivity, my passiveness, the ease with which I simply separate from reality when it no longer makes sense or when I feel helpless.

I am not helpless. This is what I am learning, step by step, day by day, as I walk my path to recovery, to healing. This is what I want to share with the world.

One step closer to human rights for all

Today, a private members bill, commonly referred to as the “transgender rights bill” passed a vote in Canada’s House of Commons. This is a huge step for the transgender community, as it means that the federal Human Rights Act will now include language that disallows discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Transgender and transsexual persons, have not, up to now, enjoyed explicit protection under the Act.

I was happy to note that 16 Conservative party members voted in favour of the bill, as did the overwhelming majority of the Opposition parties. Next, the bill must pass a vote in the senate, but the senate rarely votes down bills that have already gone through the lower parliament – things are looking good.

There it is. I, like other human beings, regardless of race, class, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity, am protected under the law. It feels pretty great.

Meanwhile, south of the border, Arizona is attempting to pass a bill that would prohibit a person from using a washroom other than the one that matches one’s assigned birth gender. This would apply to shower rooms, dressing rooms or changing rooms too. For transgender individuals this bill spells disaster, as the penalty is severe: up to six months in prison! Whether law enforcement will enforce it is another matter, but not one that should be up for debate.

You win some, you fight for some.

One of the common objections to transgender people using public washrooms according to their chosen gender is that this would supposedly sanction pedophiles (generally men) going into women’s washrooms and exposing themselves to vulnerable young children. Of course this argument makes no mention of the large number of transgender men (who were assigned female at birth) who stand to gain legal access to men’s washrooms. Presumably, we (I am a trans man) do not pose a sufficient threat to young boys to warrant mention. But let’s let that issue slide…

The argument contains a number of other flaws that I’m sure most discerning readers have picked up on but let’s break it down further:

  1. Scientific and medical research shows absolutely no link between gender identity disorder (to use the terminology of the DSM-IV) and pedophilia. 
  2. If a man wanted to expose himself to a child, he could do so whether or not this bill passed. We do not have guards at bathroom doors. All this bill does is allow transgender women (who were assigned male at birth) to use the facilities that match their gender presentation.
  3. The Harry Benjamin Standards of Care, which many healthcare professional ascribe to in the treatment of transsexual patients, requires that a transgender person do a real life test of two years during which they must live publicly in the gender to which they wish to transition prior to getting approved for surgery. A legal bill that prohibits a transgender individual from entering a washroom that matches their gender presentation directly contradicts what medical treatment dictates.
  4. The argument also does not acknowledge the existence of individuals who are born intersex, with abnormal genitalia that are neither typically male nor female. Surely, these individuals should have the right to use the washroom of their choice regardless of what their birth certificate says? Again, no link exists between pedophilia and disorders of sexual development (also known as intersex conditions).

I hope Arizona will do the right thing and vote this bill down.

As for me, I’m thrilled that my government recognizes my right to exist (even if Prime Minister Harper himself opposed the bill).

Small steps, but steps nonetheless.

Dipped in Fire: Social Anxiety in the Workplace

I work as a proposal manager at a real estate project management firm, and as part of my job I am expected to go out and mingle with potential clients and perform debriefs when the proposals we submit fail. No big deal, except that I struggle to master the art of human interaction. It’s so tempting to just say: “no thanks” and sit safely behind my computer screen, typing away at something that really isn’t that important.

Some people are more afraid of public speaking than of death itself. I’m not there yet, but it’s definitely not an activity I seek out. Send me a written inquiry and I will submit a lengthy email reply. I’ll even enjoy it. I like the distance between me and the inquirer, the atemporality of the act. I can put my response aside for a day or two if I really need to; a 24 hour delay is OK.

But in person, just me facing another person? Where is the armour to protect me? Too much stimulus, too many opportunities for humiliation. What if I say something so completely, totally wrong that the other person never wants to do business with me, us ever again? Bearing the weight of such failure upon my scrawny shoulders just seems like too much of a risk.

Ah, risk.

Really, the opportunity for total and utter failure is small. On Thursday, for example, I will attend a seminar on social media tools and how businesses can leverage them to increase connection with clients. Let’s say the worst thing happens and people discover that I’m weird. So what? It’s one morning on one day in the year 2013. Give it a week or two and who will even remember that I was there? Who will care?

Maybe what really terrifies me is that I won’t be seen at all. It’s a fear I’ve carried with me from a young age. Growing up in a household where my (surprisingly functional) invalid of a father was constantly on the brink of death, the messages I received from my mother was that I’d better behave, because else I will upset my father and if I upset my father too much he might die on the spot. Who wants to be held responsible for the death of their parent? I learned to keep my thoughts, my actions to myself, mostly. I figured, the less I rocked the boat, the less chance there was for me to do my father in. I chose to make myself invisible. And, for the most part, I succeeded.

Turns out I needn’t have bothered. When, at 25, I was already well on my way to becoming the man I felt myself to be, I thought I could keep it secret from my father – we lived on different continents after all. He and my mother owned a home in a suburb in Pretoria, South Africa, and I was making a go of it in kinder, gentler Canada. Phone calls were awkward, however. We didn’t speak often, but when we did, my father would comment on the deepening of my voice; he would ask if I had a cold and, not knowing how to speak the truth, I said “yes” I was sick and we left it at that. I knew I couldn’t hide my secret from him forever, but one more day would be OK…

When he died, a year later, I was devastated. My attempts to hide my true self had only worsened our already complicated relationship. He died heartbroken, not accepting me as the man I felt myself to be. My mother blamed me for killing his spirit. At least at the end he said he loved me no matter what. I cling to that.

As a trans man, I had to quickly learn the social cues of masculinity by sheer observation. Early on, I tried my best just to fit in, just not to draw attention to myself. Blending in means staying safe, and I was terrified of ending up like Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry.

It’s been almost 10 years since I started my journey to manhood and I have to say, the self-erasing gig may have kept me safe, but it has done little to help my social skills. What I want is to make my voice heard, to speak up and make things happen. Instead, I am a social stutterer, awkward and invisible. Really, what do I have to fear? The worst has already happened; my father is already dead. And, though I didn’t cause his cancer, I broke his heart.

It can only get better from here.

Knowing that, I will go this Thursday, despite my fear. I will step out of my comfort zone and accept that stepping out of it doesn’t necessarily mean that I am also automatically stepping out of the safety zone. Safety, as Seth Godin writes in The Icarus Deception is overrated, a relic of the industrial economy. In the connection economy, the one we are currently living in, standing out and standing up is what’s valued more.

Death, Love and Recovery

At age 27 I fell in love and in lust. The man in question was more than double my age, a facilitator at a government-funded program for individuals who had recently lost their job and wanted to start their own business. My idea was to start my own desktop publishing business. I had left my previous job under painful circumstances. My father had died 9 months earlier and my friend A— had committed suicide six months before that. I had found myself unable to function at work. I asked to be laid off and my supervisor obliged. I had no idea what I would do next.

The year that followed was a time of personal reflection, of watching Six Feet Under reruns and bursting into uncontrollable tears at the slightest sign of blood in CSI episodes. I simply didn’t have a filter to protect me and everything set me off. I retreated into my own world, barely stepping out of my apartment, fearing the stares of strangers on the street. I felt like a recovering burn victim – everything hurt and I couldn’t handle anyone touching me.

When I signed up for the self-employment program I knew I wouldn’t be able to start my own business. I hardly had any money and, besides, I wasn’t any good. But being in a classroom at least distracted me from the spiralling depression I faced at home. In class I could pretend to be someone else, someone better. I kept to myself as much as I could. I was shy and quiet and desperate for change.

Enter D—-.

D—- didn’t look his age. His hair wasn’t grey and just being near him made me feel more alive. It wasn’t just me – everyone felt it. He had an energy that could bowl you over if you weren’t careful. It was intense and dangerous and, yes, erotic. Maybe if I wasn’t in the vulnerable place I found myself in I wouldn’t have succumbed so easily. As it was, his presence cut into me like an exacto-knife.

Years later I wrote to him that I wasn’t sure whether he saved me or nearly killed me. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. When I was near him, the unbearable pain of my father’s death, of my best friend’s suicide, subsided into a dull ache. No one else had that effect on me. I became desperate to connect with him, wrote him long emails about my life and about the pain I was in. He seemed to listen; to care. This confused me. No one in my birth family had shown much understanding for what I was going through. My father died rejecting my transgender identity. My mother disowned me. My sisters simply avoided me. And yet this man, this teacher, took the time to listen to my pain.

I wasn’t used to the attention. I became tongue-tied and fell even more deeply under his spell. He was a magician and I was his rapt audience. I would have tried to be a woman for him if he’d asked. I might even have had his babies. Who I was shifted like the wind. My steps were uncertain, tentative. Only my obsession with this man seemed to give my life any stability. I thought if I just stayed close to him, I would be OK. Every day I sent him long, painful electronic missives on my life. Sometimes he’d answer and when he did it felt like someone stroking my entire body softly. It was a gentle wave that washed over me, engulfing me. I couldn’t say no.

It was all wrong, of course.

When I finally confessed my lust to him, he told me he was flattered, but the feeling wasn’t mutual. His boss, N——, called me in to meet with her and D—– in her office. She asked me how I was doing. My body seemed to act without my consent. I began to shake, my hands trembling, my right hand rubbing my forehead uncontrollably. I felt the sheer terror of being exposed rise up in me and I just wanted to get out of there. She said that they were looking for someone who could support me, someone to meet with on a regular basis.

Two days after the meeting D—- emailed me to say that he had found three people for me to contact. And he indicated that he could not let our business relationship interfere with my getting the help I needed on a more personal level. He was cutting ties with me. I wasn’t prepared for this. I blamed myself for telling him I loved him; for telling him the truth; for trusting him. Why, oh why, had I let down my guard? But it was too late. It was over. Though I tried to stay in contact, our relationship never recovered.

I did seek out one of the people on the list he provided. They gave me as much support as they could, but it wasn’t the same. The pain of losing D—- ran so deep I thought I would die from it alone.

Even though I have, in the intervening years, rebuilt my life, I still miss him. I have a job that challenges me, a partner I love deeply, a pug that fills me with joy. Sometimes that dark time of my life, more than six years ago now, feels more like a bad dream than reality. I know that I can never go back to that mental place. My constitution can’t handle it. But I’m grateful for it too – for what I learned about myself, for the vulnerabilities it exposed. I like to think I’m stronger for it. It’s part of the story behind the man I am today.