Monthly Archives: October 2014

Silence is not consent

As a transgender man, I am in the fairly unique position of having lived the first 24 years of my life as a woman before transitioning to living as a man full-time. In those first 24 years, I was exposed to the social conditioning all women absorb whether they want to or not. And hailing from a religious, conservative culture as a white Afrikaner South African, I learned these lessons well. The conditioning involved messages such as: women are there to satisfy men’s needs and desires, women shouldn’t make a fuss, women should be submissive.

Since 1998, I have lived my life in Canada. Like many Canadians, I was caught off-guard by the news that broke over the past weekend about Jian Ghomeshi. The story goes that the beloved CBC radio host and Canadian personality has been fired for sexual misconduct. Multiple women (8 so far) have since come forward claiming that he sexually assaulted them.

At first I was incredulous. Partly because I admire the interviewing skills he displayed on his show Q with Jian Ghomeshi; it’s hard to accept something so unpleasant about someone you respect. Partly also because I simply didn’t see it coming and I like to think of myself as a pretty perceptive person.

Of course, there’s no reason why I would have seen it coming. I don’t move in Jian’s circles. I have never met the man. All I know of him is the highly polished version of him I have listened to on the radio. And yet people with such darkness, a darkness that apparently made it seem OK for him to beat women repeatedly in the head or choke them until they couldn’t breathe, surely that kind of darkness should be visible somehow, in his face or voice or demeanour? Instead he looks like an ordinary man. How can this be?

The revelations that have followed have triggered, as I imagine it has for many women (and men), unwanted memories of my own assault. It happened on a Greyhound bus nearly 15 years ago now, when I was a 20-year-old university student on my way home from Quebec City to Victoria. What happened to me wasn’t nearly as violent as what happened to the women that Jian attacked. And yet the memory of it still disorients me. Especially the shame and guilt that came with it.

My story is almost banal in its simplicity. I had a window seat about halfway down the left-hand side of the Greyhound bus. A large Texan man in his 50s, with greasy hair and a MacDonald’s paper bag, sat down next to me. He had no problem taking up his entire seat – and some of mine. I remember the nauseating smell of fast food and stale sweat. He settled into eating and I pressed myself further into my corner; I tried to distract myself with the scenery outside.

It just sort of happened. His hand landed on my knee, like an innocent butterfly landing on a stick. He kept it there. Then he slowly, incrementally, moved it up, toward my crotch, until his fingers were millimetres away from my genitals. He wasn’t looking at me. Nor I at him. I was completely frozen. I had no idea how to react. I felt shock, horror, rage, disgust. And yet I did nothing. Fear paralyzed me. I couldn’t squeeze by him without making a fuss. I didn’t want to make a fuss. Surely he would stop. He had to stop. Soon, right? I looked around for an empty seat nearby. I saw nothing.

His fingers started to rub against my clitoris through my clothes. I coughed. I finally said, shakily: “excuse me”, and rose as if nothing were wrong. As if I was just going on a bathroom break. I felt numb. He barely moved enough for me to push past him. He smiled confidently. I clumsily made my way to the bathroom at the back of the bus. And trembled in the tiny stall as I tried to figure out how to extricate myself from this incomprehensible situation. I was not equipped to deal with this kind of behaviour. My heart raced. I felt so confused. All I wanted to do was cry. But something in me told me not to show weakness.

When I could stay there no longer, I made my way back toward the front of the bus. It turns out there was another empty seat available. Relieved, I sat down in it and tried to ignore the Texan, who eventually noticed I’d moved. He looked over at me as if to ask why I wasn’t there next to him. He seemed perfectly at ease.

At the next stop, a woman, middle-aged, well put together, climbed on board. She sat down next to the Texan. I wanted to warn her but didn’t know what to say. After all, he hadn’t done anything violent. Maybe I’d given off the wrong signal or something. Maybe it was just me.

It wasn’t. Soon after, the woman announced loudly, so that everyone on the bus could hear her: “Stop that, you pervert!”. I’m paraphrasing here. I don’t remember her exact words. I do remember feeling so proud of her, for speaking up. Unlike me.

No one said anything. She moved away from him. She went up to speak to the bus driver, who told her there was nothing he could do. She switched places with a male rider. The Texan leaned toward his new neighbour and grumbled loudly: “women these days have no sense of fun”.

Of course, the driver could have done something. He could have stopped the bus. He could have ordered the man to get off. He could have at least spoken to him. But it was pretty clear the driver didn’t want to be bothered. To him, it was no big deal. No one seemed to want to get involved.

When we got off the bus for a break, I approached the woman and told her that the Texan had tried the same thing with me. We commiserated for a moment then went our separate ways. I never saw her again. Nor the Texan. He left too, shortly after. He walked away quietly, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

The rest of the trip was non-eventful all the way to Vancouver. But I couldn’t shake what had happened. In fact, I couldn’t stop shaking. What went through my mind wasn’t about what a creep he had been, although there was that. My thoughts revolved around how humiliated I felt, how weak I must be that I hadn’t been able to speak up and tell him to stop. I re-played the tape of events in my mind, looking for anything to explain why he thought he could get away with what he did. I looked for signals I must have given off, to invite this kind of treatment. I felt dirty, vulnerable and small.

Once I arrived in Vancouver, I called my sister in tears. I tried to explain what had happened but I struggled to articulate it. No, nothing had happened, I said. A guy had made me feel uncomfortable on the bus. What else is new? My sister, unable to understand why I was so upset, offered little sympathy.

I vowed I would never take a Greyhound bus ever again. And for almost 10 years, I didn’t.

I hate what Jian Ghomeshi did to the women who came forward, and to the many out there that I imagine fear telling their stories but are traumatized nonetheless. I respect and admire the courage of the women who have agreed to speak out publicly. It can’t be easy. Especially when you are speaking out against a public figure who has been so loved by so many for so long. Who wants to re-live such a painful experience, and then get attacked for expressing it? Why sign up for that?

I’m glad that out of all of this, a fervent public discourse is unfolding about the reality of sexual harassment and assault. We need to talk about this, openly. It needs to stop. We need to stop turning a blind eye just because it’s uncomfortable to look at. Silence is not consent. Violence is not consensual if it’s based on the victim’s silence.

*Photo by Volkan Olmez (unsplash.com)

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My wasted life?

There are times where I seriously question whether it’s all been worth it. The years of self-torture, the decision to transition, the rejection from family that followed, the alienation, ultimate rebirth, the surgeries, hormone injections, therapy sessions and hate.

Unlike some trans children I did not announce to my parents when I was four that I was a boy. I knew better than that. I knew that whatever I thought didn’t matter; what mattered was what the world around me thought, what my family thought. And the world around me was telling me that I was a little girl. My family reinforced this notion. It wasn’t a comfortable label to carry, the one of girl, but what alternative was there, really? In my eyes I had only two choices, learn to live with being a girl or die. For a while there, I seriously considered dying. Sometimes I still do. Old habits die hard.

When I finally came out, my mother accused me of having nothing better to do with my time than to come up with this ridiculous idea that I was a man. She guilted me by telling me how, when she grew up, she didn’t have time to contemplate such absurdities as being uncomfortable in her body, because she had REAL problems to worry about, like my father’s sickness, like raising three children, like being a good wife. Those are grownup problems. She made it seem like my struggles with gender were somehow an indulgence that I engaged in because I was lazy or had too much time to be idle.

Maybe it is a first-world problem. Had I been born into a third world reality, maybe I would have spent my time consumed with thinking about where to get my next meal, or where to scrounge a few coins together to buy the basics of living. I would not have been able to afford hormone treatments or surgeries. But the fact that third genders exist in developing countries counters this theory. In India, hijras form a recognized third class. Neither man nor woman, they nevertheless are recognized in the law as a distinct category. They do not come from rich middle-class families. I’d wager, in fact, that most of them do not.

But that feeling, that my transition was an indulgence, persists. Never mind that the time I spent coming to terms with my gender, robbed me of what should have been the best years of my life: my childhood, my teenage years, my early adulthood. I sank into an early, deep depression. I self-harmed. I tried to kill myself. And when I really could not see any other option, and when it occurred to me that it didn’t really matter what happened next once I transitioned, because living the way I was living was already a kind of death, I made the decision to see a specialist. I was diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder and in quick succession was approved for hormone therapy.

All of that time and energy spent wasted on something that, to some, seems so inconsequential. Who cares if you are a man or a woman? Why spend so much time hung up about it? Why not just move on, live your life, with your god-given body? Make peace with yourself.

But there was no peace to be had, not for me. Not until the hormone treatments started. That, really, for me, was the turning point. More so even than the subsequent surgeries. Because that first injection was about more than just changing the chemical makeup of my body. It was the first time that I truly acknowledged to myself that all of this was not just in my head. That this was real and that I was really doing something about it. Hormone therapy changed my life.

But was it worth it? Ten years later, I have no real contact with my birth family. That in itself might seem like a tragedy if it were not for the fact that even before my transition we had our share of problems. I don’t miss them much. I miss having a family of my own, but I do not miss the family I had. There are too many painful memories there. I’m sure they would say the same. I was the black sheep that ruined their world. We are better without each other.

Ten years later, I am also without a partner of my own. I was engaged, once. Until fairly recently actually. It’s still too raw for me to write about. Considering I’ve not had great role models in what loving relationships look like, I suppose it’s not surprising that I’ve failed in this domain so far. Especially considering how few trans people I know who have succeeded in finding loving partners in it for the long run. I’ve not entirely given up yet. But I’m wise enough now to know not to rush into anything. There are worse things than being alone. An unhappy marriage is one of them.

Ten years later, I have no real career. This one hurts the most, I think. If one does not have family, one should at least have a career. But to fail here, well, that truly is to be a failure. My career failings have largely been a result of my inability to hold down a job for more than a few years at a time. Hurdles include crippling social anxiety, and recurring clinical depression. Add to that my need to pay for surgery. I pursued a job that had benefits, and that allowed me to go through six surgeries in 3 years to finalize my gender confirmation process. Had I not had these practical needs, I am sure I would have chosen a different career path entirely — as I most recently have.

I left a fairly lucrative career last year, a career that offered me little enjoyment except for a comfortable pay-cheque. Instead, I pursued work that was more in line with my values, working with others who deal with mental health and social challenges. The work is rewarding, the pay not. But at least I wake up and feel like what I do has value, unlike before.

But to be 35 and just starting out is a challenge. I am ashamed of how little I have truly accomplished. I am embarrassed that I let so many years slip by without tackling the issues that were holding me back. I grieve for the child I once was, the child who had hopes of great achievements, and ambition to match. The child who, to my parents, could have been a diplomat, scientist or great artist. Instead, in their eyes, I threw it all away. All because I simply couldn’t come to terms with my gender. How silly is that?

And yes, sometimes I wonder if it has been worth it.

*Photo by Todd Quackenbush (unsplash.com)

 

How turning the other cheek is a way of fighting back

I consider myself something of a pacifist. I abhor violence, don’t see the appeal of potentially bloody sports like boxing or mixed martial arts, and wish we would spend more energy on promoting collaboration rather than celebrating competition, which always involves a loser as well as a winner, and which to date has played such a central role in shaping our society.

Does one person have to lose for another person to win? What does winning really mean and is there a way that we can re-define it? Can we agree that true winning means that all parties involved benefit? Is that even an achievable goal? Is it realistic to suggest that as a society we should move away from a win/lose binary system that is so deeply entrenched in our psyches?

Christianity and I parted ways long ago, but I still sometimes ponder what Jesus meant exactly when he said: “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”. Seems to me this is an invitation to be stepped on. And as someone who has struggled to stand up for myself, this is all too close to a call to passivity and apathy – which in my mind facilitated the spread of ideological viruses like nazism and racist apartheid policies. The result of turning the other cheek is that people DO step all over you, given half a chance. And they end up defining the world we live in, while we become ineffective, largely powerless pawns.

So, how to live a virtuous life without bending our will to every person who challenges us? I think it takes a change in attitude, and a move away from the individualist approach that much of Western society has embraced. It means seeing each moment, each interaction as an opportunity to build something together, to work together, to collaborate. And to recognize the humanity in the other person. It means seeing ourselves as connected.

Often I think people act in inconsiderate ways, not because they are necessarily malicious or out to get us. But because many of us are motivated by selfish impulses – if not always then at least at times. We don’t necessarily take that extra moment to consider the impact of our words and actions on those who walk alongside us. We must actively combat this within ourselves if we are serious about promoting peace and respect.

Of course, there are limits. We are each responsible for our own actions. I cannot reasonably be expected to help every needy person who crosses my path. And not every needy person has the right to expect that of me. The approach I’m proposing demands that we give up our sense of entitlement, our sense that the world owes us a living and that everyone else is responsible for making us feel good or bad. We must each take claim to our own lives and set in motion the actions and attitudes that best serve us – without infringing on the rights of others to live a life of dignity and respect.

In terms of fighting back, what does this mean? For me, it means that when I’m confronted with ignorance or a lack of charity from others, I will not resort to knee-jerk reactions of rage and vengefulness. That path has the potential to lead me astray too easily. And it benefits no one in the long term. Instead, I will “turn the other cheek”, not by giving into the hate or cynicism I’m confronted with, or by being reduced to silence, but by not fighting back with similar hate or cynicism. I will continue to speak my truth, with kindness, and love, and I will continue to be open to other points of view.

I will not see myself in adversity to others. Instead, I see us as co-conspirators in the construction of the world. The world needs more kindness. Standing up for that is my way of fighting back.

Love is just the beginning


I used to complain to anyone who would listen that love simply isn’t enough. I loved my family, for example, but that didn’t stop me from hurting them, even though it wasn’t on purpose. I’m sure deep down, too, my family loved me. But that didn’t stop them from pushing me aside when my clinical depression was too much to bear, and my gender transition became a point of shame. And when romance entered my life? Again, love could only sustain it for so long, before the spikes of life punctured an already fragile union. Love isn’t enough, I despaired. So why try?

I think I’m starting to see things differently though. I think the problem with thinking that love should be enough to right all wrongs is that love isn’t an endpoint. It’s not a goal that, once you achieve it, you get to cross it off your list and forget about. Instead, it’s a direction, a point of departure, a tool that develops as you use it over and over again. It’s a guiding light.

The love that couldn’t keep my biological family communicating with me didn’t dry up. The communicating dried up. I still love my sisters, my late father, and yes, even the mother who I’m not sure ever loved me back. Loving those who hurt you, doesn’t mean you have to keep letting them hurt you. It means that you need to re-direct that love in a constructive direction. Killing love is a form of self-harm. Better to keep that love alive and thriving. Better to find a new home for it.

I’m re-directing it in the work that I’ve chosen to do, working with street-entrenched and homeless young people. People who, like me, couldn’t find what they needed in the families they were born into. And now they struggle to build a life for themselves, and the forks in the roads are stark and sometimes dangerous. I may not be able to reach them all, but maybe I can reach one of them. That would be something.

I re-direct the love each time I volunteer at a suicide hotline too. I hear my own story reflected back to me in the calls that come in. I hear different stories but similar pain. I hear suffering and grief and trauma, and I offer them the one thing I have — empathy. Love.  It’s not everything. It’s not a cure. But it’s the beginning of one. And it’s amazing how much it can mean to people.

We all have to start somewhere. Love is where I choose to start. It’s where life is. I want to live.

I exist, I belong

large_5558352358It’s taken me a long time to realize that I am a valid human being. My multiple minority identities are woven tightly together – a foreigner in my adopted homeland, a South African-born Canadian, a left-handed writer, an ambidextrous everything else, a survivor of mental illness, a female-to-male transsexual, a gender non-conforming man, a downwardly mobile free spirit, a wannabe artist, a pansexual (almost) celibate lover, an agnostic, a seeker of enlightenment.

In every space I enter, I feel my difference. I feel the struggles that come with being different. But I don’t talk about that much. Not an easy dinner conversation when you’re the kind of introvert that makes other introverts look like party animals. Besides, who wants to be a downer. So much of my journey has taken me through suffering, that ultimate human experience. It still hurts to talk about the loss that comes with some of my more primary identities. The family who stood by helplessly as I sank deeper into the darkness of clinical depression. The mother who disowned me for daring to turn my back on my “god-given” femininity. My lover who left me because I could no longer support her. The loss of jobs and friends. The inability to speak or write what lies closest to my heart. The confusion that comes with doubting yourself.

I accept that others experience belonging differently, in the sense that they experience it at all. I’ve learned to be OK with that, with being slightly out of step with the way others move. Not that I like it. But I guess I’ve finally realized that comparing myself to everyone else does me no good, and leaves me feeling miserable, envious, small. Why do that to myself?

Instead, I try to focus on the basics. I was born, I am here, I exist, I belong. I breathe, I walk, I talk, I grow. I belong on this earth as much as anyone – because I am human. Because every human has a place under the sun. My awkward steps are leading me somewhere even if I’m not always clear where that is. Even if it’s only in circles. Besides, everyone is different if you dig deep enough.

Despite the weirdness of my storied past I’ve survived this far. And along the way, I have managed to accumulate a collection of friends, memories, experiences that give my life some kind of meaning. They make this journey, this daily struggle I call life, worth it. I have done nothing to deserve this life. But maybe that’s OK. Life is not earned, it’s simply accepted. It’s the gift, the curse, the thing we all have in common. It’s what binds us together.

photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/katieheartsphotography/5558352358/”>katieblench</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;