A seat at the table.
I've been talking a lot in this blog about what I am receiving as the new girl. So much so, that I could rename this weekly venture "An embarrassment of riches." And before we go too far, I hope I have been clear I am an incredibly lucky girl.
My father used to keep me grounded (and I'm not sure my pops get enough props in my recent writings. He was, despite a few flaws, flawless—a force of nature that has 50% stake in the woman I am today, and I am proud to be his daughter). Where was I?... Oh yeah, he would say, "… but for an accident of birth ..." to make sure I never got ahead of or behind myself in the entitlement department. As a working-class Irish kid from the pseudo mean streets of 1950's Marine park Brooklyn (in early pictures, he was just like the Jets of “West Side Story,” the kind that would taunt an Officer Krupke into chasing him and his fellow hooligans from their shenanigans), my pop knew that the only thing between the Maddens and success was doing something stupid... like letting your ego make decisions for you.
In today's 2016, Black Lives Matter world, “but for an accident of birth” is a humbling contemplation that many white folk have either too much guilt or are too defensive about to effectively "grok."
And trust me, as a white trans woman, I'm getting a little tired of defending myself to my cisgender sisters who refuse to get past the smell of my being raised by wolves, regardless of the color of my skin. And I’m also a little weary of trying to defend being able to relate, in principle and theory, to those of color who deny that the obstacles I face against “transphobia” are anything close to racism.
Talk about double jeopardy.
So, I freaking get it. I don't claim to say I have ever, nor will I, feel the sting of institutional and generational discrimination, but I also won't be able to walk freely into a bathroom in any redneck overrun state anytime soon either. Racism and transphobia are not. The. Same. And yet, they both need to change. So rather than get lost in the weeds on comparing boo-boos, I would rather talk today about healing. And in this instance, it’s a case of “physician heal thyself.”
My pop’s teaching serves me well here. Because there's another side to the “but for accident of birth” coin, and it’s this:
Since I can. Since I have. Since I know. What will I, what can I, give back? How can I serve? What shall I do about any and all of the above?
I have to admit that I never connected serving with being trans (of course I never connected myself with being trans before either, but we've talked about this). In truth, most of us start out just trying to figure how to live our lives, shaking off as many years of being "not trans" as we all may have. The younger girls raised by wolves of today at least don't have this issue, but that don't mean they get off Scott free; they get their own package of challenges, which I can only report anecdotally. I cannot say I have experienced these, so we’ll save them for later.
But my friend, Valerie (geezus am I gonna have to start paying her royalties?), said to me when I first came out, "I can see you giving lessons to cis-gender women about how to succeed in a man's world."
Okay, a brief moment of undying gratitude to Val. After twenty years of friendship, she literally didn't even bat an eye when I disclosed that the man she thought she knew, had supported in the world of writing and pure friendship, was, in fact, a woman. She had watched my career in the adventure reality world, knew my successes and my rise from crew member to Showrunner, and all that that entailed… and she merely added the newest detail (my true identity) to the above equation and came out with the above analysis.
Yes, I, as a woman, had learned how to succeed in a man's world. She never questioned how tough or crazy that sounded, but rather that I truly did have something that would be valuable to the sisterhood.
Now, it's important to note that many of us who were raised by wolves come into the sisterhood "hat in hand," apologizing, and as I have written in previous posts, grateful for even a scrap of acceptance. We will rarely have the confidence or the conviction that any of our years of running with wolves will be worthy of anything but the scars we used to wear as badges of honor. And I, for one, am still feeling a grumble in my stomach when I describe any of my past glories when they veer into the “lookie, how cool I was” world.
So, to hear one of my role models say that I had something valuable, I had to coax my feelings away from the natural inclination to poo-poo them as harbingers of the past, and take notice.
What would that look like? This “how to succeed in a man’s world” lessons thingy.
Mylove and I used to play a parlor game with many women over the course of our marriage, and it went something like this: Mylove would bring in a friend who had “troubles with her boy,” and I would be able to offer a "what boys are really thinking/saying" analysis. It was uncanny, (surprise, surprise!). I seemed to be the “guy whisperer” and was seen as "disclosing the secret life of boys" when in fact, I was using my women's intuition, and combining it with boots on the ground intel and “bumped my nose many times,” experience.
I sounded like the Oracle.
And tho' I was spot on 99% of the time (who's perfect?), I never liked this game. My counsel never stood up when it mattered, protecting hearts from being broken, or stopping women from doing silly things that they would regret, because, ultimately, a girl’s gonna do what a girl’s gonna do. Nobody, and I mean nobody, no matter how much sense they seem to be making, will keep them from their appointment with their own destinies. Girls, am I right? When was the last time you were able to talk your girlfriend out of going home with “that jerk?”
I rest my case.
So, you can see why Valerie's challenge made me a little gun-shy. But it's not all.
The other chasm I had to build a bridge and get over was this: before coming out (and I wasn’t in my Oracle state), whenever I found myself engaged with women in a particular subject that we might call “women’s domain,” if I had an opinion, no matter how right it was, it was still coming out of a face everyone thought was a man’s (mine).
The flip side of that was whenever I called a guy on his actions. No matter how right I was, I was shot down. Because in the boy’s world, there’s a serious pecking order that determines when and where you can call another guy on their actions/opinions and have any effect. Again, it was dismissed out of hand. They can’t accept that their actions could be boiled down to such a simple, and predictable, behavior.
Valerie is usually never wrong. She’s very thoughtful and very direct. So I looked deeper at this while agreeing to get over my reluctance to believe that anyone would listen to me, at least long enough to see what she could've possible seen.
And I had an opportunity to do this almost right away. I attended a screening this summer of “I Stand Corrected,” which was made by a woman that I had mutual friends with, Andrea Myerson. I went to meet her. She’s a great documentary filmmaker, and we had corresponded a few times up to the event. As a cisgender woman, she had shown an incredible grasp of the trans journey of her subject, Jennifer Leitham. Jennifer was, and is, one of the greatest left-handed bass players in the world, and had transitioned while a member of Doc Severinsen’s band.
We got there early and we met Jennifer before Andrea even got there. She was gracious and approachable. The film is amazing and, as you can guess, heartbreaking, as this truly incredible woman and musician faced the heinous discrimination from a notorious boy’s club that she was too great a person to allow keep her down. It’s inspiring, especially when you see how her career is fruitful for her on her own terms now, after she was able to right her own ship.
After the screening, there was a Q&A with both Andrea and Jennifer. What was inspiring to see was the number of women musicians, cis- gender mostly. Jenny is a big deal in the trans community, but this screening was sponsored by the Long Beach LGBT center, and the majority of the audience were cis lesbian and allies. They had also seen the film multiple times.
My point is, they were fans and hopeful peers. And most of the questions were asked musician to musician. Jennifer is seen by many of these earnest up-and-comers as a mentor and inspiration.
But! Her answers were not helpful, especially when the questions steered into the “how did you,” “what would suggest…” vein of dealing with a professional world ruled by men. And, lest you think the music world is “enlightened,” Jennifer, as I said, regarded as one of the greatest stand-up bassists ever, and even more rare as left-handed, was denied initiation and inclusion in the jazz festivals around the world after her transition. The music world turned its back on her, and even the so-called “allies” in the film supported her only when interviewed.
So, it was not really a surprise that her answers were generally in the “yeah it sucks out there, good luck” category when asked if she had any advice for her fans.
And I could feel the bile beginning to rise in my throat.
Before I knew it, I was calling out Jenny for not helping. As elder women who had not only been raised by wolves but ran with them, and then ran the pack, we did have something to bring to the table. We should be offering our gift (thank you, Alexandra Billings) to our cis- sisters. We did have knowledge of what could, and eventually did, work. And more importantly, we could use our position to work for change for all women. Here I was, openly challenging this great woman, in her own room, on her own turf, as the belle of her own ball, to agree with me.
Okay. Yes, I felt bad for my sense (or lack thereof) of decorum. So bad that I almost compounded my felony by being a bit rude to the women who came up to exchange business cards and thank me for my… well, outburst, to catch Jennifer before she left the theater. I caught her as she took her place behind a table full of her CDs and apologized to her as we exchanged my signed book for her signed CD. And she confessed that years of concert halls and airplane miles had made hearing the spoken voice hard for her (thank god it hasn’t affected her playing), and she hadn’t really heard my challenge.
But, hearing it again, now in the quieter environs of a reception in her honor, she agreed.
We had something to say. We should take our seat at the table.
Being raised by with wolves had to be worth something, after all.
The obvious question is how? Is it by example alone? We are, as trans women (along with our trans brothers), already on shaky ground. Each one of us has a “qualifier,” an adjective bolted on the front of our “used to be” titles, careers, and positions. Alexandra Billings and Lavern Cox are trans actresses; Ian Harvie, a trans comedian/actor; Jennifer Leitham, a trans bass player. Now, each of us has been worked our way up in the meritocracy of professionalism, and we have risen to the success we enjoy through hard work, skill, and experience. We may be forced (and some do choose) to use the trans prefix as a way to stand-up for our rights and to work for change for our community, but we want our work to stand on its own, and not with a metaphysical asterisk.
And though we have fought most of our lives to be “justas” (as in justa woman or justa man), we cannot deny that we are mysterious, wise, magical “unicorns” who roam the forests of life amidst the ordinary mundane creatures… and that comes with a price. We might be regarded as too much of a muchness to be either relatable or taken seriously.
Can our credibility be recognized as easily as Valerie had seen mine, or does the general public use our prefix to suddenly color our views, taint our experience, or disqualify our achievements? Will we be afforded the respect and responsibility that Native Cultures confer on their transgender brethren? Or, will some continue to see us as a threat to power; living reminders that the narrow view of “gender-normality” is dying, that it has, in fact, always been false, and no amount of their shouting will change reality.
We, who were raised by wolves, know these challenges all too well. And truly speaking, even I (once the adrenaline backed down) couldn’t blame any Jennifer one bit if she “just” wanted to live her life, a life that had been on hold, chained to dysphoria, for decades. Who could ask her to now also take on the task of having to share how the “other half does it,” with the remaining portion of her precious life, just to get her seat at the table?
Nobody should have to pay for a seat at the table, but then again, there’s a ton of things in life that aren’t fair (but what hard work, perseverance, and maturity can, and does, change). What you bring to the table is usually the price of admission. And for those of us who were raised by wolves, the lessons we learned about how they run is just a starting point. To stay at the table, we’ll have to have the rest of who we are be just as valuable.
But I guess that’s on us.
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