How Sweet The Sound
To Save A Wretch Like Me.
I Once Was Lost
But Now Am Found
But Now Can See.
I saw Dr. S. Kristine James in her pink “conference” gown outside the room where she was throwing her last Gala as founding chair of The Empire Conference, surrounded by men in skirts. That might not be a surprise at a transgender conference, but these people had hairy knees and under plaid. They were the pipes and drums, here for the event downstairs, the 100th anniversary of the Ladies Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
They walked onto the dance floor and the sound filled the room, filling the soul with drone and melody, as the pipes were designed to do so many centuries ago. The tune was Amazing Grace and I started to smile. Then I started to laugh. I can always tell a good performance of Amazing Grace because I start to laugh, feeling the grace inside of me.
I was singing it once in college when this bantam Christian guy on my floor got offended, saying I didn’t understand the meaning, that I wasn’t entitled to sing it. “Of course I know the meaning,” I told him. “Grace was a hooker in Glasgow.” People laughed and he turned beet red at the perceived slap at his ownership of grace. The amazing grace of our creator that can save us is there for everyone, even a battered bunch of trannies dressed to the nines and gathered in a hotel function room, or a sex worker in old town.
I had come to the Empire Conference this year for two reasons. The first was as an observer. Even though it only happened fifteen miles from here, I hadn’t been able to come for the decade I was taking care of my parents; they demanded too much of me. This year I could pitch in and be of service in some way.
And the second reason, of course, was to work the process, to see where it took me. I went to Startup Weekend wondering if I was still smart about business and working the process told me not only that I was still capable, but that my own authentic self had to come into play too. I hadn’t be able to offer a seminar or plan a presentation for this year, the deadline passing as my parents were dying, so I had no expectations to bring, no goals to meet.
I assumed that I would just be supporting the experienced on-site registration team. That’s not how it turned out. My two colleagues had other needs and left much of the work to me. I spent more hours and solved more situations than they did. They reminded me, though, of so much of what happens at trans-events, where people see the world through their own internalized values. One, a woman I knew from decades ago, was sure I should work on my voice and get some work on my face to pass better in the world, while the other, advertising chair at Fantasia Fair was sure I would enjoy a week with the crossdressers in Provincetown. Both wrong.
My real job, though, was supporting Kristine through her last days as conference chair. I solved problems, encouraged her to tell her stories, and talked about the shared history we both experienced. That work included getting pulled onto the dance floor during the first dance and starting a wild three way spin-around, management again taking the lead to encourage involvement and engagement. I even had to stand up for Kristine a bit with the new young LGBT team that supported the enormous Provider’s Day sessions, hosting almost 150 health care professionals who wanted to learn how to support gender-variant identified clients.
My own work started when, after the Friday morning rush, I dropped into a session run by the local Advocates. I chose to speak up a bit, talking about the trans twist on the imagining of the one day when all gay and lesbian people turn pink, so we can see how diverse and omnipresent they are. We need transcool people to turn pink, to know how safe we are, telling the story of how Penny was scared about going to change sex on her driver’s licence in very red rural Virginia, but the clerk just smiled and said “I have a cousin just like you. We’ll fix you right up, honey.” I talked about how the growing visibility of diverse transpeople was important, because rather than being like people who just knew there was red wine, white wine and maybe rose, the world was learning that a chardonnay and a pinot grigio were the same but different. Being out around diverse gender people, we may know that, but it’s important the world sees us each as individuals, and appreciates our own unique bouquet and character.
As the group broke, four or five people asked when I was presenting my session, because they wanted to come. As I talked to people over the weekend, this was the most simple understanding, that I am still smart about the trans experience. When people brought up a topic, I had something useful and well through through to add, mixing personal experience and the theological work of understanding the lessons from shared story. My contribution was valuable, and most often, valued. That was important.
The two professionals leading the provider’s day even asked me to offer an appreciation to Kristine for her decades of service to the interlocking communities around trans at the big lunch, knowing my voice could help the health professionals understand her lasting value.
As a woman, I know that relationships always work better when people find themselves attracted to me, rather than me trying to make other people notice me. Breaking through is the hard part.
One woman who noticed me quickly was coming to her first trans conference ever. That doesn’t mean she was a newbie. At 15, with a mother who helped, she went to Callen-Lorde in NYC to start hormones and has been living as a woman since. At 33, though, her current job in law enforcement was questioned when state officials realized she had answered the question about registering for selective service two different ways, and that flagged her. In the end, she was safe, because the feds knew all about her history, but the experience shook her, making her realize that in this age of information, perfect stealth is impossible.
She told me her story. When I asked if her boy name was very masculine, she stopped.
“I never tell people my birth name. Never.” she said. “I hate it when they want to know my “real” name.”
“But I’m going to tell you.” And she did. It was an incredible moment of trust, and a moment of exposure she wanted to do, a freeing moment. I was honoured.
She hadn’t figured out what she needed to do, yet. Maybe work with at risk trans identified youth. Maybe, but that felt risky and uncomfortable.
“Maybe your work is around law enforcement,” I suggested. That felt risky too, because she found out that so many people in that profession have judged all transpeople on the offenders they see, the marginalized and vulnerable transpeople who engage in sex work and such. They don’t believe transpeople can be capable professionals contributing to the community.
Amanda Simpson spoke as the Saturday keynote with a dynamite speech. A professional who entered politics and was the first transwoman appointed by the president, she made an impact.
My new friend went to up to speak with her after the speech and then she came and pushed her phone into my hands.
“You have to take a picture of me with Amanda,” she said. “I want to put it up on my Facebook and show those people at work!”
She has applied for other jobs because she really wants to build a career and do important work, but she hasn’t heard back. Now, because of Ms. Simpson, she is thinking that maybe being out and authentic will make her voice more potent, allowing her to do the work and build a more potent life. Great.
As the femme woman who ran the local Pride center and is now part of a special initiative to get bright young diverse leaders into government told me, we always recognize family.
I recognized Ava. Youthful and petite and beautiful, her life has twisted through time. She knew early she was trans, one of three male siblings who were all LGBT, but challenges like her mother’s suicide lead her to live as a gay male hairdresser. Now, her business has died and she has been reborn.
She came with a crossdressing friend and took care of them, and as I registered them, her energy just shone. Maybe it was when her eyes, filled with compassion and hard earned wisdom came out from behind her chic wraparound sunglasses to show attention, or maybe it was just the voice, asking and knowing at the same time.
Whatever it was, I can damn well tell an insanely powerful trans-shaman when I see one, all broken and brilliant, busted and brave, walking in the world both wounded and healer. I caught up with her at the bar and asked her story, reflecting the intense strength I saw in her. She may be a Samantha while I am a Miranda, but we knew each other as sisters.
I got to see myself a bit through her wise eyes. “Why don’t you trust that men will treat you as a woman? I’ve been around women a long time honey, and you are definitely a woman.” “What do you mean you don’t feel safe flirting? You have been flirting like mad with everyone since I met you!” Last week, when I caught a glimpse of myself in boy clothes reflected in the shop windows at my sister’s mall, I was stunned how old I looked. But when I asked Ava how old I looked, she said that I looked a bit older than her, in my middle to late forties. For someone a decade older than that, it was a great affirmation.
I started talking to Ava about starting a practice, about marketing her skills to those looking for support in change in the world. Trans-shamans can help the world heal, I told her, and get themselves taken care of in the process. As I drove back to grab a change and a recording of My Way that I wanted to use to honor Kristine, I realized what I had always known: When I am called to give advice, I better damn listen closely, because it’s usually meant for me, too.
Ava did my makeup before the gala, a bit disappointed in my sheepskin boots, black velvet pants, and beaded black jacket. She wanted me in more color, more skin, but then realized that I’m a femmedyke. We chatted, about the challenges of having a transbody in a way that women would share, but that I never get to share with other grown-up transwomen.
When I got into the elevator in the parking garage to go to the Gala, there was a big woman in there, uncomfortably wearing an emerald green sequined evening gown with two wrist corsages. I tried to figure out what was going on, but when she spoke, I realized she was born female, only dressed like a CD.
“Are you going to the Hibernian event too?” her friend asked me.
I smiled. “No, there is another event in the hotel tonight,” I said.
Later, I met Ava in the ladies room and stood with her as she repaired her face before going back to the admirer who had been paying attention to her. It was the first time I felt safe just chatting in the ladies, safe with a girlfriend who got the struggle.
The big woman in the sequin dress was there, and in her boisterous and gregarious Irish manner, she was holding her arms over her head, saying the dress was killing her and she might have to keep her arms up through work on Monday.
“Ah yes,” I said. “That sequin rash will hill you.”
Her girlfriend laughed and said “What we do for beauty!”
I would have liked to party a bit more, but with 8 AM reporting times, I was tired, said my farewekks and drove back. I know I will be in touch with Ava again, and I know that I still have much to process from this immersion, this affirmation.
As I turned into the subdivision, I was going east for the first time. There she was, huge and luminous, just over the tract houses full of people who I fear won’t understand, who won’t get my own jokes and my own beauty.
My mother in the sky showed herself, a full moon low enough to touch, shining brightly in the darkness.
She had come to welcome me, to wish me blessings and to remind me that I too could shine if I trust my own power in the world.
Thanks to Kristine for building the space for this to happen, thanks to Ava and all the others who touched me at this conference, everyone from a father who is fighting hard to make safe space for his trans daughter to a pastor who is finding her new voice to a she-male porn star/husband (she only does solo sets, though.)
And thanks to my mother moon for bringing me the amazing grace to participate in the process.
One step at a time, eh?