Torn Through

“You know how the trainer said no one crosses the lines he offered diagonally, like being a fast feeling performer and a slow thinking analyst at the same time?” my boss asked me.

“I heard that, yes,” I replied.

“But you do that, are both those things.” She was right.

I have always existed in those spaces between, the places where people who draw comforting walls think do not exist.   My liminality — existence in the door frame — started early when I had to be both parent and child, both girl and boy, both smart and stupid, both aware and disconnected.   Wounded healers are always sliced between, both holding pain and transcendence, loss and gratitude, needs and independence.

Shimmering to others is what I have always done, looking both mature and crazy, brilliant and lacking, happy and hurting.    Never really knowing how I appear to others, what is lost in the noise they can’t decode, and being aware that any choice I make can crack their assumptions leaves me feeling like I am always on unsteady ground, having to be ready to slip any minute.

Learning to have a thick skin was crucial to growing up in a family where emotions were erased through Aspergers style viewing even as un-managed frustration & pain was sprayed about.

That tough carapace, though, had to help me hold in feelings I had no place to process, no place to even surface, like the dreams I held every night about waking up as a girl.

Today, though, the rifts that run through my presentation in the world, with a big old body that clearly went though puberty as a male, a tough mind that built a model of the world to keep me sane, and a tender heart that never feels like it can melt as it needs to leave me cleft and unsteady.   What part of me will trigger unwanted detonations because I have failed to effectively conceal it?

Any space I consider entering is only going to be safe for part of who I am, or at least so I believe.   Attenuating the bits that don’t fit their expectations, assumptions and codes has always been expected of me.   Maybe, if I had support for some areas of my life I could compartmentalize a bit more, but my solitary existence is pernicious, my profound loneliness threading through every moment of my life.

I know that I can handle anything I face.   I also know that there will be a price to be paid for that handling, a cost I have to bear alone over precious time. My resiliency is diminishing with age, as are my possibilities.

As humans, we develop survival strategies that help us negotiate the challenges of the world.  Since my Asperger’s parents had no emotional strategies to share, I based my strategies around modelling my environment, developing structures that help me decode stories, finding connections between them to seek universal, baseline truths.   I started doing this from a very young age and now have a lifetime of understandings that give my choices structure,  give me comfort & balance, if not happiness & warmth.

Not having my strategies based around human networks means I have a very different approach to life than people who go with the crowd, stay connected with friends and family, or hold onto belief structures learned early.   I have had to go through the process of deconstruction and reconstruction of my values and knowledge so I could continue to grow and become more actualized.   Being post-therapy, though, is a place few choose to go, not wanting to have to face the dragon with “Thou Shalt” on every scale, to go through the fires to burn away the false and merely convenient.

My connection to power is not in being a sweet talker, saying what others love to hear, but instead in being a straight talker, holding fast to the truth as I have struggled to know it.   While straight talking has been my key to survival, it has never been a key to making friends and influencing people.   I was caretaker to my family, yes, but the most important choices I made were helping them see a bigger picture, feeling safe in a greater understanding rather than just being sweet and giving them what they thought they wanted.

I have never wanted to be too presumptive in entering a space.   Over the past 35 years, I never told people what pronouns to use with me, knowing that their choices tell me much more about them and how they are seeing me than they do about me.   I do feel better when people see what I am communicating and respect that, but if I don’t want to be told the right way to think then I can’t tell others what they should be thinking.   I have explained this to those who want to help transpeople knowing that a beginning and fragile exploration of self can be crushed by someone who doesn’t respect the courage it takes to try to reveal truths we have been told are scary and shameful.

“In your face” was never my choice.   As someone who believes deeply in teamwork I needed to build bridges, leading with connection rather than ego, giving the kind of respect I want to be given rather than demanding my way.   I have seen too many newly out transpeople act like petulant teenagers, which may be understandable but does not create mature connections.   Insisting that others honour your comfort zone while you ignore theirs does not feel like it builds relationships; I don’t want to have to negotiate the fears of others, so why should they have to pander to my fears, rather than expecting me to engage my own challenges?

My writing is my art and it is there I push boundaries, not in social interactions.  Finding people who can take these texts as truth, entering them, has never been easy or simple.   To do that people have to not just ignore what they don’t understand, assigning their own meanings and leaving the rest, they have to actively receive all of what I say, working, as I do, to grasp my inner map, both the comfortable and the dark parts.   For those who strive to avoid their own darkness, though, this is not really possible.

Walking into spaces has always required me to get an understanding of the group dynamic, to find sly & witty ways to interject my own views while respecting & clarifying the views others bring to the table.   This has always been my service, but finding those who can offer that service to me has proven well neigh impossible.

Bringing the crags and canyons of my own heart into a space where they are seen, understood and valued, held with compassion and awe, my shimmering nature and the hard won lessons it gave me respected rather than feared or erased, escapes me.   I may be able to stay in one zone of my liminal nature for a bit, but I am the doorway and all facets need to be cared for, not just the ones others find simple, useful and supportive.

All humans cross boundaries, transcend limits, offer luminescent connections.  Most, though, in this society that craves binary shorthands don’t explore or expose that truth, working to stay in comfortable boxes as a survival strategy.

“In cultures where gender is rigidly bi-polar, rituals of gender crossing remind us of our continuous common humanity.”  I knew that was my mission statement the moment I heard anthropologist Anne Bolin say it.   I revel in my liminality, but finding ways that fits into social groups, well, never been easy.

My being torn through is a gift I have learned to treasure.   Having others treasure it, though, has always seemed to be asking too much beyond cultural norms.

Where do I find the community I need, the one that venerate the divine surprises offered us, those moments of sight that move us beyond comfort and into mature wisdom?  Where does all of me, including the precious liminal tears that define me, fit?

Singular

“It’s okay.   I’ll just sit with the other trannies.”

My hosts usually looked aghast when I said that, knowing that there were no other obvious transpeople in the audience.  There was no way I was just going to blend in, just going to be one of the gang.

I understand the pull of finding community, of not having to feel like you are alone in the world, having to pull off magic by yourself.    Being a solitary prophet, telling truths that have been hidden because they are challenging and unpopular, is not a calling which is easy to embrace.

The price of community, though, is often harder to understand as it is wrapped in apparent solidarity rather than obvious singularity.   As social creatures, humans are made to assimilate, to follow the crowd, to be one of the gang.   How could the Germans do what they did during WWII?   Well, every one else was doing it, so it must be okay, right?

When I enter spaces that are claimed by the LGBTQ community, I am most often struck by the lack of diversity they hold.   Only those who agree to assimilate are included, which excludes most of the transpeople I have met over my decades, in-person and virtually.

For those enmeshed in these communities, this absence is easy to discount.   After all, everyone is welcome in the safe space if they just agree to abide by the rules, surrendering their voice to the group and assimilating.   Why should the cost of playing nice be a barrier to inclusion unless you have some anti-social tendencies that shouldn’t be indulged anyway?

I have trouble imagining a space where everyone is like me, at least not a functional one, nor can I imagine myself becoming like everyone else to enter the group.   My experience, my stories and my voice cost me too very much to sacrifice for assimilation.

While many groups call for the end of corporate culture, it is specifically inside of corporations where I have found productive and valuable community.   Instead of joining together because we all are alike, in the business world we join together to achieve shared goals.

Diversity is required to create effective teams, everyone bringing a different skill set and viewpoint to the table.   Together, teams engage in the conflict of trying to find effective solutions that address all the conflicting needs, creating compromises that support innovation.   By asking each member to move beyond their comfort zone teams can find common ground, celebrating mastery & excellence and lifting up everyone together.

When I have tried to enter exclusive spaces, ones that exclude anyone who is not like us enough to be challenging, I feel erased.   It is only in spaces with shared goals that my singularity has been valued, letting me bring my unique contributions to the table.

It was 1997 when I participated in a Uniting as Allies workshop that I was the only one who stood to argue for inclusive organizations.  At that time one woman came up to me afterwards saying that she couldn’t imagine she would believe in the need to organize around shared goals rather than shared identity — identity politics — but that I had convinced her.

Yet my efforts there left me feeling very alone. “Watch the token tranny dance the hoochie-koo!”   I was aware that my position left me singular, without a coterie of others around me, and that loneliness was hard to endure, even if I had done the work I knew that I was called to do, telling truths and valuing broader connection.

It’s not like there weren’t other transpeople there, but they had not yet owned their own grace.   “Thank you for representing us well,” a few of them said individually, “not like the others.”   A cost.

It’s hard to find people who value the energy of diversity in identity bound spaces.   As the identity spaces are policed for compliance rather than effectiveness, those who hold broader connections are pushed out while those who follow the rules, loudly singing the hymns are encouraged to police themselves and others more strongly.    When people don’t have successful experiences in diverse corporate cultures they don’t understand the power that difference can bring to a team though creative conflict.

“So, what do you want?” a pastor once asked me, eyeing my trans expression quizzically.

“I want what everyone wants,” I replied.

“And what is that?” he asked, unconvinced by my assertion.

“I want to be seen, understood and valued for my unique contribution to the group.”

He thought for a moment.

“Yes,” he agreed, “that is what everyone wants.”

Sadly, in groups where people are valued by how compliant they are to group tenets, unique contributions are rarely valued.

Asking people to stand up alone and offer what makes them different and special, the experiences, truths, skills and mastery of a lifetime, is asking them to take enter the spotlight and take personal responsibility for who they are.

Is there any wonder that so many of us instead try to become invisible, blending in and staying behind the defences of group identity?   And any wonder why we try to silence and devalue people who might reflect our differences, attempting to win favour with the group by policing challenges?   After all, if they aren’t one of us, they must be one of them, right?

The comfort of being one of the crowd — one of the children of Aspergers parents, one of the empaths, one of the queers, one of the theologians, even just one of the girls (or one of the boys) — was denied to me.   When I was twelve and that therapist tried to diagnose my transgender drives by asking who I wanted to be, I knew even at that time there was only one answer: I want to be myself.

For me, knowing we are all deeply connected meant that my singular difference was always surface deep.   Trying to explain this to others who desperately wanted to believe that we should all be the same on the surface and different inside, assimilating so we could blend in nicely, has always been nearly impossible.

You are a singular creation, just like everyone else.  I know that comes with a price, but if you really take the time to compare it to the price of following the gang, isn’t it really worthwhile to try in this one life we know that we are given?

 

 

Discomfort Zones

As to how the “Safe Space” open mic evening went, I wasn’t asked if I wanted to present when I walked in; no open sign-up sheet.   Just before the presentations started I asked for their e-mail address to the “Ornery” piece.   About a hour and a half later, the MC looks at the list on Google Drive and says “Our last presenter is Cali?” at which point the organizing committee ran up and says “That’s wrong!   That’s a mistake!”  Apparently, in the interim my piece had been read and found inappropriate, so I was purged.

The winner of the $25 Stewart’s gift card was a young woman of colour who broke down a bit reading a poem about how the experience of her enslaved South Carolina ancestors exists powerfully in her bones and her blood.   Here I am, suggesting we transcend history and biology to find new, but that is wrong.

“Comfort Zone” was the theme of the night, with lots of “trigger warnings” intended to create “safe space.”   Talking about a time when we knew we had to break beyond our comfort zone to confront how the comfort zone of a binary society had erased us, well, that notion seemed to make people just too damn uncomfortable.   Identity Politics has triumphed.

I come from a time when we knew we had to “fight for our right to be queer” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qkh_dp5LIjQ (September 1994) – but today, the notion of engaging what challenges and frightens us rather than just swaddling ourselves in comforting, isolating doctrine and dogma which separates and creates more polarization seems to be an idea too far out of step.

Oh well.

Ornery

There was one requirement for being an out transperson when I first emerged in the 1980s.

This was still a time when normative was seen as normal and those who violated expectations were easily written down as dangerous perverts, a time when gay rights were just being to be asserted as we began to face the horror of AIDS by coming out of a closet world to demand attention, funding and compassion.

In this area, there was a group, started by a married couple in the late 1950s, which held silent events that allowed transvestites — that was the term of the time — to get together.   Second Saturdays were the meeting time, at a bar tucked between empty business offices offering a deserted side street to climb out race up and enter the light and warmth.

Everyone who came into that venue shared one thing, the one attribute we needed to dress against convention and open the door to bigger dreams.

Each and every one of us there was ornery.

We had to be tough enough, disconnected enough to follow the deep desires of our heart, desires most of us had known since early childhood, to break every damn rule to show our nature on the outside by walking in the world.   We had tried exploring in secret and we knew there were many who still did that, but there, we were the ones with the gumption, the orneriness to break through, break out and enter a wider world.

Sure, our first steps were just into a bigger closet, but even that was huge.   For the first time we were around others who also had also struggled with hiding their own nature, who had tried to act like others expected while our hearts cried out for something bigger, for a life of being seen, understood and valued for who we really are from the inside.

Each of us had come to our own self knowledge and expression in a powerfully unique way.  We didn’t come out to find others like us to have sexual relationships, didn’t have any rules about how we should be, about what choices would make us attractive to others.

We weren’t there to partner.   We were there to personally claim, to reveal, to revel, to release.

Some of us would go on to work at shifting gender, striving to assimilate and disappear across that no-man’s/no-woman’s land, while others just needed to let off steam, going back to playing our assigned role as husband, father, man until we had another future moment to play.

On that day, I had a somewhat different goal.   I wanted to find balance and integration in my life, to get to somewhere where I could express all of me with much less of the trans curse of having to always conceal this or that as I tried to squeeze into a very binary system of gender.

My exploration was simple: I had to take my own ornery self and interact with all these other ornery people gathered, working to find what connected us and where we were different.    I soon found that the key to our differences was in how we built survival structures that allowed us to protect our tender trans spirits while also being effective in the wider world.

That safe space we shared was safe not because it was conflict free but because with respect for the ornery nature each one of us had to have to stand up, we could explore the challenges, choices, trade-offs, the pain and the loss we had to handle to be trans in a world where an either/or gender system erased the truth we had always held in our hearts.

After all, no matter how tender our souls were, we knew one thing: to survive, we had to be ornery.  Our choice was between ornery and abject; in that space we had chosen ornery.

Today, when trans representations are in the media, when professors want to tell us the right way to be trans, when many want to demand specific treatment,  it is easy to forget something I knew the moment I walked into that bar on that Saturday night thirty-five year ago: The space for trans emergence was broken open by the fierce, by the iconoclasts, by the driven, by the individuals who were ornery enough to claim their truth in a world that was hell-bent on erasing them.

I watch trans gatherings and see many young and newly emerged transpeople who have learned the rules of identity politics, but I rarely see what I saw in that bar on that long ago Saturday night: a hugely diverse gathering of ornery transpeople asserting their powerful and beautiful individuality.

For me, the most powerful safe space I ever entered was the space that didn’t just tolerate my bristly nature but a space that respected and revered the ornery strength I had to nurture to move beyond family, peer, social and institutional pressures to keep my battered heart alive and beating.   Every transperson there understood that struggle, understood that in the same way we didn’t want to be told the right and the wrong way to be ourselves, in the way we had to give others the space to express their truth, or at least their current state of understanding about it.

That struggle left many of us raw, hurting, angry and even sometimes a bit controlling & vindictive, but it also left each one of us gasping for the breath of freedom, for the warmth of understanding and for the light of possibilities.

Over the past decades I have written many, many words about the challenges that I and those I cared about faced, but if there is one word that gets to the point of  what I learned to value it is this: Ornery.

Be ornery.  Claim yourself.   Respect ornery.  Help others trust the will to leap.   Ornery isn’t something to be erased, ornery is something to be valued.

Without my ornery nature, and the ornery nature of many transpeople who came before and after me, I never would have found the safe space which allowed me to come to understanding, actualization, integration and peace within myself.

Oh, yes. Ornery.