Wednesday, September 26, 2012

From Caricature to Community

Vivian Taylor was part of IntegrityUSA and TransEpiscopal's successful advocacy effort at General Convention this summer.  She offered powerful testimony in support of resolutions that added "gender identity and expression" to The Episcopal Church's nondiscrimination canons on lay and ordained ministry.  This article is reposted from her column in the Chapel Hill News. 

Being trans no joke
One day back in high school I was hanging out at a friend’s house. There were several of us watching funny videos on the Internet. There was all the usual sort of Internet jokes, nerd humor, silly animals, various bloopers, but then someone put on a video that made me wince.

It was a cell phone commercial showing a young man marrying a beautiful woman only to discover, horror of horrors, that she is a transgender woman. He is crushed. I don’t remember the point of that commercial, but it might have been something about their competitor’s deceptive fees.

There are many mean jokes that are often told about trans women. They are told in books and movies and on television. It’s the narrative that “The Crying Game” made famous, that delivers the punch line at the end of “Ace Ventura.” It’s the joke told on Jerry Springer and with only slight modification on “The Simpsons” and in the “Game of Thrones” books. Everywhere you go, it’s an “edgy” way to get a laugh.

It says that we’re deceptive, trying to trick straight men. It’s a joke that snickers at the looks of trans women, that says that the only reason a “regular” person would love or be attracted to us is if they didn’t know the truth and were lied to.

That sort of narrative is often used as defense for violence against trans women as happened in the trial of Gwen Araujo’s murders in 2008.

That isn’t the only harmful narrative about trans people, especially trans women. Trans women are regularly shown as sex workers in crime dramas and comedies. We are used as a metaphor for the rot and decay of civilization. An early episode of Dave Chappell’s show makes a joke of the harmful effects of cheap beer by showing it causing otherwise reasonable men to visit trans women sex workers as Chappell looks on screaming in terror.

It’s a story that is told over and over again that says that trans women are loathsome, monstrous, immoral, that we don’t deserve to be in relationship with other human beings or even really have a place in the world.

Watching this with my high school friends, I was the first to laugh, and the probably loudest. I glanced around looking for an expression of recognition on any of my friend’s faces, waiting for one of them to put it together that I was trans, that I was just waiting for my chance to transition and live as the person I was. I prayed that they wouldn’t see who I was, think of me as a joke or a freak.

The thing is though, the worst part isn’t the fear that people you care about will think you’re a monster. The worst part is the fear that all these jokes are right, that you somehow are this gruesome, laughable thing.

Return to Chapel Hill

I started transitioning in earnest when I returned to Chapel Hill after serving in Iraq. I came out of the military in a great rush to come out, to transition, to move on with my life.

I was shocked to find that even after all I had been through, coming out even to people who weren’t incredibly important to me was extremely stressful. I choked on my words, sometimes I almost apologized for being trans.

It was bizarre. I felt poisoned by those old stories.

The solution came through a mentor at my parish. She gave me the contact information for an open group that met once every other week. These were local North Carolina trans folks who would come together to talk about their lives. It was halfway between a support group and a social club.

I’ll admit, the first time I visited I was completely tongue tied. Here were trans men and trans women and nonbinary folks and folks still figuring it out, people of many ages and stages of transition coming together to drink coffee and talk. I had no idea what to say or do the first time.

They were just such powerfully regular people, students and insurance adjusters and artists and … well, people. Some folks talked about their romantic relationships, some about their jobs, some about stuff as esoteric as best practices for keeping rabbits as pets. They were smart and funny, occasionally angry or tired, but mainly just wonderful to be around.

When I first turned up, I think I was looking for people with all the answers about how to be trans, what it meant to be trans. What I found was better.

All those ugly narratives want to hold up a distorted caricature and tell you it’s a mirror. They want to make those dirty jokes your life, either being the butt of them or struggling against them.

The real answer, and what I found at trans talk, was that the trick is to find community, and to fight oppression without that oppression defining you, owning you. It’s an incredible blessing to exist. Why let anybody tell you how you have to do it?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

True Voice of Witness: Louise Brooks

Today the world lost a remarkable woman named Louise Brooks. I knew her through The Episcopal Church’s LGBT advocacy organization IntegrityUSA, for which Louise was the communications director over the last several years.  She brought to that role a long career as a documentary film-maker, journalist, activist and media-consultant.  Together with her wife, Integrity’s most recent president emerita the Reverend Canon Susan Russell, Louise brought impressive media sophistication to the organization’s communications.

I first met Louise in the summer of 2007 when I joined a number of LGBT and allied Episcopalians at a New York City roundtable as part of the Anglican Communion Listening Process on sexuality.  As I pulled up a chair to this proverbial table, Louise was among a cadre of formidable folks who welcomed me warmly.  I saw Louise the following summer at the “Fringe Festival” of the Lambeth Conference (the decennial gathering of bishops from around the Anglican Communion), and then a year later at the 2009 General Convention of The Episcopal Church.  It was there that we began talking more, and that the seeds were sown for what turned out to be – as far as I know – her last film project: Voices of Witness Out of the Box.

For the first time in 2009, Integrity and TransEpiscopal had brought several volunteers to the Convention to do advocacy and education on trans equality.  As part of that effort, Dante Tavolaro (Deputy from the Diocese of Rhode Island in both 2009 and 2012) and I led a “Trans 101” for the combined Integrity/TransEpiscopal team (you can catch bits of it in the video posted below).  About thirty or so people, including Louise, gathered in Integrity’s meeting room as Dante sketched out a simple grid or set of rules that went like this: in the West or Global North we’re assigned a sex at birth, either male or female; males are expected to grow up to be men, to “act like men”, and to date women. Those born female are expected to become women, to “act like women”, and to date men.  There are many ways to violate these rules.  To not act “like a man” or “like a woman” in your given context, to date people of your same sex, or to transition are just a few.  Gender theorists call this set of rules “heteronormativity.”  Christian theologians call it “complementarity.” Louise called it “the box.”  

As she put it in this May 15th preview, Louise left the 2009 General Convention committed to bringing this conversation, trans voices, and “the box” idea itself to the wider church.

About six months after GenCon 2009, Louise called me up to explore the idea for the documentary.  Could Integrity and TransEpiscopal work together on a film that showed not only how transgender people are “out of the box” but also — at least implicitly – how many other, nontrans people are out of it as well?   This film could convey both difference and connection—that trans people have different challenges than nontrans people do and at the same time that what can make life difficult for us also impacts everyone else.  We all live with the pervasive influence of that box which, crucially, intersects and assembles anew in conjunction with race, class, ability, and national origin.  We are connected in our struggle, even as we struggle in distinct ways.

As Louise ultimately described the project, "Gender identity and gender expression are issues that can easily be misunderstood and cannot be wrapped up in a neat little box.  So the goal of Out of the Box was to answer some of the most frequently asked questions.”  The simplicity of “the box” pointed to, opened – but did not seek to plumb – the complexity underlying it.

We talked and emailed about the film at several points between 2010 and last winter.  When I learned that Louise was ill, I suspected the film would need to go on hold, perhaps indefinitely.  But then, seemingly out of nowhere, Out of the Box roared to life.  In early February I flew out to Los Angeles for a day of filming.  Louise seemed totally in her element.  She was fatigued but connected and absolutely focused.  In between the interviews we talked about the upcoming General Convention and about Macky Allston’s powerful film Love Free Or Die that had just been released.  I was honored and grateful to be part of this work, curious and excited about its potential impact.

What I hadn’t realized was just how steeped in transformation this film was from the start.  Shortly after its release on May 31st, I saw a HufPo blog post by Louise’s wife (and major Out of the Box supporter) Susan Russell.  Susan explained, “what we found in Anaheim in 2009 was that the presence of members of TransEpiscopal testifying in committee hearings, participating in round-table discussions, speaking their truth, and sharing their lives created a profoundly teachable moment that quite literally changed lives.”  But what really struck me was the next sentence: “And one of those was my wife.” “Now,” Susan continued, “I have a hard-and-fast rule to never blog about my wife, but this blog is going to be the exception that proves the rule. A long-time activist, journalist, documentarian, and media consultant, Louise was convinced that gay, lesbian, and bisexual equality was a hard enough row to hoe without adding the ‘T’ into the mix. ‘Let's fight one battle at a time’ pretty much summed up her position -- that is, until the 2009 General Convention and the powerful witness of the transgender folk who so courageously shared their stories, their experience, their journeys, and their reality with her. She left Anaheim committed to finding a way to get their voices out beyond the relatively small audience of an Episcopal General Convention team -- and the idea for the documentary film project Voices of Witness: Out of the Box was born.”

I read that and was speechless.  It’s one thing to talk about transformation – I hear the word all the time, and I preach it, too – but seeing it, hearing an authentic story of it, experiencing it just takes my breath away.  I had not understood what a profound impact we had had on Louise.

But in retrospect, as I contemplated Susan’s words, it made sense.  Or at least, it explained more fully the deep sense of connection, the passion with which Louise pursued this project.  It very clearly mattered to her at a deep level.  When she said she was making the film as a gift to the church, you could tell she really meant it.  And it truly was. 

I was concerned to learn that Louise was too ill to attend General Convention this past July, but I was far from surprised that she was present all the same.  She was on the phone with the communications team every day.  She was making things happen.  We were all pulling for her, and she was most certainly pulling for us. 

You hear a lot of people described as “fighter.”  “He/she was a fighter.”  I am not someone who knew Louise from Adam, but it seems clear to me that she was indeed a fighter.  She fought for me and so many others.  But there was a heck of a lot more to Louise than that, and I don’t know even a quarter of it.  What I do know, though, is that Louise was a woman of profound compassion, open to being transformed, and passionate about opening that process to others. 

I will always be grateful for her support and solidarity, and my heart is with Susan Russell, with All Saints Pasadena, and IntegrityUSA in this time of loss.  May light perpetual shine on Louise.

Susan Russell and Louise Brooks