A last squeeze

The small frail hand wraps around my thumb. It’s weathered fingers still retaining a semblance of strength. I ask her if she is feeling OK and two quick squeezes on my thumb are her reply. As I sit with my mother on this night, I realize this is how we were introduced on another June night, sixty years ago when I was born. My first attempt at communication with her would have been my small hand wrapped around her finger and squeezing it, just as we are doing now. When vocal communication isn’t possible, touch makes everything right.

Cindy and I have been maintaining a bedside vigil now for five nights as my mother collects her thoughts and summons up the courage to move on to the next stage of life. For the last few days she’s chatted and hummed, recited nonsenses rhymes from her childhood,  winced with pain, and let tears flow with frustration.

As I seemed to sense sixty years ago that there was something bigger than my mothers womb, and pushed my way into the world, my own mother seems to sense that something bigger awaits.

I daub her lips once more with water using a small cotton swab, and then take her hand again. She gives it a squeeze to say thank you. I’ve held this hand so many times but never paid attention to it. It’s the hand that guided me as I lifted my first spoonful of food to my mouth, it held me as I grew frightened on stormy nights, at my first sight of the ocean, of a steam engine arriving at the platform, my first day of school, my last day of school, at the airport as I left England, at my wedding and as I showed her my son for the fist time and she squeezed my hand. And then as I became Susan she took my hand as we entered the courthouse to change my name. I was fifty-four, she was eighty-nine. She’s never let go.

And now at three in the morning as she squeezes my thumb, I realize that though I’m comforting her, she’s also comforting me, and I hear her voice telling me that all will be well.

MY FIRST ROW.

Mayland Creek

The incoming tide brought with it the smell of salt and decay, the scent of adventure and a promise of a day on the water. My mother had got the four us up early, dressed and fed us, and with warm clothing issued for the day, had sent us packing. The days adventure; a rowing expedition with my father on Mayland creek. My father’s motley crew — ranging in age from three to nine — now stood waiting for the mornings activities to begin. And, while we stood, the tide crept inch by inch up the muddy beach. My father became a different person near the water, more focused, kinder, gentler, and this morning he did what he always did well, issued commands.

“Socks and shoes off.”

“Roll your trouser legs up.”

“Stand up straight, while I put the life jackets on you.”

I think my father in his past life had been on the Titanic. The preparations for a simple rowing trip were monumental, with orders being given and directions to be followed with no protest. Us four brothers standing in a line, tried not to smirk or laugh for fear of being excluded from the trip, as we tried with all our might to comply to each barked command.

“Arms in the air.”

Next came the donning of the cork lifejackets. Where had my father found these?  In 1963 they were an antique relic, items we all secretly believed were World War II surplus. They consisted of a bulky cork front and back covered with orange canvas with straps that ran over the shoulders, and then were secured in place, by a large belt that ran under the arms, and was secured in front.

“Lets have a look at you then.”

This was the final inspection before we marched down to the water’s edge, where the old small clinker built row boat sat waiting patiently for us with it’s four shipped oars, a bailer and a painter attached to the bow.

“OK lets have you on board, eldest first.”

“But Dad, why can’t I sit up front?” I pleaded.

“I want you near to me so I can help you learn to row” was his constant refrain.

And he did just that. He gave me the gift of the creek, the river, the sea and the ocean, with little fanfare, much patience and certainly zero appreciation from me. It wouldn’t be till later in life, as I guided a seventy foot schooner out of a harbor and set it’s array of sails, that would I fully comprehend the immensity of the gift.

Once we were all seated in the small craft my father would push off and step in to the back where he could maintain a watchful eye over his boys, his crew, his life.

“Oarlocks at the ready!”

This was the command to place the “oar holders’” as I liked to call them in the holes in the rail.

“Oars in place.”

This was a time for my father to help my youngest brother and me with the placing of the oars in the oarlocks. He would then place our hands in the correct position so we would be able to start rowing on his command. My two older brothers up front had already mastered this task and in a second I would hear from over my shoulder their loud reply, “Oars at the ready.”

“On my command, oars back” my father would shout, with a grin. His firm hand would envelop mine and my oar would lift out of the water and would smoothly glide towards the front of the small craft in perfect time with my older brothers oars.

“1-2-3, dip oars and pull.” Gently my father’s hand would guide my oar, whilst his other hand guided my youngest brothers, and together, the four of us would propel the small craft out onto the creek.  We not only rowed, but embarked on an escapade that involved dark and grey mud banks peppered with mud crabs, stranded jelly fish left high and dry by the last ebb of the tide, old abandoned boats left at the head of dead end inlets and the obligatory bailing of muddy salt water from the leaking dinghy. And washed in with all of this was the magic of the unknown and a sibling bond that few activities could ever replicate. And I was hooked.

Writers Resist 1/20/2017

BIRTH.

Being transgender, like being gay, tall, short, white, black, male, or female, is a part of the human condition that makes us unique, and something over which we have no control. We are who we are, in the deepest recesses of our minds, in our hearts and in our souls. For transgender people this uniqueness starts at a very young age.

As I look back on my life, my earliest memory of the world around me was at three years. I was a boy for all intents and purposes, and had no idea of gender, or male and female roles. My world was small and apart from the odd foray to the park, my own and my neighbors backyards were my universe. It was a world of play and make believe and then, one day it became real.

I had spent the day at a neighbor’s house in the summer, playing with their children. I was also going to have my first sleep over. Late in the evening I was deposited into a bathtub full of kids to get ready for bed.

Looking down between the legs of my best friend as we were splashing around, I had a horrifying thought. “Where’s her diddly like mine?”

It was an earth shattering realization.

“I’m not a girl!”

That moment remains as clear today as it was all those years ago.

From that point in 1960 until I started taking hormones in 2010, my brain never gave me a rest from the persistent thought……..

“I have been born into the wrong body!”

DEATH.

Gail Heriot sits on the United States Commission on Human Rights. She was recommended by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and is to serve on the Commission until two thousand and nineteen. This is her response to Transgender people.

“If I believe that I am a Russian princess, that doesn’t make me a Russian princess, even if my friends and acquaintances are willing to indulge my fantasy. Neither am I a Great Horned Owl just because — as I have been told — I happen to share the same traits as those feathered creatures.”

The Transgender Day of Remembrance

Every year, around the 20th of November the transgender community and their allies  gather to honor transgender persons murdered over the past twelve months in what has come to be known as“The Transgender Day of Remembrance.”

Quiet sobs resonate as the eulogy is read.

“Goddess Diamond, a 20-year-old black trans woman, was found in a torched car in New Orleans, Louisiana. She died of a blunt force trauma before the car was burned.”

The circle is small, just five of us. Our candles flicker, fighting to stay lit against a biting November wind. To my left is Joe, recently abandoned by his family for not being the daughter they had raised and loved. On my right is Claire, the LGBT student leader for Washington College.  Cindy my wife, and Jesse, an ally complete the circle. Just five of us gather to tell the world that being transgender can be deadly.

We hold the small ceremony for the two thousand and twelve Transgender Day of Remembrance in a snow covered courtyard, surrounded by the Washington College campus. We have a list of names of those murdered over the past year to read, but none of us are prepared emotionally for the evening. As each name is read the night turns bleak as we mumble apologies for the way society has treated these beautiful people. Their names, like the ceremony will be quickly forgotten.

“Dee Whigham, a 25-year-old black transgender woman who worked as a nurse, was stabbed to death in the face and body in her hotel room in Biloxi, Mississippi, where she was staying with friends to see a rodeo. Police arrested a 20-year-old US Navy trainee as the suspected killer. According to the autopsy results, Dee was stabbed one hundred and nineteen times.”

As hot wax trickles through my fingers, I vow that I will never hold another candle light vigil with so few in attendance. Everyone needs to hear our story.

In November of two thousand and sixteen I help organize the second annual Port Townsend Transgender Day of Remembrance to remind the world that we do matter, although little has changed in the murder rate.

“August10, 2016: Rae’Lynn Thomas, a 28-year-old black woman, was shot twice in front of her mother, and then beaten to death while she begged for her life, by James Byrd in Columbus, Ohio. Byrd called her “the devil” and made transphobic comments. Her family called for the murder to be investigated as a hate crime, but Ohio hate crime laws don’t cover gender identity.”

Societies buzz is harsh and unrelenting. “It’s their own fault. Why do they choose to live like this? Why can’t they just accept who they are? The bible has clear instructions on this! They deserved it!”

“October 8, 2016: Brandi Bledsoe, a 32-year-old black trans woman from Cleveland, was found dead in a driveway. Her body was found by a 5-year-old boy. She was wearing only underwear and had white plastic bags covering her head and both hands.”

On this November night in Port Townsend one hundred and forty people have gathered to read a fraction of the names of mostly transgender women murdered worldwide over the past year. Twenty-eight of these murders occurred in the USA alone, murdered for simply being transgender. As each person in the audience walks to the microphone, that person holds a small card in their hand. It has a picture of the transgender person whose life has been taken, their name, where they’re from, their age and how they died. They pause in front of the mic and then read.

Tragically I updated this for the reading tonight.

“January4th, 2017: Mesha Caldwell, a 41 year old black transgender woman from Clanton Mississippi was found dead lying on the side of a country road with multiple gunshot wounds. The Madison County Coroner misgendered her identification by referring to her as a “he”. She was a well known hairstylist and make up artist.”

As the readers walk away from the microphone shaken and moved by the experience, their life will never be the same. And their voice, like mine, will grow and become strong. The transgender communities’ story will become part of their story, which becomes part of the Port Townsend story, and these stories are then told and retold until they become known to legislatures, senators, priests and rabbis. Present too are the young, who will grow up listening to these stories and will have the strength and conviction to change the ending. And the ending these young people will want to hear is:

“Mesha Caldwell, the 41 year old black trans woman from Clanton Mississippi was NOT murdered on January 4th, 2017. Instead she got to live, because society loved and  accepted her for who she is. She married, opened her own beauty salon and adopted a little boy from Syria. She live’s happily in the suburbs of Clanton Mississippi, where she is a respected member of her community. Mesha sings in her church choir.”

HOPE

Republican Presidential Candidate Ben Carson in July 2016 said,

“For thousands of years, mankind has known what a man is and what a woman is. And now all of a sudden, we don’t know anymore? Now, is that the height of

absurdity!”

A Chance Encounter

Every action or word, every pitch of the voice, every movement of a hand, even the crossing of the legs is thought through. Then, its practiced over and over until it becomes second nature. For transgender children it begins at a very young age. Being born into the wrong body and learning to play the role of the opposite gender doesn’t come naturally.  “Stop being such a sissy! Don’t sit like that, you look like a girl! Your hair’s too short, someone might think you’re a boy.”

Then later in life, as we begin to assume the identity of our true gender, we have to re-learn all the traits of the opposite gender once again. In the transgender community there are even workshops titled “You missed the dress rehearsal.” So much effort and work to fit in.

I’m turning sixty this year and have lived only six of these years as Susan. I’ve changed my passport, my driver’s license, undergone gender affirming surgery but transitioning never ends, because society has so many unwritten rules.

Its microscopic evaluation of transgender people is relentless. With the increase in rhetoric, my hyper vigilance is now constant. Thanks to North Carolina’s and Washington States bathroom bill, the Christian Right, and the Republicans in Washington DC, the volume of disdain and pure hatred towards transgender people has been amplified. I’m concerned in 2017 not only for myself, but for the path that younger transgender people will have to walk in the years to come.

On a cold morning in late November I sit alone at a table in Lehani’s coffee shop in Port Townsend. Cold air rushes by as the door opens, and a family of four sweeps in. The children want breakfast, the father already-at ten in the morning-is on edge. The mother is working overtime to keep the family on track. They sit down at the table next to me. I glance up and smiles are exchanged between us. Their young son immediately knows that something is not right with me. His focus is on me as the family continues with their morning ritual. I turn and smile. He keeps staring. I smile one more time and then ignore him, hoping that he will look away. This goes on for five minutes, and then ten. His parents finally rise to collect their breakfast from the counter. The boy-as soon as his parents are in motion-stands and approaches me. Our eyes meet. He doesn’t back down.

“Excuse me. Are you transgender?”

“Yes, I am.” I bristle back. “How can I help you?”

“Well! You see. So am I.”

I stand, we hug, and cry. This ten year old has my back and I have his. Almost fifty years separate us but we want the same thing. To be accepted and validated. Twenty minutes later the family finishes their breakfast and the boy walks out of the coffee shop to embrace a changing world.

   Part 4

I would like to close with part of this poem from Alok Vaid-Menon, a transgender writer from India whose preferred pronoun is them, they and their.

Alok’s work has been featured in The Guardian, The New York Times and The New Yorker.

Promise me that I will matter if I don’t shave.

Promise me that I will matter if I don’t wear a dress.

Promise me that I will matter if I don’t wear makeup.

Promise me that I will matter if I am not fabulous.

Promise me that I will matter if I am ugly.

Promise me that I don’t have to have been “born this way” to matter.

Promise me that I don’t have to always have known to matter.

Promise me that you will not assume what it was like for me to grow up.

Promise that I don’t have to modify my body to matter.

Promise me that you won’t call me a man no matter what I look like.

Promise me that you will not repost all of the articles about how we shouldn’t assume gender (and then still do it).

Promise me that you see the femme in my hairy body.

Promise that you see the femme in my brown body.

Promise that you see the femme in my messy, uncouth, dirty, scarred body.

Promise that you understand that my gender is not just a hobby or a politic

Where it all began. January 2011

January 2011

Dear all

If you are the recipient of this letter it means that over the years our lives have been greatly enriched by having you as a friend, and for that we are eternally grateful. It’s friends like you that have also made Daniel’s 25 years as our son so incredible. Many of you have known either myself or Cindy before we met and you may well have been at our wedding, the christening of Daniel, Cindy’s incredible 40th birthday party and the many other milestones in our lives that you have taken the time out of your busy schedule to attend, even when we moved to the Eastern Shore. I could also write many pages of what we’re up to living on the Eastern shore and what Daniel is doing in Olympia Wa.

However I need to address a conundrum (which the dictionary defines as a difficult and confusing problem) which I have finally found the courage to embrace. So if you are sitting comfortably let me begin and please stay with me to the end of the letter.

I was born on June 9th 1957 in Woking, England and was wrapped in a Blue Blanket because my physical being labelled me as a male. However by the time I was first conscious of who I was, probably around two or three years of age my feeling of self identified me as female which is sometimes described as Gender Identity Disorder or Gender Dysphoria.  The medical profession lists the conditions as:

A strong and persistent cross gender identification manifested by a desire to be, to live    and be treated as the other sex.

A persistent discomfort with their bodies.

As a result this causes a significant distress in social, occupational and other areas of life.

It is estimated that about 1 in 30,000 males are born with gender dysphoria.

“Well, thats great Bob but it doesn’t seem to have effected you much so lets get back to hearing what’s going on with your family? ” I can hear you all say and I wish that was the case!

So here is the conundrum. This feeling of being born into the wrong body has never left me, and I found myself 2 years ago completely exhausted from this fight. I sought out professional help and have decided that the journey I want to start on is to make my outer being fit my inner one, which will most likely lead to me changing my gender.

Please stay with me here because I know the subject matter is just a little different and uncomfortable.

 

As you know I have tried very hard at being male. I grew up in a household with four boys, went to an all boys school, played soccer and raced sailboats, worked in male dominated industries, built boats and did a lot of manly things.I also appeared to be a reasonably good husband, father, brother and son ( from the reports that got back to me). So, don’t you think I would have got the lesson that I was a man?  Try as I might, and boy did I try, I couldn’t get this feeling that something was not quite right out of my head.

The question I get asked a lot is “Why now?” Your 53 years old, you’ve gone this long living like this, why can’t you just buckle under and do the right thing and put this foolish notion aside?  u

Unlike other forms of sadness I’ve experienced which always seem to pass with time, my gender dissonance has only got worse and 2 years ago it had gotten so bad that it completely consumed me, and hurt more than any pain, physical or emotional that I had ever experienced. I know that most people believe that transsexuals (that’s me in a nutshell) transition because we want to be the other sex, but that is an oversimplification. After all, I have wanted to be female my whole life, but in the environment where I lived worked and played I was to terrified of the label “transgender”  and kept on thinking that maybe it would just go away with a bit of wishful thinking. What has changed now though is not my desire to be female or transgender, but my ability to cope with being male. I realized two years ago that pretending to be male was slowly killing me.

So thats my conundrum ? Are you still with me? Good! So lets deal with where I’m at and then I want to explain where Cindy and Daniel are at with this whole life changing event. Its all good!

First of all I have got a number of tremendous professional people that are helping me along through this process. Cindy and I are making numerous trips to Newark and Philadelphia for counseling and hormone treatment (I’ve been on hormones for six months now).

Second when I was around 5 years of age I gave myself a female name (as no one else was going too) and christened myself Susan, but still am very much right now still Bob. It will become very obvious when you need to start calling me Susan.

Third I am still very much Bob, Bobby, Captain Bob, soulmate to Cindy and father to Daniel, and although my appearance will begin to change, the person you have always known (and liked I hope) will still be the same. Its just going to take some getting used too. So please take the time to continue to involve yourself in our lives and please feel free to ask as many questions as you wish (there are no dumb questions).

 

Now we get to the next part. What about Cindy! How could you do this to her! Cindy has been aware of certain aspects of this for the last 28 years. I was going to John Hopkins in 1986 who were at the forefront of Transgender care then. Cindy has been incredible.We’re soulmates and we hope to spend the next 28 years just as we have the first 28 years very much in love, excited to be in each others company and the parents to a wonderful son. Cindy is adjusting to having a transgender partner with all the trials and tribulations that any one in any relationship experiences. Please feel free to call her and offer her your love and support, she is a wonderful and caring human being.

As for Daniel ,what can I say. We have been blessed with a compassionate, warm and loving son who when I told him about just said,“Fantastic.”  We have been very open about this. He is still out in Washington State working with an autistic child at an elementary school, doing yoga and martial arts and loving life.

So we’re getting near the end of the letter. Thank you for being so patient and reading on through to the end. I hope by now you are asking yourself “What can I do, how can I help?”

 

Well, please recognize how important your love acceptance and support is to us. Please try to hear what we have to say without judgement, anger or argument. Please communicate with us even if it is about your fears and pain. Please just keep on treating us with the same respect courtesy, compassion and love that you have always shown us. Please trust our judgement. Remember this goes back many,many years.Cindy and I love you all immensely and hope to continue to have you in our lives as we continue on life’s journey.

Take care

Bob, Cindy , Daniel and Susan.