Sunday, March 16, 2014
Monday, December 30, 2013
To all my friends
As we come to the new year and I look back over the past year, what I see most, and what makes me happiest, are all of my friends.
You, my friends, are amazing in so many ways. You are smarter, wiser, faster, stronger, prettier, funnier, kinder, gentler, and well... more than I am. You do totally awesome things in tech, in science, in scholarship, in art, in activism, in helping people, and so many other areas.
And there are so many of you, more friends than I've ever had. One of the hard things with hiding my identity for all of those years was that inside me was a little girl who wanted to be friends with everyone she met but she had to remain hidden.
I felt that friends were conditional, that they would only be around as long as I lived a lie. So I let old friends go too easily, believing they'd be gone anyway once they knew the truth. Making new friends was hard, too. Just being with people wore me out - I needed to play a role and keep my cover, so that meant I was continually watching what I said and how I acted. I was continually thinking, "if they only knew."
This year that friendly little girl who had always been inside the old me didn't have to hide any more. She was free to think the best of people, to give hugs and blow kisses, to go out of her way to reconnect with old friends, and to take the chance of making new ones. I know that people are not always what they seem, that some may let you down, that just wanting to be friends doesn't make it so. But this year I chose largely to ignore that wisdom and I set that little girl free to take the chance of making friends.
I know, I know - I'm still a long way from being in the running for Miss Congeniality, but for me the difference has been striking. I've reconnected with old friends from virtually every time in my life, and I believe I've made more new friends in this past year than in the previous 20 years combined. That makes this little girl very happy indeed.
One thing, however, gives me pause. Many people, it seems, tend to gather with those like themselves - people who look the same, think the same, believe the same. And I know that I was brought up in a small town where people were suspicious of anyone different - to be blunt, I was fed a steady diet of almost every kind of bigotry and prejudice.
In my prairie hometown people didn't always act on those prejudices, but they were in the air - racial prejudice, religious prejudice, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, prejudice against people from different countries and cultures, ableism in every form, the list goes on and on. And while I recognized (and objected to) some of those bigotries, so many of them seeped into me unnoticed and unopposed for too long.
I wish I'd done more to stand up against those bigotries. I can make excuses - that I was young, that I didn't know better, that I didn't really have an opportunity, but the fact is that I did too little for too long. In my many years undercover in the role of a straight, white, cisgender male, I'm ashamed to say I let far too much prejudice go unanswered, simply because I was afraid objecting might call attention to myself, and that attention might reveal who I really was.
So the other amazing thing about you, my friends, is how diverse you are. My friendships these days read like a roll of honor of all the labels I was brought up to scorn - different races, religions, cultures, countries, sexuality and gender identity, neurodiversity, to name just a few. In fact, some of those despised labels - transgender, lesbian, and atheist, for example - are ones that I claim for myself now, something not lost on the family that raised (and has now largely disowned) me.
So I sometimes wonder how all of you amazing folks can be friends with me. I've tried and continue to try my best to see and neutralize that prejudice and bigotry, but the traces remain, like old scars. What can I bring to the table then? When I ponder that question, I realize that all I can offer is that little girl who just wants to be friends.
For me being friends is not a trivial thing. It means doing my best to know you, the struggles you've faced, the triumphs you've had, how your past has shaped you and how you shape your present and future. It means acknowledging our differences in privilege, culture, belief, background, and more while embracing and celebrating our many connections. It also means having the trust and generosity to help each other improve those connections and to help each other in general. And finally, it means genuine respect for who we all are, without condescension or appropriation.
So if I can be a good friend by that definition, if I can stand by, and stand up for, my friends, I think it will be good enough. I hope and believe such friendships can improve our lives and our little parts of the world, and for this little girl that's a darned good start.
All of this is very long and labored way for me to say how much I respect and value all of you, my friends, and hope to grow our friendships (and many more) in the future.
(and by the way, if you read this and thought, "she's not talking about me, she's talking about her other friends," you're wrong. I meant you, too.)
Sunday, October 20, 2013
One year ago my name change became official, and I became Naomi publicly, officially, professionally, and in every other way. Transitioning was probably the hardest decision I have ever made - I had to come to terms with both possibly losing everything and doing it with the whole world watching.
It seemed like I was contemplating jumping off a cliff. I was terrified yet determined - I knew that I had to make that leap, whether I would end up soaring or crashing to the rocks below. So on October 22, 2012 I leapt off the cliff.
At this point I am nowhere near done transitioning, and there are both physical and behavioral changes that are still in progress. But while I'm not finished, at this point I've hit many "firsts" as Naomi... the first time getting my hair done professionally, the first time going to work, the first time flying, the first time traveling internationally, the first time meeting old friends, the first time meeting former students, the first tech conference, the first time speaking in public, the first time networking professionally, the first time talking publicly about being trans, and so on.
Strangely none of those situations was particularly uncomfortable. In fact, sometimes I would catch myself and wonder why I wasn't more uncomfortable and afraid, more ill at ease. But strangely, I almost never was.
Instead I found myself oddly at ease, acting as if it was completely natural, even when I had to explain being trans to rental car clerk in Nebraska or when I interacted with Japanese colleagues who had previously known me only as Vern. In fact, long transitioned trans people have been surprised with that comfort, thinking I seem more like someone who transitioned 10 years ago, rather than a noob of less than a year.
I can think of only a couple of reasons why I that might be so. First of all, when I decided to move forward, I decided that I could only transition if I came to terms with the world knowing I was trans at a glance. I felt that if I had a problem with that, I would never be able find peace. I made my way to that acceptance before I took my first hormone pill.
The second reason is the one that I would think is the greater one. I think the reason being Naomi has seemed so natural for me is that it is natural. I've never been more at home in my own skin, a phrase that I could never even fathom before. I sleep better, I feel more comfortable around people, I can even be comfortable and at peace with myself, at least sometimes. I'm sure that the correct hormone balance is a huge part of it, but just as important I can now be who I am, rather than who I was supposed to be. And that is huge.
I know at least some people who think that I am now a happier, warmer, and more friendly person than Vern was. (Someone even went so far as to call me "bubbly." I think that's pushing it... but I was not offended.) I do know that it just seems natural to put more of myself into relationships. And I definitely get more out of them.
So you could call this Naomi's first birthday. Yes, it was a very long time coming, but I think it was worth the wait.
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Am I a feminist?
[Disclaimer: I chose this title deliberately, and I write this with some trepidation. This is not meant to be "Feminism and the Transgender Woman", nor "Feminism and the Older, White Transgender Woman", nor even "Why Feminism (and Feminists) Sometimes Scare Trans Women". This is about me and my experiences with, and perceptions of, feminism. I freely admit that my knowledge and understanding of feminism may be flawed or at the very least incomplete, but my experiences with something people call "feminism" are real. ]
Now that I've transitioned and now that I'm occasionally speaking about what I've observed in the FOSS and Python communities as both male and female, I sometimes get comments or questions involving "feminism". Sometimes I'm be asked if I'm a feminist, but more often what I say is addressed with the assumption that I am a feminist.
I do understand that assumption - a lot of what I'm saying sounds feminist. There is a good reason for that - I'm one of the few who have experienced what being both male and being female in our world is like, and I've seen the differences in reactions from the same people in similar situations. To be blunt, I've seen that sexism, male privilege, and misogyny are very real.
And I naturally have a real interest in the position of women in our society in particular and in the world in general. As I go about my life now I'm seen as a woman, if I'm lucky - that's certainly my hope and the way I see myself. If I'm not quite so lucky I'm perceived as a man who is trying to be a woman, which is problematic in a bunch of ways no non trans person is likely to ever fully understand. In either case my life is much better if being a woman is not a bad thing. So I definitely share a lot with feminists in terms of what I see as problems and what I see as solutions.
And yet, whenever that word has been cast in my general direction - whether it's during the Q and A following a talk, or in an online discussion, or wherever else - whenever the word "feminism" comes my way, I duck. I do my best to back away and deflect it. I say, "it's complicated."
Why do I back off? What on earth could cause me duck? What makes it "complicated"?
It's a trans thing
A big part of it is the precariousness of a trans woman's situation. No one, or at least very, very few of us, has the strength to fight battles all of the time. No matter how we feel about being trans, life is definitely easier if we're not making a point and not being gender expression warriors every waking moment. I've done my best to be completely open about who I am as I've transitioned. I've gotten the hang of charmingly explaining my situation to doctors, dentists, lawyers, insurance agents, bankers, even car rental clerks, simply because that's easier than insisting on privacy. But coming out all of the time is tiring.
Sometimes it's easier, and many times it's safer, and almost always it's more comfortable to just blend in. But there's the rub.
Many women, even not particularly feminist women, roll their eyes at the efforts trans women make to "fit in" as feminine. They will tell me that they don't worry about hairstyles, that they rarely bother with make up, that they throw on just any old thing to go out, and so on. And of course the implication is that my concern with all of those things - with hair, makeup, clothes, accessories, etc. is a case of trying too hard. I think in most cases they mean well, that they're trying to tell me to relax, that women don't really need to worry about such things to be women.
This always strikes me as bit of cheat - the salon I frequent seems to be awfully full of women who don't appear to be transgender, the places where I buy accessories seem to pretty well visited by cisgender women, and the cosmetics sellers are clearly not primarily serving the trans community. So it would seem that many, (but not all) women do pay attention to such things, even more than I do. And I would bet that some for some of them it's because they feel they must, for others it's because they want to, and for still others, as for me, it's a combination of the two.
And yet, it is true that women don't have to worry about such things - if one is born a woman, that is. Yes, there is some social pressure to conform to society's expectations, but many women do just fine without worrying about many of them.
But if you happen to be trans (and especially if you have a body and face that has been through many years of testosterone masculinization) the rules are different. If you dress too girly and frilly you're over the top, a parody. On the other hand if you're not overtly feminine enough, if you don't make a pretty darned good attempt to look the part, you must not be "serious" about being a woman and people will fault you for not being "convincing". In some cases, people's access to hormones and other medical treatment (not to mention restrooms) can depend on making the grade in terms of feminine presentation. I actually ran across a voice therapist who made it clear that she would only see me if I was dressed in a properly feminine manner, even if we were having a session via Skype. And of course, "properly feminine" was her call to make, not mine. (I found a different voice therapist.)
In other words, I simply don't have the same range in many areas as natal women - I'm left with a somewhat narrow and fairly conventional range of clothing and behavior if I want to be accepted. Most of the time I'm actually okay with that range - I spent a lifetime wanting to be able to express who I was in a way that society might understand. But like it or not, this exact advice is given to trans women all the time - to carefully observe the cisgender women around you, throw out the extremes, and model yourself on those in middle, blend in with the social norms, do what is expected. Extremes and calling attention to yourself are to be avoided.
Feminism, on the other hand, has historically been justifiably suspicious of attempts to make all women match that kind of standard. So the trans reality doesn't always mesh with the feminist one. (I'll leave out discussion of "trans feminism" for this post, since it seems mostly to be of interest to and acknowledged by trans women.)
When cisgender women, usually more or less feminist women, tell me that they wear less make up than I do, that they have fewer accessories than I do, that they do less with their hair, that they worry less about body hair, etc. than I do, I do get the message that I'm somehow too obsessed with appearances and not what's really important. In other words, I'm made to feel that I'm not doing it right, that the very way I'm being a woman is letting down the cause, and is invalidating any claim I might have to be a woman. It's a classic double bind - damned if you do, damned if you don't.
And in fact there is a small, vociferous, and agressive segment of radical feminism that takes that point even a bit further. Trans women are, they argue, stooges of the patriarchy, tools used to prop up and reinforce inherently repressive gender constructs. Our very efforts to be female both give support to artificial (and harmful) notions of gender and at the same time violate and mock something innate in natal females. They suggest that we are not women, will never be anything but mutilated men, and are not to be trusted nor allowed in women's spaces. In fact, they would very much prefer it if we were in some way or another just made to go away.
Maybe it's just me
I won't claim to be well read in feminist theory. Nor will I pretend to have any idea of the true intent of feminism, and I doubt that there is complete agreement among feminists on such a thing.
But all of this leaves me feeling feminism is a game where I can't win. The way that I feel I need to be a woman seems almost to make me ineligble for that particular club. And in fact some of it's most strident members seem to agree and then some. I do realize that there are many feminists who would strongly disagree with both of those beliefs, but I'm certainly not the only trans woman I know who has felt the same thing.
I've experienced misogyny, sexism, and (straight male cisgender) privilege from both sides. I totally believe in the notion that all people should have the same ability to act, the same safety, the same respect for who and what they are. I also feel the need to share what I've seen in the hope that somehow it helps people understand, that it contributes.
And yet, when I'm asked in public if I'm a feminist? That's when I have to say, "it's complicated."
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Stories and Metaphors
It's funny how sometimes, even in total ignorance, you can manage to get a metaphor for something totally right. This is probably not something to be too proud of, since that one nugget of truth is usually surrounded by many others that are so much less right. In this case I'm talking about metaphors for transition. Right before I publicly started that process I thought of it in terms of leaping off cliffs and of taking flight. And while those images did capture both the terror and exhilaration of that process, in a more fundamental way they fell short of the truth, they were incomplete and inadequate metaphors for the process.
Why do metaphors matter? I'm convinced that humans are creatures that need metaphors and stories to make sense of life. We need metaphors and stories to shape how we understand the world, how we see ourselves and how we respond.
So the nature of those metaphors matters. If we choose to tell ourselves a story of victimhood and oppression, our view of the world and our futures will be colored by that view. And if we choose a story of triumph and challenges overcome, that too, will shape our worlds. At least in choosing the image of leaping off the cliff I was acting rather than suffering, choosing my own path in spite of the obvious danger, and that was good.
The Grand Canyon
However, as I think about it now, it's an older metaphor that reflects the experience more accurately. When I was first contemplating transition it seemed like a daunting task. A personality built over decades had to be dismantled, roles and behaviors learned over the years had to be unlearned, and connections forged over a lifetime had to be broken. Only then, I thought, could I start to build the new personality, roles, and behaviors that express who I really was and wanted to be.
The image I saw was an immense canyon - a deep wide chasm that I wanted to cross. And the only way to get across was first to slowly, painfully, and patiently make the journey to the bottom. Then, I thought, the actual moment of transition would be a tiny hop across a narrow stream, really not much at all. That would be followed, of course, but the long slow climb back out the other side.
That image resonates with me these days. In fact, I spent years making that descent, so slowly that people didn't realize - my hair grew longer, I changed my job, my city, and so many other things. Old connections were left behind, often sadly. It was a long trek down, but eventually I did get down to that critical point. And in fact, when I got to that point at the bottom, I was right - it wasn't so much a leap off a cliff as a hop over a tiny stream.
Now, I'm on the climb back up the other side. The climb was exhausting at first. I am creating the woman I need and want to be as I go, deciding how she likes to dress, what things she likes, and who she is. Not all of the old person has gone, but almost everything is up for consideration, almost everything has to be learned, in almost every aspect I feel like I'm a novice, being judged by a more experienced world.
And probably more importantly, I'm considering how that woman will walk through the world. Again, not everything has changed, and probably some things never will. I still can't resist some jokes, and on the flip side, the reserve I got from my taciturn Scandinavian upbringing and a lifetime of concealing who I was will never go entirely away. But there is room for important change. The woman I am becoming is perhaps no kinder and gentler than the man was, but she is definitely more free to express and even celebrate kindness and gentleness. Free from the man's implicit self-loathing she is more able to embrace the good times and to cherish her friends.
And that has lead to a joyous surprise. On the way down I thought that most connections were truly broken, that each person I had left behind was gone for good. I am now learning to my joy that I was wrong - the way up has increasingly been populated by old friends, each one of them as invigorating as a cool drink. And each one of those old friends I meet along the way, each one who manages to see the new me, remember the old me, and then pull the two together, makes the journey that much easer.
It's hard to be whole without a past, and it turns out that this has been one the key lessons of the climb back up out of the canyon - not only must a new personality be forged from the shards of the old, for it to be truly whole it must embrace all of the old one's past, the pleasant and the painful, the sadness and the joy.
This was the part that I didn't understand when I first contemplated the process years ago. I saw the journey to the bottom, I saw the trek back up. I even guessed at the insignificance of the stream. But I didn't understand the true work of the climb back up, and I didn't see all of the friends who would be there to make the journey such a pleasure.
All of which is really a riff on my earlier post. There I said that I would be unlikely to reach out to old friends because I didn't know if they would want to see me. To put it another way, I was afraid of being rejected. I've now come to see that staying away from old friends out of the fear they might not accept me is not the way to continue my climb.
Many old friends have found me and reached out first, and I treasure them. But I have also started making the contacts on my own, and that is just as important. Offering myself, the real me this time, to old friends and acquaintances is a sign that I value who I am, something that wasn't so true before. It's a move forward in hope and trust, which are hugely important to the woman I am.
What this means is that I'm going to hesitate less and worry less about getting in touch with people. Of course I'll still treasure those who find me. But if it strikes me, if I am reminded of or some how run across someone I used to know, I probably won't let fear of rejection stop me from reconnecting. And I think that's a good thing.
It's time for a change
I've come to think it's probably time to change the name of this blog. The original title was meant to be a bit droll, a pop culture reference, with a comic soap opera feel to it. It seemed right as I started into transition, echoing the questions I knew so many people would have.
But at some point, that drollness wears thin, and at some point the focus changes. One hopes there less place for questions, and less need for soap opera angst.
A new name
So I've been thinking of changing the name to a phrase that has echoed in my head since I first heard it. It came from an old friend wishing me luck and congratulating me on the eve of my transition. He said, "farewell and welcome home."
It captures in four words what's struck me most about this whole experience, the need for loss in order to gain myself, the need to leave home in order to find a truer home.
It struck me as almost premature back then - then there was just a hope that I would be home, not a certainty. Now, months later, no matter how far it seems I still have to go, it's increasingly certain. Yes, finally I am home.
So thank you, Mr. Park. "Farewell and welcome home" it is.
Saturday, June 29, 2013
This is for anyone I haven't been in touch with since my transition. Well actually, to be more precise it's for anyone who hasn't been in touch with me since my transition, but still has some kind feelings towards me. It's for those who have somehow learned about what I've done and now feel in an awkward spot.
If you're disgusted or outraged at who I am and what I've done, or if you really just have never felt any connection with me, we don't have much to talk about. We can just ignore each other and be happy. And if you're a really close friend and comfortable with transgender people like me, we've probably already been in touch, and either we have plunged on in spite of the strangeness or we have gone silent. So it goes.
Stuck in the middle
But perhaps you're stuck in the middle. I'm using that phrase deliberately, since it's a feeling that many of us trans folk know all too well. In your case, you're stuck in a grey area - you don't know what to say and probably you're not even that certain that I'd want to hear it if you did. Perhaps it took you a while to process the news and by the time you did, you felt the opportunity had passed. Maybe you're waiting to hear from me, or for an "important" reason to contact me. But you sometimes think about me and the thought of getting in touch crosses your mind.
The first few months after my transition this situation honestly never occurred to me. I was so wrapped up in the business of transitioning, which is one of the most self-centered processes in the world, that I assumed that all of those silent people, all of those people who probably would have reached out with a word in many other situations, were lost to me. I assumed that they must hate me because they were silent when I could have really used a word. I can tell you that I got many, many more messages of support at the death of Molly, the smartest dog in school and my best friend, than I did when word got out that Vern had been retired in favor of Naomi. Even putting aside the obvious truth that Molly was orders of magnitude more likable than Vern ever was, it was a striking contrast.
In a way it was just a confirmation of what I'd always feared and expected - that coming out as trans means losing people, giving up friends and old connections. In short, it means that you are less loved. Like so many trans folk of my generation I had always feared this and now it seemed to be coming true.
But, as has often happened in my transtion, I was wrong. Over time something surprising happened - I started hearing from people. And it's continued, a slow but steady cadence over time. Sometimes it's old friends who I thought had drifted away. Other times it's been former students I had assumed wouldn't be interested in the bizarre case of a former teacher going from man to woman. Still other times it's been former colleagues I haven't seen in years.
There was a hand written card that showed up at work one day from a former colleague I hadn't seen for a decade. There were thoughtful emails that showed up out of the blue, Facebook conversations, LinkedIn connection requests, and so on. But all of them were really the same - messages from people who really had no reason to get in touch other than they wanted me to know that the connections we had shared were still there. And those messages are treasures to me.
The more I read those messages, the more I was struck by an underlying theme. Former colleagues made vague excuses about why they hadn't gotten in touch sooner. More than one student suggested that I certainly wouldn't remember them, or maybe I wouldn't care much to hear from someone I'd known years ago when they were just a kid. But in every case there was the theme of "I wanted to contact you sooner, but..."
I think there are really just a couple of reasons that people hesitate. First, the assumption that perhaps I somehow don't want to hear from people from my past. This is an interesting spin on the trans narrative that had scared me as child - the idea that the only way to transition is to sever all ties with the old identity and those who knew it. If those are the rules you're playing by, then contact from the past would be the ultimate embarrassment, and anyone insisting on that contact would be insensitive at best. That's the path called "being stealth" and I've rejected it, but it's still a part of how people think about trans people and transition.
For my part, I never left a one of you behind because of my transition. I had to physically move away and leave much of my old life behind in order to transition, and that made me sad. But I love too much of my life before to ever renounce it. Particularly now that the dust has cleared I find talking about old times is just sweet nostalgia. Vern is gone, because he was just a persona I had to use to survive, but the same person is still here. So no one need be afraid that a connection out of my past will be embarrasing or painful.
The other reason is simpler - people just don't know what to say. Maybe you don't even know how you feel about transgender issues. Maybe you thought you had a neat solution in your head, but now that you find out you know a trans person, you're not so sure. Do you offer condolences? But clearly the person changing is happy. Congratulations? How can that be sincere when you've just lost the person you thought you knew? Suppose you say the wrong thing and offend? Wouldn't that be worse than saying nothing at all? What do trans people want to hear anyway? In the face of such uncertainty, the natural human response is to hesitate. And after a while it's hard to act.
So let me tell you how things are my side
I have to confess that I'm in a similar position. I'm not likely to contact you first, either. I'm pretty cautious about contacting people who knew me before. I'll see you get recommended to me on LinkedIN or Facebook, and decide not to add you. I'll see a personal announcement and start to respond, but then hesitate. I just don't know how you feel about trans people, whether you'd be embarassed or angry or just wonder why the hell someone like me thinks you'd want to be in touch. I hear a voice in my head saying that you probably don't want an obvious connection with me on your wall. And let's be honest - if you connect with me on the social networks it will be pretty clear you're connected with a trans woman. You'll see trans related items in my streams, you might even get suggestions that you connect with other trans people. It comes with me, and I keep thinking that most people don't want that.
All too often I find myself thinking I need to ask permission to connect with people or to join groups or even to say hi to old acquaintances, that I need to apologize for imposing myself on people. I'm trying to get myself out of that pattern, to tell myself that I need to move past that, that I need to just move ahead and let others worry about how they'll react to me. And with people I'm just meeting, I can do that - I plunge in and let them decide how to take me. But with the ones that knew me before I find that much harder to do.
What to say when you don't know what to say
So what I really want to say is that you don't need to worry about what to say. It's okay that it took you a while to sort out your feelings about suddenly having a transgender person you know - after all, it took me decades to sort out how I felt about it. What do I, as a transgender person, want to hear? Well, you really don't need to call out my courage. I can tell you that no person who's transitioned feels they've done anything courageous. In fact, I'd say that the ones who transitioned in middle age like me feel cowardly for waiting so long. Or at best we feel like we had no choice - is it courage to jump off of a burning, sinking ship that's about to explode?
And you don't really need to reassure me that I'm still a human being, or that I'm still smart, or things like that. I'd like to think that those are true, but making a point to mention them seems to imply that they are remarkable, and somehow true in spite of who I am.
So if you've been thinking of me and wanting me to know that our connection, whatever it was, remains, then just say that. The best messages are the ones that say hey, I've been thinking about you. I know it must have been hard, but I'm glad you're happier. And just know that I'm still here and things haven't changed between us.
And then lets talk about what's been going on with you, how your family is, what you're working on, whatever we used to talk about.
I promise you I'll be happy to hear from you and I'll respond. With joy.