White Sale Privilege

My wife and I are out shopping for a floor lamp; I’ve got a little condo close to my job that I’ve slowly been furnishing.  Wandering from store to store in San Francisco, I reflect, when we are alone together in our car, on what an interesting contrast the experience has been relative to the past. Navigating the world as a heterosexual couple is a markedly different from moving through it as two lesbians. I’ve spent a lot of time recently, I tell her, just browsing through stores, watching the way salespeople react to me. Things have definitely changed.

“What do you mean?” she asks, a bit incredulous.

“I’m getting all this male privilege all of a sudden. I get read as a man and it’s a totally different interaction.”

“Like how?”

“You know that laptop I bought a few weeks ago? I got it for half the price that was marked on it. It was open box merchandise, so I told the guy, ‘I don’t really need it. I can walk away. I already have a laptop. I’m just here to see if I can get a deal.’ So he asks me, what do I want to pay? ‘Half that price,’ I say, and he disappears for a minute. When he comes back, he’s like, ‘Okay, we can do that.’ I couldn’t believe it.”

“You think it’s because he thought you were a man?”

“Absolutely. I mean, ‘What do you want to pay?’ Are you kidding me? That’s crazy. No one’s ever asked me that in a store before.”

I’m not sure she’s buying it, but she shrugs her shoulders and we move on.  It’s the end of the day and we’ve been in a dozen different shops. In the very last store I see it: the ideal chair at the ideal price. It’s marked down 30% and we’ve got five minutes til closing time and the end of the three-day sale. The staff are moving through the store removing all of the price tags. Just as I’m about to say yes to the “sale” price marked on the tag, I notice that the crossed out, “compare at” price is actually half of the so-called “sale” price. I can’t believe my eyes; someone has a made a mistake.

A salesman is pulling off tags a couple of feet away from me. “Hey,” I say, getting his attention, “the ‘compare at’ price is lower than the ‘sale’ price! Are you guys gonna give me the chair for that?”

He walks over and looks at the tag. “Wow,” he says, “you’re right. I’m sorry, sir. Let me get the manager.”

A woman approaches and he explains the situation. She, too, examines the tag. I ask her, “Are you gonna give me the chair for the lower price marked on the tag?”

“I suppose I’ll have to, sir.”

I’m stunned. I fully expected her to laugh at the question and brush it off, but no. She looks at the man, “Will you help the gentleman with the chair?” and heads back to the register to let me pay. The salesman looks at the tag again, his body language broadcasting something like defeat. “I’m sorry, sir. It’s the last day of the sale and no one saw that.” I have no idea why he’s apologizing. I feel like I just hit the chair lottery.

I pay for the chair and he loads it into our car with a lot of effort and almost no assistance from me. In my defense, my arm is in a cast, recovering from bone surgery. The salesman, for his part, keeps addressing me as if I’m his boss and I’m about to fire him as he struggles to get the too-big chair into our smallish car. “I’m sorry, sir. Just a minute, sir.” Why does he keep apologizing? Is it because I’m white and he’s Latino? Is it because I’m wearing a jacket and tie? Is it because he wants a bigger tip? I’m uncomfortable in any event.

My wife and I drive off. “That was terrible,” she says, sadly. “He was so. . .obsequious!”

“Yeah,” I have to admit, “you’re right. Great word, though. Well said.”

“It was horrible. I didn’t like it.”

“Welcome to white male privilege, honey.” I give her an apologetic smile. “At least I gave him ten bucks.”

Welcome to white male guilt.

Woman + Fire = BOOM?

gas fireplace

When I met my wife, she was already a homeowner and used to taking care of things by herself; some would say self-sufficient, others might say a mild control freak. I learned early on to leave her to her projects. She might mutter her way through fixing the sink but she’d get it done just fine without me. After 14 years of living together, I got a small place closer to my job to spend a few nights a week. Until I started working on it, she had no idea that I had any skills at all.

Unlike me, Tess is a master of all trades. She can build a fence, lay a floor, and put up dry wall. There’s very little to be done around the house that requires outside assistance. You wouldn’t know it to look at her, about a hundred pounds of hummingbird energy in a pencil skirt and heels, but she’s a one-woman Amish barn raising. She and her ex bought and renovated, by themselves, a series of increasingly more valuable homes which gave her a lifetime of know-how that I don’t possess. I leave things to her.

Our gas fireplace, which burns out some part or other with clockwork regularity each year around Christmas, is one of the few things that she can’t fix. We call a service tech, typically a guy thick with grease who likes fire enough to make me feel grateful that he channels his energy legally. Tess made the call this year and since I wasn’t at home when he came out to the house, he dealt exclusively with her. When Mark came back the second time, I happened to be at home.

I was in the back of the house when I heard him come in. He spoke with Tess for at least five solid minutes before I emerged and from that moment on, he spoke mostly to me. My wife was instantly demoted to the status of a semi-responsible teenager while I was promoted to man of the house. He related to me like I knew more than she did about operating the dangerously explosive gas bomb formerly known as our fireplace; it was my responsibility to make sure that she didn’t blow herself up with it. I felt this extension of male privilege immediately and was offended on her behalf; I made a mental note to apologize to her as soon as it was over.

I followed Mark to the fireplace at the back of the house. It was the first time I’d had an interaction longer than a minute or two alone with a man who perceived me not just as another man, but as a husband. I felt him drop a rucksack of masculine responsibility onto my back.

He lay down on the floor to better access the control panel as I stood over him. I’d already noted that he was at least six inches taller than me, so this situation inverted our perspective. He initiated a conversation which wavered between two disparate themes: Make sure your wife doesn’t kill herself with the fireplace and, to distill it down to its essence, a guy can only take so much from another guy before he gets physically violent, even if the other guy is his brother.

“I love him,” he said, “he’s my brother. But there’s only so much. . . I mean, if a guy just dicks you over and over at some point you gotta take that motherf—er by the balls and slam him into a wall.”

“Just break him in half,” I agreed, hoping it sounded like something another dude would say. “I get it.”

“I mean,” he went on, “it’s one thing to f— me but when you start f—ing with my family I gotta deal with it, right?”

“F— yeah!” I nodded, sneering. “I mean,” I said, searching for another statement, “yeah!”

This went on for as long as it took him to do whatever he was doing and establish that he’ll need to come back again.

“How much time do you spend back here?” he asked, which struck me as a funny way to establish how long I could wait for the part to come in. “Can you live without it for a month? I mean, you don’t want her to turn this thing on and. . .” he trailed off, miming a mini explosion with his hands.

“No, no, no,” I insisted, “we’re fine. No problem. We don’t need to turn it on. Other ways to heat the house, dude.” In other words: I have it under control, Mark.

“Okay then, you make sure she doesn’t -”

“Right,” I assured him, “I know.” The feminist guilt was scorching my brain.

We rejoined Tess in the kitchen. She stood beside me as he summarized his points before leaving, addressing me exclusively. At some point I burst out: “You can tell her too, you know. She’s smarter than I am,” but he continued unfazed; something in his eyes made me think my statement was dismissed as sex insurance for later.

As soon as he left, I embraced my wife and apologized deeply. “I am so, so, sorry. I really am just so sorry.”

“For what?” I was shocked at her surprise.

“That disgusting male privilege. The way he talked only to me as if you weren’t there. I’m sorry.”

“Oh, that?” she shrugged. “I don’t care about that. You can be in charge of that.” And she bounced off, relieved that she has one less thing to worry about.

Now I’m looking into disaster preparedness. Apparently that’s what men do here.

Invisible Man

NYC Gay Pride 1994, Stonewall 25

I’m waiting in Starbucks for my drink to come up. Two women in their twenties are standing close enough to each another to be read as a couple. They’re dressed in complete agreement, entirely in black with toothpick jeans and wool sock hats, broadcasting androgyny. My inner taxonomist labels them butch lesbians; versions of my younger self, were I as free to be out then as they are now.

I think to myself: I laid the groundwork for their visibility.

In 1994, the Gay Games were held in New York City. The competition, which drew tens of thousands of people from all over the world, coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Between the two events, there were literally hundreds of thousands of people in attendance at the NYC Gay Pride March that year. Volunteers carried a mile-long rainbow flag down 1st Avenue past the United Nations building. Uncharacteristically hilly for NYC, 1st Avenue crested at one point, offering me an expansive view of the crowd of which I was part. Behind me and in front of me, stretched to the ends of the visible horizon, lay a jam-packed sea of people. I’ve never seen so many people, not before or since.

We weren’t marching for gay marriage back then; we were marching for our lives. My twenties happened during the age of AIDS, back when HIV was a death sentence so harsh that people committed suicide upon being diagnosed. So many men were dying horrible, ugly, drawn-out deaths. The women among us had lost fathers, brothers, uncles, friends, and lovers. Prior to AIDS, there was no bond between the gay and lesbian communities; the HIV/AIDS crisis drew everyone together, all of the sexual outsiders, into one giant LGBTQ movement. We were compelled by necessity to unite in order to bring the strength of numbers to bear on the fight for our civil rights.

When I came out as a lesbian in 1989, I accepted the facts as they were at the time: I would never be married and I would never have children. If I wanted to work for the government or the military or become a teacher, then I would have to stay in the closet. Any employer could decide to fire me or not hire me in the first place, and any landlord could decide not to rent to me. Moreover, when I dared to be identifiable as a lesbian in public, I was subject to verbal and physical abuse. There were times when I feared for my safety. There were states where it was literally illegal for me to make love to my partner. I had no right to visit her, let alone make any decisions on her behalf, if anything tragic happened to her. All of this paled in comparison, of course, to the friends I was losing to AIDS; that fight took precedence.

If AIDS were still a plague in America, then the movement would never have graduated to demanding marriage equality. Marriage by its very nature assumes that a couple has a future together; back then, too many people were dying too young for any of us to be thinking about a future. We marched, we protested, and we took care of each other. We wore rainbows and freedom rings and we outed ourselves at every opportunity just to show the country that everyone knew and loved at least one of us. Famous people came out – Congressman Barney Frank in 1987, Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Elton John in 1988, k.d. lang in 1992, Melissa Etheridge in 1993, Ellen DeGeneres in 1997. Ellen’s show was cancelled shortly after she came out but within a year, the insanely popular Will and Grace began its eight year love affair with America and we got used to seeing gay men on a weekly basis. None of this would have happened if we had never come out in the first place. If we didn’t rise up and demand our rights then, we wouldn’t be enjoying them now.

Those two young women in the Starbucks may be blissfully unaware of this history. If that’s my generation’s gift to them, and the gift of the generation of activists who came before me, then so be it. It was enough once in a while to get a nod of acknowledgement, just to be seen.

There was no nod this time. There was no eye contact at all.

These days I’m just another white guy.

Testosterone Lies

I didn’t decide to be transgender any more than I decided to be 5’7″. These are facts of my life that are more constructive to accept than to deny. The only decisions that I’m consciously making are around the details of my physical transition. Step by step, I’m figuring out how much I need to change my body in order to be at peace with myself.

The first decision that I made – whether or not to begin taking testosterone – was incredibly difficult. I considered it carefully for a good part of my life. As I drew closer to moving forward with it, I specifically sought out anti-transitioning points of view. I searched terms like “testosterone side effects” and “FTM regret.” I read blogs and watched videos posted by older transmen who were in committed relationships or had well-established careers. I was looking for people with whom I could identify. I wanted to know if any of them felt they had made a mistake by transitioning.

I found a lot of anti-transitioning websites, but none of them were produced by people who identified themselves as transgender. Every negative point of view came from an outsider or from someone who had begun transitioning and later realized they were not actually transgender. Genuinely transgender guys were incredibly positive about transitioning. The problems in their lives had nothing to do with testosterone. The only regret they expressed was that they didn’t transition sooner.

There are many websites devoted to trashing FTMs. Some are run by feminists who see transmen as traitors to the sisterhood, capitulating to the patriarchy by co-opting male privilege while reinforcing stereotypical gender roles. In other words, people who identify as male despite being assigned female at birth (AFAB) are really women who have bought into their own subjugation – perpetuated by men – and turned it into self-loathing. As a result, they give up on being women and defect to the enemy side. This strikes me as an aggressively uninformed dumpload of feminist philosophy-cum-psycho-babble that has absolutely nothing to do with and no respect for the lived experience of transmen.

I was stunned to find some very hateful blogging by lesbians who have had terrible experiences with FTM partners. Perhaps they were unfortunate enough to fall into the crosshairs of an emotionally unhealthy or just flat-out nasty partner who also happened to be transgender? All of the ills and errors committed by that person were automatically attributed to the effects of testosterone, as if there were a direct cause-and-effect relationship between a doctor-administered medication and an individual’s abusive or otherwise shameful behavior. More than one angry ex-lover has given testosterone credit for everything from adultery to a sudden change in her partner’s sexual orientation. No drug is that strong.

Transmen have the same family conflicts, medical and psychiatric challenges that everyone else does in addition to, not as a consequence of, being transgender. We deal with our adoptive, or bitterly divorced, or deceased, or dying parents; our stacks of bills and our empty bank accounts; our chronic or serious illnesses; and all of the regular stresses of life. Like so many others, we struggle with issues of abuse, abandonment, addiction, and self-hatred, but as a group, we’re disproportionately more subject both to self-harm and abuse by others. Transitioning solves only one very specific problem.

Some bloggers warn that testosterone makes transmen angry and violent, but the medical protocol ensures that transgender men have testosterone levels within the normal range for cisgender men. Are men typically angry and violent? The answer to that question depends a lot on your point of view. They are certainly stereotyped as such. Do transmen then, – men via medicine – fall under the same rubric? Moreover, if a man expresses anger, do we attribute it to his hormones? No. We address the situational cause of his ire. Transmen, however, frequently have their legitimate anger dismissed as “the testosterone.”

More than one blogger warns that testosterone makes people who were formerly lesbians promiscuous to the point of having sex with men. If that’s really the case, then it has a great future as a date-rape drug. It’s far more likely that the shift in sexuality – if there even was one – was triggered by the rush of libido that comes with finally loving your own body. The incredible sense of liberation that people in transition sometimes feel can bleed over into other aspects of life. Once you open yourself to transitioning, many formerly impossible things start to look doable.

I’m sad that there is so much bad information out there about testosterone and how it allegedly turns lesbians into terrible little pseudo-men. I’m angry at the bloggers who feel the need to scare the crap out of some very sad and desperate people by telling us that we’re pawns of the medical industry. My identity is not open to your critique.

Let this post serve as my testimony that testosterone isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s been six months so far and no monstrous evil has emerged. If anything, I’m happier and more relaxed than ever, which makes me a better partner to my wife and a better stepparent to her children. Now that my energy isn’t being drained by sadness and anger, I’m finding the time for this blog and many other things worth pursuing, including friendship.

For the first time in my life, I’m looking forward to my future. Blame that on the testosterone.

There’s a Man in the Bathroom!

restrooms sign

Now that I’m consistently being read as male, I’m realizing just how stressful my prior life was. As a masculine woman, so many interactions had been framed by a horrible sense of alienation. To wit:

Washing my hands in an empty airport restroom, a woman walking in exclaims, “Esto es un hombre en el baño!” “No!” I correct her, cupping my breasts. “No soy un hombre!”

Dining at a restaurant with family and the friends to whom I have just been introduced, the waiter calls me “Sir;” is it more mortifying to ignore his mistake or to point it out by correcting him?

Visiting my mother in the hospital, I oblige the woman in the other bed by moving a chair across the room. She smiles at my mom and says, “My, what a strapping young son you have!”

Heading into the women’s fitting room at Macy’s with an armload of clothing from the men’s department, the attendant shakes her head at me and points me back the way I came.

Every time this happened, I was wounded to the core. Even my wife couldn’t understand this. If I dressed in men’s clothing, wore short hair and no make-up, then why did it upset me when people thought I was a man? Because there is more than one way to be a woman, I’d explain. Because I still have a woman’s body and a woman’s face. Why can’t they see that?

I am stunned at my own lack of self-awareness. Or capacity for denial.

These strangers saw me for the man that I am. They saw him not just in my clothing and my haircut, but in everything from the way that I walk to the words that I choose. My bearing, my communication style, my naturally deep voice; all of it reads “male” and they saw it. Every social interaction threatened to reveal me to myself.

I identified as male from the moment that I understood the difference between men and women. I was disabused of this notion almost immediately upon arriving at it. Nonetheless, I persisted throughout childhood in my distaste for anything remotely identifiable as feminine. I eventually identified as a lesbian because it was the only way that I could see forward. It allowed me to fulfill my romantic and sexual attraction to women; to be decidedly masculine while housed in a female body; and to pursue a career (at the time) in a field dominated by men.

I was angry, though, because I felt an obligation to confess my birth sex to whoever got it wrong. My sense of honor and honesty compelled me to infer the presence of genitals with which I did not identify and acknowledge a gender role that I had rejected. It drew my attention to the uncomfortable incongruence between my biological sex and my gender identity. It brought a subliminal suffering to the surface.

It took me 49 years to move through this morass to the following conclusion: I don’t have to be unhappy. I’ve learned that the lifelong argument between my body and my mind has a biological foundation and a medical solution. I’ve learned that I’m not crazy. I’m not wrong inside. I’m wrong outside, and I’m fixing it.

Now I use the men’s room and – forgive the pun – it’s an incredible relief.

Metamorphos-ass

Today I reached the end of a difficult semester. When I returned to campus back in August with a new name and a new preference for male pronouns, I didn’t yet look any different. I’d had my so-called “top surgery” a few weeks earlier, but it wasn’t like anyone had noticed my chest beforehand. I’d been on testosterone for two months and the only visible changes were under my clothing. It was an awkward situation, sharing the men’s room with my male colleagues, still looking like the butch woman they’d known for years. I immediately took it upon myself to change the sign on the single-occupancy women’s faculty restroom to “Gender Neutral.”

Now it’s mid-December and I’m looking in the mirror at a mustache (admittedly thin) and a waistline four sizes smaller. My previously bodacious booty has melted to the point of flatness where the cell phone in my back pocket hangs below my ass, rather than pressing against it. I’m surprised at how different my body feels in my jeans, now that they are hanging loosely around me as opposed to clinging like shrink wrap. I love testosterone.

Don’t get me wrong: This isn’t free and magical weight loss, courtesy of “Vitamin T;” this is a continual state of self-denial. I knew that on testosterone, all of the fat in my lower body would migrate to my gut if I didn’t try to lose it. So at least a month before beginning hormones, I began a rigid regimen of carb and sugar avoidance. The only way to burn fat, I learned, is by avoiding carbs and sugars. I mean all sugars, including fruit and non-fat dairy. As a consequence of hunger and longing, I have returned to a state of carnivory I haven’t known since childhood. This is, of necessity, accompanied by enough greens to keep a small island regular.

Testosterone may be helping me to lose weight faster and more easily than I could without it. In that sense, it seems like an unfair advantage. Or maybe that’s just the guilt from my increasing access to White Male Privilege bleeding over into body shame? In any event, the weight is coming off my ass, my hips, and my thighs – precisely the opposite of what happened the last time I lost weight, back when my metabolism was dominated by estrogen. I’m losing weight like a man this time.

Since my students see me at least twice a week, I have to wonder if they have even registered the change. My friends think they don’t pay that much attention to me but I know better: They compliment me on a new watch or a new pair of jeans because they notice everything. Whether they are conscious of it or not, something has definitely shifted during the course of the semester. Where they were inconsistent at the beginning, now they never get the pronouns wrong. I think it helped them to see it happen, day by day, before their eyes. Maybe it made it seem natural?

As for me, the semester was a nightmare. My voice cracked regularly; frequently it was gone by the end of the day. I was continually exhausted and in need of more sleep, courtesy of the hormones, than I have been since I was a student. Every time I was foolish enough to refer to myself in class in the third person, I screwed it up (“You’re all thinking, ‘What does she want us to write?”) – UGH! I could have curled up into a ball and died of shame right there. The third person and I are not currently on speaking terms.

I’m grateful, then, for this holiday break and a chance to focus a bit more on myself for a little while. When I return to campus next month I’ll be even hairier and narrower than I am right now and it’ll be that much easier for everyone to see me as “he.” Students I haven’t seen since before the summer may not even recognize me.

That ought to be interesting.

Podcast #18: The Truth about Islam

hijab

http://www.babulilmlibrary.com

Based on the 14 years of experience that I have working with Muslim students on campus, I have come to see Islam as a faith like any other. It’s sad and unjust that Americans are conditioned to respond to it as something utterly different. Hijab, in particular, is profoundly misunderstood.

Fake it ’til you make it

Katherine Hepburn in a man's suit and tie

I am almost 50 years old. I thought I had settled into myself a long time ago. Yet I find that I am now at least as insecure as I was as a teenager, if not more so. I’m going through another adolescence, zits and all. It’s as painful as the first one was.

It’s taken me a few months to formulate this clearly but I think I have it now: I’m changing my body to make it feel more natural to me. That part is easy and it feels utterly right. The hard part, the part that makes me anxious, is the social transition.The idea that suddenly I have to “be a man.” That part scares the crap out of me.

I can’t have spent 49 years as a woman and then suddenly turn into whatever it is I think that a man is. I don’t have a lifetime of male socialization behind me to support that change. Yes, I see myself in a male body and have presented, for my entire life, on the masculine side of the spectrum, but I have always claimed the privilege of femaleness. Let’s face it: When I get a flat tire, I call the Triple A. I’ve never had to prove myself in a fight, on a ball field, or with a machine. I know these are stereotypes but they capture my feeling that I lack the masculine experiences that turn boys into men. Therefore I am not a man and I never will be; it’s just too late for that. That’s my truth. I can’t speak for anyone else.

A few months ago, when I first decided to change my body, I had some unrealistic expectations about how long it would take. I thought that I could begin the process over summer break and return to teaching in the Fall looking significantly different – different enough to identify and present myself as male. I figured that between the testosterone and the top surgery, the summer break would have created enough space for me to return to campus and have people see me as male. So I went ahead and changed my pronouns and my name and started living openly as a transman.

I returned to work a few months later, still looking decidedly like a butch lesbian. I feel like a fool. If I had it to do again, I would wait to come out until my body had changed significantly enough for people to start really wondering what was going on. But alas, I changed my mind a very long time before my body was ready to follow. So here I am, looking like the masculine woman I’ve been seen as all my life and struggling desperately to present as male.

It’s a public battle. I have an audience of hundreds bearing witness to my awkwardness – my students. They see me getting used to myself, slipping up with my own pronouns, while I bumble about crafting my own modified version of male identity. They’re curious. They want a narrative, an explanation, an interview, an insight. Some of them, students of psychology, want to discuss gender dysphoria as a mental illness. Some of them, student journalists, want to write a feature about me.

I feel like a curiosity. An item of campus gossip. A role model. A hero. You name it.

I have nothing to give them. I have no answers yet, not even for myself. I only have questions. Like:  Will I ever get enough facial hair to pass convincingly as a man? Like: If one day I find myself alone again, will anyone else ever love me? These things keep me awake at night.

In the meantime, my voice drops. My armpits stink. Welcome to being a dude, bro.