Carefully Taught

Sometimes we focus so intently on everything we think is going wrong, all the unfairness, mean-spirited behaviors, outright hatred and violence in the world we get caught off guard when something goes right. This week I’ve witnessed a few go-right moments that leave me breathless, teary-eyed, and full of more hope than I’ve felt in a long time.

As most of you know I pretty much lived in my little hometown community theater as a kid.  Port Austin Community Playhouse helped define me when I was growing up, opening my eyes to people, concepts, and possibilities I couldn’t have imagined in any other way.  It all started with my first musical, South Pacific by Rogers and Hammerstein, when I was about 12. I played a Polynesian girl and all my lines were in French.  No, I did not then, nor do I now, speak French.  But that little part changed my life in so many ways.  There is a song in this play, You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught, that is sung by a young sailor struggling to reconcile his love for a Polynesian girl with his racist upbringing. Even at that age, living in a tiny, rural 99% white world I couldn’t understand why anyone would deliberately teach a child to hate and fear people who are different from them.  It didn’t make sense to me but I just wrote it off as something in a play, I wasn’t aware it was actually a thing.

Sadly, it is still a thing. Children continue to be indoctrinated with hate-filled rhetoric for whatever reason by the adults in their lives. These children will grow up believing differences of any kind are to be feared, hated, fought against, suppressed, wiped out. Their way is the only true/correct/legitimate way of being. The color of their skin is superior.  Their gender is better. Their religion is correct. My heart sinks every time I see a child at a protest holding a sign that promotes a hate-filled agenda, and my hope in the humanity of this country sinks as well.

And then one day a little white envelope appears on our table. Enter hope. A young person in Carli’s life wrote her a letter. It was a school assignment, to write to someone you admire. She wrote from her heart, saying she was very proud of Carli and she admired her for being brave enough to live her life authentically. She openly expressed her love for and support of Carli, and offered to talk or text anytime. She said she prays for Carli every day.  This child’s parents taught her carefully, just as surely as the parents of the child protester, but instead of teaching through fear, they taught through love.  They encouraged independent thinking, nurtured empathy, and modeled compassion.  They taught her to embrace differences rather than seek to destroy them.  Carli and I grateful for this child and her whole family, because they gave us back hope in our future.

There are plenty of signs that all is not lost, that people really can be decent if given the chance. One of our transgender friends told us about her successful coming out at work. The fear leading up to workplace coming out is intense, and people tend to play out various scenarios in their minds about how it will go. We try to categorize people by our expectations of their level of support and acceptance. Carli and I had many discussions about how she expected people would react when she came out, which ones were likely allies and which ones she expected to shun her.  As it turned out, she has been treated very well.  But she was very deliberate and gentle in her approach, and she had shared this approach with our friend who in turn used a similar tactic to come out.  We were thrilled and cried tears of joy when this friend told us how well it was going for her.  She thanked us for having shared Carli’s experience, it helped her make her plan and she was grateful.  She said she hadn’t given people enough credit and hadn’t expected them to be so decent to her.  This was a welcome, very pleasant surprise and another sign of hope in our future.

These glimmers of hope shine in my soul and keep me motivated to continue writing.  I want to share dozens, hundreds of stories about love, acceptance, compassion, empathy, and authenticity. Storytelling is education with a heart and soul.  It’s an important tool for adults to use when carefully teaching their children. Done correctly, it will result in generations of storytellers who will talk about the days when they helped wipe hate out of existence.

 

Glitter Jars and Rainbow Pens

I haven’t posted in a quite awhile.  Honestly, I’ve not been able to focus much lately, there is so much noise in the world it’s been difficult to clear my thoughts enough to write.  I thought maybe I could write something that was funny instead of serious, but that didn’t work.  Maybe writing about something concrete, like the number of shoes Carli has collected but even that wasn’t coming through clearly for me.  I decided the only way to clear the fog was to confront it, so here it goes.

Every form of public information, every delivery method, avenue, or medium, is overflowing with a cacophony of voices all bellowing to be heard over all the others. All messengers conveying the same fist-pumping, chest-pounding, self-righteousness spewed by people who firmly believe theirs is the one and only right/moral/correct way of thinking. It doesn’t matter that some of them speak to my heart or that some of them are abhorrent to me.  All of these voices are competing for space in my mind, my heart, and in my life, overwhelming my emotional and empathetic capacities. For my own well-being, I’ve categorized the competing voices into groups that make sense to me.

First are the issues that flood the news that have absolutely no reason to be debated any longer. These have been settled already, why are we still talking about these?

  • Same-sex marriage
  • abortion rights
  • women’s rights
  • adoption rights
  • school prayer

Then we have those issues that should simply be matters of common sense and human kindness or decency.  These are issues we as human beings inhabiting a living planet with other humans and living things should not have to think twice about. They should be a given and never up for debate in the first place.

  • transgender rights
  • access to quality health care
  • elder care
  • a clean environment

Finally there are the things that, as an enlightened society, we should be ashamed exist at all.

  • violence against the LGBTQ community
  • racism
  • transphobia
  • homophobia
  • misogyny
  • religious persecution

I’ve had to push away the things over which I have no control and that have no substantial influence on me.  I don’t give a damn how much income the president claimed on his taxes.  He is filthy rich and takes advantage of every opportunity to avoid paying a single dollar more in taxes than is absolutely necessary.  So, is this surprising?  I don’t think so. Did the Russians interfere with the elections? I have absolutely no idea, but whether they did or not it will not change the fact that the alarm goes off tomorrow morning.  I will still get out of bed, take the dogs outside, give them breakfast, and wait for Carli to get out of the shower so I can get ready for work. This does not mean I do not care about these things, but I refuse to allow them to consume my every thought or occupy every waking moment.

What to do about all this noise and distraction?  Well, I looked around, as all of you know I am prone to do.  Here is another list, but this time it’s a beautiful list of small comforts, and quick joys that are within sight in my little office. Each of these are important to me because they were either given to me by dear friends or collected during powerful, meaningful events with colleagues.

  • glitter stress-relief jar
  • pen that writes in rainbow colors
  • photo of my son and his dog
  • photo of Carli and I dancing
  •  certificate for winning the Rock-Paper-Scissors Championship at the college professional development day in 2014
  • a banner from Botswana

So now that I took time to remind myself of these small comforts and quick joys, I am in a better place to refocus on what is really important. The big things that actually matter and deserve time and space.

  • My wife. It makes absolutely ZERO difference to me that she was my husband for 28 years before she was known as my wife.  What matters is that she is a supportive, loving, attentive, kind, compassionate human being willing to share her incredible journey with me. I love her with every fiber of my being and she deserves to have me fully present in our relationship. Her transition makes me admire her even more, because she has gone through challenges I will never know and can’t possibly understand. But she did it, and she is amazing.
  • Our sons. I talk or text with each of them daily, with them often initiating the conversations.  We talk about our dogs, politics, religion, social issues, trucks, guns, motorcycles, gardening, NPR, higher education, the environment, beer, bourbon, music, our jobs. To me the topic isn’t nearly as important as the connection. I treasure this connection with them. I owe my own mother more of this kind of connection. My sons are good role models.
  • My colleagues. I spend more waking hours with them than I do with Carli during the work week.  I value their presence in my life more than they may realize. My lack of focus lately has had an impact on my interactions with them, my general fogginess and distraction bleeding over into my work unintentionally. They, too, deserve to have me be fully present and not distracted by irrelevant issues.
  • Our garden.  Yes, the garden counts as a big thing.  This is something Carli and I do together, and we couldn’t do it without each other. It feeds our bodies, yes, but more importantly it feeds our souls. The act of working the soil, growing living things that will sustain life, this is a heady experience that fills me with a sense of responsibility to the earth and to the creatures inhabiting it.

This is far too long a post now, and there are many more people I am grateful to have in my life who I have not mentioned this time.  But I do appreciate you for sticking with me until the end of this stream of consciousness.  Putting these words in print for others to read, as always, puts things in perspective for me. The fog will be lifted and I can once again be present in my own life, less concerned about all the noise.

Six in 48 Days

Take a good look at these two beautiful, brave women. They are two of the six transgender women of color murdered in the first 48 days of 2017.  Two of the murdered women we know of at least. Transwomen are so often misgendered by police and other officials the crimes against them are not accurately reported for what they are; hate crimes motivated not only by racism but by unadulterated transphobia.

My beautiful, white, 51 year old trans wife has secure employment in a safe environment, a nice home, access to quality transgender sensitive health care, and very good health insurance. She has never experienced the loss of employment or housing because she is transgender. She has never been harassed or beaten because of the color of her skin or gender.  I do not lay awake at night wondering if she will make it home safely. We have absolutely no frame of reference here.  We are incredibly privileged, we know, and we don’t take one single second for granted. No one has a choice as to their circumstances of birth, not these women, and not us. We didn’t have a choice, we were born white.  We didn’t have a choice, Carli and I were raised in families and communities free from the social strife and challenges faced by so many families of color.  Not once did we have to go to bed hungry, cold, alone, or in danger.  She will NEVER know what it is like to be a transgender woman of color and I will never know what it is like to be married to a transgender woman of color.

But I can be angry, frustrated, heartbroken, sad, stunned, confused, scared, disappointed, ANGRY…… We don’t know what to do, but we will keep working to figure it out. We will use our privilege as best we can to advocate for positive change, be visible because we aren’t as big a target as transwomen of color, speak out as often and loudly as possible.  But how do we know where to direct our efforts when we can’t pinpoint the origin of the problem?

What on Earth is going on here?! Do we blame this on an administration that emboldens hateful behavior? In part, maybe. Is this happening because we aren’t teaching religion in schools? I don’t think so.  Or are we experiencing the death throws at the end of an evolutionary cycle, making way for a dramatic shift in our culture? I sincerely hope this is it.

I hope Carli and I live long enough to see a dramatic cultural shift.  A shift that sways the heart towards empathy and the mind towards logic. A shift that allows for peaceful coexistence of freedom and equality. A shift towards critical thinking, common sense, loving your neighbor, and level reason. A shift towards an actual representative government.

I started writing this post at 7:00am and I’m finishing at 9:00pm.  Two important things happened during those few hours.

The Indiana state legislature defeated hate crimes legislation, leaving this state one of just five in the country with no additional provisions written into law for crimes motivated by race, religious, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

A seventh transgender woman of color was murdered.

 

Laughter

carli-and-dogs-laughting

Few things are more universally adorable than a baby in a full-blown belly laugh.  You know the kind, when the baby’s entire body seems to be laughing. And it doesn’t take much to elicit the delightful reaction, quite often it’s completely accidental.  A new sound, a funny face made by Uncle Craig, the puppy licking their toes.  It’s contagious, too.  You must be in a pretty foul mood not to crack a smile at the very least.  Dog lovers know that happiness and joy are not exclusive to humans either.  Your dog’s face when you come home, her whole-body-tail-wag is pure excitement, a joy-filled heart at the site of the person she loves more than anything in the world. 

When was the last time you laughed so hard you cried? For me it was about 20 minutes ago, when Carli was trying to get the maps to work on her phone but wasn’t having much success.  Feeling a little frustrated she said “damn it”, to which her phone replied “I’m sorry, I can’t help you with damn it.” An unexpected moment of hilarious silliness from a cell phone……fantastic! A few nights ago, Carli and I were watching a movie and near the end she was laughing so hard she was brought to tears.  I was laughing at the movie, too.  It was sweet and funny; the humor came at the expense of no one.  While I was laughing right along with Carli, I searched 30 years of memories for a time before she transitioned when she laughed so hard and with such unabashed emotion and pleasure. I simply could not find one.

I remember times when Carli was happy, joyful, amused, of course.  The typical life events that produce intense emotions did elicit pride, fear, joy, sadness in Carli.  But what I do not recall are the outward, public expressions of these emotions, like laughing so hard she cried.  Her emotions were always tempered, always measured and reserved. I chalked it up to her military bearing and never questioned it.  Being stoic was simply expected and anything less was often considered a sign of weakness.  Now we know much of this was self-preservation, a coping mechanism employed to avoid feelings she couldn’t understand and certainly didn’t think she could share.

People used to ask me why Carli was always angry.  I assured them she wasn’t angry, she just didn’t smile a lot. She rarely let anyone take her picture, and never smiled if someone was lucky enough to snap a shot.  She wasn’t much for conversation, either.  A good friend recently said the longest sentence he ever heard Carli say was about six words long and the topic was usually a tractor.  It wasn’t until she came out that her smile was spotted more often and she started to enjoy long talks.  It happened slowly over time, but the change is dramatic. She wears her emotions well, is unafraid to be expressive, and the feeling of freedom that surrounds her is palpable.

What breaks my heart are the years she spent burying her emotions instead of feeling connected to the people around her.  How hard must that be, to constantly hide behind a façade of stoicism, stifling the very emotions that make a human being feel human? And for what purpose? From my vantage point Carli had years of feeling human stolen from her because other people are uncomfortable or unaccepting or hateful or hurtful or bigoted or violent.  Because they deny the existence of the transgender person. Because their version of religion says God doesn’t make mistakes.

 I wish there was a way I could get all those years back for Carli. Can we get a do-over, please? Carli deserves to feel and express emotions just like everyone else, and I deserve to witness all the joy, bliss, grief, surprise, admiration, love, serenity……

She deserves to laugh until she cries. 

 

Every Day Love

Carli and I celebrated Valentine’s Day much like so many other couples. Carli gave me a lovely card and a gift certificate for a massage.  We went to the jewelry store to pick up the little paw pendant I ordered for Carli. We picked up a pizza and a salad on the way home and spent the evening enjoying being together.

But my question is what is so special about the love we celebrate on this one day of the year? Is it special because we buy cards and flowers? Cards and flowers are sold other days of the year, right? What about the every day things we do to express our love to each other that makes our lives beautiful? What about the cups of coffee that I prepare for the two of us every day at 4:45am? Do we do enough to acknowledge and celebrate every day love, or do we rely on this one day to pick up the slack for the rest of the year?

When Carli came out to me as transgender the emotions I experienced were so intense and complex they are difficult to describe. Guilt, fear, anger, grief, wonder, awe, joy, love, all taking their turn. Some of the emotions I felt early on have subsided, replaced with others that are just as powerful.  The one constant, the one unwavering, exponentially increasing, unquestionable emotion that clings to my very soul is love. Love every day.

Being married to a trans woman certainly provides a slew of every day opportunities to love each other that other couples may not experience. Reminding Carli to do the exercises her speech therapist gave her, and pointing out when I hear a feminine voice on the other end of the phone line when we talk.  Understanding that sometimes a 50 year old trans woman just needs to cry at a commercial that she wouldn’t have batted an eye at a few years ago.  Being patient when your wife isn’t quite ready to take the 29 year old wedding picture off the wall just yet. Answering the question “does this look okay” for the 10th time before we head out the door for dinner.  Okay, so that one probably happens to plenty of married couples, trans or not!

What about the love we share with others we are not married to; our children, coworkers, neighbors? The initial reaction from one of our sons was to be protective of Carli, and of me, wondering how he could possibly help keep us safe in a world that is often openly hostile to transgender people. As I’ve said here before, coworkers have been accepting and caring, asking questions so they may educate themselves on how to support Carli.  Neighbors have gone out of their way to express their acceptance and support of Carli, inviting us to share in community and church events.  Aren’t all of these every day gestures borne of love? Love not only for Carli and I but for humanity.

Yes, we do celebrate Valentine’s Day in the good old fashioned American way.  We spend money on things we could get for each other literally every other day of the year. Every other day of the year, days that are filled with little bits of love that we need to pay attention to, nurture, and acknowledge as wildly important to our well-being.  Carli meeting me in the kitchen with a glass of bourbon after a day that didn’t go quite as I planned. Helping Carli pick out the best blouse to wear with that particular pair of jeans. Carli doing the dishes every day.  Watching Carli snuggle a puppy; a puppy with big brown eyes who helped ease the pain of losing a beloved 16 year old lab mutt. Making coffee at 4:45am.  Love definitely happens every day.

First Hair Cut

When a family is transitioning there are so many firsts….first time in the appropriate restroom, first time trying on the correct clothes, first manicure, first time walking in high heels, first time wearing lipstick in public, and the list goes on and on.  Even though Carli has been living full time for 7 months she is still experiencing new firsts. Last week she had her first feminine hair cut in a salon. And she is beautiful!

Carli’s stylist took her time, making sure she understood Carli’s long term goal for her style.  She was kind and patient, explaining everything she was doing and teaching Carli how to style her hair at home. She told Carli if she just wants a refresher on how to style it, come back in and she will go through it with her again.  Everyone in the salon was so warm and accepting, we couldn’t have asked for a better first hair cut experience.  Carli left feeling pampered, confident, and beautiful.  Most importantly, she felt accepted by every single person. This is how all transgender people should feel after every “first.”

More often, however, firsts are fraught with anxiety and fear, sometimes for both of us. I vividly remember the first time Carli walked into the women’s restroom by herself. Up until that point I always accompanied her, and to be honest I did sit right outside the door, probably looking like a stalker myself, feeling more than a bit anxious and ready to jump into action if she was being harassed. What would that woman who walked in behind her say to Carli? Would she yell at her to get out, cause a scene, call the police or store security? We knew I wouldn’t always be there so both of us had to takes steps to overcome the anxiety and move past the fear. The anxiety has eased over time, but still occasionally sneaks up on me, especially when we are visiting new places.  The fear is still there, just beneath the surface, but as I’ve said before we refuse to give in to it and force Carli back into hiding.  Instead we allow it to simmer quietly, using it to our advantage to remind us to maintain a healthy awareness of our situation at all times.

Another memorable first for me, Carli and I telling her story to her new primary care physician during her first appointment at the recently established local transgender health clinic. I cried when I told the doctor that I fell in love with Carli all over again as I watched her emerge from 50 years in hiding.  Even the doctor was a little misty eyed.

The first time Carli visited me at my office, my coworker’s reactions were overwhelming.  They welcomed her literally with open arms, accepted her unconditionally, wrapping us both in warmth and love. I’m not sure if these people truly understand how deeply they’ve touched us, or how much they are appreciated. To them it was a logical, simple act of acceptance but to us it was……and continues to be…..a gift for which we can never adequately express our thanks.

As parents we treasure our children’s firsts, documenting each step, each new tooth, each newly mastered skill religiously in photos, videos, memory books, and we eagerly share these with our friends and family.  Watching Carli experiencing each of her firsts feels very much like this for me, but with one heart breaking difference.  Many of Carli’s firsts were experienced before she could live openly and authentically, so she didn’t get to share these with other people, we had to keep these precious moments between us.  Like the first time she sat on the patio wearing a dress, enjoying the sunshine on her face.  Alone. I watched her, cried, and I was simultaneously overjoyed and heartbroken. To see her so happy flooded me with joy, but knowing that she missed 50 years of joyful moments is crushingly sad.  This image left a permanent mark on my heart.

There will be many more firsts, but never again will Carli have to keep them a secret. This is how all transgender people should be allowed to live.  In the open, sharing the excitement of new experiences with friends and family.  Not in hiding, avoiding the sun.

How Many People Make A March?

Overwhelming, peaceful, profound..
Overwhelming, peaceful, profound..

We didn’t attend the Women’s March in Indianapolis last Saturday, although we had every intention of attending when we woke up that day.  An unfortunate emergency home repair found my wife, Carli, in the crawl space for several hours instead. She can fix anything!

Attending the march would have been a challenge for us; neither of us are fond of large crowds, but we wanted to do this for all the reasons anyone else wanted to march.  Women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, underrepresented minority rights, basically ALL human and civil rights are legitimately being threatened by an administration we do not understand.

Living in Indiana we are acutely aware of what Vice President Pence believes and we’re frankly terrified of what might come in the next four years.  However, we decided early on that we would not let this fear overwhelm us or drive Carli back in the closet.  She is truly, deeply content for the first time in her life.  No one is going to take that away from her, or me!

We started to feel guilty about not attending the march, but it occurred to us that perhaps we might have been just two more faces in a crowd of friendly, like-minded individuals.  Was this going to do anything more than make a statement that might resonant for a couple of weeks and then be replaced in the media by the next argument over policies, legislation, or poorly worded tweets by the Commander in Chief? While we truly want to be part of the wave of social change, perhaps there was a way we could do this that would touch people other than the friendlies we would have mingled with at the march.  They already know us and our community after all, maybe this is equivalent to preaching to the choir.  We don’t care to have our faces on tv, we aren’t very creative when it comes to making signs, and megaphones are terrifying. So, what did we do?

We went to a food festival, of course! We spent 4 hours strolling from booth to booth, most of them staffed with people from right here in uber-conservative Trump/Pence loving Indiana. There were “make America great again” hats on several heads.  I wore my safety pin and #i’llgowithyou pin.  We tasted everything from rhubarb liqueur to gin, cherry chili beef jerky to corn chowder. We sat with a mother and her teenage son who were enjoying brownies and gumbo. We learned how tequila is made and were amused by the elderly couple who were sneaking extra little tastes during the demonstration. We chatted with dozens of people who may or may not have interacted with a transgender person before in their lives, that they are aware of at least.  Not once did Carli get misgendered.  Yes, there were some sideways looks thrown around and we really have no way of knowing if people guessed Carli is trans or not, but chances are pretty good that a 51-year-old trans woman who is in early transition is fairly easy to spot yet.  Overall, we were treated with civility and courtesy.  And we had a marvelous time! Every person we interacted with is another person who may have left that day thinking that trans people are A-okay.  They aren’t freaks of nature, or fanatics, and they can have spouses who love them more than life itself, the way I love Carli.

My question then becomes, how many people does it take for it to be a march? 500,000 in Washington, D.C. or 30 in Antarctica or 2 at the fairgrounds in Indianapolis?  Carli and I were kept from participating in the organized march but did we all accomplish something important, something with the potential to change the world even if it’s just one person at a time

?  I like to think we did.