Saturday, December 21, 2019

Navigating the Social Minefield

We are the summation of all our life experience, including that which results from the sex assigned at birth.

I personally reject the idea that the sex assigned at birth determines all of my identity, drawing a hard boundary around the gender role and presentation I am permitted, and forcing me to remain in one little box of gender identity.

I am aware of the potentialities of biology and biochemistry, and understand the path this body has taken from conception onward, resulting in a person who has transcended the boundaries that this culture draws around gender identity, presentation, and role.  My awareness demands that I reject the ideologies that declare assigned sex at birth to be all, or even the primary determinant as to which cultural boundaries I must remain within.

I recognize that there are those whose ideology demands that they deny the validity of my experience, and who demand that I remain within the bounds set by assigned sex at birth.

I also recognize that there are those who accept part of my path and my experience, but for whom my origin and experience are insufficiently pure, ideologically unacceptable in summation, to be worthy of their chosen labels.

These various interacting ideologies and prejudgements make social interactions a bit of a minefield. Living in a culture that insists on a gender binary, and only accepts a narrow set of paths through life can lead to someone like me being rejected or viewed as undesirable by some others.  While I personally do push hard for acceptance and recognition that people like me are human and valid, I don’t do this to deliberately others cause discomfort in others. I wouldn’t be comfortable pushing into a crowd that rejects my right to exist as myself.

I would, for example, no more demand entry to a “womyn-born-womyn” event than I would try to attend a Klu Klux Klan rally, for similar reasons.  I’d be encountering people whose ideology denies the validity of my existence, and who would not be swayed by my presence.

I do have to be mindful that not all such groups label themselves clearly, and am careful to reach out to organizers in advance to make sure my attendance won’t cause difficulties.  I’ve run into situations where a group might tolerate me, but other individuals there are uncomfortable with my presence.  I generally will drop such groups, rather than have my presence cause issues.

This is an area that lies outside the experience of the typical white upper-middle-class cisgender woman, but is a part of my life.  I am somewhat social and extroverted, and can’t really live my life closeted to avoid causing discomfort to others.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Transgender Day of Remembrance 2019: Speech at Todos Santos Plaza with Rainbow Community Center

Welcome!  I am Michelle Paquette, and my pronouns are she/her/hers.   I am a person who transcends cultural gender boundaries, that is, I am a transgender person. In my case, as in many others, when I was born the regions of the brain that mediate perception of my body didn’t match the sex assigned to my body.  To put it simply, my body didn’t fit my gender identity.  We try to reconcile this as best we can, adjusting our gender presentation, roles, perhaps even through medical care.

This mismatch occurs slightly less often than natural redheads do, a normal if infrequent expression of biological diversity.  Transgender people are normal, if not common, but are also the target of pervasive and persistent violence for simply existing.

"Transgender Day of Remembrance seeks to highlight the losses we face due to anti-transgender bigotry and violence.“, said founder Gwendolyn Ann Smith,  who started this day in 1999 as a vigil to honor the memory of Rita Hester, killed in 1998, and all those killed through violence.  She continued “ is vitally important that those we lose are remembered, and that we continue to fight for justice."

Transgender people are a living study in intersectionality.  All transgender people can be the target of transmisia,  Transmisia is prejudice plus power, systemized discrimination or antagonism directed against transgender/nonbinary/genderqueer/agender persons.  Historically, 17 percent of all reported violent hate crimes against LGBTQ people are directed against those who identified themselves as transgender.

Now, add into this systemic misogyny, entrenched prejudices against women within this culture, doubly impacting all transgender persons with a femme presentation. About two-thirds of all reported violent hate crimes against transgender people are aimed at transgender women and femmes.

Next, add into this systemic racism, embedded in all social institutions, structures, and social relations within our society, which triply impacts transgender women and femmes of color.  Historically, over 80 percent of murdered transgender women are persons of color.

Transgender Americans experience poverty at double the rate of the general population, and transgender people of color experience even higher rates.  We have an unemployment rate three times the general population, and transgender people of color are unemployed at a rate of four times the general population.   Poverty and unemployment or underemployment impact transgender people’s housing and medical care, and so stability and quality of life. Those without access to stable housing and employment and left out on the streets are most vulnerable to violence.

We have seen the federal government act to permit discrimination against transgender persons everywhere from adoption services, through medical care, and even emergency shelter.  We have seen our government argue in the courts that gender identity discrimination is not a sex related discrimination, and that discrimination against transgender people is perfectly legal.

We have seen the government ban military service for transgender persons, who have served honorably, as I have.  We saw the government try to legally define gender to be irrevocably the sex assigned at birth.

We have seen propaganda campaigns that try to demonize transgender people, as part of a broad campaign to make simply living our lives more difficult.  We have seen a new campaign launched, built on curated misinformation and aimed at transgender children and student athletes.

Allies, no, accomplices, consider what author Imogen Binnie suggested a few years ago on Twitter: ask what the article or conversation would have trans people do. And “if the answer is something like ‘not be trans,’ please consider that most trans people have tried that and it didn’t work.” And if you are having a conversation in public or private that at its core is debating whether a person should exist, please re-consider the value of that conversation.

These campaigns impact transgender youth disproportionately.
“Every day they have to hear these terrible things. They are less than a person, they can’t count, they can’t use the bathroom of their choice, they can get fired just for being who they are,” said Alexis Chavez of the Trevor Project.  The Project’s research has shown some disturbing results: More than half of transgender youths have seriously considered suicide; 78% reported being the subject of discrimination because of their identity.

Since January 1 in the United States, 22 transgender or gender non-conforming people were fatally shot or killed by other violent means. We say at least because too often these stories go unreported -- or misreported. 

Worldwide, in the one year period ending October first, at least three hundred sixty-eight (368) transgender persons died in violence.  Thirty of these were in the United States, including deaths from violence under suspicious circumstances, and five more driven to suicide that we know of.

We have been meeting like this for twenty years.  In that time, 3,317 trans and non-binary people have been recorded as dead through violence around the world.   Transgender women of color bear the brunt of this terrible burden. 

The visibility of transgender people can not be denied. We live in your neighborhoods.  We are doctors and lawyers, ministers and judges, sex workers and artists.  We are the same as everyone else.

We are here, and we will not be erased.    We will not be erased.


Sunday, November 17, 2019

Call to Worship: Sacrifice and Refueling

Welcome!  I am Michelle Paquette, and  my pronouns are she/her/hers.

I want to tell you a story from my youth, a tale of sacrifice and support.  To understand this tale, I need to disclose a few things about myself.  I was born in 1953, and reached my teenage years in the late 1960s here in the Bay Area. I am also a person who transcends cultural gender boundaries, that is, I am a transgender person. In my case, as in many others, when I was born the regions of the brain that mediate perception of my body didn’t match the sex assigned to my body.  That is, my body didn’t fit my gender identity.

This mismatch occurs about as often as natural redheads do, a normal if infrequent expression of biological diversity.  

When I reached my teens, the changes that started to happen in my body were seen as incorrect by the brain’s perceptual network, triggering a strong and persistent sense that something was wrong.  The medical folks call this gender dysphoria.  Normally, if something was wrong or really bothering me I would have talked to my Mom or our parish priest for guidance, but observation and experience told me that this would be a really bad idea.   I had to sacrifice any expression of my authentic self, and hide beside a false front to avoid conflict at home.

Instead, I experimented.  I found that growing my hair out helped.  If I could dress in a more feminine style, that helped a bit.  I was discovering that shifting my gender presentation could be a coping mechanism, but it really wasn’t enough.  I couldn’t talk to anyone.

I did read the paper, though.  Eventually I read that something radical was happening over in San Francisco.  For an extra dime, the bus would take me over to the city.

I put on my flared jeans, my platform shoes (oh, yay 1960s!), and packed a rather BoHo top in my bag.  When I got to the TransBay Terminal, I ducked into a restroom, changed my shirt for the top, brushed my hair out, and took off into the city, just another 14 year old hippie chick.  I would repeat this trip many times in the next few years.

I found my way to the Tenderloin, and discovered others like me.  There were groups that gathered at Glide Memorial, and over on Van Ness at the “Center for Special Problems”.  Older women gave me the “Dutch Auntie” treatment, showing me where it was safe to go, where I could rest or eat, and how to avoid being arrested.  

The other teens were amazing.  I made friends, actual friends!  Some were living on their own, or in ‘group homes’ with a half dozen living together in a Tenderloin hotel room.  We talked, sharing and caring for one another.  We listened to one another.  We helped and protected one another.  

As the group dynamics shifted, we shifted our preferred hangout over to the Golden Gate Park panhandle and the growing community of nonconformists in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.  There, nobody seemed to care about our nature.   We could fold and stuff copies of a local paper for food or a place to crash.  Amazing music was everywhere.  And best of all, I got to just be myself, with others like me. These were the best days of my youth.

That gave me the strength to get through all the days I had to stay hidden, so my existence wouldn’t upset everyone around me at home and school.

I don’t have to hide any more.  The days of sacrificing my own existence to avoid upsets are behind me.  I am part of a community where we can support and spiritually refuel one another.  

Let’s look at how we do this today, as we worship together.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Call to Worship for November 3 “That Which Has Been Our Delight”

“That Which Has Been Our Delight”

Last week, while driving through White Pass in Washington, I was struck by the beautiful fall colors in the trees, brought on by a few nights of freezing temperatures.  The trees were marking the season, the end of burgeoning growth, a time of slowing in nature in preparation for the long sleep of winter.

This is also a time of year when we humans may pause, gathering in and perhaps celebrating the harvest, and as we pause, remembering the changes in our lives over the past year.  These changes may include those with us only in memory, and we can share those memories and celebrate their lives in ritual.

Many cultures have independently found ways to mark the changes that come into their lives and have their own unique ways of honoring the dead. 

Here in California, with our strong cultural ties to Mexico and it’s culture, we are somewhat familiar with Día de los Muertos.  The celebration emphasizes celebrating the lives of the deceased, complete with food, parades, dances and parties. Celebrants believe that on this day, the spirits of the dead return to take part in the celebrations alongside the living.

Samhain ( “s’ouen”)
My own family background includes a substantial Irish component, with my mother’s roots in clan Cusack, from County Meath, Ireland.  There, Samhain (“s’ouen”) has been celebrated for many centuries.

It is said that at this time of year the link between this world and the other is at its thinnest, and the dead may return to this world using doors of the sidhe (“shee”) so they could warm themselves amongst the living.

Feasts are held in honor of the dead, with a place set for ancestors who may visit from the other world. After the large supper, the untouched plate of food is placed outside to be left for the sidhe (“shee”).

"i Morti" in Italy
In Sicily, children hunt for treats left by loving relatives no longer around. In northern Italy people leave their homes empty in case the dead want to visit. All over the country, Italians set an empty place at the table for people who no longer sit there.

Obon Festival
A traditional Buddhist festival in Japan celebrated a few months ago, Obon commemorates lost ancestors, whose spirits are believed to return then to visit relatives.

Traditionally, lanterns are hung in front of houses to guide the ancestors' spirits, dances are performed, graves are visited and cleaned, and food offerings are made.  At the end of Obon, floating lanterns are put into rivers, lakes and seas in order to guide the spirits back into their world. The customs followed vary strongly from region to region.

Chuseok (chu-see-ok)
Chuseok (chu-see-ok) is one of Korea's largest national holidays,  celebrated a few weeks ago, and traditionally marking the fall harvest. Marked with dancing, games and food, Chuseok is also a time for Koreans to honor their ancestors, and during the three-day festival, the living give thanks to the dead for their part in providing bountiful crops.

I note these special days and rituals not to somehow conflate or colonize them, but simply to recognize that the need to remember those no longer with us, and celebrate their lives is a human thing, larger than any single faith or culture.

Today we, as a Unitarian Universalist congregation, continue our own tradition, keeping in mind the many other traditions of our world, as we celebrate That Which Has Been Our Delight and worship together.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

My Identity

I’ve recently been told by folks in the transgender community that I am not a Real Woman, but a third gender.  Um, I live in a culture that operates two gender clubs, and really doesn’t tolerate anyone that doesn’t fit in either club.  Lots of official paperwork only accepts “Man/Male” or “Woman/Female”, and nothing else.  If I am supposed to identify as something else, about all that happens is that I lose access to almost everything from medical care to police protection.  (Try telling a cop you aren’t a man or a woman.  Go ahead.  See how well respected your are in that officer’s eyes.)

I apparently cause offense to some should I identify as ‘Woman’, invading and co-opting cisheteronormative womanhood, appropriating their identity and culture.  Darn.

OK, what am I?

Then there is my orientation.  I am a very femme person, from anatomy to presentation.  (Don’t co-opt ‘Woman’ from the cisheteronormative culture, and appropriate their identity or culture!).  I am attracted to other persons with a femme presentation.  I do not insist on knowing their karyotype, or what they might have in their briefs.  I do not know what they might have on their birth certificate.  They might identify as a ‘Woman’. They might not.

I am told by gender specialists that this orientation is essentially ‘lesbian’, as a gender binary orientation.  Naturally, this fine old gender orientation word has acquired additional layers of meaning over time, and has been adopted by some groups to denote not merely a gender binary orientation, but a unique identity denoting a subculture of ‘real women’, and using this gender binary orientation label is an appropriation of lesbian identity and culture.

Worse, I am not attracted to all women!  That odd haircut with one side shaved close, that tendency of some women to wear baggy jeans and sleeveless heavy outdoor vests, all are highly unattractive to me.  The whole ‘butch’ thing is somewhat offputting. (Yes, this is a sarcastic jab at yet another stereotype. Stereotypes are bad, whether aimed at lesbians, trans folks, gay men, or motorcyclists.)

I am attracted to femme presentation, though, and that certainly includes some women.

I can’t say I am a ‘Woman’ without offending some folks.  I cannot say I am a ‘lesbian’ without offending some folks.  In a culture that demands adherence to binary labels, this makes me what?  

“Transgenderized Heterosexual Man” with breasts, vulva with the usual accoutrements, high Estradiol and low Testosterone?

That’s really messed up.  No, thank you!

Culture and the Biological Essentialism Rathole

If one looks up ‘woman’ and ‘man’ in the dictionary, there are definitions like this:

woman: noun;adult human beings who are biologically female, that is, capable of bearing offspring. 
1. An adult male human.
2. A human regardless of sex or age; a person.
3. A human or an adult male human belonging to a specific occupation, group, nationality, or other category. Often used in combination: a milkman; a congressman; a freeman.
4. The human race; mankind: man's quest for peace.
5. male human endowed with qualities, such as strength, considered characteristic of manhood.

A woman is apparently defined by the capability of bearing offspring.  Men, on the other hand, appear to be exemplified by a variety of traits, none of which are linked to reproductive capabilities.

So, what do we call a person who doesn’t possess these male traits or qualities, yet is not capable of bearing offspring?  Are women really nothing more than baby makers on legs?

When a person who is considered to be a woman loses that capability of bearing offspring, through age or medical mishap, do they cease to be women?  Are they now men?

When a person considered to be a woman, based on gross anatomy, presentation, and perhaps social role, determines that they do not want or are not capable of bearing offspring, do they cease to be women?

These conundrums regarding women’s identity all emerge from oppositional sexism,a belief in male and female as rigid and mutually exclusive categories with no overlapping characteristics, skills, capabilities, and desires. This cultural belief system tries to dismiss all who fall outside the two categories of gender or sexual normative values, as they are perceived as threats to the maintenance of oppositional sexism and the resulting gender binary The entire set of LGBTQ+ communities are composed of outcasts from the culture supporting oppositional sexism.

More directly to the point, how is it that we so quickly and compulsively try to identify the gender of other persons in daily life?  We do not appear to have a sense that can instantly determine the capability of bearing offspring in another person, nor can we instantly evaluate the karyotype, the chromosomes of another person.

We do have a set of acculturated stereotypes that we carry in our heads, and we apply those at a subconscious level as we encounter others, quickly trying to classify them into accepted cultural sexist categories. My appearance, with facial structure, breasts, waist and hips, limbs, appearance of extremities, usually puts me in the ‘woman’ category, even though the last vestiges of reproductive organs were lost to surgery years ago.

In general, in a culture that is as strictly policing of gender presentation and roles as our Western culture is, this subconscious classification process usually is fairly accurate at guessing gender identity.  Oh, it is not always accurate, as many folks in the LGBTQ+ communities can attest, and the incorrect guesses can produce very unpleasant consequences.

Biological essentialism tries to reduce social and cultural factors to being the effects of biological causes.  The anatomical and physical differences, particularly reproductive differences, characteristic of human males and females supposedly determine the meanings of femininity and masculinity, and therefor the different positions of women and men in our society!

The biological essentialist asserts that biology constructs an unalterable definition of identity, constructing from biology a fixed, rigid social containment for women.  Presumably this encodes the position of women as walking reproductive systems.

We can see variations of this biological essentialist view in naturalism, where a fixed nature is again postulated for women, through theological or ontological construction, although these constructs have visible biological essentialist underpinnings.   The assignment of social role and status based on genitalia is the same in either case.

What biological essentialism does not do is account for the vast range of biological development, the variations that can occur in fetal development between the initiation of genital formation early in gestation and the initiation of brain structure formation much later, under environmental, chemical, epigenetic, and other influences, the variations in brain development, and the incredible plasticity of the human brain’s cognitive regions.  It oversimplifies all humans into a rigid binary model, IF NOT A THEN B, as though this could contain the infinite diversity that biology can actually achieve.

There is in fact no reason that biological differences between the sexes must lead to specific sets of male and female behavior, roles, or status.  Behavior, appearance, status, and gender roles are culturally constructed artifices, learned behaviors laid atop genitalia by cultural rules encoded as biological essentialism or natural law.


There is a fascinating dualism at work here, between the physical sex assigned at birth, and one’s inner experience, mental state and perception of gender identity.  Western culture places great value on the physical sex assigned at birth, and at the same time is dismissive of one’s inner experience and sense of gender identity.  This places cisgender people as the de-facto experts on all things gender, and allows them to state that any gender variance is a result of faulty minds.

This discounting of one’s inner experience likely lies with the philosophy of dualism, a belief that the mind is somehow separate from the body.  The body has physical properties, subject to direct measurement, while the mind is seen as a distinct, immaterial thing, a seat of consciousness and thought, which cannot be directly measured.

This dualism splitting of body and mind is handy for Western culture and its insistence on rigid gender identity aligned with the body.  The body can be readily measured, it’s physical appearance considered, and an appropriate gender meeting culturally accepted standards can be assigned.

On the other hand, if someone insists that their inner experience, their self-perception, fails to match the measured physical properties of the body, then under a dualistic belief system they clearly have a flawed mind, a defect of some form.  The consideration of the mind as immaterial, not bound to matter, somehow implies that it is a malleable thing that can be subjugated, beaten into shape, and made to conform with the body.

This corrective process, when applied to a difference in gender between mind and body, is called conversion therapy We know this does not work, but simply causes great anxiety, damage, and discomfort.

Modern biological science has repeatedly demonstrated that life begins as entirely physical or material entities, and nothing outside the domain of the physical is added during the development process.  There is no stage of fetal development or childhood that we can point to and definitively state that hereis where the non-physical mind is added.

Further, regarding gender, there is an increasing body of knowledge that points to gender identity being seated in specific regions of the brain that show variations between males and females, largely in the region of the hypothalamus, and that these regions correspond to the gender identity expressed by a person rather than their genitalia.

The dualism argument for an immaterial mind linked to a material body would not correlate a mental phenomenon such as gender identity to a sex-linked physical trait in neuroanatomy.  I contend that the Western philosophy of dualism, the belief that the mind is somehow separate from the body, is not supported by the current state of scientific research, and persists primarily as a crutch for current Western religious beliefs and ideologies.

So now what?

[T]he Nature you bedevil me with is a lie. Do not trust it to protect you from what I represent, for it is a fabrication that cloaks the groundlessness of the privilege you seek to maintain for yourself at my expense. You are as constructed as me; the same anarchic Womb has birthed us both. I call upon you to investigate your nature as I have been compelled to confront mine. 

What am I?  I am not a disembodied mind, trying to conceptualize my gender identity in the absence of physicality.  Nor am I a construct of my genitalia, my identity and concept of self driven by the morphology of a bit of tissue between my legs.  Indeed, modern medical technology can readily shift that morphology!

“One is not born, but becomes a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society: it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine.”
 - Simone de Beauvoir

From my earliest memories, I have held a feminine mindset.  When I recognized at an early age that my body was not female, and worse, when I realized that it would not somehow change, I became uncomfortable with myself.  I had to live with this form, no matter how inappropriate it seemed, and I slowly learned to mask my femme self with a masculine false front.

I was fairly inept at this, barely passing as male, and tagged as a sissy through elementary and high school.  This led to my being caught and subject to medically supervised conversion therapy in my teens.  Since I didn’t want to be seen as a pervert or sissy, I tried to cooperate with the drug injections and counseling, the conditioning to avoid temptation, and I paid attention to the warnings about what would happen should I relapse.  The threat of psychosurgery and rounds of electroconvulsive and faradic aversion therapy terrified me into compliance.

Yes, I was acculturated as male, barely, low in the pecking order as an anxiety-ridden, introverted nerd.  My inner femme self was still there, looking out through my eyes, and pleading to be freed.

Gender dysphoria is real, and terribly corrosive over time.  Eventually, after decades, the masculine false front cracked and failed, and I was faced with that archetypical chestnut, “Change or Die!”  After botching the attempt to end myself, I found myself in therapy.  

The diagnosis was indeed gender dysphoria, and my therapist and I agreed that medical transition was appropriate and necessary.  This would allow me to live as my authentic self, and meet the demands of civilization as a whole, in bringing my physicality and femininity into alignment.  This came with a terrible price, but it is paid now.

I have confronted my feminine nature.  I have rejected gender essentialism and gender critical theory.  I deny that mind/body duality that claims I can magically be fixed by conversion therapy.  

Simone de Beauvoir stated, “One is not born, but becomes a woman

I have become a woman.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

“They” and “Cis/Trans” origins

The singular gender-neutral ‘they’ first starts appearing in the 14th century, which makes it a fairly recent innovation in the English language.  It is commonly used when the gender of a person being referred to is unknown or irrelevant, as an indefinite pronoun.

Example:  Three people are seated In a restaurant.  One person leaves momentarily to tidy up.  The waiter comes over to collect drink orders; “What will you have?”, and to the second person, “and you?”, and then, gesturing to the third seat, “and do you know what they would like?”

Modern style guides discourage the use of the masculine ‘default’ in pronouns, the old assumption that a generic ‘he’ could be interpreted to refer to any person, masculine to feminine.  “Dude” or “guys” often is excused as a slang masculine default applicable to all genders, but it fails a simple test; Try to imagine a couple of dudes sitting in a restaurant.  In your minds eye do you see two masculine persons, two feminine persons, or some other combination? The odds are very good that you would imagine two masculine persons.

The use of “they” as a singular definite pronoun, as for non-binary identities, is fairly new, with the recognition of the existence of nonbinary identities.  It is a useful tool, however, in acknowledging and affirming nonbinary identities.  There isn’t a formal point of introduction that I can identify, just gradual adaptation until it has been recognized as a normal usage by the maintainers of dictionaries.  The  New Oxford American Dictionary (Third Edition, 2010), calls singular they ‘generally accepted’ with indefinites, and ‘now common but less widely accepted’ with definite nouns, especially in formal contexts.

Cis and Trans are Latinate prefixes, used occasionally as slang forms of cisgender and transgender when discussing gender.

Cis and Trans prefixes originated as Latin prepositions. Cis means “before/within”, “on the near side of”, or “to this side of”.  Trans means “across/through”, “on the other side of”, or “other side of”.  (Definitions from a dusty old Oxford Latin Dictionary...)

As a prefix Cis and Trans are used similarly; Cistiber, “on this side of the Tiber”, and Transtiber, “on the other side of the Tiber”. They are not exactly opposites, but do often point to opposite sides of some division.

Transgender broadly refers to persons who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth, crossing over one or more of the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain that gender.

Cisgender refers to persons not considered to be transgender, persons who have not crossed over any of the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain their gender.

Cisgender is not a defamatory term, simply a useful way to identify persons who are not transgender.

Cis and Trans are commonly used colloquially as equivalent adjectives for Cisgender and Transgender.

Caution: I will note that gender critical activists and some others have recently decided to take umbrage at the terms “cis” and “cisgender.”  They instead insist on being referred to as “women” and “men”, with transgender women and men relegated to “transwomen” and “transmen” in a nice bit of othering and subtle denial that trans folks are “real”.  Some go further and refer to transgender women as “Trans Identified Men”, or TIMs, and transgender men as “Trans Identified Females” or TIFs.    

These are deliberately constructed as insults, and derive from some of the hateful content in the book by Janice Raymond, “The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male”(1979, Beacon Press).

Femme and Queer - A bit of a personal manifesto

I stubbornly refuse to meet the expectations of others.

“Ah! Sorry… totally forgot to re-arrange my aesthetic markers today so you wouldn’t be confused about my personal desires and identity. Maybe you should just go on ahead and rearrange your faulty assumptions and leave me the hell alone.”
 - Tiffany Lee

I’m a woman.  I am queer.  I am attracted to other women.  I am a demisexual who needs that fundamental human connection before anything else, and I am a transgender person.

I am femme.  That many be the biggest offense of all.  I don't meet expectations.

I am not femme in that tired femme/butch dynamic that was so rigidly enforced.  I am not femme to please men.  I am not femme to become invisible.  I refer to the more current use of femme, which includes trans women, bi and pansexual women, non-binary folks, and many others who intentionally play with femininity and feminine presentation.

I am femme because it pleases me, feels right, and fits my identity and sense of aesthetics.  I consider it a bonus that my femme presentation annoys the patriarchy, the social structure that insists I can only be safe if I wear shapeless garb that covers and conceals, that protects the most privileged from their apparent lack of self control.  The idea of wearing baggy painter’s pants and flannel shirts just so someone else can be comfortable and smugly think that they know who I am, which box to file me in, is something I reject.

Trained hundreds of
nuclear power plant
operators and crossed
the North Pole
in a submarine.
My feminine presentation is a part of who I am.  I enjoy wearing skirts, simply cut draped tops and colorful wraps.  I love the feel of a nicely structured dress, and feeling a cooling breeze on my legs on a hot day.  I love the swish and snug warmth of a woolen maxi in midwinter.  I enjoy a little makeup to help define my best features, and occasionally a bit more for a fun evening out.  I am unapologetic about my choosing and enjoying these sensory experiences.

My feminine presentation does not totally define me. I have skills and talents I have developed that this patriarchal culture does not consider feminine, and that’s a little box I am delighted to kick my high heels through.

Are my femme practices merely reinforcing heteronormative gender stereotypes?  Well, what this culture demands is that I wear Dockers and polo shirts, dredging up tired old tropes of birth sex and karyotype.  I insist on being a woman, and my gender identity informs my gender presentation.  

So, am I then a stereotypical heteronormative woman?  Perhaps at first glance, first thought, but approach me, talk with me for a minute, and I will happily, thoughtlessly stand those stereotypes on their head.  Femme, yes.  But meeting the cultural standards for being girly or feminine?  Not so much.  That fine womanly subordination or weakness so encouraged by this culture seems to be missing in action!  

Madeleine Blum of the band “Unstraight” puts it: “The queer world is about breaking away from stereotypical gender roles. Anyone who is girly/feminine is not necessarily femme. Femme is an identity; feminine and girly are descriptors.”

I do hope that my femme practices make the patriarchal heteronormative gender police nervous.   Yes, gender police.  The folks who try to enforce cultural norms, telling me that I’m being myself incorrectly, making the laughable assumption that they know who my authentic self is better than I.  

"We live in a culture that celebrates masculinity and demonizes and shames femininity’s and those habits don't go away in the queer community."
 - Anna Bongiovanni

Holds nineteen patents and has
rebuilt a Triumph engine and
manual transmission.
Being queer and femme fails to meet cultural expectations, with the interesting result that folks tend to interpret my appearance as meaning that I am straight.  It doesn’t matter if these are straight, queer, or even queer femmes doing the interpretation. My appearance gets plugged straight into a cultural stereotype, and assumptions built on that stereotype are applied to me.

The cultural expectation is that a woman attracted to women will automatically reject gender roles, including appearance, as a part of rejecting the heterosexual role the culture assigns.   The cultural expectation is that women attracted to women will adopt a butch presentation, and men attracted to men will adopt a more feminine presentation.  Yes, that’s right, the cultural expectation is that we will continue to apply the broken gender binary model even when queer.

The cultural expectation is that we will sustain that gender binary in the roles we take, with those roles tightly bound to our sexuality.

I am not going to fulfill these cultural expectations.   I am going to do as I please.  I am a femme queer woman with a transgender history, attracted to other women who can take the time to forge that emotional connection with me.

Should you be prone to committing acts of assumption, know that your cultural stereotypes do not interest me, and if you make the mistake of assuming that I fit some stereotype, know that at some point I will happily, joyfully shock you.

I ran across the Tiffany Lee and Madeleine Blum quotes while researching another topic, and the ideas they stimulated caught fire with me, resulting in this little article.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Resilience - Sermon to Mt Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church


Recently, I saw a hillside in the forest that had just endured a windstorm.  The direction the wind had blown was obvious, from how the mighty trees that once dotted the hillside now lay.  Even though strong, that strength failed in the gusts of wind that they had to endure, and these giants had fallen.

At the same time, I noticed that the open spaces on the hillside were covered with tall grasses, now gently waving in the wind and brushing against one another, supported by one another as they continued to stand, taking in the sunlight, the air and water, and continuing to grow.   It didn’t seem fair somehow, that those beautiful trees had fallen, yet the grasses remained.  At the same time, I was grateful that the winds had not been able to strip the hillside of life, that the grasses would persist, holding the soil so that other life could continue or re-establish itself.

I’d have to describe that biological community of the hillside as being resilient, even if some of the trees were lost.  We individual humans can also be resilient, learning how to move about in spite of strong prevailing winds, learning strategies to maintain ourselves even as time and experience bring wear and tear.

We also find this resilience in communities.  Studies of the responses of communities to natural disasters show this in action. We can see how our communities respond with  civil engineering such as flood control, better bridges, improved communications, and adapting new practices to improve how the next disaster can be handled.

There are also spiritual and psychological components.  The fortunate community will also develop stronger neighborhood ties, built from elements such as sidewalk chats, corner coffee shops, and other elements of the social infrastructure.  That social infrastructure can be every bit as important as the physical one.
We each have our innate resilience as human beings.  We each have some degree of social competence, problem-solving skills, autonomy, and a sense of purpose or belief in a future.  These are not some magical properties gifted to only a few, but traits we all have in common to varying degrees, with varying levels of skill in wielding them.

We may not be aware of these skill and abilities, of course.  We might have been raised in environments that did not let us exercise all of these traits, or even discouraged them.   We may have been raised to encourage one or more of these traits, or in our life experience wandered into environments that encouraged us to stretch and develop these traits further.

That development may have been what’s called ‘stress-hardiness’, developing resilient traits in response to an adverse environment.  A benign or supportive environment can also encourage resilient traits, through various challenges raised to individuals to encourage them to ‘stretch’ a bit, discover new capabilities and operate at the edges of their comfort zone.

Resilience in individuals seems to arise from the interactions of individuals with their community, whether adverse, supportive, or a mixture of both.

Longer ago than I care to think, I was in the military service.  Recruit training was a classic example of an adverse environment, tailored to break down old behaviors and habits, and build new ones that would be supportive of the community of fellow service members.  It was definitely a shock to my system, but I learned I had far more capacity for resilience in the face of adversity than I had ever conceived of prior to my service.

While assigned to a training command in Idaho, I happened to have a long weekend, almost 5 days, turn up in my schedule.  It seemed like a great opportunity to return to the Bay Area to visit family.  My partner and I hopped into our mighty AMC Hornet, and taking turns driving, took on the 13 hour journey.  We made it, enjoyed our visits, and then were back in the car for the return trip.

Somewhere about 30 miles west of Elko, Nevada, billowing white clouds started appearing behind the car.  Warning lights popped on the dashboard, and the engine temperature gauge (remember those?) pegged high.  None of these were good signs.

We pulled over, and I got out and flagged down a truck to get a lift into Elko. (This was before cellphones.)  We found a shop and got the vehicle towed.  After a new water pump, several hundred dollars, and several hours, we were on the road again.  Well... For a little while.

The Hornet’s engine is a delicate thing.  It turns out that it does not respond well to overheating.  About 20 miles east of Elko, the engine started running rough, and those billowing white clouds were back. Another thumbed ride, another tow, and the vehicle was back in Elko, parked on a side street besides the now closed garage.

My resilience was clearly being tested.  I was an inch from breaking down in tears when I called my command from a pay phone to explain that I was not going to be present in time for my shift.  They were surprisingly understanding, and found a volunteer to take over my class.  Even more surprising, an instructor took their day off to drive to Elko, pick us and our luggage up, and take us back to Pocatello.  A week later, on my next days off, another instructor asked about the vehicle, and suggested that we take his truck to Elko, and tow the Hornet back to my place!

I hadn’t recognized it at the time, but I was not a lone individual, but part of a fairly tight-knit community of folks who looked out for each other, supported one another, and exercised their problem-solving skills, autonomy, and sense of purpose for the benefit of all in the community, bound together by our common oath.  That was a remarkably eye-opening experience for me.  Even though my resilience was taxed, the community, with an abundance of resilience, took the difficulties in stride, and supported me, lifted me up, and quite literally got me on the road again.

Oh, and I also became far too familiar with that car’s engine, although I did get it running again.

Here at Mount Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church, we have a community, holding common interests in faith, in our desire for social justice, and in many ways, by the support we give one another, and bound by our covenant.  While we are not living our lives under one roof, or forming a commune, I still have a strong feeling of being part of an intentional community here.  

Many of the same elements of resilience I mentioned earlier are present within this community.  Within the membership and our committees, we have teams that demonstrate and teach social competence, problem-solving skills, autonomy, and a sense of purpose or belief in a future.  We have a benign and supportive environment that encourages us to stretch a bit, knowing that others may catch us should we fall.

We have the shared wisdom of our “Doctors of Durability”, our elders with their collected life experience.  We have caregivers, tending to our needs both physical and spiritual.   We have the energy and enthusiasm of our youth.  We have friends.

This is a remarkable place.  I think I am prone to taking this for granted far too often, and considering the impact that this community has had on my ability to rebound from adverse circumstances, my resilience, I have to pause and thank you all.

Carol Sue Cain recently wrote something that resonates with me:
Humans are wired for connection and it takes intention and awareness to prevent the effortless connections with people "like" me,  from hindering or harming the  more difficult connections I need to create with the people not "like" me.

The hope of those more difficult connections, not with people like me, but with people like those I had admired in my past who happened to be Unitarian Universalists, with people who have different insights into life, is what drew me here, and what keeps me here.

Well, what do I find, but that I have managed to become part of another community of folks who look out for each other, support one another, and exercise their problem-solving skills, autonomy, and sense of purpose for the benefit of all in the community.  I’ve found myself in community, with a found family and a band of generous and amazing people.

It is these more difficult connections, with people not like ourselves, but sharing common goals and community that give us our resilience as a community.  There are many people gathered here, many backgrounds, many paths through life, many unique sets of skills, many beliefs, yet bound together by our common covenant.

Daniel Lerch of the Post Carbon Institute says the key to resilience is understanding that every life and every community is comprised of a system of relationships and the resilience of any one system is influenced by the resilience of every system around it.

Key to our system of relationships is our covenant, which governs how we interact with one another, and defines how the right relationships that tie us together should function.

“We, the members of the Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church, covenant with one another to act in the following ways in our interactions and in all forms of communication:
We speak and write directly, openly, and respectfully with each other.
We support and encourage diversity within our congregation.
We trust each other’s best intentions.
We respect healthy boundaries.
We honor community decisions.”

Our covenant is our social ‘glue’, defining the ways we interact, and encouraging flexibility, adaptability, and trust over rigid, brittle structure.  This covenant eases our making connections with those different from ourselves, which I need in developing my own resilience.

It is through these connections that I am able to explore different viewpoints, different approaches to living life and coping with things I have not been able to do on my own.

I know that when I am near my limits, that often all it takes to bounce back is to chat with a friend, catch a kind smile or complement, an offer to share a burden, somehow touching that web of connections, and I may feel renewed.  

That mutual respect and trust weaves us together.  It is this web of connection that provides us with resilience, both individually and as a community.  This is something we may all practice, and with this, gain resilience for both ourselves and our community.

Remember that hillside.  Rather than stand alone against the wind, hoping that we won’t be broken like those fallen trees, let us be more like the grasses waving in the breeze, touching and supporting one another and rebounding as the storm passes.

Let us, together, be the ones to make it so!