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Posts Tagged ‘Transgender Queer Literature’

Note: Part of the following piece (previously published on The Huffington Post) is aired this week on the international radio syndicate This Way Out.  To hear the entire podcast on the This Way Out website, click below.

Gender has always been on my mind — or in my face — whether I like it or not. As a budding feminist and then a young lesbian with short hair, I was called “Sir” on more than one occasion. I didn’t like it, but was happy to have the privileges that being perceived as male brought. I am over six feet tall and trained as a martial artist. Usually, no one bothers me on the street. In my forties, I grew my hair long and went through a femme phase. In the past few years, I lost weight and cut my hair short again. Again, I hear someone say “excuse me sir” and turn around to find the comment is directed at me.

But this time I am over fifty, and I really don’t care what other people think. Recently, I found myself back in a college classroom and since it was a course on anthropology, I decided to use my powers of observation. Of the twelve or so students, I counted nine different genders. This wasn’t a queer studies class — and no one was openly transgendered. But almost everyone, including myself, was on a different point of the gender spectrum.

Feminism helped to open up gender roles. We redefined what it meant to be female. Feminism converged with gay liberation. Men could be different, too. We redefined who could be male or female and what that meant. When I read The New York Times article about the group of five ten to eleven year old girls who want to join the Boy Scouts, I thought “Good for them.” They are my heroes. We’ve come a long way. It’s okay to be the gender that you are. It’s okay to cross the gender line to become the gender that you already are inside. And it’s okay to express your gender the way you want to.

Recently, I came across three excellent photography books from Daylight Books that address various forms of gender expression. In Every Breath We Drew, queer photographer Jess T. Dugan doesn’t put her subjects in a category. Rather, the subjects are united, in her words, “by my attraction to them — and not a romantic attraction, particularly, but a more complicated attraction of recognizing something in them I also perceive or desire in myself.”

The result is an intriguing collection of stellar color photographs — inclusive of soft butch lesbians, straight men, trans men and gay men. In “Devotions” a naked woman kneels on the bed tying the boot of a person who is off camera. The peak of her short hair comes to the front of her head and she leans over the boot and ties the lace as if she is praying. In my mind, the boot is on the foot of her lesbian lover. But the beauty of the photograph — one of them — is that be interpreted by the viewer.

Gays In The Military Photographs and Interviews by Vincent Cianni (also published by Daylight Books) is a starker collection of black and white photographs, which is more suitable than color to life lived in the shadows until the relatively recent repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The first photo shows a person in camouflage uniform (I assume he’s male –given the shaved head and the hat) looking away from the camera toward the tree and horizon line of the hill behind him. It’s a good photograph and an apt metaphor given that gays and lesbians in the military had to live clandestine lives. In the rest of the photos in this collection, the people show their faces. There’s a haunted quality to many, if not most, of the photographs.

Decades ago, I knew a few lesbians who had been in the military and none talked about violence or war or killing as a reason they enlisted. This sentiment was echoed in an interview with a lesbian who said:

“The people who join the military go into the military not because they want to make war. Most of them go to keep the peace…. It is a shame that you have a perfectly willing gay man or woman very qualified, well educated, well behaved and they can’t serve, while the military is cutting their standards in order to fill the ranks. It’s not justice for us and it’s not justice for the military.”

TransCuba (also from Daylight Books) is a beautiful book of color photographs by Mariette Pathy Allen. In reading the introduction by the photographer, I gained new insight into the life of sexual minorities in Cuba:

“I see transgender Cubans as a metaphor for Cuba itself: people living between genders in a country moving between doctrines. As restrictions decrease, discrimination against people who are gender nonconformists is becoming less prevalent. A lot of credit for making their lives easier belongs to Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela…”

There are many beautiful images in the book. One in particular seemed to say it all. A trans woman is sitting her bed holding her one week old piglet, feeding the newborn with a bottle. The composition is perfect. Charito’s brown shorts match the headboard of the bed and the side table. The wall behind is the pale aqua that is so prevalent in Cuba and a single chiffon scarf hanging from the wall has pink flowers on it that match the pink of the newborn pig. And the pig is loving Charito, not judging her.
The trans women represented in this book are bravely living their lives — and creating a more open world (without rigid gender roles) that we all can live in — including heterosexuals.

That’s why it is called liberation.

 

To listen to the entire podcast, click here.

 

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Lately, I’ve been warming up to religion. Like many in the LGBT community, I had managed to avoid the whole thing. I haven’t so much run from it. Thank God, I was raised by a Bible-burning, atheist mother — something that I wrote about in my book Tea Leaves: A Memoir of Mothers and Daughters.

But I kept religion at a distance. Then I started going to a nearby Unitarian Universalist church. It started with a crisis, of course, like many religious conversions. I was laid off from a high-stress job. But it was more than that. I was a mess — physically and spiritually. I felt like I looked: fried. An old friend who was a yoga instructor suggested that my partner and I take her yoga class at the UU church where she is the music director. When my partner began drumming there some Sundays, I went with her. I liked it so much that I became a member and then joined the lay ministers.

To me joining a church was a major leap of faith. I was concerned how many I have known over the years, would take the news. Some were surprised. I overheard someone who we had known for many years saying, “Janet joined a church?” A close friend asked abruptly, “What gives, Janet? A church?” I told her that it was about community, and she could understand that. It’s also about diversity — including sexual orientation, age, gender and race as well as religious, or lack of, background. Fortunately, many of my friends calmed down when they heard it was a UU church the place where people sing Holly Near songs and Sweet Honey in the Rock on Sunday mornings. Becoming a UU has broadened my horizons. For one thing, I found out that many have been damaged by early religious experiences — even many who were not LGBT. This gave me pause.

I understood intellectually, of course, but it took me a while to really “get” that LGBTQ teens were killing themselves because they thought that they were going to hell. My secular intellectual background translated hell into mythology (starting with Greek mythological creation stories ) and literature (I’ve always loved the Divine Comedy). These teens, however, were told they were going to hell by their communities. And hell was real to them. They were told that their lives with not worth living.

Traditional Christianity is not my path. But there is hope. Rev. Al Sharpton writing on The Huffington Post addressed the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that was signed by Governor Mike Pence last week, by stating that “My religious conviction compels me to fight for civil rights and social justice; I don’t divide the two. Each and every one of us must speak out against this egregious Indiana law.”

When I read Gay Conversations With God: Straight Talk On Fanatics, Fags and the God Who Loves Us All by James Alexander Langteaux from Findhorn Press, I had a little snicker. The author was a senior producer and host of the Christian 700 club. He writes that invariably after an “ex-gay” show (where men who had been through so-called reparative, conversion and ex-gay therapy all of which is condemned by the American Psychiatric Association), the “cured” men would hit on him. His response was that it sounded fun, but what would their lesbian wives and their 17 children think. My snicker at this hypocrisy stayed with me as a kind of joy that arose every time I heard anything about the 700 club. I came to think that maybe God (feel free to substitute any other word that works for you, Divine, Great Spirit and definitely She as well as He) wants me to feel that joy. The sad part of the author’s experience is that he was struggling with his own sexuality at the time and the ex-gay overtures only made him depressed. But he also talks about his faith in terms of “pure love:”

“Perfect love casts out all fear. And on that final day as you stand in the presence of that perfect love, the last thing you will feel… is queer.”

The book is written glibly but leaves no doubt that the author has been through it — as a result of being gay and Christian.

In The Peace Seeker (Peace Seeker Press) author Susan E. Gilmore goes deeper in relating her struggles between her sexuality and her strong faith in the Baptist religion in which she was raised which instilled her with “an unwavering confidence that the Bible was the infallible word of God and that every word was correct and could be relied on for spiritual truth and everyday wisdom.” The Peace Keeper talks about her observation from a young age of the church’s position that the role of women “was to be submissive to men.” The author is bright, intelligent and driven — qualities that any organization (including her church) should develop and put to use. Instead, she was thrown out of Bible college for having an “inappropriate” sexual and romantic relationship with another female student. Ultimately, she is accepted by another Bible college and goes abroad to do missionary work.

Since her entire life is based in her religion, the author partners with other Christian women. This is during the late ’70s and early ’80s and there was a lesbian community in existence. At one point when she comes home and becomes involved with another partner, the two of them attend a church together, but stay in the closet. What follows is a harrowing tale of the couple being broken up by the church members and elders. Susan left that church, but at no point does she consider changing her religion or leaving it entirely. Her faith was that strong.

Susan finds love again with another Christian woman, and together they find a church that embraces them because one of the pastors’ mind and heart had been opened because he had a gay brother who had been treated badly by the church. This man checked in with the two women, encouraged them to come out, and accepted them as a couple. It would be nice if this part of the story ended there. However, this pastor’s acceptance created considerable division among the congregation. The church leadership, however, encouraged them to stay. Susan generously describes the situation: “Some church members fully accept us; others remain on the path to understanding.”

Coming Out in Faith: Voices of LGBTQ Unitarian Universalists edited by Susan A. Gore and Keith Kron was, as I anticipated, a breath of fresh air. The writers in this collection share their experiences of being amazed at being around straight allies who are genuinely not homophobic. Social justice is a strong component of Unitarian Universalism and LGBT rights are important among them.

One of the writers is Drew Johnston who identifies as “a queer bi/trans Unitarian Universalist.” Drew relates the experience of transitioning while being a UU minister. Drew attended a potluck dinner and took questions from the congregation. One person asked about gendered pronouns. “Did I prefer male or female …. Then I heard myself finally answer the question. I said I like it when people at least alternate. I said, ‘Then I feel seen.'”

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