Saturday, November 24, 2012

Contemplating Age and Change


Outside a small layer of snow covers the ground. The leaves of fall have given way to the monochrome sameness of winter. A sort of quiet has descended, replacing the daily thunder of leaf blowers and lawn mowers.

In many ways it's all a metaphor for my own life as well. Age 65 marks the true beginning of old age. Please do not misunderstand. I embrace my age as an old friend. I've lots of scars and entire pieces of the heart missing to show for having survived until this leg of the journey of a lifetime. Nothing I know could ever make me want to return to the uncertain mercurial days of my youth. Along the way, keys to open the doors of love, compassion, understanding were placed in my hands despite my best efforts to embrace the comforting arms of stupidity. These are gifts that can only come with age and experience. For them I'm grateful.

Yet there are issues appearing in my life that bring me no small amount of concern. They are not matters of depression, though sometimes for a short time I'll embrace depression to feel them more fully. More so however, I think I'm searching for new keys to find my way through uncharted territory. A new uncertainty if you please to replace the old. It means change however. Change is never easy, even if a constant companion.

Let me explain. Some critical things have changed for me. I've always been able to express myself. Best of course in writing, and that has not changed one iota. But also in small groups or among friends. In my work years, I often was asked to lead special communities. That is because I did it very well. I could encourage lots of input, and coordinate with the group to come up with a mutual decision, the key to making a committee work in my opinion. I could state what it was I needed to say, and people understood. In talking with friends, I could state ideas with all ramifications clearly.

Here something has changed and I'm not completely sure why. Recently I've sat in on two different groups. When I'd go to state my opinion, I'd begin, but leave out entire thoughts essential to understanding what I was trying to say. The message was jumbled and incomplete,and it showed in the eyes of the listeners too polite to say anything.

Other changes have come as well. I used to be a social butterfly of sorts. Now I rarely get out. Some of this is health, some transportation, some a total lack of those really intimate friendships, people I could call up any time or we would go out and have a glass of soda over conversation. Oh I still have some of those conversations from old friends back in Houston, either on phone or the internet, but those are poor second choices over face to face time. My sweetie is here of course, but she is not a big conversationalist, more akin to a contemplative sort. I say this not as criticism for her for it is her nature and I fell in love for her as EXACTLY the person she is. Rather I say it as one more example of a growing isolation that is coming with age.

Then there is the loss that never goes away. A daughter I've not heard from in years. A grandson I've never seen. A family who does not welcome me home. It is what it is, but that does not take away the hurt any. At holidays, once vibrant gatherings of a huge family is replaced with moments shared only by Robin and myself. Shunning is a cruel process, and I would pray no other person ever have to endure this.

So how do I change this dynamic? I feel my own self confidence slipping and that only hinders whatever I do. I'm forcing myself out the doors, if only to get on the bus and go somewhere, or make a meeting or whatever. I can't force the kind of intimacy I mentioned in friendships earlier, but I can be available if it should happen. I've not worked it all out yet. But it is clear change is needed, and all I need to do is figure out how it will take form. If my verbal communications are slipping, at least my written ones still seem to be effective. Now begins my search for answers. I still live with hope, but I pray honestly so. It's not my nature to stick my head in a hole and pretend all is well. I can count my blessings and lick my wounds at the same time. Alone or in company, this is my one life. I plan to keep it full for whatever time I have left on this planet. It is after all an amazing, spectacular, but also bitter sweet gift. Now to seek my solutions. Blessings be.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

My Twin Companions: Cynicism and Hope


Honestly I did not think I would be posting on this topic today. Fate however intervened. The other day I expressed on a private list how I felt a bit cynical about the chances of people rising up and taking back this country from the politicians who respond to those with money rather than those with citizenship. Soon after several people mentioned the need to take action. Of course I agree. But as I thought about it more deeply, I came to realize that within me resides both hope and cynicism each perfectly valid feelings. I needed to explain what that meant to me and how I respond to these opposing feelings. What follows is my response to that private group. Several responded positively to it, so it seemed appropriate to post it as a blog entry also. Without further ado, here's what I posted:

I should allow that while I have my moments (days, weeks, years) steeped in cynicism on certain matters, I have come to understand that cynicism must be tempered with hope. Fortunately I've lived in an age when hope has trumped the cynic right there in front of my own eyes. For example, I look to African Americans early on in the Civil Rights struggle. Growing up in the Jim Crow south, the early efforts to change the status quo seemed terribly difficult if not impossible. As people were beaten,killed, set on by dogs, the only thing keeping them going was hope. I marveled at the strength of their hope, and it became mine as well. Either yesterday or the day before, the bombing anniversary that killed 4 children in that southern church in Birmingham marked I think the shift of public opinion in that day of struggle even among the complacent in the south and around the country. Hope despite the pragmatism of despair trumped, at terrible cost, and change came.

Growing up, there was a colloquialism I heard often among local African Americans. It was a simple thing really. If someone asked for help, or someone was going to help another, the word help was replaced by the word hope. "I'll hope you do that." "Can I hope you?" Such a simple thing and yet even then I recognized the power in what they were doing.

For that matter, who back in the late sixties thought even for a moment that within our lifetimes we'd be having an open debate on whether we could get married and the President of the United States would be on our side? Hope was triumphant beyond our dreams.

So yeah, there are matters I'm cynical about right now. Like Americans standing up to change the current status quo. Still alongside the cynic resides hope. So I talk to people, march in marches, and ALWAYS vote my values. No one can predict that magical moment when despair and cynicism gives way to hope's realization. But I want to be there and be a part of it when it does. In the meantime we need to hope each other as we await the day of victory. May it come soon.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What Makes a Faith Community Indispensable?


So, in his blog at

Rev. Justin Schroeder at First Universalist Church (my congregation) asked for input on the following question:

"So what makes a church indispensable and relevant? What are your thoughts/experiences? What makes a church truly indispensable to the neighborhood and community, as well as those who attend?"

I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I do have some thoughts along these lines, including a past membership in another congregation when I was still living in Houston who asked similar questions. In committee we discussed these matters openly, and perhaps some of what we came up with might be of importance.

The church to which I belonged was Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church, an outreach church for lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender people as well as our allies. Our membership and the people to whom we served in the community were about as diverse as one can get. We came from all ethnic, racial, religious, economic backgrounds and it could be a real challenge. Here are some of the points we came up with in finding our answers:

1. Our church should reflect the community in which we live. I'm not really talking about creed or doctrine here so much, but rather the cultural elements of our community. In a city with a large number of Latinos, we included services in Spanish. Many of our members came from a past in African American churches. It's amazing how much music means to people who attend church. Our congregation numbering around 800 (and growing quickly) at the time had several choirs. We had one choir that sang the traditional choral music many UU's would be most comfortable with. Another was based upon traditional African American choral music. STill another sang the gospel sounds familiar to those who grew up in a Charismatic tradition. And yes, traditional Mexican hymns were common as well. The services varied. The primary service was more akin to the Episcopal while other services offered more of an African American flavor, and on Friday evenings a charismatic service was available as well. Now a UU church would not make necessarily the same choices, but there could be a variety of cultural options that reflects the community in which they live.

2. The leadership within the church should also reflect that community. Just as the programming should.

3. To be relevant in a larger community, congregants must be open to stepping outside their comfort zone. In preparation for such changes, there needs to be culturally relevant training on an ongoing basis. New members as part of the course to be admitted would cover areas of sensitivity in diversity. We also trained around how to proactively intervene when disagreement or unintentional offense should take place. If a congregation for instance is only okay with traditional services like they might do in Boston and are not willing to expand their perspective, then they will always be of interest primarily to people just like them.

4. Community outreach must be relevant. A wonderful example was I think the march we joined with others a couple weeks ago against the voter id amendment. When you take a stand for issues the community holds dear, you make yourself relevant in that community. One way back in Houston we did so as well, was by partnering with other churches, particularly in poor areas. We did not limit our alliance to a monetary one however, but engaged in social activities together. Nothing breaks down barriers so well as does breaking bread together. I think relevance means having ordinary folks in the neighborhood recognize you and see you as an ally and a friend. Hey, there's Jessica! She was there for us when this or that circumstance arose. Her and a bunch of other folks from that First Universalist Church. That sort of thing doesn't occur accidentally. Intentional outreach must occur.

I'm just thinking out loud here. Clearly doctrinally we might have substantial differences from many of the other churches in our community. But say this or that church, or a local community group was having a fundraiser, or a tornado or lightning struck their church or offices etc. The recent issues over at Simpson Shelter come to mind. Stepping up as a church concerned about our neighbors could mean so much. How about at the neighborhood festivals we see every spring and summer. Participating in those as a church could mean a lot. When our citizens are gunned down by gang violence or devastated by disaster, a church coordinated response could mean so much.

I think to be relevant, we've got to be involved. Not to raise our membership numbers though that would happen I think. People miss you when they know you. You become indispensable when they rely upon you.

I would share one other personal experience that drives home that point. As many know, I was seen by the community as a gay male before I transitioned to become female (but still gay, long story there.) When I began transition, there was a world of distance between the tg community and the lesbian and gay community. AT one point, a vote was taken by the lesbian and gay political caucus in Houston to include transgender in their charter. It was defeated. A few years later, a similar vote was also defeated. At that time, a decision was made among a number of transgender women and men in the Houston area. We began joining various groups as volunteers. In my case I offered a lesbian film night through the community center and was an active participant in Lesbians in Business. All the community groups saw trans volunteers working amongst them. A lesbian woman running for city counsel was swamped with trans volunteers in her campaign. She won that race and was the first elected official to ever even utter the term transgender in a public venue, her acceptance speech. I know because I was there. She went on, and now Annise Parker is the mayor of the city and is now known by many nationally. The point is,our work was not in vain. Another vote was held by the political caucus, and trans inclusion was overwhelmingly ratified. We had made ourselves indispensable and relevant.

My congregation will make its own plan for relevance I'm quite certain. Here are my thoughts on what we need to do to be more so, for I think we are already relevant in many ways. My ideas can join others, for as always, it is in our diversity where our strength lies.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

On This Anniversary of the 9-11 Attacks: Some Thoughts


Here we are again, this being the 11th anniversary of the day Islamic Fanatics flew jet airliners filled with people into the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. I was wrestling with illness at the time, and so had slept in that morning. Robin called me and told me to turn on the tv right away. I tuned in just in time to see the second jet fly into the second of the two twin towers. Like Americans everywhere, I felt horror at what I was seeing. As I watched another very real dread swept over me. How would we respond towards these attacks? I could see nothing good in our foreseeable future.

AS would be expected, Americans came together. Blood donations were at an all time high. We were one people during that time in a way we rarely really are. But something else happened that day, and that something threatens the very fabric of our democracy. I've come to realize in the intervening 11 years that besides the tragic loss of life, we lost much more besides. American optimism was replaced by American fear. Not so much at first. But daily the politicians turned out, warning of the terrorists in our midst, preaching fear at every turn. Legislation was enacted in the name of safety that undermined our democratic ideals. Laws like the Patriot Act. They are still with us today. Surveillance went way beyond any semblance of constitutional compliance, and when caught and called on it, they just rewrote the laws to permit it, using the war powers exemption and getting court sanction to do so.

We invaded Afghanistan. Now clearly whether one agrees with the invasion, their compliance in the efforts of Bin Ladin could reasonably be argued. But then the drums began beating for war with Iraq, who had NOTHING to do with the attacks. On went the propaganda, of weapons of mass destruction, of a non-existent Al Queda link to Sadaam. War was declared, but not against any individual country or persons, but against an idea. With a war on terrorism, we could be assured that the war would never end, because terrorism has always been with us. Every day if I turn on tv, I'm bombarded with new threats to fear around the world. If you looked in the dictionary for "over-reaction" I think there should be a picture of the U.S. post 9-11.

History teaches me that Caesar wanted to invade Gaul but the senate was reluctant to give him permission. At that point they were still a Republic. But he used the name of a much feared barbarian and told the people that if he did not go after him, then Rome could well be sacked. In the name of fear they allowed him to do that, and upon his return, began unraveling the republic in favor of the empire. Confidence and optimism was replaced by fear, and the decline could begin.

So it is that today I mourn for a number of things. I lament the loss of each precious life that was taken that day. I really am glad they got Bin Ladin and the folks associated with that heinous crime. I mourn the thousands of lives lost on both sides in Afghanistan, Iraq, and various other covert activities around the world in this nebulous "war on terror." I mourn the loss of freedom. The vary idea that so many cities now have drones spying on their citizens is an outrage to me, and I would assume anyone who loves the promise of the American dream. Bin Ladin said he wanted to drain the American resources and undermine our democratic ideals, using fear as the tactic through his terrorist attacks. We have indeed drained our resources critically, and freedom has been the casualty of our response. It does not have to be this way. But first we must set aside the fear. Mourning our dead is appropriate. Continuing these bloody conflicts and eroding our democracy is not appropriate. Using the harsher language of my youth, I think we need to grow a backbone and kick some politician butt to change the paradigm. I know we can never get back the lives who were lost. But given the will, we can sure take back our government. They need to be serving us, not spying on us.

"O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!"

- excerpt poem by Langston Hughes

Monday, August 13, 2012

From the Depths of Sorrow


Psalm 130 begins, "From the Depths of Despair I cried out to you oh Lord. While my spiritual path is a bit different, I'm still inclined to cry out for something outside of myself to help lift me up. Indeed if there is one lesson I've learned in this life, it is that I can't do it all by myself, and it is being a part of the interactive web of existence that on occasion lifts me when I cannot bear it myself.

So what is the source of today's sorrow? People who know me pretty well know it usually comes back to the same place. It's a sorrow I carry with me every day of my life. Only today, it seems unbearable. Which brings me to the next life lesson. Feel the feelings, then move forward. There's nothing else to be done. Life was not meant to be all peaches and cream, and with the joy comes the other side as well.

Okay so what's the deal? Several years ago I realized I would have to deal with the gender identity issues that had been there all my life. It really was my one shot at real happiness. So I set about and went through the process of therapy and medical procedures for a gender change, or rather, to more appropriately express my true gender. It's not an easy journey, nor should it be. That's a major change in anybody's life. Ironic is it not that to find that one shot at real happiness, we often bring upon ourselves great sorrow. So it has been for me. Much of the time I'm a happy person nowadays, far different from before. But it all came at a price. Much of my family felt that I was a liability now and separated themselves from me.

Okay, so people say, "It's their loss." Well yeah, maybe, but it's my loss too. Growing up our parents drilled into our heads the importance of family. I took that to heart and embraced that idea as part of myself. When it becomes a part of you, then it's impossible to then make it NOT a part of self. So I've a daughter. Now she is married and has a son, my grandson. I've missed all of that. She's made it clear she wants me out of her life and I've honored her wishes. Oh my doors are always open to reconciliation, but nobody's beating down that door to come in. We've had no contact in over a decade and a change of heart seems unlikely. It's very likely I'll not see her again or my grandson ever. That reality at times becomes a load that seems unbearable.

They tell me I was selfish for wanting that one shot at happiness. I was only thinking of me, they say. Is it really a higher calling to live a life that is neither true to self, nor about me? Should I have continued the game of pretending I was the one and ignoring the truth of the other? Perhaps, but I'd as soon die.

Some family members have been heard to say, "But what do we tell the kids?" Really? Why not the truth? Clearly my vision of what family was, people who with their warts and wrinkles, stood by you in thick and thin, was but a big lie. As so much of our world today, appearance trumps substance. Still, Mama, were you still alive, I'd say to your face, you did what you set out to do. I still love my family, even if not shared.

So after wallowing in my sorrow, I'll be better and move on as I always do. But right now, I feel huge loss. A daughter I love. A grandson I shall never see. A larger family including a brother, and many aunts, uncles, and cousins who once I spent time with over the holidays and will likely not see again. It all seems so unnecessary and so tragic. Yet it is what it is.

Out of the Depths of Despair I cry out to you oh Lord. Or the Cosmos or Whatever.

Here's a poem I wrote several years back describing the sense of futility I feel in these moments:


Like a fish on its side, body still, moved only by the motion about...
Bloated white-gilled swollen amidst the waves.
Currents driving towards, then washing away
But the fish cares not, senses dulled by time.
The flies swarm, waiting for their banquet to wash ashore,
The flesh willingly gives of itself, a feast
To vermin that wait for what they deserve least.
It matters not, no great concern. Serenity has found the fish.
The furious feeding on its entrails proceeds
For they feed on the rotting carcass of solace.

The struggle is over, for the fish has
Surrendered to the bottom feeders;
Its breathless form a delight to those
Who feverishly rip it apart for its peace.
A piece of peace, for the strongest and most ruthless,
Swarming fury, then emptiness.
They have found what the fish has already known.
Bones sink to the ocean floor, some wash ashore
And peace silently waits
To be discovered once more.

Fortunately tomorrow comes, and with it a better day. Perhaps a more uplifting blog message as well.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Ifs, Ands, Buts: Revolt of the Conjunctions

I'm not sure if it is the meds I take or not. More likely since I've done it all my life, I'm just a victim of an overstimulated subconscience. I've the most vivid dreams, brilliant in color, but sometimes more like an episode of Twilight Zone or Outer Limits. Sometimes I awaken laughing and shaking my head. This was one of those mornings.

Earlier I'd been dreaming of organizing genealogy lines. I've been working on that project, so that makes some sense. But somehow I was transported to a space where I was organizing words to be trotted out on the page in proper order to form a story. The words became animate, and scattered throughout an old apartment complex I once lived in. First came the nouns and verbs. They were easy to find. Into the line they went. Next came adverbs and adjectives. There was a bit more search for them. Some had organized into phrases and clauses, emulating metaphors to my delight. Scattered within were those lovely examples of onomatopoeia that help bring the story home. I welcomed them into the queue for the chosen words. "No problem teach!" Why do they call me a teacher. I don't teach anyone. I'm guessing they figure anyone messing with elements of grammar must be a teacher.

I laughed. "I'm no teacher, but you're a welcome sight."

Reviewing my work, something was missing. Then I heard the snickers. Up in the balcony gathered all the conjunctions, making mock of our work so far. They were simply crass and rude. "Hey teach!" shouted one.

"Whoa! I'd love to enter her course!" shouted another.

Looking at one of the words gathered below, another says, "Hey take a gander at that but!"

I looked up towards them shaking my head. They could't be serious about anything. "C'mon down here right now and get in line!"

"And?" shouted one.

"Or?" yelled another.

"I do know how to fix you if you don't get down here. Remember that time I dangled that participle? Or recall that split infinitive? Get down here right now!"

Dutifully they marched down the stairs and found their place in line, ready to be marched directly out onto the page. That's when my eyes popped open, shaking my head and wondering to myself where all that came from.

Dreams are amazing constructs, and I'm guessing each reader has their own stories to tell. I enjoy my vivid dream life. Especially when I awaken smiling or laughing to myself.It was like that this morning.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Why I Oppose the Mn Marriage Amendment

LN Cover

We hear many arguments regarding whether we should enshrine a prohibition to gay marriage into the State Constitution. I think it’s important to share my reasons for opposing this amendment. Not the usual arguments, but rather telling my own story and how it impacts me as a person.

Before I transitioned from male to female, I had lived as a gay man. Gay and transgender were my gifts for this lifetime it seems. Oh I had tried really hard to be straight. I even got married early on, but it was a relationship doomed from the beginning. But I sure did try. I dated some, but mostly stayed single for several years.

Then I met Skip. First time was at church. He was a greeter. We began chatting and soon we were jabbering away like two teenage schoolgirls. We agreed to see each other the next week, and soon it was daily and we could not get enough of each other and before long he moved in. Frankly I was gob-smacked over him and it was clear the feeling was mutual. Over weeks, then months, then years we just grew closer and neither the love nor the romance lessened one iota. I transitioned during those years to female, but he remained steadfast by my side. My sexuality saw a shift too and I began noticing women. But I loved Skip. Nothing would change that.

Skip had health issues. He lived with rheumatoid arthritis and over time it became worse. He reached the point where he could no longer teach, and he applied for social security. It took over a year to get him certified. Meanwhile the meds he needed and the regular doctor appointments with his rheumatologist and internist sucked up any extra cash we had. It was tough, but we managed, in part thanks to help from his sister.

The meds for R.A. are powerful, and have lots of side effects. One of them is the tendency to compromise the immune system. I’ll say more about that in a minute. First I want to talk about our relationship. One of the things friends in the apartments commented on over and over. Every day, when I would get home, he would be there standing, waiting for me, ready to help carry my brief or whatever. It didn’t matter how bad he was hurting and some days he barely hobbled out there. It was important to him however, and a smile would light up both our faces when I’d drive up and see him there. We knew each other so well, and would sometimes complete the other’s sentence, or communicate with only our eyes, each of us knowing the intent of the other. Long time couples understand that I think.

So one day, I could tell something wasn’t right. His voice would not speak above a whisper. The doctor decided to give him iv infusion therapy to rebuild his immunities. But it was already too late. I remember like yesterday the night he collapsed in the bathroom. Not long after that, in the hospital he was diagnosed with viral encephalitis, able to take over his body because of his failed immune systems.

Now ordinarily, without protections afforded by marriage for straight couples, I would need all sorts of legal documents. But as I explained, the money was not there, and we just hoped for the day when we could afford it. That day never came.

Lying there in ICU, though I was there day and night, and only then by the grace of his sister who gave the okay, the doctor couldn’t talk with me, but only to his sister. Even though we shared our life together, I had no legal status whatsoever. His condition got worse. Then came the day when the decisions had to be made to remove the support systems and just let him go. Again, though he was the love of my life, I had no say in the matter, except to the degree his sister would listen to me. Each passing day, I realized more and more what that marriage license really bestowed.

One night the hospital called me. I rushed in, and began our final few hours together. I sat there holding his hand even as his life slipped away. The nurse gave me a few minutes with him then the family was called in.

End of story? Not quite. Skip’s sister was engaged to marry in a couple of months. I’d lent her what little savings I had to help out. Meanwhile, her fiancĂ© was showing some interest in property Skip and I had purchased together. Without a marriage, no community property applies. She asked me to go to the funeral home to help make arrangements. So I broached the subject of our joint property. I offered her the money I’d loaned her for sale of her brother’s part. We agreed and problem solved. Understand most of it the two of us had bought together, but in a court of law, I’d lose. So here I was, thanks to the quirks of the law, purchasing things we had already purchased together.

So fast forward a few years. I’d grieved and was ready to move on. I met Robin. She was not at all like Skip, but the love is just as real. Because of an isolated court decision in Texas, it appeared we should be able to marry. We went to the courthouse. I was told I could not marry her because we were a same sex couple. I then asked about the court case. They told me if I tried to marry a man, I could not marry him either! Imagine that! No marriage rights at all, to either a male or a female. So we got an attorney and went to the city where the court decision was made and there got a license..

So here’s the thing. In Texas, I’m legally female in a legal same sex relationship that is treated as an opposite sex relationship despite our legal status. In other states, I could only marry men, and on occasion no one at all. So if you are born with gender identity disorder, good luck. You’re on your own. Furthermore, the legal argument that formed that court decision was regarding chromosomes, and if that is considered, 20,000 or more marriages in Texas alone would be in jeopardy.

With Skip and with Robin, the marriage was a result of genuine lasting rest of our life sort of love. Robin and I have been together now since 1999 and we continue to grow together as a couple. Now Minnesota wants to pass this amendment. We have done the legal workarounds for our protection because we cannot be certain just what our legal status would be after all is said and done. In the case upon which our marriage was permitted, another transgender woman had her life long marriage dissolved by the courts. Could the same thing happen to us? Yes, we still would consider ourselves married. But the realities of marriage rights are not just about love, but about legal status as well.

I wonder sometimes how people I would otherwise respect be willing to take this away from us. It seems so very cruel. I hear the religious reasons, but then hasn’t marriage evolved considerably since the writers of the Bible? For one thing women are no longer property. The times have changed and so have our institutions. My love and my commitment is just as real, and my story is multiplied by so many others.

I know this. The current amendment is a hateful and spiteful one, and I will oppose it. I pray others will do the same.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Surprise Visit, or The Beauty of Dreams

skip and andy 2

So it was this morning, that Robin left for work. I because of my sleep disorder returned to slumber, as I rarely awaken before 10 AM. Slipping into the reverie of dreams, I'm walking down Westheimer in Houston. I look up ahead and there he is! I let out a squeal and run into Skip's waiting arms. For the readers, a bit of a side note here. Skip was the first true love of my life. He was my lover, my friend, my mentor, my teacher, and yes my soul mate. Those who knew us back in the old Westheimer Square Apartments saw daily the deep devotion we had for each other.

So I'm holding him and we kiss. It was exactly the way it was before he passed away in August of 97. I could smell his scent on his collar, it was just so delicious. The photo above is Skip in a playful mood threatening our friend Andrew with his cane. Skip was such a remarkable man for all seasons. Incredibly sensitive, intelligent with a resume that was classical. He held degrees in German, Latin, Classical Greek, English, Philosophy, Theology, and Music. Before the pain of rheumatoid arthritis required him to retire early, he had been a teacher in the Catholic school systems in Houston, and had at one point helped write the Latin curriculae for the state of Texas. He loved movies and we spent hours sitting watching the old classics together. he was also a devotee of classical music. He'd been friends with former Houston Symphony Director John Barbirolli and his wife Lady Evelyn Barbirolli. I loved the passion by which he'd critique a piece he might be hearing on the radio.

"Goodness Skip, I've missed you so much!"

"Me too. You do have Robin though and that's a good thing."

"Honey, how do you feel about that?"

He smiled. "Love simply is. We love each other. You love her too. I'm so glad for you finding someone when it came time for me to go.Honey, love is always, I repeat always a good thing. I'm so happy for you."

We hugged and kissed again, then began a walk down Westheimer. As we made the journey, in one's and two's and more our old friends appeared and we laughed and reminisced. Skip asked, "Where's Westheimer Square?"

I reply, "Gone. An expansion by Randalls."

"Charlies?" It was a favorite restaurant where the waiters knew our names and the neighborhood would come to meet. It was a constant roar in the place. The day Skip died, I went to Charlies. I was alone and needed to be around someone. They were so good to me that day.

"Gone" I said.

"Damned shame. Ah well, change is always with us isn't it?"

I nodded.

There was Milton and Alice and so many other characters from the old days. Soon it was the core group of us, Andrew, Merlyn, me and Skip walking along. Suddenly I realized, Skip no longer has that cane. Towards the end he had suffered so much pain. Forgive a reminisce offered by Alice back then and repeated in my dream this morning. She said she was in awe how despite his pain, hardly able to walk sometimes, he'd nevertheless when time came, make his way from the apartment to stand and greet me coming home from work. I remembered it too, that face smiling through the pain, waiting to greet me and together we'd head back to the apartment. He told me he didn't hurt anymore and that was a huge blessing. How many nights I'd spent massaging those sore joints and muscles. He'd died from viral encephalitis. That happened because his immune system was compromised. The immune system was compromised due to the meds he took for the rheumatoid arthritis. So it was the RA that took him really. Yet here he was, a spring in his step and a pain free smile on his face. In my dream I felt such joy for him!

We talked about more as well, some of it too personal to share here. The crazy thing is, I awoke twice during the dream but each time I returned to sleep right where the dream left off. Then we said our farewells. Skip whispered in my ear, then I awakened. What was that last thing he said?

"Love is forever. Never forget that."

I won't ever forget it.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

My Letter to Trayvon Martin


Dear Trayvon:

I waited too long to share what’s on my heart. When I heard your cries for help and the shots, I began to sob, both for the horror you had to experience, but also my own role in the events that led to your death. The disease that affects every American, the ugliness of racism and privilege had just taken your precious life. Through the tears I was forced to look within.

Many would say, Jessica, you didn’t pull that trigger, you’re innocent. Goodness, I live up north and you lived your all too short life way down in Florida. Such an easy copout, but you and I both know better don’t we? It’s never easy to look beyond the excuses.

Now for sake of background, so you can know me a bit better, I’m a student of many things, including history. Over the past few years I’ve set out to try as best I can to understand this divide that hurts all of us. I studied slavery, and then Jim Crow, and then the war on drugs and the use of incarceration to ensure a permanent underclass of low wage earners. I studied the lies those of us who are white tell ourselves to perpetuate slavery by another name. I’ve taken every opportunity to hear the story from the African American perspective. Myself growing up in Jim Crow America, heaven knows I’ve heard enough of the other side of the story. I did play a bit role in the civil rights protests of the sixties, but hardly sufficient.

Trayvon, in studying my own genealogy, to my horror, I learned my own ancestors participated actively in the buying, trading, and selling of human beings. I tried to imagine how anyone could justify in their minds and before their God such actions. I’ve got my own hunch. Greed for wealth and power leads many to provide their own justifications. They sew discord for their own advantage to the intellectually weak who justify their own shortcomings through the excuses of race. But in my moral sense of the universe, none of their excuses held water. Among my pet peeves, up near the top are dishonesty, lack of intellectual curiosity, and the moral weakness to the facts that lie in front of us for any who would see. The truth is, I’m not accountable for the actions of Grandfathers dating all the way to the 1660’s in America. However I am completely responsible for my own actions dating back to the day I was born.

Trayvon, as a small child one day in a Kreske store in Tyler, Texas, I wandered away from my mother to get a drink from the water fountain while she ordered us food from the lunch counter. Just as I took my first sips of refreshing water, a store employee pulled me away. “Where’s your mother?” he demanded. “Don’t you know you could catch a disease drinking at this fountain?” I pointed her way and he dragged me over to her and proceeded to lecture her. Now THAT was a mistake, because Momma bless her heart did not tolerate fools. She told him to mind his own &(^) business and leave me alone. Then momma explained to me how there were separate water fountains for white and black people. I accepted it because it came from Momma, but I didn’t understand it. I still don’t. Did black people carry strange diseases the rest of us didn’t? No logic to that at all. So that was how it was. A separate entrance at the theater, segregated schools, a separate part of town where black people lived, and the only connection between us was through that southern tradition of hiring a maid to come in once a week. Terribly unpaid, but in that environment nothing else was available.

Trayvon, growing up in that small minded hateful world, I heard the stories of the lynching of black men and women for “stepping out of line.” Places like Grand Saline and Vidor proudly claimed that no black people were there after dusk. I saw the deference walking down the street, how people spoke to African Americans as if they were perpetually children and yet as a child I was referred to as someone older. I’ve often wondered, had the civil rights movement not taken place, would I have simply acquiesced to the system as it was? I can’t answer that question, because that’s not what happened.

I once heard a story that suggested that if I took another prisoner and I handcuffed them to my wrist, were we not both really imprisoned? I see our separation in much the same way. As I watched the actions of the great Civil Rights leaders through high school, it led me to question that garbage poured into my head since early childhood. Why are we living separate lives? Why are they using clubs and cattle prods against people peacefully asking for their basic liberties? I never bought into the inferiority argument. Still most of this did not, I thought, affect me. I disagree with that premise now, but that is where I was then. I was sympathetic, but not really committed to the struggle.

It wasn’t until college that I actually was in an environment where African Americans and White folks intermingled. One after another, the myths began to vaporize, even myths I did not realize that lingered within. I remember attending a campus presentation regarding black power. So many were threatened by those words, perhaps linking into arcane fears of a insurrection going back to John Brown. It was in college where I participated in a civil rights protest at an establishment that persisted in maintaining separate facilities. But these were the days of the 60’s revolution and hippies and getting out of Vietnam. We felt of course the Black Movement would join us, but of course on our terms. I wasn’t too aware of white privilege in those days.

It was many more years before I had another awakening. I worked for an agency where most of the leadership was African American, as well as a pretty even divide among employees between African American, Hispanic, and White. In the early 1990’s as I have mentioned in earlier posts, I changed gender from male to female on my job. All of a sudden, I began to hit roadblocks. I had cleared it all with personnel, but my boss, a man from North Vietnam, was not too happy about it. A white woman, our clerk, began sabotaging my work. If I complained, I was blamed for “not taking care of it,” or “ not being a team player.” Gender change was not protected under EEOC and I was frustrated.

It was then something incredibly wonderful happened. In a workplace dominated by African American women, one such co-worker approached me. “Jessi, I see what they’re doing. I don’t understand your journey, but I damn sure recognize discrimination when I see it. “ She rallied the other African American women in the workplace, and with their support, we approached the supervisor and got him to do what was his job to begin with. In our conversations together, she opened my eyes to so much. She helped me become aware of my own privilege by virtue of the color of my skin. It was as if a veil had been lifted, and I could see the world in an entirely different way.

Trayvon, your death showed one thing abundantly for any with a speck of self -honesty. The demon of privilege is still with those of us who are White. I literally can look out my window in my mixed neighborhood in Minneapolis and see privilege and its costs right before my eyes. Law enforcement is not practiced equally. I see who gets stopped and questioned. I see who gets cuffed and how they are treated. Which brings me to the point of this letter. How am I responsible? I’m responsible when I’m silent. My debt to this world is to name it when I see it, loudly and strongly. Recently in church, the pastor asked, WWLD. What Would Love Do? The privilege is a reality in my life. It’s why I don’t fear walking down the street wearing a hoodie and yet you lost your life for it. Do I use that privilege through love? What am I doing to bring true equality into this world? What is my role in bringing a world where no one group carries privilege over another?

I don’t have all the answers, but I promise I’m looking Trayvon. I’m calling it when I see it loud and strong. My gift is the written word, and a great place to speak from a place of love. This divide over a lifetime has cost me countless friendships that could not have been. Divided communities are not healthy communities I think. So many lives have been lost, so many others traumatized. Like so many other forms of privilege, it’s a sin that has remained unnamed. I’m going to name it when I see it, talk to other white people about privilege, and use my life as a voice of healing. I can’t bring you back Trayvon, but I can sure work to be sure you didn’t die in vain.

Oh one final word and I’ll be done. I’m so impressed by your Momma and Dad, and how so many have rallied to your cause. It is said that a person is judged by the love they leave behind. By that measure, as we say in East Texas, “You done good!” It’s our job now to make the world a better place on account of your presence.

Monday, March 26, 2012

In the Shadows

95.08.01 Skip loves beach

A few years ago, I wrote this and an abbreviated version was used as a reading for a church service on the shadows of our lives as voiced by the poets and bards of our community. This week our pastor spoke about the intersection between sorrow/pain and growth/blessing. So I am sharing that piece as a response via blog today.


The shadow of fear is faced fully, and into the darkness we step, not knowing where the journey will lead. If fortunate, the darkness is transcended and on the other side, the light of love and the self which is true. If well done, at the end of it all, a contentment in that realization itself. In one poem I wrote:

And then that day comes, quietly we scream.
We have seen the vision of coming death’s door
Life lived, with unfulfilled dreams
Dark day is here, we are no more.

And yet a blessing indeed for love and soul
Love living on, in mystery so sublime
And our memory becomes part of the whole
Even as finite body recycles into the Divine.

And if we see Earth as living and being
And if we accept we are all part of whole
In all of creation we are seeing
Nothing lost, and love rooted at heart of soul.

Within life itself though, within the life span itself, it seems we undergo many deaths, births, and resurrections, or so it has been for me. As if life were a continual re-imagining of the authentic self that lies within. As I speak here of the many tragedies and the passages that lead to the ME that is today, in my search for the ever elusive light that shines brightly, fades, hides behind the clouds of life, and then reappears again; within the shadows of existence reaching out and expanding exactly the way so much of nature does… as I speak of these things, I am ever mindful that within darkness came the source that enriches and accentuates the beauty of direct sunlight upon the authentic soul. And the mystery, the countless synchronistic moments that led to the next moments almost as if by design pulling me along to an ongoing, ever changing journey of self truth. All along the way are choices to be made, and each path represents a different outcome. In my alcoholism for example, that moment of clarity demanding a decision, sobriety being the choice for life in my case. Avoiding always avoiding labels and defining restrictions on that mystery, but nevertheless feeling a sense of awe at the non-definable presence along the way.

In such a lifespan are those moments, sometimes long moments that become days, weeks, months even years, that may require a journey beyond the normal limits we believe possible, and into darkness; where each step is an act of faith for which there are no guarantees, yet our realities demand the choices be made. And they are important choices. Choices made between life or death, joy or sorrow, love or the safety of acceptability. And as if that were not sufficient a challenge, society filled with those who want to make those choices for us without the consequence of living the decision. Today I am addressing such a time, a piece only of a life journey.

I wrote:

“The struggle is over, for the fish has
Surrendered to the bottom feeders;
Its breathless form a delight to those
Who feverishly rip it apart for its peace.
A piece of peace, for the strongest and most ruthless,
Swarming fury, then emptiness....
They have found what the fish has already known.
Bones sink to the ocean floor, some wash ashore
And peace silently waits
To be discovered once more.”

This is from a poem I wrote some years ago, during darkness like I had never known before. In still another writing, feeling the intense angst of separation from everything meaningful to me, and yet another analogy to the fish, I wrote the following:

“I offer love yet am I reviled..
My pain I offered to be met with more
My heart I presented, only to be devoured
In a swarming tumultuous feeding frenzy
For the sharks, left with nothing save a few bones
Completely devoured...the flesh of life.

So come to me Death! I welcome thee my friend!
COME TO ME...Waiting for thee
Come to this soul with passion spent
Come to me, my heart rent..
Let this end.”

People close to me were afraid that I was becoming suicidal perhaps. But it was not that after all. But, at that moment, in my darkness, I could not see my way to find the inspiration for life to continue, sensing that death was drawing ever more closely as a natural resolution to my desolation and devastation. No, it was not that I desired death, well maybe perhaps a little, but rather there was the sense of separation from the very light others take so for granted.

At what point was it that this immersion into the dark recesses of spirit occurred? I had always felt a great deal of separation as a gay and transgender person in the south. Growing up in the fifties and early sixties in East Texas, queer was no easy thing to be. Worse, I could not melt into the crowds so to speak. I was identifiable as somehow different and therefore an open target. Still I survived, and eventually even thrived. I found a person to share my life with, even as I lost virtually all of my family because of my transition from male to female. I had managed not to lose my job even if I faced a great deal of harassment on a regular basis in that workplace for my “difference”. But I had friends, and a lover who loved me selflessly and totally.

There's the proverbial final straw, the one that simply makes life too much to deal with. In dealing with crisis of this sort, working on one or two problems helps make life more manageable. Understanding this at an intellectual level is useful, up to a point. Many times before, this knowledge had helped me transcend difficult times, like when my friends were dying during the early days of HIV or coping with bar raids or police brutality or the deaths of my parents.

Then came my True Darkness, what Theresa of Avila or John of the Cross might have called the Dark Night of the Soul. Here it was that my encounter truly began, where no intervention was possible, my choices to be made and the mystery present in my search not just for light but survival. My one true love became ill suddenly and died soon after. I held my soul companion in my arms helpless to the ravages of viral encephalitis and then he was gone. Having already lost much of my family who rejected me for my queerness, I was so very alone. I was but a shell, functioning to live, but little more. Still, this sort of thing happens after all and it wouldn't be easy, but I could and would survive.

Less than a month later, I am preparing to walk patrol in our gay ghetto as part of a volunteer organization to prevent gay bashings. My friend Dee and I are laughing about something that happened to her a few days earlier. Suddenly without warning she lets out a gasp and collapses to the floor. A friend applies cpr, but even as I hold her in my arms, reaching for her pulse and telling her that I love her, they are the last words she will ever hear and the second person in a month near and dear to me dies in my arms.

Quietly I sit at the foot of the stairs, rocking back and forth, softly sobbing. The ambulance came and I rode with her to the hospital for the doctors to state the obvious. In the events of these days, I had met head on the full darkness of the human condition. I had stepped fully into the darkness, with no certainty of where my journey was leading, but inside somewhere a hope that I could not see but was there nonetheless. .
The dream was there; something I could not imagine nor define, hidden by the veil of the darkness of circumstance. This was a passage that was singularly mine, and yet I needed help for the journey had taken me to a place beyond any pain I ever thought I could endure. I stepped into darkness, powerless and vulnerable.
And so it was, making quiet choices one at a time, placing one foot in front of the other even when I wanted to simply go away, and with countless people slipping into and out of my life weaving webs of support, webs of love to help me step beyond all of this, and slowly healing began. We hear so very often of the interconnected web of life. It's very real to this writer. Were it not for all the small gifts of loving kindness along the way, I would not have had the strength to prevail. Having known such love as I had known and then seeing it lost, left me more mature in terms of not only others, but for myself. Like the plant that grows in the fertile soil bathed in the loving light of the sun, I prospered from the exposure to light even more than ever for having known true darkness.

There will be more times of shadow in this life, but there is a certainty of light that cannot be taken away. My awe of the mystery remains always, and the journey amidst the shadows has become one of excitement and anticipation. At the age of 56, well 57 this week, I am on the slope towards that final transition to another unknown. But I have today, and it is that day, THIS day, I celebrate. Oh my differences are still there and they are significant, and no matter what I do or how I do it, some will find fault and even wish that I would disappear forever. Hate and fear does that to people. And so I would finish with this excerpt from another poem I wrote entitled trans-separations:

But life goes on and love goes on and hate and fear go on also.
To all who hope that my kind will disappear, and those who revel in my difference;
What we have not in common rather than what we do, I smile sweetly, and offer this simple reality:
I can only be me and you can only be you and we can be we or never
But my truth will remain, agree or complain, and from my truth you cannot sever
For in truth to self I have found truth in others and the same for love it is clear,
To leave behind that which is ME would leave ME with nothing but fear.

My soul lives, and will beyond death and it is a beautiful soul prepared to love, prepared to live, prepared to dance.
If you dance with me, then we dance together, but if you cannot, I shall dance alone.

July 3, 2004

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Why marriage?

LN Cover

Today, Rev. Justin Schroeder, pastor at my congregation, First Universalist Church, wrote the following in his blog:

"I didn't get married for the rights that marriage brings (although the rights are important). I got married because love opened my heart in the deepest way I've ever known. I got married because I wanted to journey through life with someone who was a true partner, who helps me be the best person I can be (and who I help as well), through thick and thin. I got married because of love, not because of the rights.

I'm curious, if you're married: why did you get married? What caused you to take that leap of faith? Was it love? Was it because your partner felt like a soul mate? Why did you get married? Was it for the rights?"

It's a good question and I do have my own answer to his questions. First, an extremely shortened version of my life story to provide context to what I am saying. I began life with a "M" on my birth certificate. I was gay and transgender and yes that is very confusing. I lived much of the first half of my life on the guy side before transitioning. After transition for reasons I don't fully understand, I remained gay on the "F" side of the equation. That is, instead of men, I found myself attracted to women. It happens sometimes with those of us who make the gender journey, and it definitely did with me. Now perhaps what follows will at least be understood in context of the journey.

My first marriage was a legal heterosexual marriage. I as a gay guy married a lesbian woman. It was I realize now simply a symptom of the times and represented our last great effort at being straight. We cared about each other, but it was not really love, though we certainly did make an effort to conform to what the rest of the world expected. After 3.5 years and one child later, we amicably split up. I set aside for the time any thoughts of long term relationships and went about the job of helping raise our daughter as absentee dad.

Fast forward several years. My daughter is almost grown. I had participated in a program of sobriety, a program that required me to be honest with myself. I began to move away from the insanity of pretending to be one way with one group of people, another way with others. I had a gay life and a allegedly straight life going all at once. It was time to start simply being me and end the charade. The program also made me revisit seriously my gender issues as well. During this time I met Skip. From the moment we met, something magical happened. It was at a Dignity Service (outreach for gay and lesbian Catholics.) He was the greeter at the door. He greeted me, we talked, and never ended the conversation. Quite a sight we were, sitting in church whispering to each other like two excited teenage girls and it was not possible to get too much information about the other. This was a love I had never known before. Within a month people confused us with couples who had been together for years. I could not imagine a life without Skip being a part of it. Even more remarkable, he felt the same about me! He was the first person I talked to about my transgender nature. He still did not run away!

Our life together was amazing. He was brilliant, a teacher of Latin, Greek, English, Music, German, Philosophy, or Theology. He had health issues, living with Rheumatoid Arthritis that grew progressively worse over time. It was however an opportunity for love as I massaged his aching joints, holding him close during the more painful times. We lived in a small apartment in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston and were so happy. The romance never went away either over the years. The love grew only more profound. We had a quiet wedding ceremony at our place. It was blest by a gay priest we knew, and even if not recognized by the State of Texas, our vows were sacred and life long.

Justin mentioned in his blog how we do not marry for the rights, though they are important. Let me explain how important they really are. Skip was on a variety of medicines for his rheumatoid arthritis. One danger of those meds is a compromised immune system. Skip began having problems speaking out loud, and seemed to be getting weaker. It culminated with him collapsing in the bathroom where he was then rushed to the E.R. The diagnosis was viral encephalitis. For a few weeks he lay in a coma, me by his side, and it ultimately killed him. I cannot possibly using mere words describe the loss I felt at the time. I could not imagine a life without my beloved Skip. But here I need to talk about some of those basic marriage rights. Over the last couple of years, Skip's medical costs had risen, and he was no longer able to work. Money was tight for us, and we could not have afforded the expensive legal workarounds on our budget. Lying there in bed was my life partner, yet I could make no medical decisions for him. His sister had to do that. Had she not given permission for me to sit with him, I could have been excluded from his hospital room. We had bought many things together. After he passed away, had his sister wanted to, she could have come and taken much of what we had acquired in our life together and I would have been powerless.

I remember like it was yesterday the day he died. I told him I loved him, and that it was okay to go. I held him to the last moment and then his life departed. It is amazing how you can just know when that spark of life has moved on. I called the nurse. She asked me, "Do you have anyone here for you?"

"His family and the priest are sitting outside."

"No, I asked if there was anyone here for you?"

"No. Maybe later."

She put her arm around me and said, "I'm here for you right now. I'm giving you five minutes to say your goodbyes before I call the others in."

Did I mention she must surely be an angel? So I said my goodbyes, then walked out the door as the family walked in.

Later, his sister called and asked me if I would go with her to the funeral home to make the final arrangements. She didn't have to do that, and she could have banned me from the funeral and from his gravesite. More of those marriage rights and why they are also important. I did not marry him for the rights, because I could not. But each step in the process gave silent affirmation that our relationship was not quite as good as my heterosexual counterparts. Then came the newspaper obituary where I was listed as "close personal companion." Close personal companion? Is that like a lifestyle coach? Damnit he was my husband, and I his wife!

Time passed, and healing took place. I'd been transitioning when Skip passed away, and I met Robin as a woman. In some ways she is completely different from Skip. In another they are similar. Like with Skip, we just started talking and never stopped. After a couple of months she was moving in and our life as a couple began. I feel like the most blessed woman ever. I've found a deeply profound love twice in one lifetime, a love that is returned in kind. As with Skip, though we have many differences, they seem to compliment our relationship rather than detract from us. During one press interview, Robin offered the best metaphor I thought. She said we were like two old sneakers. A comfortable fit and though a bit old and ragged, we just belonged together. That is who we are. Two old sneakers.

So I hatched a plan how we could be legally married. A court case in Texas had ruled in the case of Christie Littleton that though she had her surgery, though she had a legal marriage that had been recognized for years, the marriage to her husband after he passed away was annulled. She was denied rights to insurance settlements, and the family banned her from the grave site of her husband. Yep, those pesky "rights" again. The decision was a lousy one, assuming her chromosomes from her original birth certificate and ruling that while she was legally female in every other sense, she was not female for purposes of marriage. Set aside the scientifically flawed logic of such a decision, I can imagine nothing crueler.

So, I reasoned, if she could not get married, then Robin and I could. Well Houston said no, furthermore stating I could marry no one, male or female. We went to San Antonio where they issued a certificate. Btw, we used the public nature of what was going on to allow Christie to share her story and the unfair treatment she had received. I am glad she was a guest at our wedding. I've written elsewhere on the wedding itself, but the story here is an allegory on the blatant unfairness of what we have today. Since ours is a marriage granted in such unusual circumstances, we still have to do all the expensive work-arounds, like medical directives, wills etc. True marriage equality could change all that. It would resolve a host of legal issues, while allowing people to affirm a relationship that will exist whether legal or not. Our vows were to each other, but also an affirmation to the community in which we live. By not allowing official sanction for some, we deny some full participation in the greater community. That is so very wrong.

Robin and I have been together now for more than 12 years. Our love is stronger than ever before, and we know what a blessing it is. During our fifteen minutes of fame, we repeated one line everywhere we went. "Love is love. Love is all there is." Turns out I found out later we were paraphrasing Emily Dickinson:

"That love is all there is
Is all we know of love."

One of two old sneakers;


Monday, January 16, 2012

Privilege: A Story to Illustrate

Gparents Jimmy&OllieWicks

Jimmy and Ollie Wicks

Today is Dr. King's day. I've been reading a wonderful book that shares some of the stories of millions of black Americans who beginning with WWI began migrating out of the South. I recall Jim Crow, having grown up in a world with separate facilities and a host of "rules" that enforced a caste system as rigid as anywhere on this planet. My grandpa lived in Northeast Texas back when. I remember him telling me how he encountered a group fo "Night Riders" one evening. He hid from them, because when they were riding, sometimes innocent white folk got hurt too. He rushed home and his daddy scolded him even though he had not done anything wrong. One story he shared was of a black man who had been accused locally. He had been locked up in jail. The mob told the sheriff to get out which he did. They then opened fire from all directions, sending bullets all through the jailhouse and killing the man inside.

But one story stands out from my grandpa that illustrates privilege as well as any. Grandpa had been kicked out on his on before he was grown, the act of a stepmom. Needing to survive, he became a sharecropper. His name was Jimmy. He met a woman named Ollie and they married. Now as sharecroppers, they were paid the same as the black workers. In other words, rarely paid at all as the books always seemed to balance for the owner. This one fellow Jimmy worked for told him to be out of his house in one month because he was planning on leveling the shack and planting on that ground. Grandpa had to leave to go find work elsewhere, another sharecropping gig which is all there was to do in those days in his part of the world.

After he left, grandma Ollie hears a knock on the door. It is the crew with their dozer and they are ready to tear down the shack. She tells them the owner said they had a month, but the guy is persistent and says he has his orders and she needs to get out. She tells him to wait while she gathers a few things, went back inside, and walked out with a shotgun leveled on the crew. She then says firmly they need to get off her land and come back at the end of the month as agreed. They could tell she meant business and left.

Imbedded in this story though an example of what the word privilege means. Had Grandma been black, they likely would not have left. Someone would shoot her dead, or set fire to the house with her in it. If she were black, no one would ask questions. But if you did that to a white lady, the rules were very different.

In Tyler, I remember too well the day Dr. King was assassinated. The police set up patrols outside the downtown businesses and set up checkpoints around the black section of town (yes there was a clearly defined section called Tiger Square.) Now when JFK was killed, nobody was restricted in that way. Or any of the other political assassinations. But the fear, a legacy of an oppressor who had held down an entire group of people for so long, ruled over common sense. I mean come on, riots in Tyler, Texas? Are they nuts? (rhetorical, I know the answer to that one.)

So slavery was knocked down and there was Jim Crow. Jim Crow was finally overruled though some are trying to bring it back today. In order to keep the low wage earners locals needed to turn their huge profits, society turned to a "prison" society. Ask anyone about "driving while black." Illegal searches occur regularly and often. Black men particularly are incarcerated at an alarming rate, and comparison after comparison shows their sentences are proportionately worse as well. Prisons now are big business. When they get out, the only jobs available are those low paying jobs. Whether we call it slavery, or Jim Crow, or incarceration, the net result is the same. The gap between the privileged and those who are not is as big as ever, and plugging our ears yelling "I can't hear you!" won't change that. Some people go on about what Black Americans need to fix this. This is not something Black Americans need to fix! This is something White Americans need to fix! We carry the privilege because it is convenient. That's got to change, and to change it, we must change ourselves. Not just our actions, but our hearts, our systems, our souls. Dr. King said that love illuminates the soul. That's a pretty good start I think.

In memory of Dr. Martin Luther King. May it be sooner rather than later.