Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Witnessing a Birth of Sorts

When the moment to start life anew comes, it usually happens in the quietness of one's spirit. Yesterday, February 21, 2012 will mark the moment my friend Tori took that step in the most unassuming way.

In 1999, about the time I was being assessed and diagnosed at the Vancouver Hospital's Gender Clinic, I made a couple of calls to a support group in the area. Their brochure listed a phone number and stated calls could be made on Thursday nights if you needed to speak to someone, otherwise you could leave a message and someone would get back to you. The woman who answered was friendly and explained the purpose of the group an how one would go about attending their meetings and other events. Membership was reserved for those who had been vetted and approved by the membership committee. Confidentiality and security of personal information was very high on the group's priority list.

Given the group's stated purposed was to provide a safe place for heterosexual men to cross-dress and socialize, learn from each other and support each other, I never did follow through with joining or even attending a meeting as a guest. Though I crossdressed from time to time, for me it was not a hobby or a form of socializing, as it seemed to be for those who were part of this group. At least, that was my assumption. In all honesty, perhaps the reason I never ventured to go to a meeting had more to do with my fears. I was terrified to venture out in public, even to a friendly place where everyone else had as much to loose if anyone was to find out. Many of those who were part of this group kept this part of their lives a closely guarded secret.

The second time I called the phone number, a man answered. It turned out to be the woman's husband and he was one of the officers of the group. I don't recall if he was the president at the time, or just the head of one of the committees. I asked a few more questions and learned a bit more about the group, but by that time I think I had already decided against joining. I suppose I just needed to talk to someone who understood and was in some ways like me.

At the end of August 2010, I was invited to a barbecue dinner party by a trans friend of mine, Kaitlyn. Initially, I was reluctant to accept the invitation since I didn't know anyone else who would be there and I have always been timid in situations like this one. Kaitlyn, a professional chef, had offered to cook the meal for everyone and was entitled to bring a guest and when she explained this to me, how could I refuse; I was honored to be her guest.

It turned out everyone at this party had been members of this support group and had known each other for years, with the exception of Kaitlyn, who was friends with the person who hosted the party, Terri. Among those in attendance was someone who introduced herself as Tori. I immediately remembered the person I had spoken to almost a decade earlier, whose name was also Tori and realized this was the same person who answered the phone the second time I called.

That was a significant meeting. It was on a Sunday and Tori had been torn between going to this dinner party with her old friends, or going to her church's inaugural service at a new facility. She had struggled with this dilemma so much, she even spoke to her pastor about it because she felt compelled to go to the party because something was telling her she had to be there for someone—she didn't know who. Pastor Dylan told her that if the Lord was putting this on her heart, then she should go to the party.

Please understand that when I heard about all this intrigue that took place in the background, I was incredibly surprised and moved. Me? I was the person Tori was supposed to meet? But why? In retrospect, our encounter that Sunday afternoon has all the markings of a divine appointment. I have already written about this unassuming event in my post Connecting the Dots to Charlotte’s Pride Event and Back and how meeting her sent my life in a completely different trajectory than I could have ever dreamed.

Yours truly with Tori, July 2011.
And now, perhaps the most significant consequence of our encounter, is that yesterday and today I had the privilege of going to Tori's workplace to give workshops to her bosses and co-workers on the realities of being transgender and what transition is all about. Because at the end of the day, I explained to them, transition is a group experience and the group is the context.

You may be wondering how it is that Tori, who has been presenting as herself beautifully at church is only now transitioning at work. The short answer is she is not alone. Many transgender persons find themselves in a similar predicament. You could blame society for making it so difficult for people to be themselves, especially when one is gender non-comforming in one way or another. And she is also not alone in finally coming to the point where living a dual existence—going to work as a male, but living outside of work as a female—was no longer tenable. To say it is stressful is putting it mildly. When a transgender person reaches the point where they need to live honestly with themselves (and others) can no longer be delayed, something has to give. Fortunately, more and more transgender persons are finding the strength to do what they have to do. I'm sure Tori would be the first to point out her decision had nothing to do with bravery and that it was desperation. I can relate to that. But it is bravery nonetheless.

To anyone who would say being transgender is a choice, stop and consider for a moment, who would choose the most public of solutions for such a private and deeply personal struggle? The only choice is whether you are going to cave in and kill yourself, and many do, or choose life, even if it means making changes in one's body through medical and surgical means.

Yesterday, I had the incredible privilege of seeing my friend leave her workplace as a man for the last time. When she returns to work on Monday, she will be Tori. You could say that yesterday her new life began in earnest as she was finally able to shed the remnants of her male persona once and for all.

Congratulations Tori. I love you for who you are and for having listened to your heart more than once.

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Monday, February 20, 2012

Hey Mister Tambourine Man

Do you ever get a song stuck in your head and no matter what you do, the melody or the lyrics keep playing over and over like a broken record? 

I think I just dated myself. How many people still remember broken records? I guess the closest equivalent in today's parlance is when a CD player goes into a digital bleep, or when a sound file loops continuously.

Mister Tambourine Man has been looping in one part of my brain while in another region I have been thinking about a conversation I had with a new friend, Alexandra Henriques, director of Generations at Qmunity, BC's queer resource centre. I met her at a recent workshop at the University of British Columbia and as we were learning about each other, she shared with me a bit about the sensitivity training workshops she gives at Seniors residences and care facilities. Up until that moment I had never really thought about aging lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender seniors and the challenges they may face when they move to one of these homes.

The reality is that there is an aging LGBT population, and contrary to popular opinion, a person's sex drive, need for companionship and affection don't suddenly go dormant when one turns sixty-five. The other reality is that for those who are part of that demographic today, their orientation and gender identity were in all likelihood suppressed and kept deep in the closet, thanks to the times in which they grew up and lived, when everything was taboo. And now they find themselves isolated and living in an environment that offers little support and opportunity to be themselves. If loneliness and the sense of abandonment are not already some of the consequences of old age, they are compounded for LGBT persons.

Some facilities have well-meaning rules and policies with respect to acceptable behavior, visitation rights, who to call in case of emergency and who is next of kin. Often these policies are biased and prevent same sex partners from having access to their friends and the activities offered are based on heterosexist models. Alexandra is hoping to change this, one facility at a time, as staff and administrators are educated and enlightened. After all, how else can you deal with the seventy-four year old man who now insists on wearing nothing but dresses, or the senior woman who wants her "best friend" to be allowed to cuddle with her in bed? How else to ensure staff don't overstep their authority or jump to conclusions, suspecting diminished mental capacity when they witness "unusual" behavior?

As I said, I had never thought about these issues and the potential complications aging LGBT persons face when it becomes necessary for them to live in a Seniors' facility. It actually made me feel a bit nervous about my future, I must admit. I suppose what gives me hope is that for the people entering this age group in the next few years, their experience has not been marked by suppression and have been living and surviving out of the closet and are comfortable in who they are. Hopefully as well, the care facilities and residences will have also been infused with staff who, if they are not LGBT themselves, will be attuned to the needs of their residents.

One interesting outcome of meeting Alexandra is the possibility of working with her to provide transgender specific workshops and the exchange of information between the two of us so we can make our respective presentations more effective. And that is a good thing.

Yes. Mr. Tambourine Man is still playing in my head!

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