On the move

Written Aug. 5, 2014

My plans for this year went awry: I was supposed to be writing a proposal and marketing/ publishing plan for the nonfiction book I translated from Spanish to English last summer, but on the first Saturday in May, I found a new apartment. I’ve moved to heaven and my summer’s gone to hell: the place is wonderful, and I’m certain it’ll be an ideal writer’s retreat, but the amount of work and hassle any move entails is maddening.

I’ve moved more times in my life than I care to think about. When I was in my early 30s, a friend a few years older than I summed it up neatly when she said, “Maybe you’ll always be peripatetic.” Leslie had helped me try to move to her small town in New Mexico, recommending me for a temp job at her workplace, giving me rides to the office, and listening sympathetically the morning I burst into tears in her pickup truck when I talked about the previous night’s conversation with my friends back home in Western New York. I was tired of fighting the usual problem with college and resort towns — low wages and high housing prices — and ready to move back to my hometown, which had become part of the Rust Belt while I’d been living in the Rocky Mountain West.

More than 17 years, one defunct relationship, and eight moves later, I still think of Leslie’s comment every time I pack my stuff, even as I hope that this uprooting will be the last for a long time. But I know how this goes: Define “long.” I’m going to hang onto this rental with tooth and claw, though. I moved only nine side streets south on a main route between towns, but I traded the traffic noise for the clucking of backyard chickens – or, as I like to put it, “from 15,000 cars to 15,000 birds.” The first figure is real – the city commissioned a traffic study that determined the average number of vehicles per day. As for the birds, it’s probably closer to 1500, but my new part of the ’hood is next to an Audubon sanctuary and my new landlords like to feed the animals. In my five weeks in my new home I’ve seen blue jays, cardinals, catbirds, crows, flickers, grackles, hummingbirds, robins, sparrows, starlings, wrens, and downy, hairy, and pileated woodpeckers, and have heard many birds I can’t yet identify by song.

My new landlords are healers, and one is a gardener. He’s cultivated a paradise on the edge of paradise: lush beds of flowers and vegetables atop what used to be a gravel driveway, next to city-owned open space protected in perpetuity, up the ridge from land that’s been tilled since the Europeans arrived in this area several hundred years ago. I bike the half-mile home after work, arriving sweaty and stressed out from a day in the office, and instead of rushing inside to flee the sound of SUVs and semis roaring by, I wander past the bolted kale and lounging zucchini with its faded August flowers, sit on the backyard bench, and gaze down the hill at an offshoot of the oxbow lake. All is not peaceful: ruby-throated hummingbirds chase each other through the patch of crimson bee balm, and crows argue over the compost pile. But it’s my little slice of heaven, the closest I can get to living in the country without leaving town. And it’s a great place to collect myself before I head to one of my favorite cities, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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Lynchings in Argentina

The words never again
Clashing against the words
Again and again
—That music.

– Alicia Ostriker, “The Eighth and Thirteenth”

I have no clever title for this post. When I began this blog, I deliberately designed it to address multiple subjects that interested me – gender, feminism, LGBTQ issues, Latin America travel, film, vegetarianism, decluttering, and anything I felt like commenting on. I’ve ended up writing more about my Argentina trips than anything else, and now I find myself wondering, if I address what’s going on there currently, I’ll scare off the curious travelers, the study-abroad students, their parents and friends.

A few days ago I had a chance to visit my Argentine-Uruguayan-USian friend D., who asked, as he often does, “Have you been following the news there?” There doesn’t need to be defined; he and I speak at times in a code that switches abruptly to Spanish, often rioplatense Spanish that says volumes in one phrase.

“Not lately,” I said, and his immediate reply was, “Just as well.” But I knew he was referring to the lynchings – although I don’t have many Facebook friends in Buenos Aires, I have enough that I can’t escape the most important news even when I’m not diligently reading online about their country. The Argentine media have reported at least eight incidents in the last two weeks of mob violence in four different provinces – citizens catching thieves and viciously attacking them. An 18-year-old in Rosario, the third-largest city in the country, was beaten to death by a mob after he was accused of stealing a woman’s purse.

As a born-and-raised U.S. citizen, when I hear “lynching,” the first thing that leaps to mind is not a thought, but an image: a Black man hanging from a tree. When I began reading about the linchamientos in Argentina, I had to look up the word’s definition, because I wasn’t sure what constituted a lynching. It is an extrajudicial killing, and does not have to involve hanging, nor, of course, an African American man fleeing a pack of white men with dogs through woods or Southern swamps. But this is what pops into our minds, we USians, what we’ve seen in films and old photographs. Horrendous images: the mangled face of Emmett Till in his coffin, a 14-year-old Black boy from the North who was tortured and murdered for speaking to a white woman in the South.

The lynchings in Argentina in the past several weeks are different – race is probably not a big factor, although indigenous ancestry and brown skin are often connected with poverty, although there’s still deep denial in Argentina that race is a factor in anything. (That’s a whole other blog post or 10, though.) Class and money are certainly involved, and, as in the United States, history. To say that Argentina is no stranger to extrajudicial killing is a ridiculous understatement, and it doesn’t surprise me that in an adolescent democracy, one that’s existed officially for only 31 years, citizens take the law into their own hands – or feet, in the cases of thieves who’ve been kicked to death.

I’m not an expert on Argentina (is anyone?), so I can’t say that I understand the police situation there. I continue to read about it and talk with friends who live there and/or grew up there whenever I have the opportunity. I’ve heard that the cops are paid as little as teachers, and I’ve noticed that the teachers in Buenos Aires go on strike for higher pay and better conditions at the beginning of nearly every school year these days – at this point I’d be shocked if the school year ever started on time.

Much of my information is anecdotal. Last year when I returned to Buenos Aires after five months’ absence, I noted large new trash containers (like small Dumpsters) on the streets, some with piles of rubbish next to them. I wondered why there were no containers for recyclables and how the cartoneros (see my blog post here) were going to make a living if they couldn’t reach the paper, cardboard, bottles, cans, and other items they collect for recycling. My acquaintance who co-owns a bed and breakfast with his wife told me the cartoneros were pulling these items out of the new bins and leaving the trash on the streets, and when people asked the police why they didn’t order people to return the garbage to the bins, the officers replied, “We can’t – they say we’re violating their rights and refuse to pick it up.”

Another acquaintance from Buenos Aires, who works for the mainstream, center-left daily newspaper, told me this was bunk. As with anything, there’s probably some truth on both sides. La Nación, the mainstream, center-right Buenos Aires daily, has a regular heading or section for many of its news stories: “Inseguridad,” “Insecurity.” Of course this sort of reporting appeals most to those with wealth, who have something to be insecure about, but the poor are also robbed, and the truly impoverished have to live in villas miserias, or shantytowns, and deal with young people who use and/or deal drugs and steal from people and homes – that’s true insecurity. It seems that people at all socioeconomic levels are simply tired of putting up with bold robbery that goes unpunished.

But it’s horrifying that some people have decided to deal with it by beating accused thieves to death on the streets. And the Buenos Aires provincial governor’s response seems equally chilling in a nation with a history of brutal dictatorships: declaring a year-long “state of security emergency” and beefing up police ranks and powers. Human rights groups are worried, and with good reason: unleashing the state security forces against youth is exactly what the military junta did between 1976 and 1983, when between 10,000 and 30,000 people were “disappeared” – kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. It’s impossible to tell what the coming weeks and months will bring, but right now, what comes to my mind is the title of the report on the dictatorship’s human rights violations, written and published in 1984: Nunca más. Never Again.

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A morning flight: I get my kicks

When I reached a certain height as a child, my legs extended precisely to the back of the driver’s seat in our family car, much to my father’s distress.  Whenever I moved around behind him, my feet hit the back of his seat.  For people who were oblivious, in families with more children and/or more chaos, this would’ve gone unnoticed.  But both my parents were quite sensitive to movement, vibration, noise, strong odors, and the like, and now that I’m middle-aged and have the same sensitivities, I have a visceral understanding of and a great empathy for my dad.  He probably felt as if he were being kidney-punched every time I saw something exciting through the car window.  (I think my parents moved me to the seat behind my mother until I grew a few more inches.)

Not-so-instant karma on a recent flight:  A young man offered to trade his window seat for an aisle one, and I immediately discovered why:  one of the two young boys behind me was a kicker.  I wouldn’t be happy with that under any circumstances.  But through a combination of bad luck and poor planning that involved re-booked flights, a MegaBus that broke down halfway between two cities, and an idiotically inefficient airport shuttle system, I’d been able to get only three hours of sleep the previous night.  I was trying to catch up on the plane – inevitably a losing battle – when Junior and/or his little brother, Junior Junior, began kicking the back of my seat.

I understand that children do these things, and that parents can’t be watching what two kids are doing every minute.  However, when the passenger in front of you turns around and tells you that your child is doing something annoying – particularly on a 6 a.m. flight when people are trying to rest – it is your responsibility to take steps to correct the problem, immediately, without making the other passenger feel as if she’s the one in the wrong.  Period, end of sentence.  The woman looked at me as if I had 12 eyeballs and peacock feathers growing out of the top of my head, as if she couldn’t believe that her little darlings would ever do anything to disturb anyone else.  And then she did nothing.

The boys kept kicking, and I started losing what little composure I have at that hour on an overbooked flight.  I didn’t want to disturb the two other passengers in my row and I didn’t want to make a beleaguered flight attendant’s morning more unpleasant, so I tried to keep going to the source.  The mother probably grew tired of my standing up, turning around, and glaring at her kids, because she finally moved Junior Junior to another seat, presumably with another family member.  The kicking finally stopped – good, because I’d reached the point at which I was thinking, “If you do that one more time, I’m gonna stab your #@*%ing little leg with my manicure scissors, you little *&^%!”  No wonder they don’t allow box cutters on planes.

Maybe my dad was just having the Universe pay me back after all these years.

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Sister Domestica doesn’t live here any more, Part 1

Given that I was a grad student half the time I lived in Boulder, Colorado a couple of decades ago, it seems odd that I spent nearly as much time there chatting about housework as I did discussing my writing coursework.  On the other hand, my pals and I were dealing with literary characters even when we were goofing off.  Sister Domestica was born in the household of a close gay friend who’d received his master’s in creative writing a few months before I arrived to begin mine.  Both of his roommates were other young gay men; one was a recovering Catholic who admired the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a drag charity founded in San Francisco.  That Halloween, a mutual friend of ours created the Terminatrix, based on the Arnold Schwarzenegger film The Terminator, and our Catholic pal went to the parties with us dressed as Sister Domestica – I can’t remember if he carried a vacuum cleaner or a broom, but I thought it was screamingly clever camp, and from then on, whenever I felt the urge to alphabetize my books or scrub the shower tiles, I invoked the Sister.

Meanwhile, my heterosexual feminist friends and I joked about another domestic goddess, The Woman Who Does Everything More Beautifully Than You Do, a character in Nicole Hollander’s Sylvia comic strip who was surely based on Martha Stewart.  We kidded one of my classmates who had two elementary-school-aged children and was on her third divorce (this husband was an investment banker, so she had financial resources the rest of us lacked) about being The Woman Who…  We often dropped by her newly remodeled downtown house for a respite from studying in semi-squalid apartments crammed with grad students to loll about on her Oriental rugs, bask in the quiet, and eat a decent meal.  She was a good cook with an amazing kitchen, and when she wasn’t in the mood for DIY, she could afford to buy takeout from the precursor to Whole Foods a couple of blocks up the street.

I was a decent vegetarian chef myself, specializing in homey soups, stews, and baked goods.  I added protein to muffins by hiding tofu in them, hunted down the best organic bargains at four or five supermarkets each month, and turned a cheapo “garden-level” (read “basement”) apartment into a cozy little home.  The world’s greatest housekeeper I was not, but I wasn’t afraid to show up at lesbian and grad student potlucks with my own creations, and once or twice I fed quite tasty breakfast burritos to a couple of carloads of peace and justice demonstrators in the wilds of rural Colorado (yes, unfortunately “supermax” prisons are out there, too).

Eventually I left Boulder, wandered for a while from writers’ residency to artists’ colony, and settled back in my hometown, where I met a nice genderqueer person online.  Fast forward to a city in the Midwest, where ze had found a good job in the academic world and I turned into Sister Domestica on steroids.  I was so bored outta my gourd in this city, I couldn’t find anything more interesting to do, and it was my first live-in relationship that had lasted longer than 18 months, so I was excited about having a partner, a new family of “outlaws” (they’re not in-laws if you’re not married, right?), and a really nice rental house.  And let’s face it:  sometimes nesting just feels good.

I hated that outsiders assumed we were a conventional heterosexual couple, but I learned to get over it – who gives a damn what the washing machine repair guy thinks anyway?  Our old and new friends knew we were bi queers, or queer bi’s.  We had similar standards for cleanliness, if not clutter, and our “1½-story cottage” had a great layout – at one point it had been a house with a studio apartment, so we had plenty of space to handle my sprawling stuff, hir sweaty running clothes, and our thousands of books.  I got into caring for the place, even though it was a rental.

I spent many hours mowing the lawn (for which I received a sincere “My hero!”), pruning the forsythia, creating an enormous black-gold compost pile, and raking the stately maple’s leaves.  My partner and I created a gorgeous little vegetable garden, working compost into the rich soil, planting carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini, tomatillos (the organic seed packets said they were peppers, but no matter), and in the middle, one lone native flower from the farmers’ market, an ironweed that grew to an insane height.  The squash, like all zucchini, grew inches overnight, and I picked and grated them to bake delicious bread, sometimes chocolate with Belgian chocolate chips.

After years of living on a grad student income, I loved having a huge kitchen with new appliances, and I baked a lot.  One Christmas I made 42 dozen cookies.  The following year it was only 20 dozen – six different kinds, plus two bread puddings, an apple pear cranberry pie, tart shells (I think I filled them with chocolate pudding, but I can’t recall), a dozen mini muffins, a loaf of gingerbread, and 18 mini loaves of banana, cranberry, and ginger breads.  I bestowed this bounty upon my partner’s and my extended family and my co-workers – I worked with a group of about a dozen editors and a “brand team” of roughly 20 people in a company with more than 300 employees, so plenty of folks were happy to snarf up the baked goodies.

When I look back at that period of my life, I find it hard to believe I put that much effort into domestic pursuits, but it was important to me then, and I had nothing else to do with my time.  My partner was constantly occupied with hir job and book projects.  I’ve been a political animal since very early adolescence, drawn to Left social change movements of various stripes, but I just could not locate that community in that Midwestern city.  I tried for five years, twisting myself into a pretzel trying to fit into a community that felt strange, a Left movement that seemed more fixated on marijuana legalization than anything that mattered to me.  I traveled to cities around the state to work with a handful of other Latin America solidarity activists, meeting a few people with whom I’m still in touch.  Eventually I stopped trying.  I worked at my job, volunteered as an usher at the university arts center for free admission to shows, saw a lot of films, read many books, went hiking and on “field trips” with my partner, kept the house pretty clean, and baked.  And baked, and baked.

Now that I live in Massachusetts, I’m blessed with a surfeit of politically engaged, savvy organizers working on a host of issues in a range of movements.  There’s so much going on here politically, socially, and culturally, I couldn’t do it all if I cloned myself six times.  And I’m now middle-aged, single, and sick to death of all forms of domesticity and obligation.  I’m looking ahead not too many years and seeing elderly, ill parents (one of my stepparents is there already) and it seems obvious that this is the last period of my life when I can shirk responsibility and do my own pleasurable, essential work in addition to the full-time job I have to support myself.  So you can bet yer sweet bippy I’m not spending my free hours dusting, vacuuming, and scrubbing the moldings.  I have books to read and translate, research to do, blog posts to write, trips to take!

These days, my apartment feels like a warehouse for my stuff and a work space for my writing.  I turn my back on stacks of books lurking in every room, spiders weaving webs behind the spice rack, and dust bunnies threatening to become stampeding rhinoceri. It’s the first week of February and containers of Christmas wrapping paper, bows, and greeting cards are still sitting on my dining room table and chairs.  I have far more important and interesting things to do than constantly clean crap out of corners, and unless someone is coming to visit, I could not care less.  Oh, I keep up with the basics, for health and happiness:  the toilet is sanitary; the laundry is done every weekend, if not more often; the cat’s litter gets changed, the trash taken to the garage, the pots scrubbed and plates put into the dishwasher.  But the rest can wait, and it does.  I have a life to live.

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Film comment: The latest Meryl Streep, and yet another token person of color

Last night I went to the movies with a couple of my friends to see the latest film starring Meryl Streep.  I don’t actively follow any actors’ careers, but it’s obvious even to me that she’s one of the few grande dames of US cinema:  she can take any role and script, however mediocre or beautifully crafted, and embody the character so that we forget we’re watching Meryl Streep.

I had no particular expectations for August:  Osage County; I hadn’t seen or read the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play by Tracy Letts, and so didn’t have to fight memories of how a theater director had staged it or my own visions of what it should look like.  I enjoyed the film, if one can “enjoy” a work about a family that put the D in dysfunctional and made any small problems in my own family look like a few ants at a picnic.  The acting overall was excellent, Streep delivered her usual stellar turn, and the play translated to the screen quite well – those shots of the treeless Oklahoma plains stretching to the steaming horizon did illustrate the distances between characters and the parents’ childhood hardships.

But I have one huge problem with the film:  the only non-white role from the play was reduced to just about nothing.  I am so very sick and tired of the token person of color in US movies.

In August’s first scene, Bev, Streep’s character’s husband, is hiring Johnna, a young Cheyenne woman, to cook, clean, and help care for the couple.  They need a nanny, really – he’s an alcoholic and Violet has cancer and is addicted to a laundry list of prescription drugs.  Violet’s racism is part of her nastiness, but I find it nastier that this play and film are simply one more in an endless line of works about white people who get to have complete lives, and their tokens, who get to wait on them.  Johnna is a hero – probably the only one in the story – but she has only two real lines of dialogue – the same line repeated, in fact, not even two distinct lines.  Otherwise she’s a stoic Indian, the servant everyone treats like a non-entity, and the excuse for Violet to carry on about political correctness (the author has disguised it a bit, but that’s what her “Native American” rant really is).

There’s more, but I don’t want to be the spoiler party-pooper of the month.  After all, the film stars Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and other box-office biggies, so lots and lots of white people will want to see it.

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Why I’ve wished for decades for more vegetarian restaurant reviews/critics

During a conversation today with a good friend who’s an omnivore, I mentioned that I’d found the options paltry at the Greek café that had just opened in my college town.  She replied that a mutual meat-eating friend had found the food tasty and reported that the place had “a lot” of veg options.

Not to be contrarian, but as a 29-year vegetarian, I have a great deal of experience dining in eateries reputed to have plenty of veg selections.  When I arrive and peruse the menu, I often discover nothing I can eat but an appetizer or two and a plate of pasta; sometimes even the vegetable soups are made with meat stock.  Although it’s 2014, many white folks who grew up on the Wonder Bread, meat-and-potatoes cuisine I did still don’t even know what vegetarians eat.  Granted, there’s a heck of a lot more awareness now about what constitutes a good diet than when I grew up – if that weren’t the case, Whole Foods wouldn’t be a giant corporation.  But a lot of omnivores still don’t know tahini from tabouli from tamari, and they think we can just sit, devour a plate of vegetables, and be good to go for the rest of the day.

This is one reason I spend an insane amount of time in our local vegetarian café:  the cook knows how to create meals for vegetarians and folks with food allergies, and I know that I can get a lunch or dinner that will be healthy, taste delicious, and fill me up for the rest of the afternoon or night.  She has a magic way with a sauce, too.  I’m sorry, but French fries do not constitute a meal, no matter how much I might wish it in the Montevideo airport.

Websites like Happy Cow were created by and for folks like me, and it’s been a great resource in my travels:


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On the yard sale trail: a vulture, a penguin

Many garage sales are the result of happy, or at least energetic, changes:  someone in the household got a wonderful new job in another town or state; someone’s retiring and selling old things they don’t use any more; a couple’s married or moved in together and they don’t need two coffeemakers, two blenders, and that old couch one of them’s been schlepping around since college.  Or it’s simply time to move old stuff along and make space for the new, or just make space.

But there are also the estate sales, eviction sales, divorce sales, the “roommates who skipped town without paying the rent and left their junk for us to clean up” sales.  And the one I shopped this morning, feeling simultaneously delighted by the bargains and incredibly guilty about scavenging the detritus of others’ misfortune.

Except when friends have moved into new apartments or out of town, I’ve never known so much about a sale before entering the home.  But in our city of fewer than 30,000 people, it often seems as if only two degrees separate each of us.  These folks lived about a block from my apartment, but I didn’t know them – I make it to so few neighborhood events lately, I could be living anywhere.  Our city council member posted on the neighborhood email list yesterday that it was her sister’s family holding the sale; my supervisor’s supervisor at work has been friends with the city council member for years, so she probably knows the sister, too.

I can’t say I’ve been to too many sales at which the customers asked so many questions of the sellers, either.  I’m sure everyone was curious about why the entire top-quality contents of the rental house was being sold, for very little money, right down to the bandages in the bathroom cupboards and the clothes hangers in the closets – not to mention the glass-cooktop stove, expensive wool rugs and king-size Tempur-Pedic mattress the family was selling for 10% of the price they’d paid only three months ago.

The friends helping the family with the tag sale kept their counsel, but the husband and father was forthcoming.  The house was a couple hundred years old and had some mold – not the sort of black mold that forms after floods, but it didn’t matter:  his wife was having allergic reactions that were complicating the problems she already had from Lyme disease, so they were moving to a neighboring state to be near a doctor who specialized in treating Lyme.  They’d been told to bring nothing from the house with them to prevent transferring any lingering mold spores, so their kids had boxed up their possessions and put them into storage for the time being, and the parents and a few friends were selling everything down to the hardwood floors.

My allergies aren’t that severe, although I do have huge problems with cigarette smoke and any type of heavy perfume or chemical (some essential oils and herbs are fine).  So this neighbor and her family’s misfortune was my lucky day:  I don’t have to wash the linens or shirts I bought six times to rid them of the poison stink of dryer sheets or detergent; I don’t have to leave the carry-on suitcase I purchased open on my porch for the next two months for the same reason; I needn’t worry that so-called air fresheners have tainted any paper, wood, or plastic item I bought.  For a song.

I ran into my landlady at the sale, and as she climbed the stairs to the house’s second floor, she said she felt mercenary.  The husband reassured everyone who asked:  “No, you’re really helping us by getting rid of everything for us!”  But I knew exactly what my landlady was talking about, and 12 hours later, I’m still wondering if I’ll feel guilty every time I see the penguin keychain a kid had to sacrifice to his mother’s health, or if on a snowy night in January I’ll think of them before I go to sleep, wondering how they’re all doing in the Hudson Valley when I pull their down comforters over my cat and me.

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A happy May Day/U.S. Labor Day anecdote

Something that still amazes me after decades of observation is how well the ruling classes use their corporate-owned media to bamboozle workers into believing that they deserve a pittance for their labor while the wealthy who run the corporations honestly earned everything they own.  Every time workers rise up and demand what’s rightfully theirs, as in the current strikes for a more livable wage from various U.S. fast-food corporations, a chorus of middle-class and working class people protests that they’re asking for too much – those people are getting uppity and they’re going to ruin it for the rest of us!

I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard some form of this from my mother, who was raised in a working-class household (by a mother who was first single, then married to an abusive alcoholic for more than a decade).  When I was younger, I tried to argue with my mom, but gave up quickly in frustration.  She started on the demanding-worker theme again during a phone conversation last week.

“These fast-food workers – good luck with getting $15 an hour.  They’re just going to make it worse for everybody – the prices will go up and – ”

I cut her off, about to argue about fair wages that allowed people to feed their families and find housing in big cities, the history of the labor movement in the United States…  But I skipped over all of that without a thought and blurted, “But these corporations lie – their executives are making millions, and they say they can’t pay the workers a few dollars more an hour – ”

This time she interrupted me:  “Yes, just like the government.”  Uh oh, I thought, is this about to become an anti-tax rant?  She clarified:  “All these Congress people, when they leave office, they just turn around and get jobs as lobbyists for some company…”

So we ended up agreeing for a change, and went on to discuss something that’s always afforded common ground:  the weather.

To those of you in the United States of America, happy workers’ day.  For the rest of you, I can republish this column on May 1.  <insert smiley face emoticon here>

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Manning up: Some suggestions from a genderqueer person to my leftist friends after Chelsea Manning’s coming out

As a white, leftist genderqueer, I’ve found that the response from some of my non-transgender pals to Chelsea Manning’s coming out has been painful.  Some of the very people I expected to be supportive of Manning lack a basic education in trans (or trans*, if you prefer) issues, and I see no excuse for this – in my opinion, it’s willful ignorance.

I’ve not encountered over-the-top, horrendous transphobia; I don’t travel in circles where I have to deal with that kind of assault.  This is typically subtle stuff from good white lefties, people who mean well but simply don’t take the time to learn what they need to live in 2013.  Most of them are older – over 50 – and, to be blunt, don’t have enough contact with young people who are growing up in a world in which being gay, lesbian, or bi is no big deal, and gender differences are becoming more and more accepted and understood.

I’ll give a few face-to-face examples from very recent conversations with friends, as clearly the ignorant drivel from web trolls isn’t worth bothering with (yes, I must stop breaking my “never read the online comments” rule).  First, some people can’t stop calling Chelsea Manning by her given male name, “Bradley.”  It’s an honest mistake, especially coming from those who followed the whistle-blowing and court case closely for three years and had come to think of Manning as a sort of son, a small, gay man who needed protection from the military forces of the world’s most powerful empire.  (Two of my friends, both women old enough to be Chelsea’s mother, took part in the support demonstrations outside the trial.)  I get this, and I also understand that it takes time to get used to a person’s gender change, especially if one hasn’t been aware that it’s in the works, so to speak, before the public announcement.

What bothers me is when people don’t seem to take a trans person’s identity seriously.  A couple of nights ago I went out for beer and nachos with a group of friends and acquaintances after a political film event, and when I heard someone say “Bradley Manning,” I responded, “That’s ‘Chelsea’.”  A lesbian friend (who was, by the way, not intoxicated) tossed a balled-up paper napkin down the table at me and said something like, “Oh, you’re always so politically correct!”  She was “kidding.”  I wasn’t amused.  Even putting aside that she knows nothing about my own genderqueer feelings, she might remember that I spent seven years in a relationship with a genderqueer person.  But she doesn’t.

I can stand even that memory lapse.  What I can’t live with is that these progressives haven’t educated themselves about transgender anything, and when someone attempts to teach them, they can’t seem to retain the information for five minutes.  My friend told me that a local trans activist had attended a public political meeting last week, when I was away on vacation, and had shared helpful information about Chelsea Manning and transgender identity and issues.  I was glad to hear this, I thanked my friend for telling me – and then she proceeded to refer to the activist, a trans man, using female pronouns.

I can hear readers out there thinking, “Ah, don’t sweat the small stuff.”  The problem is, it’s not small.  I’ve lived through this before:  it feels just like heterosexual leftists’ responses when we bisexuals, gay men, and lesbians said to them back in the 1980s, “Hey, you’re being homophobic; we need to talk!”  But now, some of the people dissing and ignoring trans people are lesbian and gay – the very people who spent countless hours on what used to be called consciousness raising with their straight friends and political compañer@s are now committing the same “microaggressions.”  What I hear and feel when my left friends don’t bother to get the pronouns right and learn more about trans people:  “Your life and the lives of your transgender friends don’t matter to me.”

Now, as then, it isn’t blatant – no one is being called slurs; liberals and progressives aren’t physically assaulting trans people.  The discrimination’s subtle, but it feels dismissive and terrible.  When people I love continue to refer to Manning as “Bradley” and “he,” it feels like a slap in the face.  It doesn’t matter that many don’t know I’m genderqueer – they shouldn’t be doing this in front of anyone.

I understand that everyone’s time is limited, and that we have to choose our struggles.  But if my friends and “comrades” could take the time in the first place to support Chelsea Manning in her whistle-blowing, if they could read articles about the case, sign online petitions, send email messages, make signs, go to demonstrations – even, in the case of the two aforementioned friends, travel to the trial to support Manning – then why can’t they spare some hours to read some articles online, read a good transgender memoir, and listen to some trans speakers?  Ignorance is not an acceptable excuse.

How to get up to speed and stop being offensive?  Here are a few suggestions, with links at the end to get everyone started.

Read:  It’s the era of the world wide web; any of us in my middle-class political and social circles can use a search engine to find Trans 101 information within minutes.  Even our 93-year-old activist friend owns a computer and uses email to do political organizing.

Ask and listen:  We live in an area with several community colleges, the main state university campus, and at least five elite private colleges, most of which have made great strides in the last 15 years to diversify their student populations.  Trans and non-trans students at most of these schools have spent a huge amount of time and effort educating themselves and their administrations to make sure trans students have an inclusive and safe place on campus.  Ask the students you meet about this work (and if you’re not meeting any students, you need to get out more.)

Get the pronouns right:  Part of the asking and listening is finding out what a trans person’s preferred pronouns are and using them.  The vast majority of trans people I know and have met make it easy – their preferred pronouns are she/her, he/his, or they/theirs.  It sets my teeth on edge when a cisgender person keeps mucking up the pronouns.  It’s not that tough, especially if this is someone you’ve just met (because you don’t have to break the habit of referring to someone by old pronouns).

Attend and participate:  Trans folks and their allies from these colleges/ university work with the non-campus trans communities to organize several public events in our town every year.  The annual lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Pride Parade, while hardly an event the size of Boston’s or New York City’s, is enormous for our little city of 30,000, and heterosexual allies never hesitate to show up to support and participate.  But attendance at the few Transgender Pride parades and rallies has been minimal.  Anyone’s participation in the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance in November and public lectures, panel discussions, poetry readings, and pageants for trans women is always welcome – no one checks gender IDs at the door.  Yes, cisgender people might feel a little uncomfortable – that’s what it feels like to be a minority in an ocean of majority folks.  Welcome to my world.

Don’t pathologize:  This, too, is reminiscent of heterosexuals and plenty of GLB people 20 years ago, when looking for the “cause of homosexuality” seemed to be quite popular.  I don’t consider my gender queerness a flaw, so I don’t give a damn what causes it, and I don’t want to hear whatever you just heard on National Public Radio about in-utero brain development.  There are trans people who don’t feel this way, and that’s fine.  But I don’t need to be told there’s something wrong with me and scientists are searching for a cure.  I’d really like to know when they’re going to find a cure for prejudice against people who are different.

An additional request:  can we please finally drop the phrase “politically correct”?  Since the days when George Bush Senior was in office, this phrase has been used as an accusation.  Whenever a member of an oppressed group of people protests a microaggression or an outright slur, they’re accused of being “too politically correct.”  As one of my grad school professors and friends, a Chicana feminist poet, used to say 20 years ago, “How about humanly correct – I’m a human being!”


Beyond the Gender Binary: 11-minute TED Talk by Yee Won Chong:


Jennifer Finney Boylan, a Colby College professor, has written several memoirs about her transition and family, and a number of columns in national magazines and newspapers:  http://www.jenniferboylan.net/

Matt Kailey, author and journalist, has a great blog on which he answers reader questions: http://tranifesto.com/

University of Massachusetts Amherst Stonewall Center, transgender resource list: http://www.umass.edu/stonewall/nationalresources/#Transgender

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Con rumbo: Translating outside the milonga

For the last 2 1/2 weeks I’ve been plugging away at my first book translation.  Life being what it is, my home computer, a trusty laptop, decided to croak less than a week into the project.  It didn’t completely die, but the cable that controls the monitor color took a turn for the worse, rendering everything in the center of my screen a blinding turquoise.

My backup laptop was so ancient it couldn’t even handle an internet connection, so I got rid of it a while ago.  Thus I’ve been spending various weeknights, and a good chunk of my weekend afternoons, translating at my office.  This lovely building, perhaps a hundred years old, began as a department store and for a couple of decades has been a multipurpose space, with retail shops and cafés on the first three floors, and above, offices like mine and a yoga/pilates/movement/dance studio in the other wing.  One night a week and on some weekends, a dance instructor or two arrives and the studio becomes a tango milonga.

So I find myself listening to the emblematic music of Argentina while rendering the story of a daughter of a desaparecido – another emblem of my favorite South American nation – in English.  It’s an odd juxtaposition – luxurious orchestral music from the golden age of tango and two tales from a couple of the ugliest periods in the country’s history:  the bloody military dictatorship of 1976 to ’83, and the 1990s, when the federal administration pardoned the military leaders who’d been convicted and continued the neoliberal economic policies that resulted in the economic crash of 2001.

I’ll be writing more about the translation process as I get farther along – I’m in the middle of chapter three of 21, and in the middle of reading The Subversive Scribe:  Translating Latin American Fiction by Suzanne Jill Levine, the University of California Santa Barbara professor who directs the Translation Studies doctoral program.  In the meanwhile, if any readers know of a U.S. press that publishes translated literary journalism, give me a holler, please.

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