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November 12, 2012 / Jarek Steele

Mea Culpa – Why Politics and Facebook should have stopped at a one night stand

Those who know me well, know that I hate conflict.  I can’t stand it when people are mad at me, and I lose sleep if I think I’ve insulted someone or have made them feel bad.  It sticks with me like a splinter until I can grab the damned thing and yank it out.

Those who don’t know me well might follow my Facebook posts and think I sit around thinking of clever ways to forward the progressive agenda while planning ways to thwart Amazon.  While the latter might be true to a certain extent, the former doesn’t really describe who I am.

I grab my phone each morning before I put on my glasses to check my email for the latest message from the credit departments of whatever publisher my bookstore owes, then the weather, then Facebook, then Words with Friends.  Ok, fine.  Words with Friends THEN my work email.

This weekend,after playing, I flipped through my Facebook news feed and found comments posted by a family member – the content of which isn’t really important here, except that I found them offensive both personally and politically.  So I went on the offensive.  I posted on his wall publicly, and tagged other members of our family to be sure they knew my reasons for being mad.

I hit post, put on my glasses and got to work on my never ending kitchen project.  But it still nagged at me.  Not his comments.  Mine.

Here’s the thing –

I love my family (all of them) more than politics, and more than Facebook.  What I did was wrong, but not because I pushed back against him.  It was wrong because it cheapened our relationship and our family, and reduced our dialog to a post I wrote on my phone before I had even put on my glasses.  It made things awkward for the rest of our family, which is just asking for trouble around Thanksgiving.

Which leads me to this – 

One of the reasons why Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives, right and left have lost much of their ability to govern more or less functionally together is because we’ve cheapened the dialogue (in much the same way I did) to sound bites and Facebook posts -a one night stand instead of an ongoing relationship – and have stopped the give and take.  We’ve stopped allowing people to grow into their views and change their minds from time to time.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  Instead of digging in and entrenching ourselves, we have to be able to reach across the table and take the hand of the person opposite us and know that even if we disagree, even if we feel insulted, even if we’re angry, we are still bound together by our common humanity.

I failed there.  So I’m sorry.  Truly.  Genuinely.

I’ll post this and tag my family, a move completely opposite to what I just said about Facebook.  But hopefully this will open a door – not close it.

June 19, 2012 / Jarek Steele

The Care and Feeding of a Transgender Person

Last night I turned on my tv.  I waited for the customary 10-20 seconds before my mess of electronics caught up with my desires and started displaying the current program on the channel whomever watched it last left it.  Comedy Central.

Shouted (or so it seemed because the sound was turned up) into my living room was this:

Person one –  “Just because he was with a tranny doesn’t make him gay.  You were with a tranny.” [canned laughter]

Person two (a woman) – “Yeah, I think he waited ’til she had her dick cut off before he banged her, so it doesn’t count.”

It went downhill from there resulting in Danny Devito’s character making a quip about gay marriage that was so tired and overused, I’m too bored to repeat it.

Then I turned the channel, muted the tv and logged into Facebook, where there was a discussion about trans people, comparing us to people with weight problems.

Then I gave up and started looking at funny cartoon pictures instead.

And before you tell me that the whole point of the show is to be “edgy” and “controversial,” and the characters are supposed to be self-centered and ridiculous – I’m not new to the genre.  I get it.  I just think if the conversation went something like this…

Person one “Just because he was with a n*gg#r doesn’t make him a race traitor.  You were with a n*gg#r.” [canned laughter]

Person two – “Yeah, I think he waited ’til she stopped swinging from trees before he banged her so it doesn’t count.”

… there would be all sorts of shared photos from George Takei on Facebook about how ignorant it was.  Humor only works when it’s aimed upward – not at a group of people who are already marginalized.

So here are a set of guidelines you – or the willfully ignorant friends you wish would stop talking before they embarrass themselves – can use.

1.  If a person makes an effort to present themselves as one gender, and you “clock” them as not being native to that gender – use the pronoun they’re going for.  Or ask if you’re not sure.  

This is not what I mean:

When I was in the hospital a while back, the staff put me in a room by myself because they couldn’t figure out who else to room me with.  The night nurse checked on me frequently, and once as I emerged from a narcotic haze she asked me what I wanted to be called, “He, She or It.”

2. The word “tranny” should only be used when referring to what your uncle Rex calls the transmission of his pickup truck.

And before you call me on being a snobbish, classist pig – I actually have an Uncle Rex.  I haven’t talked to him in some time, but I assure you he has a pickup truck, and most assuredly has uttered the word “tranny” to refer to its transmission – as in “Well, the tranny on this thing is shot.”

Also, yes, I know that some trans folks use the word tranny to describe themselves.  If you are not trans, you don’t get to do that.

3. Just because you, your relative or your best friend is gay, lesbian or bisexual – you (and they) are not automatically trans-friendly.  Heck, even if you are trans, you aren’t automatically trans-friendly.

Which is the same as saying that even though I have friends and relatives who are black does not make me innocent of racism.  Also, your proximity to gender nonconformity does not give you license to make stupid jokes about trans people, our bodies or our sex lives.  It doesn’t make you look more “in the know.”  It just makes you look ignorant and self involved.

4. Just because you go to or perform in drag shows, you aren’t automatically trans friendly.

Trans is NOT drag.  It’s also not a fetish.

Drag is performance.  Trans is not.  Trans people may opt to perform in drag shows, however if that person lives offstage in a gender variant way, it’s not the same thing.

5. It doesn’t matter how gender-variant positive or pro-body image you or your friends are, your swimming party, sleepover, lingerie party or whatever other festivity requiring public disrobing aren’t going to be fun for your trans friend if they are the only trans person there.

Just as a point of reference – trans is galaxies different than weight – it is a different gender.   Would you be comfortable being the only woman in a bathing suit at an all-male party -even if all the men were loving and body positive?

And by the way, if your solution is for your trans friend to stay clothed, now your transman friend has to explain to EVERYONE at the party why wearing a bikini top  or bra isn’t on his list of fun activities – and neither is baring his female mammary glands.  See?  Not fun.

What is fun?  Inviting 20 gender variant people to a sex toy party and let the drinks flow.

6. There is no “Sex Change Surgery”

Gender reassignment takes many, many years, hormones, therapy, possibly surgery, possibly not.  It’s also largely not covered by insurance.  And even after all that – the rest of your life is spent managing it and your mental health around it.

Those for whom it’s necessary to have surgery will have done TONS of research about it.  If you’re curious, research it with them.  There would be nothing better than to have a good friend at your side through your journey watching out for the latest breakthroughs.

7. Don’t assume your trans friend is always ok with being trans.

This is a sticky subject.  Part of the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care require that you be sure.  Absolutely SURE. That you have “gender dysphoria” before proceeding onward into your odyssey.  Trans folks so rarely are allowed to look back and say, “well crap this is hard,” without a chorus of “ooh, well see?! I told you you would regret it!”

Yes, I’m happy with my beard, my hairy chest, my deeper voice.  But I also mourn being my sister’s sister, my son’s mom, my mom’s daughter.  It’s complicated, frequently funny, sometimes painful and endlessly fascinating.  Just be patient.

8. There is a world of difference between the Female to Male transperson and the Male to Female transperson.

I love my sisters in gender rebellion, but we are not the same group.  We have unique challenges, perspectives and goals.  In fact, even within these groups, the challenges, perspectives and goals are different from person to person.  So even if you have a handle on one form of gender nonconformity, you might not have a handle on the rest.

Do your homework for both.

9. Do your best to make the switch, but don’t beat yourself up if you struggle.

I never made my son stop calling me mom.  Yes, it was awkward throughout the years, but we figured it out (and still continue to).  Some part of me will always be a sister to my sisters.  It took me (and probably your loved one) years to understand who I am and the implications of it.  You’ve had about a second and a half.  Try to make the switch.  Remember the pronoun, the name etc., but don’t stop talking to your loved one if you mess up.  Losing you hurts way more than having 10 conversations about why I don’t want to go to the bridal shower & would rather have been invited to the bachelor party.

10. Don’t make EVERY interaction be about trans stuff.

Chances are, you made friends with this person because you had other things in common.  You still do.  Continue to go to concerts, movies, book clubs, bars or whatever it was you did before.  That person didn’t die.  They just got way more interesting.

All of this is to say that trans people are people with moms and dads and sisters and kids and friends and jobs and quirks and annoying habits and bad tempers and ridiculous senses of humor.  So, you know, human.

Don’t be a jerk.  Treat us that way.

March 5, 2012 / Jarek Steele

as prayer

My childhood Southern Baptist Jesus was a hybrid of an invisible friend and a schizophrenic paranoia.  When Brother Ron spoke of the son of God being present in every thought, every action, I knew God heard every passing urge I had to take an extra helping of the Texas Hash at dinner and counted every toy I had.

I counted on Him to take my side when Michael Bishop bounced the dodge ball against my head and told me I had bad breath.  And when I forsook the friendship I had with Kathy Thomas and stomped on her foot at recess because I wanted the popular kids to let me sit at their lunch table, I knew He was burying his head in his robe, ashamed of my selfishness.

My mind was then, and still is in some part today constantly sliding the marbles back and forth on the abacus, ticking off good and bad.  Not cheating on my geography test even with a map in front of me – good tick, boasting about my honesty on that geography test – bad tick.  Taking a Hawaiian vacation without my son and sister this past two weeks – bad tick, donating books to an underprivileged school in Waianae, HI while I was there -good tick, publicly acknowledging the donation- bad tick.

My adult self will deny that he hears an actual Jesus voice, but will become a stammering neurotic mess when called upon to assert himself or display pride except with tongue firmly in cheek.

This morning I heard a story on NPR about Zumba, Yoga and Jazzercise, and how far from their original spirit they had strayed.  The yoga instructor lamented the lack of spirituality in modern “physical fitness” yoga and how for her, it was a sacred thing. It reminded me of our host in Hawaii, and how she (a native Hawaiian) takes Hula lessons every week, not specifically for physical exercise, but to connect and communicate.  I’m jealous (bad tick) of those who use movement to pray, dance to communicate.  Even the humpback whales we saw miraculously close to shore slid effortlessly between the waves, breaching, breathing, playing.  They used their bodies as voices, praying and giving thanks.  Giving back.  So totally part of the world.

Stick your head under that water for a minute,  and you’ll see thousands of beasts eating, sleeping, being – not struggling with the waves but following them.  Counting the rhythm and not the score.  Movement as prayer.  Rest as fellowship.

I’ve been struggling to figure out where my place is and how to silence the defunct Southern Baptist guilt.  To reconcile my account with my shoulder Jesus, and make peace with this white, tattooed decidedly clumsy body.

That’s still a work in progress, but my latest thought is this: Silence and observation is fellowship too.  Maybe I’m not meant to Hula, but I’m good at deep stillness.  Watching as prayer.

February 13, 2012 / Jarek Steele



I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m so upset about Whitney Houston.  Sure, I liked her music, but I didn’t listen all the time.  And yes, I’m one of the many who tried and failed to hit the notes on I Will Always Love You when I was alone in my car.  But I wasn’t her biggest fan, and lately seeing her inspired more anxiety about her well being than any pleasure from her voice.

And yet, I’m mourning in the way a fan mourns an entertainer.  By proxy and from a distance.  I suspect what I’m really mourning is my memories of her smiling out from the MTV screen telling us all she wanted to dance with somebody.  And linked to that memory is our living room, the only room in the house with an air conditioner.  I spent months of my year sitting on the old blue love seat under grandma’s afghan watching Whitney, Michael, Madonna and a host of others serenade me through my adolescence.

It was before the divorce, before my first love, before, before, before.  Rewind back to then, and I’m still a kid with bad skin believing that the dance moves were literal.  The message could be taken at face value.  That you could save all your love for someone.  That someone would save love for me.  I didn’t know yet that you had to practice at it, that love is a verb more than a noun, and it has to breathe and grow.  Live and die.

As I moved through the AC/DC portion of my teenagedom and denounced the fancy dancy pop of Whitney and friends, I laughed at the overblown ballad style, and the larger than life voice.  I rolled my eyes at The Bodyguard after I’d watched it.  Twice.  There was no longer room for the unique pre-nostalgic pain that her voice could inspire.  I built my tattooed, combat boot, menthol cigarette suit of armor, cranked up the amp and forgot about her.

And then September 11 happened.  About a week later, I met up with my girlfriend in a parking lot of a truck stop.  She was driving a truck and I was in another.  We hadn’t seen each other since it had happened.  We arranged to have a few minutes alone before we had to go our separate ways again.  Most of the sex between us was angry and aggressive.  That day it was desperate.  The radio was on and Whitney started to sing the Star Spangled banner.  The living room with the porch swing chain tapping on the window, the blue couch, grandma’s afghan, my sister’s bowl of ice cream called out to me, reminding me about a time before buildings fell and before sex was about struggle.   Her voice was the gentle hand of a heartbroken woman cradling a man’s chin before she kisses him goodbye.  It was heartbroken.  Or maybe I was.

A decade later, her voice still calls me back to that living room, but threaded through it is that day in some guy’s semi truck in Ohio when she spoke for everyone’s innocence lost.  There are many talented singers, and some of them can even do justice to her songs, but we’ve lost the voice that had the power to call us back to a gentler place.