Friday, August 26, 2011

Diary of a Quaking FGC-er

Here is the humorous satirical essay I wrote recently for QuakerQuaker's "Friend Speaks My Mind" podcast. I leave it to you, dear readers, to decide how severely I exaggerate!

Friendly Vitality: Diary of a Quaking FGC-er

July 2. I’m going to Friends General Conference in Grinnell, Iowa! My first in many years. As I stand here in BWI airport, the thought fills me with… well, a quaking anticipation. I’ll admit, a good bit is just chronic nervousness. I miss my Xanax! Still, I think my clearness committee on Self-Medication and Hypochondria had the right end of the peace pole.

“Friend,” said my clerk, Jane. I love Jane! She tells me she regularly holds my bitten fingernails in the Light. “Friend, you’re just too sensitive to the world. I know we Quakers strive to open our hearts to others’ pain. But there are limits. When you tremble so much, from the beginning to the end of meeting, you make visitors uncomfortable and you distract the teenagers. ”

My messages in meeting aren’t too helpful, either. I should say I have mild Turret’s, so I sometimes blurt out things I don’t mean to—which makes quake even more.

But this week, dear diary, I’m not worried. On the FGC web site, it says the Gathering strives to be a safe space for all who want to attend. That’s me, too! I am going to feel safe and welcome. Jane will be proud of me—as will you, dear diary, my companion through all these palpitations!

July 3. My first uncomfortable quakes, and I’ve only just been here an hour! Oh well. Still, these were big shivers, in the bathroom of all places—knees knocking together. What was the trigger?

Well, I should explain that FGC has a very strict ban against fragrances. Apparently, many Friends here get headaches because they’re canaries in the coal mine, alert to industrial toxins. I’m not like my atheist boyfriend, Kevin, who says everyone from the American Medical Association to the American Academy of Allergy rejects fragrance sensitivities as an organic condition and views them as psychosomatic. I say--what’s to be gained by invalidating other people’s reality? My problem was much more practical, this evening: FGC provided fragrance-free soap and sold odorless shampoo in the Gathering store, but fragrance-free deodorant and aftershave were nowhere to be purchased.

So there I was, in the strictly fragrance-free bathroom. I used my official soap. I’d left my noxious aftershave, shampoo, and deodorant locked up airtight in my suitcase. But then I sprayed shaving cream on my face, and it hit me.

Oh no! Offending odor! Noxious molecules rising up from the yellow basin. Invisible, paired clumps of perilous protons! I quaked and quivered. I pulsed and vibrated. Then I threw the offending can into the garbage. I washed every last scrap of the white, fluffy, fake-plastic-poison down the drain. But I kept trembling all the way through the opening plenary, overwhelmed by guilt.

July 5. Oh. Oh. Dear diary, I can barely keep my pen still! I am much too trembly-shaky.

One. Two. Deep breaths, Friend! Try to think of calming images from Quaker history… Old, cracked leather breeches. Shaggy locks—Fox sleeping rough on the road, he was so free and strong—clouds of seventeenth century dandruff! I feel better now.

So, diary, you know I take our Quaker stewardship testimony seriously, and since watching that movie, Food, Inc. I, haven’t been able to touch factory-farmed eggs, milk, or meat. So my cafeteria options this morning were limited—but I did see tofu scramble on one of the tables.

I went to dish up. A tall, thin woman with curly hair was standing in front of me. I moved towards the scramble… delicious it looked, too, with onion, tomato, and cilantro.

“Excuse me, Friend,” asked the woman, firmly. “Are you gluten free?”

My plate, with the wholewheat toast and the dry, skinny apple on it, started moving in my hand. As my shakes got worse, the apple flew behind the counter. Then the gluten-laden toast fell down, right on Curly’s feet.

“Yes!” I blurted out. I could feel my Turret’s coming on. “I mean NO! I’d NEVER gluten! GLUE-some idea!”

The curly-haired woman looked at me as if I was crazy—understandable, I guess.

“No need to get nervous, Friend. We’re just asking that unless you’re completely gluten-free, you refrain from eating the food at this table.” She continued, “Yesterday we ran out, and you have to understand, Friend”—here she gestured at the fruits, cheeses, eggs, meats, and yoghurts on the other tables. Were these grain-based? I wasn’t sure. “If we eat the wrong foods, we’ll be at a medical risk. This is a matter of equality for us, like slavery…” I’d never thought of it that way! A justice issue in the bran flakes!

“Of course!” I managed to stumble out. “A glue-mungous problem! Didn’t mean to be so greedy—glue-ti-nous—gluttonous! S-s-sorry!”

In my anxious rush to escape, I did leave the toast lying at her feet, leaking wheat protein composites onto her toes.

July 7. Diary, things are going a little better. I’ve had some great worship experiences—I loved the FLGBTQSRDVI… damnit, I can never get that acronym right! But the silence, and community, were fantastic. I went to a fascinating reading about Quaker history. And in John Calvi’s lecture on torture I shivered—but not from anxiety.

I love this conference’s diversity. So many events! Now granted, sometimes this variety causes me problems. On Monday, I started off in a workshop about class. But I blabbered out, “These ugly college seminar rooms have no class at all! I hope we can accomplish that this week—getting this Gathering some class!” The look on the male facilitator’s face made me run away. I tried singing, but couldn’t hold a note. And then this morning, in yoga workshop, I strained my back doing a hand stand and got sent to the Healing Center to have my chakras rebalanced, which took all afternoon because apparently I have a giant black whirlpool in the middle of my aura. The healer said it moves clockwise, a bad omen in the Northern Hemisphere.

But all in all, I’ve been enjoying myself. As a Jewish Buddhist Pagan Light-Centered Quaker Universalist, I enjoy the theological range. I’ll be going to Shabat on Friday. In Kevin’s honor I’ll stop by a Non-Theist discussion.

But this morning, emerging from the dorm, I saw an old woman hugging a tree. Tree-gripping, dear diary, speaks to my every theological instinct: it combines Jewish schmoozing, Buddhist compassion, and pagan nature-love. It’s the best in the world!

So I ran up to this grandmotherly figure.

“Spiritual sister!” I cried, embracing her from behind, with all my strength. For a second she recoiled, terrified. Maybe I was overdoing it—I am, after all, male and six foot two.

But then she saw the FLGBTQSRDVI rainbow in my badge, and my Quaker Earthcare T-shirt.

“Brother!” she smiled. We hugged the tree together. On my way to breakfast I also embraced a shrub, a volleyball court pole, and a rusty metal garbage dumpster. At FGC we clasp everything!

At the cafeteria the curly-haired gluten-free woman who’d yelled at me invited me to join her table. “I’m sorry I was so tough on you with the tofu,” she said. “It’s just that when food runs out, people get defensive.”

I’m sorry I dropped a piece of toast on your foot,” I replied. “I don’t mean to quake as badly as I do, but I can’t help it.” When I started trembling at all this emotion, Mary—for that’s her name—put her hand on mine.

“This is one place in the world,” she said, “with room for everyone.”

We exchanged phone numbers, and promised to remain friends with both small and capital F’s.

July 8. Closing worship was full of messages about peace and reconciliation, which made me think about how much I appreciated all the mistakes I’d been forgiven for this week.

What will I tell Jane and the rest of my meeting when I get back home? In the airport, I reflected there were plenty things participants like me had to forgive this Gathering’s organizers for: everything from shortages of lunch boxes, all of the way to a shower policy that was completely insensitive to transgender campers.

Still, something brings people back here, year after year, and will probably bring me back sometime, too.

Perhaps it’s what Mary said, about FGC being one place where you can hug a tree or have an exotic allergy. A place where people can quake as they like.

Perhaps it has to do with the weight of the topics Gathering addresses, from food justice to Burundi. Or with sheer community.

Or is it that Gathering is a bit like Jesus himself, who attracted eccentrics and social outcasts? Today, if Jesus wondered the Midwest prairies, would he dine with a fragrant-allergic gluten-intolerant Jewish Buddhist? Dear diary, if he stopped to talk to a quaking FGC-er like me, would he say something kind, like Mary? Would he hug a tree with me, like that like bespectacled grandmother?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Ex-gay versus transgender

Thanks to the St. Petersburg Times for publishing this op-ed of mine, last Sunday (August 14). Thanks to the inimitable Peterson Toscano for alerting me to a new ex-gay talking point--and for teaching more about both ex-gay survivor and trans issues than I ever expected to learn. Abigail Jensen also helped me with earlier drafts of this essay, pointing out to me areas where I writing misleadingly about the trans experience; I am grateful to her, too.

Are the people who are going after Michele Bachmann for her husband's ex-gay program self-righteous hypocrites? After all, most of the ex-gay movement's critics — from the American Psychological Association to the LGBT lobbying group the Human Rights Campaign — support therapy aimed at helping trans people change genders.

Let's say someone named John Deer from Dallas, Pa., decides that for health and sanity, s/he needs to live as Jane Doe. Therapists will check to see if John/Jane meets the criteria of gender identity disorder. If they decide she fits this diagnosis, they will back her as she addresses her deep, visceral discomfort with her male gender role. They will encourage Jane to adopt gender behaviors that feel "right" and, if appropriate, will counsel her through hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgery.

Yet substitute "sexual orientation" for "gender" in the above description, and most Americans — 69 percent, in one recent poll — will say, "That's crazy! Sexual orientation should be accepted." Therapists, while supporting individuals' right to manage their own lives, will refuse to help patients change sexual orientation, on the grounds of their Hippocratic oaths to "do no harm."

This argument — that America is guilty of a double standard in regard to the ex-gay movement — has recently been getting airplay. For example, on a recent segment of NPR's Morning Edition, ex-gay Rich Wyler criticized the APA for assuming his goals as a patient were illegitimate. (Full disclosure here: The author is partnered with Peterson Toscano, another interviewee on the aforementioned piece and a well-known critic of ex-gay programs).

The notion that ex-gays are "straight people trapped in a body with gay desires" has a certain superficial appeal. After all, who is the APA to decide that one kind of discomfort with self is more respectable than another? But this argument is based on a profound misunderstanding of gender and sexuality — and in perpetuating these misconceptions, the ex-gay movement continues a long tradition of peddling snake oil instead of real medicine.

To begin, let's look at the psychiatric concept of "gender identity disorder." The language from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (better known as DSM-IV) is long and complex, but its essence is:

1. A strong and persistent cross-gender identification — not merely a desire for any perceived cultural advantages of being the other sex.

2. This disturbance causes clinically significant distress.

Examples of cross-gender identification might be a child's repeated statements that s/he is the opposite sex, or his/her insistence on behaving like a member of the opposite sex (like trying to join the other sex's sports teams or using their bathrooms). Clinically significant distress, as a teenager or adult, may include suicidal feelings or inability to function at work.

The difference between the trans experience and the ex-gay one should already be coming into focus. While both involve distress, in one case I desire to change myself — change my deep feelings and inner being. In the other, I long to change my outer body so as to become myself: so as to allow the physical to reflect what is known within. To return to the John Deer example cited above, it isn't so much that John decides to be Jane. It's more that John finally accepts what he has always known.

Until recent decades, attempts to make trans people accept their socially assigned gender roles were as automatic as psychiatric interventions designed to try to "straighten out" gay people. The effectiveness rate for these "ex-trans" interventions was, if anything, even worse than the dismal rate for "ex-gay" therapies. Today, as the APA noted in a 2009 report, the evidence is overwhelming: Self-acceptance is infinitely healthier than "de-transing" or "de-gaying."

The gender identity disorder diagnosis is controversial in the trans community, because it implicitly characterizes the trans experience as an illness rather than recognizing that the primary source of the discomfort trans people experience results from societal ignorance. But the DSM-IV phrase — not merely a desire for the perceived cultural advantages — is a useful one in further illuminating the absurdity of the ex-gay movement's position.

Cultural advantages? Sure, I see the overwhelming privileges associated with leaving homosexuality behind. Rich Wyler named a few of them on Morning Edition: retaining conservative family, friends and church. Being able to get married and have a family, with government support. He could have added: no longer risking violence by holding hands at a bus stop.

But the advantages of being … trans?

A growing body of research illustrates that trans men and women face vicious and intense discrimination if their transgender status is known. As many as two-thirds of trans Americans live in poverty. Around a fifth have experienced homelessness; many report being denied apartments or houses as a result of being perceived as "freaks."

Violence against trans people is shocking and widespread. Just this April, a trans woman who tried to use the bathroom in a McDonald's in Baltimore was famously beaten until she went into seizures, while the employees looked on without reacting.

To transition to another gender in our world is an act of great courage and rebellion, which requires confronting friends, family, and the world with a truth of the heart. The individual who does so takes significant risks for the sake of joy and psychic wholeness.

I'm not saying that a few rare individuals in ex-gay programs, who try to change themselves to please their pastors, parents and Bible teachers, don't achieve peace when they try to live according to their personal interpretation of a 1,600-year-old book. But the vast majority of ex-gays are motivated by fear of punishment in this world or the next — not by brave integrity. The spiritual fruits of their quest for change tend to be terror, shame, numbness and self-hatred — a slow death of their true selves, which is to say of their souls.

In a free country, people have the right to self-destruct. But to equate all of this with the hard-won and life-giving freedom of trans people isn't just wrong-headed. It also takes extraordinary intellectual chutzpah.