“Manning Up” and Becoming Whole

justin in sequoia

On getting broken down and building oneself back up again.

I’m two months out from back surgery, and beginning to feel like myself again. For more than a year, I suffered crippling back and leg pain from what might be a very old injury. The body awareness I’ve regained from surgery is joined by the sense of being gladly alive and sensate, after stripping the dulling layer of pain medication.

While I was still in the throes of my ordeal, and many months from resolution, I wrote and massively revised a story, “Heartbreak and Detox,” which was accepted for publication in a new transmasculine anthology called “Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family, and Themselves,” edited by Zander Keig and Mitch Kellaway. Keig co-edited the 2011 Lambda Literary Finalist, Letters for My Brothers: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect.

“This anthology will help provide the much-needed space for trans men to reposition gender change within the context of their lives as humans connected intimately with others,” writes Kellaway.

I’m at a bus stop and I hear my name being called, and try to pretend that I didn’t. I’d already seen her and Luc when I heard him innocently shout to me. He doesn’t realize how it wounds me to see her, my ex’s new girlfriend, who is with him. Of course she and Luc are friends. They’re all friends, in this small town, the whole queer, poly, trans and allied, kinky hipster crowd. Just not with me.

Avoidance of mutual friends is one of the stages of grief, but it’s not the first. We live in the same town. I used to go past her house every week. When we started dating, crossing the railroad tracks between our neighborhoods became a heightened experience, like crossing between worlds. Now her house is like a rotting tooth in my mouth that I can’t help but probe with my tongue.

Read the whole story in “Manning Up,” now available for discounted pre-order from Transgress Press. “Manning Up” will be released on May 1, 2014.

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Trans 101: What is the process to change one’s sex?

transgender surgery, Chaz Bono, Lana Wachowski, female transgender, male transgender, sex change, transgender surgery

What is the process of transition for a trans person? (Hint: there is no process)

“How does that work?” and, “how long does it take?” are just a couple of the questions that people who haven’t been through the sex change process ask. For those about to transition—new trans people—it’s natural to want to know what is in store for them. The people around them, the allies, families, and friends of new trans people, may never have considered what a transgender person has to go through to achieve body congruence. Most people don’t have to think about what it means to go through a sex change, yet they may hold unspoken assumptions about the process, such as that there is a single “transgender surgery.”

What is a gender transition? How does it happen?

In some people’s imaginations, it works like this: “Andy” wakes up one morning and decides to change his gender. He goes down to the Department of Transgender, talks to a social worker, fills out a lot of forms, and a few weeks later he’s packing his bags. Andy disappears from society for a few days or months, then returns, legally the same person, but transformed. A surgeon in Thailand “chops off her penis”—this is the medical terminology—and her body is magically feminized: leg hair falls out, and razor sharp cheekbones rise like the Andes on her now-beardless face. Where Andy stood is now the beautiful Andrella, remembering what Andy does, having all of his experience, yet without a trace of masculinity remaining from her years of Boy Scouts and “man up!” lessons and testosterone. She returns home as fresh as a brand new Barbie doll, complete with passport, wardrobe, and romcom movie deal about a plucky “new girl next door” in search of her Prince Charming.

For trans men in this fantasy, it works exactly the same but in reverse. “Chaz” wakes up one morning, flies to Thailand, and before he’s recovered from the jet lag, everyone is calling him “Mister” and asking him to dance lead on reality TV.

In the real world (not “MTV’s The Real World”), there is no single process for a trans person. Sometimes there is no process, or else it’s not what you’d consider a “process.” Sometimes—a lot of the time—it goes at the speed of money. Sometimes this isn’t such a good thing for Andrella/Chaz, but it’s also pretty rare, unless your name is Wachowski, to have the hundreds of thousands of dollars at one’s disposal for transition related surgery expenses. And then there’s just laws of physics/biology, what you can do with the hands that go with a 6’4” person who lived under the influence of testosterone for a decade before she could get those hands wrapped around her destiny. There’s the priorities of people who might not be entirely sane, but are at least as sane as you are: they won’t get their legs broken like a tragic sci fi hero to gain six inches of height.

And there’s the limits of science, too. We can break legs, but we can’t make big, sensitive, responsive penises, or everyone would have one. At least one. Why stop there? Have one made up for daytime and one for evening wear. One to take out on weekends, and another for weekdays. One that looks good in a swimsuit, and one that your lover has custom designed to fit. A penis for every occasion.

Thanks to a decades-long sci fi habit, I’m waiting for nanotechnology rather than surgery. Imagine: a soft hiss of yeasty steam and the softly whirring magic of millions of tiny, tiny machines, building upon my own genetics to deliver the perfect penis that will work exactly as Nature would have made for me, had she gotten slightly different assembly instructions. Until such time as a gray goo squirted from a tube and applied to my nether bits delivers, I’m living with imperfection, but when it does,  I’ll probably overdo it, ignore the warning on the label, fail to apply it to an unobtrusive test area first. It’ll give me rock hard abs, remove all my back hair, make me a super genius and perk up my sagging butt, while also giving me an incurable computer virus. Because it’s still science fiction and without conflict, it’s just science lies.

So how does it usually work?

There are steps that trans people often take. Here are a few changes that will generally happen sooner rather than later.

Column A: Sometimes a trans person does one or more of these things, in some order and possibly more than once, as part of a transition:

  • Asks friends to call them by a new name, and/or use different pronouns, etc.
  • Asks family members to do this.
  • Comes out as trans at work, in church, to their school friends but not their work friends or vice versa… in other words, selectively. Over time (because it’s exhausting… how many coming out talks can you give in a day?) and to some social circles but not others, for a variety of reasons including power relations and a trans person’s own fears and prejudices.
  • Removes or grows facial hair, changes hairstyle, manicure habits, starts or stops shaving other bodily hair, or otherwise alters grooming habits in a way some might read as “gendered.”
  • Starts dressing differently, possibly in a “very gendered” way (extremely masculine or feminine), or in a way that is notably androgynous.
  • Talks to a mental health professional about feelings of gender incongruity or a desire to live in the opposite gender.

Column B: Among those changes that a trans person might make that suggest that at least some of the new has worn off the situation, these are usually only undertaken once something from Column B has been ordered and digested. As before, these may take place over the course of months or years, and as previously noted, can be seriously delayed by finances.

  • Changes their name legally.
  • Starts taking hormones or hormone blockers.
  • Starts electrolysis (for male to female transition).
  • Has medical procedures to alter appearance or secondary sex characteristics.

There are no rules for what you have done, when, in what order, or anything. There are some guidelines that suggest seeing a mental health professional before having hormones or surgery. There’s certainly no Department of Transgender.

Changing your name, legally, is a different process in each locality. It’s often a family court matter, meaning a judge will want to know why you are requesting a name change: saying “because I’m transgender” is totally fine. You might have “the letter” from your MH professional saying yes, it’s true, this person is known to me as trans, and that satisfies many people: ignorant judges, bureaucrats of all kinds, and trans people themselves, who see themselves as protected from some of the consequences of appearing trans. The government just wants you not to be a crook, which is why this part of the process often requires publishing a notice in a newspaper, and is heavy on the “promise you’re not doing this to evade debt” language. You’ll have to swear, probably. Dress for court, say “Your Honor” when addressing a judge, step through the hoops as presented, and you’ll be fine, probably. It’s the least horrible part of the process for most people.

What is a sex change surgery?

The whole realm of medical procedures is likewise not regulated by any central transgender board. Each doctor decides who they’ll treat and under what conditions, governed by their own professional ethics. Have you ever had surgery of any kind? There’s a consultation. You schedule it with the doctor and the surgery center. Someone tells you what to buy for postoperative care and to make sure you have a ride home. If you’re lucky, you’ve got someone who’ll screen your calls for rabid, angry relatives, and if you’re even luckier, you have a supportive family who brings you fruit baskets and bad movies and fill your prescriptions, just like they would if you were having any other kind of surgery.

I’ve known people who’ve gone through treatment for cancer, chemo and radiation treatments as well as surgery. At first I think it would have been a shock to me, in their positions, that the world doesn’t stop for cancer patients. What do you mean I still have to go to work? But they do, many of them. Cancer patients schedule those treatments like any other medical appointments. You might be surprised how life goes on even as you’re fighting for it. It’s the same for us. For a lot of us, I think, this is a fight for our lives, and unlike cancer treatments, the expenses are usually not covered by health insurance.

The actual procedures that are considered “sex change surgery” are various and include:

  • Tracheal shaving (for male to female transition)
  • Facial cosmetic surgery (rhinoplasty, cheekbone sculpting, jaw and brow reshaping)
  • Phalloplasty
  • Vaginoplasty
  • Double mastectomy
  • Breast implants

And while not surgery, these procedures are often performed by cosmetic surgery centers, are comparably painful and expensive, but usually need multiple treatments to achieve satisfactory results:

  • Silicone injections
  • Electrolysis or laser hair removal

Column C: I can’t think of anything that goes here. Is there some kind of super transsexual act one can undergo? If you think of one, let me know in the comments. Or maybe after you get your card stamped so many times, you earn points… but what are they redeemable for? Again, if you can think of something… I know Transadvocate has been wondering what we get for being trans. It seems some of us are getting cake.

Maybe Column C is the list of those things that a trans person does (or has done to them) that signify a certain level of completion. Because most trans people eventually:

  • Make financial plans that don’t revolve around paying for items in Columns A and B.
  • Mentee trans people who come out after them, who are just as scared and uncertain as they were themselves, back when they first considered ordering something from Column A.
  • Meet people who didn’t know them before transition.
  • Go through whole days where they don’t think about one single transgender thing.
  • Figure themselves “done with transition,” even if it’s with a caveat (such as until nanotechnology is in beta.)

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Running and Falling

SWINGHow narcissism and identity are very much like falling off a gate.

When I was eight years old I ran away from the person I loved most.

Grandma was staying with us because our parents were vacationing in Atlantic City for a week. I had a twenty dollar bill, a months’ allowance saved. Someday soon, I was going to run away to New York City. I was eight and had been planning this for months. It wouldn’t be the first time I left home—or last—but it didn’t happen the way I’d been planning, this time. I didn’t mean to run away from her.

But somewhere during the week, Grandma got confused about how much cash she’d spent, and called me into my room to ask me if I’d taken the $20 bill from her purse. She was sitting on my bed, her purse on her lap. When I denied it, she asked me again, repeating the question until I snapped and ran from her. I ran out of the house, and for blocks, until my lungs felt like they were on fire and my legs would fly out from under me.

I’d run off without any money in my pockets. This wasn’t the way I’d planned it, but since I couldn’t go back, I continued in the direction of the city. I walked, for hours, until after nightfall and I was lost. I found a shopping center and called my uncle who took me home to his house for the night. Not much was said before he returned me to my parents, who were due home that morning.

♦◊♦

This story is coming out again for me in therapy, making me think, making me distant. I spend long hours cleaning up digital poop in “Zoo Tycoon 2” to distract me. I work on telling this story, and answering to my own satisfaction, why it is coming up for me now.

The public breakdown of Hugo Schwyzer has made me think about how public to make my own mental health related suffering. The internet is a public space—even our email is read. I believe that we as citizens of an online community have to have ways of creating accountability. I pride myself on being out: sharing our stories is celebratory, healing, connective. Even before the internet made it so easy to share, I always intended to tell my own story: always, since I learned to write. But not just for others. I need to understand my own story. And so I write it. And then I edit. I revise, reframe for other audiences.

Being mentally ill has a way of erasing credibility and expertise in some people’s eyes. It’s as if everything is a lie, nothing can be trusted, there is no real “self” to know. I worry that there are too many facets for me to know, more than normal people. There’s aspiring, and then there’s believing in your own branding.

The reaction to Hugo online, among people who know him slightly or not at all, also reminded me of how I usually deal with his kind of madness, which is to run away from it. Narcissistic personalities are particularly beguiling, at first. I’ve fallen for a few. But these vain and greedy souls take their energy from people like me, who watch from a safe distance, and much more from people who step directly into their energy fields, or respond to their flirtations. Narcissists must be at the center of attention, this being the only way they can handle the deep conflict they generate.

Charming, intelligent people who can surf the waves seem deep and balanced, but they are more like skimming stones, leaping to avoid sinking. They don’t know quite who they are, and with this, I sympathize. I compare their self image to my physical sense of self. It took me a long time, well into adulthood, to develop enough proprioception that roller coasters made me feel sick instead of pleasantly dizzy. Narcissists only know they exist because of their effects on others, and the way you rock a baby to teach its inner ears balance, they must constantly rock the boat to roil others, to know who they are in the world. The high school drama that most of us outgrow, remains necessary to them.

I take people like Hugo to heart, because we both suffer from our mental illnesses. The breakdowns, the relapses, the suicides: every one is a cautionary tale for me. There was reporting last week of a young man who had struggled with an eating disorder and anxiety, even posted an encouraging recovery video on ED. I wonder what it means to succumb: when all of that takes you. I want to know the details, to not only avoid these fates but to feel safe. Falling can feel that safe. It has for me every time I’ve experienced the sensation of being near death. One time I was hit in traffic on my bicycle, and another time, long ago, I was thrown from a swinging gate. Each time I found myself flying through the air, the hard ground coming fast toward my head, and there was nothing to be done about it. Time stretched, allowing time for panic to dissolve, regret to flicker, for a clear image of the end. There was no sound, only full, long nanoseconds of understanding.

The fact that Hugo has landed back at his parents’ house is, to me, a personal nightmare. I have a history of running away. Part of me still doesn’t forgive me for turning back, the time I ran away from my grandmother when I was eight years old.

The story that my husband likes for me to tell people about her is the one where she doors a guy in an Astoria mall for stealing a parking space. My grandma Cascio was a lover and a fighter. But she was so much more, and most of what she was, I’ll never know, because I was her grandchild: blood and generations cleaved us. The most important thing to know about her was that she always made me feel like I was her favorite: special, protected.

♦◊♦

After my uncle brought me home to my parents, I was broken down. I don’t even remember their reaction when they came home from their trip, anything they said to me. I remember that for months, it felt like, I could not look my grandmother in the eye. I acted like I was angry at her, and I was—for not trusting me, for thinking me a thief. But mostly I was hurt too much for her apology to work. I could not apologize for running away. How could she have believed that I would steal from her? Didn’t she know how much I loved her? For me, it wasn’t a lie: I loved her more than anyone else in our family.

Immediately after my grandmother died, I began my transition from female to male. People who I thought knew me well were stunned and disbelieving when I transitioned, while others shocked me by having seen what I thought was so well hidden, and took my coming out to them in stride. I was humbled, repeatedly. There was so much I didn’t know about the people I thought I knew so well. I like to think my grandmother would have accepted me as her grandson, if she had lived to see me. And yet the timing is undeniable.

Image courtesy of the author’s grandmother, may her memory be a blessing

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“Fake It ‘Til You Make It” Isn’t “Faking It” at All

Agrado, All About My Mother, Todo Sobre Mi Madre, Pedro Almodovar, authenticityAuthenticity is aspirational, heroic, and expensive.

Last Monday, I joined Bobby Umar’s leadership discussion, The Power of Connection Chat, on Twitter, for a conversation on authenticity. In answer to Umar’s question, “What is authenticity?” there was a wide range of response:

Too wide, really. Is authenticity really about selfishness, listening skills, or work ethic? What about being true to others as well as yourself? I’d say, “probably not.” But is this really the case—that “faking it til you make it” is inauthentic?


In Pedro Almodovar’s “Todo Sobre Mi Madre,” (“All About My Mother”) Agrado, a trans woman and sex worker, entertains a crowd of theater goers with a story of authenticity and transformation. She points to one body part after another, names the feminizing medical procedure performed and its cost. Most expenses are given in dollars, but the other prices she has paid are made clear. “It costs a lot to be truly authentic,” says Agrado, in the conclusion of her speech. “And one can’t be stingy with these things because you are more authentic the more you resemble what you’ve dreamed of being.”

Further complicating the question of “What is authentic?” is that we are authentically complex. We are quantum, wave forms of consciousness and particles of identity. If you try to pin us down with labels, we defy them with our individuality. Walt Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself,” “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large—I contain multitudes.”

While we are largely a product of our environments and genetics, forces beyond our control, we also have at least the illusion of will and self-determination: we have drives beyond survival, to become something more than we are. Which are you, your values or the raw materials? Aren’t we both?

Agrado’s description of authenticity contains within it an argument for its selfishness. To prioritize resembling our dreams for ourselves is expensive, and as the story of “Todo Sobre Mi Madre” makes clear, it takes years or whole lifetimes to achieve. To devote most of one’s lifetime and resources to achieving a dream of self-actualization is either heroic or very selfish, and likely, both.

How do you express your authentic self?

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10 Things People Have Said to Me, That You Should Never Say to a Trans Person

trans 101

What not to say to a patient, client, co-worker, friend of a friend, networking contact, first date, or other acquaintance who is transgender.

Has someone just come out to you as transgender? Are you nervous about what to say, now that you know this unusual fact about them? If you feel positively about trans people’s rights to express their identities, you may want to offer your support. Or perhaps you’re curious and would like to know more about this person’s life experience. What is the etiquette of talking about transgenderism with a trans person you don’t know very well?

Any variation on “you pass” is a personal remark about someone’s body. And unless you are invited, it’s rude to offer your opinions.

The short answer is to employ the “Golden Rule” of doing to others what you’d have them do to you in their situation. But for many reasons, it’s scary for cis people to consider a trans person’s perspective. Even people who have experienced oppression, questioned their own gender, or have been educated in establishing trust and rapport with a variety of patients, don’t always know what to say to a trans person they’d like to get to know better, personally or professionally.

In fact, people in the caring professions have not usually had any training at all on transgender issues. There’s more information available on Wikipedia about transgenderism than the average health care professional has received in their whole career. Trans people should be especially aware of this as they seek out care providers for themselves. While this advice is for cis people, and especially care providers, trans people may want to read along to understand why these sorts of comments are so upsetting to hear, no matter who says them.

1. “It’s working.”

The doctor I saw to get refills on my testosterone prescription prodded me like a prize steer on my last visit and remarked, “You’re masculinizing nicely.”

Understand, no one has called me “ma’am” since 1999. That’s the year I grew my first goatee, joined a men’s chorus as a baritone, and had gender confirming surgery. Yet more than a decade later, I’m still reassured by well-intentioned but ignorant people that I pass.

2. “I never would have guessed.”

People might believe they’re being complimentary, or helpful, or are demonstrating acceptance when they say things to me like “Welcome to my gender” and “I never would have guessed.” But what they’re doing is assuming I need their gatekeeping and approval. Neither is true.

Any variation on “you pass” is a personal remark about someone’s body. And unless you are invited, it’s rude to offer your opinions.

3. “How to”

The first therapist I saw, in pursuit of “The Letter” that would get me hormones, surgery, and a male passport, gave me a steady stream of advice on how to hold my cigarette, how to sit, and so on, all of it unsolicited and unnecessary. Trans people learn how to be men or women from the people around them, just as cis people do: we don’t need special lessons.

People who assume I am looking for their approving remarks on how well I’m passing or how nicely I fit the masculine mold, or who assume I want advice on how to “do manhood” better, are objectifying me as a trans person. They have their ideas about gender, and what trans people need, and they treat me accordingly, without paying attention to what I’m actually like, or have asked from them. I’m just a trans person to them, not Justin.

4. “I couldn’t help but notice.”

Most of us already know that it’s rude to grab the handles of a wheelchair in order to push someone where you want them to go, or to touch someone’s hair uninvited to satisfy your curiosity about its texture. There are some rules for how we treat one another, in recognition of body sovereignty, not just for people with disabilities, or people of color, but for everyone. We teach our children that other people don’t get to touch them, and that you don’t touch people, without consent. We teach them not to stare at people who are different. And we also teach them that it’s rude to talk about other people’s bodies.

Just because you know I’m trans doesn’t mean you get to turn the conversation into a free Trans 101 seminar.

5. “You are so brave.”

If you want to make me feel good about myself, compliment me on my shirt. I picked it out this morning. Or even better, compliment my writing or my cooking, in which, unlike my collection of identical white T-shirts, I take genuine pride.

It’s rude to say things about how brave I must be to live my life, because the compliment requires an appropriate level of intimacy, and honesty, to be accepted as genuine. You can’t honestly compliment me on something that you don’t know and can’t guess.

6. “Let me ask you something.”

When we don’t know other people at all, it’s easy to treat them as if they exist only in the role in which we meet them. But it is objectifying to treat people as if they exist primarily to satisfy you somehow—to educate you, or to make you feel comfortable, or like you’re a good person. Unless you’ve hired them to do something specific, such as conduct a Trans 101 seminar or wait on your table, they don’t have to do anything for you, including answer your questions.

The problem is not that sometimes people ask dumb questions. It’s that some people feel entitled to explanations and to feeling at ease and like good citizens—and that rather than doing the work, themselves, other people should meet those demands, by default.

It’s not always possible to do the research before an opportunity presents itself, in the person of someone who knows something that interests you. If you feel the need to ask a “dumb” question, consider starting by asking the person whether it’s okay to ask a few questions about their expertise, and be prepared to accept “no” for an answer. Just as in any other conversation, pay attention to cues that you’re making your acquaintance uncomfortable, and change topics.

7. “What was your old name?”

Or worse, “What is your real name?” If you ask me this (and I have been asked), you’re asking me to tell you the name that I legally changed so that I’d have no more connection to it.

Before professional interviews, I tell them this is the one question that I will not answer. Every time I see in an article, “Samuel, who used be known as Jill … ” I realize that I am right not to tell reporters, because this is what they’ll do with it: use it as a sensationalist prop for their prose.

For many people, trans or cis, what’s in their pants and in their past, is private. If someone gives you permission to ask questions about their private lives, proceed with caution and respect, and thank them for the gift.

8. “I know your old name.”

I hated my old name for most of my life before I changed it. As a kid, I wrote a syndicated advice columnist about it, and she said that I would grow into it. Needless to say, I didn’t.

I’ve had old classmates show up on Facebook and act like they have the right to call me by that name because that’s the one they knew me by, back in the day. When people who knew me from before transition continue to use my old name and make no effort to use my current name, I’m offended; eventually, I refuse to speak to them.

9. “Have you had the full surgery?”

Asking people to explain their questions is always a good response to an unclear question.

Every trans person has a different experience. Don’t assume anything. Consider asking, “What has your transition been like?” for a more meaningful response.

I had a psychologist ask me this recently, as part of a history. I’d already told her what operations and illnesses I’d had in my life, so when she asked me this, I did what I usually do in such a situation, and asked her to explain what she meant by “the full surgery.” She got flustered and shut up, because she realized her question was based on a false assumption.

The process of transitioning from one gender to another takes time: years, not weeks. Every trans person has a different experience. Don’t assume anything. Consider asking, “What has your transition been like?” for a more meaningful response.

10. “You must know…”

I don’t know everything about being trans. I have opinions, but you have to know me to understand where those opinions come from. Don’t trust what I say because I’m trans. Google me and read what I, and others, have written on the subject. Talk to other people.

I also don’t know all the trans people. A friend jokes that “there are only six trans men in the world, and the rest is done with mirrors,” but it’s a joke. A doctor I used to see for head meds would tell me about some trans patient or other he’d seen in his career, every time I saw him. It never had anything to do with the reason for my visit. He wasn’t even treating me for GID. He was name dropping to impress me as the kind of enlightened doctor who talks to trans people all the time and it’s no big deal. He impressed me as an insecure windbag.

The good news is that most people don’t need my lessons on not being an inadvertent asshole to trans people. It’s very often the same kind of sensible advice that gets you through any situation where you’re a stranger in a strange land. Be respectful, considerate, curious, humble, compassionate, generous, and courageous. I know it’s not much as advice goes, but it will serve you in a wider variety of circumstances than meeting one of the six trans men in the world.

Baby foot in mouth image credit: AshleyNYCPics/Flickr

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Future Devices: The Google Organ

computer implant, microchip, GPS tracking, smartphones, cyborgs, Google OrganI predict that in the not too distant future, we will all have implanted computers that connect us with one another. Will you be an early adopter?

Please note: “Google” is the intellectual property of Google, Inc. Resemblance to the Google Organ of any product, real or imagined, is purely coincidental.

Michal Levin, a senior user experience designer at Google admits that wearing Google Glass “gets pretty tiring pretty fast,” in an article by Cameron Scott on Social Times. But once the bugs are worked out, we’re going to come another step closer to what I call the Google Organ.

I imagine a time in the future when we have implantable organs that can do everything that Google Glass can do, and so much more. As I’ve been telling my friends for at least a year, the Google Organ is our future. Will you be an early adopter?

The Google Organ, or Organs—many manufacturers will probably be making items like these—will have multiple functions from entertainment to saving lives, just like our smartphones do now. Imagine a computer the size of a grain of rice, under your skin, that delivers heads up displays, connects you to the internet, and with applications to monitor your bodily functions and even control the WiFi enabled machines around you.

We’ll all be GPS monitored, and everywhere we go, not only will we know exactly where we are, and have contextual information for our locations, but others can know where we are, too. We can click “OK” on the privacy agreements that give our credit card numbers to the agencies that collect highway tolls, to our gyms and workplaces, so that wherever we go, doors open to us, and our fees are paid. ATMs will recognize us. We’ll walk out of stores without even having to pause, because the items and we will all be tracked by RFID. Dynamic billboards will change their displays as we walk past, based on as much information as we elect to share.

If you’re ever in an accident, EMTs will know who you are, your insurance provider, primary care doctor, and full medical history, including allergies, conditions, and the medications you’re currently taking. Such a device could potentially sense everything from your blood alcohol level to your sodium levels, dynamically regulate your insulin pump, pacemaker, APAP machine, and any other device in your house to manage your health and well being. It could send emergency notifications to your doctor or summon an ambulance.

Being inside you, there would be no more track pads or thumbing keyboards. Instead, we’ll commune with our smart devices in some subtle way, such as a subvocalization, eye movement, thought, or even without your conscious direction. It will revolutionize how we live, and it’s all possible with current technology.

Not long ago I interviewed a panel of dads about technology. One of the questions I asked was, would you have your kids “radio chipped”? My dog and one of my cats (who came through a shelter, rather than informal adoption) have these chips implanted, so that if one of them wanders off, they can be identified with information stored on the microchip implanted under their skin, and we, their owners, contacted. You can see how small these things are. It’s only a matter of time before they contain not only information, but processing power. In 1951, the original UNIVAC filled a largish room, and had less processing power than my Android. These are bound to get smaller and more powerful, more quickly, until the Google Organ becomes possible, and then more essential to who you are than your pancreas. 

The biggest change is going to be one of social acceptance—of the loss of privacy that is inherent in using such a technology. Once it reaches a tipping point, use of any technology will become the norm, without any of us really noticing. When did it become unsafe to ride a horse on the road, because of the preponderance of automobiles? When did we all start peeing in cups to get employment? When did we all start shopping online with our credit cards, and stop worrying about sending our numbers off into the ether? Or waving a key fob at the gas pump to pay for our fuel? Few of us understand the technologies we live with and rely upon, including ones that didn’t exist twenty years ago, or ten. That isn’t even the issue. It’s simply one of adoption.

Someday soon, the question won’t be, “would you chip your kids?” but, “would you let your kids get the Google Organ?” The question won’t sound like that. They’ll call it something else. The first ones will be buggy and hard to live with, like the first Google Glass. But you can be sure that once they smooth out the rough edges, all the kids will be doing it. And so will you. Because like cell phones and GPS navigation systems in our cars, it’s darned handy to have the technology you need, “at hand,” so to speak, and getting smaller and more hands-free with every iteration.

Finally, like Facebook, these devices won’t be cool anymore, because everyone and their mom will have them. We’ll all be muttering or eye flickering away, only fully present online, directed by satellite not to trip over the cracks in the sidewalk: radio controlled zombies to the outside observer, easier to contact and learn about than strangers have ever been, but only to those who have adopted the technology. No one will ever be quite alone, or lost, like we can be now, they’ll say when they sell you this. With any luck for the inventor of the Google Organ, it’ll be a technology that nearly everyone will adopt.

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Like a Deer in Headlights

the hot seat

Preparing to be interviewed can only take you so far. Then, you have to be there for it.

Last week in an interview, I was asked about the distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation—the difference between who we are and who we’re into. In response, I paraphrased the end of an essay I’ve written about my marriage to another transgender man: “We transitioned to match our bodies to our feelings of already being men. Our sexual orientation is who we are attracted to.”

“But don’t people find that confusing?” she asked. Startled, I responded, “I don’t see what’s so confusing about that.” My interviewer flinched. I knew then that I’d screwed up, but felt powerless to fix it. My response to her first question had taken me years to formulate. But for the rest of the interview, she seemed rushed and not quite engaged in my answers.

After a human interaction in which I think I’ve said something wrong, I get acutely anxious. I call it “the posties,” as in, “post-event anxiety.” The first time I meet someone, or after a party, meeting, or training, I will inevitably go over anything I said that seemed to provoke a negative or surprising response. Even if the rest of the encounter goes all right, I’ll review the situation in my mind for days (even years) afterward, until I figure out what I’ll do next time, if there ever is one.

I’d made a pedagogical mistake in my defensiveness, one I learned back in my college days: don’t ever say that the solution to someone’s question is simple. It makes them feel stupid for not having figured it out, themselves, when you start off your explanation dismissively, by saying things like “simply do this” or “it’s easy to….” It’s not “easy” or “simple” to the person asking the question.

I kept thinking about that interview. I know I’ll be asked this question again, in some form or another. This interviewer was extremely polite; sometimes it comes out in a far more combative way, like “Why become a man just so you can date men?” Because it isn’t the same as being a woman who dates men. Isn’t that obvious? Evidently not.

When I panic, I’m not there: I’ve dissociated and one of my fear responses has been activated. I’m fighting, running away, shutting down. When I’m being interviewed by a woman who is halfway around the world, fighting doesn’t happen with fists or yelling, but with stonewalling and shaming. I’d panicked, and evidently panicked her, as well.

I need to prepare better answers to the questions that inevitably come up, but more than this, I need to be there for the people who are asking them. No amount of preparation can substitute for awareness in the moment.

Image credit:Pete Prodoehl/Flickr

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