An open letter to River Valley Co-op member-owners

Justin and his puppies last winterIf Northampton wants a fair and cooperative natural foods market, we need to act now.

It was the first week of January, and we’d just had our first big storm of the winter. The day was bright with snow, as I walked downtown to a meeting with River Valley Co-op’s outgoing board president. I got there a few minutes early and grabbed a table up front. While I waited, I sipped hot tea and watched traffic on Main Street.

Through the window of the patisserie, I watched as someone parked in front of the jeweler on the corner. A woman got out of the driver’s side, clambered over the snow, and fed the meter. It was obvious she had not removed any of the recent snowfall from her car before setting out that day and the foot-tall pile of snow was forming a crusty rind. She looked up at the ice, gave it a halfhearted swipe with a gloved hand, and seeing that she’d had little effect, gave up and crossed the street.

This was Dorian Gregory, the outgoing president of the board of Northampton’s natural foods cooperative. I had asked Dorian to meet me that day to talk about RVC’s leadership: how the board works and what challenges it faces.

Management issues

Obstructing labor organization

Last spring, before I met with Gregory, RVC’s General Manager, Rochelle Prunty, was accused of obstructing Co-op workers’ protected right to organize. Mark Heitman, a shuttle driver, defended their rights in a heated discussion with Prunty in the store. He filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board against Prunty, for intimidation and blocking organization efforts. Initially, Prunty dismissed the grievance against herself.

During mediation in the fall, she made it clear to the union stewards that there would be financial rewards to staff if the outcome of mediation was favorable to management. This gambit worked, and staff got a small raise, which has been trumpeted as a victory by River Valley Co-op, for reaching their goal of paying a living wage to most of their workers.

Boards have three products. They have a relationship with member-owners that justifies their acting as our representatives. They create policy based on our bylaws, and they guarantee the performance of the executive: the general manager, Rochelle Prunty. River Valley Co-op’s board is failing at all three.

The issue of back pay owed for shuttle time was never addressed. Even more serious is that Heitman’s whistleblowing was soon punished. After his labor complaint was “resolved” in mediation, all four shuttle drivers were laid off. Shuttles are now driven by managers, quelling free discussion among staff, which was the intended effect, according to several employees, past and present, with whom I’ve spoken.

Heitman, who was sixty last year, and the other drivers were offered other positions, but there are no comparable jobs inside the store, to driving a van. Most require standing for long hours, which may explain why none of the four took another job in the Co-op.

Heitman’s is just one in a pattern of suspicious and antagonistic firings of respected staff members, which Tim McNerney mentions in an interview on Occupy The Airwaves last October, going back to the earliest years of the King Street store, when I still worked there. What the firings had in common were that the staff members fired were all leading efforts to empower their fellow workers: to organize, and to be paid fairly for their time.

In 2012, River Valley Co-op joined the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1459 because management was unresponsive to staff concerns, according to David Gowler, quoted that year in The Valley Advocate. Gowler is not only a former employee of the Co-op, like I am, but one of the earliest member-owners and board officers of the Northampton Community Cooperative Market—the corporation that owns River Valley Co-op, and is now planning to open a second store in Easthampton.

 

Hostility to member-owner desires

Duke Bouchard, the Co-op’s CFO, formerly worked for a grocery cooperative in Albany, Honest Weight. He resigned after member-owners there discovered he had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of the co-op’s money on legal consultants, looking for a way to circumvent a popular feature of membership: the ability to exchange volunteer hours for discounts in the store. (O’Brien, Tim. “Four quit at Honest Weight.” Published 7 January 2016 in The Times Union (Albany, NY). P. A1; O’Brien, Tim. “6 elected to serve on Honest Weight board.” Published 19 April 2016 in The Times Union. P. C1.)

No one asked Bouchard to do this: to the contrary, he was acting against member-owners’ explicit, written desires: their bylaws. When I asked Prunty for a comment on this hire, she responded with outrage, but did not address Bouchard’s history in Albany, or any other factor that contributed to the hiring decision.

Safety and abuse

There are other problems in the King Street store. In the recent remodeling, aesthetics were allowed to trump safety concerns, eventually costing the Co-op $16,800 in OSHA fines. (Source: osha.gov). Anyone working in the store at the time could have pointed out the foolhardiness of installing a fake “tin roof” just beneath fire suppression systems in the bulk foods area, but the board was not speaking to employees, then or now.

Since my interview with Dorian Gregory, I’ve sat down with a long-time staff member who told me of ongoing worker abuse and cover-up by management at RVC. They described a department manager who harassed every woman they managed, for years, without consequences. More recently, there is a class three sexual offender—the most dangerous category in the registry—working at River Valley Co-op. (A source that describes his past crimes is here: Amelinckx, A. (2015, Jan 7). BERKSHIRE SUPERIOR COURT – Offender sexually dangerous? – Pittsfield man, finishing prison sentence for molesting a young girl, could be held for one day or indefinitely following hearing set for Jan. 27. The Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, MA), p. B01.)

The threat he poses to the public is recognized by management: according to an anonymous source, he is not allowed to approach customers with children, or to use publicly accessible bathrooms in the store. But he has allegedly sexually harassed one of his co-workers—an allegation confirmed by a second source—and though their schedules were changed to limit their contact, he still has his job. Meanwhile, his victim has the choice to find a new position, or continue working in the same department with her abuser. Another employee told me that the same sexual offender has tried to “groom” their child for abuse. When the parent brought their concerns to management, they were told the allegations weren’t serious enough to do anything about.

Whether the individual in HR or management who took the complaint believed it or not was irrelevant; a formal report should still have been filed. Human resources and management have no right at all to keep anyone from making a report of harassment. Sexual violence is notoriously under reported. Victims deserve to be heard and for their safety to be a priority. No one who has been accused—multiples times—of abuse in the workplace should be kept on, regardless of their history. This is the least I would expect from any employer in the country. 

A problem with precedent

Failing to protect employees and shoppers from danger is an egregious result of poor management and a lack of leadership from the RVC board. In each case—the labor organizing obstruction, the hand-selected and ignorant board leadership, the safety hazards—there are precedents to the offensive behavior, bad choices that could have been avoided by management. Like the new CFO, RVC’s general manager comes from another grocery cooperative, where her bad choices have earned her a spotlight in the news once before.

In 1996, the year before Northampton community organizers first met to discuss opening a food cooperative, Prunty was general manager at New Pioneer Co-op in Iowa City. When workers there submitted a formal request for union recognition, Prunty rejected that request. That led to a formal complaint to the federal labor board, and became front page news. The following year, when workers were given the chance to vote on unionization, New Pioneer board members and managers intimidated workers into refusing the union. Members for an Accountable Co-op, a group similar in aims to Northampton’s ItsOurCoop (with which I am not affiliated), led a campaign that forced Prunty’s resignation. (Jacobson, Jim. “Employees petitioning labor board – New Pioneer Co-op seeks oversight of election to unionize.” Published 18 February 1997 in The Gazette (Cedar Rapids-Iowa City, IA) Section B., Page 1.)

Twenty years later in Northampton, Prunty was still using lies and intimidation tactics to thwart labor organizing. She took flyers from a staff member, shuttle driver Mark Heitman, and told him and others that they could not distribute them. The flyers described employees’ right to be paid for shuttle time. Prunty involved the union representative in the case, manipulating her description of the flyer to evoke the desired response from the union representative. In this way, she was able to make it seem to staff members, if only temporarily, that she had the union rep’s backing. The real story came out in The Daily Hampshire Gazette where once again, Prunty made the front page by interfering with worker rights. (Suntrup, Jack. “‘Shuttle time’ part of co-op wage spat.” Published 24 May 2017 in The Daily Hampshire Gazette. P. 1.)

Leadership issues

Policy governance can work very well, but it has its weaknesses. If the board doesn’t know its own responsibilities, no one manages the general manager. And if a board lacks vision, they will not be effective at all.

Veterans of the RVC board tell me that a close reading of board minutes shows it is standard practice is to take the general manager’s suggestions and pass them in their entirety, a “rubber stamp” process that PG was designed to overcome. The policies the board is entrusted with developing are reviewed in, literally, minutes—clearly insufficient for careful governance, and proof that the full board is not truly involved in decision making. This is also by design. Dorian Gregory, with whom I spoke in January, explained that board meetings are when the board does their job. There’s no time for responding to concerns.

In the PG model, it is the board president who is responsible for the integrity of board process. I wanted to understand that process, so I would be better equipped to make a difference. I went to my meeting with Dorian prepared to have a deep conversation about leadership methodology. Instead, I discovered that she lacked understanding of the most basic principles involved. She even told me that RVC’s board doesn’t use policy governance.  (You can find links to resources on policy governance on River Valley Co-op’s website, About Board Policies and Processes.)

According to the Co-op’s own bylaw 4.1, “engaging and monitoring the performance of a general manager” is the very first responsibility of the Board. “When I asked incumbent candidate for the 2018 board, Steve Bruner, how the board ensures the GM is doing her job, he described how Prunty leads the board: “Our GM has been good about keeping us apprised of safety/fairness issues and presenting strategies for improvement.”

“Securing good conditions of employment” is also explicitly the Board’s job. A common misconception among board and staff alike is that policy governance means board members cannot talk to the Co-op’s employees. Employees at RVC have felt abandoned by the board: when they refused to accept their petition for paid shuttle time, or respond to their other labor and safety concerns.

The no board-worker contact rule comes directly from CDS Consulting, contradicting the principles it claims to be teaching. The most prominent influence on board education is Prunty’s other long-term employer, CDS Consulting. CDS, although it teaches Carver’s method, is not affiliated with the Carvers’ consulting practice. “I can tell you that Policy Governance places no prohibition on conversations between board members and staff members,” Miriam Carver, the author’s wife and consulting partner, told me.

Board members who do not feel confident in their responsibilities “go along,” they don’t investigate. The Co-op’s founders with whom I’ve spoken tell me that board members who challenge Rochelle’s authority have been forced off the board by her and her allies. Another long term board member, Jade Barker, is also a CDS consultant. (Barker has declined my requests for an interview.)

The board fails to uphold the explicit, written agreements found in our bylaws and policies. By focusing on the financial reporting, which is easy, and ignoring cooperative values, standard practices, community health, and the mission of the Co-op, which are much more difficult to quantify, the board fails to hold the executive responsible, in any real way, for upholding our cooperative values. What should rest on principles shared by its member-owners, is instead in the hands of a single manager with no real oversight.

Boards have three products. They have a relationship with member-owners that justifies their acting as our representatives. They create policy based on our bylaws, and they guarantee the performance of the executive: the general manager, Rochelle Prunty. River Valley Co-op’s board is failing at all three.

 

Disconnected from community

The mission of River Valley Co-op is to create a just marketplace that nourishes the community. If member-owners and Co-op shoppers do not demand from our Co-op the values it claims to uphold, and which are so closely associated with our home, it will keep on growing in the same shape it is now. It’s not a given that a second store’s workers will belong to any union, or even that the union is helping to solve the problems at the King Street store. What is likely, is that staff at both locations will continue to feel unsupported by the Co-op and its member-owners, unless we change how the Co-op is governed.

In current policy, member-owner participation in the leadership of our cooperative is narrowly and poorly defined (See 2.4 in the bylaws). The hand selection process for board members, in which all nominations to the ballot are made by the current board, is the very illustration of cronyism. They say it’s to ensure members know what the commitment is, but as I’ve discovered in my conversation with Dorian, there is no requirement to learn anything about board work to serve for years, even as president of the Board. Last year at this time, there was no competition for the two open positions on the board. This year, there is no write-in line on the ballot. That’s not a democratic process, it’s theater.

Similar failures led to the “house cleaning” at Honest Weight in Albany. I think it’s time we do the same, here.

 

Why it matters

2009 Co-op flyer features Justin holding sausageNorthampton is my home. My husband and I moved here in 2005 because we believed it to be a special place: progressive, politically engaged, and protective of the resources that make this place an oasis for so many of us. In the national midterm elections held earlier this month, my neighbors confirmed this impression for me.

The Co-op appeared to be in concert with our community values. It’s why I went to work there in 2008, and why we soon joined as member-owners. I was working behind the meat counter, the day of the first of those suspicious firings McNerney mentions in the radio interview. It wasn’t until years later, through talking to Heitman, Gregory, Gowler, and others, that I began piecing together the truth about what’s wrong with River Valley Co-op.

The problem with “frenemies”—the enemy that looks like a friend—is that we trust them. We aren’t suspicious of our friends’ motivations, and when their actions seem sketchy, we accept their explanations more often than we should. River Valley Co-op has branded themselves as our friendly neighbor with progressive values. It takes a lot of evidence to overcome the public image the store cultivates.

The store is profitable because we choose to support it with our patronage. One of the main reasons people choose to shop at the Co-op is the belief that the store is good for Northampton: fair to its workers and vendors, and representative of the values of its member-owners. Management is banking on you shopping there because you enjoy the experience, and that you’ll forget about the cooperative vision that made it possible.

Did more than 9,000 of us become part owners in just another retail shop, with no higher mission than to make money? Or did we join because we believe in a higher standard? I’ve tried to have these critical conversations with the people empowered to make change, but they’re not listening. It’s time to hold our “friend” accountable for the harm they’re doing.

 

What to do about it

Until a critical number of us can agree on a solution, nothing is going to change. Applying pressure is how movements begin, so let’s start pushing for the changes we want to see at River Valley Co-op.

  • Member-owners have been invited to the Annual Meeting on Friday, 7 December 2018 5:30-9PM at Mill 180 Park, 180 Pleasant St #217, Easthampton, MA. Tickets are $5 at the door, or you can buy them in advance at the front desk in the King Street store. Go and tell the board and management that this is our co-op, and we insist on our bylaws being upheld. It’s a chance to be part of making a big impression, at the largest gathering of member-owners of the year.
  • If you can’t make it to the annual meeting, there are ten minutes at the beginning of each monthly board meeting in which members will listen in stony silence and not answer your concerns. If that seems worthwhile to you, show up and have your say.
  • You can also try tracking the candidates down individually and talking to them. Either of these meetings is an opportunity to shake someone’s hand and tell them, “I expect you to hold the general manager accountable to our cooperative principles, which are part of our bylaws.”
  • Member-owners can return paper ballots for the board election, and write in a candidate of their choice, anyway, even though that is not expressly an option. It’s not like you can throw your vote away, when all the printed names have been cleared by the current rubber stamping body.
  • Encourage other member-owners to get involved in Co-op politics. We need more of us asking hard questions, and insisting that leadership listen to workers and the community.
  • Email me if you want to get connected to other RVC member-owners who want to make change: likethewatch@gmail.com.

 

Your neighbor and fellow member-owner,

Justin Cascio

#3552

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“Hidden Figures” in the struggle for civil rights

holding-it-collageIn 1999, I was also a “hidden figure” in the struggle for civil rights in this country.

Laverne Cox talked about the parallels between the real-life NASA “computers” from the movie, “Hidden Figures,” on Stephen Colbert’s talk show recently, and the case of the young Supreme Court plaintiff, Gavin Grimm, who is suing for the right to use the boy’s bathrooms at his public high school. Like me, Gavin is FTM, and we’ve both facing the same civil rights barrier today, in 2017, as black Americans did in 1961.

I came out later in life than Mr. Grimm, who is now seventeen. I was 24 and a divorced parent, living in Florida, working at my first job out of college, when I finally knew what it was that had been crushing me, all of my life, without a name. I was transgender, a man. And that meant I was going to have to fight.

I’d fought bullies all my life, starting with the ones in my own family. It was one of my first obsessions, to figure out what it was about me that made me seem a victim to others, a stranger. Another recent film, “Moonlight,” brought this home to me, watching the young hero, Chiron, hide from the boys who chase him through the streets of Miami. He learns why he is their target, and then has to learn to hate himself for being what even his mother despises.

For my transition from female to male, I began by following the standards of care for the time, which required a “real life test” before medical intervention. That meant dressing as male, using my new name, and using the men’s restrooms. It meant coming out to family and friends, and weathering their responses. When I first came out as trans to HR, I got their consent to begin using the men’s, but within a few days, one of my male co-workers had complained. After that, I was given a key to a bathroom in another building on campus and told I’d have to use either that or the women’s room.

Even after I came back from surgery and had new documentation as male, because my co-workers knew my history, I was still not allowed to use the men’s room. To go into the women’s would have felt like an admission that my transphobic employers were right, and I was “really” a woman. That what I knew about myself was not as true or trustworthy as what other people knew.

The company was planning new headquarters of its own, down the road. We all toured the newly constructed building a few months before the move from our rented offices in a corporate park. My old boss told me there would be no bathroom solution for me here, no single user bathrooms. That was my timetable: find a new job before my only bathroom disappeared. I didn’t have a hero for a boss, dedicated to smashing barriers to my participation. I was a replaceable cog in a capitalist machine, and for all I knew, it was my new, evangelical boss at the firm who objected to my presence in the men’s room. It wasn’t hard to intuit that they would welcome my replacement, with some new cog who wasn’t such an uncomfortable fit.

One of my jobs in college was in a hospital that was constructed in the mid 1950s. It was evident from the placement of sets of public restrooms and water fountains, that it was originally built with segregated facilities for colored and white staff and visitors. I knew it on some level, but still lacked the words to describe what I saw: that public access is a civil rights issue, that it is built into society with laws and myths as well as with bricks and mortar, and that it’s easier to take down some signs than to change people’s ideas of how to divide us, and where we belong.

For the rest of my tenure at that firm, when I needed to go, I left my air-conditioned cubicle, crossed courtyards and parking lots in sweltering Florida heat and sudden, powerful rainstorms, and unlocked the semi-private bathroom on the other side of the corporate park. I didn’t call it transphobia, or civil rights, or public access. I just called it going to the bathroom. That was how my oppressors preferred it.

Stealth was my goal and my privilege as a transgender man, an escape unavailable to people of color during the Jim Crow years. In public places, I am invisible even to people looking for a transgender person. I’m proud of who I am today, and resent having to hide. I’m not proud of the times when I’ve buckled under the weight of transphobia. I felt humiliated, like I’d failed.

I am transgender, but it’s not what people first told me being trans is.

Fighting to be who I am, in a world that has systematically removed me from its own image of itself, is a struggle that has shaped my life. I had to penetrate a wall of deception, beginning in early childhood, at the age when we first come to see ourselves, including our genders. As a child in the late 1970s and early 80s, I was denied the knowledge that being FTM was even something a person might be. I didn’t know we existed until I was in college. And then it took a period of grief, to take stock of my life and see how this new knowledge fit my condition. That being FTM was not just an idea with no consequence, but that I am FTM, and it means my condition has a name, that there are others, and avenues for relief. Being able to name that pain has been powerful.

I am transgender, but it’s not what people first told me being trans is. I’m not a sexual predator, or a habitual liar. My gender identity is not a “lifestyle choice.” Being trans is part of who I am. It is something essential to me, and I was denied that self knowledge for such a long time. Without realizing, I absorbed false, damaging impressions of what it meant to be trans.

To say, “I am racist,” or “I am transphobic” is a universally true claim for all Americans, regardless of our race or gender. We breathe in these myths and phobias like smog, because we need to breathe, even when the air is polluted. We need to have families, friends, and communities, to share their values, and if the only ones available to us are poisoned by bigotry, then that’s what we’ll take in. Living in a deeply conservative place, I struggled not to believe in the correctness of the transphobic reactions I got from other people. The majority of people seemed to believe I deserved to be treated this way. The more power people had to take away my rights, the harder it was to convince myself I was actually an okay person.

I began my transition more than seventeen years ago. In that time, I’ve grown older and my society has grown more interested in the experiences of oppressed people, in breathing the clean air of our true diversity as a strength of American society. That we would become less transphobic over time may seem like a given in retrospect, inevitable progress in social justice, but it takes lifetimes, and in mine, acceptance of transgender people has happened more quickly than in any other generation in American history. Trans people are part of the ongoing story of civil rights in this country.

America has a lot of its own myths, not all of them good, but I always thought Americans had agreed on some basics that we wanted for one another, like equality. Somewhere along the line, some of us have lost sight of this civic lesson: that we need equal access to the necessities of a decent life—bathroom facilities and schools, roads, marriage, clean air and water, healthcare, and the rest of the things we’re fighting for right now. Each of these things needs to be available to all of us, not just the well off. These are not special privileges. Everyone has to work, and go to the bathroom, and protect our families.

I was robbed of more than a job when I transitioned in 1999, gave up more than the hours spent in crossing campus to use the bathroom. I lost relationships and a home, and my illusion that society was not hostile to my existence. I found out that people who pray, and people who told me they loved me, were perfectly willing to express their disgust for me, in every way you can imagine, great and small. Little things are all our lives are made up of, the atoms of our existence. If you take them all away, all of the safe, clean, interesting places where life can exist, there’s nothing left. One of the ways you take them away from others, is when you look away, and decide this isn’t your fight.

It takes every kind of resistance to face down injustice. Sometimes it looks like Kevin Costner as Al Harrison in “Hidden Figures,” using a heavy pipe to destroy barriers to his vision of a patriotic meritocracy at NASA. And sometimes progress comes in a form like Katherine G. Johnson’s, taking the risk to speak truth to power. Or like Dorothy Vaughan, by finding innovative ways to empower yourself and the people around you through education. Next month, in this same tradition, a shy teenager named Gavin, who has faithfully worked within the system, will stand before the Supreme Court to say, “I belong here.” And so do I, and so do you.

Feature Image: clockwise from top left: Gavin Grimm, Katherine G. Johnson, still from “Moonlight”, 1943 sign for segregated bathrooms

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How to naturally boost testosterone

Supplements make unsupported claims, but that doesn't prevent them from taking billions of your dollars.

Supplements make unsupported claims, but that doesn’t prevent them from taking billions of your dollars.

“Naturally boost testosterone, and increase the size of your penis.” Does it work for FTMs? Here’s how one trans man and technical writer researches those claims.

Maybe you’ve got “absolutely no problem (TM)” with the size of your unit. If that is not the case, such promises are beguiling. All the more true for transgender men. A pill, or a diet, that will masculinize a person’s body, without taking testosterone, is exactly what some trans and gender nonconforming folks are looking for. And the industry delivers: people spend billions of dollars on products (and books about diets) that don’t live up to the hype.

Why are we so gullible? Because we want it, a lot, and because there’s so much to know about how our bodies work, that it’s easy to be confused by scientific-sounding claims. This weekend, someone told me that if you eat a lot of broccoli, it will stop your tongue from producing estrogen. What they said exactly was, “Broccoli has been proven to block the parts of your tongue that convert food into estrogen.” And other people believed it.

Might as well as Google, “Am I man enough?”

I knew this was not true, but now I was faced with the challenge to disprove a nonsensical statement to people who didn’t particularly want to not believe it was plausible.

“Does broccoli block absorption of estrogen?” is not the kind of question that Google can answer (yet), not like it will if you ask “How old is Cher?”, or “What’s the capital of Assyria?” If you try, the results may lead you to some articles about broccoli and estrogen and, if you have been misled or don’t understand what you’ve read, you may end up believing something like what I was told about broccoli.

Complicated information like how our bodies use food and hormones isn’t as easy to transfer as simple advice like “eat broccoli.” It’s like a game of telephone. On the starting end, there may have been a true fact, but by the time the message reaches its final recipient, it’s nonsense.

I’ve written before on this blog about how difficult it is to figure out what is trustworthy information, among all that is posted as “fact” on the internet. When I was growing up, traditional publishing included fact checking, providing some reassurance that the contents of a book marked “Non-Fiction” on the cover were just that. Online, the job of separating fiction (or garbled nonsense) from fact is the responsibility of the reader.

To find out whether it’s true, that “broccoli has been proven to block the parts of your tongue that convert food into estrogen,” I have to know how the human body works. Without a fundamental education, I wouldn’t know the right questions to ask.

The person who says that broccoli blocks the parts of your tongue that convert food into estrogen presumes the following are true:

  1. Estrogen comes from food.
  2. Your tongue is the organ that turns food to estrogen.
  3. Broccoli can prevent this conversion.

All three of these are false.

First, estrogen does not come from food. Sex hormones are naturally produced by our bodies. We can also absorb hormones in the forms of pills, creams, injections, and patches. Some kinds of estradiol pills are designed to be taken sublingually. There are a lot of blood vessels close to the surface, beneath your tongue, and some medications are designed to be absorbed sublingually, directly into the bloodstream. If you hold a micronized estrogen pill under your tongue, your tongue is absorbing estrogen. It is not turning one thing (phytoestrogens) into another (estrogen), and it’s only able to efficiently absorb chemicals that have been very finely milled, to a microscopic degree, so the molecules are small enough to cross the mucous membrane. If you hold peas, or milk, or avocado, or tofu, or any other food, under your tongue, estrogen is not going to come out of it and go into your bloodstream.

There are substances called phytoestrogens which occur in small amounts in our food, and mimic some (but not most) of the effects of estrogen. Phytoestrogens are chemically and structurally different from the estrogens that human bodies make, and from the kinds of synthetic estrogen that come in pills and patches. These differences are why there’s no amount of phytoestrogens that can replace estrogen at normal, healthy levels in a human. When you eat broccoli, a small amount of phytoestrogens are absorbed through the walls of your digestive tract (starting with your tongue), and circulate in your bloodstream. They have a weak effect on the body that is not well studied, and you excrete them with your urine, just like with other hormones.  

To recap:

  1. There’s no way to prevent your tongue from converting food into estrogen, because it does not do this.
  2. The phytoestrogens in foods (like broccoli) occur in small amounts, and have different, weaker effects on the human body than either natural or synthetic estrogens.
  3. No food can replace hormone therapy.

But what about the claims to “naturally boost testosterone”? The majority of supplements contain misleading and unsubstantiated claims, and mislabeled ingredients. This doesn’t stop Americans from spending billions of dollars every year on vitamins and other dietary supplements. Transgender men in my Facebook group ask this question often: “How can I masculinize my appearance without taking testosterone?”

The answer is that you can’t, at least not to a significant degree. Surly Amy turned to professional bodybuilders for information on “Natural Transition,” a trademarked term. “I asked [natural bodybuilder Denise James] if following the prescribed routine would result in masculinization: a deeper voice, increased body hair, etc. She said that women who are natural bodybuilders don’t generally experience those effects.” 

When I investigate claims of products that are said to raise testosterone levels, I’m skeptical on a number of levels. First of all, the claim is generally directed at cisgender men. Whether the product will have an effect on a trans man, is another question, and much like the broccoli claim, you have to know more about how human bodies work, to properly evaluate its value.

Read the whole claim, including the studies your source says support their statements. Understand what the claim is.

For example, when I search on “natural testosterone enhancement” I get a mixed bag of results. Many of the hits I get are just lists of vitamins and nutrients that you already need to be healthy. The Livestrong site says this about broccoli and estrogen: “Cruciferous vegetables, especially broccoli, contain many nutrients that promote healthy metabolism of hormones.”

Your body needs nutrition to work properly. Part of healthy bodily function is making hormones. So sure, broccoli is related to hormone levels, but no more so than a hundred other nutrient-dense foods. Being properly nourished is always good advice, especially if you want to feel better. The more diverse your diet, the more likely you’re getting all of the nutrients you need—like zinc, vitamin D, and saturated fat—to make hormones, sweat, muscles, hair, and everything else you’re made of.

The Livestrong site also says that xenoestrogens (phytoestrogens are plant-based xenoestrogens) have two different classes of side effects. “In men, high estrogen may lead to a decrease in sex drive, decreased muscle mass, chronic fatigue and an increased risk of developing prostate cancer. Women may experience severe premenstrual syndrome, unexplained weight gain, hot flashes, allergies, osteoporosis and depression.” Which ones should I expect will apply to me, an FTM? And how much support do any of these statements have in the medical literature? According to one abstract, “The possible impact of xenoestrogens, to which humans are also exposed through the food chain, needs to be further clarified”: a fancy way of saying, “we just don’t know yet.” The Livestrong site doesn’t say, so I would have to search for the answer to each one: “sex drive xenoestrogen”, “muscle mass xenoestrogen”, and so on, maybe add “female” and “male” to those searches, and see what comes up. 

There’s something called a “xenoandrogen,” too, which have characteristics similar to xenoestrogens. These have been studied even less, and while they exist in substances like certain kinds of tree pollen used in Ayurvedic medicine, they are not found in food.

Some products that claim to be “testosterone boosting” are really designed to make your penis hard. Classic (and totally unproven) aphrodisiacs, like eggs, avocados, and other egg-shaped foods, will sometimes appear on these lists, and are based on magical thinking that says if it looks like a testicle, it must be good for virility. Some products claim to improve your vascular health, which may help with the underlying cause for impotence, but are really best left to a doctor to diagnose and treat. My point, in either case, is that neither of these has a thing to do with testosterone. The only connection among these health claims is they all play on male fears of sexual inadequacy, which is what a “natural testosterone booster” search is really all about. Might as well as Google, “Am I man enough?”

If you have found a product that claims to “boost testosterone,” next ask the question, “How does it work?” How does this product (or practice) affect testosterone levels? Based on your understanding of the body, does the explanation make sense, or is it like the broccoli example, contradicting what you know to be true about the body? You might have to return to your general studies in digestion, or the endocrine system, to be sure. That’s okay: no one knows absolutely everything about a subject. As you read, when questions arise, jot them down and do the research.

Once you’ve identified the method by which a product or practice claims to increase testosterone levels in the human body, study the literature around this, until you understand how it claims to work. Search on the keywords involved in the mechanism, not just the product itself. Has it been tested in a double-blind, controlled study with a large number of participants? Were the results written about in a peer-reviewed journal?

And if it does make sense, generally speaking, will it work on your body in particular? Not all our bodies work like the subjects that appear in medical studies. Trans men’s bodies are not the same as cisgender men’s bodies. If you’ve studied the product and it affects production of testosterone, will it still work in a body without testes? You may have to study the way the product or practice works on female bodies.

Pay attention to sources. Just because it’s on a blog doesn’t mean it’s not true. Who’s the author? Are they credible? Are they trying to sell you something? Keep track of where you pick up your facts. Even a sales website written by non-doctors can be telling you the truth, but before you accept it, confirm it with another source, one you are sure is not making money off convincing you to buy their product.

When are you done? Ask yourself, if I were a journalist writing an article on this subject, who are the authorities I would ask? Then go find those sources by adding their name to your search. What are the organizations you consider reliable sources of health-related information? Some terms to consider adding: “peer reviewed” “endocrinologist” “gastroenterology.”

A final tip for your searches: try adding the word “controversy” to your keywords. The results will give you another perspective, and address the differences in opinion that exist on a subject.

Keep studying. The more you know, the harder it will be to fool you, and the easier it will be for you to investigate a claim.

Share your work. If you are out with the guys and one of your buddies starts talking about this amazing study and how he’s eating six cups of broccoli a day, and it’s really working because look, he’s got four new chin hairs, ask if he knows how it works. When you come to the part where your friend doesn’t know how his body works, send him a link to one of your sources that explains it. 

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Why trigger warnings are a waste of time—and why that’s a good thing

bear hazard 588x350

It’s better to be prepared for panic than to rely on prevention.

I got rearended by a U-Haul, once. I was sitting at a red light, and the U-Haul driver was fiddling with the radio or the air conditioning (this is before texting) and hadn’t noticed the traffic light had changed. For months after the car accident, whenever I saw a car coming fast from behind in my rear view mirror, I felt a jolt of anxiety. A sick, tightening in the guts. I got the sweats. And then it was over. Again and again, the cars slowed and stopped without touching my rear bumper.

This is called having flashbacks. The cars in my rear view mirror, not crashing into me, were the triggers.

Flashbacks are rarely in all of the senses, like they are in the movies. What cannot be conveyed except artistically is how the feelings come rushing back in a flashback, the felt sense of being in that place. In a flashback, my whole body is on alert. My perspective narrows to admit two categories into the world, those things that are safe, and those that are threats. When I feel this way, my amygdala is taking over, constricting blood flow to the front of my brain, where I do all of my thinking. In panic mode, we all have the same, short decision tree: fight, run away, freeze, flatter, or submit.

Last week I was with friends, having dinner, and one was telling us about a reality show he likes, featuring very poor parenting. Kevin said, “Hey, could we not talk about this? Because we’re losing Justin.” And I didn’t know it was true until he said it. I was eager to get away from the subject matter, so I did… on the inside, without choosing it consciously. On the outside, I was frozen and unable to say anything. Becoming aware that I’m noticeably frozen and mute, that I’m panicking, makes it worse.

Spiders are scary. We humans are designed to have a prejudice against creeping things with lots of legs. But we also are designed to have smart brains capable of discerning, naming, and sharing information, on which species are poisonous, and which are harmless. We can show non-fatal, non-dangerous digital images of spiders to one another all day long, and no one gets bitten. That’s our leg up on the competition: a bear either knows a snake is dangerous or doesn’t. He can’t learn the difference on Wikipedia.

Getting triggered feels like being a victim again, but it is not a revictimization. The bad thing is not happening. Here, I can turn off the computer, make the horrible spider go away.

The impact from the moving van threw the pickup truck into the middle of the intersection. I heard the smashing sound and then the silence. I could feel the little pebbles of safety glass in my hair. My first thought was, I need to get out of the intersection. I thought the other cars would just start up again and want to come past and around me, without regard for what had just happened, and this would be unsafe, so I needed to move. The truck had stalled, but I was able to start it again. I drove across the intersection and pulled over.

After the U-Haul incident, I knew what caused the trauma. In non-panicked times, I could remember the accident, the details and timeline of the sickening moment I re-experienced each time I looked in the rear view mirror and my lizard brain thought, “It’s happening again.” Every day after my accident, I drove, and hundreds of cars pulled up behind mine and did not crash into me. Eventually, the symptoms faded. But with other triggers, I’m not so lucky. I still have them, every day.

So how do you plan to deal with being taken out of your head? Do you tell the whole world, “Hey everyone, here’s a list of the stuff I can’t deal with, and would you please not talk about them in front of me?” In the real world, you’re going to get less than 100% compliance. I’ve known my reality TV loving buddy for ten years, but he had no idea his talk was affecting me. Because of the wide variety of things that people with PTSD find triggering, there is no way to get satisfactory trigger warning coverage for everyone. There isn’t even adequate coverage for one person, because how do you make an exhaustive list of all of the things that panic you and make it impossible for you to think?

Trigger warnings are a way of bringing your cage out with you into the world. And your amygdala is not going to agree with me on this one, but not everything that is scary is dangerous. And information about scary shit is necessary, even though learning about it can be triggering for some people. Are you not going to let anyone educate your children about what to do if a gunman comes to their school, because it’s too scary to think about guns, or violence against children? This approach has been consistently disastrous, from the way Americans have approached sexuality education, to our imperialist problems with domestic gun control and immigration. Adopting a strategy of trigger-proofing the world for ourselves means we don’t ever talk about the serious shit that hurts and kills us. And that might please our amygdalas, who are not big thinkers, but it’s not how we’ve succeeded as a species. We can learn the difference between a concept we find threatening, and a speeding U-Haul approaching in the rear view mirror.

We can plan to be prepared, to be extent that is reasonable. Which means not relying on the unreasonable. Getting panicked is something that happens. You can learn how to get grounded, when you are freaking out about something you see on your screen. Put your feet down. Breathe. Look around and notice something in the room with you. Describe it. I’ve made habits of these exercises, because I need them all the time. They don’t always work, but it’s better to have tools than to make my emotional intelligence someone else’s job.

While it’s awesome and affirming for my husband to recognize when I’m triggered, to change the subject, and help me realize that I’m not there right now, the only kinds of changes that are going to help me long term with my PTSD are the ones I can implement. It’s not something anyone else can do for me: not my community or a web browser plug in, not even my therapist or my loved ones can protect me from getting triggered. And that, my friends, is the good news about trigger warnings not working. You are not at the mercy of others. You are in charge and most highly qualified to manage your own panic. That’s the reason for the exercises, and the thoughtful consideration of how we humans work in a crisis. Because it’s better to be prepared.

Image credit: animals.desktopnexus.com

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Who wins? Love wins

Marriage has not been so significantly redefined since Loving v. Virginia

Marriage has not been so significantly redefined since Loving v. Virginia

Not so long ago, when everyone was talking about Rachel Dolezal, I found myself in the minority of people who supported her right to self-identify. Since then, has come a torrent of violence against the Black community: the church shooting in Charleston. More churches in the South, burning. The Klan marching with the Confederate flag. The President being greeted by this symbol of racism.

And then, the marriage equality decision, and the celebration. The rainbows erupting on my Facebook page. My friends, online and elsewhere, care about both of these events. Already, my more radical friends are moving on to celebrate Obama commuting the sentences of non-violent drug offenders, because the frontiers of social justice stretch out in all directions.

We take meaning from the names we give ourselves and the groups and history with which we associate, and defend against those who appear to be subverting or watering down our meaningful identities.

In a group I moderate on Facebook, “All transmen know each other,” a member posted that they identify as trans* on the FTM spectrum, but also as a member of lesbian community. The kinds of remarks I deleted from that thread were made to show disrespect and disapproval of the original poster’s identity. Which just goes to show, even in a tiny subset of a minority, gathered in solidarity over at least one of our identities, we are fully capable of tearing down strangers for claiming to know who they are and where they belong. Familiar much?

One of the strongest allies I have, in all of my struggles, is my therapist. I’ve been seeing him for several years, and I trust him to see me, not to reduce me to my identity labels, to understand that I have both a history and a present. He’s even helping me see that I have a future.

And he’s a straight, married white guy. When he told me that his family went out to dinner to celebrate the marriage equality decision, I bristled, but didn’t say anything. (To my therapist. I know. And he’s probably reading this.) On a personal level, he’s a flamboyant nerd. There have been days I’ve walked into his office and bitten my tongue, so as not to say, “What is up with that shirt?” (Did I mention he’s probably reading this?) Over the years I’ve gotten a better focus of what has made him into the person and the professional I’ve come to trust. Those of us who know what the inside of a locker looks like, understand something about one another. My therapist and I have a few identities in common, but they’re not why I trust him. It’s because he’s passionate and believes in his work so much that he is my ally.

Thinking of him and his family out at dinner, celebrating the rights of same-sex couples to marry, I thought of all the people who come to our local Pride event each year. Some of the straight people there have politics as radical as mine, if not more. Some of the gay people there are conservatives with whom I have nothing else in common but an LGBT umbrella. My husband told me about standing in line for beer after the parade, behind two women who were complaining about the furry presence. There was no one more modestly attired than the furries, but this couple saw them as rubbing their sexuality in other couple’s faces. At a Pride event.

Identity politics erodes not only common decency, but our sense of irony.

My community can turn on its own, always has, in times of crisis. We’re not that different from any other group you can think of, as far as that goes. What’s remarkable, and worthy of celebration, is when we’ve fought together in solidarity for justice. We take meaning from the names we give ourselves and the groups and history with which we associate, and defend against those who appear to be subverting or watering down our meaningful identities. The uproar on “All transmen” against lesbian-identified FTM-spectrum trans people, the lesbian mommies who objected to the furries, and Black people and their allies who mock the idea of cross-racial identification, are all guarding the same source of personal dignity and self-knowledge.

When I went to my tenth high school reunion, almost fifteen years ago, it was my first time seeing my classmates since I’d transitioned to male. I went to a small public high school in the rural South. I recognize and know the names of most of the people I graduated with, and they mostly knew me, too. There were just over a hundred of us, so not too many to get to know. And we’d had this formative experience together, going through high school, beginning to figure out what kinds of adults we’d become. One of my classmates, who is Black, showed me the photos in her wallet of her family, watching closely for my reaction to her white husband and their children. This was her litmus test: If you don’t like what my family looks like, then screw you, I could imagine her thinking. She’d passed mine the minute she started talking to me. Not everyone wanted to talk to the transgender classmate.

I’m pleasantly surprised to see interracial marriages happening among my graduating class, because when we were in school together, there was no interracial dating. Few of our parents would have allowed it. No one came out as gay in those years, either, though I learned from my sister, who attended after me, that in her class five years after mine, there were one or two who came out.

I really like my high school class. I think we’re an exceptional group of people: a lot of very smart people, and kind ones, too. Some of them suffered a great deal: from poverty, racism, divorce, disabilities, bullying, domestic violence, substance abuse, you name it. “Suffering does not ennoble,” is a phrase my husband likes to quote. We were mostly much kinder, ten years out, than we’d been in school. We are capable of becoming more sympathetic from having suffered, but it’s not the only possible outcome. Abuse begets abuse. It takes effort to break the cycle.

The woman who showed me her family photos, posted on her Facebook wall on the importance of having a “loving” conversation about what marriage is and is not, and this definition is purportedly Biblical, and not inclusive of gay and lesbian couples. (So far, she hasn’t had anything to say about polygamy or divorce.) The larger culture of our country, in the forms of social approval and formal legislation, now includes my marriage, but my former classmate’s religious subculture does not.

It wasn’t long ago—around the time my parents married—that legally, my classmate’s interracial marriage was considered no more legitimate than my same-sex marriage. My father’s generation was the first in his family to marry non-Sicilians. My mother is of English and German descent. When I was in high school, my parents told me that interracial marriage was cruel to the children, who would have no place in the world. They said this without irony: my parents were racists who said they weren’t racists. They were not the first such white people to exist, but because they were my parents, they were the most confounding to me, and their racism, which became my racism, would be the hardest to see and undo. My parents hadn’t considered how the world had changed since their own marriage, and how it could change again. They hadn’t thought of how their messages to their children reinforced racism instead of changing it.

I agreed with my classmate that marriage has been redefined, and went on to say that this has been the most important change to marriage’s definition since Loving v. Virginia. I asked her which side of this change she wanted to be on. She hasn’t answered me, but I kept thinking about her, and seeing her continue to draw a circle around her marriage with her  Facebook posts, and excluding mine from legitimacy. Then I dealt with the same circle-drawing in the “All transmen” group, and then I had my silent recoil from an act of earnest solidarity from my therapist and his family. What did all of this turf-guarding mean?

I realized that, while part of me wants to protect my valuable identity as a queer, I will have to share my queer values with an ever expanding circle of allies, if I want to see progress in the world. Because there is a difference between a subculture and a culture. You can’t live in your subculture all of the time. The greater culture is constantly affecting it, forcing us to live by its standards, but also changing with us. In forty years, marriage between a Black woman and a white man has gone from dangerous and illegal to mainstream. You can now see interracial couples in ads for cars and breakfast cereal. Interracial celebrities: musicians, actors, models, comedians, athletes, and even our nation’s President. My parents were wrong: there is a place for the child of an interracial couple in this country. One is in the Oval Office. And there’s a place in this world for me, too.

What’s larger and more all-encompassing than identity politics is our human dignity, which does not rely upon us having one identity or another regarding our gender, race, beliefs, or abilities. Because as I’ve seen in my own, small trans community, we can define and subdivide identity groups in every possible way, to include those who are like us and exclude the ones who we don’t understand and don’t want to. If we can’t put a label on someone that makes their choices or existence make sense to us, some of us are at a loss as to how to respect them. Our real lives are complicated, and not just internet-famous people’s lives like Caitlyn Jenner’s and Rachel Dolezal’s, but all of us who are honest about our personal growth, how we’re not the same people we once were, and yet we are, and are capable of becoming so much more.

Violence against Black people, and against trans people, particularly poor trans women of color, isn’t going to go away unless the mainstream culture changes. Because I think we can agree, it’s not what the Black people are doing inside their churches, or trans women in public bathrooms, that makes hateful people kill them. It’s what we’re telling one another about who’s on the inside of the circle of dignified existence and who is not.

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Online discussion of Recognize: The Voices of Bisexual Men – An Anthology begins May 1

Join a virtual book club discussion of "Recognize" #RecognizeBiMen

Join a virtual book club discussion of “Recognize” #RecognizeBiMen

Starting this Friday, May 1, 2015, there will be a 70-day discussion of selected works from the Lambda Literary Finalist anthology, “Recognize: The Voices of Bisexual Men,” edited by Robyn Ochs and H. Sharif Williams (who is also known as “Dr. Herakuti.”) Discussion will progress sequentially through the anthology: on the first day, readers and contributors will talk about the preface by Dr. Herakuti, and on the second day, the subject will be the Introduction written by both Dr. H and Robyn Ochs.

As Dr. H writes, there is a “dynamic tension” in recognizing oneself, and being recognized by others, as a bisexual man. As “queers among queers,” bi men are among the least likely to appreciate the breadth of our desires, or find acceptance of them from family and community. We’re often told we don’t exist at all. “Recognize” is a groundbreaking anthology, the first to bring together the voices of bisexual men.

The contributors come from an astounding array of experiences, representing broad spectrums of age, culture, experience, privilege, and gender expression. You can’t walk away from this anthology with a single image of bisexual men. Instead, you will know sixty men who are able to share something remarkable about themselves, because they recognize who they love.

My contribution to this anthology, “Why I Still Go To Pride Events,” will be discussed on Sunday, May 17. I’ll post closer to the event from Facebook: “Like” my page to get the reminder.

For more information on this event, see the Facebook event, 70-Day #RecognizeBiMen Social Media Book Club, and look for the hashtag, #RecognizeBiMen on your favorite social media platforms.

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How many trans men are there in the world?

How I run “All transmen know each other” on Facebook: with transparency, liberally, and without pity for trolls of any gender identity.

How I run “All transmen know each other” on Facebook: with transparency, liberally, and without pity for trolls of any gender identity.

There may be as many as 35 million transmen in the world. I base this figure on the very rough estimates that, of all the people in the world:

  • One in two are assigned female at birth,
  • One in ten are somewhere on the LGBT spectrum, and,
  • Of those on the spectrum, one in ten are trans.
The Facebook group I created in 2011, “All transmen know each other,” has recently reached the ten thousand-member mark.

Figures for the transgender population vary: Gary Gates says that about 0.3% of the adult US population identifies as transgender, or three times as many as I’ve estimated. Extending Gates’ work to the current global population of over 7 billion, and presuming half of trans people are assigned female at birth, there are potentially over ten million trans men in the world.

The Facebook group I created in 2011, “All transmen know each other,” has recently reached the ten thousand-member mark. That’s nowhere near the millions or billions of trans men who might possibly be alive today, but still makes “All transmen” one of the largest FTM groups on Facebook. I have a theory on why my Facebook group is so popular: the administrative rules foster community, and are simple to enact and replicate.

I made some decisions when I created the group that I have held a firm position on, over the years. The group would be public. This makes it easier for Facebook users to find us, and it makes people accountable for what they do in the group. The membership would not be limited by personal identity. Trying to police the gender identities of people online goes against not only my ethics, but common sense. And since the premise was that we all know one another, or aren’t far removed, we might know one another through other people who aren’t trans men: via mutual friends, lovers, allies, trans and queer people. The group would be about trans men and our experiences, but we would not be the only ones allowed in.

My plan was to create a space that was mostly wild: just focused enough to be worth joining, and moderated enough to be worth participating in. I delete the spam, ban the trolls, defuse escalating tempers, and remind members of the rules of the group, but mostly, I let discussions run their course. I’m cautiously optimistic, based on this experiment, that public, identity-based groups with simple “don’t be a jerk” rules for participation have a future in social media.

The tweaks I made to the rules, early on, were intended to reduce negativity and increase clarity of the group’s vision. It was not a group that would become whatever the current vocal minority said they wanted, and up for debate each time a new vision became popular. It would not become closed (in the Facebook sense, of non-members being unable to see our discussions) or exclusive to trans men. Bullying people for using the “wrong” words or displaying the “wrong” feelings (having expressed, for instance, a sexual preference for trans men) would not be permitted. The limits of my power are as admin of this one Facebook group, so I don’t allow fights that begin elsewhere to erupt on the page. No screencaps of text or IM conversations that identify anyone other than the person posting are permitted in the group.

There are literally hundreds of groups on Facebook for trans men: stealth men and public speakers on the subject, breastfeeding men, newly transitioning men, senior men, men of color, gay and bisexual transmen, survivors of abuse, open groups, closed groups, you name it. If “All transmen” isn’t for you, and none of the other groups are, either, it takes about three and a half minutes to create your own group and find out whether your vision for the perfect trans group on FB works as well as you think it should.

The group is not staffed 24/7, no one has taken responsibility for members in crisis, and despite every member’s efforts, sometimes bad posts make it into the group and hang around for a while before they’re deleted. Despite the caveats that the group is not a support group, and not a “safe space,” “All transmen know each other” provides a reasonably secure online environment for trans men to come out and find community, support, and resources. The group is active enough that nearly any query gets not just one but several useful and timely responses. It’s full of engaged members who retain group memory: to refer new members to other resources, and demonstrate the kind of clear communication and healthy boundaries the group set out to embody.

There are certain questions that new members ask repeatedly. “How do I begin transition?” “How do I have the coming out talk with my parents?” “Who is a good surgeon in my area, and do they take my health insurance?” I answer when I’m qualified and have the time, encourage those I wish I could do more to help, if only to bump his post back up near the top so that someone else might see it and answer. The question that seems to elicit the most annoyance from other “All transmen”  members is, “Do I pass?” However, it’s not the kind of question that one n00b can ask for everyone else’s reference, so everyone that needs to ask it, will have to do so for himself.

There are several categories of posts that I don’t enjoy, but neither do I delete them. The “Do I pass?” posts are one. Another category that is unpopular, but permitted, is the “Go Fund Me” post. I’ve rarely seen a “contribute to my transition fund” request that courteously explained the exceptional reason why those of us already paying for our own transitions should pay for someone else’s, as well. The campaigns are often created by people so new to their own transitions that they’re asking for tens of thousands of dollars for procedures they haven’t researched, much less are ready to undergo. Some of them haven’t even come out to anyone, yet. There are no hard rules of transition, but moving out of your childhood bedroom and/or coming out to your parents typically precedes phalloplasty. I know, it’s not fair. It’s also not my fault.

Sociopaths are a vanishingly small minority—about two percent of the population—but they exist in my community like they do in everyone else’s, and it only takes one to ruin an experience for thousands of people. More than ten years ago, I saw the death of a beloved transgender conference, due to the antisocial behavior of a few troublesome members of my community. These privileged children felt entitled to stick it to our host because their weekend got extended by a snowstorm that trapped every out-of-towner at the conference venue for an extra day. While most of us made the appropriate arrangements for an act of nature, because sucking up inconveniences is one of the pitfalls of travel, these people played “dine and dash” in the hotel restaurant, slept on couches and stairs in the lobby, and just to make sure their aggrieved message was clear, destroyed the frames on the artwork displayed in the hotel where the conference was held. There’s a metaphor there, for people who are angry at situations that were created by no one on Earth, and who lash out at whoever inspires their jealousy. The actions of a few selfish members of my tiny community destroyed an institution, one that has not been replaced in the years since. So I’ll be damned if I’m going to let some little trolls come fuck up my Facebook group.

Not everyone is welcome in “All transmen.” Almost every day, I let at least twenty new members in, and ban at least one person for breaking the rules. Most of them, I won’t shed a tear over: the ones who post ads for handbags (and much, much worse) are some of my least favorite people on the internet. I feel a little bit bad when I ban a trans man from “All transmen” for being abusive to the other members. I also know that people have to be able to get along, not be vicious, destructive, attention seeking, or cruel, no matter how they identify, or how hard their lives have been. I’d rather the group were only three-fifths transmen, and capture only a tiny fraction of all of the transmen on Earth, as long as the majority of the participating members are courteous and fair with one another, and keep the discussion on topic.

“All transmen” continues to grow at a steady rate, and host varied and thoughtful discussion, daily, on a variety of aspects of our lives. I believe there’s a lesson here for anyone trying to create community online: on how many rules are optimal, and which ones are indispensable. All transmen don’t know each other yet, and probably never will, but with patience and management, I now know ten thousand people who are holding a space open, online, for that dream to be realized.

 

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Time Enough at Last: The Liebster Awards

The last man on Earth

How do I define and elicit passion? A Q & A for the Liebster Awards.

Thank you, Sexually Fluid Frolicker, for nominating me for the Liebster Award. Your thoughtful blog has enriched the internet.

Here are the questions you posted, and my answers. Rules and my nominees follow.

  1. What wants & needs do you possess, as an individual, that you find difficult to satisfy without outside assistance? Every single one of them. As introverted as I am, I am still a social animal. I might think I’d be like that guy in the “Twilight Zone” episode who is so happy to be the last man on Earth, with a full library in front of him… until my glasses broke. Even for the pleasure of solitude and reading, I need a world full of people, past and present, to have written all those books, printed and distributed them, and built the library to put them in. Going further, I need people because I couldn’t have invented a language with which to code my thoughts, and without all of you, there wouldn’t be much to think about.
  2. How would you define gender & sexuality? Are they distinct concepts in your head, or do they coalesce into something else? Our genders intersect with our sexual desires in discrete categories like “bisexual man” that form parts of our identities. They’re still separate: being a man is still different from being a woman, even if we share tastes in sexual partners. In my imagination of the sexual encounter, there is still the “me” half of it to consider: who I am, what my body looks like, and how I want it to be touched. So how I embody bisexuality will be different from how someone of another gender does, just on that basis. And then we’re still different people….
  3. How would you define intimacy and sexual intimacy? How do these definitions relate to your gender & sexuality, as defined above? Intimacy is about sharing personal information that makes me vulnerable to the person I’m sharing it with. I take the risk for the chance of developing a rewarding connection with another person. Sexual intimacy is a subset. The people I want to be intimate with is a personal choice, with so many factors, that I would say it’s a part of my personality, who I choose to be intimate with and in what ways. I’m also married and polyamorous, so who I’m intimate with is in some ways proscribed or defined by these identities.
  4. How do you most like to begin and end significant and/or meaningful experiences and relationships? Any dominating themes? To start, my actions are guided by questions like, “Am I being open?”, “What is this person sharing with me?”, and “What else would I like to elicit from this person?” When considering the end, I will ask myself, “Are we still being open?”, “Am I getting intimate feedback?”, and “Does what I’m getting from this relationship please me?” That might just be a readjustment point, or it may signal the end of a relationship/experience. As a theme, I’m more hesitant to go to the party—to initiate intimacy—than to leave it when I’m no longer having fun.
  5. Where do you go when you are full of feeling? Have you ever let others join you in those spaces? It could be a physical space, or otherwise. Ideally, this is a time when I ground myself in my body. I want to be there for it. And when that is the case, then I’m able to share the experience with others. Its opposite is dissociation, which is an isolated place.
  6. What does time mean to you in relation to your life? Which do you prefer to put the most and/or least emphasis on: the past, present, or future? It’s about now.
  7. Define fun. Within the human experience, what would you identify as it’s opposite? Define that too. Fun is effort with a reward built into it. Drudgery is like Sisyphus without the cardio benefits or the Nietzschean contemplation.
  8. Define passion. Within the human experience, what would you identify as it’s opposite? Define that too. Passion equals engagement, having a personal stake in the outcome. Its opposite is disconnection: when it genuinely doesn’t matter what you do, because you can’t affect the outcome, or the outcome doesn’t affect you.
  9. Do you enjoy searching for connections between thoughts and ideas? Why/how or why not? Yes, I’m a very curious person.
  10. What qualifies as sexual contact for you? More specifically, when does contact, physical or otherwise, cease to be sexual for you? Sexual contact is intended to elicit sexual arousal, and pleasure. When action doesn’t carry that intent, then it’s not. I’m taking “sexual contact” to be a kind of action verb, but of course it’s reciprocal, and so two people might be in contact, but one might intend it to be sexual, and the other not share that intent, or not even register what they’re doing as “contact.” Also, the one intending to give pleasure through their actions may not be succeeding (though this does not negate its sexuality, IMHO).
  11. Do you prefer to “go with the flow” or “stick to your guns”? In other words, which takes precedence in your life: your perceptions or your judgments (respectively)? Perceptions are more important and more durable. It’s harder to reverse engineer my own judgments later, when I realize I was wrong. I make an effort to record my perceptions, but also my judgments, so I have both to refer to when I come back to them.

Other blogs that I believe deserve Liebster Award recognition:

https://danceswithfat.wordpress.com
https://standup2p.wordpress.com
http://afroculinaria.com

Dear nominees: Here are my eleven questions for you.

  1. Pretend you’re at a conference where the usual identity labels are strongly discouraged, and instead, people are encouraged to find community based on labels that do not make reference to gender, race, religion, or any other social or political labels. Everyone gets a badge on which they can put some other kind of label that describes themselves. The idea is that, you will meet people you want to talk to, based on what they’ve written on their labels. What’s on yours?
  2. You’ve invited the one person from all of history you’d most like to have to dinner, and you’ve both just sat down and introduced yourself. Now a waiter has brought you one small tart (which is equally acceptable to both you) to split as an amuse bouche. Script the ensuing interaction between you and your guest in a way that demonstrates what you admire most about this person or why you want to meet them.
  3. What is your quest?
  4. What technology has become available in your lifetime that has most changed the course of your life?
  5. What institution of everyday life do you admire most, and why?
  6. Do you clean up as you cook, or clean everything up afterward?
  7. What was your favorite book when you were twenty, and how has your opinion of this book changed?
  8. How does concern for search engine rankings affect the way you write for your blog?
  9. If you could purchase and install deep knowledge of a subject into your brain (it’s perfectly safe!), what would it be and why?
  10. In what way would you say you are most privileged in relation to other people you know?
  11. Does the life of a “Doctor Who” companion appeal to you, and why or why not?

**Here are the Liebster Award rules for this round **

  1. Thank the person who nominated you by tagging their original post to yours.
  2. Answer 11 questions.
  3. Nominate other bloggers who deserve this award.
  4. Ask them 11 questions.
  5. Put these rules in your post.
  6. Inform the bloggers you have nominated.

Image credit: Hollywoodaholic.com

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A hundred years in Corleone

Historical-map-of-Sicily-bjs-1Appreciation develops on its own timetable, or not at all.

Before I got interested in genealogy, the subject I adored and rarely spoke of with my friends was weight lifting. There just didn’t seem to be much to say about it to people who don’t lift. In those years, I thought genealogy sounded boring. Then I was laid up with a back injury and started reading a lot of history, out of an interest in my own origins, and it led me to genealogy.

I still imagine the word “genealogy” sets off certain associations, as it once did for me, of people who enjoy playing bridge and golfing, who go to early bird dinners and read murder mysteries. I can tell when someone doesn’t already associate genealogy with thrilling discoveries and intellectual rigor, because they don’t have any questions about my research. I don’t want to be that guy who can’t talk about anything that’s not his fantasy football team, or Magic: The Gathering card collection, so I move on to a subject we can both talk about.

This is what I find so exciting about genealogy: the way it lets me turn patience and attention to detail into a greater understanding of a larger world.

I don’t work at drawing people into my passion. Several inner voices rise up to remind me that my interest  is not popular among people who share my identity politics, to whisper that of course, other people do not find it inherently intriguing to squint at the baptismal records of people long dead. One voice insinuates that I’m a miser, a jealous hoarder of delicious details. I’m ashamed of being intensely interested in my far off and deceased relations, when I don’t even send birthday cards to my living family members.

Another, more doubtful voice suggests that maybe it is because it’s a solitary pursuit, and one I need no help getting excited about, that I do not bother trying to sell my friends on genealogy. There are forums where it doesn’t matter that we don’t share other common interests: we can still share this thing of ours and find genuine appreciation of our efforts. Relatives and paisan’ have found me through the profiles I publish and update online. Like any other interest or fandom, it seems that appreciation develops on its own timetable, or not at all.

This is what I find so exciting about genealogy: the way it lets me turn patience and attention to detail into a greater understanding of a larger world. I’m building up a body of knowledge about Corleone, about this town at a crossroads of civilization and the people who lived there, during a turbulent time in history. I’m creating a coherent narrative of how I got here. It’s not unlike knitting, writing a novel, or for that matter, brickmasonry: another one of the skills of my ancestors. They’re about painstaking precision, putting in the time, thinking about the engineering of the thing in advance of the work, because it is so slow. It’s meant to make something enduring and beautiful, and the way it’s done is with craft and care. There’s a reason genealogy and knitting are associated with our grandmothers, why brickmasonry still remains in the popular imagination as a noble art, long after we stopped paying anyone a noble salary to do it. Knitting wasn’t just a hobby, it was how we survived the winters.

Every time I stumble upon a close relative, or a tantalizing anecdote, I get a jolt. They are the bright bricks, unearthed randomly and placed where they can be seen. I’ll slog through pages of the death records of infants, for the genuine excitement and pleasure at finding what I think of as a “good” death: an elderly person who has married, who I know from my research has seen children grow to adulthood, marry, and have children of their own. Someone prepared for death: who has received last rites, and died in their own bed.

The sudden deaths are harder to fathom. I rarely see what I found earlier this month, which were the murders of three people, one of whom remained unidentified, in the spring of 1890. I found a fourth victim in the December of that year.

Of the two identified in the spring, I knew them both: who their parents were, whether they’d married. I have written about their lives. To find them murdered in the night, and this fact plainly stated in the Church records—records that, for the most part, tend not to judge, but to state only certain facts and not others—was unprecedented. The Church’s records will say how old people were at death, whether they ever married, who their parents were, who gave them last rites, where they were buried. I’ve found one suicide, in decades of Church death records. I’ve found one man who refused last rites: only the one. I’ve found the records of my own family going back nine generations; deaths at all ages, generally without explanation; of the murders, the suicide, the hundreds who died the summer of cholera, in 1837, and the records of countless, countless infants: left in the wheel house to be raised by others, dead in infancy, named after dead siblings. Some families have six, seven children, and lose every one. I have trouble fathoming such grief. No one I know today lives with that much loss, so closely.

Most recently, I’m following a priest through a walking tour of the city as it existed in 1811. It’s a document called the “stato delle anime,” the “state of the soul,” a Church census of households and individuals. The headings he’s jotted down throughout are the directions he takes as he goes: “out the Strada Grande,” “in front of the mill,” “under the castle,” “as one exits the courtyard.” He works his way in and out of alleys, called “vanellas,” a cousin who still lives in Sicily tells me, and which the priest numbers in lieu of names. He names the people who live in them, gives their ages and relationships. It’s given new, literal, dimension to my understanding of the people who once lived in Corleone.

Would you like to read more about my family in Corleone? I’m very active on WikiTree, an open source genealogy website. My profile is here, a page about my direct ancestors is here, and a page on my research methodology (potentially helpful to other amateur genealogists who are interested in Corleone, Sicily) is here.

 

Image credit: Wikipedia

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Sasha Blue

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The streets were dark and Sasha remarked that he’d always found the electric blue of a car’s dashboard “brights” indicator to be an especially beautiful one.

A friend died this year, too far away for me to get to the funeral. He had a chronic condition that I knew would contribute to his early death, but I was still taken by surprise to hear he’d been found unconscious in his home. Sasha never recovered. He died in the hospital about a week later.

When I was in my early twenties, Sasha was my closest friend. He was there when I was figuring out so many things about myself. Sasha was clever, sarcastic, smart, and graceful, making him welcome wherever he went. And because I was his trusted friend, he let me cross some of the boundaries in his life: between the straight world of Tampa and the semi-secret world of gay bars and dance parties, between the youthful university culture where we met, and the eighty and ninety year old ballroom dance students Sasha taught. Perhaps most importantly, he told me once that it is necessary to sort out what one desires from what one wants to be. It wasn’t more than a few months later that I began to transition from female to male.

Sasha was color blind. Color blindness of the most common sorts, like Sasha’s red-green version, mean that some colors are difficult to distinguish, not that there is no color at all. One night, I was riding home in Sasha’s car with two of our friends in the back seat. The streets were dark and Sasha remarked that he’d always found the electric blue of a car’s dashboard “brights” indicator to be an especially beautiful one. He wondered if we saw the same shade of blue he did. He might have also wondered if it stood out for him more than it did for us, because he had fewer beautiful colors in his visible spectrum.

Sasha had a way of being “on,” entertaining but not permeable. This was a different kind of remark, one that invited us in. We all craned our necks to see the shade of blue that Sasha found so captivating. And we agreed that it was, indeed, a beautiful shade of blue. I’ve wondered at times why this moment stuck with me, what it said about Sasha or about me. It is the one that came back to me most clearly, in the days after his death.

For the years that we were friends and roommates, Sasha let me tag along with him to the ballrooms where he gave dance lessons, to Denny’s to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee while we studied, and to the bars where he sang karaoke and danced and tried to score. I’d roam the dark rooms as if searching for someone. In the small country western bar where we threw darts with Sasha’s straight friends, drank Budweiser, and sang, I relearned how to be on stage, close enough to make eye contact, so near to the speakers that I couldn’t hear the sound of my unamplified voice and had to trust my experience in hitting the notes and what it felt like to vibrate at that frequency. Sometimes I failed to polite applause. But sometimes, it was like flying.

My transition put a wall between Sasha and me. Sasha, who studied gender performance and whose books were the first I read on the subject of transgenderism, thought I was making the wrong choice: that I was confusing what I wanted with what I wanted to be. My new identity felt fragile but real and worth protecting, so I pulled away from my closest friend, began making new friends who understood and respected my identity. I dressed more conservatively as a man than I had as a woman. My voice began to change and the songs didn’t come as easily, dropped out of my repertoire as the highest notes escaped my range.

It’s been years, now, since I’ve sang in public. After Sasha died I thought about going out again and giving it a try, to remember him, but it isn’t the same. I’m out of practice and too self conscious to sing anywhere except when I’m in the car alone. I haven’t had my own automobile in more than ten years. When I need to go somewhere, I borrow my husband’s car, and if I’m driving home late at night from wherever I’ve been, sometimes I will sing to keep myself awake. And sometimes, if I’m on winding country roads and put on my brights, the periwinkle glow of the icon on the dash will transport me to my twenties, the streets of Tampa, riding in the passenger seat of Sasha’s car.

Image credit: johnthoward1961/Flickr

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Filed under Queer, Trans