Category Archives: Queer

The non-heteronormative goings-on

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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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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“Heartbreak and Detox” is coming

Justin Cascio reads Heartbreak and DetoxA story of courage, transgender identity, and yes, heartbreak, coming soon on Amazon.

Not all of my stories develop such a life of their own, or recapitulate their themes when they do, but “Heartbreak and Detox” has brought me pride, grief, and hope since its publication.

I mentioned here in February that my story was accepted into an anthology from Transgress Press, “Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family, and Themselves.” The book was published in June, and has received fine reviews. I was proud to see my work in print, and read my story at a book launch event in the Boston area last month, where I was gratified by the reception. As many writers can testify, reading one’s work aloud connects the author and his audience with his words in a way that nothing else can.

However, not everyone was happy with my work. Someone I was once close to, and who I mention in my story, was upset to see her name used. Upon consideration of this fact, the publishers at Transgress Press have decided to remove my story from future editions of “Manning Up.”

This is an ironic twist, given the story’s themes of betrayal, bullying, and heartbreak. But she—and from here on I will call her “Mary Ann”—does not get to decide what I write about, particularly when it’s true. I know where I stand as a writer. My story is a powerful one, and it remains true, whatever names are used.

I still want to share my story, so I am preparing to release “Heartbreak and Detox” as a single eBook through Amazon. For a dollar, you will be able to read my story of “manning up” in the face of “indifferent fathers, screaming mothers,” and bullies, then and now.

If you’d like to see more before making this investment in my more intimate writing, here are a couple of essays I’ve published on The Good Men Project:

How We Talk About What Turns Us On

In Defense of the One-Night Stand

 

Heartbreak and Detox” will be available very soon from Amazon.

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My big, gay marriage

Justin and Kevin's wedding portrait

Justin Cascio and Kevin Collins on their wedding day (Photo credit: Janet Grunwald)

It took more than a change in state law for Kevin and I to be united in legally wedded bliss last summer.

Neither of us began life destined for manhood. Our birth certificates register the births of female babies, and we were raised as girls. By the time I was an adult, I was aware of those not born to womanhood claiming it for themselves, but it still hadn’t occurred to me that I could do the same in my own life: that the man I saw in the mirror could be made visible to others. I learned it was possible to become a transsexual man when I finally saw others change their female-looking and sounding bodies and voices and names to match their male souls and minds. By the time Kevin and I met through a mutual girlfriend–we were all polyamorous queers–I was several years beyond the awkward phase. No one who met me could tell that I hadn’t been born male.

Kevin wasn’t yet Kevin, but he was nearly on his way. When he decided to transition, he began to act on his emancipation from the gender roles that had confined him. Realizing that he was a man meant that he felt entitled to masculinize his body, as I had, and take a new, male name. This was just part of what his freedom afforded him. It also enabled him to act on his other desires, the ones he had suppressed in order to be a “good” butch lesbian. As my own feminine appearance had belied my masculine identity, Kevin’s looks were interpreted as evidence of another, preconceived set of behaviors and desires: he was typecast as the butch. Despite what he looked like, he loved men, and he was attracted to me. The attraction was mutual, and we fell in love.

I know this isn’t unique to transgender, gay/lesbian/bisexual, polyamorous, or kinky people, but Kevin and I felt lucky to have found one another. It’s difficult to find someone compatible when your gender and body don’t closely match, when your sexual orientation is in the minority, and your attitudes about sexual monogamy are even less well understood by most people.

Kevin and I first talked about marrying when we moved to Northampton, MA. Before living together in Brooklyn, NY, we’d both grown up in conservative places: the Rust Belt for Kevin, and the Bible Belt for me. For years, we’d seen lesbian and gay couples in the news, countless pairs of them being married on courthouse steps and raising their ringed hands and signed licenses triumphantly in the streets of California, then in Massachusetts. Gay marriage had arrived in Massachusetts before we did, so the decision to marry was open to us. Would we be legally wed?

I have been married once before, as a woman to a man, and have a child from that marriage. Since transition, I’d once toyed with the idea of marrying a woman I was involved with, but we backed out at the last minute, unready to make the commitment to one another. Kevin and I had both already made tremendous changes in our expectations for our lives. As well, the world had changed around us, altering our real and perceived options of what we could do or be, and how we might live. We both felt incredibly lucky to have discovered the joy and peace of being in a comfortable gender, being seen by others as we saw ourselves, loving who we wanted, and not hiding any of these things. Taking on marriage, with the multiple challenges that we present to the traditional model, required an additional adjustment to our sense of entitlement. Upon arrival in Massachusetts, we were just old enough people, and new enough as men, to not yet feel worthy of the right to marry as gay men.

Getting married is a supremely traditional act. It’s a vote of confidence in the conservative, stabilizing forces of civilization that act as counterweight to the dramatic societal changes that civil rights movements bring. When I was ready to embrace marriage with Kevin, it was because I had no doubt that we could make the institution our own. We had an unusual relationship from the start, and we made it work because we believed in our values and because we valued what made us different from other people we knew. Even though much of our lives felt experimental, ad hoc, and constantly evolving, we made our marriage a priority. Making good on our commitment to stick together, we had proven not only able, but had grown as people in the process. Not only was marriage good for us, but we were good for our marriage.

The last barrier was not a legal one, but a trans matter: one of gender identity. Although my documentation was already corrected, Kevin’s was not, and it was important to him to make our relationship public as a man, not as a woman. Some people are more than glad to use the loopholes of documentation to create legal, heterosexual marriages between two people of the same gender. Gaining the legal rights of marriage in a state that denied us a marriage as men would not have served our goals. We weren’t marrying to gain some tangible benefit, like health insurance. We would be discriminated against, experiencing the many injustices that come with a state-recognized, but federally ignored marriage, and fight the injustice like other gay married couples.

We made our own wedding. Kevin sews and bakes and gathers people, I cook and write and collect music. We pooled our domestic powers, as we had for seven years of commitment, interdependence, love, sex, and living together. We took out some loans. We invited our dear friends, co-workers, and relatives. My sister came from California and I met my niece, who got two new “tíos”: “uncles” she met at their wedding, and who love her. Thanks to my sister, my niece has never known a world where two such tíos as my husband and I are second-rate family.

In Paula Ettelbrick’s obituary, her legal opinion on gay and lesbian marriage from 1989 was quoted: “Justice for gay men and lesbians will be achieved only when we are accepted and supported in this society despite our differences from the dominant culture and the choices we make regarding our relationships.”

The real “danger” to society in recognizing our right to marry is that we will inevitably queer marriage. Broadening the definition in one way presents ever more ways in which we may negotiate formal, legally recognized relationships that match the way we live. We are sure to see social and legal changes at an increasing rate, as our private lives accommodate new ranges of possibilities, and even more rights are clamored for and eventually won. Someday we’ll win the rights to create our own marriage contracts, decide for ourselves their conditions and constraints, and even the number of participants in a marriage, or how many marriage contracts one person may enter at any given time. The conservative forces might hope that the radicals will be appeased with an offering of equal marriage, but only the first wave of conscious gay citizens can possibly receive its birthright as if it were a gift.

Why transition from female to male, to become a gay married couple? It’s a question that both Kevin and I took years to learn to answer this succinctly: We transitioned to match our bodies to our feelings of already being men. Our sexual orientation is who we are attracted to. We married for love.

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