Tag Archives: teaching

How to be wrong without regret

Sacrifice of Isaac

I owe a debt for my existence, not just to my genetic ancestors, but to my cultural predecessors.

Heritage is more than genealogical descent

There’s more than one way to reckon descent: there is the genealogical, the genetic, the cultural. I count Benjamin Franklin as a grandfather on the basis that I was raised by public libraries. I’m a product of values and revolutions in thought going back centuries. I have more parents and grandparents in movements for knowledge, pride, and justice than I can count.

But most of the people who have lived and made my life better aren’t in the history books. Although I was pretty sure my family didn’t arrive in the United States until after 1850, and never owned slaves (or were enslaved), I knew that I owed a debt for the privileges that have come to me as a white American, that my life and identity are based upon, that I did nothing to create. I began to wonder where my ancestors were, exactly, while America was becoming the place that would change our destinies. What did that intersection look like, where my family joined the American experience, and what led up to it?

The myth of starting from nothing

Lots of people are curious about their family origins, but have not sought them out. Some might not know where to begin, not even what questions to ask that would get them started. The advice that other genealogists give to newbies is to capture living knowledge, by talking to the oldest members of one’s family. I did this by proxy: my sister interviewed our great-uncle Joseph Cascio in 2001, for an anthropology class project. When I declared an interest in putting together our genealogy, she emailed me her final paper, and a few other documents, including a table of names and dates that derived from our great uncle Warren’s research on the other side of our family. Right from the beginning, I was relying upon the work of others.

I could figure out some of the relationships among people in the table, but others were mysteries. Not only might I misinterpret what data I had, but the data itself might be incorrect: there were no citations, no sources. I would have to confirm every name and date in a primary document. On an intuitive level, I understood the great chasm between having questionable facts—otherwise known as hypotheses—and nothing at all. Researching my family’s genealogy has been a rewarding lesson in acting with confidence, while still leaving room to be wrong.

Induction

I knew that Cascio was not an uncommon surname, but when I began my search for Leoluca Cascio—my great-grandfather, who immigrated from Corleone, Sicily—I still assumed that his first name was unusual. After reviewing a few hundred birth records, and finding the second or third Leoluca Cascio, I began to realize my error. Cascio is a common surname throughout Italy, but it turns out that Leoluca is an exceptionally popular name in Corleone because he is a patron saint of the town. I’ve since found at least twenty men who lived in Corleone who were named Leoluca Cascio. I’ve also found five Angela Grizzaffis (the name of his mother, my great-great-grandmother) and innumerable Marias, Antoninos, Gaetanas, and Giuseppes.

Engaging in inductive research helped me understand the context in which those records existed. Captured initially by the Catholic Church, then the Mormon church, now online for my convenience, I had the leisure to develop mastery. I could even come to anticipate certain common errors.

I’d at first assumed that in Italian records, the name “Cascio” would always be spelled the same way. No more “Cassios” or “Cashios,” as I find in US Census records. But in Sicilian dialect, new issues emerge. “Cascio” sounds like “Castro.” In fact, so many Cascios and Castros are called by the other’s name, in one record or another, that to skip all of the Castros in the Corleone records on the assumption that they’re not my relatives would mean missing a lot of family.

I’d also been ignoring the “Lo Cascio” name in my searches, not appreciating just how often surnames would be rendered variously in the plural or the singular (“Colletti” and “Colletto,” for instance), or with or without an article or prefix, like “Lo” or “Di.” In English, “Lo Cascio” is alphabetized in the Ls—is a separate name—from “Cascio.” Not so to the Italian speaker. I took another look at the Lo Cascios, and found that they were the same family, sometimes the same individuals, referred to by different versions of the same name.

Don’t expect capital “T” truth

These were not the only errors in the records. In US Census records, my grandfather appears as a female in one census, and my great-great-grandmother appears as a man in another. I’ve found a small handful of Sicilian baptismal records that I believe get the name of one parent entirely wrong, possibly confused with a godparent or another relative. More common is for calculated birth years to float, with people seeming to grow older or younger over time, based on their reported ages. The worst offenders are death records, for the scientific reasons that at one’s maximal age and no longer able to self-report, there is the greatest margin of error. When an infant dies, the age is generally reported with the utmost accuracy by the grieving parents, even down to the day.

There is some consistency to the inconsistency, or at least patterns to it, and the best way to discover them is to take as large a sample as possible. I discovered the Cascio/Castro conflation because of one man with an uncommon name. When I started my research, with my assumptions about what “real” Italian names sound like, I could not have guessed at the difference in popularity between the names Leoluca and Spiridione. Thousands of records later, I could compose “Top Baby Name” lists for boys and girls of 19th century Corleone off the top of my head.

Find meaning in the absence of proof

After a couple months of searching, when I couldn’t seem to make a connection between nearer and more distant ancestors, I started to despair of ever being able to prove my genealogical history. I wondered if my grandmother had pulled my leg all those years ago, with her stories of going to Corleone with Grandpa, to visit cousins.

I grew existential: obviously I am here, I thought, and was born of two people who in turn came from two parents, and so forth. Would that have to be a sufficient answer to the question I’d posed about how we became American? I had a few more advantages in this search than many people, and I wanted to be able to say that I’d done all I could to discover what I could about where I am from: that I hadn’t wasted the privilege. I made my cast wider, kept searching for a sibling group that matched great-uncle Joseph’s story.

Build bridges

The first time I opened a document full of messily handwritten Latin, full of abbreviations, I slammed it shut again (to the extent one can “slam” shut a browser tab). I was daunted at the prospect of reviewing several thousand page long record books in two foreign languages.  But as my comfort level rose, that messy handwriting became a beguiling thicket, in which knowledge was hidden, and I couldn’t stay away. Even now, every time I see my name written on a page, I feel like I’ve found Waldo.

The first time I looked at a ship manifest, it didn’t dawn on me how the people traveling together might be related. I did not even recognize some of the travelers as nuclear families: I hadn’t realized that Sicilian women kept their surnames their whole lives, and didn’t consider it until I’d seen them preserved in Corleonesi records.

There is not only one passenger on a ship manifest, a single person in isolation. By looking at everyone else who came from Corleone at the same time, understanding the naming conventions, and taking in all of the details—who they’re with, who they’re traveling to join—families emerged. When my ancestor, Angela Grizzaffi, came to the United States, she went to her sister’s family, bringing four of her children. Later, her brother joined her with two more of his sister’s children. In the years that follow, I can see at least three nephews of Angela immigrate, and go to stay with her.

It’s not only the direct line of descent who have brought me here, but all of those aunts and uncles, godparents and cousins and step-parents, who supported them. And though the family legend condenses the sibling group to a single immigration, the truth is messier: I’ve seen whole families make the trip more than once, and young children traveling alone to meet their parents. Only by collecting all of the records, seeing them in context, and assembling them, could I make sense of the recorded facts.

Be ready to be wrong

It should be possible to determine whether new data confirms what’s already known, or contradicts previously established facts. Once I became ready to be wrong, I prepared more thorough and clear notes that explain what I know and how I know it, in a way that will be easy for a stranger (such as a distant relative) to understand, and to update in the face of new information. In the case of a conflict, I can thoroughly document the facts as they’re presented, allowing for the opportunity to later update my analysis, instead of simply deciding to replace one fact with another, in the order that they come to my attention.

Being ready to be wrong means not just building a tight argument for my case, but explaining it with courtesy and tact. One of the many inaccurate opinions I initially held of genealogy was that it would keep me safely far from the messiness of relations with my living family members, in the realm of the dead, who could not argue with me on inaccuracies in their life events or the ways in which I’ve presented them. Instead, researching my ancestors has brought me into contact with living relatives I have never met, and in some cases, never knew existed. I’ve developed an appreciation for those great uncles who became interested in these questions of our origins, and did the foundational work on which I have built. That some of what they discovered was inaccurate is less important, in the long run, because without their steps, I would not have taken my own.

I believe what happened to me and great uncle Warren, is likely to happen to my son: that he’ll reach an age where he suddenly cares about words that had previously rung hollow for him, as they once did for me: heritage, legacy, respect for the dead. Maybe that extra generation he and my niece are removed from Sicilian culture will make the postings of banns, Latin baptismal names, formalized class divisions, and strong family ties, that much more foreign as to be unintelligible to them. I might be the necessary link, the generation who is able to bridge the gap between the 18th and 21st centuries.

On the same day that I met my Corleonesi cousins through WikiTree, I was contacted by another person who thought we might be related, on my mother’s side. At first I wanted to dismiss this message as someone casting about in the dark, hoping to find someone who’s done this work already. How quickly I forget that I did not start my own search from nothing.

I studied the names she sent me carefully, looked at my own tree, asked questions. In the end, I had to tell her that I didn’t think we were related, but to do so in a way that leaves the door open for either of us to discover that I am wrong about this, as well.

 

Image: “Sacrifice of Isaac,” Caravaggio, detail. Courtesy of carulmare.

1 Comment

Filed under Family

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

trans 101

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

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

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

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

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

1. “It’s working.”

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

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

2. “I never would have guessed.”

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

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

3. “How to”

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

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

4. “I couldn’t help but notice.”

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

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

5. “You are so brave.”

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

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

6. “Let me ask you something.”

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

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

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

7. “What was your old name?”

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

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

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

8. “I know your old name.”

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

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

9. “Have you had the full surgery?”

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

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

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

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

10. “You must know…”

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

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

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

Baby foot in mouth image credit: AshleyNYCPics/Flickr

14 Comments

Filed under Trans

Like a Deer in Headlights

the hot seat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit:Pete Prodoehl/Flickr

Leave a comment

Filed under Trans