Monthly Archives: November 2013

A Path to Comfort

You’re in the arms of the angel. May you find some comfort here.
– Sarah McLachlan

When my alarm went off this morning, it was perfectly timed for the beginning of the beautiful last line of Sarah McLachlan’s song, the perfect way to begin this 16th Transgender Day of Remembrance. In 1998, Rita Hester, a young African-American transgender woman, was murdered in Allston, Massachusetts. A candlelight vigil organized by Gwendolyn Ann Smith and attended by several hundred people was held in her memory, and the occasion inspired the international Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Last night in Northampton, Massachusetts, a small gathering of people huddled near a fire for another candlelight vigil. The mood was surprisingly light, even when the college students in attendance began passing out candles along with cups to shield the candles from the wind and our hands from the hot wax. As we sang “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine…” softly at first but with growing strength and volume, the minister in attendance lit his candle from the fire, and the flame was passed from person to person. No one seemed to know who was stepping out first to lead the way to the Unitarian Universalist church where the service was to be held, but gradually, a consensus emerged that it was time to move forward together, and we did.

Once in the church, as I was rubbing my hands together and attempting to warm up, another college student asked if I would be willing to read the name of one of the dead from the previous year. Though she was not my student, she was a student, and I quelled my nervousness at the thought, smiled, and said, “Of course.” She handed me the name of Terry Golston, and I looked down at the little piece of paper, thinking about this person I vaguely remembered hearing about at the time of her death but would never know, reflecting on how her life was now inextricably bound to mine and what that might entail.

When my turn came to read, I looked down at the paper and said, “Terry Golston,” and paused for a brief moment of silence as requested. “Died September 6, 2013 in Shreveport Louisiana. Terry, 44, was a cross-dresser. She died after being shot three times. Another trans person with her survived (I emphasized the affirmation of hope in the word) the shooting. The police say that robbery may have been a “motivating factor” (and the tone of my voice noted the quotation marks without dwelling on them), but neighbors believe that they were targeted for being trans.”

28 names in all were read – the 18 trans* people who were murdered this year in the United States, most all of them trans* women of colour, plus 10 representative trans* people from other countries. Immediately before the reading, Yohah Ralph, who was presiding at the service, offered anyone who wished to leave for this part of the service the chance to go wait downstairs or in the vestibule. I could see why. It is tough enough to read these stories. It is excruciating to listen to them, and I periodically heard gasps as people took in the brutality and raw hate of many of the crimes being read in studiously but shakily neutral tones by reader after reader.

Immediately prior to the ritual reading of names, the father of Eric Collins spoke to us. His son was a transgender boy who died on February 7, 2013 at the age of 14. Bullied relentlessly both at and away from school, buffeted by body dysphoria as doctors refused to give him the surgery he so desperately wanted until he grew older, Eric (the name he chose to replace his birth name) developed an eating disorder that caused him to lose over 60 pounds. Wearing a jacket that read “Eric’s pride” and showing his son’s face over a pair of wings, his father, in a voice suffused with bitterness at his own actions, noted that the whole rest of his life will be one long “woulda, coulda.” And this was a man who pursued every avenue he could think of to try to learn about transgender people, to try to understand what made his son feel the way he did, to seek out how best to be supportive.

I looked up Eric’s obituary online when I got home, and sent it to Tod. I had seen a poster outside his office earlier in the day offering to bring students to the Greenfield Transgender Day of Remembrance on Wednesday evening, and I wanted Tod to be prepared to support our students for what was to come. Whether or not Eric’s family attended this ceremony, his name was bound to come up as a number of people in the Greenfield TREE (Trans Rights, Education, and Empowerment) group knew him, and I knew they had grief counselors and other support staff at the ready. As the organizers of the Northampton TDOR had done.

Near the end of the service, during a time for participants to raise their voices if they so chose, one person in attendance read the Kiddush. Though I don’t speak Hebrew, the sound of Jewish prayers always has a comforting effect on me, and as the service concluded, the person behind me commented that the same was true for her.

May Eric’s family and those of other transgender people dead this year and in years past find peace. May the souls of those people rest in peace. And may we all join together to reshape the world so that one day Transgender Day of Remembrance may be just a footnote in history books.

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Keeping the Stories Alive

Some years ago, the life of a compelling hero from World War II whose work saved the lives of many Jewish people was commemorated in a deeply moving movie. I’m talking, of course, about Irena Sendler, who after smuggling over 2500 children out of the city of Warsaw, was eventually caught by the Gestapo, beaten, tortured, and sentenced to death – though she did survive, and lived to the age of 98. (Finlay)

What? You thought I was talking about Oskar Schindler and Stephen Spielberg‘s award-winning movie “Schindler’s List“? “Irena who?” you may be asking. If so, you may be forgiven. Until recently, very few people had even heard of the play “Life in a Jar,” named for Ms. Sendler’s method of keeping track of the names of the children whose lives she saved, and to date there still have been just 315 presentations of the work. By no means am I putting down Mr. Schindler, who himself rescued over 1000 Jews, and Mr. Spielberg, who brought the story to the forefront of public awareness in a way that keeps us thinking about the implications of that time. But history is a mix of stories that survive, stories that get modified, and stories that get lost, and it’s important for multiple reasons that stories involving women not get lost.

Nancy Wake is another such woman. John Litchfield, in a tribute to her upon her death, wrote, “Ms. Wake, who has died in London just before her 99th birthday, was a New Zealander brought up in Australia. She became a nurse, a journalist who interviewed Adolf Hitler, a wealthy French socialite, a British agent and a French resistance leader. She led 7,000 guerrilla fighters in battles against the Nazis in the northern Auvergne, just before the D-Day landings in 1944. On one occasion, she strangled an SS sentry with her bare hands. On another, she cycled 500 miles to replace lost codes. In June 1944, she led her fighters in an attack on the Gestapo headquarters at Montluçon in central France.”(Litchfield, quoted by Finlay) Yet, when they went to make a movie about her life, they worked in a scene where she was frying eggs for her troops prior to a mission. In her words, “For goodness’ sake, did the Allies parachute me into France to fry eggs and bacon for the men? There wasn’t an egg to be had for love nor money. Even if there had been why would I be frying it? I had men to do that sort of thing.” (Wake, quoted by Finlay)

Though the history of women in the U.S. military dates back at least to Deborah Sampson, famous for having disguised herself as a man in order to fight in the Revolutionary War, it’s only recently that we have begun referring routinely to “our sons and daughters, brave men and women…” when speaking and writing about the military. It is a touchy subject for some, as we tend to think of women as caring and nurturing, as many of course are, and the image of women as warriors flies smack in the face of that ideal. But then, the image of a mother bear charging anyone who threatens her cubs is also in the forefront of many of our minds, and my Uncle Keith as well, one of the kindest and gentlest souls I know, served 20 years in the U.S. Navy, prepared to do whatever might have been needed to protect his wife and family, and the rest of us.

There are as many ways to serve our country as there are citizens; we each find our own path. Today is the day we honour those whose path to service included time in the military, both those who survive and those who did not. We honour them, men, women, and the still-hidden people of other genders. And in so honouring them, we promise to keep the stories alive, all of them.

Afterword
Veterans Day was originally known as Armistice Day, as the agreement to end World War I was signed on November 11, 1918, 95 years ago today. At 11:00 that day – the 11th day of the eleventh month – bells tolled in towns throughout Europe to celebrate the end of “the War to End All Wars” and to mourn the dead. Today, then, at 11:00, I invite you all to participate in a moment of silence to honor all those who have served through the years – and to reaffirm the promise of peace.

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Not One Bit More

Seven middle school students have been volunteering at the Food Bank this term, and coordinator Jared Shuford thought it might be fun for the girls to spend some time at Community Action in Greenfield and see one of the sites that profits from their work and that also helps local youth. Two weeks ago, Sophie and Julia assembled and baked a quiche for the group meeting that evening and also did some raking. Allen Fowler, the parent of one of my once-and-always advisees (now a 9th grader), happens to work there, and later on we would talk about the possibility of Stoneleigh-Burnham students helping Community Action set up for this year’s Transgender Day Of Remembrance (“TDOR”) vigil on November 20. I quickly realized that, because of our alternative schedule during the last week of Fall Trimester, the TDOR work would need to happen at the same time as Dakin volunteering, and I obviously couldn’t be at two places at once. Fortunately, Karen Suchenski, as she does time and time again, stepped up to help out.

One week later, Amanda, Lucrecia, Renee, Valeria and I showed up at Community Action ready for whatever might need to be done. There was a moment of confusion, as the main contact for the afternoon was off site and had not left a list of tasks for us. But Kat, who works with their youth group TREE (Trans* Rights, Education, and Empowerment), kindly rearranged her schedule so she could work with us, and helped set us up to cut out brightly coloured leaves to decorate a tree that would serve as as centerpiece for – as it happened – the group’s upcoming TDOR vigil. This year, Kat explained, it was going to be particularly difficult as a member of the group had died during the previous year, and they had engaged therapists and counselors to be present for the occasion. A stunningly depressing 41% of transgender people attempt suicide at some point in time in their life, vs. 1.6% for the general population, and I would later find out this had been the fate of the Community Action youth.

On Monday evening, Sasha Fleischman, an agender teenager who attends Berkeley High School in California, had the misfortune to fall asleep on a public bus. Another teenager, for reasons which have yet to emerge, though the police are investigating the possibility of a hate crime, set Sasha’s skirt on fire with a lighter. Sasha awakened and began trying, unsuccessfully, to put the fire out. Fortunately, a pair of bystanders on the bus stamped out the flames. Currently, Sasha is in stable condition with severely burned legs, and is awaiting massive skin grafting that will necessitate a long recovery period (Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times).

As I think about what transgender people go through in this country, the untimely death of the Community Action youth, the unprovoked and sick attack on Sasha, I close my eyes again and again and just hold my head in my hands. Depressing as it will be, I find myself moved to do something more about it and attend the Transgender Day of Remembrance this year in Northampton. As a gender activist, I have worn and will continue to wear nail polish and/or skirts to promote the breaking down of gender stereotypes and the stretching of the gender binary, and in support of various causes. I do indeed plan to be wearing a skirt for the occasion in honor of Sasha.

I will have little to fear, as Northampton is one of the safest towns in the country for LGBT people and those who may be perceived to be LGBT. Stoneleigh-Burnham, like Northampton and indeed much of the Pioneer Valley, is an oasis where people can and do expect to be treated with respect and dignity as they become their own best self. But the list of the memorialized, and the level of anger revealed in their manner of death (including a 16-year-old who was beaten, stabbed, and then run over by a car), shows how very far we have to go. A lot of minds have to change, which will take a lot of effort and a lot of time.

How much will we have accomplished by next year at this time? No more than we set out to. Granted, possibly less. But certainly not one bit more.

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Xian and Me

You may not know Xian Barrett. You may not even have heard of him. If you have, it may well have been through Lauren Fitzpatrick’s mid-July article in the Chicago Sun-Times, “CPS calls teacher’s mom to tell him he’s laid off.” Mr. Barrett, a 2009 Teaching Fellow with the U.S. Department of Education, is one of 2113 employees of Chicago Public Schools who was laid off at the time. 1036 of those employees were teachers, joining the 545 already laid off (along with 305 other CPS employees) due to the recent closing of 48 schools. That represents a total layoff of 6% of the CPS faculty, blamed on the expiration of a three-year period of pension relief. In the meantime, “the Board of Education voted to increase its payment to [Teach for America] from $600,000 to nearly $1.6 million, and to add up to 325 new recruits to CPS classrooms, in addition to 270 second year ‘teacher interns.'” (Fitzpatrick)

While Mr. Barrett achieved instant national fame due to the quirk that his principal called his mom’s phone number to fire him, his name was not unfamiliar in educational circles prior to that moment. He has been a strong voice advocating for students, one that recognizes that “putting students first” does not automatically mean putting teachers last, as too many school reformers seem to believe. He was the kind of teacher who would write in the aftermath of being fired without the due process his being tenured ought to guarantee him:

• “I feel fortunate to work with amazing students who communicate directly and frequently the difference my work makes, a supportive professional group of colleagues and the warmest community organizers and allies anyone could ask for.”

• “I always teach my students that our voices may not be the strongest; our writing might not be the most polished; we may be nervous and stumble; but our experiences are precious and must be heard and we are the only ones who can make that happen.”

• “I listened most deeply to the largest portion of my students and learned to support them in all the right battles: for student voice, against sexism, homophobia, ableism, and racism…” (Barrett)

I feel equally fortunate to work with amazing colleagues and students, and try to communicate those same values every day. One of the main differences between Mr. Barrett and me, then, is the context. Mr. Barrett worked in a system where the odds were stacked against him. Public schools are expected to churn out students who perform well on standardized tests regardless of the circumstances in which they work (for one example, please note that some of Chicago’s suburbs spent as much as $22,915 per student while Gage Park High School, where Mr. Barrett taught, spent $11,303 per student); encouraging and developing student voice is rarely on the radar. I, on the other hand, work in a school whose mission, built on feminist ideals, explicitly promotes the development of student voice, where working for social justice (from whatever perspective each individual person may be coming) is fundamentally integral to our work. I know it would be a gross overstatement to suggest that my school cares about students more than the Chicago Board of Education. But one may be forgiven for having that impression. In his most recent blog, Mr. Barrett also wrote, “I would ask each of you to pause to capture in your mind that one teacher or several that altered the course of your life. Now tear them from the fabric of your experience. What would it look like? How would you be changed? Our city inflicts that sadistic exercise on our impoverished students of color as a regular occurrence.”

What happened to Mr. Barrett – and what therefore happened to his students – is simply wrong. Our school draws on its feminist roots to provide a holistic and high quality education as part of our work to bring about social justice and true equity. The solution, as I was discussing one July morning with Kristoffer Kohl of the Center for Teaching Quality, has got to be for all of us to work until absolutely all students in this country, wherever they may be attending school, can have the same opportunities, where they can work unfettered with oustanding, courageous, and inspirational teachers like Xian Barrett. We can differ about the exact paths to achieve that goal. But the goal itself is inarguable.

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